Today the Great Repeal Bill, or as it is officially called, the EU (withdrawal) bill, which will revoke the 1972 European Communities Act (ECA) and end the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, was published. MPs will debate and vote on the bill in Autumn and it would have to be passed by the time the UK officially leaves the EU, March 2019. 

As part of the Brexit process and in order to return sovereignty to UK institutions, the bill is meant to convert all EU laws into UK laws, where MPs will pick, choose, alter, or scrap laws completely. As David Davis, the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator said, the UK referendum vote had to do with taking back control and the EU bill will do exactly that: “That is what people voted for on 23 June: for Britain to take control of its own destiny, and for all decisions about taxpayers’ money, borders and laws to be taken here in Britain."

May said the great repeal bill was “a key element of showing that the government is determined to deliver on the will of the British people.”

David Davis asked the parties to work together with the government, but Labour promised to vote against the legislation, while the Lib Dem leader warned the government: "If you found the Article 50 Bill difficult, you should be under no illusion, this will be hell.” 

Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, explained that Labour is willing to give its support if the great repeal bill is changed and includes issues on workers’ rights and limitations regarding Henry VIII powers.

In a similar fashion, both the Scottish and Welsh governments said in a joint statement today, that unless there are significant changes to the bill, they will try and block it. In particular, their statement stressed that the “Bill does not return powers from the EU to the devolved administrations, as promised. It returns them solely to the UK government and parliament, and imposes new restrictions on the Scottish parliament and national assembly for Wales. On that basis, the Scottish and Welsh governments cannot recommend that legislative consent is given to the bill as it currently stands.”

Henry VIII powers

These powers are named after the Proclamation by the Crown Act 1539 (or Statute of Proclamations 1539) which gave Henry VIII the power to legislate by decree and which, according to Sir William Blackstone, was “a statute, which was calculated to introduce the most despotic tyranny; and which must have proved fatal to the liberties of this kingdom, had it not been luckily repealed."

Limiting the so-called Henry VIII powers is important since this will enable ministers to change rules without much parliamentary examination. As Jeremy Corbyn said earlier this March, “We’re not going to sit there and hand over powers to this government to override parliament, override democracy and just set down a series of diktats on what’s going to happen in the future. We’d be failing in our duty as democratically elected parliamentarians if we did that.” Whether it is a left or right government, giving the ability to ministers to use Henry VIII powers extensively, means that these powers could be used in such a way that bypasses the parliament’s powers. The “sweeping delegated powers” ministers will gain as they change legislation will constitute, according to Labour, a “power grab” by Westminster over the devolved nations. According to the bill, ministers will use the so-called Henry VIII powers for two years after Brexit.

The SNP's leader at Westminster, Ian Blackford, said: "The UK government needs to provide clarity over the repatriation of powers currently with the EU and which should go to the devolved nations. People in Scotland deserve a commitment from the UK Government to categorically rule out the threat of a Westminster power grab of devolved powers at any time as a result of the Repeal Bill and the UK Government should give a cast iron guarantee that devolved powers will be increased."

What is the European Communities Act 1972?

The European Communities Act 1972 regulated the UK’s introduction into the European Union, which was then known as the European Communities. According to the act, European law takes precedence over UK law. Essentially, by repealing the act will enable British law to become the privileged form of legislation in the UK.

Why is the Great Repeal Bill problematic?

The EU bill, has already created a stir among opposition parties since its publication today includes a clause which says that fundamental rights would not be part of domestic law after exit day. The EU charter of fundamental rights collects human rights in both EU and UK law and includes important rights under six categories referring to dignity, freedoms, equality, solidarity, citizens’ rights and justice. In addition, Labour is concerned with a few more issues. The party criticises the bill for its “sweeping delegated powers” and lack of “effective oversight and accountability,” its lack of clear enforcement mechanisms, its “wrong approach on devolution,” its failure to include “any provision to ensure that UK rights keep pace with EU rights after Brexit,” and the fact that there can be no “limitations or sunset clauses attached to this Bill.”

Tim Farron said that the government is “facing a parliamentary version of guerrilla warfare that resembles the days of the Maastricht treaty.” This “political nightmare,” he said, “could end Theresa May’s premiership.” He added that he was keen to work with opposition parties to find common ground and defend the “vital protections” of European law. 

In a scornful, but instructive article, George Osborne’s Evening Standard editorial described the great repeal bill in darker tones saying that it was ironic how the modern repeal bill of 2017 was basically taking power away from Parliament and giving it back to government.  Alluding to George Orwell’s dystopian fiction, the commentary concluded that, “Orwell must be looking down on us with a smile.” It appears that apart from the many points that the opposition wants to alter, the repeal bill reveals the fact that taking back control was always a distraction and a lie, since, as the article pointed out, if Parliament can vote to restore its sovereignty then parliament “has always been sovereign.”