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Covid-19: What have we learned about the importance of trustworthy statistics?

The Zeeman Lecture at the September 2021 Conference on ‘Rethinking Regulation’ was delivered by Ed Humpherson -Director General for Regulation, UK Statistics Authority. This is a transcript of that lecture.

A couple of years ago, back when it was possible to travel freely without worrying about masks, infections and tests, I was on a train journey south from Edinburgh.
As is the way with long train journeys in the UK, there was some horrendous disruption; and as is also the way, this disruption broke the invisible veil that holds British people back from talking to one another, and lots of conversations started – proceeding from the usual starting point of “bloody typical” to broader chats – where are you going, what do you do?

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Re-thinking climate change policies: A tale of two externalities

In this short paper, Gerard Fox and George Yarrow argue that, in the context of climate change policies, the nature and significance of any potentially problematic economic externalities are functions of strategic policy choices: that is, they vary according to the particular policy strategy chosen. The traditionally identified externality – that the benefits of carbon abatement efforts by any one country are mostly enjoyed by other countries – comes from strategies that are conceptualised in terms of determining quantities (of carbon emissions or abatement), an approach to economic policy that was adopted in Soviet-style central planning. By leading to external effects that then call for difficult-to-achieve correction, in effect the quantitative planning system establishes self-created obstacles to attaining that which is desired. Science and technology policy approaches based on sharing of knowledge and know- how are shown to have very different implications for the nature and significance of any associated externalities. The development of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid vaccine is given as an example of the possible, alternative, strategic approaches.

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A Commentary on the Opening Chapters of ‘An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations’

Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (“WoN”) is a foundational book in the social sciences and one of the classic works of human civilization, but like many classics it is rarely read. Its influence has been profound, but that influence has come largely via the work of Smith’s
successors who, in their own writings, have frequently cherry picked the text in ways that have
served their own, particular purposes in a range of different, later contexts. In consequence many of Smith’s own points have been lost or distorted…

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The challenge of removing a mistaken price cap

The UK Competition and Markets Authority in 2016 calculated a detriment of £1.4 billion–£2 billion in Great Britain’s retail energy market, attributed to weak customer response. The government in 2019 imposed a tariff cap until competition is effective. Stephen Littlechild argues that the cap was a mistake: there was no such detriment and there are valid reasons for customers not changing supplier. The market was not previously uncompetitive and inefficient as suggested. The cap has rendered the sector loss-making and led to supplier exit. The assessments of effective competition by the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets have been arbitrary and implausible. Some alternative ways ahead are noted, but latest government policy invokes behavioural economics to propose even greater intervention. A postscript discusses dramatic latest developments.

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Reform, Cohabitation, Intervention and Independent Regulation

This research project is focused on how well suited are regulatory models in adapting to dynamic change, a more interventionist state or exogenous shocks like covid or the financial crisis. Can the regulatory environment accommodate strategic policy initiative like decarbonisation, promotion of technological innovation or activist industrial policy without its function being impaired? This leads to questions concerning the nature of the regulator’s institutional ecology and will demonstrate the potential for truly effective reform. It would also provide an understanding of their organisational capacity to achieve its key objectives.

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Documents

Economic regulation of digital platforms: scoping the RPI’s research programme

Should we establish ex ante economic regulation of ‘digital platforms’, with or without ‘enhanced’ competition law – and what form should any regulatory structures take? This question is a pressing priority for policymakers and competition authorities in many jurisdictions, including the UK and across the EU. We can all see the extent to which services offered by digital platforms (large and small, generalised and highly specialised) now mediate most distanced interactions between people and/or organisations, whether it is economic, in civil society or in our private lives.

The aim of this work is to foster contributions to the policy debate concerning the economic regulation of digital platforms. The anticipated focus is on economic regulation specifically, meaning ex ante rules designed to rectify market failures or abuses rather than, for example, regulation of online content or political speech). However, it may be that some areas of research necessarily involve ‘cross-over’ questions between economic and non-economic regulatory issues.

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Public and Private Healthcare – Challenges for sustainability in the post-COVID era

The relationship between public and private healthcare has been a subject of regulatory scrutiny. Some aspects of private healthcare provision, including hospital providers and consultants, were the subject of a market investigation reference in the UK by the now Competition and Markets Authority (2012-2014). The outbreak of COVID-19 has raised further questions about sustainability and put these issues back on the regulatory reform agenda. It is important to take into account key aspects, including consumer choice, financial viability, quality, the role of insurance companies and interactions with the NHS. This paper outlines a proposed in-depth study which would review the current market and regulatory climate for the provision of healthcare in the UK, with a focus on the relationship between the public and private sectors. The aim is to sensitivity test potential future funding models that would tackle the range of issues, many of which have been given added imperative by the effect of the outbreak of COVID-19 on NHS waiting lists.

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The changing role of independent economic regulators in decision-making for major infrastructure projects in the UK

How decisions are, or should be, taken for major infrastructure projects is a recurring area of policy debate. Longstanding differences exist between those who see a prominent role for government in directing, and potentially funding, large-scale infrastructure projects, and those who advocate that government involvement should be limited to ensuring that an appropriate policy and regulatory framework is in place to facilitate such investments by the market where necessary.

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Rethinking Regulation

The purpose of this document is to seek support for, and encourage participation in, the future research programme of the Regulatory Policy Institute in the UK, in co-operation with its sister network, the Regulatory Policy Institute of Australia and New Zealand (RPI ANZ).

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Net zero by 2050 as a strategic objective

This note has a specific and limited purpose: to consider the appropriateness of a target of ‘net zero by 2050’ as the overarching strategic objective of a national policy to reduce carbon emissions.

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