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("( ) The period for consultation under subsection (1) shall be a minimum of eight weeks from the time of publication of the invitation to make submissions.").

The noble Lord said: The aim of this amendment is similar to the one that I have just moved. Like the previous amendment, it is designed to bring the provisions of the clause into line with the provisions of the draft code of practice on written consultation.

The Explanatory Memorandum states that the Government intend to apply the code to all their consultation exercises under which, as a general rule, 12 weeks should be allowed for consultation. In fact, the code states:

That is criterion 5 under the code. It goes on to say:

    "Inadequate time for responses is the single greatest cause of annoyance to people consulted by government".

The case for an adequate period of time for consultation is well made in the code. It stresses that eight weeks may be particularly inadequate if a substantial holiday period falls within it. In the education sector, it is not unknown for consultation periods to begin during or just after the start of the summer vacation and to close at or shortly after term resumes. The code suggests a norm of 12 weeks. That is fine.

However, the Bill is silent on the period for consultation. The clause stipulates that the Minister "shall" consult, but it does not say how long he must allow for that consultation. Given the importance of the Bill--I keep stressing the importance of the Bill throughout our debates--there is a case for including a minimum period. That is what my amendment does. It is in line with the draft code, stipulating a minimum period of eight weeks.

I recognise that the Minister may raise three objections. The first is that an eight-week minimum is in danger of becoming an eight-week norm. I recognise that danger. However, the inclusion of a minimum period is justified, not least in ensuring that no Minister is tempted to rush the consultation and in reassuring those who may be affected by the measure that there will be that period of consultation. It is better to have that minimum in the Bill and a norm established by the code than to have no period protected in the Bill.

The second objection that may be advanced is that it will be for Parliament to check that the period of consultation has been adequate and that the Minister has complied with the code. That is a fair point but it is not conclusive. It does not provide as strong a discipline as a minimum period clearly stipulated by statute.

However, I readily concede that an alternative way of addressing the point covered by my amendment would be to stipulate that the period of consultation must normally be 12 weeks and that any shorter period

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would require the Minister making a special case for it in the document he lays before Parliament. It would then be for Parliament to decide whether the case for a shorter period were justified.

The third objections is that there may be cases where consultation needs to be completed in less than eight weeks. The code states:

    "Where a question of real urgency arises, the consultation period may exceptionally have to be under eight weeks".

Given the nature of this Bill, I do not believe that a shorter period is necessary and it is certainly not desirable. It would still require the 60 days for parliamentary scrutiny before the order is laid so I think there is no scope for "fast-tracking" an order.

I do not believe that those objections outweigh the benefits of including a time period within the Bill. I have indicated an alternative to my amendment, should that be felt to be preferable to the amendment that I have tabled. But, either way, I do not believe that the Bill should remain silent as to the time to be devoted to consultation. The period contained within the code of practice seems sensible and that is what the Government say they intend to follow. So why not put it in the Bill? I beg to move.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: The noble Lord, Lord Norton, has very adequately answered his own proposition. Not only has he given three excellent arguments on the basis that I was going to bring them forward, but he has proposed an alternative to his own amendment. I agree with all those arguments, but not with his conclusion.

Of course, we have no intention whatever of pushing through a regulatory reform order with inadequate time for consultation. We must take account of the guidance on consultation documents which has been produced by the Cabinet Office. It requires 12 weeks to be the norm. The noble Lord was quite right to say in his first argument that if eight weeks were provided, that would become the norm. Of course, in any case, if the norm is not adhered to, Ministers must provide their reasons for that.

With this amendment, we should lose all the flexibility which is necessary when all parties, including Parliament and including committees, agree that rapid consultation might be justified. Let us suppose that we were in a situation whereby something had gone through public consultation; had become urgent because, for example, of a court judgment which altered the interpretation of the law; and for which there was great pressure to remove burdens. If we said, "Sorry, we cannot do it because we have only seven weeks and six days instead of eight weeks so we cannot do it in time to meet, for example, the deadline of midnight on 31st December", we should be a laughing stock.

In addition to the three arguments which the noble Lord, Lord Norton, put forward against his own amendment, I have a fourth one; namely, that the committees can look at the adequacy of the consultation period, including the adequacy of the time given to it, and if they do not like it, they can move

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against it and we shall have to pay attention to them. So there are four excellent arguments against the amendment.

Lord Norton of Louth: The Minister has restated the arguments that I advanced. The only discussion may be as to whether I advanced them even better than the Minister or whether he advanced them better than I did.

My purpose in putting forward those arguments was not so much to undertake a balancing test but to anticipate what the Minister was going to say and to explain why I thought those objections did not outweigh the argument in favour of the amendment. As the Minister acknowledged, I indicated an alternative to what I had put forward. He did not undermine the case for the alternative by his reference to the possible need for speed, because that would be covered by the alternative which I mentioned. I appreciate that the Minister had to respond to the amendment that I had tabled.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: The noble Lord, Lord Norton, has anticipated what I was going to say, which is that I respond to amendments that are on the Marshalled List. Of course, I shall read what he has said about his alternative amendment and, as always, I shall consider it.

5.30 p.m.

Lord Norton of Louth: I fully accept that the Minister, quite properly, was answering the amendment that I had tabled for this stage. I mentioned the alternative, as an improvement, in order to be helpful, in case the Minister wanted to indicate the way in which the Government would want to proceed.

I do not believe that the objections hold water. The principle of putting something into the Bill is important for ensuring that there is a statutory period and, returning to our discussion on an earlier amendment, as the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, mentioned, for sending out a message to those who are affected by the measure, so that they know that period is there. It is important for those reasons as well.

The other point raised by the Minister, which I anticipated, was on the period limit if it were considered that something needed to be put through quickly. I am not necessarily persuaded by what he said because there is an alternative. I believe that if something were felt to be so important, perhaps on the basis of a court case or, as he suggested, because of widespread public concern that something must be done--although one has to be wary of that kind of pressure--the Government have an alternative which is called primary legislation.

I am not persuaded by the Minister's response to the arguments that I have advanced. I have indicated an alternative and so I shall not press my amendment at this stage. I want to explore whether it would be better to table the alternative for later discussion. I do not

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believe that the Minister's argument works against the alternative. Having raised the issue, I may want to return to it at a later stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 50 to 52 not moved.]

Clause 5 agreed to.

Clause 6 [Document to be laid before Parliament]:

[Amendments Nos. 53 to 57 not moved.]

Baroness Buscombe moved Amendment No. 58:

    Page 5, line 29, at end insert (", and

( ) a statement analysing the impact on persons likely to be affected by the provisions of the proposed order").

The noble Baroness said: In speaking to Amendment No. 58, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 59. One of the recommendations of the deregulation committee in another place was for a statutory requirement to make and lay before Parliament rigorous regulatory impact assessments. That was an important point made by the committee and, after hearing from the Minister, it suggested that the requirement for a regulatory impact assessment could be drafted in general terms as a duty to lay before Parliament a statement analysing the impact on persons likely to be affected by the enactment of the provisions of an order. The committee said that such a statement would overcome the difficulty of the rigidity of terminology which appeared to be the Minister's main concern.

We, on this side of the Committee, agree with those comments. Either of the amendments would be sufficient as they both satisfy the recommendations of the deregulation committee in another place.

As I said in relation to Amendment No. 48, consultation is an essential part of the legislative process, so I want to suggest that it may make sense, notwithstanding where I have placed these proposed amendments, for a regulatory impact assessment to be available at the time of consultation rather than later, when the draft order is laid before Parliament. If it were not available at the time of consultation, those who are really affected by it would not have the opportunity to consider it, to criticise it or to offer any suggestions to improve it.

We look to those people who are affected by the burdens, who are probably more expert and knowledgeable than those on the deregulation committee with regard to the specified burdens. I flag up that idea and I shall listen to the Minister's response. I beg to move.

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