Still tying us up in knots

By Peter Coulson

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Red tape, Licensing act, Statutory law, Bii

Coulson: red tape a real pain
Coulson: red tape a real pain
Peter Coulson is pleased that individual licensees are being encouraged by the BII's top man to lodge their complaints against red tape.

I am pleased that individual licensees are being encouraged by the BII's top man to lodge their complaints against red tape to the Cabinet Office. It is, after all, the one continuing gripe that the whole trade has had for decades, in spite of successive governments promising to do something.

Alas, a brief study of this latest venture suggests that it is only window- dressing once again. I urge you to look at the responses received so far on the consultation on aspects of retailing, which ends today. The comments that I have seen represent the finest in British grumbling, but they offer no illumination or ideas as to how we extricate ourselves from this mess.

This is not really surprising. The consultation on weights and measures, for example, consists of a civil servant cobbling together all the statutory instruments and legislation from the past 20 years or so (some of them so old he has had to scan the paper version!) and then listing them, without any guidance as to what they do and how they relate to each other.

What chance does the 'ordinary' member of the public have of making sense of this, let alone giving a meaningful comment?

The main problem is that modern legislation creates more red tape than it can ever abolish. The bold claim from the Home Office in the White Paper on licensing reform was that the new Licensing Act would sweep away outdated legislation. Yes, it did. But it was not major legislation, and it was not regulation that went. In fact, the Licensing Act — and the Gambling Act that followed — spawned more statutory instruments and regulations in a couple of years than the previous legislation had done in four decades!

So while you write to dear Mr Cameron about the hospitality industry (the window for which opens tomorrow, incidentally) bear in mind that on the cards is a new Act with attendant regulations that will add considerably to the red-tape burden on the trade, even if a few other things are removed. The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill makes the Licensing Act even tougher on the trade, for reasons that are entirely to do with ensuring that regulations are increased or improved, not removed. This will continue to be defended by the likes of licensing minister James Brokenshire as a necessary 'safeguard' to ensure that errant licensees are brought to book. But as I have written before, it is not targeted legislation: it affects everyone, and for a lot of licensees it will mean more red tape and compliance.

There will also be a price to pay. Fees are going up generally, late-night fees are being introduced, training may need to be increased, which costs money, and additional conditions can also push up the bill to the trade. All this has to be paid for somehow, and an increase at the till to cover costs will only deter more customers from coming out for an evening.

The underlying problem is that regulation spawns itself.

It is far easier to produce a statutory instrument in a government department than it is to get a whole new Act passed in Parliament.

So the new-style Acts are enabling measures, which give wide-ranging powers to ministers to make their own rules. With 'experts' on hand to guide them, they can produce yards (or should it be metres?) of regulation on every conceivable subject, all designed to improve the way in which society, or an activity, is controlled.

I am sorry to be a pessimist, but unless you change the system or the philosophy behind it, you will not stop the avalanche.

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