Andrew Arbuckle: It takes more than a new committee to reduce red tape

POLITICIANS learn all sorts of tricks to keep out of trouble and one of the most elementary of these survival skills is used when a niggly problem keeps niggling: set up a working group to look into the issue.

There was a prime example of this tactic last week with Richard Lochhead, the rural affairs secretary, deciding to set up a group to look at how red tape could be cut in the industry.

Now, no-one wants red tape, so this was very much a populist move – especially as he has asked former ANM boss and Common Agricultural Policy guru, Brian Pack to chair the investigation. NFU Scotland applauded the move, followed by many others all saying red tape was a bad thing and had to be cut.

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At this point, I stifled a yawn as it was all so predictable and all so like eating a large tasteless blancmange; that is, it filled a space, but it did not edify.

No-one asked why Lochhead was only getting around to this after five years of SNP government. Nor did they question whether it might duplicate work already being carried out by a SEARS (Scotland’s Environmental and Rural Services) group. And no-one queried why cutting red tape was not a standard part of management or government. Reducing bureaucracy and cost takes place routinely in any and every private business so why is this not the case in government?

As far as Lochhead is concerned, the red tape issue is now kicked into the long grass for up to 12 months and any question on this will be referred to Pack and his yet-to-be-appointed team.

So far I have not been asked to join this group and it is unlikely that I will be, so instead I offer here the following advice on how I would do it.

The first simple step would be to get the report that Richard Macdonald, former chief executive of the English NFU, did on reducing red tape. As I recall, it included 215 specific ways in which paperwork could be reduced and I am sure many of the recommendations would also apply in Scotland.

Secondly, I would ask the various lobby organisations in agriculture how and where they believe paper shredding could take place without compromising necessary safeguards.

Only hours after hearing the NFUS’s reaction to the announcement, I listened to its president, Nigel Miller, list some of the irksome duplication and unnecessary paperwork farmers have to deal with, including issues to do with the recent introduction of sheep identification, nitrate vulnerable zones and land eligibility, where regulation seems to be in overkill mode, and others.

I am also sure the Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers would give a speedy response on unnecessary costs in meat processing. They have after all been banging on about these for years.

So basically I believe there is no need to spend up to a year identifying what is already known or what should have already been dealt with by good government.

Pack will find, as others have done before him, that it is not difficult to identify where there is irritation about the level of paperwork. The difficulty is in cutting it out.

David Barnes – that most accomplished civil servant, who is currently finishing a countrywide tour of Scotland to sell-out audiences on the nuances of CAP reform – once related how he was placed in charge of a red tape cutting exercise in Brussels.

The centre of EU bureaucracy might seem a fertile area for such an activity, but whenever he identified a slice of bureaucracy for amputation, someone would pipe up and object as it was there for a reason.

South of the Border, the comprehensive review by Macdonald is currently running into similar obstacles.

I have no doubt his review will reduce the pile of paperwork in every farm office and that will be trumpeted. But it has to be remembered that every piece of regulation was put in place for a reason and the person who placed it there is not going to see it excised without a fight.

There is not only the fact we live in a “cotton wool” society where every eventuality has to be catered for, the removal of a regulation will also mean the removal of an inspector’s job.

And that might be the nub of the problem. As a youthful councillor many years ago, I suggested a better, quicker, shorter way of dealing with a problem. The convener of the council considered it before his rejection in a broad Fife accent: “It’s jobs, ye ken.”

I am sure Pack will find a lot of areas where red tape can be cut, but I am also sure that he will find resistance to their removal. However, as far as it being a political issue for the government, it is now off the agenda. Politics is easy.