All the matters that are covered in the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) will of course be in order during the debate on the Government motion so that we may debate them. If the House wishes to allow Divisions at the conclusion of proceedings, I propose to allow them on amendments (a) and (b).
I beg to move,
That Standing Orders A and B below shall have effect and Standing Orders No. 14 (Exempted business), No. 124 (Statutory Instruments (Joint Committee)) and No. 130 (Select committees related to government departments) shall be amended as set out below.
A. Deregulation Committee
Standing Order No. 14 (Exempted business)
Line 14, after `procedure))', insert `or Standing Order B (Consideration of draft deregulation orders)'.
Standing Order No. 124 (Statutory Instruments (Joint Committee))
Line 22, at end insert 'and any draft order proposed to be made under section 1 of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994'.
Standing Order No. 130 (Select committees related to government departments)
Line 101, after 'Accounts', insert `and to the Deregulation Committee'.
The Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994, which received Royal Assent on 3 November, contains a new power enabling Ministers to make orders to amend or repeal primary legislation that imposes a burden, provided that necessary protection is not removed. The Act provides that each deregulation proposal should be open to parliamentary scrutiny for a period of 60 days, and that subsequent draft deregulation orders require the approval of both Houses of Parliament.
I am pleased to see my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), the Chairman of the Procedure Committee in his place, because he and his Committee carried out much diligent work on this matter. The Procedure Committee has already conducted an inquiry into the parliamentary procedure that should apply to deregulation orders and has made recommendations on how the House should make use of the opportunity for scrutiny that the Act provides. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton and to his colleagues for the speed and thoroughness of their inquiry and for the recommendations that they made. I think my right hon. Friend will agree that the Government have accepted the great majority of those recommendations.The Committee's report and the Government's response were debated in the House on 11 May.
The purpose of the motion is to give effect to the undertakings that the Government have given and to incorporate the new scrutiny procedure in Standing Orders. The new Standing Order A establishes the new scrutiny committee, the Deregulation Committee, with power to report to the House both on the initial deregulation proposals laid before Parliament and on the draft orders introduced for affirmative resolution after the initial scrutiny process. The Committee will also have power to report on any matter arising from its consideration of deregulation proposals or orders.
When considering deregulation proposals, the Committee will be asked to consider, under paragraph (5) of the draft Standing Order, whether the use of delegated rather than primary legislation is appropriate in the circumstances; whether the proposal actually removes or reduces a burden; whether necessary protection is continued; whether adequate consultation has taken place; and whether the proposal takes appropriate account of that consultation. The Committee will also apply the criteria used by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and ask, for example, whether the proposal is ultra vires or defectively drafted. In addition, it will consider whether it infringes any EC obligations.
Under the terms of the Act, about which, hon. Members will remember, there was a good deal of discussion, the Committee will have 60 days, excluding recesses, in which to carry out whatever inquiries it considers necessary and to report to the House whether the proposals should be proceeded with in the same terms, in an amended form or not at all. If the Deregulation Committee were to report that a proposal should not be proceeded with, in normal circumstances, as the Government have made clear on a number of occasions, we would expect to submit a revised proposal or to withdraw the proposal altogether.
When the proposal is brought back in its final form as a draft order subject to affirmative resolution, the Deregulation Committee will reconsider it, employing the same criteria as before, and consider the extent to which the Minister has taken account of the Committee's report on the first version of the proposal and of any other representations that may have been made. The Committee will then report within 15 sitting days on whether the House should approve the draft order.
The remaining provisions of the draft Standing Order deal with the Committee's powers. The Committee will have 16 members nominated for the duration of a Parliament and a quorum of five. It will have the usual powers of a Select Committee, including the powers to take evidence, to travel within the United Kingdom and to appoint specialist advisers.
In common with other Select Committees, it will not have the power to summon Ministers before it, but I am happy to repeat the assurance that the Government have already given the Procedure Committee: that Ministers with responsibility for a deregulation proposal will be anxious to assist the Deregulation Committee with its work. Frankly, I cannot envisage a time when a Minister would refuse to attend as a witness if his or her attendance were requested.
In addition to the usual powers, the Committee will have powers to appoint a sub-committee to communicate evidence to other Select Committees and to the equivalent Committee in another place and—something to which both Houses attach importance—to hold concurrent meetings with the Lords Committee. That seems a sensible way of avoiding two Committees covering the same ground with the same witnesses. It will also have the benefit of expert legal advice.
Following the Procedure Committee's recommendations, the draft Standing Order makes provision for hon. Members who are not members of the Deregulation Committee to take part in its questioning of witnesses. The Committee and its sub-Committee will have power to invite other hon. Members to attend evidence sessions, and those invited hon. Members will.be able to put questions to witnesses if they succeed in catching the Chairman's eye.
I am sure that the Committee will be able to devise appropriate ways of ensuring that hon. Members who express an interest in a particular deregulation proposal receive a invitation to attend relevant evidence sessions so that they can take advantage of the opportunities that the new procedure affords. Hon. Members will, of course, be able to give written evidence to the Committee and oral evidence if the Committee invites them to appear before it.
The final paragraphs of Standing Order A require the Deregulation Committee to take evidence from the Department concerned before making an adverse report and to report on each draft order not more than 15 sitting days after it was laid before the House.
The new Standing Order B governs proceedings in the House on draft deregulation orders after the Committee's consideration has finished. The procedure to be followed in relation to particular orders will depend on the nature of the Deregulation Committee's report. If the Committee has approved a draft order unanimously, the motion to approve it will be decided forthwith in line with the recommendations of the Procedure Committee. Hon. Members will already have had a chance to express their views at an earlier stage, not least through the procedures that I have just outlined, which allow them a role in the Deregulation Committee's evidence-taking. A measure that has received the unanimous approval of a relatiively large all-party committee after a thorough process of scrutiny is surely one that need not detain the House.
If the Committee approves a draft order, but its decision was not unanimous, there will be a debate of one and a half hours, which is, of course, what the Standing Orders provide for affirmative instruments generally.
If the Committee has recommended that a draft order should not be approved, the motion to approve it will not be able to be moved unless the House has resolved to disagree with the Committee's report. That would require a three-hour debate on an amendable motion—a significantly new feature of these arrangements.
Only in the most exceptional circumstances would the Government contemplate asking the House to set aside the Committee's recommendations in that way and it would certainly be appropriate to have a rather longer than usual debate under those circumstances, as was suggested by the Procedure Committee and as we readily accepted.
The hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) has tabled five amendments, to which he will no doubt speak. I would not seek to prevent him from doing so even if I could. His proposed amendments to Standing Order A would fix the size of the Deregulation Committee at 15 rather than 16, as the Procedure Committee proposed.
I was referring to the amendment to Standing Order A that would fix the size of the Deregulation Committee at 15 and give it an extra week—20 days instead of 15—in which to report to the House on the final version of the draft order. The hon. Gentleman's proposed amendments to Standing Order B would provide for longer debates in the House on draft deregulation.orders.
I believe that the Government's proposals on these points are entirely reasonable. Moreover, as I have now said several times, they precisely follow the recommendations of the Procedure Committee. The motion also makes minor or consequential amendments to three existing Standing Orders.
I am grateful to the Leader of the House for giving way and I apologise if I may have missed some reference to this point in his original remarks. I ran as fast as I could to come and hear him, but he was on his feet quicker than I had expected.
I am concerned about the credibility and reputation of the Committee, which, to a large extent, will depend on its chairmanship. The Leader of the House will be aware that in many submissions to the Procedure Committee—and among its membership—a strong view was expressed that the precedent established in other Committees of having an Opposition Member as Chairman of the Committee could well be followed in this case. I appreciate that it is not appropriate for the order, but I wonder whether the Leader of the House could give a assurance that he and his colleagues believe that, in normal circumstances, it would be appropriate for an Opposition Member to chair the Committee, if for no other reason than that the size of the Government these days might give him a larger pool of talent to call upon.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for acknowledging that the chairmanship is not appropriate for the order before the House. I have to say—disappointingly for him—that his question is not really one for me; it is, as with the chairmanship of other Committees, normally a matter for discussion through the usual channels and it is appropriate in respect of this Committee.
A motion to nominate the new Deregulation Committee will be introduced as soon as possible following the customary consultations through the self-same usual channels. The Government have undertaken that no deregulation proposal will be laid before Parliament under the new procedure until four sitting weeks after the Committee has been nominated, which should give the Committee adequate time to sort out how it wants to work before it is asked to undertake any inquiries.
The proposals, which are based on the substantial work of the Procedure Committee and a good deal of early debate in the House and the other place, will provide a sensible and flexible way of ensuring that deregulation proposals are subjected—as they quite properly should be—to full and effective parliamentary scrutiny and I commend them to the House.
I am grateful for the way in which the Leader of the House explained the motion. I should like to make a couple of preliminary points before coming to the main issues.
It is remarkable that we are entering an innovative parliamentary procedure with this Committee which is quite different from the history of how the House has operated. It is based on a Standing Order published less than a week ago. We are debating it today, yet we have not had the opportunity to debate the really effective changes that could occur in the Jopling report, which was published two years ago.
I make the contrast between the two if only to say to the Leader of the House that there is a case for that procedure simply on the grounds that, if the Government follow their programme on deregulation, there will be a considerable amount of work for the Select Committee, which may lead to many more orders reaching the Floor of the House.
Under the Jopling proposals, most of those orders could be considered in Committee rather than on the Floor of the House. The idea is to stop clogging up the Floor of the House with matters of substantial detail. The two sets of proposals go hand in hand. It would be more effective to operate the new Select Committee, with its unique powers of scrutiny, once the Jopling proposals were implemented, even on an experimental basis.
Although there is some implied criticism in what I have said, it is no criticism of the discussions that the Leader of the House has had with my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor). The sooner that we get on with implementing Jopling the better. It will make the Deregulation Select Committee operate much more efficiently.
I have read a little of the background to the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994 and to the proposals that we are discussing. It appears from my reading of the position that membership of the Deregulation Committee will be almost tantamount to membership of the Public Accounts Committee. I was a member of the PAC for two years. It is a full-time job to fulfil the functions and duties in the required detail.
There are some unwritten conventions in the House about who can and who cannot be a member of a Select Committee. There is a strong case for not following those conventions rigidly when the membership of the Deregulation Committee is considered. That is obviously a matter for discussion between the Government, the Opposition and the minor parties. Many hon. Members, particularly Opposition Members, are precluded from serving on any Select Committee because they hold other positions. There is a strong case for changing that convention for the new Committee.
I hope to catch your eye in a few moments, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Does my hon. Friend accept that the distinction that he makes is even greater than he perhaps realises? While the Public Accounts Committee has many similarities with the Deregulation Committee, its powers are entirely retrospective in matters of finance. The role of the Deregulation Committee will be prospective in terms of legislation that will be equally, if not more, important than financial legislation.
I agree with that. I do not want to get into a debate on the distinction between the two Committees. The PAC does not deal with policy. It never has Ministers before it in any event. It calls only the accounting officers of the Department or agency. Having said that, serving on the Public Accounts Committee, which has two separate sittings and reports each week on different subjects, is a full-time job for its members. There is no room for lots of outside interests. So the Deregulation Committee, which will run along similar lines as the PAC, will be extremely important. The membership and the care with which the Committee exercises its duties will have to be watched carefully by the House.
Another point about the process of the Committee is that the Government will decide to make a deregulation order—in the machinery of Government; we will never know about it. They will then consult outside interests before laying a proposal before the House. Again, under the normal process, we will not know about it. "Interests" is a strange word to use. When the Government have decided to make an order, they should tell the world. It should be a matter of public knowledge.
The House has an interest in knowing who the Government consulted as outside interests before they laid the draft order. We should like to see a list of the outside interests that the Government consulted. The work of the Committee will be absolutely crucial in the sense that it will take evidence from people who may have been deprived of the opportunity to be consulted as an outside interest before the order was laid before the House. So we should know whom the Government consulted.
There is no doubt that in the past 15 years power has shifted from Westminster to Whitehall on a grand scale. The Deregulation and Contracting Out Act and the operation of the Committee will transfers powers to Whitehall even further. There will be a free vote on the motion tonight. Indeed, I suspect that there will not be any votes. We want to make the system work, regardless of whether we disagree or agree with the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act. However, it has to be said that England is the last one-party state in western Europe. The Conservatives have ruled Britain more this century than the Communist party ruled the Soviet Union. The changes brought about in the past 15 years sometimes appeared to be made on the basis that the Conservative party thought that it would continue to rule for ever.
The Deregulation and Contracting Out Act transfers another tranche of powers from the House to the Executive. Sometimes other parties will have use of the powers that the Government have left in Whitehall. We must make sure that those parties operate them democratically, openly and in the interests of our fellow citizens. I remind the Leader of the House and his colleagues that that will come as a shock to Conservative Members who have never been in opposition. Of course, that applies to most of the Cabinet. I exclude the present Leader of the House, who was so helpful as a member of the Opposition in enabling me to carry through certain changes in the Finance Act 1977.
There are many other Acts that other parties in government might wish to change. They may not wish to go through the laborious processes of scrutiny and primary legislation to which we are accustomed in the House. The powers in the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act and the changes to the Standing Orders do not require much modification to be used for other purposes.
I am not interested in cutting corners. I hope that the Leader of the House is not interested in cutting corners. I do not wish to debate the effects of the deregulation legislation. One of the matters that the Deregulation Committee will scrutinise in deciding whether to take evidence and how to judge a deregulation order will be, as paragraph A(5)(A)(c) says:
whether the proposals…continue any necessary protection.
Such protection could be on matters of health and safety,
protection at work, and employment protection. Those matters go to the bare bones of the rights of our fellow citizens. So we are not interested in any corners being cut by either this or any future Government.
The Government have played with fire on the issue of procedure. I set that as a warning for the future. It is a warning as much to the Leader of the House as to anyone who occupies his position in the future. Nothing illustrates how the Government have played with fire with our procedure more than the Tory domination of the Deregulation Committee. The Conservatives will insist on the usual procedure. They will want an overall Conservative majority on the Committee, as there is on every Select Committee, whoever the Chair may be. I shall come to that in a moment.
As I understand the order, even if, by chance, the governing majority in the Deregulation Committee did not get their way, the Government could bring the order back to the Floor of the House so that their majority could push it through. That shows a supreme lack of confidence. We know what other Select Committees and Standing Committees are like. There are 651 very busy people in the House. We may criticise each other on a party, performance or competence basis, but we are all busy people. Occasionally, hon. Members come through the doors to vote at 10 o'clock knowing nothing of the detail of what they will vote on.
We are setting up a high-powered Committee, membership of which will be virtually a full-time occupation. Like other Select Committees, but unlike Standing Committees, it will take evidence. It will use advisers and it will have the assistance of legal counsel. I hope that legal counsel will be fully independent and will have as much to do with the Government as I have. It must be as independent as possible.
The Committee will take considerable time to scrutinise the proposed changes. It will deliberate. If it comes to a considered view after mature inquiry and consideration that it does not agree with the deregulation order in question, the matter will come to the Floor of the House, the Government will put on a three-line Whip, 651 people will troop through the doors and bingo.
If the Government were confident of their proposal to short-cut our usual scrutiny procedures by avoiding primary legislation, they would not seek to dominate the Committee as I suspect they will. The Government should not seek the chairmanship. I have not read all the details, but I understand that the decision on that required the casting vote of the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, from whom I hope that we will hear an abject apology shortly.
I hope that the Leader of the House will say that this is not an example of the Government seeking to dominate. I accept that, unlike the Public Accounts Committee, this Committee will deal with an element of legislation. It is a different legislative, procedural and scrutinising animal, unlike anything previously known in the House. 'That being so, I ask the Government to have confidence in their own legislation and procedures. They should be confident that this is a matter that they can get right.
Where the Government have a majority, they are entitled to get their legislation. Nevertheless, I hope that they will say that they do not want to take short cuts or be seen to cheat on the Opposition and that Labour can have the Chair of the Committee. If they did that, they would engender confidence in the House in the functions of the Committee.
If the Government seek to overturn a decision of the Deregulation Committee, if, in their wisdom, they decide not to approve deregulation, the interested and informed parts of the public who were concerned with that element of deregulation will hold the House further in conteimpt. That is crucial.
The Labour party will co-operate with the Committee. It is in everyone's interests that it should do so and it would be irresponsible not to do so. But we will not co-operate quietly. The Opposition will scrutinise the operation of the Deregulation Committee from day one. We will watch and monitor its procedure. We will watch and monitor the interests involved, both those of the Members and those who appear before it. We will ruthlessly expose any corruption of our democratic procedures. The Government are taking a short cut 'with our procedures and, if we feel that it has the potential to cause problems for our constituents and fellow citizens, we need to expose that.
I have made it clear that the Labour party will not disrupt the Committee in any way. We shall operate it responsibly, but we do not agree with it. We say in a spirit of good will to the Leader of the House, who has introduced the proposal so speedily—less than a week after publication—that we hope that there will be no dragooning of the membership. That must be a matter for mature discussion between the parties and possibly, as I have already said, a breaching of one of the conventions of the House.
That said, the Committee has a serious job to do. It is the long-stop against the deregulation measures that we think the Government will introduce, which will be so damaging to life in Britain.
I am delighted to follow the remarks of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), who has obviously given considerable consideration to this measure. He emphasised, as I wish to do, the great importance of the Committee. Later in my speech I intend to say that this will become one of the most important Committees in the House. Therefore, I reinforce what the hon. Gentleman said on that.
First, I thank the Government for carrying forward the recommendations of the Procedure Committee nearly to the letter. That is a fairly unusual experience for the Procedure Committee. The Government have been willing to accept the Committee's recommendations almost in their entirety. This Committee, when in action, will, I believe, come to be perhaps the most important and significant modernisation of House of Commons procedure since the introduction of the departmental Select Committees 14 years ago.
The Committee is significant because the Standing Order, once approved, will provide a unique means of amending primary legislation, and it is the amending of primary legislation which is important. That is why the Procedure Committee spent much time and gave considerable thought and care to framing its regulations and recommendations. Once we were charged by the House to consider the best way for the House to discuss deregulation orders, the principle behind our recommendations was the realisation that the deregulation order was, or was at least the alternative of, primary legislation. This is the first time that it will be possible to alter primary legislation without a Bill being brought before the House.
In an Adjournment debate on the subject, I said that we believed that a deregulation order should not—I repeat not—be considered to be just another statutory instrument. That follows very much what the hon. Gentleman was saying. After all, a statutory instrument is secondary legislation. It is part of a Bill that we have already passed and those powers are allowed.
A deregulation order is an entirely different instrument and must be considered as such by the House, by the Clerks and by lawyers outside. It is, in effect, primary legislation inasmuch as it alters an Act of Parliament. It is therefore a substitute for another part of primary legislation. That is its unique nature, which the hon. Gentleman outlined.
The hon. Gentleman expressed concern about the use of the legislation for purposes other than deregulation. I would ask him to look carefully at the Standing Order, which makes it clear that the basic consideration of the Committee must be that its proposals should
remove or reduce a burden or the authorisation or requirement of a burden".
That refers to a reduction in the burden of legislation, not an alteration for the sake of it; an alteration that is necessary because there is a burden on our constituents, on industry, trade unions or whatever. I shall return to that in a moment.
It is worth underlining, because it complies with something that the hon. Gentleman said, that paragraph 16 of the fourth report of the Select Committee, 1993–94, says:
In our recommendations we have sought to ensure that no Act of Parliament is repealed or amended under this new power without examination at least as thorough as if the change had been made by a Bill passing through the House.
We want to ensure a full examination by the House.
The new Deregulation Committee will become, as I have already said, one of the most senior Committees of the House. I am particularly concerned that the Government have been willing, in paragraph A(2) of the motion, to set out the three approaches that the Committee must make. It says:
Paragraph (5) makes it clear that the Committee must consider whether the draft deregulation order appears to make any inappropriate use of delegated legislation. If it does, that is the first thing that the Committee should consider and reject. I hope that answers the point made by the hon. Member for Perry Barr about powers being extended.
The Committee will consider also the continuation of any necessary protection that the legislation may have given. The hon. Member for Perry Barr said that it is essential to ensure that protection is reviewed. That is stated in the Committee's recommendation and endorsed by the Government.
The measure introduces two provisions that were not part of the Procedure Committee's recommendations, but I am sure that it would have been happy to consider them. One is that the Deregulation Committee must consider whether the deregulation order has any retrospective effect. The Government were right to make that addition. The other is that the Committee should consider whether an order appears to be incompatible with any obligation resulting from membership of the European Union. Again, that addition is to be applauded rather than rejected.
I will be interested to hear the arguments of the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) for reducing the membership of the Deregulation Committee from 16 to 15. We felt that it needs to be that size to ensure that different parties and parts of the country could be represented on the Committee. We went to a lot of trouble before arriving at 16, which emphasises the importance that should be attached to the Deregulation Committee.
I am glad that the Government have, almost without exception, accepted our recommendations concerning the Committee's powers—that it can adjourn from place to place, report from time to time, have specialist advisers, appoint a sub-committee, sit during recesses, sit in other places in the United Kingdom, and communicate with other Committees and the House of Lords.
If the same deregulation order were being considered by both Houses, it would be nonsense to ask a Minister or other witnesses to appear twice. We should be able to arrange for evidence to be taken together, so that witnesses would have to appear only once.
The sub-committee's powers have also been defined and seem appropriate. There is, of course, the power to send for persons and papers. The Government have not accepted the recommendation that the Deregulation Committee should be able to summon Ministers. The Government argue, with considerable persuasiveness, that a Minister who wants to see his deregulation order approved would be unlikely to refuse the Committee's request to appear before it. Any Minister who rejected such an invitation would be likely to find that the Committee looked carefully and with a critical eye at the order. It would want to know why the devil the Minister would not attend to answer questions.
Paragraph (9) states that the Committee shall have the power
to send for persons, papers and records".
I may not have compared that properly with other Select Committee terms of reference, but I assume that it includes the power to send for Ministers. Do other Select Committees have different terms of reference?
Those powers are the same as for other departmental Select Committees, which do not have the power to summon Ministers. That can be done only by a request from the House, passed by the House. Similarly, a Select Committee cannot enforce the attendance of a Member of Parliament.
The Government could also argue, although they have not done so, that if they gave the Deregulation Committee—even though it may be one of the most important Committees—the power to call Ministers, that could be the thin end of the wedge and other Committees might demand a similar power. I am willing to accept the assurance given by my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council that a Minister would want to attend if requested.
The Deregulation Committee will adopt a new and unique procedure that I term the fast track. Where a provision is obviously a burden on business or the public, and is unanimously viewed by everyone on the Committee as something that should be done away with, deregulation can—after consideration by the Government—come before the House immediately and be put forthwith.
If only one member of the Committee objected, that would halt the fast track procedure. The proposal would be considered by the whole Committee, calling witnesses if necessary. If the Committee wanted to recommend approval of the deregulation order, it would come before the House—which would make sure that it was the same as the draft order and that the Government had not, by sleight of hand, altered it. The House could then debate it for one and a half hours.
If the Deregulation Committee believed that the draft order should not go forward, it could not be put to the House without a three-hour debate. Also unique is that instead of the order coming before the House because it is unamendable, the Procedure Committee has devised a device whereby an amendment to the draft order could be publicised and voted on by the House, because the House must approve or disapprove the Deregulation Committee's recommendation.
Therefore, for the Government to overcome the recommendation for an order not to be proceeded with, the matter must come to the House and the House must vote to disagree with one of its own Committees, which has recommended that the order should not be proceeded with. If the Committee contains a majority of members from the Government's party, it will be difficult for the Government to take that step. But if they do, they must first table an amendable motion whereby the Committee can make it clear why it is not willing to accept the deregulation order. The Procedure Committee thought that that new procedure would safeguard the rights of Members of the House to ensure that their views were properly expressed and not overridden or simply stamped on by a Government.
The Committee's recommendations are fairly definite: fast track; to the Floor of the House; and put forthwith. After debate and agreement by the Committee, the matter will be put to the House with the possibility of an hour and a half s debate. If matters are not agreed by the Committee, they will come to the Floor of the House for a three-hour debate—again, that is new—on an adjournable motion.
The amendments would alter that procedure so that there would be no fast track. But if members of the Committee are unanimous, a matter can still have an hour and a half s debate. The overall effect of the three amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Newham, South would be that the hour and a half s debate for the second stage would be shunted to two and a half hours, and the three-hour debate would be shunted to four hours.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that removing the fast track gives greater protection to the House, Back-Bench Members and the public? Is not the fast track that he commends advantageous to Her Majesty's Government, whichever party is in power?
It is advantageous to the removal of a burden as quickly as possible. If 16 members from both sides of a Committee are unanimous in the view that it would remove a burden, that should be proceeded with as quickly as possible.
Well, it saves it having to be debated on the Floor of the House. But yes, it stays an hour and a half. Those differences do not amount to much. Without wishing to be unfair to the hon. Gentleman, the amendments involve a shunting from nothing, an hour and a half and three hours to an hour and a half, two and a half hours and four hours. The amendments are unnecessary and the Committee, which has considered the matter fully, supports the Government's recommendations.
I have been speaking for too long and should come to a conclusion. Basically, I repeat what I said before: this is a unique and new procedure which I hope will be established. It may act as an illustration later when we consider how we may streamline procedures in the House generally. It is unique because of the variations, but I have made it crystal clear that, as the hon. Member for Perry Barr said, the Committee will have a great deal of work and will take up a great deal of Members' time, as it rightly should, because it deals with primary legislation.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Lord President for his kind words about me and the Committee. We are delighted that we can respond by approving the Government's recommendations, which will probably portend this evening.
Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) to speak, I remind the House of Madam Speaker's ruling that it will be in order for the hon. Member to deal with any matter covered by his amendments. If he wishes to press either amendment (a) or (b) to a vote, he should move them formally at the conclusion of the whole debate.
I am grateful for your reminder, Madam Deputy Speaker, of that ruling. I tabled the amendments to enable them to be discussed. I may decide to move amendments (a) and (b), but I understand that they could be negatived on the voice even if they are moved. In that event, we shall see what happens.
I pay tribute to the Chairman of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), for his clear exposition of why the Committee produced the basis for the new standing orders. As the House will have gathered from our exchanges, I take an opposite view about both the desirability of the Act and the effectiveness of the procedures. As we all know, standing orders are the ball bearings of democracy. They are the inner hub of the democratic wheel. Unfortunately, these standing orders break new constitutional ground—we agree on that. I also agree that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) made clear, they will entail a lot of work by Committee members, comparable with the work done by the Public Accounts Committee.
I see the Committee Chairman nodding.
The standing orders add another architectural wing to the procedural building of this House. I know that that is a mixed metaphor, but everyone understands what I mean. They will entail more effort and work by more hon. Members. But it will not be the normal work of most Select Committees, since Select Committees are generally considered to be good for democracy because they penetrate, expose—at least, they have the potential to do so—require evidence, test arguments, enlighten, produce reports and recommend. By making the Executive accountable, they add to the sum total of democracy. That is a fair assumption about Select Committees, but only if their functions match other functions of the House, and are in a particular context.
We can judge the proposed Committee's work, and the quality of its proposed standing orders, only by looking at their function. It is not to penetrate, expose and do all sorts of things to the Executive; rather, it is a reaction to a vast new power which legislation has already given the Executive. The right hon. Member for Honiton freely admits that. There is a fast track not just in terms of the Select Committee's work coming back to the Floor of the House—the subject of our earlier exchange—but in terms of new legislation itself.
The proposals in the Act are for legislation allowing statutory instruments to amend pretty well any Act at all. Indeed, although there is no limit on the Act, other than the Government's wish, the proposals would allow a single statutory instrument to amend an unknown number of Acts in an unknown number of ways.
If I am wrong about that, I am sure that the Leader of the House will tell me so—as will the Chairman of the Procedure Committee. But the document that the Government must present to the House under, I believe, section 3 of the Act, need not be one document per proposed amendment; it can be one document per statutory instrument. Presumably, given a schedule, there can be any number of amendments to any number of Acts: no limit is imposed by either the Act or the Standing Orders.
Let us imagine, to use a crude analogy, that a huge new powerful motor car driving from Whitehall to Westminster is to be equipped with brakes. What we are discussing tonight, as we have in previous debates, is the nature of those brakes. I contend that whatever we manage to cobble together tonight in regard to Standing Orders will not be appropriate, because many of us do not think that the motor car should exist in the first place.
It is not just a question of party politics; it is a question of whether any Government should have this power. The ability to amend any number of Acts of Parliament by means of a single statutory instrument, whatever the scrutiny procedure, is a considerable power for any Executive. As my hon. Friend the Member for Perry Barr pointed out, section 3 enables the Minister to construct his motor car—or bulldozer: many metaphors could be used—by consulting such organisations
as appear to him to be representative",
and such persons
as he considers appropriate
undertake such further consultation with respect to the variations as appears to him to be appropriate.
Only at the conclusion of that will the Minister lay the document, if that is considered appropriate.
As we know from current proceedings in the House—from what will happen on Monday, for instance, and from the discussions that took place over the weekend—if a Minister has already said that he will do this and lays the appropriate paper before the House, he and his supporters are to an extent committed. He and the Government will decide what is to be done, not in the Queen's Speech but in secret consultation, according to statute. Even before we start, we are faced with a pretty formidable machine. My amendments suggest, in a modest way, how the brakes can be made a little more efficient—although I do not think they would be very efficient even if the amendments were accepted.
Before I discuss the amendments, however, let me say something about the associated topic of related committees. My hon. Friend the Member for Perry Barr suggested that this new Committee might, in a way, be analogous to the Public Accounts Committee, and I agree that in some administrative senses that will be true. The Committee will be given a good deal of evidence by a number of people. It will, however, be prospective in legislative terms, rather than retrospective in terms of policing and money. A big difference is involved in that.
One similarity will lie in the fact that many people will be involved, absorbing the Committee's time and effort. It may also generate considerable controversy. As has been suggested, there are also similarities with the Select Committee on European Legislation. As the right hon. Member for Honiton knows, I was able to give his Committee some evidence when I chaired the European Committee, as I did for nine years.
In my view, however, while there are several similarities, in regard to administration and in regard to at least some of the clerking skills. This Committee, however, will not fulfil the same constitutional role. While the European Committee suggests that debates should take place and presents an objective report on what is at issue, it does not deal with merit. The purpose of this Committee, however, is almost wholly related to merit. It must judge—first on the evidence that the Minister provides and then on evidence that may come from elsewhere, within tight time limits—the balance between protection and burden.
The right hon. Gentleman has constantly said that the Act is there to reduce burdens, and I do not blame him; that, after all, is the purpose of the Act. But—to misquote Harold Wilson—one person's burden is another's protection. In the history of the House of Commons, most Members of Parliament have a duty here to achieve a balance between the two. We are dealing not just with any old amendments to Acts, but with what I would describe as the heart of one of the functions of the House of Commons and Acts of Parliament: balancing burdens and benefits. The biggest balance of the lot is that between taxation and how the money is spent. The Committee is important, in that it lies at the heart of a great deal of what the House is elected to do in any event.
The right hon. Member for Honiton said a good deal about fast tracks, and his Committee has provided a diagram illustrating what will happen. I do not think that its proposals will all be adopted, but a diagram is certainly needed to explain the position properly. The right hon. Gentleman did explain, as did the Leader of the House, in terms of the different procedures. No fewer than 110 lines explain how the Committee should be established and how it should work. Much of the content replicates what other Select Committee have produced, but much does not. I refer to the double blocking procedure.
My amendment (b) deals with the limit of one and a half hours debate on the Floor of the House. At present the House devotes that time to dealing with a single statutory instrument; until just after the war, the debate was open ended. If only five people are present in the relevant quorum when the proposal reaches its final stages in the Committee—perhaps only two Opposition Members—it is possible that, if three or five of them agree we shall end up with a large number of amendments to Acts, which will then come to the House and be taken forthwith. In fact, I believe that there must be a minimum of five people, and in some cases they may all be non-Opposition Members. Can any hon. Member deny that that is a possible scenario? The right hon. Member for Honiton nods.
I thank the hon. Member for confirming my suggestion. Why are we passing Standing Orders that will allow an unknown number of Acts to be amended in an unknown number of ways, forthwith, on the Floor of the House?
Let me try to clear up a point that the hon. Gentleman raised, which created a doubt in my mind. He suggested that a single order might involve a host of matters affecting different pieces of legislation. Section 1 of the Act refers consistently to a single order concerned with a certain burden. It is possible that that burden would be covered by more than one Act, but it is a single burden and not a series of burdens concerning a series of different Acts. Certainly, the Government never suggested, and the Select Committee never considered—on the evidence that it received—that serialisation under a single Act could be implemented under the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act in its ultimate form.
I thought it important to straighten that out; it should relieve the hon. Gentleman's worries.
I am grateful for that intervention because it shows that sometimes useful exchanges occur when there are only a few hon. Members in the House. Less light is often shed on matters when there is a maximum number of hon. Members present. This is a classic example of the former situation.
The comments of the right hon. Member for Honiton may be correct by the implicit wording of the Act, but until now that has not been made clear. I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for making the point clear. He is saying that a single statutory instrument deals with a particular burden which may involve the amendment of part of an Act or a number of Acts, which may relieve or change the balance of the burden. It means also that we will not have a series of decisions made forthwith or any debates on anything other than a single burden to be removed. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Honiton for proving that because it removes at least some of my objection to the procedure. Nevertheless, the essentials remain.
I am thinking aloud now, but that is what we do here sometimes. The question is what we mean by "burden". It could be a collective burden on a number of matters relating to machinery, safety at work or anything. We have to define what "the burden" is. I can see that a single statutory instrument might encompass a wide range of burdens.
The right hon. Member for Honiton referred to the possibility of a division. If there is a division within the Committee, there has to be a debate of an hour and a half. I hope that that is so, because the statutory instruments are important enough to deserve at least that. My amendment (c), which is not being called, asks for a debate of two hours. After the Minister has opened the debate and the Opposition Front Bench Member has spoken, if we are to leave time for winding up, we discover that one and a half hours is not very long. Although my amendment is not being called, it is something that we may wish to consider.
My amendment (aa) has not been called, but it has been referred to by the right hon. Member for Honiton in relation to the chairmanship of the Committee. I recognise that it might be inadvisable to put, in broad terms in standing orders, whether the chairmanship of particular Committees should be held by Opposition or Government Members. I do not think that that occurs in Standing Orders now. However, there is a convention on these matters, and one which reflects the quality of the House. There is nothing to prevent a Select Committee from underlining that convention with a recommendation. That would be acceptable.
I have many connections with colleagues from other European Parliaments. When I told them that I was the Chairman of the Select Committee on European Legislation not because of my views but simply because I was a member of the Opposition, they said, "Quel magnifique—does that mean that the Chairman is always appointed from the Opposition?" When I said that that was so, they said, "That is marvellous. Your House of Commons is so marvellous. I wish we did that." The Public Accounts Committee, the Statutory Instruments Committee and the Select Committee on European Legislation follow that convention and it is agreed. I am not saying that it should be in Standing Orders.
The singular voting event referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Perry Barr was unfortunate. On reflection, the Chairman of the Committee, despite his hard work on this, might have done something different. The Select Committee report—HC238 from the parliamentary Session 1993–94—says in paragraph 96:
We recommend that the Deregulation Committee should be chaired by a member from an Opposition party.
There is nothing wrong with that recommendation as such. That was in the Chairman's draft report and I thought that the hon. Member for Honiton was following the convention. When they voted on that recommendation, there were six ayes and six noes. The Chairman then declared himself with the noes. That was against convention because the status quo was the Chairman's report under discussion.
That is unfortunate and I hope that the hon. Member for Honiton will reconsider and recommend to the Leader of the House that, by convention, if not by recommendation, the new Select Committee should be added to the list of Committees following the convention. Chairmen have responsibilities and, if the Committee is not added to that list, the enormous powers will be allied with the interests of Her Majesty's Government and not with the interests of the House and proper scrutiny. It would not be in the interests of the Government of the day, whoever that may be, or in the interests of those concerned or the public if that convention were not continued. My amendment asks that the membership of the Committee be changed from 16 to 15. That alters the mathematics. With 15 and a Government Chairman, the Government majority would be marginally reduced. It was tabled in order to bring the matter into the ambit of debate and for no other reason.
The hon. Gentleman raised my name as Chairman of the Committee and spoke about the way I cast my vote. It is only fair that I should explain, as I explained to the Committee, that the chairmanship of any new Committee established by the House has always been negotiated through the usual channels. There has never been a recommendation from a Select Committee about the chairmanship. There is no doubt that the usual channels will have seen what was in the draft report. When the Committee is established, the usual channels will decide. I believe that that was the right way to behave and that is why I voted as I did.
I am grateful for that explanation and I am glad to have been able to give the right hon. Gentleman the opportunity of making it. We all understand that negotiations between the usual channels have to take place, although we accept that it is a bit of a compromise. However, the convention of the House that certain sorts of Committee always have an Opposition Chairman is a slightly different matter. I do not think that we have had a new Select Committee of this sort since the formation of the Select Committee on European Legislation in 1974 when the late John Davies,. whom many of us recall, went straight from the Cabinet to be Chairman of that Committee in Opposition. I understand the explanation of the right hon. Member for Honiton, but I suggest that the precedent for new Committees is on my side of the argument rather than his.
I shall conclude with a quotation from those days. It is from the Select Committee on Procedure appointed in 1976 which reported in the Session 1977–78. Paragraph 1.5 of that report—HC588—said:
We agree that the relationship between the executive and the legislature is the crucial feature of the functioning of our institutions of government, and we are conscious of the widespread concern in the country about the present nature of that relationship …The essence of the problem…is that the balance of advantage between Parliament and Government in the day to day working of the Constitution is now weighted in favour of the Government to a degree which arouses widespread anxiety and is inimical to the proper working of our parliamentary democracy.
That was the view of the Select Committee which made recommendations for the setting up of the departmental Select Committees. It was followed up by Lord Pym and Lord St John of Fawsley respectively, as shadow Leader and Leader of the House. That view was expressed unanimously by the members of that Committee who were elected on 15 June 1976. The record states that the Committee consisted of:
Mr. Kenneth Baker, Mr. A. J. Beith, Mr. George Cunningham, Mr. Michael English, Mr. John Garrett, Mr. Norman Lamont, Mr. Richard Luce, Mr. David Marquand, Mr. John Peyton, Mr. J. Enoch Powell, Mr. Giles Radice, Sir David Renton, Miss Jo Richardson, Mr. Nicholas Ridley, Mr. Nigel Spearing and Sir Thomas Williams.
I believe that the Act on the basis of which the Standing Orders will come into being will do what was then feared. It will give greater power to the Executive and less power to the House. Whatever the degree of the changes that we may make and whatever the complications involving the Standing Orders, they will go in the opposite direction to that epoch-making Select Committee report nearly 20 years ago.
I understand that we have only a few minutes left in the debate. I rise to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Procedure, who steered the ship through some troubled waters, and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House,who, when giving evidence, made so many matters clear.
I suppose that all hon. Members are sorry that Ministers will not he able to come to the new Select Committee but, after a while, there may be a change of heart because, obviously, Ministers will know most about any deregulation. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said that many of the deregulations would be "tiddlers". He said that 55 possible deregulations were waiting in the corridor. I am sure that they will be phased through. Some regulations will be so ancient that we shall be able to dismiss them in a few minutes.
I have looked at our list of recommendations. Apart from the recommendation on a Minister of the Crown, I think that the Leader of the House has given way on practically everything else. Perhaps the only possible vacuum involves the fact that we wanted to exchange evidence with other House of Commons Committees. That may be a bit laborious.
We have heard a great deal from the Chairman of the Select Committee on European Legislation. There is no doubt that the Joint Committee containing hon. Members from this place and the other place will provide great expertise. I was pleased that I was assured when hearing evidence that hon. Members with specialist knowledge would be able to attend and speak in the Committee. It is a good idea to allow everyone who has expertise on a Bill to give their view.
I hear much twittering of papers, so I had better not delay the House any longer. I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker for calling me, and I fully support the new Committee.
In recent moments, there appears to have been a slight shift in the atmosphere in the House, which may have affected hon. Members' views on how much time I should take for my speech, but it would be appropriate to comment on a number of points that have been raised.
Among the pleasures of the debate, which, I must admit, have so far been few, is the fact that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) is performing for the first time in his new role. This is the first time that he and I have faced each other across the Dispatch Box, as distinct from facing each other in other ways.
In my early period as Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, a position that I filled from about 1982 to 1984, the hon. Member for Perry Barr was my Opposition opposite number, so to speak. I remember some entertaining exchanges at DHSS Questions, as they were then known, between Conservative Members and Opposition Members. He sat on the Government Benches in 1974 to 1979, when I sat on the Opposition Benches. During that time, I served on every one of the innumerable Committees that considered the Finance Bill and I think that he sat on many of them. too.
The hon. Gentleman certainly made his mark on that one. I served on every one of the two-yearly Committees considering the Finance Bill from 1974 to 1979. One Committee sticks in the mind. Perhaps it was not widely noticed by people outside. As the hon. Gentleman said, the amendments that were tabled in that Committee became known as the Rooker-Wise amendments, but they should have been called either the Rooker-Wise-Lawson amendments or the Rooker-Wise-Newton-Lawson amendments. At that stage, however, I was not prepared to own up. They were entertaining and interesting times, even if much of our business was done at unusual times of the night.
The people whose business it is to ensure that the House's affairs run smoothly have improved their performance in recent moments. That may ease the pressure on me as I rapidly start to comment on the points that have been raised.
I must enter some reservation about the criticism, as I suppose one must call it, from Front-Bench and Back-Bench Opposition Members over the speed with which the Orders have allegedly been introduced. I accept that the detail of the fairly complex changes to the Standing Orders—such things nearly always end up being fairly complex—has been around for only a week or so. However, the shape and nature of the proposals, including those to which the hon. Member for Perry Barr objects, were made clear in a full Government statement months ago, before the House even completed its consideration of the proposals.
The notion, therefore, that the hon. Members for Perry Barr and for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) have had only one week to find out what all this is about is far fetched. I see from the expression of the face of hon. Member for Perry Barr that he thinks that I have a point.
One of the things about the hon. Member for Perry Barr is that he sometimes manages to end a speech at the Dispatch Box in the manner of a militant, but I have always known that under it lie the mind and heart of a moderate.
I take that for granted, as I do for all our colleagues in the House, not least the hon. Member for Newham, South, who I suspect may be seeking to stop this badinage and to get me to say something about the Standing Orders.
Of course, I accept that the proposal's general outline has been known for a long time. The limitation of time, however, involves formal exposure of the proposals to hon. Members. Effectively, the proposals have been on the Order Paper for three days. I think that that is accurate. That is the issue.
I do not want to make a meal of this, but I resist that conclusion. This happened months ago, so I may have the sequence slightly out of order, but, either before Report or certainly before Third Reading, I made sure that a full paper setting out the Government's proposals was exposed to anyone who cared to look at it. The proposed arrangements were fully explained in the House. This, therefore, is not a bounce.
We did indeed and the issues were considered in that debate.
The hon. Member for Perry Barr made some reasonable points. I cannot respond to all of them; I shall reflect on some of them and draw them to the attention of those people in the usual channels who will have to consider the membership of the Committee. They can consider some of the points that he raised in talking about the usual conventions.
It is often assumed that there are Select Committees on which Front-Bench spokesmen do not serve, but a significant number of Select Committees include Front-Bench spokesmen, including the domestic Committees dealing with broadcasting and House matters. The Select Committee on Members' Interests has Front-Bench spokesmen from both sides of the House. It is clearly not ruled out in principle. If it seems sensible that they should sit on the Committee, the matter could be considered.
The hon. Member for Perry Barr said that who had been consulted should be made clear. The intention is to say what consultations have taken place, unless the people involved specifically request confidentiality. Such information would, therefore, normally be available to the Committee. There is no attempt to cover up or prevent the Committee from having the information that it should have.
The requirement for the ministerial document to be laid specifically includes the consultation undertaken and any representations received, subject to the usual condition of confidentiality if requested. The hon. Member for Perry Barr said that that would be laborious and time-consuming work, but the Government are conscious of the need not to swamp the new process. Depending on how many proposals the Committee might want to inquire into in more detail, we would have to judge the number that could be considered at any one time. As I said, we intend to set up a special mechanism in Whitehall to ensure that there is a sensible flow of business to the Committee.
The right hon. Gentleman again makes an analogy with the Public Accounts Committee, which deals with between 30 and 45 reports a year. Its programme of work comes from the National Audit Office more or less on a two-year basis. Not everything comes to fruition, but it has had good advance notice so that it can programme the timetable for membership and publication of any reports. I am not suggesting that there should be a requirement for two years' notice, but I believe that the new Committee should have decent up-front knowledge rather than three or four months.
The hon. Gentleman and I have been doing business together for 20 years so he should know me well enough to accept that, if someone makes a reasonable point, I try to respond reasonably. His point certainly sounds reasonable and I shall ensure that it is examined.
I come rapidly to my response to what I take to be the main thrust of the criticisms and concerns expressed by the hon. Members for Perry Barr and for Newham, South and, in passing, pick up on a particular point made by the former. I believe that I can quote almost the exact words used by the hon. Member for Perry Barr, who said that he wanted the legal adviser to the Committee to have as much to do with the Government as he did. In fact, the intention is that the Deregulation Committee will be given legal advice by the Counsel to the Speaker, not by Government lawyers. I think that the House authorities will confirm that the Counsel to the Speaker has precisely as much to do with the Government as the hon. Gentleman has and is entirely independent of the Government.
The notion that we are seeking to take powers away from the House is far-fetched. Under a different range of mechanisms, every proposal—whatever the Committee says—comes to the House, often for further discussion if the House so wishes, but always for a decision. That is an important and basic point. The hon. Member for Newham, South and, indeed, the hon. Member for Perry Barr, seemed to suggest that the Government would drop the vehicle licensing system or the health and safety at work system under the new legislation, but that is a ridiculous notion.
Perhaps not, but that was the flavour of what the hon. Gentleman said. The implication was that the Government would charge around, overturning important Acts of Parliament at the drop of a hat and without a vote. That is far-fetched. The White Paper contains 55 examples and I accept that the one that I always choose is the most extreme. One of the proposals is to ensure that the Patent Office can accept documents in forms other than on paper, such as electronic filing. The Government believe that it does not make sense in this day and age to have to pass an Act to allow the Patent Office to accept documents in forms other than on paper. It is an extreme example but a good one; it threatens no one and is simply common sense. It is daft to have to go through the three or four stages of an Act in two Houses of Parliament to allow that to happen. We are devising a procedure to allow it to happen more simply and sensibly. I commend that and the Orders to the House.
Amendment proposed: (a), in Standing Order A, paragraph (14), leave out 'fifteen' and insert `twenty'.— [Mr. Spearing.]
Question, That the amendment be made, put and negatived.
Amendment proposed: (b), in Standing Order B, paragraph (1)(a), leave out `forthwith' and insert
'not later than one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion'.[Mr. Spearing.].Question, That the amendment be made, put and negatived.
That Standing Orders A and B below shall have effect and Standing Orders No. 14 (Exempted business), No. 124 (Statutory Instruments (Joint Committee)) and No. 130 (Select committees related to government departments) shall be amended as set out below.
Line 14, after 'procedure))', insert 'or Standing Order B (Consideration of draft deregulation orders)'.
Standing Order No. 124 (Statutory Instruments (Joint Committee))
Line 22, at end insert 'and any draft order proposed to be made under section 1 of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994'.
Standing Order No. 130 (Select committees related to government departments)
Line 101, after 'Accounts', insert 'and to the Deregulation Committee'.