Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): First, I offer the House an explanation for the absence from the debate of the Chairman of the Select Committee on Regulatory Reform. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) is attending the funeral of an old friend and former leader of the local council. His contribution will be missed.
I broadly support the general thrust of the Bill, but like a number of other hon. Members, I will seek clarification from the Minister in several key areas. I suspect that, before he makes the offer, I ought to volunteer to serve on the Standing Committee, although I feel that a number of genuine concerns should be dealt with by a Committee of the whole House.
I shall focus the bulk of my remarks on part 1, which falls within the remit of the Regulatory Reform Committee, of which I am a member, and on which we have issued a special report to hon. Members. Many contributions have been based on that report. As we have heard, part 1 will allow Ministers to amend, repeal and replace primary and secondary legislation. Of course, that could include legislation that was enacted very recently.
What is the Bill trying to achieve? Clearly, Ministers are seeking to convince the House that the Bill is intended primarily to reduce burdens placed on business
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and other organisations. It is also intended to assist in speeding up the process by which changes are made to existing legislation. Again, I have no doubt that Ministers have that entirely laudable aim in mind, but, reading between the lines, this uncontroversial Bill could be very significant constitutionally.
The Bill is the end result of a fairly lengthy process, including a detailed review of the operation of the Regulatory Reform Act 2001. The review was completed in July 2005 and the process was informed throughout by Departments, as well as by the recommendations of the Better Regulation Task Force. The review flagged up some of the problems that appeared to be inhibiting the production of regulatory reform orders, as well as areas where it was felt the scope should be extended to enable the better delivery of non-controversial proposals.
Such things would include recommendations from the Law Commission, including changes to common lawagain, something that is controversial. My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) raised that issue very well earlier today. The structural reform of regulatory bodies could be considered, as well as the implementation of the Hampton proposals to merge private sector regulators. That is not mentioned directly in the Bill, but it would be possible because the law reform powers could embrace such change.
One of the Committee's concerns when looking at the detail of the review was that it failed to identify the main causes of the delays in introducing regulatory reform orders. The evidence that the Committee considered, to which hon. Members have referred, made it plain that Departments are slow in bringing such proposals to Parliament, as well as in making the orders once Parliament has responded and made recommendations. For example, our Committee reported no changes on the Regulatory Reform (Execution of Deeds and Documents ) Order 2004, but it still took three and a half months before the order was made. The consultation-to-order-made process on the Regulatory Reform (Sugar Beet Research and Education) Order 2003 lasted 1,924 days, of which only 113 days were for parliamentary scrutiny. Clearly, Departments could and should be doing better.
The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), who led for the Opposition, touched on an interesting point that related to the culture of taking a Bill through Parliament and how important that can be for civil servants and Ministers. It is clearly a lot sexierif I can use that word in the Housethan deregulating by order. I suspect that that will come up again in the Committee.
With regulation and deregulation, it is important to maintain the delicate balance of protecting standards and ensuring fairness and safety at work, while allowing organisations room to breathe, and we clearly do not always get it right. Similarly, we have to ensure that the Bill achieves the right balance between extending the power of Ministers and the desire to streamline and speed up decisions designed to lift burdens from businesses and other organisations, while ensuring that there is adequate scrutiny and protection to avoid abuse.
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When the Under-Secretary appeared before the Regulatory Reform Committee, he made it clear that the Bill would deal only with uncontroversial measures. There is no doubt that some of the Law Commission recommendations should be straightforward to implement. My problem is with the definition of "uncontroversial", as the meaning of the word is not clear in the Bill. As Members on both sides of the House have pointed out, in the wrong hands, the legislation could be used to implement decisions that had not been thoroughly reviewed by the House.
The Bill gives Ministers power to bring forward primary legislation by ministerial order, which does not involve the process that we all understandSecond Reading, Committee and Report in both Houses. We need to understand, feel comfortable with and confident of the mechanisms for distinguishing controversial and uncontroversial proposals. How will the measure deal with the grey areas that will undoubtedly arise? Will there be an assumption that if something falls into that category it must be controversial? We need clarification of that element of the Bill.
Like the Regulatory Reform Act 2001, the Bill contains safeguards, but as colleagues on the Opposition Benches have argued today, its protection may be less robust than that offered by the 2001 Act. I should welcome reassurance from the Minister on that point.
Unlike the 2001 Act, the scope of the Bill will not be limited by a requirement that the Minister identify the burdens to be reduced or removed. Indeed, the word "burden", like the word "uncontroversial", is not mentioned in the Bill. I agree with the Minister that the concept of a burden as defined in the 2001 Act is narrow; in effect, it means a legal burden, including a restriction or a requirement. As my hon. Friend said in his opening remarks, in the past that definition has been difficult to apply, which is one reason why the implementation of regulatory reform orders has sometimes been slow or impossible.
The Bill offers Ministers a fast-track procedure, which is welcome in many ways. The reduction of red tape, as well as the ability to get rid of redundant regulation quickly, has support on both sides of the House. Labour Members and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development have pointed out that the Government have one of the best records in the world on deregulation, making the UK one of the easiest places in which to establish a business.
Business is keen to see the proposed changes. The majority of submissions received by the Regulatory Reform Committee supported proposals to speed up change, enable lighter risk inspections and streamline the business inspectorate. The British Chambers of Commerce also supported that view, so I was surprised that evidence of their concerns about regulation was touted. Four of the measures in the document cited by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire added up to 55 per cent. of his calculation: the Working Time Regulations 1998, the Vehicle Excise Duty (Reduced Pollution) Regulations 1998, the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002 and the Disability Discrimination (Providers of Services) (Adjustment of Premises) Regulations 2001. I should be interested to learn which of those the Opposition want to abolish to save money, time or effort.
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I support the aim of the Bill, which is to challenge Departments to consider measures to reduce the overall burden on business. I want Departments to record in their annual report the progress they have made, not only with figures to show what they have achieved, but explanations of how they made those achievements and how long they took, rather than bland statements such as, "We are making good progress in this area", which are, unfortunately, all too common in Government annual reports.
Almost all the responses to the consultation and to the Committee expressed the view that lighter inspection was appropriate, as long as it was intelligence-risk-based. Business certainly welcomes that, due to its perceived impact on productivity. Concerns have been voiced that we must be confident that a lighter touch does not lead to corner-cutting. Trade unions have expressed the view that there would be health and safety implications for some employees, so I should welcome reassurance from the Minister on that point.
Business will be relieved to learn that the Bill proposes the streamlining of business inspectorates. The significant reduction in their number from 29 to seven should enable inspectors to co-ordinate their work better and prevent repetitive visits, which are onerous on those being inspected. There will be a comparable reduction in the number of public service inspectorates from 11 to four.
Although the Committee and I wholeheartedly support most of the proposals in the Bill, there is a need to put in place additional safeguards. We need a shift back towards paying heed to the views of Parliament. The way forward would be to identify in the Bill legislation that would be off limits for the new fast-track process. We need several no-go areas beyond those that the Minister described as being of the highest importance. It should be possible to put in place a veto so that during the preliminary period of procedural consideration, it would be possible for either House of Parliament by resolution, or the appropriate Committee in either House that was charged with reporting on the order by recommendation, not only to vary the Minister's recommendation for procedure on a given draft order, but to determine that the part 1 procedure should not apply at all. If such a determination were made, no further draft order to the same effect, albeit perhaps tweaked a little, should be laid within two years of the determination date. If we were to adopt such a procedure, we would need to examine the role and powers of the responsible Committee following a consideration of the Standing Orders. Has the Minister had any discussions with the Leader of the House about the implications of such a change?
The Regulatory Reform Committee also thought that serious consideration should be given in the House and Committee to the need to reinforce parliamentary procedures. Three proposals were put forward in the special report, but I shall not go through them now because they are comprehensively covered in the report. All I ask is that hon. Members consider them carefully and give their views to the Minister and members of the Standing Committee. It is the view of the Regulatory Reform Committee that none of the proposals would alter the Bill or extend the scrutiny period beyond that which the Cabinet Office states that it needs. I have no doubt that the hon. Members who are selected to serve
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on the Standing Committeeif the Bill is not considered by a Committee of the whole Housewill want to consider carefully the Bill alongside the thoughts expressed in the Regulatory Reform Committee's special report. I look forward to not only the Minister's closing remarks, but his response to the report before the Bill is considered in Committee.