In the political tempest of the last couple of days it would be easy for a report by a Parliamentary committee to slip under the radar unremarked. However, today’s report by the Commons Procedure Committee concerns the very live issue of the form of the motion on which MPs will have their meaningful vote on the withdrawal agreement and framework for a future trade deal after Brexit.
How did we get here?
Section 13(1) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act (the EUWA) sets out a series of conditions that must be met before the final version of the withdrawal agreement can be ratified. One of those conditions is that the agreement, along with a broad framework for the future trade relationship between the UK and the EU, must be approved by the Commons through a resolution to that effect. MPs were under the impression that this would be more than a straight choice between the deal negotiated by the government and no deal at all – but rather an opportunity to place conditions on any approval, such as further negotiation by the government or a second referendum. Such conditions would be imposed by making amendments to the motion on which the vote was taken. However, as we have previously discussed on this blog, the government wishes to use a voting procedure that would require a take it or leave it vote first, with voting on any amendment to the motion thereafter.
The Committee’s recommendations
The Commons Procedure Committee was tasked with collecting the views of interested parties and forming a recommendation on the procedure to be used for the Commons vote on the deal. The Committee agreed with the government that the normal procedure of a ninety minute debate, followed by a vote on one amendment only (chosen by the Speaker), before a vote on the final motion (amended or not) would be inappropriate for a decision of such magnitude. Therefore, a bespoke Business of the House order would be required to set the voting procedure.
The Committee was sympathetic to the government’s arguments that a vote on a ‘clean’ motion to approve the deal, before voting on any amendments, would provide legal certainty, and that any conditions on approval would be problematic given the limited time that would be available to fulfil them before ‘exit day’ on 29 March next year. However, the Committee was swayed by the fact that Parliament intended to provide itself with the power in the EUWA to properly scrutinise the Brexit deal. It therefore recommended that a procedure be used which would allow amendments by MPs to be voted on first – with no prior vote on the government’s ‘clean’ motion.
Specifically, the Committee recommended that a minimum of five sitting days be given to the debate, with clearly specified subjects to focus each day’s debate. At the end of each day, any MP who has proposed an amendment should have the opportunity to speak, with the government providing a response. Under the Committee’s proposal, upon conclusion of the debate, MPs will vote on all amendments selected by the Speaker, before a vote on the final version of the motion (as amended or not).
It is important to state that the Committee’s recommendations are just that. The voting procedure will ultimately be decided by an initial vote by MPs. It will be for the government to initially propose the procedure through the Business of the House motion, which will be debated and amended by MPs. The Committee has recommended that this prior debate to establish the procedure take place at least two sitting days before the beginning of the main debate on the deal, and that it lasts one full sitting day. It has also recommended that the government’s proposed procedure is published no fewer than five sitting days before the main vote on the deal.
Given the current questions over whether the draft deal we have currently is the one that will be placed before Parliament, and whether the Court of Justice of the EU will get to give judgement on whether the UK can reverse out of Article 50, the eight day time frame proposed by the Committee seems like a long time when time is the one commodity sorely lacking at present. Particularly if Parliament does place conditions on its approval…