When the people of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in 2016, they did so to regain control of our borders, waters and, most importantly, our laws.
Freed of EU constraints, the aim – explicitly promoted by the Leave campaign – was to use our newly repatriated powers to transform Britain into a buccaneering, dynamic economy fit for the 21st century. Yet, almost seven years on, we are sadly still some way from fully delivering on the referendum’s mandate.
Nowhere is that failure to deliver more apparent than in the continued presence of EU regulations, diktats and red tape with special status in UK law.
Many of 2016’s voters would be surprised to hear that, two years after we completed our departure, the UK still follows around 4,000 EU rules. These measures permeate every facet of our lives, ranging from the tiresome cookie popups that irritate us when we browse online to the economically damaging ports directive, which was imposed by the EU in the face of strong UK opposition.
These regulations, known as Retained EU Law (“REUL”), owe their continued presence to the decision made by Theresa May’s administration to retain them post-Brexit in order to avoid gaps in the UK statute book. It was never intended they would remain indefinitely.
As a body of foreign-derived law, REUL is a cuckoo in the nest of the domestic legal system. And it is significantly problematic: at present, it is harder for the Government to amend it than any other form of law. Frequently, new primary legislation is required: a process that generally takes about a year, eating into Parliamentary time needed for the delivery of other important manifesto commitments. Similarly, unlike the case with home-grown regulations, British courts with British judges are unable to diverge from the European Court of Justice’s interpretation of REUL.
The retention of EU law in our domestic legal system is incompatible with the United Kingdom’s new status as an independent, sovereign country. It needs to be culled, which is what the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill provides for.
The Bill has completed its passage, unamended, through the Commons and is currently in the Lords, where it is predictably attracting significant opposition, not least to the “sunset” provision that individual items of REUL will automatically fall away at the end of 2023 unless specifically saved by ministers.
Deciding which laws should be kept will require an audit of the entire body of REUL. That will undeniably be a demanding exercise, but far from an impossible one. Indeed, I have been assured by a senior official with knowledge of the issue that the exercise can comfortably be completed by the end of the year, provided there is sufficient will on the part of both ministers and the civil service.
It was therefore disappointing to read newspaper reports on Monday suggesting that the Prime Minister has decided to extend the sunset date from the end of this year to mid-2026, a full ten years after the referendum. He is, we are told, concerned about opposition in the Lords and advice he has had from senior civil servants that the task is too difficult to be completed within the Bill’s timescale.
Downing Street is denying the reports and says “there are no plans to change” the deadline.
Nor should there be. It was always perfectly foreseeable that the Lords, dominated as it is by unreconciled Remainers, would try to hobble the legislation. The Government should call their Lordships’ bluff and make clear that it will not accept any amendments to the Bill.
Likewise, reluctant officials should be told to set aside their misgivings and do everything necessary to complete the REUL audit swiftly and efficiently. It is well known that the British civil service can work effectively and at great pace when required to do so. To encourage this, the Prime Minister should appoint a dynamic minister to the Cabinet Office, supported by a strong team of high-calibre officials, with the single remit to get the exercise completed by the end of the year.
This will be an important exercise in the national interest. The authority of the Prime Minister rests upon it being completed successfully. I am sure he is equal to the challenge.
At stake, too, is the future of the Conservative Party. I was proud in 2019 to stand on a manifesto of getting Brexit done and delivering on its opportunities, which produced the best Conservative result in forty years, founded on the support of many thousands of working-class voters who had been wounded by Labour’s historic betrayal on Brexit.
That manifesto still stands. We must deliver on it. It’s time to get Brexit done.