Rees-Mogg move to axe 2,400 laws is ‘anti-democratic’, say legal experts

Laws that could disappear include ban on animal testing, workers’ rights and environmental protections

Leading lawyers have sounded the alarm over Jacob Rees-Mogg’s proposals for post-Brexit legislation that could result in 2,400 laws disappearing overnight – including a ban on animal testing for cosmetics, workers’ rights and environmental protections.

Lawyers including one former UK government legal official who designed the concept of EU-retained law for Theresa May branded the move as “anti-democratic” and “completely barking”.

Swathes of laws including equal pay for men and women, pension rights for same-sex married couples, food standards and aviation safety rules could accidentally disappear or be redrafted poorly, they warn.

The retained EU law (revocation and reform) bill will get its second reading on Tuesday. It was designed in such a way that 47 years of laws devised during EU membership will be switched off on 31 December 2023 under a so-called sunset clause.

“A lot of laws are going to be changed without any scrutiny at all by a dying government that few people respect,” said George Peretz KC, a specialist in European law.

The Unison general secretary, Christina McAnea, said: “This is a countdown to disaster for all working people. It ​would mean turning the clock back to Dickensian ​times when workers had no rights.

“In a financial crisis with a headless government, people need stability and support, not a bonfire of numerous employment rights.

“Ministers must act now to reassure everyone that hard-won ​protection won’t be shredded. A free-for-all ​giving the green light to unscrupulous bosses ​is not the ​route to economic growth.

“All of this is deeply objectionable on two grounds – it is anti-democratic and it is anti-growth,” said Peretz, pointing out that employers need legal certainty on employment laws, technical standards and other matters before expanding or investing.

“We are a democracy and we have a process of making law in parliament. People can write to their MPs, industry gets consulted, we have debates in the House of Commons and in the Lords. This is a completely anti-democratic process,” he added.

Eleonor Duhs, a partner at the City law firm Bates Wells and a former government lawyer who helped design the concept of retained EU law, said the government’s plans were completely at odds with May’s vision to remove EU laws with “full scrutiny and proper debate”.

The concept of retained law was created for a smooth transition, not as a target practice for Brexiters, she argued.

“This bill gives ministers powers to repeal and replace a vast body of what is now domestic law at speed and without proper scrutiny. This is unprecedented, reckless and undemocratic,” said Duhs.

She also raised questions about the use of precious legal drafting resources within Whitehall.

“It took over two years and a vast amount of civil service resource to draft over 600 pieces of legislation to get the statute book ready for Brexit. Those changes were technical and straightforward compared with the complexity of what will be required under this bill,” she said.

“At a time when civil service resource is falling, the task of rewriting this vast body of law in a few short months appears impossible. Errors, omissions and gaps in the law are inevitable.”

The notion that 2,400 laws could be expunged in little over a year was “completely barking”, said Peretz, but possible because of the “extraordinary power” the government was giving itself to push laws over the December 2023 cliff.

“There is no requirement anywhere on ministers to consult anybody. Under this bill, ministers can just let vital rights and protections for consumers, workers, the environment and animal welfare fall without parliament having any chance to stop that happening,” he said.

“This is nothing to do with whether you support Brexit or not. You can be a fanatical supporter of Brexit and still think this is not the right thing to do.

“All of this is being done in the most immense rush, and when you do things in a rush there is a risk that mistakes are made.”

The bill also gives ministers the powers to rewrite or “update” the rules, with no requirement to consult and at most only a two-hour debate in parliament to say yes or no, but, despite promises from Rees-Mogg that Brexit could mean higher standards than the EU’s, it does not confer power to improve standards and protections, but only to reduce them.

Environmental campaigners including Chris Packham have already sounded the alarm on the threat to disapply environmental rules protecting rare flora and fauna in the 38 new investment zones in England to enable “accelerated development”.


Lisa O'Carroll Brexit correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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