By William James
LONDON (Reuters) – The British government set out on Thursday how it will handle the mammoth task of converting European Union laws into domestic legislation in preparation for its exit from the bloc, seeking to ease business uncertainty about life after Brexit.
Prime Minister Theresa May formally notified Brussels on Wednesday of Britain’s intention to leave the EU after more than 40 years of membership. In that time, tens of thousands of EU-related laws have made their way onto the British statute book, governing almost everything from farming to finance.
Her ministers laid out how they intend to unpick that complex legislative web by initially converting the entire body of EU law into British law – a step seen as necessary to ensure continuity for businesses trading across EU borders.
The plan centers around a “Great Repeal Bill” due to be laid before parliament in May. The bill will transpose EU law, repeal the 1972 European Communities Act which formalizes Britain’s EU membership, and give ministers the power to change existing laws to make sure they work after Brexit.
“The bill will convert EU law into United Kingdom law, allowing businesses to continue operating knowing the rules have not changed overnight, and providing fairness to individuals, whose rights and obligations will not be subject to sudden change,” Brexit minister David Davis told parliament.
Analysis by Thomson Reuters says 52,741 laws have been introduced in the UK as a result of EU legislation since 1990, and research published by parliament estimates 13.2 percent of UK primary and secondary legislation enacted between 1993 and 2004 was EU-related.
Davis said the European Court of Justice (ECJ) would have no future role in interpreting British laws, but that courts would be able to reference ECJ case law.
The bill is expected to be subject to close scrutiny, with companies saying they cannot plan without knowing what comes after Brexit, forcing them to put investment programs on hold and sometimes delaying major infrastructure projects.
Drugmakers are concerned that Brexit will mean the UK leaves the EU-wide European Medicines Agency, forcing the creation of a separate British system for drug approvals. That will mean more red tape and could delay new medicines reaching Britain.
The government’s proposals did not specifically address such concerns, which are echoed in other industries such as finance and aviation where firms worry that leaving the EU will mean quitting the regulatory bodies that authorize them to trade.
Aides said membership of EU agencies would be a matter for May’s negotiation.
The plan also raised hackles among some politicians who fear the government will use the Brexit process to reshape EU laws without proper parliamentary scrutiny as they move them into British law.
The Liberal Democrats called it a “shameless power grab” and the main opposition Labour Party demanded tighter controls on the powers that the government wants to grant itself to amend legislation without consulting lawmakers.
The plan to use such powers, often referred to as ‘Henry VIII powers’ after the 16th century monarch who ruled by proclamation, also drew wider criticism.
Gina Miller, the investment manager who took on the government and won over whether May needed parliament’s approval to begin Brexit talks, said she was concerned that laws affecting citizens’ rights could be changed.
“If there is any sniff that they are trying to use Henry VIII powers, that would be profoundly unparliamentary and undemocratic, and I would seek legal advice, because what you are doing is setting a precedent that government could bypass parliament,” she told BBC Radio 5 Live.
Davis rejected such concerns, saying the bill and the powers it will create were designed to ensure legal certainty and that any changes in policy would be carried out through the normal legislative process, during which parliament would have its say.
“We’re not considering some form of governmental executive orders,” he told parliament.
(Additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan, Elizabeth Piper and Ben Hirschler; Editing by Gareth Jones)