Barking mad

WilfStevenson.jpgWilf Stevenson on the dog’s breakfast that is the government’s Deregulation Bill

Today is Lords Second Reading of the Deregulation Bill – legislation that the government would have us all believe is its latest attempt to stimulate economic growth. Ministers however, seem unable to recognise that deregulating the sale of knitting yarn, freeing children to buy chocolate liqueurs, decriminalising household waste and abolishing dog collars, are not the measures set to generate jobs, deliver prosperity or help those whose wages are failing to rise at the same rate as prices. 

The Bill also includes some rather disturbing proposals, including the removal of yet more powers from employment tribunals and exempting self-employed people in certain industries from Health and Safety regulation. Plus there are plans for a blanket ban on the use of CCTV for parking offences, which raised the collected ire of the Local Government Association, the British Parking Association, cycling groups, head teachers and charities representing blind and disabled people. 

Housing is a critical part of the cost of living crisis for families struggling in our country, so should there not be a coherent, long-term approach, rather than ad hoc tinkering? Well, this Bill is a missed opportunity to refocus attention on conducting a review of the effectiveness of Right to Buy, and the government's failure to both fulfil its promise of replacing the homes sold under the scheme and tackle the shortage of affordable housing. And what too is the rationale for a proposed change in the planning requirements for offering short term lets in London – something that may have fire and personal safety implications? 

We will look very closely at the measures to deregulate taxis and public hire vehicles outside of London. As it stands, the Bill will enable people without a minicab license to drive one when it is ‘off duty’, end annual checks on drivers’ licences, and allow operators to subcontract bookings to firms in other areas. There has been widespread criticism of the last minute decision to insert these reforms. Campaigners, industry bodies and unions are also warning that these changes will have severe safety implications, as councils don’t have the powers to enforce the changes safely.

We will want to discuss in some detail the thinking behind proposals to decriminalise the failure to pay the Licence Fee, collected by the BBC. It makes sense to consider this issue in the round but we want assurances that the results of the review will feed into the BBC Charter and Licence Fee discussions, and not be separate from that process.

There are some proposals that we welcome. For example, the part that builds on work we did in government which seeks to introduce a growth duty on regulators to compel them to “have regard” to the promotion of economic growth when carrying out their functions; and to do so in a necessary and proportionate way. But we want to ensure that the duty does not inhibit or contradict the primary function of any regulator, particularly the Equality and Humans Right Commission. 

We will also support the proposals on registering public footpaths. Walking plays a vital role in people’s daily lives. Most of the clauses in the Bill derive directly from the work of the Natural England Stakeholder Working Group on unrecorded rights of way. Its recommendations represent a consensus and agree that it is essential that these reforms are introduced as a package, as soon as possible. 

All of which neatly brings us back to dogs. At the moment, dogs must be sold with a collar and tag – something the government wants to change. But having already announced that it would introduce compulsory micro-chipping in April 2016, the Bill will create an 18 month gap between abolishing one rule and bringing the other in. At present, anyone finding a lost dog can read the information on its collar. But they will not be able to read a microchip, making it harder to contact owners and increase the likelihood that people will deliver stray dogs to councils. We already know that this is a dog’s breakfast of a Bill but this particular provision begs the question: have Ministers finally gone barking mad?

Lord Wilf Stevenson of Balmacara is Shadow Business Minister in the House of Lords

Published 7th July 2014

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