I know how difficult it can be to not only keep up with what is happening as Brexit proceeds, but to understand the antiquated political systems that make up the UK parliament. So I will be sharing regular updates as the Bill makes its way through parliament.
As you may be aware, the Bill entered its committee stage this week in the House of Commons. That means MPs debate specific aspects of the Bill and can consider amendments that have been brought forward. While hundreds of amendments were tabled, only a few were selected for a vote.
Before I explain what happened this week in parliament, I should be clear that the SNP does not, and cannot, support this Bill as it stands. This is not just because we are opposed to Brexit per se, but because the way in which it is being done seems determined to salvage nothing of benefit from our relationship with the EU. It also represents a major transfer of power both from Parliament to the executive and from the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to the central British state.
As our First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon has said, the Bill represents the biggest threat to devolution since the people of Scotland overwhelmingly backed it in the 1997 referendum. The interests of Scotland are simply not being protected in this process.
There will be eight days of committee debate in total, but such is the disarray of this Tory government they have so far only given us dates for three. Over the days of debate all parties will be deploying their relevant speakers according to the subjects under scrutiny. As I speak on the Cabinet Office for my party, I am one of a small number of people who are leading our arguments and I will be speaking on day five, when we get to clauses 10 and 11, those most relevant to devolution.
On Tuesday and Wednesday this week we had the first two days of debate at committee stage. The main focus was on ending the supremacy of EU law and considering how EU laws would be transferred into UK law. On Tuesday this included aspects such as the role of the European Court of Justice and the consent of the devolved legislatures.
Clause One (ending the supremacy of EU law) passed easily as the Labour party abstained. Indeed, the government won all the votes on Tuesday. Most disappointingly was that Labour - including the Labour MPs representing Scottish constituencies - abstained on an amendment which would have made repealing EU legislation conditional on the Prime Minister gaining consent from the governments of the devolved nations.
The UK government’s win was narrowed to 20 votes for New Clause 14 which would have ensured that UK Ministers needed to set out how retained EU laws would apply in any transition period. Apparently the Conservative Party and DUP are happy for Minsters to completely evade parliamentary scrutiny.
Amendment 137, tabled by my colleague Joanna Cherry QC, was also defeated by 20 votes. The amendment called on courts and tribunals to pay regard to relevant decisions of the European Court after we leave the EU. Without this amendment there is no provision to ensure that after we leave the EU rights in the UK keep pace with those in the EU - or even encourage that to happen. This could lead to rights in the UK lagging well behind international standards in areas which require a degree of cooperation and reciprocity, such as consumer rights, equality protections and environmental standards.
Yesterday there was a focus on some of the specifics of transferring EU law into UK law. Given that 16 months on, this Tory government has failed to guarantee existing rights for EU nationals living in the UK, I am deeply concerned that they are unable - or unwilling - to protect EU policies which provide vital safeguards in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK. While the government again won every vote, their majorities are getting smaller.
Of particular note, New Clause 58 was only defeated by 12 votes (it appears the DUP are starting to earn their money). This clause would have protected the rights derived from EU law covering employment, environmental protection, equalities, health and safety and consumer protection after Brexit. If the clause had passed the UK government would have needed to pass primary legislation to change these rights.
Many constituents wrote to me asking me to support New Clause 30 and I was happy to do so. The clause was tabled by Caroline Lucas and would have transferred the EU Protocol on animal sentience into UK law, so that animals continue to be recognised as sentient beings. Despite cross party support on the opposition benches, this clause was also defeated by the combination of Tory and DUP votes.
The House also rejected New Clause 67 with a majority of 16, which aimed to ensure that environmental principles of EU law remain part of UK law after Brexit. And finally, an amendment which sought to incorporate the principles of the Good Friday Agreement into the EU Withdrawal Bill was also defeated – not least because the Labour party abstained.
It can seem disheartening to see amendment after amendment being voted down by the Tory-DUP coalition but this is far from a done deal. We’re getting closer to a government defeat and there are a range of back bench Tories who are readying themselves to vote against their party line. And remember, the closer the votes are in the House of Commons, the more justification the Lords have in asking the government to think again. So these votes are extremely relevant for what happens in the New Year when the Lords will have their say.
Next Tuesday will see the third day of debate and I’ll update you on what happens then.
Meanwhile you may know that I am one the members of the Scottish Affairs select committee which has been undertaking an examination of the Brexit Bill over the last few months. The committee’s report is due to be published this weekend and it contains recommendations which will put pressure on the government to change the Bill, particularly with regard to the sections on devolution. These have been agreed with all-party support, including the Tories, and although the recommendations don’t go as far as I would like, it is important to point out that there is a cross-party consensus in criticising some of the most inadequate parts of the Bill.