Heseltine lights flames of change: Promised bonfire of red tape aims to widen choice for consumers and help industry by cutting billions of pounds off costs

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT yesterday set about repairing its battered popular image by embarking on what it styled as the biggest purge of bureaucracy and red tape since the Second World War.

Centrepiece of the campaign to loosen the burden of legislation on business, widen consumer choice and save industry billions of pounds in compliance costs is the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill.

Announcing details of the proposed changes, Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, said the Government had lit a match under the 'largest bonfire of controls that has taken place in modern times in this country'.

The Bill, laced with populist consumer measures such as lowering the age at which children can enter pubs and allowing shops to stay open after 8pm on weekdays, is designed to spearhead the attack against excessive regulation, particularly on small businesses.

Mr Heseltine said that more than 450 pieces of government bureaucracy were earmarked for change. However, of the 3,500 regulations examined by seven special deregulation task forces, only 78 have been identified for repeal in the Bill or by using the order-making powers the legislation would confer on ministers.

Mr Heseltine has also largely backed away for the time being from controversial recommendations to abolish or amend a raft of regulations covering worker safety and consumer protection.

Despite the large claims made by ministers, yesterday's package was greeted by critics as erring on the side of caution and in some important respects not being deregulatory enough.

Stephen Locke, director of policy at the Consumers' Association, said: 'We had feared a coach and horses being run through health and safety and consumer protection legislation. This is much more a nit- picking list of changes, very few of which have major objections from the consumer point of view.'

The Bill covers large areas of life - from private nursing homes, slaughterhouses, hairdressing and Scottish barbers' shops - to building societies, financial institutions and small businesses.

Among the measures likely to have most impact are those governing drinking - in particular the decision to allow families with children into pubs. The move, welcomed by industry and consumer groups as a long-overdue concession to reality, will need an amendment to the Licensing Act 1964 allowing pubs to apply for children's certificates.

Children under 14 are not allowed in bars except in dining areas and frequently unwelcoming family rooms. According to the Brewers' and Licensed Retailers' Association, one in six pubs in Scotland, where the provision was introduced two years ago, has a children's certificate.

However, there was criticism of ministers for reneging on pre-election pledges to ensure beer drinkers get a full pint. A powerful counter-lobby by the big brewers means the practice of serving large and creamy heads in a beer glass, taking up as much as 10 per cent of its volume, will continue.

The Campaign for Real Ale described the change as a 'craven capitulation' to industry. Camra said drinkers were losing up to pounds 400m a year in froth.

Other changes to drinking laws include allowing off-

licences in Scotland to sell alcohol on Sundays. The 'long pull' - selling more beer than asked for, usually to half-pint drinkers using a pint glass - is no longer a criminal offence. And the 105-year-old law banning the sale of methylated spirits on a Sunday will be

repealed.

The social problem of crude spirit drinking that was the cause of this provision has 'virtually disappeared', the Goverment argues.

There was also evidence of the Government's commitment to the principle of tax relief on mortgages. One of the deregulation task-forces recommended the scrapping of Miras (mortgage interest relief at source), but that proposal has been rejected.

Miras is 'an essential feature of the arrangements for giving mortgage tax relief,' according to a memorandum accompanying the Bill. However, Miras procedures will be reviewed.

The Bill will free businesses, and particularly small firms, from a range of existing regulations covering competition and company law, takeovers and audit and reporting requirements.

Future regulations will have to pass a 'small business litmus test' to get on to the statute books.

The Bill was widely welcomed by business groups as a genuine opportunity to cut red tape.

However, the Confederation of British Industry and the British Chambers of Commerce said it should be only the first step in the drive to cut the burden of regulation.

Stan Mendham, chief executive of the Forum of Private Business, said the initiative could give a powerful boost

to small firms but cautioned that it depended on the Government's ability to translate good intentions into tangible benefits.

(Photograph omitted)

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