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May's key Brexit bill set for first debate in parliament

Sep 07 2017 10:30
Alex Morales and Nikos Chrysoloras, Bloomberg

London - Prime Minister Theresa May’s flagship piece of Brexit legislation will be debated for the first time on Thursday, giving opponents an opportunity to lay out their objections in Parliament. They’re unlikely to derail the government’s plans - for now.

As if negotiating Britain’s divorce with the European Union wasn’t enough, Brexit Secretary David Davis also needs to steer the bill through the UK House of Commons so that all EU law is copied and pasted into British legislation.

Opening the debate on Thursday, he’ll promise to work with opposition parties - and the pro-EU faction within the governing Tory party -- to ensure all rights currently enshrined in EU law will be replicated after Britain leaves.

“We are not rejecting EU law, but embracing the work done between member states in over 40 years of membership and using that solid foundation to build on in the future, once we return to being masters of our own laws,” Davis will say, according to his office. “If anyone in this house finds a substantive right that is not carried forward into UK law, they should say so.”

With the main opposition Labour Party saying it’ll vote against the bill at the end of the so-called second-reading debate on Monday, and the Scottish National Party and Liberal Democrats also opposing the measure, Davis’s main task is ensuring they don’t tempt enough dissenters from his own Conservatives to defeat the government.

Unionist support

May has an effective Commons majority of 13 with support from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, meaning seven Tory rebels could be enough to defeat the government. The signs are they won’t rebel - yet. One prominent Europhile Conservative member of Parliament, Anna Soubry, said on Monday she doesn’t know of any Conservative who plans to oppose the bill at this stage.

The bill is “the single most important step we can take to prevent a cliff-edge for people and businesses, because it provides legal certainty,” May said in a statement. “I look forward to the contributions of MPs from across the house. But that contribution should fit with our shared aim: to help get the best Brexit for Britain.”

Henry VIII powers

Labour’s opposition stems from clauses in the bill allowing ministers to modify laws with little scrutiny. Called “Henry VIII powers” after the Tudor monarch who exercised them, Davis says they’re needed to ensure tweaks are made to EU laws that, for example, make reference to EU regulators, while Labour is worried they could be misused. 

“There comes a point where Parliament has to assert itself,” Labour’s Brexit spokesman, Keir Starmer, told BBC Radio 4. “We’re not just going to spectate while the government negotiates and takes us forward. The idea of Parliament not being involved in that is unthinkable.”

Former Tory Attorney General Dominic Grieve has also expressed reservations about that aspect of the bill. But pro-European Tories are more likely to oppose Davis when the bill moves onto the next step, called the committee stage. That’s when legislators can submit amendments, and Soubry said she’s prepared to put her name to “sensible” changes.

There was further criticism for May from the House of Lords Constitution Committee, which she told lawmakers on Wednesday had supported the bill. Committee Chairwoman Ann Taylor accused the premier of “selective” quotation of a report by the panel and said members want a series of safeguards in the legislation and “meaningful” scrutiny by lawmakers.

Misquoted

“We acknowledge that the government needs significant powers in order to deliver legal certainty after Brexit,” Taylor said in a statement. “However, we warned the government that such powers must come with tougher parliamentary scrutiny mechanisms and we are disappointed that we have not only been misquoted by the government, but that our key recommendations have been ignored.”

The Brexit focus moves to Parliament after a couple of days that have highlighted continuing business concerns over May’s strategy. Her office distributed a letter to major UK companies for senior executives to sign praising the government’s approach, according to a draft seen by Bloomberg. Sky News television, which first reported the move on Wednesday, said company chiefs expressed incredulity at being asked to sign.

A day earlier, a Home Office document leaked to the Guardian newspaper set out measures to restrict immigration from the EU and prioritise British workers for jobs. It drew criticism from employer groups including the Food and Drink Federation.

Davis returned from Brexit negotiations with his EU counterpart, Michel Barnier, last week. The discussions ended in acrimony amid a stalemate over Britain’s financial obligations on leaving the bloc.

There is a “powerful legal case” that the UK will not owe the EU any money at the time of withdrawal, the European Research Group, a coalition of more than 80 pro-Brexit Conservative lawmakers, said Wednesday. Instead, the EU owes Britain about €10bn, Charlie Elphicke, one of its members, said in a statement.

Main impediments

The UK’s refusal to accept any legal financial obligations beyond its last payment to the EU budget in early 2019, disagreements over the enforcement of citizens’ rights, and lack of progress in shielding the Good Friday peace agreement in Ireland are among the main impediments holding back talks, according to people briefed on a discussion between Barnier and European commissioners in Brussels on Wednesday.

Progress was achieved on secondary matters, including social-security coordination, frontier workers, the recognition of professional qualifications, and the common travel area in Ireland, according to Barnier’s briefing to the commissioners.

The consensus in the European Commission is that the chances of a cliff-edge Brexit without a deal have receded, due to last June’s election result limiting May’s room for maneuver and the Labour Party’s decision to mount a greater challenge to May’s strategy, the people said, asking not to be named, as discussions aren’t public.

Barnier’s team is set to publish updated papers outlining the EU’s position on intellectual property rights, customs-related matters needed for an orderly withdrawal of the UK from the EU, the use of data and information obtained before the withdrawal date, and public procurement, the people said, asking not to be named, as EU discussions are private.

Another EU paper will place the responsibility for avoiding a hard border with Ireland onto the UK, The Guardian reported in its Thursday edition. The bloc also wants Britain to protect 3 300 food and drink products, such as Parma ham, feta cheese and Spanish cava from British imitations after Brexit, the newspaper said.

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eu  |  theresa may  |  uk  |  brexit  |  economy

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