Outlook: Red tape bonfire

NEW LABOUR, new regulations. Tony Blair must be running short of ideas if he has had to resort to announcing a bonfire of red tape at this stage in his term of office. Pledges to tackle the burden of useless regulations are usually reserved for the dying days of a Parliament, when ministers are desperate to be seen to be doing something.

Like countless such initiatives before it, this pledge looks destined to go up in smoke. The very act of launching an assault on red tape tends to generate more of the stuff. Every Whitehall department will have to appoint a minister with responsibility for regulatory reform. They in turn will have to report in triplicate to Mo Mowlem at the Cabinet Office if they are not doing their bit to "banish the bumf" ...

Mr Blair is right to see his government's liking for regulation as a potential Achilles' heel. But it is not clear he can do much about it. While the rhetoric has been all about lightening the regulatory load, the reality has been an avalanche of fresh legislation from Brussels and Whitehall. For every blow the Government has struck to ease the burden on regulations, in respect of the licensing laws for instance, it has added new and more onerous ones in areas affecting all businesses like working hours, minimum wages, trade union representation and data protection.

The Tories' calculation that red tape has added pounds 5.4bn to business costs since New Labour came to office is about as spurious as the Government's claim about the inroads it is making into the forest of regulation. For one thing, many of the regulations being introduced now result from legislation enacted before May, 1997. Even so, the point is reasonably made.