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Dec 15, 2019

How a love of red tape created 160,000 pages of pension rules

written by Lisa Eason

Occasionally one comes across an important book that is not as well known as it should be. Red Tape by Robin Ellison is one such book. I have known the author for many years — he is an excellent lawyer, an academic and an expert in pension matters. This latter experience persuaded him to write a book subtitled Managing Excess in Law, Regulation and the Courts.

He saw first-hand how our workplace pension system — once possibly the most successful of its kind in the world — was destroyed mostly by too much counter-productive law and over-zealous regulators. When he started work in the 1970s, there were about 100 pages of UK pension legislation; now there are almost 160,000, many of which are “virtually incomprehensible”, according to Ellison — who should know.

His book, first published last year, is a dense 522 pages but highly readable and well organised despite the dry subject matter. The author brings his legal training to the task: the tone is authoritative and balanced, with copious notes, references and a proper glossary, bibliography and index. It is published by Cambridge University Press, and although the paperback costs about £27, Red Tape is an essential text for anyone at all interested in the topic.

It provides a comprehensive survey of the crucial but complex field of unnecessary bureaucracy. Rather than simply list areas of life where there may be too much red tape — public health, consumer protections, building controls, taxation, planning, financial services, data protection or transport — Ellison tries to examine why and how so much law is promulgated, and what might be done to stem the tide and perhaps even reverse it.

The number and range of regulatory bodies that control our lives is mind-boggling: hundreds of councils, commissions, inspectorates, agencies, authorities, offices, ombudsmen and boards. Altogether, they employ thousands of staff and board members who energetically promote and enforce regulations, believing they are doing this for the greater good. But do any of them ever question the quality and quantity of the rules they supervise? Are they really convinced that the current system is proportionate, or do some suspect that it often does more harm than good?

Possibly the most depressing chapter in what is an alarming book is the one entitled Unregulation — an examination of attempts made by governments to cut red tape. Part of the problem is that regulators and law-makers rarely have to deal personally with the unintended consequences of their interventions, but instead, enjoy demonstrating their purpose in life by legislating and regulating. According to the book, between 1986 and 2011, there were 13 official initiatives designed to reform unhelpful rules. None had any material impact, but new laws, regulatory creep and gold-plating of rules marched on.

Unfortunately, there are more interest groups than ever demanding increased regulation or defending the present system — despite its flaws. Such organisations are noisier than in the past, thanks to digital communications, and the media are always eager to run stories about “protecting the public”. They rarely mention the costs. For example, the book states that since 2001, the cost of financial regulators has risen from £196m to £770m. But are the new quangos any better?

Meanwhile, after the Soham murders in 2002, criminal records checking extended to more than 11m people. The annual cost of the Disclosure and Barring Service is over £200m. Is this good value for the taxpayer?

The book highlights that evidence indicates that our excess of law and regulation is hurting economic performance, competitiveness and quality of life. Ellison’s solution is to oblige legislators and regulators to consider alternatives; to change the mechanisms for producing laws and rules; and to introduce greater responsibility and professionalisation to the class of legislators and politicians. He goes into some detail about his proposed reforms, including a thorough, 18-point code for legislators, and new training and qualifications for legislators, regulators and judges. Ultimately, the mindset of rule-makers needs to change to ensure they appreciate the damage their activities can do to society.

I feel so strongly about this matter that I intend to send a free copy of the book to every MP in the government in the hope that they restrain their zeal for law making.