Thank you for contacting me regarding the EU Withdrawal Bill and for making me aware of your views.
Sadly, the UK Government decided that when they were drawing up the timetable, that 12 hours would be sufficient to debate and vote on the most important issue facing the UK since the Second World War. The Labour Party opposed that timetable and forced the government to hold debates and votes over two days. We still did not believe that this was sufficient, but the UK Government were not prepared to move any further on this.
It is also worth clarifying that due to the Government’s deal with the DUP, the only way the combined opposition can win any vote is if Tory members do not support the government position.
Over the past few days, there have been a number of votes on a whole host of different issues posed by Brexit. I have outlined what happened in these votes below.
The UK Government managed to bluff their way out of a defeat on giving Parliament a meaningful vote on the final Brexit deal by striking a deal with some of their rebel backbenchers, who originally appeared to be prepared to support Labour amendments.
However, this has already begun to unravel with Theresa May saying that the deal struck meant one thing and the rebel backbenchers saying that the deal meant another. Dominic Grieve MP (one of the backbenchers) said on Question Time this week that we would be pressing the government further over the next week to clarify their position on this matter, and if necessary he will use parliamentary mechanisms to ensure that parliament does have a meaningful vote at the end of the process.
To us in the Labour Party, it is so important that Parliament has a meaningful vote on the final Brexit deal. It is vital that the government is under no illusions that the UK Parliament will not endorse a ‘no deal’ Brexit and will instruct the government to go back to the EU and renegotiate if it looks like ‘no deal’ is the likely outcome.
The Scottish devolution settlement
From the outset of the EU Withdrawal Bill process Scottish Labour has made clear the devolution process must be protected.
We have made clear that we support efforts to improve the deal but would not stand for any political game playing.
The initial Clause 11 proposals were completely unacceptable. We have supported work from other parties, as well as making attempts ourselves, to put down amendments to the legislation.
While there has been some progress in strengthening the proposed legislation, voting against the current proposals earlier this week could have taken the legislation back to the very original offer, which would be far more damaging.
To be clear, if Clause 15 had been defeated it would have reverted back to the even more flawed Clause 11 resulting in all powers in devolved areas which are coming back from Brussels by-passing Scotland and going straight to Westminster. Scottish Labour could not vote for that to happen.
There is no question that the blame for this situation lies squarely at the door of the Tories. However, the behaviour and vote of the SNP in the Commons was the worst example of the political game playing we have consistently pledged to avoid on this vital and important issue.
The Labour Party proposed further amendments to the devolution element of the bill. Our amendment would have removed the odd definition of consent that meant consent constitutes giving consent or not giving consent. We also proposed a reduction of the ‘Sunset Clause’ from 5 years to 3 years after the we leave the EU and that the only time the UK Government could legislate without the permission of the Scottish Parliament is where the UK Government have reason to believe that not acting would leave them in breach of international obligations – a provision that is already contained within the Scotland Act.
I have written to the UK Government calling for immediate cross-party talks and to bring in legal and constitutional experts to assist their discussions and to ensure that the Scottish devolution settlement is protected. It is incumbent upon the UK Government to fix the mess that they have created.
The Labour Party is the party of devolution, and I can assure you that we will continue to protect it at every turn.
European Economic Area
It’s vital that any final Brexit agreement delivers a strong relationship with the Single Market and that there is no drop in rights, standards or our ability to trade freely in services after we leave the EU. Labour has been clear in its six tests that we will not support any Brexit deal that fails to deliver that and that the government needs to do far more to prioritise the benefits of the Single Market.
The Lords amendment on this issue set out a very specific way to achieve a new relationship with the Single Market – by remaining in the EEA, the so-called Norway Model.
I understand why there is sympathy for this approach. Norway has a high-level participation in the Single Market and it has strong protections for rights and standards.
However, there are also real drawbacks and limitations to the UK adopting this model. There is almost no flexibility in accepting the four freedoms (including freedom of movement), having very little say over EU rules and, crucially, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein are outside of a customs union with the EU. As it stands, the EEA cannot meet the commitment to no hard border in Northern Ireland.
So this is far from an ideal solution for the UK, which is why I did not support this amendment.
Instead, I supported an alternative Labour amendment tabled by Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer, which would require the government to negotiate a new UK-EU Single Market agreement that would protect jobs, the economy and rights.
The other tabled amendments, to the Customs Bill and Trade Bill, would require the government to negotiate:
- Full access to the Single Market
- No new impediments to trade
- Common rights, standards and protections as a minimum
- Underpinned by shared institution and regulations
Rather than binding the UK to follow the EEA route, this amendment set out a framework for a close future relationship with the EU and would ensure that Brexit does not lead to a race to the bottom on rights or to new barriers for UK businesses. Taken alongside Labour’s commitment to negotiate a new customs union with the EU, it also provides a viable solution to prevent a hard border in Northern Ireland.
Sadly, the UK Government were unwilling to support this amendment, even though it would have been in line with their manifesto commitment to leave the Single Market but maintain a close and collaborative relationship with the EU – one that includes no barriers or impediments to businesses.
On Monday 18th June there will be a further opportunity to persuade the government to come to the negotiating table and I will be setting out once again Labour’s proposals to move this debate on the devolution settlement forward.
I hope that helps outline my position the EU Withdrawal Bill and the events of this week.
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