Red tape is an idiom that refers to excessive regulation or rigid conformity to formal rules that is considered redundant or bureaucratic and hinders or prevents action or decision-making. It is usually applied to governments, corporations, and other large organizations. Things often described as "red tape" include filling out paperwork, obtaining licenses, having multiple people or committees approve a decision and various low-level rules that make conducting one's affairs slower, more difficult, or both.
It is generally believed that the term originated with the Spanish administration of Charles V, King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, in the early 16th century, who started to use red tape in an effort to modernize the administration that was running his vast empire. The red tape was used to bind the most important administrative dossiers that required immediate discussion by the Council of State, and separate them from issues that were treated in an ordinary administrative way, which were bound with ordinary string.
Most of the red tapes arriving at the Council of State were manufactured in the city of 's-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands, because most of the important dossiers came from the Low Countries (present-day Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg which at that time also belonged to the Spanish Habsburg dynasty) and the Holy Roman Empire (mainly present-day Germany). The Spanish name for red tape "balduque" was derived from the Spanish translation of the city of 's-Hertogenbosch French name Bois-le-Duc, which is "Bolduque".
Although they were not governing such a vast territory as Charles V, this practice of using red tape to separate the important dossiers that had to be discussed was quickly copied by the other modern European monarchs to speed up their administrative machines.
In this age of civil servants using computers and information technology, a legacy from the administration of the Spanish Empire can still be observed where some parts of the higher levels of the Spanish administration continue the tradition of using red tape to bind important dossiers that need to be discussed and to keep them bound in red tape when the dossier is closed. This is, for example, the case for the Spanish Council of State, the supreme consultative council of the Spanish Government. In contrast, the lower Spanish courts use ordinary twine to bundle documents as their cases are not supposed to be heard at higher levels. The Spanish Government plans[when?]to phase out the use of paper and abandon the practice of using twine.
The tradition continued through to the 17th and 18th century. In David Copperfield, Charles Dickens wrote, "Britannia, that unfortunate female, is always before me, like a trussed fowl: skewered through and through with office-pens, and bound hand and foot with red tape". The English practice of binding documents and official papers with red tape was popularized in Thomas Carlyle's writings, protesting against official inertia with expressions like "Little other than a red tape Talking-machine, and unhappy Bag of Parliamentary Eloquence". To this day, most defense barristers' briefs, and those from private clients, are tied in a pink-coloured ribbon known as "pink tape" or "legal tape".
Even in modern times, Spanish bureaucracy is notorious for unusually extreme levels of red tape (in the figurative sense). As of 2013, the World Bank ranked Spain 136 out of 185 countries for ease of starting a business, which took on average 10 procedures and 28 days. Similar issues persist throughout Latin America. As of 2009 in Mexico, it took six months and a dozen visits to government agencies to obtain a permit to paint a house, and to obtain a monthly prescription for gamma globulin for X-linked agammaglobulinemia, a patient had to obtain signatures from two government doctors and stamps from four separate bureaucrats before presenting the prescription to a dispensary.
The "cutting of red tape" generally refers to a reduction of bureaucratic obstacles to action.
Business representatives often claim red tape is a barrier to business, particularly small business. In Canada, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business has done extensive research into the impact of red tape on small businesses.
The European Commission has a competition that offers an award for the "Best Idea for Red Tape Reduction". The competition is "aimed at identifying innovative suggestions for reducing unnecessary bureaucracy stemming from European law". In 2008, the European Commission held a conference entitled 'Cutting Red Tape for Europe'. The goal of the conference was "reducing red tape and overbearing bureaucracy," in order to help "business people and entrepreneurs improve competitiveness".
In the UK, the ruling Conservative Party is actively reducing red tape with a joint team working across a newly (2016) formed ministry, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Cabinet Office. It follows on from the Red Tape Challenge that ran from 2011 to 2014 under the Conservative-Liberal Democrats coalition of 2010-2015. At its launch, then-Prime Minister David Cameron spoke of his intention to limit and reduce the 21,000 statutory rules and regulations in force at the time. By the end of the 3-year initiative, 2,400 regulations had been scrapped, representing over 10% of the total. In all, it was estimated that businesses would be £40m a year better off as a result. Another key change as a result of this initiative was 'Businesses with good records have had fire safety inspections reduced from 6 hours to 45 minutes, with the intention of allowing managers to quickly get back to their day job', something that was highlighted following the Grenfell Tower fire, with some suggesting that the extent of fire spread would have been limited prior to the change.