“So then,” Brexiteers are being asked. “Now that you’ve got back your precious sovereignty what are you actually going to DO. Which particular regulations that we have inherited from the EU do you want to get rid of?”
As Wormtongue says in Lord of the Rings, “A just question, my liege.” Yet some of the responses have sounded a bit floundering. The difficulty is not the shortage of unwelcome EU directives that have accumulated since 1973. It’s the overwhelming abundance of them that we have struggled to absorb for nearly half a century.
Victoria Hewson is among those to accept the challenge. Writing for this site she concedes that championing the “concept” of independence is all very well but “it’s what you do with it that counts. And our new relationship with the EU gives us the opportunity to legislate differently and better, in all kinds of areas of our economy.”
Where do we start? So far VAT on tampons has been abolished (the EU regards them as a “luxury” that should be taxed accordingly). We have also banned ‘pulse trawling’ in our water. This uses electric shocks to scare fish up into waiting nets. But the shock can leave large numbers of dead fish in the surrounding area floating around with their spines broken.
What next? Mark Littlewood, writing in the Sunday Telegraph, suggests that one approach “would be to take all the EU laws, which were opposed by the UK, but enforced on us anyway. Given we no longer need to abide by these rules, and we did not want them in the first place, why would we retain them?”
That would seem a good starting point. Another principle could be to prioritise EU rules that are likely to be counterproductive. So not merely that they are a disproportionate cost for the benefit they offer, but that they provide no benefit at all. Sweeping those ones away would appeal to the Prime Minister’s “cakeism”. He can cut the overall burden of red tape on individuals and businesses and offer a more effective means to reduce fraud, or improve workplace conditions, or enhance environmental standards or whatever the supposed objective of the EU might have been.
Some of the changes required might be boring and complicated but important for the economy – for instance in banking and financial services. EU regulations on financial services are estimated to cost over £7 billion. The Alternative Investment Fund Managers Directive and the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive are prime culprits.
Granted, the terms of the EU-UK deal may limit the Government’s scope for action in some areas, but here are 10 regulations we should be looking at for improvement.
1. The Genetically Modified Organisms Directive
In 2018 the European Court of Justice ruled that altering living things using the relatively new technique of genome editing counts as genetic engineering. That judgment inhibits our contribution to the fight against malaria – a disease which, according to Unicef, is “the largest killer of children” on the planet. This is because of a gene-editing application called CRISPR – Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats – which could potentially eradicate malaria by making mosquitoes immune to the disease. British scientists have complained of the “onerous” EU restrictions which act as a block on our contribution to innovation of this kind.
2. The Clinical Trials Directive
These regulations have undermined cancer clinical trials and other important medical work. As an editorial in the British Medical Journal said last year: “Although established with good intent, the current rules and regulations are stifling academic clinical research and hindering patients’ access to innovative treatment options.”
3. The Health and Safety at Work Framework Directive
This requires all businesses to keep written records of risk assessments carried out in their workplace, regardless of risk. The EU refused to exempt small businesses, even those with fewer than ten employees. It is an example of a regulation that is very onerous for small firms but of negligible practical benefit.
4. Protection of Animals during Transport and Related Operations Regulation
This is the requirement to allow exports of live animals, which the Government has indicated it will dispense with.
5. Abolish VAT for the renovation of buildings and regulatory barriers to new homes
Perversely VAT is charged for restoring an existing building to bring it back into use but not for new building. There are a lot of empty derelict buildings that could be adapted for beautiful housing even though they were originally built for other reasons.
6. VAT on ‘luxuries’
There are lots of areas where VAT could now be scrapped. What about condoms? We could have an interesting debate about whether or not they are a ‘luxury’. But from a public health perspective a “tax on safe sex” does not make much sense. It would help the environment to scrap VAT on solar panels and home insulation. VAT should be abolished on all school uniforms. Uniforms for pupils aged over 14 have VAT – also for younger children above the average size. But I would highlight a particular priority. During the referendum campaign in 2016, Vote Leave said: “EU law prevents the UK from cutting value added tax on household energy bills. This hits the least wealthy households the hardest, which spend on average three times as much of their income on energy as the wealthiest households.” Given that the Prime Minister was prominent in that campaign it would be right to deliver on that.
Another EU restriction with perverse consequences. The EU’s Tobacco Products Directive restricts e-cigarettes. But many feel that vaping should be promoted as it is an effective way to encourage smokers to quit.
8. Chemicals Directive
In 2006 the EU agreed a new regulation called Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals. This has required – and continues to require – a huge amount of unnecessary animal testing at a cost of billions to the chemicals industry.
9. Working Time Directive
Other important changes could allow a more flexible labour market. The Working Time Directive is the EU regulation that bans working more than 48 hours a week, since incorporated into British law in the UK Working Time Regulations. It is estimated these rules cost the British economy over £5 billion a year. It has been particularly damaging to the NHS as it has been applied to doctors who are “on call” through the night even if they were asleep. Patient care is harmed by the need to hand over from one doctor to another. The restriction should be lifted. The Temporary Workers Directive, which requires equal treatment for temporary workers, has the impact of making temporary work harder to obtain.
10. Food labelling
As with the VAT changes, we could have a long list from this category alone. European Food Information to Consumers Regulation (Regulation 2011/1169/EU) is the one that obliges shops to attach warnings on their fish products stating that their products may contain fish. Then there is the Weights and Measures Directive (Council Directive 1980/181/EEC). where the UK is obliged to use metric units in most areas. While the use of imperial measures as a “supplementary indicator” is permitted, metric units “shall predominate” and must be given in the same or a larger font than imperial measurements.
I realise I may have missed out your own bete noire. What about the public procurement rules which have blocked competition from smaller firms? What about high-powered vacuum cleaners? What about that pointless daily ritual of clicking the acceptance of cookies on websites?
But according to the House of Commons library the 900 EU directives have left us with a legacy of 19,000 regulations. Open Europe estimated that the top 100 EU regulations alone cost us £33.3 billion annually. We should be able to achieve much better outcomes at a drastically reduced cost. Scrapping, or amending, some of them will be contentious. Others are so brazenly pointless it will be a struggle for anyone to raise much objection. But it is a mammoth task and the Government should get cracking.
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