It was the announcement everyone but Jacob Rees-Mogg – and his fellow Brexiters – had been waiting for.
After weeks of swirling rumours, business and trade minister Kemi Badenoch finally confirmed she was scrapping the Retained EU Law Bill’s controversial ‘sunset clause’. This was due to see all UK laws carried over from its time in the EU automatically expire after December 2023 – unless specifically retained or amended.
Instead, she is replacing the cut-off point with a list of about 600 laws the government wants to replace by the end of the year.
It’s a hard blow for hard-Brexit supporters across the Conservative spectrum and particularly Rees-Mogg, who first introduced the REUL bill in 2021. He had famously promised a “bonfire of EU red tape”, with plans to ditch thousands of EU laws from the UK statute book as part of Britain’s newly earned regulatory freedom.
But this key pillar of the Brexit Freedoms Bill has been slowly crumbling before everyone’s eyes as it became increasingly clear there was no way the civil servants tasked with reviewing the laws, which offer protection on areas from food safety to trade, could meet the end-of-year deadline.
Defra itself has been dealing with the majority of the workload, which involves nearly 2,000 bits of legislation. But everyone from the Food Standards Agency to the former Department for International Trade has been looking at hundreds of laws that needed to either be retained, amended or revoked.
The reality is, replacing those laws with a framework that ensures the UK’s competitiveness while protecting businesses and consumers is a mammoth task. It’s one that would take years, not months. The government’s own REUL website showed very little progress had been achieved in the past year, and that only 20% of relevant laws had been dealt with by early May.
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This was never Badenoch’s passion project. However, she is now the one left to pick up the pieces with both her own party and fend off the opposition amid what she has termed “legal uncertainty”. Rees-Mogg called it an “admission of administrative failure”, while Labour shadow cabinet office minister Jenny Chapman said it was a “humiliating u-turn”.
Whatever they may think, the move is being greeted by a big sigh of relief across the industry today. Provision Trade Federation director general Rod Addy said the “frankly crazy sunset clause deadline was way too tight to properly review all retained EU law”. He branded the climbdown a “realistic” move.
FSA chair Susan Jebb – who has been tirelessly working on REUL against what she called “substantial headwinds” and “real challenges over resources” – is grateful to have more time to deliver “meaningful reform of the food and feed regulatory system”, as per a statement earlier today.
Plus, as Logistics UK CEO David Wells rightly pointed out last week, the sector is already dealing with uncertainty around the implications of the Windsor Framework deal in Northern Ireland, as well as the costly rollout of the new Border Target Operating Model.
So while Badenoch’s decision is sure to raise much political hell in the short term, it is undoubtedly preferable to the inevitable backlash the government would have faced further down the line, from both businesses and consumers. And in the case of the food industry, the last thing it needs is more regulatory disarray.