The sunset clause – basically a way of building time limits into legislation – is a device we don’t use often enough in Britain.
I’ve argued previously that Parliament should use it when bringing in new regulations, in order to make sure that regulations have to be reconsidered in light of actual evidence of whether they work.
But Grant Shapps has another use for them. He wants to attach a sunset clause to the Government’s Great Repeal Bill.
At present, the Repeal Bill is going to contain provisions to translate all EU law directly into British legislation, indefinitly, when the European Communities Act is repealed.
The obvious problem with this is that it means we’re very likely to end up keeping nearly all of it. Inertia is a powerful thing and there’s an awful lot of EU rules to wade through.
Shapps’ proposal puts the forces of inertia on the side of repeal, reversing the dynamic. We’d have to focus on identifying and keeping the laws we really like, rather than just hunting down a few of the most irritating.
This is a perfectly sensible proposition and ought to command wide support, especially given that even many Remainers were prepared to concede the EU’s tendency to over-regulate even if they didn’t think it justified actually leaving.
However, the five-year window he’s proposed is too short to be practical, and the Government is right to resist setting up a guillotine on such a timescale.
Leaving the EU is going to be a formidably complex business. The Government has a limited bandwidth and Brexit is almost certainly going to completely dominate this Parliament, notwithstanding the Prime Minister’s determination to carve out a domestic agenda.
Theresa May also recently spoke about the need to avoid a “cliff edge” after Brexit, in order to provide businesses with confidence and a stable environment. To that end she’s pursuing a ‘transitional deal’ with Brussels in order to smooth the path out of the EU.
Five years is not enough time for Parliament to sift through the great mass of European legislation and take a considered approach to what we keep, not with everything else it has to deal with. Thus passing Shapps’ amendment would create just the sort of cliff-edge the Government is trying to avoid.
But that doesn’t mean the Government should simply reject the sunset clause. Instead they and Shapps’ supporters should unite around a longer clause – perhaps ten years.
That would give the Government and Parliament time to focus on getting Brexit right, create space for a smooth transition out of the EU, and still make sure we only keep the European law we pro-actively choose.