Regulatory Reform Bill [Lords]

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Mr. White: Will the hon. Gentleman give an example of that happening in the Deregulation Committee, or in the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee— its equivalent in the House of Lords?

Mr. Page: It is interesting that those Committees refer to ``deregulation'', yet the Bill talks about ``regulation''. Over the past four years, we have seen what has been considered by members of the Deregulation Committee. It has had to tackle so few measures that that I am amazed that it had the opportunity to meet at all, let alone discuss anything with which it disagreed.

Mr. Ian Stewart (Eccles): How can the hon. Gentleman assert that they have ``seen'' what has been going on when Conservative members of the Deregulation Committee rarely turn up?

Mr. Page: I am not responsible for attendance at the Deregulation Committee, but I understand that the meetings are ineffectual and achieve very little, except for the ban on Sunday dancing.

The Chairman: Order. This is quite fascinating, but I am having difficulty relating what is being said to the amendment under discussion. Will the hon. Gentleman confine his remarks to the terms of the amendment?

Mr. Page: You are absolutely right, Mr. Cook. I apologise for rising to the bait of the Opposition Members. It is something that I am prone to do, so I look to you to protect me and stop them. I want to get on with this as I can see that you are giving me your piercing look again, Mr. Cook.

The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare referred to the measures going through the two Committees. I was making the point that however independent and virtuous the Committees may be, they could be subject to Executive pressure. Therefore, we need to ensure that the Bill provides checks and balances and that the ministerial aspect, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, can be checked.

Mr. Cotter: I thank the hon. Gentleman for emphasising that point. Concerns about the transitional nature of the procedures in the other place lie behind my amendment. We want to ensure that the other place will work properly when dealing with these matters in the future.

Mr. Page: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We shall not be opposing the two amendments because we are as one in our desire to ensure that the Committees in both Houses have the necessary checks and balances. As we go through the Bill, I hope that the Government will accept that the present control of the Executive may not stay that way for ever—within a month or two, there could be a dramatic change. We want the Bill to proceed. We do not want it to be used as a way of adding more regulations that may not be successful or desirable under the traditional methods of both Houses. We shall support the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare if he presses his amendment, but I hope that the Minister will accept it when he realises that there is extra support for the proposal.

Mr. Stringer: I shall deal first with the comments made by the hon. Members for South Dorset and for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page). The main thrust of their comments concerned the consultation procedure, whether anything could go wrong with the process and whether they should be worried about changing the procedures of the House. Later in our proceedings, we shall be discussing amendments, which deal with the consultation process and the protections that are built into the Bill. I hope that we can persuade hon. Members that the procedures are the same as those provided under the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994, known as ``super-affirmative'' procedures, which have worked well. There are extra protections in the process because the power provided by this Bill is wider than in previous legislation. That is all I want to say about the detail at present because we shall debate these issues later.

I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Mr. Stewart) that it would be instructive to look at the voting records of the two Committees to see whether there is historical evidence that they looked for party political advantage or took short cuts. I think that I am right in saying that neither of the two Committees has ever divided. Since the 1994 Act, they have worked on a basis of consensus. Indeed, the Government have disagreed at times, but have never forced the point; they have withdrawn and represented the deregulation orders in a different form.

Mr. White: Is it not the case that the Deregulation Committee took a position contrary to that of the Government on certain proposals in this Bill and that after much argument, the Government eventually acceded to some of the points being made?

Mr. Stringer: My hon. Friend is right. During the consultation process, the Committees made valuable comments, which the Government met. He is right, too, about the last but one order on Sunday dancing, which went backwards and forwards on a number of occasions.

Mr. Lansley: That gives us a happy picture. The Minister rightly stresses that we shall be considering the formal procedures for scrutiny of an order later in the Bill. Amendment No. 36 relates specifically to the relationship of the Select Committees in both Houses and the draft orders. Will the Minister reiterate undertakings that have been given previously by his noble Friends that the Government will not proceed with an order if it is the subject of an adverse motion by the relevant Committee in either House?

Mr. Stringer: I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman the commitment that, in the light of an adverse report, the Government will not proceed, but will reconsider the proposal. They would either withdraw it or represent a different order.

Before I turn to the bulk of the amendments, the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire mentioned the noble Lord Goodhart's comments on Second Reading, which led to the amendments that connect clause 1(1)(a) to any regulatory reform order; his comments bore fruit.

Turning to the amendment moved by the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare, it is fair—as opposed to an earlier comment—to say that the two amendments are related. Amendment No. 36 is an enabling amendment that would allow the Bill to make sense if amendment No. 35 were accepted. The important part of amendment No. 35 states:

    ``the order is consistent with one or more of the objects set out in subsection 1(a) to (d).''

I am not a lawyer, but I understand what he is driving at—he is looking for extra safeguards. However, in non-legal language that is tautological. He is arguing that we must write into the Bill that its objects must be followed, but its objects have already been stated. Writing the objects of the Bill twice would be repetitious and unnecessary. Consider the opposite case: if a Minister were to present a regulatory reform order or the Committees were to agree a regulatory reform order that was not in line with the objectives, in legal language it would be ultra vires, so it could not happen. In that sense, I understand the hon. Gentleman's motive, but his amendment adds nothing to the Bill. He is arguing that the law should be the law and that it should therefore be enforced.

I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to clause 6(2)(b), which describes the document that must be laid before Parliament. It does not say that the document's objects must be the objects of the Bill, but they clearly will be because that will be the law. However, it does say how the proposals further the objects mentioned in clause 1(1)(a), which, of course, every regulatory reform order must contain.

Mr. Lansley: I apologise for delaying the Minister. He is being slightly harsh on the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare since the amendment's purpose is not only to state that the law must be the law and that if an order is brought forward it must be compliant with the objects of the Bill. That is, to a degree, a matter of opinion and I am sure that the Minister is aware of the extent to which paragraphs 3(2)(a) and (b) make it clear that there is a degree of opinion in the extent to which an order meets the objects set out in paragraphs 1(1)(a) to (d). The amendment would allow persons other than the Minister, such as members of Select Committees, to have an opinion about that central issue.

There is nothing to stop Select Committees having an opinion. Indeed, I suspect that when they come to examine orders they will carefully consider whether they are compliant with the objectives of clause 1. The question, however, is whether we should rest on Ministers' undertakings that they will not proceed if there is an adverse report, or whether we should write in the Bill that the Deregulation Committee can stop the order proceeding by failing to give a report to that effect.

Mr. Stringer: I was not intending to be mean to the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare. By the end of these proceedings I hope to have persuaded everybody that this is a good Bill, and that we are all rowing in the same direction. There is no party political division over the objectives.

In reference to the points made by the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire, there are subjective tests within the Bill. Later amendments, which will probably be discussed at length, also relate to that.

11.15 am

The Bill's objectives are clear. The amendment is redundant because it simply states that those objectives should be met. I hope that the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare will be persuaded of that argument. Of course, the Committees will have to be persuaded that the regulatory reform orders are in order.

Mr. Ian Stewart: The amendment is not necessary because of the strict criteria to which the existing Committee works. There is a rigorous consultative process, and the Committee also makes sure that the correct balance is achieved between the removal of burdens and the need to ensure that there is no detriment to any party. That balancing effect is a key part of the Committee's work.

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