The GSD yesterday backed critical Brexit legislation after a 24-hour delay, following a dressing down from the Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo, over the potential consequences of stalling the Bill’s passage through Parliament.
Having opposed the draft legislation just 24 hours earlier, the party backtracked but caveated its support for the EU Withdrawal Bill by voting down particular sections of the legislation.
Those sections, the GSD argued, were “undemocratic” and gave life to clauses which endorsed the Gibraltar protocol and the Memorandums of Understanding contained in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.
The Bill was finally approved unanimously, but only after two consecutive days of bitter political exchanges during which the government said the GSD’s analysis was wrong and its handling of the debate “irresponsible”.
The Bill was brought before the House on an urgent basis and passed the first two stages of the parliamentary legislative process by government majority and with the backing of Independent MP Marlene Hassan Nahon on Wednesday.
But the GSD voted against the Bill and, in a highly unusual move, Opposition Leader Elliot Phillips asked to defer the third and final committee stage to another session of parliament, meaning the legislation could not be passed there and then.
Yesterday’s session therefore opened with Mr Picardo lambasting the GSD for delaying the Bill’s passing – a move that he insisted was “unprecedented” even though the GSD argued otherwise.
Then, in a series of barbed comments, he set out the consequences of the Bill not entering the Statute Book expeditiously, explaining that the timely post-Brexit application to Gibraltar of two international conventions hinged on it being approved before the end of January.
“A failure to have passed the Bill yesterday means that there is now a risk that the United Kingdom will not be able to extend to Gibraltar the provision on two of the Hague Conventions,” Mr Picardo told the House.
These multilateral international agreements include the Hague Convention on Choice of Courts Agreements 2005 and the Hague Convention on the International Recovery of Child Support and Other Forms of Family Maintenance 2007.
The effects of the delay, he explained, could mean “potentially delaying, or worse, prejudicing, the ability of families enforcing judgments on child support and maintenance”, or the ability of litigants to choose the jurisdiction of courts for disputes.
“In effect, Mr Speaker, potentially delaying or worse prejudicing the extension to Gibraltar of two important conventions which are a part of our law today but which we have to make separate provision for in the post-Brexit environment,” he said.
“The House should proceed to committee now, Mr Speaker, with the full knowledge of this potential delay or worse prejudice now being a real and present danger for Gibraltar families and for the jurisdiction, thanks to Mr Phillips.”
Firing back, the Leader of the Opposition insisted the fault lay with Mr Picardo “leaving it to the very last minute” to bring the Bill before the House and for failing to underline the urgency of the matter.
“When we, as the democratically elected Opposition of this House, deal with a Bill of this importance, we take a view, we consider the detail, we consider the responses of honourable members opposite and, if we wish to delay the passage of this Bill by 24 hours, we will,” he said.
“We will do our job for the people of this community, we will do our job in analysing the legislation put forward by the Government.”
“Blood is on his hands, Mr Speaker, no one else’s,” Mr Phillips said.
This drew the intervention of the Speaker, Adolfo Canepa, who said Mr Phillips had used “unparliamentary language”. He ordered the Leader of the Opposition to withdraw the comment and to “measure” his words.
The exchange prompted GSD MP Daniel Feetham to briefly vacate the House because of the “absolutely outrageous” way his colleague was being treated by Mr Canepa.
Mr Phillips repeated the GSD’s stance on the issues it had with the Withdrawal Bill, namely that it will in effect “introduce into Gibraltar law references to the Withdrawal Agreement and via it the Protocol on Gibraltar and contemplate mechanisms to implement the Memoranda of Understanding”.
In response Mr Picardo insisted that the Bill does not bring the Withdrawal Agreement into effect, explaining that there will be a separate Bill for that purpose.
This Bill, he said, included a clause that will enable the government to bring the Withdrawal Agreement into effect.
Mr Feetham, in his intervention, told the House that the decision to delay the third and final committee stage was “taken in good faith” to allow the GSD to discuss how it could support the government in this endeavour “to the maximum extent possible”.
He added that had the government explained to the Opposition the urgency and potential consequences of delaying its passage, the GSD may have taken a different view.
Aside from voting against certain sections, the GSD finally backed the Bill and it was passed unanimously.