Lies, damned lies and…. cabbages

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EU cabbage regulation: minefield or myth?

Freshly returned from an Easter trip to France, I wrote a piece for today’s Journal musing to an extent on the view of Europe from the other side of the Channel. Briefly I mounted one of my hobby horses, criticising yet again the sheer amount of regulation under which organisations labour, red tape created not in Brussels (as it’s so often portrayed) but by our own civil servants in Westminster.

No sooner had I emailed the column than I came across a piece on the BBC News website entitled The great cabbage myth.

In a great bit of writing, Laura Gray tracks the frequent references to an alleged 26,911-word European regulation on the sale of cabbage. Most recently Daily Mail columnist Rachel Johnson quoted a February Tweet by Eamonn Butler, Director of The Adam Smith Institute. He had amusingly noted that the Lord’s Prayer contains 66 words (a contentious claim, as it happens: versions differ); the Ten Commandments 179; the Gettysburg Address 286. Then he quoted that massive figure for EU cabbage regulations.

You can read Laura Gray’s article to discover that the great cabbage figure is a myth dating back to 1940s USA. A WW2 memo controlling cabbage seeds, originally 2,600 words, was spuriously inflated to ten times that amount in a reference quoted in the American Senate in the 1990s.

Since then that magic figure – 26,911 – has crossed the Atlantic and passed into popular parliamentary myth, always blamed on Brussels.

Statistics invariably sound impressive. Recently I’ve run a public speaking course for sixth formers. When we brainstormed the features that make for good public speaking, we agreed that statistics always carry authority – even when they’re questionable or downright false. The very precision of 26,911, rather than “approaching 30,000”, somehow increases its verisimilitude.

Gray identifies a 2,000-word 2006 EU regulation about cabbages. It was repealed in 2009, Brussels having recognised (no, really!) that it was a daft document that included a bizarre statement on the curviness of cucumbers.

Andy Richardson, technical director of the British Brassica Growers Association, says there’s not a single word in EU regulation referring specifically to cabbages. But don’t let that stop a good story!

Time and again we hear about crazy, restrictive Brussels directives: their name is legion. But our UK government is as bad, if not worse. UK farmers are certainly bound by EU regulation: but cabbage-growers must obey a 23,510-word protocol in the UK’s Assured Produce Standards.

I run an independent school. Independent from government, the institution is nonetheless required to meet more than 400 regulatory standards. A quarter of a century ago, there were six. To be sure, the Safeguarding of children has rightly become a huge issue. But safeguarding standards represent a fraction of this colossal paper-chase.

Heads’ associations and teacher unions scream: but the binding regulations never decrease in number. I’ve ever seen one removed, while dozens are added every year. Independent schools routinely employ compliance officers as the sole dependable way of keeping track of that level of regulation.

Business is also tightly regulated, not only since the credit crunch. When my Governing Body last discussed how to cope with the sheer volume of new regulatory standards, the commercially-experienced board members shrugged: “We’ve been living with myriad compliance issues for more than a decade,” they commented. “There’s nothing to be done except to get on with it.”

The bureaucratic tsunami rolls on: it’s the way of the world – or, at least, of government.

The UK government shows no sign of reducing the regulatory burden on institutions, businesses and organisations. Even Charity Commission “guidance” both grows and steadily morphs into actual requirements.

There’s endless speculation currently about the possible consequences of this country voting in June to leave the EU. Honest Brexiteers admit there’s a risk. It’s a leap into the unknown: for them, an exciting unknown. To Remainers it’s a foolhardy jump.

Of one thing I’m certain. Brexit will not lead to any reduction in red tape. For every regulation removed from Brussels, I reckon we can expect two new ones to emanate from Westminster. That leopard won’t change its spots, even without Brussels to blame.

Just wait and see.

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