Ever since Theresa May spoke of the need to introduce a “Great Repeal Bill” at the 2016 Conservative Party conference, the proposal has faced widespread criticism and opposition. LCHR has been just one of many organisations that expressed fear that the proposed transfer of sovereignty away from parliament and into the hands of the government would represent an affront to democracy and give ministers an inordinate amount of power to rewrite laws that safeguard our rights. Yet last week, the less dramatically named European Union (Withdrawal) Bill survived a fierce debate in parliament to pass onto the second reading stage.
Given that around 14% of UK law originates in the EU, it is undoubtedly true that some measures must be taken to streamline the gargantuan task of transferring EU laws into the UK statue books. Yet Labour’s opposition stems from the fact that the powers proposed way exceed any reasonable attempt to reduce the burden on the parliamentary timetable. The notorious “Henry VIII Powers” renege on the crucial democratic norm that primary legislation can only be repealed or replaced by a vote of parliament, by allowing ministers and civil servants to unilaterally repeal, alter or exclude EU-derived legislation.
The bill also includes a vague urgent power that would enable ministers to make substantive changes to legislation with no parliamentary procedure at all in the month prior to Britain leaving the EU, or in in the event of what Jill Rutter termed “a massive last-minute essay crisis of legislation.” But as the opening negotiations have been defined by intransigence and negligible progress, this frightening prospect is hardly inconceivable.
Opponents of the bill have been quick to point out the irony that Brexiteers, who have proven the most willing to embed their arguments for leaving the EU in terms of wrestling parliamentary sovereignty back from a foreign technocratic elite, are now happy to see the largest legal transplant for centuries take place under the unchallenged direction of a handful of Tory ministers. Much of our employment and equality rights are derived from EU legislation, meaning that crucial workers’ rights, environmental protections, consumer regulations and anti-discrimination rulings will be at risk.
Labour was right to make the incorporation of the EU charter of fundamental rights one of it’s red-line demands, and must continue to support the House of Lords’ proposal of a ‘non-retrogression’ clause, which ensures that ministerial powers cannot be used to worsen human rights protections currently afforded by EU law. Whilst the government may argue that the rights are covered in separate pieces of legislation, human rights are indivisible, and are much more vulnerable when broken into their constituent parts. It is hard to shake the fear that the government is again employing its favourite tactic of divide and rule, or in this case, divide and repeal.
This Bill also increases the likelihood of Brexit becoming a trojan horse for a Tory bonfire of life-saving regulations and safeguards. Our current environmental protection, for instance, is based on the doctrine that products must be proven to be safe before being allowed to enter our market. Can we trust the likes of Liam Fox not to push the UK towards the deregulated US model, in which products must actively be proven to be dangerous?
The debate so far has also exposed the worryingly narrow parameters for acceptable disputes over Brexit. This bill is not about leaving the EU, nor about how we leave the EU, but rather about the parliamentary process (or lack thereof) of leaving the EU. Labour MPs must not let this obfuscation prevent them from fighting the worst excesses of a reckless hard Brexit.
Last week, Andrea Leadsom also managed to pass a similarly ominous motion that plucks an undeserved government majority out of thin air and places it on the hugely influential public bill committees. As Jeremy Corbyn put it: “The Tories are now rigging votes in Parliament that they couldn’t win at the election. Not content with grabbing powers through the EU Bill, they are fixing majorities that the public wouldn’t give them.”
This adds up to the suspicion that this government will disregard all democratic checks and balances to deliver the kind of anti-rights Brexit that did not get the thumping mandate that Theresa May demanded during the election. When this bill returns to parliament Labour must utilise all its strength to remind the prime minister that she is leading a minority government, and that the protection of our rights must take central priority whilst transposing EU law.
Joe Duffy is LCHR’s Campaign Intern