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Back in June 2022 we highlighted our concerns about the UK Government’s plans in relation to reviewing Retained EU Law (REUL).

We fear that the reality of these plans may be worse for rights, equality and democracy than we imagined, and the Guardian newspaper reports that they “risk causing untold legal chaos and yet more damage to British businesses, according to the former head of the government’s legal service.” 

The Retained EU Law Bill 

On 22 September 2022 the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill was introduced to the UK Parliament. The Bill seeks to expire all retained EU law contained in domestic secondary legislation and retained direct EU legislation on 31 December 2023, unless otherwise preserved.  

This means that the UK Government could quickly unpick various human rights and equality standards, and as a research briefing from the House of Commons Library notes, “The complexity of the new legislative regime could create some degree of legal uncertainty in policy areas heavily impacted by REUL.” 

Legal uncertainty 

The UK Government’s own interactive dashboard of Retained EU law (REUL) notes that not only does it currently include over 2400 pieces of REUL, but this does not represent a final list, and they are still working on identifying pieces of REUL. This indicates the scale of the task ahead.  That any pieces of the over 2400 REUL (and however many extra have not yet been identified) not specifically preserved would fall away after December 2023 not only risks huge amounts of legal uncertainty but put rights and equalities standards, we have taken for granted at risk.  

In addition, the Public Law Project has expressed concerns that. “many clauses in this Bill will have the effect of making settled areas of law uncertain and contested. This may give rise to many unnecessary lawsuits, and it will mean individuals and businesses are less certain of where they stand and may find it harder to plan and invest for the future.”  

Rights at risk 

Opposition to the Bill has come from civil society across the UK, with groups from Unison to the RSPB highlighting the potential impact on our rights – including workers’ and environmental rights.  

In particular, Unison (the UK’s largest trade union) has highlighted the following areas that could be at risk, all of which are things we take for granted in the UK: 

  • holidays: being allowed to take paid annual leave – leaving only a minimum entitlement of eight bank holidays for UK workers;
  • equal pay: being able to challenge your employer if a member of the opposite sex gets paid more for doing the same job;
  • family friendly policies: being paid for maternity, paternity and parental leave along with any protections against unfair treatment, such as being sacked or being overlooked for promotion, when taking such leave;
  • rest breaks: the right to have a rest break of 20 minutes when working over six hours and the right to have a two-day break every fortnight;
  • pregnancy protections: protections against discrimination for pregnant people and people on maternity leave, and the right to suitable alternative work on no less favourable terms;
  • security if your job is outsourced: outsourced workers can have their pay cut, sick and holiday pay and leave cut, and they don’t even need to be informed and consulted before a transfer. Outsourced workers could simply be sacked if their employment is taken over by a new organisation;
  • safety at work: removal of support and paid time off for health and safety reps, whose role it is to protect and keep people safe at work;
  • fire and rehire: removal of the few existing protections against fire and rehire and mass redundancy. 

Democratic deficit 

Last, but definitely not least, the Bill in its current form would permit our rights and equalities to be threatened without the proper oversight of the UK Parliament (an issue we highlighted earlier this year). This is because, as noted by the research briefing from the House of Commons Library, the Bill would, “grant a suite of delegated powers to UK ministers and devolved authorities to revoke, restate, replace or update REUL/assimilated law by statutory instrument”, and “remove or downgrade existing forms of Parliamentary scrutiny of statutory instruments when they propose to modify or revoke law of EU origin”. This represents a huge transfer of power to Ministers and away from Parliament. As Joshua Rozenberg KC writes, the Bill would give, “ministers huge powers that they would be able to exercise with only limited parliamentary scrutiny.” 

None of this is inevitable 

It is important to remember that none of this is an inevitable consequence of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. The downgrading of human rights and equality protections have all been the result of political decisions made by the UK Government. 

For more: 

Join the Civil Society Alliance 

Read our briefing for the Universal Periodic Review 

Image by Nick Kelly