Last week just over half of us voted to leave the EU. The Leave campaign promised us massive savings, £350m a week no less (well actually, less, they admitted the morning of the result), but did not speak of the costs.
Not costs of the nosediving stock market, the torpedoed national credit rating, the plummeting investment or sinking trade figures. I’m talking about the cost of government producing laws and guiding the public how to follow them.
Getting legislation to laymen
The government, once it legislates, does not then just say “well we’ve passed a law, you people should read it and know what to do”. The various departments (HMRC, the Home Office etc) must produce guidance on how those affected need to follow the law and carry out its requirements. And that’s where I and others like me come in.
I’m a freelancer who turns laws into guidance the public understands – but there aren’t enough of people like me or civil servants to update the content in light of Brexit. This work will have to be done in stages:
- review all laws to see which will need to be updated
- review all guidance, categorising it as:
- not needing an update
- update without a change in the law
- update with a change in the law
- debate and update these laws in parliament
- update the guidance that needed a change in the law
That’s a lot of work, but how much are we looking at?
Review all EU-related laws
According to Legislation.gov.uk, there are 12,272 laws related to “European”. This may not capture all laws and some may be superseded, some may not be directly related to the EU, but let’s assume that this is the right figure.
These laws must be reviewed within the 2 years notice period we give the EU telling it that we’re out (formally know as Article 50), so as to be ready for exit day. We haven’t submitted Article 50 as of time of writing, and the civil service can’t start the work till this is submitted.
So that’s 12,272 laws that will need to be examined. In 2 years.
This is just for existing laws of course, and ignores any amendments, and I’ve not even considered all the new laws we’ll need to create just to leave. But in theory this review shouldn’t cost us any more as this would be included in the MPs’ salaries, barring expenses for many late nights.
Department of Brexit?
MPs don’t draft laws alone, they work with civil servants. So if MPs have 12,300 laws to review, it’s the civil service that will do the work of examining and setting out the initial proposals to ministers to set to the House. Then the civil service will need to update the guidance to inform the public.
Perhaps a ‘Department of Brexit’ will be created to do this, or else the departments will create their own Brexit teams.
Yet the civil service is already running at high capacity. Even if some work can be ditched because it’s reviewing or enacting EU-related legislation that will no longer be needed, there simply isn’t enough staff to do this new, urgent mountain of work.
Update the guidance
There are around 12,000 EU-related publications on GOV.UK, the site where pan-UK (eg passports) and England-only guidance to the law is published. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each have their own sites. Each page takes time to review and write, based on experience let’s say each page requires 2.5 working days.
In some cases it’s a simple 2 minute read through and no change will be needed. Other guidance, like farm grants, can take several weeks and involve several civil servants, the same ones doing all the reviewing for parliament. So 2.5 days seem fair.
To outsiders this may seem bureaucratic but the law is complex, often badly written, and subject to interpretation that requires a lot of input. Content is written, subbed, approved by other civil servants and amended as needed. The teams I work with go as quickly as possible but there are limits.
How long will it take?
Each pages requires half a person-week of work, or 20 pages per week for a team of 10. Again, this is reasonable, again this sounds crazy to an outsider. So let’s bring in a team of 20, that will increase output to 40 pages per week.
Great, that means that team would take 300 weeks, or 6 years, just for the English law. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland don’t have as much as they don’t need information on passports (yet…). So instead of quadrupling let’s call it a round 1,000 weeks, or 20 years for the team to review and update all guides.
So to get this done in two years, a tenth of the time, we’d need 10 times the people, 400. Instantly ready to go, interviewed, vetted and knowing how to write in style. In addition to existing civil servants. With offices and equipment.
How much will it cost?
We’ll take the average content designer salary as £40,000 per year (excluding pensions and benefits), which is higher than the current advert but accounts for senior roles. That works out at £16m a year, more like £20m with IT equipment, office space etc, or £40m for 2 years for the team (and this assumes all stay, there’s no hiring problems etc).
In the context of the crashing economy, and of course £350m a week Leave ‘claimed’ we’d save, this is not much. But the civil service has to find £3.5bn in cuts by 2019-20 and HMRC, which will have to update its guidance on trade with the EU, is already set to lose 20% of its staff, for example.
Hiring the civil servants would also mean that this £20m a year would be ongoing and keep rising, and if their workload does decrease when we are out of the EU it will be hard to get rid of them.
So the government would likely look to contractors, where the cost would be at least double, but can be released once the job’s done. Let’s say £80m over 2 years. Just to review and revise existing laws.
What else will taxpayers have to pay for?
We have a figure of £80m just for de-Euroising guidance. But the Department of Brexit would also have the budget for at least the following over 2 years:
- trade negotiators – we’ll need to make trade deals with up to 50 countries, we have no negotiators as the EU did this. We have 2 years to exit, and Leave’s much-vaunted EU-Canada deal took 7 years to complete
- special commissions – for the Irish border, Gibraltar and other areas that arise
- referendum campaigns – for potential Scottish and North Irish referendums
- reform unloved EU laws – VAT on tampons, reviewing farm grants for the ‘butter mountains’. If we’re to leave it’s only fair MPs examine these much-mocked rules
- document updates – passports, driving licences and the like, and I doubt that a simple switch to “European Economic Area” in the wording or whatever we go with will suffice or be cheap
- visa system updates – new and updated visa system to cope with EU migrants, this is already creaky and can involve processing a 41 page form and its supporting documents for each person
- EU divorce negotiations – the big questions plus things like pensions for MEPs and eurocrats
Total price for that? If we’re involving lawyers we could well add another zero to the estimate for the updated guidance, shall we say £800m a year?
This £800m is a rough figure I’ve extrapolated. What’s terrible is not that I’ve made some very broad assumptions in my back-of-the-envelope calculations, but that this is an envelope more than what the Leave campaign told us.
In short taxpayers can expect a hefty bill they weren’t expecting. These are only initial costs. I suspect that as more people do the work the Leave campaign should have done and give detailed costs of untangling ourselves from Brussels the more bills we’ll find. But as many vote Leavers are saying already, freedom isn’t free, and they’ll be happy with it.
This poll suggests why this is the case. While those who voted remain find the economy (and so the costs of Brexit) the most important thing, for leave voters it was taking control of laws and immigration, and money’s no object there. So perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised no costing was done because it would only strengthen the remain arguments among its supporters but would do nothing for its own Leave voters.
In short then, half the country wanted us out, but all of us will have to pay. Start saving, taxpayers.
If you’re interested in the legal implications I recommend reading this blog on constitutional law.