Lords can amend the Brexit Bill – but not block it

Dafydd Wigley. Picture by Plaid Cymru.

Lord Dafydd Wigley

The European Union Withdrawal Bill has completed its Commons passage.

Despite valiant efforts by Plaid Cymru, SNP and Green MPs, it got through largely unscathed, thanks to the timidity of Labour’s front bench who, more often than not, voted either with the Tories, against Plaid Cymru, or didn’t bother voting at all.

The Bill now comes to the House of Lords for a similar process of scrutiny.

The ‘Second Chamber’ has a revising function – it scrutinises legislation line-by-line, spotting errors and proposing improvements, within the overall framework proposed by the Government and approved by MPs.

Peers don’t have a democratic mandate to reject legislation outright. Only an elected second chamber could do that – which reflects the need to replace the Lords with a democratically elected chamber.

The Withdrawal Bill comes up for second reading on Tuesday, which involves debating the principles of the Bill, but not its details.

Two hundred Peers are expected to speak but we are unlikely to vote on it. Lords rarely oppose a Bill at second reading if it has been approved by MPs. But that doesn’t mean the Bill will sail through the House of Lords and be rubber-stamped.

It will be examined in detail by the whole House during the committee stage over a period of six weeks, with hundreds of amendments being considered – and I fully intend to propose my own amendments on behalf of Wales.

The fireworks will start after Easter, at the Bill’s Report Stage, when serious votes will occur, before we give our amended version of the Bill back to MPs.

Changes

There is an overwhelming majority in the Lords opposed to Brexit. If it was up to them, the whole wretched idea would be sunk without trace.

But Peers can’t take such a decision in the democratic vacuum which we inhabit. We cannot ignore the referendum vote, in Wales or the UK, but we can amend the Bill to limit the damage implementing it will cause.

Five major areas of concern will be debated. The most significant relates to the type of deal the Government negotiates – and what should happen if there is no deal.

Other issues include how the final deal will be ratified; the transition period; excessive powers being given to Ministers to bypass Parliament; and – of huge significance to Wales – whether powers in devolved areas will be intercepted by Westminster.

People voted to leave the EU with no clear alternative stipulated, though models were suggested, based on Norway, Switzerland and Canada. Mrs May still believes that a uniquely British model will emerge from negotiations.

I shall table amendments to guarantee our manufacturers and farmers continued free trade with the EU market – our biggest trading partner – through our place in the Single Market and Customs Union.

Fundamentally, two alternatives face us: a negotiated deal that gives some sectors limited access to the Single Market – a deal that will undoubtedly offer weaker terms than would be offered if we stayed in the Single Market and Customs Union; or reaching no deal whatsoever.

Wales

The “no-deal” scenario would be an utter disaster for Wales. In case this happens, Peers may provide for a confirmatory referendum before such a disastrous course could be adopted – giving citizens a chance to approve or reject our exit terms.

The other major issue for Wales is to secure an amendment that prevents Westminster intercepting powers in devolved areas.

This could well derail the government’s Brexit plans unless they act decisively. Despite commitments made to MPs, the Government failed to bring forward their own amendments to alleviate the concerns of MPs from Wales and Scotland.

Westminster cannot be allowed to use Brexit as a means to reverse devolution and reinstate full Westminster-rule over Wales.

A motion proposing a Continuity Bill, introduced by Steffan Lewis AM in the National Assembly, to protect ourselves from a Westminster power-grab, was given all-party support.

The Welsh Government must act and introduce a Bill without delay – before their hands are tied.

Last word

A further matter of concern is the so-called “Henry VIII powers” which enable Westminster Ministers to amend legislation without any meaningful votes, bypassing normal democratic procedures.

Peers will most certainly press amendments, and they’ll have my wholehearted support.

There will be many other matters to debate, and I shall work across party lines to safeguard Welsh interests.

However, even if we succeed in carrying certain safeguards, we won’t have the last word. That rightly rests with democratically elected MPs in the Commons.

I hope that, if we give them a lifeline on matters of critical importance, they will rise to the occasion and put the interests of Wales and the other UK member countries, above narrow party advantage.

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Hywel Moseley
Guest
Hywel Moseley

On what basis of law does Lord Wigley assert that ‘We cannot ignore the referendum vote either in Wales or the UK’? The referendum was a consultation process, not a delegation of legislative powers from Parliament to the electorate. The consultation was moreover flawed because of the misrepresentations of the proponents of Brexit and there is a clear case for Parliament to do its proper job of discussing the pros and cons of exiting the Union in the light of the facts that have emerged since the referendun and reaching its own decision. That is what parliamentary democracy entails, not… Read more »

ERNEST
Guest
ERNEST

The referendum was a consultation. What it is also is on the position of the UK and the EU. (Wales and Scotland wasn’t directly mentioned) I expect Plaid Cymru took the position it did because the referendum left Wales divided on this issue. But least, the position the EU took on the Catalonia independence verses Spain issue. I voted to remain and think that leaving the single market and custom union will be a disaster for Wales and the economy, particularly if Wales stays in the UK. This referendum will not in any way bind an independent Cymru-Wales from holding… Read more »

MawKernewek
Guest

What are the possibilities for the role of any referendum at the end of the Brexit deal negotiating process?

If, at this point the government decides to go for e.g. a Norway option, and this is put to a vote, what happens if it is rejected? Does this mean we remain in the EU, or does this mean a rushed no-deal Brexit in March 2019?

Benjiman L. Angwin
Guest
Benjiman L. Angwin

The Liberals also made valiant efforts to stop it, chwarae teg to them.

John Davies
Guest
John Davies

I think the point he makes regarding not being able to ignore the referendum is a procedural one regarding the House of Lords vs Commons. The Lords can’t throw out the Bill because the democratically elected chamber has indicated it wants it to be passed, so the lords’ role is to amend/improve it.

Jonathan Edwards Sir Benfro (+ North Carolina)
Guest
Jonathan Edwards Sir Benfro (+ North Carolina)

Diolch Hywel Moseley. Why is his the only voice saying we don’t have to accept the accepted Westminster view of all this? Well, here is another voice. Same point, different angle. Written Constitutions 1. All sensible countries (and sub-countries) have them. In the US there are 50 State ones and 1 Federal one. All basically the same pattern but with tweaks to suit the particular State. 2. I half live in North Carolina. The NC State Constitution is clear and easy to read – https://www.ncga.state.nc.us/legislation/constitution/ncconstitution.html (There, that wasn’t too bad was it? Wales could pretty much copy it word for… Read more »

Eos Pengwern
Guest
Eos Pengwern

Lord Wigley was a hero of mine for much of the 1990s when I was an active member of Plaid Cymru, so it genuinely pains me to have to disagree with him so completely on any subject. Nevertheless this piece seems to repeat many of the misconceptions that Remainers come out with again and again, and sadly they’re no more convincing from someone of Lord Wigley’s stature than they are from anyone else. [And by the way, I’m very glad that Dafydd Wigley is now a Lord; I was there at the National Committee meeting in Aberystwyth, not long after… Read more »

Tame Frontiersman
Guest
Tame Frontiersman

Brexit is stress testing the British Constitution and finds it wanting

Graham John Hathaway
Guest
Graham John Hathaway

Thank goodness Dadydd you are a member of the House of Lords. At least we have a voice, and an important one on Brexit and all matters of Welsh interest. The temperature is going to rise as the in fighting in Govt, sends mixed and contradictiory messages on what is or not the best plan post Brexit. I see a pivotal role for the Lords, as a buffer to the excesses of right wing dogma that will eventually show itself. The fact that Labour has now dismissed a need for a second referendum on the final outcome, a decision I… Read more »