Outlook: Cutting red tape

THESE DAYS every government comes into power promising to do at least two things: maintain a stable economic environment and reduce the burden of regulation on business. Who can forget the famous "bonfire of red tape" announced by Michael Heseltine in 1994 following which the only thing that actually went up in smoke was his promise.

Politicians may profess to abhor bureaucracy. But the fact is that every new administration imposes a fresh layer of regulation without ever weeding out the mass of statutory instruments and petty-fogging legislation that lies beneath.

Thus, since New Labour came to power, just seven Deregulation Orders have been put through the Commons even though Margaret Beckett and Peter Mandelson both promised to tackle the scourge of red tape.

Meanwhile, business has had to contend with a forest of new red tape including the national minimum wage, the new working time directive, the working families tax credit, the fairness at work legislation and a stream of minor but no less pernicious legislative proposals emanating from Brussels.

Even the new rules governing stakeholder pensions announced yesterday by the social security minister Stephen Timms will have to be enshrined in some legislative form.

But fear not, help is at hand at last. Today in Glasgow, the latest Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Stephen Byers, will set out his plans for what he calls "sunset regulation". Under this system, which is an idea borrowed from the United States, any new regulations would automatically expire after three or five years unless Whitehall could present an overwhelming case for renewing them.

Suffice it to say, the DTI does not intend anything as radical as the abolition of existing regulations much less a moratorium on new ones, nor even an exemption for small firms employing less than, say, fifty people.

Still every little bit helps. The only doubt is whether Mr Byers will survive long enough to see his idea enter the statute books since the job of Trade and Industry Secretary has proven over the years to be very much a "sunset job" in political circles.

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