Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs.
Light a bonfire of Brussels red tape! Brexit, we were told, would be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to slash regulation, relieve small businesses of burdensome bureaucracy, and get our economy firing on all cylinders. The ability to innovate would be at the heart of this.
Theresa May spoke of her desire for Global Britain to be “a home to the pioneers and innovators who will shape the world ahead”.
Last summer, Boris Johnson said in his characteristically upbeat tone that “we have the knack of innovation”. Indeed, we do. Centuries of ingenious inventions, from the telephone to the steam engine, have doubtless transformed the world for the better.
Now that we’ve left the EU, and the worst of the pandemic is over, reinvigorating Britain’s position as global leader in innovation has risen up the political agenda, with the Government consulting on how we can reform our regulatory framework and adopt a tailored approach that best suits Britain’s needs.
It’s well known that the EU tends to err on the side of caution – indeed it was one of the main frustrations free marketeers had with being a part of the bloc. The hard to define, and even harder to interpret, precautionary principle is pervasive and often misapplied, stifling new ideas and damaging competitiveness, as well as holding back economic progress.
We’ve seen first-hand over the past year how cumbersome this regulation can be in practice. While Britain ramped up its vaccine rollout, most EU countries paused Oxford AstraZeneca jabs, following only a few dozen reports of a rare blood clot disorder.
Thousands of people were dying across Europe every day, a third wave was on the horizon, yet the principle of precaution prevailed, and the vaccination was stalled, potentially leading to the death of many, many more people than this level of risk aversion could possibly have saved.
In agriculture, the overzealous application of the precautionary principle has held the EU back from what could potentially be historical and ground-breaking innovations. Take the EU’s ban on hormone-fed beef, which Britain fiercely resisted at the time.
Or perhaps restrictions on GM foods intended to avoid unknown potential harms for which there is little evidence – restrictions that may have prevented improvements in agricultural productivity that could do more to alleviate poverty in developing countries than any government-backed aid programme.
We must now ensure that we don’t continue with this excessively cautious approach; to do so, would be to squander the opportunity. This principle already applies in numerous instances concerning environment and climate policy and informally pervades regulatory and legislative decision-making in a far wider range of fields than many assume.
However, as it stands the EU’s precautionary principle will become legally binding in UK law, but without the protections for innovation (however inadequate) from the EU legal system.
Understandably, there have been calls to scrap the precautionary principle altogether from the new Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform (TIGRR), chaired by Sir Iain Duncan Smith.
An ambitious idea, but removing the principle as a legal commitment altogether may prove too politically difficult in the short term; besides, the UK has already legislated in the 2018 EU Withdrawal Act to apply the precautionary principle in matters relating to environment and climate policy.
Instead, as a new paper from the Institute of Economic Affairs argues, the Government could take clear steps to improve the regulatory process and foster innovation in the UK. We could do this by implementing a binding innovation principle to apply alongside, and give balance to, the precautionary principle.
We could invest in training and resources for ministers and officials to use the existing regulatory framework (in particular, impact assessments) more effectively, and perhaps we could consolidate innovation considerations into a toolkit that ensure official give due weight to innovation.
None of this means throwing all caution to the wind, nor should a British Innovation Principle be used to favour one sector or technology over another. The object should simply be to avoid unnecessarily restricting innovations that could lead to better and more efficient products and services.
As we look beyond the pandemic, and assess the damage it and lockdowns have done to our economy, improving the competitiveness and productivity of our economy will be essential. A British Innovation Principle may be one way to, as the Prime Minister put it, “release the talent, creativity and chutzpah that exists in every corner of the United Kingdom”.