One of the Tory party’s leading Brexit supporters has raised concerns about plans to scrap 2,400 EU laws by the end of next year – as fears grow that the policy will overwhelm the civil service and bring government to a virtual standstill.
Former environment secretary Theresa Villiers, who backed Brexit in 2016, told the Observer that the proposals would take up vast amounts of civil service time and would involve undoing legislation that, in many cases, was broadly popular and good for the country.
Other senior Tories are growing concerned that the EU retained law bill, championed by Jacob Rees-Mogg before Rishi Sunak sacked him on becoming prime minister, is in danger of becoming an ideological millstone.
During his leadership campaign against Liz Truss, Sunak backed plans to strike as much EU legislation as possible from the UK statute book in what seemed like a bidding war for rightwing votes among the Brexit-supporting Tory membership.
But since he became prime minister there have been suggestions that he might water down the plans by extending the “sunset clause” for scrapping bills by three years to the end of 2026. But Tory whips fear that doing so will provoke a backlash from rightwingers led by Rees-Mogg.
Villiers – a former MEP – made it clear, however, that the Rees-Mogg proposals appeared unrealistic, and cited particular concerns about the effects of scrapping EU rules on the environment.
“We don’t even know exactly how many laws there are relating to the environment that would be impacted by the bill, but groups have counted up to 570 that need to be looked at in what is a relatively short period of time,” Villiers said.
“That is an immense amount of work to do, and my fear is that the work may not be completed by either the 2023 or 2026 deadline.”
Legislation such as the deposit return scheme – which was designed to encourage recycling of items such as plastic bottles and was broadly popular both with the public and the drinks sector – had taken years to get on to the statute book but was now under threat, Villiers said.
“That was committed to in 2018, so it’s been four years and it is not yet being implemented. That demonstrates that even relatively politically straightforward change isn’t that easy. And 18 months is demanding. We need to ensure the bill works.”
Some senior Conservatives believe that the bill will have to be, at the very least, extensively amended to make it less prescriptive, so it focuses only on pieces of legislation that are obviously redundant and easy to strike off the statute book, and that do not need to be replaced with replica UK laws.
Former cabinet minister Damian Green, who opposed Brexit, said there were real questions about what would be put in place of legislation that would be scrapped, and how fast that could be done. “My fear is a practical one. These regulations will need to be replaced in a very short space of time otherwise there will be laws with big holes in them” he said. “I hope someone in government has thought through the practicalities of this.”
Another Tory MP who opposed Brexit, Richard Graham, said: “The question for government is whether the sheer volume of laws that need conversion is a practical and desirable goal before the next general election. The alternative is to focus on a smaller number, where conversion leads immediately to changes – highlighting the opportunities of leaving the EU by amending our own laws. For many of us, that is both more practical and has more political benefit for those who voted to get Brexit done.”
Opposition to the bill is also mounting from business groups, legal experts and unions, all of which say it is causing unnecessary uncertainty over which laws will apply in just over a year’s time.
Jonathan Jones, who headed the government legal service from 2014 to 2020 and dealt with the complex legal challenges of Brexit, said: “I think it is absolutely ideological and symbolic rather than about real policy.”
A government spokesperson denied that there would be any major change to the bill, despite Whitehall sources confirming that there were signs of a rethink being under way.
The spokesperson said: “The government is committed to taking full advantage of the benefits of Brexit, which is why we are pushing ahead with our retained EU law bill, which will end the special legal status of all retained EU law and make it more easily amended, repealed or replaced.
“This will allow us to ensure our laws and regulations best fit the needs of the country, removing needless bureaucracy in order to support jobs, whilst keeping important protections and safeguards.”