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Rishi Sunak Backs Down On EU Laws But Prepares For Fight On Small Boats

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Downing Street (Alamy)

4 min read

Rishi Sunak has agreed to slow down his post-Brexit plan to revoke thousands of European Union laws, but the Prime Minister is showing little sign of backing down over his approach to small boats as the House of Lords prepares to "shred" the controversial legislation.

The government confirmed on Wednesday that it would significantly amend the EU Retained Law Bill, designed to allow the UK to do away with pre-Brexit European laws. The move follows warnings from the upper chamber, including some Conservative peers, that the government would face major rebellions from Lords when votes on the legislation are held next week. 

Kemi Badenoch, the secretary of state for business and trade, announced that the government will amend the Retained EU Law Bill to remove a contentious sunset clause that would have seen swathes of EU-derived law automatically fall away at the end of the year. 

Instead, the government will revoke a minority of the laws and give itself more time to carry out a "proper assessment and consultation" on what to do with remaining regulations. 

In a letter to peers seen by PoliticsHome, the government said it planned to revoke around 600 EU laws by the end of 2023, with the rest remaining on the statute book for future consideration.

Badenoch said the new approach would provide "certainty for business", and admitted that the original strategy had made "meaningful reform" too difficult.

Experts had warned that the plan in its original form plan created a cliff edge for businesses affected by changes to the UK's regulatory regime, as well as a significant challenge for civil servants tasked with delivering it. Sir Jonathan Jones, ex-head of the government legal department, earlier this year told PoliticsHome working to the deadline was a "terrible way to make law" while Sir Philip Rycroft, former permanent secretary at the now defunct Department for Exiting the EU, said it was a "completely mad-dash" that couldn't be done "in good order".

"With the growing volume of REUL being identified, and the risks of legal uncertainty posed by sunsetting instruments made under EU law, it has become clear that the programme was becoming more about reducing legal risk by preserving EU laws than prioritising meaningful reform," Cabinet minister Badenoch said in a statement this afternoon.

However, while the government has indicated a willingess to compromise on this piece of legislation, it appears less conciliatory when it comes to the Illegal Migration Bill, setting up a showdown with peers when it completes its Lords stage in a few weeks' time. 

One Whitehall source said the plan to stop small boats crossings had already been stretched to its limits and that there was no room for significant changes, despite the high level of opposition expressed in a House of Lords debate on the legislation on Wednesday. 

Tory peer Baroness Stowell said while she would support the legislation in the face of a Liberal Democrat bid to throw it out altogether, she urged ministers to “listen carefully” to those “who seek with all insincerity to improve this legislation with its purpose of ensuring in its implementation it is effective in stopping the boats that cross the Channel illegally”.

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said the Illegal Migration Bill was "isolationalist, morally unacceptable, and politically impractical" in stinging remarks, adding that there were "too many problems" with it to cover in a single Lords speech.

"We need a bill to reform migration. We need a bill to stop the boats. We need a bill to destroy evil tribe of traffickers. The tragedy is that without much change, this is not that bill," he said.

"This bill fails utterly to take a long term and strategic view of the challenges of migration and undermines international cooperation, rather than taking the opportunity for the UK to show leadership as we did in 1951."

The PM's spokesperson rejected Welby's criticism, however, insisting that Sunak's strategy for tackling small boats crossings was moral. 

“There is nothing compassionate about allowing vulnerable people to perish in the Channel. There is nothing compassionate or fair about us not being able to help the truly most vulnerable around the world because our system is being overwhelmed by those who are jumping the queue," they said. 

They added that while they would "listen" to the concerns of peers, the government believed its current approach was the right one. 

Peers are preparing a series of amendments when they vote on the Illegal Migration Bill this summer, with concerns covering issues like the detention of children and pregnant women, international law, and the lack of a Home Office impact asessment of the legislation.

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