The Queen’s Speech this morning was, predictably, dominated by Brexit. Some commentators have been quick to describe the legislative programme as “thin”, but there are a huge amount of meaty and controversial issues the Government hopes to get through parliament over the coming two years. Aside from eight bills required in order to implement Brexit, there are another 16 proposed bills to contend with ranging from the Data Protection Bill to the Draft Tenants’ Fees Bill.
Hard to see Government being defeated on the Repeal Bill
The most important of the Brexit-related bills, and the one which underpins all the other Brexit issues, is the Repeal Bill. This will simultaneously repeal the 1972 European Communities Act and provide for the transposition of the entire body of EU law onto the UK statute book at the point of the UK’s departure.
Some in Government are worried about getting the Repeal Bill through parliament. In its manifesto, the Labour Party said it would ditch the bill and propose its own “EU Rights and Protections Bill” – but this was designed to exactly the same job as the government is proposing to do with the Repeal Bill. In April 2017, Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer said that Labour’s EU Rights and Protections Bill would “make sure that all EU-derived laws – including workplace laws, consumer rights and environmental protections – are fully protected without qualifications, limitations or sunset clauses.”
The fate of the Repeal Bill is likely to rest on a delicate mutual understanding amongst MPs and Peers that if anyone seeks to use its passage through parliament either to water-down or build on the rights and protections of existing EU legislation, then the whole process could easily blow up.
It would be a truly nuclear option for any party to try to bring down the bill, since the Repeal Bill, and specifically the repeal of the 1972 European Communities Act, is essential to delivering the UK’s withdrawal. An overwhelming majority of MPs have been elected on manifestos pledging to deliver Brexit and therefore the pressure on all sides to back the bill will be incredibly strong. Voting against would be tantamount to voting against Brexit.
However, at the same time, as has been noted before, the government will need to pass countless pieces of secondary legislation in order to ensure that the provisions of existing EU legislation are carried over into UK law smoothly. This includes, for example, the need to ensure that where current EU law refers to the enforcement powers of EU agencies, this is replaced with references to powers of new or existing UK authorities and agencies.
It is in the passage of this secondary legislation where parliamentary fun and games could quickly turn into a quagmire for the government.
Customs Bill and Trade Bill signal government intent on leaving customs union
Despite the recent speculation that the Chancellor might seek to frustrate the Prime Minister’s objective of creating a new relationship with the EU outside customs union and the single market, what this really amounts to in practice is a call for a smooth and orderly withdrawal based on continued participation in elements of customs union and the single market.
The proposed legislation on customs and trade legislation, which in the words of the Queen’s Speech “will help to implement an independent trade policy,” illustrates the government’s continued intent to stick to its ultimate objective of delivering a comprehensive trade and customs agreement with the EU, outside of customs union. As we explained in Open Europe’s customs paper, “Nothing to declare”, meaningfully delivering an independent trade policy means ruling out ‘half-in, half-out’ customs union of the Turkish variety and opting instead for cooperation on customs clearance and borders.
While “No deal is better than a bad deal” has dropped out of the political lexicon in recent days, this legislation will also need to plan for such an eventuality. In any case, as the UK moves to an independent trade policy with or without a preferential EU trade agreement, this legislation is needed to grant the power to play a full and independent role as a World Trade Organisation member. This includes the power to alter UK tariffs but also establishing UK trade defence measures, such as against unfair “dumping” or subsidies.
Immigration Bill will be a major political battleground
In previous years, the Queen’s speech has included references to measures intended to “control” and “limit” immigration. This morning’s speech did not. It simply listed immigration as one of the many issues where “new national polices” would be established.
The General Election has called into question the “tens of thousands” target and how much flexibility the UK might have to accept free movement of people from the EU as part of a transition agreement. There are likely to be fierce arguments about this in parliament, between and within parties.
Agriculture, Fisheries, International Sanctions and Nuclear Safeguards Bills are major undertakings in their own right
In addition to all of the above, the UK will need to devise and implement its own agriculture and fisheries policies to replace the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy and Common Fisheries Policy, which will be both technically complex and politically fraught.
The bills on International Sanctions and Nuclear Safeguards stem from the UK’s withdrawal from EU’s common foreign and security policy and Euratom, the body that regulates nuclear energy that was effectively rolled into the EU treaties. One would expect that replicating the UK’s ability to act independently in these two fields is likely to be less controversial, but, with a hung parliament, anything can happen.
Overall, and including the other, albeit limited, domestic policies the government intends to pursue, this is hardly a thin legislative programme. Government and Parliament will have more than enough work to be getting on with over the next two years.