Tom Goodenough

Will the government’s EU withdrawal bill pass unscathed? Don’t bet on it

Will the government's EU withdrawal bill pass unscathed? Don't bet on it
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Brexit means Brexit, but unfortunately the EU withdrawal bill – which actually does the legislative job of taking Britain out of the EU – is somewhat trickier to get to grips with. The original bill is 60 pages long, and there are now 470 amendments – running to some 200 pages – and counting. The House of Commons library predicts the bill will be ‘one of the largest legislative projects ever undertaken in the UK’. All of this will keep MPs – and the government, as it fights off the backbench rebels – very busy indeed over the coming weeks. Two days each week for the next month have been set aside to cover the committee stage of the bill, where MPs are given a chance to scrutinise the bill line-by-line and attempt to make changes. It all starts today. Here is the Coffee House guide to what happens now:

Tuesday 14th November:

Today’s committee stage kicks off at 3pm, with votes expected at 7pm and 11pm. The first four hours will be given over to the repeal of the European Communities Act. A clause marking the date of Britain’s departure from the EU: that ‘the United Kingdom ceases to belong to the European Union on 30 March 2019’, is tabled for discussion, but there will not be a vote on this until a later committee hearing.

Shortly after 7pm, MPs will switch to discussing how EU law that is retained – moved on to the statute book after Brexit – will be interpreted. They will also discuss key amendments, including one demanding the government spell out details of how EU law will actually apply during a Brexit transition period. Once again, there won’t be a vote on this amendment until the latter stages of the committee hearing.

Wednesday 15th November:

Today’s debate will largely be given over to Labour demands for workers’ rights to be enshrined in law. The party also wants certain environmental protections – which are currently in EU law – to be guaranteed after Brexit.

The government is likely to make it through this week’s sessions unscathed. But it faces an uphill task to do the same next week.

Tuesday 21st November:

Today is all about Parliament trying to get some much-needed clarity on the nitty-gritty details of the EU withdrawal bill, as MPs turn their attention to the difficult task of determining how (and what) EU law applies after Brexit. It’s tricky to get across just what an uphill job this will be.

Some are worried that rights could be lost as a result of clauses 5 and 6 in the bill, which spell out how the courts should interpret EU law that gets left behind. Parliament’s briefing paper suggests that even if sections of EU law are kept on the statute book after Brexit, without the wider framework which is in place at the moment, this could mean little – resulting in key rights easily being washed away. MPs unhappy with this scenario – and there are plenty of them – will get the chance to air their grievances this afternoon. This legislative soup has been likened to trying to ‘remove an egg from an omelette’ by one professor. But still this isn’t the biggest of the government’s problems. Ministers face their first prospect of being defeated in the Commons today over the use of ‘Henry VIII clauses’. These allow the government to make big changes to legislation without having to deal with the hassle of parliamentary scrutiny. The government says it needs these powers in order to deal with the task of Brexit; but opponents see it as a power grab and aren’t happy. If a dozen Tory MPs switch sides, the government will face defeat.

The biggest likelihood, though, is that the government won’t really face the prospect of defeat until next month. Tory rebels are said to be plotting with the opposition to side with them on a number of key amendments to the bill which will be voted on in the latter stages of its committee stage, according to the BBC. This would spell trouble for the government, leaving their Brexit plan in limbo. All at a time when the EU decides whether ‘sufficient progress’ has been made in order for Brexit talks to proceed to the next stage. 

For the government, it is certain to be a critical few weeks. Yet it won’t all be over by Christmas. MPs will get yet another chance to vote on amendments in the new year when the EU withdrawal bill returns to the Commons at its report stage. Then it’s just the small task of getting the bill through the House of Lords. Whoever said Brexit would be easy?