Retailers may be slow to criticise regulation, but its burden should be lifted, says Kevin Hawkins

Is the burden of regulation dragging down our economic recovery? Ministers and business leaders claim it is, hence the Red Tape Challenge. So why is the business community so reticent when asked to supply hard evidence?

One might surmise that several factors are at work. First, a weary cynicism about yet another regulation-busting initiative which promises much but yields little. Second, a tacit preference for the familiar. "Custom," observed Edmund Burke, "reconciles us to everything." Regulatory frameworks may also act as a barrier to new entrants and help keep competition within due bounds. Third, a preoccupation with other, more immediate pressures on business performance. Right now many retailers are struggling as cost bases go up and customer footfall goes down. Regulatory reform is not exactly top of mind.

The reticence of retailers and others must be set against the roar of protest from groups and individuals who have rushed to defend our barmy health and safety regime and other cross-cutting areas of regulation. Is there really a groundswell of support out there for less government? Or has the steady advance of the nanny state over the past few decades eroded our willingness even to contemplate a regulatory regime in which risk-taking looms larger than risk avoidance?

Retailers' responses to the Red Tape Challenge contained relatively few criticisms of retail-specific regulations. More generally, their message was less about repealing these laws than about consolidating and, above all, simplifying them so they could be more easily observed. That in turn should help prevent inconsistent and adversarial enforcement by Trading Standards officers.

The vast majority of retailers want to be seen as responsible and law-abiding, particularly as it's good for business. Indeed, a small army of lawyers now eagerly supplies a "cover your backside" service to promote compliance. As a result, official guidance that accompanies new laws is venerated like Holy Writ.

The Red Tape Challenge will in due course lighten the burden of regulation somewhat, as will the rollout of the primary authority model across local government. But the buck stops in Whitehall and Brussels. Only when ministers and their EU counterparts regard regulation as the last resort instead of the first will we make life a bit easier for businesses and enforcers alike.