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Brexit Freedoms Bill - Britain continues to look in rear-view mirror

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez January 31, 2022
Debating Brexit is futile now that the exit from the EU has happened. But if the UK wants to be at the ‘leading edge of science and technology’ it needs to put forward some actual ideas on how to make that happen.

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson has today set out his plans to bring forward a ‘Brexit Freedoms Bill' that will end the ‘special status' of EU law, in a bid to ensure that it can be more easily removed. The aim is to cut £1 billion of red tape for businesses and ‘improve regulation'. 

However, upon scrutiny, the announcement lacks any substantial detail and it once again appears that the current government is looking in its rear-view mirror, blaming the EU for any lack of progress in its attempt to become a ‘technology and science powerhouse'. 

Debating Brexit itself is futile, Britain's exit from the EU is now complete and it has been a year since the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement was signed. The deed itself is done. 

That's not to say that there isn't an argument for introducing the Brexit Freedoms Bill - there is logic to Britain forging its own path as a sovereign state, instead of completely aligning itself with the EU, whilst not enjoying any of the benefits of actually being in the EU. 

The problem is that the UK continues to talk a lot about deviation from EU rules, and its plans for becoming a leader in science and technology, without ever really explaining how it plans to do this - or offering a vision for people to rally behind. 

Instead, we are offered the same old tropes of ‘axing red tape and bureaucracy' and ‘taking control of our borders'. 

For example, the British Government has set out its plans for deviating from the EU's GDPR legislation - claiming that it was a ‘new direction' for data protection. There are concerns about what this means for the UK's data adequacy agreement with the EU, but more importantly, the planned changes don't fully articulate why they're necessary. 

What is the long-term strategy here, beyond deregulation for deregulation's sake? 

Research has shown that since Brexit occurred it is SMEs and e-commerce businesses that are being hit the hardest. If the government wants to support digital growth, these are organizations that need support - where's the post-Brexit plan? 

Freedom from what, exactly? 

The issue with the Brexit Freedoms Bill is that the government talks about amending or removing ‘outdated EU law' - legacy EU law kept on the statute book after Brexit as a bridging measure - but doesn't really give much insight into what it hopes to achieve as a result. 

It claims that the reforms will cut £1 billion of red tape for UK businesses, ease regulatory burdens and contribute to the "government's mission to unite and level up the country" - yet doesn't provide detail on how it arrived at the £1 billion figure or how slashing EU laws will help it get there. 

The press release states:

Having regained our independence, we can now ensure that our regulations are tailor-made to the UK's own needs. However, under current rules, reforming and repealing this pipeline of outdated EU law would take several years because of the need for primary legislation for many changes, even if minor and technical.

The new legislation will ensure that changes can be made more easily, so that the UK can capitalise on Brexit freedoms more quickly.

The Bill is also expected to end the special status that EU law still enjoys in our legal framework. Despite our exit from the bloc, EU laws made before 1 January 2020 continue to have precedence in our domestic framework. This is simply not compatible with our status as a sovereign, independent country and the government will bring it to an end as quickly as possible.

It adds that officials across government are currently reviewing all EU retained laws to determine if they are beneficial to the UK. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson added:

Getting Brexit Done two years ago today was a truly historic moment and the start of an exciting new chapter for our country.

We have made huge strides since then to capitalise on our newfound freedoms and restore the UK's status as a sovereign, independent country that can determine its own future.

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.

Our new Brexit Freedoms Bill will end the special status of EU law in our legal framework and ensure that we can more easily amend or remove outdated EU law in future.

Vague to a fault

The Prime Minister's office also makes sweeping remarks in its statement, stating that from "artificial intelligence and gene editing to the future of transport and data protection, these reforms will create a new pro-growth, high-standards regulatory framework that gives businesses the confidence to innovate, invest and create jobs". 

How though? It points to creating a "more proportionate and less burdensome data rights regime" and that it will establish a "domestic subsidy control regime" to better support the UK economy. But it mostly amounts to broad gestures that don't contain a great deal of substance, money, nor support a vision that's been articulated effectively. 

In terms of what has been achieved to date, since the UK's exit from the EU, the government once again points to ending free movement, the vaccine rollout, its new trade deals and ‘cutting back on EU red tape'. And whilst some of these are worthy points - although the UK's approach to handing out contracts during the pandemic may be a better example of Brexit Britain - the government mostly comes back to its broad ambition of becoming a ‘leading science and technology' nation. 

But to achieve that we need targeted and structured reform that ties into this broader vision, backed up with significant investment and details. Simply cutting regulation for the sake of it won't cut it. Where is the plan?

The government is expected to publish its Levelling Up White Paper imminently, which may provide some meat on the bones, but this is only being backed with £1.5 billion of funding (not a significant amount in the grand scheme of things). 

The Council for Science and Technology wrote to the Prime Minister last year and urged him to sustainably increase investment in science, engineering and technology by at least 50% to a scale commensurate with the size of the UK's economy. The Prime Minister pointed to the UK's Innovation Strategy in his response to the Council, but it's been repeatedly highlighted that the UK's R&D expenditure is below the OECD average. 

UK R&D expenditure was 1.7% of GDP in 2019, compared to Germany's 3.2%, US's 3.1% and France's 2.2%. 

My take

The Prime Minister will be hoping that the Brexit deregulation announcements will both calm pro-Brexit MPs that have been calling for more rapid reform and distract from the lockdown partying scandal currently embroiling Number 10. I'm not sure this announcement will do either, due to its lack of substance. I do believe there could be opportunities for the UK as a result of Brexit, but what is needed is a clear vision that is tied to structural reform, detail and investment. At the moment it feels like sound bites being used to appease, rather than anything substantial or innovative. 

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