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8.12 pm

Mr. Brian Cotter (Weston-super-Mare): I am pleased to speak in this debate. First, I must declare an interest as I have a small business; naturally, I have an interest in introducing things that will reduce the burdens on us.

As other members of the Select Committee on Deregulation would accept, we must take a great step in reducing regulation in this country. As a Committee member, I am not alone in saying that we do not feel that we have a sufficiently effective remit. The Bill, or a similar measure, is certainly required to tackle the issue.

Mr. Bercow: I look forward with eager anticipation to the hon. Gentleman developing his argument. At the outset, will he give me his assessment of the Cabinet Minister's speech?

Mr. Cotter: I have not made any particular assessment and do not wish to be drawn into anything, but if the hon. Gentleman wants me to make an assessment I shall happily assess the speech of the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), who carried on at excessive length in a dying speech. Presumably, with the election coming, he was trying to mark the Conservative party's cards regarding the reduction of red tape, even though it is very much responsible for it. As I pointed out, Conservative Members were notable by their absence from the Deregulation Committee, which at least tried to address the issues.

Unlike other hon. Members who spoke, some of whom waxed on, I do not wish to speak for long.

Mr. Steen: As a fellow member of the Deregulation Committee, it is only fair to say that one regulation alone has been made this year, and one was made last year. Members who have other things to do cannot be expected to hang around on a Committee that does not do anything.

Mr. Cotter: I would have expected them to be there when we discussed the Bill, but they were notable by their absence.

I want to press on, as other Members wish to speak. I wish to concentrate on important points and to try to highlight where we must go. We must argue against

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having regulation in the first place. I welcome the Government's establishment of the Small Business Service, which, I hope, will go some way towards ensuring that we do not have unnecessary regulation and that businesses can have more input into the legislative process than they have had in the past. I continue to urge Ministers to ensure that the Small Business Service knits in and is effective. It is in its early days, but Conservative Members do not support the initiative. Indeed, their manifesto proposes cuts in the trade and industry budget, which helps to provide the representation that small businesses need.

A Bill has been introduced, but the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. White) talked about consultation with small business being a necessary precursor to ensuring that we do not have regulations that we are now trying to get rid of. I hope that consultation will take place through the Small Business Service and that business Bills will be given longer lead times, so that firms and organisations such as the Federation of Small Businesses, the Forum of Private Business and others can give their views before they are enacted.

I also support the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East on plain speaking. I know that he has been running with that issue; it is essential that we have clear regulation and plain speaking so that we can all understand what is being got at. That should be part of our general approach in Parliament. We should not pass regulations and Bills that we do not understand, but which we expect people in the outside community to understand. I therefore support the proposals made by the hon. Gentleman.

Following my intervention, the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike), who chairs the Deregulation Committee and was here for much of the debate, accepted that the Committee wanted the Government to introduce an annual review of the Bill--or a review at least one year after it was passed. Unfortunately, we did not manage to persuade the Government of that. However, the hon. Gentleman and other Committee members agree that we must have a way of assessing the Bill to see whether it makes improvements. The Committee has decided that it--and, we hope, the new Committee--would wish to undertake that, as parliamentary scrutiny is far more effective.

Apart from the Bill, any regulation that affects business should be examined by Parliament annually so that we can reassess it and assess the cost of regulation for business and industry, thereby doing the job properly on a rolling basis, year by year.

The Government, in their wisdom or otherwise, have resisted impact assessments of the Bill. Despite strong arguments from colleagues in the other place, the Government have said that they cannot accept the words "impact assessment" being attached to the Bill. Will the Minister explain what they propose to do instead?

During my time in Parliament, I have noticed when serving on Committees that an impact assessment of the Bill in question has not always been available at an early stage of our deliberations. Had such impact assessments been available to members of the Committee, many Bills, even over the past four years, would have been improved. I understand that the Cabinet Office is looking into the

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matter. Relevant and accurate impact assessments of Bills at the consultation stage and beyond would be beneficial in ensuring that we do not have the unnecessary regulation that sometimes burdens us.

Mrs. Gorman: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his unfailing courtesy in giving way. On impact assessment, does he agree that each new regulation creates a crime, and almost every regulation creates a penalty, which often includes imprisonment for failing to carry out that regulation? Is not that an important reason for us to assess what regulations will do to small firms, to say nothing of the massive bills that will have to be paid to solicitors for taking cases through tribunals and so on? Is not that an unseen part of the need for proper assessment of the cost of the legislation, before we adopt it?

Mr. Cotter: Indeed. The hon. Lady makes a worthwhile point. As a company director, I am well aware that while I am working in Parliament, I could be held responsible for events that were taking place elsewhere. I was encouraged by a statutory instrument the other day that will result in ACAS--the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service--being brought in more frequently to deal with issues arising from regulation, which can lead to tribunals being established and further burdens for business.

Mr. Lansley: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I want to be clear about what he is proposing. He and I served on the Standing Committee that considered the National Minimum Wage Bill, for which, he will recall, the regulatory impact assessments were exceedingly poor. It would have been far better if they had been more accurate in the initial stages, so that they would have illustrated many of the administrative problems to which the Opposition drew attention in Committee. We were subsequently shown to be right, and the Government had to change tack on many of those issues.

Is the hon. Gentleman proposing that regulatory impact assessments should be attached to the Bill itself, or that a regulatory impact assessment should be attached to each order made under the Bill?

Mr. Cotter: Certainly, each order should have a regulatory impact assessment. As I understand it, there is also an issue concerning the impact of the Bill itself. I await the Minister's comments on that.

The better regulation taskforce was established by the Government. The aspects that it examines are determined ad hoc, but it has nevertheless been a worthwhile venture. Hon. Members in all parts of the House will join me in commending the chairman of the better regulation taskforce, Chris Haskins, for his general approach. I hope that we can adopt such a no-nonsense approach in Parliament. For example, clause 3(1) states that the Minister making the order must be of the opinion that it does not remove any necessary protection. Too often, what is seen as necessary protection is not necessary at all.

Chris Haskins has promoted the idea of cutting through the cackle and getting to the basics. The hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown) referred to the approach of not adopting policies that do not suit small businesses. Such an approach is promoted by Chris Haskins.

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We need an imaginative approach that balances necessary health and safety requirements and what is practical and sensible. For example, there is an organisation dedicated to rolling back red tape for pubs. My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) spoke about the number of inspectors coming into businesses. Our party believes that the number of inspections should be cut.

In the case of pubs, there is a dichotomy between inspectors coming in for health and safety or security reasons, and heritage officials coming in if the public house is of historic interest. Recently, the owners of an old pub were asked by their insurance company to install security or safety devices, such as smoke alarms--I do not remember the details--yet the next week, the heritage people said that because the pub was hundreds of years old such work could not be carried out. We must bring common sense into regulation, in Parliament and elsewhere.

I am happy to say that while I have been in Parliament, and perhaps during the time of hon. Members who have been in this place longer than I have, the ridiculous tea bag tax has not been introduced.

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