The Conservative government, in a minority and therefore reliant on votes from a Northern Ireland unionist party, faces a tough job to get a vital repeal bill through the house to give ministers the power to at the stroke of a pen turn thousands of pieces of legislation from European Union-initiated into UK led laws.
The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, officially described as “a Bill to repeal the European Communities Act 1972 and make other provision in connection with the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU” – and commonly known as The Repeal Bill – received its Second Reading in Parliament on Thursday, September 7 and will be put to a vote on Monday.
May demands support for Repeal
Prime Minister Theresa May has called for Conservative (Tory) MPs to back the Bill, stating (according to the Independent): “Since Parliament broke for summer the Government has been working hard to deliver a successful Brexit.(…) Now it is time for Parliament to play its part. The Repeal Bill delivers the result of the referendum by ending the direct role of the EU in UK law, but it is also the single most important step we can take to prevent a cliff-edge for people and businesses, because it transfers laws and provides legal continuity. (…) Our shared aim: to help Britain make a success of Brexit and become that great global country we know we can be.”
Vote against Repeal, get Corbyn
The First Secretary of State — effectively deputy prime minister in the May government after her disastrous snap election — Damian Green MP, warned against “the threat of a Corbyn government” in an article in the Sunday Telegraph, stating: “(…) Starting the new Parliamentary session with the Withdrawal Bill shows that it is now the job of all MPs, including my former colleagues on the Stronger In campaign, to respect the will of the people and get the best possible deal for Britain. No Conservative wants a bad Brexit deal, or to do anything that increases the threat of a Corbyn Government.”
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn surprised the nation with a far stronger than expected personal vote in the election.
Conservative opposition to the Bill
However, not every Tory MP agrees. Speaking to the Observer, pro-Remain MP Anna Soubry stated, as regards possible opposition to the Bill as it stands: “Any suggestion that this is any way treacherous or supporting Jeremy Corbyn is outrageous. It amounts to a trouncing of democracy and people will not accept it.”
There is particular concern about the so-called “Henry VIII” powers – secondary legislation powers that would allow the Government to change the law without full Parliamentary scrutiny. The Government is said to insist that these powers are necessary; however, some MPs believe that they could lead to abuse of power.
Speaking to the Sunday Telegraph, former Attorney General Dominic Grieve MP stated: “No one should be trying to wreck this bill, but the Government needs to listen to the concerns expressed across Parliament about its details.”
Ms Soubry also added: “I want to be very clear that we are not opening ourselves up to the danger of very serious abuse by the executive. We’ve got to look at those Henry VIII clauses and make sure that we’re not subverting the will of the people through Parliament and handing over excessive powers to the executive.”
The Henry VIII reference is to the ability, contained within the Repeal Bill, of ministers to change swathes of legislation without further reference to Parliament.
Labour Party concerns
The opposition Labour Party is expected to table amendments to the Bill – demanding, according to the BBC, concessions in six areas, including the incorporation of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights into British law.
It also seems to share Tory concerns about secondary legislation powers, the “Henry VIII clauses”.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn stated, back in July 2017: “Far too much of it seems to be a process where the government… will be able to bypass Parliament. We will make sure there is full parliamentary scrutiny. We have a Parliament where the government doesn’t have a majority, we have a country which voted in two ways on Leave or Remain. The majority voted to leave and we respect that, but they didn’t vote to lose jobs and they didn’t vote to have Parliament ridden roughshod over.”
The Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Sir Keir Starmer MP, also told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show on September 3, 2017:
“This is not about frustrating the process, it is not giving government a blank cheque to pass powers into the hands of ministers. You could entrench important EU rights on Monday and take them away on Tuesday without primary legislation.”
However, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Conservative MP David Davis, told the same programme that:
“Everything that is significant in terms of changes will be done in separate primary legislation, on immigration, customs you name it. This bill is about ensuring continuity. Every MP, whether leaver or remainer, should support this bill.”
The Liberal Democrat point of view
The former leader of the Liberal Democrats, Tim Farron, has said that he was “putting the government on warning”, adding: “If you found the Article 50 Bill difficult, you should be under no illusion, this will be hell”.
Scottish and Welsh governments oppose Bill
In a joint statement issued on July 13, 2017, the First Minister of the Welsh Assembly, Carwyn Jones and the First Minister of the Scottish Parliament, Nicola Sturgeon, stated: “This week began with the Prime Minister calling for a constructive and collaborative approach from those outside Whitehall to help get Brexit right. Today’s publication of The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is the first test as to whether the UK government is serious about such an approach. It is a test it has failed utterly.”
The pair said they had tried to negotiate with the May government. In return, the government proposed a “naked power grab” (another reference to the so-called Henry VIII measures).
The Bill, they said: “does not return powers from the EU to the devolved administrations, as promised. It returns them solely to the UK Government and Parliament and imposes new restrictions on the Scottish Parliament and National Assembly for Wales. On that basis, the Scottish and Welsh Governments cannot recommend that legislative consent is given to the Bill as it currently stands.”