Will 2012 turn out to be a year most people want to forget? As the likelihood of a government-led stimulus is remote, what can ministers do to make life a shade less difficult for food retailers and processors?
Their obvious task is to remove or neutralise those things that make investment and job creation more difficult. An obvious priority is to press on with existing deregulation and better regulation programmes.
The Red Tape Challenge, initially greeted with the usual scepticism, has achieved far more than any previous deregulation initiative. Of the 1,200 regulations considered to date, over half will be scrapped or in some way improved. Simplifying an unduly complex mound of regulation without weakening consumer protection - for example, by reducing food labelling regulations from 31 to 17 and food safety regulations from 34 to 11 - is particularly welcome, as are the prospective changes in employment law. No doubt there will be at least as much scope for reducing the pile of 1,000 or so regulations still to be tackled.
Deregulation is not for those of a nervous disposition. It requires an inexhaustible supply of political will to overcome objections from supporters of the status quo and the classic bureaucratic response that getting rid of a given regulation would be risky for the minister in charge.
Another reality is that the general demand for more regulation far exceeds that for less. There is always a case to be made for new regulation to deal with some perceived malpractice. Nor can a minister necessarily rely on the business community, where generalised moaning is far more common than constructive thinking and there is more often demand for a new regulation than for scrapping an old one.
There is much more to be done. Any prospective regulation must in future undergo a far more rigorous impact assessment, otherwise all kinds of unforeseen effects will continue to emerge. We also need to be more vigilant in preventing ‘gold plating’, especially in implementing EU directives, while the influence of the ‘cover your back’ industry must be reduced. So, good progress to date, but in Pope’s words: “Hills peep o’er hills and Alps on Alps arise.”