Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Review of How To Label A Goat

"It is conceivable that we are going more and more to keep our hands off things: not to drive horses; not to pick flowers. We may eventually be bound not to disturb a man’s mind even by argument; not to disturb the sleep of birds even by coughing. The ultimate apotheosis would appear to be that of a man sitting quite still, nor daring to stir for fear of disturbing a fly, nor to eat for fear of incommoding a microbe."

-- G.K. Chesterton

The priest at a catholic church in Beccles, Suffolk, used to change his lightbulbs by sending one man up a ladder. All went well until the EU Working at Heights Directive banned the activity. To comply with the new directive, the priest was told he must hire scaffolding. To change a couple of lightbulbs now took the priest two days and cost £1,300.

That is just one of many infuriating stories Ross Clark tells in his book How to Label a Goat: The silly rules and regulations that are strangling Britain. Clark explores the effect over legislation has on every aspect of our lives, from health and safety to all the bizarre rules governing diversity.

In addition to being a very readable and hilariously funny book, the publication is also particularly timely. As Tony Blair prepares to leave office, many are reflecting on the ‘legacy’ left by this remarkable individual. If Ross Clark is to be believed, however, Blair's most significant legacy will be the red tape and petty bureaucracy that now engulfs everyone from the milkman to the deep sea diver.

While there is nothing new in the observation that Labour is addicted to over-regulation, it may come as a surprise to learn just how colossal the legislative load has been. When researching for his book, Clark reviewed the laws passed during one 12 month period. He found that ‘In the 12 months to 31 May 2006 the Government passed 3,621 separate pieces of legislation. Yes, that is more than 100 new sets of rules and regulations for each day of the year. To give an idea of the sheer weight of these regulations I sampled 10 per cent of the Government’s regulatory output for the 12 months to 31 May 2006, counted the pages and then factored them up. It came to a shocking figure: 72,400 pages of legislation and 26,200 pages of explanatory notes – a total of 98,600 pages of official bum…. If the pages were laid out end to end they would stretch for 18 miles.’

And that’s just one 12 month period.

Even more worrying is the fact that most of these laws do not actually pass through Parliament but come in the form of mysterious ‘statutory instruments’ – edicts issued directly one of Government’s many agencies, effectively bypassing normal democratic process. Among the 3,621 pieces of legislation in the 12 months to 31 May 2006, there were only 29 acts of Parliament but 3,592 statutory instruments. This means that the majority of laws passed in Britain today are never voted on. Indeed, most MPs do not even know that they exist. After all, what MP wants to wade through nearly 100,000 pages of regulations for a year’s bedtime reading?

Usually the first time we learn about a new law is when an unsuspecting person has the misfortune to fall foul of it. Such was the case with Andy Tierney of Hinckley, Leicestershire. Leaving his home one morning to walk to work, Andy bumped into the postman, who handed him two items of junk mail. Continuing on his way, Andy put the unwanted items in a litter bin down the street. He thought nothing more of it until he received a £50 fine from his local council. His crime? Depositing domestic refuse in street litter bins which, it turns out, is prohibited by section 87 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990.

Clark convincingly shows that regulation has become an industry in itself - a ‘parasite breeding upon those parts of the economy which are productive.’ It is not uncommon for small business to pay more to conform to regulations than they actually make in annual profits. Such was the case with a Blackpool hotel owner who operated a small cocktail bar, through which she sold £90 worth of canned beer a year. All went well until the Labour passed its Licensing Act. Before the Act, she had to apply for a £30 licence every 4 years. After the Act she had to fill in 4 forms (one of them 21 pages long) and pay £190 a year for a premises licence and £37 every ten years for a personal licence. Further, the law also forced her to draw up a plan of her bar and provide a solicitor-authenticated photograph of herself – all to be able to continue to sell £90 worth of beer a year.

It isn’t just business that suffer under the burden of bizarre and crippling regulations. Clark points out that ‘The Army now faces having to order its troops to have a rest midway through a tank offensive because they have exceeded the number of hours which they are allowed to spend in a vibration environment.’

The one thing that can be said for the excessive output of red tape is that it has created more jobs – in fact, bureaucracy is now the fastest growing industry in Britain. Thus, Gordon Brown has a point every time he tells us that employment has never been higher. What he doesn’t tell us is that 650,000 of the new jobs created over the past decade have been in areas of the public sector concerned with regulation (regulation that creates burdens which force industry and small businesses to shed traditional jobs). This also explains why the problem of bureaucracy is self-perpetuating: when an increasing number of citizens are employed in public sector services, no one wants to vote for a Government that promises to downsize. In effect, Big Government only survives through purchasing votes.

The ministers of New Labour are not the only ones responsible for this spider’s web of legislation. Clark devotes a chapter to the stream of laws that pour out of Brussels. In the first 40 years of the EU’s existence, between 1957 and 1997, there were 10,000 regulations. In the seven years thereafter there were 12,000. The cost of obeying some of these regulations has cost Britain billions, such as the Vehicle Excise Duty (Reduced Pollution) (Amendment) Regulations, which has had a cumulative cost of £5.513 billion, or the Data Protection Act, which cost us £5.347 billion. What is perhaps more astonishing is that ‘According to the British Chambers of Commerce a mere 1 in 200 EU regulations are actually subjected to an impact assessment before they are introduced. And even then the EU might as well not have bothered: the EU’s impact-assessment criteria has not found a single EU regulation to have a negative impact.’

While these facts are enough to depress the most sanguine among us, How To Label a Goat turns the whole system into a big joke. Written with wit and a good sense of tongue in cheek, Clark is able to show just how ridiculously bizarre our laws have become. But be forewarned: this is not a book to read unless you are prepared to learn some of the ways you routinely break the law without realising it. Indeed, I discovered at least 3 laws I routinely break. Thankfully, no one has thought of legislating against breathing yet. Perhaps that will be next on the statute books when Brown takes over.

Click HERE to buy a copy of How to Label a Goat.

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