(Bloomberg) — Rishi Sunak has received requests from senior civil servants to delay a planned “bonfire” of legislation dating from the UK’s membership of the European Union by three years until 2026, in the latest blow to his government’s efforts to show there are benefits of Brexit.
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Officials across several government departments told ministers that deadline to remove about 4,000 pieces of EU-derived laws from the British statute book by Dec. 31, 2023 will be hard to meet, according to three people familiar with internal discussions. The revelation comes after an alliance of business, environmental and worker groups urged the government this week to drop the plans.
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Delivering the plan would require thousands of civil servants to work full-time to meet the deadline, the officials warned. Staff tasked with reviewing each EU law 25 detailed questions to answer on each one, and one official estimated the responses combined would run to about 20 million words.
A government spokesman did not immediately return a request for comment.
The problem for Sunak is that pushing back the deadline would likely put him on a collision course with prominent Brexiteers in the Conservative Party including Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has said erasing EU laws from the UK should be “easily achieved.” The timing is far from ideal, with deep divisions making the ruling party increasingly difficult for Sunak to handle.
Sunak said during the summer Conservative leadership campaign — the one he lost to Liz Truss, whose premiership imploded in record time — that he would “review or repeal” the EU laws in his first 100 days as prime minister.
Yet Bloomberg reported in July that a senior Treasury official during Sunak’s time as Chancellor of the Exchequer had warned that removing EU law would not even be possible by 2026, let alone the end of next year.
Officially, the government says its EU Retained Law Bill will “allow us to create a new pro-growth, high standards regulatory framework that gives businesses the confidence to innovate, invest and create jobs, transforming the UK into the best- regulated economy in the world.” But the legislation does include a provision to delay the “sunset” date from 2023 until 2026 if required.
Though politically sensitive for Sunak’s party, the complications and he adwinds created by Brexit are becoming ever more clear. The Sunday Times newspaper at the weekend reported that senior government figures plan to put Britain on a pathway to a closer, Swiss-style economic relationship with the bloc, though Sunak and Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt have since both pushed back on the idea.
Ripping out EU laws has proved extremely difficult, according to civil servants working on the policy. Officials are required to estimate costs and benefits for specific British businesses directly impacted, and an exhaustive breakdown of how the 4,000 laws are intertwined with British legislation and regulations.
Many of the 25 questions posed for each piece of legislation have multiple sub-questions. One official involved complained it would take days to answer some individual questions, and that total responses would run to 40,000 pages.
To make matters worse, some government departments have still be unable to locate every piece of EU-derived law in their area, another official said. The Financial Times reported this month that researchers at Britain’s National Archives had unearthed a further 1,400 previously unknown pieces of EU law.
The UK voted to leave the bloc six years ago.
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