Government slammed for lacking 'basic competence' over Brexit legislation

Ben Gartside
Jacob Rees-Mogg is the leader of the House of Commons. Photo: Giannis Alexopoulos/NurPhoto via Getty

The government is facing criticism for lacking “basic competence” as 35 pieces of crucial legislation are set to be rushed through parliament ahead of Brexit day.

Cabinet ministers had declared last month that the laying of statutory instruments (SIs) is “all done, ready, prepared”. The government had proposed 580 Brexit-related SIs, now another 35 are being put through.

SIs are a form of legislation which allow the provisions of an Act of Parliament to be subsequently brought into force or altered without parliament having to pass a new Act. They are also referred to as secondary, delegated or subordinate legislation.

In a letter from the chair of the Procedures Committee to Jacob Rees-Mogg, Sir Charles Walker noted that despite Rees-Mogg declaring in the Commons on 5 September that the required SIs were already in place to leave the EU, that did not seem to be.

Responding via letter, Rees-Mogg confirmed that the government had decided to use “urgent” procedures in regard to Brexit related SIs “following careful consideration ... in order to provide as much certainty for businesses and the public ahead of our departure date from the European Union.”

In a subsequent letter, Rees-Mogg told Walker that the government expects to use “urgent” procedures for 35 SIs, which would see the legislation immediately brought into legal effect.

Shadow minister for small business Bill Esterson, however, told Yahoo Finance UK that “By failing to complete the legislative tasks necessary for Brexit, the government has demonstrated that it lacks basic competence. Boris Johnson and the Conservatives have failed to plan or prepare for Brexit and we are being dragged closer and closer to economic disaster by the most incompetent government in history.”

Walker called the lack of statement to the House regarding the necessity of 35 further SIs as “regrettable”, and asked the government to publish a full list of the instruments set to be laid under urgent procedure ahead of the committee’s next meeting on Wednesday.

According to Ruth Fox, director of the Hansard Society, the use of SIs is crucial in British politics.

“Most of the UK’s general public law is made not through Acts of Parliament but through delegated legislation in the form of SIs,”, she told Yahoo Finance UK.

“Acts of Parliament provide a framework into which much of the real detail and impact of the law will subsequently be added through delegated legislation. SIs are crucial to the effective operation of government, and are used in areas as diverse as the social security system or immigration rules, legal aid or food labelling, rubbish bin collections or the national curriculum. But despite the volume and importance of such legislation, remarkably little public and media attention is normally paid to it.”

Despite their [SIs] common use, their role is being complicated by the enormity of the task caused by the UK preparing to leave the EU.

“Brexit has changed that because most of the legislative changes to prepare for the UK’s exit from the EU have been made via SIs. The government has made some effort to improve the way SIs and their explanatory materials are produced and to keep parliament informed about what is happening,” Fox added.

“But having produced over 600 SIs to deliver Brexit it is now running out of time to get the remaining changes in place before the 31 October. So it is resorting to the use of an ‘urgent’ procedure which allows ministers to bring an SI into legal effect immediately, and for it to remain in effect if, within 28 days, both Houses of Parliament approve it. So MPs and peers are being asked to approve changes in the law after they happen which raises understandable concerns about the undermining of parliamentary scrutiny and accountability.”