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Lord Whitty: My Lords, I support the Bill and, rather controversially this afternoon, I would probably have supported the original Bill, at least in large part. Although I recognise some of the points that have been made about safeguards, I take a rather different approach from some noble Lords in relation to regulation. If I were strictly accurate, I would probably have to declare a large number of past and present interests because I have been a proponent of more legislation and more regulation in a number of respects, from workers' rights through to environmental legislation, animal welfare and, currently, consumer rights. I make no apology for that because part of being in government is to regulate.
I also recognise that on our statute book and in our enforcement culture we have had a substantial amount of bad regulation and bad enforcement practices arising from that regulation. Despite the efforts of this House under successive Governments, that also applies to primary legislation. Much primary legislation is badly conceived and much of it, including recent primary legislation, has not been as well drafted as it should be, to put it mildly.
By bad regulation, I do not necessarily mean bad in motive or objective, nor do I necessarily mean bad in terms of the costs that are imposed on business, as in some areas we need to make bad practice more expensive. I am not even talking primarily about red-tape costs, although I accept that argument. I was the Minister in Defra who set the target for cutting red-tape costs by 25 per cent and I am in favour of generalising that across government. Primarily, what I mean by bad regulation is unclear, conflicting, technically outdated, over-prescriptive, disproportionate regulation and, above all, regulation that is incomprehensible to the average expert, let alone to the average layman. Therefore, as a result of all those faults, it is ineffective and not cost-effective regulation.
I am clearly in favour of better regulation, not necessarily less regulation. We have been regulating for some considerable time. Consumer protection legislation goes back to the Middle Ages. I declare my chairmanship of the National Consumer Council, although neither I nor the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, was present when weights and measures legislation first came in. We have been legislating on health and safety for 200 years, on the protection of workers for about the same period and on environmental protection for about 100 years. But in the past four or five decades, the pace has increased
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hugely and the parliamentary process still uses procedures that were established largely in the Victorian era.
Contrary to what is sometimes alleged in this House, in this country there is a vast amount of parliamentary scrutiny compared with many other jurisdictions, both of Anglo-Saxon and of Roman provenance. Of late, much more is placed on the face of primary legislation than is the case in other jurisdictions; indeed, much of our secondary legislation would be regarded as administrative or tertiary law in many parts of the world.
I am not advocating any change to that system, but the implication of pursuing that means that there is an enormous workload on Parliament, on parliamentary draftsmen and, in particular, on this House which makes scrutiny a centre of its endeavours. Dealing all the time with new proposals for legislation, many of which have wide support, there is a tendency to squeeze out serious consideration of the efficacy of existing legislation and the way in which that legislation is enforced.
We have a situation in which minor issues on the face of a Bill cannot be changed without virtually the full primary legislative procedure. My noble friend Lord Desai referred to one or two in regard to the regulatory reform orders. I, as Minister, was faced with a situation in which we could not change the way in which Kew Gardens charged entrance fees without going through primary legislation and my noble friend Lord Desai referred to how it took us 2,000 days to abolish the beet sugar research corporation. It is nonsense that this House should have to go through the full procedure to make those minor changes.
We also seem to be incapable of producing consolidation legislation. Almost everyone out there asks, "Where is the Act that governs my business, my area of interest, my activity?", and yet, every piece of new legislation or new regulation with which we deal is actually only the top strata of some archaeological structure that amends the previous Act which itself amends the one before, and so on, ad infinitum. Yesterday, to great praise, and certainly with my support, the Solicitor-General announced that the Government will try to make new laws clearer and in everyday English. As long as the structure of the legislation is there like that, however, then there is a difficulty in conveying what that legislation is trying to do.
We have made various attempts to try to rationalise this situation. The creation of the Law Commission was one such attempt, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd, has pointed out its effectiveness and the fact that it has a huge backlog. I do not follow him to his conclusion, but we should recognise that the Government and Parliament must take the Law Commission's work more seriously. There are all those outstanding measures on which they have made detailed recommendations.
I have mentioned consolidation. There are understandable demands for consolidation elsewhere, some of them based on Law Commission reports,
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where the work has effectively already been done. Yet Parliament cannot find time to deal with them. Regulatory reform orders were hailed as a great breakthrough
Lord Goodhart: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Does he not accept that there are measures for consolidation Bills going through, with virtually no discussion at all, much more quickly than they would if they were introduced as reform orders? The problem is presumably a shortage of parliamentary draftsmen able to work on consolidation Bills.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, compared with the number of areas in which it would be beneficial for us to have consolidated legislation, there are relatively few that go through in that form. They have to be totally consensual. The problem with even consolidating legislation is that some past controversies re-emerge. Yet we would not be changing the law; we would simply be simplifying it and presenting it in one place. I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, has sat in on the proceedings of the Company Law Reform Bill, as I have from time to time. It is producing the longest piece of legislation we have ever had in this country, apart from Finance Bills, and is taking almost the longest time to go through Committee here and in another place.
Even when we look at alternatives to prescriptive legislationeconomic and market measures, of which I thoroughly approvewe must go into further, new and more simplified regulation. To deliver a lot of consumer protection, for example, we need more competition, but we need the regulation to provide the OFT with the powers so to intervene. We need to update the role of the OFT and other competition authorities from time to time. Where we are, as a result of privatisation or the liberalisation of a market, trying to create an initially artificial market, we need new regulations to deal with that. As the market develops, we will need to change those regulations and relieve some of their more burdensome aspects, which must be done rapidly and flexibly. Parliament does not really have the procedure to do that.
When we are changing institutions, the Hampton report has been referred to as how we should consolidate the number of regulators into six or seven main ones. To do that takes an unconscionably long time, however. The noble Lord, Lord Haskins, who is due to speak shortly, made proposals about rural delivery a few years ago. They met almost universal approval, yet are still going through Parliament for us to create a single organisation in one relatively small area of rural regulation.
Even economic regulators, about which a number of noble Lords have spoken, need to adapt to the market, and Parliament and Ministers must make further adjustments to their role. I declare my membership of Ofwat's board, although I am not speaking as a board member today. I recognise that it needs economic certainty to a greater degree than other areas but I would not entirely support its exclusion from Part 1 of the Bill, though I would look on slightly more safeguards in that area with favour.
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I said at the beginning that I would have been a supporter of a wider Bill. That is because we could only use this accelerated, simplified procedure in areas where we were relieving a burden, which must be fairly specifically defined in the Bill. There will be other areas, however, in which rationalisation of past regulation is extremely desirable, where the burden may not be that obvious; the burden of the ministry of inconvenience could be extended. Were we, in my previous area of concern, to go for a programme of rationalising agricultural regulation, that might not relieve the total burden on farmers, but it would make life a lot easier if they were dealing with one regulator, one system of regulation and one whole-farm approach to agricultural planning.
As regards environmental regulation, which will face us soon and is one of my major concerns, we must consider what we will need to do on climate change. We will need to adapt very rapidly not just to whether market measures and past regulations work, but also to what is happening physically to our environment. We took 2,000 days to abolish the beet sugar research corporation, but we cannot afford to take that period of time to introduce the rationalisation or improvement of regulations relating to the environmental challenges that face us.
This House has a problem. We rightly believe in greater scrutiny, but we also believe in more effective government. We need to look at other ways of achieving that, which may be different from those the Bill prescribes; I do not think it is the last word on this subject. We need a bit of imagination and innovation about how our procedures and processes can deliver the change that government and society require without the lengthy procedures and unnecessarily detailed period of scrutiny that we go through. The noble Lord, Lord Holme, referred to looking overall at the performance of regulators. That may be part of the solution, but unless we face up to the fact that our apparently constitutional insistence on old forms of scrutiny cannot deliver modern government that responds to market, environmental and social developments, the kind of regulations that everybody is deeply opposed to will remain on the statute book. They are a cost to business and eventually to consumers and may be dangerous to society as a whole.
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