Commentary: Hot potato on a slow fuse

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The Independent Online
There is nothing like a European Community directive to strike fear into the hearts of Britons. When those concerned are small businessmen, the terror is all the more acute.

So there is nothing really surprising about the outpourings from the Federation of Small Businesses in response to the news that British ministers agreed in the EC's Council of Ministers to tighten the laws on fire precautions.

On the face of it, requiring every workplace used by one or more persons to meet a range of tough requirements does sound like a classic case of bureaucracy running riot. As with many things, everybody agrees that preventing fires is a good thing. But surely this is an example of a sledgehammer cracking a nut?

Compliance with the changes could cost Britain's small businesses a horrifying pounds 1.7bn, a charge that most of them need like a hole in the head. But this number is, by the Home Office's admission, only a rough estimate. Many businesses are already at least some of the way down the road towards what is being sought, it says.

Moreover, with the relevant government bodies, such as the Health and Safety Executive, still to make their submissions, it is difficult to say what the final proposals will look like. It is harder still to predict the form of the secondary Westminster legislation that will be used to enact the EC directive in Britain. The Government will not be pressed on the time-scale involved, but Whitehall rarely moves quickly. The law could take years.

As a result, businesses have plenty of time to get used to the new regime before it actually arrives. At the same time, those preparing the legislation will have the opportunity to make sure it is worded so as to curtail real fire risks rather than impose arbitrary burdens. If every one-man band in the country ends up having to install hundreds of pounds worth of fire escapes, ministers will deserve to be roasted for allowing the directive to pass through the Council of Ministers.