This piece of Brexit legislation is causing headaches in Westminster, says the former director of legislative affairs at No 10by Nikki da Costa / December 14, 2018 / Leave a comment
Is there time for parliament to pass the WAB? If a Brexit deal is approved by parliament, the EU Withdrawal Act, which repeals the European Communities Act and takes us out of the EU, needs to be supplemented by the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB). The problem is one of time—it will require a momentous effort to pass this legislation before we leave. But what precisely is in the WAB, and why will it put our political system under so much strain? The four main things the WAB will do is set out how the rights of EU citizens will be protected in UK law, legislate for the implementation period, the controversial Northern Ireland backstop, and create a financial authority to manage payments made to the EU. If that Bill is not passed, the government will not have the power to implement the Withdrawal Agreement, and if no further action is taken, the UK would simply exit the EU with no further arrangements in place. This could cause significant disruption. The Bill therefore must receive Royal Assent before 29th March 2019. It also cannot safely be introduced before MPs’ famous “meaningful vote” on the deal. That sets up a very tight timeframe for the passage of the legislation. In a best-case scenario, and making the very big assumption the deal passes “first” time round, I do not anticipate that the Bill will be introduced to the Commons before the w/c 14th January. I am not sharing privileged information here, merely working the parliamentary calendar. We now know the business for next week and that the vote on the deal will not happen until parliament returns from Christmas recess. The government has also said that it will honour 21st January as a deadline. That makes the w/c 14th January the most likely window for the meaningful vote, with the Bill following promptly on its heels. If you introduce the Bill on Monday 21st January, you have just over two months to pass the legislation, or 36 sitting days. Bear in mind that the average bill takes between nine and 12 months to go through parliament and you begin to see the scale of the challenge. Yet parliament will not accept waiving the legislation through. Both the Commons and Lords will want sufficient time to go through it. And parliamentarians will have expectations as to what that looks like. Passing the EU Withdrawal Act took 13 days in the Commons and 20 in the Lords, with another four for ping-pong between the two. Thirty-seven days in total across the two Houses. And those days were spaced out by what we call “minimum intervals”—a period of time which is usually respected in the Commons and obligatory in the Lords unless the government can negotiate otherwise with the other parties. That time is beneficial to everyone, it allows preparation for the next stage, and strategies to be refined. The pace at which this Bill will need to progress is stretching to say the least. And it will need to be negotiated through “usual channels.” Will pressure build to sit on Fridays or cancel February recess? How many hours will each House sit each day? What will each House view as acceptable? Once a timetable is agreed, the real work begins. Amending stages will be extremely challenging—the government may well be wrapping up one day of debate, just as amendments are going down for the next. Tactically the government will be on the back foot although of course it will have a sense of where the attacks may come. Where defeat seems certain, the amendments may just be accepted, or concessions given. If whips are nervy or don’t know their numbers they will give more than they need. Every day will bring new challenges and “key moments.” Throughout this, parliament will not be so much taking back control, as testing to the very limits the extent to which government can “grip” the Bill. When weakness is sensed, parliament will hammer away, first one House and then the other, and then through ping-pong. When the EU Withdrawal Act received Royal Assent it was 63 per cent longer then when it started (see Institute for Government). What shape will this Bill be when—if—it passes? If it does squeak over the line, behind the headlines will be the human effort required—ministers, MPs, peers, parliamentary officials, and advisers are likely to get increasingly tired and frazzled, but their tiredness will be as nothing to that of the Bill team and all the civil servants who will keep the show on the road. Their service is unlikely to be visible to the public, but they will be the unsung heroes.