Civil servants are estimated to be spending tens of millions of pounds establishing which laws and regulations could be scrapped under the government’s controversial retained EU laws bill.
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) last week admitted it spent £600,000 on staffing costs alone in just two months as part of its review of the bill.
Ministers have now ordered other departments not to reveal details on what resources they have diverted, but analysis by the Observer suggests the final total for all government departments will be in the tens of millions.
BEIS is responsible for just 318 out of about 4,000 laws and regulations protecting employment rights, consumer rights, the environment, farming, travel and civil liberties that Rishi Sunak said he plans to abolish or reform by the end of the year.
The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Treasury and the Department for Transport all have more regulations to consider, while HMRC, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health and Social Care also have substantial tasks.
Last year, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who championed the bill as business secretary, was told BEIS would need 400 staff to find out which laws the government wanted to scrap and what the impact would be, while the DHSC would need 100 people to deal with 137 pieces of legislation identified so far. Experts say the cost could run into tens of millions of pounds.
MPs from every opposition party have called on the government to rethink the bill, which returns to parliament on Wednesday.
In a letter to the Observer, the MPs say: “As yet parliament doesn’t have a full list of what regulations could be deleted but we do know it includes vital protections for river quality, clean air, consumer health and workers’ rights.
“Ministers are choosing to apply an arbitrary, unmanageable deadline to review these laws and then giving themselves the power to decide what happens next rather than parliament.”
For instance, civil servants in the business department have the task of examining the future of the ecodesign of ‘glandless standalone circulators’ (a type of fan), or whether to keep regulations ensuring that makeup or lead crystal glass is not toxic.
Defra has about 1,100 laws and regulations to review, including rules on aquatic animal quarantine, or how to guarantee that chicks exported to Finland are free of salmonella.
Other regulations include those to protect wildlife, limit sewage and pollution in rivers, whether drinking water has radioactive substances in it, the use of hormones in livestock, how much pesticide is allowed in food, and limits on harmful air pollution.
Ruth Chambers of the Greener UK coalition of 10 major environmental organisations said: “Trying to scrap nearly 4,000 laws in a year with next to no scrutiny is reckless and undermines the environment, business and public health.
“Simply extending the deadline will not change the fundamental flaws. Ministers will still be able to weaken vital protections behind closed doors. Gaps will still be left in the law. The bill will drain resources from government departments trying to deal with the cost of living crisis, and cost taxpayers millions in the process.
“We need a far more considered approach that this bill cannot and will not provide.”
Experts are already warning that the legislation raises serious legal problems for the government and directly contradicts elements of the 2020 Brexit trade agreement with the EU which guarantees that UK will not “weaken or reduce” labour and social protections.
Prof Keith Ewing, president of the Institute of Employment Rights, said that a string of employment rights would be made “vulnerable” by the new bill. “This is a very wide category of rights,” he said. “You could argue it covers our entire inheritance from leaving the EU, as a result there is an obligation of non-regression. I can’t see how they can meet the obligations of that deal and remove all EU regulations by the end of the year.
“Some people in government seem to be deluding themselves that because of Brexit, we can move ourselves back to the days before 1 January 1973, as if the world had never changed. We may have left the EU, but we have retained obligations to it under the trade agreement.”
A BEIS spokesperson said: “The programme to review, revoke and reform retained EU law is underway and being adequately resourced.”