|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
I will not take this matter any further today, but it is a fact that now we will either have to wait until the next piece of legislation that would enable identifiers to be introducedwhich, given the nature of this place and this Parliament, will be a long time comingor we will have to wait for a different Government to put the balance right. I accept that this matter has twice been referred back to the other place. This House has done its duty. It has drawn more than attention to this matter. It will not go away; but, for today, I do not intend to press the matter to a vote.
Lord Rennard: My Lords, the Bill does much to improve the quality of electoral administration in this country and will therefore make a significant contribution to improving the health of our democracy. It makes significant improvements to electoral legislation as we left it in 2000. We have clearly all learnt lessons since then about the issues that we failed to addressin particular, those relating to loans to parties and the potential for postal vote fraud in the 2000 legislation. But there is still very much more to do on some of these issues, and I think that the evidence just given by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, is something to which we shall return in due course.
We have made progress on these issuesin particular, with the assistance of the noble Lord, Lord Elder, on tightening up the potential for postal vote fraud. We have ensured that a person who returns a postal vote is the same person who applied for it, and that is very welcome. But we have not yet ensured that the person who applies for and returns a postal vote is the same person as listed on the electoral register, and I think that we shall return to that issue at some point in the future.
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and others for the enormous effort that they have made on this legislation. We should be of good cheerit is a good Bill. I know that we have to do more, but we have committed to continue to work post-legislatively in examining these issues. I hope that, in passing the Bill, noble Lords will recognise that this is important legislation and that it has been completed with the help and support of noble Lords on all sides of the House.
Lord Goodhart: By objecting to Clause 1, it looks as though I am trying to wreck the Bill, but that is not the intention. My intention is simply to probe the circumstances and I want to know, in particular, why we are having this considerably extensive new Bill instead of merely amending the Regulatory Reform Act 2001. We debated this issue to some extent on the Motion moved last week concerning whether the House should go into Committeethe noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, and others spoke on that occasionbut I think that it is necessary to go over these issues fairly briefly again.
I believe that it would have been much better to begin with amendments to the 2001 Act. Following changes to the Bill, in what way does it differ from that Act? Several of the differences are set out in a letter of 27 June from the Minister to me and in the annex to that letter. I accept that Parts 2 and 3 of the Bill are new and that they would be additions rather than amendments to the 2001 Act, but perhaps I may compare what we now find in Part 1 of the Bill with what is in the Act.
Four changes have been proposed by the Government. First, they say that the procedure under the 2001 Act is too onerous. That may well be true, and I acknowledged that at Second Reading. It is supported by two examples in the annex to the Minister's letter. Therefore, we shall need amendments to replace some sections of the 2001 Act with Clauses 13 to 20 of the Bill but I do not believe that that would be a fundamental change. Secondly, under the 2001 Act, there is a need to remove a legal burden. There is no power to remove an administrative or financial burden which does not remove any legal burden. Again, I accept that as desirable, but it requires only a short and simple amendment to the 2001 Act.
Thirdly, there is an inability under the 2001 Act to use the procedure under that Act to change legislation within the previous two years. No example is given of any problem that has arisen, but it simply requires the removal of a few words in Section 1(2)(a) and (4) of the 2001 Act. Fourthly, there is an inability under the 2001 Act to confer powers of delegated legislation by order. It is highly questionable whether that is desirable, but again if it were desirable it could be dealt with by a short amendment. Finally, there is the absence of any power under the 2001 Act to remove burdens arising other than from the carrying on of activities. That again needs only a very short amendment.
Therefore, four short amendments are needed to the substantive provisions of the 2001 Act plus a rather more substantial amendment to the sections dealing with procedure. Why did the Government not start from there instead of pressing for excessive powers to amend primary legislation? The suspicion is
10 July 2006 : Column 485
Lord Norton of Louth: I, too, oppose Clause 1 standing part of the Bill. The clause now constitutes the principal mischief in the Bill. In essence, it is a Trojan horse; it may never be used as such but the potential is there. The institution under threat from the inclusion of the clause is Parliament itself. Why is this clause before us? We have not had a satisfactory answer, either in respect of process or substance? By process, I refer to the Bill being brought before us without being subjected to any pre-legislative scrutiny. The explanation given is that the Bill is urgent. History demonstrates that any Bill brought forward by Government on the grounds of urgency requires the most careful scrutiny. What urgency attaches to the provisions of this clause? There is a case for getting rid of red tape and unnecessary bureaucracy, but that is not in itself sufficient to justify bringing forward this measure and trying to get it passed in best Yes Minister style, before Parliament has had an opportunity to grasp its full implications.
Picking up on what the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, said, if there are particular burdens that need to be removed urgently, what are they? In our discussions so far we have not been awash with examples. Which of the few examples listed in the annex to the Minister's letter of 27 June justify rushed legislation? At best, the Minister has made the case for some action to be taken, but not for it to be treated as urgent. Indeed, I remind the Minister what his colleague, the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, said only a few minutes ago about the Electoral Administration Bill: we should make changes that affect our democratic arrangements only with great care. I believe that this Bill impinges on our system of representative parliamentary government.
We still wait for a compelling, substantive case to be made for the provisions of this clause. As I pointed out at Second Reading, the motivation for this clause is that officials find the mechanisms under the 2001 Act overly difficult. The problem, as I argued, lies within government, not Parliament. The Ministers letter of 27 June, to which frequent reference was made in our earlier discussions, concedes that the Government consider the provisions onerous and complex. As the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, points out in the annex to the letter, departments perceive that RROs are disproportionately onerous.
Even if we accept that the existing mechanisms are problematic for officials, that does not make a case for the clause as drafted. It may make the case for finding some alternative methods to the existing one, but it does not demonstrate that the provisions of this clause create a preferable method. All the Government have done so far is make a case against the provisions in the 2001 Act. They have not made a case for the provisions in Clause 1.
There are alternatives. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, pointed out that one could have an amendment to the 2001 Act. At Second Reading, my noble friend Lord Goschen raised the prospect of a deregulation Bill. If such a Bill was brought forward on a regularsay, biennialbasis, it would avoid all the problems associated with the clause. It would be confined to those burdens that the Government say they wish to be removed. Minor burdens incorporated into such a Bill would presumably require little attention; more significant ones would attract greater scrutiny. It would probably lessen the burden on departments, since they would not need to bring forward the mass of different orders that they will presumably have to bring forward if the provisions of the clause are as necessary as we are told. Above all, a regular deregulation Bill would avoid the major constitutional implications arising from the provisions of the Bill; principally, this clause.
Lord Jenkin of Roding: I, too, have questioned the clauses necessity, and will certainly not repeat the arguments I adduced both at Second Reading and when I spoke on the Motion to go into Committee. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, was kind enough to say that he agreed with everything I said but that he could not support me. That is a familiar syndrome from those Benches.
The problem we facecertainly on this side of the Committeeis that, in crude terms, the Government have form on enabling legislation. That is why my noble friend Lord Onslow, who will no doubt be joining us at some stage, has said that he deeply mistrusts giving these legislative powers to Ministers to be exercised by order. When one adds the powerful arguments of my noble friend Lord Norton on why we have not yet been told what the urgency for the Bill is, I maintain the view that the Government would do much better to take the Bill away. After all, it has had a pretty chequered passage in another place. When we discuss the amendment of my noble friend Lord Waddington, we will come to some of the arguments adduced on his case: the Government have had massive changes of mindnot just once, but twice and three timeson what they want to see in this Bill.
The clause contains a dangerous power: the power for Ministers to legislate, and to repeal and amend existing legislation, by order. To my mind, it is incumbent on this House to demand a clear exposition from the Governmenta much clearer one than anything we have had from the Ministerjustifying the immediate need for it instead of a much simpler, shorter Bill, amending the 2001 Act, as the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, said.
We are faced with the demand that this legislation should be rushed through in this Session of Parliament. The Report stage will be in October on the timetable scheduled for the Bill. It will then have
10 July 2006 : Column 487
I believe that this Government would, after the changes made in the Commons, have taken the matter away were it not that this would have been seen as a most tremendous loss of face. One thing that the Prime Minister in particular and his Ministers in general simply cannot abide is any thought that they should lose face any further than they have already. I totally support the case made that we should not let this clause go through.
Lord Kingsland: Two fundamental matters distinguish what was in this Bill, as it originally appeared in another place, from the 2001 Bill. The first one was the attempt by the Government to blur the distinction between primary and secondary legislation. The second was to introduce a new procedure for Law Commission proposals. The first was abandoned on Report in another place. The second is to be abandoned this afternoon by the noble Baroness when she speaks to Clause 3.
What is left is, essentially, the 2001 Bill in slightly different form. Is there anything we can do to rescue the Government from their dilemma of having to carry on with the time-consuming passage of this Bill? Yes, there is. It is to transform Clause 1. How should we transform Clause 1? We should transform it by reminding ourselves why the Government said they were introducing the Bill in the first place. They said they were introducing the Bill to implement the Hampton report.
It is a very important report, which has many wise things to say about regulation. Its fundamental message is that regulation should be proportionate to risk. That is the core message that we receive from its author. Where do we find that message in the Bill? Nowhere. Where should it be? It should be in Clause 1. Instead of that we have essentially the same language from the 2001 Act which the Government have repeatedly described as an Act that has failed.
So I share the views of all those who have spoken to this clause stand part Motion this afternoon: that we should remove the text of Clause 1, keep what is in the 2001 Act, and use Clause 1 to state in a very clear way the principles that appear in Hampton. This clause should be about deregulation. Why is it cast so widely when the purpose of the Bill is, solely, to promote deregulation?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I am grateful as ever to those noble Lords who have contributed to this short debate, but it is a rerun of a debate we had at Second Reading, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, said, a debate we had before we entered into the Committee stage. There appears to be a measure of agreement among noble Lords on the Opposition
10 July 2006 : Column 488
So there is a measure of agreement, but there is also a measure of disagreement in the views of opposition Members about how we should improve or modify the Bill. At the heart of it, for opposition Members, the question remains why we did not simply amend the 2001 Act. Of course, we could have done and the Bill clearly builds on the strengths of that Act. However, if we had amended the 2001 Act, the legislation would have been spread over two enactments. It would have been messy and, I would argue, difficult to use by departments which must deliver better regulation. If anything can be learnt from the experience of the 2001 Act, it is that it must be clear how departments can deliver better regulation by order.
What is really important here is evidence about why the Bill should work better, and deliver more than the 2001 Act, and specifically what the Government intend to deliver through the Bill. This is what I shall focus on in responding to the points made by Members of the Committee.
What is clear from the debate in this House is that we all agree that there is a need to deregulate. What has been lacking so far is the actual and swift delivery of wide-ranging better regulation measures to effect real change on the ground. The order-making power in Clause 1 will allow us to remove or reduce burdens in a way that the 2001 Act did not.
The definition of burden in the Bill is substantially different from that in the 2001 Act. It is outcome-focusedfocused on why legislation should be reformed, rather than on how legislation can be reformed. What I mean by that is that the 2001 Act required disproportionate and sometimes nugatory analysis. The department proposing an order had to carry out a large amount of legal analysis on whether the proposal removed, reduced, re-enacted or imposed specific legal restrictions, requirements, conditions, sanctions or limits on statutory powers. The analysis required by the 2001 Act often had little to do with the desired better regulation outcome of, for instance, reduced costs on business or charitable organisations. It is certainly not as direct as the current definition of burden, which will require Ministers to focus on the financial costs or obstacles to productivity that the order would reduce or remove.
Those stakeholders whom we consulted argued forcefully that orders should be an outcome-focused tool to deliver better regulation. To cite but one of those consulted, the Federation of Small Businesses told us:
The concept of a burden as a legal one means that there is a wide gap between what the small business man or woman would consider to be a burden and what a legislatoror even an enforcerwould consider to be a burden.
The new definition of burden in the Bill does exactly this: it forces those using the order-making power in Clause 1 to focus on the practical benefits that the order will deliver; it forces those using the order-making power to focus on the financial cost, administrative inconvenience, obstacle to efficiency, profitability or productivity or sanctions that the order will reduce or remove. That is not necessarily about reducing analysis that has proved a disincentive for departments use of the 2001 Act, but about ensuring that the analysis and evidence is proportionate and is focused on the costs and impacts, on the economic, financial and other practical evidence that reforms are worth while. It is also about ensuring that the policy makers and economists focus on the evidence that demonstrates why a proposal is necessary. The change in emphasis that the definition of burden in Clause 1 requires is therefore completely different from the justification necessary under the 2001 Act.
As we have stated on a number of occasions, the Bill, and Clause 1 in particular, does not stand in isolation and neither can we consider it in a narrowly focused way. The Bill is part of a much wider government agenda of cutting the red tape that is such a burden on the public sector, businesses, charities, and so on. As part of this agenda, the Government are also measuring the costs of all administrative burdens. The outcome of this work and the concerted push across government departments for better regulation will be reflected in concrete simplification plans from each department, to be published later in the year. In those plans, government departments will identify deregulatory measures, which they will deliver with the most appropriate measures available to them.
The Government have also accepted in full Philip Hamptons report on more efficient approaches to regulatory inspection and enforcement, in which he recommended the merger of regulators into seven thematic groups. The Governments better regulation aims have become more ambitious since 2001, when the present Act was devised. We have found that the 2001 Act does not offer the appropriate alternative mechanism that the radical programme of reform demands.
It may be helpful if I cite four examples of generic better regulation proposals which orders under the 2001 Act could not deliver: first, the reduction of administrative burdens if no legal burdens in the narrow technical sense of the original Act are reduced or removed; secondly, delivering uncontroversial Hampton mergers to reduce the burden of inspection and compliance on the regulated; thirdly, the limited power to sub-delegate, which meant that under the 2001 Act carrying risk-based inspections and enforcement through to the detailed level of regulations was more difficult; and fourthly, reducing the burdens on individuals or others that affected them passively rather than actively.
There is recognition here and at EU level of the need to identify and remove administrative burdens. That is why the Government have done their ground-breaking analysis of the cost of all administrative burdens on the regulated. In their simplification plans, departments will set challenging targets to remove unnecessary administrative burdens.
Lord Berkeley: I am very grateful to my noble friend for giving way. I have understood his long and very clear explanation of the benefits of deregulation to the Government, to charities and many other organisations, but he has not once mentioned the effect that it may have on the customers and others on the other side of the coin. Why were these regulations introduced in the first place? Is he investigating at the same time the effect that it will have on the people who might come off worst if these changes are made?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: That is a fair point, and one that is acknowledged in the legislation. It is one of the protections that are part of the process to be gone through. Regulations are put in place from the best of motives. Sometimes it is discovered subsequently that the measure of regulation is not appropriate, does not work, is excessively burdensome and adds costs. The noble Lord asks about the consumers. Some regulations probably cost consumers because of how they operate.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|