Brexit was all about taking back control, and especially, taking back control of our laws and giving Parliament a say. Today, Theresa May accepted the demands of MPs for a cross-party committee which will be able to control the use of the Henry VIII powers. This comes after Brexit rebels threatened revolt against the proposal of using Henry the VIII powers post-Brexit to change laws without parliamentary consent.

Henry VIII powers: What are they?

These archaic powers originate from the medieval Statue of Proclamations 1539 which gave King Henry VIII power to legislate by proclamation. These controversial powers allow the government to repeal or amend a bill after it has become an Act of Parliament. In other words, primary legislation can be amended or repealed by subordinate legislation with or without any parliamentary debate or examination.

Primary legislation refers to acts of parliament and, such laws go through an arduous and lengthy process of examination and approval by MPs and the House of Lords.

Secondary legislation, however, can bypass parliament without any possibility of amending it, becoming law before MPs even get the chance to debate it.

Ironically, the powers give the government power to make changes without consulting the parliament, and acting in a way that has nothing to do with the Brexit slogan, “taking back control.” As many MPs feared, if this was passed, that would mean the government would have been able to change taxes or the Human Rights Act, water down workers’ rights and health and safety laws, and amounted to what the Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer called it: “a naked power grab.” Back in September, Starmer said that it was “absolutely extraordinary” that the Bill gave the “wildest possible power” without any “safeguards channelled into the level of least scrutiny.” Today, the government’s U-turn shows an important move and gives certainty to the people of Britain that their voices will be heard. 

The new committee

The existence of this new committee guarantees that decisions won’t be made by the few for the many, but a committee will decide whether issues should be debated and voted in Parliament. This amendment on the EU Withdrawal Bill was tabled by the chairman of the Procedure Committee, Conservative MP Charles Walker, and was believed to have been drafted by ministers. According to Walker, this new committee will be a “sifting committee,” going through all the statutory instruments that were passed under the EU Withdrawal Bill and deciding which ones are important and need to be scrutinised by MPs in the Commons.

Many Tory MPs and the opposition have been calling for some form of control over the Henry VIII powers, and today’s victory should be satisfactory for all of them.

Theresa May’s spokesperson said: “We have studied the procedure Committee’s report in detail and listened to the recommendations and we are announcing today that we will be accepting this amendment. We recognise the role of Parliament in scrutinising the Bill and we have been clear throughout that we are taking a pragmatic approach to what we have always said is a vital piece of legislation. Where MPs and peers can improve the Bill we will work with them.”

In addition, the Government gave clues for further changes and meaningful consideration of other amendments: “We have said we will look at amendments and respond to them in due course.”

If the Brexit referendum was an expression of the will of the people, then today’s victory shows that Brexit can be a democratic and transparent process where laws can be collectively examined and approved. This is what taking back control should really mean.