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We have attempted in the Bill to improve and strengthen the procedures put in place under the 2001 Act, which built on the 1994 Act put in place by noble Lords opposite when they were in Government. We are trying to ensure this time around that the important work that we have done so far under the 2001 Act can be built on so that it works better and is more precise and better defined. In that way, the protections are there when they need to be and we can remove unnecessary costs and burdens on business and make the regulatory regimes much simpler and easier to understand. This will enable us to bring together the important regulatory bodies, which really should be working together as a single regulator, to work much more coherently and simply.
Noble Lords opposite have a very simple choice to make: either they can join the Government in the important practical work of enhancing and improving our regulatory regimes and ensuring that we do not have regulatory burdens, or they can continue to force the Government to muddle along by deleting the clause. I have not heard a convincing argument from noble Lords opposite against the Governments deregulatory programme. I rather thought that they shared our agenda. If they do not, they and their colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Benches may try to strike out the clause. That retrograde step would send out entirely wrong messages not just within the political system but to the business communities, in particular, and voluntary organisations, which are very much behind this Bill and our attempt to improve the regulatory framework in this country. I hope that the Committee will think long and hard before attempting to wreck or disassemble our Bill, which has virtue and value. That is not just the opinion of the Government, it is more widely held outside your Lordships House. I recommend that Clause 1 stand part of the Bill.
Lord Norton of Louth: I am not sure that the Minister has been listening to the debate. We have put forward an alternative. It is not a simple choice in the way that he has outlined. In so far as he has made a
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Lord Bassam of Brighton: The noble Lord presses the issue of mischief. We have listened carefully throughout the debates in another place, which is why we have brought forward amendments designed to allay some of the wilder fears and concerns that somehow the Government were using this Bill to negate the value of Magna Carta and undermine all previous constitutional legislation. Clearly, that was not our intent. In the end, this is humble legislation intended to do humble things, as I have described in some of our earlier debates and discussions.
If Members of the Committee seriously think that they can improve the Bill by taking out Clause 1, they misunderstand our intentions on deregulating. We want coherent regulatory frameworks and a sensible parliamentary procedure to ensure that, when measures are required to make the regulatory framework simpler and easier for people to work, they do that job.
Lord Goodhart: I am sure that both sides of the Committee recognise the need to deregulate, but in doing so we do not wish to put a weapon in the hands of the present or any future Government which could be used to abuse that objective. I remain unconvinced by what the Minister has said. Saying, for example, that orders should be outcome-directed, seems, basically, jargon. There should be a modest modification of the definition of burdens which appears in Section 2(1) of the 2001 Act. I am not sure that there is such a great difference between the definitions of the 2001 Act and this Bill, which the Minister suggests would make it inappropriate to use the old definition with some modification.
The reasons put up by the Minister for not using the 2001 Act are inadequately argued. As I indicated, this was introduced as a probing measure. It is therefore not my intention to vote against the Question that Clause 1 stand part. We will obviously consider what the Minister has said to see whether there is any practicable course to enable us to use this Bill to amend the 2001 Act, which is where I think it should have started.
The noble Baroness said: The new order-making powers in Clause 1 are significant. If Parliament does confer these powers on Ministers, it is important that
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Baroness Carnegy of Lour: I support the amendment moved by my noble friend. It should not be difficult for the Government to accept it. They will know which burdens have been removed, which have been simplified and which have been imposed. From that they will know the impact of the orders. If they do not know these things, they should.
Hope springs eternal, but I wonder whether any more orders will be brought forward under Clause 1 as it stands. As I said at Second Reading, my experience of the previous system makes me wonder whether there are sufficient improvements here to achieve the swift delivery of lots of orders, a point made by the noble Lord in the previous debate. If there are many more orders, it is particularly important to ensure that the outcome is brought before Parliament once a year so that we can see whether this clause, one which makes us all anxious, has the effect the Government are hoping for.
Lord Norton of Louth: I support my noble friends amendment, which is an extremely sensible and rather modest proposal. If Clause 1 is to remain, this should be the first of several amendments accepted by the Government. The amendment would provide two benefits: first, it would impose a useful discipline on the Government in drawing the material together, which might be valuable in itself; secondly, it would inform Parliament about what is being done under this measure so that we will have at least this mechanism for evaluating whether it is having the effect the Minister has said is intended.
Lord Goodhart: My name is attached to this amendment, which we support. The considerable power conferred on Ministers by this Bill, if passed, needs to be monitored properly by Parliament and therefore requires an annual report as proposed here.
Viscount Bledisloe: I am a little puzzled by the amendment. I assume that the noble Baronesss purpose is to encourage departments to make orders that would remove burdens. It you make an order removing a burden, you will have put into the report
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Lord Jenkin of Roding: The noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, makes a very good point and no doubt we shall wish to return to it. It is not only Ministers and government departments who will need the information my noble friends amendment would provide, but also all those from whom burdens will have been liftednotably those in industry and commerce, which are the bodies calling for more deregulation.
I suggest that it needs the input of industry, commerce, small firms and large companies. They are better placed to assess the priorities of deregulation than are government departments.[Official Report, 13/6/06; col. 140.]
One of the effects of my noble friends amendmentand I can understand why the Government may hesitate to accept itwill be to reveal the paucity of reports that are likely to come forward as a result of anything in the Bill. The Government will not want to advertise that.
The people who need to know what is being done are those who are enduring the burdens of over-regulation. As the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, and others have said, we are all in favour of dealing with this mass of over-regulation with which we seem somehow to have saddled ourselves. We will need to know what has been achieved which, I think, is at the heart of my noble friends amendmentand, as the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, said, what has not been achieved.
I hope we shall return to the very interesting response that the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, gave to an amendment brought forward by my noble friend Lady Wilcox on the first day in Committee. He said that perhaps we should have some sort of procedure by which those who are subject to burdens can initiate a process to make sure they are properly considered. The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, is nodding that that is what he implied. I thought that was one of the most hopeful things to come out of last Mondays debates and I hope we shall hear more about it. But it will need both sides. We may not have achieved very much and very much more still remains to be achieved. It seems to me that our old friends, openness and transparency, require the Government to accept the amendment.
Lord Berkeley: Noble Lords who have spoken to the amendment have been talking up the benefits of removing burdens from big business, small business and many other people, and a report to Parliament, on the face of it, sounds a very good idea. However, the problem with removing burdens from business is
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Lord Stoddart of Swindon: I hope the same because not all regulation is bad. However, this Bill is about deregulation and, as such, we ought to make sure that it comes into operation properly and that Parliament is informed of what is happening. That is why I support the amendment.
There are two other reasons why I support it. First, the amendment, if accepted, would impose a discipline on Ministers and their departments thoroughly to examine whether or not regulations are necessary, and then to bring forward to Parliament proposals for deregulation. Parliament will then, presumably, be able to debate the proposals to see whether they comply with what it wants. So, it is a good disciplinary amendment.
Secondly, we are often told when we ask questions that this information is not kept centrally. Of course, in order to see how deregulation is proceeding, it will be necessary for us to know what the position is overall and not department by department. The amendment would require the Government and departments to have centrally held information to enable Parliament to debate deregulation realistically. I therefore hope the Minister will accept the amendment.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: This is an amendment with which I am familiar, in the sense that noble Lords opposite frequently table a reporting amendment to Bills to ensure that the standard and threshold of holding the Government to account are raised. I have some sympathy with that intent; reporting should certainly be part of the process. Yet admirable though this amendment is, ultimately I cannot support it. However, I can certainly support its spirit and advise your Lordships that we have already given a very clear commitment to having a review process. My honourable friend Mr McFadden gave that commitment in another place during a debate on a similar amendment.
We certainly support the idea that we should constantly look at how well the reforms are working. It was in part the review of the 2001 Act which persuaded us that we needed a rather more dramatic piece of legislation that would be more effective. So, if you like, a review of the legislative framework has already had an impact. It has meant that we have tried to design better procedures for the process of deregulating.
We also believe that all departments should keep their legislation under review. That is why the Government set up the Panel on Regulatory Accountabilitythe PRA chaired by the Prime Minister, and why there are regulatory reform Ministers in each of the main regulatory departments. That is also why there is a Better Regulation Commission, keeping an eye on them all.
Departments are currently reviewing their regulations and drafting simplification plans, which include measures to reduce administrative burdens on business and the public and voluntary sectors. These will be published by the time of the PBR, later this year. The Better Regulation Commission will provide independent advice to government from business and other external stakeholders about new regulatory proposals and the Government's overall regulatory performance. It will continue the challenge role carried out by the Better Regulation Task Force.
It is perhaps worth saying that since 1 January this year, the commission has taken on a new responsibility to review the simplification plans that government departments and some independent regulators are preparing. The commission sits on the PRA committee reviewing the plans; and its opinion of a departments plan will be made public at the time of the plans publication.
Departments will be required to revise these plans annually; as part of that, they will include details of simplifications delivered, including orders made the previous year. All departments are also obliged to report on their better regulation work as part of their annual reports, as they have done for the past two years. That picks up something referred to by the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, with regard to a wider review to look at areas where the deregulatory genie has not yet reached. Members of your Lordships' House will be aware that while debating a similar amendment in another place, we gave very clear commitments.
In addition to departmental reports, we would expect departmental Select Committees to report on the annual reports I referred to, as appropriate. The Commons Regulatory Reform Committee, with its new expanded remit, will also take interest in these reports and departmental simplification plans.
Although I agree that we should be open to reviewing orders, it would be unnecessarily prescriptive to write that into the Bill. I am sure that Members of your Lordships' House share my view and that of Members in another place that there must be a cultural shift within Whitehall as a whole to deliver the real benefits on the ground to those who are being regulated. While we debate the Bill here, it may seem as though we are debating something in isolation, but Members of your Lordships' House may not see in the same way the work being carried out throughout the departments. There is a much greater desire to move the deregulatory agenda on and the Bill is a reflection of that, not an absolute in itself.
The amendment would impose an annual reporting cycle on the Government, which would be an unnecessary burden and may well deflect attention from the important work done by the task force, the commission and the various committees that look at regulations. It would be contrary to the spirit and the purpose of the Bill. Although I understand and sympathise with the desire to have annual reports, in the end it would be counter productive.
The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, referred to comments that I made in earlier debates, possibly when I was summarising the portal that we have set up to encourage
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Baroness Carnegy of Lour: The Minister talks about producing this report as a burden. He has given us a great description of the many excellent internal arrangements that will try to get more and better deregulation. But for goodnesss sake, you cannot describe as a burden the Governments duty, having legislated for a Bill about which Parliament has many doubts, to tell Parliament how it is working. It will not be difficult at all because they will know the answer to all those questions. The only one that might present slight difficulties is the question of how much impact there has been in a short space of time, but I suspect that the people to whom the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, referredthose who are disadvantaged by any measurewill soon talk about the impact. They will not wait a year to do it. It is extraordinary in this case, where we have a Bill that Parliament is doubtful about, to say that the Government think that the report would be a burden.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: In all these things, I would argue that we have to be proportionate. The amendment calls for an annual report and other amendments would place reporting obligations on the Government. An annual report is disproportionate in terms of its likely impact on the deregulatory process. It may hamper some of the deregulatory work.
Pat McFadden gave an undertaking to report on the working of the Act within five years of it coming into effect. That is a sensible approach, because it will enable the Government to reflect on where there are strengths and weaknesses in how the legislation works, consider the legislations effectiveness, pick up on all the detailed work that I described earlier in responding to the amendment and enable us to publicise and promote the progress that has already been made. It is for that practical reason, and a desire to let civil servants and officials get on with the job, that encourages me to think that the amendment is excessive in its impact.
Perhaps I should also put on record that the simplification plans that I referred to will be
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Baroness Wilcox: I am impressed and delighted by the number of people who have taken part in this debate. I was happy to hear the warm words of the Minister, and I thought that we were getting somewhere; but now I feel that we are not. We are back in the debate that we had on the 2001 Bill, saying all these warm things.
The Minister says that he wants this to be dramatic and effectivebut dramatic and effective means the transparency of a formal reporting system. I pick up on the point made so well by the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, whom I am delighted to see taking part in debates on these amendments. I hope that he will stay with us throughout all this, because the points that he makes are certainly being picked up elsewhere. But if the Bill requires every Minister from every department and his senior officials to report to Parliament, it will be self-evident when they have failed to pick up something or have done nothing. It will all be there for us to see.
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