Parliament debates Brexit Bill with a view to triggering departure process by end of March.

  • “Brexit” Bill published following UK Government’s loss in Supreme Court
  • Government considering filing its Article 50 “Brexit Notice” to coincide with 9 March European Summit
  • Prime Minister’s end of March notification timeline still on track

On 24 January 2017, the Supreme Court giving judgement in the case of R (on the application of Miller and Dos Santos) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union and associated references) held that the Government must obtain Parliament’s approval before it can start the process to withdraw from the European Union under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. Prime Minister Theresa May has previously stated that Article 50 will be triggered by 31 March 2017.

Brexit Bill

Two days later the Government introduced the European Union (notification of withdrawal) Bill. At only 137 words long, the Bill states as its aim to “confer power on the prime minister to notify, under article 50(2) of the treaty on European Union, the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the EU”. The Bill is deliberately short and to the point, with the intention of heading off attempts to amend it and to shape the Brexit process.

The Bill’s two clauses state:

  • 1) The Prime Minister may notify, under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union, the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the EU.
  • 2) This section has effect despite any provision made by or under the European Communities Act 1972 or any other enactment.

Brexatom

In what will be a surprise to many who voted in the referendum, the Bill’s explanatory notes state that the power of withdrawal authority from the EU includes the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom), because the UK’s European Union (Amendment) Act 2008 defines the “EU” to include Euratom.

Parliamentary Process

The Bill had its First Reading on Thursday 26 January 2017. This was a formal stage and there is no debate amongst members of Parliament (MPs)—that began at the bill’s Second Reading on Tuesday 31 January and are set to conclude the next day. After that, MPs table ‘reasoned amendments’ to the motion for second reading setting out reasons why Parliament should reject the Bill. The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, chooses any amendment to be considered and the amendments tabled are published in an Order Paper.

MPs submitted numerous proposed changes to the legislation, which have been grouped into five categories of reasoned amendments (although some of which will have been rejected on technical grounds, such as being outside the scope of the original Bill):

PARLIAMENTARY SCRUTINY
  • Government to regularly report progress of the exit negotiations to Parliament
  • Single market membership should be debated
DEVOLVED ADMINISTRATIONS
  • Government to be under a duty to consult Scottish Parliament
  • Devolved administrations to be given greater say of negotiation objectives
VOTING ON BRITAIN'S FINAL EU EXIT DEAL
  • More time to negotiate if MPs vote to reject the withdrawal agreement
  • Second referendum on exit terms
IMPACT ASSESSMENTS
  • Assessments of how Brexit will affect different sectors should be published
  • Impact on climate change, equality and public finance should be known
NEGOTIATING PRIORITIES
  • Prescribe what Government can and cannot negotiate
  • Protect rights of EU nationals living in the UK
  • Guarantee visa-free travel with the EU

As well as the main motion—the Bill itself—the Speaker declared on January 31, just prior to the opening of the debate, that the following motion of the Scottish Nationalist Party would also be debated:

That this House declines to give a Second Reading to the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill as the Government has set out no provision for effective consultation with the devolved administrations on implementing Article 50, has yet to publish a White Paper detailing the Government's policy proposals, has refused to give a guarantee on the position of EU nationals in the UK, has left unanswered a range of detailed questions covering many policy areas about the full implications of withdrawal from the single market and has provided no assurance that a future parliamentary vote will be anything other than irrelevant, as withdrawal from the European Union followed two years after the invoking of Article 50 if agreement is not reached in the forthcoming negotiations, unless they are prolonged by unanimity.

Opening the Debate

“Do we trust the people or not?" asked Brexit Secretary, David Davis, presenting the Bill on behalf of the government. He went on to state that the Bill was not about whether or not the UK should leave the EU, but “simply about Parliament empowering the government to make a decision that has already made.” Mr. Davis pledged that the government’s white paper on Brexit will be published as soon as reasonably possible.

What Happens Next?

The debate will continue until midnight tonight, resuming tomorrow, with an evening vote on whether or not to pass the Bill through to the next stage. Assuming it does pass through, which seems exceedingly likely, the Bill will be considered in Committee on Monday 6 and Tuesday 7 February 2017, concluding in Committee on Wednesday 8 February 2017 when the remaining stages are also due to take place. Amendments passed at this stage will be incorporated into the Bill and are then subject to a final vote. After that, the Bill is passed to the House of Lords where it will undergo a similar process. For the Bill to be passed, the both houses must agree on the final draft—the Bill can be passed back and forth until they do.

“All we have said previously, the chances of Brexit being blocked remain very slim what with the Conservatives’ working majority and continuing infighting and disarray within Labour. Brexit Secretary Davis’ promised white paper will hopefully give businesses more badly needed information and certainty” —Tim Wright, Pillsbury