On Tuesday evening, a record number of peers passed, by a majority of 98, an amendment to the European Union (Withdrawal Notification) Bill, giving Parliament a meaningful vote on what happens at the conclusion of the Brexit negotiations. The Bill now says that the power to notify can only be exercised subject to Parliament’s final decision on the outcome of the negotiations.
This amendment is a massive improvement on the Bill in its original form. As we said in our briefing to peers, there is no good reason why Parliament should not explicitly define in the Bill its sovereignty over the most important constitutional decision of our time – whether we should leave the EU on any terms the Government negotiates or, if no terms can be agreed, what should happen next.
This was a principled position championed time after time during the debate.
The five key points we made about the merits of the amendment were all highlighted.
First, the amendment ensures a meaningful choice for Parliament, not just a “Deal/No Deal” vote on the result of the Government’s negotiations.
Baroness McIntosh of Pickering picked up this point and quoted from the “Three Knights Opinion” including:
“I will refer also to an article written by five eminent QCs, including three knights, who gave their opinion on the matter and stated:
‘Meaningful Parliamentary decision-making cannot be achieved by Parliament authorising exit from the European Union, two years in advance, on as yet unknown terms. Equally, it cannot be achieved by a single ‘take it or leave it’ vote at the end of the process’”.
Lord Hailsham added:
“I believe that the proper interpretation of the referendum is this: it is an instruction to the Government to negotiate withdrawal on the best terms they can get. But that raises an absolutely fundamental question to which this proposed new clause is directed. When the negotiations have crystallised and there are agreed terms—or, perhaps, no agreed terms—who determines the way forward: is it the Executive or is it Parliament? That is the old question we have to resolve. In my view, any believer in a democratic state has to say that the authority lies with Parliament.”
Second, the amendment would give Parliament genuine control.
On this, Lord Pannick told the House:
“I find it disappointing that those who most loudly asserted the importance of the sovereignty of Parliament during the referendum campaign are now so alarmed by the prospect of the sovereignty of Parliament at the end of the process.”
Lord Hailsham added:
“Our sole purpose is to ensure that the outcome—agreed terms or no agreed terms—is subject to the unfettered discretion of Parliament. It is, in our view, Parliament and not the Executive which should be the final arbiter of our country’s future. Ironically, in this sense we stand with the campaigners for Brexit who wanted Parliament to recover control over policy and legislation.”
Third, the amendment would make explicit the need for Parliament’s approval of any agreement and that an “assurance” from the Government that Parliament will be asked to express a view in a consent motion is constitutionally meaningless.
On this Baroness Smith, Labour’s Shadow Leader in the Lords, explained:
“Our priority is Amendment 3, to ensure that Parliament has a meaningful vote and that we maintain parliamentary sovereignty… “
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean added:
“We need this in the Bill because the Government have form for bypassing Parliament, and we need to know that that will not happen again.”
Lord Heseltine said the same:
“This amendment, as the noble Lord so clearly set out, secures in law the Government’s commitment, already made to another place, to ensure that Parliament is the ultimate custodian of our national sovereignty.”
Baroness Jones added:
“During the referendum we voted for taking back control. However, taking back control does not mean giving such a momentous decision for the future of the UK to a tiny cohort of politicians.”
then went on to say:
“People change. Governments change. We cannot be sure that the same people will be in power when this finally happens, so it is important to get a commitment. Parliament has to have scrutiny, and a say in something so incredibly important—a deal that is being thrashed out between the UK and the EU that will affect our future for ever. I also think it is a mockery if the European Parliament gets a vote on this and we do not. That again is not taking back control.”
Fourth, the amendment was clear about what Parliament must decide.
Baroness Altmann put the point in this way:
“I believe it is my duty, given the very serious concerns that I have expressed, to ask the other place to reconsider the need for elected MPs to take responsibility for the future of their constituents. I believe that they must have the final say on the Bill and I want to ask them to think again.”
Last, the amendment would provide greater legal certainty, important because the UK’s decision to withdraw from the EU can only be effective for Article 50 purposes if taken in accordance with the UK’s constitutional requirements.
Baroness Kennedy developed this point very powerfully:
“the Supreme Court’s principal conclusion was that primary legislation is required to authorise the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. I make it clear that this Bill is a notification Bill; it is not an authorisation Bill.”
Baroness Kennedy went on to say:
I also remind the House what the Supreme Court judges said. They said that the reason why this was a matter for Parliament—both the notification and, finally, withdrawal—was because any fundamental change to our laws that inevitably amends or abrogates our individual rights requires the approval of Parliament.”
The Bill returns to the Commons for further debate focused on the Lords’ amendments.
Our next step is to send every MP a briefing pack and to support key MPs who will influence the debate (anticipated to take place in the first half of next week).
It is an ambitious objective to hold the parliamentary control amendment in place, but it was ambitious to believe we could get this far.
As ever we need your backing. We’ve got this far because of you.
We must never doubt our ability as individuals to gather together and change circumstances.
Please help keep the campaign rolling by making another donation and/or encouraging others to support what we’re doing. This will mean we can continue to make your voices heard and ensure Parliament’s control over all our futures.
For the moment, I’ll let Michael (Lord) Heseltine have the final word on the amendment:
“It ensures that Parliament has the critical role in determining the future that we will bequeath to generations of young people.”
Please back the The Second People’s Challenge: helping Parliament take control and help our parliamentarians ensure that Parliament has meaningful control over the Brexit process.