Deregulation: Opportunity, Or Threat?

By Chris Foster.

Deregulation is sold as a great benefit of Brexit. Red tape is a great burden on businesses and we’ll all be so much better off when it’s gone, so runs the Brexiteers’ mantra. But hold on, might not this regulation have been put there for a reason in the first place? Of course it was, and it’s worth reminding ourselves what all that red tape does:

There is regulation that sets standards for drinking water quality, the cleanliness of treated sewage and of beaches. Do we want to get rid of that, or do we want to boil water each time we need a drink and run the risk of stomach upsets on every trip to the beach?

Then there is all that annoying regulation about industrial safety. If it is a choice between red tape and Flixborough or Seveso, I’ll take red tape.

There is regulation that sets standards for air quality, in an attempt to reduce the ill-health caused by breathing polluted air, and the costs that in turn imposes on health services. Is doing away with that going to help the poor, who tend to live in cheaper housing that is often cheap because it is close to major roads?

The UK has been fined for breaching European air quality standards and for not putting together a plan to meet them. Instead of protesting about being fined for failing to protect people’s health, then paying later to treat the resulting symptoms through the health budget, wouldn’t it be more human to  pursue clean air?

It might well be cheaper in the long term (albeit not so good for business in the medical industry), and clean-air regulation even has a track-record in stimulating innovation (catalytic converters are a classic case-study).

The dreaded red tape also prevents producers making products just however they want to, apparently. But regulation makes for safe planes, cars and trucks, mattresses that don’t catch fire and cosmetics that don’t burn the skin.

In the ultra-liberals’ deregulated UK, caveat emptor will presumably be the watchword; we’ll all have to decide for ourselves whether that new car has brakes that work properly, or whether the new hairdryer will go up in smoke. Take-up of engineering courses and chemistry degrees should increase, at least.

Of course there’s regulation of the digital world too. That is the stuff that makes sure you know when websites set cookies on your computer, that prevents organisations selling your data on, and that has almost eliminated the roaming charges that made using your mobile phone when on holiday abroad so expensive. Try calling the UK from Switzerland if you need to remind yourself. Can you see how we’ll all be better off without that? I can’t.

Now the Brexiteers don’t actually say they want to get rid of regulation that controls medicines and chemicals altogether (not yet at least, and even the current government might be a bit embarrassed if a repeat of the thalidomide scandal followed repeal of medicines safety regulation).

Rather, the UK currently proposes to run its own regulatory system for these things once outside the EU. So, instead of sharing the costs of one medicines control agency and one chemicals agency between 28 countries, the UK will carry the costs of one of each all on its own. Can that be efficient? No, of course it can’t.

Animal welfare regulation is an interesting case when it comes to regulation and the EU. I  recall the UK supporting strong animal welfare regulations to stop the continentals locking calves in small crates and engaging in all sorts of other farming practices offensive to the British opposition to animal cruelty.

Maybe the Brexiteers won’t repeal those regulations at home, but 27 other member states might be quite pleased to get rid of them; why, oh why didn’t Dutch cows get a vote in the UK referendum?

There’s one final irony about the whole campaign for leaving the EU as a potential triumph for deregulation – however good the UK might or might not be at importing red-tape, it is equally good – maybe even better – at growing its own.

An example emerges from the Brexit shambles itself: the application form for permanent residence in the UK runs to 85 pages, 7 times longer than the equivalent for any other EU member state!


Chris Foster is a specialist environmental consultant with a chemistry degree from Oxford and a Masters in management from Manchester business school. Chris has worked in speciality chemicals and also ran his own environmental consultancy executed in a European context, often with colleagues in other EU member states.

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