MPs should accept the Lords’ amendments to the Article 50 Bill
Tomorrow, the Article 50 Bill returns to the House of Commons, where MPs will be deciding whether or not to approve the amendments passed last week by the House of Lords. MPs should approve the Lords’ amendments on ensuring Parliament has an exit deal vote, and on guaranteeing resident EU nationals’ rights. There are compelling political, practical, and ethical reasons to do so. Some myth-busting is necessary, however, before explaining the reasons why MPs should approve these amendments.
First, the amendments do not prevent the UK from leaving the EU; nor do they prevent Article 50 from being triggered; nor do they undermine the process of seeking to leave the EU. There is zero threat to Leave activists or to the possibility of leaving the EU from accepting these amendments.
Second, ardent Leave activists such as Gisela Stuart have repeatedly complained that the Article 50 bill is not one that MPs should amend, and that Parliament is somehow doing something inappropriate by seeking to amend it. However, this is wrong. There is no other bill before Parliament on the matter: this bill is the one for Parliament to amend. MPs have the power and the democratically mandated authority to do so.
Third, Brexit is sometimes spoken of as if it were a value or a creed that cannot be questioned or challenged. This is false: it is nothing of the sort. Brexit is a political issue: a big question, if you like, made up of multiple interrelated issues and questions. There are a variety of ways of responding to this big question. How we respond carries significant consequences for millions of people’s lives, both in the UK and in the EU. Some of the available responses to the issue of the UK’s EU membership are more defensible than others, according to the lights of logic and evidence.
This includes the issue of accepting the Lords’ amendments to the Article 50 Bill. Here are three reasons why MPs should accept both amendments.
First, engaging in reasoned debate on this issue, and reviewing relevant legislation and Parliamentary work on it critically, are well within the boundaries of Parliament’s lawful role within UK democracy. The referendum result did not and could not count as a decision: the referendum was legally and politically non-binding, and the UK is a representative democracy; as Parliament is sovereign, Parliament must decide and legislate. Hence it is entirely lawful and democratic for the Lords to suggest amendments, and it is also entirely lawful and democratic for MPs to accept them. One of the best ways to sustain Parliamentary sovereignty is to enshrine it in the relevant legislation by accepting the exit deal vote amendment: this affirms Parliament’s sovereign power.
Second, practically, we simply do not know what is going to happen over the next few years, both within the EU and further afield. Concerns about jobs, the economy, peace, security, research, and medicine are all pressing, and depend on factors that change over time. It is therefore impossible to anticipate what our thinking about EU membership might be in 12–18 months from now, and similarly impossible to rule out that the UK might think very differently. It would be silly not to ensure through legislation that Parliament can act for the national interest in this matter, given the level of uncertainty in question.
For similar practical as well as ethical reasons, we should be able to rule out uncertainty where we can by accepting the amendment guaranteeing the rights of all of the EU member state nationals resident in the UK. These EU member state nationals face tremendous uncertainty with regard to their status as residents in the UK. Not accepting the amendment would make it impossible for them to plan their lives, careers, and family lives effectively, or even just to hang on to their jobs, homes, and families. Remember, they moved to the UK in good faith with no reason to think that the rules on free movement would change. If we guarantee their rights, then it would establish an incentive for other EU member nations to do likewise for UK citizens resident in their communities. It will also directly benefit all of the UK citizens whose family, colleagues, and community members EU nationals in the UK already are.
Third, such activities of debate and review are also essential parts of the ethical, social, and political life of the community of people who identify as having strong connections to the UK. Suggesting that everyone should consider the matter to have been settled on June 23 2016, and that only the Government (rather than Parliament or the UK community) should have any say — or even any insight — into what happens over the next few years inhibits this part of community life. MPs, as well as all people with a connection to the UK, should be promoting such engagement rather than silencing it. Accepting the amendments means that people can continue to talk with their MPs and Lords, advise them of their views, and have those views translate into meaningful representation in Parliament as negotiations unfold. And, critically, this would send the message that representation is true for EU member state nationals living in the UK, as well as UK citizens in the UK and overseas.
I urge MPs across Party lines to support the amendments. There is no harm in doing so, and much to be gained.