The Regulatory Burden

My Introductory Web Page summarises the factors that have driven much of the explosive growth in regulation since the 1980s. This has led to consistent complaints about the burden and intrusiveness of regulation. This note summarises the four quite distinct areas of concern.

First, some politicians express concern that there is no effective oversight of the powerful Regulatory State - a sort of "State within a State". See a separate note on this subject.

Second, businesses express concern about the cumulative impact of regulation. They point out that employers are expected to act as tax gatherers via PAYE (deduction at source employee taxation) and the national insurance contribution system. Employers are expected to pay out sickness benefit and income support in the form of tax credits. And then employers' contractual relationship with their employees is affected by a raft of legislation aimed at protecting employees against unfair dismissal, ensuring they earn a minimum wage, and have access to "family friendly" rights to take time off work to look after children ..... not to mention health & safety legislation, disability discrimination legislation and so on and on and on!

The OECD publishes worldwide Indicators of Product Market Regulation which generally show that the UK is one of the least regulated countries in the world.   But the OECD also stresses that 'regulatory costs are the least controlled and least accountable amongst government costs. Many governments have no idea how much of their national wealth they are spending through regulation'.  UK Ministers have responded to these concerns in a number of ways, including by considering regulatory budgets and introducing one in, one out - and then two out - and then three out - rules. More detail is here.

The problem is even worse in the public sector, which is subject to much of the regulation that applies to the private sector, as well as its its own panoply of guidance, rules, regulations and inspection. This leads to constant complaints from, for instance, the police and doctors that they spend all their time filling in forms rather than collaring criminals or treating people. Unfortunately the obvious answer - which is to employ assistants to do the more routine work - runs up against two problems. First, politicians are determined to cut, not increase, the number of bureaucrats to release staff for "the front line". Second, unions (supported by the media) object to cuts in the numbers of doctors, police or whatever, so it is difficult to find the savings necessary to pay for the improved support, even if the net result would be more efficient.

But it is worth noting that there is no evidence of great public appetite for deregulation.  Indeed, polling suggests considerable support for environmental and food safety standards, for instance.  Deregulation is therefore mainly a business concern, plus occasional 'libertarian' support for less 'nannying' - see below.

Third, critics draw attention to the apparent growth of "the nanny state". Most of the media, and many politicians, seem hopelessly confused about the extent to which the state should interfere in our private lives. The extent to which we can smoke cannabis, gamble in casinos, enjoy a glass of wine after 11pm, hunt foxes with dogs, kill fish with barbed hooks, and beat our children, owe much more to prejudice than hard unemotional analysis. According to the FT, the Future Foundation even found, in 2005, that c.300 out of 1000 UK adults agreed that pregnant women should receive a police caution for smoking in public. Not everyone agrees with the Bishop Magee's declaration, in the 1800s, that he would rather see England free than sober.

Another aspect of this problem is society's determination to "do something" whenever there is a tragedy, such as on a school trip. The usual result is more or improved guidance which adds to the regulatory burden on the public sector (see above). In the case of school trips, the guidance is now said to run to 200 pages, and of course some teachers are now very reluctant to organise any challenging trips at all. The Conservatives said (April 2005) that they would get rid of much of such guidance, but one was forced to wonder whether this promise would survive the first child death of the summer. Indeed, I am not aware that this promise was ever fulfilled.

It is worth remembering, by the way, that many annoying 'Elf & Safety' prohibitions have been imposed on event organisers by insurance companies worried about their clients being sued by an injured person. Daniel Davies commented that "we appear to have developed an entire secondary and privatised regulatory system run by insurance companies".

There are also too many opinion formers who believe in the legislators fallacy that the panacea to an area of current concern is just one law away. 'If we say that X is an offence, and the punishment sounds tough enough, X will stop.' Reality, unfortunately, does not bear this out. A 2017 example was the suggestion that there should be a specific law prohibiting assaults on doctors and nurses. I don't suppose that there was a single NHS practitioner who thought that any drunk, abusive A&E patients would be aware of, or deterred by, the difference between that offence and that of common assault.

Click here for a more detailed discussion of the regulation of risks to health and safety.

Last, but not least, there is the burden of inspection. Regulations need to be enforced and, in the UK at least, this is usually done by the state as distinct from via private enforcement. This has led to a proliferation of regulatory agencies whose activities were the subject of the 2005 Hampton Report, summarised in this note.


1.     It may be hard to believe, but there is good evidence that the UK is lightly regulated compared with many other countries.  Click here for more detail.

2.     Although (at least pre-Brexit) much UK law implements EU obligations of one sort or another, it is not sensible to attempt to quantify the relative proportions, partly because some legislation has much less impact than other, and most statutory instruments (secondary legislation) are very technical and mundane, merely adding fine detail to, or updating, primary legislation. Please therefore bear this caveat in mind when noting that the House of Commons Library have worked out that the UK Parliament passed 945 Acts between 1993 and 2014, of which 231 implemented EU obligations of some sort. The equivalent figures for secondary legislation were 33,160 and 4,283.

Martin Stanley

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