The pick of the Brexit Bills – and what they mean

So, Westminster was in nearly full regalia today for  the Queen’s Speech, as Queen Elizabeth set out the Government’s legislative agenda for the coming two years – albeit slightly less than usual, with the Queen in more day to day attire and arriving by car rather than carriage. And it’ll be two years before we see such pomp and circumstance again, with Andrea Leadsom announcing that this parliamentary session will be extended from one to two years to enable Parliament to scrutinise legislation relating to Brexit.

Although thought of as ‘Queen’s Speech-lite’, it contained 27 Bills, eight of which speech are related to Brexit. But political commentators around the country will be considering tonight what will these actually do in practice.

The Repeal Bill

Previously known as the Great Repeal Bill, the main purpose of the legislation is to transfer EU law to the UK statute book before we leave the EU – ensuring we have the legislative certainty needed to continue to function. The UK Parliament will then be able to make the changes that it sees fit at a time of its choosing.

The Bill will also create temporary powers to make secondary legislation – the Government has said that this will enable corrections to the laws which don’t operate correctly once they’ve been transferred to UK law (for example, if they reference the EU institutions). This has raised some concerns about whether there will be sufficient scrutiny of any changes which will be made, particularly given the large volumes which will need to be dealt with over the next two years. There’s an opportunity for organisations to engage here to ensure that the policy environment remains favourable – but they’ll need to keep a close eye on what’s going on.

The Customs Bill

The Bill reflects the Government’s desire to use Brexit as an opportunity to strike independent trade deals across the world once the UK leaves the EU. It will replace EU customs legislation, allowing the UK to operate standalone customs and indirect tax regimes once we exit the EU. However, to provide continuity the legislation will “mostly be based on existing EU law.”

Leaving the Customs Union is one of the most controversial aspects of Brexit – not only because of the effect on the flow of goods across borders, but also the potential impact on the current soft border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. There has been some pressure on the Government since the election to re-think leaving the Customs Union and Single Market. The Chancellor Philip Hammond – after speculation during the election campaign that he may be sacked – has taken advantage of his new-found job security to suggest that changes to customs arrangements should be phased in, with transitional measures to protect key industries. Labour suggested that he was trying to distance himself from Theresa May – and certainly the Government’s official position is still that leaving the single market and customs union is necessary if the UK is to strike up new trading relationships after Brexit. Which takes us to…

The Trade Bill

The Bill has the grand aim of “cementing the UK’s leading role as a great, global trading nation, whilst ensuring UK businesses are protected from unfair trading practices.” In practice, this means establishing tools to deliver an international trading framework – such as an effective trade remedies regime – and ensuring that trade policy works in the interests of UK businesses and consumers.

The Government has established nine working groups with 15 countries and high-level dialogues to explore how to best progress trade and investment relationships. But for many businesses, the main priority will be ensuring that they do not lose the trade with the European Union countries, which forms such a major part of their market currently. Brexit Secretary David Davis suffered an early negotiating blow this week, having to concede to the EU’s demands that issues such as the ‘divorce bill’ and the rights of EU migrants in the UK be settled before moving onto a future trading relationship. With the DUP this week taking aim at the lack of negotiating experience in Government, we could be in for a bumpy ride.

The Immigration Bill

This is another piece of legislation that is likely to prove controversial. It will allow the Government to end the free movement of EU nationals and bring this into line with UK law. The Government have said that it wants “the flexibility to create a fair and sustainable immigration system,” which allows ministers to control the number of people coming to the UK – but the overall net migration target is not mentioned, and it doesn’t specify whether the Bill will include some of the more controversial Conservative manifesto pledges – such as increasing to £25,000 the minimum income before people are allowed to bring their spouse to the UK.

While there is likely to be strong public support for limiting migration, businesses may not be so pleased. Research from the Resolution Foundation has found that almost half of firms expect there will either be no change to migration rules, or that freedom of movement will continue for those with a job offer – while two thirds have said that the maintenance of the status quo (or something close to it) would be better for business. But despite pressure from Tory ‘remainers’ such as Ruth Davidson and Philip Hammond for a ‘jobs first Brexit,’ the Government seems likely to press on for the moment at least.

The Agriculture and Fisheries Bills

These two Bills are likely to provide significant challenges for Defra over the next couple of years. The aim will be to enable the UK to control access to its waters and set its own fishing quotes and provide stability to farmers as we leave the Common Agricultural Policy. Fishing and farming have been two of the most controversial areas for the EU and replacing the current systems with UK versions won’t be an easy task for new Defra Secretary Michael Gove. The need to “consult widely” with the devolved Governments over new systems will also create some additional headaches. Perhaps Theresa May thought it would be a good way to keep Gove busy?

The Queen’s Speech also contains Brexit related Bills on nuclear safeguards and international sanctions. The timetable isn’t clear yet, but the extended parliamentary session suggests that they may be spaced out over this period.

The most interesting question is whether the Conservatives will still be able to pass the kind of Brexit the want. As Theresa May is seeking to secure a confidence and supply deal with the DUP, rather than a formal coalition, she will not be guaranteed a majority to pass any of this legislation.  Rather this will depend on being able to secure the DUP’s support – or that of other parties – for each Bill and avoiding significant number of rebels on her own side. While Labour’s manifesto also accepted that Brexit would happen, there is pressure growing within both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party for a softer Brexit which focuses on jobs (or even stays in the Single Market) – so it seems that there is all to play for with the kind of Brexit we end up getting.