EXPLAINED: How to amend a bumper Brexit bill
Almost 500 amendments have been tabled to a crucial piece of Brexit legislation. But what exactly are MPs demanding from the Government?
If Brexit is the biggest task faced by a Government for decades, the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is the most important piece of legislation in recent memory. The bill seeks to dump the bulk of EU laws onto the UK statute book ready for the day Britain sails off towards its new horizon. But so contentious and multi-faceted is Brexit, that MPs will be damned if they are refused the chance to water it down first. Almost 500 amendments have been proposed to tack onto the mammoth legislation, with MPs hoping to entice the Deputy Speaker to call theirs for a vote. The Government has already neutered two key demands (that the final deal will go before parliament as a piece of primary legislation and that the exact date and time of Brexit will be stamped on the bill) by giving in to them. But here are some of the other big changes MPs want that could cause headaches for Theresa May in the coming weeks.
A number of amendments call for greater protection against ministers wielding too much power through so-called Henry VIII clauses - otherwise known as statutory instruments. Their use would let Government tinker with or remove laws at a later date without the say so of MPs. Various demands have been put forward to counter the risk, but one that would likely draw strong support if it were put to a vote is for a committee system to oversee the process. This amendment tabled by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn calls for MPs to work alongside peers filtering the aspects of the bill that can be dealt with quickly through statutory instruments and the more important issues that must be addressed in primary legislation. A similar amendment (which was far too large to tweet) was proposed by Tory MP Dominic Grieve. He told the House magazine last month: “Let’s face it, a large number of these statutory instruments are going to be purely technical... But some of them are going to be very important and some of them may be important outside the categories that the Government has itself defined in the bill. That’s what the legislation has got to provide for.”
How will the courts go about interpreting and applying what was once EU law when it finally becomes UK law? That's the question this amendment by Dominic Grieve - and supported by MPs across the House - seeks to address. The premise is quite simple really - just use the rulebook currently used by the EU: The Charter of Fundamental Rights. Critics think the Charter has been too widely interpreted over the years by the European Court of Justice. But Grieve says it is essential for protecting people and businesses that might be harmed by the application of EU law. The concern was raised by former Supreme Court president Lord Neuberger back in August. He called on ministers to provide the judiciary with more clarity as to how the UK courts should interpret ECJ rulings after Brexit. The ability to consult the Charter might just help.
The Lib Dems are naturally getting in on the action too and the amendment they are desperate to push to a vote is this one on a second Brexit referendum - *ahem* - first referendum on the final Brexit deal. This is the EU stance Tim Farron campaigned on during the general election campaign, and the party - now led by Vince Cable - will be pleased as punch if it were to make it into law. The argument is that the public didn’t really know what they were voting for when they plumped for Brexit last June and that once the future relationship is clear they must be given a second chance to back out. Vince Cable told PoliticsHome: “This amendment gives the British people the opportunity to have a first referendum on the facts of what leaving the EU will mean. With negotiations failing apart the people must be given the option of an exit from Brexit.” Don't expect MPs to jump at the chance of another referendum campaign.
DEVOLVE AND CONQUER
The devolved Governments are also fighting for their say, for example with this amendment from Plaid Cymru MP Hywell Williams. It says Holyrood, Stormont and the Senedd must give their consent before the UK is ripped out of the bloc. The SNP have already been forced to accept that Holyrood has no constitutional power to block brexit - but some will be pinning their hopes on a raft of amendments that will ensure the devolved nations are heard. Other demands include handing powers held by the EU on things like fisheries directly to devolved parliaments. As you can see, this one has the backing of SNP MP Joanna Cherry as well as Green MP Caroline Lucas. But the Government will push back hard against the proposals and anything without huge cross-party support is likely to fail, if it even gets put to a vote.
A good raft of the amendments seek to keep hold of various protections that exist because of the EU. Certain workers’ rights, health and safety provisions and environmental oversight could all be at risk if the Government tries to water them down or fails to replace EU watchdogs, critics fear. Attempts to protect them during the transition period and even into the future through oversight by the European Court of Justice all feature in the amendments. This one by Labour MP Chris Leslie bans ministers from making changes to environmental or employment rules without a vote in parliament - again a concern about the dreaded Henry VIII clauses. Labour MP and former shadow environment secretary Kerry McCarthy - who has put her name to the amendment - told PoliticsHome: “There is a real concern that because so many of our laws on environmental protection - as well as the institutions that monitor and enforce such laws - stem from our membership of the EU, we could lose them or see them watered down after we leave.”
This is far from an exhaustive list. But it highlights some of the key issues that will come up in the committee stage debates and could even be put to votes. The Commons deputy speaker will decide which amendments get voted on - usually based on their level of cross-party support. For any of them to pass they either need to be adopted by the Government or attract the backing of at least a handful of Tory rebels. Theresa May certainly has a few sleepless nights in store.