Tories in a tangle over attack on red tape

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The Independent Online
The Government's drive to cut red tape has run into the sand as each attempt to lift minor regulations turns into a tangle of new complications.

A report from MPs published this week on the three latest measures reveals they are a far cry from "the biggest bonfire of controls in modern times" promised by Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, two years ago.

The measures have been approved by MPs on the grounds that they "will reduce a burden", but the small print of their report reveals a different picture.

The Government's plan to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work in pubs "would create several more criminal offences", the report admits. A plan to cut the work of weights and measures inspectors has run into opposition from glassware makers who say it will cost jobs, and may fall foul of European Union law. And a plan to reduce the paperwork required for marriage "is unlikely to produce significant practical benefits", the MPs conclude.

Labour members of the powerful cross-party Deregulation Select Committee, set up last year to scrutinise the campaign against red tape, describe the drive as "a real case of the Government making paperwork for itself".

The promise to "simplify rules and regulations" was one of the central claims of the 1992 Conservative election manifesto. The Prime Minister appointed Mr Heseltine to drive it through and last year he said: "I have made a commitment that we will make one deregulatory change every week."

Since April 1995, only 22 orders have actually been enacted, producing a total annual cost saving of pounds 50m, the Cabinet Office estimates.

The plan to let 16- and 17-year-olds on approved apprenticeship schemes work in bars is a particularly strange example of "deregulation", as it requires a whole new raft of rules to protect under-age apprentices from exposure to alcohol and to "shield them from situations where customers may become violent and abusive".

If this were not complex enough, the MPs recommend that the order "be amended to provide that apprentices should not be employed in the bar area after 11.30pm".

Next, the committee was unable to find out whether the plan to let manufacturers verify their own weighing and measuring equipment subject to spot checks was compatible with the European technical standards directive.

It received several complaints that a different regime in the UK would be a barrier to trade in the European Union, and a glassware makers complained that it would have the unintended effect of costing more and putting its employees out of work.

The third measure, to "extend the validity of the civil notice of marriage from three to 12 months" also ran into trouble when Registrars complained that it would lead to wasted time and money as more couples failed to turn up for marriages which had been booked so long before.

The future of the deregulation initiative is equally small-scale. The Government is still consulting interested parties on "reducing licensing requirements for skin piercing" and "allowing cycle races on bridleways".

Meanwhile, 18 other measures have completed consultation stage and are awaiting government decisions.