Leading Article: That's why you're there

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The Independent Online
POLTICIANS are sometimes almost laughably transparent. Three years ago, in the wake of Margaret Thatcher's much- publicised 'green conversion', the Government published a White Paper on the environment. It opened with a quotation from John Stuart Mill who argued that 'no function of government is less optional than the regulation' of how people used our 'common inheritance' of 'the Earth itself, its forests and waters, above and below the surface'.

The environment was then the big idea, helped along by politicians' fears about the strong showing of green parties in European elections. Now the green challenge has faded. The new idea - outlined in the Queen's Speech last week - is deregulation and slashing 'red tape': an old favourite, particularly at the end of prolonged austerity or recession. Namby-pamby worries about fouling rivers, poisoning children or maiming factory workers take second place to the public demand for renewed growth. Some of the regulating proposed when greenery was in the ascendant has already fallen foul of the present passion for deregulating: laws to control the disposal of toxic waste, for example, have been delayed twice.

Red tape, as Nicholas Bagnall argues on the opposite page, are just boo-words. Almost any law or regulation can seem unnecessary or oppressive to somebody, particularly if they are on the receiving end of it. Equally, all sorts of regulations can be justified in the wake of disaster. (The Queen's Speech came as calls for more regulation of minibuses mounted in response to the tragic deaths of 13 children on the M40.) Many would argue that, in the public services, this Government has created more red tape than any of its predecessors. GPs used to make a few phone calls to get hospital treatment for patients; now they must fill out forms in triplicate so that resources may flow through the new market mechanisms. Something similar is happening in schools and universities. All this is because the Government does not trust public employees to look after taxpayers' money. Why, then, is it so ready to trust private industry to look after public safety?

It is easy for ministers to hold up some regulations for ridicule: the Spinning by Self-Acting Mules regulations of 1905, for example, now duly scrapped. But such laws are hardly holding industry back from an export drive. There is a more important case for scrapping laws which impose high costs on industry for little social benefit or which create confusion by overlapping with or contradicting other laws. Since Butterworth's Company Law has expanded from 486 pages in 1980 to more than 3,500 now, it is likely that most such laws have been enacted by the Conservatives. The solution is for the ministers to stop railroading their precious projects through Parliament and allow MPs to give laws and regulations more critical scrutiny before they are enacted.

The danger, as so often with this Government, is that a perfectly reasonable endeavour turns into an ideological crusade. For example, ministers propose to sweep away existing health and safety regulations in favour of a general 'duty of care' to employees. The argument for doing this is the same as the argument for resisting minimum wages and maximum hours: British industry must reduce its costs to compete with the expanding Asian economies. But, as this newspaper has argued before, attempts to compete with Third World countries on price of goods are doomed to failure. We can never, short of putting the clock back 150 years, reduce costs enough. Ask the Third World. For years, the British toy market was dominated by Hong Kong imports. Now, it is dominated by Chinese imports because firms moved out of Hong Kong to get cheaper labour and to escape safety regulations. Yesterday, 81 Chinese workers died in a toy factory fire in the booming Guangdong province - and that is only the latest in a long series of fatal industrial disasters in the area.

The fashionable right-wing view is that market mechanisms are more efficient regulators than laws. Impose taxes on companies that pollute; they are more flexible and do not require policing. But even if this were true (the record of company tax evasion is not encouraging) it is hard to see that the principle can have more than a limited application. The reality is that the function of government is to regulate, as Mill recognised, as 19th-century governments recognised with their Factory Acts, as the environment White Paper recognised in 1990. By all means regulate more wisely and more sparingly - but even this Government should recognise that this is one responsibility that it cannot privatise.