The EU Withdrawal Bill passed its second reading in Parliament in the early hours of Tuesday morning, by 326 votes to 290. A sound majority for the Government.
After the vote Steve Baker MP, Minister for Exiting the EU, aptly commented: “The House of Commons has rightly backed this crucial piece of legislation, giving its support to an orderly exit and helping to provide certainty to businesses, organisations and individuals up and down the country.”
It was probably always going to pass despite the usual media hype. There were simply too many Labour and not enough Tory rebels to seriously threaten the Bill’s passage through the Commons. With the passing of this Bill, legal chaos the day after we leave – something Remainer’s and soft-Brexiteers have always been so concerned about – looks set to be avoided. What this current episode has shown, however, is the length soft-Brexiteers and Remainer’s will go to try and frustrate Brexit.
The EU Withdrawal Bill was always a procedural bill. It was designed simply to transfer all EU law onto the UK statute book in one go, allowing for legal continuity immediately after Brexit and to begin the process of the UK’s legal divergence away from the EU. The total number of laws which will be transferred onto the UK statue books as a result of the EU Withdrawal Bill number 20,000, of which up to a 1,000 of these the Government expects will need to be amended. Many of these changes will be the result of laws naming EU institutions the UK will no longer be a part of needing to be amended in a minor fashion – or simply just taken off the UK’s statute books completely, as some laws being transferred will be completely irrelevant to the UK context.
To have to debate what would have been mostly cursory changes to law as primary legislation, would have been a pointlessly, if not overwhelmingly, time-consuming task for Parliament. Given the time constraints imposed by Brexit negotiations, and the many other important things which will need to be debated in Parliament in the wake of Brexit, allowing Ministers limited powers to amend the legislation being transferred is very necessary.
There are also a few more points to be made to highlight the out of proportion controversy the Bill caused in the run up to the vote in the House of Commons last night.
First of all, the powers granted to Government Minsters to amend legislation are strictly limited. Indeed, Schedule 7 of the Withdrawal Bill outlines if a public body is to be created; if any functions carried out by EU entities are to be carried out by UK public bodies; if an imposition of a fee exercisable by a UK public authority is proposed; if an amendment creates or widens the scope of criminal offence; or if an amendment creates or amends powers to legislate it must be approved by a full resolution of both Houses of Parliament. The Bill’s drafters were clearly worried about stopping dead any attempts at abuse of power.
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It is also necessary to point out, a large portion of the EU laws which will be amended by the use of the secondary legislation, will have themselves been brought into force in the UK by the very same use of secondary legislation. Many who now dearly seem to care about the perils of the use of secondary legislation have not seemed too fussed about its use in the period since the European Communities Act was passed in 1972.
What all this shows is reasonable people – whether they voted Leave or Remain – are not so riled by this piece of legislation. Only those who are ideologically motivated feign to have reservations about the EU Withdrawal Bill, in order to try and frustrate Brexit. Matthew Parris illustrated this point in his column for The Times this week. Parris is of course known as a staunch Remainer. However, in this piece he maintained the alarm of those arguing the Bill is an attempt at a ‘power grab’ was unjustified. He argued this has simply played into the hands of Brexiteers wishing to portray Remainer’s as attempting to de-rail Brexit for no other good reason than spite.
Petulant Europhiles and an opposition seeking to oppose the Government’s position just for the sake of opposing it – even when it’s perfectly reasonable by all accounts – are unfortunately not going to go away. A real and clean Brexit is far from secured. Those of us who wish to see a Brexit where the UK can trade freely with the world and control its own laws and borders must hunker down and fight on until we truly Get Britain Out of the EU.
Jack Tagholm-Child is a Research Executive at cross-party campaign Get Britain Out