Britain’s not so great repeal Bill could leave room for a Brexit power grab

Labour opposition says Bill is more than the technocratic exercise Theresa May claims

Goodbye EU: the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill repeals the European Communities Act 1972. Photograph:  Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty

Goodbye EU: the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill repeals the European Communities Act 1972. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty

 

What Theresa May, the British prime minister, announced as the Great Repeal Bill during her speech at the Conservative Party conference last October has lost some of its glamour in the intervening months. First it was downgraded to the Repeal Bill, on the advice of the parliamentary authorities; then it was published, on Thursday, as the plain old European Union (Withdrawal) Bill.

It is a key piece of legislation for Brexit, insofar as it repeals the European Communities Act 1972 from the moment the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, immediately cutting off the automatic flow of EU legislation. Existing EU laws will be transposed into UK law, although some will be tweaked to ensure that they are still coherent after Brexit.

The Bill does not, however, offer much information about the kind of relationship the UK will have with the EU after it leaves. The nature of that relationship will be worked out in negotiations between the UK and the EU and expressed in further Bills covering everything from immigration to fisheries policy.

One controversial element of the Bill is the power it gives ministers to amend legislation using statutory instruments that require little parliamentary scrutiny

Among the most controversial elements of the Bill is its introduction of new powers for ministers to amend legislation using statutory instruments that require little parliamentary scrutiny. The government says it will use the new powers only to make necessary textual changes and not to change policy.

The opposition complains of a power grab, warning that the government could rush measures through towards the end of negotiations. Theresa May’s working majority is down to 12 after the suspension of a Conservative MP for making a racist remark this week, and Labour hopes to persuade some rebel Tories to break ranks.

One of the Bill’s few surprises is its statement that the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights will no longer apply to the UK after Brexit. The government argues that, because the charter interprets existing EU rights rather than conferring new ones, the change will have little practical impact. Removing it has, however, given Labour an attractive rallying point for opposition to the Bill and an argument that it is more than the technocratic exercise the government claims.

The Bill was introduced in parliament on Thursday with a nod and will not be debated until MPs return from their summer break, in September. Plenty of time for the opposition to think of awkward amendments.

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