After months of verbal pressure from a broad coalition of industry, civil society and conservation groups, Rishi Sunak has reversed plans to review or remove all EU-era laws by the end of 2023.
The decision to remove the 2023 deadline was very well received by business, but angered leading Brexit Conservatives, for whom the Retained EU Bill (REUL) it was a talismanic expression of the UK’s post-Brexit liberties.
But after significant amendments to the bill were passed by the House of Lords this week, uncertainty remains about the final form of the legislation and its impact on future investment and policy-making.
To what extent has the government changed the REUL bill?
The government removed the “sunset clause” from the bill, which meant that any of the 4,000 EU-era laws covered by the legislation would automatically be removed from the UK statute book by the end of 2023, unless for ministers to actively retain them.
Instead, business secretary Kemi Badenoch saying that around 600 EU-era laws would be scheduled to be removed and the rest of the EU-derived laws would remain in force until such time as they were revised.
This was welcomed by critics of the bill as a step towards stability, but angry brexiters who argued that the 2023 deadline was essential to keep officials’ feet to the fire and accelerate the pace of change.
However, critics warned that two important elements of the bill remained: first, an end to the “supremacy” of EU law and legal principles in UK law; and second, broad powers for ministers to revoke any EU regulations held without parliamentary scrutiny until June 23, 2026.
“The government has removed the most obviously ridiculous sunset clause, but retained the far more sinister part of the bill which gives ministers unlimited powers to replace laws, with the only restriction being that they are deregulatory,” said Lord David Anderson KC , a fellow crusader who successfully introduced amendments to dilute those powers.
How important are the 600 laws that the government wants to scrap?
That depends on who you ask. Brexi supporters argue that most of the 600 laws are inconsequential. Arch-Brexiter Sir Bill Cash, chairman of the Commons’ European scrutiny committee, wrote to Sunak to complain that “almost without exception” the list was “trivial”.
Cash highlighted measures including rules regarding fishing in Sao Tome and Principe and one related to “limits on drivers’ working hours during the 2001 foot-and-mouth disease outbreak.”
The British Chambers of Commerce said the vast majority of the regulations slated for repeal “seem non-controversial.”
But Greener UK, a coalition of 10 of the UK’s biggest conservation groups including the RSPB and the National Trust, said the list included potentially important laws covering water management and air pollution controls, including parts of the National Emissions Ceiling Regulations 2018.
Why are labor rights and conservation groups so concerned?
The bill gives ministers sweeping powers to replace EU-era laws that underpin large areas of environmental and labor law with alternative regulations that the “relevant national authority deems appropriate,” all without a vote in parliament.
Amendments passed with cross-party support in the House of Lords this week would dilute these powers, forcing the government to submit any changes through a joint committee of both houses of parliament.
Ruth Chambers of the Greener UK coalition said that unless the government agreed to at least some of the amendments, ministers could weaken key environmental protections “with impunity”.
Tim Sharp, senior policy officer for labor rights at the TUC, the union’s umbrella group, warned that ministers could erode important worker protections in holiday pay and working conditions.
Caspar Glyn, vice-president of the Employment Lawyers Association, said the bill removed key principles of EU law on which decades of UK precedent has been built.
This could affect the ability of employees to file equal pay claims. It will also leave it unclear to both employers and employees about the meaning of much of the labor law that affects investment and the cost of labor.
“If you are sick you can take vacations for 18 months. That took 14 years of litigation to resolve. On January 1 we won’t know,” Glyn said.
Trade groups also warn that the industry will need to monitor the effects of passive regulatory divergence, as the EU continues to change its laws. This “could lead to increased barriers to trade,” according to William Bain, the BCC’s head of trade policy.
What will Downing Street do now?
Despite Sunak’s U-turn and significant watering down of the bill, it remains contentious, especially in the House of Lords, where the government does not have a majority.
On Wednesday, the peers voted 231 to 167 in favor of an amendment to limit the ability of ministers to scrap EU laws by decree and to ensure parliament can vote on the most controversial legal changes.
Badenoch has already drawn the ire of conservative eurosceptics watering down the bill, and on Thursday indicated he would not antagonize them by allowing his peers to further weaken the legislation.
“Kemi is determined to review or repeal as many EU laws as possible by the end of 2023,” a government official said. “She will not be deterred by hostile amendments in the House of Lords.”
The government is expected to repeal these “hostile” amendments in the House of Commons, but Sunak will want to avoid a protracted round of legislative “ping pong” between the two houses, which would once again draw attention to the controversial bill.