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Labour Says Haste To Scrap Thousands Of EU Laws Will Lead To "Mistakes We Might Regret"

The government is looking to scarp thousands of pieces of retained EU legislation from the UK statue book this year (Alamy)

5 min read

A senior Labour frontbencher says the government’s plan to scrap thousands of EU laws from the UK statute book by the end of this year will “fail” and create a “horrible mess” due to insufficient time to address almost 4,000 pieces of legislation affected.

Baroness Jenny Chapman, who will lead on scrutinising the EU Retained Law Bill for her party as it moves to the House of Lords next month, criticised ministers for not being able to say which laws will be kept after the Brexit “sunset clause” runs out in December, and which will be kept.

The legislation, which Eurosceptics say is key to unlocking the "benefits" of Brexit, is highly controversial, and has drawn attacks from business groups who say it creates uncertainty around regulation in a number of sectors.

As it stands the bill will review and either scrap, retain or revise around 4,000 pieces of legislation which were drafted by Brussels and remained as UK law once we exited the EU in 2016.

While it cleared all stages in the House of Commons this month despite a minor rebellion by some Tory MPs, it is now expected to face a rough ride in the House of Lords, as peers look to dissect exactly what the impact of ditching the regulations will be.

Chapman, who is shadow minister of state at the Cabinet Office, told PoliticsHome's The Rundown podcast that “we are going to be looking at a very boring process row” as the bill makes its way through the House of Lords.

She said it was the lack of detail from ministers about which laws will fall away at the end of 2023,  and which will stay, that is causing Labour concern.

“Some of it we might not want to keep anymore, but some of it we do," Chapman said.

"What we're saying is you've at least got to know what it is you're getting rid of. We don't think the government has got the attention span, the capacity, the resources, to look at 4,000 pieces of legislation in the way that it should."

She highlighted the concerns among environmental groups that important protections which are in place now could fall away next January.

“You're going to do potentially serious damage to our environment, and you don't even know you've done it," Chapman explained. 

“We're all for a decision being made on these pieces of legislation, but we just don't like the way the government's going about it.”

Chapman said the lack of detail on which EU laws will be scrapped or watered down suggests the government has not properly planned for the end of 2023 deadline, and that she believed the bill was designed “to make a point about Rishi Sunak being tough, which he's not”. 

She felt that the provisions in the bill which allow ministers to change regulations down the line is a “very, very shoddy way” to draw up legislation.

"There are pieces of legislation that are going to get dropped, and someone's going to only find out when somebody goes to court, and it all gets into a horrible mess,” she added. 

Peers are expected to prevent the bill from becoming an Act of Parliament by the current deadline of the end of 2023, but Chapman said there is no way civil servants will be able to adequately transcribe all the individual regulations which are being kept into UK law in time anyway.

“The work isn't going to get done, the consultation with different bodies, working out what it means to take away some of these rules on building sites which is a really good example,” she said.

“What does that look like, are we happy with that if we put other measures in place to replace the regulations that we might be getting rid of?

“It's important, and this affects people’s daily lives. We're not saying we shouldn't consider it, we’re not saying we shouldn't put these things into UK law, but we need to do it in the right way to avoid mistakes that we might regret.”

Labour peer Baroness Jenny Chapman
Labour peer Baroness Jenny Chapman (Parliament.UK)

The government’s former top lawyer, Sir Jonathan Jones, told PoliticsHome he believed the current timeframe was “absurd".

“We’re at the end of January, and the thing is we still have no idea from the government about what actual areas of law it might want to keep," he said. 

“Some reassurance could be provided, if the government were now to say, of this X thousand laws, the following we have decided we will keep.

“That would provide reassurance and then we can have a debate about the rest. But that's not happening.”

Jones, a leading barrister who was Treasury Solicitor and Permanent Secretary of the Government Legal Department for six years, said the bill is loaded with “pitfalls” and accused Sunak of using the legislation “to make a kind of symbolic, presentational political point, which is everything that came out of the EU is deemed to be bad and we should get rid of it”.

He added: “We've been told that the civil service will be doing its best, it may or may not have identified all these thousands of bits of law.

“But if something is missed, and that must be a risk, the consequence of this bill is that it will just have a gap in the law, it will automatically expire at the end of 2023.

“Then who knows what will happen, it may be that the government has to scramble around and produce a fix.”

Government minister Nus Ghani, who helped lead the bill through the Commons, told MPs last week she “cannot stress enough the importance of achieving the 2023 deadline”.

She said: “Retained EU law was never intended to sit on the statute book indefinitely. It is constitutionally undesirable, as some domestic laws, including Acts of Parliament, currently remain subordinate to some retained EU law.

“The continued existence on our statute book of the principle of supremacy of EU law is just not right, as we are a sovereign nation with a sovereign Parliament.”


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