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November 24, 2009

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One for all’ regulation scheme in the spotlight

The controversial Primary Authority approach to regulation loomed large on the agenda of the Local Better Regulation Office’s 2009 conference in London last week.

The scheme, which was introduced in April this year by the LBRO — the self-styled “UK red-tape cutter” — allows multi-site businesses to sign up with a single local authority for advice and guidance on regulatory compliance. Its aim is to reduce burdens on businesses by proving them with assured and consistent advice on health and safety, environmental and trading-standards responsibilities, but some have questioned the need for it, and have expressed concern over associated costs.

Addressing the conference on 19 November, LBRO chair Clive Grace said: “To get the best out of prosperity and protection requires a new partnership and culture between the regulator, business and consumers. The Primary Authority scheme fosters consistency and provides assured advice for compliant businesses. It’s about regulating to secure compliance, not enforce it, and sharing responsibility for delivering desired outcomes — co-responsibility between the regulator, business and citizens.”

Minister for business and regulatory reform, Ian Lucas MP (pictured), in his keynote address, said that the debate is not about more or less, but “right and better” regulation. He explained: “Regulation is about making life simpler for businesses to do their job, about making sure industry has the highest standards, and about ensuring customers in general and the most vulnerable in particular are not taken advantage of. Regulation works best if it has the support of business, and collaboration will be the watchword in the future.”

To this end, he concluded, “the Primary Authority scheme is the tool for ensuring businesses comply with regulation”.

So far, 15 organisations have signed up to the scheme, with a target of 200 set for March 2011. Among the well-known businesses already involved are Asda, TK Maxx, Britvic and B&Q. Gary Howells, safety advisor at the DIY giant, which was the first to sign up by entering into partnership with Eastleigh Borough Council, told how the company — following a number of high-profile health and safety prosecutions — realised it needed to “show and tell local authorities how hard we were working to ensure health and safety standards”.

Added Gary: “We’ve had a fantastic six months under the scheme and have enjoyed great support from the LBRO, and feedback from other local authorities. Through open and honest relationships, we’ve broken down barriers.”

But not everyone is convinced the scheme is actually necessary, or will work for all. Among the major retailers that have not joined up — despite having taken part in the pilot last year — are Tesco, John Lewis, and Waitrose. A spokesperson for the latter told SHP it had not joined the scheme because “we are satisfied with the existing arrangements we have in place”.

Conference delegate Ian Shanks, who runs a taxi firm in the North East, was more direct, saying: “I don’t think this works. I’ve been in trouble with the courts before for non-compliance — in reality, there is just too much regulation”.

And writing in next month’s SHP (In Court Analysis, December), Kevin Bridges and Sarah Taylor, of law firm Pinsent Masons, point out that many businesses are already happily settled in ‘Home Authority agreements’ — which allow the ‘home’ local authority to act as an intermediary in the face of action proposed by local authorities elsewhere — and question whether another scheme is really necessary.

Bridges and Taylor also raise the thorny issue of costs, which the primary authorities can recover from their business partner for the help they provide, thus actually increasing the burden on business. This aspect of the scheme has prompted scepticism over its effectiveness at the TUC, a spokesperson for which told SHP: “As employers have to pay for the additional cost [of services provided by the Primary Authority] very few have signed up and it is looking like it is, in effect, turning out to be a bit of a damp squib.”

LACORS, the Local Authorities Coordinators of Regulatory Services, which acts as a steward of the Home Authority principle, was also keen to underline the cost differences between the two schemes. It told SHP: “The Home Authority database is still there and there are no financial implications for companies that join. We are neither for nor against Primary Authority — choice is good — but Home Authority is more cost-effective for smaller firms.”

But business lobby organisation the CBI said the focus needs to be on “value as well as costs”. Director of company affairs at the CBI Matthew Fell told conference delegates: “We need to tackle a small number of areas effectively and concentrate resources where they will have most impact. We cannot afford to please everyone. Communicating the benefits of the scheme to business and local authorities and overcoming the problems associated with charging are crucial.”

Clive Grace said building strong relationships with businesses was more important than getting money out of them and emphasises that “as long as the amount of existing work with the local authority partner doesn’t increase, there will be no charges or added costs under Primary Authority”.

To find out more about the Primary Authority scheme, click here.

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