Standing up to the rule bullies

Tarzan may well beat his chest over the red tape being forced upon us, but it looks as if petty officialdom is here to stay

In the most extraordinary act of barefaced effrontery since Mrs Bottomley announced she wanted to buy her knickers in Marks & Spencer behind closed doors lest she were mobbed by admirers, Michael Heseltine has declared war on red tape.

As that distinguished scourge of bureaucracy Christopher Booker lost no time in pointing out, Tarzan’s deregulation initiative is a hollow sham. Since Heseltine first announced a blitzkrieg on the regulatory disaster engulfing British business, matching his words with a popgun of a Deregulation Bill, the tide of meddlesome rules, orders and directives pouring out of Brussels and Whitehall has flowed unabated at the rate of ten a day.

The heart of the problem is that real power now resides with the bureaucrats and the politicians lack the strength and will to resist. So every time Heseltine or his colleagues denounce a particular piece of regulation, the officials come up with a dozen reasons why the rule should not only stay in force but be strengthened.

Of the 10,000 diktats promulgated by the bureaucrats over the past three years, only one has worked to the public advantage, albeit unintentionally, and, by the most bitter of ironies, this sole shining example is singled out for oblivion in Heseltine’s quixotic crusade.

One of Kenneth Clarke’s last acts as

Home Secretary was to hold a photocall at a convenient Whitehall hostelry where, posing behind the beer pumps, he announced that children were to be allowed in pubs. There was no compelling evidence of popular demand for such a retrograde move, nor was any adduced. At the time it seemed yet another concession to the demands of tourism, which had lain behind earlier, and admittedly more welcome, changes to the licensing laws.

Mercifully, the bureaucrats promptly interposed themselves between the will of Parliament and its execution. For no better reason than that is the way they are, the officials so bound up the new concession in red tape that licensees were dissuaded from applying for the children’s certificate. As usual, one of the dodges deployed by the departmental drones was to make the cost of change prohibitive to business. Thus publicans were only to be permitted to play host to their new nappy-wearing, jammy-fingered clientele provided they first invested thousands of pounds in pint-sized lavatories and washbasins. Few felt so inclined, and the threat of children being admitted to what are essentially adult places receded. Now, thanks to the posturing of a deputy prime minister preparing for an annual party conference, we are yet again obliged to brace ourselves for the arrival of toddlers in the tap room.

One of the worst consequences of the catastrophic explosion of regulations is the disproportionate way in which it bears down on small businesses. Large companies have the resources, both financial and expert, to mitigate the waste and damage entailed in complying with a legion of crack-brained directives. Not so their smaller brethren.

Of course, there are many more small businesses than large, but I suspect it is more than a mere matter of numbers that accounts for their disproportionate suffering at the hands of officialdom. Put plainly, it comes down to bullying. How much easier to walk into a wayside restaurant and toss your weight about, demanding the use of wooden broom handles and sticking a penknife blade between kitchen tiles in the search for a speck of dirt, than to intimidate ICI.

I am sure, for example, that if officials really tried they could find a dozen reasons why British Airways should not equip its planes with 2ft-wide seats that turn into 6ft 6in beds at the touch of a button.

Take that button for a start. What if it were pressed accidentally? There must be something in the safety regulations that proscribes a seat that suddenly becomes a bed. As for the issuing of free, inflight pin-striped pyjamas, another of the planned innovations, do these comply with the Pyjama Cords Directive 1284980, which superseded the Pyjama Elasticated Waistband Order 1992? Either way, pyjamas contain a fly-free zone which is against the spirit of the EU.

Worse still, BA is said to be planning a “raid the larder” meal service, in effect allowing first class passengers to help themselves to food and drink whenever they wish. Has the airline not heard of the Health of the Nation policy, which lays down strict guidelines on what may or may not be eaten or drunk? Airline food is not exempt merely on the grounds that it cannot properly be classified as food.

Similarly, how was Mr Fayed permitted to sell in his Knightsbridge emporium a product described as Miracle Boost jeans? These, it is said, use the same lift and squeeze technology as the Wonderbra, with Spandex added to the seat to compress the buttocks.

The manufacturers, Sun Apparel, are American so they may be forgiven for not knowing that under EU rules the use of Spandex is restricted to the construction industry and only then permitted in exceptional cases concerning cantilevered buttresses.

Mr Fayed, though Egyptian in origin, has no such excuse. A businessman of his standing must know that products designed to compress the buttocks are an anathema to Herr Kohl and therefore fundamentally un-“communitaire”.

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