Alarm over ‘Henry VIII’ clauses in Brexit white paper

Belinda Liversedge
British Safety Council
08 Apr 2017
Photograph iStock / martinwimmer

The government has published a white paper on legislating for the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union.

The Great Repeal Bill white paper is to ensure that all existing EU laws, including health and safety, will be transferred into the UK statute book. These include rights to paid holidays, protections from excessive working hours and equality rights – all laws that have originated from the EU. The massive conversion process - there are around 12,000 EU regulations in force in the UK –  will be done so there is a ‘functioning’ legal system in place for when Britain actually leaves the EU.

But the TUC has warned that so-called ‘Henry VIII’ powers provided for in the bill will allow the government to repeal or water down protections without parliamentary scrutiny.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “The Prime Minister needs to think again. She should carve out a specific exemption in the Great Repeal Bill to stop holes being punched in the rights that working people in Britain currently have.

“There must be a guarantee of a level playing field with our EU partners – not a race to the bottom on workplace rights,” she added.

The paper, published on 30 March, says that powers to make secondary legislation – those seized on as being dangerously antiquated – will be to ‘enable corrections to the laws that would otherwise no longer operate appropriately’. They will be used to correct some technicalities, such as references to ‘Member States other than the United Kingdom’, or references to ‘EU law’ and to speed the process up. 

Secretary of state for Exiting the EU, David Davis, reassured that: “It is not a vehicle for policy changes”. He said the Great Repeal Bill will provide ‘clarity and certainty’ for businesses and workers on the day of leaving the European Union. “It will mean that as we exit the EU and seek a new deep and special partnership with the EU, we will be doing so from the position where we have the same standards and rules. But it will also ensure that we deliver on our promise to end the supremacy of EU law in the UK.”

But shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said: “We need an assurance 9from Davis) that he will face down those on his own side who will not be able to resist the temptation to water these rights and protections down.”

“When we see the Bill there should be no power to change rights and obligations and protections in the future by delegated legislation.”

O’Grady said: “The Prime Minister should put a clause in the Bill that ensures that her government can’t use antiquated Henry VIII powers to [reduce] worker protections on the quiet, without parliamentary scrutiny.”

The government wants the power in the Great Repeal Bill to come into force as soon as the Bill gains Royal Assent, so that the process of correcting the statute book can begin.

Britain is expected to officially leave the EU no later than April 2019. Prime minister Theresa May triggered Article 50 to start the process shortly before 12:30pm on 29 March 2017.