‘Astonishing’ Legal Pile-Up Could Delay Brexit

(Bloomberg) -- The U.K. Parliament has a mountain of legislation to get through before Brexit day, making it more likely the government will seek to push back the March 29 deadline to leave the European Union.

From mundane accounting rules to the management of exotic diseases, the bulk of the work lies in hundreds of statutory instruments -- secondary legislation that doesn’t require a full Parliamentary debate, though still necessary to ensure the statute book functions after Brexit. But there are also meatier bills -- not least one covering a potential exit deal with the EU -- on the list.

A private fear among ministers finally became public knowledge this week. First Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said Thursday Britain may need “some extra time” to get critical legislation on its books; hours later, Parliament’s February holiday was scrapped to find more business hours.

“There is more work to be done” on statutory instruments, Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman, James Slack, told reporters on Friday. The canceled vacation “will provide some extra time.”

Those statutory instruments working their way through the legislative process cover a vast swathe of the workings of government. The Accounts and Reports (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2018 -- which is still in draft form -- deals with rules for limited liability partnerships. The Zoonotic Disease Eradication one relates to curbing illnesses that spread between animals and humans.

Other topics include rules governing air quality, aquaculture, blood safety, imports of cat and dog fur, fertilizers, sanctions on Iran, mercury, the marketing of seeds, seat belts, weighing and measuring equipment, and wharves and temporary storage facilities.

Henry VIII Powers

About 600 statutory instruments were estimated to be needed, though Slack said there are likely to be fewer in the final analysis. Of them, 363 have been laid before Parliament, and some 165 of those have gone through all their necessary stages and will become law after Brexit.

The government wanted to pass most of the legislation using so-called Henry VIII powers -- named for the Tudor monarch -- to bypass Parliament. But it was forced by rank-and-file lawmakers to establish a “sifting committee” to identify which ones required more in-depth scrutiny.

In practice, though, most receive scant attention because of the sheer volume of changes. One tome weighs in at 2.5 kilograms (5.5 pounds). An amendment on product safety comes in at 619 pages.

Opposition Labour Party Chief Whip Nick Brown is running a team to assess the statutory instruments and staff are wading through the “astonishing” pile of paperwork, according to Labour’s economy spokesman, John McDonnell. “We’re finding ministers don’t understand the statutory instruments put forward by their departments,” he told reporters.

As the deadline approaches, it won’t be regulations on cat fur imports that trigger a Brexit delay. In addition to a bill implementing any deal, the government would need to pass primary legislation on trade, and ideally also on immigration, agriculture, fisheries and international healthcare -- though it’s possible they could come later. In a no-deal scenario, a financial services bill would need to be passed.

And after the warnings this week, it’s clear the government fears it doesn’t have enough time.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.