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The Retained EU Law bill ‘sunset’ clause would have caused UK laws brought over from the EU to automatically expire after December 2023

The UK government is ditching plans to scrap thousands of retained EU laws by the end of the year.

Business & trade minister Kemi Badenoch announced on Wednesday she was removing the controversial ‘sunset clause’ of the Retained EU Law (REUL) bill which would see UK laws brought over from the EU automatically expire after December 2023.

The move follows severe criticism from across the food industry and other corporate sectors that the tight deadline posed risks to both businesses and consumers.

This was due to concerns civil servants were be unable to identify all the revelant legislation and make the necessary changes by the end of the year, meaning a potential loss of protections in key areas like food safety and trade.

Badenoch confirmed the cut-off date will be be replaced with a list of around 600 laws that will be axed by the end of the year, a severe reduction on the initial pledge to remove thousands of EU laws from the UK statute book.

Badenoch acknowledged in a statement that the deadline had created “legal uncertainty” for businesses.

“With the growing volume of [retained EU law] being identified, and the risks of legal uncertainty posed by sunsetting instruments made under EU law, it has become clear that the programme was becoming more about reducing legal risk by preserving EU laws than prioritising meaningful reform.

“That is why today I am proposing a new approach: one that will ensure ministers and officials can focus more on reforming REUL, and doing that faster.”

The amendment to the REUL bill will be officially made when it returns to parliament for a report stage next Monday.

Unattainable task

The REUL bill was introduced by former business minister Jacob Rees-Mogg as part of the Brexit trade deal between the EU and the UK.

However, reports about the sheer workload faced by civil servants tasked with making changes to EU laws while protecting British firms and consumers have casted doubt on whether the deadline was realistic.

According to the government’s website, only 20% of the nearly 5,000 relevant bills had been dealt with by early May.

The business & trade department’s decision has been deemed by Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office minister Jenny Chapman a “humiliating u-turn”.

But those across the food industry have welcomed the move, after having called for months for the extension of the 31 December deadline to avoid uncertainty for businesses.

Read more: Food safety at ‘huge risk’ as EU laws set to expire

Provision Trade Federation director general Rod Addy said: “Thankfully, the government has listened to industry and trade associations and realised the frankly crazy Sunset Clause deadline was way too tight to properly review all retained EU laws. Of course, deadlines focus minds, but they also need to be workable and this deadline was far from that.”

He added ”few know the gap between the laws that have been scrutinised and those still to be addressed” as most REUL discussions have taken place “behind closed doors with little co-ordination between government departments”.

“While the Food Standards Agency has pulled out all the stops to review food standards and safety laws, it is eminently feasible that there are a host of other laws, which, if ditched, could hit the supply chain or industry in general.”

FSA chair Susan Jebb said: “The FSA board has been clear about the principles which underpin our advice on retained EU law – including the need to protect public health and maintain the safety and standards of UK food. 

“We have had long standing ambitions to reform the food and feed regulatory system, including improving the approvals process for regulated products, and this bill may offer opportunities to do so. However, meaningful reform must include consultation with the food industry, consumers, and stakeholders across the four countries working arrangements.”

The FSA pledged to work with the industry to address any concerns over food safety laws that might be revoked or amended in the future.

Logistics UK also welcomed the move, having written to the PM just last week urging him to consider the “costs and risks” to supply chain that could come with rushing the deadline.

“Logistics UK has been in constant contact with government over the Retained EU Law Bill and the impact it could have on our industry, and recently raised members’ concerns in a letter to the prime minister,” said director of policy Kate Jennings.

“The change in approach announced by the Secretary of State is one which should smooth over the process, but our industry still needs clarification on exactly what is to be reviewed, to ensure the ongoing security of the supply chain.”

The British Frozen Food Federation also welcomed the announcement as the “lack of clarity on which regulations would be removed from the statute book at the end of 2023 was causing uncertainty” to members, CEO Rupert Ashby said.

“Many of these regulations are essential to maintaining high standards of food safety and consumer confidence while aiding our ability to trade with the European Union.”