Government slammed for ‘frustrating scrutiny’ of Brexit bill

Institute for Government says legislation timetable doesn't allow time for MPs to properly scrutinise deal

Photo: PA

By Richard Johnstone

22 Oct 2019

The Department for Exiting the European Union has published legislation to implement its Brexit plan, but the government has been criticised for attempting to implement it in a matter of days.

The 111-page Withdrawal Agreement Bill would enshrine the deal between the prime minister, Boris Johnson, and the EU into UK law. It covers elements including the revised plan for customs and goods on the island of Ireland, as well as the UK’s payments to the EU to settle liabilities and provisions for EU citizens' rights after Brexit. It also includes an indication of the future trade deal the government would seek and the planned implementation period in which to agree it, currently intended to end in December 2020.

Brexit secretary Steve Barclay said the MPs and peers had been presented with “a bill that will get Brexit done by October 31, protect jobs and the integrity of the UK, and enable us to move onto the people’s priorities like health, education and crime”.


Commenting on the plan on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning, former DExEU permanent secretary Philip Rycroft said the substance of the proposed legislation was mostly the same as it had been in former prime minister Theresa May’s deal that failed to get though the House of Commons.

“There was a white paper published as long ago as July last year which sent out the main substance of this piece of legislation – on citizen’s rights, on paying the bills that we owe the EU on exit, and on the transition period.

“So a lot of this is familiar territory. There is something new in this, however – the Northern Ireland provisions are new as that has been the major change in the deal that Boris Johnson has done, and there are new commitments to engage parliament on the future relationship and on workers’ rights.”

Government ‘frustrating Brexit scrutiny’

Critics have slammed the plan for MPs to pass the legislation by the end of this week.

House of Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg said the bill would have its second reading on Tuesday, before a vote to approve the government’s planned timetable. If this isn’t backed by MPs, the chances of the UK leaving the bloc at the end of this month will be reduced.

Rees-Mogg insisted that the government was setting aside enough time for MPs to scrutinise and pass the bill.

He said: "We do have a deadline of 31 October, a deadline set in law, for dealing with our departure from the European Union, and we need to have the legislation in place by then or the alternative is that we leave without a deal."

However, following the government’s request for a Brexit extension, as mandated by parliament, the European Council could offer more time for the deal to be passed.

The Institute for Government’s deputy director, Hannah White, said the legislative timetable was designed to frustrate scrutiny of the deal. It came after the chancellor, Sajid Javid, rejected calls to publish a full economic assessment of the Brexit deal.

“For a constitutional bill which makes probably the most significant changes to the UK’s position in the world that the Commons has been asked to consider for decades, it is extraordinary,” she said. “The government must know this, but it is asking MPs to agree the timetable or be seen to be thwarting Brexit. 

“The government’s proposed timetable sees MPs asked to decide on the principle of whether to legislate (by voting on the second reading) today, little more than 12 hours after seeing the bill for the first time. Remember, this is a bill dealing with highly contentious issues including the divorce payment, the transition, Northern Ireland and arrangements for negotiations on the future relationship between the UK and the EU.”

She said that while the government’s strategy of pushing negotiations up against the wire of the 31 October deadline “may have helped persuade the EU to come to a deal”, it had also “inevitably constrained parliament’s opportunity for scrutiny, as the government knew it would”.

“Poor scrutiny leads to poor legislation. Without adequate time to reflect and consider what the government is proposing, flaws and unintended consequences may not be spotted. This scrutiny is about much more than MPs having time to debate the kind of Brexit they want. 

“Some MPs would have objected whatever scrutiny timetable the government had proposed. But this proposal seems designed to frustrate and anger MPs and to reinforce Boris Johnson’s pre-election messaging. It may also be designed to allow government to offer some concessions in the hope of persuading MPs to vote for the bill.”

In an analysis of the legislation, the IfG said the bill proposes the creation of an independent monitoring authority on EU citizens rights in the UK post-Brexit, as is required by the withdrawal agreement. The authority's budget would be decided and public appointments made by a minister. The bill also provides for a statutory process enabling ministers to appeal government decisions on individual cases using secondary legislation.

Future relationship

The proposed legislation means the government can only negotiate with the EU on the future relationship between the two once parliament has approved its negotiating objectives. 

The bill also says the government’s negotiating objectives must be consistent with the political declaration attached to Johnson’s deal agreed last week, that the UK and the EU should have a free trade agreement.

However, MPs could attempt to amend the bill in a way that would require the government to seek a customs union with the EU. Former chancellor Ken Clarke has already tabled an amendment to this effect.

MPs are likely to put forward more amendments to change the plan for this future relationship. Former Conservative minister Nick Boles has tabled an amendment that would require the government to seek an extension to the post-Brexit transition period from December 2020 to December 2022 unless MPs pass a resolution to the contrary.

Some MPs are concerned that without such a measure, the UK could still leave the EU without a deal if the future trade arrangement is not in place by the end of 2020. Departments have predicted a no-deal Brexit could lead to food and medicine shortages, public disorder and traffic gridlock.

“We must stop no deal Brexit in December 2020,” Boles said.

Rycroft said the planned amendments illustrated the lack of trust MPs have in the government.

“The purpose of the bill to get us out of the EU is relatively straightforward,” he said. “It is all the wraparound of that where other parliamentarians are not giving the government that trust about how we negotiate that future relationship.”

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