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Withdrawal Agreement Act

The UK needs the Withdrawal Agreement Act to implement its Withdrawal Agreement with the EU.

Why is the Withdrawal Agreement Act needed?

The UK needed a bill to implement the Withdrawal Agreement, which is the legally binding treaty setting out the negotiated terms of the UK’s departure from the EU.

 This is for two reasons:

  1. To meet our international obligations. When the UK becomes party to an international treaty, the treaty does not automatically take effect in UK law. Instead, Parliament must legislate to give effect to the treaty.
  2. A full Act of Parliament was required by prior legislation. Under the EU (Withdrawal) Act, Parliament had to pass a further Act before the UK was allowed to ratify the treaty

What does the Withdrawal Agreement Act say?


What does the Withdrawal Agreement Act say?

Has this changed from the bill published in October 2019

Transition period

EU law

Clause 1

During the transition period, almost all EU law will continue to apply in the UK. The bill achieves this by keeping parts of the European Communities Act in 1972 in force for the duration of the transition period. This is the statute that has given effect to EU law during the UK’s membership of the EU. No.

Extending transition

Clause 33

The transition period will end in December 2020. The transition period could have been extended under the Withdrawal Agreement if the UK and EU jointly agreed to do so before 1 July 2020 – however, the Act prohibited ministers from agreeing any extension.

In accordance with the Act, no extension was agreed before the July deadline.


Previously ministers were able to agree an extension to the transition period, if the House of Commons had approved such an extension.

Now it would require further primary legislation for the prime minister to extend the transition.

New EU laws

Clause 29

The bill specifies a process for scrutinising any EU laws which are made during the transition.

If the European Scrutiny Select Committee of MPs or EU Select Committee of Lords decide that a new EU law “raises a matter of vital national interest” to the UK, it can ask for a debate on the issue in the House of Commons or the House of Lords. The government must then make time for that debate within 14 sitting days, but MPs are not able to stop those rules entering into force.


The new bill includes a role for the House of Lords in scrutiny of new EU laws.
Parliament's role in negotiations Not referenced

This section has been removed. Previously the government was required to seek approval of its negotiating objectives from Parliament, which must be consistent with the Political Declaration of 17 October 2019.

The government is also no longer required to report on progress of the negotiations every three months, nor is it required to seek approval from Parliament for its future relationship treaty.

Joint Committee

Clauses 30, 34 and 35

The UK’s role as co-chair of the Joint Committee can only be carried out by a minister.

The UK, and its co-chair of the Joint Committee, is not able to use the written procedure – allowing decisions of the Joint Committee to be made through correspondence rather than at a meeting of the committee.

The government will be required to report to Parliament if any disputes are initiated in the Joint Committee and if the European Court of Justice has been required to give a ruling on a dispute.


Previously senior officials were able to carry out the UK’s functions at the joint committee and the UK was not prevented from using the written procedure.

There was no reporting requirement on disputes.

EU law and parliamentary sovereignty

Clauses 5 and 36

The bill provides that the Withdrawal Agreement itself will be enforceable by the UK courts, including after the end of the transition period. This means that the courts will also enforce any rules of EU law incorporated into the Withdrawal Agreement.

In addition, the bill attempts to give the Withdrawal Agreement “supremacy” over UK law, by saying that all domestic enactments have effect “subject to” the provisions which give effect to the agreement. The bill uses exactly the same language to give effect to the Withdrawal Agreement that the European Communities Act 1972 used to give effect to EU law. The most likely outcome of this is that if, in future, Parliament passed a statute inconsistent with the agreement, the courts would disapply the statute in favour of the agreement – unless Parliament explicitly told them to do the reverse.

The bill also “recognises” that Parliament is sovereign, even though some EU law and the agreement itself will have supremacy over statutes passed by Parliament. However, this “parliamentary sovereignty” clause is unlikely to have any legal effect. 


Status of past ECJ judgements

Clause 26(1)

The bill allows for ministers to make an order which specifies that other courts can depart from pre-Brexit ECJ judgments, and which specifies the circumstances in which those courts may do so. 

This is a new addition to the bill and amends the provisions in the EU Withdrawal Act 2018 which said that pre-Brexit judgments of the ECJ would continue to be binding on UK courts and only the UK Supreme Court could depart from those judgments.

Citizens' rights

Clause 7–17

The bill gives ministers several powers to make secondary legislation which would give effect to the citizens’ rights part of the Withdrawal Agreement. In addition, the bill provides for the creation of an Independent Monitoring Authority (IMA), as required by the agreement, to monitor the government’s compliance with its obligations. The budget of and public appointments to the IMA will be decided by a minister.

The bill also provides for ministers to make provisions for a statutory appeals process against government decisions on individual cases using secondary legislation.

Very slightly.

The government now has powers to put the functions of the IMA into another public body and make changes to that public body – through secondary legislation – to ensure it can carry out those functions.


Clause 37
The bill requires the government to put before Parliament a ‘statement of policy’ relating to future arrangements around unaccompanied children making asylum applications.

This is a new addition to the bill and amends the EU Withdrawal Act 2018 which previously required the government to seek to negotiate an agreement with the EU on unaccompanied children seeking asylum.

Divorce bill / financial settlement

Clause 20

The bill authorises HM Treasury to make payments to the EU out of Treasury funds until March 2021.

From that point onwards, the government will need to raise money to make payments to the EU by asking Parliament for money each year, just as it has to ask Parliament for money for departmental spending. 

Very slightly.

The previous version of the bill allowed the government to change the 2021 date using statutory instruments.

Protocol on Northern Ireland

Clause 21

The protocol on Northern Ireland, which replaced the “backstop” in the previous Withdrawal Agreement, provides that Northern Ireland will continue to align with some EU rules, in order to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.

The bill gives ministers wide powers to implement the protocol by secondary legislation.

Other than that, the bill says very little about how the protocol arrangements will be implemented.

The bill also forbids the government from agreeing anything in the EU in the future that would alter the arrangements for North–South co-operation under the Good Friday Agreement.

Workers’ rights Not referenced


This section has been removed. The previous version said that when a minister introduces a bill which relates to EU-derived workers’ rights, he or she must either make a statement that the bill does not remove any such right, or make a statement that, even though it does, the government wants to proceed with it anyway.

Meaningful vote

Clause 31

Currently, the government must win a vote in the House of Commons on a motion to approve its deal before ministers are allowed to ratify it. This has become known as a “meaningful vote”. However, the bill would remove that requirement.

The bill would also disapply the requirement, under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, for the ministers to lay a treaty before Parliament 21 days before they ratify it.

This means that, if the bill were to become law, the government would be allowed to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement (formally enter into the agreement on the UK’s behalf) without doing anything else. 

No change

Retained EU law

The bill amends provisions in the EU Withdrawal Act 2018 so that the ‘snapshot’ of EU law (and UK law implementing EU law) will be taken at the end of the implementation period, rather than on exit day.

The bill also amends the Act's powers to correct deficiencies in this body of ‘retained EU law’ and amends the point at which this power ceases so it can continue to be used until two years after the end of the transition period (rather than exit day). These provisions will allow the government to incorporate any new EU law that comes into effect during the transition period into domestic law at the end of the transition period.

No change

What amendments have been tabled to the Withdrawal Agreement Bill?

Which amendment?

Who tabled it?

What does the amendment mean?

What support does the amendment have?

NC6 Caroline Lucas, Green (Cross-party)

There must be parliamentary votes, and House of Commons approval, of the government’s negotiating objectives before negotiations can commence and of the future relationship treaty before it can be ratified.

The government must consult with the devolved administrations prior to laying both texts before Parliament. The government must also publish a future relationship sustainability impact assessment and publish regular negotiation texts.

Labour, SNP, Lib Dem, Plaid Cymru and Green MPs
NC2, NC3 Jeremy Corbyn, Official Labour Opposition

The government should negotiate for the UK to have a customs union with the EU, keep a close single market relationship and have dynamic rights and protections, particularly on workers’ rights.

Labour frontbench
NC4 Jeremy Corbyn, Official Labour Opposition A two-year extension of the transition period becomes the default, unless Parliament votes not to extend, or the government secures a deal on the future relationship. Labour frontbench
NC5, 2, 3 20, 21, 37 Jeremy Corbyn, Official Labour Opposition

EU citizens currently resident in the UK gain permanent residence, EU citizens have the right to appeal a decision on citizens’ rights and are entitled to the same rights during the appeal process.

Labour frontbench with some SNP support
4 Jeremy Corbyn, Official Labour Opposition

If no agreement is reached within three months, the government must report every 28 days on the progress of reuniting child refugees with their families.

Labour frontbench

NC53 Jeffery Donaldson, DUP (Cross-party) The UK government and devolved authorities must consult the Northern Ireland executive before making regulations which could affect Northern Ireland’s place in the internal market. DUP, SLDP and Alliance MPs
NC54 Jeffery Donaldson, DUP (Cross-party) Any regulations introducing new requirements on goods which would create trade frictions between Northern Ireland and Great Britain cannot come into force without the consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly. DUP, SLDP and Alliance MPs
50, 51, NC52 Jeffery Donaldson, DUP (Cross-party)

Goods from Northern Ireland must have unfettered access to markets in Great Britain. Qualifying goods must not be subject to tariffs, origin requirements, regulatory import controls, dual authorisation or discrimination in the market.

DUP, SLDP and Alliance MPs
NC19 Mark Francois, Conservative Big Ben should chime at 11pm on exit day. Conservative MPs in the European Research Group and DUP MPs
NC20 David Davis, Conservative The government should negotiate an agreement in which UK regulations and standards in a range of areas are recognised as meeting EU standards, but the UK retains the right to create set its own laws and is not required to follow EU rules. David Davis, Conservative
NC7 Ian Blackford, SNP The Withdrawal Agreement Bill can only come into force if a legislative consent motion has been passed in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland SNP


The bill was passed unamended through both Houses of Parliament. Although the House of Lords passed five amendments, these were overturned in the House of Commons.

The bill was passed just over a month after it was introduced. This was significantly quicker than other legislation relating to EU treaties.

Institute for Government

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