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'Brexit Freedoms Bill' Exposes Lack Of Government Vision, Says Ex-Chief Civil Servant

'Brexit Freedoms Bill' Exposes Lack Of Government Vision, Says Ex-Chief Civil Servant
4 min read

The government's fresh promise to take advantage of Brexit "freedoms" shows it still doesn't have a clear vision of what it actually wants to achieve, says a former top civil servant who led on the UK's exit from the European Union.

Philip Rycroft, who was Permanent Secretary at the Department for Exiting the European Union from 2017 to 2019, said ministers were still talking in vague and "promissory" terms about how it intended to use its ability to do away with EU regulations, more than five years on from the Brexit referendum. 

Boris Johnson on Monday said that to mark two years since the UK formally left the EU he would bring forward a 'Brexit Freedoms Bill'. It is one of several government announcements expected this week as the Prime Minister attempts to move the focus onto policy and away from the ongoing 'partygate' scandal. 

The legislation, Johnson said, will make it easier for the government to repeal EU law dating back to when the UK was still in the bloc, and allow the government to help British businesses by slashing £1bn worth of red tape.

"The plans we have set out today will further unleash the benefits of Brexit and ensure that businesses can spend more of their money investing, innovating and creating jobs," he said.

However, Labour said the announcement was light on detail and accused the government of using the legislation as a means of distracting from questions facing Johnson's leadership.

“The key question for the government is which of the proposed changes in regulation depend on the passage of this bill, and if the answer is none, what other changes are they planning that do?" a Labour source told PoliticsHome.

"Until they can explain all that, we have to ask what the point of this bill is, other than the latest weak strand of 'Operation save Big Dog'."

Rycroft told PoliticsHome it was "absolutely clear" that the government still didn't have a detailed vision of what it wanted to achieve with greater control over its regulations.

"Speaking as someone who worked on this stuff, on where the opportunities might lie, the fact that government is still talking in promissory terms illustrates just how difficult this is," he said. "And it’s not just two years since Brexit, it’s also five years since the EU referendum."

This, he said, was largely because it is "politically and practically" difficult for the government to make sweeping changes of the sort demanded by staunchly pro-Brexit Conservative MPs. 

“There are two big inhibitions for with all of this," Rycroft said.

"Firstly, a lot the regulations we are talking about are popular with the public, like those protecting employment rights and the environment, and if government sought to unravel those to any great extent there would be a lot of folk rejecting it.

"Secondly, the purpose of the Single Market was to turn 28 sets of regulations into one in order to make trade easier and given the EU is still our largest trading partner, UK manufacturers which trade with the EU have little interest in producing to different standards.

"This hugely limits what the government can actually do and that’s why it is putting out press release with not a great deal of detail.”

He added:  "We are in a highly regulated, modern economy which is integrated with the international economy, meaning there is very limited scope for going your own way."

The former civil servant said that the £1bn figure used by the government to indicate how much money their plans to drop EU regulations would save was a "suspiciously round".

"I’d like to see the impact assessment and what that actually means in practice," he told PoliticsHome.

The government yesterday also published a 102-page document setting out the "benefits" of Brexit as part of efforts to showcase how it had taken advantage of leaving the bloc two years ago.

The Prime Minister said the document showed that the government was “firmly planting the British flag on the world stage once again".

Benefits included major government policies like new trade deals, a points-based immigration system and the creation of free ports, as well as smaller-scale changes like blue passports, the return of imperial measurements, and enabling businesses to print the crown stamp on pint glasses.

However, critics pointed out that some of the achivements listed, like setting up free ports and sticking the crown stamp on pint glasses, were possible while the UK was an EU member state.

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