The European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill was debated at the Second Reading in the House of Commons over two sessions on 31 January and 1 February 2017.
Opening the debate, Exiting the EU Secretary David Davis said that the Bill represented a response to the Supreme Court’s judgement requiring the Government to seek Parliamentary approval before triggering Article 50.
This was a means of honouring the Government’s commitment to respecting the outcome of the EU Referendum, he said.
He argued that this was “simply about Parliament empowering the Government to implement a decision already made”, and further declared that “the democratic mandate is clear”.
Calling the legislation “the most straightforward possible Bill necessary” to fulfil this purpose, he explained that it contained “clear and succinct powers” in two clauses which would permit the Prime Minister to commence the EU withdrawal process.
In addition, the Bill specifically permitted the UK to commence the process for leaving Euratom, the European nuclear cooperation agency, which used the same institutions. Mr Davies claimed that if the UK could not strike a future deal with Euratom, it should be able to make one with the International Atomic Energy Agency. The country would continue to maintain “the closest possible nuclear cooperation” with the EU, he said.
Responding to an SNP amendment, Mr Davies predicted that the public would “view dimly any attempt to halt [the Bill’s] progress”, and noted that the devolved administrations did not have a veto on the decision to leave the EU.
He concluded by warning that “the eyes of the nation are on this Chamber as we consider the Bill”, given that “for many years, there has been a creeping sense in the country – and not just in this country – that politicians say one thing and then do another”.
Responding for the Opposition, Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer said that having failed to persuade the public of its belief that the UK should remain in the EU, Labour, as “democrats”, felt the Prime Minister “should not be blocked from starting the Article 50 negotiations”.
He explained that Labour had tabled amendments to the Bill designed to establish “key principles” for the Brexit negotiations, “including securing full tariff and impediment-free access to the Single Market”, and covering “robust and regular Parliamentary scrutiny”, as well as consultation with the devolved administrations.
Labour also supported amendments on workplace and environmental rights, and wanted the Government to offer unilateral assurance about the rights of EU nationals living in the UK, he said.
“In each of those votes, at every twist and turn, Labour will argue that jobs, the economy and living standards must come first. We will argue that all the workers’ rights, consumer rights and environmental protections derived from EU law should be fully protected—no qualifications, limitations or sunset clauses”, Sir Keir said.
He rejected the idea that the UK should wish to leave agencies such as Euratom and the European Medicines Agency, and condemned what he suggested was the Government’s threat to turn the country Into a “tax-haven economy”.
He also demanded that ministers publish their Brexit White Paper “as soon as possible, and before the Committee Stage is concluded”.
For the SNP, Wesminster Europe and Brexit Spokesperson Stephen Gethins moved an amendment aimed to deny the Bill a Second Reading based on a lack of effective consultation with devolved administrations, as well as the absence of a Brexit White Paper and the Government’s refusal to guarantee the role of EU nationals in the UK or answer a range of questions about the implications of Brexit.
“Their unwillingness to subject this decision to any proper scrutiny reflects a lack of confidence in their own position and in the process that will follow once this has been done”, he claimed.
Also making a notable contribution to the debate was Conservative MP Ken Clarke, who declared his intention to vote against the Bill given what he saw as the constitutional inappropriateness of the referendum and the “fairly pathetic” arguments made during the pre-vote debate.
Conservative European Scrutiny Committee Chair Sir William Cash expressed his support for the Bill, and for Brexit, while Labour Brexit Committee Chair Hilary Benn argued that to reject the Bill would create “a crisis of confidence in our politics”.
Following extensive contributions from backbench MPs, the SNP amendment was rejected at division. The Bill received its Second Reading after a division in which 498 MPs voted for and 114 against. It will now proceed to the Committee Stage in the House of Commons on Monday 6 January 2017.
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