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4.44 pm

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton): First, let me put one or two things on the record.

As I am sure my Front-Bench colleagues will agree, the regulatory impact unit worked hard to produce the Bill. In a remarkable variety of guises, it has done a marvellous job over a long period, under the last Administration as well as this. I also pay tribute to the work of Lord Haskins and his taskforce. Lord Haskins has never shrunk from saying things that may not have been palatable to Ministers at certain times, and he has certainly been forthright in expressing his views on the need for better regulation. My hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) and Lord Weedon of Alexander have played their part--

Mr. Bercow: Lord Alexander of Weedon.

Mr. Kilfoyle: I stand corrected. I am confused by titles, not least those of Members of the other place.

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Those whom I have mentioned are people of character and distinction, who have worked very hard to make the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994 a workable proposition.

Mr. Bercow: I look forward to hearing the rest of the hon. Gentleman's speech, which, judging by precedent, I expect to be both interesting and entertaining.

The reason I was so quick to intervene is that Lord Alexander of Weedon is a former resident of my constituency. He is a fine man, and Weedon is a fine village.

Mr. Kilfoyle: I am sure that that is true, but it does not necessarily mean that Lord Alexander is a friend of the present Government in political terms, although he has worked assiduously on this issue and many others like it.

It is all too easy to make glib, cheap political points on the back of a serious attempt, made over a long period, to turn legislation that was plainly not as workable or effective as it should have been into legislation that is workable. I have the doubtful distinction of having spent some time in the Cabinet Office working on these matters, and I was amazed at how complex and arcane they could become. I also represented the Cabinet Office on the legislation committee. Conventions relating to confidentiality prevent me from saying too much, but my role--doubtless performed by someone else now--was to act as gatekeeper in regard to legislation before it was presented to either House, and to ensure that a proper regulatory appraisal took place, including a compliance cost assessment. The process was effective in ensuring that certain pieces of legislation were altered to provide a full and transparent description of what would eventually obtain following the passage of that legislation. No doubt someone performed a similar role under the last Administration.

At one stage, there was agreement among all parties that we needed to do much more to make legislation effective in terms of its ostensible purpose. The result, in my view, is the Bill that we are discussing now. However, as the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) has illustrated, things have moved on considerably over the past four years. Not only have the Government been extremely successful, introducing many worthwhile social and economic initiatives in both Houses; the whole approach to regulation has changed.

Initially, all references were to deregulation. When we took office in 1997, we changed the term to "better regulation". That was not an exercise in simple semantics. It sent out a strong message a la Chomsky: changing the language meant capturing the argument, which was not about taking away regulation per se but about recognising that there is good as well as bad regulation. We were intent on doing all we could, where there was a social necessity for us to do so, to ensure that regulation remained strong and enforceable, but was also understood by both individuals and businesses. By the same token, we recognised that there was superfluous legislation that was no use to man or beast, and should be removed--and we attempted to do that as well.

As the speech of the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire showed, there is a different agenda on the Opposition Benches nowadays. Conservative Members have adopted a very right-wing position and have moved

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far out of the mainstream of traditional British politics. They believe in a minimalist state. Their soul brothers in America, the Republican party, would endorse everything that they stand for--[Interruption.] I note that the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) is nodding. If they had their way, Conservative Members would remove almost every vestige of regulation.

I am particularly concerned about the regulatory and legislative spheres that Conservative Members seem to dismiss. In this debate, I want to hear what they have to say about--

Mr. Bercow: The hon. Gentleman will hear it.

Mr. Kilfoyle: I am sure that I will be hearing from the hon. Gentleman and from other Conservative Members. I want to hear their comments on the types of regulation that are very important to people in this country, such as health and safety regulation. What proposals do Conservative Members have for that? I should also very much like to hear with what they propose replacing necessary legislation. I assume--[Interruption.] The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire says that we have already heard it. What we heard was an addendum to a political diatribe on how Labour Members could not be trusted in government. Conservative Members are paranoid about proposals from Labour Members, to whom they impute base motives where none exist. Apparently, according to them, in seeking to pass the Regulatory Reform Bill, the Government are trying to circumvent the House entirely--to frustrate the will of the House. I tell them that the will of the House will be demonstrated after the next general election. I dare say that we shall all still be sitting on the same side of the House.

Mr. White: Does my hon. Friend agree that the Deregulation Committee's procedures allow for much more extensive consultation and discussion on delegated legislation than such legislation would receive if it were dealt with under the usual procedures of the House?

Mr. Kilfoyle: I accept that unequivocally. As I understand it--I stand to be corrected either by the Opposition or by my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench--there has been extensive consultation on the Bill. As I recall it, there was a draft Bill and an opportunity to resolve the issues. The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire signally failed to substantiate his claim that no opportunity has been provided to the individuals whom he has quoted as being concerned about the Government's approach to regulation. As I think my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office said, Digby Jones has welcomed our initiative. As one might expect, the Local Government Association has also approved it, as have Ian Handford at the Federation of Small Businesses, and the Institute of Directors. Presumably, they have approved the initiative partly because of the Government's extensive consultation with all parties on the draft Bill.

I can only assume that Conservative Members are opposing the Bill for broader political advantage. There is nothing wrong with that. I think that we all play that game--[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) says yes. I agree with him.

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There is nothing wrong with that. We had hoped to tackle the very real and complex problems of dealing with regulation consensually with the other parties, but if that is common cause, they have certainly not lent their support to promoting it.

I remind Opposition Members that for every regulation that the previous Administration removed, they introduced 13 new ones. Things have not changed an awful lot in that respect. One difficulty is that we have to deal with an ever more complex world. A simplistic, minimalist approach will do nothing to cure those problems. We have to take the type of action that my right hon. Friend adumbrated in her speech. We have to ensure that people have access to transparent advice, and that they understand that something can be dealt with in just one visit, without a plethora of inspections. Those issues are being addressed in long-standing initiatives, but there are no simple, straightforward answers.

The Bill builds upon experience and seeks when possible to improve and streamline the regulatory processes. I applaud the Bill, and I applaud my right hon. Friend's initiative in introducing it.

4.55 pm

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) rose--

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Sylvia Heal): I call Mr. Norman Baker. [Interruption.] I am sorry; I mean Dr. Vincent Cable.

Dr. Cable: I am not sure whether that is a compliment or not, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I start on a positive note: I welcome the fact that the Government recognise that too many of the wrong kind of regulations have been made, and propose to do something about it. However, although it took the Conservative spokesman half an hour to get round to saying so, there are serious constitutional problems with the Bill. Those are the issues that my colleagues, particularly Lord Goodhart, tried to deal with in the other place.

To do justice to the problems, one need only look at the language that the Select Committee on Deregulation initially used about the Bill--although that language has subsequently been modified. The Committee, which I believe is all-party, expressed itself in trenchant terms about some of the potential problems with the Bill.

For example:

The Committee goes on modestly defining its own capacity to act as a constraint on the legislation:

That was written by an all-party group which will have the responsibility for carrying through the powers in the legislation, so there are serious constitutional problems. I sincerely hope that in what will probably be the rather short time allowed for consideration of the Bill in Committee, those issues will be properly addressed.

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As for the substantive issues of deregulation, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) put the point well when he said that regulation was neither inherently good nor inherently bad. There is good regulation and bad regulation; there is excessive and unnecessary regulation, and there is necessary regulation. It is a question of costs and benefits, and of striking a balance. There are good reasons why activity has to be regulated, such as consumer protection, environmental protection and workers' rights. Those are entirely plausible, good economic and social reasons why regulation has to exist.

Indeed, much of the spurt in regulation occurred under the previous Government, as a consequence of privatisation. If one creates private monopolies and networks, there has to be a structure of regulation to manage them and oversee them in the social interest. Regulation is not inherently undesirable; the question is how regulation is managed.

There has been a tendency, which is not particular to the present Government but which has accelerated while they have been in office, towards regulatory creep--a growth in regulation for undesirable reasons.

There are three phenomena that we must try to understand. First, it is increasingly becoming the habit of Governments to regard business as a useful agent for carrying out their own policies--policies that they could have paid for and carried out themselves. For example, the working families tax credit makes businesses act as an arm of the Department of Social Security, and businesses now also have to collect repayments of student loans. Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, business has to act as a spy agency for Government, without being fully compensated. That also happened under the previous Government, through the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996.

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