13:27, January 28 248 0 theguardian.com

2019-01-28 13:27:12
MPs may have to work Fridays and weekends to avoid legal cliff edge

MPs may be forced to work on Fridays, weekends and during recess as it emerged the government has only passed one sixth of the secondary legislation needed to get Britain Brexit ready to avoid a legal cliff edge in April.

With just 60 days to go before 29 March and just 30 of those working days, the government admits it is running out of time to get the necessary primary and secondary legislation through by Brexit day.

Downing Street said for the first time it had begun planning for parliament to sit on Fridays, the weekends and half-term, so that it can get the required Brexit legislation through ahead of 29 March, if, that is, Theresa May can get her final deal approved in principle by MPs soon.

The prime minister’s spokesman said: “As a precautionary measure, we are in preliminary discussion about extending sitting times – but only if necessary.”

Some of the legislation is needed to avoid the worst possible scenarios in a no-deal Brexit such as the lack of reciprocal health care for British pensioners in Spain. Other laws are needed for the transition period, if the UK does ratify a deal.

The principal piece of primary legislation is the EU withdrawal agreement bill, the critical piece of legislation that will ratify the exit treaty struck with the EU, which will have to pass through the Commons and Lords before 29 March and is expected to be the subject of scores of amendments from MPs.

The scale of the challenge facing the government comes as the Labour MP Yvette Cooper hopes to win support for her anti no-deal Brexit with an amendment enabling an extension of article 50.

It is also battling to get six essential primary legislation bills through before 29 March, covering trade, immigration, financial services, agriculture, fisheries and international health care arrangements for the post-Brexit regime.

In addition there are 12,000 EU laws applying in Britain that need to be incorporated into domestic law involving 600 statutory instruments, or secondary legislation.

With less than two months to go, the government has only laid down 343 of the 600 statutory instruments (SIs) before parliament and only completed 104, according to the Hansard Society statutory instrument tracker.

Each SI would normally take between six and eight weeks to get to parliament, says the Hansard Society, leaving the government in a perilous position in the next two months.

The department for environment, food and rural affairs has laid down 89 SIs, more than any other government department with the departments of business, treasury and transport responsible for 141 between them.

SIs are necessary to ensure there are no legal cliff edges if the UK quits the bloc without a deal.

One laid down last week proposes to extend the planning permission for Manston Airport in Kent so it can be used as an emergency lorry park until December 2020.

Another SI was recently drawn up after civil servants discovered the gruesome images on cigarette and nicotine inhaling products were copyright of the EU. The government now has access to similar pictures from an Australian photo archive which cigarette manufacturers must use after exit day.

No10 has said not all the six pieces of primary legislation needed to be implemented have to be passed by 29 March because some relate to measures that will not have to be introduced until the end of the implementation period.

One deemed critical is the trade bill, which ensures the UK can maintain all 40 free-trade agreements struck between the EU and third countries, which will otherwise fall away on Brexit Day.

The trade bill is currently before the Lords, where next month peers are expected to try and insert an amendment that would require the UK to stay in a customs union with the EU – a policy opposed by May. This would risk it getting it through on time as the Commons would strike it out if it was returned with such an amendment and bill returned to peers.

The healthcare (international arrangements) bill is also critical to the health arrangements of the 190,000 British pensioners living in the EU who rely on NHS reimbursements for in-country care and the 50 million holidaymakers who use the European Health Insurance Card.

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