Regulatory Reform Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Ian Stewart: Draftsmen?

Mr. White: That proves my point. We need to campaign for comprehensibility not only in this Bill. The procedure should be used to simplify all legislation and to ensure that it is more comprehensible. I do not think that it will need to be written into the Bill if the Minister accepts that the procedure can be used to simplify regulations, so that they are in a language that can be understood by the people to whom they are appropriate. Many people have a problem not with the principle of regulation, but with its detail and comprehensibility. The Bill is a useful way of dealing with such problems. I hope that the Minister will accept that it can be used as a way of modernising legislation—I do not apologise for using that word, as I am responsible for it being in the Deregulation Committee report. It is important to modernise our legislation to ensure that it can be understood even by idiots like me.

Mr. Ian Bruce: It is interesting to follow the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East. He appears to be trying to set a convention on how Ministers deal with legislation. One of my predecessors in South Dorset, Viscount Cranborne, will become the Marquess of Salisbury. There is of course the Salisbury convention in the House of Lords. I am not sure whether the north-east Milton Keynes convention has quite the same ring to it. I am sure that, in making those suggestions, the hon. Gentleman hopes for our support if the Minister does not provide a proper answer.

I want to talk about which Minister will deal with which matter. It is always difficult when one gets a card the night before a Bill is introduced to get one's own amendments into proper order. Amendment No. 6 states:

    ``All Ministers of the Crown shall keep under review the legislation for which they are responsible''.

The Minister can help the Committee by explaining which Minister is doing what.

We heard a wonderful example this morning from my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire, who tabled an amendment containing the word ``small''. Our systems in the Conservative party are so brilliant that we immediately got the Minister with responsibility for small business to speak on that subject. I say that flippantly, but I am interested in which Departments are responsible for primary legislation and which are responsible for secondary legislation.

12.30 pm

A recent example occurred during consideration of the Electronic Communications Act 2000, which was Department of Trade and Industry legislation introduced in the previous Session of Parliament. After much discussion, it was decided that the original draft, which was shown to Opposition Members, was too regulatory. Indeed, it would have imposed enormous numbers of regulations on the communications industry. DTI Ministers rightly slashed it to a shadow of its former self and introduced simple deregulatory legislation. However, the Home Office grabbed the regulations that had been pulled out and included them in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.

The story does not finish there because the DTI was the Department responsible for the secondary legislation that brought in parts of the Electronic Communications Act 2000. The DTI examined the regulations again and effectively—I do not know whether there is a polite way of saying this—castrated the Home Office's secondary legislation by reducing regulation.

The amendments raise the subject of ministerial responsibility. It is important that the Minister grips that issue in his response. A Minister might go to the Deregulation Committee and say, ``We have this deregulation that reduces burdens—it is great,'' and the members of the Committee would tick the box. However, another Minister in another Department might say, ``Hang on a minute. You have removed the burdens on that ministry, but you changed a whole raft of what this ministry was trying to do.'' I have flagged that up as a quick point that I hope the Minister can get to grips with.

Mr. Ian Stewart: My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East has already outlined his view in relation to the simplification of regulations in law and the use of plain language. I concur with his comments, as does the Deregulation Committee in its report. Clause 6 addresses a feeling that is widely held within the Deregulation Committee. In my view, it does not need to be set out in the Bill, but I should argue strongly, as other hon. Members and I did on Second Reading, that we are discussing the creation of a cross-departmental culture of revisiting regulation and legislation to ensure that better regulation is adhered to at all times. That is the purpose of the Bill. I hope that Opposition Members will withdraw their amendments because they are unnecessary.

Mr. Page: Unsurprisingly, I shall enthusiastically endorse and support the two amendments. My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire made a persuasive and intellectual argument, which I immediately took on board. I say that because I referred to his previous amendment as a rough pebble.

Mr. Lansley: It was a polished diamond.

Mr. Page: I was relying on the Government to turn it into a polished diamond.

I support amendment No. 5, in particular, in the light of my experience as a former Minister with responsibility for small business, to which my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset referred. All Governments introduce Bills with the best intentions; once they are enacted, consequential legislation flows. As a result, small business men and women are expected to absorb and handle reams of regulations. In time, they might be visited by a health and safety official or someone from the Environment Agency, the Inland Revenue or Customs and Excise. Indeed, even a representative of the nuclear installations inspectorate could descend on their premises if an examination were considered necessary.

Such people are experts on every single aspect of regulations. They expect the small business man and woman to be equally expert, but that is just not possible. That is why my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire was right to table his amendment. The Executive should make a concentrated effort to make life easier for the small business man and woman by producing legislation that can be easily and comprehensively understood, and which allows them a little time in which to carry on their business. I hope that the Minister will give a commitment to making a concentrated effort to employ plain English in our legislation.

Amendment No. 6 offers a golden opportunity for the Minister to spell out what is happening in the various Departments. The explanatory notes contain various flow diagrams illustrating how Bills will whistle backwards and forwards and be checked by worthy and important people such as the hon. Members for Milton Keynes, North-East and for Eccles, who will doubtless subject it to detailed and rigorous scrutiny. However, the amendment would give legislative impetus to existing Whitehall arrangements by compelling Departments to offer new proposals for amending and, one hopes, reducing the regulatory burden.

The right hon. Lady, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, who led the debate on Second Reading, waxed lyrical about matters such as the deregulation impact unit, the Department's thorough appraisal of the costs and benefits of any new proposals and regulations, and so on. She also claimed that no one wants unnecessary or complicated regulation. We all say ``amen'' to that, but the reality is somewhat different. In the past four years, more regulations have been passed than in any previous four-year period. The Minister quoted some immortal answer that I gave, when I was a Minister with responsibility for small business, in response to a question about the number of regulations. I remember that I was embarrassed to admit that we had added many regulations to the statute book and removed few. We were castigated for that at the time, but four years later the problem is getting worse. We want the Bill to become the saviour of the situation.

The Government have the opportunity to apply their bold claims by accepting the amendment. It would cover not just the new regulations, which they have been so keen to introduce since May 1997, but the body of previous legislation that needs regular scrutiny. I look forward to the Minister giving a clear and definitive explanation of how the process will be pushed through, monitored and enthusiastically encouraged throughout Whitehall so that we can gain confidence for the future.

Mr. Stringer: There are two amendments and three points. I am not sure that the Committee would benefit if I reread paragraph 33 of the explanatory notes, but it clarifies the meaning of ``reform''.

Most of our debate has been taken up with a discussion of plain English and comprehensible legislation. The Government agree that that is a desirable objective. It has been debated several times on the Floor of the House and my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East had an Adjournment debate on it and referred to it a number of times on Second Reading. Everyone agrees on the objective, but no one has got over the hurdle of deciding whether it is more important to use plain English or to be precise. Hon. Members will know that the Bill provides the possibility of imposing two-year prison sentences and if someone can be charged under an Act of Parliament, it is important that the law is precise, even if it is not in plain English.

I shall appeal to the prejudices of all Committee members and say that it is unfortunate that the law is used by lawyers--

Mr. Ian Bruce: They will sue.

Mr. Stringer: Fortunately, we have parliamentary privilege.

On simple definitions, it may be obvious to the Committee what a seller or buyer is, but those words do not cover all the different ways of acquiring or disposing of property so definitions must be included, which may detract from the clarity and plainness of the English.

My next point is particularly appropriate to the Bill, which will necessarily refer to other legislation in attempting to reform and simplify new provisions and to make them clearer. A difficulty in all legislation is the existence of previous legislation. If sections and subsections of other Acts are referred to, those Acts have to be obtained and the new provisions cannot be read as one piece of script. When people's freedom, liberty and costs are involved, it is better to be precise than to insist on the objective of plain English, which is a subjective opinion, otherwise the courts might draw a conclusion that was not intended by Parliament.

 
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