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Cutting the tape

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Years of accumulated regulations are hindering growth and personal responsibility. The Red Tape Challenge has used some new techniques – and some old ones – to cut the statute book down to size and target 3,000 regulations for reform, saving business over £800million a year. Civil Service Quarterly talked to Neil Smith from the Red Tape Challenge team.

Did you know that there used to be 30 guidance documents and hundreds of pages covering our wildlife protection laws for bats alone? Working out what you could do about the bats in your belfry might have taken you hours, or you might even have given up. Clearly something needed to be done.

The Government wants to help promote growth, enhance personal freedoms, and help people take more responsibility, whether that’s for starting a business or changing their behaviour. Good regulation is a good thing. It protects consumers, employees and the environment; it helps build a more fair society and can even save lives. But over the years regulations – and the inspections and bureaucracy that go with them – have piled up and up.

The Prime Minister launched the Red Tape Challenge programme, a programme jointly led by the Cabinet Office and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), in April 2011 to reduce and reform the stock of inherited regulation. As Will Cavendish, Executive Director of the Cabinet Office Implementation Group and Senior Responsible Officer for the programme says, “The idea was to take a truly fundamental look at the thousands of regulations impacting businesses and go about improving them in an innovative way, insofar as that is consistent with maintaining our social and environmental objectives.”

In the words of the Minister for Government Policy, Oliver Letwin, “We asked ourselves, ‘What are the unnecessary burdens on businesses that have been created through primary and secondary legislation, enforcement inspection, the overlapping of authorities, poorly designed decision systems and so on?’ The Red Tape Challenge was set up as an opportunity for front-line businesses and individuals to report on those.

“As we have been working through this over the past three years intensively, we have discovered that there is a lot of clutter in the system. Some of that is in the guidance, some of it is in the regulations and some of it is on the statute book.

“The aim here is not deregulation as some sort of end in itself; it is that we are trying to make our economy and our society function better. The purpose is not an ideological measure to do something called deregulation, but to have a real- life effect of making it easier for people to go about their business.”

The programme has made considerable progress since it began, including reducing guidance on wildlife protection laws concerning bats to just one document that makes your legal obligations very clear. That’s also good news for the bats – if it’s easier for people to find out how they look after the environment, they are more likely to do so. Defra expect to reduce their entire volume of environmental guidance by over 80%.

The Red Tape Challenge has also led to employment tribunal reforms expected to deliver £40 million of savings per year to employers. And planned reforms to environmental regulation are expected to save business at least £1 billion over ten years, while keeping important protections. 84 percent of health and safety regulations will be either scrapped or improved. As part of this, Government has stopped health and

safety inspections for low risk businesses, and changed the law so employers are now protected from civil health and safety claims unless they have acted negligently. The Deregulation Bill will mean health and safety law will no longer apply to many self-employed people.

Previous Governments have tried to reduce the amount of regulation. They were largely unsuccessful. The Red Tape Challenge has tried to learn from this, and do things differently.

'Crowd-sourcing' to generate ideas

The most obvious attempt to do things differently is the use of 'crowd-sourcing'. Simple descriptions of each regulation were posted online. Visitors to the Red Tape Challenge website could then say which regulations should be scrapped, improved or kept.

Neil Smith, part of the joint team made up from staff in Cabinet Office and BIS, talked to Civil Service Quarterly about the process. What were the benefits of crowd-sourcing like this?

“It’s cheap, and open. Anyone can comment as long as they have access to the internet. There is moderation to ensure people aren’t being rude or writing gobbledygook, but that’s it. You can say whatever you like, and you can comment on other comments as well.”

Comments from the Red Tape Challenge website


“The counterpart paper driving license should be scrapped. All the necessary information could be easily contained on the photocard licence. It acts merely as a bureaucratic block to people trying to do things. There is no ‘paper counterpart’ to a bank card or passport. This is because it is a totally unnecessary piece of bureaucracy.”


What has happened since:


A number of ‘paperless driving’ reforms were announced in December 2013, which included removing insurance checks when getting a tax disc and removing the requirement for annual Statutory Off Road Notification renewals (1 million repeat SORNs were made in 2012). The scrapping of the paper counterpart to driving licences needs complex IT change and will come in 2015.


“As a Musician’s Union member I am of the opinion that the inclusion of regulated entertainment (live music) in the Licensing Act 2003 is not necessary and that its inclusion has greatly increased bureaucracy for very little benefit to the licensing objectives.”


What has happened since:


Many live music events are now exempted from licensing, helping grass-roots musicians. On-licensed premises no longer need a licence for recorded music up to 11pm for up to 500 people. Community venues such as village halls, church halls, community centres, and local authority owned venues will be able to host their own events, free from all entertainment licensing requirements, between 8am-11pm.

Over 250,000 people have visited the Red Tape Challenge website, leaving almost 30,000 comments. “We’ve developed a tool that has been very effective at generating ideas, areas for investigation, areas for challenge.”

Of course, the very success of crowd-sourcing creates its own problems. How does the team handle that many comments?

“We worked with departments to wade through very large numbers of comments, categorising, organising, looking for common issues or simply looking for good ideas. Our approach was to treat every comment as valid until it was shown that it wasn’t. There might be one, very short statement on a subject, badly written but really worth investigating. Conversely, lots of comments on an issue might only count as one idea.”

There are limits on what the team can do, however. Neil’s background is in community engagement and web design, and he says one of the first principles of engagement is you must find ways of giving feedback. “We just didn’t have, and don’t have, the resource to do that. At a superficial level you could say that’s been a weakness in the process. After a huge spike to start with, the number of comments received has dropped away. But a deeper analysis of it shows that we were still getting useful comments until the last theme and, increasingly, good email submissions.”

As well as sourcing comments via the website, the Red Tape Challenge team and departments have engaged with businesses face-to-face, establishing contact with industry leaders and making them sector champions who spread the word amongst colleagues.

"It is great to see that the extensive Red Tape Challenge work on Company Law is turning into results. Many of the suggestions made by respondents have led to helpful changes in the ways SME proprietors can interact with Companies House and HMRC."

Chartered Accountant at Baker Tilly Tax and Accounting Ltd, and company law sector champion, Danielle Stewart

The team also convened groups of representatives from businesses to discuss ideas in more detail and ensure that the original ambitions remain on track through to implementation. This has all injected vital evidence from the front line, beyond the ‘usual suspects’ Government has traditionally talked to.

Challenging departments to think differently

The Red Tape Challenge team has also been trying something different to push through deregulatory change. Once comments and evidence have been gathered, a challenge process begins. Often this starts in the department. The Department for Transport were the first to introduce ‘Tiger Teams’, groups of senior staff from across the Department, to challenge policy teams to go further in their deregulatory proposals.

The Red Tape Challenge team works with the departments who own the regulations, analysing the comments sourced via the website. This analysis informs a meeting where the Minister for Government Policy and the Minister for Business can challenge officials face-to-face – a so-called ‘Star Chamber’.

Neil is adamant when he says: “The Star Chamber is the key process. Departments send senior staff to these meetings; but what is really valuable is having the people at lower levels, the people who really know the detail. The Ministers provide the challenge necessary to make the sessions bite, to make them have some impact.

“We understand that we’re doing something really difficult, and just saying “It shall be so” is not enough. You need to be able to work it through. So we talk about high challenge, but high support. If I’m really going to challenge you to change, then I also need to make sure that I really support you.”

The Star Chamber sessions can be difficult, but they aren’t intended to undermine civil servants. “We want to be fair to each other, and do a thorough job. So liaison, all the way down the line, is really important. That is stock Civil Service work: building good relationships, influencing, persuading, encouraging.”

Steve Darling, Better Regulation Team Leader at Defra, feels that the challenge aspect of the programme has been beneficial. “The Star Chamber has been pivotal to the success of the whole initiative. It is often thought that civil servants are risk averse. The Star Chamber provides an unusual space to challenge the status quo, and works best when civil servants engage openly and constructively.”

The future of the programme

A lot of work has already been done in a short space of time by both a lightly-resourced project team and resource-challenged departments..

But there is more to do. The team’s main public target was to identify 3,000 regulations to abolish or reform by Christmas 2013 and publish the full list of over 3,000 reforms by the end of January 2014. The work to make them a reality on the ground will continue for the rest of the Parliament, with some 800 reforms implemented to date that are already saving business £300 million per year.  Total savings for business are expected to be more than £800 million.

The model and its successes so far have started to draw attention from around the world. Among many others, the Governments of France, Denmark, Austria, Poland and Sweden have been in touch with the team. Beyond the EU, the Governments of South Korea, Vietnam, Mexico, Norway and India have shown an interest. There have been echoes of the Red Tape Challenge abroad, with a number of EU Member States undertaking reviews of their existing stock of regulation. The European Commission took a similar approach when it consulted small to medium sized businesses online to identify the top ten areas of EU regulation which place the highest burdens on small to medium sized businesses.

But once regulations have been reduced, what will stop them building up again over time? The challenge remains to achieve policy outcomes without reaching for the statute book. To manage the flow of new regulation, a ‘one-in, one-out’ rule was introduced in January 2011, where any new regulation created had to be offset by a reduction of regulation of equivalent cost to business. From 1 January 2013 an even more challenging ‘one-in, two-out’ rule was introduced, under which departments must find two pounds of saving for every pound of extra cost to business.

As Neil admits, “There is still more to do, and it is not an overnight task to change the culture of how we develop and manage regulation. But I like a challenge; that’s why I keep doing what I’m doing!”

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1 comment

  1. Comment by Iain Newton (GEO/DCMS) posted on

    Hi - thanks for an interesting article, and congratulations to the team. One thing that occurs to me is that by putting a value (£800m) on the savings, does this not imply that the remaining regs also have a value, and which will increase as a result? This is because we are effectively saying that having gone through the RTC process, the remaining regs are indeed really important and will now come under greater scrutiny from enforcers/lawyers etc, because they have been freed from worrying about the small stuff. Basically, there is a "market" in red tape: markets abhor a vacuum and, as I have seen with other cuts in regs, will simply adjust to make up for the slack. Thus, this brings the risk that business/individuals will not actually see any long term savings on the ground. How is this being addressed?

    I would appreciate your comments.