Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): The Under-Secretary of State for the Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr. Murphy) teased me a little during our earlier exchanges about the extent of my interest in matters of parliamentary procedure. I shall now get my retaliation in. When I was discussing these matters with him the other day, I noticed that the pockets of his suit were still stitched up, just as they were when he took delivery of it a long time ago. He assured me that this was not because he was a Scotsman. He said that it was a measure of simplification, and part of his attack on the bloated, the bulging and the unnecessary, and that it was therefore entirely in the spirit of the Bill. I offer that to the House simply as an initial observation.
The Bill is about legislation, and it reminds us that we are a legislative sausage machine here. Governments come along, they give us stuff, and they stuff it into the machine. We process itmore or lessand it comes out the other end. It is then possible to claim that Parliament has decided on something or other. As we are just talking among ourselves this afternoon, however, I think that we can probably tell the story more truthfully. This Government and all Governments legislate too much. We legislate badly, we scrutinise legislation inadequately, and we do not revisit it when we have passed itwe simply go on to the next bit. We all suffer because of that.
I say that because I do not want us to be starry-eyed about our normal way of doing legislative business here. Even though we may be worried about other procedures that are being suggested to us, we should not suggest that the alternative to what is being proceeded with is some splendid mechanism of detailed scrutiny. We may like to tell the outside world, and we may like to see it written in the constitutional textbooks, that we engage in dispassionate, line by line scrutiny of legislative proposals here, but we know that that is not the case.
We should thank our lucky stars that most of the public never get inside Standing Committees. They never see the way in which legislation is routinely processed here: members of the Government side are
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required merely to be there and to say as little as possible in order to get the business through, and the Opposition, as far as they can, play a game of delay. Measures are taken through on whipped votes. We often vote for things that we do not think are very good. That is how we do it in all parties, at all times. Therefore we should not believe, in discussing alternative procedures, that the way that we deal with legislation here routinely is particularly admirable.
Mr. Heald: I accept that we often do not do as good a job as we should, but does not the hon. Gentleman think that he is going slightly over the top? I remember some very good Standing Committee discussions about particular provisions of particular Bills. We have had some good examples recently of excellent debates on the religious hatred provisions. Obviously, the outcome was not to everyone's taste but it was a high-quality debate.
Dr. Wright: Occasionally, that is so. I do not want to digress but my first experience here was to sit on a Committee considering a private Member's Bill. We had a splendid Standing Committee sitting. People took good points from across the Committee and came to sensible agreements. The Bill came back to the Floor of the House and was killed off by the Government of the day, as though the Committee never took place. I thought naively that Bills were going to be discussed in the way in which that private Member's Bill was discussed in that Committee. Of course, it was nothing of the kind.
I think everyone recognises that we have to scrutinise legislation much better. That is why we have been anxious to develop, for example, draft scrutiny of Bills. The Government are to be commended for developing that further but they are also to be slightly chastised, as the number of draft Bills is beginning to fall off again. That was a major innovation in our achieving better scrutiny of Bills.
Mr. Redwood: Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that the difference between what is proposed and what currently happens with a Bill is significant? Any Government Back Bencher who gets on to a Committee by accident, or any Opposition Back Bencher or Front-Bench spokesman, can table an amendment or new clause that may light a flame and get people talking about it. It may then produce exactly the debate that we want. That would be impossible if the measures before us today were enacted.
Dr. Wright: I accept that that can and sometimes does happen; I would dispute that that is routinely what happens. There are, in some respects, better ways of doing it. They have been captured to a degree by the way in which regulatory reform orders work, so I am not averse to exploring that procedure further.
The fantasy that I sometimes have is of a Government coming to the House with a Queen's Speech that says, "This year, my Government will introduce no new Bills. We are simply going to make sure that the existing legislation works well, that our administrative systems are working efficiently and that we do not return to new legislation until we are sure that our existing legislation is of a certain standard." Of course, that is a fantasy that will never be realised either from this Government or
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any other, but it is a discipline. There is something about the machine that simply has to drive ever onwards. The virility test for Ministers and for Departments is how much they can get in the legislative programme this year, not whether what they got in last year is working well and doing the things that they said it was going to do. At some point, we shall have to get hold of that huge issue, which goes against the culture of every Government and of the whole Government machine.
John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): As someone who, perhaps by mistake, got on to the Regulatory Reform Committee, I have made an interesting observation that many of the regulatory reform orders increase the power of Government. Perhaps that is because they come from civil servants, who, like turkeys, do not vote for Christmas.
Dr. Wright: I am interested in that observation. I have not served on that Committee, but I am told by some who have that it has offered a way of scrutinising some of these orders that is quite different from the process that I caricatured, moving far more towards the sort of procedure that can be captured by a Special Standing Committee. We must move in all those kinds of directions, away from just treating pieces of legislation in terms of the normal party dogfight, and towards getting some intelligent scrutiny. We do that much better through Special Standing Committees. We do it better when we consider Bills in draft. We can also do it better, as I understand it, through the regulatory order scrutiny procedure. We should be cautious about setting our face against these developments, which have a lot to be said for them.
Having said all that, what is proposed in the Billas various Members have saidis unquestionably a major constitutional issue. As has been said, that is the case for considering it in the way in which we normally consider such measures. I know that the Government will think about that.
The whole area of deregulation and better regulation has a history. I enjoyed being reminded of the background to the deregulation measures of the Major Government. I was reminded of John Major's speech to the Conservative party conference in October 1992[Interruption.] Indeed, some hon. Members were there. John Major anointed Michael Heseltine no less, then the Presidentas he liked to be calledof the Board of Trade, to take responsibility for attacking regulation and leading the deregulation agenda. He said to the conference:
Within a short space of time of being given the job, however, Michael Heseltine discovered that it was not so straightforward. By that time, he had moved on to become the Government's general troubleshooter, and, my goodness, there was a lot of trouble at that time to shoot. He came before the Public Service Committee on 10 December 1996, to talk about how he was getting on with his deregulatory mission. He said:
"This is the dilemma of deregulation, that it is never simple, very rarely are you able just to say, 'Get rid of this', because you are dealing with health, safety, environment, vital aspects of a civilised society. Sometimes you can modify, but once you get into modification you get into complexity".
That was why I inserted into our exchanges with the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) earlier the point that, in a sense, every burden carries a protection with it. That was Michael Heseltine's conclusion, which is why the process is trickier than we sometimes think.
The Government have been right to move from that narrow focus on deregulation to a better focus on better regulationas the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development says, from red tape to smart tapewhich gets the notion of the balance right. We should remind ourselves that sometimes we do get things right. The OECD country report on regulation in Britain stated in 2002:
"With twenty years of continuous effort behind it, the United Kingdom is one of the most experienced OECD countries in regulatory reform . . . A constant up-grading of instruments has occurred simultaneously with the establishment of an array of regulatory policies, institutions, and tools, many of them innovative and unprecedented. This has formed a set of broadly efficient, transparent and accountable regulatory systems of high quality."
Across parties over the past 15 years or so, we have developed a robust and sophisticated approach to the whole issue of regulation. The Bill, however, represents a radical departure. The Government have decided on the most radical of the options that they discussed: they are taking power to reform any legislation. That is an extraordinary development, which requires the most careful discussion and scrutiny.
We must retain the value of some of the scrutiny mechanisms that we have developed in existing regulatory reform orders, and build in safeguards. My approach is fairly straightforward: yes, there is a case for new powers, but they must be matched by new safeguards. That is the only way in which to make the proposals acceptable.
The three main safeguards are these. First, there must be some limit on the use of the powers. It cannot be right to allow Ministers to reform any legislation in any way that they choose. The Regulatory Reform Committee has suggested that there should be a list of off-limits subjects. Another approach would be to allow change that was compatible with and proportionate to the original legislation. Ministers would then be able to use their powers to simplify legislation and bring it up to date, but they would not be able to transform the law in a way that was entirely different from Parliament's original intention. That would preserve a clear distinction between proposals requiring primary legislation and proposals that could be dealt with through secondary legislation.
Secondly, an effective veto is needed. If the Government are to be given more flexibility, it is no longer satisfactory for the veto to rest on an undertaking alone. The Government's own consultation document claims:
It also makes it clear that there can be no straightforward principles such as size or even complexity. If that is the case, Parliament must be able to exercise its guardianship order by order, not simply by approving the procedure in the Bill.
Thirdly, any proposals to change primary legislation must be properly scrutinised. The Regulatory Reform Committee has called for a minimum scrutiny of
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60 days. It is interesting to note that parliamentary scrutiny currently accounts for only a small part of the time taken to process regulatory reform orders. An interesting table in the Regulatory Reform Committee's report shows that on average, the parliamentary scrutiny stage takes only 16 per cent. of the total time taken from initial consultation to approval, so that is not where the delay is occurring. That does not mean, however, that scrutiny should not be proportionate. The Committee itself has suggested that if it is felt that certain proposals need no amendment, it could be possible to do without the second stage of the scrutiny process.
For meand, I suspect, a good number of othersif the principle is to be followed that the advancement of ministerial powers must all the time be matched by advancement in safeguards on the use of those powers, the House should expect the three safeguards that I have outlined to be included in the Bill, in order to provide that security. While I welcome the thrust of the Government's aims, the danger is that ministerial powers could be extended in ways that Parliament did not want or intend, and perhaps was not even aware of.