Articles about the UK Civil Service and Regulation

Free Trade is Not Always the Right Answer

Parts of the current Brexit debate remind me of a similar Michael Heseltine inspired debate back in 1994, when I and others were advising him on industrial policy. One of my contributions to the debate can be found by clicking here.

In short, I was concerned that the most ardent free traders did not recognise that it had often made sense for the UK and other countries to protect ands subsidise our industries:

  • in the face of imperfect markets, foreign protection, and overseas product standardisation, and
  • so as to help industry get to market first, and to overcome barriers such as high research costs.

I concluded that “Our consideration of trade issues needs to be more thoughtful.  We need to analyse our success and our failures, and the success and failures of our competitors … Above all we need to think in dynamic and strategic terms, deploying negotiating and tactical skills, rather than starting from static and unreal assumptions and assertions.”

For the avoidance of doubt, the paper was for internal use only, and contains the unspoken assumptions that the Single Market – driven forward so strongly by Mrs Thatcher – was an unalloyed blessing as it removed so many non-tariff barriers which had previously locked us out of many European markets. It also assumes that the EU’s State Aids regime was generally very sensible. If it has any modern relevance, it may help explain why post-Brexit trace negotiations will be complex and difficult, and will need to involve industrialists and officials who have deep knowledge of their sectors both at home and abroad.

(A previous blog explains how non-tariff barriers such as product standards can be such effective weapons in the hands of governments that want to exclude competitors from their markets.)

Martin Stanley

Editor – Understand Regulation website





Regulating Schools, Hospitals etc.

I have published a new web page focusing on the regulation of the UK public sector.

The public sector is – quite rightly – very highly regulated. But this regulation comes with great cost and may often have gone too far, or have been badly designed.

This problem was recognised by the Cabinet Office in the late 1990s when its Regulatory Impact Unit, working closely with other departments, began to publish a good deal of useful guidance and other material.

Baroness O’Neill then drew attention to the pervasive tendency of government to allow holding to account to morph into managing from afar. Managers of many hospitals, schools etc. had begun to focus almost exclusively on meeting targets as distinct from providing excellent and locally appropriate health care and education.

She also stressed that, in this area as well as others, there is a crucial difference between releasing information and informing the public. The wholesale release of vast amounts of data does not of itself inform anyone.

Follow this link to read the web page … Understanding Regulation: The Public Sector

And please do send me any information or publications which might usefully be added to this web page.

Martin Stanley

Editor, Understanding Regulation

Can Civil Servants Really Speak Truth to Power?

Civil servants are proud of their duty to ‘speak truth to power’ – that is to provide honest, impartial and sensible advice to Ministers. But it can be difficult to do this without damaging the official’s  relationship with Ministers.

There is little or no internal training or advice on how to offer persuasive advice, not least because no official training material can admit that some Minsters can be very difficult clients. I have therefore added a new section to my Civil Service website.

The first set of pages explain why it can be difficult it can be to speak truth to power, and in particular why it might have become more difficult in recent years:

There are then some hints and tips about:

Last, but not least, I examine the extent to which civil servants are free – or even under a duty – to say “No! Minister”.

Those particularly interested in these last three pages might also like to read and respond to the IfG’s current discussion paper on Accountability in Government.

As ever, comments and corrections would be very welcome – to please.

Martin Stanley

Sainsbury, Asda & Yellow Pages

There’s a perceptive piece by Ed Conway in Today’s Times, but he unfairly suggests that regulators don’t understand digital disruption.

The misunderstanding begins with his misinterpretation of the 2006 ‘Yellow Pages’ investigation. The Competition Commission was well aware – to quote Ed – that “the Internet was fast disrupting everything”. But the CC recognised that Yellow Pages were still an important advertising channel for many small businesses – and faced limited competition.  The CC did not therefore “impose a pretty aggressive price cap”.  The CC in fact inherited an aggressive (RPI-6) price cap which had been in place since 2001 and, reporting in December 2006, ordained that this should end in 2008 and be replaced by RPI only.  I think that hindsight would give this decision pretty good marks.

Fast forward to 2018, and we see the competition from the Internet everywhere – and Ed’s piece summarises the problems very well.  The tech giants raise all sorts of regulatory problems (which I summarise here) but I am not convinced that competition policy (aka anti-trust) has become irrelevant. Ed himself notes that “Every other industry has seen what happened to newspapers and music. They are on the defensive, and what is the most straightforward way of defending yourself? Size”.  But agglomeration is a short term fix.  It reduces competitive pressure and in particular reduces the pressure to innovate.  The Amazons of this world will not be beaten sluggish conglomerations of incumbents.

Which is why the Sainsbury’s/Asda merger is so fascinating.  There is an argument that it will not substantially reduce competition because there is already new competition from Aldi, Lidl and others. If so, then let the merger happen.  But, if not, it would be unwise to allow the merger and reduce the competitive pressure on the incumbents just when they need to be ramping up their efforts to stop their customers defecting to Amazon.

Either way, I am sure that the regulators understand the issues very well.

Martin Stanley

Editor, Understanding Regulation

Twitter:-  @ukregulation



Dear Mr Gauke. Sacking Independent Decision Makers Encourages Cowardice and Indecision

All British governments from – and including – Mrs Thatcher’s have recognised that it makes sense to hand much tricky decision-making to independent bodies.

Lower energy prices are politically popular, but damage investment. Liberal prescribing of new expensive drugs is welcomed by patients, but unaffordable by the NHS. Parole cuts prison costs and is often humane, but carries risk of re-offending.  These judgment calls are best made by independent bodies, not least so that you – Minister – cannot be criticised. Their decisions can of course be challenged on appeal or by judicial review brought by those affected.

You absolutely do not want such regulators and other agencies to be scared of being challenged in court and/or upset by media criticism when they lose an appeal.  You want them to take difficult decisions involving fine judgments and to learn whenever they are over-ruled.   A regulator who always wins on appeal is a regulator who always shrinks from difficult decisions, and  who never takes on a big company with a large army of lawyers.

The problem in the UK is that (with some honourable exceptions) we have too often suffered from regulators and other decision makers who have been too scared of challenge and so too indecisive – remember Private Eye’s ‘Fundamentally Supine Authority‘ – and possible Ofgem’s previous management’s reluctance to tackle the big energy companies?

The courts found that the Parole Board had erred in the Warboys case because

  • The (criminal court) judge’s sentencing remarks were not in the Parole Board dossier (not their fault)
  • Information about the other 80 possible victims was also not in the dossier (not their fault)
  • In particular, the (civil court) judge’s decision was not in the dossier (not their fault). (He found Warboys to be ‘clinical and conniving’, and noted that the rape kit in Warboys’ car suggested there would have been other later victims.  But Warboys never accepted such responsibility.)
  • The Parole Board had not made detailed inquiries about the other possible offences.  This was their error albeit made to some extent on advice, fearing that it would be wrong to imply guilt for an offence for which he had not been charged.

None of these reasons suggest that the Parole Board was badly run or incompetent.  They made a close-call decision which was rightly challenged and overturned.   That is the way the system is supposed to work.  You should have supported the Board, not criticised nor sacked its highly respected Chair.

(Secret Barrister’s  very clear summary of, and comment on, the Warboys decision is here.)

Martin Stanley

Understanding Regulation



The Problem is Smuggling

Brexit is all about having different import duties and/or regulations on either side of the UK/EU border.

As soon as there is divergence, there will need to be bureaucracy, much of which – and maybe most of which – can be automated.  Legitimate, organised, compliant traders might face little or no monitoring, even if they find ‘rules of origin’ to be a right pain.

But there will be an incentive to evade higher tariffs and/or higher regulation by smuggling food, livestock and other goods across the border.  The incentive will be in proportion to the difference between the UK and EU regimes.  Low import tariff UK food, for instance, might be smuggled into the Irish Republic over any of the >200 current crossing points.  But smuggling needs to be identified at the border, or else there will be little deterrent and no sound evidence trail which can be used by prosecutors .

Some traffic and some people will therefore need to be stopped and searched.  This is why a so-called ‘hard border’ will be needed – in Ireland as much as in Dover and Calais.


Martin Stanley

The UK Civil Service
Understanding Regulation

£10+ Billion Deregulation since 2010 – or ‘Alice in Wonderland’ Statistics?

I was not the only commentator who found it difficult to understand Ministers’ claims that they had ‘reduced regulatory costs for business by £10 billion during the 2010-15 Parliament’. But I have recently re-read an excellent NAO report which explained how this was calculated and – just as important – what it did and did not include.

First, the £10bn is calculated as follows. Let’s say a regulation which costs business £20m a year was abolished in 2010. The saving over the coming five year Parliament is assumed to be 5 times this amount – £100m. Fair enough! But what happens if it was abolished in 2015 – during the last year of the Parliament? It is then still reported as £100m over the Parliament. That is a seriously weird way of reporting the figure.

A much better way of reporting the savings would be to take the annual savings as perceived by business – which started quite low but had built up to around £2.2bn over the five years to 2015. That is still a worthwhile saving – except ….

There are major exclusions before the net savings are calculated. These include massive areas such as:

  • tax administration (particularly Income Tax, Corporation Tax and VAT),
  • European Union regulation,
  • the National Minimum Wage (see further below),
  • the Living Wage (ditto),
  • the Apprenticeship Levy,
  • compulsory Workplace Pensions,
  • fees and charges imposed by government or regulators, such as the fees paid by care homes to the Care Quality Commission.

The result of these exclusions is as follows.

2010-15: The NAO reckon that almost half (46%) of the 951 regulatory decisions made during the 2010-15 Parliament were not included in the estimated savings of £10bn. These 46% were estimated to have imposed annual costs of £2.8bn, rather more than the £2.2bn annual savings that had been achieved by the end of that period. In other words, the burden of regulation increased over those five years, not decreased.

2015-16: The Government claimed net savings of £0.9m during the period from the beginning of the next Parliament through to the date the NAO prepared its report. This however excluded the cost of the introduction of the National Living Wage (£4.1bn) as well as the increased minimum wage  – adding another £3.1bn to businesses’ costs. This was clear cherry picking of the measures that HMG chose to include in its targets. Other exclusions added up to around £0.8bn bringing the total to £8.0bn, a good deal more than the savings of £0.9bn!

The inclusions – those savings that are claimed by the Government – are interesting, too. Over 90% of the £10bn claimed savings 2010-15 were due to 10 changes, including:

  • changing the inflation index used to increase pension benefits,
  • reducing audit requirements for small companies, and
  • streamlining the guidance relating to contaminated land.

These were hardly the sort of deregulation that would be appreciated by a typical SME.

The inclusion – as deregulation – of the new law requiring larger retailers to charge £0.05 per plastic bag was particularly odd. This was counted as a regulatory saving amounting to £1.0bn over five years because the shops would now spend less on buying the plastic bags. But was this really deregulation? As one MP noted: “we imposed this regulation on business to [make them] do something they were not previously doing, [and yet] we are claiming £1bn towards our target. That is like something out of Alice in Wonderland.”

And note, by the way, that if this £1.0bn figure is excluded from the net saving of £0.9bn, there was in fact no progress at all towards the government’s target during the 2015-16.

Note too that subsequent research showed that the gross proceeds from the plastic bag charge had been around half of the Government’s first estimate, so the true five year saving to business (if it was a saving) was only £0.5bn. But the reported figures will not be revised.

Indeed, the NAO also pointed out that departments seldom monitor the ongoing impact of their regulatory decisions, And departments are supposed to evaluate their new regulations within five years of implementation – but they don’t. 83 regulatory decisions were made in 2011. By 2016, only seven reviews had been scheduled of which only two had been completed.

A detailed history of deregulation in the UK may be found here.

Martin Stanley

Editor Understanding Regulation

How to Earn Loads of Money in Whitehall – Senior Salaries Analysed

I have annotated the government’s fascinating list of 442 central government public servants paid more than £150k a year. Click here to download the spreadsheet. 

First, I have re-ordered the list so that the highest paid appear at the top of the spreadsheet.

I have then highlighted in BOLD those civil servants who work in Whitehall departments reporting directly to Ministers.  I have thus excluded those (mainly non-civil servants) who work in:

  • semi-commercial organisations such as Network Rail
  • the NHS
  • the Armed Forces
  • Parliamentary Counsel’s Office
  • ‘Next Steps Agencies’, and
  • various regulators.

Within this EMBOLDENED category, I have then highlighted in red those who seem to me to have traditional civil service roles as distinct from having been recruited (probably at a senior level) as commercial, procurement and other specialists.  There are only 26 of these.


Martin Stanley

Editor, the UK Civil Service and Understanding Regulation


  1. The original spreadsheet lists those jobs whose salaries are set by Ministers (or by the Treasury on behalf of Ministers).  It thus excludes much of the public sector, such as local authorities, the police, the BBC etc. Click here if you want to read a definition of the civil service and a description of the various sorts of public body in the UK.
  2. It is interesting that, apart from the Permanent Secretaries, the highest paid central government public servants all have an engineering or commercial background, or are senior lawyers or medics.  And those engineering /commercial specialists who work in Whitehall will all, I suspect, have been direct entrants at a senior level and will not have risen through the ranks.
  3. Click here to see the original spreadsheet, which includes more detail than my version.

(Indian) Civil Service Reform (1854)

Those interested in the history of the Civil Service will enjoy reading the 1854 Macaulay Report on the selection and training of entrants into ‘the Civil Service of the East India Company’.  The report was in some ways a 19th century version of the 1968 Fulton Report on the structure of the UK Civil Service.

Like the Northcote Trevelyan Report, published around the same time, the text is mercifully short and to the point, and the authors were delightfully honest when not 100% sure of their recommendations:-

“… we are inclined, though with much distrust of our own judgment, to think that …”.

They were also well aware of how their recommendations could be perverted:

“We propose to include the moral sciences in the … examination … Whether this study shall have more to do with mere words or with things, whether it shall degenerate into a formal and scholastic pedantry, or shall train the mind for the highest purposes of active life, will depend, to great extent, on the way in which the examination is conducted.”

And the training was to be thorough:

“[The new recruit] should study [Indian history], not merely in the works of Orme, of Wilks, and of Mill, but also in the travels of Bernier, in the odes of Sir William Jones, and in the journals of Heber. … He should understand the mode of keeping and checking accounts, the principles of banking, the laws that regulated the exchanges … [etc.].”

I have added the report to my online reference library. Or, to go straight to the report, click here.


Martin Stanley

Understanding Regulation


Electricity Prices – Government Report Blames Government

Dieter Helm’s report, published today, blames excessive and wrong headed government intervention for high electricity prices.

The report is an economic and regulatory tour de force. It recommends that £100 billion of climate change costs should be isolated and charged outside regular energy bills, with industrial customers being exempt.  The agricultural sector and Ofgem should be reduced in size.

How will politicians react?  They should agree with everything that Professor Helm recommends. But that would mean taking brave decisions …

Here are key extracts from the report’s summary recommendations.

“This review has two main findings. The first is that the cost of energy is significantly higher than it needs to be to meet the government’s objectives and, in particular, to be consistent with the Climate Change Act (CCA) and to ensure security of supply. The second is that energy policy, regulation and market design are not fit for the purposes of the emerging low-carbon energy market, as it undergoes profound technical change.”

“The [£100 billion] legacy costs from the Renewables Obligation Certificates (ROCs), the feed-in tariffs (FiTs) and low carbon contracts for difference (CfDs) are a major contributor to rising final prices, and should be separated out, ring-fenced, and placed in a ‘legacy bank’. They should be charged separately and explicitly on customer bills. Industrial customers should be exempt. Once taken out of the market, the underlying prices should then be falling.”

“In electricity, the costs of decarbonisation are already estimated … to be around 20% of typical electricity bills. These legacy costs will amount to well over £100 billion by 2030. Much more decarbonisation [i.e the response to climate change] could have been achieved for less; costs should be lower, and they should be falling further.”

“Government has got into the business of ‘picking winners’. Unfortunately, losers are good at picking governments, and inevitably – as in most such picking winners strategies – the results end up being vulnerable to lobbying, to the general detriment of household and industrial customers.  … the government now determines the level and mix of generation to a degree not witnessed since these were determined by the nationalised industries …. Investment decision-making has been effectively quasi-renationalised.”

“The overwhelming focus on electricity rather than agriculture, buildings and transport has added to the cost. Agriculture in particular contributes 10% greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and the costs of reducing these emissions are much lower than many of the chosen options because the economic consequences of a loss of output in agriculture are small. Agriculture comprises just 0.7% GDP and at least half its output is uneconomic in the absence of subsidies. With the development of electric vehicles (EVs) it is apparent that transport can contribute more.”

“Ofgem’s role in regulation should be significantly reduced …”

“Not to implement these recommendations is likely to perpetuate the crisis mentality of the industry, and these crises are likely to get worse, challenging the security of supply, undermining the transition to electric transport, and weakening the delivery of the carbon budgets. It will continue the unnecessary high costs of the British energy system, and as a result perpetuate fuel poverty, weaken industrial competitiveness, and undermine public support for decarbonisation. We can, and should, do much better, and open up a period of falling prices as households and industry benefit from the great technological opportunities over the coming decades.”

Further background is in the Energy Regulation section of the Understanding Regulation website.

The full Helm Report is here.



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