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Mrs. Gorman: I acknowledge that the hon. Gentleman genuinely wants to help the small business sector. However, the Conservative Administration established similar organisations, such as the group on small business
Mr. Brown: I thank the hon. Lady for acknowledging that I want something to be done. All Labour Members want that. However, I am not convinced that the measure at which she hints would set everything right. What we want is regulation that is not burdensome, not to sweep away regulation altogether, as she implies is desirable.
The hon. Member for Lichfield and I might remain at loggerheads over the cost of regulation. Many wild estimates have been made of the current costs of regulation and its impact on business, ranging from £5 billion by the Institute of Directors to as much as £12 billion by the British Chambers of Commerce. Clearly, both cannot be correct, and I would argue that neither is. The figures confuse the cost of the policy itself--for example, money paid out in the form of the national minimum wage--with the cost of administering the policy, by keeping records, filling in forms and so on. True administration costs--red tape--comprise but a tiny fraction of those sums.
As one who represents an area that has had extremely low pay, I am not prepared to apologise for introducing the national minimum wage. I served on the Committee that scrutinised the National Minimum Wage Act 1998. I do not know what the general election holds for me, but even if I leave Parliament as a result of it and do nothing else in life, I shall be able to hold my head up and say that I served as a member of a party that introduced the national minimum wage in this country. I am proud of that measure, from which the people of my constituency have benefited greatly.
We make no apology for improving maternity leave, introducing paternity leave, giving millions of employees for the first time the right to paid holidays, or tackling discrimination against the disabled. Those measures also protect good employers--a point that we must always bear in mind. The overwhelming majority of employers are good employers, and our actions must be about protecting them against unfair competition from the unscrupulous few. When introducing those measures, the Government listened to the views of business and made changes to the working time regulations and the national minimum wage to meet concerns and reduce the administrative burden. I believe that the Government will continue to listen.
Millions of people have benefited from those measures. About 1.5 million workers are now entitled to higher pay as a direct result of the introduction of the national minimum wage; of those, about two thirds are women. The business community now accepts the national minimum wage, and the recent announcement of an increase to £4.10 will be applauded by those who have already benefited from it. Under the working time regulations, 3.1 million workers have for the first time ever the right to paid annual leave. New maternity rights mean that 85,000 women benefit from the increase in the minimum duration of maternity leave from 14 weeks to 18 weeks.
The value of benefits accruing to part-time employees under the part-time workers directive will be £17.6 million. The number of people receiving an increase in non-wage benefits will be 400,000, and 27,000 will receive an increase in pay. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 provides more than 8.6 million disabled people with the choice and opportunities that others have long taken for granted. Sometimes people feel that such serious issues are overlooked, so that Act has made a huge difference. Stakeholder pensions will give millions of employees access to a good-value, reliable pension scheme.
It is right and just that we make the comparison with the previous Administration. The number of Acts of Parliament passed in each parliamentary Session is of broadly the same order of magnitude under the current Administration as under the last, as is the number of statutory instruments issued. Less than 5 per cent. of statutory instruments have a significant impact on business. Focusing on the number of regulations pays no regard to the benefits to business, society, individuals and the environment that can accrue from well-designed regulation. In international comparisons, Britain is one of the best places for companies to start, invest, grow and expand. According to the economic outlook published in 1999 by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, in 1998 the UK had the lowest level of product-market regulation of any OECD country, including the United States.
The right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) has acknowledged that there is no evidence that regulation is damaging economic performance. The fall in UK unemployment to below 1 million for the first time since 1975 clearly backs up that view.
Mr. Fabricant: We have to put the lie to that assertion. The Government talk of there being fewer than 1 million unemployed. That is to be applauded, but the truth is that there are fewer than 1 million claimants, whereas the 1975 figure referred to actual unemployed people. There are about 1.5 million people still unemployed. None the less, I congratulate the Government on having at least bucked the trend in manufacturing industry, wherein unemployment has increased.
Mr. Brown: I thank the hon. Gentleman. I am prepared to listen to what he says, but I remind him that when the Conservative Government claimed that there were 3 million unemployed, the true figure was closer to 4 million.
On small firms and regulation, the Labour Government's policy is to regulate only when necessary and to ensure that regulation is fair and effective. Should regulation be necessary, the first priority is to make sure that each regulation passes the "think small first" test. We have set up the Small Business Service to work closely with the regulatory impact unit and other regulators to ensure that regulations are enforced in a way that recognises the problems of small businesses.
As expected, there has been criticism: for example, it has been said that the Bill moves debate on important reforms away from the Floor of the House. In fact, the Bill will not undermine the proper parliamentary process for legislation. It requires thorough public consultation coupled with a tried and tested procedure of thorough
The Government have important plans to use the powers under the Bill. As already announced, we plan to use them to reform our cumbersome fire safety and weights and measures legislation, as well as to free schools to provide the out-of-hours child care services that are so desperately needed and so well used in many parts of the country. Those are the sort of worthwhile changes for which the Bill has been designed.
It has also been said that the Bill will allow Ministers to bypass Parliament. I totally disagree with that. The Bill merely extends the existing deregulation order-making power, which was introduced by the Conservative Government under the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994. The safeguards on the existing power, which has been policed effectively by the Deregulation Committee in this House and the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee in the Lords, will be supplemented to reflect the breadth of the new power. The Government will not be able to steamroller proposals through using the new order-making power, as the Select Committees have an effective veto and the Parliament Acts will not apply.
In concluding, I shall comment again on the Conservatives' record. Tories always claim that they will reduce regulation--we heard it said early this evening--but they do not. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), as a Minister under the previous Government who tried to reduce regulation on business, said:
I shall look at endorsements of the Bill, of which we have heard a number today. In response to its publication in draft form in April 2000, the Prime Minister received numerous letters of support--much to the surprise, I am sure, of Opposition Members. Mr. Digby Jones, who has been well quoted this evening, said:
"be enacted as soon as possible."
Like my right hon. and hon. Friends, I welcome the Bill. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. White), I am delighted that our hon. Friend the Minister will review the Bill, and I look forward to its steady progress to the statute book.