Leading Article: Arrogant and unaccountable

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The Independent Online
FEW could argue with the need to abolish red tape when it fetters lives to no good purpose. Regulations frequently long outlive their usefulness. But the Government's methods, outlined yesterday, for kindling a bonfire of controls represent an extraordinary abuse of Parliament. Ministers are seeking virtual carte blanche to repeal legislation after only minimal consultation with MPs.

If the new deregulation Bill becomes law, ministers will at a stroke be entitled to change the statutes controlling myriad activities ranging from health and safety at work to licensing laws. Instead of going through the usual legislative process, the change could be introduced after 10pm, debated for no more than 90 minutes, and be law by midnight.

A prudent government would have recognised the need to go about such business slowly. Poor safety regulations can cost lives. Caution might have been expected from politicians embarrassed by their own incompetence after a string of deeply flawed pieces of legislation covering criminal justice, education and the poll tax. Yet this government is so arrogant that it is seeking to enhance still further its own powers at the expense of Parliament and sensible scrutiny.

Yesterday's announcement is consistent with the desire for unaccountable power that was highlighted only the night before by two former Home Secretaries - including Lord Whitelaw - appalled by the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill. Their fears that judicial and police independence were threatened prompted them to attack the legislation vigorously during the second reading debate. Lord Callaghan summed up concern when he complained of 'a wilful and ambitious group of young ministers who flit across the political scene, from department to department, supping the honey as they go before their misdeeds find them out'.

The inadequacies of the Government's regulation policy are not confined to its treatment of Parliament. They also involve the multiplication of quangos - ad hoc bodies stuffed with Tory party nominees - that can now be found overseeing various public services. These organs currently regulate the spending of more than pounds 42bn a year, but face minimal parliamentary scrutiny and are not accountable to any electorate.

Quangos have been established in a piecemeal manner. Thus in the NHS and state education, for example, government has devolved control from Whitehall without setting out its new strategic goals and monitoring their implementation. As a result, policy is messy and uncoordinated.

There is a need for an overhaul of government regulation. The intention to rid the country of unnecessary bureaucracy is right. Hundreds of rules could be abolished and no one would be worse off. But ministers' undemocratic approach and their failure to look at the broader context of regulation suggests opportunism rather than the dictates of prudent government.