European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019
The European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019, commonly known as the Benn–Burt Bill, is an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom which requires the Prime Minister to seek an extension to the Brexit withdrawal date—prior to the bill, this was 31 October 2019—should he not be able to agree a withdrawal agreement with the European Union and obtain approval from the House of Commons for it by 19 October 2019. The bill proposes a new withdrawal date of 31 January 2020.
|Act of Parliament|
|Long title||An Act to make further provision in connection with the period for negotiations for withdrawing from the European Union.|
|Citation||2019 c. 26|
|Introduced by||Hilary Benn (Commons)|
Lord Rooker (Lords)
|Territorial extent||England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland|
|Royal assent||9 September 2019|
|Commencement||9 September 2019|
|Relates to||European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017 European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2019|
Status: Current legislation
|History of passage through Parliament|
|Text of statute as originally enacted|
Additionally, the bill requires regular reports on the progress of any negotiations between the EU and the UK and sets out the format of the letter the Prime Minister would send to the President of the European Council should an agreement not be reached.
In June 2016, the United Kingdom voted in a referendum to leave the European Union by a margin of 52% to 48%. As a result, the Government, then led by former Prime Minister Theresa May, invoked Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union on 29 March 2017, after Parliament voted to approve the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017 498–114. After a general election in June 2017, May's Conservative Party lost their majority and have since been relying on the Democratic Unionist Party to enact their legislative agenda.
The Brexit withdrawal agreement was published in November 2018, but was overwhelmingly rejected three times by Parliament in early 2019. Facing the prospect of leaving the EU without a deal, Parliament voted to also reject a "no deal" scenario and to request an extension to the Article 50 process. The Government and the European Council subsequently agreed to delay Brexit, until 12 April 2019 in the first instance, and then to 31 October 2019.
Due to opposition from her own party to her handling of Brexit, May resigned the office of Conservative leader on 7 June 2019 and Prime Minister on 24 July 2019. She was succeeded after the following leadership election as leader and Prime Minister by Boris Johnson, who pledged, "do or die", to withdraw the UK from the EU on 31 October, with or without a deal.
Despite statements to the contrary, on 28 August 2019 Johnson requested the prorogation of Parliament from the second week of September 2019 until 14 October 2019, days before a crunch summit of the European Council on 17 October, vastly reducing the ability of Parliament to legislatively prevent a no-deal Brexit. The prorogation announcement was met with fierce criticism; the normally impartial Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow called prorogation in the circumstances a "constitutional outrage", and protestors saw the government as effecting a coup d'état or self-coup.
Contents of the billEdit
The bill contains four substantive sections and a schedule which contain provisions detailing the course of an extension of the negotiating period:
- Section 1 obliges the Prime Minister to request an extension to the Article 50 negotiating period for the purpose of negotiating a withdrawal agreement, unless the House of Commons has passed a motion which either approves a withdrawal agreement or approves departure without a deal, and the House of Lords has debated the same motion. If such a motion is not approved, the Prime Minister is obliged to make the request no later than 19 October 2019.
- Section 2 obliges the Government to publish a progress report on negotiations before 30 November 2019, and if rejected or amended, publish a second report which details its plans for further negotiations, and also obliges the Government to make progress reports every four weeks from 7 February 2020 unless directed otherwise.
- Section 3 obliges the Prime Minister to accept an extension to 31 January 2020, and allows the Prime Minister to either accept an offer or ask the House of Commons to accept an offer of any other date.
- Section 4 amends legislation to ensure the date of departure is synchronised with European law.
- The Schedule specifies the required layout and wording of the letter which requests the extension.
House of CommonsEdit
The legislation was originally introduced to the House of Commons as the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 6) Bill on 4 September 2019, on a day where some of the normal standing orders of the House were suspended to prevent Government business from taking precedence over matters important to MPs. On 3 September 2019, Oliver Letwin tabled a motion which would allow the House of Commons to undertake proceedings on the second reading, committee stage, consideration and third reading of the Bill on the following day. The motion was passed by with a majority of 27. A total of 21 Conservative MPs voted in favour of the motion and against the Government; this led to the whip being withdrawn from the rebels, and left the government without a majority.
The Government made clear its opposition to the bill from the beginning, and said that, were it to pass through the House of Commons, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, would immediately bring forward a motion under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act for a general election. The bill passed Second Reading by 329 votes to 300. The bill was amended once at the committee stage, by a Stephen Kinnock amendment which would allow the Withdrawal Agreement to be discussed again, which passed as there were not any ‘no’ tellers provided for the division. The bill passed its third reading on the same day, by 327 votes to 299.
House of LordsEdit
The bill moved to the House of Lords on the same day, where there were fears the bill could be filibustered; unlike in the House of Commons, the House of Lords typically does not restrict the content of debates. The Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Baroness Angela Smith, tabled a guillotine motion which would allow the bill to clear the Lords by 5pm on Friday 6 September; Conservative peers tabled 102 amendments to the guillotine motion in an attempt to prioritise other parliamentary business over the bill. By 1:30am on 5 September, the Government announced it would discontinue the filibuster and allow the bill to return to the House of Commons, if amended by the House of Lords, for the 9 September sitting. The bill passed Second Reading without a division on 5 September, and passed the Committee, Report, and Third Reading stages unamended on 6 September.
In response to the bill's passage on 4 September, the Government immediately brought a motion for an early general election under the terms of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011; this motion failed 298–56, short of the two-thirds supermajority of all MPs (434) needed to trigger an election; opposition parties either voted against or abstained on the motion as they believed the intention of the government was to ensure departure from the EU without a deal whilst Parliament was dissolved for such an election. On 9 September, a second attempt at triggering an early election failed 293–46.
The following day, at a press conference at a police academy in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, Johnson said he would be "dead in a ditch" rather than fulfilling the legal requirement under the bill to request an extension to Article 50. Johnson was criticised by the Police Federation of England and Wales and others for using the speech for partisan purposes, thus bringing into question the impartiality of the police. In a press release on 6 September, Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police, John Robins, stated the speech was intended to announce new policing policy and the force was not given prior notice of the speech being expanded to include other matters. In response to continuing concerns of the possibility of Johnson breaking the law, Secretary of State for Justice Robert Buckland stated on 8 September he had discussions with Johnson over the importance of the rule of law—which Buckland, as Lord Chancellor, has a legal obligation to uphold—but denied rumours he would resign from the Cabinet if Johnson did break the law.
By 9 September, reports surfaced that the Government would seek to bypass the law by sending a request for an extension as required by the Act alongside another letter which declared the request invalid; former Supreme Court justice Lord Sumption described such an act, in the face of judicial action, as a possible contempt of court which would risk the resignations of the law officers in his Cabinet, while former Director of Public Prosecutions Ken Macdonald said Johnson was risking imprisonment for the same offence. In response, Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn tabled an emergency motion for debate on that day on the importance of the rule of law; the motion passed without a vote in a symbolic victory for the opposition, although the Government stated in the debate that their policy would be to not request an extension, despite the legal requirement to do so. Polling undertaken by YouGov over the weekend of 6–8 September 2019 indicated 50% of respondents disapproved and 28% of respondents approved of the proposition of Johnson breaching the law; Leave (52%–28%) and Conservative (50%–34%) voters were most supportive whereas Remain (8%–77%), Liberal Democrat (11%–76%) and Labour (14%–69%) were the most opposed.
On 12 September 2019, an application was made to the Court of Session in Scotland by Jo Maugham QC and Joanna Cherry QC MP to require the Prime Minister to sign the extension letter if no withdrawal agreement could be agreed in time. The applicants hope the Court's power of nobile officium, unique among UK courts, will enable it to send the extension letter on Johnson’s behalf, if he declines to do so. Cherry, the justice spokeswoman for the Scottish National Party, had successfully brought a case before the Court of Session to challenge Johnson's prorogation of Parliament, which had delivered a judgement which declared it unlawful on the previous day.
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