Huge gaps in UK regulation exist following transition from EU, new academic report finds

4th March 2021

The UK is still not in a position to assume responsibility for regulation in several critical policy areas including trade, crime and the environment, a new academic report - UK regulation after Brexit - has found.

Researchers from the University of Sheffield contributed to the report, published yesterday (25 February 2021), which found that the UK was ill-prepared when responsibility for regulation switched from the EU, following the end of the transition period.

Neither does the UK have the physical or IT infrastructures in place to manage trade in its new relationship with the EU, and is relying on transitional arrangements to make the system work.

The report from UK in a Changing Europe, the Centre for Competition Policy, and Brexit & Environment, found that UK regulators are still not ready to take on their new responsibilities.

Professor Tamara Hervey, from the University of Sheffield’s School of Law, looks at how Brexit will affect the NHS. She said: “Brexit isn't 'done', you cannot unwind over 40 years of legal, political, economic, social and cultural integration in a few short months, but the UK's relationship with our nearest neighbours has fundamentally changed.

“It's critical for us to draw on social science expertise to track the effects of these changes for our country. This report provides a baseline for us to measure against going forward.”

In the environment, the UK left the EU’s European Environment Agency but the UK Office for Environmental Protection has still not opened, leaving the UK without a  body to monitor government action or scrutinise compliance with environmental law.

Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield, Charlotte Burns, and works on investigating the implications of the UK leaving EU environmental policy. She said: "Regulation is central to environmental protection in the UK. The government has tried to minimise environmental regulatory gaps emerging post-Brexit, but the failure to adopt the Environment Bill, to put in place a fully functioning Office for Environmental Protection and limitations on non-regression in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement all raise the prospect of regulatory gaps emerging over time."

Many UK authorities are not adequately equipped compared to the EU bodies they replaced. Staffing and budget are an issue, but UK bodies lack powers in inspection and enforcement too. They have also lost access to data crucial to the police and border control. Europol databases had been consulted more than 500 million times a year by UK authorities, and the Metropolitan Police made more than 100,000 requests for information from the European Criminal Records Information System.

The report also raises important question marks about costs and duplication. In chemicals and aviation, UK regulators replicate the same functions that are performed by EU bodies and in those industries, which are both heavily regulated, it will be a tall order for UK authorities to develop the same levels of expertise as the EU bodies they replace.

UK businesses wanting to operate in both the UK and the EU will have to submit to the same bureaucracy twice. In chemicals, industry will have to cover the costs of testing and registration a second time, estimated at a total of £1bn, when they only recently paid for the creation of the EU system.

Dr Matthew Wood from the University of Sheffield Department of Politics and International Relations contributed his expertise on how the UK might work with the European health regulators, he said: “Health is a crucial area where Brexit has a significant impact, not least because we are no longer involved in the European Medicines Agency, which checks and certifies new medicines for all EU countries.

“Our research shows Brexit will pose long-term challenges for standards of medicines in the UK. However, in this report we also show the UK government is looking for alternative international collaborations to achieve common standards in medicine regulations, for example by partnering with Australia, Canada, Switzerland and Singapore in the so-called ‘Access Consortium’.”

The report also describes how the UK EU deal leaves significant ‘unfinished business’. There are grace periods for customs formalities, issues where the UK and the EU still need to reach agreement, and transitional arrangements where the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU are not yet decided and where the full effects have yet to be felt.

The report concludes that the UK’s decision to leave the single market and the customs union was driven by a determination to gain regulatory autonomy at all costs. But, in practice, the UK is unlikely to be able to diverge over the long term.

The UK remains bound by the terms of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement and highly dependent on trade with the EU, as well as being constrained by wider international laws and conventions. As the EU is a global standard setter in many areas, if the UK were to diverge from these standards, it is likely to disadvantage businesses in the country.

Read the UK regulation after Brexit report here.

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