DFES bitten by its own red-tape watchdog

June 27, 2003

The education department has fallen foul of its own red-tape watchdog by ignoring the swaths of additional bureaucracy that will be generated by the higher education white paper.

Members of the Department for Education and Skills' Better Regulation Review Group are exasperated by the failure of the department to produce a serious "regulatory impact assessment" of its white-paper policies.

Whitehall best practice dictates that assessments should be carried out before policy is agreed, but it took DFES officials almost four months to produce a first-draft impact assessment that was instantly rejected by the group.

One senior member of the group said: "When the DFES finally produced a draft regulatory impact assessment, it was appalling superficial nonsense.

It was obviously written in haste by some junior department lackey who had been taken off another job, and it merely justified the white-paper policies with no assessment of how they will affect the sector. We advised the DFES that it did not really fit the bill and that it had to try harder.

"This is a classic example of how a department busy criticising everybody else left, right and centre for poor leadership and management itself falls down at the first hurdle."

Another review group member said: "There is little sign that the government took into account the potentially serious impact of the new regulatory burdens in any aspect of its white paper.

"The top and bottom of it is that this government talks about wanting to rein back regulation, but that goes out of the window when it wants to achieve something politically."

The group is concerned that white-paper proposals such as the introduction of top-up fees from 2006, accompanied by a new statutory access regulator, Offa, will mean more red tape. Concurrent plans to reform the research assessment exercise and proposals to introduce a national credit transfer framework will impose further bureaucratic burdens.

Last November, Margaret Hodge, who was then higher education minister, announced plans to set up the review group after a critical report on red tape in universities produced by the Cabinet Office's Better Regulation Task Force.

Announcing its remit in April, Ms Hodge said it would "drive through real reforms" to slash bureaucracy, which was diverting time and resources from teaching and research.

Ms Hodge added that the review group would set up a "gatekeeper" mechanism "to ensure that no new unnecessary burdens are placed on the sector".

But this week, members of the 16-strong group, which is headed by Warwick University vice-chancellor David VandeLinde, said that despite having had monthly meetings not one discussion had taken place on the gatekeeper role because the group was still trying to get the government to come clean on the potentially debilitating impact of its new policies.

A revised assessment, which the government has committed to publishing, will be considered by the group at its next meeting in July.

The DFES declined to comment.

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