The government has already scrapped 140 European environmental regulations since Britain left the EU, Thérèse Coffey has said.
The environment secretary told a parliamentary committee on Wednesday morning that more rules would be scrapped over the coming 12 months, with reducing “bureaucracy” the focus.
Ms Coffey said she was also keen to overturn regulations where the UK government had previously opposed a rule at EU level but then been outvoted by other countries.
The deregulation exercise is part of the government’s Retained EU Law Bill, which requires government departments to go through EU regulations on-by-one by the end of next year.
Regulations will be automatically scrapped at the end of 2023 under a “sunset clause” unless ministers actively decide to keep them and create a new version in UK law.
“It’s designed to [ask] ‘do we need this this? We have this from being part of the European Union’,” she told the committee.
“We may have voted against it, didn’t think it was very good for the UK, lost a majority vote. Do we still think it’s relevant?”
Adding that she was “talking broad-brush”, the environment secretary continued: “Is it necessary or is it actually an unnecessary burden, which actually doesn’t do anything to help us whether that’s in business or in improving the environment?”
Ms Coffey said there had been “plenty of times when we may have lost on the vote” in EU level and that the exercise was an “opportunity to think about how we can do things differently”.
The government had “probably got about 1,100, something like that”, pieces of EU environmental legislation and that it had “already repealed, I think it’s about 140 of them”, she said.
Ms Coffey added some of the legislation taken off the statue books was no longer relevant to the UK – giving as an example rules codifying Britain’s relationship with the European Fisheries Control Agency.
But at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday prime minister Rishi Sunak hinted that the changes from the bill could be further-reaching.
Asked about business opposition to the exercise, Mr Sunak told MPs the deregulation push was about “actually taking advantage of our freedoms” and would “drive growth in jobs and prosperity in the United Kingdom”.
“That’s how we’re going to create prosperity across this nation, Mr Speaker, and that’s why we’re going to get on and deregulate post-Brexit.”
Ms Coffey said the government had been clear that “this bill isn’t designed to weaken environmental protections” and instead making sure it was “more tailored to this country”, adding that he “default” would be to retain rules.
But Labour peer Lord Grantchester, who sits on the committee, was sceptical of the environment secretary’s assurances.
“This reminds me of the categorical assurances that food standards couldn’t be undermined by trade deals. No statutory underpinning was agreed to by the government, with rather disturbing consequences,” he said.
“The bill in its current form does not contain a provision to maintain existing levels of environmental protection.”
He added that it might be better to wait until the department has got a better regulation in place and then to do it in an incremental systemic way”.
The sweeping bill has faced criticism from across the economy, including trading standards inspectors, safety groups, businesses, and environmental groups.
The British Chambers of Commerce this week warned that its members did not “want to see divergence from EU regulations which makes it more difficult, costly or impossible to export their goods and services”.
Friends of the Earth campaigner Kierra Box told The Independent that the planned bill was “untenable and must be dropped”.
“If the Retained EU Law bill passes, Therese Coffey’s already desperately under resourced department will have to review, rewrite or scrap thousands of laws that protect people and the environment,” she said.
“This risks watering down vital protections, which could make our air more polluted, water dirtier and fragile habitats even more vulnerable – not to mention reducing the rights of communities to have their voices heard. And with a rushed 12 month deadline, the potential for mistakes is vast.
“It would also be a huge drain on Defra’s scant resources, allowing no time for adequate consultation or proper processes to improve existing laws, and would divert efforts away from actually implementing and strengthening environmental regulations.
“At best, the bill creates enormous uncertainty and needless bureaucracy. At worst, sensible legal protections could be downgraded without proper parliamentary scrutiny or public participation.”
The approach was the brainchild of Brexit opportunities ministers Jacob Rees-Mogg and his predecessor Lord Frost – and is widely seen as a politically-motivated move to placate hardcore Brexiteers.