Cameron needs to act – not just talk

Allister Heath
ON the face of it, David Cameron’s pledge yesterday to “take on the enemies of enterprise” was a breakthrough. It was great to see the prime minister at last get off the fence and criticise the officials and bureaucrats that have done so much to halt progress and job-creation in Britain. He joked that even his baby daughter Florence knew that “tax and regulation” was holding the country back – and promised to “be on the side of everyone in this country who wants to create jobs, and wealth and opportunity.” It was all good stuff, the sort of rhetoric that is desperately needed in a country that has fallen out of love with hard work and risk-taking and which has become dangerously addicted to debt-fuelled instant gratification.

But if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is – and all the good words at the weekend soon fall apart on closer analysis. Cameron is right that bureaucrats specialise in gold-plating rules and making life difficult for people – in fact, he could have gone even further in his critique, pointing out that many of the coalition’s reforms are being sabotaged by the civil service. But he is wrong to imply that officials are uniquely guilty or are somehow the originators of the bad rules crippling UK Plc.

Civil servants and officials – national as well as local – only operate within the legislation – and that is the responsibility of the government, which passes laws in Parliament. At the end of the day, the government is responsible for the way this country is governed. To imply otherwise is a case of shameless buck-passing.

It is not some faceless, Whitehall-based mandarin who is abolishing the compulsory retirement age, a well-meaning but unworkable change which means that anybody over the age of 65 could sue for discrimination if they are ever let go. It is the coalition government. It is not bureaucrats who are hiking employee national insurance in April, which means that the higher rate of tax will climb to 42 per cent and the top rate to 52 per cent – it is the politicians. It is not officials who are introducing a flurry of new labour market laws – seven major changes in 2011 alone – that will make it even less economic for employers to hire staff. The most costly will be the right to request time off to train, which will have an annual recurring cost to business of £174.96m; the agency workers directive, which will have an annual recurring cost to business of £1.548bn; and next year’s pensions reform, which will have an annual recurring cost to business of £4.526bn. And what about the crazy Bribery act, another well-meaning change which will criminalise swathes of innocent behaviour and end up costing firms fortunes in legal advice?

Sure, officials will make these more costly than they need to be – but at the end of the day these are pieces of legislation voted through by the government. It may be following the EU’s orders, of course – but the government could simply refuse or reform the UK’s relationship with the EU to prevent some of this madness.

Yes, in every case the law is worsened by officialdom. This is especially true of planning rules, where local councils behave in absurd ways. But unless Cameron genuinely takes the axe to laws that he has until now been happy to promote, yesterday’s speech will turn out to have been yet another piece of substance-less spin. We will soon find out.

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