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It is many years since any parliamentary committee has carried out such a far-reaching inquiry into the arrangements for the management of secondary legislation. For that reason, if for no other, the committee must be congratulated on its work, and the Government record their gratitude for a report that addressed a wide range of issues and highlighted a number of areas in which the committee believes improvements will be required. These are important issues and, although the House will not expect the Government fully to accept all the committees recommendations, we acknowledge the importance of the issues. In our formal written response and in our response this evening, we also acknowledge the value of the recommendations and conclusions that the committee made. Noble Lords today have given very good voice to those.
This debate comes at a highly opportune time following the Prime Ministers speech to the CBI, to which a number of noble Lords referred, and the reports that the Chancellor of the Exchequer published yesterday. The Prime Minister told industry leaders at the CBI conference that the Government are embarking on one of the most radical programmes of regulatory reform in the world. He announced to the conference that government departments will, as the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, said, plan to reduce by 25 per cent the red tape that they oversee through form-filling, inspections and record-keeping, thus reducing the administrative burdens on business and third-sector organisations, which we believe will offer savings worth up to £2.2 billion. These new measures will be formally launched when 18 departments and regulators publish their simplification plans, which many noble Lords seek, before the end of the year.
Yesterday, the Chancellor published the report from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Davidson, to which the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, referred, on his review of the implementation of EU regulations. Its overall findings are that inappropriate gold-plating of European legislation is perhaps not as widespread as is sometimes claimed. The progress report was published on the implementation of the Hampton report relating to enforcement and compliance. This week, the Cabinet Office has also published the report of the Macrory Review of Regulatory Penalties, which makes a number of recommendations that aim to ensure that regulators have access to a flexible set of modern, fit-for-purpose sanctioning tools that are consistent with the risk-based approach to enforcement outlined by Philip Hampton. In his telling contribution, the noble Viscount, Lord
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The Government fully accept that, although much delegated legislation is not newsworthy, it may none the less be highly significant in its impact on the citizen, business and the voluntary sector. It is important that all secondary legislation is properly thought through and is of a consistently high quality. The primary legislation that Parliament puts in place generally provides a framework and secondary legislation is required to put much flesh on this before practical effect can be given to Parliaments intentions. One example is the major reforms that Parliament enacted in relation to the introduction of civil partnerships, which required more than 40 separate instruments to effect the changes necessary to the various elements of law that were impacted before the benefits of those reforms could be realised for the benefit of many citizens across the country.
Over recent years, the Government have sought to ensure that the quality of secondary legislation is maintained and improved. We have also made a key commitment to improving the process of regulation so that the impact on businesses and the voluntary sector can be reduced. We were therefore pleased to note the committees conclusion that we had put in place resources to give effect to that commitment. The committee also concluded that much of the regulation with which it was concerned lives up to the prospectus for better regulation.
The Government are concerned to make improvements in the process and to aid proper and effective parliamentary scrutiny. One improvement has been made in relation to the supply of Explanatory Memoranda, which were introduced for affirmative instruments in 2001 and extended to negative instruments in 2004. We have been anxious to ensure that the memoranda provide noble Lords and the Merits and Joint Committees with the information that is required so that the task of scrutinising instruments can be thoroughly conducted. I was pleased to hear praise for the improvements in Explanatory Memoranda made by the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, and the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester.
When the committee produced its report, it noted that there were examples, however, of a lack of clarity in some memoranda. We note though that in its end-of-Session review the committee has confirmed that the Explanatory Memoranda that departments provide are generally of a high standard. The Government are committed to ensuring that any instances of failure to meet these standards are eliminated. New guidance on their preparation, which officials from HMSO have agreed with the committees officials, should assist in that task. That guidance features in the new edition of Statutory Instrument Practice, which is effectively the bible with which departments are required to comply. This guidance is kept under constant review and is reissued
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The committee suggested that all memoranda should be reviewed by someone who is sufficiently detached from the subject to be able to assess their intelligibility to lay people. That recommendation has been adopted in a number of instances and is now being considered by all departments.
My noble friend Lord Filkin was very concerned to ensure that the case for central co-ordination of the process was understood in terms of whether there should be some mechanism put in place for overseeing departmental programmes. The committee made a number of recommendations about how departments should manage their secondary legislation, the production of annual management plans including milestones to be met, and the publication of annual statements of their projected secondary legislative programme. The committee also proposed that departmental lists of planned secondary legislation should be consolidated into a single list in order to establish whether the resultant Whitehall-wide programme was likely to be manageable at the stage of parliamentary scrutiny.
It should be emphasised that the role of the centre is not comparable to its role in the management of the programme for primary legislation. The Government do not believe that it would be practical to have one Minister responsible for co-ordination across government. Individual Secretaries of State are ultimately responsible and best able to manage their own departments secondary legislation.
Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, is there not already one Minister who is responsible for the co-ordination of policy across government, and is that not the Prime Minister? Should it not be his responsibility?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, of course the Prime Minister takes the lead in those matters, but as I am sure the noble Lord will appreciate, simply to assert that the Prime Minister should be responsible for the detail of secondary legislation when Secretaries of State are far more closely connected to the need for it has to be understood.
Lord Jopling: My Lords, the Minister has said that the report suggests that one person should be in charge over the whole of government. If he were to look towards the end of our report, I think he would find that what we said was that we would like one person, a senior official, in each department to be in charge of the production of statutory instruments. As I recall, I do not think we asked for one person over the whole of government to be in charge. While there are organisations doing this already, what we would like to see is one person in each department in overall charge.
In the December 2004 Pre-Budget Report, the Chancellor announced that the common commencement date initiative would be extended progressively to all domestic regulations with a bearing on business. Under this initiative departments are required to prepare an annual statement, to be issued in January, listing regulations affecting business which they expect to commence on the following 6 April and 1 October. Common commencement dates and the accompanying annual statements help businesses to plan for new regulation, increase awareness of new or amended regulations and give Ministers a strategic overview of departments regulation programmes. The introduction of common commencement dates has generally been welcomed by stakeholders, who benefit from the knowledge that the regulations which might affect their businesses will be changed on only two dates each year. Alongside that, many departments whose secondary legislation is not formally subject to common commencement dates have in place alternative commencement dates for some of their statutory instruments which have been agreed in conjunction with stakeholders.
Departments timetables for projected legislation can be subject to amendment and revision in response to a wide range of policy developments and external events. Any management plans would of course be subject to substantial and frequent revision. As a result, they are likely to be of limited benefit to either Parliament or stakeholders. To attempt to reduce such plans could accordingly impose a disproportionate burden on departments. Given that and the information already published under the common commencement date initiative, the Government do not think that departments can produce effective detailed management plans for all projected secondary legislation, with such plans being centrally consolidated, but the scope for that will be kept carefully under review. The Government acknowledge the importance of good planning and the use of project management techniques in the statutory instrument process.
The Government acknowledge, too, the committees concerns about congestion in the parliamentary scrutiny stage and the bunching of instruments at various times of the year. Every effort is made to give sufficient notice of debates on statutory instruments to enable the committee to report beforehand. A good working relationship has been established between the Government Whips Office and the committee, which has enabled both sides to show flexibility in the past year.
We share the committees view about the desirability of minimising the bunching of instruments during peak periods in March, July and December. Parliamentary scrutiny of instruments is a key part of the process, and departments need to allow adequate time within their planning, including contingencies, to allow for slippage to ensure that this scrutiny occurs. I emphasise again that bunching is not a new phenomenon; it has occurred under previous Administrations. Improved planning is a key issue for departments but, even if that is achieved, it is unlikely that bunching will be avoided completely.
The Government acknowledge that there is scope for improved management of the statutory instrument process in some departments. The committees inquiry has helped Government in bringing this to the attention of those departments. However, even with improved management of the departmental statutory instrument process, the Government do not believe it will be possible to eliminate completely congestion or bunching. Departments make every effort to introduce their secondary legislation within the parliamentary calendar to allow for proper scrutiny and approval. The guidance to departments makes it clear that they must allow time for proper and effective scrutiny. They should avoid laying instruments just ahead of the 21-day minimum period before commencement, avoid laying negative instruments in the summer Recess, and allow sufficient time for instruments subject to affirmative resolution to be considered and reported upon by Select Committees before any Motion to approve can be moved.
The guidance also emphasises that good project management and planning skills are key elements of the common commencement date process and that all key stakeholders, policy divisions, legal teams and parliamentary clerks should be involved in that process.
The committee has been particularly concerned that no instruments are laid before Parliament fewer than 21 days before they are due to come into force unless there are clear and compelling reasons of operational urgency for such action. The new edition of Statutory Instrument Practice emphasises that the 21-day period is a minimum and that, whenever possible, instruments should be laid well in advance of this to allow Parliament to consider their impact. The examples highlighted by the committee of failure to comply with this rule include many instances where it was necessary to take urgent action and where, had it not been taken, the Government would probably have been criticised by noble Lords for their slow response. Such examples included preventive measures for dealing with avian influenza, food import emergency control regulations, export control orders, the application of United Nations measures and sanctions against overseas territories, and instruments implementing Budget announcements where prior notice could not be given. As I understand it, the committee noted in its report that some breaches derived from the need to take that urgent action. If the more recent report on the work of the committee is to be understood clearly, it specifically cited food safety issues as one area where urgency might be required.
On internal departmental controls, the committee recommended that each department should have one member of its top management who is accountable to the relevant Minister for the efficiency and effectiveness of preparing SIs and for ensuring that the finished instruments meet the requirements of good regulation. The noble Lord, Lord Jopling, referred to that. It is the Governments view that it would not be possible for departments to have a single accountable person along the lines suggested. Each department already has a better regulation champion
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It is worth pointing out that the circumstances of individual departments in the context of secondary legislation are not all the same, and the way they are structured to handle the process needs to accommodate these differences. Against that background, we acknowledge that there is scope for improvement in the way in which individual departments manage their processes, and the committee's report is helpful in promoting such improvement.
The committee also raised concerns about the nature of the guidance on best practice and the need to ensure that this is followed by departments. Extensive guidance on the SI process is available to officials. The statutory instrument practice and the common commencement dates guidance are very helpful in that regard. There is also the code of practice on consultation, regulatory impact assessment guidance and the transposition guide about how to implement European directives effectively. All that is now linked via the new statutory instrument practice section of the Office of Public Sector Information website. The Government do not feel that it is necessary to add to that guidance. In addition, departmental lawyers can access guidance materials and advice on drafting secondary legislation through the Government Legal Service intranet.
Many noble Lords spoke about the importance and value of consultation and the means of improving it. My noble friend Lord Filkin, in particular, expressed the need for greater emphasis on quality of contact with stakeholders. The noble Viscount, Lord Colville, stressed the importance of a pre-secondary legislative consultative process and of making sure that we consulted effectively with those most affected. One would find it hard to disagree with any of those points; we agree with the committee about the importance of ensuring that consultation requirements are met. The Better Regulation Executive already takes action to achieve this in relation to domestic and European legislation. In addition to working on a day-to-day basis with departments on all aspects of better regulation, including consultation, the BRE reports annually on compliance of these consultation arrangements against the code of practice.
Consulting as early as possible is promoted across government not only for domestic policy work but as a way of assisting Ministers to determine UK positions on EU proposals. The transposition guide states that before a proposal is published, departments should carry out appropriate informal consultation with other government departments and with external stakeholders. The code of practice makes it clear that departments are required to consult fully on instruments implementing EU legislation. Moreover, government departments are required to carry out full impact assessments when preparing to transpose EU law into national law, and the consultation of stakeholders is a significant part
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The revised guidance on the preparation of Explanatory Memoranda makes it clear that departments should set out who was consulted, over what period and with what responses. There should also be some analysis of the outcome and the department's policy response to the opinions expressed. A summary of the responses given and an explanation of how the proposal will change in the light of the responses received will generally be included in the regulatory impact assessment which is attached to the Explanatory Memorandum.
On consolidation and simplification, the committee was concerned that the Government should put more impetus behind the process of consolidation and that we should aim as a general rule to publish consolidated electronic versions of each instrument following amendment. There is a distinction to be drawn between formal consolidationmaking new legislationand the publication informally, without making a new instrument, of an unofficial text of an instrument taking account of textual amendments that have been made to it in subsequent instruments. The key consideration as to whether an instrument should be consolidated is the convenience and ease of comprehension for users, about which noble Lords were particularly concerned. Consolidation can also make a major contribution to better regulation.
The Government agree that consideration should be given to formal legislative consolidation, both in cases in which there are large numbers of instruments and amending instruments, and when minor changes are made in the principal instrument. The Government will continue to dedicate resources to the task of formally consolidating instruments when departmental Ministers can identify appropriate cases for action. The task of consolidation can be a complex and resource-intensive operation, involving not only the mechanical task of applying amendments but a review of the policy objectives.
I am very grateful to the committee for its report and to the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, for his strenuous efforts to ensure that we are kept well informed on the
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Lord Filkin: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his response. He knows, as I do, that the trouble with being a government Whip is that you are expected to read out the stuff that they put before you. The most generous comment that I can make is that there has been a considerable consistency between the Governments written response and the response from the Dispatch Box. That has been characterisedand I shall choose my words as patiently as I canby an analysis of the problem that basically listens to what the departments say. The response was the expression of a lowest common denominator of the individual views of departments. It lacked any central sense of a guiding intelligence, energy, commitment or force to own the problem or to do anything about it.
I hope that I am wrong, but we shall wait and see. The committee will be vigorous in watching whether there will be clear evidence of change, because the Government have said that they abide by these standards, so we do not need to worry our heads about all the mechanisms that we have sought for getting progress on these issues.
I am further surprised by the Governments response because what we are asking for is perhaps the most trivial thing that you could ask a Government to do. We are not asking them to make people happy or stop crime or make a happier world; we are asking them to deal in a fairly straightforward way with some processes and good administrative practice across government. I think that I expected more from my Government in their response to this pretty trivial request. We will wait and see, but we will not wait passively; we will monitor the process actively and, if we find it lacking, will come back again with further actionand we will look for the support of the House in so doing.
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