Today, the House of Lords debates for the first time the government’s retained EU law (revocation and reform) bill. The bill, if passed, would revoke all retained EU law at the end of this year unless a minister specifically exempts the measure from the cull. A wide range of policies is under review – including employment, consumer, and environmental protections.
This means that the government is planning to rewrite – if only minimally in many cases – some 4,000 pieces of legislation. There are 1,700 statutes covering DEFRA alone. The exact number is however completely unclear, as every passing day brings to light bits of retained EU law that civil servants have only just unearthed.
Retained EU law bill is perverse
To make matters worse, the method by which this vast body of law is to be changed is by statutory instrument – giving ministers the power to change the law with little or no parliamentary scrutiny.
Even if you are in favour of changing all retained EU law – which in itself seems a ridiculous proposition – the idea that you could accomplish this herculean task in under ten months is plainly absurd. It would require several tens of thousands of civil servants to do nothing else in 2023. Something the civil service and the country simply can’t afford.
So, what is to be done? In my view, the whole basis of the legislation is perverse. Instead of seeking to repeal all EU legislation – with only small exceptions – we should be seeking to retain all EU legislation unless and until we think it needs positive improvement. In many cases, the legislation is so detailed and resulted from such specialist consideration that it is highly unlikely that we ever would want to change it.
To do so simply for change’s sake and to demonstrate that we have ‘taken back control’ is both childish and irresponsible. My Lib Dem colleagues will be putting down an amendment to that effect. If this fails, at the very least we should be putting the back the deadline – by several years – during which time the exercise should be completed. That at least would reduce the chaos.
Give the power back to parliament
The key to success in passing amendments in the Lords, given that the government has no majority, is to put together a coalition from across the parties and non-affiliated groups. Encouragingly, The Times today contains a letter from cross-party group of senior peers including Conservatives Ken Clarke, Chris Patten and George Young pointing out that the way the government is planning to proceed makes parliament a mere bystander in the process, and that a balance must be struck to insert democratic accountability into it.
This approach has been underlined by a highly critical report by the House of Lords delegated powers and regulatory reform committee, chaired by Conservative Patrick McLoughlin, which considers whether upcoming legislation is giving ministers too much power. So there will be a raft of amendments to the bill, which relate to how precisely this might be done. Some are highly likely to pass the Lords and be sent to the Commons on ping-pong.
Whether the government is really up for a fight to preserve a bill and a process which they must know is undeliverable is as yet unclear. And it is ironic that, yet again, the Lords will be trying to change legislation to take power away from the government and place it in parliament – against the wishes (so far) of the elected House. But that is politics today in the UK.