UK can’t trigger Brexit without an act of parliament, says Supreme Court

Britain’s Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that the government must obtain the approval of parliament before starting the Brexit process, in a defeat for Prime Minister Theresa May.

world Updated: Jan 24, 2017 20:59 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
Prasun Sonwalkar
Hindustan Times, London
Brexit,Theresa May,Supreme Court on Brexit
A man waves a European Union flag as he queues to enter the Supreme Court, in central London on Tuesday. (AFP)

Amendments and debate in parliament threatened to disrupt Prime Minister Theresa May’s timetable to leave the European Union after the Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that Britain’s exit process from the European Union cannot be initiated without approval from parliament.

There is little appetite in Westminster to overturn the Brexit vote in parliament, but the opposition Labour announced it would seek amendments to the government’s motion seeking parliamentary approval to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, which provides for an EU member-state leaving the group.

The Supreme Court upheld the high court’s previous ruling on the issue, and resolves the key constitutional matter over who has the power to decide on issues that affect changes to British laws: the executive or parliament.

The ruling makes it imperative for the May government to bring a bill in parliament, which will need to be passed in both houses of parliament if it is to keep to her deadline to trigger the article by the end of March.

The government is reported to have drafted the appropriate bill authorising it to trigger Article 50, and will table it in parliament shortly, but is likely to have a rough ride in parliament.

As Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “The Government has today been forced by the Supreme Court to accept the sovereignty of Parliament. Labour respects the result of the referendum and the will of the British people and will not frustrate the process for invoking Article 50.”

“However, Labour will seek to amend the Article 50 Bill to prevent the Conservatives using Brexit to turn Britain into a bargain basement tax haven off the coast of Europe”.

“Labour is demanding a plan from the Government to ensure it is accountable to Parliament throughout the negotiations and a meaningful vote to ensure the final deal is given Parliamentary approval,” he added.

The statement raises the prospect of tabling potentially delaying amendments not only at the first stage – the bill authorising the government to trigger Article 50 – but also at the end of the two-year exit process, when the terms of the exit deal will also be put to parliament.

While the Scottish National Party is expected to vote against the motion, Liberal Democrats leader Tim Farron wants another referendum on the final deal to leave the EU: “I welcome today’s judgement. But this court case was never about legal arguments, it was about giving the people a voice, a say, in what happens next”.

“This Tory Brexit government are keen to laud the democratic process when it suits them, but will not give the people a voice over the final deal. They seem happy to start with democracy and end in a stitch up”.

“The Liberal Democrats are clear, we demand a vote of the people on the final deal and without that we will not vote for article 50”, he said.

The judgement, reached by a majority of eight to three in the 11-bench court, said: “In a joint judgment of the majority, the Supreme Court holds that an Act of Parliament is required to authorise ministers to give Notice of the decision of the UK to withdraw from the European Union”.

The Prime Minister’s spokesperson said: “The British people voted to leave the EU, and the Government will deliver on their verdict – triggering Article 50, as planned, by the end of March. Today’s ruling does nothing to change that”.

“It’s important to remember that Parliament backed the referendum by a margin of six to one and has already indicated its support for getting on with the process of exit to the timetable we have set out. We respect the Supreme Court’s decision, and will set out our next steps to Parliament shortly.”

Welcoming the ruling, senior Labour MP Virendra Sharma told Hindustan Times: “It is only right and proper that Parliament should be given proper scrutiny of the Government’s Brexit strategy. Last year when the public voted to leave the EU, they did not necessarily vote to leave the single market, the European Medicines Agency or the European Aviation Safety Agency, which certifies aircraft before they are allowed to fly.”

“I don’t support risking the UK’s prosperity by an ideological leap out of the single market. Parliament needs to be part of the discussion about securing a stronger future for Britain and that is why I welcome today’s judgement”, he added.

First Published: Jan 24, 2017 15:29 IST