Chancellor Sajid Javid will use his Budget next month to launch a “Brexit red tape challenge”, inviting members of the public to propose ways in which Britain might diverge from the EU rule book.
The concept of the UK diverging from EU regulations is at the heart of Boris Johnson’s Brexit policy, but more than three and a half years after Britain voted to leave the EU, ministers have yet to articulate exactly what they mean.
Now Mr Javid is to ask members of the public and the business community to identify EU rules enshrined in British law that the government could “improve or remove” — a process he has described as a “competition”.
But Michael Heseltine, the former Tory business secretary, claimed the initiative reflected the inability of ministers to say which rules they would abolish, even though the UK’s ability to diverge from EU regulations is a cornerstone of Mr Johnson’s plan for a new trade deal between the two sides.
Lord Heseltine said he ran his own deregulatory initiative in the 1990s and it failed to produce any “significant” change because nobody could agree on what rules might be scrapped.
Government officials have said they expect the “Brexit red tape challenge” to be launched in Mr Javid’s Budget on March 11.
Asked last month by the Financial Times to give some examples of which EU regulations he would like to change, Mr Javid said: “I’m not going to do that right now.”
He referred to his proposed deregulatory initiative, adding the government was “actively looking at rules and regulations and changes we could make” after a Brexit transition period scheduled to end in December.
The chancellor later told business leaders in Davos that Britain would “not diverge just for the sake of it”.
Other ministers have said the UK’s post-Brexit regulatory freedom would be deployed mainly in areas of innovation, such as artificial intelligence or driverless cars.
Mr Johnson said this week that Britain was not prepared to align with EU rules after the end of the transition period, necessitating a more distant Canada-style trade deal that would create customs and regulatory checks at the border.
The prime minister has already announced plans to end the free movement of EU citizens — one of the big changes planned from 2021 — but has rarely given details of specific rules he would alter, other than a promise to cut value added tax on sanitary products.
Mr Javid announced his red tape challenge at the Conservative party conference last October, but it was put on hold because of the December general election.
He promised at the time: “From retail to green tech, we’ll have the opportunity to design smarter, more flexible regulation.
“Liberating our entrepreneurs, small businesses and consumers from the burden of overbearing bureaucracy, wherever we see it. Doing what a good pro-business government does.”
In 1992 Lord Heseltine was charged by the then prime minister John Major to “hack away the jungle of red tape”, but he quickly discovered that trade bodies could not agree on specific measures in British law they wanted to repeal.
“I waited with growing expectations but did not get a single reply,” he said. Whenever suggestions to eradicate red tape arose, ministers quickly recoiled when they realised they would be held responsible for any abuses that occurred when a rule was removed.
“The difference between the jungle and civilisation is regulation,” said Lord Heseltine. He added he had a minister of state in each government department trawling through regulations for possible repeal but “virtually nothing happened”.
The government last invited the public to submit ideas for deregulation in a 2011 red tape challenge.