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November 22, 2006

Harry Phibbs finds Ross Clark too optimistic about the battle with excessive regulation: How to Label a Goat: The Silly Rules and Regulations That Are Strangling Britain - Ross Clark

Posted by Harry Phibbs

How to Label a Goat: The Silly Rules and Regulations That Are Strangling Britain
by Ross Clark
Petersfield, Hampshire: Harriman House, 2006
Hardback, 9.99

The battle against regulation seems so hopeless it is tempting to give up. Of course the Thatcher government freed up the economy in a hugely important way pretty much as soon as it started sweeping away pay controls, price controls, dividend controls and exchange controls.

But in other respects the burden of red tape grew, even under a Government with an ideological commitment to cutting it. Of course under nannying New Labour, aching to intervene ever time some incident makes a headline, regulation has risen further. Eurosceptics point out that to even think in terms of electing Conservative or Labour Governments as being relevant ignores the onerous swathes of directives being churned out remorselessly from Brussels.

So Ross Clark is heroic in keeping up the fight against such impossible odds. He is helped by a sense of humour.

He discovers, among other things, that the notes explaining the Treasury's "simplified" pensions' regime ran to 1369 pages. There are 1300 pages of road traffic law - and that does not even include the law preventing petrol stations selling hot food after 11pm unless they apply for a licence.

If a shopping trolley is abandoned in your garden, the local authority must receive written permission from the occupier of the land before it can be removed.

Why does the Inland Revenue feel the need to ask us on a tax return, whether we are deep-sea divers?

We should remember that public servants are victims as well as perpetrators. One Police Force discovered that it had a total of 1150 different forms on which to report crimes. I doubt they like all the form filling any more than we do. We often blame the police for form filling instead of chasing criminals - we should mostly blame the politicians.

A council spent 5,000 planting yew trees to screen a new children's play area. It then dug them up again after health and safety experts advised children could fall ill if they gobbled "several handfuls" of leaves.

Clark quotes the Bible:

And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.
(St Matthew 26.33)
Then adds:
In just 16 words the Lord separated the sheep from the goats. If only the National Assembly of Wales could be so succinct. But sadly not. On 4 April 2006 it passed the Sheep and Goats (Records, Identification and Movement) (Wales) Order 2006, regulating the size, shape and colour of ear tags on Welsh sheep and goats. It ran to 45 pages.
Clark chose the sheep and goats as the example to lead his book with because of a single sentence that jumped out of him from those 45 pages. It begins:
If an animal is already marked with three eartags....
As Clark says:
One pictures herds of these poor beasts lumbering about the Welsh hills, dragging their ears along the ground behind them, beladen with muti-coloured tags - just to please the Bureaucrats in Cardiff.
The author is in no doubt about the scale of the subject he has chosen to address. He points out the swathes of new law not scrutinised by our elected representatives but pushed through as "statutory instruments". Clark observes:
Like some unhinged robot in search of suppressing its human masters, the regulatory machine seems to be feeding upon itself.
While it has got so much worse in recent years, Clark is a man with a sense of history and is quite willing to concede the problem is an old one. He records that in 1314 in the:
first record of petty-minded legislation Edward II issues a royal proclamation banning football in London.
Then, of course, in 1604 we had the ban on importing tobacco imposed by James I who rousingly described it as
a custom loathsome to the eye, hatefull to the nose, harmful to the braine, and in the black stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomlesse.
Sex and race are nice juicy subjects for regulators to get their teeth into. Clark quotes the owner of a Leicestershire care home confronted by a 28 page questionnaire by the National Care Standards Commission. She states:
It asked me for details of 40 written policies and procedures on everything from racial harassment to smoking and use of alcohol. One of the questions was whether I had a policy on "sexuality and relationships".
For most of her patients - who suffer from dementia - a written policy on sex would seem superfluous. However some patients come in as married couples yet are unable to share a room. Why?
Because the Care Standards Act 2000 insists that homes - for no discernible reason other than some civil servants thought it a good idea - must have at least eight single rooms for every double room.
One aspect of the growth in regulation is all the health and safety regulation which concerns theoretical rather than real risks. Clark has obtained a missive sent to the owners of dry cleaning businesses. It says:
Most people don't consider dry cleaning to be a dangerous industry. But just consider the following:
Then it lists among other things:
A dry cleaner is electrocuted because of faulty electrics.

An employee is found unconscious having tried to mop up a spill of cleaning solvent.

Customers are hurt when a perchloroethylene machine explodes during distillation.

An outbreak of legionnaire's disease is traced to a dry-cleaners wet cooling tower.

Major structural damage is caused when a steam boiler blows up.

Alarmist stuff. Clark decided to ring up the Health and Safety executive and ask them of instances of the above disasters actually taking place. Not a single example existed.

Most depressing was the following evidence of how one of the few pieces of supposed deregulation had worked in practice under New Labour. This also illustrates how it is the small businessman who gets worst hit. The "relaxation" of licensing laws has been bad news for one Blackpool hotel owner whose hotel contains a small cocktail bar which sells 90 of canned beer a year. Before the new act she had to make a simple application every four years for a licence to sell intoxicating liquors - a process which cost 30. Now, she has to fill in four forms, one of them 21 pages long. It costs her 190 a year for a premises licence and 37 every ten years for a personal licence. Furthermore, she must draw a plan of her bar and provide photographs of herself which have been authenticated by a solicitor - all in order to sell 90 of beer a year.

On one point Clark has got it wrong. Attempting to battle against this tide of regulation will be tough work for any politician willing to try.

Raising eyebrows by taking a holiday almost immediately after taking office as 40th President of the United States in 1981, the late Ronald Reagan reminded critics that the country had voted for less Government and that was precisely what it was going to get.
If only it were that simple. I suspect that if the next Conservative Government succeeds in halting let along reversing the regulatory tide then John Redwood will need to be cloned about 20 times over.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.


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