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Mr. Redwood : In the Liberal Democrats' interesting proposal to abolish the Department of Trade and Industry, which Department, if any, would then become responsible for deregulation, and which Department, if any, would go to Brussels to try to prevent some of these measures going through?

Malcolm Bruce: If the right hon. Gentleman will have a little patience, I will deal with that. I assure him that it is a significant part of what I want to say.

While I am on the subject of regulations, it is interesting to note that when EU regulations are being translated into British regulations, usually through the House and statutory instruments or other mechanisms, an analysis has shown that the UK has on average 334 per cent. more words than the second most wordy member state in the EU. In other words, all our regulations turn out to be infinitely longer than those that apply in any other member state. It does not follow from that that we are necessarily more regulatory; it may be that we are more explanatory. But it suggests that there is evidence of our adding detail to regulations, which our competitors in other member states do not do, and that needs to be considered carefully to ensure that we are not loading burdens on ourselves that the EU does not require us to. Ministers should be pretty
 
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watchful of civil servants who see some of these regulations as an opportunity to piggyback some of their favourite schemes that they were never able to get past Ministers when they were free-standing proposals for domestic legislation. That is a serious issue, and one reason why we need to deal positively and proactively with regulations.

Conservative Members' difficulty is that they have a general opposition to regulations and a general complaint that they add costs, but they are much less able to specify which regulations should be got rid of. That is not a cheap gibe. All of us would genuinely like to find ways to simplify regulations or to get rid of those that do not work. It behoves Conservative Members to come forward with specific proposals.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien: In addition to the points that I made about the culture that needs changing in order to resist the cumulative effect of regulations, which is what businesses really resist—naturally enough, examples do not flood in because people cannot be seen to be offside with what are generally regarded as health and safety measures, and so on, a reputation that they would not want—surely scrapping the horse passport regulations would be a good start for all those involved in the horse business, which employs many in my constituency for a start.

Malcolm Bruce rose—

Mr. Bellingham : It will penalise my sister's two ponies.

Malcolm Bruce: The hon. Gentleman obviously has a personal connection. We may be able to do something about horse passports, although I do not know enough about that, but I do not think that that will transform the British economy overnight. We need practical proposals, and we need a mechanism for ensuring that they are properly evaluated. All of us have an interest in that. The question we need to ask ourselves is, given that a certain amount of regulation is required domestically for health and safety matters and even legitimate social matters, and for other reasons, and there are EU regulations that have to be incorporated into domestic law, how do we do that more simply and cheaply than we are? We all have an interest in bringing that about and we all need to ensure that the mechanisms are improved.

Looking back on the Conservative Government's record, I can find just as many quotes from the latter part of the 1990s complaining about Government regulations and the difficulties faced by businesses struggling with all those regulations—

Brian Cotter: My hon. Friend has been talking about the Conservatives' record. Does he agree that their current record is also worth mentioning? For example, their appearances at the Select Committee on Regulatory Reform was limited in the 2002–03 Session. The party has three Members serving on the Committee, but two of them have not attended it at all in 16 sittings. The Committee has had the opportunity to question Ministers, Departments and civil servants on nine occasions, but two Conservative Members have failed to turn up, while the other one has attended on less than 50
 
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per cent. of occasions. That is an example of how the Conservatives are not doing in practice what they say they are going to do.

Malcolm Bruce: That is very interesting. I know that my hon. Friend is an assiduous attendee of the Committee. If Opposition Members have good ideas or believe that what the Government are doing is fundamentally wrong, the very least they can do is turn up, explain why and put their views on the record. If they do so, they may even have some chance of influencing what happens. [Interruption.] The trouble is that the Conservatives have never got used to the idea of opposition—perhaps the Liberal Democrats have more experience of it—but they will have to do so, as they will be in opposition for a long time.

As Home Secretary, the Leader of the Opposition introduced the immigrant workers requirement, which put an obligation on employees to be responsible for finding out whether anybody whom they employed was an illegal immigrant. The onus was on them to prove otherwise. That was a pretty mischievous measure in every sense, and it was very burdensome. I remember that employers complained bitterly about it, but the Minister who was responsible for the policy is now the Leader of the Opposition who says that he does not think that businesses should be overburdened with unfair and unreasonable regulations.

The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) asked me about our proposals for abolishing the Department of Trade and Industry. Of course, they are controversial, but we genuinely believe that there is a strong case to be made. Historically, the Department existed partly because we had a major manufacturing base and partly because there was a very large publicly owned sector. We have now privatised most of those businesses, and while there are regulatory responsibilities, there are no longer direct investment or management responsibilities and the manufacturing industry has declined.

In passing, I should say that I share the concerns about manufacturing, as I believe that an economy of the size of that of the UK needs a manufacturing component in order to be balanced and effective. Two issues need to be recognised. The first relates to the great days of Mrs. Thatcher, who I think is on record as saying that she did not care whether it was goods or services, as long as they added value. Secondly, we have to be realistic about the world in which we are operating and look at what is happening in China, India and the new Europe. It is very difficult to maintain a competitive manufacturing industry unless it is at the cutting edge, but it is not all bad news. Although we may be losing jobs, we are not losing business in all cases, as we are maintaining some core leading-edge businesses. Some of the jobs may not be great, but the added value is still significant.

Without the sort of direct Government input to which I have referred, do we need a Department that has a budget in excess of £6 billion and a staff of more than 10,000? Our conclusion is that not only do we not need the Department, but it is instinctively regulatory and is cumbersome and bureaucratic. There is an infinite variety of taskforces and working parties. I am not suggesting that nothing that comes out of them is of any value, but I have talked to many businesses that have
 
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concluded that many of the activities in which they are engaged are a substantial waste of their executives' time. One major company—I shall not name it—told me recently that it has now said that it will not send executives to such discussion groups at the Department, because it does not feel that doing so serves any useful purpose. The company said that it used to send people to the meetings partly because it hoped that something constructive might be achieved, but more out of a fear that if they did not go, its competitors would gain an edge.

That is one of the problems with many of the business assistance schemes, although it is interesting to see how the debate is developing. I saw a rather ironic article in yesterday's Financial Times suggesting that Digby Jones was about to launch a campaign of business men for bureaucracy, which would be battling to save the bureaucrats of the DTI on behalf of the business community, whereas it said that the Liberal Democrats were keen to get rid of them. That was a slightly ironic juxtaposition.

Many businesses say, "The process of applying for regional selective assistance or any other form of grant is long drawn out, cumbersome and time consuming. We may have to employ private consultants to make the case effectively, and we may not get the money in the end." Many other businesses complain that the money goes to their foreign competitors, which set up in this country and compete with British businesses that do not have access to the same grants. We conclude that it would be better if none of those schemes existed, in which case people would not have to waste time bidding and could get on with running their businesses in a competitive environment.

If such activity has a role, it is in the regions, where the business community, councils and regional development agencies have local knowledge and understanding and, given more flexibility and less central control, might deliver a better result. That is our case, which is worthy of serious consideration. We accept that it will be criticised, but we do not make it lightly, because we have thought it through and discussed it widely.

The debate is very short, so I shall quickly respond to the right hon. Member for Wokingham. A deregulation Minister should be appointed, with specific responsibility to examine all regulations and ask, "How can we do without them, simplify them, get rid of them, apply a sunset clause or exchange them for new regulations?" Such an appointment would not get rid of all regulation, but it would have a dynamic, because lower, lighter and better regulation would become an active, rather than reactive, process.

I shall address the part of the Conservative motion that relates to European regulations. The hon. Member for Eddisbury acknowledged that many of the single market regulations benefit business. If there were no single market, single market regulations would not exist, and we would need to develop products to meet the requirements of every member state, so every product would need 25 specifications to satisfy all the markets within the European Union. The single market regulations fit all countries, which must be beneficial.
 
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That does not mean that the regulations could not be simpler, better or fairer, but they must exist if the single market applies.

We have taken evidence from Norwegian and Swiss businesses, which say, "The reality is that we must accept those regulations willy-nilly if we want to trade with the European Union," which they do, "but we have no say in shaping them and arguing our case, other than by bilateral discussion with the European Union." Switzerland has major food companies, pharmaceutical companies and industrial companies that trade across the European Union. The honest truth—this is an interesting point that Conservative Members should engage with and, if they are genuinely in the debate, will engage with—is that many in the business establishment in Switzerland are seriously concerned about Switzerland's detachment from the European Union. Their personal nightmare is Turkey becoming a member of the European Union while Switzerland is not, which would not be in the Swiss national interest.


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