Column 118Walden, George
Walker, Bill (N Tayside)
Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Wiggin, Sir Jerry
Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'f'ld)
Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Tellers for the Noes :
Mr. Andrew MacKay and
Mr. Bowen Wells.
Question accordingly negatived.
Amendments made : No. 97, in page 4, line 40, after means' insert (a)'.
No. 98, in page 4, line 41, leave out is' and insert was'. No. 99, in page 4, line 41, at end insert
(b) if within the period referred to in paragraph (a) above a committee of either House reports that there are special reasons why it will be unable to complete its consideration of the document before the end of that period, the period of sixty days beginning on the day on which the document was so laid.'
No. 100, in page 4, line 42, leave out period of forty' and insert
periods of forty and sixty'.
No. 24, in page 5, line 6, at end insert
(5) Together with a draft of an order laid before Parliament under section 1(4) above, the Minister concerned shall lay a statement giving details of
(a) any representations, resolution or report falling within subsection (4) above ; and
(b) the changes (if any) which, in the light of any such representations, resolution or report, the Minister has made to his proposals as contained in the document previously laid before Parliament under section 3(3) above.
(6) Subsection (5) of section 3 above shall apply in relation to the representations referred to in subsection (5)(a) above as it applies in relation to the representations referred to in subsection (4)(f) of that section.'--[ Mr. Arbuthnot .]
Order for Third Reading read .
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.--[ Mr. Sainsbury .]
Mr. Spearing : For once, the Bill is an instrument that means what it says. Chapter I is a deregulation measure which is of disreputable constitutional origin and operation and part II deals with contracting out. Chapter I provides more power for the Executive and part II gives more power to the executives of the Executive. The Bill thus takes power from Parliament and transfers it to the prerogative of the Crown from which this place was formed to protect the people. The Bill is one of the worst power- centralising measures that one can imagine. When the Government go to the country they claim that they are a decentralising force. Time and again, not only on the election box but even in the House, Ministers speak about decentralisation of power. But the Minister cannot claim that the Bill is anything other than an instrument for a great centralising of power to the Executive, especially in the context of clause 4. People have said that clause 4 introduces the possibility of Henry VIII clauses which have been constitutionally dodgy because they give a Minister power to do anything-- in emergencies, the Government claim--that he thinks necessary within the purposes of an Act. But clause 4 will
Column 119allow any Minister to present a statutory instrument not just in the context of one Act but in the context of any Act named in the schedule to that instrument. That schedule could list five, 10 or 20 Acts--the number is unlimited.
Furthermore, in claiming to provide safeguards, the Government do not even accept the recommendations of the Committee that advised on them. They responded to the Select Committee as if that Committee was reporting to the Government rather than to the House. That betrays their arrogant attitude to Parliament and its Members and therefore to the public.
In taking powers to themselves the Government are taking power away not just from Parliament but from the people who sent us here. It is no wonder, as the hon. Member for Reigate (Sir G. Gardiner) said at the weekend, that voters are going on strike. The Government's maladministration and poor- quality legislation have brought that to pass.
In part I of the Bill, the Government are creating a new internal monarchy, which is a liaison between the garagistes, the quangoists and the superistes, the big business men, or the big people of capital, who are gaining power through their Government--a Government who do not have the guts to publish their accounts. If they do not do that, how do we know that the deregulation that will come from a Deregulation Panel that is stuffed full of people who are there for big business is not a closed circuit of finance and statutory power ? Something new this century is going through the House without people understanding what is going on in chapter I.
Part II of the Bill is the opposite but constitutes an equally wrong and undemocratic process. Having done something to take the burdens away from more than one half of the country, the Government then impose new executive powers on people who cannot protect themselves. Part I does not provide a balance between burdens and human liberty. Oh, no : it is solely on one side of the political spectrum. And so, of course, is part II, because in its cascade of deregulatory power, it gives power to executives and quangos --people empowered by Ministers to exercise arbitrary power on their part, and, worse still, over their employees and contractors. In other words, it gives them powers that cannot be caught up with by Ministers--even if that were their wish--still less by hon. Members.
The disrepute into which the House and the Government who use these powers in future will fall will be great indeed. We ain't seen nothing yet in terms of the way in which the public look on politicians and powers. I see the Minister smiling at that. I do not find this a smiling matter at all. It is something that he will come to rue. Perhaps, in ignorance, he is taking the Bill through rather than resigning, because if he knew what was to come--or would come if the Government lasted--he would not be smiling at all.
We have here a new crown, but one which is hidden and which takes away powers from the House, from Conservative Members who are chatting and from the people who sent them here, not to vote for the Bill but to vote against the acquisition of executive power by officials in Whitehall. Years ago, members of the Conservative party used to talk about the men in bowler hats coming to tell people what to do. In part II of the Bill, lots of posts are
Column 120created, but those in them are not necessarily visible in bowler hats. They will be going through the law courts and the quangos. They will be tying local government in knots so that it cannot do what it wants to do. That is the purpose of part II.
What we have in the Bill--today of all days, when a certain manifesto was published--is what some of us would call "the enemy without" in terms of democracy and self-government of the country. I tell the Government that they are now creating a new crown and a new enemy within.
Dr. Wright : I think that there could have been consensus on the Bill. Indeed, I think that, in Committee, the spirit of my hon. Friend on the Front Bench, the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett), was a spirit of consensus. It would have been possible to build an alliance around sensible deregulation. There can be over-regulation. There can be under- regulation. There can be silly regulation. There can be sensible regulation. There could have been a partnership and a coalition in terms of removing unnecessary and burdensome regulations but maintaining proper protections. Unfortunately, because of the way in which the Government have chosen to proceed, that has not been possible. We have had to remind the Government consistently, as have some Conservative Members, that the source of much of the burden comes from their own legislation. It is worth pointing out, even at this late stage, that on average the present Government have produced 500 pages more in statutory instruments and public Acts than the last Labour Government--500 pages in terms of each, that is. Unfortunately, the Government have chosen to act in an improper and outrageous constitutional fashion, and that is the issue that is now at stake. The consensus has been broken, because the Government have claimed unlimited powers.
At one time, the Conservative party was the great custodian of what used to be called limited government. Now, in approving the Bill, it is becoming the custodian of unlimited government. In the 18th century, a great motion was passed ; it is known as Dunning's motion :
"The power of the Executive has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished."
That is the kind of motion that the House should now be passing, rather than this contemptible Bill.
Mr. Fatchett : The Opposition voted against the Bill on Second Reading, and nothing has happened in Committee or on Report to change our mind and show that our initial decision was incorrect. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Dr. Wright) has said, we have always favoured sensible deregulation : there was always a basis for potential consensus there. I have not met an hon. Member who is in favour of unnecessary regulation and unnecessary burdens. We object to the Bill on two basic grounds.
I share the concern of my hon. Friends the Members for Cannock and Burntwood and for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), and that of all my colleagues who served on the Standing Committee, about the constitutional innovations in the Bill. We have just debated the Henry VIII powers, and I was delighted to observe some Conservative Members speaking and voting against the Government on that issue. Those executive powers, and the debate
Column 121surrounding them, will not go away ; they will remain an important feature of discussion of the Bill. Sadly, however, we have spent less time on another constitutional issue of equal importance. The Government's ideological commitment to privatisation, market testing and contracting out obscures from them the real constitutional issues that underpin part II of the Bill. Again, we are discussing ministerial accountability. During my years as a member of the Opposition, I have seen an erosion of such accountability and of the powers of Members of Parliament. These are important issues--to me as a Member of Parliament, but also to my constituents and those of other hon. Members.
Nowadays, we write to Ministers and receive replies from civil servants or agencies--people who cannot be made accountable at the Dispatch Box. There has been a change in constitutional principles : certain civil servants, acting as chief executives on behalf of agencies or quangos, feel that they can enter into party political debate and controversy. That is a novel and dangerous departure in terms of the role of the civil service, and the Bill exacerbates the process.
That process was taken to its extreme in the run-up to the last general election, when Duncan Nichol, chief executive of the national health service, intervened directly to say that the Government's NHS reforms were working and Labour's policies would not work. It is dangerous for a civil servant to intervene in that way, because the line between administration and policy-making becomes extremely blurred. Let me say to all Conservative Members that we need to ensure that Ministers are the ones held accountable to the House of Commons, and that it is they who justify the decisions made in their name.
Time and again we ask questions, write letters and try to act on behalf of our constituents, only to find that the person who answers our letters is not the Minister but some civil servant or agency--or, in the future, some private sector employer. That is an argument not against the private sector but in favour of an impartial civil service, an impartial Administration and ministerial accountability. That is why we have been concerned throughout not only about the constitutional powers of the first four clauses but about the constitutional powers under part II.
Even at this late stage, I urge Conservative Members to think about the principles and the precedent that is being set, because they may come to regret the way in which they may be used.
We must be jealous of our powers. We must work to preserve and to safeguard them, but the Bill is designed to undermine them. We voted against the Bill on Second Reading, and our reasoned amendment clearly explained why we did so.
Little or nothing was changed in Committee. The Procedure Committee's report suggested how the scrutiny mechanism will apply to the first four clauses. My hon. Friends have argued powerfully and cogently that the Government did not even have the decency to accept the Procedure Committee's recommendations. Without that, the safeguards are limited, but we argue that it is impossible to safeguard against an unsafe principle.
A philosophy underpinned the Bill--a philosophy of deregulation. We know that it began at the Conservative party conference in 1992 when, in those immortal words, the Prime Minister said to the President of the Board of
Column 122Trade, "Michael, get out your axe". He would not dare use those words today because they might have a different meaning.
We all recognise the need to get rid of unnecessary regulation. We know where the burden of that regulation has come from during the lifetime of this Government. As we said in Committee, and as those who read and participated in the Second Reading debate will know, an ideology underpins the Bill and it goes beyond getting rid of unnecessary burdens. Some Conservative Members strongly believe in a totally deregulated labour market and see that as Britain's future industrial policy. They want a labour market that provides not security but insecurity, and competition between individuals on the basis not of talents but of a willingness to take a job at the lowest possible wage, with the lowest possible protection. That is why it has been argued that there has been too great a shift in emphasis to employees, consumers and the general public. We do not accept those arguments--that is the distinctive ideological division between the Opposition and the Government.
We do not accept an industrial strategy and policy that is based on deregulation and that sees Britain pricing itself at the bottom end of the market. There is no future in such a perspective. It means that Britain has to push down its real wages to compete with South Korea, Taiwan and China. That should not be the future for a country that has a Government and people of ambition. We should be trying to compete on quality, skills and research and development and looking forward to the time when Britain has a quality market in the world. That is not the object of the Government's deregulation initiative and we reject their ideology. The Bill damages our constitution, and the industrial policy that it proposes is Victorian and outdated. Before too long, and with this Government, that policy and ideology will die. We reject the Bill.
Mr. Sainsbury : The Bill is an important contribution to reducing burdens on industry and especially on small companies. It will help to improve the competitiveness of our economy, reduce unnecessary burdens on charities and individuals and remove important statutory obstacles to contracting out. We heard nothing about those matters from the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) or from his colleagues. We heard nothing on that subject from the Liberal Democrats-- [Hon. Members :-- "Where are they ?"] Indeed, we heard nothing from the Liberal Democrat Benches during these important proceedings because they have been empty, which may say something about that party's attitude to deregulation and the importance of small businesses.
What we have heard from the Opposition is a parody of what is in the Bill. We have heard smears, threats, rumours and allegations about things which they say might be done but which will not be done. The Bill provides an order-making power to allow the amendment or repeal of outdated or unnecessarily burdensome legislation. For the first time, this mechanism will allow us to make useful deregulatory changes to particular legislation to reduce costs to business and others without having to wait for a place in the legislative programme.
The power is subject to substantial safeguards and constraints to ensure that it cannot be abused--another point ignored by the Opposition. It can be used only if the
Column 123necessary protection is not removed. Consultation is required with those likely to be substantially affected, and detailed scrutiny will be possible by special parliamentary Committees.
The consultation required and the opportunity for special scrutiny Committees to take evidence means that any deregulation proposal may well receive more detailed consideration, inside and outside the House under the provisions of the Bill, than if it were introduced as a proposal for primary legislation.
The Opposition may not think that modest legislative changes are important, but saving millions of pounds for business by removing unnecessary legislation is something that we regard as important, as my hon. Friends have made clear. Even small savings for business will, cumulatively, make a real difference. We are determined that the competitiveness of our firms should not be unnecessarily impeded. The Opposition claim that they are in favour of deregulation but their record and their continuing opposition to the Bill make a mockery of that claim. They always have been, and clearly remain, believers in bureaucracy.
The Bill contains a number of specific deregulation measures, such as the streamlining of some of the procedures of competition law and a reduction in the paperwork required for waste transfers. We have also agreed to new clauses relating to charities.
The removal of obstacles to the contracting out of statutory functions will facilitate the process of public sector reform. The Government's "Competing for Quality" programme has already shown how the introduction of greater competition in the provision of public services can result in substantial value-for-money gains. The citizens charter second report itemises savings of no less than £135 million from the programme, which can be expected to be made each year. However, some parts of the public service have until now been prevented from seeking those gains by barriers arising from the way in which certain statutes have been framed. The measures in part II, so derided by the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), will rectify that by overcoming--subject to essential safeguards--outdated legal restrictions that bear little relation to the needs of today. Accountability to Parliament will remain unchanged, and safeguards are provided to ensure that confidential information is protected. Parts I and II of the Bill are centred on our belief in competition. This Bill and the wider deregulation initiative will make an important contribution to our unremitting drive to improve Britain's competitiveness. Of course, our competitiveness depends on many factors but the one that is especially important for smaller businesses is the lifting of the burden of unnecessary regulation. The Opposition's approach betrays just how little importance they attach to that.
The competitiveness of our businesses is vital to our standard of living and our quality of life. As my hon.
Column 124Friends have said, today and in earlier debates, coping with unnecessary burdens affects the competitiveness of our businesses and costs jobs. We will continue to strive for ever greater competitiveness. Our White Paper will be published tomorrow, setting out the way in which we intend to develop our competitiveness policies.
Consumer bodies have supported our proposals. Business has welcomed the Bill. It regards it as an important contribution to the drive to cut red tape. We, too, regard it as such. We value anything that lifts burdens from business without removing necessary protection ; I only regret that the Opposition do not. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put, That the Bill be now read the Third time : The House divided : Ayes 291, Noes 242.
Division No. 255] [9.59 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey)
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby)
Allason, Rupert (Torbay)
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)
Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel Grv)
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley)
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset North)
Banks, Matthew (Southport)
Banks, Robert (Harrogate)
Biffen, Rt Hon John
Blackburn, Dr John G.
Body, Sir Richard
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham)
Bottomley, Rt Hon Virginia
Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thorpes)
Browning, Mrs. Angela
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)
Carlisle, John (Luton North)
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)
Channon, Rt Hon Paul
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st)
Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Cope, Rt Hon Sir John
Curry, David (Skipton & Ripon)
Davies, Quentin (Stamford)
Davis, David (Boothferry)
Deva, Nirj Joseph
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James
Durant, Sir Anthony
Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatfield)
Evans, Jonathan (Brecon)
Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley)
Evans, Roger (Monmouth)
Fairbairn, Sir Nicholas
Fenner, Dame Peggy
Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman
Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring)
Fox, Sir Marcus (Shipley)
Freeman, Rt Hon Roger
Fry, Sir Peter
Gardiner, Sir George
Garel-Jones, Rt Hon Tristan
Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles
Gorman, Mrs Teresa
Grant, Sir A. (Cambs SW)
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)
Greenway, John (Ryedale)