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Consumers' protection faces cuts: 'Red tape' review raises safety fears

LEAKED government plans to consider abolishing regulations governing the fire safety of children's night clothes and the registration of homes for the elderly, reported by the Independent, are only the tip of the iceberg.

The Department of Trade and Industry has asked the Institute of Directors to identify safety and other regulations they want scrapped across a wide range of consumer services and goods - from estate agents and time-share sellers to furniture and toys.

A list of areas in which the DTI is reviewing regulations appeared in the September issue of the institute's newsletter Direct Line, which is sent to 30,000 members in Britain and 10,000 overseas. Every government department has also been told to look for regulations they consider unnecessary.

The newsletter list included control of misleading advertisements; asbestos products; bureaux de change price indications; catalytic heaters; child resistant packaging; dangerous substances and preparations; doorstep selling; fireworks; gas appliances; hearing aids; nursery products; package holidays and tours; pyramid selling; trade descriptions; unsolicited goods and services; and weights and measures.

The institute's newsletter invited responses from 'members with experience of any of these regulations - what costs the regulations impose, how are they enforced, how they overlap with other regulations, how you feel the burden of red tape and bureacracy can be reduced'.

Last month the Independent revealed that other hit lists of targets for removing health and safety regulations had been drawn up by the institute, the Adam Smith Institute, the right-wing think-tank, and David Willetts, Tory MP for Havant, a former member of the Thatcherite Centre for Policy Studies.

These include professional driving instructors, nursing and other employment agencies, theatres, acupuncturists, sex establishments and off-licences.

Iain Smedley, a member of the institute's policy unit, who has been seconded to the DTI to advise on deregulation, yesterday denied the removal of regulations would be a 'licence for cowboys'.

He said: 'The point of the deregulation excercise is to identify red tape and remove unnecessary restrictions on business. It is wrong to assume that removal of certain regulations will automatically make the item unsafe.'

Mr Smedley said an institute survey found that 42 per cent of company directors said government regulation and red tape has restricted the ability of their businesses to expand.

Consumers' rights campaigners are appalled that the removal of consumer protection and safety regulations is being proposed.

Stephen Locke, policy director of the Consumers' Association said: 'We don't have a problem with the concept of a review of regulations that are no longer appropriate, but we do worry about the way the Government is going about this.

'One of the central problems is we do not know the full spectrum of what's going on. They are being secretive and not giving consumers a fair say in the process.

'It's also bizarre that the Government is considering deregulating controls they have just introduced, for example, in the package travel industry which were introduced only last year.

'Either the deregulation exercise will result in the removal of irrelevant regulations and there will be no consumer loss. Or they will start deregulating significant areas of the economy and we would be particularly worried about the deregulation of information requirements, fair trading practices or, still worse, safety standards.'