Regulatory Reform Bill [Lords]

[back to previous text]

Mr. Stringer: I am pleased to have enlightened the hon. Gentleman about our objectives. When we reach the amendments that he has tabled, which effectively say that this should not be the Regulatory Reform Bill but a deregulatory Bill, we shall debate the issue of moving burdens within regulatory regimes. The general point on the amendment is burdens that are changed should be proportionate to the benefits considered. In our opinion that is a better wording than trying to define ``small'' or ``large'' out of the context of the businesses affected.

Mr. Lansley: I am grateful to the Minister, who is being patient. Let us be clear: he intends to affect large measures using the powers in the Bill and he will only give an undertaking not to affect controversial measures.

Mr. Stringer: I am happy to explain again that the Bill is to deal with the regulatory regimes that were not covered by the 1994 Act, many of which are large. Indeed, we shall mention fire regulations again because they involve 120 pieces of primary legislation and 120 pieces of secondary legislation. The Bill is important because regulatory regimes are contained on many pieces of different legislation; it will benefit business to put them in one place where they can be clarified and improved.

Mr. Page: In view of the explanation given by the Minister, and the fact that we will continue to probe the matter by other means, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Lansley: I beg to move amendment No. 4, in page 1, line 16, at end insert—

    `if recommended by the Law Commission'.

We are still considering the essential issue of the objective of the order-making power created by clause 1. That touches on the vexed question of the removal of inconsistencies and anomalies. When the other place debated an amendment that would have deleted subsection (d), Ministers argued, with some justification, that it would be inconsistent with the structure of the Bill—given that it is intended to effect a new scheme of regulations—were not one of the objectives of such re-regulation to remove inconsistencies and anomalies. Often, when one sees inconsistencies and anomalies and recognises them for what they are, it is not remotely controversial to try to remove them in the course of an order-making power.

The key issue—to echo the scepticism with which my noble Friends addressed the matter in another place—is the extent to which that objective might tend to bulk relatively large in the overall purpose of a scheme of regulation, as distinct from having a deregulatory impact. Ministers and the Executive should not be encouraged to go on an expedition to search out inconsistencies and anomalies as a justification for an order-making power that does not give rise to any significant deregulatory effects. Therefore, we want to be sure that we are clear about the legitimacy of the purpose of removing inconsistencies and anomalies when such an order-making power is used.

In searching for such a source of legitimacy, it seemed to us that the Law Commission was an entirely apt body for the purpose. Other hon. Members will be at least as aware as I am of its work, which is essentially concerned with reviewing the structures of law to try to ensure consistency, simplification and effectiveness. It produces a significant number of reports on law reform, to which the House would normally have to give effect through primary legislation. It would be advantageous if it were possible for Ministers to introduce schemes of legislative reform—as long as they are not controversial—that remove inconsistencies and anomalies and reduce burdens. The amendment would go further, by providing that the specific objective of the removal of inconsistencies and anomalies should stem from Law Commission reports, and therefore—this would be the principal benefit of the amendment—from the whole process of consultation and scrutiny that the Law Commission provides.

Mr. White: Given that we are a Committee of non-lawyers, is not one of the problems with our legislative process that it is too dominated by lawyers? The hon. Gentleman seems to want to add more lawyers to the process and to keep a closed shop in existence.

12 noon

Mr. Lansley: The hon. Gentleman is being unreasonable. There is a place for lawyers, and it is in the Law Commission. However, he makes a fair point. We are dealing here with an antecedent process to the process of scrutiny by the House and the Deregulation Committee, of which he is a member. It is not the case, therefore, that the removal of inconsistencies and anomalies will stem from a Law Commission process without proper scrutiny by Ministers, officials and the House. There will still be scrutiny and consultation, because the order makes provision for that.

The point is whether Ministers and officials should be able to begin the process by removing inconsistencies and anomalies without prior scrutiny. In my view, the power was created not for that purpose but to reduce burdens. Ministers want to extend the power to achieve wider regulatory reform, and the removal of inconsistencies and anomalies is a subset to that aim. If the amendment were accepted, other benefits that flow from rewriting regulations in a less burdensome form would not necessarily be precluded—Ministers would still be able to go down that path. However, to make the removal of inconsistencies and anomalies one of the order's initial objectives is to make it a prominent one. Under what circumstances should that prominent objective be brought forward?

Mr. White: One other Committee that I sit on is the Joint Committee on Consolidation of Bills—I have upset a lot of people through my participation in such Committees—to which the Law Commission made a number of recommendations. There is a long lead-in time for such recommendations, but is there not a danger that the hon. Gentleman's amendment would add to the lead-in time for deregulation proposals?

Mr. Lansley: The hon. Gentleman, by virtue of his obvious experience in such matters, may be able further to enlighten us, but I doubt whether the amendment would necessarily lead to an overall delay. Its purpose is not to change the way in which the Law Commission works; in any event, Ministers would not be constrained in any way in their use of Law Commission reports as a basis for bringing forward an order that forms part of a regulatory reform scheme. I should be interested to hear the Minister's views on that.

I shall not disguise the fact that the purpose of the amendment is yet again to constrain Ministers. We do not trust this Government in particular, but a mistrust of Governments in general is built into the Conservative party's genes.

Mr. Stringer: Including your own?

Mr. Lansley: Including any Government. Governments should not be given free powers to rewrite legislation where scrutiny will be modest and limited. The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that, when Ministers introduce an order with the express objective of removing inconsistencies and anomalies—an objective that is likely to be large-scale rather than trivial—they do so in the light of Law Commission reports. That would ensure that the ostensible purpose is viewed through the consultative process, and that it is robust in relation to the law to which it applies. Indeed, those are matters on which lawyers should advise us.

On that basis, I hope that the Minister will respond positively to our efforts to ensure that the removal of inconsistencies and anomalies will be exercised with care. I hope, too, that he will comment on the extent to which the Law Commission, rather than the desires of Ministers themselves, might be the regular source of such proposals.

Mr. Stringer: I understand that the hon. Gentleman wants to limit the power of the Bill because he does not trust Labour Governments--

Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe (Bradford, South): Any Government.

Mr. Stringer: Or Conservative Governments. I understand that, but his proposal is less consistent than he believes. For example, one of the 51 proposals for regulatory reform covers unfair contract terms and will remove from businesses the costs of having to adhere to two different sets of regulations that are currently in force with substantial overlap. That proposal will be put to the Law Commission and the Scottish Law Commission. When the Law Commission was consulted on the Bill and on whether it should be referred to in the Bill, it stated that it wanted to be consulted only on areas in which it had particular expertise because it was reviewing that part of the law. If we followed the hon. Gentleman's reasoning and there were inconsistencies and anomalies, which are covered by clause 1(1), the use of the Bill would be prohibited for no good reason. That is not sensible. I shall give an example.

During the debate on the Postal Services Act 2000 (Determination of Turnover for Penalties) Order 2001 on 19 March, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) spotted that the order made anomalous or inconsistent provision on what would happen in the case of a breach of a licence which the commission considered had lasted for exactly two years. It provided for what would happen in the case of a breach of a licence which the commission considered had lasted for less than two years or for more than two years. It was possible to deduce logically what the position should be if the breach was exactly two years, but it did not fit in with the order.

That is an example of an anomaly or inconsistency that could be dealt with if a deregulatory power were attached to it by the Bill. If problems can be easily dealt with by the regulatory reform process with all its safeguards and the Law Commission is not considering that part of the legislation, it is not sensible or consistent to be unable to use the process.

Mr. Page: I had the privilege of serving on that Committee with the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare and we both expressed our concern at the savage penalties being introduced. The Minister will recall that our argument was dismissed, but, when the Bill went to another place, the Minister there rectified the position and no harm was done.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 27 March 2001