‘A Blank Cheque Placed in the Hands of Ministers’Lords Slam Government’s Plan to ‘Sunset’ Thousands of EU Laws
One of the central promises of Brexit is being violated by the Government, a new report has suggested
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A committee of peers has condemned the Government’s plan to let ministers unilaterally repeal, amend or retain existing EU laws in the UK – calling it a betrayal of the Brexit campaign.
The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee considers whether proposed legislation is given appropriate parliamentary oversight – and whether the government is overstepping its powers.
The committee has published a new report on the Retained EU Law Bill, which proposes granting ministers the power to revoke or amend the thousands of EU laws on the UK statute book. The Government proposes that any EU law that has not been reviewed by the end of 2023 will automatically fall off the statute book unless saved.
Notably, the committee says, these proposals explicitly contradict the promises made during the Brexit campaign and the European Union (Withdrawal) Act passed in 2018.
“The Government’s approach in this Bill is a significant departure from the position taken by successive governments since the EU Referendum in 2016,” it writes – namely, that Parliament would ‘take back control’ of laws, following our departure from the EU.
“The powers in the current Bill create a mechanism that allows [retained EU law] to be revoked, restated or amended by Ministers in secondary legislation rather than (as the Government committed in 2018) by Parliament in primary legislation,” it adds.
The normal procedure for changing the law involves debates, committees, amendments and several stages of parliamentary scrutiny – most of which would be sidestepped through this Bill.
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In effect, the Bill constitutes a “blank cheque placed in the hands of ministers”, the committee writes. The number of retained EU laws that fall under the scope of the Bill (now estimated at 3,700), means that “Parliament’s limited powers to scrutinise the changes are likely to be wholly compromised”.
The peers emphasise that the EU laws to be ruled upon by ministers are not trivial either.
“Here we have very wide powers to make provision across multiple policy areas,” the committee says. “We are not talking about antiquated or redundant law but functioning law that is central to our everyday life. This includes laws concerning employment, health and safety, food safety, food labelling, animal welfare, consumer protection, habitats, environmental regulation, water and air pollution, tobacco, working time, competition and many others.”
The ‘sunset’ deadline for the potential expiration of EU laws has been “arbitrarily” set for the end of this year, yet the Government also has the power to extend this deadline if needed – potentially causing yet another period of uncertainty for business.
Tony Danker, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), has said that the Government is acting “foolishly” in trying to rush through its review of EU laws – claiming that it will cause “mass confusion and disruption” during a period of economic uncertainty.
A cross-party group of MPs, including senior Conservatives, are attempting to assert Parliament’s right to decide on the future of the EU laws – rather than ministers. The group is led by Labour’s Stella Creasy and includes former Brexit Secretary David Davis.
“If this Bill goes through, it will drive a coach and horses through parliamentary sovereignty – something we were told would be improved by Brexit,” Creasy has said.
The House of Lords committee says that five of the six most important provisions delegating power to ministers “should be removed… altogether”. It also proposes that the idea of a ‘sunset’ date for the EU legislation – whereby the laws expire at the end of the year – should be dropped.
Retained EU law “should continue to have effect on and after the sunset date unless the Bill contains express provision for that specific piece of legislation to be revoked from that date”, the peers say.