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A failing government in a hurry

The race to remove European laws from the British statute book is happening for the worst of reasons

Image: Getty

Can someone please define what “a meaningful Brexit” means? Achieving that nirvana is, according to Lord Frost, the reason for the Bonfire of the Regulations Bill which has now arrived back in the House of Lords. 

This pernicious piece of legislation is despised by trade unions, environmentalists, constitutionalists and business. It is dangerous in so many ways and is already damaging Britain’s trade opportunities. It is putting huge strains on already perilously over-stretched government departments. And to what end? To make it harder for the UK ever to rejoin the European Union. 

Whatever the nonsense that ministers spout in defence of this dreadful Bill, the underlying purpose is clear: in burning the body of legislation the UK shared with the EU, the Government is endeavouring to ensure that its legacy is an isolated UK. They believe they are setting fire to a funeral pyre of the European dream. 

But more people are beginning to see the value of Britain’s relationship with Europe, and those growing numbers may be the reason for the ludicrous haste with which it intends to wipe out so much of the legislation governing our lives on the stroke of midnight on December 31. That, and the realisation that its time to act may be very limited.

When the minister, Lord Callanan, introduced the Committee stage of the Bill on Thursday afternoon, he caused a degree of surprise by saying that the number of pieces of legislation covered by the Bill now stood at 4,700. When the Bill first appeared, the government said it would apply to 2,000 pieces of EU law that were still on the UK statute book. That quickly rose to 3,300 and then 3,700. Who knows what the final figure will be? Certainly not the government – but why would they worry, when this is only legislation governing such things as workers’ rights, environmental protections, product safety and other such trivia?

In theory, all these pieces of legislation will be reviewed by the end of the year and decisions will be taken about what should be retained, reformed or simply consigned to the bin. But the departments forced to undertake this review are already overwhelmed with problems. Much of the work falls on DEFRA, which is struggling under the weight of issues ranging from polluted rivers to food shortages while having to make do with some of the most out-dated technology and systems in Whitehall.

The Department of Health, hardly without pressing problems of its own, now has a huge extra workload, as it must wade through numerous pieces of legislation. No department can escape this task, and none is equipped to do it properly. Just as the country is trying to climb out of the Covid crisis, cope with the war in Ukraine and its knock-on effects and turn round an ailing economy further damaged by the brief, but hugely damaging Truss administration, valuable time and effort is having to be expended on this dogma-driven Bill. 

Of course, our EU membership has left us with some pieces of legislation that are not relevant to the UK. But while it is unnecessary for us to have restrictions on the movement of reindeer between Denmark and Sweden, their existence does no active harm to our economy. Farmers are not complaining about them hampering their work; transport companies are not unduly shackled by reindeer red tape. There is plenty of our own historic legislation that is long past its time: beware carrying a plank of wood on the streets of London unless you are about to load it onto a vehicle, as you would be falling foul of the Metropolitan Police Act 1839.

Redundant legislation should be removed from our over-weighty statute book but as the result of an ongoing process of scrutiny, not at the striking of a clock. In the months leading up to that witching hour, no one knows what regulations, if any, will be in place to govern so many aspects of our lives and trade. Could Singapore-on-Thames be just months away?

The Brexit zealots that now run the country will insist that this Bill is another vital step towards realising those “Benefits of Brexit” so elusive to the rest of us. Their casual approach to these crucial matters defies belief. When the then trade minister, Jacob Rees-Mogg, introduced the Bill in the Commons, he published “an authoritative catalogue of over 2,400 pieces of legislation spanning over 300 individual policy areas” that would be affected. “Some, perhaps dozens,” might be retained, he said. The uncertainty that vague comment created has only grown as the scale of the legislation involved has mushroomed. Yet the only amendments to this skeletal Bill passed in the Commons were those tabled by the government. 

The Lords, however, will not be so supine. Apart from taking issue with the basic logic and practicality of the Bill, it is the massive power grab by the executive which causes most concern. The Bill gives ministers sweeping powers to determine what, if anything, replaces the EU law being scrapped. Even the committed Brexit fan, former Tory MP Lord Hamilton of Epsom, takes issue with the way that parliament is side-lined. It amounted, he claimed, to saying: “We will bring undemocratic edicts from Europe and enhance the power of ministers and increase the power of the executive.” He concluded: “That is not what we are here for and not what we should be voting for.”

He is absolutely right but this negating of the concept of Parliamentary democracy is a major feature in much of the legislation that is being produced at the moment. The Strikes (Minimum Service) Bill is a typical example, giving power to ministers – and ministers alone – to determine crucial issues now at the heart of our employment laws. It even gives them the power to change Acts of Parliament which may not even now exist. 

The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill is another example of the dreadful democratic deficit now being enshrined in law, dangerous now but potentially even more dangerous under a future malign administration. This is now championed by the aforementioned Lord Frost, despite its purpose being to overturn the deal he negotiated and lauded so very recently. It was clear then that it was based on an untruth – that Brexit could be achieved without any border between Northern Ireland and the Republic – but because of their determination to “Get Brexit done” at any price, the government grabbed at Frost’s deal. 

The inevitable is now happening and the Protocol’s flaws are exposed. So the government’s intention to renege on an international treaty is embodied in a piece of legislation which treats Parliament with contempt. Lord Judge, the former head of the judiciary, now Convenor of the Crossbench in the Lords, said of the Bill: “I keep hearing the words ‘democratic accountability’ and then I look at the Bill and I can’t find any.”

It isn’t there. The current incarnation of the Conservative Party has made clear that, whatever its talk about growing the economy, its real purpose is to appease the hard eurosceptic right and make it harder, if not impossible, for the UK to return to the heart of Europe, where it belongs. 

They need to be stopped as quickly as possible. Democratically, of course.

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