Regulatory Reform Bill [Lords]

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Mr. White: Does my hon. Friend accept that other legislatures that are based on the Westminster model--for example, in Canada and Australia--have attempted to be precise in language that is understandable? The two are not always in conflict and forethought can provide understandable English with definitions at the end?

Mr. Stringer: I recognise the weight and power of my hon. Friend's comment. I would be the last person to say that every piece of legislation produced by the House is clear, straightforward and as much in plain English--that is probably bad English--as it could be. Some other legislatures are better at that, which is why the Government are trying to improve their performance.

12.45 pm

The Deregulation Committee, which my hon. Friend served so well, can press the Government to improve their performance on deregulation. The distinguished right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) said that the Capital Allowances Bill was a model of plain English, so there is some evidence that, while all is not perfect, there has been improvement. The Government share the Committee's aspirations, but amendment No. 5 would be a mistake.

Amendment No. 6 would require Ministers to keep constantly under review the legislation for which they are responsible. The Bill is a commitment to review regulation and I hope that hon. Members recognise that. The point was made that the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994 has not been used much since 1997 and we went through the reasons for that on Second Reading--it applies to pre-1994 regulation and does not deal with whole regulatory regimes. The Bill is direct evidence of the Government's intention to keep the matter under review.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office chairs a panel on regulatory accountability which can call any member of the Government to account for future regulatory programmes for which they are responsible and to explain whether they impose too many burdens on business. In support of that process, every Department with regulations under its control has a Minister with responsibility for current regulation and future regulatory programmes. That is solid evidence that the Government are treating the matter seriously. We may disagree on how much more the 1994 Act could have been used, but the mechanisms and processes in determination of the Government's intention to introduce better regulation and have it place as small a burden as possible on business are clear.

A technical point about the amendment is that it includes no sanction and no period of review to ensure that its requirements are implemented. The Government are implementing the process to which it refers, so the amendment is unnecessary.

Mr. Lansley: I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire and to other members of the Committee for responding so positively to the amendments.

I entirely take the Minister's point that amendment No. 6 involves no sanction. Later on, we will discuss the extent to which Ministers should make regular reports and consider the use that they have made of the powers in relation to existing legislation. On that basis, and because the hon. Member for Eccles was positive about amendment No. 6, but thought that we should withdraw it—

Mr. Ian Stewart: In response to the hon. Gentleman's comments about the Deregulation Committee's powers and its relations with Ministers, he should understand that the Committee already has the power to ask Ministers to come before it, and has made it clear that it will exercise that power annually.

Mr. Lansley: Indeed, I recall the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) making that point on Second Reading.

I do not intend to press amendment No. 6, but amendment No. 5 is a different matter. I was heartened by the support of hon. Members on both sides of the Committee for the purposes expressed by the amendment. I listened carefully to the Minister's interesting exposition of the difficulties associated with phrasing Bills in simpler terms. I did not detect from anything that he said that it is not the Government's intention to try to phrase regulatory reform orders in as simple and comprehensive a form as possible, and indeed he did not dispute the purposes of the amendment. However, he did not address the issue of whether it is desirable to state those purposes in the Bill by adding the subsection that the amendment proposes.

The Minister did not deal with the meaning of the word ``reform''—its natural meaning, that is, rather than its legal meaning, as in the Law Commission's interpretation—which includes the elimination of anomalies. The Government do not agree that because the elimination of anomalies is part of the natural meaning of the word ``reform'', subsection (d) is unnecessary—they believe that it has to be included because they want it to be one of the objectives of introducing regulatory reform orders. Unless the Minister explains to me otherwise, it seems reasonable for us to believe that one of our objectives, in terms of elaborating on the meaning of reform, should be to seek both to simplify and to make more comprehensible the legislation to which regulatory reform orders should apply.

Mr. Ian Stewart: The thrust of my previous comments related not only to amendment No. 6, but to amendment No. 5. The Deregulation Committee is absolutely clear about its role in relation to advising the Government in respect of any anomalous situations, bad wording or the like. That is an existing goal of the Committee, which it will exercise rigorously in future. Therefore, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Lansley: The hon. Gentleman is tempting me by the reasonable way in which he puts his argument. I do not dispute that the Committee has that purpose and mode of operation. However, its role in examining regulatory reform orders would be strengthened if it were able, as with the other objectives in clause 1, to see it stated in the Bill that Ministers should seek to simplify and to make more comprehensible the orders that are introduced.

On amendment No. 6, if Ministers will abstain from fire and forget, we will discuss the question of reporting in more detail. On amendment No. 5, however, I regret to have to tell the Minister that I am wholly unpersuaded by his argument, and must urge my hon. Friends and other members of the Committee to support the amendment.

Question put, That the amendment be made:--

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 9.

Division No. 2]

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

NOES
Brown, Mr. Russell
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.

Mr. Lansley: I beg to move amendment No. 7, in page 1, line 18, after `Act', insert `other than this Act'.

I shall be brief. I confess that the purpose of the amendment is to seek clarity. If the order-making power were used to introduce substantive amendments to the Regulatory Reform Bill, when enacted, it would heighten the nature of the exceptional character of the powers being taken in this legislation to an absurd level. When primary legislation has been established for this exceptional power, it should be used only in precisely the form set out in the primary legislation, and should not subsequently be amended.

The Minister may say that the amendment is technically deficient. It is not the intention of the amendment that regulatory reform orders themselves should not be capable of subsequent amendment by virtue of the legislation. Subject to that point, if the Minister were to give an undertaking that there is no intention for regulatory reform orders themselves subsequently to seek to change the structure of the Regulatory Reform Act, that would meet the concerns on which the amendment is based.

Mr. Stringer: I am happy to explain that this is an enabling power; it is not a compelling or regulatory regime. The Regulatory Reform Act cannot apply to itself, and the Government have no intention of using it in that way. The same applied to the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994, apart from the ``contracting out'' parts of the Act. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Lansley: I am grateful for the Minister's clarification. In the light of his remarks, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2

Meaning of ``burden'' and related expressions

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Lansley: There are not too many points to make on clause 2, but I want to consider one issue, which was discussed in another place. I do not expect to divide the Committee, but it is important to raise the matter. The definition of ``burden'' in clause 2 includes

    ``a restriction, requirement or condition (including one requiring the payment of fees or preventing the incurring of expenditure)''.

Members of the Committee may recall that the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994 used similar words. In that case, ``burden'' includes

    ``a restriction, requirement or condition (including one requiring the payment of fees).

It does not—

It being One o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

        Adjourned till this day at half-past Four o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Cook, Mr. Frank (Chairman)
Brown, Mr. Russell
Bruce, Mr. Ian
Cotter, Mr.
Gray, Mr.
Lansley, Mr.
Laxton, Mr.
Leslie, Mr.
Moran, Ms
Page, Mr.
Rooney, Mr.
Stewart, Mr. Ian
Stringer, Mr.
Sutcliffe, Mr.
White, Mr.

 
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