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The desirability test--a new test--was inserted into the Bill as a result of an amendment in the Lords. In the case of the imposition of a new or increased burden, the Minister must be of the opinion that it is desirable to make the order, because it either removes or reduces a burden elsewhere, or has other benefits for those currently affected by the burden. Those five tests must be instilled into the minds of every member of the Committee, and they must work out whether they should allow the amendment regulation measure to go forward.
Conservatives Members would like to make it clear to Departments that new measures should be extended or introduced only if old measures are repealed. There would be a balance, so that each time a new or extended measure is introduced, we would get rid of another one. That is an interesting approach to regulation.
The problem is that, if one uses any one of three words, one can get away with any rule or regulation. If one puts up one's hand and says "hygiene", people immediately say, "Let's have a new regulation." However, things have got so clean in Britain that, if one goes abroad, one gets ill. The immune system of many people in this
Let us take the example of water. Water in the south-west is so pure that people going to other parts of Europe get ill because the water there is not as pure. We have gone completely haywire about hygiene. People in shops now wear plastic or cellophane gloves, but I am told that there are more germs on those gloves after half an hour than there are on the human hand.
The hygiene laws have caused more and more people extra expense, but one would have thought that there would be fewer incidents of food poisoning as a result. In fact, there are more incidents--the cleaner we become, the more ill the majority of people get. It does not follow that introducing more hygiene rules and regulations leads to a healthier and happier society.
Another buzzword is "security". As soon as one uses the word "security", one can pass any new rule or regulation. In addition to "hygiene" and "security", there is the term "safety". Everyone will say that we must introduce a new regulation to make something safe. Therefore, the Bill will extend and not reduce rules and regulations. They may be better, but a raft of extensions to existing rules will be introduced.
A second aspect of the Bill worries me even more. It is about a European style civil service approach to appeal. I tabled an amendment to the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill with my colleague who was the Member for Scarborough at that time. When there is a disagreement between local officials and a local business, my amendment would have meant that the matter could have gone to a local magistrates court by way of appeal. The court would have been able to decide at a local level who was right or wrong and assess whether the correct interpretation had been made.
As I understand it, the new power in the Bill relates to the concordat that no one has mentioned even though we have been debating the issue for six hours. However, the second aspect of the Bill is all about the concordat. No one knows what it is, but what was a voluntary concordat has now become enshrined in the Bill. That means that if a local business man is not happy with the rules and regulations that have been applied by a local authority to his business, he will be able to appeal to the Minister.
When the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office winds up, it would be useful if he could tell us how a local business that is unhappy with a local authority's enforcement could contact the Minister. Will the Minister now become judge and jury, and is that against the provisions of the European Court of Human Rights? Under the Bill, a local person can appeal to the Minister for an interpretation of an Act of Parliament that has been passed through this Chamber. That is a curious new development. No one quite understands the concordat. It was a voluntary agreement, but it is now a statutory requirement. The Minister should deal with that important issue.
Although I have not spoken for 35 minutes like some hon. Members--good though those contributions were--I hope that I have encapsulated the essential, pithy parts of the Bill in 10 minutes. I hope that the House will find that a help.
Mr. Richard Page (South-West Hertfordshire): I apologise to the House, in particular to my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), for not being here throughout his contribution. I had to go to a meeting of the Committee of Selection in Committee Room 12 to deal with one of the 15 or so statutory instruments that were introduced today. I can see 14 or 15 more on the Table waiting to find their way on to the statute book and to burden our businesses.
The Bill reflects the Government's schizophrenia. The Minister for the Cabinet Office said how marvellously well the small business sector was doing, how well everything was running and what a fantastic job the better regulation taskforce was doing. She gradually slipped into arguing that the Bill was needed because the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994 was not strong enough, completely forgetting why the Labour party voted against it. When the roles were reversed and I was Minister with responsibility for small business, I faced the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), who was the shadow Minister. She was a powerful advocate and berated us about regulations. She hammered into us and said, "Under a new Labour Government, when we sweep to power, it will be different." She was right on both counts. I was foolish enough to think that she was going to do something about regulation. I was wrong.
There has been much talk about regulations. All I can say is that their number has risen remorselessly under this Government. I hope that the House will accept Library figures. When the Conservatives departed from office in 1997, there were 3,114 regulations. In 1999, there was a record figure of 3,694--up 15 per cent. Provisional figures for 2000 show that the Government have broken the record with 3,863 regulations. That is a huge increase, yet the Government lecture us on what should be done.
In the past four years, regulations have swamped small businesses. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) explained that under the previous Government, the 1994 Act dealt with 37 measures in a couple of years. Only 11 or so have been tackled in the past four years. There is a delicious irony. The most recent deregulatory measure--the Deregulation (Sunday Dancing) Order 2000--was produced at the same time as the Bill was introduced in the other place. The Government's major achievement in four years is the deregulation of Sunday dancing. I do not know whether you are a closet Sunday dancer, Mr. Speaker, and go to tea dances, but you can now do so without fear of the long arm of the law feeling your collar and taking you away for committing a crime. That is the Government's triumph, and it reflects their conviction.
Mr. Page: I bow to the hon. Gentleman's acknowledged expertise on Sunday dancing and I do not challenge his ability to deregulate it. When he leaves the Chamber tonight, he may do so surrounded by the warm glow of knowing that that has been his contribution to the House of Commons in the past four years.
If the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994 was not strong enough despite containing the necessary powers, what was there to stop the Government working in tandem with the Deregulation Committee to ensure that if the Committee wanted to remove one regulation or more, the Whitehall sausage machine--the red tape production factory--could not produce another regulation to replace it? About 100,000 regulations have been laid on our businesses in the past 50 years.
The Bill represents only one half of the solution to the problem. The system is a job-creation project: one part of a Department churns out and gold-plates regulations; then, two years later, after everyone has forgotten who produced the regulations and who was responsible for then, the officials use the Bill's powers to reform, repeal or recast a new set of regulations. The truth is that the Bill does nothing to stop the sausage machine of Whitehall. Even if it works--I have my doubts about whether it will--no one in Whitehall will tackle the red tape tangle. There is nothing to stop Departments from pushing out record numbers of regulations every year.
I endorse the recommendation made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire. We need an independent commission to examine all new regulations, independently assess their cost and, if necessary, say no. Then, the statutory instrument concerned could be debated by Parliament with full knowledge of the commission's serious doubts about it. That is what the Conservative party wants and the policy will appear in its manifesto.
The Minister for the Cabinet Office gave the game away when she mentioned nil compliance costs--a balance. Surely, the purpose of the Bill is to reduce burdens on business, not merely to hold the overall burden at the same level. She is supported by the explanatory notes to the Bill issued by the Cabinet Office, which set out the balance between reducing and removing burdens far more fairly than I can. Paragraph 51, which refers to clause 1(3), states:
In plain English, rather than the language of Sir Humphrey, the main order-making power in the Bill permits an increase in the regulatory burden; unlike the 1994 Act, it does not require a reduction. All Ministers' rhetoric about new Labour's commitment to reduce the impact of regulations on activities of all sorts in the UK is at wide variance with that permissive power. It will come as no surprise to Labour Members to learn that the Conservatives will seek to amend that extraordinary latitude allowed to Ministers when the Bill is in Standing Committee. I am well aware that clause 1(1) insists on the test of proportionality--on which my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) waxed lyrical--if an existing provision is re-enacted,
"is proportionate to the benefit which is expected to result from its creation".
The fact is that the Bill was improved in the other place by the Opposition coming together and drafting amendments. In its original form, it could have meant added burdens, without the dropping of old ones. The amendments altered that and, fortunately, the Government have taken them on board. The amended clause 1(1)(c) means that a new regulation cannot come into force without an old one going.
Again, I can see the stealthy hand of officialdom at work in the estimation of costs. There has been some improvement to the original Bill, but the announcement of cost estimation comes too late in the process; it is in the remit of officials, rather than of people in the real world as it is in our manifesto commitment. We would ask a commission, made up of independent business men and women and staffed by non-officials, to judge the costs of a Bill.
However, it seems that, after public consultation, estimates of costs will appear. That is far too late in the process. The estimates should be up front and part of the consultation process. How can one consult with the public and say, "By the way, we will let you know the cost later"? I am afraid that the Bill has been introduced without consideration; it does not take our Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994 and make it work. The Act was not supported, and we must ask ourselves whether the Bill will be.
In a powerful and penetrating speech, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) said forcefully that the Bill was a cynical measure that was being introduced just before a general election to head off the howls of complaint from business men and women who have had to deal with burdens imposed by the Government. My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire referred to all those burdens and their effect on our business men. In government, I was berated by the Labour spokesman, who said that the Labour party would do something about regulation; it would cut it and make things better. However, in four years, the Government have dealt with 11 deregulations and, at the same time, rammed though a 15 per cent. increase on the previous highest level of regulation. I am afraid that it is a case of once bitten, twice shy. I shall ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote for the Conservative amendment.