|Previous Section||Home Page|
Mr. Sykes : As an employer, I should like to give the hon. Gentleman an example of how frustrating the process can be. I ran an oil depot in Leeds for many years, from which we delivered heating oil. Due to the rules and regulations--in other words, the last in, first out convention--I was unable to sack a driver who was probably one of the laziest men ever to draw breath. Unfortunately, the fellows who did work hard had to leave because they were last in.
Mr. Burden : The hon. Gentleman should perhaps have studied industrial relations laws a little more. If it turned out that he had a lazy employee, my understanding of the law is that that is a disciplinary issue, and not a redundancy issue.
Mr. Sykes rose--
Mr. Burden : The hon. Gentleman can come back at me when I am finished. No law or regulation says that redundancy has to take place on the basis of last in, first out, although such a convention is often agreed between employers and employees. Any employer or any representative of the employees can suggest a different way of selecting for redundancy, but the important thing is that the process must be fair. The employee must have the right to test the process at an industrial tribunal.
If the hon. Gentleman felt that it was fair to select for redundancy someone whom he felt was lazy, he had every right to try that. He would have to prove his case in front of an industrial tribunal. If he won it--I think that that would be unlikely in the case that he outlined--good luck to him. It is not appropriate for the law to be changed so that an employer can suggest the person he wants for redundancy, even if it is for a disciplinary matter. It is not appropriate for the employee to be denied the right even to go to an industrial tribunal to contest that decision. That would seem to be the wrong use of the law. Such a use of
Column 189law should not necessarily take us by surprise, as the Government have already been whittling away at the protections on redundancy.
Mr. Sykes : I do not wish to labour the point, but in the 1970s employers followed the convention to which I referred. I do not know how many people the hon. Gentleman has employed in his life, but I have employed 600 in my time. I have found it extremely difficult to prove a case such as the one to which I referred.
A driver might say that a wing-mirror had gone on the lorry that morning, or perhaps that his tyres had been let down the night before. Those little things built up gradually over time and added up to the problem. I am trying to explain to the hon. Gentleman, who has probably never employed people on the shop floor, why employers must be able to employ people who work hard for them rather than keeping people who do not.
Mr. Burden : I hope that, in years to come, employees who are considering whether it is worth while joining a trade union take the time to read that intervention from the hon. Gentleman. If ever they needed an example of the kind of attitude that underlines the value of trade unions, it is that one. I hope to goodness that the hon. Gentleman will not be in any position of responsibility at the Department of Employment in the future, given his attitudes to the rights of employees.
We should not be surprised by the Government's attempts to whittle away the rights of employees. A few weeks ago, I tabled a quite innocent question to the Department of Employment asking whether a particular employer who had announced redundancies had notified the Department, as is required by legislation. I also asked, if he had done so, on what date the employer had notified the Department. That does not seem to be too much of a big deal.
The answer that I received was that information as to whether an employer has obeyed the provisions of the statute is confidential. That is the type of mentality which exists at the moment. It is a matter of confidentiality whether an employer abided by the basic principles of employment law. Yet, when it comes to the apparent rights of an employer to sack people for a disciplinary matter, using the basis of redundancy, the law can be changed to permit that. That seems to be quite wrong.
The Bill has nothing to do with rights. If it had, its provisions on employment agencies would perhaps have been different. The Bill says that those agencies will be freed from the need to have a licence, but where is the acknowledgement of the rights of the employees of those agencies to decent terms and conditions? There is not a word about that.
There is the deregulation of markets and the abolition of traditional franchise rights, but where is the recognition of the rights of consumers to be freed from being sold shoddy and, in some cases, dangerous goods? There is relaxation of waste controls. It has been said that probably, in years to come, the National Rivers Authority--itself a candidate for market testing and
privatisation--will be able to relax consent on effluent discharges. Where is the right of citizens to have a wholesome supply of water and decent quality rivers? There are the proposals for the freeing-up of the controls on third-party mortgages. That is said to be lifting a burden from businesses, but if the Bill were about
Column 190red tape, it might be saying something else. The proposal on mortgages will not allow one extra home to be built. It will not house one extra homeless family.
If the Government are interested in lifting burdens and deregulating in housing matters, I suggest that they lift the regulations on capital receipts so that local authorities can build the homes that people need instead of being hidebound by the red tape that the Government impose on them.
Mr. Waterson : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr. Burden : I have already given way enough and time is moving on. The hon. Gentleman has already spoken and I am sure that he will speak again.
We also have the provision on the head of beer. It is proposed that breweries will be able to charge for froth. That is hardly surprising in a Bill that is itself full of froth.
Mr. Burden : I shall not mention Banks's, although the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) will understand my interest in Banks's as he comes from the same region of the country as me. Some regulations are petty and some regulations undoubtedly need to be removed by due process, proper debate and so on, but that will not happen as a result of the Bill. If Conservative Members are interested in deregulating and lifting burdens on business, why do they say nothing about statutory sick pay? Why do not they want to lift that real burden on business that they voted in?
Conservative Members expressed surprise when I suggested in an intervention that the absence of decent nursery provision in Britain was a burden on business. It should not take them by surprise. Do not they realise that the absence of nursery education means that working parents have to give up work when they should not have to do so and acts against the rights of women to be employed? That is a burden on business.
Mr. Pawsey : How much would it cost?
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes) : Order. There are too many sedentary interventions and conversation pieces.
Mr. Burden : That burden on business should be examined by the Government, but there is no reference whatever to it in the Bill. Conservative Members patently fail to understand that burden. The Bill is not about deregulation. Excessive regulation is not the main problem with the Government. It is not the main problem with Britain. One of the main problems with Britain is the lack of democracy, which the Government have furthered by centralising power in the hands of the Executive. That has undermined what democracy existed at the workplace, in the neighbourhood and at local level. The Government have systematically stripped away from elected local authorities the right to decide things locally. They have handed those powers over to Ministers or quangos. The Government should deal with that lack of democracy. They can best start doing so by examining some of their own practices.
I do not see that it will further democracy--indeed, it will undermine democracy--to pass a Bill that strengthens the hand of Ministers not only in sweeping away petty regulations but in sweeping away, by ministerial order and with cursory consultation, any piece of primary legislation
Column 191that they care to sweep away. Anything more threatening to democracy is difficult to imagine. That is why the Bill is wrong and needs to be opposed. That is why we desperately need a Government who are interested in increasing the rights of citizens, whether employees or employers, to have a say, rather than a Government who are interested merely in the right of Ministers to create and destroy regulations in the interests of their friends.
Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams) : I suspect that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden) would say that any Bill introduced in the House was about democracy. The Bill is not about democracy any more than anything else. It is about reducing the amount of rules and regulations that affect our lives. If I may make a poor joke, it is to reduce the burden of laws on life in Britain. Life has become ever more complicated, frenetic, pressurised and stressed. More people have high blood pressure and heart attacks. Cancer is on the increase. There are more broken relationships. One in 80 marriages ended in divorce in 1961, compared with one in nine in 1991. In 1991, three in 10 children were born outside wedlock. We live in a society under pressure. The stress of modern life is intolerable. For many, it is not only inescapable but unbearable. The stress of modern life leads to social irregularities, emotional distortions and physical ilness and does nothing to enhance the quality of life.
As if the problems of living were not enough, over-officialdom and over- bureaucracy make things 10 times worse. As a nation, we have indulged in too many rules and regulations, many of which are simply not necessary. Who is to blame for all this? The answer is that all of us here are responsible. This place right here has made those rules and regulations. We are a huge law-making machine churning out legislation in the same way as Wall's produces sausages and Mars churns out Mars bars. It is a relentless, ongoing process. What do we say to each other when we pass each other in the House? We say, "I have just written you a note", or "There is a letter on the board", or "Were you lucky enough in the ballot to secure a Bill?" The Bill turns into legislation. The whole building, with its thousands of support staff, is focused on thinking up ideas--good ideas--for more laws which directly result in an increase in bureaucracy and officialdom to implement them.
In the hurly-burly of politics, we pass too many laws that are not carefully scrutinised or thought out. Worse still, they are badly implemented by insensitive and often untrained public officials. If many of our civil servants ran private businesses, they would have gone bust years ago. Like the sun trying to shine through an increasing layer of cloud, small enterprises and individual citizens simply cannot see their way through. Rather than facilitating and improving the efficiency of the country, legislation filters its strengths and reduces its efficiency.
The Bill is so important because it is the first major attempt by the Government to slay the red tape dragon. The maxim that man learns nothing from history is often proved true, but the Bill shows the Government learning from history. Throughout the ages, Governments have
Column 192repealed legislation. There is nothing new about repealing legislation. It is repealed either because it has proved unworkable or because it has simply outlived its shelf life.
In the new world in which we live, legislation has grown like Topsy and thus requires more drastic pruning. Those in the House who are gardeners know that shrubs grow irregularly. To keep trees and shrubs in prime condition, pruning is essential. So, too, with a mob of deers--which is a west country phrase--or a pod of seals. Culling is essential for their survival and health.
In 1989, there were five times more pages of legislation than in 1979. Brussels churned out five volumes of legislation before we joined the European Community. It now churns out 37 volumes each year. However, the cause is not simply too many Eurocrats in Brussels. Directives from the Commission are often sensible and come to Britain suggesting a simple way of dealing with the problem. Once the directive hits Whitehall, bevies of officials are stirred into action, taking time and effort to interpret and rewrite the directive.
Mr. Duncan Smith : Perhaps I may help my hon. Friend to expand that argument. He said that the regulations are often helpful, but the European Community passes general regulations to member nations' Governments for them to implement in detail. While the regulations may therefore seem helpful on the surface, they are the ramp by which all such regulations flow through.
Mr. Steen : I am not sure that that was terribly helpful, but it is useful to hear a diferent point of view. The directives come in a simple form and officialdom in Whitehall interprets and rewrites them. Those officials are rather like a horde of ants on a crumb. I do not like to talk theoretically and I always give the House some practical examples. My first example is the private water supply directive. There are about 650 private water supplies in South Hams. One is to an old house called Lud house in the little village of Ermington, where my constituent Gordon Johnston has lived for many years and has enjoyed rude health--as did his father and grandfather and his children. He enjoyed drinking from his private water supply, but along came an environmental health officer--doing a perfectly responsible job--who told him, after testing it, that the water was not terribly good. Mr. Johnston said that he had enjoyed it all his life--as his father and grandfather had--and asked what was wrong with it. The officer said that it had too many nasty things in it and instructed that some chemical be poured into that large source of water to clean it up. Mr Johnston has never been the same since--he was a happy and a healthy man, but now he does not like the taste of his water. He has never felt well since and nor have his family. I hope that the environmental health officer, who charges about £50 or £100 a time to do the job, will not be so enthusiastic in future. That illustrates part of the problem. We have created too many rules and regulations, which make people feel quite ill.
Mr. Spearing : Can the hon. Gentleman answer two questions ? First, was it an indictable offence for the constituent to continue to drink his water ? Secondly, was the charge for the unwanted treatment and inspection, which was perhaps statutory, the result of any legislation to
Column 193put charges on local government services which has been enacted since 1979 and voted for enthusiastically by Conservative Members ?
Mr. Steen : I cannot answer those questions without some notice, but I do not dispute that we Conservatives may be responsible. We have a lot to answer for. That is why I am glad that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Corporate Affairs is listening so conscientiously and enthusiastically. Conservative Members and my hon. Friend the Minister are concerned--as, I am glad to say, is the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing). If we have made mistakes and been too free with some of the directives we should put it right.
Mr. Neil Hamilton : The key point is that all the legislation that the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) is so concerned about was passed before I became a Minister. Things will be very different now.
Mr. Steen : The House will be greatly reassured by my hon. Friend's interjection. I always find it reassuring when he is sitting on the Front Bench.
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister and the hon. Member for Newham, South will both be concerned about the many Acts of Parliament that have created self-financing regulatory authorities, or SEFRAs. They are new animals with powers to create rules and regulations, charge for licences and fine for enforcement. Rather like a Hitchcock film, the Government have created self-perpetuating organisations which are branching out all over the place with new laws and an increasing number of officials who get in our hair and into all aspects of life.
SEFRAs are the most dangerous of animals. They are the 1990 equivalent of the quango, but with real teeth. The Financial Services Act 1986, the Food Safety Act 1990, the Environmental Protection Act 1990, the National Rivers Authority and the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service are all SEFRAs. They have armies of officials, are funded by charges which have resulted from their rule-making powers and they demand compliance and threaten penalties for non-compliance. I am sure that the Minister will be well aware of SEFRAs.
Mr. Burden : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr. Steen : No, the hon. Gentleman spoke for 18.5 minutes and that was 18.5 minutes too long.
Changing attitudes among public officials is a crucial facet of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Minister must deal with the following question. I do not think that he will find it too embarrassing. His Department has 11,389 officials. What are they all doing? If it has a deregulation unit, should it not be studying those officials and asking whether there are not too many of them? We also have to change the attitude of the Opposition. I hope that all hon. Members present will help the Minister and show him where he has gone wrong and how to put things right.
The Bill speaks of educating inspectors to make them more sensitive to business realities and to help them to apply a common sense approach in their work. That is long overdue.
Perhaps you will allow me to tell another story, Madam Deputy Speaker, about Mr. Wheeler of Harbertonford, who is registered disabled and, I fear, hobbles with a stick. He went into Totnes--my market town, which you know well, Madam Deputy Speaker--just before Christmas to get some medicine because his wife was not well.
Column 194Unfortunately, he jumped into her car, which does not have a "disabled" badge, and parked it where he should not have done. When he came out of the shop he got a ticket. He is a registered disabled person and has a disabled badge and a clock, but he got into the wrong car. A very apologetic parking warden, who knew Mr. Wheeler, said that he was awfully sorry as he had not recognised the car or realised what he was doing. He issued the ticket, but said that he was sure that if Mr. Wheeler rang up it would be cancelled. The attitude of the public officials to whom Mr. Wheeler explained the situation was less understandable. They clearly had no humanity or sympathy. The official in Plymouth told him that it was his own fault for parking without a disabled badge, which he knew-- although he did not expect to be told what he already knew. The official also said that
"he seemed to be full of self pity and looking for sympathy" when he asked for the fine to be cancelled. As a result of my intervention, the chief constable of Devon stepped in, but it took his intervention to get the charge cancelled. That is wrong and it should never have happened.
Mr. Pawsey : Well done--a good Member of Parliament.
Mr. Steen : My hon. Friend is right.
Over-zealous environmental health officers are causing immense and excessive costs, according to a survey published recently by the Food Hygiene Bureau and reported in January's edition of Free House, which I know that hon. Members read avidly. The survey of 300 west country business properties, where work had been carried out during the past two years as a result of action by environmental health officers, showed that there had been a 25 per cent. overspend--that is, over and above what they would have had to pay for the minimum legal requirement. The survey uncovered the fact that out of a total expenditure of £445,000--about £1,500 per property--£113,000 was for items that were not legally enforceable, such as fly screening of windows, fitting vapour-proof fluorescent lights and providing additional hand washing facilities, which might be helpful to Lady Macbeth but are not helpful to small companies.
It is not surprising that a visit from the environmental health officer is enough to strike fear into even the best managed kitchens, which is "right" according to the chairman of the Health and Hygiene Council, who goes on to say that,
"Heavy fines, closure or even prison can result from violation of the environmental health laws."
That sort of bullying attitude needs to be purged from organisations that were established to serve the public, not to crucify them. Only when the zealots have been weeded out will common sense prevail.
Quite simply, the Bill is about helping us to recover our efficiency. The principal means of doing that will be by diverting, reducing or getting rid of the quagmire of rules and regulations, and the accompanying officials, which divert our time, effort and energy--particularly in small businesses- -from getting on with the job of running businesses, providing a service for the customer and creating wealth and employment for the nation.
The Bill will ensure that the laws enhance our quality of life, making the way that we live richer, more valuable and more purposeful, with less time spent on the senseless activity of filling in forms, making phone calls to officials
Column 195who are never there, paying bills for services that we do not want, and turning up in court for failure to comply with notices that have been served.
I should have thought that the Labour party would hail the Bill as one of the best measures that the Government have ever introduced--but not at all. The Labour party is a notoriously slow learner and has described the Bill as hopelessly out of step. I am not sure with whom it is out of step. It is probably out of step with public officialdom. It is certainly out of step with bureaucracy, but one must remember that the Labour party is the country's custodian of bureaucracy and the champion of red tape : it believes in the cause of overmanning and public officialdom as fervently as Arthur and his knights chased the holy grail.
If the Bill achieves nothing else, it will make politicians and, I hope, officials think twice--if not thrice--before embarking on the merry-go- round of passing more laws. Less regulation does not mean that we shall live in a more dangerous, unhealthy or unsafe society. On the contrary, it will result in giving greater legitimacy to the political process if people know that the Government pass only a minimum of legislation, expecting the public to exercise common sense. We want legislation emanating from Westminster and Whitehall which the public knows will be sensitively and efficiently administered and the officials put in charge of it intelligent, experienced and flexible. We must fell the current forest of ludicrous rules and regulations in which many of us get permanently lost.
Nothing undermines the credibility of Parliament more than the passing of too many laws. Too much law shows an indiscipline in Government and an inability to weed out what is unnecessary. Reducing the number of rules and regulations will help to put back an element of common sense into the political system. So next time any of us on either side of the House talk about changing the law or introducing a new Bill, I suggest that we should swallow our words, because more laws are the enemy of the people and of our traditional British way of life.
Madam Deputy Speaker : May I remind the House that the 10-minute limit on speeches is now in operation until 9 o'clock.
Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) : I am pleased to follow the witty speech of the hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen), but his speech and mine will show the contrast in approach between the two sides of the House.
I oppose the Bill because I have grave reservations about how existing legislation will be amended. I am also fundamentally opposed to two main areas of the Bill, particularly deregulation of health and safety legislation and of market franchise rights. Deregulation in those areas will not improve the quality of life, but will be detrimental to it.
The frightening thing about the Bill is that it is ill-conceived. It will not only be detrimental to ordinary people's quality of life but will impact on businesses in a generally detrimental way. The exercise has been presented as a way to widen business opportunity, whereas it cloaks a crude political device to justify deregulation, particularly of health and safety legislation.
Column 196The architects of the Bill say that it is essential to wipe away the archaic legislation that has built up on the statute book. In reality, however, the Minister knows that it is much more, especially concerning health and safety. I believe that there is a hidden agenda. Clause 27 will allow the Government to make way for 19th century working practices. Some companies--albeit only a small number--will be able to create the very worst of working conditions. The seven sectoral task groups--STGs--set up to examine the individual regulations are expected to move with extreme haste in identifying those regulations which, it is argued, impose a disproportionate cost on business. In reality, evidence points to the fact that the regulations are being subjected to a superficial examination. On 20 July last year, the Secretary of State for Employment announced that the Health and Safety Commission would examine proposals to revoke 30 sets of regulations. When the Minister winds up the debate this evening, he may be able to say how the 30 sets of regulations were identified and evaluated when, at the time of the Secretary of State's announcement, they had not even been examined by the STGs.
The real burden of the health and safety review will be borne by the victims of occupational accidents and industrial disease. Health and Safety Executive figures estimate that, over the period of the review, 586 people will have been killed in British industry ; 194, 579 people will have suffered major injuries at work ; and 6,355 people will have been diagnosed as suffering from industrial disease. That is the carnage taking place in British industry. The overall cost to employers of accidents and ill health is estimated to be between £4 billion and £9 billion. The cost to society is put at between £10 billion and £15 billion. The Government should ensure that firms comply with the law rather than deregulate health and safety legislation. In that way, more accidents would be prevented. The other major area of concern to me is the deregulation of market franchise rights under clauses 21, 22 and 23. Currently, many local authorities have market franchise rights, which means that a rival market cannot be set up within 6iles of the local authority market. Conservative Members have said that the deregulation exercise will free up trade, but it presents a threat to market franchise rights because local authorities have provided good conditions for market traders. They are motivated primarily not by profit but by the wish to provide a service to the community. The surplus that accrues to some local authorities is used, to give financial support to the general rate fund so that the entire community benefits from the operation. The protection of markets by the franchise rights has been wisely and responsibly used, to the benefit of markets and the community. It does not restrict trade, as some Conservative Members seem to believe. The removal of that protection will effectively provide an opportunity to anyone to operate a market in direct competition with the market already established.
Hon. Members should think about that for a moment. It will result in a proliferation of markets and car boot sales around towns. It will siphon trade away from town centres to the detriment of urban communities.
My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) and I have launched a campaign to save market franchise rights. I urge Conservative Members who have
Column 197not already done so to sign early-day motion 84 to support the campaign. If they do not vote against the Bill tonight, I urge them at least to abstain.
Mr. Henry Bellingham (Norfolk, North-West) : We have heard many constructive comments from Conservative Members. In general, they have fully supported the Bill, although they have flagged one or two matters of concern. We have also heard some charming vignettes, such as that from my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen), who told us about the tottering punter from Totness. With his inimitable superhuman assiduity, he solved his problem, and no doubt he will have the support of the entire village.
My hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough (Mr. Sykes) told us about a lorry driver. He said how idle, indolent and lazy he was, and that he was now a Labour Member of Parliament.
My right hon. Friends the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) and for Mitcham and Morden (Dame A. Rumbold) and my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) also made constructive speeches.
We have also heard a number of speeches from the Opposition, including the eloquent contribution from the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham). The speeches of the hon. Members for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mrs. Jackson) and for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden) were articulate, but they are living in the dark ages.
The Opposition oppose every measure designed to encourage managers to manage their firms and to cut businesses loose. They are the enemies of the self-employed and small business men, and they approached the debate in a thoroughly negative manner.
It is appropriate that my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton) is the Minister responsible for deregulation. He has thrown himself into the task with tremendous enthusiasm. I remember him as a deregulator many years ago, when we were both at the same educational establishment in the Fens. He once deregulated a pile of crockery. My hon. Friend has matured since then. He deserves his post, and is moving from strength to strength. I am certain that the Bill will be a success, largely because of his determination and will power, and he has our support.
It is fair to say that, to some extent, the Government's policy on small businesses lost its direction in the late 1980s. My right hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden said that, during a recession we over- regulate small businesses, but I consider that the reverse has occurred.
In the mid-1980s, we had a vibrant small business policy under Sir David Trippier and Lord Young. The deregulation initiative was given a great deal of prominence, and much was achieved in terms of lifting the burden on small firms and encouraging the supply-side economy. When the economy picked up, unemployment fell and growth took off, we forgot about small firms and tended to give too much leeway to pressure groups that wanted more regulation on such matters as the environment, health and safety and transport. We gave in because the economy was strong, there was growth, and businesses could stand extra regulation without jeopardising jobs.
Column 198During the recession, it took the current President of the Board of Trade to redirect our small firms policy. The past two Budgets contained a number of important measures geared to help small businesses dealing with audit requirement, VAT and the business expansion scheme mark two. The Bill is in addition to those measures, and it is particularly welcome.
We have to redirect our small firms policy. Our economy will not move forward with the rapidity it should unless small firms are in the vanguard of wealth creation, entrepreneurial initiative and, above all, job creation.
There are a number of medium-sized businesses in my constituency, many of which are doing very well. Recently, we had the bad news that British Sugar is to close its sugar beet factory at King's Lynn. However, the new supply- side environment in the economy means that the conditions are right for small firms to get going, for start-ups and for existing small firms to take on more people. I should put on record my appreciation of the work of the West Norfolk enterprise agency, which, over the years, has helped a large number of people. I must mention one small element of concern. I have heard that the new business development centre, which will be part of the business link, is to receive funds from the Department of Trade and Industry. I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Industry is now in his place. The other day, I spoke to a small business man in my constituency. The manager of Sainsbury in King's Lynn was also concerned about the enterprise agency, but, as the borough council and the DTI are redirecting their support to the business development centre, there must be a question mark over its future. I hope that it will become part of the development centre, to provide advice on start-ups to people who want to know the nitty-gritty, instead of information that would be more applicable to companies that have found their feet and want to expand.
I should be grateful if the Minister would say a few words about the future role of enterprise agencies and how they will fit into business development centres. The Bill is about deregulation and helping small firms, and one mechanism for doing that is the enterprise agency network.
Small businesses want a strong economy and falling interest rates--I welcome today's fall of 0.25 per cent. They want corporation tax and small companies tax to remain the lowest in Europe. They want inflation kept very low. They also want a number of measures that only a Conservative Government can provide, and the Bill is one such measure.
The Government have done a great deal to support the supply side and, if we get it right, the Bill will be the icing on the cake. However, we have to be conscious of the conditions in Britain that are attracting foreign investment.
Why are we getting roughly 40 per cent. of all the inward investment into the EC? Out of the top 25 firms in Europe, why are a staggering 14 British? I find that quite remarkable. We have heard much about BMW taking over Rover, but out of the top 25 firms in Europe, only four are German. We should be proud of our achievements and shout them from the roof tops. The miseries among the Opposition only run the country down.
We have an opportunity to move forward into sustained growth, but we have to be careful about our policy towards Europe. The Bill encapsulates the Government's intention to do all they can to lift the burdens, and to remove petty regulations and other burdens on business.
Column 199We must not fall for the lure of some of the federal ideas that resulted from the Maastricht treaty--parts of which I support, particularly those relating to subsidiarity. The one provision that would undo a great deal would be the move towards a single currency. That would re-erect at the centre of Europe the power to issue directives and regulations and increase the burden on business. Having given that warning, I urge the Government to get on with their policies and let businesses manage their own affairs. We in Britain have a tremendous amount of initiative and entrepreneurial verve and expertise and we must allow people to create jobs and wealth. The Bill will be the icing on the cake, and I support it. 7.19 pm
Mr. John Heppell (Nottingham, East) : Like the President of the Board of Trade, the hon. Member for Nottingham, North-West (Mr. Bellingham) talked a great deal but said very little about deregulation. We heard about small businesses, a federal Europe and the exchange rate mechanism, but we did not hear very much about the Bill.
I, too, have to depart from the Bill to some extent, as I am worried not so much by what it says as about what it does not say. The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) let the cat out of the bag when he said that the Government do not have any proposals for tourism, but that these will come later, and that other fields will be covered in the second, third and subsequent waves of deregulation.
It is quite clear that we are not talking just about the 250 proposals to which the Government have already agreed--in most cases without consulting any consumer or safety groups--or about the 280 proposals still being considered, the details of some of which we do not know.
We are not bothered about any of the 605 proposals. What bothers us is the fact that this Bill will give Ministers the right to change primary legislation without going through the current procedures. What Ministers want is a blank cheque to cash in the future as they please.
I am not talking just about Conservative Ministers--the same thing could be done by a Labour Government. Ministers are asking Parliament for a blank cheque in all sorts of fields--fire safety ; the transfer of waste, including nuclear and highly toxic waste ; road safety ; health and safety at work ; building ; the environment.
I mean no disrespect to hon. Members on either side of the House when I say that we must not be drawn into looking simply at specific proposals. Specifics are difficult enough to debate, but how much more difficult the situation is made by the fact that this Bill is a real dog's breakfast. It deals with matters as diverse as the froth on beer, the welfare of animals in knackers' yards, market charters and unfair dismissal. These things are all chucked together in one piece of legislation.
However, they are at least specifics, about which I could talk tonight if I had the time. In future, I shall not be able to oppose change as I can tonight ; in future, because of the 40-day time limit, the press will not be able to oppose change as it can at present ; in future, Parliament will not be able to oppose legislative change as it can now ; in future, the people of this country will not be able to oppose legal changes in the way they currently can.
Column 200The Government have presented their proposals as merely a means of dealing with red tape. We have heard about the red tape dragon. I did not realise that the Lambeth worm is probably a tapeworm. Many of the people I talk to tell me that they want more regulation.
Just over a week ago, I saw in my local newspaper an article about the number of children injured by fireworks during the Guy Fawkes period. In this field, our regulations are tighter than those of any other part of Europe. Germany produces bangers five or six times the capacity of ours. I do not want to see our regulations relaxed so that continental standards become our standards. The number of children in Nottingham who were injured last Guy Fawkes night was higher than in previous years, despite the fact that Nottinghamshire county council had run a big awareness campaign. Many of those children were under 13. How were they able to come by the fireworks that injured them?
In a radio interview, the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell) described these legislative changes as the froth--I do not know whether he was talking just about beer. You say that there will be consultation. I wonder how many people know what is being looked at? Do you think that members of the public know that these task forces have been looking at the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations, which stopped manufacturers putting foam into furniture? Deaths in 1987 caused such an outcry in the country that the Government had to introduce those regulations. Then there are the Nightwear (Safety) Regulations 1985, which were introduced for the protection of young children wearing nighties. I remember television warnings in which people were shown how to roll up in a carpet a child whose nightie had caught fire.
Do we want to go back to that situation? I have letters showing that the Government have been looking at such legislation. A week ago, the Prime Minister echoed the words of the President of the Board of Trade in referring to this exercise as the biggest bonfire of controls in modern history. If you tamper with such regulations the Prime Minister's words may prove to be horrifically apt.
I should like some sort of guarantee about safety, but the truth is that you are reviewing legislation on health and safety. Do the public know that you are writing to bus companies to ask whether drivers' hours of work should be relaxed, and whether the right to breaks should be removed? Do the public know that you are talking about enabling bus drivers to work as long as they like regardless of the danger to the public?