Regulation rules?

Photograph of Professor Bridget HutterAlthough we may complain about the nanny state, Bridget Hutter (pictured), Professor of Risk and Regulation at LSE, argues that it is of our own making. New regulation is demanded not just by an overbearing government but often in response to demands by the public and the media.

In a new short film produced for The Independent newspaper's website, Professor Hutter says that the media protests that there is too much regulation only when things are going well - a position they will quickly reverse when things go wrong.

She uses the current financial crisis as a case in point: 'You only have to go back to just before things started to go wrong and there were years of complaints about there being too much regulation and that this was stifling innovation. So people's views vary according to circumstances.'

Photograph of a no entry signThe proliferation of regulatory bodies also fosters a form of dependency, an over-reliance on the regulatory system to protect us. This in turn generates an illusory level of security - but Professor Hutter reminds us that regulation cannot eradicate risk altogether. Unreasonable expectations for our safety and inflated concerns about risk can sometimes command disproportionate resources. She cites some anti-terrorism measures as an example:

'A couple of years ago there was some concern about people going onto aeroplanes with liquids that could be used as explosives. As a result now when we all fly we have to go through lengthy security measures at huge cost to airlines and governments. However, it is not at all clear that if there were another terrorist attack it would be done in this way.'

Cultivating high expectations of the regulatory system also means that the regulators can become expedient scapegoats, insulating both the government and those parties being regulated. Professor Hutter points out that the regulators often get blamed rather than the perpetrators: 'It is much easier to blame the regulator for not regulating properly than to blame, for example, the banks for doing something wrong. Blame needs to be apportioned appropriately and not just be placed on the person at the bottom or the top.'

Photograph of no parking traffic conesAre we worrying more than ever before? Professor Hutter points out that we are much more dependent on other people, other countries and other organisations than we used to be, and this makes us we feel less in control and more vulnerable. But perhaps we worry about risk more than we should.

She says: 'We're benefitting from drug and scientific and technological developments that weren't available in the past and along with them come some negative risks which need controlling'.

There has been a steady growth in regulation since the 19th century and in some cases Professor Hutter argues there is a case for streamlining the system.

'It would be good in some sectors, such as health, if we could go back to first principles and look at what the risks are and what needs regulating. The danger of having a number of different organisations responsible for regulation in an overlapping way is that they can end up contradicting one another.'

You can see the film at:

The film forms part of the Big Ideas series which has been produced by LSE in conjunction with Robin Powell, a freelance journalist for Sky News and The Politics Show on BBC1, and a director of Ember Regis. The company is a pioneer in the field of internet television and produces high-quality video content for a range of private and public sector clients and for all the major UK broadcasters.


9 March 2009