This article was first published by Business Green
Concerns about a post-Brexit race-to-the-bottom on standards have been consistently refuted by Prime Minister Boris Johnson. While the regular reassurances of the government’s commitment to maintaining public protections are welcome, the raft of deregulatory announcements from inside and around Number Ten in recent months point to a deeper agenda at play.
The ink was not long dry on the UK-EU trade deal before Boris Johnson was calling on UK business leaders to get behind plans for regulatory liberalisation, a call-to-arms that was itemised more precisely by Daniel Hannan in his January article for ConservativeHome.
Mid January saw the widely-anticipated announcement of a new Better Regulation Committee, led by the Chancellor, which will drive a programme of regulatory reform, identifying EU-derived laws for the scrapheap. Weeks later, a new Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform was announced, tasked with exploring how the UK can take advantage of its newfound regulatory freedom.
And, most recently, the government-commissioned ‘Power to the People’ report, by John Penrose MP, advocates for a major overhaul of ‘red tape’. Employing an all-too familiar rhetoric, Penrose urges the government to “[cut] the size and weight of these regulatory millstones around the neck of our economy”, suggesting the reinstatement of various policy tools to aid this process.
Deregulation – out-of-step with Britons?
These deregulatory dog-whistles, and the plans for their codification into actual policymaking infrastructure, are wholly misguided. For a start, there is every reason to believe that such moves will not be supported by the very audiences the government needs to win over.
UK businesses, currently dealing with the fallout (and increased bureaucracy) from Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic, have not greeted these pronouncements with ringing enthusiasm. Indeed, business leaders from the CBI to the Business Services Association have called for stability and flexibility over deregulation, and flagged that it is often the domestic application of EU laws, rather than the laws themselves, which adds procedural complexity.
Proposals to deregulate the UK labour market have also faced fierce criticism from across civil society. A review of employment law, announced by Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng in January, was axed just days later, after the proposals met widespread controversy.
Crucially, plans to weaken public protections are unlikely to be well received by voters who switched to the Conservatives in December 2019, who do not share the deregulatory aspirations of the wider Conservative coalition. In fact, the social and economic values of this cohort (who sit further to the left on economic issues than the average Conservative voter, and further to the right on social issues than the average Conservative voter) manifest in strong support for robust, well-enforced rules across public life, as our qualitative research shows. This has also borne out time and again through our polling; whether with Leave voters, or Welsh citizens. In short, the British public support robust rules.
Red-tape-cutting – lessons from history
What’s more, a look back at previous deregulatory drives show that these kinds of initiatives simply don’t work, not least due to the lack of appetite from consultees. The 2011 Red Tape Challenge resulted, according to Business Secretary Vince Cable, in a “bombard[ment] of messages from the public saying please increase regulation.”
Last month, former head of the Red Tape Initiative Nick Tyrone wrote in The Spectator about the failings of such initiatives, stating: “What I mostly found out was this obsession with the idea that there is this mountain of red tape that is holding the country back…is nothing more than a myth.”
And, while responses to Rishi Sunak’s 2020 Regulatory Reform Initiative will not be made public, insiders say that the consultation has generated few responses. Hardly indicative of a British public chomping at the bit for a chance to scrap regulations post Brexit.
Regulation – a force for good
The dogged pursuit of deregulation overlooks the fact that regulations – whether on the environment, health and safety, employment, food safety, fire safety or tax avoidance – are put into place for a reason, often on the back of tragic events, or to deal with corruption and harmful business activities. Instead, deregulatory proponents recast crucial public protections as an assault on fundamental British values, a threat to freedom, an impediment to business growth.
The reality is, of course, that proportionate, well-designed regulation can deliver diverse social, environmental and economic benefits, while poorly-designed regulation can lead to the opposite. Good regulation can create and boost markets, just as poor regulation can constrain them. And that’s why, despite the ever present deregulatory mood music, the British public – and British businesses – continue to support regulation.
If the Conservatives are to hold their lead, the government must recognise that the national mood music has changed; that a new cultural consensus is taking shape around the role of regulation in our society; and that strong, well-enforced public protections are seen by most sensible people as a force for good.
Emma Rose is Director of Unchecked UK