Ministers declare war on red tape

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LEGISLATION TO speed up the abolition of Britain's most arcane regulations is being drawn up by the Government in a new drive to slash red tape for businesses and the public.

Ministers are determined to overhaul the 1994 Deregulation Act after it emerged that the number of outdated laws scrapped by Parliament had hit a record low.

To reduce the amount of unnecessary European regulations, ministers also hope to set up a new Deregulation Unit within the European Commission as part of this summer's reforms of Brussels bureaucracy.

Everything from the 85-year-old pub licensing laws to restrictions on advertisements for bingo clubs have been in the sights of the Cabinet Office's regulatory impact unit.

But just seven Deregulation Orders were laid before the House of Commons in 1997/8, the lowest number since the act was introduced.

The orders are the quickest means Parliament has of abolishing the thousands of obscure and redundant 100-year-old regulations that continue to dog private individuals and businesses alike.

Peter Kilfoyle, the Public Service minister, has identified hundreds of rules and regulations to be axed but believes that progress has been hampered by the cumbersome parliamentary machinery.

Under the current Act, both the Commons and House of Lords Deregulation Committees have a minimum of 60 days' scrutiny of any plans to scrap old laws.

Mr Kilfoyle aims to end the 60-day delay and streamline procedures so that regulations can be abolished speedily if the issues are non-controversial.

The new powers, which will also extend for the first time to European legislation, will spearhead moves to modernise large areas of regulation.

If the Government can gain a cross-party consensus on the proposals, a draft Bill overhauling the process is likely to be included in the Queen's Speech this year.

The 1994 Act was supposed to slow the rate of home-grown regulation and curb the Whitehall practice of "gold-plating" or toughening up European directives.

Since it was introduced by the last Tory government, just 41 deregulation orders have been successfully placed on the statute book. By contrast, hundreds of new regulations were laid down.

However, some MPs are already worried that the 1994 Act made it easier to scrap laws without having them discussed on the floor of the House of Commons.

Peter Pike, chairman of the Commons Deregulation Committee, said that he had some reservations about radical change, but agreed that some modifications were needed.

"The incoming government has had so many priorities that perhaps this one has not been given quite as much attention as perhaps it should have been," he said.

"People think there has not been enough done in this line as they would like to see."

The Conservatives claim that the Government's attempts to deregulate have been "farcical" to date and warn that the main battle will be to stop the scores of EU directives that come out of Brussels every year.