Why the Great Repeal Bill must include a sunset clause

Why the Great Repeal Bill must include a sunset clause

By common consensus, this week’s Conservative Party conference provided much for Brexiteers to celebrate. The Government is intending to trigger Article 50 in the first quarter of next year, meaning that if Theresa May sees out her full term, we will be out of the EU before we go to the polls to elect a new government in 2020.

The prospect of frustrating or reversing the referendum decision – still the avowed strategy of a measurable slice of Remainers – will have failed. Brexit will have meant Brexit. We’ll be out and the next administration, whatever its political colour, will have to deal with the realities, opportunities and challenges facing an independent United Kingdom rather than entertaining any idea of a reverse ferret and somehow smuggling us back into the European Union.

Furthermore, a reading of the political tea leaves, suggests we might be heading towards a hard, clean Brexit rather than a soft, muddled one. The UK’s vexed relationship with Europe had led to a situation in which some might have felt we were only ever really half in the EU. To swap this arrangement for a status of only being half out would be a missed opportunity.

So far, so good. But the central legislative apparatus designed to expedite our exit from the European Union should be the cause of real concern rather than of celebration. The Great Repeal Bill will rescind the Act which facilitated our entry into the Common Market back in 1973 and will enshrine the existing (and vast) body of EU legislation and regulations into domestic law. This, we are told, is the best way to give businesses medium term certainty and smooth the way to a longer term plan to extricate ourselves from whichever regulations and directives are deemed to be damaging or redundant.

But this last part of the plan seems to amount to no more than misplaced, optimistic hand-waving. In the referendum campaign, the Remain and Leave sides agreed on little. But one area of apparent, albeit limited, consensus was that we were having to abide by a swathe of EU regulations that were less than optimal. To the Remainers, this was a mild irritation and a price worth paying for the supposed, wider upsides of membership. To the Leavers, it was yet another compelling reason to file for divorce. But no one argued that the swathes of red tape spewing out of Brussels were a universal delight.

The fear now must be that we will end up being stuck with most of it. Of course, once we’re out if the EU, we no longer need to worry about the flow of regulations coming out of Brussels, but that’s no reason to be sanguine about the historical, inherited stock.

For all the fury and indignation directed to the faceless Eurocrats, we mustn’t delude ourselves into believing that British civil servants have a liberal, light-touch approach to regulation hardwired into their brains. They don’t. Ridding ourselves of the reams of costly, economically damaging EU red tape will not happen by default. Much of the Whitehall bureaucracy will be instinctively geared up to producing an outpouring of new, home-produced laws rather than going through the painstaking task of deleting piles of old European Union rules which have accrued over the decades.

So, if we are serious about reaping the benefits that a Brexit deregulation strategy could yield, we need to change the rules of engagement. We should start from the working assumption that none of the stock of EU red tape is worth retaining. Of course, this should be a rebuttal presumption – not an absolute decree. Nevertheless, the burden of proof needs to be placed firmly on the shoulders of those who wish to retain regulations, not those who wish to incinerate them.

All of this can be achieved relatively simply, by inserting a sunset clause into the Great Repeal Bill. After a certain period of time after our departure, EU regulations and British laws based on EU directives will simply cease to apply unless they are specifically reaffirmed through the UK legislative and constitutional process. Whether some may be retained by statutory instrument and others require primary legislation can be argued over – as can the precise date at which the sunset clause is triggered. But the principle should be clear – outside of the EU we start from the premise that we don’t need to retain European Union rules over the longer term. We should not be expecting to embrace them as we embark on our journey through the 21st century as an independent sovereign state.

Not only would this lift unnecessary burdens on British business and help to generate economic growth, it would have the delightful side effect of refocusing much of the efforts of the Whitehall machine onto what we can repeal rather than what further legislation we can introduce.

A sunset clause in the upcoming Great Repeal Bill could be crucial in ensuring that Brexit Britain experiences a bright new dawn.