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On 15 January 2019, the House of Commons voted by a majority of 230 not to approve the withdrawal agreement and political declaration negotiated by the Government with the EU. Under section 13(1) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 (the EUWA), approval from the Commons (the ‘meaningful vote’) is one of the steps required before the withdrawal agreement could be ratified as an international treaty. Sections 13(4)–(6) of the EUWA also set out what must happen next if the Government fails to win approval from the Commons for its Brexit deal. This includes a requirement to make a statement within 21 days of the ‘meaningful vote’ setting out how the Government intends to proceed, and arranging for debates to take place in both Houses within seven sitting days of the statement.

In line with these requirements, debates are scheduled to take place in the Lords on 28 January 2019 and the Commons on 29 January 2019. The exact wording of the debate motions will be tabled by the Government by the end of 24 January 2019, following a written statement it made earlier that day to avoid any legal uncertainty as to whether it has complied with all the provisions of section 13 of the EUWA. The Prime Minister set out her intended approach in written and oral statements on 21 January 2019. She said she would: be more open in engaging Parliament in the negotiations on the future relationship with the EU; embed the “strongest possible” protections on workers’ rights and the environment; and work to identify how to ensure commitments to no hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland could be delivered in a way that commanded the support of both the Commons and the EU. The Prime Minister has rejected calls from the Labour Party and others to rule out the prospect of the UK leaving the EU with no deal on 29 March 2019, arguing that the only way to ensure this did not happen would be to agree a deal, or to revoke the UK’s article 50 notification, which she said would not deliver on the referendum result.

Under the terms of the EUWA, the forthcoming debates do not require Parliament to approve (or withhold approval from) a particular proposal being put forward by the Government. The debate in the Lords will take place on a non-amendable motion. In the Commons, MPs can table amendments, though it is up to the Speaker to select which are debated. Amendments tabled as of 23 January 2019 include proposals to: extend the article 50 negotiating period; hold indicative votes on a range of options; reject leaving with no deal; and put a time limit on the Northern Ireland backstop. Amendments to the debate motion cannot change the law or bind the Government or the EU.

This briefing provides background information on the vote by the House of Commons on 15 January 2019 to reject the withdrawal agreement negotiated between the UK and the EU; a summary of oral and written statements made by the Prime Minister on 21 January 2019 about the Government’s next steps following this defeat; and a summary of amendments that had been tabled to the motion in the House of Commons as at 23 January 2019.

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