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Brexit Bill passes first House of Lords hurdle, but real test still to come, says expert

The government's main piece of legislation on withdrawal from the European Union has cleared its first hurdle in the House of Lords.01 Feb 2018

The EU (Withdrawal) Bill will now proceed to Committee stage in the House of Lords for more detailed scrutiny after two days of extensive debate. Peers did not vote on the bill, in line with parliamentary custom. The bill provides for the repeal of the European Communities Act 1972, which gives recognition to the superiority of EU law in the UK. It also transfers any legislation applicable in the UK through EU law at the point of exit directly onto the UK statute book.

Labour peer Lord Adonis, who stood down from his role as chair of the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) at the end of 2017 so that he could challenge the government on Brexit matters, withdrew a proposed amendment to the bill calling for a public referendum on whether to accept the terms of the UK's withdrawal deal from the EU.

However, public policy expert and parliamentary agent Richard Bull of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that the "real test" for the government would come during line-by-line scrutiny at Committee stage, which is due to begin on 21 February 2018.

"The House of Lords has been on manoeuvres since the result of the referendum - many peers are fundamentally not reconciled to the idea of leaving the European Union," he said. "The government is likely to sustain a large number of defeats, most particularly in the exercise of the bill powers to grant ministers powers to amend primary legislation by regulation - the oft quoted 'Henry VIII powers'."

Brexit minister Lord Callanan described the bill as "of great consequence for the country" and "key to delivering a functioning statute book" on the day that the UK leaves the EU.

"I hope that noble Lords will agree that the power to correct deficiencies in retained EU law arising in consequence of the UK's withdrawal from the EU is essential to achieving the core purposes of this bill: to ensure that our statute book continues to function on exit, providing certainty and continuity for both businesses and individuals," he said.

"The government [does] not propose delegated powers lightly. We are committed to avoiding the twin spectres of permissions to do too much and permissions to do too little. The power is broad but limited and is, crucially, a time-limited solution to a unique problem. We want to strike the right balance between scrutiny and speed," he said.

Lord Callanan added that the government was "in listening mode" and would be "willing to consider constructive suggestions for change" throughout the bill's parliamentary process. It had already committed to changes to Clause 11 of the bill to protect the interests of the delegated administrations in Scotland and Wales, he said.