Chris Haskins: Let Grenfell be the grave of reckless deregulation

Would better regulation have prevented the Grenfell inferno?
Would better regulation have prevented the Grenfell inferno?
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IN 1997 I was asked by the new Prime Minister, Tony Blair, if I would chair a committee in the Cabinet Office called the Deregulation Task Force, set up by the Conservative government.

I was surprised by the name because in the last 10 years there had been four major disasters caused by regulatory failures, the ferry Herald of Free Enterprise in Zeebrugge, the King’s Cross fire, the Bradford City blaze and Hillsborough.

But this was also the time, post- Maastricht, when Euroscepticism was taking off. Brussels was blamed for unnecessary regulation on British business and a young journalist, Boris Johnson, was spreading fallacious stories about the regulation of bent bananas. The Thatcher government had been committed to shrinking the state and deregulation was a crucial part of that.

I accepted the job on condition that the name of the Task Force was changed from “Deregulation” to Better Regulation”. A 19th century American Supreme Court Judge, Oliver Wendell-Jones, once remarked that “taxation is a price we pay for democracy”. He should have added “and regulation.” I established five principles of better regulation which the government endorsed.

Transparency: Every regulation should be clearly by both the enforcers and the receiving end.

Proportionality: Is the regulation really necessary? If so. Should it be enforced rigidly or with discretion? Fire regulations should be non-negotiable, but tests for salmonella, which often produced false positives, had to be interpreted with discretion.

Targeted: Concentrate on the high-risk areas, such as high-rise flats.

Consistency: Regulations must be applied consistently across the country, planning and fire the obvious example.

Accountability: There must be clear accountability for enforcement to stop buck passing.

The Task Force cautioned against knee-jerk reaction to events and public opinion, which could lead to bad regulation and unintended consequence.

There had been a half-baked attempt to regulate dangerous dogs which was eventually resolved. Prohibition in the USA in the 1920s created opportunities for gangsters to develop an illicit market. During my time in the Cabinet Office, two further serious regulatory failures occurred – Mad Cow Disease and the Foot and Mouth outbreak.

But the farmers were amongst the most vociferous champions of deregulation, even though, they received substantial subsidies from Brussels. They were not alone. The Prime Minister continued to refer to me as “The Deregulation Tsar” which I was not. The Financial Services Authority was being set up in 1997, but when I suggested the Task Force should look at its regulatory implications, the Treasury objected. Ten years later, regulatory shortcomings led to the greatest financial failure in our history.

We did identify bad regulations which needed to be addressed. The Working Time Directive and the Working Family Tax Credit were both well-intentioned but not thought through. However, for party political reasons, they were enacted.

The then director of the CBI, Digby Jones, argued that regulation from the EU was making business uncompetitive. The evidence pointed otherwise. There is business regulation in Western Europe and even the US has similar or higher levels of regulation. Some argue the UK’s poor productivity may, in part, be due to inadequate regulation of the labour market. We resisted an absurd proposal that no new regulation should be introduced unless another one is scrapped. My successors succumbed to pressure and this silly game is still being played. The Treasury and the DTI were always keen to have the Task Force transferred away from the Cabinet Office. I successfully resisted this move. Working for the Prime Minister, I took a broader perspective across all the government supporters.

After I left, the Task Force was transferred to the business department and has become unduly influenced by the anti-regulation, one-in, one-out, propaganda of the euro-sceptics.

Local authorities and the state will pay dearly for the regulatory shortcomings that led to the Grenfell tragedy. After Hillsborough, Lord Taylor’s report imposed heavy restructuring costs on the big football clubs, but they have prospered, possibly because of the improved facilities. Climate change deniers may argue that more flood regulation is a waste of time, but a major disaster seems inevitable if the Government continues to prevaricate.

The greatest benefit to business and the public, from membership of the EU, has been the creation of a wide range of common regulation across the 27 countries. We fly safely, we take safe drugs, we drive safe cars, we protect our environment more effectively, we trust the food we eat and we enjoy high standards of medical care because of common regulation, built up carefully over 40 years. All this is being put a risk because of Brexit. Had there been EU-wide fire regulations, Grenfell might never have happened.

Chris Haskin is a peer, farmer and businessman. A former chairman of Northern Foods and the current chairman of the Humber LEP, he is writing in a personal capacity.