With one year to go to Brexit I’m worried that many of my friends and fellow campaigners are so focused upon stopping Brexit, that very little energy is going into making it better. In a few weeks’ time, the House of Lords will start voting on the detail of the EU Withdrawal Bill and this provides the best chance for progressives to stop the Cabinet from pushing through a long list of right wing policies and grabbing the kind of executive powers that Henry VIII possessed. From animal sentience to the rights of EU citizens, we need the Labour and Lib Dem whips to break with tradition and push for vote after vote in the Lords.
My Brexit is a very different creature to the Frankenstein’s monster being cobbled together by the Government in the EU Withdrawal Bill. This particular bill is not about whether or not we leave the EU, it is about what the UK will look like afterwards. But the Government has taken liberties and broken their promise to bring over all EU law. They have included far ranging Henry 8th powers that give them the right to change the law without Parliamentary oversight and have stripped out environmental and social protections. There is still time to improve the bill, but it needs Labour and the Lib Dems to work together with the crossbenchers, independents and even backbench Tory peers. With only a year until Brexit Day, the task before us is as urgent as it is important.
There are many frustrating things about being the sole Green in the outdated and archaic House of Lords. But being able to scrutinise and amend some of the Government’s nastier pieces of legislation is one of the parts that makes it all worthwhile.
In the Committee Stage of a Bill, we dive deeply into the text of the legislation and pick it apart line by line. All peers are able to submit amendments, and every single amendment is debated. Hundreds of amendments were tabled for the Committee Stage of the EU Withdrawal Bill, and by convention they were all withdrawn, to allow the Government to mull them over before Report Stage, where we start voting.
We’ve all talked a good talk in the Committee Stage. The hundreds of great amendments tabled would require the Government to protect migrants rights, retain all the EU Environmental laws, and protect all rights that we “might have reasonably expected” as EU citizens. If we were to pass all of these amendments then Brexit would look very, very different to the one that the Government is trying to force upon us as the only possible interpretation of “the will of the people”.
The Report Stage of the Bill is likely to happen around the second or third week of April and is where things heat up and we can push amendments to a vote - but votes don’t happen automatically and peers have to demand one. A lot of amendments just get debated and then withdrawn again, which you would be forgiven for thinking is all rather pointless. The party whips control a lot of this process, and even if an individual demands a vote on a particular amendment, most peers won’t turn up to vote unless the whips tell them to. So the Lib Dem and Labour Whips have a really important role in what the EU Withdrawal Bill is going to look like, and therefore what the future of Brexit is going to look like.
Like so much of what we do in the House of Lords, we deliberately tie our own hands in the name of “convention”. The Lords are a lot less political than MPs, and aren’t just hellbent on beating the Government for the sake of it. The Lords rock the boat, but not too much, as it is important to respect the democratically elected House of Commons. Because of this, the Opposition whips tend to limit the frequency that they defeat the Government and only push a few issues to a vote. However, as with all conventions in the unwritten British constitution, conventions are self-enforced and flexible. They should only be applied where they are appropriate, and shouldn’t get in the way of making the right decisions about the future of our country.
The other issue, which frustrates me to no end, is when debates and votes end up taking place very late at night. There is no limit to what time debates can go on until, so we end up pulling all nighters like a university student who has left their assignment until the last minute. As a result, whether an amendment passes or fails can largely depend on what time of the day it comes up - mid-afternoon is the best, while late at night is pretty hopeless. It’s no way to run a country nor create laws and means that some of the UK’s biggest decisions are ultimately determined by how many people stayed up past their bedtime to vote.
I’m deeply worried that the Labour and Lib Dem whips are going to compromise on far too many amendments in the name of procedure and convention. The issues at stake are so important that we really have to ask ourselves if there is even any point having a House of Lords if we are just going talk a good talk and then back down without voting. When we are faced with an EU Withdrawal Bill that is so flawed and so fundamental to our future wellbeing, we have an absolute duty to do everything within our power to put it right.
I would encourage Labour and Lib Dem members to lobby their front benches in the Lords to stand firm and put things to the vote on these five key issues:
1. Specific protections for the environment
2. Specific protections for citizens’ social rights, including those of EU citizens
3. Retention of EU law which is currently missed out by the Bill (i.e. directives, preambles and principles like Animal Sentience)
4. Retention of legal causes of action and remedies for Govt breach of retained EU law (giving judges the right to quash decisions, or to award compensation)
5. Restrictions, requirements and procedures regarding the way Ministers can use the “Henry VIII powers” in the Bill to create new legislation.