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I believe that about 46 deregulation orders have been passed, of which 37 took effect under the previous Government. I salute and compliment Lord Falconer of Thoroton, who, in the Second Reading debate on the Bill in the other place on 21 December, was good enough to admit that the peak year for deregulation orders was 1996. He did not--for he could not--dispute the observation of the better regulation taskforce, set up by the Government for the purposes of giving advice to the Government, that in recent years the number of such orders had dwindled.
Yet when the hon. Member for Burnley, the Chairman of the Deregulation Committee, was challenged about some of the Government's recent proposals and suggestions for future action, and was asked whether he knew of any obstacle to prevent the passage of those measures under existing legislation, the hon. Gentleman, who is an assiduous and committed parliamentarian, almost took my breath away--[Interruption.] I say "almost" advisedly, Madam Deputy Speaker, because that would be a remarkable accomplishment, as I think the House would acknowledge.
Worthwhile policy objectives have been accomplished by the 1994 Act--for example, electronic receipt of cheques, and the increase in the number of fundraising events at which charities can sell alcohol. Finally, there is the worthwhile development whereby couples about to get married can book the registry office 12 months in advance of the happy day, whereas before they could only book three months in advance.
The Act was a good piece of legislation, and the Government have pitifully failed to take advantage of it. They are wringing their hands, displaying their impotence and trying to blame it all on the previous Administration,
As my noble Friend Baroness Buscombe said on Second Reading in the other place on 21 December, the merit of the 1994 Act was, among other things, that it was a one-way street designed to facilitate deregulation. There was no mixed message; the Act had a clear objective, and demonstrated intent. What is more, it had a track record of achieving something worth while for businesses and customers.
What we see before us now is a forked-tongued Bill. Its proponents give the impression of not knowing exactly what they want. They want to provide a facility for deregulation, although the track record does not suggest that they are likely to do very much in that regard, but they also want the power to re-regulate, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) observed earlier, in a potent contribution.
The power to re-regulate is worrying, but so, too, is the provision for subordinate provisions orders in clause 4, for it was originally intended that such orders would be subject to the negative assent procedure. There was widespread objection, not least in the other place. As a result of an amendment tabled by the former Director General of the Office of Fair Trading, Lord Borrie, the position was changed. As I understand it, such measures can be introduced either by the negative or by the affirmative procedure. That still does not offer much encouragement or succour to those who, in the four years of this Parliament, have regularly watched the Government ram through obnoxious, burdensome and damaging measures on the nod without the facility of a parliamentary debate. That is something to which the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office should turn his mind.
In a parliamentary answer on 27 November to the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas), the Minister listed no fewer than 51 items for future deregulation. The Minister for the Cabinet Office mentioned no fewer than five in this debate, spanning three or four Departments. The interesting point about those 51 items is that only five of them relate to the Department of Trade and Industry. Nine are the business of the Home Office, eight are the business of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, five are the business of the Department of Health, five are the business of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, four are the business of the Lord Chancellor's Department and four are the business of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. We are talking about a large area of regulation that does not relate to the Department of Trade and Industry.
Mr. White: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that most of the regulations proposed for deregulation in the Select Committee on Deregulation came from Departments other than the Department of Trade and Industry, particularly the Home Office. The hon. Gentleman is developing a point about deregulation. Will he address the issue of how to deal with inappropriate, out-of-date and anomalous regulations?
I am concerned about the scope for deregulation and the number of Departments that it involves. I make this point to illustrate the need for a joined-up, properly targeted, suitably co-ordinated Government programme. That is what leads me to the position of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. The right hon. Gentleman simply does not seem to grasp the significance of the problem that he faces. In an apparently important speech to the British Chambers of Commerce in Glasgow on 3 June 1999, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry said that the Government had to rethink--the word is his, not mine--their approach to deregulation if they were to "make a difference". That was why he had asked his Department to conduct "a systematic review" of the regulations for which, he said, he had responsibility.
It is precisely the narrow, inward-looking, complacent and, if I may say so, navel-gazing approach exhibited by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry which shows us why the Government have made such a mess of this area of public policy.
As my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire indicated earlier, the Opposition are simply not content with such a piecemeal, half-hearted and superficial approach to deregulation. On the contrary, my right hon. and hon. Friends propose the establishment of a deregulation commission for which the regulatory impact unit of the Cabinet Office would work. We insist that there should be a total audit of the cost of all Government regulation. When I had the privilege to introduce the Regulations on Small Businesses (Reduction) Bill under the ten-minute rule on 27 April 1999, I was astonished when, in advance of my presentation, I received a written answer from the then Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle), which indicated that the Government did not publish, and moreover that they had no intention of publishing, a statement of the annual costs of regulation.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire made the point clearly--as the shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), has regularly done--that we intend in government to conduct a total audit of the cost of regulation. Once that cost has been established, each Department under the next Conservative Administration will then be given a target for reducing the cost of regulation and will be obliged annually to report on the measures that it has taken and the progress that it has achieved in pursuit of that objective.
Where regulations are essential, and I accept that sometimes they are, we propose longer lead times for consultation. A minimum of three months should be regarded as the norm. There is no reference to that in the Bill. There should be a minimum period of three months for the requirement to implement regulations. That is not referred to in the Bill, and when the Parliamentary Secretary winds up the debate, I should like to know why.
We believe that there should be exemptions for small firms from some of the most damaging regulations. We often hear it said, in Labour Members' criticism of such a proposal, that that might allow small companies to gain an unfair advantage over large companies by
What about the rather more commonplace fact that large companies have an advantage over small because they are able, more readily and without pain, to absorb the costs of regulations? They have in-house lawyers, personnel departments and accountants. None of these matters is as problematic for them as it is for a struggling small firm that is trying to recruit staff, to expand its market, to sell products, to satisfy its customers and thereby, perhaps, to become a little larger. The point about exemptions is important, as indeed is the point about sunset regulations.
In future, we want regulations to work on the basis so successfully practised in large parts of the United States. A regulation would automatically lapse or expire on a given date. If Parliament, in its wisdom and on the strength of a practical assessment, judged that the regulation had been worth while, there would be nothing to stop it renewing it. If it did not think that the regulation had been efficacious, it would decline to do so. Those are sensible, practical and thought-through measures from a party that is not only committed to, but immersed in, British enterprise. They are wholly alien to Labour Members, who are just not familiar with the thinking of companies, and particularly that of small companies.
Before I conclude, I want to say something about the European context. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson)--he who should be silent--chunters from a sedentary position in evident disapproval of what I am saying. He was not present for much of the debate. He did not hear the very long speeches--which, on the whole, were not very illuminating--that Labour Members delivered. We have the opportunity to comment on the Bill. His party has a large majority. I do not begrudge it that majority, but scrutiny is important and I will have my say. He will not stop me having my say, and the sooner he realises that, so much the better.
I always listen to the Minister for the Cabinet Office with interest. I do not wish to embarrass her unduly, but I have long had considerable respect for her. However, in preparing for the debate, I was a little taken aback by one or two points on Europe that I encountered. I am sure that she recalls that on 21 July 1999 the Cabinet Office published what was called a guide to better European regulation, for the benefit of people devising, negotiating, implementing or, for that matter, communicating the content of new European regulation. It was a toolkit for how they might more effectively go about that. That was followed, on 18 October, by her visit to Brussels.
I do not know whether the right hon. Lady remembers what she said on that occasion, but I do. In talking to her colleagues, she said that she was pleased that the new Commission attached such importance to the pursuit of a better regulatory framework. She added that better regulation was a key area for the success of the European Union. These people never talk about deregulation,
The right hon. Lady is an experienced parliamentarian and public servant, but is she unaware of the extent to which this country is already ground down by excessive European regulation? Of course we often make the mistake of gold-plating such regulation ourselves--we add to it and make it more burdensome; it becomes increasingly expensive--but the origin of much of that which belabours us is the European Union.