Regulation is not a ‘burden’ – Beyond GM responds UK government plans for a deregulatory bonfire

October 3, 2021 by Staff Reporter

A recent government consultation, led by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) sought views on plans for widespread regulatory reform in the UK.

The consultation follows a report from the May 2021 Taskforce on Growth and Regulatory Reform (TIGRR) and examines a number of the Taskforce’s proposals for reforming regulation, including the adoption of a less-codified, common law approach to regulation.

What has been widely described as a post-Brexit ‘bonfire’ of deregulation, would see essential protections stripped away from industries across the board.

According to the government, the UK’s exit from the EU provides an opportunity to think boldly about how we regulate and for the first time in a generation, we have the freedom to conceive and implement rules that put the UK first. We will use this freedom to unlock cutting-edge technologies, unleash innovation, and propel start-up growth, levelling up every corner of the UK. This will be a crucial part of boosting our productivity and helping us bring the benefits of growth to the whole of our country.

Although not specifically focused on the topic of agricultural genetic engineering, the consultation and the reforms that it procedures are part of a bigger context which we think our supporters should be aware of.

For example, the recent decision to deregulate gene editing in England and we believe, eventually and by extension the rest of the UK) is seen as a flagship win for the government’s broader aspirations. This is why we took the time to respond to the consultation.

At the heart of the government’s plans is a bid to not to simply reform regulation but to redefine its purpose as an economic incentive and a marketing tool.

A major focus of the consultation is the role of innovation. The consultation document promises that following its exit from the European Union the UK now has the freedom to “unlock cutting-edge technologies, unleash innovation, and propel start-up growth, levelling up every corner of the UK” and notes that doing so will be a “crucial part of boosting our productivity and helping us bring the benefits of growth to the whole of our country.”

Our response, which encompasses views from both our work at Beyond and GM and our A Bigger Conversation initiative, makes several key points:

  • Using Regulation to build markets is fraught with uncertainty and risk
  • Regulation should not be presented as a burden
  • Regulation does not limit innovation
  • ‘British’ regulation must still work within an international regulatory context
  • Regulation must also work within a context of environmental and societal change
  • Invention is not the same innovation
  • The need for a ‘balanced’ regulation encompasses strengthening as well as weakening

In particular we make note of the government’s over-focus on disruption and innovation and its obsession with so-called ‘red tape’ as exemplified by the consultation’s multiple references to the “burden” of regulation.

Ironically BEIS’ research has shown that most businesses do not generally perceive regulation as a burden, but that using inflammatory language like ‘burden’ and ‘obstacle’ in surveys, can provoke businesses to respond more negatively about regulation.

Regulation for a reason

Everyone loves to hate red-tape, but red-tape exists for a reason. As we note, where regulation exists, it is often because something has gone very wrong in the past that has caused harm to businesses, people and/or the environment (chemical and pharmaceutical regulations are good examples of this).

In addition to highlighting what regulation is and is not for, our response highlights the difficulties of regulating so-called disruptive technologies in which the government is placing so much faith. Disruptive technologies – such as artificial intelligence, mass surveillance, driverless cars, 3-D printing and genetic technologies used for the purposes of re-engineering humans, animals, plants and microbes – are seen as a way of turning the UK into a global economic player. And yet disruptive technologies because of the way they impact multiple different sectors (environment, health, privacy and human rights and unfair market competition, to name a few), require more precaution, and in some instances more regulation.

“The world is becoming more complex,” says Beyond GM Director, Pat Thomas. “We are beginning to see how connected all our various systems are and how a breakdown in one area can cause multiple related consequences in others. The government’s plan, if you can call it that, for dealing with complexity and consequences is to try and hide these through a process of deregulation which could, for instance, strip away requirements for monitoring and impact assessment.”

As our response notes: “In seeking to use regulation, or more specifically deregulation, as a market tool to promote competition and innovation the government doesn’t just redefine the purpose of regulation, it sets aside or downgrades its responsibility to safeguard its citizens, protect environment, provide a framework for fair, transparent and equitable business and trade and to ensure that those who inflict harm are held to account.”

What works in one sector may not work in another. In particular, disruptive technologies may require specific complimentary types of regulation in different areas such as environment, health, privacy and human rights and unfair market competition, to name just a few.

Public views must be counted

We also emphasise the importance of seeking public views on regulation. It encourages governments to seek the opinions of a wider group of stakeholders, including citizens, to better understand their views on regulatory reform and changes to the regulator’s approach. Such surveys would reveal that, for citizens, regulation remains an important safety net.

In 2020, for example, Unchecked UK reported a high level of support for regulations among younger Leave voters, with the majority of respondents expressing a preference for maintaining or increasing regulations across diverse areas of public life.

With regard to genetic technologies the recent Food Standards Agency (FSA) consumer dialogue likewise noted that “consumers wanted thorough regulation and transparent labelling if GE foods reach the UK market”.

Likewise in the recent Nuffield Council on Bioethics public dialogue on genome edited animals, regulations were seen as important for maintaining food standards for consumers as well as guaranteeing animal welfare.

These concerns have a long history. Data from the 2010 OECD report Regulatory Policy and the Road to Sustainable Growth showed that amongst the EU 15 most supported “smart regulation (not necessarily deregulation), and in particular, that citizens and consumers are keen to pursue high social welfare and environmental performance standards.”

The recent decision to begin deregulating gene editing, and eventually as part of this process all genetic technologies used in agriculture, shows that the government is not willing to listen to citizens. Indeed even with the creative mathematics which saw Defra remove more than half the responses to the consultation on the Regulation of Genetic Technologies, 85% of respondents said they disagreed with the idea of deregulation.

We must continue to press the government to take citizen concerns seriously.