Yesterday, I heard from a local businessman about the kafkaesque nightmare that has been inflicted upon his industry by the EU – made far, far worse by our own bureaucracy.
The firm manufactures water-disinfection systems used in hospitals and other health facilities. The EU has just imposed another round of over-regulation on that particular industry. The new set of rules — the Biocidal Products Regulations — are flawed but what concerns me is the new ban on the use of copper as a biocide i.e. as an ingredient use to disinfect water from any germs it may contain.
At the moment, copper, along with silver, is a standard ingredient of disinfection systems. It is so effective that many countries are asking to opt out of this ban. Our own Health & Safety Executive approves copper for the control of Legionella and says so in its Accepted Code of Practice. It hasn’t changed its mind and it has promised the industry that it will also apply for Britain to ‘derogate’ — the official term for opting out — which we can do because copper is in “essential use”.
So far, just a standard tale of unnecessary, unstoppable, inconvenient and expensive interference from Brussels. However, watch how a British quango magnifies a drama into a disaster. Bear in mind that although the EU cocked up a regulation that would make disinfection possibly less effective, certainly more expensive and cost a fortune in replacement costs, we do have a route out — if we choose to take it.
The EU Parliament passed the regulation on 19 January 2012. An application for derogation must wait for 60 days for comments from anyone interested before it can be approved by our overlords in Brussels. So what does the HSE Exec do? Do they apply for our derogation in January, February or March? Do they work it over thoroughly for six months and apply in the summer, to make sure they get it absolutely right? Do they copper-bottom, gold-plate, belt-and-bracer their submission, put it aside, come back to it and set their best and brightest to look at it with fresh eyes in the autumn, to ensure it is the most technically excellent and flawless application for a derogation that could be conceived in the mind of man?
No. They don’t do any of those things. They don’t do it at all.
So time passed and 1 December came around. That’s an important date because it is 60 days before 1 February, when the ban comes into force. Instantly, the HSE website has begun advertising the change in the law from 1 Feb. Firms have suddenly found their orders being cancelled. Hospitals and care facilites all over the country are starting to worry about their legal and insurance position if their water-disinfection system not conforming to the new regulations. They are starting to think about spending precious money on replacing their current equipment.
Yes. The law will change on 1 Feb and everyone will be obliged to conform – for a few months. Then, once our derogation kicks in, the law will change back again and copper will no longer be banned. Health Trusts will either have wasted our money changing their kit or they will have flouted the law and opened themselves to who-knows-what legal penalties and/or court judgements. Products will be illegal for a few months, then legal again. And all because the HSE didn’t get the form in the post in time.
When will people realise that things like this are inevitable in the regulatory state? In another great victory for joined up government, European and British regulators do not agree on what one would have thought was a matter of scientific fact, indicating a basic technical incompetence somewhere. That is compounded by the administrative failure to sort out a British derogation, which will cost taxpayers and firms real money. A private firm, properly driven by profit and loss, wouldn’t bear this waste, at least not twice. But the state, motivated by rule following and serenely un-moved by financial discipline, can and does festoon the world with these inexcusable cock-ups.
I’ve cleared my diary to ask the minister responsible for the HSE some questions about this on Monday. Watch this space.