Commentary: Sense and red tape sensibility

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The Independent Online
The real political argument over deregulation has very little to do with the problems of red tape and form- filling for businesses. The economic liberals of the Tory party would like to slash regulations across the board.

Why spend a fortune on public health inspection to eradicate the occasional case of food poisoning? Is it right to scrutinise every bridge and sleeper in the railway network when road deaths are far more common than railway accidents?

Spending priorities should be continually reassessed, of course. But the practical argument against wholesale deregulation of safety is that this is an area of cost with no obvious short-term commercial benefit. In competitive markets, safety standards slip.

But it was surely basic political instincts rather than practical argument that persuaded Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, to reject an attack on safety regulation. Public scorn over pit closures would be mild compared with the fury he would face after the next rail accident.

The good news is that this shifts the emphasis of deregulation back to business, and not before time. Firms, particularly small ones, are smothered in paper, from company law and VAT to European Community regulations and form- filling for government departments. A small business is required to know regulations running to 270,000 words.

Italians would ignore most of them, but British officials could do with a better sense of proportion about what is and is not important in their enforcement of regulations that affect business. The seven task forces announced by Mr Heseltine, which will be led by businessmen, should look at attitudes as much as what the rule books say.

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