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When I was a local councillor, the council officers often came up with a cunning ruse to block one of my bright ideas. They would say it was illegal. Often this excuse would unravel. This is because “my” bright idea would be really to copy something that was being done in Wandsworth. Why should something be banned (or compulsory) in Hammersmith and Fulham, but not in Wandsworth? Another response I would come up with, was to ask which law they were referring to – then a bod from the Legal Department would respond to “clarify” that the initial claim of illegality was nonsense.

But at other times the objection was valid. It might well be explained that it was due to a requirement from the European Union. Or perhaps the details went beyond the demands of the EU as a result of being embellished in Whitehall. This is the practice known as “gold-plating”. One begins to see how freedom is unduly constrained. The EU makes a demand, the law that ends up being passed goes further, then local government pretends the law goes further than it does. The ban on using imperial measures is an example. Planning rules are another. Also bin collections.

From time to time a deregulation initiative will be announced but overall the burden grows each year. Apart from the EU, we have all these domestic agencies with a vested interest in widening the scope of regulation. They charge registration and licensing fees and impose fines. The more revenue they gather in, the higher the salaries of their officials.

This is not a new problem. The other day I was rereading The Mad Officials by Christopher Booker, a volume which was first published in 1994. Here is just one of the many examples he included:

“The Abbeyfield Society is a Christian housing association with 1,000 independent houses all over the country, where small groups of people can live together in a homely setting sharing domestic chores. In 1991, Environmental Health Officers began calling on a number of these virtually private homes, announcing that, under the Food Safety Act 1990, they must now be treated as ‘food businesses’ and are therefore subject to all the regulations applying to restaurants and other catering establishments.

“When an EHO from Salford City Council walked into the kitchen of a home in Walkden, run by the Abbeyfield Worsley Society, his first action was to throw a wooden cutting board and rolling pin into the bin saying ‘these aren’t allowed’ – despite protests from the owner that they had been a wedding present many years before. What followed was a battery of statutory Improvement Notices served on the home by the council, including a ruling that residents could not work in the kitchen without special protective clothing…”

So far as I can gather, some of the provisions in the Food Safety Act 1990 were at the behest of the European Union, others were not. It is even possible that some of them may have been of some genuine benefit. But as with so much legislation, we can see that it passed without enough regard to the cost or the unintended consequences. Far from being modified, it has got worse. Subsequent changes have added further layers of complexity.

Often it is local government that is supposed to enforce all these laws. So it would be useful to know which ones the Government plans to scrap. Councils are also keen to discover the new regime for procurement. The present arrangements imposed by the EU are highly cumbersome and greatly increase costs. What will the new rules be?

What is truth? Defenders of the EU are fond of declaring it to be “myth” that some new directive from Brussels is to blame for some threatened absurdity. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. But often the truth is hard to discover as lawyers and bureaucrats wade through the paperwork as baffled as the rest of us. What of the decision by Cardiff Council to ban the recycling of teabags? The Council claimed it was due to the EU. The EU gave a sort of non-denial denial. It was listed as a myth but the EU said:

“Whilst household catering waste – including teabags – falls within the scope of the EU Animal By-Products Regulation 2002, national rules may still be applied to its composting.”

Leaving the EU should allow some of that fog to clear. It will remove the alibi for poor decision-making, not just in Parliament, but in our Council chambers.

30 comments for: Brexit will lose local government an alibi for red tape

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