Henry VIII helps put red tape to the torch: The Government yesterday launched what it calls the biggest purge of bureaucracy since the war. 'Independent' writers examine the details of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill

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JOHN MAJOR told colleagues in the planning stage that the so-called 'Henry VIII' clause, giving ministers wide powers, would be one of the main battlegrounds of the 70- clause Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill.

The Prime Minister, in talks with the Chief Whip, Richard Ryder, and other key parliamentary advisers, tried to head off protests about the excessive use of powers by providing a novel system for checking the measures.

Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, made it clear when he launched the Bill yesterday that it was only the first stage of his 'bonfire' of red tape.

'This is the largest bonfire of controls that has taken place in modern times in our country. The only precedent I have been able to identify is the immediate post-war period. This is the first step. We are embarked on a very long-term exercise,' said Mr Heseltine.

The 23 deregulation measures in the Bill - including the froth on a pint of beer - represent the tip of the pile of regulations which are to be burnt.

Seven task forces reporting to Lord Sainsbury identified 605 regulations which could be added to the pyre. The Government rejected 75 proposals by the task forces, clearly fearing that they would be too controversial. They included a proposal to reduce the size of the health warnings on cigarette advertisements.

The Henry VIII powers, in clause one of the Bill, will enable any minister once the Act is passed, to light further 'bonfires' of regulations without resorting to primary legislation. Ministers will be able to short-circuit the normal procedure for parliamentary Bills by introducing orders to scrap regulations in the future. The final orders would not be open to amendment once they had been tabled. Hundreds of other deregulation measures, which the Government is prepared to accept, could be enacted in future years by the use of parliamentary orders. Ministers have identified a list of 55 measures which could be in the first wave of new orders to be introduced after the Bill is enacted. They include scrapping legislation, dating from Victorian times, requiring lodging house keepers to keep a register, which impinge on present- day landlords; and the abolition of pedlars' certificates, without which trading on foot is a criminal offence.

Anticipating a parliamentary row over the use of orders to scrap regulations, the Government is proposing a 40-day scrutiny period before they are laid. The use of orders, which has upset the House of Lords, avoids the lengthy process of a Committee Stage, Report Stage, and Third Reading. They require approval in separate votes by both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. However, the debates on orders normally last only 90 minutes and begin late at night.

To answer fears that ministers will use orders to slip controversial measures through Parliament, the Government is proposing two new committees could be set up to scrutinise the deregulation orders in both Houses of Parliament, before they are put to a vote.

The committees could take evidence from interested bodies and warn Parliament if, in its view, the minister was exceeding his powers by using orders to introduce important changes in the law.

The Government vehemently denied it would use the orders to pass controversial legislation. Mr Heseltine said it could not be described as autocratic. 'No doubt there will be people who seek to use such language, but look at the safeguards that are built into the procedures - we are suggesting scrutiny committees. Our determination is to preserve the proper balance. We have in mind using these powers for matters that can properly come within the Bill.'