‘Just the beginning’: Government to rip up EU rulebook

The government has announced plans to ‘capitalise on the freedoms from Brexit’, including liberalising gene editing and introducing a marketplace for biodiversity offsetting.

EU law kept on the statute book will be scrutinised to ensure it meets domestic needs and the government will consider if the courts should be allowed to depart from retained EU case law, according to an announcement made yesterday.

Ahead of this process, the government has also set out a suite of regulatory reforms that builds on the recommendations of the Taskforce for Regulatory Reform, Innovation and Growth (TIGGR).

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In a response to the panel’s recommendations, Brexit negotiator Lord Frost, made minister of state for EU relations in March, revealed a “a suite of current and prospective reforms, a comprehensive review of the status and content of all EU law, and a new standing commission to receive ideas for further reforms”.

“Today’s announcement is just the beginning. The government will go further and faster to create a competitive, high-standards regulatory environment which supports innovation and growth across the UK as we build back better from the pandemic,” he told the press.

The move recalls initiatives such as the Red Tape Challenge and other pleas and pledges for a bonfire of regulation by the Conservatives, reignited by Brexit.

One of TIGRR’s main recommendations was to reform the ‘better regulation’ agenda, which the government leapt on by announcing a consultation on the reintroduction of regulatory offsetting, otherwise known as ‘one-in, x-out’. The consultation remains live and will close on 1 October, “after which the government will issue a rapid response”, said Frost.

Whitehall will set to work on what Frost describes as “the digital transformation of regulation”, making information more accessible and useful with a new open access database of all UK regulations. This will “enable the development of new applications to more easily navigate the regulatory landscape,” he wrote.

A “new, direct and democratic route” for the public to propose ideas for regulatory reform will also be established.

Among the government’s other pledges are:

  • To adopt TIGGR’s recommendations for “a more integrated, risk-based, proportionate approach to agri-environmental regulation, incorporating net gain and greater use of agri-tech”, the framework for which is being set under the Agriculture Act and the Environment Bill.

  • To consult “shortly” on plans to implement biodiversity net gain, including proposals for a market-based approach to delivering biodiversity offset units.

  • To establish a “more proportionate, flexible, and risk-based” regulatory framework that encourages scientific innovation in agriculture. This means enabling gene-edited foods and facilitating pesticide-spraying drones – which may make pesticide use more sustainable by offering more precise and targeted application and is, in theory, already permitted.  A formal response to a consultation on gene editing will be published by DEFRA shortly.

  • To reform the regulation of smart devices and energy industry codes (currently the subject of consultation) to achieve a smarter electricity grid in general and facilitate reaching net zero.

  • Adopting an improved approach to coordinating the development of offshore electricity networks, in support of the target to reach 40 gigawatts of offshore wind power capacity by 2030.

  • Subject to cost-benefit analysis and safety checks, to increase the legal maximum amount of hydrogen in the gas grid. This is expected from 2023, when current hydrogen injection trials will be complete.

  • To introduce legislation to streamline the final stages of nuclear decommissioning, allowing the earlier disapplication of licensing and “a safe and more proportionate clean-up, in line with environmental regulations, as well as significant savings to the taxpayer”.

But the letter also makes the strange claim that the Environmental Permitting Regulations were a red-tape busting response to Brexit. They were first introduced in 2007 and implement various strands of EU law. It adds that DEFRA is continuing to rationalise and streamline the legislation.

A promised strategy and policy statement for Ofgem, which the energy regulator would have to have regard in exercising its functions, is also unrelated to Brexit, being made under the Energy Act 2013. “It’s flimflam all the way down,” noted Adam Bell, an energy expert and head of policy at management consultancy Stonehaven, formerly of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Reacting to the announcement in the Commons yesterday, shadow trade secretary Emily Thornberry questioned why the government was talking of ‘Brexit opportunities’ while the country is beset by shortages of staff and supplies. “It is a bit like the Pudding Lane baker strolling around the great fire of London asking people running for their lives if they have any orders for Christmas,” she said.

In the Lords, former Conservative cabinet minister Lord Lilley suggested that the government should go back to the UK’s original briefs when EU directives were negotiated – an idea that Lord Frost described as “extremely good”.

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