Monday, April 18, 2011

Why I'm getting excited about the Red Tape Challenge

When I first saw the launch of the Red Tape Challenge, it made me want to throw things at other things. Now, however, I'm quite excited about it. Not because I've had some kind of Damascene conversion to the joys of libertarianism, but because it seems, finally, to have woken civil society up to just how dangerous the deregulatory agenda is.

I've blogged before about the farce that is one-in, one-out, so feel free to go and read that if you need some background. Done that? Good. So, the Red Tape Challenge is that latest manifestation of this policy: the idea is that every regulation ever will go up on this website, and the public (ie. businesses) can submit comments on which ones they find tiresome or inconvenient. The regulations will then be reviewed - and will be, ahem, "presumed guilty unless proven innocent". In other words, every regulation that's ever been made will be abolished unless somebody can make a good case for it to stay. As David Cameron put it in his letter to all government ministers:

"In the past... the assumption was that regulations should stay, unless there was a good case for getting rid of them. Our starting point is that a regulation should go or its aim achieved in a different, non-government way, unless there is a clear and good justification for government being involved."

The most obvious problem with this approach arises from the question: who in practice will be making the case for and against? The idea is that, because they're on the 'front line', businesses' "understanding of how things really work will mean you know there is a better way of doing it." I sort of get that. I get that there are things that make life hard for small businesses - the kind of local shops and services I try to support - and that they should have a chance to highlight those problems. But in practice, that's not what this exercise means - or at least, certainly not the only thing it means.

Big business has millions of pounds of lobbying muscle only too happy to explain why all that pesky regulation it has to comply with should be swept away. Now they're basically being asked for their wish list, and told that, unless someone can make a pretty seriously good case for the defence, the assumption is that they'll get it. But there's a reason we don't let businesses make regulatory policy. The whole point of regulation is that it makes companies do stuff they would rather not have to do. If I were the government, and any big company or trade body came and told me a regulation was worthy but unnecessary because there was a 'better way of doing it', I'd be immediately suspicious: if you're so committed to doing this anyway, why are you so desperate to get rid of the regulation?

Meanwhile, the civil society organisations who would make the case for regulations to stay - organisations like the one I work for - have mostly tiny budgets and are fighting on many fronts as it is. To extend the courtroom metaphor, it's like giving your 'guilty-until-proven-innocent' defendant access to the cheapest legal advice going while the prosecution is represented by some silly-money hotshot barrister. Of course, as with all such government initiatives, it's hard to know how much of it is cosmetic and how much is genuine. But I don't think we can afford to be complacent.

My biggest fear about the Red Tape Challenge has been that individual NGOs and trade unions would be too busy fighting their individual battles to get involved in the deregulatory war. But in the last couple of days I've seen trans friends getting outraged at the notion that the Equality Act is 'red tape', and Greenpeace and 38 Degrees condemning the fact that environmental regulation has been put up for grabs. I am finding this genuinely encouraging. We're still no match for the corporate lobbyists. But it's starting to look like the Red Tape Challenge could achieve what I've been wishing I could for months: mobilise the public in defence of regulations that protect us all.

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