Regulatory Reform Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Stringer: That is covered by subsection (1)(e), which states that the Minister will

    ``consult such other persons as he considers appropriate.''

That meets the hon. Gentleman's point.

Mr. Page: Before I comment specifically on the Minister's response, I want to draw the Committee's attention to the fact that, although the comments of the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Stewart) were pleasing and helpful, he referred to the process when it has travelled on a little and not when the Minister is constructing the order to bring before the Committee. That is what we want to deal with.

Phraseology such as ``the Minister considers'' does not show a broad spread of democracy, nor does asking someone to respond to a website. The Minister has given us no idea of the process for considering comments, which is one reason why we want to open up the process. However, he is adamant and is maintaining a position contrary to the hopes and expectations of the hon. Member for Peterborough. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Cotter: I beg to move amendment No. 31, in line 41, at end insert

    `allowing such organisations a minimum of 12 weeks to respond.'

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 19, in page 5, line 3, at end insert


    (g) allow a minimum of eight weeks for the consultation described in sub-paragraphs (a), (b), (c), (d) and (e) above.'.

No. 32, in clause 6, page 6, line 3, at end insert—

    `(ja) the manner and timetable of any such consultation.'.

Mr. Cotter: The amendment would ensure that the consultation period lasts a minimum of 12 weeks. It would be wise to put that on a statutory footing, because it is widely felt that businesses do not receive sufficient consultation on regulation. For example, I refer the Minister to a survey for 2000 by NatWest bank of more than 5,000 employers and personnel officers. More than 68 per cent. of respondents believed that the Government had not given adequate time for businesses to respond during public consultation. Many small firms cited the haste with which legislation had been pushed through the consultation period as the main reason for their inability to implement parts of it.

Mr. White: Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the point that was made to the Deregulation Committee when it took evidence on the Bill that, even if the consultation period were substantially extended, there would be some businesses for which that period would not be long enough?

Mr. Cotter: I accept that point, which is well made. However, we must agree to some reasonable period of time, and I think that 12 weeks would be reasonable. According to the Better Regulation Task Force, the views of small business are insufficiently taken into account by policy makers. The Minister would be the first to acknowledge that that task force is a powerful organisation that we should listen to, and it also said:

    ``there is concern about inadequate consultation with small firms about the detailed arrangements for implementation and enforcement.''

Those examples show that there is great concern that many measures are pushed through without adequate consultation. I have encountered that concern frequently at different times during my time in Parliament, and it is necessary to highlight that point strongly because the amendment would be particularly beneficial to small businesses that do not have in-house experts to consider legislation on their behalf. It would also ensure an adequate period to formalise any response that they might want to make. It is self-evident that a longer consultation period would also mean that responses would come from a wider cross-section of organisations, thus representing a variety of different views. That would surely result in better legislation.

A minimum period of consultation would mean that legislation and regulations would be properly examined by the many external organisations on which they would impact. Once again, there would be less opportunity for a Minister to try to slip through legislation that went against the spirit of an Act—although I am sure that this Minister would not do that. In view of the comments of the Better Regulation Task Force, he will agree that consultation is extremely important. Although we cannot conduct consultation indefinitely, setting the figure at 12 weeks would provide a reasonable balance between carrying on ad nauseam and giving small businesses enough time to know what is coming down the line and to influence and respond to the policy, which is what consultation is all about. I hope that the Minister will consider the point seriously and I look forward to hearing his response.

Mr. Lansley: I am grateful for the opportunity briefly to say a word about amendment No. 31. Amendment No. 19, which is grouped with it, takes a slightly different view. I would not dissent from what the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare said about the desirability of consultation and the necessity of providing sufficient scope for it. I would certainly hope that Ministers and Departments would allow sufficient time for consultation. My recollection is that it is standard practice to allow 12 weeks for substantive responses to consultation. However, we are dealing with a slightly different process and with preliminary consultation rather than a formal process.

The purpose of the amendments is to specify not the standard time for consultation, which is often done in relation to regulations made under other enactments, but a minimum period for consultation. We sought to set a lower minimum period in amendment No. 19, simply because we are dealing with a period of preliminary consultation which will normally be consultation with, as the clause provides, bodies representative of interests or statutory bodies affected which are often much better geared to consultation. The substantive consultation that would follow and would involve the Deregulation Committee, might draw in interests or persons who rarely have contact with Government Departments and who could not reasonably be expected to be aware of the prospect of such legislation coming forward.

At the preliminary consultation stage I assume that we are dealing with substantive bodies that represent interests and have the capacity to deal with consultation and amendments that are designed to set just a cautionary minimum upon Departments and Ministers so that they are never tempted to go for a preliminary consultation that is unduly abbreviated. I wonder whether the Minister might at least respond positively to that thought.

Mr. Stringer: The Prime Minister launched a Cabinet Office document improving the process of consultation at the end of November last year—

Mr. Lansley rose—

Mr. Stringer: I suspect I know what is coming. The basis of that consultation document was a standard three-month period. That could apply to consultations on regulatory reform orders with all the protections that exist later in the process. As everyone would acknowledge, there are times when initial consultation must be short for urgent or special reasons. Those reasons must be stated. The nature of the consultation process in that consultation document is three months, apart from in exceptional circumstances and, as under the Bill, reasons must be given for why the Government are responding in a particular way to the consultation document. My basic point is that the amendments are not necessary.

Mr. Lansley: The Minister might think me tedious as I raised this point on Second Reading, but if the Prime Minister was so keen on consultation, why at the Labour party's Glasgow conference did he leap into announcing parental leave changes on the day on which the consultation was due to end and before he could have received all the responses? I was reminded of that when I heard Mr. Digby Jones of the Confederation of British Industry on the radio last night. He complained about precisely that fact, which heightens the need for consultation provisions to be squarely represented to Ministers in the legislation, so that they cannot be unduly abbreviated.

Mr. Stringer: The Prime Minister was right. His announcement was in line with the vast majority of the consultations that had been received on the matter. We may be in the run-up to a general election, and the big consultation on many of the fundamental issues that affect people's rights at work will take place then. Conservative Members will be able to set their views, beliefs and intentions against those of the Labour party. I suspect that we know what the outcome will be.

On the basis of the consultation document and the fact that this is a three-stage process, the amendments to clause 5 are unnecessary. I therefore ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment No. 32 would add to clause 6 a requirement for details of

    ``the manner and timetable of any such consultation''

to be incorporated in the document. If the hon. Gentleman thinks about the existing obligation under clause 6(2)(j), which relates to clause 5(1) or (3), that information will already be present as part of the information that the Minister would reasonably be expected to provide. Even if it were not available, the Committees would have it and it would therefore be publicly available. The amendment is unnecessary, and I ask the hon. Gentleman not to press it.

Mr. Cotter: The consultation for the general election seems to be a rather moveable feast. We do not know how long the run-up period will be, but we shall no doubt learn that shortly. It may be three weeks. It is not usually 12 weeks, but we shall have to see.

I thank the Minister for his response. It was important to raise this very significant issue on behalf of small businesses and the fact that it has been discussed is now in black and white. I take it that the fact that it has been raised and that the Minister and the Better Regulation Task Force accept the importance of consulting small businesses will mean that that is taken on board in future. On that understanding, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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