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Monday, 4 November, 2002, 12:02 GMT
Britons burdened by red tape
A map of the UK entangled in red tape

Radio 4's You and Yours, throughout November, is running a series dedicated to the red tape burden which falls on business people, public sector workers and the general public. BBC News Online looks at bureaucracy and asks is it a necessary evil or a very British disease.

From public sector workers, business people, to members of the public going about their daily lives, it seems red tape is everywhere.

Last summer, Michael Howard, the shadow chancellor of the exchequer, claimed that 4,642 new regulations governing different aspects of UK life came into force during 2001.

That is the equivalent of a new regulation being rubber stamped every 26 minutes.

Back in October, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) warned that Britain was "sleepwalking into decline" partly as a result of the mountain of red tape burying UK business.

The government disputes that Britain is drowning in a sea of red tape - arguing that most of the regulations that came into force last year were merely oiling the wheels of good governance such as authorising temporary road closures and dealing with foot and mouth.

In addition, according to the Better Regulation Taskforce - an offshoot of the Cabinet Office set up to monitor the governments performance in cutting down on bureaucracy - without the form filling then employees would face exploitation and the public left unprotected.


The burden of red tape seems to fall heaviest on small business.

David Bishop from the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), while recognising that the powers that be need to protect the vulnerable, is unequivocal as to the burden it puts on small business.

"The average small business person spends 20 hours a week dealing with red tape," he told BBC News Online.

Sadly, the government and a lot of businesses have lost any human side all flexibility has gone

Stuart Cliffe, National Association of Bank and Insurance Customers

According to Mr Bishop, the bureaucratic mountain facing UK business can sometimes resemble high farce.

"Nearly 150 different groups of inspectors have right of entry into a small business premises," he says.

"Imagine the chaos if just a fraction wanted access on the same day."


Farmers and publicans are identified by the Better Regulation Taskforce as business people most under the bureaucratic cosh.

Put simply, one person's red tape is another individual's protection

Simon Ward, member, Better Regulation Taskforce

According to Simon Ward, a member of the taskforce, the inability to deal with bureaucracy emanating from local council planning departments to the Inland Revenue contributes to a high suicide rates in these industries.

"The problem is that the burden is the same on businesses large or small but bigger firms have personnel departments to do the legwork," Mr Ward says.

In fact, the FSB estimates that it is the norm in businesses with less than 20 employees for the entire administrative burden to be shared between two key individuals.

Brick wall

As for the wider public, they too can find themselves entangled in red tape.

From planning disputes that can drag on for years to dealing with bank call centres Britons can feel that they are hitting their head against the preverbal brick wall.

"Sadly, the government and a lot of businesses have lost any human side all flexibility has gone," Stuart Cliffe, director of the National Association of Banking and Insurance Customers (NABIC), says.

"For example, new rules designed to combat money laundering make opening a personal or business current account for the first time a longwinded and deeply frustrating process."

"The disappearance of the local bank branch means that the hoops customers have to jump through are far higher than ever before."


On the flip side, Mr Ward defends the need for red tape.

"Put simply, one person's red tape is another individual's protection," he says.

"A balance has to be struck, consumers and people with environmental concerns wants protection. In fact, even businesses want regulation as it protects them from unfair competition," Mr Ward added.

The taskforce has highlighted the need for government departments to co-ordinate when drafting and implementing new regulations.

The government seems to be listening to the taskforce as last October they proposed the introduction of a red tape day when all new regulations would start each year.

Practical help

All in all, Mr Ward advises business people and the British public that they have got to be proactive when they come up against the bureaucratic machine.

"Keep records of all communications and who you talk to, don't give the person at the other end of the phone a hard time - above all stay calm," he concludes.

As for practical help, Mr Ward points frustrated Britons in the direction of industry bodies such as the National Farmers Union (NFU) and charities such as the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux (NACAB).

Your Comments

The UK is one of the most un-bureaucratic countries I know - why do so many French people and businesses come to the UK? Even day to day life in France is a bureaucratic (even the word has French origins!) nightmare. Many of these negative spins on UK systems often come from people who have never lived or worked in other countries!
Kevin, UK/France

If Simon Ward thinks that the burden of red tape is the same on small and large businesses, he clearly doesn't know about the Inland Revenue's form P11D. This is a completely pointless form (filling it in doesn't change my tax bill by one penny in either direction) that is such a pain to fill in I have now given up trying and get my accountant to do it. But the really annoying thing is that I only have to fill it in because I run a small business: large businesses are allowed to claim exemption from it.
Adam Jacobs, UK

Our biggest headache is a pan-European one - VAT. The problem is that we have to:

  • Charge VAT to ALL UK businesses and consumers
  • Charge NO VAT to orders from outside the EU.
  • Charge NO VAT to orders from within the EU from VAT registered businesses. If they aren't VAT registered then we charge VAT.

This means it is easy to sell to UK customers (always charge VAT). Bizarrely it is even easier to sell to non-EU customers (no VAT). But for each EU order we must first check their VAT number to make sure it is correct.

Each quarter the Customs Excise returns a form claiming several of the EU vat numbers are wrong... normally it is just a missing letter indicating the country.

I thought the idea of the EU was that it was easier to trade with our European partners...? For us it is easier to do business with Iran, US or China that a European business. Crazy.
Martyn Gay, UK

You fail to mention that most of our red tape arrives as European directives and other Brussels' diktats. There's actually less bureaucracy here than over the Channel, and things would improve if we could just get out of the EU.
Russ, UK

Recently I received the new form for the working credits from the Inland Revenue. The form itself it quite formidable but the booklet which came with it was even worse.

It is a ridiculous waste of time for the Inland Revenue to demand such huge amounts of information about our earnings when they have all of it in their own computer systems.

Paul Clarke, UK

So true. As a small business owner my admin work is never complete. After the daily 9 to 5 when employees go home to put their feet up, business owners like me spend an evening in front of the files and forms.
James Burgess, UK

The UK is among the least-bureaucratic countries I've seen! Try living in Brussels for any period to time to appreciate how simple UK tax/government forms are!
Ian, UK/Brussels

I run an engineering business in the UK. I have no problem with govt red tape - it's needed for safety and security. I have a huge problem with how it's done. I would like:

  • A single, named, person that my business deals with for ALL govt. interaction. A really novel idea like a named customer account manager!
  • No govt. agency allowed to ask for the same item of information twice.
  • All govt. forms come with pre-existing information already filled in. Demonstration that all govt. matters require less than 5% of all company time.

Tim Everitt, UK

I agree with Martyn above about trading with the EU versus the rest of the world.

My small business sells about 2% of our goods to the EU. In a recent tax inspection from the Inland Revenue however they took 6 hours to go through the EU sales and about an hour to check the non-EU sales.

Martyn didn't mention the EU sales list either which is a complicated form that has to be completed every month detailing what is sold to the EU. My policy now is not to sell to the EU unless we have to but to the rest of the world mostly the US which is much easier to deal with.

The sooner we leave the EU and get rid of all their red tape the better
Ryan Davis, UK

Russ made the tired and ill-informed point that most of our red-tape comes from Brussels.

This is simply untrue. The European institutions cost around 1% of our national GDP and have less staff than the average city council.

The amonunt of law generated by those staff - under direction by the democratically elected leaders in the Council and Parliament and subject to approval by our own national parliament - is a tiny fraction of the overall British bureaucracy.

The EU is not perfect but it would be better if the attacks on it were at least accurate and factual rather than this hate-fuelled nationalist ranting.
Andy Mayer, UK

Red tape contacts

Regulatory Impact Unit, Cabinet Office, 35 Great Smith Street, London SW1P 3BQ tel: 0207 276 2155 or 2154

National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux (NACAB), Mydleton House 115-123 Pentonville Road London N1 9LZ Tel: 0845 0505250

Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), Sir Frank Whittle Way Blackpool Business Park Blackpool Lancashire FY4 2FE Tel: 01253 336000

The British Chambers of Commerce Manning House, 22 Carlisle Place, London SW1P 1JA Tel: 020 7565 2000

British Beer and Pub Association, Market Towers 1 Nine Elms Lane London SW8 5NQ Tel: 0207 627 9191

National Farmers Union (NFU), 164 Shaftsbury Avenue London WC2H 8HL Tel: 0207 331 7200

See also:

21 Feb 02 | Rob on the road
05 Apr 01 | Politics
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