21st June 2018: Update
The Government introduced the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill – or the so-called ‘Great Repeal Bill’ as they used to describe it – in the House of Commons in July 2017, where it was first debated in September and then in detail from November until early January. Its purpose is to repeal the European Communities Act 1972, which incorporates EU law into our domestic law, but to retain that law by transposing it directly into domestic UK law. But Labour has serious concerns about how the Government plan to replace these 40 years’ worth of rules, using ‘Henry VIII powers’ that mean they can make and change laws without securing the approval of MPs.
Labour voted against the Bill at Second Reading in September and tabled a number of amendments to repair the Bill in the detailed debate at Committee Stage. The most important amendment that passed secured Parliament a vote on the final deal, something that we had been pushing since the publication of the Bill back in March 2017 – and which was won together with concerned Conservatives. The Government tabled its own amendment to the Bill, which set exit date for all purposes as 29th March 2019 at 11pm – as a gimmick to appeal to their extreme Brexiteers. They soon accepted our arguments that this acted as a legal straitjacket and were forced to accept amendments to reintroduce some critical flexibility in the negotiating timeline.
Labour voted against the Third Reading of the Bill because the Government failed to address most of our serious concerns, which are:
- It proposes sweeping delegated powers but lacks effective oversight or accountability. In particular, the Bill could allow delegated powers to be used very late in negotiations to cover significant policy changes. This is fundamentally undemocratic and unacceptable.
- It lacks clear enforcement mechanisms. Without remedies, key rights such as workplace rights or environmental standards could become unenforceable.
- It does not include the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. This codifies human rights in EU law and UK law in modern form and includes important protections in evolving areas such as privacy protections, discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and rights for the elderly. Failure to include the Charter will impact the way that rights are interpreted in UK courts.
- It takes the wrong approach on devolution and does not ensure effective involvement of devolved administrations. There should be a clear presumption of devolution. Without this, the Bill is a significant power grab for Whitehall and fails to capitalise on the potential for further devolution of power to the nations and regions of the UK.
- It does not include any provision to ensure that UK rights keep pace with EU rights after Brexit. This could lead to UK rights lagging behind the EU over time in areas such as workplace, consumer or equality protections or environmental standards.
- There can be no qualifications, limitations or sunset clauses attached to this Bill. If there are, Labour will not support it. In addition, Labour will block the use of delegated legislation to the same effect.
We are also concerned that the Bill mirrors the Government’s wider and deeply flawed red-line that would prevent any future role for the European Court of Justice – a position that is making it far harder for the UK to get a Brexit deal in the national interest or to secure proper transitional arrangements. Read my article with Shadow Secretary of State Keir Starmer about how this will impact on jobs and nuclear safety here.
Finally, Labour completely rejects the notion that no deal is better than a bad deal with our EU partners. No deal is a bad deal – it would compromise everything from the way we keep our country safe by sharing data and intelligence with our European neighbours, to plunging our businesses into chaos. So Labour is pushing for the Government to take the prospect of ‘no deal’ off the table, and to commit to a transition period, following existing arrangements, so that organisations, from law enforcement agencies to businesses, can plan properly for the future.
The Government suffered fifteen defeats in the Lords. Labour peers secured a number of amendments working with peers from all parties and on the cross-benches. These included amendments on the customs union, a meaningful vote for Parliament and preventing a hard border in Ireland and protecting the Good Friday Agreement. The Government made a number of concessions, but the most significant vote was about ensuring Parliament is given a proper role at the end of the Brexit negotiations, particularly in the event of no deal which is becoming more likely with the divisions at the heart of Government. However, facing the prospect of defeat Theresa May had to enter negotiations with her backbenchers. However, she only offered Parliament votes on ‘neutral motions’ (like ‘This House has considered the final deal’) rather than ones that could be amended to guide the Government on the next steps. We backed the amendment seeking a proper say for Parliament but, without the support of enough Conservative backbenchers after a Government fudge, it was lost. We have long argued that Parliament should have a proper role in the negotiations and a meaningful vote on the terms upon which we leave the European Union, and will continue to make that case at every opportunity.