Lords can amend the Brexit Bill – but not block it
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.
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.
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.
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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