Government prevails at ping pong: the EU (Withdrawal) Bill passes through Parliament

Posted in UK and EU legal framework

The EU (Withdrawal) Bill is finally set for Royal Assent. A proposed amendment that would seek to give Parliament a ‘meaningful vote’ in the event of a “no deal” scenario, continued to move back and forth between the House of Commons and the House of Lords, before the Government ultimately succeeded in securing compromise wording.

As set out previously, the Government was initially defeated in the House of Lords on an amendment tabled by Viscount Hailsham which set out a timetable to ensure that MPs would be given a “meaningful vote” on the final terms of withdrawal and that the House of Commons would have the power to decide on next steps in the event of a “no deal” scenario or where the proposed deal had been voted down by Parliament.

When the Bill returned to the House of Commons, in an attempt to avert the risk of defeat, the Government proposed an “amendment in lieu” which would have allowed Parliament to vote on and approve the final terms of withdrawal but which put the Government (rather than Parliament) back in control of any next steps. However, when it became apparent that the Government might still be facing defeat, it gave last minute assurances as to further concessions that would be tabled when the Bill returned to the House of Lords under what is known as the ping pong procedure (whereby a Bill passes back and forth between the two Houses debating amendments to the Bill).

However, what was proposed by the Government proved insufficient to satisfy opponents within the Prime Minister’s own party and the Government lost a second vote in the House of Lords on a variation of Viscount Hailsham’s original amendment, based on wording introduced in the House of Commons by Dominic Grieve, the former Attorney General.

The Lords' amendment addressed what will happen in the event that:

- MPs vote down the UK-EU Brexit deal;

- the Prime Minister makes a statement before 21 January 2019 that no deal has been reached, or the date passes without a deal being reached.

Unlike the Government’s proposal, that in the circumstances set out above, a Minister will make a statement to Parliament proposing what is to happen next, under the Lords’ amendment, Parliament must approve the Government’s subsequent course of action.

The Government subsequently indicated that it could not accept the House of Lords’ amendment because it would allow Parliament to direct the Government on its approach to exiting the EU and, according to the argument, weaken the Government’s negotiating position.

Accordingly, the matter again returned to the House of Commons, where the Government proposed a further amendment in lieu. Whereas under the House of Lords’ wording, the Government would have to make arrangements for “a motion for the House of Commons to approve” the Government’s next step proposals, instead, there will be a motion “in neutral terms, to the effect that the House of Commons has considered the matter of” the Government’s proposals. In other words, Parliament will still be able to debate what should happen in the ‘no deal’ or ‘rejected deal’ scenario, but the Government will not require Parliament’s approval over how it intends to proceed.

However, in a ministerial statement published at the same time, the Government sought to provide reassurance to potential rebel MPs within its own party with regard to the use of the words ‘in neutral terms’ by acknowledging that it will be for the Speaker of the House of Commons to determine whether or not a motion introduced by the Government under the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is indeed set in neutral terms and therefore whether or not MPs will be able to vote on and amend such motion. The ministerial statement further acknowledged that it is also open to Ministers and members of the House of Commons “to table motions on and debate matters of concern and that, as is the convention, parliamentary time will be provided for this”.

These compromises received sufficient support for the Government to win the vote. The amendment was approved by the House of Lords later the same evening, with the result that the Bill is finally now agreed at ready to become law.

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