What is the Great Repeal Bill? The only explanation you need to read

Laura Hughes

What is the ‘Great Repeal Bill’ ? 

The Government has announced it will repeal the 1972 European Communities Act in a move that will end the legislation that gives European Union law supremacy in Britain.

In its place, a new “Great Repeal Bill” has been introduced in Parliament to put power for the nation’s laws back into the hands of MPs and peers.

It is actually titled the 'European Union (Withdrawal Bill)', not The Great Repeal Bill. Theresa May coined the previous term at her 2016 party conference - when she still had a comfortable majority. But it was never likely to be the official title of the Bill in reality.

The Bill was formally introduced in the next Queen's Speech, before it will be voted through by MPs and Peers later this year. 

The House of Commons library has warned it will be one of the largest legislative processes "ever undertaken".

Theresa May, the Prime Minister, says the Bill means the UK "will be an independent sovereign nation". 

British Prime Minister Theresa May  Credit: EPA/ROBERT PERRY

What is the 1972 European Communities Act?

A year before joining what was then the European Economic Community in 1973, the Government paved the way with the 1972 Act. 

It is the crucial piece of legislation that makes European Union law automatically binding in the UK. If there is a clash with British law, EU law takes precedence.

The Act allowed Britain to join what would become the EU the following year. 

There are three principal elements that make up the Bill

Throughout the years, as controversial judgments from the European Court of Justice has often triggered anger among Tory MPs, the legislation became symbolic of Brussels’s influence over Britain.

Vote Leave, the formal campaign to leave the EU, named repealing the European Communities Act as one of their six Brexit “road map” promises a week before the referendum vote.

Wednesday officially started the historic process to leave the EU as the letter signed by Prime Minister Theresa May was sent to leaders of the 28-member bloc Credit: Xinhua / Barcroft Images

What is in the Bill? 

There are three principal elements that make up this Bill. 

The first is repealing the European Communities Act 1972, the historic law that took Britain into the EU. 

Second, the Bill will convert all EU law into United Kingdom law to prevent a black legal whole after Brexit. Thousands of European laws, dictats and directives will be turned into UK law before Brexit is completed in mid-2019. 

And thirdly, the Bill will create the necessary powers for MPs to change these laws once Britain has left the EU. 

However, there are concerns that under so-called Henry VIII clauses, the Government will have sweeping powers to repeal legislation without parliamentary approval.

Why does the UK need EU laws after voting for Brexit?

To ensure what Brexit Secretary David Davis calls "a calm and orderly exit".

EU laws cover all sorts of things like environmental regulation, workers' rights and financial services, so if they were not transferred, all these regulations would no longer have legal standing in the UK, creating a "black hole" and causing uncertainty.

The Bill will give parliaments and assemblies in Westminster, Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff the power to drop or change EU laws it does not want in future.

What are Henry VIII clauses? 

King Henry VIII published a 'Statute of Proclamations' in 1539, which gave him the power to legislate by proclamation.

So-called “Henry VIII clauses” today give the Government powers to change old laws that have already been passed by Parliament.

And they allow the Prime Minister to change existing laws without Parliament’s full approval. 

Ministers insist they need these powers to “correct” European laws that refer to EU bodies soon to be defunct after Brexit. 

But critics have accused the Government of avoiding scrutiny and - crucially - circumventing the Lords.

David Davis, the Brexit Secretary has said any powers created in this way will be "time limited" and "Parliament will need to be satisfied that the procedures are appropriate".

Henry VIII portrait  Credit: Valerie Leonard / Rex Features

How many laws will be converted? 

The Government's white paper on the Repeal Bill has no precise figure for the number of EU rules which will be transferred into domestic law.

However, it does note that there are currently more than 12,000 EU regulations in force.

 The paper adds that Parliament has passed 7,900 statutory instruments implementing EU legislation and 186 Acts which incorporate a degree of EU influence.

The Palace of Westminster Credit: Eddie Mulholland

Could the Bill be blocked? 

Now Mrs May has found herself in charge of an uncomfortable minority Government, it will only take a minor rebellion within Tory ranks, or by the Democratic Unionist Party MPs propping up her administration, for the Bill's progress to be interrupted.

Labour has said it will vote against the legislation because doesn't feel confident rights and rules will be protected after we leave the union.

Numerous Tory MPs are also known to be concerned about the powers which had raised the possibility of an embarrassing rebellion for Mrs May. 

But potential Tory rebels have insisted that they will not oppose the Bill, also known as the Repeal Bill, as it seeks to clear its first major hurdle in the Commons.

However, they have said they will seek to make changes to it during future stages of debate.

The chances of a Government defeat have lessened still further with a number of Labour MPs expected to defy Mr Corbyn's strict three-line-whip to vote against the Bill.

With Tory MPs believed to be on board for now, and the guaranteed support of the Democratic Unionist Party's 10 MPs, the Bill is expected to clear its second reading. 

There are concerns that the Scottish Parliament could seek to block the Bill's passage. 

Under the Sewel convention, the UK Parliament does not normally legislate on matters which the Scottish Parliament is responsible for without gaining their consent. 

However, Alex Salmond, the former first minister, claimed that if Westminster were to ignore a decision by Holyrood to withhold its consent it would precipitate a “constitutional crisis”.

Asked what would happen if Holyrood withheld its consent, Mr Mundell warned that it could result in a "hole in our law" if the body of European law isn't adopted.