The problem with government’s deregulation drive

The Guardian has splashed this morning with Chris Huhne attacking his own colleagues as “rightwing ideologues” for placing environmental regulations on a list of red tape to be considered for scrapping. The belief that regulation always has a cost was “fatuous”, he said.

Members of the public are being invited to comment on all regulations on a government website called the “red tape challenge“; if enough people vote for an item to be removed, ministers then have to explain why it should be protected.

But will this spark an enormous “bonfire of the red tape”? Or is the exercise yet another PR attempt by ministers to show that they are go-getting anti-bureaucratic types?

(UPDATE: The website has been inundanted with emails from vested interests and lobbying groups defending various regulations, as you might expect.)

My suspicions were sparked by a similar review, on the DCLG website, suggesting there are too many duties on local authorities.

While some duties remain vital, others may no longer be needed or may create unnecessary burdens or restrictions on local authorities. To address this, the Government is carrying out a wide ranging review to establish, for the first time, a full picture of the duties placed on local authorities by central government. Your views are invited on which duties are essential and should remain, and which are no longer needed and could be removed

There is a long list (1,294) of such duties, both imposed by DCLG and by other departments.

Gloria De Piero, the Labour MP, spotted a while back that they included – via DCMS – an obligation to “provide a comprehensive and effective library service“.

That would have been explosive back in the spring, when library closures were high in the political agenda: the reason councils aren’t shutting more is because of this statutory obligation.

I asked the DCLG about this and they replied:

“The review published the full list of current duties on councils. The Government is looking to remove unnecessary, old and outdated statutory burdens imposed on local councils from Whitehall. It is not aimed at removing those which protect frontline services or the vulnerable, that includes statutory protection for libraries.”

But that raises the question of why the duty was on the list in the first place. Wasn’t the point of the exercise that the public would decide which rules were “burdens” and which were necessary? That reply rendered the entire exercise rather hollow. I suspect the red tape challenge may be more of the same.

UPDATE: The consultation closed earlier this month with 6,000 submissions: the next step is for the department to review these documents.