Just as Committee Stage for the EU (Withdrawal) Bill was set to start, David Davis announced in the House of Commons that a new bill would be introduced by the government to implement the withdrawal agreement. This would see Parliament given a binding vote. The initial reaction from much of the press, public, and MPs alike, has been to call the announcement a ‘massive concession of government’, but is it really?
From what we know so far, the Withdrawal Agreement and Implementation Bill would aim to implement the ‘major policies’ of the agreed deal with the EU through primary legislation, instead of through problematic secondary legislation. Here, the government has taken a step in the right direction; as far back as July 2017 in our report, ‘A Democratic Brexit: Avoiding Constitutional Crisis in Brexit Britain,’ Unlock Democracy has been advocating for a vote for Parliament on the final deal, as well as to be centrally involved throughout the negotiation process.
Many MPs have expressed concerns that huge power would be given to the government to enable them to implement the withdrawal agreement without parliament having a say or being able to scrutinise what was in the deal, and this bill attempts to rectify that issue. The government argues that this should reassure MPs that Parliament will be the ones to sign off the deal and therefore have a say over the outcome of the most challenging lawmaking process in peacetime.
However, far from being a ‘massive concession’, the bill still wouldn’t give Parliament a meaningful role in shaping the deal, influence over the terms of exit, or a role in shaping any alternative to a no-deal scenario.
Moreover, Davis’ announcement did not offer any details about which ‘major policies’ would be included. This means there is no guarantee ministers would not use the sweeping powers laid out in the EU (Withdrawal) Bill to make big policy changes without Parliament having a say.
Why the bill is not a concession
1. The government has already promised - time and time again - that Parliament would have a vote on the final deal. For example, this promise was made by the Prime Minister herself in the introduction of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill white paper in March, where she explicitly said the government had “pledged to put the final deal… to a vote in both Houses of Parliament.” Even before that, in February, Brexit Minister David Jones told the House of Commons he expected Parliament to have a vote “before the European Parliament debates and votes on the final deal”. So far from being a concession, Davis merely confirmed what the government had already promised to do on numerous occasions.
2. Davis made it clear that Parliament will not be allowed to propose an alternative deal - so far from the vote being meaningful, Parliament would be forced into a ‘take it or leave it’ scenario. This could be interpreted as a move to prevent Brexit being blocked. However, this severely restricts Parliament’s options to secure a better deal if they find the government's deal to be wanting. This undermines the claim that giving Parliament a vote is giving them a meaningful say; instead, the role of MPs is reduced to rubber-stamping the government's plans. The government has already come under fire from Conservative MPs for not providing any safeguards against the ‘no deal’ option by restricting Parliament to a "take it or leave it" option.
3. Although Davis said that Parliament would be free to tell the government to go back to the EU and ask for a different deal, an Act of Parliament is not a sufficient mechanism to do this in any case. The European Parliament usually needs around 6 months to sign off any deal and a new negotiating mandate would likely be needed from the Council. This would most likely require a request for an extension of Article 50, which will be in the European Union’s hands to award or not.
4. In any case, this announcement does not make it clear what time-scale Parliament would be working to. We don’t know if the bill will give Parliament a vote 6 months, 6 days, or 6 hours before ‘exit day’. David Davis has previously suggested that a deal may not be done until the last minute. A vote between a last minute deal or no deal would not be giving MPs, as our elected representatives, a meaningful say.
5. Unfortunately, from the way the government has handled Brexit, Parliament’s vote on the final deal was never going to be more than a rubber stamp. Meaningful involvement from Parliament means MPs having a role throughout Brexit - in shaping what deal the UK will have, and scrutinising the government's actions, as well as voting on the final deal. Instead, at every possible turn the government has cut Parliament out of the Brexit process, shutting down debate and operating in the shadows wherever it can.
Fundamentally, this bill would not solve the problems created with the EU (Withdrawal) Bill - that is, sidelining Parliament and the devolved nations from lawmaking. Taking back control cannot mean undertaking a significant transfer of powers to the executive and writing MPs out of the legislative process, and a vote at the end of the process reduces elected officials to passive observers, who will be presented with a stark binary "take it or leave it" option, undercutting the robust deliberation we expect of a modern democracy.
You can read our ‘Democratic Brexit’ report online for more ideas on how people and Parliament can be put front and centre of the Brexit process: http://www.unlockdemocracy.org/publications/a-democratic-brexit-report