“Government is not the centre of all knowledge and wisdom,” wrote Jacob Rees-Mogg recently. Finally, a statement from the Brexit opportunities minister on which everyone who has followed British politics since 2016 can wholeheartedly agree.
But there was more, in a piece for that Brexiteer Pravda, the Daily Express. “Actually there is a much greater wisdom with the British people as a whole,” Rees-Mogg continued, promising to use the “opportunities” of leaving the EU to get rid of “what it is in their daily life that the government does that makes their life harder”.
And so, Rees-Mogg invited Express readers to suggest some beneficial changes to UK legislation that he could introduce to show that turning our backs on our nearest and biggest market was a good idea. The fact that he is minister for Brexit opportunities, and has had to ask newspaper readers for ideas – he has done the same thing with buyers of The Sun, but has yet to do so with those who pick up, say, The Financial Times – is pretty damning in itself. But it gets worse. Around 2,000 ideas flooded in, of which Rees-Mogg managed to pick just nine as worthy of consideration.
The first thing to observe about the nine “wins” he has identified is the number itself. It seems remarkable that he couldn’t get to a nice round number like 10, accepted as the benchmark for newspaper lists. But apparently there wasn’t another single genius idea worth mentioning. God knows how bad the other 1,991 must have been, because the nine that made it through to the final are a pretty sorry lot. Let’s look at them one by one.
1) Encourage fracking, shortcut rules on planning consultation via emergency act
With a fuel price crisis in full flow, fracking is an obvious choice to portray as a denied “freedom”. It makes it sound like only membership of the EU was stopping the UK from pumping out gas from beneath our feet, so cheaply that it could be given away for nothing. Except that the UK did try to frack gas and the industry couldn’t do it without starting earthquakes that broke the UK government’s own guidelines. Not Brussels rules on earthquakes, Westminster rules.
When fracking was banned in the UK in 2019, ministers said they wouldn’t change their minds without “compelling new evidence”. A list of Brexit benefits doesn’t sound like compelling new evidence. So, not to put too fine a point on it, the first and presumably most important benefit of Brexit has nothing to do with Brexit at all and isn’t going to happen.
2) Abolish the EU regulations that restrict vacuum cleaner power to 1400 watts
The second rocket under the British economy that Brexit freedoms will ignite involves allowing vacuum cleaners to have bigger motors. This is, to be fair, an EU restriction. It was introduced to limit the energy use and, therefore, environmental damage caused by vacuum cleaners. It was very unpopular with Sir James Dyson, as he wanted to be able to put bigger motors in his cleaners and he went on to support Brexit, from his new home in Singapore. The makers of Henry, the last vacuum cleaner mass produced in the UK, are also pro-Brexit. Is that it?
But the right to have a slightly larger and more powerful cleaner has so far failed to excite the masses. Not only that, but the EU is a huge market for British vacuum makers and these rules still exist there. Factories would, therefore, have to make two models if they wanted to take advantage of this hard-won freedom, one for domestic use and one for export.
In any case, even if there are any benefits for the British economy, they are so small as to be completely unmeasurable.
3) Remove precautionary principle restrictions (for instance) on early use of experimental treatments for seriously ill patients and GM crops
Removing precautionary restrictions on experimental drugs and GM crops sounds like the start of a very bad horror movie. Trying out risky, untested procedures on the seriously ill doesn’t appear to have any economic benefit and seems to breach existing rules on medical ethics.
GM crops bring their own problems, as they are very heavily regulated in the EU. If the UK wants to experiment with them without restriction, it will face serious problems. The EU is the UK’s largest food export market, and it does not allow unapproved GM crops into its food chain. Any food exports from the UK would therefore, in future, have to prove they don’t contain GM ingredients or that they were tested, approved and produced to EU standards – an added cost for British food producers, not a benefit.
4) Abolish rules around the size of vans that need an operator’s licence
Abolishing rules around the size of vans that need an operator’s licence could mean anything. Hopefully it won’t mean that 17-year-olds with a provisional moped licence will be allowed to drive HGVs, but who knows? At the moment, with only an ordinary licence, you can drive anything up to a 3.5-tonne van, which is a pretty big vehicle. But if you passed your test before 1997 you can drive something up to 7.5 tonnes. It was the coordination of EU licence rules that reduced the size of van you could drive if you qualified after 1997. Presumably this is the change that Rees-Mogg wants to reverse. It would have some benefit, as the cost of training for and passing a test to drive a van of up to 7.5 tonnes would disappear, allowing more people to drive bigger vans. Given there is a shortage of HGV drivers this would be of some small help in maintaining supply chains. Whether this is safe or desirable is another matter.
5) Abolish EU limits on electrical power levels of electrically assisted pedal cycles
I thought that Daily Express readers were the type who always complained about the perils of electric bikes? They seem to think they are far, far more lethal than cars. But if, post-Brexit, they want more powerful ones on the road – potentially controlled by uninsured riders – good luck to them.
6) Allow certain medical professionals, eg pharmacists and paramedics, to qualify in three years
Why Brexit means the UK can now safely train competent pharmacists in three years rather than four is beyond me. It is probably beyond the General Pharmaceutical Council as well, as it has just reformed its training standards for pharmacists and kept the four-year course. Paramedics can do a three-year course, a four-year course or an apprenticeship already.
7) Remove requirements for agency workers to have all the attributes of a permanent employee
Agency workers get “equal treatment” after 12 weeks in a job. That is, the same benefits as someone employed directly in the same job, including equal pay and paid leave. Taking these away is another move to weaken workers’ rights and protections and make them cheaper to hire and easier to fire. See P&O Ferries.
8) Simplify the calculation of holiday pay (eg 12.07% of pay) to make it easier for businesses to operate
Holiday pay is already very easy to calculate; making it the equivalent of 12.07% of your annual wage would just cut the holiday pay of those working variable hours. This isn’t about making a complicated system easier but about cutting holiday pay for some workers, another bit of the post-Brexit attack on workers’ protections.
The rules on holiday pay were part of the hated EU Working Time Directive; any chance to weaken, undermine or destroy that will be very popular with Brexit ultras. See, again, P&O Ferries.
9) Reduce requirements for businesses to conduct fixed wire testing and portable application testing
If this sounds to you like the opening of The Towering Inferno, you’d be right. Apparently ensuring that dangerous equipment is tested regularly and buildings are safe is too much to ask of business; it’s far better to save some money and take the risk.
You might have thought after the Grenfell Tower fire that improving building standards would be top of the government’s agenda, but apparently not.
Overall, this list is pretty weak stuff. But going over it in detail is a useful exercise because it illustrates perfectly how minor, petty and pathetic the “benefits of Brexit” are.
During the referendum campaign, the Leave camp claimed that EU regulation and red tape cost the British economy £33bn a year. Six years on and they can find a total of nine “benefits”. Some of these have nothing to do with Brexit, some are minor ways of cutting workers’ rights, some are pointless tinkering with obscure rules and the rest are positively dangerous.
You’d be lucky if any of the benefits was large enough to be economically measurable, let alone worth £33bn. Meanwhile, the costs of Brexit continue to mount.