Primary legislation

Most legislation introduced this session has not related to Brexit– but has not contained big new policy proposals either. The government has passed 48 bills during the 2017–19 parliamentary session,*[1] only slightly fewer than the average per sitting day in each session since 2010–12.

While we might expect Parliament’s legislative activity to have been dominated by Brexit since 2017, in fact only six of the 48 bills that have made it onto the statute book during the session have directly related to the UK leaving the EU.

Government bills introduced during the 2017-19 session

Beyond Brexit, the government’s legislative agenda has been limited. Rather than major policy reforms, it has comprised routine money bills that have to be passed (finance bills and supply and appropriation bills), Northern Ireland-specific legislation (needed in the absence of the Northern Ireland executive) and policy-specific legislation on topics as varied as data protection,[2] smart meters [3] and the protection of wild animals in circuses.[4] Many of the government’s big manifesto commitments – such as introducing new grammar schools and changes to the funding of social care – had to be dropped in order to secure a ‘confidence and supply agreement’ with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) after the 2017 election.[5]

The government’s limited legislative agenda during the 2017–19 session stands in contrast to the last two-year parliamentary session, that of 2010–12. During that session, the coalition Conservative–Liberal Democrat government passed wide- ranging legislation including bills in relation to welfare reform[6] and health and social care,[7] as well as the constitutionally significant Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011.[8]

Northern Ireland legislation has been rushed through Parliament

The breakdown of power-sharing in Northern Ireland in January 2017 required the UK government to legislate for Northern Ireland; nine of the bills passed this session relate to Northern Ireland. These include budget legislation, measures needed to provide more time for talks to restore power-sharing, and the introduction of powers to allow the UK government and civil servants in Northern Ireland to make day-to-day decisions to keep public services ticking over.

Despite the significant implications of this legislation for Northern Ireland, these bills have received limited scrutiny. The government has scheduled all Northern Ireland- related legislation to go through the Commons in either one or two sitting days – far quicker than most non-NI legislation.9 Unsurprisingly, Northern Irish MPs have been critical about the limited opportunity for debate.[10]

Passing Brexit legislation has been hard

The two bills which have taken up most parliamentary time, however, have both related to Brexit. The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 took 273 hours to pass through both houses, spanning almost a year, while the Taxation (Cross-border) Trade Act 2018 – better known as the Customs Act – took over a year to pass.[11]

The EU Withdrawal Act has significant constitutional implications: it repeals the European Communities Act 1972 on exit day, creates new categories of domestic law and gives the government broad powers to make secondary legislation.[12] Concerns over the scope of the bill, as well as ongoing disagreements about the shape of Brexit and Parliament’s role in delivering it, all contributed to the length of its passage.

Similarly, the delay to the Customs Act was a result of tricky amendments from backbench MPs that could have required the government to seek to negotiate a customs union with the EU.

The government also delayed returning the Trade Bill to the Commons over fears it would not be able to overturn amendments made by peers in March 2019.

Some bills may not make it into law before the session ends

When Parliament is prorogued, bills that have not completed their passage usually fall, meaning they do not make it into law and have to be reintroduced from scratch in the next parliamentary session. However, in some circumstances it is possible for bills to be carried over to the next session.

While the government has successfully passed some of its Brexit legislation, many of the bills it planned for Brexit have yet to make it onto the statute book. Five Brexit bills are still waiting to return to the Commons.[13] As Brexit tensions have increased, the government has been less and less able to rely on its slim Commons majority to fend off defeats – leading to parliamentary gridlock. The Immigration, Fisheries and Agriculture Bills are all paused at a stage where they are eligible to be carried over to the next session.[14]

However, the two remaining Brexit bills – Trade and Financial Services – cannot be carried over to the next session under current parliamentary rules. Given the government has said it has ‘workarounds’ for the Trade Bill, and is highly unlikely to be able to pass the Financial Services Bill before prorogation, it seems likely that both bills will fall. But legislating on these policy issues cannot be postponed forever: the parliamentary hurdles will have to be faced at some stage in the next session.

Aside from the outstanding Brexit bills, 12 other bills are still making their way through Parliament – including the Restoration and Renewal Bill needed to deliver the long- delayed renovation of the Palace of Westminster,[15] the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill, which will make divorce more straightforward in certain circumstances,[16] and the Domestic Abuse Bill, which is designed to improve the eff  ctiveness of the justice system in providing protection for victims of domestic abuse.[17] The government has not yet indicated that it plans to try and carry over these bills, and it is unclear whether it will re-introduce abandoned bills in the next session.

If there is an early election, several bills will need to be rushed through Parliament, or abandoned

When an election is called, the government usually attempts to pass outstanding bills in the period before Parliament is dissolved, known as the ‘wash up’.**,[18] Fast-tracking legislation in this way will require the co-operation of the opposition parties; some bills, or parts of them, can be dropped to ensure support for others. Passing legislation at speed can also raise questions about how effective parliamentary scrutiny can be.[19] Any bills that are not passed during the wash up have to be abandoned, as they cannot be carried over between Parliaments.

*As of 25 July 2019. This figure does not include legislation introduced by backbenchers – including any bill aimed at trying to prevent a no-deal Brexit.

**In some cases, Parliament can be prorogued – or suspended – before it is dissolved. This effectively shortens the length of time available to complete the wash up.