Can the UK afford standards after Brexit?


Writing on the effects of Brexit, tax expert Richard Murphy asks whether the UK is capable of meeting international standards once we leave the EU. He writes,

“Saying we will adopt EU air safety standards as they are  [on the day we leave] without having in place our own, fully functioning, authority to enforce them is meaningless. Passing a Bill is the easy bit: proving the job is being done is the hard bit, and unless that authority exists and is functioning on that day I can’t see planes flying.”

Murphy adds, “Of course they were safe the day before, so they probably will be the day after. But safety depends on systems to evidence it. If we have none don’t blame someone else if they refuse to play ball. We are nowhere near these systems in so many areas it’s just ludicrous to think we can exit the EU in April 2019.”

Murphy goes on to generalise beyond air safety to other areas of life, and sounds an even more dire warning.

“After forty years of being in the EU I think we may find that the demand of creating independently what was previously possible only because it was shared may be insurmountable, as well as being beyond the capacity of our economy because the costs will be so great.”

“Someone in politics is going to have to realise that we just can’t leave the EU: it’s simply not technically and economically possible for the UK to replicate its systems, let alone in any way that gives us anything but a massive diseconomy of scale.” (Read more here).

These are natural concerns, and similar misgivings have been expressed by other Remainers.  However, I’m happy to be able to reassure Richard Murphy that his fears are groundless and that, far from being isolated from international standards, the UK is and will remain at the forefront.

Let’s start with the UK’s place in world standards. The primary organisation for promulgating standards is the International Standards Organisation (ISO) based in Geneva. To date ISO has promulgated 21,780 standards on products and services .

By way of example, 600 of these standards relate to aircraft and aerospace (including air safety), and 900 cover road transport vehicles.  Other popular or well-known areas include quality management, food safety, occupational health and safety, risk management, energy management, medical devices, environment management and hundreds of other areas.

These standards are drawn up by the ISO’s technical committees, which in turn are composed of experts from the National Standards Bodies of its member countries. The national standards bodies are also responsible for enforcing standards  in their respective countries.

There are 162 members of ISO.  15 countries decide ISO policy, of which UK is one. There are 744 technical committees. France is represented on all 744 and UK on 743, making them the two most active members of ISO.

They are followed by Germany (736), China (733), South Korea (730), Japan (717), Italy (693), Romania (689), Czech Republic (678), India (651) and Russia (645). Perhaps surprisingly the United States lags somewhat, participating in only 596 technical committees.

The EU does not have membership of the ISO and is not represented as it is a supranational body, not a country. However, historically, the EU accepts the work of the ISO and cuts and pastes its standards into its own directives.  It does this cutting and pasting through three European Standardisation Organisations – CEN, CENELEC and ETSI.

Regarding the specific issue of air safety for international traffic raised by Richard Murphy, this is regulated by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) a United Nations agency, established in 1944 to manage the administration and governance of the Convention on International Civil Aviation (Chicago Convention).

ICAO works with the Convention’s 191 Member States and industry groups to reach consensus on international civil aviation standards and recommended practices  and policies in support of a safe, efficient and secure civil aviation sector.

In this, too, the UK plays a leading role in developing and agreeing new air safety regulations through its membership of ICAO. The EU is not a member of ICAO and has no input to its regulations. Within the UK, ICAO regulations are enforced by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) the UK’s specialist aviation regulator established by Parliament in 1972. In 2015-2016, the CAA prosecuted eight violations of ICAO regulations in UK courts and was successful in each prosecution.

There is an EU body, the European Air Safety Agency which –  as with almost all other standards – cuts and pastes ICAO standards into its own regulations.

Let’s turn now to the UK’s national position in standards generally. The National Physical Laboratory is the UK’s National Measurement Institute, and is a world-leading centre of excellence in developing and applying the most accurate measurement standards technology available. It  is recognised as the birthplace of atomic timekeeping. France and Germany have comparable institutions but the NPL leads other European nations in measurement standards.

The British Standards Institution was the world’s first national standards organisation. BSI is Britain’s national standards body and represents the UK on international bodies like the ISO. It works with the UK government to enforce standards and is one of the most respected standards organisations in the world.

It is the National Physical Laboratory and the British Standards Institution who provide the British experts for the International Standards Organisation’s technical committees. The EU provides no representatives because it is a supranational organisation, not a country.

Richard Murphy’s idea, that there is somewhere a laboratory full of Euro-scientists and Euro standards experts spending their days hammering out standards that we will struggle to keep up with is a fantasy. EU standards are cut and pasted from ISO and ICAO standards, and those standards have in turn been created by the hard work of a few world-class national standards organisations – prominent among them,  the UK.

There is no reasons why Britain should not continue to play its role as a world leader in standards after Brexit, just as it will continue to play its world role in all other international organisations, where its expertise  will be valued and welcomed.

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