Regulatory Authorities (Level of Charges) Bill
John Hayes (Minister of State (Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning), Business, Innovation and Skills; South Holland and The Deepings, Conservative)
We have spoken of dentists already. Perhaps I may take this opportunity to pay tribute to my own dentist, Lisa Jamieson of the Fen House dental practice in Spalding, who looks after my teeth and those of my wife and children. I will discuss this matter with her, because I believe that it is important as legislators that we are in touch with those whom legislation affects. Nevertheless, the case that I made on dentists is that the adoption of the new regulatory regime will simplify how we ensure that dentists are doing what they should. There are circumstances in which a new approach, framed by the desire to reduce regulation, can assist us not only in the matter of regulation, but in its cost.
There are circumstances in which a substantial charge is appropriate. Some regulatory regimes require the inspection of hazardous, highly technical processes, and would otherwise present a substantial cost to the public. There are also circumstances in which a tiered approach is appropriate, for instance to reflect the costs to the regulator of regulating different sizes of business.
The proposal that my hon. Friend articulated with such style and charm would limit regulators’ flexibility to innovate and incentivise in ways that work to the benefit of good, compliant businesses. The existing system, by contrast, supports that flexibility. Regulators might seek to reduce fees for some regulated organisations —we have spoken of small businesses, small charities, community organisations and so on—to reflect the intrinsically lower costs of the services provided to them. Yet they might simultaneously increase charges to organisations when the service in question is palpably more costly. That would surely be the case in respect of larger businesses, in the case of which checking compliance requires significantly more time and resources.
My hon. Friend’s ambition is to allow small organisations, be they businesses, community organisations or charitable organisations, to thrive because of the lighter hand of Government that both he and I wish to see applied. He will note that I take that ambition so seriously that I have said the Government will examine it once again with a critical eye. It is entirely possible to achieve it within the flexible regime that exists in respect of fees and charges, and it might, ironically, be inhibited by the proposals in his Bill.
Meanwhile, the Health and Safety Executive has recently announced a proposal that would impose charges on businesses that were found to be in material breach of health and safety laws. It would not seek to recover costs for purely technical breaches, of course, and compliant businesses would not pay a penny. That is another example of the flexibility that I am advertising as a virtue of the existing regime.
It is fair to say that a range of approaches are appropriate, including ones that create strong incentives for better practice in businesses. In practice, the relevant legislative framework allows for all those approaches, and it is not appropriate to impose a single framework on all regulators. It is for them to determine the relevant approach, within the powers confirmed by Parliament and the public spending rules overseen by the Public Accounts Committee and the Comptroller and Auditor General. The existing arrangements provide meaningful parliamentary oversight, combined with a pragmatic foundation for regulators and Government to adjust their approach according to dynamic circumstances. If we were to adopt an entirely different approach founded on the consumer prices index, as my hon. Friend suggests, rather than on a cost recovery basis, the incentives would be very different.
Finally, increases in fees limited to the CPI are unlikely to reflect changes in a given regulator’s costs. My hon. Friend argues that the cost to regulators is not the issue, and that the charge to organisations, whether they be businesses, individuals or otherwise, is always of paramount importance. However, it is equally important that there is some relationship between provision and fee, between cost and charge. It would be a very blunt instrument to apply the mechanism at the heart of the Bill in the way that he suggests.
If the increase in the full cost of a service exceeds CPI, capping fees would either leave the taxpayer to pick up the bill or leave the regulator to do the job within its official resources. It would not necessarily save taxpayers money, and it could arguably let businesses and individuals off the hook, because they would not have to pay the price necessary to cover the regulator’s
costs. That might be my hon. Friend’s intention, but I have never heard him suggest before that the taxpayer’s burden should be increased in such a blunt way. Indeed, I know for a fact that he has long been an advocate of cutting taxes where we can.