The Withdrawal Bill that has been published is pretty dull stuff – even by my standards. There are nonetheless rather frantic efforts to pretend it is in any way terrible. It isn’t. For one reason and one reason only. Like the 1972 Act, all the Bill does is bring the Withdrawal Agreement into UK law.
I find that conceptually interesting. The way these treaties are only international law. The way that international law is irrelevant and pointless, unless and until it gets enacted into domestic law. These things comfort me as a reminder that nation states, democracy and the people still matter. It rather penetrates the confected pomp of those who pretend EU law is a real thing and not merely international law in a moustache and dark glasses. But I accept most people may not find that compelling.
The Today programme gave a good attempt at trying to pretend the contents is terrifying. Nick Robinson gleefully reeled off Schedule 5A “article” (sic) 18A. He didn’t of course. He read out 1(1)(b) of the proposed new Schedule 5A to the Withdrawal Act 2018 – which requires statements of non-regression in relation to workers’ right by a minister. That’s actually not going to be in the Bill if it becomes law – which is, I suppose, vaguely interesting. It is new text to be inserted into the existing Withdrawal Act 2018, the one they already passed. It is an additional level of protection for workers’ rights.
Let me be very clear then. The same parliamentarians who passed the 2018 Act when it did not contain extra protections for workers’ rights, are now being asked to improve the protections in law for workers’ rights by putting in an extra section. Do you notice how the Labour position becomes untenable? This Bill gives extra protection to an Act they already thought was safe enough. Like adding a belt when wearing bracers.
Another objection seems to be the length. It is true it is 110 pages. It is not true that Parliament is getting three days to read it, they’re getting four because it came out yesterday. Those who had busy evening plans should really have cancelled them if they were genuinely concerned.
I did when the Withdrawal Agreement was originally published. That was 585 pages. Worse it was clearly written by non-English lawyers. That matters because English lawyers are trained from birth to use as few words as possible and to try to make things clear – those values are not shared by the EU.
Therefore, I suspect even MPs can manage these 110 pages of English drafted text. On Thursday, Keir Starmer told Radio 4 he had “gone through all of the text” and spent a “good deal of time” reading the PM’s new deal.
That is 65 pages, with 27 for the political declaration. So he managed at least 92 pages in five hours. More encouragingly he even implies he read the 585 pages a second time as well. So I imagine that even our dimmest parliamentarian could make a go of reading these 110 pages in the four days they will have.
And while dull, some of the Bill is very important, I would note:
- The Parliamentary Sovereignty Clause (section 36). This is unequivocal and unarguable. Despite any treaty obligations, the UK will be 100 per cent free and sovereign once more.
- The Parliamentary Oversight of the Implementation Period (sections 29, 30, 31, 32 and 33). The idea of this had never existed before and is a big win for protecting the UK from yet more endless delay, or EU skulduggery during the transition.
- Having a Minister sit on the new Joint Committee (section 35). This means a Minister, not a politically neutral civil servant, can protect our interests and be answerable directly to the press and people.
- The extra protections for workers’ rights Nick Robinson spotted.
There is little that would ever be ground breaking here – you can’t re-write the treaty in a Bill. But it is absolutely clear that this Bill was written by people who care about our national interests and are actively trying to protect them. Why would anyone seek to water that down?
Nick Robinson said that MPs are “not lawyers”, “not academics” and this is “complex legal text”. Respectfully this is their job.
They’ve got more than enough time. The Bill actively protects the whole of the UK – whether you’re a leaver or remainer. And we know that those who oppose Brexit have the very best lawyers and academics on speed dial. It’s time to get this done.