Expert View

May’s march through Lords was long, but buck stops with MPs

by David Hannay | 18.05.2018

David Hannay is a member of the House of Lords and former UK ambassador to the EU and UN.

The government’s EU Withdrawal Bill has now returned to the Commons with fifteen amendments, all of them voted by substantial, cross-party majorities made up of Labour, Liberal Democrat, Conservative and cross-bench peers.

The line-by-line scrutiny given to the Bill in the Lords has been a long march, but that process revealed many flaws. Many of the government’s defeats could have been avoided if they had been willing to negotiate sensible amendments. But there were few signs of such willingness.

Full table of Lords' amendments to EU Withdrawal Bill

There has been a great deal of thrashing about in the pro-Brexit press, much disagreeable name-calling, and many threats directed at the Lords for having dared to do what they are there to do – scrutinise the legislation and, where appropriate, ask the Commons to think again.

None of the amendments, taken separately or together, are correctly described as “wrecking amendments”, although that phrase has been liberally thrown around. The sole purpose of the Bill, as explained by the government, was to ensure that the UK’s domestic statute book was as capable of operating the day after exit as the day before. The Bill, with its fifteen amendments, fulfils that purpose.

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Two important amendments relate to membership of a customs union with the EU and of the single market through membership of the EEA. Those two options have been excluded by the government without any parliamentary authority. They must be put on the negotiating table with the other 27 EU countries. Only then will it be possible to weigh up whether they offer a better deal than the free trade area with customs formalities, no coverage of services and rules-of-origin checks which the government is seeking. These amendments also provide the only sure way of ensuring that there are no new controls on the border between the two parts of the island of Ireland.

Equally important are the amendments ensuring that, if and when a deal is struck with the EU27, or if the government decides no deal can be struck, then parliament will have a meaningful say on the outcome – not just a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum from the government. If that is not taking back control, then nothing is.

Many amendments are directed towards ensuring that the rights which every UK citizen has enjoyed as a result of our EU membership are carried over into our post- Brexit existence. This includes environmental rights, social and labour law rights, consumer rights and the whole range covered by the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights – an agreement which the government wanted to exclude.

And then there is an arcane but important category of changes to the Bill designed to ensure that it is Parliament and the devolved administrations – and not just the executive – which recover powers repatriated from Brussels and can exercise them effectively.

How will the government decide to handle this sensitive and quite tricky list of changes? That remains to be seen. If they were wise they would accept a good number of them. Rejecting them all may well prove beyond their reach in a Commons where they only have a slender majority, even with the support of the DUP.

What should not be in doubt or open to question is that what is taking place is the proper working of our parliamentary system of government, with the Commons in the end having the final word.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

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