The curious case of the apologetic deregulators

When even the government is admitting its deregulation target is silly, it’s probably time to can it

Would you like to know what’s on the government’s mind at the moment? Here’s a little document with some clues. It’s a Written Statement from Andrew Griffiths MP that was snuck out over the summer. Its contents reveal the Government’s not-at-all-loopy new £9 billion target for cutting the cost’ of regulations to business over the next four years.

In the past, I’ve said that there is a world of difference between what a government bangs on about in public and what it gets up to behind the scenes. I warned then that the so-called war on red’ (‘green’?) tape wasn’t going to go away just because George Osborne wasn’t around anymore, not least because deregulation is actually now the law.

But what is actually going on here? As you can see, it’s drizzled with caveats and exclusions. Despite being supposedly a Very Important Thing, there’s a great long list of issues to which deregulation doesn’t actually apply — which turns out to be all the stuff the government really cares about right now. And the things that aren’t on that list speak volumes.

The whole deregulatory edifice was of course odd to begin with. What kind of wheeze is it to take an axe to the total cost’ of regulation as a quest in itself, as if regulations were actively designed to be an impediment to a thriving economy? (I’m not being as silly with that sentence as you might like to believe: that’s really what the architects of neoliberal economics actually thought, as we set out in our new series of blogs on deregulation.) Decent regulations drive innovation, steer markets to social good, and protect the environment. 

The whole deregulatory edifice was of course odd to begin with.

Then it gets stranger. Griffiths’ statement starts by setting out its new £9 billion target, but then immediately distances itself from it. A huge disclaimer unfolds about placing the importance of regulating to tackle … nationally important issues above a strict adherence to the target”. In other words: we made ourselves set a target, but we probably won’t exactly stick to it because we have to actually, y’know, run a functioning economy. 

The mood has clearly changed. The last time the Minister set one of these targets via a Written Statement, it was done without this apologetic and rather hefty disclaimer. It’s hard to avoid the impression that on the cusp of Brexit, the Government is rather regretting this whole diversionary enterprise.

It’s notable here that plastics’ is one of the things they actively go out of their way to highlight may require regulation even if it does knacker their silly target. Which is a good thing, I guess: the Blue Planet effect continues.

But then follows a great long list of things that aren’t counted towards the £9 billion target, for the duration of this Parliament at least. The whole corpus of EU law is about to be shifted wholesale onto the UK’s statute books, so obviously none of that can count towards the deregulation target (yet). The response to the tragedy at Grenfell – which turned the national spotlight on the impacts of deregulation – will almost certainly require new regulatory measures, no matter how tokenistic, so they’ve carved that out. Ten years after the financial crash, and with warnings aplenty that we risk another one, they’ve made sure measures on avoiding systemic financial risk’ are exempt. And so on, and so on.

It’s hard to avoid the impression that on the cusp of Brexit, the Government is rather regretting this whole diversionary enterprise.

You could read this list as the non-negotiables: the stuff that the government thinks is so important that it doesn’t want to fall foul of a time-consuming civil service assault on regulations which it itself invented. The previous deregulation regime has already been torn asunder for privatising our law-making process and for being a grand exercise in cherry-picking. The National Audit Office, for example, accused ministers of saying the overall cost’ of regulations had fallen when in fact it had gone up by loads.

Things not subject to deregulation are the things that the government’s going to have to spend most of its time thinking about whether it wants to or not. And it doesn’t want to have to cut those regulations on a point of principle thanks, just all the other ones. It’s almost like they realise what a waste of time the silly exercise in optics and willy-waggling really is. 

What it means is that if we must persist with cutting regulations on principle, it’s everything else that will have to take the hit. Notwithstanding the passing mention of plastics in the first paragraph, there’s not a single mention of climate change: a looming, unavoidable crisis which, if we don’t make huge leaps towards cracking the UK’s part over the course of this Parliament, we’re in deep trouble.

Later this month the government will inundate press officers with all the things it’s doing as part of its Green Great Britain’ week to celebrate clean growth – a thriving part of the economy that’s fundamentally underpinned by regulation and law. Meanwhile, untrumpeted, civil servants in BEIS, Defra and the rest will be tasked with finding and offering for sacrifice regulations on issues including climate and the environment. If climate change really was a central organising principle for government then it would be specifically mentioned as not to be deregulated no matter what. But it isn’t.

Notwithstanding the passing mention of plastics in the first paragraph, there’s not a single mention of climate change.

So there you go: giving an impression of cutting costs for business 1, climate change 0. The irony is climate change will impose the greatest cost to business if we don’t do anything about it. Which will require regulation. I suppose they had to leave something out of the long list of things to which deregulation doesn’t apply, otherwise the entire would collapse into a vortex of chicanery and bluster.

But I have a strong suspicion that this whole daft circular deregulatory fervour is already withering on the vine inside Whitehall. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the who-knows-what events of the next four years will see it finally put out of its misery. It was always hard to argue that there was some kind of maximum possible amount of regulation an economy could bear, and we’d somehow overshot it. In an age of economic brinkmanship, unchartered waters, the rise of the new data oligarchs, and unimpeachably urgent environmental crises, who on Earth could coherently argue that deregulation as an end in itself is the most important thing governments have on their plate?

A version of this piece was originally published on BusinessGreen and is repurposed here with permission.

The rules designed protect us and the places and habitats we hold dear have been painted as burdens’ on business – but a successful economy is one that puts people and planet first. Find out more about NEF’s work to end the deregulation agenda here.

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