Another week, another big idea from David Cameron to boost the economy. Well, I say another big idea, but it’s just a reiteration of an old one. Yet again, just about the only thing standing in the way of unbridled and unrivalled economic growth for Britain is government regulation. After two and a half years in power, though, he has managed to narrow it down to a smaller target than just generic ‘red tape’, at least. Yes, the specific problem is the annoying fact that the Government takes the time to consult on proposals and try and assess what impact something might have before doing it. From his speech this morning:
Next, government consultations. When we came to power there had to be a three month consultation on everything and I mean everything, no matter how big or small. So we are saying to Ministers: here’s a revolutionary idea – you decide how long a consultation period this actually needs. If you can get it done properly in a fortnight – great, indeed the Department for Education has already had a consultation done and dusted in two weeks. And we are going further, saying: if there is no need for a consultation, then don’t have one.
in government we have taken the letter of this law and gone way beyond it, with Equality Impact Assessments for every decision we make. Let me be very clear. I care about making sure that government policy never marginalises or discriminates. I care about making sure we treat people equally. But let’s have the courage to say it – caring about these things does not have to mean churning out reams of bureaucratic nonsense. We have smart people in Whitehall who consider equalities issues while they’re making the policy. We don’t need all this extra tick-box stuff. So I can tell you today we are calling time on Equality Impact Assessments. You no longer have to do them if these issues have been properly considered. That way policy-makers are free to use their judgement and do the right thing to meet the equalities duty rather than wasting their own time and taxpayers’ money.
Ironically, David Cameron is arguing for a reduction in Government legislation on the grounds that it’s not needed because the Government knows best. What he completely misses is the point of a lot of regulation – no matter how much the Tories like to pretend, it’s not to slow things down just for the hell of it, it’s there to help ensure that the Government is doing the right thing and to look for unintended consequences. It’s very easy for a minister to say ‘right, we’re doing X’ but surely a proper governing process requires the ability for someone to say ‘hold on, that won’t work’?
Cameron invoked the idea of the country being in the ‘economic equivalent of war’ as though that trumped everything. Leaving aside the issue that the response to war is often a heavily centrally-directed economy, not laissez-faire, this is a particularly fatuous argument, even by Cameron’s standards. As the last Government used ‘the war on terror’ as a supposed trump card in civil liberties arguments, the state of the economy is being used to block all counter-arguments here.
Consultation and impact assessments are part of having policy that’s evidence-based. The point of them is to take a proposal, put it out there and see what problems people can see with it, then change it accordingly. To borrow a war metaphor, what Cameron’s proposing would have seen Eisenhower decide on the plans for D-Day on June 5th and expect them to be implemented without anyone else getting a chance to point out the flaws in them.
However, that Cameron regards consultations and the like as a waste of time does tell us something about his approach – he doesn’t like to be told he’s wrong, and doesn’t change plans if he is. This is a common complaint about government consultations at every level – that they are merely a box-ticking exercise, when they should be an important part of policy making. What he’s revealing is that he doesn’t think consultations should be listened to anyway, and if that’s your initial position, why bother having them?
Cameron is proposing that the Government abandons sensible policy-making and replacing it with panicked lurches from one pet theory to the next, never testing them to see how they might work or what the long term effects might be. One would hope that Liberal Democrats in government might stand up against this – given how it goes against principles of liberal and democratic governance – but bitter experience has taught me not to expect that.