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Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD):
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) on a fine and assured maiden speech. Remarkably for my hon. Friend, he managed to avoid controversy, although I suspect that that may not be repeated in future contributions in the Chamber. I congratulate all my other new hon. Friends and new Members from other parties on a series of fine, assured maiden speeches. Never before in the course of one
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afternoon have I learned so much about the towns, cities and suburbs of our country. Clearly, they are all delightful. I imagine the claims of some might be stronger than others, but we have certainly benefited from some very good maiden speeches this afternoon.
Before I get on to the main points that I want to make, I shall refer to the contribution of the right hon. Member for Fylde (Michael Jack), who spoke about the case for biofuels. The Secretary of State and other Ministers in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are, I believe, genuinely committed to trying to find a way forward for biofuels, but in the past week The Economist reported on the development of biofuels across the globe and highlighted the extent to which the UK has fallen behind.
Many other countries in Europe, the US and Brazil have gone far further ahead than we have, and there is a great danger that if we do not develop a domestic industry we will suck in imports from elsewhere. I urge the Secretary of State to do everything she can to use her influence to pressurise the Chancellor to take the decisive step. A biofuels obligation is what we needan obligation to have a mix of biofuels in any fuel sold for road transport. The consultation about it goes on and on; now we must have action. If the Secretary of State could apply pressure for that, the Liberal Democrats would be immensely grateful.
I shall focus my remarks on the aspects of the Queen's Speech relating to the Department of Trade and Industry. The leader in the Financial Times yesterday was headed, "What the Queen should have said". It started by stating:
That seems a good starting point. It neatly encapsulates the Liberal Democrat approach to the role of Government in the management of the economy. It is clearly proper for the Government to have a role in producing carefully thought out regulation to protect workers, the environment and the consumer, but the burden of regulation has gone much further than that, and successive Governments are responsible for it.
The real message is that we must get Whitehall off the backs of business. To that end, it is our view that we should start by scrapping the DTI. It is an anachronism and at its heart there is a fatal conflict of interest. It is both the promoter of industry and its regulator on behalf of the consumer. That conflict cannot be justified or sustained. The two roles should be separated. There should be a Minister with responsibility for business in the Cabinet, and separate from that there should be a Department for consumer affairs.
That is absolutely right. In a globalised economy our big challenge is to enable our businesses to compete, particularly in the face of the massive threat from Asia, with the extraordinary growth rates of China, India and other Asian economies. The mindset of successive Governments has been that any problem requires new
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laws to regulate it. Regulation is the first resort, rather than the last, both in the UK and the EU. We legislate too much.
However, as has already been noted, there is an inherent contradiction in the Queen's Speech, as its very heavy legislative programme of 50 Bills will bring in lots more regulation. The risk is that past experience will be repeatedthat the rhetoric will be correct, but that the burden in the real world will grow ever greater. It was reassuring to hear the Chancellor acknowledge at this week's CBI dinner that there had been many false starts, but will it be any different this time? That is the big question.
The Government have placed much faith in the concept of the regulatory impact assessment. That is a move in the right direction, but Government guidelines are often not adhered to and, crucially, the process lacks independence. Departments assess their own draft regulations, but that seems rather self-serving, as the tendency is for them to justify what they do. The process needs an element of independence, along the lines of the Dutch model or that of the US Congressional Budget Office, with a person separate from the Department proposing regulations assessing whether they are necessary.
In this country, even when the regulatory impact assessment has been robust and regulation subsequently introduced, there is no process by which that regulation may be revisited so that its impact in practice can be assessed. That is why the concept of the sunset clause is so important.The hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) noted earlier that a former Secretary of State at the DTI recommended the use of sunset clauses, but it is still the case that they are never used. What are the Government's proposals in respect of sunset clauses? I believe that they should be a standard provision in all new regulation.
The Government say that they intend to set targets for slashing regulationanother example of good rhetoric. To achieve that, they intend to establish a new quango called the better regulation executive to enforce the new targets. However, is there not a risk that the executive will be just another bureaucracy watching over the bureaucrats? Will it have any teeth? Could it be used to provide an independent assessment of new regulations proposed by the Government? If it can perform that role, it may be of some value.
I come now to the European perspective. A vast volume of new regulation comes out of the EU, but there are two problems. First, the UK continues to gold-plate EU regulations and, secondly, the EU fails to assess the impact of its directives and regulations. New measures emanating from the Commission contain a form of regulatory impact assessment, but it lacks rigour. The two pages added at the end of a proposed measure amount to no more than waffle, with no real value or substance. The Government should use their presidency of the EU to tackle that problem. The Chancellor has said that economic reform must be a priority for our
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presidency, and I absolutely support that. However, the problem of over-regulation coming from Europe must be addressed, as must the proliferation of regulation in this country.
Some encouraging signs are emerging from the new Commission. The flow of new regulation has subsided somewhat, and it is worth noting that my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne)until now a Member of the European Parliamentpioneered the use of sunset clauses in provisions under the financial services action plan. That initiative should be followed in this place, as well as in Europe.
As an employment lawyer, I want to say a little about the working time directive. When I worked in employment law, I made a great deal of money out of advising companies on, and guiding them through, myriad emerging regulations and guidance. Maintaining the UK opt-out will be a big test for the Government. The state should not prevent the citizen from working when they choose to work. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry was right earlier today to distinguish between proper protection against exploitation of workers, which current provisions already provide for, and the state preventing a worker who wants to work from doing so. The latter goes beyond what is appropriate.
The impact on families, particularly children, of excessive working hours is a genuine issue, especially when both parents are in work. That is why, despite the understandable concerns of business, I do see a case for an improved deal on maternity leave and maternity pay, and for an extension of the right to request flexible working. If reduced hours, more flexibility in the hours worked or, in the case of certain types of employment, working from home enabled a worker to stay in that job and avoided destroying family life, the business itself might well benefit. On helping employers with the regulatory burden, the Liberal Democrat proposal for an enhanced maternity income guarantee would remove employers' responsibility for administering that income, which would be paid directly by the Government.
I want to finish by mentioning one or two other measures in the Queen's Speech. We certainly support the proposed commission for equality and human rights, but the objective must be to go beyond that and to establish a single equality Act. Doing so would codify and simplify myriad different provisions. There are 30 Acts, 38 statutory instruments, 11 codes of practice and 12 EU directives and recommendations in the field of discriminationa perfect example of the regulatory chaos that imposes an excessive burden on business and leaves the individual citizen completely confused as to their rights. A single equality Act would itself be a great deregulatory measure. It would simplify the law for business and clarify citizens' rights. I hope that the Government will make a move on this issue and introduce a single equality Act, as well as creating a single commission.
On equal pay, a report this week shows that, according to the Department of Trade and Industry's own figures, there is a continuing huge income gap between men and women. On average, men still receive double the rate of pay received by women. As has already been highlighted today, for the role of Minister for Women to be an unpaid one is perhaps not the best
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signal for the Government to send, given that she is surrounded by men in similar positions who are paid for their work.
We very much support the long-overdue measure on consumer credit; indeed, it was extraordinary that it fell at the last hurdle before the general election. The current law dates back to the 1970s, and since then there has been a revolution in the availability of credit and the range of credit products. In the last Parliament, I was a member of the Treasury Select Committee. It conducted an inquiry into the credit and store card industry, which highlighted the fact that industry practices such as misleading promotions need addressing. It is important that the market acts properly and in the consumer's interest, and in that regard this proposed legislation is long overdue.
We support proposals to reform company law. There should be a debate on reporting responsibilities in respect of environmental and social impacts, and on the case for the introduction of a duty of care on those impacts. We need to debate whether and how that could be done without imposing additional red tape on businesses.
Finally, I want to mention the case for fair trade. A lobby in Parliament yesterday argued the case for fair trade. Given that today's debate focuses on the role of the Department of Trade and Industry as well as that of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, something should be said about that. We need to ensure that the Government and our representatives in the European Union do all that they can to press for a successful conclusion of the Doha round. In our view, we all have a moral duty to break down tariff barriers that prevent the developing world from trading fairly with us. Criticisms have been made of the United States, but in truth Europe is equally culpable. We have a moral duty to deliver fair trade and to do it quickly.
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