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The Government have undertaken not to introduce large and controversial measures; not to proceed with a regulatory reform order in the light of an adverse view from the Deregulation Committee, the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee or the Regulatory Reform Committee; and--in the light of our discussions--to proceed through preliminary consultation in a form that is much more geared to the House's scrutiny requirements.
I hope that, even if Ministers will not necessarily give undertakings to that effect, they will none the less continually respond when the legislation is in use, whether it is a Labour or a Conservative Administration that have occasion to do so. I hope that they will simplify legislation and make it more comprehensible. We discussed such an amendment in Committee and sought to do so again on Report, but did not have an opportunity.
I hope that Ministers will ensure that there is the sort of review process that we discussed and that codes of practice, which we have not discussed to any great extent during the passage of the Bill, are in line with the enforcement concordat and with the further recommendations of the better regulation taskforce as time goes by.
I also hope that Ministers will use the powers only in the spirit in which they are intended and always with a substantive deregulatory effect. I hope that they will examine critically the use of the powers if they have benefited the public sector or significantly increased burdens, notwithstanding judgments they may make about desirability.
A strong deregulatory purpose should lie behind the regulatory reform orders that are made. I hope that the legislation will be used for the purpose for which the whole procedure was first created back in 1994.
Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): I appreciate that it is tempting fate to say that I shall be brief, since every speech this afternoon has started with that preface but lasted half an hour. However, I will be brief, partly because much of the work on the Bill was done by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Cotter), who also sits on the Deregulation Committee. I shall simply summarise our broad approach to the Bill.
From the outset, we have supported the principle of the Bill and we regard it as useful legislation, but we have been somewhat concerned about the constitutional implications. We have attempted to deal with those concerns through amendments, some of which were successful in the other place and some of which were not.
In general, we are probably a little obsessed with the quantity of regulation. Quantity is important--tax complexity, for example, is important in itself--but the real issue is how to get a mechanism for distinguishing between necessary and unnecessary and good and bad regulations. That is the crucial issue with which this reform must deal.
The Minister gave the reasons for the Bill and I do not need to repeat them in detail. Essentially, the 1994 legislation was insufficient in its scope. This legislation will enable batches of related regulations to take effect. Several references have been made to the fire safety regulations--an interesting test case. I am particularly interested in those as I have been involved in the work of the all-party fire safety group and I know about the impatience of fire officers for regulatory reform and an overhaul as quickly as possible.
The second positive point is that, as far as I can gauge, most business federations--the Federation of Small Businesses, the Institute of Directors and the chambers of commerce--despite having some reservations about the Bill, regard it as a welcome signal that is worth supporting.
Some of my hon. Friends' earlier concerns have been met, in particular, through clause 1(3), which was introduced by Lord Goodhart in the other place and built in a commitment that any change should be deregulatory in its effect and therefore help to tackle some of the concerns that have been expressed at considerable length this afternoon that the legislation could be used for re-regulation rather than deregulation.
There are several constitutional concerns. One is the big constitutional issue of the potential for the Bill to be abused. The Minister has just dealt with that with his commitment not to introduce large and controversial measures under the provisos of the legislation. We hope that that commitment will be observed.
We were concerned that there is, perhaps, an undue reliance on ministerial subjectivity in the tests and we hope that the new committee, when it is established--we were not successful in agreeing amendments to deal with this--will apply its own objective test to Ministers' subjective estimates of benefit.
The reporting process is the other important issue that has been referred to at some length this afternoon. The Conservatives are pushing the five-year review, the Minister has his three-year review and in Committee we argued for a one-year review. We hope, in particular on the basis of the intervention of the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike), that the new committee will take up the spirit of those attempted amendments and report annually to ensure that the Bill achieves its objectives.
My final point is that an awful lot depends not on the letter of the legislation, but on its spirit. We will look for two things to ensure that the Government are committed to the spirit of deregulation, the first of which is how they approach regulatory impact assessments. In commenting on new clause 1, the Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), made some useful remarks about how they are abused or not taken sufficiently seriously.
I hope that the Cabinet Office, perhaps with the Government economic service, will produce a paper explaining the methodology of regulatory impact assessment and how it can work consistently, so that it becomes not an empty ritual, but a serious measure not only of the compliance costs of regulation but of its overall economic impact, positive and negative.
The other element of the spirit of the Bill is consultation. Many of the problems with the working time directive, for example, simply arose because Whitehall officials and Ministers did not take sufficient time to talk to business, or even the trade unions, about the way in which the complicated regulations would come into effect. A combination of proper consultation and a rigorous, consistent measure of impact assessment would do much for the spirit of the Bill on top of the formal legislative changes.
Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): I should like briefly to deal with the Minister's earlier comments, which were complacent. He made all the right noises, but he and the Government do not understand the crushing burden of the relentless juggernaut of regulation being imposed on business every day. He did not reply to my intervention.
The British Chambers of Commerce has estimated the cost to be £9.62 billion--a huge sum. That has a devastating impact, especially on smaller businesses. Last December, the president of the CBI--the representative of large businesses--said:
I should like to touch briefly on one new law that will have a most dramatic impact on a sector that is very much in the public mind at the moment. As was said on Report, there is concern in the agricultural sector about the future of small abattoirs. There is not time to mention the impact on the Meat Hygiene Service. What is most interesting in the example that I shall cite is that, through the Food Standards Agency, the Meat Hygiene Service highlighted the dangers of the Restriction on Pithing (England) Regulations 2000, which I mentioned on Report.
Currently, 254 abattoirs--about two thirds of those that still survive the current crushing burden of regulation--use the pithing process. In brief, it involves the insertion of a rod into the brain of a stunned animal to break down its nervous system to stop it kicking. A bullock can cause severe damage in an abattoir--its death throes can maim and kill people. It is a most important process in small abattoirs and it is vital for craft abattoirs. The whole organic meat industry is most concerned that small abattoirs should continue to be locally based near to the sources of livestock to keep production, processing and markets close together. There is a consensus in the countryside that it is a good idea to keep small abattoirs going.
The measure was introduced under the negative procedure, laid before Parliament on 20 February and it became law on 1 April. I have talked to the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), who has been most sympathetic and understanding.