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Jack Simson Caird: Parliament’s Right to a ‘Meaningful Vote’: Amendments to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill

On Tuesday 12 June 2018, the Government will ask the House of Commons to reject the Lords’ meaningful vote amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill (Lords Amendment 19). If the amendment is rejected, the Government will ask the Commons to accept its own alternative version, known as an ‘amendment in lieu’. If either amendment is enacted, and the Commons uses its veto to reject the Withdrawal Agreement, this would be a constitutionally unprecedented situation. This post looks at the Government’s ‘amendment in lieu’, and the features that distinguish it from the Lords’ amendment.

A new constitutional role?

The Commons faces a choice between two alternative legal frameworks for regulating the role that Parliament will play in the process of approving (or not approving) the agreements negotiated by the Government under Article 50. Both amendments grant Parliament a legally guaranteed veto over the Withdrawal Agreement. However, if the Withdrawal Agreement is rejected by the Commons, or the Government fails to put it before the House, then only the Lords’ amendment offers Parliament a right to issue binding directions on the negotiations upon the Government.

The proposal to grant Parliament a power to give negotiation directions would be constitutionally unprecedented. If either amendment is enacted, and the Commons uses its veto to reject the deal, this would be a constitutionally unprecedented situation, regardless of whether Parliament were then empowered to issue directions. The choice between these amendments boils down to whether the Commons wants to grant itself legal powers to issue directions to the Government in that situation.

Conditions for ratification and approval

The Government’s proposed amendment would create a binding legal obligation for the Commons to approve the Withdrawal Agreement and the Framework for the Future Relationship, by a resolution, before it can be ratified (subsection (1)(b)). The Lords must also ‘take note’ and ‘debate’ the agreements (subsection (1)(c)). These provisions would (if enacted) turn a political commitment made by David Davis MP (in a Written Statement on 13 December 2017) into a legally binding statutory provision. The Government’s amendment goes beyond that statement by also codifying the commitment to hold the vote before the European Parliament provides its verdict under Article 50 (subsection (2)). Taken together, these provisions effectively provide the Commons with a legally binding veto over the Withdrawal Agreement, equivalent to that granted to the European Parliament by Article 50 TEU.

The role of the resolution

As regards the resolution in the Commons, there are two differences between the Government’s amendment, and the Lords’ equivalent that are worth noting. The Government’s states that the Agreement cannot be ratified until the resolution is passed in both Houses, whereas the Lords’ states that the agreement cannot be concluded. While it is clear what ‘ratification’ means, ‘conclusion’ is an EU term for ratification of a treaty. Article 50(2) states ‘the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with’ a withdrawing State and that it will be ‘concluded on behalf of the Union by the Council, acting by a qualified majority, after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament’.

The Government’s amendment says that the motion must approve the Framework for the Future Relationship as well as the Withdrawal Agreement. The Lords’ amendment does not make any direct reference to the Framework for the Future Relationship. This could be legally significant, as the Government’s requirement that the motion approves both could have implications for what happens if the Commons rejects the motion.

The Government’s amendment contains two further conditions for ratification which are not required by the Lords’ equivalent. The Government’s requires three documents to be laid before each House:

  • A statement that political agreement has been reached,
  • A copy of the negotiated Withdrawal Agreement, and
  • A copy of the Framework for the Future Relationship.

The requirement to lay both the Withdrawal Agreement and the Framework for the Future Relationship emphasises that Parliament is asked to approve both agreements (paragraph 1(a)).

Primary legislation to implement the Withdrawal Agreement

The Government’s amendment also requires ‘an Act of Parliament has been passed which contains provision for the implementation of the withdrawal agreement’ (subsection (1)(d)). This requirement to pass an Act before the Withdrawal Agreement can be ratified reflects the UK’s existing constitutional requirements. Subsection (1)(d) confirms the fact that this constitutional requirement effectively grants Parliament an additional veto over the Withdrawal Agreement. This provision notably distinguishes between the Withdrawal Agreement and the Framework for the Future Relationship as regards to this approval process. Whereas both must be laid before both Houses and approved and considered by the Commons and the Lords respectively, under this amendment only the Withdrawal Agreement must be subject to implementing provisions enacted by Parliament before it can be ratified. This reflects the fact the Withdrawal Agreement is a treaty, whereas the Political Declaration will only be implemented into domestic law after the UK has left the EU.

The requirement in subsection (1)(d) also serves as a reminder of the likely pressure on the parliamentary timetable if the resolution to approve is passed. The bill to implement the Withdrawal Agreement would need to cover several difficult constitutional issues, including transition. It will also need to receive Royal Assent before exit day, expected to be on 29 March 2019. The EU (Withdrawal) Bill will have taken at least 11 months to complete its parliamentary journey; the Withdrawal Agreement and Implementation Bill will likely need to be passed in under 6 months.

Post-rejection regulation

Both amendments seek to legislate for what would happen if the Commons does not approve the Agreements negotiated by the UK Government under Article 50. However, each defines differently when an Agreement is ‘not approved’ and most significantly what happens in a ‘non-approval’ scenario.

The Government’s amendment states that if the ‘Commons decides not to pass the resolution mentioned in subsection (1)(b)’ a Minister is legally obliged to ‘make a statement’ setting out how the Government intends to proceed in the negotiations with the EU (subsections (3) and (4)).

What counts as the Commons not passing the resolution in question?

Subsection (1)(b) refers to the resolution approving both the Withdrawal Agreement and the Framework for the Future Relationship. If this resolution were moved and defeated, this would clearly trigger subsection 4. However, if the resolution was amended – to either object to an element of the substance of either of the Agreements, or to insert further procedural hurdles into the process, would that count as a decision ‘not to pass’? Hogarth and White, from the Institute for Government, have argued the Government is wrong to present the vote as a binary choice. They argue the Commons would be able to ‘amend the motion so as to put conditions on approval’. Whether such conditions amounted to a non-approval decision would depend on the precise form of words passed, and how the Government interpreted them.

‘A no-Brexit amendment?’

The Lords’ amendment takes a different approach to regulating what would happen if the Commons did not pass or amended the resolution. Firstly, the Lords’ amendment defines the resolution that must be passed as one that approves the Withdrawal Agreement. It does not reference the Framework for the Future Relationship.

Secondly, the non-approval provisions in the Lords’ amendment can be triggered in three different ways:

  • if Parliament has failed to approve the Withdrawal Agreement before 30 November 2018 (subsection (6)), or
  • if Parliament has not passed the Bill needed to implement the Withdrawal Agreement by 31 January 2019 (subsection (7)), or
  • if no agreement has been reached between the UK and the EU by 28 February 2019 (subsection (8)).

As with the Government’s amendment, it does not address whether an amendment to the resolution would constitute a ‘failure to approve’.

Subsection 5 of the Lords’ amendment would enable Parliament to issue a legally binding direction ‘in relation to the negotiations’ under Article 50, provided the direction is approved by a ‘resolution of the House of Commons’ and ‘subject to a consideration of a motion in the House of Lords’. Such a direction would not have any legal effect upon the EU’s negotiation position or the Article 50 process. This proposed power has nevertheless proved controversial. Some, including members of the Government, have called this a “no-Brexit amendment”.

Conclusion

If either of these amendments are included in the EUW Bill as enacted, the provision will represent a significant constitutional innovation. For the first time, Parliament would gain a legal right to veto an international agreement.

However, even if neither of these amendments are enacted, the Commons has been promised a vote to approve the agreement. If this resolution could not then be passed, the UK constitution provides no clear guidance as to what should happen next.

Prior to the publication of this amendment, David Davis MP had said that, if the Commons did not pass the motion, then the “negotiations will fall”. Davis also said that in a ‘no deal’ scenario there might end up being a “bare-bones deal”. Such a deal would need domestic legislative changes to give effect to it.

If the Commons refused to approve the Agreements, Parliament would play a role, even if the Lords amendment was not passed. However, of the two amendments, only the Lords’ would grant Parliament a power to issue negotiating directions. If the Lords’ amendment is not passed, and the Commons subsequently rejected the Agreements put before it, the UK’s existing constitutional framework provides that the Government of the day is responsible for deciding how to respond.

This post has also appeared on the House of Commons Library page here.

Jack Simson Caird is a constitutional law specialist in the House of Commons Library.

(Suggested citation: J. Simson Caird, ‘Parliament’s Right to a “Meaningful Vote”: Amendments to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill’, U.K. Const. L. Blog (11th Jun. 2018) (available at https://ukconstitutionallaw.org/))

2 comments on “Jack Simson Caird: Parliament’s Right to a ‘Meaningful Vote’: Amendments to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill

  1. Annabel Partridge
    June 13, 2018

    The internal workings of what would happen in the event of a rejection by Parliament of a WA and Framework are constitutionally new ground, as you say, but as you very briefly acknowledge (where you say “Such a direction would not have any legal effect upon the EU’s negotiation position or the Article 50 process.”), Parliament cannot by itself stop the clock ticking under Article 50, and therefore cannot unilaterally prevent our exit. Surely this is the key point, yet the Lords and Sir Dominic Grieve have consistently spoken as if Parliament can be given powers to prevent our exit all by itself, as if it is sovereign over a notice served under international law. This is wholly misleading, to other MPs and to the public. They have been trying to maximise Parliament’s powers in the circumstances of a rejected deal, or of no deal being reached, but they have consistently failed to address what is in reality the huge elephant in the room – that no matter what Parliamentary powers are agreed, none will be sufficient to stop our exit on 29/3/19. The most that can be achieved is an instruction to Government to ask the rEU for agreement, either to a time extension or to a revocation of the Art 50 notice. The rEU could agree, but they are not obliged to do so. This is the point – that the Art 50 could run out on 29/3/19 without a deal having been agreed, and the treaties will no longer apply to the UK, regardless of what powers Parliament has acquired in the meantime. This is what the Government has based its position to date, i.e. that, at the end of the day, it’s deal or no deal.
    Please do block this comment as it is a serious point which no-one is addressing, yet from the public’ piint of view it is the most important one.

  2. Annabel Partridge
    June 13, 2018

    Not block, I mean! Apologies.

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