There is a law going through parliament. Quietly, as if it doesn’t really concern any of us. Or at least, that seems to be what Westminster powers want us to think. It is the retained EU law (revocation and reform) bill, also known as the ‘Brexit freedoms bill’.
But what does that name mean? What are ‘retained EU laws’, and what is the implication of dumping them all? Will we all need to start putting plugs on new appliances again and lose the right to a dinner break or a paid holiday?
When Britain left the EU, the European Union Withdrawal Agreement Act 2020 set out the rules for life after EU membership. Britain kept all its domestic legislation, even those that were based on EU regulations and directives, as it was decided changing or cancelling out 40-odd years of laws would result in chaos. This was covered in the withdrawal agreement.
Now the government is seriously discussing cancelling those laws – over 4,000 of them. On 22 September 2022, hardcore Brexiter Jacob Rees-Mogg, currently sitting as a backbench MP, introduced the bill to parliament.
The retained EU law bill aims to invalidate all British laws that were introduced to comply with EU directives. It’s worth considering that these directives were decided on by the EU when Britain was a prominent member. Our MEPs were able to discuss the laws and vote on them and many were instrumental in crafting the legislation. So Britain certainly had a say in those directives, but despite this, the government plans to unpick any British laws based on these EU directives.
Goals of the bill
This bill would give the government the power to cancel any law based on EU directives they don’t like, and replace it with new legislation without even needing to take the new legislation through parliament. Democracy is overrated it seems.
Normally a new law or a revision of an existing law requires a bill to be presented and debated in parliament. Then, when it has been accepted in the Commons it gets debated in the House of Lords, after which the House of Commons has to debate and vote on any amendments the Lords proposed.
Rees-Mogg’s act would give ministers the power to bypass those steps, and change any retained EU law they want without parliamentary scrutiny. Any retained EU bill that is not replaced or redrafted by 1 January 2024 would become invalid, though it is possible this date will be pushed back to 23 June 2026. The House of Lords certainly doesn’t seem happy about the 2024 deadline, as they fear having to replace up to 4,000 laws in one year would be too big a job and require too many civil servants to be pulled off other jobs. Therefore the expectation is that the deadline will be moved.
Imagine the chaos if up to 4,000 pieces of UK legislation – workers’ rights, environmental protections, food safety, employment rights and many more – suddenly cease to mean anything. Imagine overnight losing those valued rights and protections, in your job and in everyday life.
The bill, once enacted, will also enable the government to abolish the business impact target. This means that parliament will no longer be required to consider the economic impact of any new legislation on businesses.
It’s therefore important to take a look at what type of laws we’re talking about what these laws cover, and whether they have made a positive impact on our lives in the last 50 years.
Our general employment rights include the right to have paid holidays, sick pay, a working week no longer than 48 hours (except for junior doctors of course), and a 20-minute break if the working day is over six hours. They also cover aspects such as the right to keep working under your old contract if the business you work for is taken over by a different concern. And the right to work in a safe environment, as well as the right to ask for reasonable adjustments if you have health problems.
Many of us have benefited from these laws over the last 10–20 years. Are we really ready to say goodbye to them and not let our children have the same protection we had?
Women’s employment rights include the right to equal pay for men and women doing the same job. Also, the right to maternity leave and pay – entitlement to up to 39 weeks off at 90% of your wage for 6 weeks, and after that no less than £156.66 per week as minimum. The alternative is, of course, 12 weeks maximum at sick pay level.
So many of the rights we take for granted now are based on European directives. They’re not essential of course, and when it comes to women’s employment rights our mothers and/or grandmothers managed without them. So perhaps our daughters and granddaughters can manage without them too. We could go the whole hog and return to the times of David Copperfield. Or we could challenge this legislation before it’s too late.
And EU law is not only found in employment law. Think about the environment and tackling climate change, or the protections around farming. Clean beaches and rivers, or sewage in our waterways? Do we really prefer to have the choice of avoiding wild swimming or a day at the beach, or swimming in human excrement and risking infections such as E Coli, dysentery, or norovirus?
The environmental legislation we agreed while members of the EU include rules that protect wildlife and safeguard reasonable standards of life for farm animals such as free-range chickens. The alternative would be a return to battery hens, individual housing for sows in pens so small they can’t even turn around, or the loss of hedgerows around farm fields and the subsequent reduction in numbers of finches and blackbirds, to name just a few examples.
Under this new law, all these standards and protections can be removed or changed without concern for the animals or the wider impact.
Are we happy to eat genetically modified foods, without even knowing we eat them because labelling is no longer necessary? Or food with toxin or carcinogens in them, if the safe level limits are no longer enforced? These things were less of a problem in the early 70s, before we joined the EU. But it makes sense that we would need modern legislation for modern problems.
And think about allergy advice on labels. If these are removed, or made optional, does this mean we are happy to allow people to become seriously ill and even die because they can’t check if the food they buy is safe to eat? Cross contamination of allergens was far less likely to occur 40 to 50 years ago, but with modern large factories for manufacturing and packaging food, if for instance nuts or eggs are used anywhere in the factory, even on a different production line, traces can be present in anything that comes out of that factory. Perhaps allergy sufferers should just have to take their chances?
What about our consumer rights? Products we buy should now be fit for purpose, but will that requirement remain, or will we really have to start putting plugs on electrical goods ourselves again? It may be time to get the wire-strippers and the little screwdrivers out of the shed again.
The list is endless. But the point is: a lot of laws that are based on EU directives are good. Good for the population, good for our animals and nature, good for the country. And the government is planning to give itself the power to remove or change all those laws. It will be ministers deciding what happens, not parliament.
At this stage, we know which laws are at risk, but we don’t know which ones they will change and which ones will just be cancelled. Maybe they will replace none, maybe all. While it’s unlikely all 4,000 laws will be removed entirely, bear in mind what safeguards have already been amended in recent years. We know what this government is capable of (think sewage dumping, think refugee policies) and we know how its policies are impacting on the environment and individuals. Do you really trust that the rights and safeguards you care about will be protected?