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Something must be done?

Submitted by on 26 Jul 2011 – 11:38

Jane BeJane Bevisvis, Director of Public Affairs, British Retail Consortium

When searching for the answers to political, social and economic problems, all too often both the powers that be and the public at large start from the premise that ‘Something must be done!’ The pressure put upon politicians to take ‘decisive action’ in response to myriad situations is great. In an age of instant comment and 24 hour rolling news, this is even more acutely felt. It seems to be accepted wisdom that if there is a concern, prescription is always the cure.

As parliamentarians gather for party conferences there will inevitably be debate about new or expanded laws needed to address the issues of the time. Retailers and business in general should be forgiven for thinking the economic recovery might best be served by recess continuing indefinitely, to prevent further legislative interference

In the last decade, 367 new Acts of Parliament made their way onto the statute books. Some of these were obviously needed but, with an average of almost 37 new Acts every year, it’s certain that many were unnecessary. There are plenty of problems that can and should be addressed without increasing the weight of the statute book and burden of regulation.

The sheer volume of legislative activity also casts doubt on the quality of the legislation being produced. In 2011, 44 new Acts of Parliament were passed – more than three a month. It is implausible to argue that Parliament has given all of these laws the fullest scrutiny. Legislation is, after all, only part of the work of the Commons and the Lords. Taking out Monday mornings and Fridays, question times, adjournment debates, urgent questions, points of order, ministerial statements and other procedural odds and ends, it’s clear some Bills get through with the minimum of oversight.

This lack of significant scrutiny means new legislation is often not fit for purpose, difficult to comply with and in need of amendment or judicial interpretation – piling unnecessary costs on those already struggling under the regulatory yoke. Legislate in haste and businesses may wish you had more leisure in which to repent.

In the last year alone, business has had to deal with changes to immigration rules, competition law, employment legislation, pensions, health and safety, data protection and consumer credit.  Alongside this, the drive towards greater autonomy for local communities raises the prospect of local areas deciding to do any number of things in their own way. In addition, retailing faces the spectre of extra regulation in a number of disparate areas, from the price, sale and display of alcohol and tobacco, to the appropriateness or otherwise of toys, games and clothing designed for children, to their relationships with their suppliers.

Legislative and regulatory reform is not a numbers game; it’s about reducing the burden. You can formally abandon 90 World War Two ‘Trading with the Enemy’ regulations no-one has given a thought to since 1945 but that achieves nothing except overdue legislative housekeeping.

What is needed is a presumption against – let’s go as far as a moratorium on – new regulation for the life of this Parliament, as has already been promised for the smallest businesses. If the Government acknowledges a new regulation will harm a company with ten staff, what is the cost for one with a thousand? And what is the impact on job creation?

This logic applies as much to EU directives as to domestic legislation. The UK Government must make sure its voice is heard in Europe and ensure that regulation emerging from Brussels is pro-business and pro-growth. There must be an end to the gold-plating of Directives when they arrive on our shores.

The benefits could last even longer if a few years ‘cold turkey’ weaned politicians off their addiction to regulating and legislating in the longer term.  Many enter politics to leave the world ‘a better place’. This noble ambition is far from easy to realise. Politicians can struggle to make their mark. All too often legislation or regulation must seem a quick and easy way to create a lasting legacy.

When the cry goes up – “Something needs to be done” – we need our parliamentarians to pause and ask “does it?” and if, after careful consideration, the answer is “yes”, then they should also ask who is best placed to take action.

Retailers are at the heart of their communities. Their shops thrive or fail depending on their responsiveness to the needs of their customers. As the private sector’s largest employer they provide training and jobs for thousands, and invest in town centres and regeneration. Governments need to enable retailers to continue this good work by taking down barriers and, where regulation is needed, making sure it is focused on outcomes, proportionate and light-touch. A local initiative, supported by local elected representatives and underpinned by commercial interests, will often be more effective and better withstand the test of time than any Act of Parliament.

The BRC is holding fringe events at the three major party conferences:

Liberal Democrat (Birmingham)

Big Retail: Does it have a value?

Tuesday 20 September, 13.00 – 14.00, The ICC, Hall 7b

Labour (Liverpool)

Universities Challenged: is the world of work now the best option post-16?

Monday 26 September, 8.00-10.00, ACC – BT Convention Centre Concourse, Fringe Room 7

Conservative (Manchester)

The EU: Love it or loathe it, you can’t ignore it.

Tuesday 4 October, 17.30 – 19.00, Manchester Central, Central 3