The view from Conservative Conference: A more agile regulatory system?

All too aware that this may well be their last conference before a general election, MPs speaking in Manchester were keen to highlight the party’s achievements after thirteen years in government. At the same time, there was recognition that there is more to do in many areas, including regulatory reform.

In his leader’s speech, the Prime Minister pointed to the delivery of Brexit as a key achievement, claiming that it paved the way for further regulatory reform which would stimulate economic growth. Sunak argued that ‘our Brexit freedoms make us ever more competitive’. Indeed, in the midst of conference, the Government launched a review of regulators, intended to ‘cut red tape’. Speaking in Manchester, Sunak said that his government was ‘creating a more agile regulatory system, freeing up business to drive the growth our country needs’.

In a similar vein, during a fringe event, George Freeman MP, Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, told conference-goers that the Party had to demonstrate to voters the benefits of Brexit, and that regulatory reform offered a route to this. Freeman argued that the UK’s regulatory system was outstanding, and that Brexit allowed for improvements that would turn the UK into global standards-setters, adding that the Union Jack is a kitemark for quality around the work.

One example he gave of the competence of British regulators was the way the MHRA had responded to Covid-19. In particular, the fact that the UK was the first western country to approve the vaccine. Freeman referred to the Chief Executive of the MHRA as a modern day hero for the how the agency had arranged the necessary approvals process to ensure that the vaccine could reach patients sooner, while ensuring safety and quality.

However, politicians were also quick to point out the perceived deficiencies of certain regulators, lack of accountability, and areas for reform. James Wild MP suggested that issues with leaks and sewage showed that the water sector has not been effectively regulated in recent years. He argued that the regulator has been too focussed on keeping consumers’ bills down and hasn’t given due regard to the need for water companies to be investing in long term infrastructure improvements. He did note, though, that this was in part due to a lack of clarity from politicians on the strategic direction of regulators. As a member of the Regulatory Reform Group, established last year to lobby for a more streamlined regulatory system, Wild said regulators needed clearer, simpler directives from politicians so that they can focus on areas of most significance. He added that regulators often had overlapping remits and duties, and noted that this was frequently due to politicians adding to regulators’ responsibilities in order to deal with immediate issues.

While Conservative politicians like Wild were at conference discussing their desire for regulatory reform to realise the perceived benefits of Brexit, the Department for Business and Trade launched the Government’s review of all UK regulators. Announcing the 12-week call for evidence, Secretary of State Kemi Badenoch MP said she was seeking to ‘use our Brexit freedoms to scrap unnecessary regulations that hold back firms and hamper growth’.

The advent of new technologies, especially the growth of AI, has underlined the need for more a more agile regulatory system. Viscount Camrose, Minister for AI and Intellectual Property, acknowledged that legislation moves more slowly than technological innovation. He argued that one of the strengths of the Government’s AI white paper was that it would allow for the technology to be regulated more quickly. The white paper proposes a principles-based approach, using the existing regulatory system to provide a blueprint for the regulation of AI, without requiring a completely new framework to be drawn up just for AI.

Camrose also looked ahead to the Prime Minister’s planned AI Safety Summit. In November, world leaders will gather in the UK to consider the risks of frontier AI and how they can be mitigated through international cooperation. While the summit will focus on how best to manage the risks of AI, Camrose said he was keen for the positives of AI to be more prominent in public discourse. As the Minister, he wanted to focus on the benefits that AI can bring for businesses and consumers. Though he recognised that concerns about AI are well-founded, he said that if these can be mitigated then there are enormous opportunities in terms of productivity and economic growth.

While some sectors may be able to reap rich rewards from AI, other industries facing potentially existential challenges to their business models and their intellectual property. It remains to be seen therefore whether the Government’s approach to regulation of the new technology will stand the test of time.

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