In Context: The Retained EU Law Bill
The Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill was introduced at Westminster on 22 September and forms a key part of the UK Government’s post-Brexit agenda.
What is it?
As its name suggests, the bill is designed to revoke and reform a swathe of rules and regulations that were effectively ported over to the UK from the EU to ensure a smooth Brexit process – they are laws that the UK had incorporated as part of its membership of the union.
The UK Government says that retained EU law is “a category of domestic law created at the end of the transition period [that] consists of EU-derived legislation that was preserved in our domestic legal framework”. It says those laws were “never intended to sit on the statute book indefinitely” and that “the time is now right to end the special status of retained EU law in the UK”.
Essentially, the Withdrawal Act, which came into effect in 2018, created that “special status” and the bill will abolish it by the end of next year, allowing parliament to amend, replace and repeal affected laws.
Any law that was not enacted via primary UK legislation will be impacted – more than 2,400 in all – though any amendments made to primary legislation as a result of EU law will remain in place.
While the official figure given by the government is 2,400 laws, The Financial Times reported last month that the National Archives has discovered an additional 1,400 “long-forgotten” retained laws, making the total to be dealt with closer to 4,000.
Either way, any that have not been looked at by the end of a so-called ‘sunset period’, which could be extended from 2023 to 2026, will simply be removed from the statute book.
Will it impact on any particular areas of domestic law?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the large number of laws the bill relates to, its effects are expected to be felt across a large number of sectors.
Indeed, according to the law firm CMS, if enacted, the bill will have “a very significant effect on the UK legal and regulatory framework, with its impact being felt across a very broad spectrum of legal rights and industries, including the regulation of employment, health and safety, food safety and environmental matters”.
Looking at employment law specifically, the TUC has identified a range of rights that it expects to be weakened or lost rather than strengthened. These include holiday pay, the right to parental leave and protection for part-time and fixed-term workers.
Similarly, hundreds of laws relating to food and feed safety will be impacted, with retained laws currently requiring businesses to, for example, label for allergens and restrict the use of decontaminants such as chlorine on meat.
What stage is the bill at?
The bill has had its first two readings in the House of Commons and was debated at the committee level throughout November.
Numerous amendments were tabled by opposition parties and the amended bill will now be subject to a further parliamentary debate before passing on to the House of Lords.
It is expected that the bill will have cleared all hurdles in time to receive royal assent in April or May next year.
What are people saying about it?
Environment secretary Therese Coffey said last month that many of the laws being scrapped are those that the UK opposed while a member of the EU and that getting rid of them would reduce bureaucracy in the system.
It is fair to say that the bill has not proved particularly popular in most other quarters, though.
The TUC says it will cause “enormous confusion and chaos” for employers and employees alike, and will “upend decades’ worth of case law”.
Food Standards Scotland says that, as written, the bill “poses a significant risk to Scotland’s ability to uphold the high safety and food standards which the public expects and deserves” while RSPB Scotland says it puts at risk thousands of laws that are crucial to “conserving and restoring the natural environment, protecting public health, and creating a sustainable economy”.
In a column headlined ‘The UK government should stop doing stupid stuff’, Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator at The Financial Times, questioned the sense in pressing ahead with a plan to tear up thousands of laws that “form the basis for much of today’s national life”.
“I have little hope that this government will do anything much positive before the next general election, particularly in the midst of an energy and inflation crisis. But it is not too much to ask it to stop doing stupid things,” he wrote.