Rob Marris: I understood the Minister to have given two undertakings: first, that the procedure would not be used for controversial legislation; and secondly, that the Select Committees would in effect have, to use his word, a veto. Would the hon. Gentleman be satisfied if those undertakings wereit would be difficultput into the Bill?
Mr. Heald: Whether the veto is put into the Bill or introduced by changing the Standing Orders, which might be a better way, it should be a cast-iron measure. I am not happy about the definition of "controversial" or "highly controversial". Originally, the word used was "controversial". The Minister cranked up the language to "highly controversial", and when he was asked for examples, those he gave were of the highest level of importanceultra-controversial. Our concern is that we do not really know what we are talking about.
I think that the traditional way of passing a Bill, although it is a laborious procedure, has some advantages. If, during the passage of Bill, one listens to debate and accepts that things need to be changed, one can do that. A super-affirmative procedure would be much more rigid than the procedure used for Bills. I should therefore like to retain the existing arrangements.
Mr. Heath : Matters that may not appear controversial to the Government and Conservative and Liberal Democrat spokesmen may be extremely controversial for Back-Bench Members. Those Back Benchers may not serve on the relevant Committee, so they lack the opportunity to express a strong point of view on behalf of their constituents about a matter that they regard as highly controversial. We need to bear in mind the views of Back-Bench Members as well as those of Front-Bench spokesmen.
Mr. Heald: I entirely agree. That applies to important issues, where conscience is often part of the equation, and could include the question of whether the rights that people have on the breakdown of a long-standing relationship should be the same as those that they have on the breakdown of a marriage. The Law Commission is looking at that issue, and it could easily fall within the ambit of clause 1.
We do not need more assuranceswe need action in the Bill. We accept that the Bill could provide genuine benefits for business, but it requires amendment. Ministerial assurances, too, would be helpful, and we would like the main assurances to be incorporated into the Bill or into Standing Orders. It is particularly important that the fast-track procedure is not available for controversial measures. Things do not necessarily appear highly controversial. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said, Ministers may not think that something is controversial, but many hon. Members may think that it is. It should be possible for Committees to act effectively and second-guess Ministers on such issues. The Bill is a novel constitutional measure, so when it is enacted we will suggest that it should be subject to renewal or a sunset
9 Feb 2006 : Column 1068
clause, perhaps after five years, which is an appropriate period in which to test it. However, we would not want to give such measures carte blanche at this stage.
Mr. Heald: I hope that it is not the case that we could override the sunset clause by an order under part 1, but if it is, we will need to look at that. One thing is for sure, however, namely, that there is a great deal of work to do in Committee.
Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West) (Lab): The Liaison Committee, like the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), accepts that there is much that is of value in the Bill, and we support that. However, it is not the intent of the Bill that worries us, but its potential impact. I agree entirely with the Regulatory Reform Committee that it is of high constitutional significance. We live in new parliamentary times and every day brings another timetabled Bill. A Bill is not properly formed if it does not have a timetable motion attached, and every Bill is subject to the guillotine procedure. In other words, we have inadequately scrutinised legislation that may result in injustice for people who are at the receiving end. We have inadequately monitored legislation and, under the Bill, Ministers will have the ability to amend primary legislation with a truncated order-making procedure. Inadequate primary legislation will therefore be subject to an inadequate procedure. That fact alone means that the Bill deserves special consideration.
I was rather concerned by the Under-Secretary's response to pre-legislative scrutiny in the minutes of the Regulatory Reform Committee. I well remember our days in the Public Accounts Committee, when we happily harried accounting officers and individuals guilty of financial misdemeanour, and I know that he is in favour of the parliamentary scrutiny performed by that Committee. I was therefore surprised by his response in the minutes to the concept of parliamentary scrutiny. He said that it had been offered last time but had not produced what the Government wanted, so there would be no pre-legislative scrutiny this time. That is a mild paraphrase, but it conveys the impact of what was said. I worry about how Ministers might interpret the powers, once they have them.
The Regulatory Reform Committee asked that its remit should be widened. I hope that we can get a firm commitment from the Minister that that will be done. As was said by the Opposition spokesman, the new legislation does not even have to show that it will reduce burdens. The only burdens that are guaranteed to be reduced are the parliamentary burdens on Ministers, because they will choose the type of scrutiny that a measure gets. They can choose the negative procedure, and there is nothing that anyone can do about it. So the Bill is burden-relieving, but not quite in the way that most of us anticipated.
As has been pointed out, the safeguards in the Bill are less than are in the existing Act and, worryingly, less than those outlined in the consultative process. The Bill is remarkably devoid of safeguards and guarantees. I welcome assurances, but in parliamentary terms, there is no assurance as good as an assurance written into a Bill.
9 Feb 2006 : Column 1069
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): The wise words of the Father of the House ought to have struck home, even if the words of the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) and my own do not. We need careful scrutiny of part 1, and that should be on the Floor of the House to enable all Members to participate if they so wish.
I have already apologised to the Minister, to the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire and to the Chair, and I now apologise to the House for the fact that I will, unfortunately and exceptionally, have to miss the later speeches in this debate. I hope that hon. Members will recognise that that is not the way I usually do business in the House, and I regret that I will not be able to observe the normal courtesies of the House.
I commend the Minister for introducing the Bill in his usual way. I am almost beginning to forget that there ever was a Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and to wonder what the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster did, but we shall no doubt see a successor eventually, or perhaps not. Who knows? In any case, a Bill that declares itself to be a vehicle for regulatory reform is transparently a good thing. It is the parliamentary equivalent of motherhood and apple pie to say that we all want to reduce the burdens of regulation. However, successive Governments fail to do that and there have been incremental increases in the burden.
We look for consolidation of regulation, and for reduction or extinction of regulation. That is an extraordinarily important part of the process. We are very good at creating regulation, but not at looking back to see whether it is still relevant to the purposes for which it was first introduced, or whether it is simply a relic that has become a burden without benefit. If the Bill were entirely about that, I would welcome it.
Parts of the Bill are usefulfor example, I want to see an accelerated method for bringing Law Commission proposals into law. The proposals on translating European law into British law are not exceptional, apart from the fact that they have not been coupled to the fundamental reform of how we do the job in this House. If anything is desperately needed, it is a better way of examining European regulation and considering how it will apply, whether it has been added to and the effect that it will have on British businesses and British individuals.