We are fast approaching the fifth anniversary of that momentous day in June 2016 when the British people voted to leave the European Union and take back control of our laws, our regulations, our borders and our trade policy.
As someone who had long been opposed to the one-size-fits-all, Brussels-knows-best approach to imposing law across all 28 nations of the EU, I was proud to play my part in the Vote Leave campaign, even hosting a rally at my business premises, Forman’s Fish Island, with a line-up of speakers that included Boris Johnson, Priti Patel and Michael Gove.
But despite that historic endorsement from the people at the ballot box, Theresa May’s Government and our elected representatives at Westminster (not to mention the unelected peers in the House of Lords) failed to get on with delivering the Brexit we voted for.
And so it was, two years ago last week (23rd May), that we in the UK found ourselves ludicrously participating in another set of elections to the European Parliament – a development which forced me temporarily to abandon my traditional political allegiances and seek election as a Brexit Party MEP. And it still took another general election later in 2019 for the ‘Get Brexit Done’ message to be delivered to our political class one final time, but deliver it we did and we successfully escaped the shackles of the EU with a Prime Minister who unashamedly believes in Brexit and the opportunities it offers.
Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic then understandably reduced the available bandwidth inside government for getting on with making the most of those opportunities in the year or so since our formal exit from the EU. That said, Liz Truss and her colleagues at the Department for International Trade have already made impressive progress on negotiating bespoke trade agreements with old friends and new partners across all four corners of the globe. Furthermore, the efficient testing, licensing and subsequent roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccines here in the UK perfectly epitomise the benefits of being free from the bureaucratic excesses of Brussels.
But as we now emerge from the pandemic, it is essential that the Government starts to prioritise making the most of our reclaimed freedoms, which in turn will provide further tangible examples of the benefits of forging our own path in the world as an independent nation.
Now, while my prime expertise and experience is very much in salmon smoking rather than tobacco smoking, the legislation surrounding the regulation of tobacco products does actually provide a rather timely example of how the UK can diverge from the EU rules by which we have hitherto been bound – and in a way that should benefit public health.
EU members are effectively obliged to copy and paste into domestic law the Commission’s Tobacco Products Directive – regulations which treat cigarettes and products involving the burning of tobacco and release of countless poisonous chemicals directly into the lungs with similar hostility to far less harmful products like e-cigarettes and those which merely involve heating the tobacco.
Don’t just take my word for that: as long ago as 2015, Public Health England concluded that “e-cigarettes are around 95% less harmful than smoking” and I was delighted when a close relative of mine used vaping as a means of helping to quit smoking. Yet the EU-inspired regulations to which we currently remain subject don’t recognise e-cigarettes and their ilk as products that could be promoted as a means of helping smokers to kick the habit.
As it happens, the Government is reviewing its Tobacco Control Plan for England right now and I understand we should expect announcements on the subject in the coming months. This strikes me as a golden opportunity for ministers to demonstrate that they are serious about dumping bad regulations imposed by Brussels. For example, why not lift the ban on advertising these low-harm products so that the country’s seven million smokers have more information at their disposal about potential means of quitting?
Now that we have left the EU, the Government can no longer hide behind EU directives or regulations when challenged about why they are or are not pursuing a particular course of action. So the question ministers now need to ask themselves is this: will they now take advantage of the freedom they now have to help save smokers’ lives by aiding their switch from cigarettes onto less harmful alternatives? Judging by recent comments from the Minister for Health in a parliamentary debate, I’m not overly optimistic she has grasped this opportunity.
Needless to say, Brexiteers should expect the Government to be reviewing the entire back catalogue of Brussels-inspired legislation in the coming weeks and months, in order to repeal the unnecessary, the redundant and the superfluous. But at the top of the list for scrapping should surely be those regulations which can be shown actually to be causing harm and literally costing lives. Come on, Boris: it’s time to rip up the Brussels rulebook, be bold and stand on our own two feet, just like we promised five years ago.