There has been much discussion of whether the UK Government’s attempt to have the negotiated withdrawal deal (the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration on future relations) approved by the UK Parliament by way of “meaningful vote” will be successful. The present consensus is that it will not.
It is expected that the “meaningful vote” will take place during the week commencing 15 January 2019, however many are uncertain as to how this vote will work in practice. In this article we outline some of the key information regarding the process by which this important vote will take place and what legally should happen next.
The approval process
- Section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 (“Withdrawal Act“) sets out the process by which the UK Government must secure Parliamentary approval for the negotiated withdrawal deal before it can be ratified.
- Section 13(1)(a) provides that the Government must lay before Parliament: (i) a statement that political agreement has been reached; (ii) a copy of the negotiated withdrawal agreement; and (iii) a copy of the framework for future relationship. This process has completed.
- The Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration need to be approved by a resolution of the House of Commons on the Government’s motion (the “approval motion“) (section 13(1)(b)) i.e. the “meaningful vote”. The debate and vote on the approval motion should take place before the European Parliament decides whether it consents to the withdrawal deal (section 13(2)).
- The debate has now commenced and it is expected that the “meaningful vote” will take place on 15 January 2019.
- The Government’s “supplementary business motion” which governs the procedure for the current debate allows there to be amendments to the approval motion during the “meaningful vote” debate. The previous limit of up to six amendments has now been removed. Any amendments will be voted on by the House of Commons before voting on the approval motion (as amended or not). The Government is not legally obliged to comply with any amendments although there may be political pressure to do so.
- The House of Lords will have an opportunity to debate the deal for a period of up to five Lords sitting days beginning on the date that the House of Commons passes the resolution approving the approval motion (section 13(1)(c)). The House of Lords will not actually have a vote on the withdrawal deal.
If Parliament approves the withdrawal deal
- If the House of Commons approves the withdrawal deal, the UK Government will put forward another new Bill, the Withdrawal Agreement and Implementation Bill (“Withdrawal Agreement Bill“), which will implement the Withdrawal Agreement into UK law (section 13(1)(d)). Unlike the approval motion, the House of Lords will have a vote on the Withdrawal Agreement Bill.
If Parliament does not approve the withdrawal deal
- If the House of Commons decides not to approve the withdrawal deal, the Government needs to table a motion before Parliament outlining its next steps within three Commons sitting days (i.e. by 21 January assuming the vote is on 15 January). This requirement resulted from a controversial amendment to the Government’s supplementary business motion which was approved by the House of Commons (defeating the Government) on 9 January 2019. The amendment, however, only obliges the Government to table such motion, not to organise a parliamentary vote on it.
- This is a shortening of the timetable outlined in the Withdrawal Act, which required the Government to make a “statement” to Parliament setting out what it intends to do next having lost the “meaningful vote” within 21 days (section 13(4)). The Withdrawal Act provides that the House of Commons will then within a period of seven Commons sitting days from the date of the statement have the opportunity to vote on those plans, on a motion expressed “in neutral terms” to the effect that the House ‘has considered’ the statement (section 13(6)(a)). The House of Lords also has an opportunity to take note of the Government’s statement within a period of seven Lords sitting days from the date that the statement is made (section 13(6)(b)).
- Per Standing Order No. 24B of the House of Commons, a motion expressed “in neutral terms” cannot be amended. However, the Grieve amendment, which was passed on 4 December 2018, cancels Standing Order No. 24B as it would otherwise apply to a motion under section 13 of the Withdrawal Act. This means that the House of Commons has the opportunity to express a view on what should happen next by amending the motion.
- Again, the Government is not legally obliged to comply with amendments to the motion but those amendments could be politically significant and may influence the Government’s subsequent course of action.
- If the approval motion does not pass, the Government may also attempt to bring forward a second approval motion. This is not prevented by the terms of the Withdrawal Act. In theory a second approval motion could be brought before Parliament at any time before 29 March 2019.
If there is no “political agreement”
- The above process assumes that there is “political agreement” with the EU for the purposes of section 13(1) of the Withdrawal Act. This was confirmed on 26 November 2018. If the political agreement is deemed to have lapsed or otherwise unravels prior to the “meaningful vote” (highly unlikely) (a “no deal” scenario) sections 13(7)/(8) or 13(10)/(11) of the Withdrawal Act could apply.
- Sections 13(7) and 13(8) provide that if the Prime Minister concludes before 21 January 2019 that no withdrawal deal can be reached, the Government must within 14 days make a statement to Parliament setting out what it intends to do next. The House of Commons will then within a period of seven Commons sitting days from the date of the statement have the opportunity to vote on those plans on the motion about the statement. The same rules as described above for motions expressed “in neutral terms” will apply.
- Sections 13(10) and 13(11) provide that if at the end of 21 January 2019 there is no agreement in principle for a withdrawal deal, the Government must within 5 days (i.e. by 26 January 2019) make a statement to Parliament setting out what it intends to do next. The House of Commons will within a period of five Commons sitting days from the end of 21 January 2019 (i.e. by 29 January 2019) have the opportunity to vote on those plans on the motion about the statement. The same rules as described above for motions expressed “in neutral terms” will apply.