Labour and devolved governments set to vote against Brexit repeal bill

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier ahead of a meeting at EU headquarters in Brussels Picture: Jennifer Jacquemart/PA

The Brexit Repeal Bill faced an immediate backlash from opposition parties and devolved governments, underlining the scale of the task the minority British government faces to get it through parliament and into law.

Labour looks set to vote against the crucial legislation unless it is amended, because it states the European Charter of Fundamental Rights will not be put into UK law after the country's withdrawal from the European Union.

The first ministers of Scotland and Wales, Nicola Sturgeon and Carwyn Jones, said they would not grant the required legislative consent to the bill as it stands, describing it as a "naked power grab" because it does not immediately return EU powers to devolved administrations.

And the Liberal Democrats warned the government faces "hell" over the bill, and a "political nightmare" that could cost Theresa May her job as prime minister.

Their statements underlined the fierce battles ahead over the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, in which a handful of Tory rebels could force the government to change the legislation.

Acknowledging the tricky situation, Brexit secretary David Davis appealed for parties to "work together" to ensure the UK has a functioning legal system on exit day, expected in March 2019.

"The eyes of the country are on us and I will work with anyone to achieve this goal and shape a new future for our country," he said.

But the government has already put itself on collision course with Labour, which poses a significant threat in parliamentary votes and has made the EU rights charter a "red line" for support.

It is understood ministers believe the rights in the charter are already contained in EU rules which the legislation will convert into domestic law on the day of Brexit.

Britain will also retain its own domestic rights and protections and remain a member of the European Convention on Human Rights, so the government believes leaving the charter will not have a significant real-life effect.

Ministers are also likely to cite a report by the Women and Equalities Select Committee which says the charter would be "difficult to apply" in a domestic context alone.

But shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer has made clear Labour would not support the bill in its current form.

He demanded concessions in six areas, including incorporating the charter into UK law, ensuring workers' rights in the UK do not fall behind those in the EU, and limiting the scope of so-called 'Henry VIII powers', which could allow the government to alter legislation without full parliamentary scrutiny.

The bill is designed to transpose EU law into British law so the same rules apply on the day of Brexit as the day before, while giving parliaments and assemblies in Westminster, Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff the power to drop or change them in the future.

The government hopes it will give confidence to businesses, workers and consumers that they will not face unexpected changes on the day of Brexit, while ending the supremacy of EU law in the UK.

There is also likely to be a clash over the bill's creation of Henry VIII powers, which would allow ministers to change laws and create new regulators or quangos without full parliamentary scrutiny for two years after the Brexit date.

The government has insisted it will be a limited power to correct minor issues in the law and it is understood the number of new regulators required is estimated to be in single figures.

But with 800 to 1,000 pieces of secondary legislation, known as statutory instruments, likely to be brought forward under the powers and a two-year window in which to exercise them, there are likely to be objections from MPs and peers.

A British government spokeswoman dismissed questions over what would happen if Scotland and Wales failed to give legislative consent to the bill as "very pessimistic", adding "we're optimistic".

She said there has been "unprecedented" engagement with devolved administrations over Brexit and first secretary of state Damian Green has this week contacted ministers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to arrange further talks.

"We intend for there to be ongoing, intense dialogue with the devolved administrations with the aim of everybody coming together and supporting the very important legislation that's been set out today," she told a regular Westminster briefing.

Asked about Labour's six red lines, she signalled the government could make concessions.

"We want to work with all parties, MPs, devolved administrations, talk to them.

"This bill is simply about making sure that we have a functioning statute book when we leave. What I would say is we would talk to anyone, I think David Davis has said that, we will work with anyone that we need to work with to make sure that we can do that in a positive, consensual way."

The bill's second reading will take place in the Commons in September, before party conference season, she added.

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