The British Government has published plans for a herculean legislative task: converting thousands of European Union laws onto the British books as the country begins its Brexit decoupling from Brussels.

The law-changing blueprint landed after Prime Minister Theresa May triggered Article 50, officially serving the European Union divorce papers and beginning exit negotiations expected to last two years.

The swift release of the Government's plans for the "Great Repeal Bill" reflects just how split Britain remains as divorce talks loom with the EU. Leaders now sense a greater urgency to calm Brexit opponents, including many businesses worried about Britain's new legal structure.

The repeal bill will see thousands of EU laws - covering such topics as worker's rights, environmental rules and finance regulations - transposed into British codes to provide legal certainty and a "smooth and orderly" departure from the EU.


The bill seeks to show workers, consumers and businesses that the "rules have not changed overnight", David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, told the House of Commons. He also said that it signalled the end of the supremacy of EU law in Britain. "Our laws will then be made in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast," he said, referring to the capitals of the four members of the United Kingdom.

The plans, published in a policy paper, have been described as a gigantic "cut and paste" job, repatriating 40 years of powers from Brussels to London. From there, Britain will decide which laws to keep and which to scrap - with the Government granted new authority to make the changes.

But officials insist that the powers - dubbed "Henry VIII powers" by critics after the imperious monarch - are needed to make "corrections" to EU laws once they were taken onto the books.

Some in the opposition called it a "government power grab" and said that the plans give the Government too much authority to change laws without parliamentary oversight.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told the Commons this week that Brexit "will be an opportunity for this country to get rid of some of the burdensome regulation that has accreted over the last 44 years" - when Britain joined the group that would evolve into the European Union.

Others argue that the regulations are essential, and Britain would suffer if its laws did not closely mesh with the 27 remaining EU states.

Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Green party, tweeted that the bill "could undermine 40 years of environmental and social protections with no Parliamentary scrutiny".

Mujtaba Rahman, an analyst with Eurasia Group, said in a briefing note that "an enormous lobbying operation will swing into action as different sectors try to defend their interests during the filtering process". "Business will be watching the debate closely," he said.

Illustration / Rod Emmerson
Illustration / Rod Emmerson

Great Repeal Bill

What will it do?

The bill will repeal the European Communities Act 1972, ending the jurisdiction of EU law in Britain on the day the country formally leaves the bloc. To ensure a smooth transition, the legislation will also convert all EU laws into British law.

What's involved?

More than 12,000 EU regulations are in force in Britain. The legislation will cover major issues such as immigration and ending the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, as well as more technical matters such as who will regulate British banks, airlines and chemical companies.

Why is this contentious?

Because of the sheer number of laws and the limited time allotted, lawmakers will be called to delegate authority to Prime Minister Theresa May and her Cabinet to change some laws without a detailed debate or vote in Parliament. While the Government has said it will use these so-called Henry VIII powers only for technical matters, some lawmakers fear a power grab by ministers.

What does Henry VIII have to do with it?

The Statue of Proclamations 1539 gave King Henry VIII the power to legislate by proclamation. Although the statute was repealed immediately after his death in 1547, similar powers have been inserted into legislation in modern times. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said on ITV: "I don't think the record of Henry VIII on promoting democracy, inclusion and participation was a very good one. He was all about essentially dictatorial powers to bypass what was then a very limited parliamentary power."

- Addtional reporting: AP