UK Government rules designed to cut red tape for businesses could see food safety standards plummet if they are applied after Brexit, says Sussex University’s Professor Erik Millstone.
The negotiations over Brexit between the UK and the EU, and within the Cabinet, have confronted us with proliferating uncertainties, but one which has hardly been mentioned could be particularly important for the agri-food sector. We could call it ‘the in-out’ rule.
In 2005, Tony Blair’s Better Regulation Task Force recommended a policy which came to be called, slightly misleadingly, ‘One in, One out’.
The phrase, surprisingly, did not mean before a new regulation could be introduced, another regulation in the same sector had to be rescinded.
What it did mean was the sector’s costs of complying with any new regulation had to be estimated, and other regulations, with costs of at least as much, should be abolished.
After 2010, the rule escalated to ‘One-in, Two-out’, and in 2016, to ‘One-in, Three-out’.
Importantly, this rule could only be applied to regulations which were confined to the UK.
It could not apply to EU Regulations or Directives, such as those which cover the agricultural and food system.
As an EU member state, the UK had fully to adopt and implement the EU’s statutes, but when the UK is no longer a member of the EU, this restriction will no longer apply.
Defra Secretary Michael Gove’s line is the UK will enjoy a ‘Green Brexit’, after which, if anything, the UK will become increasingly protective of things such as farm animal welfare and the biodiversity of fauna and flora, rather than taking the opportunity to lower standards, let alone competing in a regulatory ‘race to the bottom’.
Other Ministers, with some backbencher support – or should that be ‘pressure’ – have argued Brexit provides an opportunity for a bonfire of red tape, to free the British entrepreneurial spirit, to compete in global markets and to be amongst the cheapest producers.
We remain uncertain about the outcome of fierce Brexit debates in the Cabinet, and the outcome of the negotiations between the UK and the EU cannot reliably be predicted, but if the Government decided, post-Brexit, to apply the ‘One-in, Three-out’ rule to the regulatory regime covering the farming and food sectors, the consequences would be catastrophic.
It could mean that, in effect, measures to reduce campylobacter contamination of poultry would entail accepting higher levels of Salmonella, E.Coli 0157 and/or Listeria contamination.
Or it could mean tighter microbiological standards will be off-set by weakening controls on things like pesticides, antibiotics or additives.
Moreover, UK products would cease to be acceptable in the EU’s single market.
The Government has provided no indication whatsoever concerning the future scope of its ‘One-in, Three-out’ rule after Brexit. It is high time the issue was addressed.