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Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, I am in the same position of difficulty as my noble friend Lady Buscombe, with perhaps slightly less excuse because I have been in your Lordships' House in the past 10 days and she has not. As I understand the group of amendments that have just been accepted, the amendment removes most of our anxieties about Clause 1(1)(c); namely, the making of new provisions. Although I chose a somewhat inapt example in fox-hunting, I had envisaged a future government creating a burden where no legislation affecting that particular issue exists on the statute book. That is what I have been most determined to avoid. I understand now that the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, removes that anxiety. I see that the noble and learned Lord is nodding this time, although I clearly confused him utterly last time. It could be that I also confused myself.
Lord Haskins: My Lords, I regret that I was not able to take part in the Committee stage debate on this issue, but I have read Hansard. I share the wish of the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, to ensure that the powers in the Bill are put to the correct use; namely, to improve the quality and reduce the burden of regulation. Goodness knows, there is plenty of work for us all to do on this front, since the powers of the old Deregulation and Contracting Out Act have virtually withered away. I look forward with pleasure, therefore, to the Government taking action on the 51 examples that they have so far put forward. That should keep everyone hard at work for some time to come.
So, I believe that there would have been little risk of "wicked Ministers" using the powers to bring forward inappropriate and burdensome regulations. The amendments proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, which the Government have just accepted, make that even more unlikely. Therefore, the noble Baroness should rest easy because the task force will be watching events with great interest and will deal with recalcitrant Ministers in the appropriate manner. In the circumstances I suggest that the noble Baroness should not press her amendments.
I should like to revert to our discussions in Committee, when the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, and the noble Lord, Lord Vinson, mentioned my views on enforcement. I was sorry not to be present to respond at the time. Perhaps I may take an early opportunity to do so now, as it may help the House when it returns to these issues later today.
The issue of enforcement has been a consistent theme in my three and a half years as chairman of the Better Regulation Task Force. In many cases, businesses and citizens understand, and even support, the objectives behind a regulation. The real problem arises as to the unpredictability of enforcement: businesses need to know where they stand.
In the foreword to our last annual report, I commented that the Government's objective should be to simplify the enforcement process for those on the receiving end. Those being regulated constantly complain that they do not understand their obligations; that they are not given enough time and help to comply; and that enforcers have too much of an inclination towards retribution.
I am a great believer in having as much flexibility and discretion as possible in the process of getting people to comply with the law, consistent, of course, with being effective. This approach has worked well in the Inland Revenue, which no longer treats every taxpayer as a potential tax evader. Inspectors now concentrate on helping the majority of citizens who want to do things properly, and focus their punitive efforts purely on the villains.
The Government have consulted widely on enforcement. All parties were in favour of a voluntary approach based on co-operation between enforcers and business. This resulted in the introduction of the code of best practice known as the enforcement concordat. The principles of the code are not dissimilar to the five principles of good regulation promoted by the task force. They include consistency, proportionality and openness, together with a clear complaints procedure and tough service standards.
The concordat requires enforcers to discuss the circumstances of the particular case with business and, if possible, resolve differences informally, before formal action is taken. Enforcers are also required to distinguish clearly between what is simply good advice and what is a legal requirement with which businesses must comply.
In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, noted that 84 per cent of local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales and 80 per cent of central government agencies had already signed up to the concordat. He hoped that all of them would have signed up by this July.
The task force is in favour of this voluntary approach to good regulation--it seems to me to be the best means of achieving fair, effective and flexible enforcement. Indeed, our "enforcement" report published in April 1999 described the concordat as the cornerstone of good enforcement policies and procedures.
However, we also recognise that voluntary agreements need legislative support where things go wrong. That is where the enforcement provisions in the Bill should help. They are intended to assure business that the Government can bring pressure to bear on enforcers who fail to apply best practice as agreed in the concordat.
The power for Ministers to set out a code of good enforcement practice should give business, the voluntary sector and consumers the confidence that the Government will be able to take action where enforcers fail to comply with best practice. It will give the concordat more credibility; businesses will know that enforcers will not be allowed to simply ignore it.
I know that the noble Lord, Lord Vinson, has tabled amendments which will be discussed later. As I understand it, the noble Lord played a part in the inclusion of a section in the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994 giving businesses a statutory right to challenge the intended actions of enforcers in the courts. However, that section has, so far as I know, been used only once. The Government have been told by business, the voluntary sector and consumer groups that those groups are content with the concordat approach. I support the Government on the issue, as the provisions of the section mean that enforcers will be called to account if they fail to comply with best practice.
I hope, therefore, that when the House turns its mind to these issues again, as I know the noble Lord, Lord Vinson, intends that it should, it will do so with a clearer understanding of where I stand on these matters.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I have every sympathy with the predicament of the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, has explained the position, but perhaps I may explain it as I understand it.
In Committee, the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, and others raised a concern that, as drafted, Clause 1(1)(c) allowed a Minister to promote an RRO which only imposed burdens and did nothing else. The effect of the first substantive amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, is that one cannot get an order off the starting block under the procedure proposed by the Bill if it adds burdens, unless it also removes or reduces burdens. So, any order that has the object of increasing burdens must also remove burdens. The provision does not go as wide as was suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe. It would not be enough simply to re-enact burdens, and it would not be enough to remove inconsistencies. An order must, if it adds any burdens, also remove burdens.
However, the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, went further, and we agree with him. The noble Lord argued that it is not enough to say, "Well, if you can find some teeny-weeny burden to remove, that opens the door". He is saying that that is not enough. The Minister must also be satisfied that the reduction in burdens made by the new order justifies or makes desirable the making of the order. The noble Lord has, in effect, removed the free-standing nature of Clause 1(1)(c), which deals with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, but he has gone further and said, "Looking at the reduction or removal of burdens, there has to be a desirability, in the opinion of the Minister, before the order is made".
We took the view that that was a legitimate point. We took the view that the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, deals with that point. It deals with a similar issue to that dealt with by the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, in Amendments Nos. 6 and 9. It deals with it in a different way, but we think that the protections proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, are adequate. I invite the noble Baroness not to move her amendments when the time comes.
I shall not respond to the detail of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, because it relates to a much later amendment. However, I understand why the noble Lord made his remarks at this stage--because they are more about enforcement. I ask the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, to bear in mind what the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, said about the Better Regulation Task Force keeping an eye on matters. That is a good thing.
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