Buckle up folks – here comes a bumper blog as this week saw the return of the EU Withdrawal Bill after its time in the Lords. Or, more accurately, we were back voting on the EU Withdrawal Bill given there was precious little time for any actual debate. Over two days we were supposed to debate and vote on 20 different changes to the Bill that the Lords had put forward.
You’ll likely have seen and heard that the SNP group walked out of PMQs on Wednesday after the Prime Minister failed to answer questions from our leader Ian Blackford on the constitutional implications of the UK government ignoring the will of the Scottish Parliament. To be clear about what happened, Ian Blackford moved that the House meet in private – one of the few archaic processes available to us to express our discontent by ensuring an immediate vote. He was perfectly entitled to do so. The Speaker decided not to allow a vote immediately but instead to have the vote after PMQs.
Ian tried to explain why he was allowed to have a vote immediately under the rules but was asked to sit down. As he did not do so he was expelled from the House for the rest of the day. It’s very important to note that Ian did not walk out. The rest of us, as a group, decided to leave with him in solidarity. This wasn’t pre-planned – we were working on instinct - but as it turns out, it was the most effective way to make our point as the media paid attention. I recorded a video that explains the situation in more detail – you can watch it here.
But for now, back to the actual votes on the EU Withdrawal Bill. On Tuesday the first vote was on the programme motion. That’s basically a vote on the UK government’s plan for the debate. In this case it was very important due to the lack of time they had assigned to debate such a key bill. The government won that vote (321-304) with not only the DUP voting with the Tories but two Labour members also supporting them.
And so to actual business. There were a large number of votes so I’m just going to highlight the most crucial ones for you. A full list of the votes, how the SNP voted and the outcome is available at the end of the blog!
The first part of the discussion was focussed on parliament’s say on the deal – a so called “meaningful vote” and the exit day. We had hoped for a Tory rebellion on parliament having a meaningful vote – with many making noises on this beforehand. However, the Tory whips are made of powerful stuff and they managed to talk the vast majority of potential rebels round with promises of a compromise.
A day later and those promises were already crumbling but the job was done as only two Conservatives (Anna Soubry and Ken Clarke) voted against the government on Lords Amendment (LA) 19. The SNP voted to uphold the amendment but it was disagreed to (i.e. won by the government) by 324-298.
We then moved on to a series of amendments about Ministers gaining more powers to pass legislation without the approval of the House. LA10 would have gone some way to reduce the Westminster (not devolution) ‘power grab’ aspects of the Bill. We voted No (confusingly you vote no to keep the amendment) but the vote was won by the government by 320-305.
The 11 votes took two hours and forty minutes, and due to the ridiculous and antiquated procedures of the House of Commons this time ate into the three hours allocated to discuss the devolution settlement in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. So this left only 19 minutes for discussion and only the Minister, David Lidington, spoke in the debate (see my video diary from late on Tuesday night here). This is beyond shocking and I’ll discuss our reaction to it in a minute.
A significant number of amendments were then put into one ‘wrap up’ motion, which included all amendments to Clause 11 (now Clause 15) on the devolution settlement. The Scottish Parliament has expressly refused its consent to these proposals, and so the SNP (and Plaid Cymru) voted No to these amendments, while Labour abstained. Once again the government won as the amendments were agreed by 321 – 40. The only Labour MP who voted with us to protect devolution was Dennis Skinner. I’m really not clear why Labour MSPs in Holyrood voted to withhold their consent to these proposals but Labour MPs in Westminster did not. It means these amendments become part of the Bill and there will be no further discussion on them.
And that was Tuesday. By this point you can imagine the frustration we all felt – hence the decision to use PMQs on Wednesday to make our point through a division to sit in private. After our walk out I spoke to Sky News (watch it here) and the group made our voices heard outside the chamber.
We were clear though that we had walked out of PMQs, not parliament, and we were still ready and waiting to vote against the UK government on Brexit.
Wednesday afternoon’s debate and vote were focussed on our future relationship with the EU mostly in relation to the Customs Union and Single Market. Labour tried to make a change to Lords Amendment 51 that would have committed the UK to an ‘internal market’ instead of the EEA. We did not vote on that as we are clear we want to stay in the EEA which was what the amended Bill sent back from the Lords now said. Had that amendment gone through, we’d still be leaving the EEA.
As that change was defeated we then had a vote on LA51. This amendment would have forced the government to make remaining in the European Economic Area a negotiating objective. The Labour frontbench abstained but 74 Labour MPs joined us in the lobby. The amendment was disagreed to (won by the government) 327-126.
Lords Amendments 1 and 2 related to the UK’s participation in a customs union with the EU. Again the SNP voted No (i.e. supported the amendment) but again the government won – on this occasion by 325-298 and 326-296.
We also had a vote on a crucial amendment (LA3) to retain the EU’s environmental protections. Again, the amendment was rejected (the SNP wanted to keep it) by 320-296.
I know many constituents are deeply concerned about the impact of Brexit on the UK’s duty to protect child refugees. LA24 was proposed by Lord Dubs and would have required unaccompanied child refugees in one EU member state to be able join relatives in another post-Brexit. There was no vote on this as the government proposed amendments ‘in lieu’ - setting out its intention to negotiate an agreement with the EU to allow an unaccompanied child to join a relative in the UK who is a lawful resident (and vice versa).
So what happens next? Well yesterday Ian Blackford applied for an emergency debate on the Sewel convention - this is the convention that applies when the UK Parliament legislates on a matter which is normally dealt with by the Scottish Parliament as part of its remit. Under the terms of the Convention, this should happen only if the Scottish Parliament has given its consent. The debate has been granted and will take place on Monday afternoon.
However that won’t change any of the votes on the EU Withdrawal Bill. For that we now enter a process of ‘ping-pong’ with the legislation going back and forward between the Lords and the Commons to try to reach agreement. It’s likely that the Lords will now focus their concerns on just two or three matters and re-submit their amendments to the Commons. It’s due back with us on Wednesday next week so I’ll update you all again after that.
The votes in full:
- Programme Motion: SNP voted NO but the motion was agreed 321 – 304
- Lords Amendment (LA) 110 – made by the Lords to strengthen the ‘sifting’ procedure of statutory instruments that would be made under powers in the Bill. SNP voted NO on the question that the amendment be disagreed to – i.e. to keep these amendments in the final Bill. The motion was carried (i.e. a win for the government, amendment disagreed to) 324-304
- LA128 – related to LA110, also disagreed to (won by the government, SNP voted NO) 325-304 (3 Labour rebels with government)
- LA37 – first in series of amendments to remove the fixed ‘exit day’ of 29th March 2019. SNP voted NO to retain this amendment and remove the fixed exit date. The government won the vote 326-301 (5 Labour rebels)
- LA39 – related to LA37, also disagreed to (won by the government, SNP voted NO) 324-302
- LA125 – related to LA37 and LA39, also disagreed to (won by the government, SNP voted NO) 297-328 (6 Labour rebels)
- LA19 – the amendment on a meaningful vote. The SNP voted to uphold the Lords amendment but the amendment was disagreed to (won by the government, SNP voted NO) 324-298. A series of government amendments, making some concessions to Tory rebels about timing of the meaningful vote and reporting to Parliament ‘in lieu’ of the Lords amendment were then made without division.
- LA52 – this amendment would have removed the section of the Bill which allowed Ministers to use secondary legislation to establish when individuals can challenge the validity of retained EU law after exit day. Disagreed to (won by the government, SNP voted NO) 326-301
- LA10 – first in a series of amendments that would have changed the powers of Ministers to make secondary legislation/statutory instruments under the Bill from when they think it is ‘appropriate’ to only when it is ‘necessary’. This amendment would have gone some way to reduce the Westminster (not devolution) ‘power grab’ aspects of the Bill. Disagreed to (won by the government, SNP voted NO) 320-305
- LA43 – related to LA10, disagreed to (won by the government, SNP voted NO) 322-306
- LA45 - related to LA10, disagreed to (won by the government, SNP voted NO) 317-306
- LA20 – another critical amendment which would prevent secondary legislation to implement the withdrawal agreement from being used until after Parliament has approved a mandate for negotiations about the UK’s future relationship with the EU. Disagreed to (won by the government, SNP voted NO) 321-305
- LA25 on preserving North-South co-operation after Brexit in Ireland was adjusted by government amendments to refer specifically to the Belfast Agreement (rather than list the specific areas of co-operation) and reduce the list of new border arrangements to include “physical infrastructure, including border posts, or checks and controls”. It also says this should be subject to an agreement between the UK and the EU rather than the UK and Ireland. This was agreed without divisions.
- The government then moved a significant number of amendments in one ‘wrap up’ motion, which included all its amendments to Clause 11 (now Clause 15) on the devolution settlement. The Scottish Parliament has expressly refused its consent to these proposals, and so the SNP (and Plaid) voted NO to these amendments, while Labour abstained. The amendments were AGREED to by 321 – 40. This means these amendments become part of the Bill and no further amendment is possible.
- Opposition amendment (a) to LA51: Labour’s frontbench amendment (to the Lords Amendment) to remove a requirement that the UK should remain in the European Economic Area and instead commit to membership of the ‘internal market’. The SNP abstained on this proposal as it significantly weakened the Lords Amendment and was not consistent with our position outlined in ‘Scotland’s Place in Europe’. The amendment was put to a vote because the government had listed it first in the order of consideration – the only way time can be made available for a vote on an opposition amendment. The amendment was defeated 240 -322
- LA51: would force the government to make remaining in the European Economic Area a negotiating objective. SNP voted to retain this (ie voted NO on the motion to disagree), while the Labour frontbench abstained. The amendment was disagreed to (won by the government) 327-126
- LA1: would prevent the European Communities Act 1972 from being repealed until the government has laid before Parliament a statement outlining the steps it has taken to negotiate the UK’s participation in a customs union with the EU. The amendment was disagreed to (won by the government, SNP voted NO) 325-298
- LA2: related to LA1 on Customs Union. The amendment was disagreed to (won by the government, SNP voted NO) 326-296
- LA5: would transfer the Charter of Fundamental Rights into domestic law. The amendment was disagreed to (won by the government, SNP voted NO) 321-301
- LA53: would allow legal challenges to domestic law if it fails to comply with the general principles of EU law. The amendment was disagreed to (won by the government, SNP voted NO) 320-297
- LA4: would mean that secondary legislation used to amend certain retained EU law would be subject to an enhanced scrutiny procedure. This includes retained EU law relating to employment and equality rights, health and safety protections, and consumer and environmental standards. The amendment was disagreed to (won by the government, SNP voted NO) 318-301
- LA3: would require the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to take steps to maintain the EU’s environmental principles in domestic law after Brexit. The amendment was disagreed to (won by the government, SNP voted NO) 320-396. The government then accepted a series of compromise amendments ‘in lieu’ from Oliver Letwin and others which would have a similar effect by requiring a new Environmental Principles and Governance Bill
- LA24: proposed by Lord Dubs requiring unaccompanied child refugees in one EU member state to be able join relatives in another post-Brexit. The government proposed amendments ‘in lieu’ setting out its intention to negotiate an agreement with the EU to allow an unaccompanied child to join a relative in the UK who is a lawful resident (and vice versa). These amendments ‘in lieu’ were agreed without division.
- There was then a further ‘wrap-up’ vote without division to make further technical amendments that the government agrees to.