Clause 6 - Document to be laid before parliament

Part of Regulatory Reform Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:55 am on 29th March 2001.

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Photo of Mr Brian Cotter Mr Brian Cotter Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson 9:55 am, 29th March 2001

We have tabled the amendments because grave reservations have been expressed that the Bill's wide scope could lead to constitutional abuse. To narrow the Bill's scope artificially would defeat its object and reduce its overall effectiveness, but some form of safeguard needs to be introduced. In the other place, the Government undertook that the Bill would not be used in that way, but acknowledged that it was extremely difficult to define whether a measure was unconstitutional, or controversial.

The 15th report of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee referred to Lord Falconer's comments on the problem:

``It will, he said, be for Ministers to decide whether or not the use of the new power would be `appropriate'...likening the task of so deciding to the difficulty of defining an elephant. `You cannot describe it but you know it when you see it.'''

I understand that stance, particularly given that we have no formal written constitution to act as a measuring stick. I also welcome the Government's promise, made in the other place, not to implement such legislation. However, I cannot share Lord Falconer's faith that future Administrations will interpret an ``elephant'' in the same way and comply with the agreement. Because of the Bill's constitutional implications, some safeguard must be put in place.

We reject the subjective opinion test, but recognise that it is difficult in practice. If the amendments were accepted, any Minister seeking to implement an order would have formally to produce a categorical statement in the parliamentary document to the effect that, in his opinion, the order in question had no constitutional implications.

We have chosen a ministerial statement as the means of ensuring constitutional sobriety because it would be more effective than seeking to define the measures to which the Bill should apply, which would narrow the Bill's scope. Instead, a personal pledge would be made, which would deter rogue Ministers who were able, and inclined, to abuse the power. Such a statement would also make the Minister publicly accountable for his actions, reassure Parliament and the public of his intentions, and ensure that he were not tempted to misuse the legislation.

The amendments are necessary to ensure a proper consultation process. They would act as a further safeguard, ensuring that organisations had adequate opportunity to state their case, and provide another test against which the Committee, or Committees, can measure the order. Were the Committees to feel that the consultation process was lacking, their decision as to whether to accept the order might be affected. A further constitutional safeguard would be provided: by having to account for the details of consultations, Ministers who wanted to abuse the power would be unable to undertake half-hearted consultations in an effort to prevent opposition to any controversial measures.

The amendments address two important points that were also raised in the other place, and I look forward with interest to the Minister's response.