Cornwall and the EU Repeal Bill

This post was previously published on Cornwall Reports  4 July 2018. Things are now moving at a break neck speed to…..nowhere! except possibly a general election or second referendum.

I am reposting this article because it is vital that people understanding the threat to our democracy that  this bill poses. The new Trade Bill – Liam Fox’s baby – is also a thoroughly anti-democratic attempt to shut down parliamentary accountability for laws passed by ministers that promote corporate interests, not ours. 

On 26th June, a group of policy experts came down to Cornwall to give a briefing on the impact of the EU Withdrawal Bill which has just been passed in Parliament. The Repeal Bill Alliance takes no side in the debate about leaving or remaining in the EU.  Their two-fold aim is to uphold democratic accountability along with a ‘high standards UK’ – the protection of existing rights and regulations, the devolution settlements and the Good Friday Agreement, once we leave the EU.

Jane Thomas, their spokesman, made clear her desire to reach out to local voluntary organisations in Cornwall, as well as farming and fishing community, who have concerns or questions about the impact of the bill. Contact details are given at the bottom of this article.

During the briefing it became apparent that what the bill claims to do and what it threatens to do, are two very different things.

What the Bill claims to do

The Bill claims to ensure legal continuity and avoid uncertainty on exit day, by transposing all EU law into UK law – in effect a massive copy and paste exercise. The guiding principle of the Withdrawal Bill is that “the same rules and laws will apply after exit as the day before”. Once transposed into UK law, ministers will begin the process of making thousands of ‘technical amendments’ through special ‘delegated powers’ to ensure a complete fit with existing domestic law.

These delegated powers do not require Parliamentary approval at every turn and they are vaguely worded and far reaching. The government has always stressed that these powers do not aim to make major changes to policy. However many have expressed strong concern that the bill poses a threat to our rights, environmental protection, the devolution settlement, and parliamentary democracy.

It dilutes our rights

In a major policy U-turn, the government has removed the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights from transposed EU law. This completely discredits its claim that the Bill seeks to make only minor technical changes not major policy amendments. It also sends a powerful signal about its intentions on a future human rights framework for the UK, post-Brexit.

The rights that formed part of the Charter include the right to protection of personal data, the rights of the child, the right to effective remedy, the rights of the elderly, and disability rights.

It weakens environmental protection

The Bill also threatens to weaken environmental protection. Some 80% of environmental law originates from the EU and the UK currently depends on EU processes and institutions to establish and enforce environmental standards. These cover everything from reducing the risk of industrial chemical accidents to protecting rare birds.

During the passage of the bill, strong resistance in Parliament has resulted in a modification to the government’s position with an amendment which incorporates the list of EU environmental principles in a new environment bill.   The sting in the tail, is that the bill only requires ministers to “have regard” to its provisions. It is a technical detail but an important one in legal terms. As the parliamentary select committee on the natural environment and rural communities noted, such wording of ministerial duties is “weak, unenforceable and lacks clear meaning” (see Repeal Bill Alliance briefing).

It threatens the devolution settlement

The central dispute between Parliament and the devolved assemblies concerns the repatriation of powers in areas that are devolved in theory but bound in practice by EU law.

These powers fall into areas like farming, fishing, environmental regulations and public procurement. The Withdrawal Bill transfers these powers from Brussels to Westminster, rather than to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. This enables Parliament to create new UK-wide “common framework” to replace EU legislation in order to avoid regulatory barriers to business.

As much as anything, it is the approach taken by the UK government that has so incensed Wales and Scotland – one described as a ‘power grab’. Parliament has sought to impose its will rather than seek consent for the exercise of powers that rightfully belong to the devolved assemblies. And it has done so without including any “sunset clauses” that ensure these powers are temporary.

The only positive outcome to the bill is the concession that its powers cannot be used to amend the existing devolution settlement.

It undermines parliamentary democracy

The Withdrawal Bill transfers too much power from Parliament to the Executive without offering adequate parliamentary scrutiny of how these powers will be used in practice.

The bill proposes giving ministers ‘Henry VIII powers’-  a form of delegated powers that allow ministers to make changes to Acts of Parliament without parliamentary approval. The issue with these powers is that they are incredibly broad and vaguely defined- creating a substantial risk of ministers making policy changes to retained EU law, with very little scrutiny from elected MPs.

As a last-minute concession to Parliament the government agreed that secondary legislation used to amend certain retained EU law would be subject to an ‘enhanced scrutiny procedure’ meaning that ministers cannot amend legislation without the active approval of both Houses of Parliament. This is with reference to law on employment and equality rights, health and safety protections, and consumer and environmental standards.

In all, the Withdrawal Bill fundamentally changes the relationship between Parliament and government, and Parliament and the devolved assemblies, not just our relationship with the EU. It is one of two major bills going through Parliament, along with the Trade Bill. This bill also proposes far reaching ministerial powers to amend domestic legislation in order to secure international trade deals.

At the present time, government ministers are in active talks with their American counterparts on the framework for future trade deals.   A “common framework” for business in the UK, which has been the subject of such contention with the devolved assemblies, clearly enhances their negotiating hand with the U.S.

 

Note: this article is based on a record of the meeting along with briefing notes provided by the Repeal Bill Alliance which you can see here and here .

To keep up to date with developments regarding the Brexit Bills (there are several of them) sign up to the Repeal Alliance bulletin  https://repealbill.org/ebulletin-signup

 

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