Theresa May accused of exploiting Brexit to scrap people's rights

Campaigners warn Repeal Bill is ‘ripe for abuse’ with Government ‘cutting Parliament out’

Rob Merrick
Deputy political editor
Thursday 13 July 2017 21:28 BST
The measures proposed by Theresa May’s Government are said to go even further than the ‘Henry the VIII powers’, which already weakened scrutiny
The measures proposed by Theresa May’s Government are said to go even further than the ‘Henry the VIII powers’, which already weakened scrutiny (PA)

Theresa May has been accused of trying to snatch sweeping new powers that would allow her to scrap people’s rights after Brexit without telling Parliament.

Buried in the newly published Repeal Bill is a clause permitting ministers to tamper unhindered with employment and environmental protections as long as they deem there to be an “urgent” need.

The Government was expected to try for some new powers in the 63-page bill, but the measures proposed go even further than the “Henry the VIII powers”, which already weakened scrutiny.

Campaigners warned the bill was “ripe for abuse”, would lead to a bonfire of rights and protections and that the Government was “cutting Parliament out”.

The warnings came on a dramatic day for Brexit as:

The stated aim of the Repeal Bill is to provide seamless legal continuity when the UK leaves the EU by transferring all European law currently affecting Britain on to the British statute book on the day of Brexit.

Given the volume of regulation is so great, ministers had previously suggested they would need some powers to quickly change pieces of the legislation to make it suitable for life after Brexit – including the Henry VIII powers that would see them able to change laws by statutory instrument with a lower level of scrutiny in Parliament.

But the bill finally unveiled on Thursday contained a section entitled “scrutiny procedure in certain urgent cases”, allowing a law to be changed “without a draft of the instrument being laid before” Parliament.

Liberty director Martha Spurrier said: “If the Repeal Bill passes in this state, people in the UK will lose rights after we leave the EU. It is that simple and the stakes are that high.

“It’s absolutely ripe for abuse. The complete lack of scrutiny gives a small number of ministers the power to change laws on a whim, cutting Parliament out entirely.”

A minister would simply have to be “of the opinion that, by reason of urgency, it is necessary to make the regulations without a draft being so laid and approved”.

Although any statutory instrument rammed through in this way would then have to be brought before Parliament within one month, Liberty said that could be too late.

It also pointed out that pleas for the bill to contain an explicit commitment that “no rights or protections will be lost” had been ignored.

Jeremy Corbyn and Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier exchange gifts

The warning was echoed by the green group ClientEarth, which said it feared for EU laws protecting both air quality and vulnerable beauty spots and species.

“The Repeal Bill risks turning back the clock on 40 years of environmental gains,” said ClientEarth’s director of programmes, Karla Hill.

“To protect the environment we need strong laws that cannot be undone by backroom deals in Whitehall.”

The Department for Exiting the European Union told The Independent the “urgent” procedure would only be used in “exceptional circumstances”, describing it as “a contingency”.

It also insisted “corrections” made using the powers would only change EU law where that was absolutely necessary for it to be incorporated successfully onto the UK statute book.

However, it admitted there were no specific restrictions in the legislation to prevent ministers also changing aspects of law they “do not like”.

Officials admitted between 800 and 1,000 changes will be made to EU law using the Henry VIII powers, which would see MPs made aware of alterations though they would not be granted a full vote.

The bill does include a “sunset clause” for the Henry VIII powers, which means they must fall two years after Britain’s exit date.

Meanwhile, Labour and the Liberal Democrats vowed to vote against the bill after ministers confirmed the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights will be dumped on Britain’s departure day.

The refusal to bring into UK law the charter – which protects everything from freedom of expression to working conditions and a fair trial – created the “potential for erosion of human rights”, the Law Society of Scotland warned.

Michel Barnier encourages the UK to make haste in the Brexit negotiations

Sir Keir Starmer, Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary, said the Government “must think again” or his party would vote against the Repeal Bill in three months’ time.

“The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights is vital because it brings together EU and UK law and it gives strong protections in areas such as privacy protections, discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and rights for the elderly.” he said.

And Tim Farron, the Lib Dem leader, said: “I cannot understand what issue the Government has with [the charter].

“Is it the right to life, the ban on torture, protection against slavery, the right to a fair trial, respect for privacy, freedom of thought and religion, free speech and peaceful protest?”

With opposition parties lined up against her, it will require fewer than 10 Tory MPs to defy Ms May over controversial aspects of the Repeal Bill for her to be defeated.

That would plunge the Brexit process into a fresh crisis – with “the clock ticking” as the EU has repeatedly pointed out – and, perhaps, force the Prime Minister out of office.

David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, said: “This bill means that we will be able to exit the European Union with maximum certainty, continuity and control.

“That is what the British people voted for and it is exactly what we will do – ensure that the decisions that affect our lives are taken here in the UK.

“The eyes of the country are on us and I will work with anyone to achieve this goal and shape a new future for our country.”

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon and Labour’s Welsh leader Carwyn Jones said the bill was a “naked power grab” by Westminster because it did not immediately return powers to the devolved administrations after taking them from the EU.

They vowed to deny it legislative consent from devolved assemblies, which could stymie the legislation though they do not have an absolute veto.

Europe's pharmaceutical and bio-science industry raised concerns that the supply of life-saving medicines could be severely disrupted unless Britain successfully negotiates a smooth and orderly exit from the EU.

In a letter to Brexit negotiators stressing the importance of securing ongoing cooperation on medicines after Britain leaves the EU, drug company representatives said a bad transition could put patients at risk.

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