If red tape winds you up, then you're not alone. But as Amy Lanning finds out, there are ways to complain about it

The past few years have seen retailers burdened with yet more red tape. Licensing laws, age discrimination, food safety - they've all just added to the form-filling and meant less time getting on with running a store. The government may have made a song and dance in May 2005 about its plan to cut the administrative burden by 25% by 2010, but it seems those promises have failed to make an impact so far.

However, now the Legislative & Regulatory Reform Bill has become law and powers are in place for government to make a difference. As of November last year, each department has a 'simplification plan', with measures to cut and simplify regulation over the coming year, which can be viewed on each department's websites. 

A spokesman for the Cabinet Office told C-Store: "There are no orders made under the act yet, but each department is working on their various measures."

Sounds encouraging, but many retailers are yet to be convinced. Chris Sharrinton, who runs a Spar store in Helston, Cornwall, says: "I'm aware that the government wishes to reduce red tape, but I'm dubious as to whether it will succeed. If it does, it will only be by its own figures and it depends on what level they're starting at. It's interesting that they've realised it's got too much, but why is it going to take till 2010 to get rid of it?"

Alan Fincham, who operates Londis News Extra in Attleborough, Norfolk, agrees: "I've read the headlines, but I'm not at all confident it will happen. It was only two years ago that new licensing legislation was put through and if they can create that volume of paperwork as recently as that - and can't see how it was a total waste of time for everyone - I can't see a change in mindset sufficient to achieve their objective without creating even more paperwork."

It's easy to see why there's a lack of confidence. Employment law, for example, has reached uncontrollable levels for many retailers. "It needs looking at drastically," says Chris. "It's such a minefield that we retain a specialist to advise us. If we have a problem, we go to him and that costs us a lot of money. But if you don't do it correctly there are big consequences. I understand why some bits of employment law are there, but it's gone too far. As well as the cost of retaining a specialist, it's costing me and my wife our personal time."

Figures released by the Federation of Small Businesses reveal the number of members calling its free legal helpline for advice on employment law is rising. The helpline saw an 8% overall increase in calls in 2006, with an average call rate of more than 200 per day.

Another bugbear for Chris is the Age Discrimination Act, which came into force in October last year. "We had to rewrite all of our job descriptions and application forms. The application form was three A4 pages long and now it's seven, because you're not allowed to ask certain direct questions. It took me five hours to rewrite it under guidance from our consultant, and then I had to pass it to him to see if it was okay. We are fortunate that we are in a position to do that. The average retailer doesn't have that resource, so are they flying by the seat of their pants because they don't understand the rules?"

Shane Brennan, public affairs manager at the Association of Convenience Stores, cites wider implications of employment law. "Employment legislation creates a barrier to both investment in more staff and in the quality of working life of the small business person. If you can't afford to take on people, you have to do it yourself, which means longer hours and lower quality of life."

Chris can instantly put his finger on several examples of red tape that add up to either huge cost or a big headache. "One example is the waste transfer notes," he says. "You have to give a code as to what type of waste you're disposing of, which might seem straightforward to the person sitting in government, but to the ordinary man in the street, it doesn't make sense. Red tape is designed to safeguard people and the environment, and I do agree with that, but there needs to be some thought as to how it affects us at the sharp end."

Alan Fincham's biggest bugbear is licensing. "To increase our hours there were eight or nine different departments that had to be informed. You have to send them all a photocopy of the same form, but six were based in the same building. We should be able to fill out one form and send it to the council - who will no doubt input it electronically and could then send it through to all the other departments. 

"Our licences are granted based on every body being informed, but if one letter gets lost in the post, we're not going to know who hasn't been informed. If you could send one form to the council and they send it on, they know it's gone through to each body. An email option would also be great."

The ACS believes the burden is getting bigger, not smaller. Brennan adds: "The government has talked a lot about making legislation small business friendly, but we have seen moves in the other direction. The Small Business Service has been dramatically scaled back and we now have no dedicated minister for small business, so the trend is away from understanding the burdens of small businesses and towards a regulation-happy agenda. 

"The problem is there's a steady pace of new legislation but no system of taking one regulation away and putting another in, so it all adds up."

Like Chris and Alan, Brennan has little confidence in the government's ability to cut red tape in the future. "Implementation and detail get in the way. We remain unconvinced how much commitment there will be to push that through."

The government is encouraging businesses to come forward with suggestions on how their red tape burden could be reduced, and the Better Regulation website (www.betterregulation.gov.uk) and the Department of Trade & Industry invites proposals from businesses (see panel, 'How to help yourself').

The ACS is all for feeding suggestions back to government. "We need to think about, and better communicate, what the burdens are. If retailers are filling out a form and think 'Why am I doing this?', they should pick up the phone and ask why. Or they should speak to the ACS so we can feed back to government. With material evidence, we can ask the government to change things."

Red tape woes

Alan Fincham, londis Attleborough, Norfolk

"All the red tape that seems to be cascading is beginning to take the fun out of retailing. I spend more of my day now ensuring that we do everything correctly than actually getting out into the store and making a difference. The entrepreneurial part of the business is constantly being squeezed by filling in forms, making this check and that check, and making sure we meet all the necessary requirements.
"The government needs to look at its own processes. Take the cigarette legislation this year; that's going to be absolute chaos to control. If a customer comes in and is smoking a cigarette, we will have to tell them to put it out, and if they don't, what then? Staff are going to get assaulted. The government doesn't look at the impact of anything they do. They never go out and test these things - they don't understand the animal they are dealing with."

Dee Patel, Budgens, Clacton-on-Sea, Essex

"Employment law is horrendous. The focus of employment law is more for the employee, not the employer, and when they're writing this legislation, they're not thinking of the impact it will have on the smaller businesses. Minimum wage increases every year don't help. Running stores 15 years ago, wage costs were about 5%, now they're up to 10%. The government needs to simplify all the paperwork that comes through. Surveys that come from the government can be 50 pages long and they want to know all the ins and outs of your business - I haven't got time for that. But if you don't send it back, you get fined. If they want to find out about our business, all they have to do is look at our accounts - why do they have to send in a survey for that?
I end up getting the accountant to fill out those surveys, which again costs me money."

How to help yourself

Tell the Department of Trade & Industry which legislation and policies are "too burdensome, too bureaucratic and too unwieldy" by emailing simplify@dti.gsi.gov.uk, fax 0207 215 2235, or write to Simplify@DTI, Better Regulation Team, Bay 4112, DTI, 1 Victoria Street, London SW1H 0ET.

Describe the issue, explain why you are recommending reform, and try to include an estimate of costs to you, either in money or staff time.

Regulations for 2007

1. Flexible working rights for carers: from April 6, the right to request flexible working will be extended to carers of near relatives including parents-in-law, step relatives, grandparents and siblings.
2. Smoking ban: the onus is on the retailer to communicate and enforce the ban to customers and employees.
3. Companies Act 2006: will come into force between now and October 2008. Directors' duties must be set out under the new law.
4. Increases to paternity leave: further details are expected this year. Proposals in the Work and Families Act introduce a new right to paternity leave of up to 26 weeks.
5. Age Discrimination: Age Concern's challenge of the way age discrimination laws have been implemented goes to the European Court of Justice.
6. Holiday entitlement: statutory annual leave is proposed to rise from 20 to 24 days on October 1, and from 24 to 28 days on October 1, 2008.