IDS to spearhead final desperate quest for ‘stifling’ EU shackles

Diver under water
Image by David Mark from Pixabay

New task force to prioritise further regulatory ‘deep dives’ after failure to identify significant EU rules for repeal causes scaling back of government ambitions

The government has launched a last despairing effort to find a significant EU regulation or directive worth modifying. Headed up by Iain Duncan Smith and assisted by Science minister George Freeman, the Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform (TIGRR) seems to have abandoned any hope of finding anything to actually repeal.

Nine years or more of brain racking, plus combing of the UK statute book by various Brexit-leaning think tanks as well as civil servants, has failed to identify any serious candidates for scrapping.

Now IDS, the former army officer and work and pensions secretary, has been charged with finding something by May of this year that can be put to the prime minister. It follows a conference call held in January between 250 business leaders and Boris Johnson, where the PM appeared to admit being stumped as he pleaded with them to come up with regulations that they found excessively burdensome. They could not.

The Financial Times reports that IDS has declared there will be no “slash and burn” but in a sign of how difficult things have become, business groups claim they are being “badgered” to provide some rules that the government can modify and then point to as justification for leaving the EU’s regulatory orbit.

Business groups report being “badgered” by Downing Street to come up with ideas for regulatory reform, while MPs led by Duncan Smith are seeking ideas to present to Johnson by May.
Financial Times 17 February 2021

The Financial Times says:

“The idea of a post-Brexit conflagration, laying waste to what they see as stifling Brussels regulation, has been a staple of Eurosceptic discourse for years, but it is being quietly doused by the government”. 

Financial Times 17 February 2021

One of the central aims of Brexit, cutting back EU regulations, certainly appears to have been significantly scaled back by the TIGRR’s brief.

There is not even a specific objective listed for any repealing of EU rules, mass or otherwise. Instead, the group will look at opportunities to “drive innovation and accelerate the commercialisation and safe adoption of new technologies” and to “reduce barriers to entry in specific markets”. It will also examine ways of reducing “administrative barriers to scaling up productive businesses” and find “opportunities to improve small business’ experience of necessary regulatory requirements”. 

The last point looks suspiciously like a programme to convince small businesses that EU regulations are actually good once the famous UK gold-plating is removed.

Finally, the task force is asked to look for “sectors of the economy or regulatory frameworks which should be prioritised for further regulatory deep dives” – whatever that means.

One might imagine these new objectives to have been written by Sir Humphrey Appleby from Yes Prime Minister. They are remarkably unambitious and will allow even IDS to claim a measure of success, although some Brexiters may be disappointed to learn that any divergence from EU rules is likely to be microscopic and barely worth the trouble.

Henry Newman, recently promoted to become the PM’s senior adviser, was formerly a director of the now-defunct Open Europe think tank, which in 2015 published a report claiming the top 100 most expensive EU regulations were costing the UK £33.3bn a year (£600m a week). Although it was widely used by the media during the campaign, including by both Johnson (who claimed the figure was even higher) and Gove, it now appears not a single one of the 100 will be repealed.

Instead, Johnson and Chancellor Sunak, who is chair of a cabinet committee on better regulations, are said to be focusing on a “new approach where Britain sets a more ‘agile’ framework to allow high-growth sectors to flourish”. It is a tacit admission that there are no significant cost savings in cutting EU regulations.

From the FT "One business leader said: 'We don't want a bonfire of regulations. If they want to cut red tape, they should start with the new burdens exporters are facing at the borders after Brexit."

Brexit, the very thing designed to free Britain from the EU regulatory burden, has instead multiplied it hugely. Businesses expecting a reduction in red tape elsewhere are to be cruelly disappointed. The UK will enjoy the bizarre position of being in perfect alignment with the EU single market, but with near maximum friction.

One former Tory cabinet minister involved in previous attempts to root out red tape said: “You cast around and find virtually nothing anyone wants to repeal. Then you find there was a reason it was put there in the first place.”

The quote by a ‘former cabinet minister’ may be a reference to Oliver Letwin’s “red tape challenge”, which ran between 2011 and 2014 and claimed the ‘war on red tape’ had saved business £10bn over four years. Of the most ‘burdensome’ regulations scrapped, these were at the top of the list announced by Matt Hancock in December 2014.

  • Live music: pubs and village halls can now host live music events between 8am and 11pm without applying for a license. This has saved business more than £1m
  • Christmas crackers: lowering the age at which people can legally buy Christmas crackers from 16 to 12 years old and simplifying the process for age identification through a new code of conduct created with businesses and local authorities
  • Squirrel spotting: we are scrapping the law which made it an offence to fail to report a grey squirrel on your land.

I am sure British business leaders were also relieved to learn that jam had been ‘redefined’ and that cattle movements were to be recorded online. It was all nickel and dime stuff after three years of detailed work.

In a sign of just how problematic all this repealing business is, Kwasi Kwarteng, co-author of Britannia Unchained, a highly critical book of the British worker (too many people in Britain preferred a lie-in to hard work, apparently) and now business secretary, launched a review of employment rights on 19 January, only to scrap it nine days later after opposition from the Labour Party and others.

The notion that great chunks of EU law could be repealed is proving to be as delusional as many other Vote Leave claims. Another great pillar of their referendum campaign success has effectively collapsed, along with the £350m per week for the NHS claim and fears of 76 million Turks flooding across Europe to the UK.

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