Rob Marris: The Government have listened to the arguments. They might not have accepted them all, but they have listenedhence the fairly fundamental amendments before us. If amendments that we shall consider today and tomorrow are acceptedit is up to the House whether they arefairly fundamental safeguards will be in the Bill. There are the five locks of
constitutional safeguards. As I said in my intervention on my hon. Friend the Minister, my parliamentary neighbour, I have concerns that we will end up with the same kind of Bill this year that we did five years agocompletely unworkable in the way that most Members would wish because of those safeguards. He referred to the Game Act 1831, which is why the wonderful Bridgewaters butcher that is about 100 m from where I live has a sign outside it. I am sure that Bob will be happy to dispense with that sign.
I suspect that most hon. Members would be happy if such regulation were got rid of. On the other hand, dealing with major tax increasesor tax cuts, which might still be allowed under clause 5would not be appropriate under the Bill. There are five locks and among other things they involve two Select Committeesone in this House and one in the other place. Select Committees, certainly in this House, have traditionally had a majority who are members of the Government party. That is the way in which this House has operated since Select Committees were formedin 1971 or whenever. Anyone who thinks that a Select Committee Chairman or his or her members are patsies have not served on one as I have. I refer not just to my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) or whoever his successor might be. I have never come across a Select Committee member who is a patsy. Select Committees will put a block and a lock on a proposal if it is controversial, as I think amendment No. 56 says.
Alison Seabeck: Talking about locks, what seems to be missing in this debate is what the public think. The publics expression of concern over the Bill has had quite a significant impact on the drafting of amendments. We forget that.
Rob Marris: Indeed concern was expressed outside the House. I suspect that much of it was somewhat uninformed in the sense that many of those who expressed concern were not aware of the promises and undertakings given by the then Minister on Second Reading that there would be more safeguardsand there will be if the amendments are passed.
I speak in favour of the amendments, but I caution my hon. Friend, the present Minister, to be careful that the pendulum does not swing too far the other way so that, if I am fortunate enough still to be a Member in five years time, I will have to take part in a debate in which people say that the 2006 Act had got rid of only 21 regulations in contradistinction to 19 or whatever it was under the 2001 legislation. Frankly, that will have wasted a whole bunch of the Houses time.
The Bill is the ultimate guillotine for debate and discussion.[ Official Report, 9 February 2006; Vol. 442, c. 1079.]
My concerns were not understated, as I cited the Chairman of the Constitution Committee of the House of Lords, who said that the measure was the most constitutionally significant Bill for a generation. The new clause is an incredible improvement, but that does not mean that we should accept it willy-nilly. Unfortunately, the Government
are adept at manipulating the procedures of the House, so we are in danger of being outmanoeuvred again by the Executive, as we do not have the power to press amendments to the new clause until the new clause has been accepted.
Mr. Gummer: For the sake of people outside the House, will my hon. Friend clarify something? Does he agree that the Government introduced a Bill that they knew would not complete its passage through the House with the aim of introducing provisions that ought to have been included in the Bill in the first place and thus are extremely difficult to correct? We should not accept that constitutional extravagance.
Mr. Chope: My right hon. Friend is right. Previous deregulation Bills were subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. The Bill goes much further and wider, but it was not subject to such scrutiny. We can only assume that the Governments motive was to present us with a fait accompli. They tried to seduce us into accepting the provision on the ground that it was not as unreasonable as the original proposal. I very much agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd): in the absence of ministerial assurances on amendments (a) and (b), I am not minded to vote in support of new clause 19 and, indeed, shall register my opposition. If, however, it is accepted and the amendments are put to the vote, we have the chance to make it less odious. At least we will have had the chance to put our concern on the record in the event that the amendments are not tested.
My amendment (b) is an important and necessary measure. I appreciate the support that it has received from Members on both sides of the House, including my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly), Liberal Democrat Members and, by implication, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher). The Minister appeared to suggest that it was a good amendment, but went on to say that he would not support it. Indeed, he said that he would seek to oppose it. Unfortunately, we could not establish what he thought was wrong with it.
removing or reducing any burden, or the overall burdens, resulting directly or indirectly for any person from any legislation.
By my reading, provided that the Minister can establish that the purpose is to remove a burden from one person, even though that would increase the overall burden for 1 million others, there is no reason why he should not use the truncated procedures in the Bill with the limited safeguards that we have debated.
The title of the new clausePower to remove or reduce burdensis disingenuous, and we should add the words, or increase overall burdens. The Government say that they wish to reduce the overall burden, but if that is the case and they do not have a sinister purpose in the Bill, they should accept my amendment (b).
Mr. Chope: I hope that the House will have the chance to divide on it, but I cannot guarantee that, so I am obliged to vote against new clause 19 unless the Minister gives an undertaking at the Dispatch Box to accept amendments (a) and (b). That is the only way in which we can proceed because, following the initiative that the Government have taken, humble Back Benchers cannot vote on the amendments before we vote on the new clause. As Chairman of the Procedure Committee, my right hon. Friend deserves a great deal of credit for the fact that we have two days of debate. Originally, the Government intended that we should have only one day of debate, as they knew that they wanted to make substantial amendments to the Bill. That would have squeezed even more the opportunity for Back Benchers to comment.
This is an important Bill. I had the privilege of speaking against it on Second Reading, and I served on the Standing Committee. As a result of our efforts in Committee, the Government have begun to see sense, but they still have a long way to go. I look forward to the Minister accepting amendments (a) and (b). As for amendment (c), which proposes that the new clause apply only to public general Acts, it is regrettable that he still insists that it should apply much more widely to local acts, Orders in Council, orders, rules, regulations and so on, as set out in subsection (6). The Bill would be better if the provision were confined to public general Acts. The only local Act that the Government have been able to cite is the Covent Garden Market Act 1961. If they used a truncated provision to change the legislation governing the Covent Garden Market Authority, it could have a severe impact on people who use the authority, businesses that rely on it, landowners and so on. Why should such local legislation not be subject to the full rigour of scrutiny and debate? People may believe that local Acts are less significant, but they are often supremely significant to people who live in the locality that is affected. Under procedures in this Parliament, they may not receive notice of proposed changes until it is too late and the measure has been considered by the Regulatory Reform Committee. The Bill should extend only to public general Acts, not to local Acts.
Mr. Gummer: Has my right hon. Friend noticed that there is nothing in the Bill to stop the Government changing Acts of Parliament passed by the House but prepared by the General Synod of the Church of England? Under the new clause, they could change without question something decided by that forum, which underlines the fact that the provision is nonsense.
Mr. Chope: My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point that I hope will be reflected in amendments tabled in another place. It is a pity that we have not had a chance to consider amendments along those lines on Report.
The Government have a secret agenda in relation to the Bill. It has been exposed to an extent and they have had to pull back from the high watermark of what they
were trying to achieve by way of suppressing parliamentary debate and scrutiny. They have fallen back to an intermediate line, which is still too high in terms of what we are giving up as scrutineers of legislation in Parliament. I hope that the Minister will give us assurances that he will go further and provide more safeguards than new clause 19 contains.
This has been a complicated debate, not helped by the Governments ineptitude over recent months in taking the Bill through the House. The Government new clauses, including new clause 19, were tabled very late, which has not been satisfactory or productive. Here we are, on Report, debating the main clause, which was tabled only a few days ago.
The process of the Bill has been bizarre. I have never seen anything like it. On Second Reading, the Government were saying that the Bill was purely a tool for delivering their better regulation agenda. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) and I rebutted that on Second Reading. We said that it was a gross understatement of the purpose of what became the abolition of Parliament Bill. We argued that, as a constitutional Bill, it should have had its Committee stage on the Floor of the House. The Government chose not to listen to us, but in retrospect they probably wish they had.
The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) rightly mentioned the lack of preparation. By the time of the Procedure Committee on 7 February, the then Minister said that he would be able to respond to the Regulatory Reform Committees recommendations in good time, in advance of the Standing Committee, but when the Standing Committee started on 28 February, the Government had given their response to Committee members only the day before and no Government amendments had been tabled, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) correctly pointed out in Committee.
The timing of the proceedings has been unsatisfactory throughout. My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) mentioned that in his intervention and noted that that is becoming increasingly common on the Governments part, although it is particularly the case in relation to the Bill. Not least for these reasons, my noble Friends in another place may well want to review carefully the implications of the clause, which has been impossible for us, because of the lack of time and the fact that the Government ripped out the main clauses of the Bill. Even now, they are tabling amendments to change the title of the Bill.
Government new clause 19, which was tabled only a few days ago, has, along with new clauses 20 and 21, the effect of replacing clauses 1 and 2. These changes, or perhaps I should say climbdowns, will refocus orders that are to be introduced under the Bill towards deregulation, as advocated by the Conservative party since Second Reading. Since the Bills publication in January, we have consistently expressed grave concerns that the powers granted to the Government were too widely drawn and would result in a severe weakening of
parliamentary power, the sidelining of legislative scrutiny and the possibility of a move towards ministerial authoritarian rule.
As my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire noted, we were happy with the Governments announcement on 12 April that they had effectively agreed with the framework arguments advanced over the past few months from the Conservative Benches. We therefore welcome the new clause, which aims to focus the Bill on genuine deregulatory matters, although it would have been helpful to see the new clauses sooner, not least because of the widespread interest in the subject and our belief that other, later amendments should go further than the Government are prepared to accept.
The Conservative party has always supported measures that would result in the provision of a swift tool for delivering regulatory reform. However, we wanted to ensure that such a tool would not pose a serious challenge to the concept of parliamentary supremacy, which is a central element of the United Kingdoms unwritten constitution. Our policy is aimed at reducing the harm caused to the country by over-regulation introduced by the Government since 1997. The cost of regulation during that period is estimated to have surpassed £50 billion a year, despite the Labour partys manifestos for the 1997, 2001 and 2005 general elections promising to regulate only where necessary and to deregulate where desirable.
The over-regulation of business is a massive drain on the economy, leads to an inefficient bureaucracy, strangles small businesses and wastes the valuable time of thousands of police officers, nurses, teachers and people in the private sector on filling in forms.
Rob Marris: The hon. Gentleman mentioned the sum of £50 billion. Quite a large part of that calculation, which I think was made by the British Chambers of Commerce, refers to the national minimum wage. Is he saying that he opposes the national minimum wage as a regulatory burden?
Over-regulation is severely damaging Britains international economic competitiveness. As my hon. Friend reminded us, according to the World Economic Forum, between 1997 and 2005, the UK slipped from fourth to 13th in the list of the most competitive countries. The London School of Economics has cited over-regulation as one of the main causes of that decline. Small companies have been disproportionately hit, which is why in new clause 9 we propose that any Minister making an order under part 1 powers must ensure that it is deregulatory as it relates to small business.
That is also why, in new clause 17, my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) seeks to ensure that, where a fast-track deregulation order is made in connection with a provision concerning our EU obligations, it should be legally binding and effective. The Minister responded that that was an attempt to change policy, but my hon. Friends amendment deserves a more considered approach. I look forward to hearing the Ministers views.
Mr. Cash: In the context of legislative supremacy and the role of the judiciary, and in the context of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, will my hon. Friend confirm that, irrespective of the rule of law, which insists that they should be independent, it is the duty of judges to give effect to Acts of Parliament, as has been historically, legally and constitutionally the case for generations?
My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) and the hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher) and for Cambridge (David Howarth) expressed concern that the Bill could be used for a wider purpose than striking out business regulations. An example given was the abolition of jury trials. The Minister, fairly, showed the lack of clarity in the 2001 Act and how clauses 5 and 6 answered the important points made, but he did not go far enough. There is more to come out in that respect, probably in the other place. Following an intervention from my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), it turned out that the restrictions relating to tax relate only to increases in tax.
The hon. Gentleman properly noted that Standing Orders of the House will need to be reviewed in the context of the Bill. I enjoyed hearing his views on the sugar beet order, or rather, the problems in getting rid of it.
The hon. Members for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and for Cambridge made many valuable points in the debate, not least identifying the posing threat of the laws forcing the Government to review the scope of the Bill in the first place, and also in reducing the scope of the Executive to interpret the provisions of the Bill. Their explanation of why amendment (a) should introduce the word reasonably to create objectivity rather than ministerial subjectivity was persuasive.
I agreed with many of the sentiments about the growth of the power of the Executive and the serious consequences that could follow from that, not least in relation to the Bill, expressed by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central, but he should have a quick read of the debate on Second Reading, including my remarks.