Expert View: Avoid the red-tape bear trap, Gordon. Call DC

Don't let's wait for another mad cow crisis to make better rules
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The Independent Online

Compared with the rest of Europe, the UK has a reputation for waging war on red tape. The Government has spent a lot of time and money on a wide array of initiatives to help make UK plc more competitive.

Just recently, for example, the Cabinet Office launched the Davidson Review - led by the inevitable Scottish lawyer - which evaluates the UK's implementation of EU legislation. Davidson is charged with finding out whether British civil servants are guilty of gold-plating EU directives or are promoters of so-called regulatory creep. Similarly, Jim Murphy, a Cabinet Officer minister, tabled the Better Regulation Bill last month calling for the simplification of regulations and the streamlining of regulators.

However, the question remains, do these initiatives ever succeed? A recent report from the Centre for European Policy Studies, indicates that although civil servants spend many working hours on this topic, the results of their efforts have been limited at best. This situation is unlikely to change soon.

Some anti-red tape measures put forward by the Government have backfired. Gordon Brown was hoping for a "deregulation win" when in November he announced the scrapping of proposed Operating and Financial Reviews, which would have required all listed companies to produce an annual report on the social and environmental impact of their activities. But after threatened legal action by Friends of the Earth, the Chancellor decided last month that, rather than consigning these reporting guidelines to the waste bin immediately, there would instead be a period of consultation.

In this case, proposed deregulation had fallen foul of green lobby groups and unions, and also some investors. At other times, industry seems genuinely disinclined to comment on such initiatives. This has caused so much anger in government circles that recently the chairman of the Better Regulation Commission, Rick Haythornthwaite, the former chief executive of Invensys, expressed the opinion that many companies secretly love regulation, because complex rules can deter potential competitors.

Regulation is necessary, of course. If implemented correctly and efficiently, it brings public health and environmental benefits. Yet, in the UK as elsewhere in Europe, we are inundated with too much of it, and there is ample opportunity to reduce it and to improve future regulation by giving it a more scientific basis. This is something that has been recognised by a wide array of organisations here and abroad.

One way for UK-based regulatory experts to address the problem would be to study the proposed Risk Assessment Bulletin of the US Office of Management and Budget. This calls for the establishment of uniform minimum standards and for an independent scientific peer review to ensure high technical standards for risk assessments.

A policy like this could have changed the direction of regulation in the UK. Had such measures been in place at the height of the BSE scare, for example, would the beef-on-the-bone ban have been implemented? Would the UK today have a so-called Dangerous Dogs Act that focuses only on a small number of breeds rather than on all dangerous dogs? Although obviously not problem free, the OMB's proposals would have curtailed knee-jerk and politically motivated reactions. In addition, they would help take emotions out of regulations and replace them with science, something that the media would have more difficulty criticising. The overall credibility of UK regulators would be strengthened, which in a "post-trust" era would be particularly welcome.

The time to act is now. We do not need another mad cow crisis to start implementing better, more innovative regulatory measures. Mr Brown, what are you waiting for? Washington is waiting for your call.

Professor Ragnar Lofstedt is director of the King's Centre for Risk Management, King's College London

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