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So the EU Withdrawal Bill was back in the Commons for Day 3 of the committee stage this week and, as promised, I’m writing to update you on what happened.
Before I talk about the Bill itself, you might be interested in the events of Monday’s Ways and Means debate. Ways and Means is a traditional term for taxes or other charges levied on the public in order to fund Government spending. And while not directly linked to the EU Withdrawal Bill, Brexit transcends everything. In an alternative attempt to get the UK to consider staying in the single market with access to the customs union the Labour MP for Edinburgh South, Ian Murray, had tabled an amendment that was selected for a vote.
The amendment to the Taxation (Cross Border Trade) Bill would have prevented taxes being charged on imports to the UK after Brexit. Due to World Trade Organisation rules, this would have effectively kept the UK in the customs union. Yet the Labour Party fell into disarray as their front bench voted with the Tories and other MPs reported being told they weren’t needed to vote. Fewer than 30 Labour MPs joined us in supporting Ian’s proposal and ultimately it was defeated by 311 votes to 76.
Tuesday’s debate focused on the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. My position, and that of the SNP, is that the charter must, absolutely, be enshrined in UK law. There are a number of rights in this charter that are not currently in UK law and there is no reason why these shouldn’t be retained after Brexit – including, for example, rights on child labour and the right to be forgotten on the internet.
I spoke in the debate and you can watch my contribution here * I've just been informed that this link is broken. I have contacted Parliament TV and I'm hoping it will be fixed quickly). In the meantime you can read it in Hansard. I raised my concern that, as Joni Mitchell says, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”. We take so many of these rights for granted, and rightly, don’t notice them in our day to day lives.
It’s not necessary to lose these rights to achieve Brexit but the Tories and DUP were out in force to defeat any amendment that would protect them.
In a successful attempt to quash potential backbench Tory rebels, May’s Government promised to review the way in which human rights would be affected by Brexit. That seemed to be enough. Dominic Grieve withdrew his amendment which called for the rights to be transferred into UK law and the rest fell into line behind him - so less rebellion and more a damp squib that could be easily be extinguished.
So what votes did happen? We voted on New Clause 70 which would have ensured that parliament was informed of changes in EU and European Economic Area provisions that might have amended UK laws around family-friendly employment rights and gender equality, and their potential impact. It was defeated by 314 votes to 295.
The Tory Government had its smallest majority yet at only 10 votes on amendment 46 - to retain the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights in UK law. I’m sure the Lords will have something to say about this. A second amendment which would have retained the principles of EU law in domestic law was also defeated – this time by 19 votes.
So another frustrating day with the Tory rebels bought off for now.
Yesterday, Brexit was my focus again but this time in Cabinet Office Questions. The Cabinet Office are meant to be overseeing the whole process of the UK leaving the EU. For months now I’ve been asking for details on the number of civil servants being employed to do this work and how much it will cost. After another unsuccessful written parliamentary question, I used my opportunity to ask about it in the chamber. But I still didn’t receive a proper response – you can watch it here.
As I mentioned in my last blog, the Scottish Affairs Select Committee report on the devolution of powers following Brexit was published last weekend. This report was approved by all parties on the committee (including the Tories) and raised serious concerns about the impact of the EU Withdrawal Bill on Scotland’s devolution settlement. It called for the UK Government to take urgent action to improve the Bill and provide clarity about the implications of their legislation for Scotland. You can read the full report here.
We now have a slight break in proceedings as next week we’ll be debating yesterday’s budget. Day 4 of the EU Withdrawal Bill debate takes place on 4th December with Day 5 on the 6th – on both days we’ll be moving on to discuss the clauses that most directly affect devolution.
Time is running out for many of Edinburgh's small businesses. Today I've written to the Chancellor asking for additional emergency assistance for our hospitality sector through the COVID-19 epidemic.