Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, was accused of acting like Henry VIII by seeking autocratic powers in the blockbuster Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill, which will give ministers the right to scrap regulations covering health, safety, environment and business controls without resorting to primary legislation.
One senior Tory peer predicted the 'Henry VIII' clause - named after the dictatorial King - could be defeated in the Lords, which tore apart the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill on Tuesday over alleged excessive powers. 'The crossbench peers will not like this, and that will destroy the Government's majority,' he said.
The Prime Minister's office confirmed ministers anticipated trouble over the constitutional implications. 'That is the difficult part of the Bill for the House of Lords, certainly,' said one source.
The Government tried to limit the row by proposing a new system of committee scrutiny for the parliamentary orders which will be used to scrap regulations once the Bill is enacted. It suggested committees in both Houses of Parliament could consider the orders for 40 days and take evidence from witnesses, before they are voted on.
However, that failed to calm opposition MPs. Michael Meacher, Labour's open government spokesman, accused Mr Heseltine of acting in a 'high-handed and autocratic' way. 'To alter the law in this way in such sensitive areas as health and safety, flatly contradicts the spirit of the citizen's charter,' he said.
'We support the abolition of unnecessary restrictions on business, but not if it weakens consumer and employee protection,' said Malcolm Bruce, Liberal Democrat spokesman on trade and industry. 'The role of Parliament will be drastically reduced. Rafts of orders may be tabled which Parliament will never have an opportunity to address.'
The Bill contains only 23 deregulation measures, and the Government has carefully avoided controversy in the measure, to be introduced in the Commons next month, before going to the Lords in the late summer. But Labour leaders believe deregulation could become a disaster for the Government, spilling over into prolonged rows in the Lords in the late summer.
However, ministers were confident last night that the 'bonfire of red tape' - the biggest since the destruction of wartime regulations in 1945 - will prove a vote-winner with Tory supporters. 'If Labour want to carry the battle to us, we will be very happy to meet them. This is our battleground,' said one government whip.
A Downing Street source added: 'The Prime Minister is confident this will come through as it is.'Reuse content