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Column 223great passion about removing the red tape which has tied down our businesses for far too long. If I have any reservation about the Bill, it is that it has taken so long to reach the Chamber.
I am the vice-chairman of the Small Business Bureau. There are 3.5 million small businesses in Britain. My hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Duncan Smith) said how important small businesses were to the economy. They employ the vast bulk of the employed population. Small business men are the sort of people who work all hours. I should know, because I was a small business man once. They are the people who invest their life savings in their business. They risk everything to make sure that their business succeeds. They are the bedrock of Britain. If they fail, Britain fails. We must also pay heed to the many millions of people who are self-employed in Britain. If the self-employed are successful, they become employers. It is the role of the Government to encourage small businesses. How can they encourage small businesses? By getting out of the hair of those small businesses. The Government create the conditions in which small businesses can grow. Today's interest rate cut will go some way to help them. The banks must pass on the interest rate cut to their businesses.
Many measures in the Bill will receive wide applause from our wealth creators. Another such measure is the rolling programme of deregulation. The Bill is a bonfire of regulations, but it is only one small bonfire. I sincerely hope that after this first bonfire many others will follow. The new rolling programme and the new task force led by Francis Maude will have plenty of work ahead of them in the years to come.
No regulation must be left unturned. If it is unnecessary, it should be scrapped. If it is complicated, it should be simplified. If it is not working, we should either repeal it or reform it. Labour Members have made accusations that we do not care about public service. That is patently not true. But we also care that our businesses should not face public strangulation.
The guidelines that are given to local authorities need to be made absolutely clear, to ensure that they are used in a way that is fair to all our business people and implemented uniformly. The same rules and regulations should be interpreted in exactly the same way throughout the country. I have heard all sorts of stories from my constituents about rules and regulations being interpreted in one way in one area of the constituency and in another way by someone else in another part of the constituency. All rules and guidelines should be cleared up.
We also need to ensure that our town hall bureaucrats are more helpful to small businesses to ensure that they can become far more profitable. I ran a small convenience store in Swansea. The environmental health officer visited me one day. He looked at the sink at the back of the shop, and said, "You wash your utensils here. Where do your staff wash their hands?" I said that they washed their hands either in the sink or in the toilet and cloakroom upstairs. The environmental health officer said that that was not good enough and that I must tear out the sink and replace it with two sinks --one for washing the utensils and one for staff to wash their hands. I asked him to show a little common sense because we had carried on the business for many years and had never had a problem. I asked him to
Column 224show just a smidgen of common sense, but he refused. In the end, the heavy hand of the town hall came down and we had to tear out the sink and put in a new one at a cost of more then £250. The staff still washed the utensils in one side and went upstairs to the cloakroom to wash their hands, as they had always done. That is an example of where I hope that the deregulation Bill will prove effective.
Several hon. Members have mentioned recent abattoir legislation. There are many abattoirs in my constituency, some of which are very small, and I have received many letters from their owners, who are burdened by the extra cost of the new European Community regulation. It is costing one abattoir an extra £20,000 a year with no perceptible benefit to the consumer. We need to clear up that problem--I hope that the Bill will do so--so that one person can inspect abattoirs and do the work of both the meat inspector and the veterinary surgeon.
I know that I do not have time to mention all the measures contained in the Bill as another hon. Member wishes to speak, but many of them will be welcomed by businesses, both small and large. We must constantly study the rules and regulations. One criticism is that we have been in power 14 years, so why have we only just started to consider them.
Mr. Evans : As we have heard today, the Labour party loves regulations and treats them in the same way as it treats taxation and spending. Rules and regulations are the very creed and heart of the Labour party. Labour Members think that they must keep on spending, taxing and regulating and that is the difference between the Labour and Conservative parties. It is one reason why, come the next general election, people will remember what we have done about rules and regulations, how we have freed businesses from unnecessary burdens and helped small businesses to flourish and earn more profits so that they can reinvest in their businesses and grow. Profit is not a dirty word, although we might think otherwise to hear Opposition Members talk.
The Government need to consult business more widely, especially small businesses. We need a litmus test whereby we consider how beneficial a rule or regulation will be to the consumer and how much it will cost industry. If it does not measure up, will be expensive, or if the consumer will hardly notice any benefit, that rule or regulation should not be introduced. We must stop rules and regulations before the Government introduce them, and that is one of the main reasons why I welcome the Bill and will back it.
Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) : In the few minutes left, I shall confine my remarks to that section of the Bill that relates to markets. It is clear that the deregulation task forces were made up from the private sector. There was no local authority involvement, which is probably why the Bill will not legislate for the private market sector and private markets will not be deregulated. The Bill simply attacks local authorities that provide markets. It is also an attack on the National Association of British Market Authorities ; its members have opposed, to an authority, its provisions. I took up the issue with members of the association, but, in all the replies I received, not one local authority that was a member of the association supported the Government viewpoint. Nor
Column 225does the National Market Traders Federation, which views the deregulation of markets as a threat to the livelihoods of its members.
In view of their responses, it is surprising that the Government decided to press on with those clauses. The Minister is aware that many of the local authorities wrote to him to complain about them and have raised petitions, which will be presented to the House or to the Prime Minister. Those authorities are campaigning against the provisions in the Bill.
It is said that the deregulation of markets will increase competition, but it is likely to be unfair competition from private markets set up on a temporary basis, operating for a few days a year in a certain area. There will be no consumer protection, continuity or permanence as private markets spring up all over the country. I refer the House to a letter from the Department of the Environment on the idea that the regulation of markets will frustrate commercial initiatives. I cannot read the whole text, so I shall read just the salient points :
"It was also made clear to the Commission that we had received very few complaints about market rights and that in 1987-88 the Government had reviewed the system. It concluded that legislation would be needed to abolish all market rights and that franchise rights, which are treated as property in English law, could not be compulsorily appropriated without compensation. Expropriation without compensation would also seem to infringe the European Convention on Human Rights which requires compensation for expropriation of a person's possessions'. In view of the requirements to pay compensation, the scarcity of complaints, the minimal part that markets play in U.K. trading activity and the possible damage to centuries of tradition and heritage that abolition would cause, the Government decided not to pursue the question of abolition any further. That remains the current position."
That letter was written in March 1991. What has changed in the past couple of years to encourage the Department of Trade and Industry to deregulate market rights? In that time, there have been very few, if any, complaints about the operation of local authority markets. As some of my hon. Friends have said, many markets are in town centres and have a tradition that goes back for years. Many are historical or even tourist attractions. Many towns receive a lot of income from the establishment of their markets. My town is no different. Barnsley market was established under a royal charter in the 13th century. By the mid-1960s, Barnsley was known as a market town and its market was well known throughout the north of England. That tradition is likely to be lost through deregulation as a result of the Bill.
You will be aware, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that Barnsley is also a former mining area. The Government are to close down all the collieries, so I use the word "former" advisedly. As a consequence, the local authority has introduced a number of initiatives to try to regenerate the town centre and replace the trade lost as a result of the income reduction in the area. Those include the business partnership scheme, about which the Minister knows because he came to my constituency to launch it, and the local authority's partnership with Costain. The local authority is also spending city challenge money to regenerate the town centre. By the same token, the deregulation of markets will jeopardise the local economy. At present, any organisation affected by proposals concerning market rights has the opportunity of judicial review and, more recently, of complaining to the ombudsman. Local authorities therefore have a duty to act reasonably, so there is no need for regulation.
Column 226We heard earlier about the proliferation of car boot sales dealing in stolen or counterfeit goods. A car boot sale in Barnsley took place at junction 36 of the motorway every Sunday morning. The police were out at 6 am every Sunday morning because people parked not only on the slip road and hard shoulder but sometimes on the inside lane of the M1. That is the type of hazard caused by unregulated car boot markets throughout the country.
Who will compensate market traders for their losses? According to the letter to which I referred, the Government decided that they could not proceed in 1991 because of compensation. As sole traders, market traders invest a lot of money in their businesses and will be affected by private, unregulated markets springing up in competition with them.
Many market traders go from market to market within a particular area. There are not so many market traders that we can service unregulated markets the length and breadth of the country. Market traders pay substantial rents for their market facility. Those markets will be undercut by private, unregulated markets with cheaper rents.
Markets also provide a direct income to the local authority which compensates for the loss of revenue support grant over the past few years through charge capping. Many local authorities will be looking to the Government for compensation in future revenue support grant because of the loss of income that they will suffer as a result of deregulation.
Finally, we have seen report after report about the amount of money that goes into the black economy. That money is lost in taxation revenues. Unregulated markets will contain more stolen and counterfeit goods. The markets accept that they do not need deregulation. They need, if anything, further regulation against the cowboys.
Mr. Derek Fatchett (Leeds, Central) : As was almost inevitable with a Bill such as this, we have had a wide-ranging debate. My hon. Friends and Conservative Members have touched on such issues as markets, health and safety and consumer protection. At one point, we almost drifted into discussing European monetary union.
Three of the points that were raised may have shown some common ground between the two sides of the House. First, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) said that there were 1,500 more regulations in 1992 than there were in the last year of the Labour Government. The figure decreased slightly in 1993, but remained well above 1,300. As my hon. Friend said, it is not a one-sided business, and those Conservative Members who try to pretend that it is should know that the figures simply do not add up, as 71 per cent. of current regulations were introduced by the present Government. It would have been helpful had a few Conservative Members recognised that and occasionally said that they were sorry if they believed that they had made mistakes. However, that word does not easily cross the lips of Conservative Members.
The second point of agreement is that virtually all hon. Members, except those who stuck slavishly to the Conservative Central Office brief, recognised that some regulation is necessary for good business standards, good consumer protection, good health and safety at work and good employee relations. Good regulation is an essential part of business. The difference is where we draw the line.
Column 227It is foolish and naive to suggest that those on one side of the argument believe that there should be no regulation and those on the other side are in favour of all regulation. There is a genuine recognition, except on the part of those too ideologically blind to see it, that some regulation is necessary to maintain good business standards.
Thirdly, it is readily recognised that regulation can be outdated. The President of the Board of Trade in introducing the Bill, gave us examples of those outdated regulations, as I am sure the Under-Secretary will when he replies to the debate. They are often amusing and there is no doubt that such regulations should and can be removed from the statute book. The difficulty is drawing the line, in terms not of outdated regulation but of regulation that is relevant, up to date and may be designed legitimately to protect certain interests.
My hon. Friends' speeches spotlighted a number of issues where the line between regulation and deregulation is not easy to draw. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) spoke of consumer protection, fire regulation and fire safety. In all those sectors it is difficult to draw the line, but I argue that the House of Commons should err on the side of safety and of the consumer. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mrs. Jackson) talked about environmental protection and environmental standards. It is interesting that Conservative Members who, less than a year ago, were talking about the Government's success in terms of green policies and about the importance of such policies are now taking every opportunity to argue that environmental protection standards are a burden on business.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) raised a number of important points about health and safety and the public interest. My hon. Friend is well versed in those issues as he represents the constituency in which last week's fire took place. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) will know, those of us who live in areas that have experienced substantial chemical fires realise how important it is that the House of Commons should have no intention of relaxing health and safety standards. The public interest must be paramount.
Finally in terms of the divide, I should like to draw attention to the fact that several of my hon. Friends talked about health and safety at work. We heard about what accidents cost individuals--loss of life or serious injury --and what they cost firms and society. All those bills are substantial. I should like to ask the Conservative ideologues why any reduction in standards is even being contemplated. Speech after speech showed that the new Conservative approach is to lower consumer standards, lessen environmental protection, disregard the public interest and reduce health and safety standards at work. Let me give an example of the Government's intentions. In other parts of the Bill they say, in effect, "Believe us, trust us. We will do the right thing." Anyone who wants to examine as nasty a provision as the Bill contains should look at clause 26, which deals with redundancy. That provision breaks all traditional agreements and custom and practice in industry, yet there was no great pressure from employers for it, and there was no consultation whatsoever with employees or their organisations.
Column 228There may be an explanation. We are told regularly that good practice in industrial relations means honouring agreements, that it commits people on both sides of industry to keeping their word. I understand why the Government bob and weave, why they do not worry unduly about keeping their word. After all, it is they who said that there would be no tax increases, that there would be no increase in VAT. We have here the Government who have reneged on every promise made to the electorate in 1992. Now they are trying to inject into industrial relations the practices that have so devalued our political system. In that sense, let us keep them clear of industrial relations. We have agreed on some points, but their line on regulation and deregulation is one of contention, not of objectivity.
The key issue in the debate has been the constitutional implications of the Bill. Clauses 1 to 4 deal with the real issues--issues which should unite the House, not divide it. I wish that more Members had been present to hear the speech of the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd)--as I say regularly when I have the opportunity of winding up a debate in which the hon. Gentleman has taken part. It seems to me that the hon. Gentleman's speech should have come from the Government. His was the kind of speech that every hon. Member should make and to which we should all listen. It was echoed partly by the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs). Both hon. Gentlemen were concerned about the great new powers that can be assumed under clauses 1 to 4--the further centralisation of ministerial power, the further erosion of the power of the House of Commons.
I hope that I do not do the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) an injustice in saying that he let the cat out of the bag and provided grounds for people's worries when, referring to the deregulation initiative, he quoted ex-President Reagan saying : "You ain't seen nothing yet."
Later, he said that the Bill is just "a down payment". Is not that what concerns us--the fact that this Trojan horse of a Bill contains miscellaneous measures, deliberately designed not to generate much public opposition while creating a general power that will enable Ministers to get rid of provisions protecting the environment, health and safety and the consumer?
Ministers are empowering themselves to repeal and amend primary and secondary legislation. In practice, the House is being offered a debate lasting an hour and a half, after 10 pm, and no ability to amend the orders that we debate. Any hon. Member who has been in the House for some years understands the way in which such procedures work : we know how much interest will be taken in those debates. That is self-criticism, in that it is criticism of the House, but it is also an argument against giving Ministers more power without adequate safeguards.
The Government say, "Do not worry. Believe us : we will provide new safeguards. The new mechanism will not be autocratic or authoritarian." Let us examine those safeguards, and the way in which they will work. There will be a new scrutiny Committee, but at this stage, we know very little about it, because we await the findings of the Committee chaired by the right hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery). However, I suspect that we already know two things. First, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South, the scrutiny Committee will have a Government majority : its members will be selected by Government Whips to ensure that. I can confidently say
Column 229that all hon. Members who have expressed doubts about the mechanism will not find a way on to that Committee under the patronage of the Whips. Secondly, Ministers have said in the Bill that they will not be bound by the advice and recommendations of the Committee. Given a Government majority and recommendations without force, what faith can the House put in that Committee?
The Government will tell us that they will adopt a new approach--that they will consult outside interests. I simply do not believe that, after 15 years, the Government have discovered the meaning of the word "consultation". Go and ask nurses and doctors in the national health service whether they believe in consultation with the Government ; go and ask teachers about education changes ; go and ask the police and the Lord Chief Justice about criminal justice legislation. Every interest group feels that the Government simply do not care about consultation : the mechanism will not work in that respect.
The power taken by the Government, however, does not relate merely to this deregulation initiative ; it is an indefinite power, enabling the Government--by means of the mechanism in clauses 1 to 4--to repeal tomorrow's mistakes. It is not time limited : mistakes in future legislation, primary and secondary--legislation approved by the House of Commons--can be repealed under those clauses. The definition of what constitutes a burden will be left to a junior Minister. I read with interest the Under-Secretary's speech to the Tory party conference.
Mr. Fatchett : I note that it won approval. Its timing and content struck me as apposite, given the overall theme of the conference. This is the Minister who will take all the various interests into account, in a sensitive manner. He said :
"In fact, the Prime Minister urged me to behave like an absolute bastard."
That Minister was the first member of the B team to acknowledge that openly, and that is the first occasion on which the Prime Minister has no need to urge a Minister in that regard--for he is one ; he needs no urging. That Minister is responsible for the judgments on deregulation.
Constitutional issues are raised, not only clauses 1 to 4, but in part II. They will set up the Government's new world and establish the way in which they have operated for a number of years. It is a world of new quangos, new agencies and new private contracts. It would be churlish of us to suggest that there will be no beneficiaries from that process. There will, of course, be beneficiaries because there are jobs to be had on the quangos. We know to whom those jobs go--Tory party members and supporters. One of the key criteria for selection is whether a person has paid his or her party membership. We know that sometimes, particularly in the health service, jobs go to those who have just finished their service in the House of Commons or who happen to be married to a member of the Conservative party. Those appointees include, as a director of the King's Lynn and Wisbech trust, Thomas Shephard, the husband of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and, as a director of the Addenbrooke's trust, Mary Archer, wife of Tory peer Lord Archer.
The Bill is part of the Government's sleaze philosophy. They produce jobs for themselves. The wheel turns full circle because, as part of the process, there will be contracts
Column 230to be won in the private sector. Who will the Bill help but directors and consultants, including Conservative Members, whose earnings outside the House will be boosted? About 600 directorships are disclosed in the Register of Members' Interests and many of them have a direct interest in privatisation.
The Government may argue that the Bill will improve efficiency and standards in public life. Before the President of the Board of Trade advances that argument, he should consider the Child Support Agency and the way in which Group 4 has operated in our prisons. Before the Government talk about new standards in public life, they should consider Westminster city council, the Welsh Development Agency and the national health service trusts up and down the country, and then take note of the comment by the Public Accounts Committee that there has been a substantial decline in the standards of public life. Before Conservative Members vote for the Bill, I remind them that the parts of it that deal with contracting out will further reduce the accountability of Ministers. Surely it is a basic principle of our democracy that those who spend public money should be accountable for it.
There cannot be a Member of Parliament who has not been irritated because he has tabled a parliamentary question or written a letter to a Minister, only to be told that the reply will come from the chief executive of an agency. We want proper democratic constitutional accountability. The Bill will take the process of undermining that accountability a stage further because it will mean that, in some cases, the body that will be held accountable will be not even the agency, but a private sector organisation or contractor.
The hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) made an important point when he rightly argued that the role of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, the ombudsman, could be subject to privatisation. Does not that show the nature of the Government's proposals? We want assurances on that matter and I hope that the Minister will provide them.
The sections on contracting out are part of what Professor Peter Hennessy has called the "alibi society". When challenged about British Aerospace this afternoon, the Prime Minister said that it was not his responsibility. All the clauses in the Bill are designed to underpin the alibis. The Government are saying, "We are just the Government, we do not know what is happening in society and we do not know what is happening with public money."
One thing has been clear in much of the rhetoric of Conservative Members' speeches. While the Government have no vision of an industrial strategy for Britain, they have a view that Britain can survive and compete with a low- wage, low-security, low-skills economy. That is simply not the case in the 1990s.
The Bill is a missed opportunity. The Government should have produced an industrial strategy that allows Britain to compete in the 1990s and beyond, a strategy that invests in research and development, in skills and in the industries that will make Britain successful. Instead, we have heard a great deal of 19th century rhetoric coupled with a Bill designed to give more power to the centre. It has authoritarian and draconian implications, which is why it is a bad Bill.
I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to oppose the Bill. I hope that, even at this late stage, some Tory Members will
Column 231have that courage to stop this centralising measure and the creeping undermining of the power of the House and join us in trying to protect our democracy.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Corporate Affairs (Mr. Neil Hamilton) : A moment ago, the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) said that the order-making powers in the Bill could be used to repeal parts of future legislation. That is not so. Evidently, he did not get very far in his reading because clause 1(5) (c) states that the Bill will apply only to Acts passed
"before or in the same Session"
as the Bill. That appears at the bottom of page 2, so I hope that he will get a little further into the Bill before the Committee stage begins.
A wise man once said--I am not going to quote from my speech at Blackpool-- [Interruption.] I thank hon. Members for the advertisement. Perhaps I should take a leaf out of the book of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and sell the video. A wise man once said :
"Trade and commerce, if they were not made of rubber, would never manage to bounce over the obstacles which legislators are continually putting in their way."
I have always believed that government had a limited capacity to do good and a virtually infinite capacity to do harm, but the Opposition have a touching faith in government and legislation as a universal cure-all and restorative. Of course, experience teaches us--I hope that I shall now carry Labour Members with me--that government is part of the problem, not part of the solution.
There is in this country today a widespread demand for deregulation. It is expressed in the columns of newspapers by luminaries such as Mr. Christopher Booker, who was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Duncan Smith). Every Member of Parliament's postbag has been groaning with complaints about excessive regulation. Small and large businesses-- [Interruption.] Perhaps constituents do not consider it worth while to write to Labour Members, but mine certainly write to me.
Small and large businesses, charities and the voluntary sector are prone to complain. They say that regulation is intrusive, time-consuming, irritating and, more to the point, they say that it reduces our competitiveness as a nation, which was the mainspring of my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade's opening speech.
Mr. Sykes : My hon. Friend mentioned Mr. Christopher Booker, who writes for The Sunday Telegraph and who made some disparaging remarks about this excellent Bill in the most recent edition of that newspaper. I am the secretary of the Back-Bench deregulation committee and I twice invited Mr. Booker to address our committee. I did not receive a reply to either invitation which must mean that Mr. Booker has been drowned under a welter of paperwork.
Mr. Hamilton : I am not prepared to criticise Christopher Booker in this instance because he has done a good job in drawing to our attention many of the absurdities of regulation. I shall, however, consider cancelling my subscription to The Sunday Telegraph and taking up Viz.
Column 232The Government resolved to do something about the burden of regulation. We put together a programme to attack the regulatory overload at every level. It has not been over-hasty or ill thought out. Indeed, we have devoted a great deal of time not only to the Bill but to all the other deregulatory measures referred to in the explanatory documents that were published at the same time as the Bill.
I warned my colleagues at the beginning of the exercise that we were in danger of producing a policy that would be popular in the country. Undeterred by this departure from normal practice, we plunged ahead with what I believe is the most comprehensive initiative the country has ever seen. The Bill deals with just one aspect of that, but a very important one --the problem of over-regulation in Acts of Parliament.
I have been subjected to much criticism, as my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough (Mr. Sykes) mentioned a moment ago. On the one hand, I have been criticised by Christopher Booker, who recently described the Bill as
"a mouse from a mountain of bureaucracy".
On the other hand, I have been described in different language by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott). In some respects he is a natural deregulator I have always been impressed by his deregulated approach to English syntax--and he is, as we know, a master of understatement. He described our proposals for deregulation as
"unleashing the killing fields of industry."
The General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trades Union produced a very nice photograph of me in a magazine that it published recently, under the headline :
"Deregulation Minister Neil Hamilton : Stop this man"--
with an article that, as usual, was full of unfounded alarmist scaremongering. The union does not even seem to recognise the benefits that its members could derive from a substantial programme of deregulation.
We do not have to take risks with health and safety, or any other measures involving the protection of the community at large, to make huge deregulatory gains. I am sorry that the hon. Members for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) and for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes) failed to recognise that and launched into hyperboles accusing us of despotism and goodness knows what else.
Mr. Heppell : I spoke about the subjects that I did only because I have written evidence. I have received a letter from Lord Strathclyde about the legislation about foam in furniture and the legislation about children's nightwear, which were investigated by the task force. I have received letters from the Department of Transport about the review of bus drivers' hours. I spoke only about things that were documented by Government Departments.
Mr. Hamilton : Every regulation in existence is under review and will be measured against the test of cost and benefit. Where the costs are justified by the benefits, nothing will happen to the regulations. For the hon. Gentleman to take the view, however, that we should never reconsider any legislation in sectors where there is significant emotional appeal, smacks of the attitude that the Roman Catholic Church had to Galileo in the 14th or 15th century. We must ensure that all the legislation currently in force in this country is proportionate and that it does not go further than is necessary. That is not to say that we must
Column 233throw the baby out with the bathwater. The trouble with people like the hon. Gentleman is that they want to throw out the baby and keep the bathwater.
I take as an example health and safety--a subject which tugs at the heart- strings. Opposition Members have placed great emphasis on that during the debate, especially on clause 27, which the hon. Member for Leeds, Central mentioned. What that clause permits us to do is what we can do in respect of legislation that has been passed since 1974 under the provisions of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974. The problem with legislation that was on the statute book before 1974 is that even when it is utterly redundant we cannot remove it because of a provision in the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 that compels us to keep it on the statute book.
I can give the hon. Gentleman several examples. I do not think that I have much time in which to do so, but let us take as an example the Agricultural Ladders Regulations, which go into great detail about the joints to be used in ladders, the distance between the rungs and the number of nails that have to be used in their construction. Today, there are British standards covering all those artefacts and a modern set of regulations is in the process of being introduced. There must, therefore, be a case for removing from the statute book useless legislation that does not contribute to people's safety. We are clearing away a clutter of redundancy.
During the investigation that was performed by the Department of Employment in respect of health and safety measures, we discovered about 30 statutory instruments, the primary legislation governing which was repealed long ago but which were still on the database and presumably still being observed by many businesses long after the statutory provisions had been repealed. We have, therefore, got rid of those--for example, the Florists Overtime Regulations 1938 ; the Bread, Flour, Confectionery and Sausage Manufacture (Commencement of Employment) Regulations 1939 ; the Glass Bottles and Jars (Overtime) Regulations 1938. All that garbage has been cleared away from the statute book. In no way does that prejudice the health and safety of people working in those industries. [ Hon. Members :-- "That is a joke."] I leave the jokes to sit on the Opposition Benches. I am concerned to rebut the criticisms of the Bill. While Christopher Booker has accused us of unleashing a farrago of trivia, the accusations of the Opposition would give anybody cause to believe that we were indulging in the legislative equivalent of the slaughter of the first-born. There are two extremes--first Mr. Booker saying that we are not going far enough, and then the Opposition saying that we are going too far. I find myself cast in an unfamiliar role as a middle-of-the-road moderate.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Dame A. Rumbold) urged us not to be too cautious, as did my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen), who has done sterling service in the cause of deregulation. Although the Bill, and the measures that will be introduced if the order-making power is granted to us, may constitute small and modest changes in themselves, when they are taken together in sum there is a great gain in prospect. Of course, there are complaints that the Bill does not go far enough, but the Bill is only one part of a wider package of deregulation. For example, enforcement officers' decisions can cause inconsistency of interpretation in different parts of the country. The ability of environmental health officers to
Column 234classify Tipp-Ex correction fluid and Brillo pads as substances hazardous to health under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 1988 must be examined. The European Community's generation of regulations must also be examined, as must delegated legislation currently in force, to ensure that we do not impose unnecessary costs on businesses--that does not need the powers in the Bill. Finally, primary legislation must be examined, and that is the purpose of the Bill.
As hon. Members know, the contents of the Bill come in two forms. First, there are items of deregulation that will not be the subject of the order- making power, but stand on the face of the Bill. There are a couple of dozen such measures, including market charters and other provisions that have been mentioned during the debate. Secondly, there is a list of about 55 items illustrating how the order-making power could be applied. If hon. Members considered the way in which those two sets of proposals are put together they would discover that the order-making power is designed to be used almost entirely in wholly uncontroversial areas, where I hope that we shall have no difficulty in securing a consensus across the Floor of the House. I do not believe that the contents of the Bill are trivial. The Confederation of British Industry, the Institute of Directors, the Forum of Private Business, the Federation of Small Businesses and the chambers of commerce do not think that they are trivial either. Even the Consumers Association has said some nice things about the Bill, saying that the so- called King Henry VIII provisions represent "a partial improvement on the current procedures for parliamentary scrutiny and secondary legislation. They could help avoid the kind of low-profile law-changing that takes place when statutory instruments are debated in the middle of the night in an empty House of Commons."
That goes to the very essence of the difficulty that we are here to discuss.
Even under the much-vaunted procedures for primary legislation, legislation is often passed by the House with inadequate scrutiny. I am as committed as any Member of the House to a proper measure of scrutiny for legislation. I yield to no one, not even to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge- Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) in my attachment to parliamentary democracy.
Judging by the criticisms levelled against us in the debate, anyone might think that the present procedures of the House were exhaustive. They are often exhausting, but the scrutiny that we apply to legislation is still not exhaustive. I have often sat in the Chamber or in Committee when pages and pages of Government or other amendments have been introduced in the last stages of the discussion of a Bill, and the Whips are scurrying about across the Floor trying to get people to stop talking and sit down, so that we can all get home early. Vast tranches of legislation go through without any discussion. The difference between the failings of the legislative procedures that we have had hitherto and what we are proposing in the Bill is this. Whereas those failings are in respect of burdens that are imposed on the country, if there
Column 235are procedural failures in respect of our proposals at least they are in areas where we are reducing the burdens that are imposed on the people.
The hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Dr. Wright) complained that these powers were introduced for the convenience of Ministers. They are being introduced for the convenience of the country and for the convenience of the businesses that generate the wealth and the jobs that Opposition Members profess to support. A large number of proposals in the Bill will protect parliamentarians against the charge that despotism is being imposed on businesses.
I believe that our proposals will receive significant scrutiny. That scrutiny will be much greater in practice than that received by the measures that we propose to repeal. We have, of course, been subjected to the usual criticisms from Opposition Members--that this is all a put-up job to line the pockets of our friends in the City, and so on--but nothing could be further from the truth. The idea that reducing costs on businesses is only of benefit to businesses is extraordinary, because those costs feed through into the wider community in the form of higher prices in the shops and, in particular, unemployment.
Opposition Members are not concerned about unemployment or they would saddle this country with the greatest single package of regulatory measures and business burdens that this country has ever seen by signing up to the social chapter and the whole package of socialist garbage that they have in their knapsacks and which they are afraid to bring out at the moment. No doubt they will be revealed towards the next general election.
I believe that my right hon. Friend the Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen) was right when in the debate on the Queen's Speech he said
"I welcome the legislation in that context, and I shall not be offended if its basis is the use of statutory instruments. Indeed, I find it difficult to conceive how it could be done otherwise".--[ Official Report , 24 November 1993 ; Vol. 233, c. 484.]
Deregulation is not entirely a new issue, because another Conservative Government, in 1896--nearly 100 years ago--produced a very important deregulation measure. In the Locomotives on Highways Act 1896, which hon. Members will no doubt remember, the provisions of the Locomotives Act 1865 were repealed. In particular, it said that any locomotive in motion must be preceded by not less than 60 yards by a man carrying a red flag, constantly displayed. When we repealed the "red flag" Act, we enabled the British motor industry to be set up-- [Interruption.] Times have certainly changed since the Labour party was in Government, when the British motor industry was flat on its back. Today it is up and running and we will again be the biggest exporter of cars in Europe.
Opposition Members would have been opposed to getting rid of the Locomotives on Highways Act, because no doubt they would have accused us of unleashing the killing fields on the roads of this country. The environmental extremists would have opposed any change on environmental grounds, no doubt supported by the latter-day political gerbils in the Liberal party. Without that change, a modern economy could never have developed. Labour's policies would put a man with a red flag in front