Standards on food safety, animal welfare and consumer rights are all under threat from the government’s “recklessly irresponsible” bid to axe EU laws in a matter of months, safety watchdogs have warned.
Civil servants are rushing to rewrite reams of existing regulations because the former so-called Brexit opportunities minister Jacob Rees-Mogg wants to cleanse the country of rules that originated in Brussels by the end of 2023.
Trading standards officers have now said they are concerned that ministers’ plans could see dangerous products end up on British shelves, new diseases taking hold on farms, and scammers given new opportunities to rip people off.
Watchdogs warned Rishi Sunak that the rush to rewrite the laws at speed is dangerous and that “inevitable” errors will creep in – with unpredictable and potentially disastrous consequences.
The Retained EU Law Bill was cooked up by former Brexit opportunities ministers Jacob Rees-Mogg and his predecessor Lord Frost – and is widely seen as a politically-motivated move to placate hardcore Brexiteers.
The Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI), the professional body for the trading standards profession, says the timetable outlined in the bill had created “widespread concern among consumer protection experts”.
The body has written to Mr Sunak along with a dozen other organisations including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, the British Safety Industry Federation, and the Child Accident Prevention Trust, to warn of the dangers.
“Rushing through legislation which could undermine these protections would have potentially disastrous consequences, and could ultimately put lives at risk,” they say in their letter to the prime minister.
“Under the government’s proposed timetable, thousands of pieces of complex and vitally important legislation will need to be reviewed, rewritten – and, potentially, scrapped – in a little over a year. Mistakes, omissions and contradictions are inevitable.”
The government says public safety is its “highest priority” and that the bill “allow us to ensure our laws and regulations best fit the needs of the country”.
Launching the legislation in the autumn, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) said its plan was “the culmination of a journey that began on 23 June 2016 when more than 17 million citizens of the UK and Gibraltar voted for the UK to leave the European Union”.
But the Labour MP Yvonne Fovargue, chair of the all-party parliamentary group on consumer protection, said the concern raised by trading standards professionals was “not about refighting battles about Brexit”.
“Rather, it’s about ensuring that we have good regulation in place that protects consumers and keeps people safe,” she said.
“Yes, we should always keep regulations under review and make sure they are fit for purpose. But let’s not play into a fantasy agenda that equates regulation with barriers to trade and growth. That’s nonsense.
“Good regulation benefits business and consumers alike. Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.”
The former head of the government’s legal service Jonathan Jones last month warned that ministers’ plans were “absolutely ideological and symbolic rather than about real policy”, and said it was likely to create chaos.
And on Thursday, the Trades Union Congress and business groups such as the Institute of Directors and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) also said the bill should be junked as it would cause “significant confusion and disruption for businesses, working people, and those seeking to protect the environment” by sweeping away “thousands of pieces of legislation and established legal principles”.
Clause 1 of the Retained EU Law Bill puts in place a sunset clause which will automatically delete all retained EU law in domestic secondary legislation and retained direct EU legislation unless civil servants intervene and create rewritten UK versions. These categories tend to cover areas such as standards and safety regulations.
The bill includes a possibility of extending the sunset period from the end of 2023 to 2026, but the letter sent to Mr Sunak warns that even if this took place the time for scrutiny would be limited – particularly with the parliamentary timetable squeezed by an expected 2024 general election and ongoing economic crisis.
“As the country wrestles with a cost of living crisis which every day brings increasing levels of consumer harm, rushing to scrap the very laws which serve as a bulwark against the rising tide of threats seems at best short-sighted and, at worst, recklessly irresponsible,” the letter warns.
“We are writing to express our deep concerns that in its current form, the Retained EU Law Bill could cause serious harm to the people, businesses, environment and economy of the UK.”
BEIS has been overseen by the cabinet minister Grant Shapps since Mr Sunak’s reshuffle.
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The CTSI letter was also signed by the Institute of Licensing, the Association of Chief Trading Standards Officers, the Anti-Counterfeiting Group, Electrical Safety First, and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health.
The charity Unchecked UK, the UK Weighing Federation, the UK Metric Association, and Action on Smoking and Health also signed the letter. The organisations are campaigning under the banner Safeguarding Our Standards.
A survey of the opinions of trading standards professionals carried about by the CTSI found that officers are most concerned about the implications the bills could have for product safety, food safety, and fair trading. A poll of the public conducted by Censuswide found similar concerns.
John Herriman, the CTSI chief executive, said: “Rushing to overhaul vast swathes of UK legislation, particularly when the country faces such an unprecedented set of other challenges, is not something that those of us working in trading standards or consumer protection want, and there is clearly concern from the public that the government should be focusing its precious Parliamentary time on other matters.
“We would urge the government to reconsider the implementation timetable for the bill and to potentially explore a phased approach.”
A government spokesperson said: “Public safety is the government’s highest priority. The government is committed to taking full advantage of the benefits of Brexit, which is why we are pushing ahead with our Retained EU Law Bill, which will allow us to ensure our laws and regulations best fit the needs of the country, keep important protections and safeguards and support jobs.”