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Rob Marris: Every Liberal Democrat local government "Focus" leaflet that I have seen—although I have by no means seen them all—takes a swing at central Government for insufficient funding.

Norman Lamb: I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman endorses the point I am making.

It is surely much better to make local government genuinely more accountable to its electorate. Under our system, whereby central Government controls everything, there is a dependency culture that enables local councils and local politicians to blame central Government for everything. If we had a system with genuine local autonomy and accountability, the buck would stop with the local authority and the system would be much better for it.

The same principles apply to health and education services, which are constantly dragged down by a centralised Whitehall target-setting agenda whereby the instinct is to micro-manage everything from London. I was struck by a comment from a hospital manager who told me that he and his colleagues not only have to account to the Department of Health through all the performance measures that are imposed on them, but have the Prime Minister's delivery unit on their back as well. Two departments of central Government are looking at every move they make.

The common thread running through all this is the emergence of a state where the centre seeks to control everything. The intention is often, but not always,
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laudable—identity cards being one example where the intention is clearly not laudable. However, the law of unintended consequences means that whether for entrepreneurs, local authorities, schools or hospitals, the spirit is too often dulled or destroyed by an overbearing state.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has placed a 12-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches. There is not a lot of time left, and hon. Members will help each other if they are able to keep comfortably within that limit.

8.52 pm

Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): I was interested to hear the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) give an analysis of local authority administration. I should like to draw his and the House's attention to the activities of two neighbouring councils in Scotland. Perth and Kinross council, which strangely enough is controlled by the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National party, sought public liability insurance for a G8 alternatives demonstration this week, only to withdraw the requirement two weeks later. Stirling council, which is Labour controlled, agreed the site for a G8 alternatives eco-village with the appropriate level of guarantees but without the need to back-pedal from a situation that it had itself created. That is a good comparative example of how councils are in control of making their own decisions without intervention from central Government.

I welcome the Government's commitment to dealing with the burden of unnecessary regulation on businesses and public sector providers. I must declare an interest, as stated in the Register, in that I run a building supplies business in Scotland. Coming to this House with a business background, I understand that unnecessary regulation on business and public services can hold back enterprise and stifle ambition. The burden of paperwork ensuring that companies conform to regulations from Westminster and Brussels can take a considerable time to complete and, as such, has an impact on the time management of employees and directors alike.

This is not, however, a new phenomenon. Having been involved in the building trade for more than 25 years, I have noted that red tape has always placed a burden on companies and employees. The Government's ambitions here and now represent a real attempt to change the culture that exists within Government, which often creates needless administrative processes for companies and sometimes holds back the development of smaller companies. The Government's desire to remove unnecessary regulations while maintaining the benefits of many existing regulations makes their aim stand out from the Opposition's.Good regulation has provided protection for employees and consumers. It has ensured that standards are kept high and that health and safety is maintained. As we heard earlier, the UK is recognised world wide as a leader in regulatory reform. As our economic prosperity shows, we can ensure that those reforms add to our international standing.
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Good regulation can, often does and should always impact positively on the business sector, leading to improved working environments, growing output and improved financial performance. The reason for better regulation is clear. We will experience not only the benefits of freeing up employee time but financial benefits for businesses. I am sure that many of my hon. Friends have seen the estimation that by implementing changes to such regulations we can increase British prosperity and productivity by approximately £20 billion.

Similarly, the removal of some regulations and paperwork in the public services will free up time for public service employees, allowing them to focus more on the provision of their specific service and improve efficiency. However, that must neither be done through the removal of standards by simply erasing the regulations as Conservative Members wish, nor by compromising key reforms such as increased paid holiday for part-time workers, increased maternity and paternity rights or the minimum wage, which Conservative Members found they did not have the time to support when it was introduced.

A different approach to inspection is also required. A large proportion of the forms that businesses must complete results from the many inspections to which they are subject. Adapting the process whereby inspections are made so that companies do not face unnecessary repeat inspections will cut down the burden that that places not only on companies but on the bodies conducting the inspections. That will free up time for inspectorates, allowing them the opportunity to perform more thorough inspections and potentially allowing an opportunity to review the necessity for some inspectorates.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is an imbalance in some Departments between authority and accountability? For example, let us consider the inspection regime of the Health and Safety Executive, which can rightly force a change in working practice in a business. However, if an accident subsequently occurs, the burden falls on the employer and the HSE will walk away, even though it forced the change in working practice.

Gordon Banks: I shall deal with the effect in various Departments shortly.

Adapting the process whereby inspections are made so that companies do not face unnecessary repeat inspections will free up time. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor clearly demonstrated his commitment in the Budget, and Departments will be challenged to simplify and reduce regulations. The move to a more intelligent, risk-based approach will be good for most businesses, which will experience a lightening of their load. By reducing the number of inspectors who deal with business from 29 to seven and those who deal with public services from 11 to four, businesses, the public sector and the inspectorates will all become more efficient.We are beginning to experience improvements in Departments; for example, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has committed itself to reducing its administrative burden by 25 per cent. Other Departments are working on similar plans.
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Cutting the amount of inspections could be complemented by discussions in the EU on the need for better regulation both in and from the EU. I am confident that the Government's ministerial team will deal with that European burden. I hope that they will perhaps use the UK presidency to push for an agenda for change on that.

I understand that there are plans to introduce a Bill on better regulation and that it will try to remove outdated and unnecessary legislation. At the same time, we must introduce tougher penalties for businesses that do not comply with the remaining regulations. Removing the burden of some red tape will assist some companies, but it may also encourage others to risk non-compliance. That should carry a penalty that is sufficiently severe to deter the said business from taking such avoiding action.

I applaud the Government's aim to reduce regulations, but I would ask the ministerial team involved to provide a mechanism whereby those businesses that wish to comply can get easier access to a basic level of information, possibly even sector by sector and through developing technologies. That would make it easier for businesses, especially small businesses, to comply. We want our business leaders to develop their businesses and to be able to face the challenges of an ever-changing world. The Government's proposals are very useful in that regard, but we can always do more to help, and I hope that the Ministers will feel able to include such measures in any legislation they introduce.

9 pm

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