The Queen’s Speech on 11th March announced measures to “improve regulation” and the Treasury announced what it described as “a bonfire of EU red tape“. This has echoes of a remarkably similar promise from David Cameron to have a “bonfire of the quangos”.
But, why stop there? Then President of the Board of Trade, Harold Wilson, in November 1948 promised a new “bonfire of controls”. A formal review of regulations in the early 1980s by Sir Derek Rayner, of Marks and Spencer fame, who was asked by Margaret Thatcher to review the civil service to drive efficiency, again called for better regulation. Lord Young of Graffham, a Cabinet Minister in the 1980s promised to create jobs by cutting regulations for small businesses.
The Burdens on Business report was then published by the Conservatives in 1985 recommending new anti-regulation processes, which lead to the White Paper, Lifting the Burden. 1986 saw publication of a further White Paper, Building Businesses… Not Barriers, which lead to the creation of the Enterprise and Deregulation Unit.
Michael Heseltine was tasked in 1992 with “hacking back the jungle of red tape” and promised a “bonfire” of regulations. This was followed in 1994 by the Deregulation Task Force, and in 1995, we saw the publication of Deregulation – The Way Forward.
The Better Regulation Guide, came out under Labour in 1998 and in 1999 we saw the Regulatory Impact Unit brought forward.
Jump forward a few years, and already under the present government we have the Penrose Report on competition policy, a separate Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform, to say nothing of the Better Regulation Committee and the recently conceived Build Back Better Council.
I have grown rather old, tired and cynical about the promises of politicians to light the pyre of red tape, since every government in power since that first promise in 1948 has significantly increased the number of regulations imposed upon British businesses and people. Indeed the breadth of power given to Ministers to promulgate ever more regulations has been firmly secured by recent legislation that would make Henry VIII blush, for example the Medicines and Medical Devices Act which was described by a House of Lords select committee in scathing terms warning, of their conclusion that:
“We are deeply concerned not only by the Government’s failure to provide sufficient justification for the adoption of a “skeleton bill” approach—which would give Ministers sweeping powers to almost completely re-write the existing regulatory regimes for medicines and medical devices—but also by their failure to acknowledge the breadth of the powers that the Bill would confer. In future, we will expect a more transparent approach in which a department acknowledges the breadth of the powers and seeks to fully justify it.”
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