Richard North, 19/11/2012  

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It is not entirely clear who gives Mr Cameron his political advice on this subject but it isn't very good. Ever since John Major launched his deregulation initiative in 1992, the whole idea has been seen as the province of a weak Prime Minister looking for cheap popularity.

We saw the glimmerings of a deregulation campaign in October but now, with tedious predictability, Cameron is up in front of the CBI conference offering a pathetically trivial diet of cuts in "red tape", which don't even begin to scratch the surface.

And as always, missing from this beanfest is any credible reference how the  EU, which is the primary producer of regulation affecting economic activity, will be tackled. Yet attempting to deal with "red tape" without addressing the EU is like trying to put out a fire in a dustbin while ignoring the raging fire in the house alongside.

It does not help either for Cameron to invoke a war-time spirit, saying as he has done, "When this country was at war in the 40s, Whitehall underwent a revolution … Normal rules were circumvented. Convention was thrown out. As one historian put it, everything was thrown at 'the overriding purpose' of beating Hitler".

Certainly, it is true that up until the German invasion of the West, and the appointment of Churchill as Prime Minister, the Civil Service had been operating largely on a peace-time footing, but the "rules" that were "thrown out" were in the main procedural conventions applying to the Civil Service. For the country as a whole, it was to be assailed by a torrent of regulation, the like of which even the EU would envy.

While Mr Cameron may tell us that, " … this country is in the economic equivalent of war today - and we need the same spirit", that "spirit" was to add layers of bureaucracy and controls which turned Great Britain into a dictatorship in all but name. Ironically, one eventual effect was to bring us a level of strikes that exceeded pre-war levels.

It is interesting then to see that one of Mr Cameron's ideas for reducing "bureaucracy" is to limit the availablity of judicial review, which further demonstrates his lack of grip on the subject.

As one who has initiated several such reviews in the past, the occasions have always been to challenge government decisions, in the context where they have been highly damaging to business interests, and where ministers have been unresponsive to reason.

The judicial review "industry" has grown in response to this inherent lack of democracy in the system and is thus a symptom of a wider malaise. But here we have Mr Cameron attempting to deal with the symptoms without in any way addressing the underlying problems.

That much can be said of regulation, or "red tape" as a whole. Too much of the political rhetoric relies on the premise that regulation is necessarily a bad thing, to be avoided. Yet the biggest driver of regulation is trade and industry, with the CBI – which Cameron is addressing – one of the biggest lobbyists for more regulation across the entire sphere of economic activity.

Regulation, in fact, is often a necessary precursor to trade, and a stable, well-founded regulatory base is often necessary for business to prosper. What matters in this context is the quality and style of regulation and – especially – its enforcement. Good enforcement can overcome defective regulation, but even good law will not survive the attentions of inept enforcers.

Sadly, then, although Mr Cameron is undoubtedly well-intentioned in raising the flag of deregulation, he is clearly poorly advised, by people who seem to have a very limited grasp of the subject.

As such, his initiative will be a damp squib, eventually to disappear like all those before it, simply adding to the despair and cynicism of those who are forced to watch yet another predictable failure take shape.


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