The government’s flagship “Brexit freedoms” bill, intended to purge swaths of EU law from the British statute book, has been slammed by official experts, who warned that an impact assessment signed off by ministers was “not fit for purpose”.
Ministers were accused of failing to carry out a thorough assessment of the impact on small businesses of the bill, under which several thousand EU laws would automatically expire at the end of 2023 unless they had already been reviewed, amended, renewed or scrapped.
The retained EU law (revocation and reform) bill was a flagship reform of Liz Truss’s shortlived government, targeting EU legislation in areas covering fields such as consumer protection, workplace rights and the environment.
But the government’s own regulatory experts gave a “red” warning over the way the Department of Business assessed the cost to business of the regulatory overhaul, which is supposed to be completed by December 2023.
The bill was promoted by former business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg as a means of cleansing the British statute book of unnecessary EU regulation but has turned into a bureaucratic nightmare in Whitehall, requiring hundreds of civil servants to sift through EU laws.
An impact assessment by Rees-Mogg’s former department was subject to a scathing analysis by the Regulatory Policy Committee, an advisory body sponsored by BEIS to consider the impact of regulation.
The RPC report, published on Monday, concluded bluntly that the BEIS assessment was “not fit for purpose”.
It said: “The department has not sufficiently considered, or sought to quantify, the full impacts of the bill. In addition, the impact assessment does not include a consideration of the impact on small and micro businesses consistent with better regulation.”
The report continues that BEIS had included a range of statistics in its report but that its impact assessment had “incorrectly interpreted” some of the figures relating to sectors of the economy where many smaller companies operate.
“The quality of different analytical areas in the impact assessment are all either weak or very weak, meaning that they provide inadequate support for decision-making,” the RPC said.
It also accused ministers of making policy in the dark: “We are not assured that the impact of changing or sunsetting each piece of REUL will be calculated or understood under proposals currently in place.”
Earlier this month the Financial Times revealed that the EU legislative purge had hit a new hitch after the discovery by the National Archives of 1,400 additional pieces of legislation, on top of the 2,400 laws previously identified by ministers.
Rishi Sunak, prime minister, has started backing away from his ambitious proposals to scrub Britain’s statute book of unwanted EU laws, by abandoning his promise to complete the exercise within 100 days. Many in Whitehall expect him to abandon the 2023 deadline soon.
Allies of Grant Shapps, the new business secretary, say he wants to shelve the 2023 “sunset clause” deadline. “Grant thinks things should be done at a more sane pace,” said one aide.
The Trades Union Congress said the bill was “reckless”. Frances O’Grady, TUC general secretary, said: “The Conservatives have set off a ticking time bomb under hard-won workers’ rights.”
The Department for Business said the RPC’s verdict was “disappointing” but argued that since the retained EU law bill was an “enabling” measure that applied across an array of sectors and departments, it was “difficult to quantify impacts in the impact assessment at this time”.
It added that it was committed to pushing ahead with the bill, which would “allow us to ensure our laws and regulations best fit the needs of the country, removing needless bureaucracy in order to support jobs, whilst keeping important protections and safeguards”.
Ruth Chambers from the Greener UK coalition, which represents 10 major UK environment groups, said the bill was a “costly distraction” for parliament and the civil service that could lead to damaging gaps in environmental laws. “This [report] is yet more proof that the bill requires a rethink,” she added.