MSPs have backed a call for the UK Government to scrap a key Brexit bill, with concerns it will undermine devolution and threaten key protections introduced under the EU.

A motion on the Retained EU Law Bill put forward by Constitution Secretary Angus Robertson was passed at Holyrood on Tuesday by 84 votes to 29.

It also stated that the bill threatens environmental and health standards and protections built up over 47 years of EU membership, as well as creating “enormous uncertainty” for workers and businesses.

What is the bill about?

When the UK left the EU, it was subject to a wide range of European laws covering everything from competition rules to workers’ rights and environmental and food standards. To prevent the chaos which would have ensued from letting these laws lapse after Brexit, they were effectively "copied and pasted" into EU law, which is now known as retained EU law.

The UK Government has proposed legislation which means all of this retained EU law - an estimated 3800 articles - would be switched off on 31 December 2023.

What are the concerns?

The Scottish Government has published a report outlining the risks it believes the bill poses. It says the legislation as it stands would give ministers powers to preserve retained EU laws, as well as repeal or replace with other laws as they “consider appropriate”.

While acknowledging these powers could mitigate the dangers of the bill, the Scottish Government says the fact ministers hold these powers rather than Parliament, could lead to a lack of democratic scrutiny.

There is also concern the “arbitrary and rushed” deadline of the end of next year poses a risk that vital laws could disappear overnight if ministers do nothing.

The National: Scottish Constitution Secretary Angus RobertsonScottish Constitution Secretary Angus Robertson (Image: newsquest)

What impact could it have?

The Scottish Government has outlined examples in key policy areas of the types of laws that could be impacted.

For example, it says food that has no warning information about allergens could be sold because the requirement to inform consumers of allergens would not exist.

There are particular concerns over working regulations, with rights such as a 48-hour week, minimum rest periods, annual paid leave entitlements and paid maternity or paternity leave could be at risk.

Environmental laws could also be impacted, such as the requirement for the Government to reduce emissions and publish its reports vanishing.

There are also concerns that it will undermine devolution, as UK ministers can choose to revoke legislation in devolved areas without the consent of the Scottish Parliament or Welsh Senedd. 

What’s been the reaction?

It’s not just the Scottish Government raising concerns. The Welsh Government has also warned it could see UK Government ministers being given “unfettered authority” to legislate in devolved areas and risks reduction of standards in areas such as employment, health and the environment.

More than a dozen organisations - including the Institute of Directors, Trades Union Congress, Civil Society Alliance and Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development - have written to Business Secretary Grant Shapps calling for the bill to be ditched.

“As representatives of trade unions, employers, lawyers, environmental groups and civic society we are concerned that if passed into law, it could cause significant confusion and disruption for businesses, working people and those seeking to protect the environment,” the letter stated.

Legal experts have also criticised the bill, warning it gives ministers unprecedented powers to make or ditch laws without consultation.

What does the UK Government say?

The issue was raised at Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, with SNP MP Kirsten Oswald calling for Rishi Sunak to scrap the “disastrous ideological bill now”.

She pointed to an impact assessment from the Government’s own independent assessor the Regulatory Policy Committee which concluded that it is “not fit for purpose”.

In response, Sunak said: “Actually taking advantage of our freedoms is going to drive growth and jobs and prosperity in the United Kingdom, whether it's in life sciences, whether it's reducing the burdens on data for those SMEs, whether it is in the financial services industry in Scotland – that is how we are going to create prosperity across this nation and that is why we are going to get on and deregulate post-Brexit.”

But there have also been reports that senior civil servants are pushing Sunak – who made removing EU laws a priority during his leadership campaign – to delay the deadline of the end of next year with concerns over the workload involved.

What happens next?

The bill is currently going through the House of Commons and will proceed to the House of Lords if agreed by MPs.

Holyrood’s Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee will be taking evidence on Thursday on the bill from representatives of RSPB Scotland, the Social Association, UK Environmental Law Association, Scottish Environment LINK, Trade and Animal Welfare Coalition, along with the Society of Chief Officers of Trading Standards in Scotland.