Today, ministers debated the Great Repeal Bill. Also known as the EU withdrawal bill, the legislation aims at incorporating EU law into domestic law once the UK formally leaves the EU. 

The main theme of the day was, on the one hand, David Davis’ accusations that Labour is delaying Brexit, and on the other hand, Labour’s view that the repeal bill amounts to giving a “legislative blank cheque” to the government. 

Labour’s Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, said that the “great” of the repal bill should have been preserved to indicate that this was a great power grab. Unless the government makes the necessary changes, Labour will vote against it on Monday, he warned. David Davis, the government’s Brexit secretary, said that he would “stand ready” to listen to those who offer “improvements to the bill”: “This bill does only what is necessary for a smooth exit and to provide stability; however, as I have repeatedly said, I welcome and encourage contributions from those who approach the task in good faith and in a spirit of collaboration.”

Davis also assured MPs that they will get the opportunity to vote on the final Brexit agreement before ministers start using their Henry VIII powers to pass an estimated 1,000 statutory instruments.  

He pointed out to colleagues that Britons’ fundamental rights won’t be affected by the bill, but Conservative Dominic Grieve clarified that the rights of individuals to make legal challenges will no longer be possible: “That seems to me to be a marked diminution in the rights of the individual.”

Repeal Bill: Why is it problematic?

For Starmer, the biggest problem with the divorce bill is that it will allow ministers to use the “widest possible powers” with the “weakest possible scrutiny.” He supported his argument on the divorce bill’s controversial “Henry VIII” powers—which will enable ministers to change primary legislation without parliamentary scrutiny—with an interim report produced by the House of Lords and published today. The report recognises that the EU (Withdrawal) Bill “raises a series of profound, wide-ranging and interlocking constitutional concerns,” which have to do mainly with the relationship between Parliament and the executive, the rule of law and legal certainty and the stability of the UK’s territorial constitution. The first issue has to do with the separation of powers between Parliament and Government, the second with the uncertainties contained in the Bill and the concerns arising from such lack of clarity. The ambiguities in the Bill relating to individuals, organisations and the government are making it difficult to define rights and responsibilities. The third issue, for the peers, is the uncertainties relating to the devolution settlement and the “balance of the power within the Union.” The Lords concluded that the Bill is “highly complex” and “convoluted,” which “renders scrutiny very difficult,” while leaving many “fundamental constitutional questions” unanswered. 

The Bill, Starmer pointed out, failed to protect and reassert the principle of parliamentary sovereignty because it handed to government ministers sweeping powers to bypass parliament on key decisions and allowed for rights and protections to be removed or sidestepped without any guaranteed parliamentary scrutiny. He highlighted the problematic and unclear issue of the devolved administrations, the failure to provide certainty about rights and protections, human rights and workplace protections, as well as environmental standards. The Bill, he argued, failed to provide any details on “implementing strong transitional arrangements on the same basic terms we currently enjoy, including remaining within a customs union and within the single market.”   

Tory divisions

While ministers are debating their concerns over the repeal bill, Tory Eurosceptics are putting more pressure on the government by demanding a harder stance on Brexit. 

According to the Times’ Sam Coates, a letter that has been circulating among Tory Brexiter circles is intended to “stop the government softening Brexit in a move that will deepen divisions inside the Tory party.” It was signed by 40 Conservative MPs and it argues that it would be a historic mistake if the UK stays in the single market during a transition period. 

The letter, which is influenced from pro-Brexit group Change Britain, demands that “the government leaves the customs union in a way that means the UK has the immediate right to sign trade deals the day after Brexit.” It also argues that the UK shouldn’t pay anything to the EU during the transition period, and that any transitional deal needs to have “a clearly defined timetable for this country’s departure from the single market and customs union. Any deal should also reserve the right for the UK government to unilaterally withdraw from the deal via domestic legislation: we need to be sure that our own Government is in charge of the deal — not the EU — and that the deal won’t become permanent.”

The letter explains that the government shouldn’t stay in the single market because this would increase the difficulties of disentangling from the EU: “Continued membership of the single market, even as part of a transitional arrangement, would quite simply mean EU membership by another name - and we cannot allow our country to be kept in the EU by stealth. The government must respect the will of the British people, and that means leaving the Single Market at the same time as we leave the EU .... The longer one remains a member [of the single market], the harder it is to leave. Contrary to claims that it is a ‘sensible’ stepping stone to independence, it is in fact a conveyer belt to ever more European integration.”

The Eurosceptic MPs want to pressure May to deliver a clean and hard Brexit, amidst fears that a watered-down version might be in place to help businesses. The letter will deepen divisions in the Conservative party over what kind of Brexit the government should pursue during negotiations. This background noise adds to the current concerns over the Great Repeal Bill and demands to introduce changes and clarifications. As Conservative MP Nicky Morgan said, the debate has just started and the “true saboteurs of Brexit” are just those who oppose democratic procedures and parliamentary scrutiny.