Theresa May never got as far as presenting an EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill to the House of Commons, since she failed to get Parliamentary approval for her deal. After Boris Johnson negotiated a revised withdrawal agreement with the EU, a Withdrawal Agreement Bill was introduced to Parliament for the first time on 21 October 2019. This Bill lapsed on 6 November with the dissolution of Parliament prior to the December 2019 general election.
A new EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill in substantially the same form (but with some significant changes) was introduced to House of Commons on 19 December 2019. It completed its passage through the House of Commons when it received its third reading on 9 January 2020, and is now before the House of Lords.
The main purpose of the Bill is to ratify and give effect to the EU Withdrawal Agreement. However, another important purpose is to modify the effect of the EU Withdrawal Act. This modification would postpone the de-coupling of UK and EU law from the date the UK leaves the EU until the end of the agreed transitional/implementation period, currently expected to be 31 December 2020.
What are the main ingredients of the Bill?
The Bill is a long and complex piece of legislation, but its key provisions track the main elements of the Withdrawal Agreement:
- Financial settlement: the Bill gives ministers the necessary powers to meet the payments due to the EU under the Withdrawal Agreement as they fall due;
- Citizens’ rights: the Bill contains measures to entrench the rights of EU citizens already settled in the UK by the end of the implementation period, and establishes the Independent Monitoring Authority for Citizens’ Rights;
- Northern Ireland: the Bill confers the necessary powers to give effect to the arrangements set out in the revised Northern Ireland protocol, which represents the most significant change from Mrs May’s original agreement with the EU.
The Bill also implements the separate agreements the UK has reached with the EFTA states and Switzerland, which closely track the key elements of the EU Withdrawal Agreement
How will the implementation period work?
We already have legislation on the statute book (the EU Withdrawal Act 2018) which repeals the European Communities Act with effect from the date the UK leaves the EU. It takes a snapshot of EU law at that point and in effect incorporates it into UK law, subject to some important exceptions.
The Withdrawal Agreement Bill will postpone that snapshot so that it is not taken until the end of the implementation period (defined as “IP completion day” in the Bill). In the meantime, despite the repeal of the ECA, the UK will continue to be subject to EU law, including any new law that is introduced during the implementation period.
What are the differences between this Bill and the October Bill?
Three new features of the Bill give an interesting insight into the priorities of the new UK Government:
- Workers’ rights: there were some largely procedural protections to prevent UK workers’ rights falling behind those of EU workers, which have been removed from the Bill;
- Extending the implementation period: a clause has been inserted which removes ministers’ powers to agree to an extension of the implementation period – primary legislation would therefore be required to do that;
- New powers to depart from ECJ judgments: under the EU Withdrawal Act as enacted, only the Supreme Court could depart from rulings of the European Court of Justice on the interpretation of the body of EU law that will be incorporated into UK law by the Act. The Bill amends the Act by including powers to make regulations to give a similar power to other UK courts or tribunals.
When will it become law?
Given the size of its majority, the Government is not expected to encounter any significant difficulties in ensuring that Bill receives Royal Assent by 31 January. Although the timetable is tight, the Government now controls the timetabling in the House of Commons, and due to Parliamentary conventions, given the Bill was a manifesto commitment, the House of Lords is not expected present a significant obstacle.
You can track the progress of the Bill and access the full text of the Bill and all associated documents on this page of the UK Parliament website.
You can find a summary of the Bill, and the differences between the current Bill and the Bill introduced to the House of Commons in October on this page of the Institute for Government’s website.