At the end of Liz Truss’ first operational week in office, I am reminded of a hilarious scene in the 2013 film, The Croods. The prehistoric cave family are introduced to fire but don’t understand its power and when intellectually challenged son Thunk sets himself alight, his father Grug yells: “Try hiding from it in the tall, dry grass.” Cue an out-of-control inferno that ends, deliciously, with popcorn falling from the sky.
As sterling plunged to a 37-year low against the dollar on Friday and government bonds went into freefall after newly minted Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng presented his tax-cutting, debt-heavy, mini-if-mini-means-maxi budget, one could be forgiven for thinking that perhaps this new-but-also-old Tory government is also playing with fire. And perhaps heading at full pelt for the tall, dry grass. At least as far as financial markets seem to be concerned.
Impossibly improbable Business and Energy Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg has at least had the self-awareness to out himself as a pyromaniac – for months now, he’s been promising a bonfire of European Union red tape. On Thursday, he lit the match, introducing the Brexit Freedoms Bill into parliament and promising that most retained EU laws would be sunset – or taken off the UK’s statute book – on 31 December 2023.
This, his department said, would enable the UK to create regulations tailor-made for its people. Or did it mean Rees-Mogg’s people? Or the Tories’ people? That certainly seems to be the interpretation of many observers, like Green Party MP Caroline Lucas.
“Govt has published their ‘Brexit Freedoms Bill’ today, on what it sees as ‘benefits of Brexit’. Means scrapped habitat regs, weaker environmental protections, lower food standards, & deregulation, to the rest of us. Hugely concerning & profoundly shameful from @Jacob_Rees_Mogg,” she tweeted.
In a statement, Lucas said the bill would undermine devolution and international agreements. “In the absence of any impact assessments or rationale for their arbitrary date, this represents a very serious and worrying move by a government whose only talent is vandalism,” she said.
Not so, said the world’s best-dressed vandal, who followed up the bill’s presentation by later thanking readers of the tabloid The Sun for helping him decide which EU rules to scrap after his shout-out for ideas in February, back when he was a fresh-faced Brexit opportunities minister, a role that no longer exists in Truss’ team.
“The Brexit Freedoms Bill will remove needless bureaucracy that prevents businesses from investing and innovating in the UK, cementing our position as a world class place to start and grow a business,” Rees-Mogg said in a statement, apparently blissfully unaware of recent figures showing that 33% of British exporters have stopped exporting to the EU, mainly because of the burden of red tape – but the post-Brexit kind, which seems to be proving, inexplicably, as “burdensome” as its EU equivalent.
Rees-Mogg’s department says the Freedom Bill will slash £1bn worth of red tape, “giving businesses the confidence to invest and create jobs, while transforming the UK into one of the best-regulated economies in the world.” And, in yet another example of the serious deficit (another one) of joined-up thinking in the Truss team, it said the Bill would support Britain’s most entrepreneurial businesses to capitalise on the UK’s global leadership in areas like clean energy technologies.
Presumably, it was such a busy day on Thursday that everyone forgot that Rees-Mogg had also found time to lift the ban on fracking for shale gas.
The Brexit Freedoms Bill found no fans north of the border either, with Angus Robertson, the Scottish government’s cabinet secretary for the constitution, saying it represented a significant further undermining of devolution.
In a letter to Rees-Mogg, he wrote: “You appear to want to row back 47 years of protections in a rush to impose a deregulated, race to the bottom, society and economy. This is clearly at odds with the wishes of the vast majority of the people of Scotland who will be dismayed at the direction the UK Government is taking.”
Robertson said the bill could affect standards and practices such as the obligation to label food for allergens, holiday pay, safe limits on working hours, limits on chemical contaminants in food, and environmental protections.
“In short, the pursuit of this mirage of Brexit freedoms puts at risk environmental, food and animal welfare standards, as well as consumer protection, workers’ rights and business certainty. It does so unnecessarily – the BEIS Business Perception survey from 2020 reported that less than two-fifths (37%) of businesses agreed that regulation is an obstacle to success,” Robertson wrote, adding that the work involved would badly disrupt the Scottish Parliament’s legislative timetable.
This idea that one man’s freedom is another man’s right to be exploited was repeated by the Trades Union Congress, which told the Financial Times that the “reckless” legislation could open the door to removing or eroding workers’ rights, including holiday pay, safe limits on working time and parental leave.
“If this bill becomes law, vital protections could disappear overnight,” Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, told the paper, calling on the government to make clear “that not a single workplace right will disappear as a result of this bill”.
If the logic of the bill is flawed, then so too are the logistics, according to observers. The fear is that this rush to “sunset” most regulations by the end of 2023 will lead to vital laws dropping off the UK statute book because the bill envisages scrapping or rewriting more than 2,000 pieces of legislation – a monumental task.
Rees-Mogg’s department said that “by giving the government new secondary powers to amend, replace or repeal any retained EU law, the amount of parliamentary time that is required has been dramatically reduced. They will also make it easier for departments to create agile regulation that keeps pace with technological change.”
But legal observers noted that this “dramatic reduction” in the parliamentary time needed could mean a dramatic reduction in scrutiny. In any case, it’s a mammoth task for a civil service that Rees-Mogg wants to trim by around 91,000 jobs.
The bill does contain a provision to apply different sunset dates to more complex regulations, up to June 2026, but the Hansard Society pointed out that this could expose businesses, especially, to “additional complexity and uncertainty” over those years.
Writing in June, Joël Reland, a researcher at UK in a Changing Europe, said the uncertainty would hurt businesses trying to plan ahead and likely deter international investment.
“The government says it wants to simplify life for business by amending EU rules with high compliance costs. But the reality is that even simplified UK rules would lead to UK exporters to the EU having to comply with two parallel sets of UK and EU regulations, rather than one common framework,” Reland wrote. “Sunset clauses imply a smooth phasing out of EU law. The reality will be an inferno of disruption and uncertainty, from which no one stands to benefit.”
Unchained Britannia is blazing and we are all standing in the tall, dry grass.