After the drama of Article 50, the detail of the Great Repeal Bill. Just 24 hours after our ambassador had handed over the letter stating that the UK will be leaving the EU, the government published a white paper setting out how that will work in practice.
The paper does provide some answers and a little more clarity. We know now, for instance, that the European Communities Act of 1972 - the legislation that took us into the EU - will be repealed on the day we leave. And ahead of that date, the entire existing body of EU law will be transposed into domestic rules, so that there should be as much continuity as possible. On the day after Brexit, we should continue abiding by the same laws as on the day before. Future UK governments can then decide which of those laws they want to keep, which they want to amend and which they want to get rid of altogether.
There are clarifications in a few other areas too. The white paper makes clear that the UK has no intention of withdrawing from the (non-EU) European Convention on Human Rights. British citizens will be able to rely in court on rights which they acquired during the UK’s membership of the EU - those rights will not be taken away from them. There is a general commitment to maintain workers’ rights stemming from the EU - something Labour and the trade union movement have repeatedly called for.
Such clarifications and assurances are welcome. Much more worrying are the significant areas in which the white paper is vague or ambiguous - and these could have major implications if the government is not properly held to account.
While the headline message may be that all existing EU law will be transposed into domestic law, the small print contains some pretty hefty caveats. Firstly, the transfer will only happen where the government considers it to be “practical and sensible”. And secondly, during the process of transposing the law the government might need to “correct or remove the laws that would otherwise not function properly”. Later in the paper the government points out that the vast majority of laws would fall into this category.
That’s a pretty spectacular exception. We’ve gone from a blanket transfer of all existing EU laws, to a situation where we’ll only transfer those which are deemed (and then just on the government’s say so) to be practical and sensible - and we’ll change most of them while we’re at it.
Added to that is the fact that the government will make those changes (or “corrections”, as they would have it) through what’s known as secondary legislation. Such legislation is supposed to be far more technical and much less political than full-blown primary legislation. Accordingly, it is subject to much less parliamentary scrutiny. Some of it might need to be voted on, but some of it can just pass automatically unless MPs and peers actively object.
This is a worrying combination. The most important and difficult administrative challenge a government has undertaken in peacetime - the transfer of some 12,000 European regulations into domestic law - will be done based on a subjective assessment of what is “practical and sensible”, and what might need to be “corrected” along the way, with minimal oversight from our elected politicians.
If we are to stand any chance of getting a good deal post-Brexit, with minimal disruption and maximum certainty for our businesses and citizens, then we absolutely have to get this right. That can only happen if the government is properly held to account. As the Great Repeal Bill starts to make its way through Parliament, we need to make sure that the ambiguities in the white paper are properly clarified, and that a rigorous level of parliamentary oversight and scrutiny is introduced.
Brexit will affect all of us. It is essential that it is not delivered by a small group of Tory ministers acting based on their own definition of what’s best for the country, with no one looking at what they’re doing.