Theresa May: Only exceptional circumstances can delay Brexit

Theresa May has said powers to delay Brexit will only be used in "exceptional circumstances for the shortest possible time".

The UK Government is on course to avoid a second bruising Commons defeat after the Prime Minister reiterated its official support for amendments designed to ease Tory fears over fixing the date of EU withdrawal.

Brexit minister Steve Baker has added his name to proposals tabled by senior MPs including Sir Oliver Letwin and Bernard Jenkin, which emerged last week as a compromise following the Government’s first defeat over the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill.

The Government initially tabled an amendment to fix the date of Brexit at March 29, 2019, at 11pm, and to remove the power of ministers to appoint exit day by regulations.

But amendments 399 and 400, which first appeared under the names of the backbench Tory MPs, enable the date to be included in legislation while also giving ministers the flexibility to change it if needed.

Senior Tory Julian Lewis asked for assurances that the provisions set out in amendment 400 to "change the date of our leaving the EU will be invoked only if at all under extremely exceptional circumstances and only for a very short period".

Mrs May said she was happy to give that "reassurance", and replied: "We’re very clear we will be leaving the EU on March 29 2019 at 11pm.

"The Bill that is going through though does not determine that the UK leaves the EU, that’s part of the Article 50 process and it’s a matter of international law and it’s important, I think, that we have the same position legally as the European Union and that’s why we have accepted the amendment from (Sir Oliver).

"But I can assure (Mr Lewis) and the House we would only use this power in exceptional circumstances for the shortest possible time, and an affirmative motion will be brought to the House."

UK Prime Minister Theresa May appears before the Liaison Committee in the House of Commons in London. Photos: PA Wire

Tory MPs who rebelled and helped defeat the Government over allowing Parliament a meaningful vote on any Brexit deal are among those to have backed amendment 400, signalling a second damaging defeat is not on the cards.

They include former attorney general Dominic Grieve, former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former communities minister Bob Neill.

The Bill is currently on its eighth and final day at committee stage, which will see MPs finish their line-by-line assessment of the measures which transfer European law into British law.

Mr Grieve began with a criticism of schedule five of the Bill, which requires the Government to publish copies of EU law to be retained in UK law.

Under the same schedule ministers are given the power to make exceptions if they are satisfied that it "has not" or "will not" become UK law on exit day.

Mr Grieve raised concern that there did not appear to be "any limitations" on that power and there "doesn’t appear to be any guidance" on when such action might be appropriate.

He said: "We need to have an understanding as to why it has been put in and how it is in practice going to be used.

"It seems to me that it is desirable that the entirety of the retained direct EU legislation should be made available for the Queen’s printer.

"So what is the exception as to the sort of circumstances in which a minister might remove himself from that duty and give a different direction?"

Earlier in the debate Labour former minister Chris Leslie also called for the publication of retained direct EU legislation.

Mr Leslie, in his new clause 21 to the Bill, asked for publications to be accompanied by "plain English" explanatory notes.

Mr Grieve later advised a "bit of focus" is needed over schedule five, and advised ministers to reflect over Christmas.

He said: "It’d be quite nice for the Christmas period to be taken in some quiet reflection on just how wide these powers and whether indeed, yet again, the Government might not on reflection be able to circumscribe them a little bit so they appear to be slightly less stark in terms of the power grab that’s implied."

Tory Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) branded Mr Leslie’s new clause 21 the "great confession that we have been waiting for from the pro-Europeans in the House".

He said: "This amendment says what we Eurosceptics have been saying all along, that the European Union produces its laws in a form of goggledygook (sic) ... sentences that nobody can ever understand, and (therefore) when it’s brought into British law, it should be brought into British law in a form that requires a plain English translation."

Tory Ken Clarke (Rushcliffe) joked: "Would he agree with me that a lot of these things are almost as bad as the drafting of Finance Bills which this Government brings before the House of Commons year by year."

Mr Rees-Mogg added: "I think laws can be explained simply and I think it’s a worthy ambition and I really do think that new clause 21 makes the important point that the EU for our period of membership increasingly turned out law that people did not understand and this is a golden opportunity to improve the quality of the legislation that we pass."

Solicitor General Robert Buckland said he understood the concerns raised in new clause 21 by Mr Leslie, but added: "I don’t consider that it is feasible to impose a statutory duty requiring such summaries of all EU retained direct legislation.

"The scale of the task would be hard to overstate."

Mr Buckland said there were more than 12,000 EU regulations in force, and that to impose a statutory duty and a plain English summary would be "disproportionate when there are many, very many, explanatory materials that have already been issued by the EU about EU law".

He went on to say: "I am of course sympathetic to the spirit of his amendment, and what the Government will do is explain how we correct the law so that it works in our domestic statute book.

"Because members will know that when statutory instruments are made it is established practice that explanatory memorandum will accompany every instrument, and that is what is going to happen in this instance."

- PA



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