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Mr. Stringer: I shall to be brief. There was an attempt in Committee to turn the Bill into another deregulation

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measure. I hoped that I had convinced Conservative Members that the purpose of the Bill was to re-balance regulatory regimes and that even if the powers in the 1994 Act had been brought up to date, they would not have enabled a Minister to take action to improve a regulatory regime. I gave an example in Committee that is worth reiterating. If a Minister wants to remove many small burdens from shops and place larger burdens on supermarkets, it is difficult to ascertain the way in which to weigh that up and calculate the benefits and disbenefits. Yet common sense shows that there is a reason for that.

In trying to reintroduce paragraph (a), the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) has reopened the debate. There is a conflict between the hon. Gentleman's remarks and the amendment. That is confusing. Proposed new paragraph (a) would turn the Bill into a deregulatory measure. Yet proposed new paragraph (b) states:

That replaces tighter tests for which clauses 1 and 3 provide. We spent a great deal of time discussing those proportionate tests--

It being Six o'clock, Mr. Deputy Speaker, pursuant to Orders [19 March], put forthwith the Question necessary to dispose of proceedings to be concluded at that hour.

Amendment negatived.

Order for Third Reading read.

6 pm

Mr. Stringer: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I am pleased that the Bill is proceeding through its final parliamentary stages. It is more than two years since we first consulted on it and almost exactly a year since it was published in draft. As a result of prolonged gestation, the Bill received a thorough, almost unprecedented amount of parliamentary scrutiny. The Government listened to anxieties and accepted several amendments in another place. Those amendments ensure that all orders must be based on a deregulatory measure.

The Bill has undergone further scrutiny in this House. I am pleased that Committee stage was marked by a consensual and constructive approach by all parties. Although no further amendments were made to the Bill, I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber will agree that our debates in Committee made the Government's position clear on a number of issues where some hon. Members still had doubts. Indeed, a draft form was produced for the consultation that the Department should go through when it is consulting on a regulatory reform order. Some of the structure of that is thanks to Conservative Members. We had a constructive debate in Committee.

Mr. Cash: I shall pursue a point that I made at an earlier stage about the compatibility of obligations resulting from membership of the European Union, and the directives and regulations that derive from that and section 2 of the European Communities Act 1972. I have been reading again the explanatory notes to the Bill, and I bear in mind the Minister's reply. I think I saw movement upwards and downwards--nodding--from the Front Bench when the Minister replied. There is an important question that needs to be resolved.

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On the issue of parliamentary scrutiny, on page 56 the explanatory notes clearly state:

I want clarification in writing of whether any order made under the Bill could be made if it were incompatible with an obligation derived from a directive, a regulation or other legislative enactment of the European Union.

Mr. Stringer: I think that the courts are considering that very point. It is not quite the question that the hon. Gentleman asked before. However, I am happy to write to him on that issue.

Having had such a serious and detailed consensual debate in Committee, I was disappointed--perhaps I should not have been--by the debate on Report. We did not discuss areas of consultation or the amount of deregulatory action that should be within the Bill, if indeed there is a difference between the Front Benches on that issue. We did not discuss whether the wording should be simpler or clarified within regulatory reform orders. These matters were not discussed. In many instances we had what were, in effect, Second Reading speeches. That is disappointing. As many hon. Members have said, there is an interest on the part of business, as well as of Members of this House and the other place, in getting regulation right, and in making it as unburdensome on business as we can. That requires a detailed and thoughtful understanding of the regulatory process. It does not require simple, ideological statements that are grounded not in objective evidence but in prejudice.

I can only think that a lack of political confidence, and a lack of confidence in their own intellectual analysis of how regulations impact on business, led to the Opposition's being unprepared to debate the details, despite all the time available this afternoon. If they had debated them, they might not have had to repeat cliches such as the one about this country being the most heavily regulated and becoming even more so. Almost every independent study, including the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development study published in December 1999, showed that that was not so. That study showed that, in terms of product market regulation and the barriers of trade, ours was the least regulated of the OECD countries.

A number of Conservative Members made the standard prejudiced point that we were the only member of the European Union that played by the rules. In fact, if we compare this country's performance on the speed with which legislation is transposed with that of other countries, we are mid-table. We are also mid-table in terms of the number of infraction proceedings against this country; we are neither the best nor the worst. The better regulation taskforce's study comparing the hotel industries in France and the United Kingdom concluded that the hotel industry in France was slightly more heavily regulated than ours.

The right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) has been mentioned a number of times--fondly, I think, by Conservative Members--for the work that he did on deregulation and better regulation. In 1994, he set up a taskforce to consider how we, compared with other European countries, had transposed some European

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legislation. His report was very long, but it found very little evidence to support the contention advanced by Conservative Members. I am confident that the Bill will become a valuable tool for implementing important reforms. It will also help Ministers to act in those situations in which regulation is being applied in too heavy-handed a fashion. Again, that is not a party political point, but something that all sides welcome.

Mr. Paterson: The Minister sounds immensely complacent to me. The British Chambers of Commerce estimates, in its burdens barometer, that £9.62 billion has been imposed on business in the form of burdens, yet the Minister has just dismissed that. That is a very significant sum of money, and it bears down disproportionately on small businesses.

Mr. Stringer: The hon. Gentleman must not mistake my nearly being sent to sleep by some Conservative Members' speeches--which were rather off the point--for complacency. If we were complacent, we would not be introducing this Regulatory Reform Bill. We have introduced it because we know that there is a problem, and that the Government can improve their performance on regulations. Indeed, any Government can do so.

We are aware that all regulations that apply to small, medium and large businesses impact disproportionately on the small businesses. It is an arithmetical fact that they do so. That is why we have taken measures either to exempt small businesses or, as the Chancellor announced in his Budget statement, to give special support to them. I remind the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) that since this Government came to office, there has been a net increase in small businesses of 150,000 or thereabouts. Those businesses are being created faster and are lasting longer than under the previous Government. Those 150,000 small businesses have contributed to the 1 million jobs that have been created over the past four years.

Mr. Bercow: The Minister seeks to assure us that he is not complacent. I do not doubt for a moment that he will acknowledge the superiority of the record of the United States relative not only to Britain but to all the member states of the European Union in job creation and retention these past 30 years. In that context, and in preparation for the Regulatory Reform Bill, can the hon. Gentleman tell us what assessment he has made of the Regulatory Flexibility Act 1980 and the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act 1996 in the United States?

Mr. Stringer: I can tell the hon. Gentleman that in comparative studies between the regulatory burden in this country and in the United States, when state and federal regulations are added together, this country comes out very favourably. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the OECD study that I mentioned earlier.

The Bill is an excellent tool in itself and an exemplar of scrutiny both before it reached Parliament and when it was before this House and another place. I look forward to its wide and frequent use in improving this country's regulatory regime and achieving a legislative framework to suit the modern world.

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