Regulation: a New Labour pathology

New Labour’s love of regulation and targets as the solution to all known problems has become pathological.

At the start of this month the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) came into force setting out a totally bonkers 69 “learning goals” for under-fives.  The justification from ministers is that it will help to prevent disadvantaged children falling behind educationally though quite how it’s supposed to do this is a mystery since childminders will need to spend more time with their paperwork and less with the kids.  Motivated teachers will be driven away while timeservers and box-tickers will thrive.  In a few years we will be appalled to discover that toddlers are ‘failing’ but, hey, by a stroke of good luck ministers will have the World’s best statistics to document their shortcomings.

Now childminders are usually friends or neighbours – certainly members of the local community – which is surely the perfect context for parents to exercise the educational choice that Labour loves to promote.  The heavy-handed and counter-productive intervention of Whitehall adds nothings but costs a lot.

The explosion of paperwork and regulation is not confined to toddlers.  A police sargeant recently told me that 22 years ago when he joined the force the paperwork arising from an arrest could be done in as little as 20 minutes – or even less if he was about to go off shift.  Now it takes him up to 5 hours.

Similarly with building.  Yesterday I had a local builder round to quote for some minor alterations.  Ill-conceived and poorly-implemented regulation has become a big problem for responsible tradesmen as he told me – some have even been driven out of business.  Yet the cowboys are left to free to prey on the unwary unimpeded by the regulations which of course they ignore.  Another tradesman told me that in his business regulation has become so onerous – and so dead-brain – that in attempting to comply (as he does) his costs are raised to uncompetitive levels driving increased trade to the cowboys.  Insofar as the regulation relates to health and safety this increases overall risk.  Mad!

Meanwhile, over in the City where regulation most certainly is needed ‘light-touch’ regulation (a.k.a. no regulation) has already caused mayhem and is about to cause even worse.   For what the banks discovered a few years ago was that by creative accounting they could wriggle out of the regulatory framework that protects them (and therefore us) from their own foolishness.  The inevitable result: a large part of the City’s activity is now completely unregulated.  And the response of regulators under the political direction of Gordon Brown?  To ignore the problem of course – that is until it blew up.

In short, Labour’s strategy owes much to Parkinson’s Law of Triviality and two conclusions stand out.

Firstly, if Nick Clegg is serious about saving £20bn as reported then he should aim for some pretty heavy-duty pruning in Whitehall and make a bonfire of the regulatory clippings.  Those in the Lib Dems worried that spending cuts might mean service cuts should not worry.  They are more likely to lead to increases in funds for services (or for handing back to taxpayers or whatever) and will certainly lead to improved efficiency in the real world outside of Whitehall.

Secondly, this is an agenda that plays straight to traditional liberal values – power to the people, small government, hands off where ever possible and so on.  So why aren’t we making more of it as a theme?


3 responses to this post.

  1. Interesting…however a couple of questions. Is regulation to the extent it takes a police officer 5 hours to complete paper work bad if it drastically cuts the amount of wrongful arrests and such like? Obviously it’s about balance, but without certain levels of this regulation we’d be seeing even worse levels of discrimination and unprofessional conduct.


  2. Posted by liberaleye on 4 September 2008 at 3:35 pm

    Obviously we need a certain amount of regulation in most fields. However, it can easily loose sight of any meaningful objective, become counter-productive and demotivate staff. In the police case he went on to say (as I didn’t) that much of the time was, so far as he knew, just to provide statistics for government. (I should also say I was enormously impressed by him as a thoroughly decent and thoughtful man).

    One thing all this target-driven bureaucracy certainly doesn’t do is prevent the wrongful arrests (or whatever other worthy aim one might nominate). The local paper here recently reported the disgraceful case of a man – a retired policement as it happens – visiting the area who had a run in with some yobs. He reported them to the police so they got revenge by reporting him – for assult on one of their number. Result: he got to spend several hours in the cells, yobs got off scott-free.

    Bizarre indeed! Yet I hear that solving minor ‘crimes’ – even cases of hair-pulling in the school playground – ticks the same box on police report cards as real crime so guess which gets tackled first when under pressure to rack up a good ‘score’.

    In my own experience a bureaucracy can easily spiral out of control to the point where it becomes utterly self-serving and looses touch with any objective reality. This is what New Labour’s target-driven approach has delivered.


  3. Posted by coldcomfort on 4 September 2008 at 4:49 pm

    We are in a financial crises because the level of regulation that the Government sees as appropriate to impose on education is regarded as totally unacceptable in the financial sector. Yet the reality is that those who work in education, including Governors (who are unpaid VOLUNTEERS and yet are expected to devote more & more time, undergo more & more training & accept more & more responsibility) are doing it for motives OTHER THAN GREED AND ENRICHMENT and need LESS regulation than those who make obscene amounts of money in so called ‘financial services’ . And no this is NOT the ‘politics of envy’ . I have no problem with anyone becoming very wealthy but when they screw up big time I DO have a problem with the lack of any of the retribution that befalls us lesser mortals – including teachers. It is not regulation per se that is the problem but the wrong level of regulation on the wrong people.


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