Jacob Rees-Mogg has named Chris Carr, the former director of better regulation at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, as director of the unit tasked with capitalising on the UK’s new freedoms following its exit from the EU and the transition period.
The Brexit Opportunities Unit was set up last year, but there has been limited information published about its work or structure.
Appearing before the European Scrutiny Committee yesterday, Brexit opportunities minister Jacob Rees-Mogg revealed the unit now has 31 members and is based “physically in the Treasury Building, but it sits metaphysically within the Cabinet Office”.
It has taken some time to appoint someone to the £120,000-a-year job of leading the unit, after a recruitment campaign that began last June. Last October, Financial News reported that as of September, five people were shortlisted for the role out of 76 who had applied.
But Rees-Mogg confirmed Carr took up the role on Tuesday.
In his previous job at BEIS, Carr was responsible for leading policy on productivity and growth, helping to make the UK more competitive in the global market as a place to start and grow a business.
He has previously worked at departments including the Cabinet Office and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and worked on the 2012 Heseltine Review that set out a series of recommendations on how to increase UK growth.
“I've been very impressed by him in my early dealings. You'll be glad to know he's actually been in the office, which is reassuring,” Rees-Mogg said of Carr at yesterday’s session.
Rees-Mogg, who is also minister for government efficiency. has been critical of civil servants he perceives to be reticent to return to government offices full time after working from home during the pandemic.
He wrote to secretaries of state last week urging them to send a “clear message” that officials should make a “rapid return” to their offices, indicating he was unhappy with the current hybrid working arrangements in place at many departments.
During yesterday’s session, Rees-Mogg gave some insight into his role as Brexit opportunities minister, including his work to simplify regulations.
“It is about simplifying and easing – we've got to look at a whole range of things that the EU regulates that other economists don't. And we need to decide whether the regulations were necessary in the first place,” he said.
“When I took on this job, I thought that it was about easing regulations that the EU has, to make them more business friendly. I then had a meeting with Sir James Dyson, if you’ll forgive me namedropping, but he is somebody I particularly admire. And he said to me that I had to understand that there are vast swathes of regulation that no other country has.”
Rees-Mogg pledges government will 'reform' Northern Ireland Protocol
MPs also quizzed Rees-Mogg on simmering tensions over the Northern Ireland Protocol, which requires checks on goods coming into Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
The government is in the process of negotiating a revised version of the protocol with the EU. Parts of the deal are already agreed, including an agreement that has been signed to remove barriers to the sale of British medicines in Northern Ireland, while there is still disagreement over other elements, such as customs paperwork.
But Rees-Mogg has now said the government will “reform” the protocol, which came into force at the start of 2021, if the EU will not do so.
“We signed it on the basis that it would be reformed. And there comes a point at which you say: ‘Well, you haven’t reformed it and therefore we are reforming it ourselves.’ And the United Kingdom is much more important than any agreement that we have with any foreign power,” he said yesterday.
He said he could not reveal further details of discussion because of the political sensitivities.
However, he said it was “absolute nonsense” to say that having signed the protocol as part of Brexit negotiations, “therefore surely we should accept it lock, stock and barrel”.
Since signing the protocol, the government has said it wants to reform it, to eradicate checks and paperwork between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and ensure goods that will remain in Northern Ireland are only subject to British, not EU, standards.
Last year, Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis said the Northern Ireland Protocol needed to be fundamentally changed, saying "we cannot go on as we are".
Rees-Mogg’s comments follow a warning in February that ministers must protect civil service impartiality amid escalating political wrangling over the protocol.
FDA general secretary Dave Penman urged both the Northern Ireland Executive and the UK government to intervene after agriculture minister and former Democratic Unionist Party leader Edwin Poots ordered Northern Ireland Civil Service officials to halt border checks on goods entering from Great Britain via the Irish Sea, despite the terms of the Brexit-related protocol.
The instruction did not have the backing of the DUP’s power-sharing partner Sinn Féin and was not enacted.
“Civil servants have an obligation to uphold the rule of law. In contentious areas of legal dispute such as this, ministers have an obligation to protect the political impartiality of the civil service, rather than upping the stakes for their own political agenda,” Penman said.
He called for “clarity over the legality of what civil servants are being asked to do” and unambiguous advice to protect officials from accusations of politicisation.