Clause 47

Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:00 am on 19 June 2008.

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Stop notices: procedcure

Photo of Mark Prisk Mark Prisk Shadow Minister (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform)

I beg to move amendment No. 43, in clause 47, page 23, line 32, leave out ‘14’ and insert ‘7’.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 51, in clause 47, page 23, line 32, leave out ‘within’ and insert

‘as quickly as possible and no later than’.

Photo of Mark Prisk Mark Prisk Shadow Minister (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform)

The amendment would change the current provision whereby a completion notice is issued within 14 days to within seven days of such an application. As we learnt in the debate on clause 46, stop notices are often used in urgent circumstances. The Minister referred to a possible chemical leak or something of that nature, and urgency is clearly at the heart of this form of sanction. Equally, it is often the case—in fact almost invariably—that compliance is evident. It is visible to the inspector and is usually fairly straightforward. In most circumstances, when one asks someone to stop doing something, it is reasonably straightforward to identify quickly that that has happened. Given that fact, 14 days seems a long period in which to issue a completion certificate. As I said, in most cases, it is fairly evident whether the activity has ceased.

When the situation is one of harm—the usual circumstances in which the stop notice is used—it is in the specific interests of the regulator to ensure that action is prompt as well. Therefore, there is a strong case for saying that 14 days is a very long period. That is why I think that seven days will be sufficient for the regulator to issue a completion certificate. Most cases involve attending a site, seeing that the activity or potential harm has been ceased, and thus being able to identify that directly.

I realise that there may be one or two incidents in which the regulator is not able to manage a particular series of incidents. However, those would be the exception. It is important that we send out the message that stop notices are for urgent issues and for ceasing specific activities. The regulator, therefore, should be able to  issue the certificates in a similarly prompt manner. I hope the Minister will respond positively to an amendment that improves this part of the Bill.

Photo of Lorely Burt Lorely Burt Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party

Our amendment No. 51 is very much in the same spirit as the Conservative amendment No. 43. The difference is that our amendment acknowledges that there may be occasions when 14 days are necessary. Any arbitrary line that one draws will always have a problem one way or another. What is important about our amendment is that it emphasises the importance and urgency of making the decision as quickly as possible, and no later than 14 days. It keeps the 14-day deadline, but—like the Conservative amendment—it seeks to inject a note of urgency.

Closing a company for any period of time can be seriously harmful to its future. We wish to see those few words added to the clause so that no one can be under any illusion that it is very urgent—just as urgent as the issuing of the stop notice itself—to issue the other certificate as quickly as possible once there is compliance.

Photo of Pat McFadden Pat McFadden Minister of State (Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform) (Employment Relations and Postal Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I have a significant degree of sympathy with the points that have been made. The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford said earlier in our proceedings that time is money, and he is right about that. Time is money for businesses and there should not be undue delay in responding to a request for a completion certificate to be issued. We are talking about a situation in which a person on whom a stop notice has been served may apply for a completion certificate and the regulator must decide whether to issue one within 14 days. The clause requires the regulator to issue a completion certificate once they are satisfied that the business has taken the steps specified in the stop notice. That allows the business to carry on its activity as before, with the problem having been rectified. I would expect that to happen as soon as is practical for the regulator. It is important that the Committee understands that 14 days is a maximum. The clause says “within 14 days”, so 14 days will not be the norm.

The procedure in clause 47(2)(e) allows a business to request a certificate from a regulator confirming its compliance. It is a safeguard intended to ensure the ongoing monitoring of the operation of the stop notice. The amendments suggest either a seven-day limit, or the insertion of extra words to ensure that 14 days is seen as a maximum. Although I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point—he is right to say that time is money—we believe that on some occasions it could cause difficulties. A seven-day limit might not always provide the regulator with sufficient time to assess fully whether a business has complied with the notice.

I will continue with the example that I used in relation to clause 46. A business might, for one reason or another, have been releasing some kind of toxic substance into the land. It could then have had a stop notice imposed on it for the leaking pipe that was emitting the waste, and the regulator might need to test whether the toxins had returned to an acceptable level, below which there was no danger to public health. In such a case, the regulator might have to wait for test results to be returned from a lab before it could confidently say that the business was complying. It might also have to  contact a third party that might be involved, and ensure that that third party did not continue to suffer the harm that the original instance had caused to it.

I do not believe that such situations should be allowed to carry on for ever. There has to be a limit, which is why there is a limit in the Bill. A maximum limit of 14 days strikes the right balance between providing a safeguard for business, where time is money, and allowing regulators sufficient time to assess whether the business has complied.

Amendment No. 51 accepts the 14-day limit but seeks to add extra words. I have sympathy with that, but I do not feel that those extra words are needed to stress that 14 days is a maximum. The clause says “within 14 days”. Perhaps I can offer additional comfort to the hon. Member for Solihull, as I am happy to confirm that we will amend the guide to the Bill so that it states explicitly that 14 days is a maximum period, and that in practice we expect certificates to be issued as soon as possible within that.

Photo of Mark Prisk Mark Prisk Shadow Minister (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform) 9:15, 19 June 2008

I understand the toxicology issues, and the Minister has made important statements today that have not been made before. Clearly, there will be certain circumstances in which those toxicology studies will not be available for some time beyond 14 days. Can the Minister tell us, and those who might be affected by the legislation, what will happen in those circumstances?

Photo of Pat McFadden Pat McFadden Minister of State (Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform) (Employment Relations and Postal Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

As I said, the process cannot be limitless as that would place the business in an unfair situation. A judgment must be made and we feel that 14 days strikes the right balance between allowing the regulator to do whatever tests are necessary, and not putting the business under a cloud of uncertainty or even a continuing state of closure. This is a judgment about how one strikes that balance. The hon. Gentleman feels that seven days is right, but we feel that 14 would cover more situations and that is our judgment.

Photo of Mark Prisk Mark Prisk Shadow Minister (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform)

This is a helpful debate. Presumably—to continue with the example we have been using—there would be no prohibition on the subsequent issuing by the regulatory authority in question of a stop notice, in the event of a subsequent leakage. Would there be an opportunity, therefore, if for example a delayed toxicology study were to be presented at 21 days, for the authority to issue a stop notice at that point?

Photo of Pat McFadden Pat McFadden Minister of State (Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform) (Employment Relations and Postal Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

A stop notice could be issued twice, but as I have said it is an onerous sanction and not something that either the regulator or the business would want to go through repeatedly. The purpose of including an onerous option of that kind in the regulator’s toolkit is precisely to deal with those urgent and serious situations that we have discussed under clause 46, so the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point in saying that the process could be repeated, but we are trying to frame the stop notice procedure in such a way that problems will be dealt with by issuing one notice, dealing with the problem and moving on. That is the right way to tackle such a problem.

Photo of Mark Prisk Mark Prisk Shadow Minister (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform)

It is an extremely helpful debate. I am not quite sure why, but when the issue came up in the other place Ministers seemed either unable or unwilling to utter the words that the Minister has just said: that he  sees the period as a maximum and that there is an expectation that the completion certificate will be issued well within that period. There is a dilemma, in the sense that I suspect that, if a need was seen for a late toxicology study to force a second stop notice, most businesses affected would regard it as much more onerous, because of the need to stop and restart a process that had been begun. I think therefore that there is a problem with that.

I am partly comforted by the Minister’s assurance—which I know will partly be coloured by later guidance to be issued by Ministers. We have clarified something that was not clear from the deliberations in the other place and made some welcome progress for businesses that have been concerned about the provision, several of which have contacted me directly. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I do not know whether the hon. Lady wanted to press her amendment, but she did not indicate that she did, and we take only the lead amendment in any grouping. All the others must be moved separately; otherwise they fall automatically.

Photo of Lorely Burt Lorely Burt Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party

No; I was inquiring only about seeking leave to withdraw it, so that is fine.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

There is no need to withdraw an amendment that has not been proposed.

Clause 47 ordered to stand part of the Bill.