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James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware of the Company Law Reform Bill, currently in another place, which includes provisions for fast-track reforms? If the Government want to speed things up and reduce burdens, might not that measure be the place to start, as it overlaps with the Bill?
Mr. Heald: The Government are taking several overlapping measures, all of which remove power from the House and give it to Ministers. There is a process in the Government of Wales Bill to take power from the House and give it to Wales on a case-by-case basis. There are similar procedures in the Company Law Reform Bill and other measures. My hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly), who will wind up the debate, has detailed knowledge of the Company Law Reform Bill and will have something to say about it.
In Committee, we shall make a range of suggestions to toughen up regulatory impact assessments so that they concentrate on whether regulation is cost-effective and necessary as a last resort. We shall try to include a special assessment of whether small business should be exempt from regulation, instead of the current patchwork, whereby only some small businesses are exempt and there is no clear theme. The Government will have to consider whether small business should be exempt on every occasion, which relates to the point made by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire about the disproportionate burden on small businesses.
We want to ensure that regulatory impact assessments are audited at a later date to determine their accuracy. The Better Regulation Commission or the Regulatory Reform Committee might have a role in that. We shall propose sunset clauses, proper post-legislative scrutiny and perhaps an enhanced role for the Law Commission to consider outdated legislation. We shall try to focus the Bill much more on deregulation than regulation.
Part 1 is of concern due to the breadth of the power taken by the Government to replace, amend or introduce legislation, including any Law Commission Bill. The Minister will be aware of criticisms made by various Committees, and that the Law Commission is considering measures to introduce palimonygiving people who have lived together equal rights with those who divorce. It is also considering how to deal with tenants' rights and the termination of tenancies and with criminal law reform, including reform of the law of murder and the question of provocation in domestic violence.
I might well agree with the Law Commission about such matters, but they are the sort of issues that hon. Members will want to discuss on the Floor of the House in the normal way because there are strong feelings about them in the House. However, where in the Bill is there anything to reassure us that that will happen? The Minister told the Procedure Committee on Tuesday that
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the Government would not use the procedure for highly controversial matters and that there was a sort of veto for the two Select Committees. However, I worry about dealing with the matter on the basis of such assurances because I can find no such veto in the Bill.
The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), who cannot be here today, once wrote an article called "Prayers Unanswered" about the change that was made in 1954 to the way in which regulations were considered. The old tradition that every set of regulations was debated on the Floor of the House was changed and statutory instruments were then taken upstairs. The right hon. Gentleman wrote:
"Until 1954, all prayers could be debated. Any Member could put a prayer down for debate on any sitting day except Friday, and unless a closure was carried there was no time limit at all. In 1954 a rule was established that debates were to end at 11.30 . . . Nonetheless, the Committee which recommended the 1954 rule clearly intended that all prayers would still be debated on the floor of the House and the Leader of the House at the time, Captain Crookshank, insisted that 'if honourable Gentlemen put down prayers, time will be found for prayers.'"
The Minister has said that we will continue to have full parliamentary debate for terrorism measures and the Parliament Acts, but he must accept that they are of the highest importance among the measures that we expect to debate on the Floor. The House would wish to debate many matters that were controversial, but not in that highest category. I will want the Minister's assurances to be included in the Bill so that they bind his successors.
The House should also be worried about clause 9, which contemplates conferring functions on the Welsh Assembly without full debate. The Minister needs to explain how the power would operate in conjunction with the Government of Wales Bill. Is it really envisaged that powers will be gradually devolved by the back door using the order-making power in the Bill? Few hon. Members would think that appropriate for something as important as devolution?
Clause 8 deals with Scottish matters. Does it mean that Sewel motion legislative proposalschanges that are within the remit of the Scottish Parliament, but made by the Housewill be dealt with by order? If so, has the Scottish Parliament been consulted? What assurances can the Minister give us that we will have the right to debate important matters? Where in the Bill are those assurances?
The Regulatory Reform Committee and its equivalent Committee in the other place have the important role of deciding how regulatory reform orders should be dealt with procedurally. Why does that role not include the ability to refer such an order for full parliamentary scrutiny as though it were a Bill? There might be cases in which a Minister's decision about the nature and importance of a measure does not reflect the opinion of the House itself. In such circumstances, surely it would be useful if we were able to transfer into full Bill mode.
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Part 2 of the Bill includes provisions that are based on the Philip Hampton proposals. We welcome his commitment to entrenching the principle of risk assessment throughout the regulatory system and ensuring that administrative burdens are reduced. We also welcome his concentration on substantially reducing the need for form-filling and the requirement to follow good principles of enforcement. Will the Minister confirm that that is what the codes of practice will be about?
Part 3 seems to introduce simpler provisions for bringing European law into force in the United Kingdom. However, there is reference in clause 26 to "rules" and "schemes" being used to implement provisions, instead of provisions simply being implemented "by regulations". What does the Minister have in mind? We should be interested to hear his reply. I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) is here[Hon. Members: "He is not."]but I know that he was hoping to ask that very question.
The Bill should be about deregulation and building a culture of light-touch regulation. We should ensure that Whitehall treats such matters as seriously as it does the passing of new legislation and regulations. I was struck by what the Minister told the Procedure Committee. He conceded that in the present culture it is more exciting and one is more likely to be promoted if one is in charge of or on a Bill team than if one is a successful deregulatoror, in his terms, a better regulator. How to change that culture is at the heart of the problem.
It is easy to see how a Government who were not all that keen on deregulation could decide to regulate in fields such as social rightsparticularly employment rightsand that the regulatory reform order would be a convenient way of doing that. As the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West said, the subjective tests in clause 3 are not adequate to protect against that sort of action. The Minister may well agree with the social rights in the EU charter of fundamental rights and want to introduce new legislation on employment rights. Is he able to give us any assurance that he would not use regulatory reform orders to do that sort of thing? Just as it would be simple for a Government who had a strong view on the social rights in the EU charter to introduce those rights through the back door by using such an order, a Government who took a different view could do the opposite. That is precisely what worries the TUC, whose head of equality and employment rights, Sarah Veale, said a couple of days ago:
"The current government has undertaken not to use RROs for measures that are 'large and controversial', but this will not apply to future governments. Future governments will not be detained long by safeguards that are tested by standards that are matters of judgment and not objective".
The experience of the introduction of Standing Committee hearings in the 1950s shows what can happen: a procedure is introduced, assurances are given and no one thinks that it will end a particular way of doing things, but over time the protections fall away as Ministers enjoy the convenience of the new arrangements. Both those who worry about the way in which the EU operates and those whose views are the
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opposite can see how the RRO procedure might be abused. In those circumstances, would it not be right to insert stronger safeguards into part 1?
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