As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, all legislation has to undergo a regulatory impact assessment, which does not differentiate the sources of that legislation. Recently revised guidelines on RIAs emphasise the need to think small first in drawing up regulations. On the European aspect, the Government have been successful, through their policy of positive engagement in Europe and through the Lisbon economic summit, in developing the charter for small business, which puts considerable emphasis on the need to improve the regulatory environment not only in the United Kingdom, but throughout Europe.
Small businesses are the engine for economic growth in this country, but is the Minister aware of the on-cost to them of enforcing the myriad rules and regulations coming from Europe? That makes us much less competitive than many other European countries, which do not enforce the rules and regulations on their small businesses as efficiently and effectively as we do. Will she consider perhaps introducing a local appeal mechanism so that small firms that feel aggrieved by officialdom and the enforcement of regulations can appeal to the local magistrates court for a view as to whether rules and regulations from Europe are being over-zealously pursued?
The hon. Gentleman suggests yet another layer of bureaucracy and yet another on-cost for small firms. He seems to have failed to notice that employment in this country is at its highest, at just under 28 million. A million jobs haw been created since May 1997 and nearly three quarters of people of working age are employed. The data on VAT registration suggest that business start-ups are at historically high levels. That is a consequence of the economic stability generated by Government policy and a consequence of the move towards completing the single market.
Single market legislation alone has created an environment whereby there is one set of rules instead of 15 different sets for 15 different countries. The Government are committed to reducing the regulatory impact on small firms and to ensuring that small firms in this country can benefit from the biggest domestic market in the world—the European Union, which has 350 million consumers.
Will my right hon. Friend make it clear to Opposition Members and small firms that those who whine and bleat that regulations are wrong per se are themselves wrong? A lot of the regulations that we must insist on keeping protect health and safety and basic, fundamental employment rights. Will my right hon. Friend also make it clear that the Confederation of British Industry, the Institute of Directors and those who claim to represent small firms have got it wrong if they are prepared to sell the basic rights of ordinary workers?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Conservative Members are anxious to concentrate on the costs of regulation; they never concentrate on the benefits. Every time a consumer picks up a can or packet in a supermarket and sees a sell-by date, it is a direct consequence of our membership of the European Union.
We should look objectively at the levels of regulation in this country—regulation that helps people to enjoy a much better standard of living. A regular Institute of Management development survey asks businesses to describe their perception of regulation in different countries. The latest results, for 1999–2000, show that the United Kingdom ranks second among G7 countries in terms of its regulatory environment, just behind Canada and ahead of the United States.
We impose sensible regulation, and it has benefits. Yes, there are costs, but we will reduce them, and we will certainly ensure that the people of this country enjoy the benefits.
As I draw myself up to my full imperial height of five foot six, and a quarter, may I request from the Minister an answer that we failed to secure from her hon. Friend the Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs?
The Minister's noble Friend Lord Haskel has said:
the Government do not intend that people shall be locked up simply because they do not use metric units of measurement … It is where local authorities find evidence of fraud or the consumer being misled that such matters can be brought before the court.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 5 February 1998; Vol. 585, c. 742.]
Was the Minister's colleague right? Without giving a judgment on the precise details of the Sunderland court case, will the Minister none the less agree that it results from an absurd and unnecessary prosecution? There was no consumer complaint, and the only victims in the case are freedom and common sense.
I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman should raise the matter, not least because it is still before the courts, but also because the regulation was introduced by the Government whom he supported.
I am happy to rise to my full height of 1.6 m, which is 5 ft 4 in—and as you will know, Mr. Speaker, "guid gear comes in wee bulk".