The REUL Bill looks set to remove hundreds of food and farming standards and give Government ministers the ability to remove protections without proper scrutiny. This article provides answers to common questions to help navigate this far-reaching legislation and implications for the future.
What is retained European law?
Retained European Union legislation (REUL) is a very large body of legal requirements that was transferred into UK law and jurisdiction when the UK left the European Union. This happened at the end of 2020 and aimed to provide at least some level of legal continuity and certainty after Brexit.
What is the Retained European Union Legislation Bill and what stage is it at?
The Retained EU Law (Reform and Revocation) Bill was presented to Parliament in September 2022. It places a ‘sunset’ on retained EU law, causing most of it to expire at the end of 2023. As of December 2022, the Bill is at report stage in the House of Commons and will receive a third reading before passing for scrutiny in the House of Lords.
How many laws might be removed?
At first it was thought that the Bill would cover 2,400 pieces of legislation. But a further 1,400 laws were later identified as in scope. We have been told by officials that more are being found and added during the process of identifying which pieces of law are affected.
What do the laws cover?
The laws affected cover a vast range of standards, protections and legal responsibilities. These include, health and safety, food standards, farming standards, consumer rights, data protection, employment and environmental protection. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) alone has 570 pieces of legislation at risk of being removed, the highest number of any government department.
The Food Standards Agency has said that their time over the next two years will be dominated by dealing with the implications for food safety and standards and says that other important work on food standards will need to be postponed. Sustain alliance member Which? reports that they are also talking to multiple government departments about the large amount of consumer law and protections at risk.
What type of food and farming laws might be removed?
The range of the laws that are set to be removed or seriously affected is vast. As just a few examples directly relevant to Sustain, legislation managed by Defra and Food Standards Agency that could be removed covers food safety, food standards, biosecurity, border controls and animal health, including:
- Food safety and traceability requirements for importing meat, and from which countries
- Information-sharing across borders about animal disease, food poisoning outbreaks and food and animal feed contamination incidents
- Responsibility for product recalls, where problems are identified
- Vaccinating against and mitigating the risk of bird flu
- Food labelling, ingredients lists, allergen declarations, nutrition information and health claims
- Authorisation on genetically modified foods and how they are labelled
- Fishing opportunities for certain fish stocks
- Legal limits on chemical contaminants in food, for example arsenic in baby food
- Nutritional composition and marketing of baby foods and breastmilk substitutes
- Legal limits on residues of farm chemicals in food, for example pesticides
- Restrictions on use of hygiene treatments on meat, such as chlorine washes for chicken
- Artisan food law that protects speciality food producers and helps them secure good markets for their products, such as Melton Mowbray pies and Stilton cheese
Will all of these be removed at the end of 2023?
The stated intention of the Government is to remove the majority of the retained EU Legislation by the end of 2023. However, the Bill allows for the ‘sunset’ of some of the laws to be postponed until as late as 23 June 2026. The Food Standards Agency Board has recently considered a proposal for food laws covered by the agency to be retained until at least 2026 to give more time to work through the implications.
Who has expressed concerns about the REUL Bill?
In November 2022, environmental organisations joined forces with British businesses, legal and worker representatives, including the Institute of Directors, Trades Union Congress and Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, in writing a letter to the Business Secretary complaining that the REUL would “cause significant confusion and disruption” for businesses, workers, consumers and environmental protection. This comes hot on the heels of the mini-budget in September 2022 when Liz Truss was PM, which was slammed by the NGOs as an ‘attack on nature’. 
The Food Standards Agency chair, Professor Susan Jebb, has warned that sunsetting food regulations will impact on food standards and could be a risk to human health.
The Hansard Society, experts in Parliamentary process and policy-making, has expressed alarm about the lack of parliamentary scrutiny and oversight, the legal, economic and political uncertainty, the ambiguous wording, the lack of scrutiny over ministerial powers and the implications for the Devolved Nations and for the strength of the Union between the nations of the United Kingdom. Concerns have also been expressed about what it will mean for UK standards to start diverging from those of export markets in Europe and beyond, as well as for food moved or traded between Northern and Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Do we know which laws might be scrapped and which might be postponed?
Writing in December 2022, no, we do not know which laws might be scrapped and which might be postponed. Environment Secretary Therese Coffey told a House of Lords Committee on 30 November that her Department (Defra) were in the procedural planning phase but would set up a Departmental ‘star chamber’ to examine the laws in March 2023. The Food Standards Agency recently presented the case to its Board that laws affecting food safety and standards should be kept until at least 2026, to give more time to work through these important matters, and the Board agreed, but there has as yet been no ministerial response on whether more time will be granted. We are also aware of other Government Departments such as BEIS looking at implications for e.g. consumer protections and standards.
It is likely that the complexity of the new legislative regime could create some degree of legal uncertainty. Environmental organisations such as ClientEarth are warning of significant weakening of environmental protection. This is especially concerning in the context of other policy uncertainty, such as the Government having delayed on setting legally binding environmental targets; delaying decisions on public sector food procurement; and uncertainty around how farm payments will be made to encourage farmers to adopt environmentally friendly methods.
There are other concerns that the power to retain or sunset these laws resides mostly with the UK and devolved governments, and with individual ministers wielding a red pen, rather than Parliamentary scrutiny, with the opportunity for proper debate and review of the evidence and impact.
What does this mean for the Devolved Nations?
It is still not quite clear how the Retained EU Law Bill will interact with the Northern Ireland Protocol and UK Internal Market Act. Northern Ireland businesses and producers are currently required to follow EU standards on goods. Should the UK Government choose to remove existing food standards, then this might prevent food products being sent from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. To some extent, this is already happening due to the disruption and uncertainties caused by the Brexit process.
Where can I find out more?
- Read a House of Commons Library briefing here
- Find the Government’s REUL dashboard here
- See a briefing from the Hansard Society here
Suggested further reading from the sector
- Overview, implications of REUL Bill for environmental protection by ClientEarth
- Overview, implications of REUL Bill for environmental law by Friends of the Earth
- Paper: Impact of the REUL Bill on pesticide regulation by ClientEarth
- Blog by Lucia Monje-Jelfs from the Soil Association
- Blog by Erik Millstone, food academic,
- Blog by Marley Morris IPPR on the implications for workers’ rights.
Published 13 Dec 2022
Good Food Trade Campaign: Campaigning for good trade that benefits people and the planet at home and overseas.
Head of Public Affairs
Orla is Head of Public Affairs for Sustain and also leads the communications for Sustain’s work on Good Food Trade. She is working hard to promote the opportunities and threats for food, farming and fishing as we exit the EU so we all have decent food to eat at the end of the process.
What we’re fighting for 2023
Featured in the press
Brexit outrage as EU bonfire bill raises pesticide 'cancer risk' in UK groceries
Sustain CEO Kath Dalmeny comments.
19 Jan 2023 | Visit
Support our charity
Donate to enhance the health and welfare of people, animals and the planet.