Over the last few weeks, Parliament has been dominated by committee stage of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill which aims to incorporate EU law into UK domestic law prior to our exit from the European Union. Committee stage involves detailed examination of a Bill, line by line, usually by a small Committee of MPs. This is arguably the most important and far reaching legislation in modern history, and in this case, holding the Committee stage in the main Chamber has allowed for the Bill to be scrutinised by the whole House, with every MP able to take part. We had eight days of debate, each debate lasting up to eight hours, with well over 120 pages of amendments tabled to the bill by MPs from all parties.
My Brexit mailing list continues to grow substantially and I received well over 1000 contacts asking me to support or vote against specific amendments and clauses. As you may know, I campaigned for a very different outcome from the Referendum, and while I respect the decision of the country to leave the EU, in Trafford, we voted by a margin of 58/42% to remain, and I am determined that the exit deal the government negotiates must be in the best interests of the country and my constituents. I continue to speak out against a reckless and badly thought-through exit from the EU that will put jobs, the economy and many of the rights we hold dear as workers and consumers at risk, and voted accordingly in the votes that took place during the Committee stage.
During the first seven days of debate, Conservative MPs voted down Labour amendments to curtail the use of ‘Henry VIII’ powers, which give Ministers sweeping new powers to alter, scrap or later repeal EU laws without proper parliamentary scrutiny; to protect workers’ rights; to safeguard environmental and animal welfare standards; to legislate for strong transitional arrangements; to protect the devolution settlement; to ensure there is proper scrutiny and accountability of any EU ‘divorce bill’; and to bring the Charter of Fundamental Rights into UK law. I proposed a number of amendments to safeguard children’s interests and wellbeing, but these were not put to the vote.
During this time, Theresa May’s attempt to reach agreement with the EU on key elements of the divorce settlement fell spectacularly apart. The Democratic Unionist Party (who prop up the Tories in parliament) weren’t happy with special arrangements to allow goods, services and people to move freely across the Irish border which wouldn’t apparently apply to the rest of the UK. The Prime Minister was therefore forced to go back to Brussels and agree further arrangements to ensure there will be no ‘hard’ Irish border, and that the same rules will apply across all of the UK. These rules could be in a new, and yet to be negotiated, specific deal between the EU and the UK, but if that isn’t possible, then we will continue to align with existing EU single market and customs union rules.
As far as I am concerned, that must mean we remain permanently in the single market and customs union, in form if not in name. It’s the only sensible, practical way forward, and that is why last night I supported a new Clause to the Bill that would ensure the UK doesn’t get past ‘exit day’ without laws allowing us to remain in the Customs Union if necessary. We have to keep our options open, and staying in the Customs Union is the only viable way to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, as well as being essential to the ability of businesses in my constituency to trade across the EU. Many of my Labour colleagues agreed, but we were unable to secure sufficient support to win the vote.
The one positive note from the Committee stage was the passing of Amendment 7, tabled by Conservative MP Dominic Grieve, and supported by Labour, ensuring that Parliament has a meaningful vote on the final exit deal. Labour has long campaigned to ensure that if MPs don’t think the deal the government secures is good enough, we can send ministers back to the negotiating table to improve it. I commend those eleven Tory MPs who voted to support the amendment, meaning the government was unable to secure a majority and the amendment has been made to the Bill.
Yesterday was the final day of Commons Committee stage, and two of Labour’s key amendments were selected for debate: one on the publication of economic impact assessments and the second on the control of ‘exit day’. The first gave Labour MPs an opportunity to raise our concerns about the Government’s failure to produce and publish its assessment of the impact of Brexit on different sectors of the economy, while the second called for flexibility about the day of exit so that a sensible transition period can operate as we leave.
Tory MP Oliver Letwin tabled a package of linked amendments to enable the definition of exit day to be altered by secondary legislation “if the day or time on or at which the United Kingdom ceases to be a member of the EU is different from that specified in the definition”. Yesterday, fearing the Government would face another defeat, Brexit Ministers agreed to these amendments , resulting in a partial u-turn. However, whilst the compromise remedies some of the inflexibility caused by the Government’s insistence on inserting a specific date and time of withdrawal into the Bill, the measures still place the power to set exit day in the hands of ministers, rather than Parliament, and are unnecessarily complicated. This is why my Labour and colleagues and I voted against setting a fixed date exit, but in the end, provisions fixing the date of Brexit, and the change allowing Ministers to amend this if needed, were passed.
A final Liberal Democrat amendment requiring a second public referendum attracted just 23 votes, with most Labour MPs, myself included, abstaining on this amendment. Those who wish us to leave the EU argue that this will ‘bring back control’ to the UK, and in a parliamentary democracy, that means that MPs take responsibility for deciding and voting on any deal reached by government. It may be that the electorate also have a final say on the deal that is eventually negotiated, potentially via a general election, but at this stage it is too early to say how matters will proceed.
The Bill now proceeds to the next stage of its parliamentary passage, with several more days of debate in the House of Commons in the new year before it heads off to the House of Lords for further scrutiny and opportunity for amendment. There is still considerable scope for amendments and concessions from the government, and I hope we will see the bill improved significantly in the coming months.