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09 June 2022
Comment: Ripping up red tape requires a radical overhaul

Comment: Ripping up red tape requires a radical overhaul

Former Comhairle Nan Eilean Siar chief executive Bill Howat says systematic changes to the UK regulatory regime are long overdue

Rhetoric about government regulations has been reverberating in UK politics for decades.

How many times have we heard politicians pledge to reduce regulations? It has become an issue that may create headlines for a day, but which rarely leads to any real reduction in the scale or scope of the red tape public bodies have to deal with.

I have personal experience of trying to reduce regulations. My first post in the Scottish Office coincided with the arrival of the Thatcher Government, which sought to reduce regulations.

Within my remit, we identified nearly 150 that seemed unnecessary. My task was to review them and revoke as many as possible by statutory instrument during the 1979-80 parliamentary session.

After extensive consultation, about 45 were deemed suitable to be cut. On the final day of the session, the statutory instrument was passed and just seven were revoked.

The simple reason why so few were cut was the interaction between reality and rhetoric.

By definition, a regulation is “a rule or directive made and maintained by an authority”. In democracies, the ultimate source of authority rests with members of parliament – they pass laws and delegate the authority to create regulations.

MPs may be critical in public debate about the burden of regulation, yet they continue to pass new laws and regulations. The latest Queen’s Speech lists 38 new bills for the 2022-23 session, and most will include the need for further regulations. It also included a pledge to reduce “the burden of regulation”.

Regulations cover all the rules that govern our society and encompass everything from acts of parliament and secondary legislation to local authority legislation and guidance issued by professional bodies

These rules cover all aspects of human activity and are mostly aimed at ensuring safe and decent behaviour. By definition, that means there are many communities affected by regulations, with some having an impact on social behaviour – such as smoking in public places. Others are highly technical, such as food safety or health and safety.

All regulations require to be scrutinised, whether in parliaments or assemblies, councils or other statutory agencies, to ensure there is a need and the proposal is proportionate in meeting it. The process includes consultation with those interested in or affected by the proposal. Regulations are not imposed by faceless bureaucrats who know nothing about the subject as portrayed in the caricature.

Regulations can also emerge in response to serious concerns about the way society is working. Many are proposed and promoted by the mainstream media.

Events and tragedies such as Piper Alpha, Baby P, the Dunblane shootings, Grenfell, the 2008-09 financial collapse and the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital scandal all led directly to changes in legislation. Regulations often follow the public outcry that comes after such disasters, with the electorate demanding that “this should never happen again”.

Regulations are targeted at governments, public bodies, private sector organisations, professional bodies and the public, and they seek to effect changes in behaviour. That requires that the need for the regulation is accepted and that the implementation of it is scrutinised.

Returning to my own experience, the main reason why so few were revoked was that they remained valid. In many cases, regulations were updated, and the governance of Scotland in my view was improved.

I also believe that was mirrored throughout UK government in that particular exercise against regulations. Ministers quietly accepted that the process had been sound. There were no big headlines, but no disasters either.

The lessons of that experience did not lead to a systematic approach to tidying up regulations. However, I and my colleagues on the Mercat Group – an association of former local authority chief executives – are convinced that a radical and systematic overhaul of the regulatory regime in the UK is long overdue.

The first step in this process will be to recognise that over time all regulations become outdated and need to be reviewed. Then it must be recognised that any review process must engages with, and listen to, the views of communities.

One size rarely fits all. Regulations drafted in a parliament or assembly should give flexibility of interpretation. What works in a city may not always be appropriate in a rural, or island setting.

Any review should ensure co-ordination across policy areas and functions to ensure complex interactions are properly considered. It must also examine the scope for alternatives to regulations to change behaviour.

A good starting point for this review would be to engage with the public to justify the rationale and importance of regulations enhancing the appreciation that rules and regulations are not ends in themselves – they are the means by which we create healthy, safe and tolerant communities and ensure that citizens are active in upholding values and respect in our everyday lives.

Bill Howat is a member of the Mercat Group, an affiliation of six former local authority chief executives that also comprises David Hume, Phil Jones, Gavin Whitefield, George Thorley and Keith Yates

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