Extricating the UK from 40 odd years of non-stop lawmaking is very difficult: I don’t envy those with the responsibility. But the Bill is misnamed. It will repeal the European Communities Act, but everything else remains as is.
We need continuity on the day after Brexit, but must existing legislation continue indefinitely? When a repeal bill was first touted, the idea was that all transposed laws would be reviewed by some finite date, say five years hence.
It might still be possible to do this, but selectively. Many – probably most – laws need not be reopened: they cover technical issues which any government would probably retain. But Parliament could impose sunset clauses on legislation clearly opposed by the UK government of the day – for instance the Agency Workers Directive and the Working Time Directive.
We might still decide to keep it, but at least we would be debating afresh. Otherwise, we are missing a chance for real rather than cosmetic change.
The Great Repeal Bill is really about delivering day-one certainty on the regulations that businesses will need to abide by when the UK leaves the EU – not slashing red tape.
Business communities across the UK tell us that regulatory stability at the point of exit is vital, both to avoid punishing adjustment costs and to ensure that trade keeps flowing. Few firms think a bonfire of red tape is initially desirable.
Unpicking red tape is a complex affair, and it will take time for businesses and government to work together to determine where some change may be required, and where maintaining equivalence with the EU will be necessary for trade. This process cannot be rushed, as we have seen far too many times how one poorly-drafted regulatory proposal can spark court cases with wide-reaching consequences.
Brexit may create an opportunity to cut red tape. Yet that opportunity must be exercised with care – and when the terms of Brexit are far clearer.