Regulatory Reform Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Stringer: As a fellow layman and non-lawyer, I will make one last effort to persuade the hon. Gentleman not to press the issue.

Where is the problem? We have had a very theoretical debate in both Houses. Those who expect the Bill to cause problems should provide examples. There is a huge absence of such examples from noble Lords and hon. Members. If that does not convince the hon. Gentleman, I will finish with a quote.

Mr. Lansley: I am sorry to interrupt the Minister.

Mr. Ian Stewart: Is it necessary?

Mr. Lansley: I think that it is. The orders that have been made under the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act do not have the provisions proposed in the Bill. We cannot look back to see whether in the past any burdens created have been unnecessary. The question of how Ministers use the Bill in future is difficult to answer on the basis of a long list of unscripted, potential orders. The Government are presenting the acceptable face of reregulation in their examples. They will forgive us if we are sceptical about the use to which the powers may be put in future.

Mr. Stringer: The hon. Gentleman makes my case. A layman worried about something would be able to give examples. I finish by paraphrasing Lord Falkland, who said that if it is not necessary to say something, it is necessary not to say it.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 8.

Division No. 1]

Bruce, Mr. Ian
Cotter, Mr. Brian
Gray, Mr. James
Lansley, Mr. Andrew
Page, Mr. Richard

Laxton, Mr. Bob
Leslie, Mr. Christopher
Moran Ms Margaret
Rooney, Mr. Terry
Stewart, Mr. Ian
Stringer, Mr. Graham
Sutcliffe, Mr. Gerry
White, Mr. Brian

Question accordingly negatived.

The Chairman: At this stage, I register my sympathy for those of the Committee who, like me, did not have a Jesuit education.

Mr. Page: I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 1, line 11, after `a', insert `small'.

It is my pleasure to move the amendment, which has been tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire because of the power that the Bill will confer. Despite what the hon. Members for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. White) and for Eccles say about their strengths, independence and impartiality, they will not be here for ever, so their guidance will not always be there to restrain the Executive. A number of members of the Committee have mentioned what may come when discussing the ministerial role in these matters.

I am not criticising my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire when I say that I accept that the amendment is not a gleaming, polished diamond. It is more of a rough pebble, but it is designed to put a little grit into the debate so that the Minister can respond and let us know what he is thinking. I should like to think that the Minister and the massive Cabinet Office team who are backing him up will recognise the germ of the good idea that is lying behind the amendment, and that they can table a more polished and effective amendment in the future. Clause 1(1)(c) is so loosely worded that it allows for the possibility that significantly greater burdens will be imposed by means of subordinate legislative powers. The powers being granted in the Bill need to be limited in the way suggested by the amendment because, if they are not, we are writing a blank cheque. We have no idea what could be pushed through.

There is no substantive check on these powers. My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire has tried to introduce a degree of sense and sensibility, and has been brutally tossed aside by the Minister. Thank goodness, I have not had a Jesuit education either, which I understand is exceedingly painful, especially when one is young. Nevertheless, I can see through the tortuous toils and it is necessary to have extra checks in clause 1. The word ``small'' would be one of those checks. There are no checks in clause 1—or clause 3—to stop a Minister making an order if he ``is of the opinion'' that the order falls within the objects in subsection (1)(a) to (d).

We can all see the power that that gives a Minister and how the deregulation power in the Bill will be weakened. The test imposed by the word ``small'' would ensure that the balance between the interests of individuals, of small companies, of sectors of the economy and of the public will not be profoundly altered by false ministerial modesty on the scope and impact of the measures that will be proposed.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton argued in another place for the

    ``high quality scrutiny process''

to be

    ``used for more substantial items, such as reform of fire safety legislation currently spread over 120 Acts; or reform of weights and measures legislation.''—[Official Report, House of Lords, 21 December 2000; Vol. 620, c. 853.]

That provided some excitement in the House during the past week.

The effect is different, but important, on measures such as those for after-hours child care at schools and for invalid allowances, which the Minister for the Cabinet Office cited when she moved the Bill on Second Reading. If the Bill allows such important measures to be dealt with in Committee, we must ensure that it can safeguard the limit of the potential impact of prospective orders. The amendment would achieve that.

My final point is psychological. Clause 1(1) uses the word ``burden'' four times, but ``removal'' and ``reduction'' only once each. The emphasis should be changed. We should be focusing on reduction and removal, not on burdens. I will not press the amendment, but I hope that the Minister understands why the word ``small'' has been introduced into the debate. Could a Government amendment be tabled, perhaps in the other place, to take account of my concerns?

11.45 am

Mr. Stringer: I understand what the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire is getting at. I am pleased that he recognises that the amendment is not a perfect gem.

Let us consider a £10,000 burden on the retail sector, as an example of an occasion when we might want to prevent large burdens being placed on businesses. It would be a relatively trivial amount to the Safeways, Asdas and Tescos of this world, but a huge burden to a corner shop. How would we decide whether £10,000 was small or large? That is why ``proportionate'' has been used in the Bill, rather than ``small''. To call £10,000 ``small'' would be disproportionate in the case of a small business. It would not be disproportionate were it applied to major supermarkets for a licensing regime. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has signalled that he will withdraw the amendment, and I hope that he recognises that ``proportionate'' is a better safeguard than ``small''.

Mr. Lansley: If the Minister is unable to define small, what does he mean by ``large''? His noble Friends told the other place that, as with the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994, the Government did not intend these powers to extend to ``large and controversial measures''. We usually recognise something that is controversial by the nature of the ensuing debate, but what does the Minister mean by the ``large'' measures or burdens that are not to be introduced using these powers?

Mr. Stringer: I think that the hon. Gentleman is confusing burdens and regulatory regimes. In the debates that he mentioned, my noble and learned Friend Lord Falconer gave a commitment, which I repeated on Second Reading, not to use this power to change large and controversial measures.

Mr. Lansley rose—

Mr. Stringer: May I finish my point? The regulatory regime on fire is clearly large. We have used that example on various occasions. The quote that the hon. Gentleman gave referred to controversial regimes, as opposed to the size of a particular burden. However, the basic point on burdens is that they are better dealt with by the use of ``proportionate'' as opposed to a term that would be difficult to define in the abstract, such as ``small'' or ``large''.

Mr. Page: I regret to say that the Minister is confusing me. When Lord Falconer argued in the other place that there would be a high quality scrutiny process, which was first introduced under the 1994 Act, he said that it would be

    ``used for more substantial items''—

for ``substantial'' I read ``large''—

    ``such as reform of fire safety legislation currently spread over 120 Acts''.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 21 December 2001; Vol. 620, c. 853.]

I assure the Minister that fire safety legislation is expensive and large, and that it damages businesses' cash flow and finances. Whether those businesses are small or large, the impact is substantial and there is no opt-out. One must comply with the legislation or one is put out of business.

Mr. Stringer: The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire has confused the issue with that quote. The important point made by Lord Falconer and repeated by me is that the Bill, which is a Government commitment, would not be used for large or controversial measures. The list of 51 examples includes some large items, including fire safety regulations. The test of balancing those regulatory regimes in the Bill is whether any burden introduced is proportionate to the benefits, not the definition of whether it is small or large.

Mr. Lansley: I am understanding something that I confess had previously escaped me. My understanding was that undertakings given by Ministers during the passage of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994 not to affect large or controversial measures had been repeated by Ministers this time round. Indeed, the Minister appeared to give such an undertaking. However, is it not the case that Ministers intend to affect large measures, so long as they are not controversial? We are asking the Minister whether he will give a further undertaking that Ministers will not impose large burdens in the course of affecting measures using that power.

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