Anthony Browne: Post-Brexit Britain. Now we’ve taken back control, here’s what we can do with our new powers.

31 Dec

Anthony Browne is MP for South Cambridgeshire and a former Europe Editor of the Times.

When I worked for Boris Johnson during his first term as Mayor of London, I led on devolving powers to City Hall, and went through it with Oliver Letwin, David Cameron’s policy honcho. One idea was to devolve VAT to London, copying regional sales taxes in North America. “We can’t. It is against EU rules. Not sure why,” said Letwin.

With our agreement with the EU, arguably the biggest change is not individual policy areas, but the sense of empowerment. Throughout government, naysayers and those suffering excessive status-quo bias have been able to stop any initiative saying: “you can’t. It is against EU rules.”

Sometimes – like the abolition of the tampon tax and banning live animal exports – it was a correct interpretation of EU law. But often it was just a general prohibition. It would end the matter, because no one really understood the EU rules, they were too difficult to challenge, and basically impossible to change. It bred throughout the UK government machinery an intellectual dependency on the EU that led to a pervasive “can’t do” attitude.

But from January 1, no longer will anyone be able to say: “you can’t – EU rules”. We have jumped from the passenger seat to the pilot seat. Can’t do becomes can do. So – what should we do?

Eighteen months ago, at the depth of our Brexit political paralysis, ConservativeHome asked me to write a series of 10 articles highlighting potential “Policy Gains from Brexit” – things we might want to do and would be able to do once we had left the EU. So how are we doing?

On most of the issues, we are making great headway. Across much of government, the new empowerment has led to a renaissance of democracy and policy making. The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs used to be a body for transposing EU rules, with a bureaucracy that had gone native.

But under Michael Gove, Liz Truss and George Eustice, civil servants have transformed from passive recipients to enlightened creators, giving the department a buzz of excitement.

The Agriculture Bill – the first time we have had an agricultural policy for over 40 years – scraps the dysfunctional Common Agricultural Policy, and replaces it with environmental subsidies (it was a pleasure to do my maiden speech on it).

The Environment Bill (which I sat on the Bill Committee of) doesn’t just replace EU environmental law, but enhances it and tailors it for the UK, much to the delight of green groups.

The Fisheries Bill gives us our own, more sustainable, fisheries policy (subject to quotas agreed with the EU).

The Government is consulting on banning the export of live animals for slaughter, which the impotent Labour government was unable to do when it wanted to.

We now have a Department for International Trade, with our own trade negotiators, giving us a trade policy for the first time in forty years, and pumping out our own trade agreements. Agriculture and environment groups have been enthusiastically debating how we protect standards in our trade policy, something nobody discussed before because we had no power to deliver it.

The Treasury is reviewing the whole framework of financial services regulation, with the aim of setting out an ambitious financial services strategy. Previous strategies for financial services (which I played my part in, as chief executive of the British Bankers’ Association) were rather optimistic exercises – the UK government didn’t have the power to do very much. Almost all our financial services regulation we have inherited from the EU, but we need to ensure it is proportionate, and supports innovation and competition, as well as international competitiveness and high standards.

The Treasury has scrapped the hated tax on tampons, which EU rules had prevented George Osborne from doing. The popular duty free from EU countries is coming back after a 20 year absence – with the ferries from Holyhead to Dublin offering it from Friday. The Government is launching freeports to boost trade and regeneration of more deprived parts of the UK. The Home Office has scrapped the much-hated freedom of movement, and replaced it with a global immigration policy making sure we can get the talent that our economy needs.

But now that we have this empowerment, what else could we do now we have left the EU? Here are some other possibilities:

  • Reform public procurement (under the OJEU rules), to make it fit for purpose and give small businesses more opportunities.
  • Promote competition among retail banks by reforming EU inherited capital rules.
  • Remove VAT on housing insulation and other environmental products, and reform the biofuels regime.
  • Transform our waste and recycling regime, so it is not an exercise in hitting EU targets.
  • Reform the EU’s second company directive to reduce pointless red tape for public companies.
  • Reform the General Data Protection Regulation to protect privacy while reducing burdens on small charities and businesses.
  • Reform Solvency II so our insurance companies can compete globally.
  • Promote collaboration programmes with the Commonwealth, rather than just the EU.

It has been obscured by the dramas around Brexit and Covid, but the policy arena is the most exciting it has been for a generation. Say goodbye to can’t do. Say hello to the new “can do” Britain.

Susan Hall: The Mayor is punishing London’s commuters for Transport for London’s wasteful spending

14 Oct

Susan Hall is the Leader of the Conservative Group on the London Assembly.

Transport for London is bust. Mayor Khan can’t afford to pay City Hall’s rent. And to balance the books, Khan is planning to cut the police. The level of financial incompetence in Sadiq Khan’s City Hall is astounding. In the London Assembly, we’ve been working on getting to the bottom of Khan’s botched books to expose the waste, find savings, and get London’s devolved government back on track. Here’s the latest from the front line in the GLA Conservatives’ battle to protect taxpayers’ cash from Khan’s shredder.

As Transport for London (TfL) is continuing to waste millions of pounds, Khan looks for another taxpayer-funded bailout. It won’t come as a surprise to anyone that TfL is a bloated bureaucratic mess, but the scale of waste on Khan’s watch is eye-watering. The latest waste the London Assembly Conservatives have exposed revealed that the bill for TfL staff working on trade union activities has nearly doubled under Khan. In Boris Johnson’s final year as Mayor, the bill was only £4.4 million, but it has soared to £8.7 million in 2019/20. In comparison, the entire civil service spends just £10 million on so-called facility time, that’s £1 million more than TfL, despite the fact that it has over 400,000 staff to TfL’s 27,000.

In the Assembly, the GLA Conservatives have been pushing for the Mayor to scrap one of the appalling examples of waste at TfL, nominee passes. This TfL staff perk allows someone they live with, from a family member or spouse to flatmate or lodger, to travel for free in London. This wasteful perk has reached record levels under Khan, and we, conservatively, estimate that it costs £44 million in lost fares revenue. However, no one at TfL or the Mayor’s office, which both argue the perk costs nothing as the trains would be running regardless (ridiculous, I know), don’t appear to know the true cost. It could be losing TfL far more than our conservative estimate and punching a sizeable hole in TfL’s finances. That’s why I put forward a motion in the Assembly calling on the Mayor to scrap TfL’s nominee passes. Unsurprisingly, Labour voted against it, to protect Khan’s wasteful perk.

We’ve also uncovered more information which again shows that the Mayor’s plan to move City Hall to east London simply doesn’t add up. In the Assembly’s Oversight Committee, Khan made a rare appearance, in a foul mood, to “answer” questions about his plan to abandon the custom-made City Hall building for the far smaller Crystal building in the Royal Docks. The Mayor claims that the move will save up to £55 million, and while I welcome his sudden desire to save taxpayers’ money, his figures just don’t add up.

The latest revelation has been that costs of moving have spiralled upwards by 70 per cent to £13.6 million, mainly due to security concerns about the new building. Bizarrely, after this came to light in the meeting, Khan then increased his saving projection to £59 million. Later, his aides admitted that Khan’s latest claim didn’t take account of the new lower rent deal, City Hall’s landlord is offering. This confused matters even more as not only does Khan’s new claim not consider the likely cost of staying at City Hall; it seemingly ignores the spiralling costs of the move. Previously, the GLA Conservatives had estimated that the likely savings of the move would be nearly 50 per cent less than Khan claimed. Mainly because the Mayor failed to consider the forgone rental and commercial income from the move. Taking into account the latest developments, and supposing the landlord was willing to reduce the rent by a third, the savings could be as low as £10.4 million over five years.

London’s devolved government has been hit by the perfect storm. After years of financial mismanagement and waste, Khan’s bloated TfL and City Hall has been hit by an unprecedented loss of income due to the coronavirus crisis. Far from learning his lesson, Khan is sacrificing Londoners’ priorities to preserve his wasteful spending. This is crystal clear in the Mayor’s decision to cut London’s policing and fire budgets by £135 million to balance his chaotic books. That’s why it’s more important than ever that Khan is held to account and his damaging choices exposed. And that’s what I will be doing in my new column for this website. As we head towards the rescheduled London election next year, I hope to give Conservative Home readers a greater insight into the work of London Assembly Members and why, alongside Shaun Bailey, we need a strong Conservative team to join him in the Assembly.