The chief monkey's red tape war: Laws protecting workers' safety, clean air, children's clothes and energy saving are at risk, Geoffrey Lean reports

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The Independent Online
IT WAS Neil Hamilton's finest hour. The hard-right Trade and Industry Minister introduced himself to last month's Conservative Party Conference as a 'contraceptive' and got one of the week's biggest ovations.

'When the Prime Minister appointed me he told me to make myself the most unpopular member of the Government,' he told the faithful. 'He urged me to behave like an absolute bastard, and as is the custom in our department, I do this before breakfast, before lunch and before tea.

'Some ministers come to conferences like these and tell you how busy they have been. They proudly announce that they are heavily pregnant with Bills for the new session. Well, there won't be so many pregnancies in future because I aim to act as a form of legislative contraceptive. It is a task I perform with relish.'

Put more prosaically, Mr Hamilton is the Government's Deregulation Minister. This puts him in charge of one of the key measures to be announced in this week's Queen's Speech, a Bill designed, in the Prime Minister's words, to 'lift the burden on industry' with a 'war on red tape'. As we report on the front page, this includes scrapping a long list of regulations that protect workers in the biggest shake-up of health and safety laws in two decades.

The minister - a talented mimic who numbers Hitler and Enoch Powell among his repertoire, and who has called Ted Heath a 'vampire' - gave the conference his own demonstration of his job by theatrically tearing up a computer print-out listing 3,500 regulations. At a fringe meeting held by the right-wing Conservative Way Forward group a few days before, he had gone even further, saying that all government rules should be abolished.

Measures controlling everything from health and safety at work and food, to fire prevention and the sales of dangerous goods should, he said, be entrusted to business instead.

This week's announcement will fall well short of the minister's dream, but it will mark a fundamental change of direction. For after a century or more of accumulating measures designed to protect the public, the Government is now setting out to dismantle them. In the process, if some of the proposals already made public are anything to go by, it will sabotage its own commitments to fight global warming, encourage 'cowboy' operators to run old people's homes, and make it more likely that children's nightclothes will catch fire.

Deregulation is John

Major's latest attempt at a 'big idea'. The Huntingdon MP has borrowed it from a man from Huntington, Indiana - Dan Quayle. While in office, the orthographically challenged Vice- President set up a special Competiveness Council to mount a similar onslaught.

The campaign owes much of its momentum to newspaper articles on alleged bureaucratic abuses, including a powerful series in the Sunday Telegraph by Christopher Booker. Critics protested that some of Booker's allegations were wrong, but the deregulation initiative was already in full swing.

So far, John Major has chaired two special meetings at 10 Downing Street - attended by the entire Cabinet and their permanent secretaries - to oversee the campaign. He set up seven task forces of businessmen, including representatives of companies that have contributed to Conservative Party funds, to draw up 'hit lists' of regulations. He demanded a progress report every eight weeks. And ministers drew up 'Domesday Books' of candidates for the scrapheap.

The process will jettison some irksome and unnecessary rules, and may curb overzealous officials. A report commissioned by Mr Hamilton's boss, Michael Heseltine, found that 'some enforcers lack discrimination and see their role as ideological crusaders seeking to achieve the highest standards of health, safety and environmental control without regard to real risks or costs' though it added that some press stories 'were misleading and in some cases completely untrue'.

But task forces and government departments have thrown up proposals that go much further. Christopher Spackman, the chairman of the Construction Task Force, dominated by housebuilders, spoke of 'killing off the building regulations'. The task force wanted to abolish insulation standards for new houses, although half Britain's emissions of carbon dioxide - the main cause of global warming - come from heating buildings, and its standards are six decades behind those in Sweden. Insulation manufacturing firms complained that they had not been asked to give evidence, and that when they had sent their views anyway they had received no reply.

The Department of Trade and Industry said it was examining regulations on fireproofing children's nightclothes, among other things 'that may be a burden to business'. The Department of Health suggested relaxing the rules controlling private homes for the elderly and infirm. The Department of the Environment wanted to scrap a regulation that had effectively stopped the fly-tipping of toxic waste for the last two decades, and which was introduced after drums of cyanide were dumped in play areas.

The Civil Service resisted wholesale deregulation. 'All that these drives do,' said one top official, 'is to remind you why you have brought in the regulations in the first place.'

Subtler operators compiled lists of redundant laws that could be safely sacrificed with an illusion of radicalism, and tried to improve the enforcement of ones they wanted kept.

'Asking ministers and civil servants to cut regulations is a bit like asking Jeffrey Archer to stop talking,' says Mr Hamilton. 'They say 'yes', of course, but carry on just as before.'

He told Conservative Way Forward that when civil servants stonewalled, ministers should 'beat them up'. But so far, the officials have won quite a few rounds. Ministers privately indicate that the controls on fly-tipping toxic waste will stay. The deregulation of London's buses has been dropped from the Bill because of fears that the resulting chaos would lead to political disaster in next year's council elections.

Architects have staved off a bid to deregulate their profession, arguing that the public would lose vital protection.

Much deregulation is, however, already proceeding unseen through unheralded, but serious cuts in the way rules are implemented. This month the Government forced the National Rivers Authority to relax standards at many sewage works. It is also relaxing air pollution controls on some industries. And as we report on the front page, regulations governing health and safety at work are being severely watered down.

The campaign is also being used to block new measures. Government promises to protect hedgerows have fallen victim to the new atmosphere, as have controls on noise from motorsports and clay pigeon shooting in the countryside. So have plans to ban lead solder from water pipes, although the toxic metal damages children's brains, and a promise to stop the sale of coal in supposedly smokefree areas.

All this may not even benefit the economy. Dan Quayle's drive increased bureaucracy and damaged companies making anti-pollution equipment, without doing much for the rest of industry. German ministers insist that their country owes part of its economic success to tight regulations which forced industry to innovate.

It is not long since Mr Heseltine agreed. Countries that 'regulate for high environmental standards create opportunites for their own industrial base' he said in 1991. 'Governments will increasingly use their regulatory powers to insist on and, where necessary, impose such standards.' Now he heads the deregulation drive and Mr Hamilton says he is 'proud' to be called 'Tarzan's chief monkey'.

(Photographs omitted)