London: After days of debate, the “great repeal bill” that sets the stage for Brexit has won a major vote in the UK parliament.
However up to a dozen Conservative MPs are expected to table amendments to the bill which has been criticised by opponents as a “power grab” by Theresa May’s government.
The 66-page EU Withdrawal Bill seeks to copy and paste all EU laws into British statute books at the moment of Brexit, so UK citizens, businesses and courts can be certain what rules apply the next day.
But thousands of pieces of law will need modification to survive the transition – and in order to avoid having to pass every such law through Westminster the bill includes so-called ‘Henry VIII’ powers that allow government ministers or even civil servants to make the necessary changes.
Critics said this was an unprecedented affront to parliamentary sovereignty, that would allow ministers to make new laws without referring to Westminster.
But the government said it was a standard and unremarkable process necessary to make sure the system of laws didn’t fall off a “cliff edge” at Brexit.
The second reading debate on the bill went late into Monday night, with the final vote after midnight.
The speaker imposed a five-minute limit on MPs as the debate dragged on.
In the end MPs voted to give the EU withdrawal bill a second reading by 326 to 290.
At least one Labour MP joined Conservative and DUP MPs who pushed the bill through, after warnings that rejecting the bill would be unpopular in Leave-voting communities who would see it as frustrating their choice.
Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer said it was a “deeply disappointing result”.
“This bill is an affront to parliamentary democracy and a naked power grab by government ministers,” he said in a statement after the vote. “It leaves rights unprotected, it silences Parliament on key decisions and undermines the devolution settlement.
“It will make the Brexit process more uncertain, and lead to division and chaos when we need unity and clarity.”
He said Labour would seek to amend and remove “the worst aspects from the bill” as it went through an eight-day committee stage.
Senior Conservatives including Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve are expected to back amendments which would “remove the excesses of the bill”, the BBC reported.
Mr Clarke said he needed better guarantees on how the government would use its delegated powers, saying “I’ve known governments to go back on reassuring words in the past”.
While he defended the bill as necessary, Brexit Secretary David Davis has already said he is willing to accommodate changes to the bill “in the spirit of preparing our statute book for withdrawal from the European Union”.
However legal experts have expressed doubt that a middle ground exists that would satisfy both the demands of Parliament, and the practical needs of preparing the ground for Brexit.
British law blogger David Allen Green said “MPs have voted, in principle, in favour of the greatest shift in power from legislature to executive in modern constitutional history.”
“In effect, ministers will be able to make, amend and repeal law by fiat. To be mini-legislatures.”
It was a “botched bill”, he said, and expected “heavy amendments” at the committee stage.