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Bureaucracy gone mad

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IT'S a funny thing, but the more the Government tries to cut red tape and bureaucracy, the more bureaucracy it seems to create. This is apparent from the website of the Better Regulation Executive (http://bre.berr.gov.uk), which sits within the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. Describing itself as ‘a dynamic force in government’, the executive says it ‘works across government to reduce and remove unnecessary regulation for the public, private and voluntary sectors’; it also plays an active role in promoting the better regulation agenda in Europe.

As part of this process, government departments and agencies are required to publish ‘annual rolling Simplification Plans’, identifying ways in which they can cut red tape and make savings against measurable targets and showing how these reductions can be achieved. The website boasts that, by December 2007, 20 government departments and agencies had produced and updated their simplification plans, and that the total number of simplification measures had increased to over 700 compared with 500 in 2006. It also estimates that, by 2010, total savings of £7 billion can be achieved. All this is clearly very worthy, but it does sound rather bureaucratic for an organisation designed to cut red tape.

As a government department, defra is not immune from this initiative and, having published its first simplification plan in 2006, it has just published its annual update. The paper-generating capacity of the exercise is illustrated by the fact that the first document, ‘Maximising outcomes, minimising burdens’, ran to 81 printed pages, while the update, ‘Cutting red tape: defra simplification plan’, clocks up another 67. In his introduction, the minister of state, Jeff Rooker, reports that the department is continuing in the right direction to deliver a 25 per cent net reduction on the administrative burdens on business by 2010, with real progress on existing targets, and more than 100 new simplification initiatives identified. Looking ahead, he notes that there are challenges for the department, particularly from the flow of European legislation that has to be implemented, with a large number of environmental regulations to be introduced over the next few years. Some of these, he points out, will have administrative burdens and, he says, ‘To keep on target, we need to further simplify the requirements of existing legislation.’ Everyone wants to cut bureaucracy and in many respects the Government's aims are admirable. However, the minister's statement illustrates the difficulties of quantifying red tape, and of a dogmatic target-setting approach where regulation in one area must necessarily be compensated for by removing regulation in another. It may be that there is no other way, but might it not be better to regulate where regulation is necessary and remove regulation where it is not, and to legislate accordingly?

The difficulties of the target-setting approach are illustrated by a discussion in the document of proposals to replace the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulation 2000. It had been proposed that a requirement that farmers should have access to and be acquainted with codes of practice on farm animal welfare should be removed, with the information instead being recommended as good practice without statutory obligation. It was estimated that this might save farmers £8 million a year. In the event, the proposal was withdrawn following consultation, as it was felt that the requirement was important in terms of protecting animal welfare, although it could possibly resurface as the Government pursues its agenda on cost and responsibility sharing.

Proposals in the document to consider and explore changes in eu rules to reduce requirements to keep records of medicines used in non-food animals are likely to be welcomed by veterinary surgeons given the unnecessary burden these requirements impose on practices, as will proposals to encourage and facilitate the development and use of bar codes to help in record keeping. Proposals to develop secondary legislation and codes of practice in relation to the Animal Welfare Act 2006 are also welcome, although any changes in existing requirements will have to be considered carefully, to ensure that they lead to genuine improvements in animal welfare and do not undermine the good intentions of the Act.

With regard to defra's executive agency Animal Health, the document reports that Animal Health is redesigning its business processes to develop and implement risk-based inspection regimes, to help in planning, and ensure that resources are focused on high-risk businesses. This, it says, will benefit those at low risk by reducing the number of inspections. It is perhaps unfortunate, given the way the change was handled at the time and the impact on veterinary practices, that the document should give changes in the arrangements for testing for brucellosis as an example of how red tape was successfully reduced in 2007, commenting, ‘Not only did this make a saving for Animal Health, of some £30 million, it also lifted a burden on cattle producers of gathering animals for routine testing.’

One can sympathise with the Government's aim of cutting red tape, and with the civil servants who have to implement its policies, particularly at a time when defra is reorganising itself and significantly reducing its staff. At the same time, there seems to be something of an Alice in Wonderland aspect to the whole process, and one can't help wondering where it will end.

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