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A piece of legislation was introduced and the Under- Secretary of State for Health took a real interest in the problem that it created. She took the trouble to go to an abattoir, saw the problem and agreed with the assessment of the Food Standards Agency--the Meat Hygiene Service is often rebuked for over-regulation--that the jobs
The Under-Secretary kindly said that I could bring a delegation to see her but, because of the foot and mouth crisis, sadly no one was free. Despite her sympathy and interest, this small measure, which is hardly known to the rest of the world, became law. However, it will put at risk many craft abattoirs, so will the Minister answer a simple question? Will the Bill improve the chances of minimising the impact of such regulations and will it preserve the small businesses that suffer so much from them?
Mr. Richard Page (South-West Hertfordshire): It is a matter of regret that, because the debate on new clause 1 went on for so long, my devastating attack on aspects of the Bill that would have been illustrated by my speech on amendment No. 4 was not reached.
Conservative Members welcome anything that will reduce the burdens on business. The Government might be the master of spin, but the substance is starting to wear thin, so we remain to be convinced that the Labour leopard has changed its spots.
When we were in government, the Labour party told us that it would cut red tape and that the better regulation taskforce would deal with all these matters. However, the number of regulations has soared and Lord Haskins is on record as saying that the taskforce has not worked. Reality sits ill with what the Minister said. I leave it to the House to decide whether he or the British Chambers of Commerce is correct when we consider the impact of Government policies on small businesses.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) has illustrated the extreme costs that have hit small businesses over the past four years. A mere handful of regulations have been altered under the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994, but it surely would have been possible for the Government to make the system operate more effectively. They have done nothing, so after four years--and 30 days or so before a general election--they introduce the Bill saying, "We will deregulate; we will save small businesses", but we must ask, "Will they? Will they keep to their word?"
I admit that the Government are saying all the right things about deregulation and the explanatory notes describe the 50 or so areas that can be tackled by being simplified. However, the House and the country should not forget that the Bill is only half the equation. The other half is the sausage machine that turns out regulation after regulation. There is nothing that will stop a vast number of regulations appearing.
I caution everyone against getting too enthusiastic about the Bill. It is larded with phrases that suggest that the Minister's hand is firmly on the deregulation tap, but we must see whether he ensures that the tap operates at full bore or is reluctant to let it rip. The Bill is larded with phrases such as "if it appears to the Minister", "if the Minister considers it appropriate" and "as it appears to him". It is very much in the Minister's hands to control the effectiveness of the Bill.
We should worry about what the Committee was not allowed to change. In particular, I am concerned about the Government's reasons for rejecting our amendments. We asked to reduce the impact of the ministerial hand and to put more power into the two deregulation Committees, but that was refused. We were told that the Minister should have control. In today's long debate on new clause 1, we asked for a five-year review, but he came up with reasons why that would not be a good idea. The truth is that had new clause 1 been successful, it would have given the Committees the power to consider the regulations in sequence every five years, subject them to the provisions of clause 6 and, if necessary, tell the Minister that they should be changed. That would have put the Minister under pressure to deal with them--but no, he wanted to keep the power and control in his hands.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire moved amendment No. 3, which was grouped with amendment No. 2. They were designed to reduce the way in which the Government can use the Bill to add to burdens on business. Again, our request was refused. The Committee desperately tried to make life easier for the small business man and woman. We wanted the Government to accept an amendment to ensure the use of plain English in regulations. Indeed, the Minister for the Cabinet Office twice assured the House about that on Second Reading. She said:
I shall resist illustrating my case by working out how many words there are in the Lord's prayer, the creed and the declaration of American independence and ending up with the number of words in the regulatory requirements for the import of caramel, which run to tens of thousands. The fact is that small businesses are visited by inspectors who are experts in their subject. They know everything and expect the small business man to be an expert. That is not fair or right because regulations can be extremely complex.
However, we said "Amen" to the right hon. Lady's words because we thought how right she was, but, despite her assurances, in Committee we ran into a brick wall in the shape of the Parliamentary Secretary. When we argued for plain speaking, he said:
Mr. Stringer: With the leave of the House, I shall reply to three points. The hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page) has made the same objective analysis of the Conservative party's prospects in the general election as he has of certain provisions in the Bill. I am afraid that despite spending many hours in Committee, he has not understood the importance of the consultation process and the consensual approach of the Deregulation Committee and the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee.
The hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) asked about pithing. The answer is that it depends entirely on the origin of the regulations. The powers in the Bill are directed at primary legislation, so if the regulations on pithing did not originate in primary legislation, which I understand they did not, the Bill will not apply to them.
I finish on a theme that has run through the debates here and in the other place. There is consensus in the House about the fact that no one wants to place unnecessary regulatory burdens on business, but to have a serious debate about the cost of regulations, it is necessary to define the word "burden". It is not helpful when Opposition Members or organisations representing business mix in with regulatory costs the costs of policy implementation. For example, the cost of implementing the minimum wage--of increasing wages--is not a regulatory cost, and there are almost no such costs associated with the minimum wage. The Government make no apology for improving the conditions of working people in this country.