With Grenfell Tower, we’ve seen what ‘ripping up red tape’ really looks like
In 2014, the then housing minister (who is now the immigration minister), Brandon Lewis, rejected calls to force construction companies to fit sprinklers in the homes they built on the following grounds:
“In our commitment to be the first Government to reduce regulation, we have introduced the one in, two out rule for regulation … Under that rule, when the Government introduce a regulation, we will identify two existing ones to be removed. The Department for Communities and Local Government has gone further and removed an even higher proportion of regulations. In that context, Members will understand why we want to exhaust all non-regulatory options before we introduce any new regulations.”
In other words, though he accepted that sprinklers “are an effective way of controlling fires and of protecting lives and property”, to oblige builders to introduce them would conflict with the government’s deregulatory agenda. Instead, it would be left to the owners of buildings to decide how best to address the fire risk: “Those with responsibility for ensuring fire safety in their businesses, in their homes or as landlords, should and must make informed decisions on how best to manage the risks in their own properties,” Lewis said.
This calls to mind the Financial Times journalist Willem Buiter’s famous remark that “self-regulation stands in relation to regulation the way self-importance stands in relation to importance”. Case after case, across all sectors, demonstrates that self-regulation is no substitute for consistent rules laid down, monitored and enforced by government.
Conservative MPs see Brexit as an excellent opportunity to strip back regulations. The speed with which the “great repeal bill” will have to pass through parliament (assuming that any of Theresa May’s programme can now be implemented) provides unprecedented scope to destroy the protections guaranteed by European regulations. The bill will rely heavily on statutory instruments, which permit far less parliamentary scrutiny than primary legislation. Unnoticed and undebated, crucial elements of public health and safety, workers’ rights and environmental protection could be made to disappear.
Too many times we have seen what the bonfire of regulations, which might sound like common sense when issuing from the mouths of ministers, looks like in the real world. The public protections that governments describe as red tape are what make the difference between a good society and barbarism. It is time to bring the disastrous deregulatory agenda to an end, and put public safety and other basic decencies ahead of corner-cutting and greed.