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Mrs. Gorman: The tea bag tax?

Mr. Cotter: Yes. I shall outline the rough details. If we give tea to our employees, as we all tend to do in life, on a regular basis over a period of years, the tax people can suddenly arrive and ask, "Have you been giving Jack, who works on the lathe, tea for the past 15 or 20 years?" They scribble away and work out what it amounts to. Multiplied by another 20, 30 or 40 employees, that can make quite a bill. Were the tax people to go back 20 years and demand that the resulting bill be paid, that could bankrupt the employer. We want to avoid such nonsense.

Mrs. Gorman: I thank the hon. Gentleman once more. Does he recall the days when VAT was introduced? VAT inspectors went into Chinese restaurants and counted the grains of rice in a portion, to discover whether the restaurant owners were putting in enough tax returns to cover the amount of VAT that they should have charged on portions of rice?

Mr. Cotter: That sounds ridiculous. I suppose that counting grains of rice is slightly better than counting grains of sand, as the former are slightly bigger and easier to identify, but both activities seem ridiculous. It is difficult to believe that that happened, but the hon. Lady told us about it and I accept her remarks.

Mr. Steen: Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the circumstances that affected a small businesses man in my constituency who ran a successful oyster farm? Every so often, he changed the water in which he kept his oysters, but he did not do so too frequently, as it was recirculated. However, the local enforcement officer said, "Look here. We cannot possibly have you circulating the water. You must go to Paignton, pick up sea water, bring it back and keep the oysters in it." That was the requirement, even though the sea water was dirtier than the recirculated water that had previously been used. As a result, the oyster business was closed down. The business man made it clear that he took that decision because he had to use

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dirtier water. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that such craziness arises because of the introduction and enforcement of too many regulations?

Mr. Cotter: I certainly agree. The hon. Gentleman gives an example of such craziness. If the oysters could speak for themselves, they would say "We are happy with this water." Unfortunately, they cannot do that, so we must try to argue their case, although we are rather too late in respect of the oysters in question, which have been drowned or destroyed in inappropriate water. If I had an oyster farm in my constituency, I, too, would follow up such concerns. I shall keep a beady eye on the matter and I am grateful to him for raising it.

I shall now draw my remarks to a close, probably to groans of delight. I have tried to make some key points, the most important of which is that Parliament should try not to introduce regulation and should seek to reduce it when it has done so. I urge the House and the Government to do all that they can to achieve those aims.

8.30 pm

Mr. Ian Stewart (Eccles): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Cotter), who is a nice man and has a calm manner, although his statements are not always completely sensible.

As a member of the Select Committee on Deregulation, I appreciate that the current processes for introducing regulation can appear cumbersome, but I agree with the comments of my hon. Friends the Members for Burnley (Mr. Pike) and for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. White). I support the Deregulation Committee's report and the broad thrust of the Bill. I appreciate that it will have a particular impact on small businesses, which are an important engine of economic development nationwide, as well as in Eccles.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown) said that the Bill would enable regulatory regimes to be reformed using tried and tested parliamentary procedure. He said that it would result in clearer and better-targeted legislation, and foster a climate that encourages thriving business but provides proper protection for people at work, consumers and the environment. I agree with that view. My hon. Friend the Member for Burnley implied that more pressure should be exerted on Ministers to survey the work of their Departments and actively seek areas that could be deregulated. I believe that a more proactive approach would be welcome.

However, I am perhaps a bit more radical than some of my colleagues. I argue that the parliamentary system has a weakness that should be addressed with regard to regulation. I believe that there is a stronger argument for a better regulation committee than for the need to deregulate, important though that is. I would like the Government to consider establishing an inspectorate with responsibility not only for encouraging and overseeing regulation, but for identifying the need for deregulation when companies and organisations face unnecessary burdens.

Mr. White: Does my hon. Friend accept that although there are good reasons for regulations when they are introduced, they often cease to have effect over time and should therefore be reviewed regularly?

Mr. Stewart: I am a strong advocate of regulation and its continuing review. My hon. Friend is correct.

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When I intervened on the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) earlier, he said that there was a need for balance. I shall therefore present some other information in the interests of balance.

I want to comment on what is sometimes contemptuously dismissed as red tape. I am proud of the Government because they have introduced the minimum wage and extended employment rights. Hon. Members know my background and would expect me to be interested in such matters. I am worried about some Conservative Members' comments because they display a lack of balance. It is proper to look to employers' interests to ensure that we maximise productivity. However, striking a balance means that we also have to consider employees' interests, especially their health and safety. In this modern age, we must also surely consider family- friendly policies.

We have given equal rights to part-time workers, most of whom are women, and an entitlement to four weeks' paid holiday a year. There was no such entitlement in this country until this Government introduced it earlier in the Parliament. That is significant, but some would say that it was modest.

My first Adjournment debate was on occupational health and safety. I argued for the introduction of roving health and safety representatives so that all companies could benefit from the acknowledged expertise of trade union health and safety representatives. Some people argue that there is constant disagreement between employers, workers and their trade unions. That is a fallacy. There is a healthy recognition among most progressive employers of the fact that the trade union movement has developed strong expertise in health and safety in recent years.

I understand that the Health and Safety Executive is to pilot a scheme such as the one that I suggested. That will spread good practice and improve workplace safety. I get angry when people speak of health and safety as a burden on industry. Safety must always be a priority; safety regulation is an example of good regulation, which is good for business.

Improved employment rights are not red tape but the embodiment of our commitment to social justice and to ensuring that workers have rights that are appropriate to the workplace in the 21st century. We have some way to go in the United Kingdom before our employees enjoy the same protection as other European workers. A 1999 survey found that we had the longest working hours in Europe. In Belgium, the average working week was 38.4 hours; in Germany, it was 40.1 hours, which was less than the European Union average of 40.4 hours. In the UK, the average working week was 43.6 hours.

For many years, we have had a worsening problem of long hours. In 1984, 2.8 million people worked a week of more than 48 hours; in 1998, that figure had risen to 4 million--a 40 per cent. increase. The UK is the only European Union country to allow an opt-out from the 48-hour limit. Consequently, in spring 2000, 3 million employees were working more than 48 hours. However, that figure is 25 per cent. lower than that for 1998.

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Mr. Richard Page (South-West Hertfordshire): Will the hon. Gentleman give the House any productivity comparisons with other European countries?

Mr. Stewart: I shall mention productivity later in my speech.

We have heard reports recently about growing levels of stress at work, and the effect that that has on what we now know as the work-home balance. A TUC survey of trade union safety representatives found that 66 per cent. cited stress as the main hazard at work, and said it affects all types of workers. Some workers feel badly managed; some managers are too overworked to manage properly. Regulation of working hours and conditions has a role to play: it can be beneficial and, at the same time, aid production and development.

In support of my argument I draw attention to the remarks of someone who is neither a known suspect nor a renowned proponent of trade union rights--Mr. Adair Turner, the former general secretary of the CBI. In The Times on 16 March 2001, he said:

As we know, the latest figures show that unemployment has dropped below 1 million for the first time since December 1975. In my region, the north-west, the number of people in employment has grown by 29,000 over the past year. Since the spring of 1997, employment growth has been 106,000. Last month alone, 28,600 new vacancies were notified to jobcentres in the region.

We must remind ourselves that we are discussing appropriate and relevant regulation. Labour Members are strongly against burdensome and unnecessary regulation, but one person's red tape is another person's protection. We need appropriate and relevant regulation. I support this important Bill and I shall vote against the amendment.

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