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04 July 2018

50: Great Repeal Bill – I want to know that certainty’s in my life

The Bill received Royal Assent on 26 June 2018, becoming the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018.

Commencement

Certain provisions came into force straight away (as provided in s25 of the Act), notably:

  • sections 8 to 11 (and Schedule 2), which provide Ministers, and (to an extent) the devolved authorities, with powers to deal with deficiencies arising from withdrawal and to implement the withdrawal agreement (we understand departments are hard at work preparing SIs, with a Parliamentary deluge to come in the autumn);
  • section 13, which provides for Parliamentary approval of the outcome of negotiations with the EU (with the Brexit committee calling for a five day debate);
  • section 16, which requires the Secretary of State to publish within six months a draft Bill maintaining certain environmental principles;
  • section 17, which requires Ministers to negotiate agreement with EU re child refugees;
  • section 18, which requires a Minister to lay a statement outlining steps taken by Government to negotiate a new customs arrangement; and
  • section 22 (and Schedules 6 and 7), which provides for Parliamentary scrutiny of regulations made under the Act.

The SSExEU made use of his new powers almost immediately, making the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 (Commencement and Transitional Provisions) Regulations 201 (SI 2018 No.808) bringing further provisions of the Act into force on 4 July. The further provisions brought into force are largely those which enable Ministers to make regulations or give directions under the Act for particular purposes, and certain consequential, interpretative and repealing provisions.

Particularly hard-line (or cynical) Brexiteers might be suspicious that the provisions which would actually have the effect of removing the UK from the EU (ie section 1 which repeals the ECA 1972 on exit day, and sections 2 to 7 which provide for the transposition of EU law into UK law) are not yet in force.

Calls for certainty

The SSExEU David Davis said that Royal Assent marked a ‘landmark moment’ in the Brexit process, adding:

‘We will now begin the work of preparing our statute book, using the provisions in this Act, to ensure we are ready for any scenario, giving people and businesses the certainty they need.’

Certainty seems to be in short supply. Major UK businesses have been lining up in recent weeks to warn the Government about the effect of leaving the EU single market and customs union without the transition deal which, they believe, is needed to prevent severe disruption to UK manufacturing.

Tom Williams, chief operating officer of Airbus Commercial Aircraft, was reported as saying that in ‘any scenario’, Brexit had ‘severe negative consequences’ for the UK aerospace industry and Airbus in particular. But he said that the impact of ‘no deal’ on its UK operations could be ‘significant’ and ‘directly threatens Airbus’ future in the UK.’

BMW followed, with UK boss Ian Robertson saying he needed to know the Government’s preferred position was on customs and trade within months or his company – and the UK’s – competitive position could be harmed:

‘If we don’t get clarity in the next couple of months we have to start making those contingency plans… which means making the UK less competitive than it is in a very competitive world right now… That is a decisive issue that ultimately could damage this industry.’

Heath Minister Jeremy Hunt called such comments ‘completely inappropriate… in a critical moment in the Brexit discussions… we need to get behind Theresa May to deliver the best possible Brexit’. The Foreign Secretary responded in even more ‘robust‘ fashion.

But business wasn’t cowed. The British Chambers of Commerce has published a list of 24 ‘real-world questions‘ it claimed British businesses needed urgent answers to, in order to plan their trade following the Brexit. The BCC said the Government had made limited progress on just two issues (the status of EU nationals in the UK workforce and on the industrial standards regime), with the others remaining red, including:

  • on Tax, whether a business will need to pay VAT on goods at point of import, and will services firms need to be registered in every EU Members State where it has clients;
  • on Tariffs, what Rules of Origin firms will have to comply with to receive preferential tariff rates;
  • on Customs, whether goods will be subject to new procedures, and delayed at border checkpoints (The National Audit Office recently reported on HMRC’s development of the new Customs Declaration Service, noting that while progress had been made, ‘further technical and business issues’ made ‘an already tight timeline has become even more demanding.’);
  • on Regulation, whether checks on goods conducted in the UK will be recognised by the EU;
  • on Mobility, whether businesses will be able to transfer staff between the EU and the UK using the same processes as currently; and
  • on R&D projects, whether UK businesses will be able to participate in EU projects after 2020.

Adam Marshall, Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), said:

‘… [B]usiness patience is reaching breaking point… [I]t is abundantly clear that the practical questions affecting the competitiveness of their firms and the livelihoods of millions of people remain unanswered. With less than nine months go to until Brexit day, we are little closer to the answers businesses need than we were the day after the referendum.
It’s time for politicians to stop the squabbling and the Westminster point-scoring – and start putting the national economic interest first. These are not ‘siren voices’ or special interests. They are the practical, real-world concerns of businesses of every size and sector, in every part of the UK.’

The calls for certainty have been echoed by the EU, as the June leader’s summit came and went without any significant progress on Brexit. European Council president Donald Tusk said there was a ‘great deal of work ahead’ on Brexit and the ‘most difficult tasks are still unresolved’. ‘Quick progress… was needed if a deal was to be reached at the next summit’ in October.

Against that backdrop (and with speculation rife about what, if any, new proposals might be in the mix), the Prime Minister gathers the Cabinet for another Brexit away day on Friday, as they look to agree (finally) a blueprint for the UK’s future relationship with the EU. The Government has promised it will then publish its (delayed) White Paper setting out ‘in more detail what strong partnership the United Kingdom wants to see with the European Union in the future’.

But the signs don’t point to a consensus – it was recently reported that Michael Gove ripped up a report on the Prime Minister’s preferred option for a new customs partnership, as he felt it downplayed his objections to the proposal…

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‘I’ve got, I’ve got, the picture and the details… We appear to rule… I want to know that certainty’s in my life’ (Temples, Certainty)

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