Downing Street on Monday distanced itself from suggestions by the new Brexit opportunities minister that the UK might cut red tape by unilaterally accepting testing on industrial goods by the EU and other countries.
Jacob Rees-Mogg this month endorsed a report by the rightwing Institute of Economic Affairs think-tank which said the UK could “unilaterally recognise EU regulations and conformity assessments”.
He added to confusion in the British business community, which is gearing up for a new domestic testing regime, when he told The Times there was “no point” in the UK repeating tests that other countries did to an acceptable standard.
But on Monday, Number 10 said Rees-Mogg was not setting out a new government stance: “Our position has not changed.”
Government officials confirmed that Rees-Mogg was articulating his broad ambitions for his new job rather than specific new policies on removing “non-tariff barriers” to trade.
Rees-Mogg’s apparent acceptance that the UK should unilaterally recognise testing by the EU and other countries to avoid duplicating costs for business had left industry groups perplexed.
One senior industry executive said such a policy, while attractive to many companies seeking to avoid Brexit red tape, would have “driven a coach and horses” through three years of government policy, which has insisted on the UK creating its own copycat standards for industrial goods and chemicals.
The government is demanding that from January 1 2023 businesses wanting to place goods in the UK market must meet a new “UKCA” safety standard, which largely duplicates the EU’s “CE” safety mark.
In a call with industry last week, officials from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy repeated warnings that companies needed to prepare for the new UKCA regime.
“We didn’t know if this was a change in policy, or if the minister was just freelancing, but it looked very much like this hadn’t been through the Whitehall government policymaking sausage machine,” the executive added.
A senior auto industry executive added that Rees-Mogg’s remarks had raised hopes that Downing Street might have been about to change tack on the issue. “It is disappointing that a senior government minister has such a weak grasp of the details of this critical area of regulation,” he added.
William Bain, head of trade policy at the British Chambers of Commerce, said business was still unpersuaded that the UKCA scheme was necessary or practical. “We need a clear cross-government message that it is willing to listen well and act pragmatically in the interests of UK businesses,” he added.
Despite government insistence that it was sticking to its guns on UKCA marks, there have been some signs that the government is listening to industry’s complaints by twice extending the original deadlines for meeting the new standards’ regime.
The chemical industry is in negotiations with Defra, the environment department, on how to reduce the burdens created by the new “UK Reach” chemicals safety database after ministers announced registration for the scheme would be delayed by two years
“It does look like the government are getting the message about the need to match standards,” said a person familiar with the discussions.
During the Brexit trade negotiations, industry persistently lobbied for the UK to strike an agreement with the EU to mutually recognise standards, such as the “CE” safety and quality mark and the EU Reach chemicals regulations database.
In the event, the EU refused to cut such a deal on terms acceptable to the UK. Michel Barnier, the EU chief negotiator, said Brexit meant that the UK must lose its place as a “regulatory and certification hub” for goods and services entering the EU single market.
As a result, the UK started the UKCA mark and its own version of the chemicals database, both of which have met strong resistance from business groups, which have argued the schemes create costs for no gain.
Russell Antram, head of EU trade at the CBI business group, said that if the UK and EU were unable to reach mutual recognition agreements, unilateral recognition on the UK side would be a “step in the right direction” for many companies.
However, he cautioned that unilateral recognition of standards by the UK would not be without its problems, since it could leave UK exporters facing more checks than EU exporters.