Regulatory Reform Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Stringer: It means the Welsh Assembly.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 5

Preliminary consultation

Mr. Page: I beg to move amendment No. 16, in page 4, line 40, leave out

    `appear to him to be'

and insert `are'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 17, in page 4, line 43, leave out

    `appear to him to be'

and insert `are'.

No. 20, in page 5, line 3, at end insert


    (h) publish an invitation to other bodies to make submissions.'.

Mr. Page: The amendments are all of a piece. Clause 5 allows Ministers wide discretion in the preliminary stages of the consultation process. The amendments make the consultation procedures more specific. Amendment No. 16 requires a consultation of organisations that have interests substantially affected by proposals. Amendment No. 17 refers to statutory bodies that might be affected, and amendment No. 20 refers to the consultation of other persons, as appropriate.

As currently drafted, clause 5 gives the Minister control in each case, as it appears to him. I find that a shade arrogant. The amendments are part of a pattern: the determination of Opposition Members to loosen the tight grip of the Executive's fingers from around the throat of regulation. Controls should not be placed back into the hands of the Executive. The purpose of the Bill is to ensure that there is regulatory reform, not to tell the people who created the regulation in the first place that they can still control the process.

There must be a letting-go and an opening-up. I therefore ask the Committee to look at the reality. What is actually going to happen when this part of the process takes place? Who will put forward the names of the various individuals and bodies that are to be asked for their views? It will be Department officials. Who created the regulations that will be scrutinised in the first place? It will be those same officials. I appeal for a more democratic approach to the consultation process.

5.45 pm

If the Minister is minded to accept amendment No. 20, I suggest that he considers whether he and the Government will be protected against challenges from bodies that he may have decided not to consult. They may have been missed from the list; civil servants and officials may not have wanted the Minister to draw them forward for their views. If he were to accept the amendment, will he and the Government be free of any challenges from those bodies that had not been drawn forward?

I find it slightly disappointing that the Government are using their massive majority every time to sweep aside any amendments that are tabled. We are trying to improve the Bill. Our amendments were tabled not for party political gain or to promote dogma, but to try to reduce the burdens on the poor, struggling people—

Mrs. Helen Brinton (Peterborough): I feel that the hon. Gentleman has made a facetious and erroneous point about the conduct of Government Members. This is the seventh Standing Committee on which I have served since the beginning of this Parliament. Ministers have often been prepared to consider sensible points made by Opposition Members, and have sometimes even accepted amendments. For all I know, my hon. Friend the Minister may be prepared to do likewise.

Mr. Page: The hon. Lady brings a touching innocence to the Committee, which I find refreshing. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire said, sotto voce, ``Don't hold your breath for the acceptance of any amendments.''

The amendments aim to create a better balance and to give people the freedom to bring forward views and make representations. At the moment, those people will be restricted to lists that appear to the Minister to be representative of the various bodies that are affected by the proposals. Those lists were produced by the officials who were responsible for the problems of regulatory burdens in the first place and are the reason why the whole matter is being considered.

Can the Minister give me two assurances? First, especially in respect of individual representatives, are the Government leaving themselves open to challenges under human rights legislation by anyone who feels that they are being denied an opportunity because the Minister is not minded to include them on the list? Secondly, is an organisation or body that has not managed to catch the ministerial eye so as to get on the list able to mount a legal challenge in order to do so, or will it be frozen out for ever?

The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mrs. Brinton) has given the Minister a lead-in to show that he can be flexible in terms of accepting amendments, and I look forward to his reply.

Mr. Stringer: Again, we are dealing with a well-established process—the super-affirmative process. The wording is taken directly from the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act, which was supported by the previous Conservative Government. All parties in both places have found that the Act works when it comes to consultation. The hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire is mistaken when he says that the Government are using their majority to force legislation through; we are doing exactly the opposite.

The super-affirmative process works by consensus because the Committees give unanimous reports. Is there a problem concerning consultation? No there is not, because a Minister will say, ``I shall consult those bodies that I believe to be affected or representative in this case.'' Can a Minister be 100 per cent. certain that he or she is right? No he cannot, because no Minister will have absolute knowledge. However, there are two safeguards against that. First, a Minister leaves the Room and a Committee questions whether he or she has been reasonable in his or her consultation. It considers whether other people have relevant views or would be affected by the proposals, in which case such extra people can be consulted. Secondly, the Cabinet Office publishes the regulatory reform orders on its website, as does the Department sponsoring the regulatory reform order. There is openness in the process. Even someone who is not thought to be representative or to have a relevant view can participate.

Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East): Is my hon. Friend aware that this morning's Select Committee on Deregulation, which was considering an existing order, took the view that there was insufficient consultation on the restaurants licensing order and has decided that other people need to be consulted? That gives the lie to the Opposition's argument that there is insufficient consultation. The system has built-in safeguards.

Mr. Stringer: I thank my hon. Friend. I did not know that, but his example beautifully makes the point that safeguards are built-in by openness on the website and two Committees considering whether a Minister has consulted well enough. That is a better process than pretending that a Minister could know everything about whether a body was representative or not; it is impossible to have that knowledge. That returns us to the question of whether we pass power from Parliament and to the courts if we replace subjective tests with objective tests.

Mr. Ian Stewart (Eccles): My hon. Friend rightly rejects the argument of the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire. The Select Committee on Deregulation has the most rigorous consultative programme of any statutory body of which I am aware. The consultative programme is excellent and has been seen as the model for good practice in other areas of government. If Opposition Members of the Deregulation Committee had turned up, they would have been able to explain that to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Stringer: I will finish—

Mr. Lansley: Before the Minister finishes, does he agree that discussing consultation processes that occur in Parliament does not answer the question with regard to preliminary consultation under clause 5? If he is content with what is proposed, which is the same as the provision in the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act, that will be one argument. However, will the Minister go further, consider amendment No. 20 and suggest whether the publication of orders on the Cabinet Office and departmental websites meets the need to publish an invitation for submissions in the preliminary consultation, as opposed to giving an opportunity to those affected to influence parliamentary consideration?

Mr. Stringer: I understand the hon. Gentleman's argument. The Government are always trying to improve the flow of information and the consultation process. Putting regulatory reform orders on websites is a new innovation and allows people to participate in the initial consultation. The consultation information explains the super-affirmative process. Later, if people want to write to the Committee and to be consulted by it, they can influence the parliamentary process and have their views taken into account. The process is well tested and getting better, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Ian Stewart: If it appears that some Labour Members are becoming exasperated, it is because we understand the rigorous nature of the processes of the Deregulation Committee, which will continue. The Committee has even called outside organisations to give evidence during the consultative process. The powers already exist and will continue.

Mr. Stringer: I thank my hon. Friend for that information and hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): One of my worries, which the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire would help to alleviate, is that under clause 5 the Minister will talk to people who are merely representative of interests. Companies or individuals who represent only themselves might not be invited by the Minister to send in representations. One often hears representations from a group on certain interests and then one person sends in a letter which wipes out the other representations. Does the Minister agree that asking individuals to send in representations would be better?

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