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House of Commons

Wednesday 28 November 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State was asked—


1. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): What action is planned to reduce expenditure by way of deregulation. [15969]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Christopher Leslie): Mr. Speaker, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has asked me to apologise to you and to the House for his absence today. Deputising for the Prime Minister, he is undertaking a series of international meetings on a number of matters, including the coalition against terrorism and climate change.

The Government's programme of regulatory reform seeks to reduce burdens and costs for both the public sector and the business community. For example, by reducing the burden of paperwork and form-filling in schools, the Government have saved more than 2.5 million teacher hours in primary schools this year.

Paul Flynn: The Transport Research Laboratory has claimed that changing just one regulation would reduce casualties, avoiding the deaths of 140 people a year and 520 serious injuries. The Policy Studies Institute also claims that there would be immense benefits for the tourist trade and the elderly if we adopted European standard time and dumped the absurd practice of changing our times twice a year. Does my hon. Friend, who is in the infancy of what I am sure will be a brilliant career, do his best to bring more light to the nation and ensure that our waking hours more precisely match our working hours?

Mr. Leslie: I am not sure whether that is a compliment. There are pros and cons on both sides of the argument about keeping British summer time. One advantage would be lighter afternoons, and I suppose that the disadvantage would be darker mornings. I understand that an experiment took place in the late 1960s to retain summer time—that was definitely before my time.

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester): Does the Minister believe that yesterday's Budget statement will lead to less

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bureaucracy and red tape for business, or more? Can he give a commitment that the Cabinet Office will undertake a regulatory review and assessment on that Budget?

Mr. Leslie: The answer is yes. The Government are always making sure that we reduce red tape and burdensome bureaucracy wherever possible. Conservative Members object to measures such as the minimum wage, family leave and working time protection. They regard them as over-burdensome pieces of bureaucracy—I regard them as essential pieces of social reform.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): The Minister will recall that none of the initial orders under the Regulatory Reform Act 2001 that were subject to consultation implied any decrease in Government expenditure. However, one would have meant an increase—the vaccine damage payment scheme consultation. Can the Minister tell the House when that order is expected to be introduced to the House?

Mr. Leslie: I am afraid that I do not have that information to hand, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman about it. The programme of regulatory reform orders is beginning within Government so that we can use that tool as a mechanism for removing over-burdensome regulations wherever possible. I shall try and find out more information on that for the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): If it is the case, as the Minister claims, that the Government are deregulating and relieving burdens on business—I pay tribute to him for being able to say that with a straight face—why did the Director General of the CBI complain recently that last year more regulations had been passed than in any previous year in history?

Mr. Leslie: We have heard this story before. I think that the hon. Gentleman is talking about statutory instruments, 95 per cent. of which have no burdensome impact on business. He needs to distinguish between measures that introduce support and help for ordinary working people in this country. He regards those as unnecessary costs, whereas the mass of working people think that they are essential.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): How many regulations have been abolished since the Government came into office in May 1997?

Mr. Leslie: A number of changes are made all the time in terms of reducing regulation. We are genuinely engaged in an earnest effort to reduce those regulations that are burdensome. If the hon. Gentleman has specific suggestions to make to the House and the Select Committee on Deregulation and Regulatory Reform, many Members will be willing and able to listen to them.

Government Regional Offices

2. Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet): If he will make a statement on the operational priorities for Government regional offices. [15970]

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The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche): The Government offices for the regions bring together the activities and interests of many different Departments. The operational priorities of the Government offices are to deliver programmes to specific Departments and to achieve a joined-up approach.

Dr. Ladyman: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. From my conversations with the Government office of the south-east, I know that it is committed to adding value to the work of other agencies and local authorities. I applaud it for that commitment. However, when it administers funds, such as the European social fund, on behalf of local authorities, there are times when it issues the funds in short-term tranches. That makes it difficult to build quality projects because it is difficult to recruit people under short-term funding. Will my hon. Friend ensure that any red tape—whether UK or European—that limits the projects to short-term funding is swept away so that we can build quality projects?

Mrs. Roche: I know of the interest that my hon. Friend has taken in the subject and that he has held constructive meetings with the Government office of his region. I understand his point. European programme funds cover a six-year period, but some of the match funding can be for all that period or it can be reviewed annually. I shall certainly consider the points that he raises.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon): Will not the increase of regional government lead to the death of the county councils?

Mrs. Roche: No. The hon. Gentleman should consider the commitment on regional governance that we made in our manifesto. We said that we would examine the issue and we have already told the House that we would introduce a White Paper on it. We particularly highlighted the case of unitary authorities.

Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East): Will my hon. Friend ensure that, when regional development agencies adjoin each other, they work across regional boundaries in a seamless fashion and do not create new artificial boundaries?

Mrs. Roche: Yes, absolutely. The boundaries of the Government offices of the regions are always a contentious matter, and everyone will have a view on where the boundaries should be. I think that we have now settled the matter, but it is important that Government offices of the regions work together. We have the co-ordination unit to make sure that they do just that.

Government Policy Co-ordination

3. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): What steps he is taking to co-ordinate the promotion of Government policy on (a) health care and (b) transport. [15971]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Christopher Leslie): Policy on health care and transport is obviously the responsibility of the respective Departments. However, the Prime Minister's delivery unit is working with those Departments to monitor effective

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efforts towards key targets, to take stock of progress made and to help to overcome the barriers or obstacles to delivery as rapidly as possible.

Michael Fabricant: I thank the Minister for that helpful answer. Does he agree that the job of promotion, which is what my question is about, is the responsibility of Government information officers? Will he join me in praising the work of the information officers who are employed by the civil service? Will he explain precisely why 16 out of 18 senior Government information officers have been sacked or pensioned off before their time by this Government since 1997?

Mr. Leslie: I am very happy to pay tribute to the information officers who work for the civil service. They do a fantastic job. There is obviously a constant change of personnel in all sorts of divisions. I am not sure to what the hon. Gentleman is alluding, but it is no wonder that his question relates to promotion. I know that he is always angling on that point.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): Following the change in direction on health care so clearly articulated by the Chancellor yesterday and so warmly welcomed by many Labour Members, does my hon. Friend believe that greater investment will go into the promotion of what is without doubt a more democratic and more socialist agenda?

Mr. Leslie: As a democratic socialist, I certainly share my hon. Friend's view. Some £8 billion worth of new hospitals are being built, and 17,000 extra nurses and 7,000 extra doctors have been employed since 1997. We have still a long way to go. We have to maintain progress to ensure that we deliver a health service that is free at the point of use, available to all who need it and is of a high standard fit for the 21st century.

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