6 February 2023
A bill is currently making its way through UK Parliament that threatens to remove longstanding legal protections.
After Brexit, laws from the UK’s time in the European Union that regulate things like the environment, employment rights, health standards and consumer protection – to name a few – were carried over into UK domestic law and became known as retained EU law. The pieces of such legislation number in the thousands – and the Government is continuing to find more as its departments assess the statute books.
In September, the Government signaled its intention to scrap these retained laws in an alarmingly short window of time under the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill – or REUL for short.
Under the Bill, ministers would be able to revoke, replace, restate or update retained EU law without proper parliamentary oversight – and any retained law that isn’t specifically saved by the end of this year would automatically expire under a ‘sunset clause’. Worryingly, there is no obligation for the Government to replace any protections that it either revokes or allows to ‘sunset’.
A legal analysis issued in February also warned that if the bill were to become law, it would erode the UK’s democracy. Voters, their elected members of Parliament and devolved legislatures would have no say when it comes to laws that have been in place for years or, in some cases, decades.
But what does that mean in practice for people living in the UK?
The quality of drinking water in the UK has long been regulated by the Drinking Water Regulations (which implements the EU’s Drinking Water Directive). It makes sure that the water coming out of British taps for drinking, cooking, washing, and cleaning is high quality and safe to use.
If the UK Government fails to retain or replace these regulations with equally high standards, it could put people’s health at risk by exposing them to harmful contaminants.
Clean air laws carried over from the EU like the Air Quality Standards Regulations 2010 set limits on harmful air pollutants and require the Government to measure and report pollution levels and provide information to the public.
Air quality has been worsening across the UK since lockdown lifted - and yet rather than try to reduce pollution, the Government is running the risk of doing away with laws that hold it to account over dirty air with this bill.
British food sourcing and the withdrawal or recall of unsafe food from consumers has been controlled by the General Food Law – which came about in the early 2000s when the UK was still a member of the EU.
It covers food safety from farms all the way to the finished product on a plate at home or in a restaurant.
Without these standards being retained or an equivalent set of British regulations being introduced, the food consumed in the UK risks becoming unsafe.
The EU created its own set of regulations around protecting critical habitats for wildlife, which applied to the UK when it was still a member. These powerful protections have been carried into UK law – they include designations such as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), of which there are 242 in England alone.
If these protections were to lapse, beautiful ancient woodlands, sea caves and dunes could be under threat from unsustainable development, as well as all the species that rely on them.
The risks go beyond just environmental concerns. Laws that provide important protection for health and safety are also in the firing line, as are those offering consumer protection.
REUL could also impact workers rights, such as the hours employees are demanded to work, paternity and maternity leave and principles of equal pay for male and female workers.
Despite the political posturing around it, ‘retained EU law’ means simply those laws that were in place while the UK was in the EU and which have been carried over post-Brexit. Many of these laws had been in place in the UK for decades. Any review of these laws needs to be done with great care and with enough time to avoid negative consequences for the rights, safety and health of the public.
However, we are concerned that this Bill will instead lead to a chaotic and inefficient review that creates red-tape for the Government while threatening a whole host of fundamental protections. For these reasons, we believe the bill should be abandoned immediately.