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I regard this as the latest step in a process originally started by my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) when he considered regulation and deregulation. I hope that nobody will ask me why we put into the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994 a limit so that only legislation before 1994 could be considered, because I do not know.
The measure before us is a departure from the traditional process. It is exceptionally important to ensure that it is not and cannot be abused; otherwise we could create many difficulties for ourselves in the future.
I thank the Minister for his explanation--particularly for expounding how the process will operate, the importance and fullness of the consultation document and the way in which it will be adequately filled in by all the interested parties. That is most important. However, I am slightly worried about one or two aspects. The Standing Orders will provide estimates of the costs and savings attached to the new regulations. There must be independence when those costs and savings are calculated. There has been a strong feeling in the past in my party, if not throughout the House, that civil service officials may not have calculated the cost of implementing regulations fully and accurately enough. We want accurate figures that are accepted by the industries involved. Some organisations representing smaller businesses are talking about an extra £10 billion in the cost of implementing regulations.
I welcome the Minister's repetition of the Government's commitment that, if the Committee decides to reject a particular order, the measure will not proceed to the House for a vote. That is an important democratic commitment, which should be welcomed.
The Committee will have much greater responsibility than it had in the past. I heard the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) defend what has happened and defend the criticisms of my right hon. and hon. Friends. I understand why Conservative Members are not that keen to turn up at a Committee that is dealing with, for example, dancing on Sundays. I do not think that such an issue catches the popular mood or the interest of every Member of the House.
The issues that will come before the Committee are vital to the reduction of regulatory burdens, and I would like to think that a high quality of Member will serve on it. Their input will be important, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) alluded to that point.
Resources are another aspect of the issue. When, subject to the leave of the House, the Minister winds up, I hope that he will touch on the issue of the provision of resources. I am glad that the Committee will retain the ability to have independent advisers, because it will deal with a variety of subjects. It is not like the Select Committees on Home Affairs, Health or Trade and Industry; it will deal with regulations that cover the whole gamut of government. It will therefore need to be able to draw on the help of independent advisers.
Although I would like to express unadulterated praise for the proposal, one or two issues give rise to criticism. The aficionados who have followed this issue are well aware of the substance and shape of the changes that are being made to the Standing Orders. However, the fact that
The provision relating to plain English is to be welcomed. I noticed how the Minister tried to weasel himself out of his previous comments by referring to his distaste for superficial simplicity. We are looking not for superficial simplicity, but for plain English that can be understood. That was why we tabled amendments to the Regulatory Reform Act 2001 and are glad that such suggestions are now being adopted in the Standing Orders. Legislation does not have to be in archaic legal language to have the clarity that he mentioned. We can achieve that aim without using the legalese that no one except lawyers understands. Provisions often appear in seven or eight paragraphs when one or two would be sufficient.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire made several comments on the issue of proportionality, and I hope that the Minister will respond to them. When the Regulatory Reform Act was being considered by both Houses and in Committee, we drew attention to the unsatisfactory nature of the test of proportionality, as set out in sections 1 and 3. The Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994 allowed burdens to be imposed only when they were less onerous, but that is not the case now. More onerous burdens can be imposed, which shows the importance of the Committee's members not being lobby fodder for any particular party. They must be independent and consider the issues so that regulations are not approved if they would, on balance, disadvantage the whole cause of deregulation.
I shall finish as I started. Conservative Members want the Regulatory Reform Act 2001 to work and we want the burdens on our people to be reduced. We will do everything that we can to make sure that it works in the most effective and beneficial fashion.
The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) asked several direct questions. Some of them were hypothetical, but others were not. His first question was whether the Government would give a commitment to accept any amendment that the Committee agreed should be incorporated in the new regulatory reform order. I clearly cannot give such a commitment; it was a hypothetical question. The answer depends on the nature of the amendment proposed. However, the Government have given a commitment that when the majority of the Committee disagrees with the Government's regulatory reform order, it can, in effect, kill the order. Given the consensual way in which the Government and the Committee have operated, it is much more likely that they would discuss any disagreement with a view to resolving the issues that divide them.
Thirdly, the hon. Gentleman asked whether the Government would agree not to proceed with an order if there had been a Division in Committee. The Government would not agree not to proceed on that basis because it does not necessarily relate to the definition of controversy that we used when we said that we would not take large and controversial matters through this process. A Division would show that a majority in the Committee were in favour of the order, and the procedures allow for a debate of an hour and a half on the Floor of the House in such circumstances. As my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) explained, that procedure has been used on one occasion in the past.
Mr. Page: The Minister must realise that such a procedure could be used on a party political basis to drive forward changes to legislation that may not be in the general interest or to which a certain section may not agree. To my knowledge, the Public Accounts Committee has operated for the past 10 or 15 years without ever holding a Division. It proceeds with a recommendation only when there is consensus. That is the approach and thinking that we want in this Committee. Everything that it sends to the House should have a consensus. Once it is subject to a Division, the purpose and reasoning behind the Deregulation Committee will be finished.
Mr. Stringer: I accept the spirit of the hon. Gentleman's comments, but if one Member divides the Committee, it will not be sensible for the Government to decide not to test its decision for an hour and a half on the Floor of the House. I am happy to repeat that the Committee and the Government have used deregulation orders on a consensual basis, and that we intend to use regulatory reform orders in the same way. We will not introduce large and politically controversial measures as part of the regulatory reform order process.
Mr. Pike: I can assure my hon. Friend that the absence of Conservative Members from Committee proceedings concerns me for exactly that reason: I never wanted it to take a decision with only Labour and Liberal Members present.
While accepting that it is the Committee's role to consider the simple and plain use of English without detracting from the accuracy of legislation, the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire asked whether it would be part of its remit to consider the simplification of regulation. In one sense, that does not need to be in its terms of reference. The core reason for the Regulatory Reform Act 2001 was to enable the Government to introduce regulatory reform orders to consolidate many aspects of legislation, such as fire regulations, which were discussed at length in Standing Committee. In that way, all