Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill

– in a Public Bill Committee at on 28 February 2006.

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[Sir Nicholas Winterton in the Chair]

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield 10:30, 28 February 2006

I shall make some preliminary announcements relating to the Bill. I remind the Committee that there is a money resolution in connection with the Bill, copies of which are available in the Room. I also remind Members that adequate notice must be given of amendments; as a general rule, my co-Chairman and I do not intend to call starred amendments. Finally, I ask all Members to ensure that mobile phones, pagers and other electronic devices are turned off or are in silent mode during the Committee’s sittings.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

On a point of order, Sir Nicholas. May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship?

The point of order arises from something that the Minister said to the Procedure Committee on 7 February. Asked when he would respond to the Regulatory Reform Committee’s recommendations, he said:

“We will be in a position whereby we will produce our response in good time in advance of the Standing Committee beginning its work.”

It seems to me that the Minister’s undertaking has not been met. I therefore wonder whether the Committee should adjourn consideration of the Bill until that ministerial undertaking has been satisfied.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

I am not responsible for what the Minister may say to a Select Committee. However, I am sure that the Minister has heard those remarks, and he may wish to comment. I suggest that he does so when we deal with the programme motion. The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue that is of relevance to our debates. I hope that the Minister will take on board what has been said.

There seems to be some confusion. The Treasury ministerial team should be sitting on my right, but it is not. I hope that this will be a well-administered and constructive Committee, so I suggest that those in the ministerial team take their seats. This is abnormal; in all the years during which I have been a member of the Chairmen’s Panel, it has never before happened that the ministerial team has not been present at the appropriate time.

I welcome all Members to what will clearly be an important Standing Committee. The Bill has raised a great deal of interest not only in Parliament but in the country. If the Programming Sub-Committee, which met last night, is indicative of what is going to happen, I am sure that our debates will be good, ordered and disciplined, and I hope that Members on both sides of the Committee will participate.

We now come to the programme motion, which may be debated for up to half an hour.

Photo of Jim Murphy Jim Murphy Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Cabinet Office)

I beg to move,

That—

(1)during proceedings on the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill the Standing Committee shall (in addition to its first meeting on Tuesday 28th February at 10.30 am) meet on—

(a)Tuesday 28th February at 4,00 pm;

(b)Thursday 2nd March at 9.00 am and 1.00 pm;

(c)Tuesday 7th March at 10.30 am and 4.00 pm;

(d)Thursday 9th March at 9.00 am and 1.00 pm;

(2)the proceedings on the Bill shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 4.00 pm on Thursday 9th March.

I understand that I am allowed to make some general points at the start of our deliberations. I start, Sir Nicholas, by welcoming you as co-Chairman, a role that you share with Mr. Caton. I think that that is the correct way to put it; I do not want to create any sort of hierarchy between you. I served previously under your chairmanship when I had the role of Government Whip, currently performed by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda).

I welcome hon. Members from all parts of the House to the Committee. I know from discussions that I have had, and from the deliberations of the Programming Sub-Committee yesterday, that there is a genuine desire to have a detailed discussion about all aspects of the Bill, and I am happy to enter into that. If the spirit of yesterday evening’s discussions is anything to go by, I think that we shall have a high-quality debate.

There are no knives in the programme motion. That is because the Government want to allow the debate to be free-ranging, within your strictures, of course, Sir Nicholas. We believe that there will be ample time in eight sittings to consider the detail of the Bill and I understand from the usual channels that there is no disquiet about the number of Committee sittings, and that the fact that there are no knives has been welcomed.

The Bill builds on the Regulatory Reform Act 2001. It aims to deliver on the Government’s agenda of better regulation. As part of that, however, we need to ensure through our deliberations in these eight sittings that there is a correct level of effective parliamentary scrutiny. Ultimately, however, the Bill is intended to maintain the UK’s competitiveness, free up public sector workers and others from bureaucracy, and remove unnecessary regulation. It has already been discussed with the Regulatory Reform Committee and with the Procedure Committee. In light of the substantial discussion in advance of the Bill’s introduction, and the discussion of its detail, together with the broad agreement on the number of sittings and the fact that there are no knives, I hope that the Opposition parties will not press a division on the motion.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I thought that the Minister was coming to an end and I was concerned that he had not responded to the point of order that I made earlier. Will he respond before he sits down?

Photo of Jim Murphy Jim Murphy Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Cabinet Office)

I am happy to respond, Sir Nicholas, though it was not a point of order. My response will be part of our half-hour debate on the programme motion despite it not having anything to do with that motion. But, Sir Nicholas, if you allow me to respond and develop bad habits at this early stage, I am happy to do so.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

Order. In my reply to the point of order earlier, I said that the Minister might wish to respond to the matter in his interim remarks.

Photo of Jim Murphy Jim Murphy Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Cabinet Office)

Thank you, Sir Nicholas. The specific point raised by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) was about the response to the Regulatory Reform Committee’s substantial and excellent report, and its recommendations. That was a report by the Committee, and its Chairman, to me. I undertook to respond and did so, on Friday last week, directly to that Committee, as I believe was correct and appropriate.

As a consequence of the hon. Gentleman’s comments, however, I ensured yesterday that copies of my response were made available to this Committee. Nevertheless, as I say, the Regulatory Reform Committee’s report was by the Chairman of that Committee, and I believe it was appropriate to respond to the Committee through the Chairman and the appropriate channels.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State

I start by joining in the welcome to you as Chairman, Sir Nicholas. I have been under your tutelage before and I know that you will be firm but fair. We all look forward to serving under your Chairmanship and that of your brother Chairman, Mr. Caton.

The motion is unacceptable to the Opposition, and I believe to all parties apart from the Labour party. Part 1 of the Bill is of such constitutional importance that it should be considered on the Floor of the House. I made that point on Second Reading and by point of order in the House on a number of occasions. I do not intend to derogate from the opinion now, so we will divide on the motion as we did last night. It is worth recording that although the Minister and I, and indeed all members of the Committee, have a constructive relationship, we did not agree to the programme motion last night and we are not starting to do so now.

The nub of the question is whether there is enough time allowed by the motion to consider the important issues involved. Under the motion, we would have the opportunity today to turn the Bill from one that allows almost any change in the law to be made by Ministerial fiat and without proper debate into one that we could support with proper safeguards.

The first group of amendments that we would consider are those in my name and the names of my hon. Friends the Members for Christchurch and for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper). They would turn the Bill into one about deregulation, with proper safeguards to ensure that only in the least controversial matters would the law be changed by order-making power under part 1.

In deciding whether the motion provides adequate time for consideration, the Committee will want to weigh up whether eight sittings of the length described, without a guillotine, will be enough. The Bill raises profound issues about how Parliament works. Part 1 will give Ministers a wide power to amend, repeal or make law by order without the safeguards of full debate or, in many cases, even the option of amending Government proposals.

Together with the Government of Wales Bill, currently before the House, and the Company Law Reform Bill, currently in another place, the Bill makes a major move away from primary legislation towards government by Ministerial edict. Amendments, repeals and new laws will not have to be of a deregulatory nature, which was always the excuse and reason for having an order-making power that could simplify and reform legislation. The Bill could be used to add to regulation and legislation in a way that amounts to Parliamentary corner-cutting.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

Order. The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent case. Could he please associate it rather more closely with the programme motion and the time that the Committee will have to consider this important measure?

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State

I am grateful. I was considering what we would do under subsection (1) of the programme motion, which deals with this morning, and subsection (1)(a), which deals with this afternoon, and whether there would be adequate time to consider the amendments tabled to clause 1 in the first and third groups. There may not be, and it may be necessary for us to spend some of our other sittings dealing with the important questions about part 1 of the Bill. To put my overall point in context, part 1 is so important that it may take up as many as six of our eight sittings. In deciding whether eight sittings will be enough, which is the nub of the issue, it is important to ask whether the remaining two will be enough to consider the rest of the Bill.

If one asks who the winners will be under the Bill, the answer is civil servants and Ministers. The great difference from the 2001 Act is that that was about deregulating and trying to help business. In this Bill the main winners will be Ministers, because for the first time it will be possible to use the procedure in question to remove burdens from Departments.

One has to ask: are we and the public prepared to accept to accept a situation where the traditional way in which our democracy operates is changed just to make life easy for Ministers and civil servants?

Another point that we must consider in these first few sessions is whether allowing changes to the law by way of Law Commission Bills should be done willy-nilly or whether there should be some protection to ensure that such Bills are genuinely not controversial. The Law Commission is currently working on proposals about the rights of cohabitees to occupy property, so-called palimony; provocation as a defence to a murder charge in the context of domestic violence; and how tenants’ rights could be ended or   how termination of tenancies could occur. Those are all matters that the House would normally expect to debate fully in the Chamber. There is nothing in the Bill to say that these matters should be dealt with under the normal procedures for the House. Will they be dealt with under this order-making power without proper debate? That question would obviously take a great deal of time to consider.

It has been widely said that the Bill is drawn in a way that is unsatisfactory and that there should be protections and safeguards. We agree with that. That is not just the view of the Conservative party. It is also the view of other parties and even of the TUC. Sarah Veale, the head of the TUC’s equality and employment rights department, recently said:

“The current government has undertaken not to use RROs for measures that are ‘large and controversial’, but this will not apply to future governments. Future governments will not be detained long by safeguards that are tested by standards that are matters of judgment and not objective.”

When the House has given up its rights in the past for the convenience of Ministers it has found that it has lost those rights permanently. When Standing Committees started dealing with delegated legislation, we were promised that that would be purely for convenience and that if any Member ever wanted to debate the matters seriously, he or she would be allowed to do so. Of course, now it is almost impossible to do so.

Time is needed to consider these important constitutional issues. But there are also issues relating to business. The House supports deregulation. The Conservative party supports it. The Bill could be turned into a useful piece of legislation if it were about deregulation. The British Chambers of Commerce’s burdens barometer has increased by £40 billion since 1997. We have dropped down the competitiveness league table from fourth to 13th over that period. We will want to achieve, in the time allowed—

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield 10:45, 28 February 2006

Order. Again, I am listening to the shadow Minister extremely carefully. This appears to be a Second Reading speech, not entirely related to the programme motion. I appreciate the importance of what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but I would remind the Committee that this matter must be decided by four minutes past 11 and other Members wish to speak.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State

As ever, I am grateful. That is very helpful, Sir Nicholas. Perhaps I can sum up the question of the amount of time to be allowed. We want to achieve two major aims with part 1 of the Bill. We want to make it apply to deregulatory measures only. We want to limit its operation to non-controversial maters in so far as it deals with new laws by the Law Commission. On balance the time allowed to do that is probably adequate, but the point of principle that a constitutional measure should be dealt with on the Floor of the House is so important that we should not support the motion today.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I welcome you to the chair, Sir Nicholas. It is a pleasure to serve under you again and under your co-Chairman, Mr. Caton. This is, on the face of it, a Bill that ought to command the support of all parts of the House. The fact that it does not is due to part 1, to which I shall return in a moment.

I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) to the Committee. The wisdom of the House has so arranged matters that I have to attend other Committees during the course of our proceedings; that is a great misfortune to me, although perhaps not to the Committee. I am delighted that my hon. Friend, with his encyclopaedic knowledge of constitutional law, will be here to assist the Committee’s deliberations.

I agree with the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald)—apparently I always get his part of Hertfordshire wrong—about the general nature of the motion. Part 1 of the Bill is clearly of major constitutional importance, and it has long been the tradition to take such matters on the Floor of the House. We do that because they are matters that affect every Member’s future work and the way in which they are able to represent their constituents. It is entirely proper for every Member to have an opinion on the matter before us and to express it. That cannot happen when discussion takes place within the limits of a Standing Committee. That is why I, with the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire and others, was so clear on Second Reading that the matter should have been put before the whole House; although not the entire Bill, as parts of it are clearly not constitutional in aspect. We understand that.

As far as timing is concerned, I do not believe that we will have any difficulty in dealing speedily and effectively with the deregulatory aspects of the Bill in respect of business and European legislative reforms. Those issues are important, as will be some of the amendments on those aspects, but they need not detain us. However, that is not the case with part 1, which simply will not do in its current form. It will transform the way in which Parliament deals with primary and secondary legislation, and it will give powers to Ministers that they should not have. That is why we must explore, with the Minister, how we can radically reform part 1. and we must have the opportunity to do so.

This is one of those Committees in which I hope—a forlorn hope, because of the pressures that are exerted—that Government Members of the Committee will feel able to contribute to the discussion. The Bill will affect them as much as us in the way that we represent our constituents. They will not always be on the Government side of the Chamber.

Photo of Andrew Love Andrew Love Labour, Edmonton

I note a little déjà vu today; major concerns, along the lines suggested this morning, were raised about the two previous Bills that tried to deal with the issue. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that if we are to have a major deregulatory measure, the ideas in the Bill need to be tested in Parliament?

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman’s reply will be brief because, again, the intervention had nothing directly to do with the timetable motion.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I accept your ruling, Sir Nicholas, but I hope that we have the time to do exactly what the hon. Gentleman said and test the propositions.

To accept assertions or undertakings from the Minister will not be good enough. Our responsibility is to ensure that the statute reflects what we want in the way of future Government mechanisms. The Minister was very conciliatory on Second Reading. He made a clear pitch to Members from all parties who expressed concerns, including the Father of the House (Mr. Alan Williams) and the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright).

The Minister said that he would listen in Committee and that he was prepared to amend the Bill to address concerns. We must have time in this Committee for the Minister to introduce his alternative proposals as he listens to what we have to say, concedes the issues that are so evident in the present structure of the Bill and attempts to find the consensus that he said he wanted. It is entirely right that we should reach consensus. All that will take time.

I echo the point made by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire. We should not artificially restrict and restrain our discussions on the early part of the Bill, because that is its crux and essence. If it takes four, five or six sittings to discuss it, it is right that we should do so. That is what the rest of the House and the country looking on will expect us to do to improve the Bill, so that we have amendments that fundamentally alter its present structure, enabling my party and the Conservative party to support it on Third Reading. Otherwise, we shall be forced to vote against the Bill, because we cannot accept what is presently in it.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

There are eight minutes before I need to put the question.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I thought that the Minister’s response to my point about the umbrella of a point of order was hopelessly inadequate. During discussions on the issue with the Select Committee on Procedure, he said that he would probably introduce amendments at this stage. We have no Government amendments, and now we see that we will have such a truncated programme that it will be almost too late for the Government to table amendments to the first part of the Bill; they will be starred amendments and will not be accepted.

The Minister said blandly that eight sittings should give us adequate time, but we could have had 12 sittings under the terms of the order of the House. I do not know whether it is due to the usual channels—I am not party to them—but I should have thought that we could have spent 12 sittings examining a Bill of such significance. One of the leading newspapers of our country has described it as outrageous that the Bill is proceeding in this form. It is demanding that Members of Parliament should have a veto over the fiat of the Executive.

I am surprised that we have already lost four sittings, and I am disappointed that we shall not have more time to consider the important points and to challenge the Minister to make his undertakings a reality. We shall come back to that during the substantive debate, but I feel that the timing is inadequate. I add as a small point that it is indigestible that the Committee should meet at 1 pm on a Thursday and carry on until 4.30, rather than having a more civilised time to consider it.

Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

I fully accept the point made by the hon. Member for Christchurch. It is a rather uncivilised time to start a Committee.

I shall add to the points already raised about whether there is enough time adequately to discuss part 1, which grants the Ministers extraordinary powers; powers unprecedented in peacetime in this country. Not only should part 1 have been discussed on the Floor of the House, it should be given maximum time for discussion in Committee. The reason that I would add to those already given is that the Committee needs time to discuss the various ways that that extraordinary power might be limited. I hope that there is consensus among all parties that the power in part 1 ought to have limitations. Three separate sorts of control might be tried, and each of them needs time for separate consideration.

The first is to limit the purpose for which the power in part 1 could be used. We shall discuss one of those possibilities later today. The second is to try to control the subject matter to which the Bill applies. Indeed, there are two ways in which that could be done. One can try to mention specific Acts of Parliament to which the Bill should not apply; we will put forward a preliminary list of those, including, most crucially, that the Bill should not apply to itself. Otherwise the Government can use the procedure in the Bill to remove any of the safeguards in the Bill. That is a crucial point that we need time to discuss.

The second way in which subject matter restrictions might be put in is to cover particular areas of law, such as civil liberties law, extradition and matters relating to property contract. The third technique is to control the Bill through procedure. There is a already a provision in the Bill for Committees of the House to change the sort of statutory instrument that the Bill will use, to drive it up from negative to affirmative and from affirmative to super-affirmative. But there is no provision in the Bill to allow a Committee of the House, or indeed the House by resolution, to remove an order from the Bill itself and to require primary legislation.

That is one way in which there could be a procedural change, but there is a separate sort of procedural change that the Committee needs time to discuss. Could a certain number of Members, perhaps 50 Members across the House, write to the Speaker objecting to the use of this Bill for a particular order and thereby call the order in and require the Government to use—

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield 11:00, 28 February 2006

Again, as I have said in respect of the shadow spokesman, the hon. Gentleman is going beyond the programme motion. I am sure that his arguments can be used in later debates.

Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

The point that I was trying to make was that these separate techniques are so different that they require separate time to be discussed. Finally, there are other matters beyond those controls that need to be discussed as part of our deliberations. There is the problem of sub-delegation—the provision in the Bill allowing any person to be given legislative power. That is an extraordinary provision.

Finally, there are the clause 3 tests, the questions that the Minister must ask himself before proceeding. There is an important question there that needs separate time: whether the tests should be drafted subjectively, as they are now, or objectively, and the extent to which judicial control should be part of the way in which the Bill should work. For those reasons, Sir Nicholas, I doubt whether there is enough time for the Committee even to discuss part 1.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Defence)

To follow one of the points that the hon. Member for Cambridge just made about the scope of the Bill and the amount of time that we need, another aspect that will take an extraordinary amount of time is looking at the Acts to which the Bill might not apply. As well as general, public Acts, there are a number of geographically related local Acts. My constituents have drawn my attention to at least 21 Acts that specifically pertain to the constituency; they are keen that the Bill should not apply to those Acts. If we were to end up discussing a list of Acts that applied generally and to specific geographical regions, it would take an extraordinary length of time. There is a serious concern about the time available for us to consider that. I will not detain the Committee with a full list of the Acts, but it is something that we will need to do when we get on to the substantive debate.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his co-operation in sitting down in the nick of time.

Question put:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 7.

Division number 1 Nimrod Review — Statement — New Schedule - ‘Amendments consequential on sections (promotion of reductions in carbon emissions: gas transporters and suppliers) and (promotion of reductions in carbon emissions: electricity distributors and suppliers)

Aye: 8 MPs

No: 6 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

NOES

Question accordingly agreed to.