Tory plans to scrap most EU laws by the end of 2023, to show that Brexit is being delivered, risk causing untold legal chaos and yet more damage to British businesses, according to the former head of the government’s legal service.
With the country still reeling from the effects of Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng’s disastrous mini-budget, ministers are facing mounting opposition from business groups, environmentalists, legal experts, unions and opposition parties to what is being described as another dangerous, ideologically driven experiment by pro-Brexit Tory rightwingers.
Last night Jonathan Jones, who headed the government legal service from 2014 to 2020, and dealt with issues relating to Brexit, warned that the retained EU law (revocation and reform) bill, which will have its second reading in the Commons on Tuesday, will create deep uncertainty for businesses and many other organisations. “I think it is absolutely ideological and symbolic rather than about real policy,” he said.
Under the bill’s provisions, about 2,400 EU laws that were kept on the UK statute book after Brexit, to ensure continuity, will be automatically deleted at the end of next year, except in cases where ministers decide that there should be exemptions.
The plan – which critics say could even mean the scrapping of rules ensuring sports events such as the Olympics can be watched free on television – has outraged unions, who fear the disappearance of laws protecting workers’ rights, and environmentalists, who believe well-established rules protecting wildlife habitats will be lost.
Jones says the government has given no clue as to which laws it plans to scrap, leaving organisations in all sectors completely in the dark as to what legislation will apply to them in future.
Jones told the Observer: “As far as I can see there is no indication of which areas the government is thinking of retaining and which it is getting rid of. So there is no certainty about what laws we will have and what will replace them.”
Business organisations say they need to know what regulations – such on standards for manufactured goods – they have to comply with years in advance.
“It is a very, very bad way to change and make law,” Jones said. “This has nothing to do with Brexit. We have left. It creates great uncertainty within a very tight, and completely self-imposed timescale. There is nothing inherent in Brexit that says we have to change the law within a particular period after we have left. It has been driven by the usual suspects wing of the Tory party.”
Lucy Monks, head of international affairs at the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), said business groups had made their concerns clear. She said: “Among widespread economic instability and rampant inflation, changes to the regulatory environment for small firms must be carefully weighed up so as not to add an extra burden to already very difficult trading conditions.
“A year just isn’t long enough for small businesses to work out how their operations will need to change in response to a fundamental shift in the regulatory environment, such as the one proposed by the EU revocation and reform bill.”
Labour, which has been reluctant of late to take a stand on EU-related issues for fear of being branded anti-Brexit, will oppose the bill in the Commons.
Shadow business secretary Jonathan Reynolds said: “The last things businesses and workers need is more instability and uncertainty. Not content with crashing our economy, the Conservatives now want to rip up the rules that businesses rely on to trade, and the rights workers rely on to work.”
Stella Creasy, Labour MP for Walthamstow and chair of the Labour Movement for Europe, said that in a time of economic distress the bill could hardly be more destructive.
She said: “It abolishes overnight thousands of laws, from those covering people’s pension protections, compensation rights if your luggage is lost or travel delayed, to those tackling insider trading, to maternity rights, as well as vital protections for our environment and water quality with no clarity as to what – if anything – will replace them.
“In the light of the pandemonium in parliament, the only sensible thing to do is abandon this before it causes any more headaches for businesses and consumers alike, and start again tackling the problems Brexit has caused when it comes to the protection of EU law.”
The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 created the concept of retained EU law, which meant that the bloc’s legislation continued to have force in the UK until the point at which parliament chose to change it. At the same time it was recognised that some retained EU law would need to be adapted, so as to work once the UK had left the EU.
A government spokesperson said: “The government is committed to taking full advantage of the benefits of Brexit, which is why we are pushing ahead with our retained EU law bill, which will end the special legal status of all retained EU law by 2023.
“This will allow us to rapidly develop new laws and regulations that best fit the needs of the country, removing needless bureaucracy to stimulate growth and cement the UK’s position as a world-class place to start and grow a business.”
At risk: eight EU retained laws that could go
Controls that prevent cancer-causing materials from being used in cosmetics.
Rules guaranteeing major sporting events such as the Olympics are free to watch on television.
Protection for part-time workers so they do not get
less favourable treatment than full-timers.
Minimum standards that ensure that aircraft are safe to fly.
Compensation for travellers in the event of delays and lost luggage.
Minimum requirements for maternity pay.
Protection for staff pensions when a company goes bust.
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