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I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Why regulation matters

Good regulation rarely gets a mention in the 'red tape' headlines, but it's an essential safeguard for us all. Regulations don’t just protect the public from unscrupulous and dangerous practices they protect other businesses as well. Companies who don’t follow the rules can offer a cheaper and/or faster service. This makes it difficult for those who do the right thing to compete. Fly tippers can charge a lot less than those who pay to have their waste disposed of or recycled. This drives down profit margins and increases costs for taxpayers who have to pay to have streets cleaned.

Today, we held a meeting of our members who deliver a wide range of regulatory functions. Planners, environmental health, trading standards and meat inspectors ensure that Scotland is a better, safer place to live and work.

Both the UK and Scottish Governments have bought, to varying degrees, the 'red tape' myth. As the OECD has reported, the UK actually has one of the lowest administrative burdens in the developed world. Even business surveys show low levels of concern and very few actual examples of unnecessary regulation. None the less, in Scotland we now have the Regulatory Reform Act, a largely unnecessary and cosmetic piece of legislation, and today we were considering the consultation on a Scottish regulators code of practice.

The code is a high level strategic document which is the right approach as front line staff cannot be expected to juggle with conflicting requirements. However, there is still a concern that the concept of 'regulators as enablers' conflicts with the primary role of ensuring compliance. In some areas, like food safety, compliance should be absolute, whereas in others an enabling approach is possible. More effort is focussed on high risk areas but we should not abandon others. I did like the SEPA enforcement model in the consultation – ‘chancers’ indeed!

The Act introduced the concept of regulators contributing to ‘sustainable economic growth’. While this is an admirable, if vague, ideal, the actions of regulators have a minimal impact on economic growth. Creating an industry around this issue is likely to add to the recording and other burdens staff are already struggling with.

The biggest concern is cuts in staff and resources. As our FoI and survey evidence shows, many areas of regulatory activity are being abandoned as well as training and other forms of support to businesses. In areas like meat inspection, the industry is successfully lobbying for light touch regulation. I for one don’t want to eat food with abscesses, but that’s precisely what I am going to get when meat inspectors are limited to visual inspection of animals. This is something MSPs will need to address when the Food (Scotland) Bill is considered by the Health Committee.

Sensible regulation is something we all take for granted. We assume that someone is checking that the food we eat and the goods we buy are safe. Increasingly, that is simply not the case and as usual it will be a tragedy that causes governments to rethink the merits of light touch regulation.

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