Rosalind Stevens / Sep 2023
Kemi Badenoch - UK Secretary of State for Business and Trade. Photo: Shutterstock
Central to the Conservative Party 2019 manifesto was a commitment to reassert the sovereignty of the UK Parliament, changing laws accumulated during the UK’s membership of the EU “to ensure high standards of workers’ rights, environmental protection and consumer rights.”
The Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Act (REUL), enacted 30 June 2023, was hailed as a central plank of that commitment. Introduced to Parliament on 22 September 2022 during Liz Truss’ premiership, the plan was to ‘make a bonfire’ of all REUL through a sunset clause. All REUL not marked for retention would automatically fall away on 31 December 2023.
It is reasonable to conclude that this was a politically motivated approach, central to both Liz Truss, and Rishi Sunak’s leadership campaigns. Rishi Sunak even made a campaign video showing him shredding all EU laws.
Following his commitment to review all EU laws within his first 100 days in office, the new PM eventually adopted a more pragmatic approach. After announcing the removal of the automatic sunset clause, Business and Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch told the European Scrutiny Committee: “REUL is not a bonfire of regulations …. We are not arsonists.” Nevertheless, the process by which the Government will now decide which laws “to get rid of” remains somewhat opaque.
Rather than reasserting the sovereignty of Parliament, the REUL Act gives substantial new powers to Ministers and devolved authorities to change and replace REUL through secondary legislation. This despite repeated attempts by the Lords to introduce amendments to increase parliamentary oversight. The Government suffered several defeats in the Lords on scrutiny mechanisms for delegated powers, both in general and with a particular focus on environmental standards. However, these amendments were repeatedly rejected by the House of Commons, and do not form part of the final Act.
There are thought to be at least 4000 individual pieces of REUL, with more being ‘discovered’ all the time. There is no provision in the Act for public consultation, despite the suite of powers in Section 16 that preclude increases in regulatory burdens. Transparency is limited to Section 17 requirements for the REUL dashboard to be kept up to date and six monthly progress reports to Parliament.
Throughout the Parliamentary process, Ministers repeatedly gave assurances of the Government’s commitment to no lowering of environmental protections or standards, with a better focus on renewables. There was no intention to abandon our strong record on workers’ rights. Ministers repeated their commitment to maintain the UK’s leading role in the promotion and protection of human rights, equality, and the rule of law. Consumers would be protected from unsafe products and would benefit from the promotion of robust food standards both nationally and internationally. Moreover, the devolved Governments could rest assured that the concurrent nature of the powers in the Act was not intended to affect the devolution settlements, nor to influence decision-making in devolved Governments.
The REUL Act listed 587 REUL for revocation by 31 December 2023. A further 93 were announced in a written statement on 8 September 2023. The Revocation and Sunset Disapplication Regulations 2023 describe these as redundant pieces of legislation that do not reflect policy changes” with “no, or no significant, impact on the private, voluntary, or public sector.” However the Secondary Legislative Scrutiny Committee criticised the lack of any broad explanation of the topics covered, particularly the absence of a direct weblink to a more detailed “explainer document” to give the public easy access to that information.
The review of REUL is an excellent opportunity for Parliament to hold the Government to account on their commitments to a higher standards UK. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, the REUL Act has the potential to enable Ministers to make policy changes using mechanisms that were not headlined as such. It is difficult for Parliamentarians, let alone civil society to keep track of the changes and understand their impacts. Coverage around REUL reforms to date has primarily focused on a package of deregulatory reforms, seemingly failing to recognise evidence of widespread public support for strong protections and robust enforcement.
The Government may claim not to be arsonists in their drive to remove EU laws that it considers redundant. Given their failure to provide proper accountability, transparency, or parliamentary oversight in this process, it may still prove necessary to stand poised at the fire alarm for some time to come.