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Mr. Kirkwood : I would certainly be prepared to concede that point, but I would be much more confident about doing so if the right hon. Gentleman would concede the point about the chairmanship being in the hands of the Opposition.
Mr. Newton : I have to say--I had better say it
straightforwardly--that I am not convinced that that would be appropriate, but I will not go beyond what was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton. The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) is, in terms of his own specialised version, "a bit of the usual channels" ; he will therefore understand the way in such matters are discussed and-- hopefully--resolved. To return to the thrust of my speech, in no circumstances will we simply brush the Committee aside. As I told the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), I do not believe that the House would collectively allow this or any other Government simply to brush aside a Committee of the kind that my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton has described. If, when the draft deregulation order is laid, the Committee is still not satisfied, it can recommend the rejection of the order. Again, the Government would want to think very carefully
Column 389--indeed, they would have to--about whether they should nevertheless proceed. As my right hon. Friend explained, if the Government thought it right to do so, there would have to be a three-hour debate on an amendable motion. I really do not think that it can be suggested that changes could somehow be smuggled through without scope for proper parliamentary debate.
In acknowledging the special nature of the proposed orders, I must draw attention to an essential ingredient in the arrangements--the fact that the initial proposal itself is not presented to the House simply on a "take it or leave it" basis. One of the reasons for requiring a Committee to look into a deregulation proposal--with provision for the involvement of other hon. Members--is to enable any possible amendments to be considered at the preliminary stage, before the final version of the order is laid.
We have tabled an amendment to the Bill--we hope that it will be moved tomorrow--to require the Minister to report to Parliament any changes made to the proposal as a result of representations made, or resolutions or reports of either House or their Committees, during the scrutiny period. If the Minister does not make the amendments that the Committee wanted and fails to give it an explanation for not doing so that it accepts, the Committee will be entitled to recommend the rejection of the order, with the consequences that I have described.
As I think my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton acknowledged, we have also tabled--and hope to move tomorrow--an amendment to give effect to the Procedure Committee's recommendation about the length of time needed for the Deregulation Committee's inquiries. The Bill gives the Committee 40 days in which to carry out any inquiry into a proposal, excluding any period when either House is adjourned for more than four days. The Procedure Committee has suggested that in a few cases 40 days might not be enough, and that in those cases the period should be extended to 60 days. As we have always intended the Deregulation Committee to have enough time to conduct whatever inquiries are thought necessary, we have readily tabled an amendment to meet the Procedure Committee's concerns.
The only issue on which we cannot go quite so far as the Procedure Committee wanted was the question whether the Deregulation Committee should be empowered formally to summon Ministers to appear before it. That is simply because rather wider issues are raised, including--I hope that this will not be dismissed--the question whether one House should be able to require the attendance of a Member of the other House, which would clearly be implicit in such a power.
I see no reason to suppose, however, that the absence of such a formal power would hinder the Deregulation Committee's work. Ministers will co- operate fully if the Committee needs to take evidence from them ; indeed, they will normally be keen to meet the Committee to explain their proposals and gain support for them. Frankly, I cannot envisage circumstances in which the responsible Ministers would refuse to appear.
Finally, I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton and the Procedure Committee again for the thoroughness with which they have examined these matters. As a result of their work, we shall be in a position to present the House--at the appropriate time--with proposals for a scrutiny procedure which I believe will be
Column 390both robust and flexible. I expect that to be both an assistance and an assurance to the House when it debates the deregulation order-making power tomorrow.
Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East) : I thank the right hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) for presenting the report of his Committee. I also thank the Lord President for being so understanding, and for accepting my apology for not being able to stay for the whole debate. It is no wish of mine not to be present, but I apologise to the House none the less. I also congratulate the right hon. Member for Honiton on having secured time from the Leader of the House for a debate on the Floor of the House, although I suspect that it comes too late to have an impact on the legislation. The Government's approach to the provision of time for the debate of Procedure Committee reports is episodic and essentially pragmatic. It is worth exploring that topic before dealing specifically with the report. The Procedure Committee has an uneven record of success in securing debates in the Chamber on its reports. Last year we were able to discuss its first report on parliamentary questions and related matters--a valuable piece of work--but the other reports from last year, and two from this year, have still not been debated.
Sir Peter Emery : Press for them.
Mr. Brown : I do. I have pressed particularly vigorously for discussion of the report on budgetary reform and this year's follow-up report on Budget procedure, which have not been debated on the Floor of the House, but the Government have gone ahead and introduced the new unified Budget without seeking the House's views on procedure.
There is a marked parallel between the handling of the unified Budget issue and the report that we are discussing today. On the unified Budget procedure, the Government made key changes in the Finance Bill of 1993 before the Procedure Committee had even reported ; they have continued to refuse time to debate the two relevant Procedure Committee reports, and they have ignored the Committee's principal recommendations. They guillotined the Finance Bill on the Floor of the House and on a day-to-day basis in Committee, and encouraged their own Back Benchers to filibuster on less controversial matters so that more controversial issues ran up against the guillotine, thereby relieving Ministers of the task of explaining the clauses to the House. Ministers may have found that convenient, but the House did not. As for the public spending aspects of the unified Budget procedure, the Government have not allowed the House to debate the details of their public expenditure plans since May 1991--so much for the unified Budget.
It should be clear to the House that, when considering questions of procedure, including reports from the Procedure Committee, the Government are insistent--occasionally brutally insistent--on putting the narrow interests of the Executive before the interests of the House. They dealt with Parliament in a high-handed way over the unified Budget, an issue on which--in principle--Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour agree. The Opposition were also willing to discuss and reach agreement on the practicalities, but to no avail.
Column 391No such consensus in principle underpins the debate on the deregulation orders. The Labour party is strongly opposed in principle to such an enhancement of the powers of the Executive : there is no precedent for conferring on Ministers the generalised powers on which the Government intend to ask the House to vote tomorrow. The principle is completely unacceptable to the Opposition and we are unable and unwilling to offer the Procedure Committee any advice on how practical effect should be given to the Government's desire to extend the power of Ministers.
The Opposition's view is clearly stated in the letter dated 23 February sent by my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett). The letter is helpfully reproduced as an appendix to the report, although it is incorrectly dated 24 February. The reply from the right hon. Member for Honiton is dated 24 February. In his letter, the right hon. Member for Honiton argues the case for examining the procedures before the Bill receives a Third Reading. He argues that representations from his Committee, if received before the Third Reading debate, could mitigate the worst excesses of which he implicitly believes the present Government to be capable. The experience of the unified Budget inquiry does not bear that out. In practice, the Government ignored the views of the Procedure Committee and, indeed, pre-empted some of them. If it is any consolation to the right hon. Member for Honiton, I can tell him that the Government did not take any notice of the Opposition either, and I have no doubt that the same is intended today.
There is a clear disagreement between us and the Government on this fundamental issue of principle. We are opposed to the implementation of the Bill, so we have no view to put to the Procedure Committee as to how it should be done. Our view is that it should not be done and the House has not yet agreed that it should be done.
Opposition Front-Bench Members have taken part in the scrutiny of the Bill during its passage through the House and we have debated alternatives--that is the function of a Standing Committee--but no one, except possibly Conservative Members of the Procedure Committee, could possibly conclude that by seeking to amend the Bill in Standing Committee Opposition Members were conceding the principle underpinning the legislation. For the avoidance of any doubt, I make it clear that we do not concede such a principle.
Disappointingly, the report is partisan. The inclusion in the report of paragraph 6, which refers to the Opposition's unwillingness to elaborate on our written submission, is unfair and offensive. My right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South had written to the Committee stating the considered views of the parliamentary Opposition. In summary, we do not agree with what is being done, so we are unable to give the Procedure Committee evidence as to how it should be done. Conservative Members of the Committee are perfectly entitled to disagree, but I do not accept that a Committee of this sort should vote into its report, on the casting vote of the Chairman, a paragraph as snide and unfair as paragraph 6.
Sir Peter Emery : The hon. Gentleman might have recorded that the second letter, written with the agreement of the entire Procedure Committee --including, at that time, Labour Members--was not even acknowledged.
Mr. Brown : There is no need for any acknowledgement. Our response had been clearly stated in the letter that my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South sent to the Committee and which has been recorded as an appendix. That is all that we have to say on the matter. For the right hon. Member for Honiton to use his casting vote to include in his Committee's report, with the votes of only Conservative Members--no Opposition Member voted for it--such a snide and unpleasant paragraph as paragraph 6 is completely against the spirit in which Committees of the sort over which he usually presides should proceed.
I notice that the right hon. Member for Honiton is trying to impose on the deputy leader of the Labour party, my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South, a requirement to attend in person before his Committee to explain party political decisions taken inside the Labour party. Yet Ministers of the Crown are not willing to accept an obligation to attend the Committee to explain matters of public legislation. However that can be described, it cannot be described as even-handed. It is clearly politically partisan.
Mr. Winnick : Is my hon. Friend aware that Labour Members on the Committee fully accepted the explanation offered by my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) ? That is why we voted against the paragraph and against the report. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) understands the reasons why. Although this is the most political place on earth, does my hon. Friend agree that there are strong arguments for a Committee such as the Procedure Committee to try, as far as possible, to avoid the strong party politics of the Chamber ? We have done so to a large extent in previous Parliaments, certainly in the last Parliament. Is it not unfortunate that the Procedure Committee is increasingly being looked upon as an instrument of the Government ?
Mr. Brown : I accept my hon. Friend's case entirely. I shall deal with his second point later. From reading the report, I appreciated the point that he made about the Opposition accepting fully the views that my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South put to the Committee.
Mr. Newton : In fairness to my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman spent the first five minutes of his speech denouncing the Government for not acceding immediately to every recommendation of the Procedure Committee in respect of the unitary Budget. That was followed by apparent agreement between the Opposition Front Bench and Back Benches that the Procedure Committee is somehow the Government's poodle. That raises questions of consistency.
Mr. Brown : The right hon. Gentleman is right to be fair to his right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton, and his right hon. Friend was fair to him. There is nothing inconsistent in what I have said. The Leader of the House knows that we wish to debate the report on the unified Budget because there is wide agreement underpinning the issue of principle that there should be a unified Budget and that tax and spending decisions should be brought closer together if possible. The Government say that that is their view in principle, but they refuse to do it in practice.
This is something entirely different, and there is no agreement on the question of principle, so it is invidious to
Column 393suggest that somehow the Opposition should take part in the discussion on how the principle should be put into practice. We do not agree that it should be done at all, and when we are the Government, all this will be repealed.
Sir Peter Emery : There needs to be some consistency and fairness in the argument. Labour Members took part in the cross-questioning of witnesses and in all the discussions prior to the final vote. They did not vote against or amend any of the recommendations that we had talked about, but voted only against a factual recording about not giving evidence. The hon. Gentleman knows me well enough to know that I would not try to impute otherwise, but it is not fair for him to suggest that the Opposition played no part in the working of the Committee when in fact they did.
Mr. Brown : With respect, I was not trying to suggest that the Opposition played no part in the workings of the Procedure Committee. Whatever our complaints about partisanship, we have not yet reached the stage of boycotting the Committee. However, I notice that the Committee's procedures were characterised by a series of partisan votes--votes which could be categorised as being on party political lines alone. An example of that is the paragraph raised by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robertson). He attempted to make hon. Members who wished to question individual deregulation
measures--presumably Opposition Members--appear as witnesses to be cross- examined before the scrutinising Committee, rather than having the right to cross-examine other witnesses if they had some special interest.
Since the propositions that are to be discussed by the Committee will all have originated with Ministers and their civil servants, it is surely the role of Members of Parliament to question Ministers and civil servants and not the other way round. One can see how such a proposition would be a partisan advantage for the Government ; it would not be an advantage for anyone who wished to question the Government.
Fortunately, the proposition of the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South was so outrageous that it was voted down in Committee ; I pay tribute to the hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Hendry) for resisting what I believe was the most absurd of the tyrannies that his fellow Conservatives had in mind for us. Nevertheless, the fact that such a proposition was even considered by the Committee demonstrates the partisan way in which it was proceeding.
Another example of partisanship occurred when the Committee came to consider the proposition that the Deregulation Committee should be chaired by a member from an Opposition party. Again, that was thrown out on the casting vote of the Chairman. That did not seem an unreasonable proposition for a report to contain if it is aiming at bipartisanship. After all, the Committee only makes recommendations, suggestions or submissions. A report is not binding on the Government. It is not mandatory that the Committee should produce only things that the Government can accept.
It is especially important that we have a recommendation of that sort, given what we heard earlier about the Chairman sifting proposals before they are put to the Committee. I understand that the Clerks have advised that it cannot be done, but some consideration at least was given to doing it. The Government investigated whether it would be possible, as they thought that it would be to their
Column 394advantage. Presumably they thought that the Chair would listen carefully to the Government rather than take a more independent view--hence their opposition to the proposal that the Chair should be drawn from the Opposition parties.
There is an interesting parallel with the Public Accounts Committee. It is almost a parliamentary cliche to say that Public Accounts Committee reports command great authority because of the unanimity among its members which underpins its reports. The Public Accounts Committee deals with contentious issues--losses to the taxpayer as a result of privatisation, fraud at the Ministry of Defence and corrupt Conservative quangos in Wales--yet it is always able to present a unanimous and clear view to the House. Tribute is routinely paid by hon. Members on both sides of the House, including PAC members, Treasury Ministers and Opposition Treasury spokesmen, to the work and skill of my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) ; his Committee's reports are important and are taken seriously.
This Procedure Committee report has no such value : its only function is to provide a vehicle for the Leader of the House and the Minister for Industry to set out in detail how the Executive will allow the House to deal with deregulation orders. Conservative Members agree with what is being done and Opposition Members do not--that is all that the report tells us.
Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams) : I do not want to be the odd man out --I seem to be the only Conservative Member who proposes to speak in the debate--but I have to say, with the greatest respect to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who has done a magnificent job in a short time, that the report is another example of bureaucracy. It contains an amazing amount of paper and a complicated flow chart, which I cannot easily follow, showing an immensely complicated means of repealing measures.
Regulations are passed very quickly in the House. Statutory instruments flow in here quickly ; we pass them upstairs in a moment. The deregulation procedure, however, will be immensely complicated.
Mr. Newton : I hope that my hon. Friend, whose interest in deregulation I share, has not misunderstood. Where regulation exists in a statutory instrument, it can be removed by another statutory instrument. We are debating regulation in primary legislation. That is the important point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) sought to make.
Mr. Steen : Perhaps my right hon. Friend is making an important intervention, and I am grateful to him. [ Laughter .] I shall not be deterred by the mirth of Opposition Members.
It is much easier to pass measures in the House than to repeal them. Directives flood in from Europe, which we are unable to stop but which, once on the statute book, are very difficult to repeal. A good example is directive 92/58, which proposes minimum requirements for safety signs in the workplace. All fire safety signs that do not show a little man running up or down stairs will not meet the requirements of the directive and will have to be replaced when it comes into force on 24 June.
The directive will impose enormous costs on offices, businesses and local authorities. Officials in this place will
Column 395want to ensure that we are ahead of the game. Every door in the Palace of Westminster will show a little man running up or down stairs. Do not existing signs--for example, those that say, "Fire Exit"--give sufficient information ? Apparently they do not. According to the Health and Safety Executive, the directive is mandatory. Doors on every public building will need to have such signs so that everybody will know that there is a fire exit.
I listened to the brilliance of my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) in explaining this complex procedure--I believe that it is more complex than Opposition Members think--under which fire exit signs in cinemas, theatres and concert halls will have to change overnight on 24 June and at an enormous cost.
Dr. Wright : Would the hon. Gentleman be perfectly happy for Ministers of a future Labour Government to have the power to sweep away primary legislation by ministerial order ?
Mr. Steen : That is a hypothetical question. It is also speculative : the hon. Gentleman is making assumptions about whether there will ever be a future Labour Government. I understand what he is saying, however, and the public should have some protection against what a future Labour Government might do. I am talking about something slightly different--the bureaucracy that we are introducing for past rules and regulations as opposed to the ease with which new rules and regulations are introduced without so much as a by your leave. I gave the example of the little man running up and down on the fire exit because it is a good one. I wonder how many hon. Members or people outside are aware that this directive is mandatory. Nobody knows about it, yet millions of pounds of taxpayers' and private enterprise money will be spent on implementing it.
It is similar to the directive that has crept in in respect of filing cabinets that are not fitted with anti-tilt devices. I wonder how many people know that that Brussels directive was interpreted by the Health and Safety Executive to mean that it is unsafe to have any item of equipment at work that is not secure. The Serjeant at Arms, like many others, has interpreted that to mean that filing cabinets are dangerous. They are dangerous only if one opens four drawers and the cabinet falls over and knocks one on the head. Once someone has made that mistake, they will not repeat it.
New regulations are eating away at the public and private purse and destroying our economy's ability to revive. They are constantly reducing the profitability of private enterprise and increasing the amount of public money that must be spent on implementation. I have nothing against a lengthy and complicated procedure, as suggested in the report, but can we please try to do something about the directives, which, as I said, are being allowed to creep in and destroy the economy ? I am attacking not my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House but the way in which directives flow into this country and are passed only for the public suddenly to wake up and find such dreadful things happening.
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Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South) : The House and the public owe a debt of gratitude to the hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) because, despite the levity that greeted his remarks, what he said was genuine vox pop : he expressed what many people think. There may be a great deal of truth in what he said about directives from outside but we are discussing a different issue. I commend to him a weekly report published by the Select Committee on European Legislation which details all the directives.
The hon. Member for South Hams spoke about the regulations that emanate from Whitehall either with the signature of a Minister or that of someone whom a Minister has designated by law to authorise him. In other words, they come from the Executive, who are appointed by a majority of hon. Members and are accountable to them. I think that we can all agree on one matter. Suppose that a filing cabinet falls over, causes a serious injury to or even kills someone and the case ends in a coroner's court. The event may lead to a multiplicity of regulations that may appear necessary after a disaster but which, in practice, might be simple over-regulation. That is what the hon. Member for South Hams was complaining about.
I became involved in events following the Marchioness disaster, which was a great tragedy. It was rumoured--I emphasise that it was only a rumour--that the Department of Transport was going to order river boat operators above Teddington lock to have on board lifeboats, rockets and rations for 14 days. It did not go that far--it was only a story--but we can all cite practical examples of over-regulation from our daily life. To some extent, therefore, I agree with the hon. Member for South Hams.
Mr. Steen : I thank the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) for his generous remarks and I am pleased that he recognises that there is a serious problem. However, the problem is rather different from that which he describes. The problem has to do not only with rules and regulations but with their interpretation by a large number of officials. In addition, we have to contend with notes and guidance notes.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes) : Order. The hon. Gentleman is going rather wide of the subject under discussion. I always permit a little latitude, but he has now had sufficient rope.
Mr. Spearing : I am grateful for your ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker. Of course, the interpretation is contained in the regulations themselves ; it is not, as I understand it, a matter for the courts. I thank the right hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) for his courtesy in inviting me to give evidence to the Select Committee on Procedure and for the courtesy accorded to me while I did so, even though the thesis that I advanced in my initial letter to that Committee has not been dealt with in the Committee's report or elsewhere. I also thank the right hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene earlier, when he was saying, in effect that the procedure must be at least as thorough. The right hon. Gentleman nods, thereby emphasising the fact that we have a new type of regulation equivalent to primary legislation. He nods again, and I believe that the complexity and thoroughness with which the advice is given in the
Column 397Committee's report proves that very point. I shall later make a constructive suggestion in this connection which may appeal to the Leader of the House.
The problem that we are discussing--let us call it the South Hams question- -needs to be tackled in a democracy, but not necessarily by giving greater power to the Executive of the day, because the Executive might be responsible for inappropriate, outdated, over-complex and ill-balanced regulations, and might inflict a larger burden than is warranted by the importance of the case. Is not the whole process of statutory law, especially Acts of Parliament, about the balance between private rights and freedoms and protection and the carrying of burdens ? Is not that what parliamentary democracy is all about ?
I understand that in Elizabethan times there was uproar in the House when it was decided that one should only drive on the left. What about income tax and taxation in general ? Taxation is a burden and a privilege--it is a matter of getting the balance right. The crossrail legislation, or any public or private Bill, involves argument about collective advantage versus private protection. In a sense, Acts of Parliament are about the balance between burden and privilege.
The Government have recognised the problem--the South Hams question--but have come down on one side only. They have chosen to stress the reduction of the burden and have not given sufficient attention to the other aspect, which is the collective advantage. Indeed, they have done so in a way that gives the advantage to the Executive. There is no doubt about that. The diagram on page xxv of the Select Committee's report is complex but the Deregulation Committee can only advise, not dispose. I was asked how I would give the Committee more power and I said that it could be given the power to dispose--the Standing Committees have them and the Government have them.
I thank the Leader of the House for his courtesy in giving way earlier. I know his views on parliamentary democracy but he will not be the Leader of the House for ever. He said that no Leader of the House and no Government would brush aside the Committee's recommendations. At one time, the Select Committee on European Legislation--this is the sort of thing that worries the hon. Member for South Hams--could call for time to be allocated on the Floor of the House or in Standing Committee to discuss outside regulations and directives. The Government decided that that was rather too time- consuming and that all such debates should take place in Committee but said that, if there was a request to debate the issues on the Floor of the House, they would consider it carefully. That was said in the Chamber when we were discussing directives.
On 30 March, the Select Committee strongly recommended that there should be a debate as soon as possible on the Floor of the House on the proposals for the enlargement of the Community. It is a very important issue, but the weeks have passed and still there was no debate. The issue is to be discussed by the Council of Ministers next Monday but we have not debated it in the House.
I do not have a copy of it with me, but the Leader of the House wrote a letter to the Chairman of the Procedure Committee in which he said that such a debate would be impractical. He has had since 30 March to make the necessary arrangements but has brushed aside the recommendation of what is not, but what is supposed to be,
Column 398an analogous Committee, whose very purpose was to make recommendations about debates. He has brushed aside a recommendation that he said would not be brushed aside if we adopted the proposals in question.
Mr. Newton : I note the hon. Gentleman's point and the spirit in which it is made. I do not remember whether he was present during business questions last week, when I made it clear that the circumstances are not quite as he describes them. We did not know that it was a proposal until it was cleared by the European Parliament only last week, at which point it became clear that it would be put before the Council of Ministers next week. That left very little time, and it is against the background of a full debate on Europe next Monday.
Mr. Spearing : I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising that issue--I had not mentioned it because I did not want to make my speech too long. I am sorry to hear what he said, because it means that the Government had to wait for another Parliament to reach a conclusion before agreeing to discuss a matter recommended for debate by a Committee of the House. Surely that is what he is saying, in effect, and I am sorry to hear it.
Mr. Newton : I hope that there is no misunderstanding. The hon. Gentleman has put his point in an uncharacteristically tendentious way. The fact is that accession could not go ahead until it had been agreed by the European Parliament. Until then there was no proposal, in the full sense, to be debated. That is all I meant.
Mr. Spearing : I hope that the Leader of the House will accept my next remark in the spirit in which it is meant, but I must remind him that the proposal was certainly on the cards, because the Prime Minister came back and told us all about it some weeks ago, and there has been much discussion about the content of his statement. I now hasten on. We are talking about the balance between the Executive and the House. I wish to draw the attention of the House to the document HC 588, which is the 1977- 78 report of the Select Committee on Procedure--the Committee that is now chaired by the right hon. Member for Honiton. Referring to Lord Glenamara, who was then the Leader of the House, the report said :
"The essence of the problem, as Lord Glenamara himself recognised, is that the balance of advantage between Parliament and Government in the day to day working of the Constitution is now weighted in favour of the Government to a degree which arouses widespread anxiety and is inimical to the proper working of our parliamentary democracy." If that was true in 1977, it is at least as true now.
That was a unanimous report, backed by the following hon. Members :
"Mr. Kenneth Baker, Mr. A. J. Beith, Mr. George Cunningham, Mr. Michael English, Mr. John Grant, Mr. Norman Lamont, Mr. Richard Luce, Mr. David Marquand, Mr. John Peyton, Mr. J. Enoch Powell, Mr. Giles Radice, Sir David Renton, Miss Jo Richardson, Mr. Nicholas Ridley, Mr. Nigel Spearing and Sir Thomas Williams".
We are suffering at least as much now. In the context of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill, which we are not discussing now, I suggest that, if the recommendation for the Committee is accepted, that uneven weighting will become far worse, for one simple reason. That was the thesis of my letter, and I do not believe that any hon. Member could disagree with it. Although statutory and primary law is available for contention in the courts, and involves the total balance between advantage and privilege
Column 399with which Acts of Parliament are always concerned, regulations are administrative law. They are designed to allow officials to take executive action to carry out in detail the will of the House. In the example that the hon. Member for South Hams used, if the regulation says the Minister "shall" or "may" specify something concerning a certain number of inches, or a certain number of little men running up and down stairs, that is it. That is quite a different matter. To use secondary legislation to change primary legislation wholesale would be in breach of the constitution.
The Chairman of the Committee pointed out that, if law is made, it should be unmade in exactly the same way ; otherwise, it would be devalued. The hon. Member for South Hams may not have heard of amending orders, annulment orders, or orders made for a certain period of time after which they expire and have to be renewed. That is how we could provide an opportunity, perhaps not in the Chamber but by consultative machinery, for over- regulation to be dealt with if it occurs.
Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East) : Surely the hon. Gentleman is now talking about the same sort of system as has been used to govern Northern Ireland for the past 25 years. Why should hon. Members who have supported that system being applied to Northern Ireland for 25 years not welcome its extension to the rest of the United Kingdom ?
Mr. Spearing : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because he has illustrated what may be in store for us.
Mr. Spearing : I do not think that anybody could question that. In respect of that type of regulation, I shall conclude
Mr. Steen rose
Mr. Spearing : No. Time is limited.
Mr. Steen : I shall be very quick.
Mr. Steen : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, although statutory instruments tend to get passed in three minutes in Committee, the procedure likely to result from the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill will take much longer to unwind or repeal them ? I should like to hear what he thinks about that.
Mr. Spearing : The hon. Gentleman is right, but for the wrong reason. We have to put in place something that, however skilfully it may be constructed, will be an enormously complicated procedure. That is because regulations are being used for the wrong purpose. It would be much easier to amend an Act, as does the middle part of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill, which we shall discuss tomorrow.
I finish by suggesting an alternative procedure to deal with what, while it may not be described as the West Lothian question, could be described as the South Hams question. Over-regulation and unnecessary regulation have to be dealt with. Why not have an annual deregulation Bill ? We have one this year, and there are bits in it about public vehicles and all sorts of other things ; it affects regulations about this, that and the other. Such a Bill could even be
Column 400amended, if the House wished. Indeed, a spectacular amendment was made yesterday to the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill. So there would be an opportunity for the hon. Member for South Hams, or anybody else, to say that something was wrong. But the law should be changed in the same way as it was made.
There may be a danger in doing that, because if we use the same procedure as we use for Standing Committees on Bills, such a Committee, like the Committee on the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill, would have to deal with a vast range of all sorts of different issues. Its membership could not be hand-picked, so there could be difficulties. If such a Bill were to be introduced every year, therefore, there ought to be outside consultation before its introduction. That arrangement could be part of some overriding Act. I have attempted to suggest how that could be done with my amendment No. 90--which, of course, I cannot talk about now, because that would be out of order, but which hon. Members can read on the amendment paper.
Instead of going to a Standing Committee, why should not the annual deregulation Bill be dealt with separately ? The Army Bill is dealt with separately, and so is the Finance Bill. Initially it would go to a Public Bill Committee--the sort of Committee that I think we should have, and which was advocated by the Procedure Committee in 1977. There would be a Select Committee procedure for a period--perhaps the membership could change with the subject--and then a normal Standing Committee, after which the Bill would return to the Floor of the House.
I suggest that that would be using the House in the proper way. There would be pre-legislative consultation, scrutiny and questioning of Ministers in the House where necessary. That might not be necessary ; let us hope that it would not. I hope that that would deal with the problems that concern the hon. Member for South Hams. It would also help the Government, and would avoid the great complications, and the enormous manpower and extra work, that the Procedure Committee's recommendations could entail.
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire) : I am pleased to be able to make a short contribution. I start by paying tribute to the work of the Procedure Committee. I was lucky enough, if that is the phrase, to be summoned, and I was received with courtesy and listened to attentively for a happy 15 or 20 minutes. That was a worthwhile exercise. The Committee's work has been most valuable, and the House should be grateful to its members.
The Leader of the House has something to answer for in that he has brought us to this position. Here we are in the middle of the week having to insinuate the debate in between two days of a Report stage. We are in the middle of the consideration of the Bill. The Government should have seen that problem coming when they conceived the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill in the first place. It is wrong to have to hold such a debate, and to force the Procedure Committee to make such a hurried report--although it was executed with dispatch, with proper expedition and with expertise.
We should not be having this debate in the middle of a two-day Report stage. The question should have been resolved clear of the final stages of the Bill, so that the
Column 401House could have had more time to contemplate some of the profound changes that will result from the legislation. I do not think that it is right that this important debate about the work of the Procedure Committee should be sandwiched in the middle of the debate on Report.
The Leader of the House must bear in mind the wider worries that some Members on both sides of the House have, to which the hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) has adverted, in relation to regulations. There is a widespread view that the House is suffering from overload at every level and in every direction. I do not think that the Government are doing enough about that. We have mentioned the Jopling report and the distinguished work that the Procedure Committee has done in the past. It has made plenty of
recommendations. There is a growing sense, especially among my generation, if I can put it that way--although I am older than I look--that the House is overloaded. At some time or another, someone will have to grasp that nettle.
I am in favour of the fast-track procedure, subject to safeguards, but I do not think that it is enough. I should not want the Leader of the House to go away thinking that, if he obtains the agreement of the House to the procedure, that is the end of the matter, because it is not. Europe will produce more important legislation, and anxieties will grow in Scotland and in Wales that inadequate time is available on the Floor of the House of Commons. I am not by any means suggesting that that leads one to a conclusion about separation. There are all sorts of other ways, in a federal context, in which those problems could be tackled. There is a long agenda, which we ignore at our peril and which is not tackled by the narrower but nevertheless significant changes that are proposed in the Bill. While I have the attention of the Leader of the House, I want to tell him that the measures that we are considering should only be temporary. If we accept the fact that in the past there has been over-regulation and over -legislation, presumably the penny has now dropped : the day has dawned ; we all now see the error of our ways ; and after the forthcoming Queen's Speech, all those problems will be solved. That is the responsibility of the Leader of the House. If the right hon. Gentleman lacks the bottle to say to Departments in future, "Up with these excessive attempts at legislation we will not put in future," he will fail the House and will not be doing his duty properly. He must take that seriously, and the measures should be temporary.
I am worried that the work that the Procedure Committee has done, in rightly and thoroughly scrutinising the problem that it was set, will turn into a procedure that will be built into the bricks of this place and that, in future, we shall have primary legislation that will need to be stripped out by the fast-track procedure in due course. If the House gets into that mind-set, it will fail in its duty. The procedures should be used, appropriately and thoroughly, for the next few years, until we return to the situation in which we want to be, which is that we only introduce legislation in this place when it is essential.
The hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) rightly argued that rights, checks and balances must all be borne in mind. I must say in parenthesis that I am attracted by the solution that he proposed, which would provide a viable alternative, and I wonder whether the Government have given that suggestion the serious consideration that I believe that it deserves.