Something is happening in parliament just now, which might sound obscure, but it is very important. I am talking about the Retained EU Law Bill, known as REUL for short.
The bill was introduced by William Rees Mogg, a diehard Brexiter in 2022, to remove all EU law from our statute book, announcing that now we had left the EU we should be able to make our own laws, not be “dictated to” by Brussels. At the time Rees Mogg had the rather quaint title “Minister for Brexit Opportunities”. He found it difficult to find many, and at one stage actually asked the public to write to him telling him about possible ones he had not noticed. The Bill to remove Retained EU Law Bill is that like many policies associated with Brexit it was not very well thought through. It simply sets a “sunset clause” of the end of 2023 for all EU laws to be abolished and replaced by new ones.
The trouble is nobody seems certain how many there are. At first there were about 800, then the government’s official list went to 1,798 in February. Experts now estimate that the real figure is nearer 4000. Amending or replacing all of them is going to be a mammoth task for civil servants once they have found them. Doing it by the end of 2023 is going to be well-nigh impossible.
The Tory Party’s approach
Although accepting Brexit, Rishi Sunak and his foreign minister, James Cleverley seemed to have adopted a pragmatic approach to the issue. The best example is the Windsor agreement on Northern Ireland, but another are attempts by Cleverley to make border controls easier which is being negotiated now. But there remain a hard-core group in the Conservative Party who regard Brexit as an article of faith, and any attempt to alter or change it to make things work better is treason. This rigid attitude has led to badly thought-out arrangements like the Northern Ireland Protocol, and it would seem, the EU Retained Law Bill. Sunak needs the support of these people, although he is rumoured to be reducing the number to be considered. Ministers will be empowered to impose new laws without taking them back to Parliament for scrutiny, what some MPs call “Henry VIII powers”. In other word the executive will take powers away from parliament.
Many Tories don’t like this. David Davis, a prominent Brexiter, said in the debate:
“I voted and I campaigned to improve democracy. I wanted to take back control to give it to Westminster, not to Whitehall.”
Rees Mogg in his usual supercilious way, described it as a “technical tidying up operation” but of “great constitutional importance”.
The bill finally got through its first reading by 297 votes to 238, not a very big majority. Twelve Conservatives voted against the government. It now goes to the Lords.
One thing Rees Mogg said is true. The bill is of great constitutional importance. Many of the EU laws are about environmental protection, and the Wildlife Trusts have protested loudly. There are also many employee protection rules. If these simply lapsed or are not properly replaced there could be disastrous results.
The bill is now in the Lords, and hopefully will be amended. The “sunset clause” can be put back to allow proper scrutiny and consideration of replacements or amendments to the rules. It is parliament which should decide whether a regulation is valuable or not, not ministers. The Lords are debating the bill now.
Sunak must stir himself to sort this out. If he wants a sensible relationship with Europe and to improve trade, he must rein in the extreme Brexiters. He did it before with the Northern Ireland protocol. He needs to face them down again.
While we are on the subject of Brexit, there is another issue directly effecting the North East. I campaigned against Brexit, but Leave won a majority and I accept that. But Leave does not mean accepting all the unforeseen consequences when many could be put right without rejoining the EU. The government promised life would be better after Brexit, so it has to sort problems, not argue as Jacob Rees Mogg does that we may have to wait 50 years or so to see the benefits.
One big consequence is the loss of regional aid. When we were in the EU regional aid was distributed on the basis of need. The North East did well. The government promised it would replace the aid, so we have the Levelling Up Fund where funds are distributed on ministerial whims, often to “vanity projects”. County Durham received nothing, even though it has some very deprived areas. The Mayor of North Tyneside, Jamie Driscoll, boasts about the grants he has managed to secure by being pally with Michael Gove. So far they have resulted in just over 50 jobs., Kim McGuinness has stated forcefully in Labour List that the system is rotten, and we need a fairer one where grants are distributed on the basis of need. No amount of cosying up to Tory Ministers will get the funding the North East needs. Instead money must be distributed on the basis of need. Our loss of regional funding is one of the consequences of Brexit that people did not forsee. If Sunak will not fix this, Labour must.