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06 Feb 2017

Constitution

 

Last week the House of Commons gave its assent to the Second Reading of the Article 50 bill.  Although it may seem as though the issue is now settled, this vote from MPs was only the first stage in a much longer process of parliamentary scrutiny. MPs were voting on the very principle of the bill – that of triggering Article 50 and giving notification for withdrawal from the EU – and now the bill moves to its committee stage.

For most bills this takes place upstairs in the Palace of Westminster, on the committee corridor. But the most important bills always receive their committee stage on the floor of the Commons chamber, in what is known as a Committee of the Whole House.

Here, any MP may propose an amendment to add, remove or change the current wording of the bill.  Amendments are considered in groups, so that those which would make similar changes are all discussed at the same time. Some will be voted on, but these votes don’t always happen straight after the debate, as procedural rules mean that amendments are only voted on in the order in which they appear in the bill.

It all sounds a bit technical – and it is. Committee stages seldom draw attention from those beyond the very keenest parliamentary observers. But all eyes will be on the Commons chamber this week to see if the government is pushed into making any changes to the bill. If the opposition are successful, and if they manage to convince several government MPs to back their amendments, we may see the government forced to lengthen the bill.

Opposition MPs will certainly be hoping that the government will lose a vote on an amendment, but they will also be trying to force the government into making other, smaller concessions. This may mean agreements to consider certain issues, to think about an amendment as the bill moves on to the House of Lords, or to agree to publish further information or details regarding withdrawal and the negotiations.

Legislation can often run for hundreds of pages, but this bill is only eight lines long. So you may think that MPs won’t actually be able to do much damage, but in fact a large number of amendments have been tabled.  You can see the most recent list of amendments here, on Parliament’s website. Some are amendments to the existing clauses, and others are ‘new clauses’, or additions to the bill. These are on issues which are within the remit of the bill, but which aren’t covered by the existing clauses.  Although amendments are written in very precise drafting terminology, the explanatory statements which appear underneath most of them provide a plain-English explanation of what each amendment or new clause aims to do. The key areas in which we will see debate this week will be:

  • Attempts to increase parliamentary scrutiny of the withdrawal process and the final deal: The High Court decision was widely interpreted as a victory for Parliament. But these groups of amendments seek to further enhance the power of Parliament during the process of the negotiations. Labour’s proposal for a, for instance, asks the government to report its progress in the negotiations at least every two months, and there are others calling for a report every quarter. Meanwhile, Wes Streeting’s New Clause 56 seeks a parliamentary debate and vote on membership of the single market before Article 50 is triggered. There are also amendments which seek to ensure Parliament has a say on the terms of the final deal, before any sign off from European institutions (see Labour’s New Clause 1). Chris Leslie’s New Clause 18 asks for similar parliamentary approval before any future treaties with the EU and his amendment 8 specifies that no notification for withdrawal can be made before November of this year.
  • Proposals to further involve the devolved regions in negotiations: Labour’s New Clause 4 aims to put the Joint Ministerial Committee on a statutory footing, setting out the need to consult with the committee during the negotiations and specifying that its membership should include the First Ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. As would be expected, the SNP have a lot of amendments too in this area. Their New Clause 139 specifies that there should be debates in the devolved parliaments before triggering Article 50 and New Clause 140 proposes meetings with the First Ministers to discuss negotiations first. Other amendments on this theme seek to ensure that there are no changes to the levels of financial support to devolved areas and to commit the government to discussions with English local government.
  • Conduct and priorities in the negotiations: A rather broad series of priorities are put forward in Labour’s New Clause 2, including a sustainable economy and maintaining peace in Northern Ireland. Helen Goodman has a similar amendment, setting key objectives for industry, climate change and the English regions (New Clause 55).  But Harriet Harman’s New Clause 100 on equality and women’s rights is perhaps the best supported of all these in the Commons. Finally, a key issue here will be the amendments on guaranteeing residence rights for EU nationals currently living in the UK (Labour’s New Clause 8).

So from the Labour benches we will see and hear a lot from Keir Starmer, the party’s Brexit spokesman, and from Harriet Harman in her role as Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. She has already been tweeting about the amendments she’s putting forward.

Labour’s Chris Leslie has also tabled a large number of amendments. As a highly experienced MP who not only thrives on this sort of parliamentary debating, but also brings a lot of cross party support, we should expect to see him giving government ministers a particularly difficult time.

As my colleague, Simon Usherwood, and I pointed out last week, the toughest time for the government is likely to be when the bill moves to the House of Lords. But getting through the Commons unscathed will be the crucial first test.

Louise Thompson is a Lecturer in British Politics at the University of Surrey.

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