I want to declare an interest. From 2004 to 2010, I worked for a regulator-the bogeyman of Conservative Members. I worked for Ofcom. Working in that area, I was very aware of the dangers and limitations of regulation. However, I am also influenced by my time spent in the private sector in countries that have little or no regulation. It would make for an interesting reality show-type experiment to take Conservative Members who decry all regulation and place them in an entirely unregulated environment to see how they would fare without established property law, civil protection, guaranteed quality standards, working rights, planning control or health and safety.
But enough fantasy. I want to focus on why we need better regulation and the role of regulation in growth. All Governments promise to reduce regulation. I am quite sure that every Byzantine emperor came to power on a platform of less regulation. When Labour was elected in 1997, one of the first things we did was set up the Better Regulation Task Force, and later the Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Act 2008 put in place a requirement to remove unnecessary regulation. However, regulation often has unforeseen consequences or is interpreted in bureaucratic and inflexible ways. The solution is not to call for a war on all regulation, but to examine existing regulation imaginatively and to ensure that more public servants have experience of business.
Having worked for a UK regulator with European regulators, I know that we often translate into English law and then interpret European directives in ways that are much less flexible and more burdensome than those
in other countries. I welcome evidence-based proposals, therefore, to reduce and/or improve regulation. The improvements to clinical trial regulations proposed in the Budget should lead to better regulation, which is good for business and innovation. However, the sleight of hand by which the Government have delayed green building regulations will actually add to the uncertainty in the building industry and reduce our energy efficiency.
We should not forget that the financial crisis would have been even worse had Labour heeded Tory calls for more deregulation of the City. As the shadow Chancellor has said, we should have been tougher with the City, but the Conservative party was certainly not calling for more regulation in that case. Since coming to power, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills-the self-styled department for growth-has introduce 26 new regulations in six months, of which several will impose a burden and substantial costs on businesses.
The Government’s repeated calls for reduced regulation are yet another example of their rhetoric exceeding their reach. We know that the Government are recklessly cutting too far and too fast, but they are also entirely failing in leadership. Labour believed that the Government had a duty not to pick technology winners, but to deliver the coherent business, academic and political environment in which the best can win.
Recently I visited a small but growing, innovative high-tech manufacturing company, Kromek, which is developing colour X-rays for security applications. It is based in NETPark-the North East Technology Park-in County Durham, a business park supported by the RDA and the local authority. However, the company is finding it hard to get the talent that it needs, because of the Tory Government’s visa policies-an example of new regulation preventing growth. As the north-east chamber of commerce recently said:
“Since the Government came to power, business have seen the reversal of plans to recycle Carbon Reduction Commitment revenues; the Feed-In Tariff capped; and a delay to the expected start date of the Renewable Heat Incentive. These changes are delaying investment in low carbon technology.”
That regulatory uncertainty means jobs being lost in new industries, including in the north-east. As NESTA-the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts-said when discussing regulation:
“Removing barriers to innovation is important, but on its own it is not enough. Innovation happens in an ecosystem and Government has a role to play in constructing that environment.”
To conclude, rebalancing and growing our economy requires vision, leadership, regulatory imagination, coherent policies and targeted investment. This Government are offering up a few regulatory sacrificial lambs to distract from the vacuum at the heart of their strategy for growth.