First came Brexit. Now comes Britain’s bonfire of European laws.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is pushing ahead with a contentious plan to remove all remaining European Union laws from Britain’s statute book by the end of 2023, despite opponents’ claims that the move is rash and unworkable.
Thousands of pieces of EU law were cut-and-pasted into U.K. legislation when Britain left the bloc in 2020 after decades of membership, to ensure continuity for people and businesses. A bill debated Wednesday in Parliament would automatically remove all of them at the end of the year unless they are explicitly replaced or retained. Financial services rules are exempt from the cull.
“I cannot stress enough the importance of achieving this deadline, the deadline of 2023,” Business Minister Nusrat Ghani told lawmakers in the House of Commons. “Retained EU law was never intended to sit on the statute book indefinitely.”
Opponents argue that reviewing such a huge mass of law is a mammoth undertaking that will suck up the time of civil servants and lead to rules being rewritten without proper parliamentary scrutiny.
Conservative lawmaker David Davis, a firm supporter of Brexit, said Parliament was being asked “to sign a blank check, one might almost say a pig in a poke, because we do not know even how many pieces of legislation are going through on the back of this, let alone what they are.”
“It’s not democratic, but it’s also going to be inefficient and possibly incompetent,” Davis said.
Critics also worry that safeguards for workers’ rights and environmental standards will get eroded in the rush to discard the EU’s way of doing things.
Jo Pike, chief executive of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, said the bill would “wipe away decades of environmental and other protections with potentially far-reaching unintended consequences.”
Former Prime Minister Liz Truss introduced the bill during her ill-fated seven weeks in office last year. Sunak, her successor, decided to keep it despite calls from the opposition — and some within his governing Conservative Party — to scrap the bill or move the end date to 2026.
Some Conservative lawmakers want to amend the bill to give Parliament more explicit say over which laws are thrown out or amended.
Jill Rutter, a senior fellow at the Institute for Government think tank, said Sunak’s government appeared to hope that “this primal scream of legislation will finally flush the missing Brexit dividends out from the cover of bureaucratic inertia” and revive the British economy.
But, Rutter wrote in the Financial Times, it was “more likely to blow up in his government’s face than deliver noticeable benefits.”
The bill is expected to pass its final hurdle Wednesday in the House of Commons, where the Conservatives have a large majority. It will then go to the House of Lords for more scrutiny and likely opposition.