This week the EU Withdrawal Bill returns from weeks of debate in the House of Lords. This blog sets out how I will be voting, and why, aiming to shine some light on this complicated process.
You may remember the EU Withdrawal Bill was in the Commons back in December. At that point, we made a significant gain on the right to have a vote in Parliament on the government’s exit deal for the UK with the EU (the so-called ‘Grieve amendment’, also known as the ‘meaningful vote’). This took a lot of work, from backbench MPs on all sides of the Commons but also from us Whips, managing colleagues who support ‘Leave’ or represent leave-voting constituencies. The amendment was passed by a crucial majority of four votes.
All other Labour amendments were voted down by the government and their backbench MPs. There were hardly any rebellions by Tory MPs on anything other than the meaningful vote – indicating that this is likely to again be the most contentious area.
The Lords’ amendments
In the Lords, our Labour colleagues were able to convince more peers from other parties to vote with them so they successfully got 14 significant amendments to the Bill through.
This week we will be trying to keep these amendments in the Bill by voting against the Government, which will be proposing motions to remove them. That means we will be voting ‘no’ in most cases, in order to keep these amendments – I mention this as the voting records may appear confusing.
Key amendments we will be defending
Whilst we expect Tory MPs to try to vote to get rid of these amendments, we will be trying to keep them on the Bill, by voting against the Government’s motions to remove them. These amendments include various technical measures and the following:
- Refugee Family Reunion Rights. My friend and colleague, the Labour peer Lord Alf Dubs, championed retaining this EU provision when the Bill was in the Lords. It makes it easier for refugees to be reunited with their families.
- Protecting employment, consumer and environmental protections from EU law. Without this amendment, the Government will find it easier to strip out these laws in a ‘race to the bottom’, slashing protections for short-term gain.
- Enshrining EU Environmental principles into UK law and establishing an enforcement body. Most UK environmental legislation, governing everything from farming practices to air quality to chemicals, has come from the EU. And it is enforced by the European Commission. As we leave the EU, there is a risk that this gap leads to a decline in standards.
- Northern Ireland. Labour has ensured the Bill requires Ministers to adhere to the principles of the 1998 Belfast agreement and Northern Ireland Act, to protect the peace the island of Ireland now enjoys.
- Limiting the powers of government ministers. The Government wrote sweeping powers into the Bill to change laws with little or no Parliamentary scrutiny. The Labour amendment aims to restrict these powers.
Our future relationship with the EU
There are various options for our future relationship with the EU. None of them are perfect, so we will need to find a compromise.
- Remaining in a customs union. Labour peers secured an amendment on this. I’ll be voting to keep this as it will resolve many of these problems of the Irish border.
- Access to the single market. I will also be voting for a more recent amendment tabled by Jeremy Corbyn, Keir Starmer and others. This aims to amend the Lords’ Amendment on the European Economic Area (EEA), described below. The new amendment would compel the Government to negotiate full access to the internal market of the EU, with shared institutions and regulations. I support this amendment as it presents an opportunity for a more ambitious and effective relationship with the EU. It also holds the government to account, reflecting Labour’s six tests, which are based on the Government’s earlier promises.
- Remaining in the EEA. The Tories are yet to come up with a plan, almost two full years after the referendum vote. The Lords amendment on membership of the EEA aims to resolve this, instructing the Government to negotiate a relationship with the EU similar to that of Norway or Lichtenstein. This is generally a good option for the UK, but as it stands, we can’t be in both the EEA and a customs union, meaning that EEA membership does not solve the Irish border question, critical to maintaining peace. For example, there is currently a hard border between Sweden (in the EU) and Norway (in the EEA). A bespoke trade agreement would be a better solution, which is why I will be abstaining from voting on this amendment and voting for Labour’s amendment (see ‘Access to the single market’, above).
It is also important to point out here that there are currently two bills going through parliament that specifically deal with trade and customs. We will have further opportunities to shape our relationship with the EU, this is not he last chance we have.
A meaningful vote
The key vote this week is on whether to keep the Lords amendment giving Parliament a meaningful vote on the final exit deal.
Whether you voted to leave or remain, whatever your views on Europe, Parliament having a meaningful vote on the government’s exit deal is a powerful idea we can all unite behind. Leave voters voted to ‘take back control’ and return it from Brussels to Westminster – yet the Tory government wants to tie us in to a Brexit deal without any Parliamentary scrutiny or any right to vote down an inadequate deal. This is the most important vote this week and where we are most likely to win.
What chance of success?
We are likely to lose most of these votes, despite the hung Parliament, as the Democratic Unionist Party will vote with the Tories. Even Tory rebels will not rebel on most amendments.
As Labour Whips, we have been speaking to as many MPs as possible and regularly counting how many MPs are likely to vote for or against, or abstain, on each possible motion this week.
There are two amendments on which we may achieve success: The customs union and ‘meaningful vote’. These amendments are the two we calculate are most likely to secure enough Tory rebels and leave-supporting Labour MPs to pass. Let me state again: a meaningful Parliamentary vote is hugely important and this amendment is winnable.
Uniting the country
Here are clear and highly significant differences between Tory Party and Labour: what we are fighting for on your behalf and the fact we are trying to unite the country. We are fighting to protect employment laws, environmental protections and consumer rights. We are also fighting to limit the Government powers to change the law without Parliamentary scrutiny, to recklessly gamble away our country’s economy without any plan or put forward a decent negotiating strategy.
Those are all extremely important aims. Even more importantly, Labour is the only party trying to unite the country. We are a deeply divided nation, we are currently a deeply divided nation. Most of you in Bristol West voted for remain and most of you would like to stay in as close as possible relationship with EU, preferably full membership, but failing that, part of a customs union and Single Market. I completely agree. But I also know that one in five of you voted for leave. Judging from my inbox and the doorknocking sessions my volunteers and I run each week in Bristol West, you also have not changed your minds.
People who voted to leave the EU for a variety of reasons, many of them legitimate. My colleagues in seats like Blaenau Gwent, for example, tell me that their constituents do not feel they share the prosperity or opportunities from membership of the EU. That has not changed.
I want to bring people together. Not just by following what is in my inbox, though that is important and I value you contacting me. Not by prioritising one group over another. But by genuinely listening to all views, researching all options, and coming to a judgement about how I can best represent your interests in Parliament.
That’s not easy, but it is the job you elected me to do, and I am determined to do it. It means being honest with you, even when it is hard – lots of you have said you want me to vote for the EEA amendment. As stated above, I cannot vote for it, as it stands, but will be voting for the replacement amendment from Keir Starmer, as I believe it will put us in a stronger position.
It should be possible to find a compromise which benefits everyone in some way. But only with a responsible, thoughtful government who are genuinely trying to bring people together.
That’s what I and the Labour Party are working towards. It’s messy, it involves a lot of discussion, debate and sometimes argument. We are trying to find ways through this incredibly difficult process which bring as many leave and remain supporters back together to a common purpose as a country.
I am proud of the fact that Bristol West people are so engaged. Keep on engaging with me. Let’s keep talking and most of all listening.
PS. Over the next few days I will be live blogging, tweeting and dong Facebook Live to keep you up to date with what is happening in Parliament and to give you a Whip’s eye view. You can follow that on: www.debbonaire.co.uk; @ThangamMP on Twitter and my Facebook page (Thangam Debbonaire MP for Bristol West).