UK publishes draft bill on triggering Brexit

Lawmakers were furious that they would get such a short time to consider what is possibly the most influential government move in generations.

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LONDON // Britain’s government on Thursday published a draft law that would authorise prime minister Theresa May to begin the procedure for leaving the European Union, in an important milestone towards Brexit.

“The British people have made the decision to leave the EU ... so today we have introduced a bill in parliament which will allow us to formally trigger Article 50 by the end of March,” said Brexit minister David Davis.

The two-clause European Union notification of withdrawal bill asks parliament to give Mrs May authority to start the formal mechanism by which Britain will leave the bloc.

The government said MPs would get their first chance to debate and vote on it next week on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Commons leader David Lidington told parliament the bill’s third and final reading in the lower house — followed by a final vote by MPs — would be on February 8.

Some lawmakers, mindful that the government had fought for months to keep them from scrutinising the measure, were furious that they would get such a short time to consider what is possibly the most influential government move in generations.

Labour MP Chris Leslie slammed the government’s timetable for the bill, accusing it of trying to “railroad this incredibly important law through parliament without sufficient time for proper debate.

“It beggars belief that we will have far less time to debate the legislation that takes us out of the EU than we did previous European treaties,” he said.

Another Labour lawmaker David Lammy said on Twitter that it “shows contempt for parliamentary sovereignty” while his colleague Ben Bradshaw called it “a disgrace”.

Mrs May is rushing to meet a self-imposed deadline of March 31 for triggering Article 50 of the EU treaty, which will launch two years of talks on Britain’s future relationship with the bloc after more than 40 years of membership.

Her government was forced to consult parliament following a landmark supreme court ruling this week that rejected its argument that executive powers allowed it to proceed without MPs having a vote.

The governing Conservatives have a majority of 16 in the 650-seat lower House of Commons.

The bill is expected to get the go-ahead from MPs, although opposition parties have said they plan to put forward amendments that could slow it down.

Mr Davis said he hoped that parliament would “respect the decision taken by the British people and pass the legislation quickly”, arguing that MPs had supported holding the referendum in the first place.

Following the lower house decision on February 8, the bill will be passed to the upper House of Lords, where progress is less certain as the government has no majority there and no control over the timing.

“The Lords will not block or wreck the bill but they will want to give it proper scrutiny, especially if they think the scrutiny in the Commons has been inadequate,” Robert Hazel and Alan Renwick from University College London’s Constitution Unit wrote on their blog.

If approved by the Lords, the bill would then have to be signed off by Queen Elizabeth II before Mrs May can trigger Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty — the formal process for leaving the bloc.

Mrs May has said she is confident she will be able to stick to her timetable of triggering Article 50 by the end of March at the latest and the government has said it hopes to start Brexit talks within the following months.

Britain voted to leave the EU in a referendum on June 23 last year following a bitter campaign and divisions have persisted since then.

A majority of Britain’s 11 supreme court judges on Tuesday ruled that withdrawing from the EU meant there would have to be changes in Britain’s domestic laws and therefore parliament had to be involved.

The main opposition Labour Party has said it is planning amendments including a clause calling for the protection of workers’ rights, while the Scottish National Party wants to put forward dozens of changes.

* Agence France-Presse, Bloomberg and Associated Press