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Mr. Cook : The hon. Gentleman concedes our case when he asks how they could meet the extra expense. Did we need any further evidence that the brewers are pocketing the money by short-changing the customer? That is where the money is coming from, and they are afraid of handing it over. The Government will have regard to those people, not to the House.
Mr. Riddick : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr. Cook : I have given way generously during this debate, and I have given way to the hon. Gentleman on many other occasions. There is, of course, a double standard that is represented by this Bill. The Government are so keen to deregulate-- [Interruption.] We have in the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) another spokesman for the brewers. I should not want the Tory party to lose the money that it gets from the brewers.
Mr. Riddick : Is the hon. Gentleman in favour of the brewers' imposing an extra 7p on the price of a pint of beer? That would be the cost of enforcing this provision. Let the hon. Gentleman now answer the question that has been put to him : why did 33 of his hon. Friends sign the early- day motion supporting the introduction of this provision? Mr. Cook : The hon. Gentleman has put a precise price on the point that was made by his hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough (Mr. Sykes). We have been told that brewers now admit that they cheat drinkers out of 7p on every pint. For once, I agree with the hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle, who, when he was the Minister responsible for consumer affairs, said that the drinker should get the pint he pays for.
Mr. Riddick : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr. Cook : No. I have given way often enough. The hon. Gentleman has earned his keep from the brewing industry and will now have to stay in his place.
Mr. Riddick : On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the hon. Gentleman to display total ignorance of the fact that brewers would have to introduce new glasses and new meters to correspond with these new measures? Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris) : That is not a point of order for the Chair.
Mr. Cook : None the less, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising it. Having consulted the Register of Members' Interests, I can tell the House that the hon. Gentleman is a parliamentary adviser to the Brewers Society. A more genuine point of order--although I shall not raise it-- might concern whether the hon. Gentleman declared his interest before intervening in this debate.
Mr. Riddick : It is in the register, you berk.
Mr. Deputy Speaker : I am not sure that I heard that remark correctly, but if I did, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw it.
Mr. Riddick : I withdraw it, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
Mr. Deputy Speaker : I am most grateful.
Mr. Cook : We can lay the hon. Gentleman's point in the place from which the cheques come.
There is, of course, a double standard represented by this Bill. We have a Government who are so keen to deregulate the private sector--
Mr. Riddick : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sorry to labour the matter, but it is only fair to the House to point out that a Labour Member too is a parliamentary adviser to the Brewers Society. I can speak with some authority about this subject, as, unlike the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), I happen to know something about it.
Mr. Deputy Speaker : All hon. Members should be quite clear that if they have an interest in the subject of a debate in which they are taking part, that interest must be declared.
Mr. Cook : There is a double standard in this Bill. We have a Government who, while keen to deregulate the private sector, keep rolling out more central control in the public sector.
The President of the Board of Trade will recall that he began his career in the Government as Secretary of State for the Environment. Just after his appointment, he set out his strategy for the deregulation of local government. He said :
"We will sweep away tiresome and excessive control over local government. They do not need, they do not want, the fussy supervision of detail".
Fifteen years later, we have more central regulation of local government than any other country in Europe. If the right hon. Gentleman wants a bonfire of regulations, let us throw on that bonfire the red tape that ties up local democracy--the capping powers, the rules on compulsory competitive tendering and the Treasury regulations that prevent councils from using their own capital receipts to shorten their waiting lists.
What about putting the torch to red tape in the national health service-- the mountains of red tape invented through the Government's reforms? In four years, the number of managers needed to control the red tape has increased by 400 per cent. That burden on business, which was created by the present Government, could be removed by them. Such is the gulf between the hype with which Ministers preach deregulation and their own record in office.
At his press conference to introduce this Bill, the President of the Board of Trade was strong on hype. He said :
"This Bill will save hundreds of millions of pounds."
When his Department was asked to quantify the hundreds of millions of pounds, it produced figures that added up to precisely £50 million. The Customs people, when they were approached, said, "We're a little puzzled by the figures." I suspect that the truth is that none of the measures in chapter II or in the background documents will make much difference, one way or the other, to the vast majority of British businesses.
There is, however, one obvious exception. The document "Cutting Red Tape" contains one item that will make a big difference to the budget of every firm, large or small. I refer to the first entry from the Department of Social Security. That Department claims, unbelievably, that the imposition of statutory sick pay on employers cuts
Column 166red tape by reducing the administrative burden on the Department. It would take an Orwell to do justice to the double-speak which argues that imposing an additional bill of £750 million on industry reduces the burden on business.
But most of these measures are fairly harmless. The removal of the 1889 Act that prohibits the sale of methylated spirit on Sunday and the repeal of the Pedlar Act 1887 are no doubt worthy tidying-up measures, but they are modest provisions that will not improve our international competitiveness. They are not a substitute for the industrial strategy that Britain needs.
Last week, Britain's economy became the first major one in Europe without a car manufacturer. [Interruption.] Only five years ago, the Under- Secretary of State for Corporate Affairs warned that British ownership and control of the car industry must be a matter for the Government. He said that, if that fact were forgotten, the British car industry would go further up the cul-de-sac of extinction. Now that that is happening, he is laughing.
This week, a group of senior industrialists launched a report that highlights the long-term damage caused by Britain's obsession with short- term financial priorities. Since the new year, we have lost 1, 900 jobs in our biggest exporting industry, aerospace. That is not only a tragedy for those who have lost their jobs but a handicap for the economy, which is losing its pool of skilled engineers. These are the real challenges facing British industry. These are the big issues which the House should be debating. Instead, we have this mean-spirited little Bill, which will weaken our procedures in Parliament without doing anything really to strengthen our industry. It is the final proof of the bankruptcy of a Government who have been in office too long--too long to know how to solve the problems of the nation, because they are problems all of their own making. This is no time for a uniquely unpopular Government to ask Parliament for yet more powers. It is time for the Government to give back to the people the power to decide who should govern them. In the Division Lobby tonight, we may not prevent them from giving themselves these extra powers, but the people will soon strip them away through the ballot box.
Dame Angela Rumbold (Mitcham and Morden) : The hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) may well pull out his binoculars when he hears me welcome this Bill. The hon. Gentleman has presented an awesome spectacle today. He has made very clear the extent to which we would be not only over -regulated but also deeply over-governed if--God forbid--we were to have a Labour Government.
I welcome the Bill very warmly. For a long time, I have thought that we in this country have suffered from over-regulation in every part of our daily life. It is interesting--and this is a very important point--that in the early 1980s, when a similar difficulty was caused by our employment legislation and the restrictions that it imposed, we took steps to introduce measures on an incremental basis. Although we started relatively slowly to reform our laws, we introduced more and more legislation, which incrementally opened up the possibilities for employment on a free basis and for the exercise of people's rights. I hope that we shall introduce further legislation after the
Column 167Bill has completed its Committee stage-- successfully, but no doubt with some jollity, judging by the early part of today's debate. My right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade rightly stressed the importance of the Bill in relation to our industrial competitiveness. We should consider not only our ability to compete with fellow members of the European Union, but the increasing competition presented by lightly regulated Pacific rim countries. If our small businesses are to grow and compete we, too, must be lightly regulated rather than over-regulated.
Over the past few years, people and businesses have suffered as a result of regulation. Sadly, small businesses suffer particularly from over- regulation when there is a downturn in the country's economic fortunes.
Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South) : Can the right hon. Lady explain how the current position has arisen--other than through the need to incorporate European Community directives in domestic regulations? For more than 13 years she has supported the current Administration, both inside and outside the House. If the current over-regulation is the fault of that Administration, why do they not reverse it? What could be simpler than to do that and admit that they are at fault?
Dame Angela Rumbold : Many of the regulations involved were introduced during the 1960s and 1970s when the Conservative Administration were not responsible for the legislation.
Most of our constituencies contain small and medium-sized businesses in considerable difficulties. Many of those difficulties were brought about by over-regulation and over-complication involving such matters as value added tax, sick pay and administration generally. I was enthusiastic about the measures introduced in the Budget because I thought it important to relieve small businesses of some of the burdens of form filling--especially in connection with VAT--that officialdom has created over the past year.
Many young entrepreneurs with certain skills--not necessarily accounting skills--start up small businesses. They are then confronted by a huge number of regulations. Some of the regulations relate to accounting procedures. Others, however, emanate from the DTI and other Departments which insist on burdening those young entrepreneurs with a plethora of regulations and forms, making it impossible for them to establish forceful, successful businesses which can compete with their rivals in other countries.
That is the world on which we should concentrate. A young engineer, for instance, may be suddenly confronted by the VAT man or some other official, and told, "You must do such and such today, or we cannot allow you to continue in business". He may also have an important contract to fulfil on that same day. When considering the way in which the growth of new businesses is constrained, we should take account of the amount of business that is lost as a result of time factors and the restrictions imposed by today's over-regulated world. Young and even middle-aged people starting up businesses should have some idea of the accounting and management skills that they will need to acquire. That is a question of training. As I believe that my hon. Friend the Minister will
Column 168acknowledge, the one-stop shop approach has already proved helpful. I hope that that scheme will be expanded, as I believe that it will assist with the regulations that will have to be introduced at some stage.
I do not want to suggest that I am a total deregulator. I know perfectly well that we must live in a world containing reasonable restraints. I know that even in local government, which was cited by the hon. Member for Livingston, councillors and other officials often have to regulate and impose restraints, for good reasons. I should add, however, that I was a local councillor for some 10 years and I used to dread--and, indeed, leave- -committee meetings dealing with what I considered to be interference in other people's business. In the development control and planning committees, every "i" had to be dotted, every "t" crossed ; even the placing of dustbins was a matter for those committees. If we allowed some of the more enthusiastic regulators in the House of Commons to have their way, I believe that the House itself would be turned into a development control committee overnight. We would be dotting every "i" and crossing every "t" in every piece of legislation with which we were presented. There is no quicker way of obfuscating the proper business of the House--that of legislating on serious matters--than allowing ourselves to forget that we are not here to interfere in every moment of people's daily lives.
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) : Are not the most welcome parts of the Bill those dealing with the fresh guidelines with which local authorities will be issued? No longer will an enforcement officer say one thing to certain groups of businesses while another officer in the same local authority says something completely different. At present, the arrangements differ from area to area. We need simple standard guidelines, full of common sense, which people will understand.
Dame Angela Rumbold : I could not agree more. My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The regulations are so complex that it is possible for them to be defined in one way by a group of people in Birmingham, for instance, while another group in Bristol interprets them as requiring greater controls. When I was in local government, I found that it was possible to misinterpret every regulation that resulted from legislation passed in the House of Commons. Before I became a Member of Parliament, I also spent some time examining the task force proposals on deregulation. I was encouraged by those proposals, but less encouraged by "Cutting Red Tape". I hope that the Government will not allow themselves to be over- cautious. I fear that with a Bill of this nature it would be easy enough to withdraw from the initial thrust of legislation which would otherwise produce excellent results in the future. That would nullify all the efforts not only of enthusiastic supporters such as myself but of those who have the pleasure of serving on the Standing Committee, although I trust that I shall not be among their number.
A raft of opportunities is available for us to consider. Many are set out in the task force proposals and others will emerge as we consider the Bill. It is important for hon. Members to recognise that the Bill should set a trend whereby it will become the norm for people to consider legislation and its regulations closely, and for those regulations to be not only clear and simple but written in understandable language, which has not yet been achieved.
Column 169I am happy, therefore, to support the Bill and the efforts of my right hon. and hon. Friends the Ministers to ensure that the Bill successfully progresses through the House.
Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) : I beg to move, to leave out from "That" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof : "this House, while welcoming the removal of unnecessary and out-of-date regulations, declines to give a Second Reading to a Bill which proposes to remove these regulations without providing a mechanism for proper debate and which encourages the transfer of decision-making over public money to private individuals who are in no way properly accountable to Parliament."
The amendment makes it clear that I accept the case for getting rid of out- of-date regulations and regulations that are a genuine barrier to efficiency and understanding. I am more than willing to have constructive discussions with the Government to identify and agree on procedures that will achieve those aims. As the amendment makes clear, however, we are concerned about how those goals should be achieved, what the mechanism should be, and how we can ensure that the matter is properly debated. There should be a genuine attempt to strike a balance in the process ; at present, the Bill does not do so.
In his opening speech, the President of the Board of Trade acknowledged the creative tension that exists and set out the case for regulations and the continuing need for them. I am not always sure whether the Under-Secretary of State for Corporate Affairs agrees with his boss. He sometimes gives the impression that he has not been convinced of the case for any regulation.
If one considers the task forces' report and the proposals that the Government have either accepted or rejected, it is clear that there was, even at the Department of Trade and Industry, tension on the subject of the task force. For example, the task force was opposed to the protection of hedgerows, whereas the Government were still committed to introducing legislation to achieve that end, which I welcome.
Other serious tensions, particularly on small businesses, were well drawn out in the Library brief. It is easy for hon. Members to provide a catalogue of information from individual small businesses on regulations, planning controls and health and safety factors. Those small businesses are required to respond to those regulations, which causes them considerable difficulty. That problem was acknowledged by the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) in his Social Market Foundation paper, which identified that big businesses are sometimes relaxed about regulations. They not only have the mechanism to police and enforce them, but they regard them as a barrier to market entry for some smaller businesses. That argument should be noted.
It is interesting that, in the same Library brief, the Small Business Research Trust showed the danger of not acknowledging the risks. It argues that many small businesses will concentrate only on picking up business on the fringes, because it is cheaper. That brings the danger that they will perhaps be tainted with the label that they are not of as high a standard as larger businesses. The legitimate questions that need to be asked are : should we abolish regulations for small businesses and give them derogations or should we help them to meet the regulations in two ways? First, we could ensure that they are simple and necessary--there can be a meeting of minds on that
Column 170matter. Secondly, we could provide small businesses with practical assistance that recognises the difficulty that they have in meeting regulations, which have too often been drawn up by the Department in consultation only with the large businesses, which do not have the problems.
Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford) : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in considering how to help small businesses to meet levels of regulation, we depart from the real issue : was it necessary to impose such regulations on those businesses in the first place? Is not that nonsense? We should get rid of those regulations that are not necessary.
Mr. Bruce : We need to tackle both the problems that I mentioned because there will still be regulations that are necessary and which small businesses will find difficult. I accept the hon. Member's argument that we should always examine whether regulations are necessary and whether they create an unnecessary barrier or burden. I want to pursue the argument that many regulations have been introduced by the Government in the wake of privatisation and the broadening of the market. It may well be that, as the market becomes more effective, there will be room to lower those regulations. But we have to be sure of what we are doing, because those regulations were introduced for good reasons. If conditions have changed sufficiently and changes are justified, it will not present a problem. But concerns will continue in some quarters.
The constitutional proposals in the Bill are of genuine concern. Clauses 1 to 4 represent a major constitutional change to the way in which the House does its business. As I said in my intervention during the President of the Board of Trade's speech, the Government, by recommending the new process, at least acknowledge that a radically different position exists and that the House needs to consider that. We should welcome that acknowledgement and consider the proposals.
Mr. Peter Ainsworth (Surrey, East) : Is not the key difference that the Bill, for the first time, makes it much easier for regulations and legislation to be withdrawn? That is the key change from previous practice. Does not the hon. Gentleman recognise and welcome that?
Mr. Bruce : I am prepared to acknowledge that the Bill provides a better mechanism for removing the regulations than applied when they were introduced. If the hon. Gentleman will have a little patience, he will discover my concerns.
My first concern, which I mentioned earlier, involves clause 3, which seems specifically designed to avoid the possibility of judicial review. It states :
"Before a Minister makes an order under section 1 above, he shall--
(a) consult such organisations as appear to him to be representative of interests substantially affected by his proposals ; and
(b) consult such other persons as he considers appropriate." It goes on to state that if it is appropriate
"to vary the whole or any part of his proposals, he shall undertake such further consultation with respect to the variations as appears to be him to be appropriate."
I am aware that there have been occasions in the past when judicial review has been successful because parties that believe that they should have been consulted have not been consulted, and they have been able to have the matter looked into. The clause seems to ensure that all the
Column 171Minister has to say is, "I did not consider it necessary to consult them, whatever their interest and however essential it was." The clause is too wide and I hope that it will be amended.
Mr. Sykes : Does not the hon. Gentleman accept that the two Select Committees will have the power to call before them whomsoever they would wish to call?
Mr. Bruce : The interventions are anticipating the arguments that I am advancing. I have acknowledged that the Government recognise that there is a need for new procedure. I am addressing their proposals. We should first recognise, however, that we do not yet know in detail how the new procedure will operate. All we have are recommendations from the Government that have to be considered by the Select Committee on Procedure. I understand that that Committee has not started to meet to discuss the matter, although it originally said that it might do so. It is waiting for the end of the debate and for the Bill to go into Committee. It would be extremely helpful if the Committee report were to be made available before the Bill reached its Report stage. Otherwise, we shall be debating in a vacuum without any clear idea of the Procedure Committee's concerns.
Mr. Spearing : The hon. Gentleman has hit--perhaps untowardly--on a most important constitutional point. He asks that a body, perhaps a Committee of the House or, indeed, the Government, who no doubt have some views on the matter, present some ideas about the constitution of a Committee which, under Standing Orders, would discuss the probable views of the House. Would not it be more appropriate for that to happen only after Royal Assent has been granted because, prior to that, this House or another place might not wish clause 3 to remain part of the Bill?
Mr. Bruce : I respect the hon. Gentleman's constitutional niceties, but I am being pragmatic. The Government have a majority and I should like to hear what the Procedure Committee has to say, for pragmatic rather than constitutional reasons. Incidentally, the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments currently has no representative from the minority parties. I wish to put it on the record that, if the procedure is to be developed, I hope that the Committee will be more representative of the House as a whole. It is fine to talk about the theoretical and constitutional niceties of an alternative procedure, but I am worried about the practicalities.
The hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer), who is no longer in the Chamber, has already pointed out the statistical implications. We already face thousands of statutory instruments every year, but the Government are now asking for an additional procedure to deal with potentially thousands-- or at least hundreds--more in any given Session. There is no chance of the Committee dealing with anything other than a tiny fraction of them. It will be able to undertake nothing more than a cherry-picking exercise, choosing to consider those that appear to be most contentious or those that are of most public interest.
The President of the Board of Trade has offered us only an unquantified self-denying ordinance that the Government would undertake to be "reasonable", but we are being asked to give the Government additional powers
Column 172without any idea of what "reasonable" means. In those circumstances, the House is entitled to express its serious reservations about the implications of the proposals.
A further constitutional implication is to be found in part II of the Bill, which deals with contracting out. It extends the removal of parliamentary control and accountability even further than the measures that have been introduced in the past 13 years. It is a matter of genuine concern and it is interesting that the debate is coming out into the open. When the Conservative party was in opposition, I remember that there was a great campaign against the wicked quangos which were being created by the Labour Government, but no one has created more quangos and provided them with less constitutional accountability than the Conservatives.
The contracting-out provisions of the Bill take the notion a stage further. The provisions essentially mean that private contractors, private individuals, the employees of private contractors and the contractors of private contractors can act as if they were Ministers or civil servants and that the Minister can override local authorities and require them to transfer the powers of local government councillors and officers to private contractors. The Conservative party claims to believe in tight control and sound money, but it is creating a monster over which it has less and less control.
The Public Accounts Committee has already identified the extent to which money voted by Parliament is being spent by people who are not accountable to Parliament. We are talking not about millions of pounds but about hundreds of millions, if not billions, of pounds being transferred to people who are not accountable to the House. I have often campaigned for fundamental constitutional changes to the way in which the country is run, and argued for a written constitution, a Bill of Rights and a fairer voting system, but let us leave that aside. Under the terms according to which the House chooses to operate as a sovereign Parliament, the basic rules are that Parliament votes money and Ministers are accountable to Parliament for spending it. Now, apparently, we are to be told increasingly that private contractors are responsible.
I hope that the Minister will explain the real meaning of clause 60, because I have heard two interpretations. One was that if the Minister intervened and stopped a contract because he believed that a contractor was abusing his power, the contractor might be able to sue him for breach of contract, which would presumably mean that more public money could be lost. What is the use of the safeguard in clause 60 if a contractor has already disappeared with the money, gone bust or is simply unable to account for it? I hope that the Minister will answer that question.
There has been a continual blurring of the proper role of Parliament and Ministers and of the proper control of money voted by the House of Commons for public services. That is unacceptable and it is why the Bill is much more important than it perhaps appears at first. Hon. Members, including those who, I regret, are not here today, should realise that we are not debating a simple Bill being promoted by the Department of Trade and Industry.
The Bill will fundamentally alter the pattern of Parliament and will affect every Ministry and Department. It could mean that any Minister in any Department could unilaterally amend, abolish or repeal huge rafts of
Column 173legislation without proper consultation or debate in the House. We should not underestimate the significance of the proposals.
Mr. Nigel Evans : The hon. Gentleman has spent some time talking about the aspects of the Bill with which he disagrees, but he has not once said what the Liberal Democrats would do to cut the red tape which is holding back our businesses and stopping them flourishing and growing. He should stop sitting on the fence and instead tell us what his party would do.
Mr. Bruce : I have no problem with the hon. Gentleman's intervention. The amendment makes it clear that we are in favour of sweeping away unnecessary regulations, but that we are concerned about how it is done. I can, of course, identify proposals that we favour. One of our concerns that has been mentioned, but which the Government do not share, is that the imposition of statutory sick pay on small buisnesses is a big burden on them. Even small businesses say that the lack of markets and cash flow and their inability to get their bills paid on time are far more serious than regulation. The hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) quoted the relief of the auditing requirement for businesses with a turnover of less than £90, 000. I not only welcome and support that but point out that the Liberal Democrats advocated it in our alternative budget in advance of the Government's Budget. Indeed, we have made, and will continue to make, representations to the Government for the removal of unnecessary or overly restrictive regulations. If the Government approached the issue in a less partisan spirit, this would be a great opportunity to reach agreement to remove regulations which all parties agree are non- controversial.
One fact that I am sure the Minister has already indentified is that no one believes that it should continue to be a criminal offence to provide someone with more than a pint of beer when they have paid only the statutory charge for a pint. We welcome some of the proposals to change shop hours and the relaxing of restrictions regarding children in pubs. Indeed, we have advocated many such proposals, so the intervention of the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) was irrelevant.
Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne) : Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the practical problem that was highlighted in the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) is that to overturn regulation on a large scale would take not years but decades if one were to follow the usual parliamentary procedures?
Mr. Bruce : I am not convinced. Let the Government be honest : we all agree on the regulations that can be removed relatively easily because they are out of date, obsolete or marginal, but others, such as those relating to consumer protection, involve a fundamental difference in philosophy. It is odd that, while one Minister is saying that he will deregulate, when there is a major scandal or row or someone runs off with the money, another Minister tells us what he will do to ensure that consumers are protected and says that we shall have legislation in a few weeks. I do not know whether at that point the Parliamentary Under- Secretary of State for Corporate Affairs will come over to the Opposition Benches and start to argue against it. It is only reasonable that the creative tension is acknowledged.
Column 174I can leave many details of the Bill to the Committee. However, one of the valid and legitimate objections made by the Association for Consumer Research is that the deregulation does not appear to have a coherent framework. That is a direct challenge to the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State. It will be helpful to Members of Parliament, to businesses of all shapes and sizes, to consumers and to all the relevant groups--whether it be for employment protection, health and safety, consumer protection, standards or whatever--to know the groupings of regulations that the Government are putting together to declare them obsolescent and get rid of them.
There is no clear framework. We are getting rafts of unrelated deregulations with no pattern to them. The Government will simply decide to get rid of the regulations, which will be discarded in their hundreds. If they are grouped coherently, people will be aware of the benefit and businesses will understand the sense of it. My final argument is that the Government are in danger of pursuing a wonderful line of rhetoric--the hon. Members for Ribble Valley and for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson), who intervened on my speech, would do well to consider that--which they will find that they are unable to fulfil. They will create hopes and expectations in the small business community in their constituencies, who will ultimately be disappointed because it has not proved practical because there is no coherent strategy. We are already beginning to experience that type of approach.
The Government must also recognise that they are raising fears that consumer protection legislation will be weakened ; that employment protection or people's rights, especially to redundancy payments, will be swept away ; that health and safety provisions could be diluted. Those are the worries which will legitimately be addressed in detail in the Bill.
I would suggest to the Government and to hon. Members that we need to have a constructive and honest debate about how we can, get rid of unnecessary regulations, and about how we can, by all means, introduce a culture that enables us to review regulations properly before they are introduced. I would suggest that that mechanism, if it is good for removing regulations, ought to be good for introducing them as well. The Government should consider that. We should realise that that is not as simple as it appears.
Mr. Neil Hamilton : I am glad to hear the constructive tone of the hon. Gentleman's speech because I believe that there will be a great deal of agreement on both sides of the House on the meat of the measures that will be brought forth under the deregulation initiative. The order-making power will in general be used, as is evident from the nature of those which appear in this company document, for measures that will be uncontroversial. I believe, though, that the overall strategy is properly dealt with in that document and the other documents that were published at the same time as the Bill. Reviews are continuing over the range of Government policy in which consumers will have a full part to play when we consult them, before and after the Government make their proposals. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's fears are illusory.
Mr. Bruce : I hope that I am right, but, as we get into Committee, we shall obtain more detail. Many of the proposals in the meat of the Bill will not cause major problems for the Government. Some will, but most,
Column 175probably, will not. The trouble is that most of the things that are identified in the accompanying documents are not in the Bill, and some are not clear.
For example, I do not understand why European time should appear. It is acknowledged to be a non-regulation matter. Is there any serious suggestion that we could be forced on to European standard time on the basis of a statutory instrument, among hundreds of others, which cannot be debated as primary legislation on the Floor of the House? The future of the Forestry Commission is mentioned. Does the privatisation of forestry, if the Government were to go down that route, require primary legislation or not? We should be told. We are worried that fundamental structural changes could be introduced on the basis of a mechanism that will not allow for proper debate and amendment. If the Government are able to provide us with assurances in due course by the time that the Committee has sat, they will find that the Liberal Democrats respond constructively, but we shall have to be convinced that we are not discussing a constitutional outrage which will sweep away the proper responsibility of Parliament and the proper responsibility of Members of Parliament to scrutinise, to vote money and to hold Ministers to account for it.
Mr. James Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth) : I hope that the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) will forgive me if I do not follow him down the route that he has signposted. I shall confine my remarks to a very narrow sector--a point touched on earlier by my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Sir P. Hordern) during an intervention.
I do not oppose the main principles of the Bill. Deregulation provides additional opportunities for businesses by removing controls and bureaucracy. It stimulates new ideas and can do a great deal to create a climate in which prosperity and jobs can grow and flourish. My right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade, in his splendid opening speech, quite properly drew our attention to the benefits that will flow from the enactment of the Bill. I wish, however, to discuss a narrow part, and I am concerned about two clauses that might, at first sight, seem insignificant.
They are outside the main thrust of this measure, but they have serious implications for the work of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and the Health Service Commissioner--the ombudsman. It is more probable that the Comptroller and Auditor General will also be affected, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham said. It is even possible that the Clerks of the House would be unintentional targets of the legislation.
My interest in the measure arises because I am Chairman of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for
Administration. It is, therefore, my intention to confine my remarks to the implications that the Bill holds for that office, even though it may have implications for other servants of the House. The relevant clauses are clauses 57 and 67. It will be seen that clause 57(2) and (3) draws attention to what might happen as far as the Parliamentary Commissioner
Column 176for Administration is concerned. It would seem from at least one interpretation that a Minister would be able to instruct an Officer of the House.
I put it to the House that that would be something of a constitutional novelty. It has serious implications for the ombudsman, whose office was set up by the House and who is required to inquire into complaints made by citizens about the way in which Government Departments administer or implement Acts of Parliament. It is the ombudsman's duty--a duty that has been laid upon him by the House--to inquire into examples of maladministration--for example, in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Department of Transport or the national health service.
The ombudsman is required to publish a report following his investigation, which sets out his findings and suggests remedies. From time to time, therefore, the ombudsman is seen to be clearly critical of the way in which a Government Department discharges its duties and responsibilities.
The Parliamentary Commissioner or the Health Service Commissioner can do that because he does not owe his existence to any Minister or to Government. He is an Officer of the House, and he is therefore independent and impartial, owing no allegiance to Ministers or Government Departments. If his office is contracted out, I believe that that impartiality will be substantially damaged. Like the judiciary, the ombudsman is involved in justice--justice for the citizen against an overbearing or maladministering arm of the state. A recent report by the Select Committee on the powers of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration concluded that the independence of the ombudsman should be further emphasised and enhanced, and that it should be done by changing the way in which he is appointed and his office funded.
In the report--only the second issued by the Select Committee in about 25 years--that relates to the powers of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, the Committee said :
"We recommend that the Government introduce legislation to meet the expenses of the office from monies voted directly by Parliament on estimates prepared by the Public Administration Commission. We also recommend that the Government introduce legislation to provide for the appointment of the ombudsman by the Crown on an address of the House of Commons. No motion being made in such an address except by the Prime Minister with the agreement of the Chairman of the Select Committee and the Leader of the Opposition."
The Bill, or rather the part of it that I have mentioned, goes in the opposite direction, with powers being transferred from the House to the Government. I believe that my right hon. and hon. Friends in government would not abuse their new powers, but someone else, perhaps in some new Parliament, might be tempted to do so. That is why I believe that the two clauses should be amended to remove the Officers of the House from the effects of the Bill. Alternatively, any decision conveying the powers and responsibilities of the Parliamentary Commissioner to any third party should lie firmly with the Commissioner himself. It should be his decision, not that of a Minister.
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster invited my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham and me to meet him yesterday to discuss that specific issue. I thank him both for his courtesy and for his time. He showed considerable understanding of and