Boris Johnson’s Brexit bill is one step away from becoming law after completing its passage through Parliament.
The EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill, which paves the way for the UK to leave the bloc with a deal on 31 January, is now awaiting royal assent.
Earlier, MPs overwhelmingly rejected all five changes – including on child refugees – made by peers to the bill.
It then returned to the Lords where peers backed down, despite some anger at their voices being “dismissed”.
Now it has completed its passage through Parliament, the UK’s exit from the EU must be approved by the European Parliament next week.
The bill passed through the Commons – where the government has a majority of 80 – unamended, but faced a tougher reception in the Lords, where the government does not have a majority.
Ministers were defeated five times in the Lords earlier this week, including on EU citizens’ rights, the power of UK courts to diverge from EU law and the independence of the judiciary after Brexit.
Peers also voted in favour of reinstating a guarantee that unaccompanied refugee children could continue to join relatives in the UK after Brext.
Ministers say they back the principle of the Dubs amendment but the Brexit bill is not the right vehicle for it.
The bill was also changed to take note of the Sewel Convention, which states that Parliament should not legislate on devolved issues without the consent of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Stormont Assembly in Northern Ireland.
‘Null and void’
MPs rejected the amendment on citizens’ rights, which would have ensured EU nationals’ existing rights to live and work in the UK would have been automatically recognised in law, by a margin of 338 to 252 votes.
It would also have required EU nationals to be given physical documentation detailing their right to remain in the UK – rather than relying on digital evidence alone.
Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay said the government could not accept the amendment because it would render the current process in which EU nationals must apply for settled status “null and void”.
MPs also voted, by a margin of 342 to 254, to remove the obligation on the government to negotiate an agreement with the EU on allowing unaccompanied children who have claimed asylum elsewhere but have a relative in the UK to be re-united with their family.
The bill, as agreed by MPs, would only compel the government to make a statement on the issue within two months.
Labour peer Lord Dubs, who has been campaigning on the issue for years, said the outcome was “bitterly disappointing”.
Green MP Caroline Lucas called the move “a Tory compassion by-pass”.
But Mr Barclay defended the government’s record, saying more than 41,000 refugee children had settled in the UK since the start of 2010, including 3,500 unaccompanied children in the year to September 2019.
He said there was no point legislating before the UK reached an agreement with the EU on future numbers.
‘Trust not enough’
Labour argued in favour of all five amendments, insisting they were not trying to thwart Brexit but make a “bad bill” better.
Shadow Brexit minister Thangam Debbonaire said it would be a mistake to take the government’s promises on child refugees at face value.
“The government’s predecessor government has got form on this, promising to take 3,000 children on the Dubs scheme, as originally committed to, and taking fewer than 500 in the end,” she said.
“The government asking us to trust them… is just not good enough.”
Several Tory MPs also urged the government to reach a compromise over the question of whether ministers should have the power to decide in what circumstances courts in England could disregard or set aside certain EU laws.
Former Brexit Secretary David Davis said potential confusion over the issue risked a “great deal of problems for both government and judiciary”, while ex-minister Bob Neill said he backed a compromise tabled by ex-Lord Chancellor Lord Mackay giving the Supreme Court the right to decide.
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