The ‘meaningful vote’: A user’s guide

If the UK reaches a withdrawal agreement with the European Union, the UK Parliament has a special role in approving it. Parliament already has a role in the ratification of treaties, but the arrangements for this international agreement are unique and give it a more proactive role than would normally be the case.

The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 (also known as the Withdrawal Act) also sets out a scheme whereby the Government must secure explicit Parliamentary approval for any ‘deal’ reached between the UK Government and EU negotiators.

If Parliament rejects a deal, or if the negotiators do not reach a deal then the Withdrawal Act also allows for Parliament to scrutinise and express a view on the Government’s proposed course of action.

This Insight gives an overview of this Parliamentary process and addresses some frequently asked questions about them.

What is the ‘meaningful vote’?

The ‘meaningful vote’ is best understood both as a specific Parliamentary process, and as a term that describes Parliament’s broader role in shaping the terms on which the UK leaves the EU.

In its narrow sense, the ‘meaningful vote’ is the House of Commons’ vote on a Government motion to approve the withdrawal agreement and framework for the future relationship: two texts that would have first been agreed by the UK Government and the EU’s negotiators. This is a vote that is legally guaranteed by the Withdrawal Act. The Government cannot ratify the withdrawal agreement if the Commons does not pass this motion.

In its broader sense, the argument about the ‘meaningfulness’ of this vote (and other key Parliamentary votes on Brexit) concerns the extent to which Parliament can express a view about the alternatives to approving the Government’s deal. Advocates of a ‘meaningful vote’ want Parliament to be able to influence what the Government does if the Commons is unhappy with the deal brought back from Brussels.

What will happen if the Government agrees a ‘deal’ with the EU?

Before the vote

If the Government reaches a deal, it will be expected to lay three documents before Parliament:

  • a statement that political agreement has been reached;
  • a copy of the negotiated withdrawal agreement (a treaty); and
  • a copy of the framework for the future relationship (a political declaration).

Parliament will then take some time to consider the ‘deal’ that has been reached, between publication of the texts and the debate(s) on the deal. We do not know how much time Parliament will have for scrutiny of the deal by Committees because the Business of the House is determined by Business Motions. While these are introduced by the Government, the House is ultimately responsible for deciding when its business takes place.

The debate on a motion

The Commons will be expected to debate a motion to be moved by a Minister of the Crown (a Cabinet Minister) which approves both the withdrawal agreement and the framework or the future

relationship. It would not be enough for the motion simply to approve a withdrawal agreement on its own.

We do not know how long the debate might take, but historical examples might give a good indication. The Commons debated a motion on accession to the European Communities for five days in October 1971 and a further day on an Opposition Day motion in 1972.

The Exiting the EU Committee expressed the view in its 6th report that the Commons should have at least five days to debate any motion approving the two agreements.

The vote itself

One of the outstanding ‘unknowns’ in this process is exactly how the House of Commons will go about voting on the motion. Normally substantive motions in the Commons are amendable. This means MPs could vote to change the motion the Government brings forward.

The Government has expressed concerns that if the Commons votes to amend its original motion, this could create legal uncertainty about whether the Commons had approved the two documents. If amendments are taken before any vote on the original government motion, they say, this would prevent the Commons from having the chance to express a clear view.

The Procedure Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into the ‘meaningful vote’ and is likely to make recommendations as to the ordering of questions and the circumstances in which the Government motion can be amended. Ultimately, these process questions will be determined by the Business of the House Motion and the House’s Standing Orders.

What about the House of Lords?

Unlike the Commons, which must approve the two agreements, the Lords will simply debate a motion “taking note” of the Government’s deal. Although the Lords must have the opportunity to debate this motion, they do not actually have to vote on it, before the Government can move to the next stage.

What comes next if the Commons approves the deal?

If the Commons passes the motion to approve the deal, the Government will be expected to bring forward the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill. This legislation, which would change domestic law so that it can implement a withdrawal agreement, must get Royal Assent before Article 50 expires, otherwise the UK cannot ratify the withdrawal agreement treaty.

Unlike with the motion stage of the process, the Bill will require the explicit consent of the House of Lords. The Commons cannot use its power in the Parliament Act 1911 (as amended) to ‘override’ the Lords, because the legislation must be passed in a matter of months, and the Lords ‘power of delay’ lasts a year. MPs and Peers will be able to propose amendments to the contents of that Bill, but if the Bill is properly to implement the treaty, changes would need to be consistent with the treaty.

What happens if the Commons rejects the motion or no deal is reached?

If the Commons does not approve the Government’s negotiated deal, the Withdrawal Act has a special process by which Parliament can scrutinise and express a view on what the Government proposes to do next. This process also applies if the Government concludes before the 21 January 2019 that no deal can be reached, or if no deal has in fact been reached by that date.

In these scenarios, the Government must make a statement about how it ‘proposes to proceed’. A Minister must then move a motion in neutral terms in the Commons to the effect that the House ‘has considered’ the statement. This motion has no direct legal effects. However the context of the Commons debate, and any votes taken, may influence the Government’s subsequent course of action. Although foreign affairs and treaty-making is normally the preserve of the Government under the Royal Prerogative, it holds that position by virtue of commanding the confidence of the House of Commons.

No deal scenarios and the parliamentary timetable

Scenario 1 – Parliament rejects a deal

If Parliament were (hypothetically) to reject a deal on 27 November 2018, a Minister of the Crown would be obliged to make a statement under s. 13(4) European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 no later than 18 December 2018 (21 calendar days thereafter). The Government then has seven sitting days within which to move motions in both Houses on the statement.

Parliament is expected to rise for the Christmas recess on 20 December 2018, returning on 7 January 2019. If a statement were to be made on 18 December 2018 (given the current Parliamentary recess dates) a Minister of the Crown would be obliged to move a motion on the statement no later than 10 January 2019.

A Minister of the Crown could make a statement sooner than 21 days after a deal was rejected by the Commons, and/or table a motion on the statement sooner than seven sitting days after making it. In that scenario, Parliament could express a view on the Government’s next steps before the Christmas recess.

Scenario 2 – Prime Minister concludes that no deal can be reached

If the Prime Minister were to conclude at any time between now and 21 January 2019 that political agreement with the EU over either the Withdrawal Agreement and/or the framework for the future relationship is not possible, she can choose to make a statement to that effect under s. 13(7) European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. A Minister of the Crown then has 14 calendar days to make a statement as to the Government’s intentions, then a further seven sitting days to move a motion in each House about the statement.

If the Government’s written statement as to how it intends to proceed is published on or before Tuesday 11 December 2018, the Commons must debate the motion before the Christmas recess.

Thereafter, a Parliamentary vote need not happen any earlier than Monday 7 January 2019. This is assuming there is no recall of Parliament during the Christmas recess (21 December 2018 – 4 January 2019 inclusive).

If the Government’s written statement as to how it intends to proceed is published after Parliament returns from Christmas recess, the Commons would be expected to debate the motion at any time within seven sitting days of when the statement is made.

If a statement were to be made close to 21 January 2019, it is possible that the Government’s “statement of intent”, and any Parliamentary motions on it, would be combined with those required under Scenario 3.

Scenario 3 – No deal is reached by 21 January 2019

If, on 21 January 2019, no political agreement has been reached regarding the Withdrawal Agreement and/or the framework on the future relationship, a Minister of the Crown must make a written statement within five calendar days, as per s. 13(11) European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018.

This means a written statement as to the Government’s intentions must be made by Saturday 26 January at the very latest.

The motion must then be moved within a further five sitting days, meaning Parliament would be asked to debate the Government’s intended course of action no later than Monday 4 February.

For further information, the House of Commons Library has published a briefing paper on the meaningful vote.

 

Further reading

What if there’s no Brexit deal? House of Commons Library.

Brexit unknowns (update), House of Commons Library.

 

Graeme Cowie is a Senior Library Clerk at the House of Commons Library, specialising in Brexit.

Photo by David Dibert on Unsplash