Risk, regulation and red tape

Battle of Ideas festival 2012, Sunday 21 October, Barbican, London


We often seem to struggle today to get the balance right between reasonable risk-taking and sensible precaution. It seems every new risk is met with ever-more petty, sometimes draconian, measures and laws. Excessive safety regulations threaten to make normal parts of life – like the humble school trip – increasingly impractical. At the same time, nobody wants to do away with sensible precautions that protect life and limb. Is there a danger that in a bid to free ourselves from excessive regulations, we might go to the opposite extreme and get burned in an unlicensed bonfire of red tape?

Whether it is the dangers of nuclear power, the risks of excessive drinking, the uncertainties around GM crops or the threat posed by trolls on Facebook, the mantra is always the same: ‘Better safe than sorry.’ And while more serious incidents may appear to demand action, policies often regulate far beyond the original cause. Recently, there has been some kick-back against this risk-averse culture, but for ‘common sense’ to prevail, we have to trust one another to exercise it, and trust powerful organisations and institutions to take public welfare seriously too. And who trusts corporations not to put profits first and safety second? Who trusts the media to self-regulate in the era of Leveson? Who argues banks should be free to take more risks in the wake of the financial crisis? And who trust bankers even to abide by existing regulations after the Libor rate-fixing scandal? Organisations have responded to the trust deficit by instituting procedures to minimise risk – and protect their reputations. So, for example, the scientific community champions the precautionary principle, even when it inhibits the scope of their own research. Or, in child-protection circles, many self-imposed regulations are seen as necessary to protect agencies in the event of something going wrong.

If we don’t take risks sometimes, how can we make progress, or even learn from our mistakes? At the same time, letting powerful organisations off the leash entirely might mean throwing out important regulations designed to protect the vulnerable from abuse. Might freeing firms from the red tape of employment law be a green light to unfair dismissal? When some procedural measures are designed to protect individuals from unwanted state intrusion, how much red tape can we afford to throw on the bonfire? How do we properly assess safety in an age in which both private and public bodies are encouraged to imagine the worst possible outcome, rather than prepare for what’s probable? Will more regulation help, or are there deeper cultural issues at stake?

Marco Amitrano

partner and head, risk assurance services, PwC

Josie Appleton
director, civil liberties group, Manifesto Club; author, Officious: Rise of the Busybody State

Nick Butler
visiting professor and chair, King’s Policy Institute, King’s College London; treasurer, the Fabian Society; former special advisor to Gordon Brown; former group vice-president, strategy and policy development, BP

Mark Littlewood
director general, Institute of Economic Affairs

Simon Nixon
chief European commentator, Wall Street Journal; author, The Credit Crunch: how safe is your money?

Claire Fox

director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive