From the Repeal Bill to Grenfell: is Britain over-regulated?

Sunday 29 October, 12:0013:00, ConservatoryState of the Nation

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Britain’s parliament is facing what some say is its biggest legislative challenge. The much-trumpeted ‘Great Repeal Bill’ will decide how almost 19,000 EU legislative acts are applied once Britain is outside the bloc. This has been greeted with glee by many who voted to leave the European Union last year: at last, a chance to cut through Brussels red tape and dump those much lampooned (but real) regulations, including a ban on children under eight blowing up balloons, bans on incandescent light bulbs and rules on the grading of wonky bananas.

More serious criticism of over-regulation has centred on its hindrance to businesses and innovation. The EU has been at the forefront of applying the ‘precautionary principle’ – basically, not waiting for complete evidence before regulating, hence restricting or banning a wide range of things, from e-cigarettes to ‘chlorinated’ chicken, from the cultivation of genetically modified crops to widely used pesticides. For the burgeoning digital economy sector, it’s argued that repealing regulations such as the EU’s general data protection regulation might encourage entrepreneurial activity by removing the risk of punitive fines for data-handling mistakes. Pharmaceuticals is one of the most heavily regulated sectors, from clinical trials to advertising and labelling. Research has suggested that the Clinical Trials Directive has doubled the costs of running non-commercial trials.

Of course, blaming Brussels for heavy-handed regulation may miss a much wider trend. In recent decades, a broader culture of precaution and intervention has become established in the UK. Everything from bureaucratic planning laws and bans on building on the green belt are blamed for a shortage of housing. Endless ‘nanny state’ rules about food, drink and smoking are all homegrown and onerously restrict individuals’ lifestyle choices. Councils’ new PSPO powers allows state officials to micromanage individual behaviour, from banning busking to restricting dog-walking. The night-time economy has been a victim of local government’s strict licensing laws and prescriptive rules, leading to the closure of far too many well-known night-clubs. And, of course, homegrown health-and-safety rules can be just as daft as those emanating from the EU.

However, many dread that a war on the EU’s regulatory state, or indeed a broader mood of domestic deregulation, will lead to a dangerous free-for-all that will lead to fewer protections for citizens, consumers and the environment. This is particularly poignant in the wake of the horrific Grenfell Tower fire, especially as it is widely suspected the tragedy was at least partly caused by too few, or weakly enforced, regulations. For example, an all-party parliamentary group on fire safety has recently revealed they had been calling for a review into English building regulations in the 11 years leading up to the disaster. Activist and singer Billy Bragg summed up the mood, when he posted on Facebook with a photo of Grenfell Tower up in flames: ‘The next time you hear someone complaining about health and safety, or whinging (sic) about too much red tape, or demanding that for every new regulation introduced, three are removed — think of this image. And pray for the people of Grenfell Tower.’

More broadly, environmental campaigners from organisations including the RSPB, Client Earth, Greenpeace, the National Trust and Friends of the Earth (with eight million members between them) are highlighting the risks to the environment of unpicking existing EU regulations, which they argue will lower standards on everything from water quality to the vexed issue of air pollution. Shaun Spiers, chair of the Greener UK coalition, states: ‘We must commit to bringing over the precautionary principles which underpin our high environmental and wildlife standards.’ Pro-regulation campaigners worry about the consequences of handing over control to non-experts in the UK parliament. For example, the heavily regulated chemicals industry is presently ‘reined in’ by a huge EU rule book covering tens of thousands of substances. Others ask, without patent protections for drugs, will costs for the NHS be pushed up?

So, are regulations, rules and red tape unnecessary nonsense that do little to keep us safe? Or are they vital provisions we should be seeking to extend? What is the right balance between allowing individuals and companies to ‘get on with it’ and insisting upon licences, regulations and bans? Is the real problem the implementation of regulations, rather than the regulations themselves? Are there now so many regulations that simply keeping up with them all or enforcing them becomes impossible? Has the culture of precaution gone too far?