Previous Section Home Page

Madam Deputy Speaker : Order. I am always reluctant to interrupt speeches, but I must remind the hon. Gentleman that he is addressing the Chair, and that I am not responsible for any of these things.

Mr. Heppell : I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was a little carried away by the importance of the issues.

When we talk about froth on beer, I can get annoyed, but when we are talking about people's lives, I can get angry. We hear constantly about things being done on a cost-benefit basis. Is it valid to ask whether the implementation of safety regulations is worth while on that basis.

Let me give an example. I am a bad traveller--particularly bad in aircraft. I am one of those people who grip the seat as the aircraft takes off and comes down. But

Column 201

I am always grateful for the statistics that show that flying is the safest form of travel. Do you realise that, under your formula--

Mrs. Helen Jackson : Under the Government's formula.

Mr. Heppell : Sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Do Ministers realise that if their formula were carried through, the fact that there is less risk in air travel than in other types of travel would indicate less need for regulation? How many jumbo jets is it acceptable to write off? If one or two were written off, would the risk be seen as acceptable?

When we try to legislate for an ideal situation, we still have accidents, deaths and disasters. If we legislate to make safety regulations less than ideal, the numbers of accidents, deaths and disasters will increase. No Government would be entitled to ask Parliament and the people to accept legislation putting profits before people's safety and lives.

7.28 pm

Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest) : Let me begin by gently reminding the hon. Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell)--whose speech was long on rhetoric, but a little short on balance--that no Conservative Member, and probably no Opposition Member, wants to dispense with regulations in a deregulation drive if either safety or consumer protection would be substantially affected. The Health and Safety Commission asked for powers to repeal unnecessary regulations not only because such regulations impose burdens on business, but because they encourage people not to take important existing regulations seriously enough--which is against the interests of health and safety in the economy a whole.

I support the Bill for two reasons. First, I think that, in an increasingly competitive world, it will reduce the burdens on business--especially small business--thereby enabling it to create far more jobs ; secondly, it accords with my vision of the relationship that should exist between Government and country.

Let me deal with the second reason first. I have always believed that good government is primarily small government. I believe that, ironically, it was Khrushchev who said :

"Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge even where there is no river."

Sadly, politicians of all hues experience that temptation. It is regrettable that, after 14 years of Conservative administration, no less than 45 per cent. of our gross national product goes through Government or their agencies ; Ministers are tempted to see their ministerial macho in terms of the size of their legislative programmes.

We need not read Osborne and Gaebler's "Reinventing Government", from the other side of the Atlantic, or "Small is Beautiful"--written by Schumacher back in 1974--to be interested in the kind of government that involves the genuine devolving of responsibilities to communities, thus energising them rather than making them feel more remote. That is my personal vision of government, which I want to be limited to activities in which a valid contribution can be made. The Bill has the merit of reducing companies' costs. It is significant that it was Eddie George, Governor of the Bank of England, who pointed out--in a speech in Glasgow on 17 January--that, according to research

Column 202

carried out by Newcastle university, between 1982 and 1991 2.4 million jobs had been created by companies with fewer than 20 employees. Such companies are generally the owner-drivers, and tend to have more to lose in terms of heavy regulation. The larger companies-- which generally have less to lose in terms of regulation, and may even have something to gain as a result of the barriers that it imposes--had lost about a quarter of a million jobs over the same period.

The Federation of Small Businesses has said that operating a business in today's climate will cost about 3 per cent. of turnover, and the reading of about 400,000 words. Surely that does not provide an incentive for people to enter the business world and create jobs. Someone wishing to open a local supermarket will be less likely to create jobs if he is faced with the possibility of having to jump through 23 regulatory hoops in the form of licences.

The great unsung hero of the deregulation debate is not the small business man--although he will be assisted indirectly by the Bill. Unfortunately, the only available research seems to be American ; but that research suggests that the consumer will benefit most. The Brookings Institution recently completed a study of deregulation in America, where a substantial amount took place between 1987 and 1988. According to that study, the economy benefited to the tune of about 7 per cent. of gross domestic product--between $32 billion and $46 billion ; the consumer secured $32 billion of that amount in the form of better services and lower prices.

That is where I hope our deregulation initiative will show its teeth. I am glad that the DTI task force identified 3,500 regulations that it wanted to examine, although I must tell my right hon. Friend that I think it slightly sad that only 450 were specifically identified as being redundant. Equally important, in my view, are the continuing activities of the DTI unit chaired by Francis Maude, which will insist--through advice on future regulation, risk assessments and other such measures--that the necessary consumer safeguards remain, while unnecessary regulations are abolished.

Let me refer briefly to an issue that has been a subject of general debate in connection with the constitutional implications of the order-making powers taken by the Government, particularly in the first part of the Bill. Along with the rest of the House, I do not underestimate the importance of the principle involved : Ministers should not be able to undo Acts passed by the House of Commons by ministerial order diktat. That is a democratic principle which we give away at our peril. It is nothing new ; as long ago as 1932, the Donoughmore committee--whose findings have already been quoted --spoke of the dangers of Henry VIII clauses. Indeed, the committee wanted to set up a Select Committee on delegated powers, which the House of Lords established in 1992.

I think that the Government have gone some way towards the desired position in recommending a 40-day consultation period--although I agree with the Council of Civil Service Unions and the Confederation of British Industry that it should be an open period, and that those consulted should be identified so that the range of consultation is made clear.

I also believe that the Government are right to establish two separate Select Committees to examine specific legislation, and I am glad that the House will be enabled to debate the matter by means of the affirmative resolution procedure. I think, however, that the scrutiny procedure

Column 203

could be improved further : some people, including me, want the bonfire of controls that are unnecessary for consumer protection, but also want to ensure that changes are debated adequately. That is an honest feeling which I hope hon. Members will respect.

I do not think that the powers conferred on the Government should be open- ended. It was, I believe, the Donoughmore committee that said that order- making powers must meet two tests. First, they should be essential to the passage of the legislation involved ; secondly, so fundamental was the constitutional precedent that they were setting that they should be time- limited. The committee mentioned one year. In 1991, the Lord Chancellor said :

"Obviously this is a power which has to be given with discretion."--[ Official Report, House of Lords, 19 March 1991 ; Vol. 527, c. 519.]

So say all of us.

I suggest that these proposals--which are far reaching, and could affect not only past but future legislation--should be time limited in the first instance, and that the House should then be invited to debate them again, precisely because of their constitutional significance. We cannot overlook that with impunity. Moreover, I think that Select Committees should be given powers not only to consider the specific legislation, but to examine all delegated legislation, as now happens in the House of Lords. Order- making powers in existing legislation should be inspected. I also think that there is a case for the extension of these powers to clause 57, but we shall need to discuss that in Committee.

I welcome the Bill, which will increase competitiveness and reduce the size of Government ; but I have the reservations that I have mentioned.

7.38 pm

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South) : The hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) has made constructive comments on the Bill and if his suggestions were carried out, it would be less bad than it is. I hope that by saying that I will not put him at a disadvantage among Conservative Members. I particularly agree with his comments on the Select Committee. Consideration of the role of the Minister would be best done--and seen to be done by the public--by a Select Committee rather than by the normal Standing Committee procedure.

The use of the word "burden" in the Bill is a mistake. One assumes that a burden is something which one has not taken on willingly and about which one cannot do anything--an illness or something that should not happen. Regulations do not fit that sort of

definition--they are the way in which we in society reach a mutual agreement on the obligations of corporate or private organisations, balanced against the importance and sanctity of individuals' interests.

Primary legislation gives Ministers power to make what were originally administrative adjustments--but the Bill assumes them to be otherwise. Many hon. Members believe that they are inherently wrong, but any state that claims to be democratic must have such structure and must ensure that the protection of interests and the ability to be free and to innovate are properly balanced. There will be more regulations as life becomes more complicated, with

Column 204

more scientific devices, and faster travel and communication. People are subject to more disadvantages, so there have to be some forms of protection.

The fact that this is a Government Bill reminds me of satan protesting about sins. None of the arguments of Conservative Members has been convincing because the Conservative party has been in power for 13 years. If the Government wanted to abolish statutory instruments, they could follow normal procedure. Such measures need not be renewed or could be revoked. The phrase used in most Acts is "the Minister may", not "the Minister shall"--although some Acts do use that wording.

I want to concentrate on the part of the Bill that has not received much attention and which, in effect, gives greater opportunity for more quangos and for more public services to be contracted out. Although the first half of the Bill is important, the final part will be its trademark or, one hopes, its epitaph. By definition, quangos are unaccountable, often unknown and, for practical reasons, often consist of unidentified people.

Returning from a welcome visit to Scotland last weekend, I read in Scotland on Sunday that a conference of Scots in the west of Scotland had, by a narrow majority, agreed

"quangos are a gravy train for Tory supporters".

A full majority of the members said :

"there were too many quangos in Scotland."

Those were the decisions of the conference of west of Scotland Conservatives. But the Bill will create more quangos ; it will create more contractors.

The public service ethic was born in the early years of this century and was perhaps at its best during the period of great administration from 1906 to 1914. It was reactivated between 1945 and 1951, but it has now virtually disappeared. It was often not party political ; people of all parties believed in public service and admired public service administrators, particularly those in local government. Now they are being undermined by the rat race that has been hotted up by Conservative Members in the past few years. Of course, regulations were not always perfect. The hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) was right--it is up to hon. Members to criticise officials, and badly drafted and unnecessary regulations. That is part of our job ; that is what Parliament is about. But we are discussing a Bill not for business but for undermining Parliament. The hon. Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham), who is no longer present, said that the Opposition run down the country. We do not. Some of us are proud of it, especially its parliamentary democracy, or what is left of it. Time and again, Conservative Members undermine not only parliamentary democracy, but local government democracy where it counts most and where people are being ground down by lack of facilities and accountability. That will also be one effect of the Bill.

One of the most trenchant clauses in the Bill is described in the explanatory memorandum. Despite the time limit, that description deserves to be read out. It states :

"Clause 60 provides that for all purposes, except those relating to criminal proceedings or contractual relations between the Minister, office- holder or local authority and the contractor, the acts of the contractor shall be regarded as the acts of the Minister, office-holder or local authority when the contractor carries out the functions for which he is authorised."

Of course, the contractor is authorised by Acts and, probably, by the very statutory instruments and regulations

Column 205

of which Conservative Members complain, and which will create more contracting out, more compulsory competitive tendering and more quangos. The explanatory memorandum explains that contracting out will extend to the functions of the traffic commissioners, the Registrar General for England and Wales, the public trustee, the Comptroller-General of Patents and the courts service.

The measure is an extension of an unwelcome development in British society. Other than those who benefit from it, I do not know of anyone who supports or wants it. Whether knowingly or not, Conservative Members have created a cascade of patronage and sub-despots. They took their cue from a super- despot who is no longer in this place. Her rather nice successor and some other Conservative Members cannot tackle the problem because it is not in their nature to do so. The Government are beginning to fall apart because they are split on the issue of public service. The Bill further undermines service to the public and the social contract that the

representatives of the people have a right to determine. It puts more power into the hands of Ministers who may be rivals in the creation of small pyramids of sub-patronage. Authority is being taken from the House and transferred to a Cabinet of sub-despots--there could even be another super- despot.

Some people would judge that the developments show that we are moving towards what might be called a quasi-fascist authoritarian state. I have heard no argument that convinces me that we are not. 7.47 pm

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) : I noted the declaratory and rather frightening ending of the speech of the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing). I want to concentrate on some of his remarks and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs).

It is my recollection that, since 1979, my party and I have gone around proclaiming the fact that we overregulate. I know that the Opposition Front -Bench team is much attached to election addresses. I sometimes complained in my election addresses about the over-regulation in our country. Of course, during general elections in 1983, 1987 and 1992 the same rubric was cited. It is not a rubric any more, but a rhetorical argument--we were never able to grasp the nettle. The problem was how to deregulate a range of Bills passed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom. We could not pass such powers into the hands of an Executive. We are now having a bonfire of the vanities of previous Executives. It is the constant search for more legislation with attendant statutory instruments that causes us problems. For many years, I have campaigned to change the procedures of the House as they are affected by the use of the guillotine. Our bonfire of the vanities is a response to our legislation in haste and our repentance at leisure.

Before Christmas, during a debate on yet another guillotine motion, I said that I could not contemplate handing to the Executive the right to do away with legislation completely, not through debate or scrutiny and the testing of propositions but in an hour and a half's debate after which we have unamendable legislation. We do not know, however, whether that will be the procedure recommended by the Select Committee on Procedure. We are, in effect, buying a pig in a poke-- [Interruption.] I

Column 206

understand the Bill, but, at the end of the day, it is the House that in theory makes the regulations and the Standing Orders. It is up to us-- [Interruption.] I do not intend to engage in bickering across the Floor of the House.

The substance of my argument is that clauses 1 to 4, and possibly clause 6, give the Executive powers that we should be cautious about giving away. We all want to do away with regulation, but it is a slow process. The reasoning behind my argument is our regard for the rule of law. This is the most remarkable country in the European Community--or the European Union, as I should call it now--because we expect obedience to the law and we do so because we can change the law.

Looking over the history of our party back to Burke, we have required that the rule of law should be not merely the stroke of a Minister's pen or the wish of the Executive but due process. That process confers on the law the solemnity and regard that we expect every citizen to have for it. To provide a bonfire of the vanities by sweeping away all that for which we so cautiously and carefully legislated--and, in recent years, so carelessly and incautiously legislated--means a constitutional crisis for the working of the Chamber.

There has been no reflection on what the Bill means to the balance between Opposition and Government. I am mindful of the fact that one day we may be in opposition and all the powers that we take unto ourselves or confer on colleagues in the Executive whom we trust will be available to any Executive. There are moments when, of course, our own Executive is unsuccessful and not to be regarded. Why should I give to those whom I do not necessarily trust powers to wipe away laws that have been crafted by the processes of Parliament? That is my question to the Government. I know why wiser and previous Governments have held back from taking unto themselves such powers--caution.

The Chamber has lasted for centuries and has been able to change from autocratic and oligarchical forms of government to a democratic government. I should like to have thought that that was the last development in our constitutional process, but, as I see the constant nibbling away by the impatience, or other means, of Europe or Executive design, I want to hold on to the integrity of the House of Commons to ensure the liberties and freedom of our people. That is why I urge the Government to undertake a cautious rethink of the Bill because, without regard to the process of legislation or to the ability of the House to examine, amend or reject measures and to consider the balance of the arguments, we do not have a proper function.

The making of law is our most solemn first responsibility. The attestation that that law can be borne or can at least be acquiesced in by our constituents is our very solemn duty. Clauses 1 to 4 are, in a sense, a repudiation of the history of a democratic House of Commons.

7.53 pm

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) : It is a privilege to follow such a speech, especially as it came from a Conservative Member. It was a powerful denunciation of the Government's attitude and of their claims about what the Bill will do.

The Bill has major constitutional implications, but that fact does not appear to worry the Government who, in recent years, have become cavalier about observing the

Column 207

constitutional proprieties. We have heard about the so-called Henry VIII clauses which give Ministers the power to repeal and amend primary legislation with the stroke of a pen. The civil service unions, local authorities associations and others are wary of the new and highly centralised powers and the ineffective parliamentary scrutiny that goes with them.

Among the trade unionists and others outside the House who are worried is the former Employment Minister and Defence Minister, Alan Clark, who told The Mail on Sunday :

"I find it incredible that any Conservative, unless suffering from megalomania to an extent that is medically significant, could put his name to such an authoritarian provision."

I can think of one such Conservative, and he opened the debate for the Government this afternoon.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) said, the second part of the Bill gives Ministers the same sweeping powers as the first part. It removes the statutory obstacles to the contracting out of functions that are currently within the civil service and local government. However, as I understand it, there is no provision for additional scrutiny by the special Committees of both Houses, which Ministers have mentioned.

Like me, many people fear the privatisation by stealth, and without proper debate in the House, of major public services. Several of those were mentioned in the short list read out by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South, and they include the Forestry Commission, the Patent Office, the Agricultural Development Advisory Service, which is so important to my constituents, and the administration of the courts service. Others fear that the Benefits Agency, medical services and local authority revenue collection services could be privatised, a point raised yesterday by Conservative Members. They fear that even the functions of the official receiver could be privatised.

The local authority associations that have scrutinised the Bill carefully have asked some pertinent questions. They want to know whether the Bill will allow the contracting out of sensitive functions such as the determination of planning applications. It is not inconceivable. What about the contracting out of licensing functions or even of decisions on school admissions? Such ideas may appear to be fanciful, but they are not. I look to the Minister for assurances on those points.

The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) mentioned the bonfire of the vanities. I shall say a few words about the President of the Board of Trade, whose speech tonight I have heard a thousand times before. It is now very well worn. He talked about rolling back the frontiers of the state as long ago as 1980 and here he is again, still rolling back those frontiers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) said that the task force had considered 3,500 regulations of which 71 per cent. have been introduced since 1979. No fewer than 21 per cent.--just over one fifth-- have been introduced since 1990 when the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) became Prime Minister. It is ludicrous for the Government to suggest that regulations are a burden or a spillover from a socialist past and that we need the Conservatives to wipe clean the legislative slate and get back to some

super-competitive nirvana. There is so much hypocrisy in what the Government are doing.

Column 208

My hon. Friend the Member for Livingston mentioned double standards. The Government have double standards, as was graphically demonstrated at Prime Minister's Question Time today. When the Prime Minister was asked to comment on the £10 million pay-off to the chairman of British Aerospace plc, John Cahill, after the Rover-BMW deal, he said that it was not a matter for him. However, the scrapping by the privatised British Telecommunications plc of its peak rate for weekday calls was apparently a matter for him and he said much about it.

The President of the Board of Trade has the same double standards. He says that the regulation of the private sector and quangos, which spend millions of pounds of public money, is not a matter for him, but the regulation of the public sector is a matter for him. One regulates some things but not others. When he was Secretary of State for the Environment 15 years ago--it seems much longer ago than 15 years--he promised the Association of Metropolitan Authorities Review a "bonfire of controls". He spoke about freedoms, but we know what Conservative freedoms amount to. He spoke about freedom from detailed controls in housing ; we have more controls in housing than ever before. He spoke about freedom from circulars ; we have more circulars than ever before. He spoke about freedom from 300 controls, but we know from what Conservative Members said that most of the regulations have been introduced since he made that statement 15 years ago.

The President of the Board of Trade said that local authorities had the freedom to use 50 per cent. capital receipts for housing and we know that that means nothing. He said :

"Central controls are so detailed and stringent that

we are drawing back from this web of detail."

Exactly the opposite applies. He said that every local authority should be able to raise as much money as it wanted from the rates. That has been changed. There is central control. He said that block grant--now replaced by the revenue support grant--would not prevent an authority from determining how much it wished to spend. That is not true. New central controls are pinning down local authorities. The President of the Board of Trade told the "AMA Review" in September 1979 :

"I believe in giving greater discretion to local government." Fifteen years later, local government has never been more constrained.

The President of the Board of Trade says that he wants local authorities to have discretion. The fact is that we live in the most centralised state in the western world, where opportunities for free democratic expression are being curtailed by Conservative Members and where the market is being deregulated even when it can be shown that that is against the national and the public interest.

The Government are creating freedom to exploit--as in the abolition of wages councils--freedom for people to say what they want to say, as long as the Conservatives determine that what they say is okay, and freedom to do what the Government allow them to do. The Conservative party has a corrosive antipathy to the public sector and public provision. The Conservatives abolished elected local authorities--the Greater London council, ILEA and the metropolitan counties--and they abolished elections in 1985, before those authorities had been statutorily wound up. They imposed, as I have explained, myriad central controls, removing discretion from local authorities, and

Column 209

they transferred en bloc many functions that used to be held by democratic councils to unaccountable, unelected quangos stuffed full of Tory placemen and placewomen.

The Conservatives have created in Britain a new magistracy, and that is not in the public interest. Parliament is told that it must protect the public interest. I will conclude at this point--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse) : Order. I call Mr. Peter Ainsworth.

8.3 pm

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (Surrey, East) : Listening to the hyperbole of the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), I cannot help but feel that he could have done with a little self-regulation in his remarks to the House.

It has long been accepted that one of the prime responsibilities of Government is to encourage enterprise and to foster prosperity, because from them come not only jobs, not only the personal satisfaction that millions of people get by going to work to improve the quality of their lives and to provide for their children, but the funds to furnish a flourishing public sector and to provide standards of health care and education that the country rightly demands. The Government's direct ability to generate prosperity is heavily circumscribed. It is not Governments, after all, who create wealth, so it is not easy to legislate for prosperity. Obviously, low interest rates, low inflation and low taxation can help. It is simpler, however, to legislate for poverty and for decline, with excessive taxation, excessive and self-defeating social protection, excessive restrictive practices in the workplace and excessive interference in free markets.

Labour Governments have proved how easy it is to legislate for decline. I have no doubt that, given the opportunity, Opposition Members would prove that they have failed to learn from their mistakes. We need to look no further than to adherence to the social chapter, the minimum wage, the European workers councils and so on, to realise that.

Excessive regulation is one of the most insiduous and widespread impediments to prosperity and enterprise. As my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade was brave enough to admit, that tendency has by no means been confined to Opposition parties. Over the years, it has woven its way into the very fabric of Government culture. It is easy to see why. My hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham) mentioned a few reasons.

Not all regulation is bad. Much of it is necessary ; much is desirable. None of it is ill-intentioned. Invariably, regulations are introduced for what seem to be worthy reasons at the time, but times change, and the regulations do not. A willingness by Government to listen, to be responsive, is generally a good thing, but inevitably, on almost any issue, among those people clamouring the loudest in the Government's ear--often supported by Opposition Members--are the "something must be done" brigade.

Equally, it is perfectly natural for members of the Government and their civil servants, and indeed the enforcement agencies, to want to be seen to do something about the something that must be done, so the regulation grows and multiplies.

Column 210

It is because the Bill confronts that issue that it is so important. I will return to that later. Before I do so, I shall comment on some of the specific measures. They are welcome in their own right. The Bill makes a useful start. I especially welcome--in this respect, I differ from the hon. Member for Pendle--the enabling provisions that remove statutory obstacles to contracting out in central and local government. Conservative Members know very well the benefits, in terms of value for money and quality of services, that have accrued from the process of contracting out.

The hon. Member for Pendle makes several mistakes. First, he seems to assume that public ownership is somehow better than private ownership, and then he confuses public ownership with public services. That is a serious error. The hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) implied the same, when he said that when something stops being in the public sector, it stops being a public service and becomes somehow part of a rat race.

All hon. Members have their own favoured candidates for further deregulation. I am a consultant to S. G. Warburg Group, an investment bank in the City, and I, wearing that hat, very much hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Corporate Affairs will re-examine the recommendations of the deregulation task force in relation to financial services.

The Financial Services Act 1986 has imposed on one of our leading international industries substantial additional costs, and it has to be said that the benefits are far from clear. I especially commend to my hon. Friend's attention page 55 of the excellent book by the deregulation task force, which deals with client money regulations. Those are extremely onerous, costly to operate, and are wholly inappropriate for the vast majority of transactions, which take place between professional investors. Will my hon. Friend reconsider that? Just as Rome was not built in a day, so the process of demolishing the labyrinth of needless regulations will not be completed overnight. The Institute of Directors has written about clauses 1 to 4, which I have no doubt form one of the key parts of the Bill : "The order-making power contained in the Bill allows Parliament to repeal or reduce legislation through a procedure which has previously been reserved solely for increasing it".

That is the key point. I know that it has caused considerable consternation. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) is exercised by it, and spoke eloquently about it, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs). However, the obstructive attitude of the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) and other Opposition Members towards deregulation is eloquent testimony to the need for those clauses.

It is ironic that procedures used so regularly to increase the burden on business through regulation run into such difficulty when it is suggested that they be used, for the first time, to reduce the burden. That is especially strange given the additional safeguards that my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade has wisely incorporated into the legislation.

I fear that the Opposition's bogus constitutional arguments about clauses 1 to 4 are simply a cynical attempt to hide their rooted objection to the principle of deregulation. We have heard that objection voiced clearly by Opposition Members today. If there is a constitutional issue at stake, it centres on the fact that the Bill, for the first

Column 211

time, makes it almost as easy to reduce regulation as it already is to impose it. Conservative Members will certainly support that. The Bill is important because it marks a psychological sea change in the Governments's attitude towards business. It is only a first step, and it must be vigorously pursued if our business community is to operate efficiently in highly competitive international markets. As some of my hon. Friends have said, it is on smaller businesses that the burdens of regulation bear down hardest. Therefore, as the process of deregulation continues, it is they who will benefit most. The Bill offers hope to millions of people running smaller businesses men such as Mr. Stanley Gibson, proprietor of the Oxted gallery in my constituency, who for 20 years has run an excellent establishment making and selling oven gloves to eager customers. Mr. Gibson had not had one complaint in all that time, until the other day, when some bossy people from local government informed him that his gloves failed to meet the approved standard.

If Mr. Gibson takes that criticism seriously, the results will be obvious. His costs will rise substantially, and so will the price of his oven gloves, so he will suffer lower sales. That is the dilemma which many small businesses face when they are hit by such needlessly interfering regulations.

The Bill will be widely welcomed for what is on the face of it, but its real strength will be seen as what it promises is fulfilled. 8.13 pm

Next Section

  Home Page