Saturday, August 21, 2004

The O'Brien interview

BBC Radio 4 Today Programme
21 August 2004

Stephen Sackur (SS) interviews Stephen O’Brien (SO)
0750 – 6 minutes 54 seconds.

Is British business being strangled by British government “gold plating” of EU directives?

SS: Now you may have heard us yesterday talking to Digby Jones of the CBI who’s very concerned at the lack of the UK parliament scrutinisation of EU regulation. He thinks MPs aren’t doing their jobs properly. His criticisms came in the same week that the Conservative Party accused the government of “gold plating”, which I think they mean… by which they mean er… further over-complicating EU regulations. This was Stephen O’Brien, the shadow trade and industry secretary, speaking on our programme on Wednesday.

SO: The UK government will gold plate by multiplying the burden of regulation by over three times – that’s over 300 percent, er, from the original directive. An example is the abattoirs directive where the directive left the European commission as a 12-page document. That was reduced in France to seven pages and yet it was expanded in the UK to 96 pages. There are lots of examples like that where they bolt on things as well as over-interpreting and over-implementing.

SS: And as it happens Digby Jones used just the same example on the programme yesterday.

DJ: There’s a directive on abattoirs and how you can kill cows and pigs and sheep and put ’em into butchers’ shops. And it came out of Brussels, it was about 30 pages long. When it went into implementation in France it was seven pages long. When it came to implementation in Britain it was 92 pages long and French is a longer language. All I am saying is that someone in Whitehall took a great opportunity to smack a load more regulation on British businesses and British jobs.

SS: Now, all this set us thinking. Which regulation, exactly, are they referring to? The government says they don’t know. They can’t find out. The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs made this statement:

DEFRA: DEFRA is not sure which directive is being referred to. Ben Bradshaw, the duty minister, has written to Stephen O’Brien to ask him to identify it. If it is the Animal By-products Regulation, which includes abattoirs but it’s not just about them, that is a 95-page EU regulation which we have implemented in 37 pages. If, however, they’re referring to EU Directive 93/119/EC, that was implemented as the Welfare of Animals (Slaughter and Killing) Regulations 1995.

SS: Well, I hope you’re still with us (laughs). We asked the Conservative Party for clarification but after repeated telephone calls yesterday they were unable to tell us which regulation it was. The Association of Independent Meat Suppliers also told us they had no idea which regulation is being talked about here and the Food Standards Agency couldn’t help us either. It’s all very confusing.

Now the shadow trade and industry secretary, Stephen O’Brien, is back with us now. So please help us Stephen O’Brien. Which directive specifically were you referring to all of last week?

SO: Good morning to you. And it’s very interesting, that I’m very pleased that DEFRA’s taken our eight-point plan about gold-plating and deregulation for business, which is a real menace to British business, so seriously that they’ve bothered to read the document at last. So… as you know I’m speaking from my home in Eddisbury in Cheshire in the constituency and all my papers are in my Westminster office. But I’ll just take risk that from memory, the actual directive that is… what is now known as the abattoirs directive, I’m pretty sure that I remember it’s got a much longer and more convoluted name, is I think 91 slash 497. Erm..

SS: interruption

SO: they’ve all got EC on the end, and I think that’s right from memory…

SS: That’s the one that was…

SS: …elaborated, then annexed and amended.

SS: Yes, well. That’s the one that was formulated in 1991?

SO: That’s right… because this gold plating problem…

SS: Thirteen years ago…

SO: …and since elaborated and annexed and amended. And.. I think, as was made clear at the time that I was speaking on Wednesday, and indeed I think in the discussion Jon Humphrys had with Peter Hain and Digby Jones of the CBI yesterday, when they had their discussion about scrutinisation of EU registrations, er.. legislation, which didn’t actually mention our policy initiative but, er, it was all linked to the same thing. And I’m glad to say that Peter Hain admitted on your programme that there is gold plating, in sharp contrast to the DTI who I shadow, whose knee-jerk reaction was simply to condemn…

SS: But Stephen, Stephen O’Brien, if I may interrupt for just a second, there are two key points here surely. One is that in 1991 there was a Tory government… that adopted this

SO: I’m not saying it all started in 1997. It didn’t; far from it.

SS: But the other point, even more obvious surely, is that 1991 is 13 years ago and British abattoirs seem to have been working very happily with this regulation which you claim is one of those strangling British business.

SO: You can’t say that they’ve been working happily. We’ve lost so many of our abattoirs.

SS: They didn’t even know about it. We asked them to comment upon your claim that the abattoir regulations were strangling them and they didn’t even know what we were talking about.

SO: Well, I think that gold-plating has an effect which not only can have an instant effect but can have a long-term effect. We’ve lost a huge capacity in our abattoirs in this country, but…

SS: You seem to be more concerned about it than they are, and they actually work in the business.

SO: I’m very concerned about any loss of British business and capacity. Now, I’m glad that DEFRA have written to me. I’ve not received the letter. It hadn’t been received in my office er, last night, er.. because the call that was made by the Today programme to me to come on this morning was made just before my office staff left in Westminster. I’ll happily go round to DEFRA and give them chapter and verse on this. And indeed whilst I’m going to DEFRA, I may as well make sure they have the, er.. some other examples that come straight out of DEFRA like the pesticide residues which was a commission directive in 2002, building on ones from 1986 and 1990 and that fixes the maximum levels of pesticide residues. The directive has just over 1100 words and the regulation for England and Wales has 27,000 words. Now if you’re telling me that there’s not some element of gold plating in that which can have a serious effect on the competitiveness of British business then I think that British business would think that was laughable and is very glad that somebody is at last doing something about it and we’re not being defeatist because we can do something about it.

SS: Isn’t there a question here, first about how you get your information, but whether that information becomes a series… you could almost call them myths. What you seem to be saying was that the abattoir industry was really suffering because of this directive. They don’t seem to think they are. But because its been repeated throughout the week, people seem to assume there is a problem when the abattoir industry seems relatively happy. It’s a bit like the old bent bananas. That was never really an issue until it became a sort of urban myth.

SO: Well I think it would be surprising that if… even from memory I’ve tried to give you the actual number of the directive that we’re talking about, and secondly, that at the time, and flowing from that, gold plating has led to the very severe collapse in the number of abattoirs we have in this country…

SS: All right, Stephen O’Brien, I’m terribly sorry, but we are…

SO: …those that there are around today must be very pleased that they have survived.

SS: Mr O’Brien, thank you.

SO: Thanks.

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