The final report of the Taskforce for Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform landed in the Prime Minister’s in-tray a fortnight ago. The TIGRR, an acronym chosen one suspects to appeal to the PM’s predilection for all things bouncy and optimistic, was commissioned to embark on a ‘mission to identify opportunities after Brexit’. The goal set for the three intrepid Tory backbenchers, led by Iain Duncan Smith, was to ‘ensure that business can scale up unencumbered by any administrative burdens’.
The idea that golden opportunities for rebooting the UK economy lie hidden somewhere in the weeds of an overly complex and burdensome regulatory regime is nothing new. But aside from being hugely time-consuming for civil servants, previous endeavours have tended to deliver little by way of savings for business or the taxpayer. It’s therefore unsurprising that the private sector’s response to TIGRR was, to say the least, lukewarm. The truth is that the UK already enjoys relatively low levels of regulation by international standards. Businesses may understandably prefer to focus on the once-in-a-lifetime disruption of the pandemic and the worst recession in living memory instead of spending time on getting their heads around another deregulatory quest.
Nor is there any public outcry for greater freedom – quite the opposite in fact. Research by Unchecked UK confirms that, whether it’s food standards or environmental protections, a substantive majority of British people are supportive of regulation. Indeed, these perceptions are equally marked among Leave supporters, including in seats won by the Conservatives in 2019. Across all age groups, localities and demographics, well-funded police forces and thriving high streets come far above deregulation on the list of priorities.
So, given the poor track record of earlier initiatives, and considering the lack of any external pressure to deliver on something of this kind, what lay behind the TIGRR?
There are real issues the initiative could consider. At a recent seminar, George Freeman MP, one of the task force members, argued that given the unprecedented pace of change in the world, regulation needed to keep up – whilst developments in science and technology are nimble and agile, the law-making process is invariably slow and littered with barriers. Government regulation has struggled to pre-empt the downsides of new technologies. Only this week the NAO reported that the product safety regulator has been too slow to respond to dangers of online shopping exposing consumers to risks of suffocation and fire.
It is therefore of concern that despite this, public protections are not part of the TIGRR’s agenda, including in relation to new technologies. References to protecting the vulnerable, evaluating risks or the pursuit of the public good are in short supply in the TIGRR report. Despite being published on the week of the 4th anniversary of the Grenfell tragedy, TIGRR, it seems, saw the goal exclusively as seizing the supposed strategic opportunity offered by Brexit via competitive advantage.
This becomes even more concerning when you take a look at the ten ‘growth sectors’ which have been identified by the TIGRR. First up are financial services. Among the regulations in the TIGRR’s sights is MiFID II, the regulations set in place in the aftermath of the 2009 financial crisis. In other words, the rules put in place to prevent the kind of reckless behaviour which led to the developed world’s financial system collapsing and cost the British taxpayer £137 billion in bank bailouts.
Agritech and life sciences are also identified as fast-growing areas with huge commercial potential where the UK enjoys a relative head start. Deregulation will no doubt be proposed as a means of seizing on the opportunity. But can it be wise to decrease government oversight over frontier industries like these in the name of market share? Whether or not the UK becomes internationally competitive surely should be a second-tier concern when we are dealing with the very building blocks of life on the planet. On the contrary, this has to be where strong and diligently enforced regulation is urgently required, something the UK public strongly supports.
The concern is that under pressure to deliver on the elusive ‘Brexit dividend’ and in light of the growing evidence that the exercise has ultimately helped strengthen bureaucracy and red tape, the government is under pressure to deliver on something that satisfies the deregulatory echo chamber of right-wing think tanks and lobby groups. But it would be a big mistake for an initiative like TIGRR to reach for the deregulatory bludgeon without truly weighing up its future implications.
This can be halted, however. The belief that the burdens of regulation are at the heart of key economic challenges is a tired mantra that enjoys no public support. As demonstrated by the way in which the Government pulled back on its mission to strip away worker protections derived from EU membership, these endeavours need to be scrutinised and can be resisted. TIGRR – and the Prime Minister – need to take on board this lesson and heed the will of the British public before embarking on the risky quest of the deregulation Argonauts.
Phoebe Clay, Unchecked UK Acting Director