Clause 2 - Meaning of ``burden'' and related expressions

Regulatory Reform Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:30 pm on 27 March 2001.

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Question proposed [this day], That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Question again proposed.

Photo of Andrew Lansley Andrew Lansley Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Policy Renewal

I am sure, knowing the attention that members of the Committee have paid to our debates, that they do not need me to reiterate what was said immediately prior to our adjournment.

As I was saying, the definition of ``burden'' in the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994 does not include the Bill's new definition. In the Government's view, preventing the Government from incurring expenditure—for the benefit, presumably, of other persons—constitutes a burden. This is a matter of semantics into which I shall not delve too far, but to regard preventing the Government from incurring expenditure as a burden on the population at large is, to put it mildly, stretching a point. Indeed, some might think that so preventing the Government would be of considerable benefit to the public.

I fully understand why the Government want to phrase the provision in that way, and I am afraid that yet again I regard them as somewhat untrustworthy. They are trying to define as burdens matters that are not, on the ground that it will be convenient for them subsequently to make regulatory reform orders to achieve a specific objective.

In another place, Lord Falconer of Thoroton referred to the type of regulatory reform order that he had in mind. He said that the vaccine damage payments scheme might prompt the Government to introduce an order to lift the burden that currently prevents them from paying those whom they wish to pay. We need not detain ourselves discussing the merits of extending the scheme, because both Government and Opposition Members have acknowledged them. Prior to its inclusion in the possible uses to which such orders will be put, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) made it clear that he regarded the scheme as a suitable subject for legislation, but he also pointed out that this mechanism should not be used.

The mechanism, which is defined as a regulatory measure, will allow the Government to lift restrictions imposed through primary legislation on the circumstances in which they may make payments and incur expenditure. However, in the public's view, allowing the Government to spend more money is not a deregulatory measure, but precisely the sort of activity that should be subject to normal scrutiny by the House. The incurring of expenditure should be consequential only on measures in a regulatory reform order that are designed to achieve a substantive deregulatory purpose. Incurring expenditure and removing constraints on the Government is not a deregulatory measure, but the Government are trying to define it as such by including it in the definitions of ``burden''.

I shall not seek to divide the Committee on clause 2, but I seek reassurance from the Minister that the vaccine damage payments scheme, although wholly beneficial, is an exceptional example. Will the use of regulatory reform orders to allow the Government to incur expenditure, or to extend the terms on which it is incurred, occur in only the most exceptional circumstances?

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office)

There are two changes to the definition of a burden in the 1994 Act. The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) has concentrated on the inclusion of a restriction on incurring expenditure in the definition of a burden. That definition clearly applies to vaccine-damaged children and to their families, who, under the definition in previous Acts, would have been paid nothing if their children were less than 80 per cent. damaged.

I can give the hon. Gentleman three assurances. First—and we are yet to reach this part of the debate—the normal consultation and deep consideration by two Committees will ensure that the process is not abused in the way in which he imagines. Secondly, this is not a blank cheque. The definition is concerned with an ability to spend in a particular area, and Parliament's processes for checking expenditure must be adhered to. One cannot agree to spend money through a regulatory reform order because Parliament and the Government must go through their normal procedures. Thirdly—this is admittedly an incomplete reassurance—we trawled for examples of cases in which the Bill could be used, but we found only a few. I do not envisage that the definitions will be used on many occasions, and I hope that he will be content with my two major reassurances.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.