Head of Environment & Green Transition
In 1539, Henry VIII forced through a law that gave him the unilateral right to change legislation. It was a terrible idea, and was axed pretty much the second he died. Almost 500 years on, the Government today finally tabled its European Union (Withdrawal) Bill – otherwise known as the Repeal Bill – and it risks taking us back to the middle ages.
The Bill is a smallish piece of law with very big implications. If passed by Parliament, it will convert all EU law into UK law, lock stock and barrel, from day one of Brexit. Given the looming March 2019 deadline, that’s the only realistic way to avoid panic and constitutional crisis: ship the whole lot over, then work out what we need to keep later.
The Bill must make sure Ministers’ unilateral powers are capped at the barest minimum
But the problem is what happens on day two. Ministers are to be given unprecedented powers to strike any piece of law they don’t like from the statute books, without Parliament getting much or possibly any say – just as Henry would have wanted. That means vital protections that we helped to set at the EU level, such as chemical or food safety, workers’ rights or clean air, could be chopped with little more than a stroke of a Minister’s pen.
Shipping over EU law is an unfathomably huge exercise. As a piece of Government planning it’s a complexity probably unparalleled in peacetime. Over 1,000 individual regulations will have to be re-examined. Clearly there is no realistic way all MPs can scrutinise them all. The government has stopped short of allowing Ministers to fiddle with things in perpetuity through their two year limit. But the Bill must make sure Ministers’ unilateral powers are capped at the barest minimum needed merely to make EU law function in the UK.
Brexit was sold to the public as a way to ‘take back control’ from Brussels. There is indeed a crisis of control in the UK, but the sad irony is that this Repeal Bill threatens only to make it worse. As our polling shows, four-fifths of people already feel utterly alienated from Westminster. A Bill that vests vast power in Ministers to push through troublesome laws is precisely the opposite of taking back control.
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