The much awaited draft Repeal Bill has now been published. This is the most important bit of legislation relating to Brexit.
It will repeal the European Communities Act 1972, transferring most EU laws into UK law, and give government ministers in London and Edinburgh extensive powers to amend, repeal and even create new laws without the normal parliamentary process.
In its current form, the Repeal Bill is a threat to our democracy. It is a panicked power-grab by a Tory government who have lost their majority and are now clinging to power; a government who know the difficulties ahead for passing their damaging agenda and so are instead using the powers created for a 16th century tyrant king, the so-called ‘Henry VIII powers’ to simply ram it through.
It’s not only Conservative UK ministers who will wield these powers though. SNP ministers in Edinburgh will also gain them. Given Scotland’s strong commitment to democracy and holding governments to account, the SNP should quickly confirm that they will work within an agreed and appropriate framework rather than follow on from the Tories’ undemocratic example.
Just this week over sixty leading figures from across Scotland, including the author of Article 50 have called for Brexit to be halted. The Greens are more than sympathetic to those calls, but for now it is vital that proper democratic safeguards are added to this dangerous Repeal bill. To understand just how much of a threat it actually is, we have to consider its contents.
The Repeal Bill transfers almost all EU law into UK law, a move that the government had announced in advance and is needed to provide some degree of continuity as the long and intensely difficult task of disentangling UK law from EU law begins. At this point alarm bells are already ringing though.
One piece of EU law that the Conservative government has expressly decided not to keep is the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. This is a charter which provides guarantees on basic rights, from the right to life to the right to join a trade union to the right to fair and just working conditions.
The government claims that its provisions are already provided by the Human Rights Act, but that act actually covers less than half of the rights in the EU’s Charter. All of the social and economic rights, as well as some more modern civil rights such as the right to protection of personal data, will be lost. It is deeply worrying that any government should wish to free itself of constraints from basic rights and we have to ask why the Tories would want to do so.
The most worrying aspects of the Repeal Bill are the Henry VIII powers already mentioned. The aim is to deal with problems caused by withdrawal from the EU, comply with international obligations, and implement the withdrawal agreement, all in a very short space of time. In the vast majority of cases, ministers can have new laws automatically enacted if parliament does not actively vote against a proposal within a set period of time.
Given the thousands of pieces of regulation needed to implement Brexit, there is a very real risk that our parliaments will be overwhelmed and unable to properly scrutinise new laws before they are automatically enacted.
To make matters worse, buried near the end of the bill in Schedule 7 is a provision allowing government ministers to enact a law for one month without it even being put before parliament if they consider the matter to be urgent. This is secret law-making and rule-by-decree. It’s not democracy.
These powers are far-reaching and we already know how hostile the Westminster government is to health and safety regulations, product standards, environmental regulations and workers’ rights. These could all be in the firing line.
It’s also now clear that three million EU citizens could lose their rights without even a vote in parliament, or without parliament even being informed if a minister considers it urgent. If this were to happen I would have the Scottish and Welsh governments took a challenge to the Supreme Court on behalf of EU citizens living in their jurisdictions. This is a time for resistance, not compromise with an unstable Tory administration.
The Greens want to see an emergency brake added so that any abuses of the Henry VIII powers would allow parliament to suspend them. As it stands, this is a power-grab too far. We will also be working to ensure the Charter of Fundamental Rights is transferred. I hope other progressive and democratic parties can work with us on both goals.
We cannot forget that Scotland voted for none of this; not for Brexit or this government. We must not let them away with the social vandalism they are intent on.
This article first appeared in The National.