Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill: Business: Burdens will be lifted from small companies

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The Independent Online
BUSINESSES and in particular small firms will be freed from many of the regulatory burdens imposed on them under competition and company law.

One of the specific measures in the Bill would allow companies involved in takeovers to escape costly and time-consuming referrals to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission by giving legally-binding undertakings instead to the Office of Fair Trading or other watchdog bodies such as Oftel and Ofgas.

Companies entering into restrictive and anti-competitive agreements would also be exempted from notifying the Director General of Fair Trading and allowed to prevent public scrutiny of commercially-sensitive aspects of those agreements.

Private companies that are no longer trading will be allowed to be struck off the register, thereby avoiding their obligations under the Companies Act, but with safeguards and penalties to avoid abuse of the system.

The Department of Trade and Industry also proposes to release companies with a turnover of less than pounds 90,000 from the requirement to have their accounts audited and allow firms turning over pounds 90,000- pounds 350,000 to replace the audit with a much simpler accountant's report.

The waiting period for claiming value-added tax bad-debt relief would be halved - boosting cash flow by pounds 150m this year - while the self-employed would be allowed to pay National Insurance contributions quarterly rather than having to buy weekly stamps.

Measures likely to be taken once the Bill is law include reducing the amount of personal information company directors are obliged to file with Companies House and allowing manufacturers to carry out tests on production equipment presently carried out by trading standards officers.

Relaxation of the Consumer Credit Act is also planned to allow companies to notify the OFT of changes in their personnel only where licensees have criminal convictions against them.

The DTI intends to reform the winding-up arrangements for insolvent general insurance companies to speed up payments to policy holders.

Companies House would be allowed to use private mail couriers, insurance companies would be relieved of some reporting duties to the DTI, and the time limit within which a merger can be referred to the MMC cut from six to four months.

Labelling regulations would also be eased so that companies selling telecommunications equipment would no longer be required to state in advertisements that their equipment has been 'approved'.

In the future the DTI intends to allow small companies to veto regulations that would burden them. In order to reach the statute books, new regulations would have to pass a 'small business litmus test'.

Howard Davies, director general of the Confederation of British Industry, said: 'This is the start of what must become a continuing process. Deregulation must not be a nine-day wonder, it must become second nature in Whitehall to assess the costs on business of any regulation, old or new.'

Richard Brown, deputy director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said: 'Taken in itself, this is an excellent first step in relieving businesses of existing burdensome requirements.'