So, another May, another round of local elections. As Tony prepares to ride off into the sunset (and no doubt start earning enough from the after-dinner speaker roadshow to make him the major breadwinner in the Blair household for the first time), and Prudence readies himself to get his own hands on power, it is no surprise to see the government launching all sorts of ’new’ initiatives in a forlorn hope of swaying the voters. Now although the number of voters that need swaying at local elections is probably less than a season’s attendance figures at the Theatre of Dreams, certain policies have a sense of déjà vu.
in the past two weeks I am certain that all our hearts were uplifted on reading the news that there was to be a major drive to cut red tape. Now let’s face it, this story is almost as perennial as the ubiquitous letter to The Times claiming to have heard a cuckoo in February and asking whether this was a record? (I must admit I’ve always felt like replying that if you can’t tell the difference between a real live bird and a record you shouldn’t be writing to The Times, but, not for the first time, I fear I am digressing.)
Anyway, returning to the plot, reading this ’surprise’ announcement got me thinking about how much relief our industry might hope to expect. I suppose it comes down to the definition of ’red tape’. On the narrow interpretation of forms that have to be completed and returned to Her Majesty’s government, I guess we’ve done pretty well. Apart from the annual return of fuel volumes sold that have to go off to your EPA I can’t think of too much else that has changed in the past couple of decades. It’s when you widen the definition of red tape to include all the rules and regulations that now govern our daily business activities that the eyes begin to water.
Back in the Eighties life was simple. An annual application for a Petrol Licence, an electrical certificate and a visit from the local fire brigade, which resulted in a few jobs that needed doing, was pretty much it. Of course there were other records that were sensible to keep, but there was very little threat of prosecution if you didn’t. These days, rules and regulations govern virtually every minute of our working day. In fact, until I read of the red tape blitz, I had half been expecting some edict on how many sheets of paper were to be allowed on a visit to a loo. This, of course, would have been introduced with the justification that it was a planet-saving measure, designed to preserve the rain forests, reduce water consumption and minimise carbon emissions from the effluent treatment centres.
The twin curses of modern business are health and safety and environment protection. Like some modern day equivalent of the ancient legislation that was purportedly introduced to combat the evils of witchcraft, the pursuit of these two objectives is cited as the raison d’etre for every new set of missives that is thrust upon us.
Take the Work at Height Regulations for example. Very sensible for the construction industry and the like, but is it really necessary to have a purpose-built work platform, safety hat and harness and certificates of competence just to get the box of Walkers down from the top shelf in the stockroom? Or the latest Fire Safety Risk Assessments. Great for large factories and office blocks but petrol stations? How many points of exit are there on a petrol station - and as for assembly points! Or all the waste regulations. By the time you’ve taken everything out that can’t go in the bins there’s nothing left that you can dispose of. And as for the whole Vapour Recovery thing - come on!
We don’t need Government Red Tape Czars. We just need someone to introduce a sense of proportion of what is needed in small businesses. Do I think it will happen? I’m afraid the only red tape that is likely to be cut by a government minister will be the one across the door at the opening of the latest Tesco Express.