Play-by-play account of last week’s defeat on the Withdrawal Bill

Last Wednesday (April 26th) The Government suffered its largest defeat so far on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill.  This Cross Party amendment, led by Lord Tyler for the Lib Dems, which is now added to the Bill, raises the legal bar which Ministers must meet in order to exercise “Henry VIII” and other executive powers

The Government’s Bill previously read:

A Minister of the Crown may by regulations make such provision as the Minister considers appropriate to prevent, remedy or mitigate….. any failure or deficiency arising from the withdrawal of the united kingdom from the EU.

The amendment altered this to read:

A Minister of the Crown may by regulation make such regulations as is necessary to prevent, remedy or mitigate …..

This apparently innocuous change sparked one of the most highly-charged Lords debates on the Bill.  Paul Tyler explained:

All the amendments in this group would replace “the Minister considers appropriate” – what could be more personal than that, where the Ministers personally decides that something is appropriate – with the strictly more objective test of “necessary”.  That is the salient difference.

At the end of his speech Paul challenged MPs to stand up with the Peers to defend Parliament against power-hungry MInisters:

…. speaker after speaker, at every stage of the Bill, has emphasised that this must not be used as an opportunity to turn the Executive into an elective dictatorship. It is the British Parliament that must take back control, not a minority Government.

As a former Member of Parliament, I hope that the Commons will concur with your Lordships’ House and the Delegated Powers Committee on this point. Are the Government really going to go into the last ditch in defence of this apparently indefensible position?”

Later Paul stopped the Minister in his tracks, in his wind-up speech, by pointing out that the Government’s own White Paper for the Bill stated that

legal and policy changes would be made under the Bill only when it was necessary to ensure that the law continues to function properly after exit day.

This defeat shows that the House of Lords as a whole is not prepared to let this Government use Brexit as an excuse to propagate abuse of power and poor legislation. 349 (out of 570) Peers voted for this amendment, and leading the charge were 91 Liberal Democrat Peers and 13 Conservative rebels.

This is very unlikely to be the Government’s last defeat, but it is certainly one of the most significant so far, in terms of defending the constitution from new threats; if endorsed by the Commons it will mark a real reverse for the Brexiteers insistence on bypassing parliamentary control.

The full debate is now available at Lord Tyler, House of Lords 25/04/18

* John Dobson is a Hull University's politics Student doing a placement year in the House of Lords working for three Liberal Democrat Peers.

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