Orders of the Day — Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:46 pm on 9th February 2006.

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Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch 3:46 pm, 9th February 2006

It is a pleasure to follow Dr. Wright. I have been waiting to hear a speech in support of the Government's proposal, and he rightly drew attention to the challenges associated with regulation. That struck a chord with my own experience. In 1992, I was a member of Mr. Heseltine's deregulation taskforce and I also served on the Health and Safety Commission, which was tasked with trying to reduce the burden of regulation. In that era and the current one, Governments have always talked of proportionality and the introduction of regulation based on risk assessment. Sadly, however, the trend has continued toward more prescriptive regulation. We will discuss on Monday the latest stage of the Identity Cards Bill, which is an example of prescriptive regulation rather than regulation based on risk assessment.

I want to begin by quoting from the letter of the Chairman of the Constitution Committee of the House of Lords to the Lord Chancellor, dated 23 January. He says that

"we are concerned by the potential of the Bill's proposals, if enacted, markedly to alter the respective and long-established roles of Ministers and Parliament in the legislative process."

So he regards this as a serious constitutional issue, which indeed it is. That is why I hope that the Government will withdraw motion 2 on the Order Paper. My right hon. Friend Mr. Knight, who is Chairman of the Procedure Committee, very much wanted to join in this afternoon's debate but has had to travel north to visit a relative in hospital. It was he who wrote on the Procedure Committee's behalf to the Leader of the House, who today said that he was considering my right hon. Friend's letter. Well, the time for considering it will be much greater if he withdraws motion 2, rather than trying to force it through this evening.

I recently had the privilege of being reappointed to the Procedure Committee after a gap of some 20 years. When I first served on it, during the Parliament elected in 1983, its membership included Sir Robin Maxwell-Hyslop and the right hon. Enoch Powell. Enoch Powell would be proud of the contribution being made on these very important constitutional issues by the current Member of Parliament for his former constituency, Rob Marris.

It was Enoch Powell who once succinctly described to me the importance of the procedures of the House—and that was not just because we were both members of the Procedure Committee. He said that in the absence of a written constitution, the procedures of Parliament and of the Commons in particular are, effectively, our constitution: our protection of the people and their liberties against the Executive. That is why today's debate and this Bill are of such importance.

The Minister said that the Bill had stringent safeguards that were more extensive than those in the 2001 Act, but the hon. Member for Cannock Chase and the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) pointed out that the safeguards were not as extensive as the Minister asserted. Indeed, the precondition that a burden on an individual or a business would have to be removed is no longer part of the Bill. That important safeguard was included in the consultation process but was then dropped by the Government.

The Minister gave evidence to the Procedure Committee on Tuesday and said that the 2001 Act defined "burden" too narrowly, because it had to be a legal burden that was being eased rather than an administrative one. I have no problem with extending the definition of burden, but the more logical solution would be to widen the definition rather than remove completely any requirement that burdens should be reduced, if the special procedure is to be used.

The House was very careful to ensure that the protections in the 2001 Act were extensive. On Tuesday, the Procedure Committee asked the Minister whether they would remain, and the Minister replied that "every single protection" in the 2001 Act would. In answer to question 6, he said that, ultimately, the Select Committee could

"kick the whole thing out and say, 'We do not believe that this fits the right of Parliament and protections of Parliament to legislate in a sensible way.'"

The Minister ascribed to the Regulatory Reform Committee the right of veto, saying that it was a real protection for Parliament. In answer to question 9, he said that the Committee had the ultimate power to say that an order should not go ahead at all. In answer to question 12, he said that

"indeed, they could just say, 'We don't think this is suitable at all for this committee' and we are back to the drawing board to seek an alternative way of implementing the order."

The Minister gave the Committee's Chairman an absolute undertaking that it would have an absolute veto if it felt the subject matter was too sensitive and politically controversial.

When the Minister winds up the debate, I hope he will confirm that those assurances given to the Committee will be included on the face of the Bill; nothing short of that will do. The Government have suggested that they might bring forward the appropriate amendments: until they do, I and many other hon. Members will wonder what possible reason there could be for not including such provisions on the face of the Bill. The existing procedures have not been tested in the circumstances that would apply when the Government disagreed with the Regulatory Reform Committee. None of that Committee's recommendations have resulted in a debate on the Floor of the House, with the Government forcing through a measure using the procedures available under the 2001 Act.

It was implicit in the Minister's evidence to the Procedure Committee that he considered that the Government's powers to force a measure through against the will of the Committee would never be used by a responsible and reasonable Government. We have the opportunity to ensure that that is the case. If that happens, I shall not be as sceptical as I admit to being at present.

In its present form, the Bill is in danger of being the sort of subtle sleight of hand of which a member of the Magic Circle would be proud. It is calculated to give much more power to the Government and the Executive, at the expense of Parliament. One reading of the Bill leads one to the conclusion that its primary purpose is not to remove burdens from business or people, but to remove the burden of having to legislate from the Government.

The Bill is the ultimate guillotine for debate and discussion. What a bore it must be for Ministers to have to bring Bills before Parliament if they want to change the law, even the common law. It would be so much easier if they did not have to publish a Bill, wait a couple of weeks for Second Reading, and then sit for the best part of a day in the Chamber listening to Members going on about it. Then they have to go up to Committee and answer points made on amendments, and even respond to new clauses that the Government might find embarrassing or annoying. It would be so much easier if the Government could just do away with all that and put their legislative proposals through this new, streamlined procedure. A strong Government would always be prepared, in extremis, to use the powers available. This is our chance to ensure that we do not give such draconian powers to this or any subsequent Government. That is why the Bill will have to be amended to reflect the concerns that have been expressed by two Select Committees and many right hon. and hon. Members.

No Member is a greater enthusiast for deregulation and lifting burdens from business than I am. If the Bill were solely designed to facilitate genuine deregulation and remove burdens, I would be among its strongest supporters. However, I remain to be convinced that that is its primary purpose.

We are used to Government rhetoric and we do not need to rehearse the 45 minutes saga or the weapons of mass destruction when we have before us examples of where the Government have said one thing and done another on this specific subject of deregulation. In its 1997 election manifesto specifically for business, published in April 1997, the Labour party promised:

"We will not impose burdensome regulations on business because we understand that successful businesses must keep costs down."

In the 2001 election, having imposed many more burdens on business in the interim, Labour promised in its business manifesto:

"We will deregulate where desirable and regulate where necessary, with as light a touch as possible."

In 2005, the promise was repeated in the full manifesto:

"We will only regulate where necessary and will set exacting targets for reducing the costs of administering regulations."

However, as my hon. Friend Mr. Heald said, the Government have increased the number of regulations, the burden of regulation and the cost to business and enterprise. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase questioned whether the £38.9 billion figure included the cost of the minimum wage. I have looked at the briefing from the BCC and it specifically excludes the cost of the minimum wage. If that was included, it would push the figure up to an even more astronomic level.

We know, from the Library, that in the six years from 1998 to 2003 there were 23,322 regulations, an average of 3,887 a year or 14.85 every working day. Matters were bad enough under the Conservative Government, but this Government have increased the number of regulations by 50 per cent. since the Conservative record was set.

When the Government say that they will not use the powers that they are taking in this Bill—they say, "Trust us, we're really on your side"—I think that it is incumbent on us on behalf of our constituents to look more closely at their record of delivering what they say they will do. They have manifestly failed to deliver in the area of deregulation and lifting burdens on business.

The only way that we can guarantee that the Government deliver what they say they intend is to get the Bill amended in the way that many right hon. and hon. Members and I have suggested. I hope that my scepticism will not be borne out and that, by the time that we debate the Bill on Third Reading, it will incorporate those much-needed amendments, and I live in hope.