Though the architect behind the Brexit Freedoms Bill, Jacob Rees-Mogg, is no longer in post following the exit of the Truss Government and the appointment of Rishi Sunak as Prime Minister, Sunak himself advocated a wholesale review of post-Brexit UK law during his leadership campaign in the summer. Whether, in the face of economic crisis, this will remain high on his list of priorities remains to be seen. While Sunak is generally viewed as a "greener" PM than Truss, a believer in net zero and proponent of the Defra adage of leaving the environment in a better state than we found it, the prospect of widespread EU law repeals could have unintended consequences.
In the environmental sphere, a vast amount of UK legislation is inherited from the EU – 570 pieces of legislation fall under Defra's remit (the highest of any Government department by some distance). 437 of these pieces of legislation remain unchanged at the time of writing. The EU was the vanguard of environmental protection; in some areas such as water quality and air pollution, EU legislation pulled the UK up from its position as "the dirty man of Europe". The Environment Secretary has recently declared that Defra is an "economic growth" department rather than a "regulatory" department. According to media reports, the new chair of the Environment Agency supports the widespread removal of EU legislation, believing that the Agency could "deliver better environmental outcomes with less cost for us and less transaction cost for business". It is not yet clear how better outcomes will be delivered in a less regulated climate, unless the Government believes that the good conscience of businesses and pressures from their shareholders will keep behaviours in check.
While there is some speculation that environmental laws could, in certain areas, be tightened, this does not seem to be consistent with the tone of the Government's statements under Liz Truss, and environmental groups are certainly not convinced that this is a likely outcome of the EU legislation review. Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove said in a recent interview that "[a]nything that might in anyway undermine environmental protections is out" – a bold statement and one that, in light of the above, would keep Defra extremely busy over the next 14 months: if no action is taken to "restate" or "reproduce" retained EU law, under the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, the EU-derived law will be "sunsetted", or revoked automatically, on 31 December 2023. Government departments can buy themselves a little more time to decide how to deal with EU law, but not beyond 23 June 2026 (a poignant 10 years after the Brexit referendum).
See our detailed briefing for full details of the Retained EU Law bill.