One of the most important Brexit bills cleared a major hurdle—but the biggest challenge starts now

When will it end?
When will it end?
Image: Reuters/Hannah McKay
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One of the most important bills related to Britain’s exit from the European Union just cleared a crucial test in the UK parliament, allowing it to proceed on its journey to final passage. The EU (Withdrawal) Bill, previously referred to as the “Great Repeal Bill,” is meant to serve as a linchpin keeping some order during the chaos of Brexit, scheduled for Mar. 29, 2019.

Since the 1972 European Communities Act, which brought Britain into the EU bloc, the UK has had to follow EU laws. The bill the House of Commons, the UK parliament’s lower house, just voted on is to repeal the 1972 act, reverting the UK back to a system were EU law is no longer relevant in the country. In order for the country to not lose all of the legal systems set up in recent years, the bill essentially copies and pastes all the EU laws into the UK statute books. It also gives power to parliament to “amend, repeal and improve” laws where it deems necessary, and removes the UK from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

The passing of this bill means that parliament agrees that repealing the 1972 act will move ahead. But the challenges are far from over. In fact, the hard work starts now, because the process is incredibly complex and requires more approvals from parliament and the House of Lords.

Why is this bill so important?

After Brexit, the UK will no longer be governed by the EU, and will no longer have to adhere to unified or standardized laws on things such as corporate competition, workers’ rights, or environmental mandates.

However, when Brexit does happen in around 18 months time, every person and business will need to know what the existing state of law is. The government said it wants to avoid a “black hole in our statute book.” It wants to make sure that businesses know exactly what environment they are operating in, and if they need to change anything to their practices.

For example, under EU law, the maximum someone can work in a week, including overtime, is 48 hours. However that cap may be lifted if the UK government sees fit and that would make a difference to businesses and employees.

Won’t it be easy to copy and tweak the EU laws?

No, not at all. The total body of European law from 1958 to now is known as the Acquis Communautaire and it binds all EU member states and consists of around 80,000 items, that cover everything from environment to trade.

According to a report by the House of Commons library, the EU (Withdrawal) Bill is the “one of the largest legislative projects ever undertaken in the UK.” Now that it has passed the first stage, the next step is to go through every item and either keep, amend, or delete, at the parliamentary stage.

The government will then have to amend quite a few UK laws because a lot of them simply won’t work in the event of a Brexit, since they refer to EU institutions, according to a government white paper. Parliament will also have to vote on whether it passes again.

Why did some lawmakers vote against it?

Britain’s main opposition party Labour, as well as politicians from other parties, warned that the withdrawal bill is a “power grab” for prime minister Theresa May and her government, and that the bill had not yet been properly scrutinized.

In order to make it possible to amend EU laws and translate them into UK law, the bill includes clauses allowing the government to “correct the statute book where necessary” without a full parliament vote on these changes. Opponents of May’s government argued that this gave the Tory party too much free reign to do whatever it wants to the laws.

Labour MP Sarah Jones explained on Twitter yesterday (Sept. 11) why she and her party planned to vote against the bill:

We’re leaving the European Union. But I’m voting against the EU Withdrawal Bill tonight. Here’s why: pic.twitter.com/XLa9On715I

— Sarah Jones MP (@LabourSJ) September 11, 2017

However, the government said it needs to be able to make minor technical changes to ensure a smooth transition from its divorce from the EU.

Many politicians are worried that the Tories will use the bill to dilute workers’ rights that were standardized under EU law. These include a limit on the number of allowable working hours, a minimum wage, mandatory holiday pay, and mandatory maternity leave. 

Peter Catterall, a constitutional expert and professor of history and policy at the University of Westminster previously told Quartz that “let’s put it this way, would you trust anything this government says, given the way in which it interpreted an advisory [the EU] referendum to mean everything they wanted it to mean, and not anything they didn’t want it to mean.”

“In other words, I wouldn’t trust them not to do Brexit in a way that does not suit its purposes because that’s exactly what they’ve done down the line. The probability is that you’re going to have a game plan that suits their purposes. So I think Labour’s concerns on this are bang on the money.”

What happens next?

Now that the bill has passed this pivotal stage, it will face detailed scrutiny by lawmakers again. Politicians will go through it line-by-line to agree on the final wording. This naturally could lead to further setbacks because the government will face more attempts to amend the bill from both opposition parties, as well as those from within the Conservative party.

It will then again need to be passed by the House of Commons. If it wins that, it will then go before the House of Lords, the upper house of parliament, made up of unelected peers. If the House of Lords approves the bill, then both houses are given a final chance to consider amendments made by the other house in the process; the wording of the bill must be fully agreed on by both houses to pass.