Mark Steel: When in doubt, blame red tape

The problem, apparently, is red tape. It's stifling business and preventing growth, because red tape is evil, and you can no more argue in favour of red tape than say, "I don't wish to contribute to the fight against cancer as I think we should have more of it".

For example, Tory MEP Julie Girling wrote yesterday that red tape is preventing businesses from making agency staff work more than 48 hours a week, which "costs companies £2bn a year". And maybe it does, in the same way that red tape insisting businesses pay their staff five pounds an hour costs companies five pounds an hour, or red tape forbidding slavery costs business £450bn a year and has led to the demise of Britain's pyramid industry. It's no wonder we're in a recession.

There's no explanation as to how the figure of £2bn is arrived at. But as with the deficit, an assortment of statistics like that are thrown around, such as "The red tape in the building industry alone comes to more words than they had in the whole of the 19th century", or "If Jay-Z was to rap the regulations restricting small businesses it would take him to the year 4583".

Housing minister Grant Shapps explained yesterday that the shortage of housing is due to red tape such as planning laws. So that's who sold off the council houses, red tape did. And red tape caused house prices to treble and when landlords charge a thousand pounds a month for a bedsit, it's because the red tape made them do it and then EU regulations forced them to spread green mushroomy mould, seeping down the wall, and they would get it fixed but they're not allowed to because of Brussels, you see.

Thankfully, there was one branch of the economy that managed to wriggle free of red tape in recent years, which was the banking industry. And as we know, they celebrated their freedom from almost any regulation by behaving with splendid responsibility and as a result have managed to ride out the crisis needing no help at all.

One of the main areas singled out as a red tape burden is the world of health and safety. Because what sort of world have we come to where employers are obliged to be healthy and safe? No one would ever have built the Roman Empire if they'd had to worry about repetitive strain injury to galley slaves or the possible stress caused by being a gladiator.

Almost every mention of red tape, it seems, refers to a law. I could just as easily argue that red tape is costing me £200 a week by preventing me from robbing £200 a week from pensioners. The rioters could claim that red tape insisting windows mustn't be smashed without prior permission from the window-holder and demanding trainers have to be paid for at a visit to the trainer shop is costing them billions of pounds a year, so the time has come for deregulation of the looting industry. A group of senior arsonists could write a letter to The Times complaining that every time one of them burns something down, they're forced to pay a fine to comply with red tape, and this has caused some of the finest pyromaniacs in the country to move abroad.

It appears the definition of red tape is laws that businesses don't like, because if the poor are forced to fill in more forms than ever that doesn't seem to annoy the government quite as much.

Or maybe they haven't got round to it yet, and ministers will soon complain "red tape is forcing claimants on invalidity benefit to spend three days a week attending interviews and completing applications" and reveal that among the most ridiculous examples of red tape is the restriction that students now have to pay £9,000 a year to be allowed into university, and this sort of politically correct nonsense must be scrapped at once.