Sticky red tape?

24 August 2011

As the deregulation debate focuses on whether tennis fans can stay on 'Murray Mount' in the rain, it is a good time to ask whether the Red Tape Challenge is falling short of deregulators’ expectations.

The Red Tape Challenge is in full swing. The Government is asking the public to come up with ideas for repeal or reform in areas as varied as Sunday Trading, consumer products, health and safety, road safety and equalities legislation. The website starts off with a defence of the importance of good regulation and those leading the exercise insist that it is not biased against regulation. But ‘red tape’ is a loaded term and the clear motivation is to get the public to help Ministers where the bureaucrats have failed – to identify candidates for the bonfire of regulation.

‘Environmental protection is not red tape’

In practice, the response is interestingly more diverse. For example, over 1000 responses have come in to the environment challenge – a major potential source of burdens on business. We analysed 200 of those 1000 responses and split them into five categories: those who wanted to maintain current regulations; those who wanted to strengthen existing regulations; those who saw some scope for streamlining – rationalisation but often accompanied by more effective enforcement; those who did what the government was expected and suggested some specific ideas for repeal. Below is the breakdown of that sample:

Figure 1: 80% of the respondents wanted to maintain or strengthen existing environmental regulation

On the specific proposals, the top issue for change, supported by 3% of respondents, is to repeal the Climate Change Act – a flagship policy supported by the Prime Minister (and as our policy reunion showed – an initiative which he made possible in Opposition). The other ideas may contain some possibilities for action – but the definition of captive birds of prey under animal health legislation or changing the rules on energy performance certificates for caravans are quite minor; there may be more potential impact in proposals on environmental permitting and strategic environmental assessments.

Taking it at face value?

On the face of it, these results are a wake-up call for deregulators. The impact is slightly diminished by the recognition that the wording of many of the pro-regulation comments are recommended by the campaign group 38 degrees who led the charge against the Government’s policy on forest sales.

Reaching parts normal consultation doesn’t reach?

In other areas the Government is getting a more positive and potentially more useful response. For example, the just launched, health and safety RTC shows an emerging view on too much detailed regulation of  ’low risk’ workplaces. And the RTC on retail and hospitality does seem to be having some success in reaching parts of the economy eg small bed and breakfast operators who do not normally respond to consultation. But the final list of retail changes looked thin – a repeal of cluttering out of date laws rather than major deregulation – and Ministers are discovering a lot of seemingly obscure red tape is there for a reason.

But risking polarisation?

In other areas, the effect of the challenge has been to draw up battle lines. On Sunday trading there was a clear split between those who want to liberate the nation to shop all day and those who want to protect shopworkers from the need to work Sundays and the government decided to do nothing. The road safety road challenge lays bare the conflict over share of the road between motorists and cyclists. A better process would get both sides to try to reach common ground through some sort of deliberation – an issue we looked at recently at the Institute.

Effective policy making?

The jury is yet out on how effective this particular form of open source policy making is. Finding ways of reaching those who don’t engage in normal consultations is a promising start. But the real test is whether this opens up significant new possibilities for policy which the Government acts on – or if it deters Government from making changes where public feeling runs strongly.

Further information
  • Read a related blog by Simon Burrall, Director of Involve.
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Comments (5)

  1. Paul Johnston on 25 August 2011 at 12:10 pm

    Interesting post, Jill. you conclude that: “the jury is out”, but your post suggests does suggest what sort of verdict they should return :-) I agree with the suggestion in your penultimate paragraph that we need to focus on deeper engagement of citizens in making the difficult policy trade-offs.

  2. Clive Bates on 30 August 2011 at 11:15 am

    Jill – very interesting. I suspect this reflects the strong ‘selection bias’ that arises from interest groups and the professionally interested seeing this as an influencing channel.

    There will be inevitably some redundant regulation that can be cleared away, but with little impact. Other than this, there isn’t really that much regulation that doesn’t have some basic purpose: an attempt to trade-off different interests and risks, or to simplify the life of the consumer/citizen by setting standards rather than relying on a ‘buyer beware’ philosophy. The question is whether these trade offs and implied risk appetite are right (a value judgement) – and what the underlying public preferences and values are. Even seemingly absurd regulation at first sight has a point on closer inspection: Section 62 ‘Control of Pollution Act, 1974 (Control of Ice Cream Van Chimes) balances the commercial needs of vendors and protection of residents from noise nuisance. Who would want an ice-cream van chime amplified audio arms race?

    Though it is great to see this process opened up and I hope we see more of it, I doubt the Red Tape Review is really shining much light on the underlying attitudes to deregulation because the process does not frame real hard choices about risks or trade-offs between interests, which are the central challenges of deregulation. Nor is it deliberative or representative – so how much weight can be placed on each response?

    Looking ahead, an interesting question is whether crowd-sourced efforts can force harder choices onto the crowd and thereby reveal more meaningful preferences.

    I wonder if the more interesting part of the process to open up to public scrutiny and participation would be the star chamber or invesigative part of the Red Tape review – perhaps in the manner used in the Economist debates in which protagonists argue their case:
    Economist debate archive

    This might have the merit of exposing the arguments made within government and by critical stakeholders, and create interesting entry points for original contributions and insights….

  3. Public Strategist on 31 August 2011 at 10:03 pm

    The key feature of most regulations, as Clive observes, is that they are attempts – some more successful than others – to balance interests. No regulation in isolation is absolutely good or bad and a binary choice about whether it should be kept or abolished is not a helpful approach.

    That’s true of government decision making much more generally. I argued in a blog post a few years ago that as individuals we tend to look for absolute answers to public policy questions affecting us, but that the reason government is hard is that it is the nature of politics that decisions are inescapably relative and intertwined. Decision making within government tends to the deliberative (if not very transparently) for that reason – that is the essence of a spending review, for example.

  4. Martin on 7 September 2011 at 1:17 pm

    Re: Clive’s example of ice-cream van chimes, there’s a case for saying that the code could do with being tightened. When it was first drawn up there were fewer shift workers than there are now trying to sleep during the day in quiet residential areas, to be woken up by ice-cream vans on their rounds.

    More generally, local authorities tend to welcome centrally drawn-up guidance and regulations when they are sensible. Sometimes when central government fails to provide it, local authorities will work out common guidance between themselves because they want consistency and to avoid duplication of work. If we didn’t have central regulation already, we’d need to invent it.

  5. Sam Boote on 13 September 2011 at 4:54 pm

    I certainly think that the existing code on ice-cream van chimes ought to be enforced and preferably tightened. Ideally the chimes ought to be banned altogether. Residents’ rights to peace and quiet in their own homes and gardens are greater than the rights of ice-cream sellers to peddle their rather dubious products around the streets. When are councils going to take this problem of noise pollution seriously? This is where a little bit of extra “red tape” can bring a big improvement in ordinary people’s living conditions.

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