Inside Parliment: Cook conjures up spectre of Henry VIII: Cook attacks powers in Deregulation Bill - Tories defend sale of froth on beer - Major supports possible use of air strikes in Bosnia

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Indy Politics
The spectre of Henry VIII and his tendency to absolutism was raised in the Commons last night by Robin Cook, Labour's trade and industry spokesman, as he argued in vain against the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill.

This key item in the Government's legislative programme opens the way for the 'bonfire of red tape' promised by Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade. It gained a Second Reading by 319 votes to 282.

Opening the debate, he said the Bill would sweep away regulations which had become 'burdensome'. He criticised the 'official-ese' used in some regulations as 'a sort of garbage-speak' which caused frustration and despair to business.

Regulation could be vital to protect the safety of workers, customers and the environment, Mr Heseltine acknowledged. 'The essential issue that confronts us is the balance between the legitimate entitlements of society and the damage that can flow from the over- fussy, over-prescriptive use of restrictions.'

He admitted that many of the regulations to be swept away were imposed by his own Government, but blamed many new rules on the European single market. 'If we have over-regulated . . . if we have overdone it, it is a sign of strength to recognise that and put it right.'

By contrast, what Labour had done in signing up to the Social Chapter was 'crass mismanagement'. 'It is the surest way to choke off the investment boom of overseas companies in this country . . . It is yesterday's dogma masquerading as tomorrow's panacea.'

Mr Cook had no objection to 'the cremation of red tape that serves no useful purpose and binds the hands of business'. But he said Labour would not support deregulation that reduced the safety of employees, health of the public or protection of consumers.

His chief worry was the extent to which the Bill cut through the procedures of Parliament. The first clauses lifted from ministers the burden of accountability to Parliament by giving them power to amend or repeal Acts of Parliament they considered a burden on business. Instead of spending months getting a Bill through both Houses to change or scrap the burdensome law, ministers would simply use a 'statutory instrument' - debatable for just 90 minutes and unamendable.

'I understand such clauses are termed Henry VIII clauses in disrespectful commemoration of that monarch's tendency to absolutism,' Mr Cook said. 'This Bill here is one big Henry VIII clause. It gives the power to any secretary of state to suspend any Act of Parliament by order.'

He had not the slightest doubt there were some Tory MPs who would regard the possibility of a Labour government as a burden on business and if they could find a minister of that opinion he could amend the Representation of the People Act.

Neil Hamilton, the deregulation minister, might be just the man. Mr Cook said that while Mr Heseltine was a 'big picture man' who would forget about the Bill as soon as he could decently slip away from the debate, Mr Hamilton was 'so many miles to the right he is only visible on a clear day'.

The Under-Secretary had spent the night the Bill was published, last month, among friends, addressing the Libertarian Alliance. 'It has called for the deregulating of all drug offences, abolition of a public police force and the privatisation of the currency so every citizen will be at liberty to mint their own money.

'Instead of telling them they were away with the fairies . . . the minister assured them he was a spirit after their own heart. He assured them 'deregulation is really part of a broader libertarian agenda which I fully share'.'

One controversial recommendation from the Government's deregulation task forces was that a pint of beer should include the head - or as Mr Cook put it: 'Brewers can go on cheating us of the full measure of our pint . . . serving up to 5 per cent of froth.'

He said that Bass was represented on the food and drink task force. So was Whitbread which had given pounds 250,000 to the Conservatives over the lifetime of this Parliament. That was why the provision was in the Bill. 'It has got nothing to do with cutting red tape. It has got everything to do with paying back the vested interests who bankroll the Tory party.'

Several Conservative backbenchers voiced concern about the 'open-ended' nature of the ministerial powers. Richard Shepherd, MP for Aldridge Brownhills, though a longstanding critic of over-regulation, warned of sweeping away legislation in a way that could mean 'a constitutional crisis' for the Commons. 'One day we may form the opposition,' Mr Shepherd said. 'I urge upon the Government a very cautious rethink of this measure.'

John Major told MPs at Question Time that action to halt the bombardment of Sarejevo could not wait for an overall settlement for Bosnia.

'I do not believe it is right to tolerate the continued mortar and artillery attacks against the civilian population. Unprofor, with support from Nato, must apply immediate and strong pressure to halt these attacks.' Nato meets today to consider a response.

Ultimately peace was only going to come at the negotiating table, the Prime Minister said. But the UN might need to use force to carry out its mandate and protect its own people in Bosnia. 'It may need tactical air support from Nato. We have always been prepared to see air power used for these purposes, provided the commanders judge it appropriate.'

John Smith, the Labour leader, said if no action was taken to protect the people of Sarajevo from 'pitiless shelling', the Serbs were bound to conclude no action would be taken whatever they did. 'Surely it ought to be a political objective to remove all the weapons within striking distance of Sarajevo under threat that if that is not done, air attacks will be pursued?'

Mr Major said it was certainly the case that if air power was used the objectives must be very clear. 'And the aim must be to reinforce pressure to end the bombardment of Sarajevo.'

Once again the angrier clash was with Paddy Ashdown. The Liberal Democrat leader welcomed the Prime Minister's 'new more muscular mood on Bosnia', but noted it was four weeks since he told MPs of his determination to open Tuzla airport as soon as possible and probably five weeks until the Serbs launched their spring offensive 'aimed at obliterating what remains of Bosnia'.

Reopening the airport was a matter for the UN and Nato. 'It not a unilateral matter for the British government,' Mr Major said. 'I do wish Mr Ashdown would cease, as he does so often, to pretend there is some easy, magic and painless solution to a problem that is intensely difficult to the commanders on the ground and everybody concerned with the operation.

'Mr Ashdown has been consistent in one respect only. He has been consistently wrong in every single course he has advocated since this dreadful conflict began.'