The Great Repeal Bill, which transfers some 12,000 EU laws on to the British statute book, passed its first hurdle in the early hours of Tuesday morning. MPs voted by a majority of 36 for a “second reading”. Next comes a committee stage, when it is scrutinised clause by clause, followed by a “third reading”. Before the bill becomes an act of parliament, the same process must be followed in the House of Lords.
It is a “legislative monster” and the final act could look “quite different”, says David Allen Green in the Financial Times. Within hours of the vote, 157 amendments had been tabled, many from senior Tory backbenchers. Ministers now face a “parliamentary war of attrition”, says Oliver Wright in The Times.
No Tory MPs voted against the bill, notes Laura Hughes in The Daily Telegraph – despite a number voicing concerns that it contains so-called Henry VIII powers giving the government authority to make legislative changes without the need for full parliamentary scrutiny. Corbyn had told his MPs to oppose the bill on the basis that it is a “power grab” by ministers, but was “humiliated” when seven defied him and 13 abstained. Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, echoed Corbyn’s sentiment, describing it as an “affront to parliamentary democracy”.
Adding fuel to the fire, late on Tuesday, a controversial motion allowing the Tories to take control of the powerful Committee of Selection was passed by 320 to 301 votes, adds Tom Peck on Independent.co.uk. The change will affect committees that scrutinise legislation, which will now have an “inbuilt Conservative majority” instead of mirroring the make-up of the Commons.
Are critics right to fear a power grab? Henry VIII powers are currently “used all the time in sensible, non-despotic ways”, say Barney Thompson and Jim Pickard in the FT – for example, to add another species of dog to the Dangerous Dogs Act. What worries critics now is the part of the Repeal Bill that deals with “deficiencies arising from withdrawal” once entities such as the European Court of Justice and EU regulators “no longer have any sway” in Britain. The government says it needs Henry VIII powers to “tidy this all up”, but others fear it might alter “not just the technical details, but also the substance and effect of the law”.
However, it isn’t fair to accuse the government of wanting to “turn Brexit Britain into Tudor Britain”. The Repeal Bill explicitly states that the powers cannot be used to introduce new taxes or tax rises, new criminal offences or a repeal of the Human Rights Act. The courts will also act as a check to ensure that the intention of the law is “not being altered or undermined”.
Labour tried to make the bill about the Henry VIII clauses, says Frank Field, one of the seven Labour MPs to defy Corbyn, in The Daily Telegraph. It isn’t. There’s no way every MP can be expected to scrutinise every sheet of four decades of EU legislation. Nevertheless, we are right to be “suspicious as to what the government is up to” and the Henry VIII clauses should be, if not “struck out”, at least “modified”. Another problem with the bill is that its size provides “a massive opportunity to those who say they accept the referendum decision but whose aim is to mess it up big time”.
Given this backdrop, says Field, I will soon be proposing a new short Brexit Bill. One of its clauses will establish the mechanism by which we review which laws and regulations we wish to keep, and which ones we want to amend or scrap. “It will allow the government to get on with the business of negotiating properly and stymie the guerrilla warfare campaign against implementing the wish of the British people to leave Europe.”