Parliament and Brexit: why scrutiny is important

Donald Tusk is still dreaming that Brexit won’t happen, and I’m sure he’s not the only one. But back in Westminster, the UK government has begun its pursuit of a hard Brexit, announcing a raft of bills during the Queen’s Speech that would facilitate the UK’s exit from both the customs union and the single market.

The Queen’s speech announced eight Brexit bills:

  • A repeal bill to convert all existing EU law into UK law
  • A customs bill to create a ‘standalone’ customs regime
  • A trade bill to provide a framework for business to trade in and out of the UK
  • An immigration bill to provide the legal framework for who can move to the UK
  • A fisheries bill that enables the government to set fish quotas
  • An agriculture bill that sets out government financial support for farmers
  • A nuclear safeguards bill that gives the UK responsibility for nuclear matters
  • An international sanctions bill that gives the UK powers to levy sanctions

Power to the parliament

Of these, the (formerly ‘great’) repeal bill is the most imminent and perhaps of greatest concern to the sector at large. Something of a misnomer, the repeal bill will only repeal the European Communities Act, which currently makes EU law effective in UK law, and it will enable thousands of pieces of law to continue to operate. Whether these laws continue to operate in the same manner, however, is the crucial issue.

Around 14% of the UK’s laws come from the EU and these will need to be converted very quickly, so ministers will need powers to make some ‘technical’ changes (eg replacing references to the EU) without parliamentary approval. However, what they cannot be able to do, is make ‘material’ changes that alter the nature of laws. Many are understandably concerned that they may take the opportunity to cut or weaken protections in EU laws for consumers or the environment now that they have the chance.

That is why we’re calling for the repeal bill to limit ministerial powers to technical changes during the conversion process, meaning that any material changes must subject to full parliamentary scrutiny. Furthermore, these powers should have a time limit that can only be extended by parliament.

But the risk extends beyond the conversion period. As things stand, secondary legislation can be amended with minimal parliamentary scrutiny – so even if it’s faithfully converted now, it could still be weakened without parliamentary scrutiny in the future. We want to avoid ending up in a situation whereby some of our most important laws can be amended without meaningful parliamentary scrutiny.

There must be a mechanism for ensuring that either the most important laws are converted into primary legislation – or if that isn’t possible in such a short timeframe, that a new mechanism prevents important EU laws that have been converted secondary legislation from being amended without parliamentary consent.

EU citizens

Something else we’ve just had some more news on, and another area of great concern for many in the sector, is the rights of EU citizens already living in the UK. Not only do they enrich our communities, EU citizens (who make up 5% of charity staff) make a huge contribution to the UK’s economy, its world-class research and some of the vital public services that society depends on. For instance, around 6% of England’s social care workforce – many of whom work for charities – are EU migrants and around 90% of them do not have British citizenship. This isn’t just a concern for charities as employers themselves, but also as representatives of people who rely on health and social care services. For example, Disability Rights UK is concerned that a loss of care staff could see many disabled people no longer able to live independently at home.

The government’s precise proposals are complex and we’ll be looking at them in more detail in the coming weeks. In short, however, any disincentive to stay here, whether bureaucratic hurdles, or more fundamental matters such as compromised rights for family members, will damage charities’ ability to recruit as well as disrupting the lives of the 1 in 20 charity staff who are from Europe.

We’ll continue to keep you up to date with the Brexit-related developments that could affect your organisation. In the meantime, please feel free to get in touch if you have any questions.

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Brendan Costelloe Brendan Costelloe is senior external relations officer (EU) at NCVO, leading on Brexit work. He previously worked for the RSPB, and prior to that in local government.

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