Opinion: As the government considers its approach to regulation, here’s how it could improve scrutiny

Regulatory Policy Committee chair Stephen Gibson shares his thoughts as the government consults on reforming the Better Regulation Framework 
Photo: Flickr/theilr

By Stephen Gibson

13 Sep 2021

This summer, the government launched a consultation on reforming the Better Regulation Framework  the system within which departments and regulators have to operate when ministers propose new regulations or changes to existing regulations. The framework aims to ensure that both regulatory and deregulatory proposals are based on robust evidence and analysis and that they do not impose unnecessary burdens on businesses or civil society organisations. 

The Regulatory Policy Committee plays a key role in the framework. We are the body responsible for independent scrutiny of the evidence and analysis underpinning regulatory proposals. We assess whether impact assessments and post-implementation reviews are fit for the purpose of supporting decisions to adopt new regulations or to deregulate. All of our opinions are publicly available on our website. 

As well as the framework consultation, EU exit and the post-pandemic economic recovery provide an ideal opportunity to consider the overall approach to regulation and how it can be used to promote growth, competition and innovation across the economy. The RPC has been considering how we best fit into this new world and how we can be of most use to government. For example, individual government departments have in the past reviewed regulatory stocks as well as flows and the RPC could assist with this process. This would ensure that existing regulations (including those inherited from the UK’s former membership of the EU) are actively reviewed and that their interactions and cumulative impacts receive due attention. 

"As well as the framework consultation, EU exit and the post-pandemic economic recovery provide an ideal opportunity to consider the overall approach to regulation and how it can be used to promote growth, competition and innovation across the economy"

Similarly, we believe that assessments of regulatory options need to consider their wider as well as direct impacts. For instance, given EU exit, new regulatory proposals should consider how they will impact UK exporters and importers; while the Competition and Markets Authority has argued that we should be able to red-rate if the impact assessment does not properly consider the impacts on competition and innovation and others have argued that we should review the environmental impacts of regulations to validate their contribution to net zero. At present, we comment on these wider impacts and assess the quality of the analysis without formally red-rating on these points. 

Early review of impact assessments, before the policy is consulted on, allows us to comment on the evidence underpinning policy options before the final policy decision is made and so better inform decisions between different policy options. It also helps to improve the quality of the final assessment since it can point out the gaps in the evidence and analysis that can be addressed in parallel with the policy development. But at present, we do not have the right to see impact assessments at consultation stage – although many departments ask us to review and comment on them on a voluntary basis. Making scrutiny mandatory at the consultation stage is something we have been seeking for a number of years. 

Of course, once regulations are in place, their effectiveness should be evaluated periodically. The framework consultation proposes evaluation two years after they come into force instead of the current five. Early review may well prove very useful in some circumstances – some departments already find that they can decide whether a regulation is working as intended in that timescale. However, in other cases, it may take longer to see whether it is having the planned effect or whether there are unintended consequences. More importantly, we do not see as many post-implementation reviews as we should from either a substantive or a legal perspective, nor is their quality as high as we would like. We hope that the new framework will lead to more post-implementation reviews being done properly and at the appropriate time. 

"Given the events of the last 18 months, it is also worth considering how 'temporary' Covid measures should be monitored"

Given the events of the last 18 months, it is also worth considering how “temporary” Covid measures (those exempt from RPC scrutiny as they were designed to last less than 12 months) should be monitored. Many of these regulations have been extended beyond a year but are still exempt from independent scrutiny. While treatment of the 2020 regulations is a question for government to decide, it may be worth considering how such situations might be dealt with in future, and how the Covid regulations will fit into any new framework. 

Overall, we believe that independent expert technical scrutiny plays an important role in supporting and strengthening democratic scrutiny. Our current role enables us to provide constructive technical challenge to government, to support parliament in its democratic scrutiny and to reassure external stakeholders that the wider impacts are being properly considered as regulatory decisions are made. We look forward to seeing how the outcome of the consultation helps improve this process. 

Stephen Gibson is chair of the Regulatory Policy Committee 

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