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Regulation and bureaucracy

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WHAT some people see as necessary regulation others view as irritating bureaucracy, which may be one of the reasons why successive governments seem to have had so much difficulty in getting the balance right. The problem was exemplified under the last government, which set up a ‘Better Regulation Executive’ to ‘work across government to reduce and remove unnecessary regulation for the public, private and voluntary sectors’. Despite this admirable objective, this bureaucratic-sounding body seemed in danger of creating more paperwork than it removed (VR, January 19, 2008, vol 162, p 65).

More recently, the current food and farming minister, Jim Paice, set up a ‘Farming Regulation Task Force’ and asked it to come up with ways of reducing red tape for farmers and food processors. With members drawn from the food industry, the task force was asked to take a bold approach, which it did. In a report published in May this year it suggested, among other things, that successive administrations had been ‘cautious, prescriptive, fearful of EU infraction and possessive of implementation’ in their approach to regulation, with the result that ‘in some instances we have become slaves to the process of regulation and lost sight of the outcomes we have been trying to achieve’. Instead, it advocated ‘the opposite’ approach, in which the role of government should be to ‘set the strategic overview, but then minimise its involvement’. It urged ministers to ‘lead from the top’, suggesting that concerns that its recommendations might contravene EU law or be difficult to implement were ‘overcautious and evasive’ and that ‘To really make progress, to set and lead the agenda, you will need to break a few eggs’ (VR, May 21, 2011, vol 168, p 522).

The task force's report made more than 200 recommendations, some of which were aimed at achieving this change of approach, while others were concerned with simplifying legislation in specific areas. It has just received a ringing endorsement from the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRACom) which, in a report published last week, compliments the task force on having ‘successfully navigated the narrow strait between overzealous regulation and inadequate protection of the standards valued by society’ and, with one or two important provisos, urges Defra to start acting on its recommendations with all speed.*

The EFRACom supports the task force's call for a cultural change in Defra's approach to regulation and enforcement, and agrees with its suggestion that a non-regulatory approach should be the starting point when addressing new policy issues. It agrees with the suggestion that Defra should be more proactive in Europe in seeking to reduce the cost burden of new regulations and that it should find ways of removing ‘gold plating’ from regulations that are already in place. It says that Defra should develop a risk-based approach to inspection that targets farms that demonstrate the highest risk of non-compliance; linked to this, it supports using the principle of ‘earned recognition’, through farm membership of independent farm assurance schemes, to reduce the number of farm inspections and associated costs.

Despite its obvious enthusiasm for the task force's report, the EFRACom rightly points out that ‘a firmer evidence base will be needed, including detailed risk assessment and cost benefit analysis, before Defra makes changes to regulations concerning high-risk areas’. This will be important with respect to disease prevention, and a worrying suggestion in the task force's report that the six-day standstill imposed when animals are moved between farms should be removed. It will also be relevant with respect to food safety, where public perception is hugely important. It clearly makes sense to take a risk-based approach to regulation but, in both of these areas, this crucially depends on having a clear understanding of what the risks are.

While keen to reduce the cost of regulation, the EFRACom points out in its report that regulatory reform is not an excuse for a ‘bonfire of regulation’ and that ‘the wider social and environmental benefits of regulation often substantially outweigh the costs to business and to the regulators’. Meanwhile, speaking at the BVA Congress last week, Mr Paice emphasised that the exercise was not aimed at reducing regulation but reducing the burden it imposed. He also made the point that ‘earned recognition’ really did have to be earned. The Government's response to the task force's report is expected later in the autumn and it will be interesting to see what kind of balance is achieved.

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