Is red tape killing the recovery? Probably not, no

The idea that regulation is the problem is simplistic, overstated, and misapplied.

The argument goes like this: Our wealth creators are chomping at the bit to hire more people, produce more output, and sell more stuff. The only problem is that nasty government regulations are stopping them from doing it. Scrap those regulations, and bust turns to boom!

It's an appealing argument to many in the Conservative party, because it has the side effect of shifting the blame for slow growth from macroeconomic policies—particularly the historic failure of austerity. It also lets Tories express sympathy with the aims of policies like a minimum wage, health and safety regulations, or employment protections, without actually committing to keep them.

Small wonder that Conservatives as diverse as Louise Mensch, party donor Adrian Beecroft and the Institute of Directors think-tank have all expressed a desire to slash "red tape", particularly when it comes in the form of regulations protecting employees against their bosses.

But their starting premise is wrong. Business executives—the archetypal "wealth creators" if any are—aren't chomping at the bit to deregulate. In fact, they're far more concerned about their inability to borrow and the difficulty they have paying taxes, as they tell the World Economic Forum:

It's not just big businesses. In August 2012 the Department for Business, Enterprise and Skills asked 500 heads of small and medium sized enterprises about what they considered the main obstacle to success. “The state of the economy” was the biggest issue, listed by 45 per cent and “obtaining finance” was next, mentioned by 12 per cent. After this came taxation, cashflow, competition and regulations—just 6 per cent listed regulations as their main concern.

In Britain, part of the reason businesses don't care about red tape is that it's all part of the level playing field. The minimum wage doesn't hurt small businesses if all their competitors have to pay it as well. But, as Louise Mensch points out, there's the international context to take into account as well:

"The left think they're helping working people by providing more rights", she told the Observer in 2011. "But all that actually happens is you create poverty and despair, because jobs go to your competitors who have fewer rights for workers."

In fact, you have to look hard to find competitors to Britain who have fewer rights for workers. By international standards, the UK is not heavily regulated at all. In fact, when the OECD assessed the strength of employment protections across all its member nations, the UK was third from the bottom. Apart from the US and Canada, we have the least employment red tape in the developed world:

And when we look at the protections workers have against unfair dismissal – a specific protection attacked by Adrian Beecroft’s 2011 report on employment law – the UK is even closer to being the “freest” nation in the world. Only the US has fewer protections than us:

But the most important aspect of regulations is frequently missed in discussions of whether they hurt businesses: regulations have direct benefits. It's a point made alarmingly infrequently in a climate where the burdens of regulations are brought up on a monthly basis.

For instance, the minimum wage has costs—to businesses, which have to pay higher wages, but also theoretically to workers, who may find that they aren't employable for that much. The minimum wage also has benefits. It boosts the income of the lowest paid and as such is a very effective way to boost aggregate demand. It can also increase productivity in a number of ways.

None of this should obscure the most important point: the poorest paid people in society suddenly have more money. That's not a by-product; it's the entire aim. And discussing what businesses think about the burden without acknowledging that benefit will always result in a skewed conclusion.

For more, take a look at our article produced with nef and the Tax Justice Network as part of their "Mythbusters" series, addressing the myth that "red tape" is preventing the recovery.

Some red tape. Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Exell is a senior policy officer at the TUC and Alex Hern is the New Statesman's economics reporter.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.