Governments love to make up new rules, as we all know. Little laws about this, regulations and standards for that, procedures and processes, and next thing you know we’re all drowning in paperwork. Every once in a while, we should review them and tidy up the regulation that’s got out of hand.
That’s the idea behind the British government’s ‘red tape challenge’. Complete with pictures of professional men and women with their heads in their hands in front of piles of paper, the website is “for you to tell us which regulations are working and which are not; what should be scrapped, what should be saved and what should be simplified.”
There are undoubtedly some burdensome regulations. I took one look at the forms needed to organise a family fun day in the park last year, and decided that 30 pages, criminal records checks for everybody involved, six months notice and £3 million worth of public liability insurance was not worth my time. That’s been simplified already to help people run street parties for the royal wedding.
The website is currently featuring retail regulations, and there are outdated trade rules drawn up during the Second World War. (Do we need a public consultation to scrap those?). There are the Sunday Trading laws that limit shop opening time to 6 hours on a Sunday. Those were a compromise to appease Christians who wanted everything to remain shut on the sabbath, and I suspect they will go. I’ve bumped up against health and safety guidelines many times myself, the most petty being the time I was told my glass cafetiere was an office hazard and should be replaced with unbreakable all-metal design. The website could be a great way of doing some legal weeding.
On closer inspection however, there are a few things that are more troublesome. First, the website declares that “the default presumption will be that burdensome regulations will go.” It’s not a case of working out which ones are the clumsily written or onerous ones and shredding them, it’s putting everything in the discard pile and then picking out the ones to keep.
That would be fine if the list of bills up for review was just the controversial, obscure, or badly worded ones. But it’s not – it’s everything. As long as it’s not to do with tax or national security, it’s assumed that it will be scrapped unless a case can be made to keep it. That means laws relating to clean air, equality, vehicle safety, biodiversity or national parks are all up for review too. The hard-won Climate Change Bill is on the list, with the invitation to “tell us what you think should happen to these regulations and why”.
And that’s where this idea falls apart. Bills like these aren’t ‘red tape’ that impede business and the economy. They’re the boundaries in which the economy operates. Subjecting these vital safeguards to the kangaroo court of internet comment streams seems rather reckless to me.
Still, there they are. The public get to have their say, and then ministers get three months to defend any bills they want to keep. I hope that’s enough time to mount a case for the thousands of bills that we need to keep on the statute books. Otherwise, the Red Tape Challenge runs the risk of turning out like the great ‘bonfire of the quangos’ fiasco – a great bit of PR (who’s not against red tape, after all?) that cost more than it saved and canned a whole load of useful organisations along with the dead wood.