Richard North, 23/12/2016  

Over the years, the paucity of measures going through Parliament, reflected in respective Queen's speeches, has been a notable feature of UK governance. For us EU-watchers, the explanation is obvious – so much of the responsibility for our legislation has been handed over to Brussels that there has been less and less for our gifted legislators to do.

In fact, come April 2013, we had the newspapers report that MPs were breaking up early "for another holiday" because there was not enough to debate. The following year, much the same was being said, as extended holidays seem to have become part of the Westminster scene.

The cynics amongst us might even venture the view that the reason the majority of MPs are "remainers" is that the EU picks up much of the work they would otherwise have to do, allowing the time for their politicking and their second jobs.

Then along came the EU referendum, whence we now face the prospect of powers being returned to Parliament. And, right on cue, we get a report in the Independent telling us that MPs' working hours "may be lengthened to allow enough time for passing Brexit legislation".

Nothing perhaps could make the point more clearly, that now we are planning to leave the EU, MPs are once again going to have to work for their living. Ministers, apparently, are considering a push for longer working hours for MPs next year, to give enough time to pass Brexit legislation in line with Theresa May's schedule.

This is specifically with reference to the Great Repeal Bill, which will be the centrepiece of the next Queen's Speech, shortly after she triggers Article 50 Brexit negotiations in the coming March.

The Prime Minister, we are told, wants the Bill – designed to repatriate EU law and place it on the UK statute book - to pass through Parliament and be in place for when the two year Article 50 talks are concluded.

One Government source is cited as saying: "It's going to be tight to ensure that it passes all of the marks so that it's in place, ready to operate, on the day Brexit arrives in March 2019".

To ensure that the Bill is in place, this source says, "it may mean that we have to extend parliamentary hours. That could mean introducing later sittings in the middle of the week, like on a Tuesday".

However, enjoyable though the story is, it does not wholly compute. Just adding one extra enabling Bill to the list, with its enactment delayed until at least March 2019, does not in itself seem to present an overwhelming burden for Parliament. Alone, it is hardly justification for a massive extension in MP hours.

One wonders, therefore, whether something is going on that the Government is not too keen to tell us about. For instance, as we were writing yesterday, simply re-enacting measures such as the Union Customs Code is not going to give them legal effect.

By the time Government lawyers have trawled through the acquis, and the corresponding UK laws which enact EU law, they may discover any number of gaps which will require direct amendment to specific UK (and devolved) legislation.

To take one small example, we have the Food Hygiene (England) Regulations 2006 (with the corresponding enactments for the devolved governments). These regulations enact a bundle of listed "Community Regulations" and, rather than repeat the detail in them, require food business operators to refer to them.

Come Brexit, these "Community Regulations" will no longer have legal effect and will not longer have an identity is UK law. At the very least, the UK regulations are going to need amending to point them in the direction of instruments which are recognised in law.

Then there is the much more complex example of the 322-page Human Medicines Regulations 2012 which implement a raft of EU Directives, and are built around the EU's system of market authorisation.

Unless we adopt Single Market provisions through the EEA, there will almost certainly have to be multiple, line-by-line amendments to the Regulations, to remove references to Union institutions and systems. And, if as is expected, we lose the Medicines Agency and have to set up our own licensing system, almost the whole of the regulations will have to be junked, to be replaced by a major re-write.

This exercise may have to be repeated thousands of times, as each of Community law has to be checked for discrepancies, and UK law amended to make sure it has legal effect in the post-Brexit legal system. Not least of these will be the The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002, which will doubtless need a number of important consequential amendments to make them fit for purpose.

Obviously, much of this work will have to be done by Government lawyers and increasingly harassed civil servants but, in their final steps before the new (or amended) laws take effect, they must be scrutinised and then approved by Parliament.

If, therefore, just the Great Repeal Bill is to impose such a huge burden on the institution, one can imagine MPs (and the Peers) having to put in huge amounts of overtime to keep up with the legislative burden.

What we may find then is that many of the new generation MPs, who have little background in local government, and next to no experience in vetting legislation, are simply not up to the job. After years of being feather-bedded by the EU, we no longer have a body of skilled legislators capable of doing the nuts-and-bolts jobs for which Parliament was originally intended.

But then, there is going to be another phenomenon that breaks cover. For decades now, ministers have been telling Parliament that it must pass laws, because we are required to do so by our EU treaty obligations. Now, a new laws come on line, they are going to have to come clean, revealing the true [global] origins of many of them – but with the same message, that we are obliged to implement them.

For the moment, though, we are going to be treated to the prospect of MPs complaining about overwork. And my guess is that they are unlikely to get a great deal of sympathy.

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