Cutting red tape is good for us all – Defra

If the balancing act succeeds, we can cut the burden of bureaucracy while maximising the positive outcomes of regulation, according to Defra.

Speaking at SustainabilityLive! on Tuesday, the department’s Dr Martin Griffith gave a whistlestop tour of Defra’s efforts to simplify regulations in line with the Government’s wider better regulations initiative.

Dr Griffith repeated the Defra mantra that cutting red tape was not the same as creating a corporate free for all and that the initiative was about making the best use of taxpayer’s money whilst protecting the environment.

“A lot of sceptics are concerned that we’re reducing standards here, but for me it’s about improving the reputation of regulators so that we can make the most sensible steps towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions and pollution,” he said.

He compared the situation to the introduction of the seatbelt laws, which had been strongly resisted by the public and car manufacturers at their inception but now were so universally accepted they did not need enforcing. Despite this, however, he said nobody would advocate getting rid of the law completely.

“There’s been a lot of bad experience of reducing regulation in the Thatcherite years, she was out to self regulate,” he said.

“But no business takes itself to court so you need to have a backstop.”

He said that Government would also be looking at how penalties might be applied to best effect. Expecting an astonished gasp from his audience, he suggested that there was a convincing argument that oil refinieries in the USA were on the whole better behaved than those in Britain as enforcement in the UK was based on criminal proceedings whereas in the States they were usually civil cases.

That meant that while a company in breach of regulations in the UK might walk away with a medium fine, a criminal record and a black mark against its name, in the US they lived in fear of truly colossal fines, which were an effective incentive.

He also spoke at length about targeted regulation and ‘earned autonomy’ arguing that resources were better used keeping a close eye on those who repeatedly failed to meet their obligations while letting those with a good track record get on with their business with the minimum of interference.

“We’ll back off those who do well but those who are international criminals, we’ll jump on very hard,” said Dr Griffith.

He also said that the companies with foresight were recognising that Defra’s dream scenario – businesses going beyond regulatory requirements on their own initiative – worked for them too.

“We all moan about the costs, but actually there are huge economic benefits of getting things right,” said Dr Griffith.

“Going beyond regulation offers huge marketing potential as the public becomes more concerned about environmental performance.”

Sam Bond

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