Sunday, February 20, 2011

One in, one out, shake it all about

There's a maxim at the heart of government policy that shapes every single thing this coalition does - a maxim based on an ideological belief in a small state, which cripples the ability of government to actually do anything.

No, I'm not talking about public spending cuts. I'm talking about something called 'one-in, one-out regulation', and I'm continually surprised that so few people seem to have noticed it, because to me it adds huge force to the argument that the cuts agenda is ideological, not driven by necessity.

The premise is simple. Every time the government introduces a regulation, it has to get rid of one. Never mind that truly proportionate regulation should mean introducing regulations when they're needed, and repealing them when they're not. Never mind that there is absolutely no logical reason why the two decisions should be related. And never mind that this is ludicrously difficult to put into practice: is it one line of regulation in, one line out? One statutory instrument in, one out? And can you get around it by scrapping some archaic rule about who can graze their goats on Westminster Bridge that nobody even knew existed? When the policy was first introduced I even heard officials joking about whether it would be 'one letter in, one letter out', leaving them scrabbling around for more concise ways of saying the same things.

As far as I can tell, Whitehall seems to have spent the first six months or so of the new parliament desperately trying to find ways to make this self-evidently nonsensical policy slightly less nonsensical. Essentially, what they have come up with is this. Every time a department wants to introduce a regulation, it has to be accompanied by an impact assessment, estimating the additional burden it imposes on businesses. This then goes to the 'Regulatory Policy Committee', and from there onwards and upwards to the 'Reducing Regulation Committee', as explained in this helpful flowchart (you really couldn't make this shit up). If approved, the regulation has to be accompanied by an equivalent 'out': in other words, the removal of requirements that add up to an equivalent cost 'burden'.

And this bureaucratic process is entirely based on the numbers in the impact assessment, with no room for common sense. So if a regulation adds short-term costs but produces intangible, difficult to measure long-term economic benefits (say, by helping tackle climate change) - nope, it's still an 'in', and if you want to do it you're just going to have to find an 'out'. Sadly, this is far from hypothetical. I've seen it in my day job - this is dominating every decision departments take, hampering effective measures on climate change and many other things. The press release that first announced the system did at least say there would be an exception for regulation to tackle systemic financial risk. But even this grain of sanity seems to have sunk without trace; there's certainly no mention of it anywhere in the government's guide to one-in, one-out. This is not proportionate regulation - this is government by hokey cokey.

Astonishingly, this seems to have been the compromise position in coalition negotiations: the Conservative manifesto said:

"A Conservative government will introduce regulatory budgets: forcing any government body wanting to introduce a new regulation to reduce regulation elsewhere by a greater amount"

while the Lib Dem manifesto said it would:

"reduce the burden of unnecessary red tape... using ‘sunset clauses’ to ensure the need for a regulation is regularly reviewed, and working towards the principle of ‘one in, one out’ for new rules".

I must admit I was surprised to discover this when researching this post: I'd always thought it was a Tory policy. I am hugely disappointed that the Lib Dems have gone in for this bullshit, but then, I suppose they never thought they'd have to implement it.

Anyway. To the point of this post: I think this is as much proof as any campaigner needs that the cuts are ideological and not a 'tough but necessary' response to the deficit - and here's why. The way I see it, there are two main ways governments can do stuff. They can spend their money and do stuff themselves. Or they can pass laws and make other people do stuff. This government has made it a fundamental principle to do both of these things as little as humanly possible. And that, right there, is your libertarian small state (or 'big society', or whatever the latest euphemistic bullshit term for it is).

One-in, one-out is a farce. Everyone secretly knows it's a farce, right down to the civil service and at least some government ministers. Not only that, it's a dangerous farce. In a week where the government has U-turned on forests and housing benefit, is it too forlorn for me to hope that if it's exposed publicly as a farce, we might be able to force a rethink? Probably, but I still think it's a story that needs to be told.

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