My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, has told the House, quite correctly, that at present he has a role with Banco Santander. Although in my case there is no possible financial interest and the relationship occurred 30 years ago, I ought, in order to be completely transparent, to reveal that when Banco Santander initially installed itself in this country in the 1980s, I was its financial adviser. I am very pleased that at that time I was connected with a transaction that has proved to be extremely fruitful for Banco Santander and the British economy. Therefore, I genuinely wish the noble Lord every success in the role that he is currently playing for this distinguished financial institution. It has expanded over the decades in this country and I hope that that happy position will continue, although all of us—at least, on this side of the House—have some fears about that at present.
There is no doubt about the importance of this issue. We are talking about financial transparency and disclosure. Anyone who knows anything about the financial markets knows that, together with the avoidance of conflicts of interest, those are the most important foundations of a successful financial marketplace. When either of those two foundations have been weak, the human race has invariably ended up substantially regretting it. People have been ruined and even economies have, sadly, been seriously affected.
The European Union now has a good system. Together with the United States, the European Union has the longest experience of successful financial regulation in this area. People come from all over the world to discuss with us how we do things here and very often they follow our example. That is very sensible and desirable for things such as the prospectus directive, which has been imitated around the world. The whole business of regular financial disclosure—annual reports, interim reports and so forth—have, again, been very widely imitated around the world. Everyone knows that if you want to have a financial market where companies can raise serious sums of money, these things are essential.
I have always had a strong feeling that the scrutiny of secondary legislation, both in the Commons and in the Lords, is the most dubious and problematic area of parliamentary activity and the one most in need of reform. Like everybody else in the two major parties, when we were on the Back Benches in the Commons we were regularly press-ganged—I do not think that is too strong a word—by the Whips to sit on statutory instrument committees. They were absolutely deplorable occasions. They were a real travesty of good parliamentary scrutiny. I used to hope that the public would never come into the sessions because they would be horrified at what we were doing. In fact, I never saw a member of the public there, although occasionally one would see lobbyists of some kind. However, the fact is that we had no opportunity to brief ourselves, no opportunity to question Ministers—although of course in the Lords we do have that opportunity, which is a great improvement—and we had the system that we have here, which was that we could not modify these instruments if we thought it necessary to do so.
How can Parliament possibly do its job, or make a contribution, if it cannot modify a proposition for a statute or Bill by amendment? This is quite extraordinary—complete rubbish—and we should do something about it. It results in an enormous amount of legislation going through that is not properly scrutinised. In this series of statutory instruments, we see literally hundreds of important statutes supposedly being renewed—although whether they are renewed or modified is something one can never be quite sure about—and going through at a rate of knots. No one can judge the pace at which this is happening other than negatively; it is quite frightening, and a very bad moment for Parliament.
The situation is made much worse by the absence on these occasions of proper consultation or, in most cases, of impact assessments—as it happens, there is an impact assessment on the statutory instrument before us but, mostly, there are not. I want to clear up the controversy that exists between my noble friend Lord Adonis and the noble Lord, Lord Bridges. Consultation is an important term; it implies a set and standard process for consulting those likely to be impacted by legislation, and passing on to Parliament before it legislates—that is, before it is too late—the results of the interchange that has taken place with the stakeholders or parties who have an interest in the sectors of activity being regulated. This should be a standardised practice; we ought not to have to ask in each case, “What kind of consultation did you have? How many banks did you speak to? Who did you speak to: the directors, compliance officers, researchers, parliamentary affairs departments—a lot of companies have these kinds of things—or PR people?”
We should not need to ask these sorts of questions because we should know exactly what a consultation exercise involves. There should be—I am sure there is—a template in the Treasury and other serious departments, which indicates what you need to do to meet your obligation for a proper consultation when proposing legislation. A proper consultation has not been done here. What has happened here is engagement. The noble Lord, Lord Bridges, is proud of the distinction he has made but, frankly, engagement can mean what you want it to mean. No one knows, unless they have specifically asked the question, what it has actually involved, or indeed whom it has involved and not involved—who has been left out, perhaps deliberately, because the Government or department concerned did not want to hear some people’s negative views.
All these things are possible if you do not have a standardised system of consultation. It should be a permanent part of parliamentary procedure that you expect that consultation has been carried out and that everybody knows the principles under which it has been conducted. That does not happen here, and so we face this situation where we are being asked to vote through a whole lot of legislation at great speed. We do not know whether the impact will be what the Government say it will be; we do not know whether other people have been asked their opinion, or who has been asked. That is a very unsatisfactory situation. Has there been no consultation in the way that there normally would be? Let us be honest about it.
I come to my final point. The reason why there has been no consultation in the way that ordinarily there would be is, we are told, that we are under tremendous pressure. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, and others on that side of the House, that that is a form of blackmail. I would not dream of listening to blackmail, whether about my business life, my past, my private life, or my political or governmental responsibilities. Anybody who attempted to blackmail me would be thrown out of the door; there is no question about it—I would not be interested. The Government are saying, “You have to pass these things or there will be terrible consequences for British industry and all these different sectors. You will be at fault if you haven’t done what we have told you to do”. That is no good; we should not listen to such nonsense. This is the responsibility of the Government. They got us into this mess and they should be expected to do their best to get us out of it, or at least to minimise the damage that there certainly will be.
As my noble friend Lord Adonis has said, it is entirely the Government’s fault that we find ourselves in this position. Any day they like, the Government could withdraw their notice to quit under Article 50. They could negotiate. We have been told by the continentals that any such request would be positively considered—that we could, if we wished, negotiate an extension to that date. More than that, the Government could have conducted these negotiations very differently. Unless I am very much mistaken, the Prime Minister accepted in December 2017 the idea that we would be permanently part of a customs union with the Republic of Ireland and therefore with the rest of the European Union. Then when she returned to the UK, she was rapped over the knuckles, or worse, by both the ERG and the DUP—two groups of extremists who have an unfortunate hold over British politics at the present time. She had to go back to the EU pathetically and say, “I am sorry, I thought I could agree that but actually I can’t”.
That is the whole history of this negotiation. It is deplorable. It has made us look idiotic across the world and, of course, has created a climate of uncertainty that is doing palpable, concrete economic damage to this country. This is a very important matter. We should show that we mean seriously what we say on the subject of consultation. It should be a standard provision—a right, if you like—which is respected, and always expected, in the case of new legislation put forward on a statutory instrument basis. Such is the importance of this matter and of recording our feelings on it that, if my noble friend feels moved to put his amendment to a vote, I will certainly support him.