§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[Mr. Andrew Mitchell.]7.10 pm
§ Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)
I wish to support the recommendations of the fourth report of the Select Committee on Procedure. [Interruption.]
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman, but there is far too much noise in the House. It is extremely discourteous. If those present do not wish to listen, they will kindly leave the Chamber.
§ Sir Peter Emery
I refer to the report entitled "Parliamentary Scrutiny of Deregulation Orders" and to the response received from Her Majesty's Government, which is House of Commons paper No. 238.
Before dealing with the details of the report, I will attempt to clear up three matters. First, it was not—and is not—for the Procedure Committee to consider whether Ministers should be given the power to repeal or amend primary legislation by deregulation or any of the principles arising from the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill. That is a matter for the House as a whole, and the House is proceeding to make a decision about it.
Secondly, it was argued that the Committee should not proceed or report until the Bill became an Act as it was suggested that that would prejudice its legislative passage. The Committee rejected that suggestion, because many people wanted to know how the House would deal with the deregulation orders. If amendments to the Bill were considered necessary because of the Committee's recommendations, it is unlikely that they would be made after the Bill had become an Act.
Lastly, there were adequate examples to allow the Committee to proceed once the Bill had reached the Second Reading stage. The Opposition will understand these illustrations. In 1966 the ombudsman was appointed before the Parliamentary Commissioner Bill received a Second Reading. In 1978, before the Scotland Bill became an Act, money was spent to bring the school in Edinburgh up to the required standard for an assembly. Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of pounds were spent but to no avail. So the Committee was quite certain that, at the request of the Government, there were enough precedents to allow us to proceed while the Bill was before the House.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)
It is a tradition of the Procedure Committee that it attempts to get all-party agreement. Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that he rushed ahead with this inquiry in the face of opposition from the Opposition parties and that he has devalued the report because he made no attempt to carry the whole House with him in the discussions about it?
§ Sir Peter Emery
I am sorry to have to tell the hon. Gentleman that that is absolute nonsense. We wanted to attain as much agreement as possible. All the parties on the Committee agreed that we should proceed.
§ Sir Peter Emery
All members of the Committee, representing all parties, agreed that we should proceed. All the members decided initially whom we should ask to appear before the Committee.
§ Sir Peter Emery
I will finish this point and then I will be delighted to give way.
The Committee remarked in the report that the hon. Lady the Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) refused to give evidence before the Committee. She was invited to do so—with the agreement of all members of the Committee—at the same time as other people were invited to appear. That is the first time that any person has refused to give evidence to the Committee. One must remember —but I hope not remember well enough to encourage a repetition—that at that time resolutions between the usual channels had broken down. So as far as I am concerned, the matter would be soonest forgotten, quickest mended.
§ Mr. Winnick
The right hon. Gentleman chairs the Committee and he knows that it is my view that the Committee works far better when the Conservative majority on the Committee does not act at the behest of the Government. Does he accept that Labour Members voted against the report because, while we accepted that the inquiry should take place—the right hon. Gentleman is correct in that respect—we did not believe that the report should come to the House before the Bill had been passed? That was the issue at stake, and that is why the hon. Member was quite right to refuse to come to the Committee. She was courteous and explained her reasons, and the right hon. Gentleman should recognise that.
§ Sir Peter Emery
I hope that, in my speech, I have tried to make it clear that the Committee proceeded in a normal manner. As I have suggested, Labour Governments have taken action and made preparations before a Bill has been enacted. I must thank the hon. Gentleman, who is a member of the Committee and has made his view clear. He took a considerable part in the Committee's deliberations. I am certain that he can make his own speech and that I shall not have to make it for him.
Let me turn to the recommendations which—I am glad to say—were not amended. To explain how they work, I must stress that the deregulation orders will be substitutes for primary legislation. The Committee did not consider that the Government's proposals went far enough, and all Committee members felt that. That is made clear in paragraph 21 of the Committee's report.
We considered that a deregulation order should not be considered as just another statutory instrument. After all, a statutory instrument is secondary legislation and provides for regulations which are empowered by the original Act. A deregulation order is entirely different and must be considered as such by the House, the Clerks and the lawyers outside. It is in effect primary legislation or, if it is not accepted as such, it is a substitute for primary legislation.
To illustrate that, let me point out that the Committee said in paragraph 16 of the report:In our recommendations we have sought to ensure that no Act of Parliament is repealed or amended under this new power without examination at least as thorough as if the change had been made by a Bill passing through the House.
§ Mr. Spearing
The statement which the Chairman of the Procedure Committee has just made is very important. He said that a deregulation order would not be a substitute but would be primary legislation. He also said that it should not be subject to any different form of examination from ordinary legislation. However, it does in the Bill.
The Committee about which we are talking will recommend but will not dispose of matters and it will not necessarily amend the statutory instrument. Does the Chairman of the Procedure Committee agree that there is a major distinction? The central part of the current Bill, through primary legislation, does exactly what the orders would do.
§ Sir Peter Emery
I understand the argument made by the hon. Gentleman, whom I respect. He has experience as an ex-Chairman of the Committee on Statutory Instruments. That matter was not for my Committee to consider; it was for the House. If the House gave Ministers that power, my job was to try to ensure that a full and thorough investigation was carried outat least as thorough as if the change had been made by a Bill passing through the House.The House therefore, we have argued, must be given the power to do that.
The Bill allows a Minister to make an order which is subject to an affirmative resolution in both Houses to amend or repeal primary legislation which imposes a burden, providing that necessary protection is not removed. As a first step, the Minister must consult representatives of those who are likely to be affected. He then lays before Parliament a deregulation proposal, which is a draft of the order, with an explanatory document giving reasons for the measure, the benefits which would result from it, details of any necessary protection provided by the existing legislation, how the protection would be maintained, details of the consultation and how it had been taken into account.
It is at that stage that we must consider how the House should act. The Committee set out certain criteria which are set out in paragraph 21 of our report:from the start the Committee would need to establish that the proposal for a deregulation order was within the powers conferred if the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill is enacted … a Committee would have to examine the merits of a deregulation proposal to see whether it did remove a burden without reducing necessary protection … an opportunity should be provided for those affected by a deregulation proposal to express their concerns to the House … Members other than those serving on the Deregulation Committee should have an opportunity to express their views before the proposal is finalised in an order … there should be an opportunity to put forward changes to the deregulation proposal … the House should have the advice of a Committee on whether the proposal, as amended following the period for parliamentary consideration, should be made … when the House would want to have an opportunity to debate and vote on the final version of the order.Anybody would accept that those are fairly strong criteria. Having established them, we decided that the Deregulation Committee should be one of the most senior Select Committees of the House, that it should comprise 16 members and that it should be given powers which were different from and greater than those of any other House of Commons Committee. How, then, will the Deregulation Committee work?
§ Mr. Winnick
Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why, on his casting vote, he came to the conclusion that the Deregulation Committee should not be chaired by an Opposition Member? Would not the Deregulation 383 Committee have been strengthened for obvious reasons —as Labour and Liberal Democrat Members believe—if it had been chaired by an Opposition Member?
§ Sir Peter Emery
As I said at the time, the chairmanship of Select Committees is normally decided by the usual channels and between the Whips. The numbers which are established in the break-up is left to the usual channels and it seemed that, whatever we said, that was going to happen anyway.
§ Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock and Burntwood)
This is an important issue. The right hon. Gentleman will recall that the great strength of the Public Accounts Committee is that it has a Chairman from an Opposition party and, far from diminishing the standing of that Committee, it vastly enhances its status in the House. In these exceptional circumstances, would not it have been sensible to include such a provision in the report?
§ Sir Peter Emery
The hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Dr. Wright) has made a point which I hope was heard by the usual channels. I can understand it and the point could well be argued, but that does not alter the fact that the decision will be made by the usual channels. I believe that it is right that the usual channels should take into consideration the point made by the hon. Gentleman.
§ Mr. Steen
Is it not true that the House has passed far too much legislation during the past 30 or 40 years, and that there is a surfeit of legislation? We are now getting thousands of directives flooding in from Europe. Will not the Deregulation Committee try to speed up the repeal of legislation which has become antiquated or which is no longer working?
It is important that the Chairman of the Committee is a Member of the ruling party in order to expedite the deregulation and the repeal of laws which are hostile to the revival and the future of this country, and to speed up the process by which industry and commerce are no longer hidebound and restricted by regulations. The Opposition may appreciate those regulations, but the Government recognise that they must be repealed to expedite the future of our industry.
§ Sir Peter Emery
The usual channels will have heard that intervention as well.
The Committee therefore believes that the issue will be decided by the usual channels—it will be up to them to make the decision.
§ Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that during proceedings on the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill the Minister envisaged a system involving a Chairman's sift? The idea was to control the number of matters coming before the Committee. Did the Procedure Committee realise that, in the exceptional circumstances of the operation of a Chairman's sift, it would indeed be right for the Committee Chairman to be a member of one of the Opposition parties?
§ Sir Peter Emery
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. The Committee decided that there should be 16 permanent members serving throughout a Parliament so that they could become expert in the work.
To return to how the Deregulation Committee would work, it would greatly assist hon. Members if they turned to the appendix to the report, which contains a flow diagram showing how the Committee would carry out its tasks.
I have explained how the Government will lay the draft order. Then, legal views on the vires should be sought. At the same time the Committee should ask the Clerks to consult the Clerks in the House of Lords to find out whether, if evidence is to be taken, it can be taken jointly.
Once the Committee has considered this advice, it will decide whether it needs further evidence or advice, or whether oral and written evidence should be taken. Once again, the Clerks should be consulted.
One of our recommendations was that the Committee should be able to call Ministers. As shown by the Government's response, this was the only recommendation that the Government did not agree with. Indeed, they say:The power to summon Ministers, which would be unprecedented, is unnecessary, since Ministers with responsibility for a deregulation proposal will be anxious to assist the Deregulation Committee with its work".The Government cannot see a time when Ministerswould refuse to attend the Committee as witnesses if their attendance is requested.That is the strongest statement I have ever heard by the Government about the attendance of Ministers at such Committees.
Having decided whether or not to take oral evidence, the Committee would then make its first report to the House. That report would say that the proposals had been unanimously agreed, or that amendments were necessary, or that the order should not be made at all. If the order should not be made, the Committee recommends that the proposal be withdrawn, or that the Government revise it, or that they introduce primary legislation.
If the Committee decides, on the evidence, that amendments to the order should be made, those amendments should be sent to the Government. The Government have made it clear that they would pay particular attention to any amendments or proposals recommended by the Committee. When the Government eventually lay an order, the Committee will be able to see whether it has emerged exactly as drafted—if it was unanimously agreed to—or whether the Government have altered it in any way.
If the Committee decides that the Government's amendments are unsatisfactory, it will adopt a certain approach. If the order has been unanimously agreed to, of course, the Committee will adopt a different approach. If, on the other hand, a majority of the Committee has merely approved the measure, a third approach will be taken.
§ Mr. Bennett
The right hon. Gentleman suggested that the new Committee would take advice from Speaker's Counsel and from counsel in the House of Lords to decide on the vires. Does he agree that the deregulation Bill is so widely drawn as to make it difficult to decide that any deregulation measure was ultra vires? Both the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments look not only at the vires of a measure but at the clarity of its drafting. Would 385 it not therefore be logical for some committee to examine those areas right at the start, instead of discussing the merits?
§ Sir Peter Emery
In many ways the hon. Gentleman is correct. I believe that, as with the Statutory Instrument Committees, this Committee should make a decision on the vires at the outset, because it would be nonsensical if the Deregulation Committee started on its work before an order had cleared the hurdle that a Statutory Instrument Committee would usually put before it. To that extent, I welcome the hon. Gentleman's remark.
If there is not unanimous agreement to an order, it will be reported back to the House and a debate of 90 minutes can take place, if that is wanted. Opposition Members or those who voted against the order may, however, decide that a debate is not necessary—but that decision rests with the House. If the Committee unanimously supports an order and believes that it should be proceeded with, it will be put forthwith; but if the Committee considers that the amendments are unsatisfactory and is against approving the order, it will make a recommendation to the House in those terms.
Before the order can be presented for approval, the Government must put down a motion to disagree with the Committee's recommendation, so an order cannot proceed unless the House disagrees with the Committee. As a number of hon. Members have argued strongly, the House should have a chance to say how it would like an order to be amended. The motion to disagree with the recommendation of the Committee is amendable, so the House will have the chance to express its feelings about the order as amended and about the Government's motion to disagree with the Committee.
§ Mr. Steen
I recognise my right hon. Friend's distinction as Chairman of the Procedure Committee, but is not the whole point of the deregulation Bill to reduce the amount of bureaucracy and information gathering in the system? Surely the procedures that my right hon. Friend has outlined will be a nightmare for all involved.
§ Sir Peter Emery
What my hon. Friend must understand, and I tried to make absolutely clear at the start, is that the deregulation order is the equivalent of primary legislation. If it did not exist, the Government would have to introduce individual Bills to deal with it. It is right that there should be a fast track. If everybody agrees with it, that is fine. My hon. Friend has what he wants, but that is only if everybody agrees with it. If there is some doubt, there must be a debate on the Floor of the House. But if there is disagreement in Committee, the Government must show the House that they disagree with its views. There must be a three-hour debate to do that, and that motion can be amendable. I believe that that is right when one is dealing with primary legislation.
The Government recommended that 40 days be available for the Committee to deal with matters. In paragraphs 78 and 79 of our report we suggested that in some instances, particularly in the event of a detailed inquiry, 40 days might not be sufficient. In that circumstance, the period should be extended to 60 days. I am glad to see that the Government are willing to go ahead with that.
What powers did we recommend that the Committee should have? I ask hon. Members to turn to paragraph 117 386 of the report, where we make it absolutely clear that it should have the power to send for persons, papers and records. It says(including Ministers of the Crown)",but I have already dealt with that. It continues:to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House;to report from time to time;to appoint specialist advisers;to adjourn from place to place (within the UK)—it is not to be a Committee that travels around the world—to meet with the equivalent Lords Committees to take evidence; to appoint a sub-committee with a quorum of two to meet with a sub-committee of the Lords Committee—if necessary;to exchange evidence with other Commons Committees;to have the assistance of Counsel to the Speaker;to be nominated for a whole Parliament;and
to admit Members who are not members of the Committee to ask questions of witnesses when evidence is taken".Because a Committee of 60 cannot cover every interest and geographical area, and because it will be open to hon. Members to give evidence, a Member may well want to question the Minister or a witness. We have suggested, therefore, that the procedure is used, as in the European Committees, whereby a Member gives notice to the Chairman that he wishes to question the Minister or witness, and the Chairman is given the freedom to call such a person to put a question within the time scale that he has set for the questioning of the Minister. It does not ensure that the Member will be called, but it does allow the Member to argue why he needs to be called—he may be the only Member from the area affected; or perhaps he is the only Member representing a certain industry. I have no doubt that the Chairman would therefore want to ensure that, where there was special pleading, it could be put. That is indeed a new way of proceeding.
I am pleased that the Government were asked in paragraph 121 to report to the House on our recommendations. In their report on Monday, they did so. The power to call a Minister and the addition of bringing to the House a deregulation order prior to the Committee's report in exceptional circumstances, which they suggest at the end of a Session, are the only basic alterations to the whole of our recommendations.
The Procedure Committee, in the words of the Financial Times of Monday last,had recommended tough new powers … to scrutinise all deregulation proposals.They are powers that will work. Close examination will allow evidence to be given in detail from whomever the Committee wishes, with a call on Ministers and the use of outside experts advising the Committee. That would ensure a thorough and exhaustive consideration before any recommendation was made to the House, with the Committee ensuring that the House has the last word.
Although our recommendations are tough and comprehensive, the Government have shown that they are willing to go along with them. I congratulate the Government, and particularly my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House who has given evidence and has considered the matters in full, on being so wise.
§ The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton)
I am glad to be able to respond to what I think were the wishes of the House, and the expressed wishes of the Procedure 387 Committee, by arranging an early debate on its report on the important issue of deregulation orders. I shall be fairly brief, partly because the Government's views were, I hope, clearly set out in the report on Monday, and I cannot add a great deal at this stage, and partly because the principal purpose of the debate is to hear the views of the House on the report and, indeed, the Government's response.
I sense also that a fair number of right hon. and hon. Members wish to make a contribution, and I am anxious to hear them. I am also conscious that there is some pressure tonight on my opposite number on the Opposition Front Bench, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown). I shall take this opportunity to say that I appreciate that he will not be able to stay throughout the proceedings as he would have wished.
The whole House should be grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) and his Committee, both for their work and for carrying it out so quickly. That has enabled us to hold this debate—I realise that this is a point of controversy with some—before the House deals on Report with the clauses of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill which provide for the deregulation orders. I disagree with those who think that it was inappropriate. If the House was to be invited to decide on whether there should be such orders, it was sensible that it should have a fairly clear idea of the basis on which the machinery should operate before it came to that decision.
As the House will have seen from the detailed response that we published on Monday, and as my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton kindly acknowledged, the Government were able to respond positively to the Committee's report. There is just one exception—one could say one and a half, but essentially one, on which I will touch later—where we were not able to agree; apart from that, however, we have agreed to all the Committee's recommendations. I shall not attempt to rehearse them all in view of the effective and comprehensive way in which my right hon. Friend set them out.
As I have said, we shall listen carefully to the views expressed in the debate. Once the Bill is enacted—as we hope and expect—we will introduce proposals for new Standing Orders so that when the first deregulation proposals come before the House the scrutiny procedures will already be in place. In saying that, I should re-emphasise—I am sure that it will come up when my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton addresses the matters in our debates tomorrow—that the Government do not propose to use, or even try to use, the procedure to deal with large and controversial amendments to primary legislation.
The Bill provides that the power cannot be used to remove any "necessary protection". I appreciate that that entails a degree of subjective judgment, but if the new Deregulation Committee thinks that the Minister's judgment is wrong, it will be able to say so when it considers the proposal that the Minister lays before Parliament. I can give the House an assurance that the Government would be bound to take an adverse recommendation from the Deregulation Committee extremely seriously, and in normal circumstances we would expect either to submit a revised proposal or to withdraw the proposal altogether.
§ Mr. Spearing
We understand the different views about protection. Leaving that aside, however, is not the Leader of the House falling into the trap, as have so many Leaders of the House and Ministers over the years, of saying what the present Government are willing or not willing to do, whereas the Standing Orders that he has talked about and the legislation to be debated tomorrow will exist for Government after Government? The right hon. Gentleman seems to be falling into that rather serious trap.
§ Mr. Newton
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman sees that as a trap; I see it as a point that he can legitimately make. I forget whether he and I entered the House at the same time—he may have been here a little longer than my 20 years—but I must tell him that I have rather more confidence in this place, and in Members of Parliament. In the end, Governments can pass only what this place is prepared to let them pass.
This may seem a curious thing for someone who has been a Minister for 15 years to say, but in my experience Ministers do not lightly ignore clear, strong feelings in the House, and those expressed by Committees of the House. There is a degree of independence among hon. Members which goes beyond what the hon. Gentleman appears to believe.
§ Mr. Bennett
If the Leader of the House really wants to reassure us, would not the simplest way be to ensure that the Government do not have a majority on the new Committee?
§ Mr. Newton
The hon. Gentleman and others have already raised that point, and he will have heard what my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton said about the chairmanship. He will also know that, under Governments of both parties—for as long as I have been here and, indeed, rather longer—the convention, and the normal expectation, has been for those with a majority in the House to have a majority on its Committees.
§ Mr. Kirkwood
I would certainly be prepared to concede that point, but I would be much more confident about doing so if the right hon. Gentleman would concede the point about the chairmanship being in the hands of the Opposition.
§ Mr. Newton
I have to say—I had better say it straightforwardly—that I am not convinced that that would be appropriate, but I will not go beyond what was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton. The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) is, in terms of his own specialised version, "a bit of the usual channels"; he will therefore understand the way in such matters are discussed and—hopefully—resolved.
To return to the thrust of my speech, in no circumstances will we simply brush the Committee aside. As I told the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), I do not believe that the House would collectively allow this or any other Government simply to brush aside a Committee of the kind that my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton has described. If, when the draft deregulation order is laid, the Committee is still not satisfied, it can recommend the rejection of the order. Again, the Government would want to think very carefully 389 —indeed, they would have to—about whether they should nevertheless proceed. As my right hon. Friend explained, if the Government thought it right to do so, there would have to be a three-hour debate on an amendable motion. I really do not think that it can be suggested that changes could somehow be smuggled through without scope for proper parliamentary debate.
In acknowledging the special nature of the proposed orders, I must draw attention to an essential ingredient in the arrangements—the fact that the initial proposal itself is not presented to the House simply on a "take it or leave it" basis. One of the reasons for requiring a Committee to look into a deregulation proposal—with provision for the involvement of other hon. Members—is to enable any possible amendments to be considered at the preliminary stage, before the final version of the order is laid.
We have tabled an amendment to the Bill—we hope that it will be moved tomorrow—to require the Minister to report to Parliament any changes made to the proposal as a result of representations made, or resolutions or reports of either House or their Committees, during the scrutiny period. If the Minister does not make the amendments that the Committee wanted and fails to give it an explanation for not doing so that it accepts, the Committee will be entitled to recommend the rejection of the order, with the consequences that I have described.
As I think my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton acknowledged, we have also tabled—and hope to move tomorrow—an amendment to give effect to the Procedure Committee's recommendation about the length of time needed for the Deregulation Committee's inquiries. The Bill gives the Committee 40 days in which to carry out any inquiry into a proposal, excluding any period when either House is adjourned for more than four days. The Procedure Committee has suggested that in a few cases 40 days might not be enough, and that in those cases the period should be extended to 60 days. As we have always intended the Deregulation Committee to have enough time to conduct whatever inquiries are thought necessary, we have readily tabled an amendment to meet the Procedure Committee's concerns.
The only issue on which we cannot go quite so far as the Procedure Committee wanted was the question whether the Deregulation Committee should be empowered formally to summon Ministers to appear before it. That is simply because rather wider issues are raised, including—I hope that this will not be dismissed—the question whether one House should be able to require the attendance of a Member of the other House, which would clearly be implicit in such a power.
I see no reason to suppose, however, that the absence of such a formal power would hinder the Deregulation Committee's work. Ministers will co-operate fully if the Committee needs to take evidence from them; indeed, they will normally be keen to meet the Committee to explain their proposals and gain support for them. Frankly, I cannot envisage circumstances in which the responsible Ministers would refuse to appear.
Finally, I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton and the Procedure Committee again for the thoroughness with which they have examined these matters. As a result of their work, we shall be in a position to present the House—at the appropriate time—with proposals for a scrutiny procedure which I believe will be 390 both robust and flexible. I expect that to be both an assistance and an assurance to the House when it debates the deregulation order-making power tomorrow.
§ Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East)
I thank the right hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) for presenting the report of his Committee. I also thank the Lord President for being so understanding, and for accepting my apology for not being able to stay for the whole debate. It is no wish of mine not to be present, but I apologise to the House none the less. I also congratulate the right hon. Member for Honiton on having secured time from the Leader of the House for a debate on the Floor of the House, although I suspect that it comes too late to have an impact on the legislation.
The Government's approach to the provision of time for the debate of Procedure Committee reports is episodic and essentially pragmatic. It is worth exploring that topic before dealing specifically with the report. The Procedure Committee has an uneven record of success in securing debates in the Chamber on its reports. Last year we were able to discuss its first report on parliamentary questions and related matters—a valuable piece of work—but the other reports from last year, and two from this year, have still not been debated.
§ Mr. Brown
I do. I have pressed particularly vigorously for discussion of the report on budgetary reform and this year's follow-up report on Budget procedure, which have not been debated on the Floor of the House, but the Government have gone ahead and introduced the new unified Budget without seeking the House's views on procedure.
There is a marked parallel between the handling of the unified Budget issue and the report that we are discussing today. On the unified Budget procedure, the Government made key changes in the Finance Bill of 1993 before the Procedure Committee had even reported; they have continued to refuse time to debate the two relevant Procedure Committee reports, and they have ignored the Committee's principal recommendations. They guillotined the Finance Bill on the Floor of the House and on a day-to-day basis in Committee, and encouraged their own Back Benchers to filibuster on less controversial matters so that more controversial issues ran up against the guillotine, thereby relieving Ministers of the task of explaining the clauses to the House. Ministers may have found that convenient, but the House did not. As for the public spending aspects of the unified Budget procedure, the Government have not allowed the House to debate the details of their public expenditure plans since May 1991 —so much for the unified Budget.
It should be clear to the House that, when considering questions of procedure, including reports from the Procedure Committee, the Government are insistent—occasionally brutally insistent—on putting the narrow interests of the Executive before the interests of the House. They dealt with Parliament in a high-handed way over the unified Budget, an issue on which—in principle—Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour agree. The Opposition were also willing to discuss and reach agreement on the practicalities, but to no avail.
391 No such consensus in principle underpins the debate on the deregulation orders. The Labour party is strongly opposed in principle to such an enhancement of the powers of the Executive: there is no precedent for conferring on Ministers the generalised powers on which the Government intend to ask the House to vote tomorrow. The principle is completely unacceptable to the Opposition and we are unable and unwilling to offer the Procedure Committee any advice on how practical effect should be given to the Government's desire to extend the power of Ministers.
The Opposition's view is clearly stated in the letter dated 23 February sent by my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett). The letter is helpfully reproduced as an appendix to the report, although it is incorrectly dated 24 February. The reply from the right hon. Member for Honiton is dated 24 February. In his letter, the right hon. Member for Honiton argues the case for examining the procedures before the Bill receives a Third Reading. He argues that representations from his Committee, if received before the Third Reading debate, could mitigate the worst excesses of which he implicitly believes the present Government to be capable.
The experience of the unified Budget inquiry does not bear that out. In practice, the Government ignored the views of the Procedure Committee and, indeed, pre-empted some of them. If it is any consolation to the right hon. Member for Honiton, I can tell him that the Government did not take any notice of the Opposition either, and I have no doubt that the same is intended today.
There is a clear disagreement between us and the Government on this fundamental issue of principle. We are opposed to the implementation of the Bill, so we have no view to put to the Procedure Committee as to how it should be done. Our view is that it should not be done and the House has not yet agreed that it should be done.
Opposition Front-Bench Members have taken part in the scrutiny of the Bill during its passage through the House and we have debated alternatives—that is the function of a Standing Committee—but no one, except possibly Conservative Members of the Procedure Committee, could possibly conclude that by seeking to amend the Bill in Standing Committee Opposition Members were conceding the principle underpinning the legislation. For the avoidance of any doubt, I make it clear that we do not concede such a principle.
Disappointingly, the report is partisan. The inclusion in the report of paragraph 6, which refers to the Opposition's unwillingness to elaborate on our written submission, is unfair and offensive. My right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South had written to the Committee stating the considered views of the parliamentary Opposition. In summary, we do not agree with what is being done, so we are unable to give the Procedure Committee evidence as to how it should be done. Conservative Members of the Committee are perfectly entitled to disagree, but I do not accept that a Committee of this sort should vote into its report, on the casting vote of the Chairman, a paragraph as snide and unfair as paragraph 6.
§ Sir Peter Emery
The hon. Gentleman might have recorded that the second letter, written with the agreement of the entire Procedure Committee—including, at that time, Labour Members—was not even acknowledged.
§ Mr. Brown
There is no need for any acknowledgement. Our response had been clearly stated in the letter that my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South sent to the Committee and which has been recorded as an appendix. That is all that we have to say on the matter. For the right hon. Member for Honiton to use his casting vote to include in his Committee's report, with the votes of only Conservative Members—no Opposition Member voted for it—such a snide and unpleasant paragraph as paragraph 6 is completely against the spirit in which Committees of the sort over which he usually presides should proceed.
I notice that the right hon. Member for Honiton is trying to impose on the deputy leader of the Labour party, my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South, a requirement to attend in person before his Committee to explain party political decisions taken inside the Labour party. Yet Ministers of the Crown are not willing to accept an obligation to attend the Committee to explain matters of public legislation. However that can be described, it cannot be described as even-handed. It is clearly politically partisan.
§ Mr. Winnick
Is my hon. Friend aware that Labour Members on the Committee fully accepted the explanation offered by my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett)? That is why we voted against the paragraph and against the report. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) understands the reasons why. Although this is the most political place on earth, does my hon. Friend agree that there are strong arguments for a Committee such as the Procedure Committee to try, as far as possible, to avoid the strong party politics of the Chamber? We have done so to a large extent in previous Parliaments, certainly in the last Parliament. Is it not unfortunate that the Procedure Committee is increasingly being looked upon as an instrument of the Government?
§ Mr. Newton
In fairness to my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman spent the first five minutes of his speech denouncing the Government for not acceding immediately to every recommendation of the Procedure Committee in respect of the unitary Budget. That was followed by apparent agreement between the Opposition Front Bench and Back Benches that the Procedure Committee is somehow the Government's poodle. That raises questions of consistency.
§ Mr. Brown
The right hon. Gentleman is right to be fair to his right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton, and his right hon. Friend was fair to him. There is nothing inconsistent in what I have said. The Leader of the House knows that we wish to debate the report on the unified Budget because there is wide agreement underpinning the issue of principle that there should be a unified Budget and that tax and spending decisions should be brought closer together if possible. The Government say that that is their view in principle, but they refuse to do it in practice.
This is something entirely different, and there is no agreement on the question of principle, so it is invidious to 393 suggest that somehow the Opposition should take part in the discussion on how the principle should be put into practice. We do not agree that it should be done at all, and when we are the Government, all this will be repealed.
§ Sir Peter Emery
There needs to be some consistency and fairness in the argument. Labour Members took part in the cross-questioning of witnesses and in all the discussions prior to the final vote. They did not vote against or amend any of the recommendations that we had talked about, but voted only against a factual recording about not giving evidence. The hon. Gentleman knows me well enough to know that I would not try to impute otherwise, but it is not fair for him to suggest that the Opposition played no part in the working of the Committee when in fact they did.
§ Mr. Brown
With respect, I was not trying to suggest that the Opposition played no part in the workings of the Procedure Committee. Whatever our complaints about partisanship, we have not yet reached the stage of boycotting the Committee. However, I notice that the Committee's procedures were characterised by a series of partisan votes—votes which could be categorised as being on party political lines alone. An example of that is the paragraph raised by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robertson). He attempted to make hon. Members who wished to question individual deregulation measures—presumably Opposition Members—appear as witnesses to be cross-examined before the scrutinising Committee, rather than having the right to cross-examine other witnesses if they had some special interest.
Since the propositions that are to be discussed by the Committee will all have originated with Ministers and their civil servants, it is surely the role of Members of Parliament to question Ministers and civil servants and not the other way round. One can see how such a proposition would be a partisan advantage for the Government; it would not be an advantage for anyone who wished to question the Government.
Fortunately, the proposition of the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South was so outrageous that it was voted down in Committee; I pay tribute to the hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Hendry) for resisting what I believe was the most absurd of the tyrannies that his fellow Conservatives had in mind for us. Nevertheless, the fact that such a proposition was even considered by the Committee demonstrates the partisan way in which it was proceeding.
Another example of partisanship occurred when the Committee came to consider the proposition that the Deregulation Committee should be chaired by a member from an Opposition party. Again, that was thrown out on the casting vote of the Chairman. That did not seem an unreasonable proposition for a report to contain if it is aiming at bipartisanship. After all, the Committee only makes recommendations, suggestions or submissions. A report is not binding on the Government. It is not mandatory that the Committee should produce only things that the Government can accept.
It is especially important that we have a recommendation of that sort, given what we heard earlier about the Chairman sifting proposals before they are put to the Committee. I understand that the Clerks have advised that it cannot be done, but some consideration at least was given to doing it. The Government investigated whether it would be possible, as they thought that it would be to their 394 advantage. Presumably they thought that the Chair would listen carefully to the Government rather than take a more independent view—hence their opposition to the proposal that the Chair should be drawn from the Opposition parties.
There is an interesting parallel with the Public Accounts Committee. It is almost a parliamentary cliché to say that Public Accounts Committee reports command great authority because of the unanimity among its members which underpins its reports. The Public Accounts Committee deals with contentious issues—losses to the taxpayer as a result of privatisation, fraud at the Ministry of Defence and corrupt Conservative quangos in Wales —yet it is always able to present a unanimous and clear view to the House. Tribute is routinely paid by hon. Members on both sides of the House, including PAC members, Treasury Ministers and Opposition Treasury spokesmen, to the work and skill of my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon); his Committee's reports are important and are taken seriously.
This Procedure Committee report has no such value: its only function is to provide a vehicle for the Leader of the House and the Minister for Industry to set out in detail how the Executive will allow the House to deal with deregulation orders. Conservative Members agree with what is being done and Opposition Members do not—that is all that the report tells us.
§ Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams)
I do not want to be the odd man out—I seem to be the only Conservative Member who proposes to speak in the debate—but I have to say, with the greatest respect to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who has done a magnificent job in a short time, that the report is another example of bureaucracy. It contains an amazing amount of paper and a complicated flow chart, which I cannot easily follow, showing an immensely complicated means of repealing measures.
Regulations are passed very quickly in the House. Statutory instruments flow in here quickly; we pass them upstairs in a moment. The deregulation procedure, however, will be immensely complicated.
§ Mr. Newton
I hope that my hon. Friend, whose interest in deregulation I share, has not misunderstood. Where regulation exists in a statutory instrument, it can be removed by another statutory instrument. We are debating regulation in primary legislation. That is the important point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) sought to make.
§ Mr. Steen
Perhaps my right hon. Friend is making an important intervention, and I am grateful to him. [Laughter.] I shall not be deterred by the mirth of Opposition Members.
It is much easier to pass measures in the House than to repeal them. Directives flood in from Europe, which we are unable to stop but which, once on the statute book, are very difficult to repeal. A good example is directive 92/58, which proposes minimum requirements for safety signs in the workplace. All fire safety signs that do not show a little man running up or down stairs will not meet the requirements of the directive and will have to be replaced when it comes into force on 24 June.
The directive will impose enormous costs on offices, businesses and local authorities. Officials in this place will 395 want to ensure that we are ahead of the game. Every door in the Palace of Westminster will show a little man running up or down stairs. Do not existing signs—for example, those that say, "Fire Exit"—give sufficient information? Apparently they do not. According to the Health and Safety Executive, the directive is mandatory. Doors on every public building will need to have such signs so that everybody will know that there is a fire exit.
I listened to the brilliance of my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) in explaining this complex procedure—I believe that it is more complex than Opposition Members think—under which fire exit signs in cinemas, theatres and concert halls will have to change overnight on 24 June and at an enormous cost.
§ Dr. Wright
Would the hon. Gentleman be perfectly happy for Ministers of a future Labour Government to have the power to sweep away primary legislation by ministerial order?
§ Mr. Steen
That is a hypothetical question. It is also speculative: the hon. Gentleman is making assumptions about whether there will ever be a future Labour Government. I understand what he is saying, however, and the public should have some protection against what a future Labour Government might do. I am talking about something slightly different—the bureaucracy that we are introducing for past rules and regulations as opposed to the ease with which new rules and regulations are introduced without so much as a by your leave.
I gave the example of the little man running up and down on the fire exit because it is a good one. I wonder how many hon. Members or people outside are aware that this directive is mandatory. Nobody knows about it, yet millions of pounds of taxpayers' and private enterprise money will be spent on implementing it.
It is similar to the directive that has crept in in respect of filing cabinets that are not fitted with anti-tilt devices. I wonder how many people know that that Brussels directive was interpreted by the Health and Safety Executive to mean that it is unsafe to have any item of equipment at work that is not secure. The Serjeant at Arms, like many others, has interpreted that to mean that filing cabinets are dangerous. They are dangerous only if one opens four drawers and the cabinet falls over and knocks one on the head. Once someone has made that mistake, they will not repeat it.
New regulations are eating away at the public and private purse and destroying our economy's ability to revive. They are constantly reducing the profitability of private enterprise and increasing the amount of public money that must be spent on implementation.
I have nothing against a lengthy and complicated procedure, as suggested in the report, but can we please try to do something about the directives, which, as I said, are being allowed to creep in and destroy the economy? I am attacking not my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House but the way in which directives flow into this country and are passed only for the public suddenly to wake up and find such dreadful things happening.
§ Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)
The House and the public owe a debt of gratitude to the hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) because, despite the levity that greeted his remarks, what he said was genuine vox pop: he expressed what many people think. There may be a great deal of truth in what he said about directives from outside but we are discussing a different issue. I commend to him a weekly report published by the Select Committee on European Legislation which details all the directives.
The hon. Member for South Hams spoke about the regulations that emanate from Whitehall either with the signature of a Minister or that of someone whom a Minister has designated by law to authorise him. In other words, they come from the Executive, who are appointed by a majority of hon. Members and are accountable to them. I think that we can all agree on one matter. Suppose that a filing cabinet falls over, causes a serious injury to or even kills someone and the case ends in a coroner's court. The event may lead to a multiplicity of regulations that may appear necessary after a disaster but which, in practice, might be simple over-regulation. That is what the hon. Member for South Hams was complaining about.
I became involved in events following the Marchioness disaster, which was a great tragedy. It was rumoured—I emphasise that it was only a rumour—that the Department of Transport was going to order river boat operators above Teddington lock to have on board lifeboats, rockets and rations for 14 days. It did not go that far—it was only a story—but we can all cite practical examples of over-regulation from our daily life. To some extent, therefore, I agree with the hon. Member for South Hams.
§ Mr. Steen
I thank the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) for his generous remarks and I am pleased that he recognises that there is a serious problem. However, the problem is rather different from that which he describes. The problem has to do not only with rules and regulations but with their interpretation by a large number of officials. In addition, we have to contend with notes and guidance notes.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)
Order. The hon. Gentleman is going rather wide of the subject under discussion. I always permit a little latitude, but he has now had sufficient rope.
§ Mr. Spearing
I am grateful for your ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker. Of course, the interpretation is contained in the regulations themselves; it is not, as I understand it, a matter for the courts.
I thank the right hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) for his courtesy in inviting me to give evidence to the Select Committee on Procedure and for the courtesy accorded to me while I did so, even though the thesis that I advanced in my initial letter to that Committee has not been dealt with in the Committee's report or elsewhere. I also thank the right hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene earlier, when he was saying, in effect that the procedure must be at least as thorough. The right hon. Gentleman nods, thereby emphasising the fact that we have a new type of regulation equivalent to primary legislation. He nods again, and I believe that the complexity and thoroughness with which the advice is given in the 397 Committee's report proves that very point. I shall later make a constructive suggestion in this connection which may appeal to the Leader of the House.
The problem that we are discussing—let us call it the South Hams question—needs to be tackled in a democracy, but not necessarily by giving greater power to the Executive of the day, because the Executive might be responsible for inappropriate, outdated, over-complex and ill-balanced regulations, and might inflict a larger burden than is warranted by the importance of the case. Is not the whole process of statutory law, especially Acts of Parliament, about the balance between private rights and freedoms and protection and the carrying of burdens? Is not that what parliamentary democracy is all about?
I understand that in Elizabethan times there was uproar in the House when it was decided that one should only drive on the left. What about income tax and taxation in general? Taxation is a burden and a privilege—it is a matter of getting the balance right. The crossrail legislation, or any public or private Bill, involves argument about collective advantage versus private protection. In a sense, Acts of Parliament are about the balance between burden and privilege.
The Government have recognised the problem—the South Hams question—but have come down on one side only. They have chosen to stress the reduction of the burden and have not given sufficient attention to the other aspect, which is the collective advantage. Indeed, they have done so in a way that gives the advantage to the Executive. There is no doubt about that. The diagram on page xxv of the Select Committee's report is complex but the Deregulation Committee can only advise, not dispose. I was asked how I would give the Committee more power and I said that it could be given the power to dispose—the Standing Committees have them and the Government have them.
I thank the Leader of the House for his courtesy in giving way earlier. I know his views on parliamentary democracy but he will not be the Leader of the House for ever. He said that no Leader of the House and no Government would brush aside the Committee's recommendations. At one time, the Select Committee on European Legislation—this is the sort of thing that worries the hon. Member for South Hams—could call for time to be allocated on the Floor of the House or in Standing Committee to discuss outside regulations and directives. The Government decided that that was rather too time-consuming and that all such debates should take place in Committee but said that, if there was a request to debate the issues on the Floor of the House, they would consider it carefully. That was said in the Chamber when we were discussing directives.
On 30 March, the Select Committee strongly recommended that there should be a debate as soon as possible on the Floor of the House on the proposals for the enlargement of the Community. It is a very important issue, but the weeks have passed and still there was no debate. The issue is to be discussed by the Council of Ministers next Monday but we have not debated it in the House.
I do not have a copy of it with me, but the Leader of the House wrote a letter to the Chairman of the Procedure Committee in which he said that such a debate would be impractical. He has had since 30 March to make the necessary arrangements but has brushed aside the recommendation of what is not, but what is supposed to be, 398 an analogous Committee, whose very purpose was to make recommendations about debates. He has brushed aside a recommendation that he said would not be brushed aside if we adopted the proposals in question.
§ Mr. Newton
I note the hon. Gentleman's point and the spirit in which it is made. I do not remember whether he was present during business questions last week, when I made it clear that the circumstances are not quite as he describes them. We did not know that it was a proposal until it was cleared by the European Parliament only last week, at which point it became clear that it would be put before the Council of Ministers next week. That left very little time, and it is against the background of a full debate on Europe next Monday.
§ Mr. Spearing
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising that issue—I had not mentioned it because I did not want to make my speech too long. I am sorry to hear what he said, because it means that the Government had to wait for another Parliament to reach a conclusion before agreeing to discuss a matter recommended for debate by a Committee of the House. Surely that is what he is saying, in effect, and I am sorry to hear it.
§ Mr. Newton
I hope that there is no misunderstanding. The hon. Gentleman has put his point in an uncharacteristically tendentious way. The fact is that accession could not go ahead until it had been agreed by the European Parliament. Until then there was no proposal, in the full sense, to be debated. That is all I meant.
§ Mr. Spearing
I hope that the Leader of the House will accept my next remark in the spirit in which it is meant, but I must remind him that the proposal was certainly on the cards, because the Prime Minister came back and told us all about it some weeks ago, and there has been much discussion about the content of his statement.
I now hasten on. We are talking about the balance between the Executive and the House. I wish to draw the attention of the House to the document HC 588, which is the 1977–78 report of the Select Committee on Procedure —the Committee that is now chaired by the right hon. Member for Honiton. Referring to Lord Glenamara, who was then the Leader of the House, the report said:The essence of the problem, as Lord Glenamara himself recognised, is that the balance of advantage between Parliament and Government in the day to day working of the Constitution is now weighted in favour of the Government to a degree which arouses widespread anxiety and is inimical to the proper working of our parliamentary democracy.If that was true in 1977, it is at least as true now.
That was a unanimous report, backed by the following hon. Members:Mr. Kenneth Baker, Mr. A. J. Beith, Mr. George Cunningham, Mr. Michael English, Mr. John Grant, Mr. Norman Lamont, Mr. Richard Luce, Mr. David Marquand, Mr. John Peyton, Mr. J. Enoch Powell, Mr. Giles Radice, Sir David Renton, Miss Jo Richardson, Mr. Nicholas Ridley, Mr. Nigel Spearing and Sir Thomas Williams".We are suffering at least as much now. In the context of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill, which we are not discussing now, I suggest that, if the recommendation for the Committee is accepted, that uneven weighting will become far worse, for one simple reason. That was the thesis of my letter, and I do not believe that any hon. Member could disagree with it. Although statutory and primary law is available for contention in the courts, and involves the total balance between advantage and privilege 399 with which Acts of Parliament are always concerned, regulations are administrative law. They are designed to allow officials to take executive action to carry out in detail the will of the House.
In the example that the hon. Member for South Hams used, if the regulation says the Minister "shall" or "may" specify something concerning a certain number of inches, or a certain number of little men running up and down stairs, that is it. That is quite a different matter. To use secondary legislation to change primary legislation wholesale would be in breach of the constitution.
The Chairman of the Committee pointed out that, if law is made, it should be unmade in exactly the same way; otherwise, it would be devalued. The hon. Member for South Hams may not have heard of amending orders, annulment orders, or orders made for a certain period of time after which they expire and have to be renewed. That is how we could provide an opportunity, perhaps not in the Chamber but by consultative machinery, for overregulation to be dealt with if it occurs.
§ Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East)
Surely the hon. Gentleman is now talking about the same sort of system as has been used to govern Northern Ireland for the past 25 years. Why should hon. Members who have supported that system being applied to Northern Ireland for 25 years not welcome its extension to the rest of the United Kingdom?
§ Mr. Spearing
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because he has illustrated what may be in store for us.
§ Mr. Spearing
I do not think that anybody could question that.
In respect of that type of regulation, I shall conclude—
§ Mr. Steen
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, although statutory instruments tend to get passed in three minutes in Committee, the procedure likely to result from the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill will take much longer to unwind or repeal them? I should like to hear what he thinks about that.
§ Mr. Spearing
The hon. Gentleman is right, but for the wrong reason. We have to put in place something that, however skilfully it may be constructed, will be an enormously complicated procedure. That is because regulations are being used for the wrong purpose. It would be much easier to amend an Act, as does the middle part of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill, which we shall discuss tomorrow.
I finish by suggesting an alternative procedure to deal with what, while it may not be described as the West Lothian question, could be described as the South Hams question. Over-regulation and unnecessary regulation have to be dealt with. Why not have an annual deregulation Bill? We have one this year, and there are bits in it about public vehicles and all sorts of other things; it affects regulations about this, that and the other. Such a Bill could even be 400 amended, if the House wished. Indeed, a spectacular amendment was made yesterday to the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill. So there would be an opportunity for the hon. Member for South Hams, or anybody else, to say that something was wrong. But the law should be changed in the same way as it was made.
There may be a danger in doing that, because if we use the same procedure as we use for Standing Committees on Bills, such a Committee, like the Committee on the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill, would have to deal with a vast range of all sorts of different issues. Its membership could not be hand-picked, so there could be difficulties. If such a Bill were to be introduced every year, therefore, there ought to be outside consultation before its introduction. That arrangement could be part of some overriding Act. I have attempted to suggest how that could be done with my amendment No. 90—which, of course, I cannot talk about now, because that would be out of order, but which hon. Members can read on the amendment paper.
Instead of going to a Standing Committee, why should not the annual deregulation Bill be dealt with separately? The Army Bill is dealt with separately, and so is the Finance Bill. Initially it would go to a Public Bill Committee—the sort of Committee that I think we should have, and which was advocated by the Procedure Committee in 1977. There would be a Select Committee procedure for a period—perhaps the membership could change with the subject—and then a normal Standing Committee, after which the Bill would return to the Floor of the House.
I suggest that that would be using the House in the proper way. There would be pre-legislative consultation, scrutiny and questioning of Ministers in the House where necessary. That might not be necessary; let us hope that it would not. I hope that that would deal with the problems that concern the hon. Member for South Hams. It would also help the Government, and would avoid the great complications, and the enormous manpower and extra work, that the Procedure Committee's recommendations could entail.
§ Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)
I am pleased to be able to make a short contribution. I start by paying tribute to the work of the Procedure Committee. I was lucky enough, if that is the phrase, to be summoned, and I was received with courtesy and listened to attentively for a happy 15 or 20 minutes. That was a worthwhile exercise. The Committee's work has been most valuable, and the House should be grateful to its members.
The Leader of the House has something to answer for in that he has brought us to this position. Here we are in the middle of the week having to insinuate the debate in between two days of a Report stage. We are in the middle of the consideration of the Bill. The Government should have seen that problem coming when they conceived the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill in the first place. It is wrong to have to hold such a debate, and to force the Procedure Committee to make such a hurried report—although it was executed with dispatch, with proper expedition and with expertise.
We should not be having this debate in the middle of a two-day Report stage. The question should have been resolved clear of the final stages of the Bill, so that the 401 House could have had more time to contemplate some of the profound changes that will result from the legislation. I do not think that it is right that this important debate about the work of the Procedure Committee should be sandwiched in the middle of the debate on Report.
The Leader of the House must bear in mind the wider worries that some Members on both sides of the House have, to which the hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) has adverted, in relation to regulations. There is a widespread view that the House is suffering from overload at every level and in every direction. I do not think that the Government are doing enough about that. We have mentioned the Jopling report and the distinguished work that the Procedure Committee has done in the past. It has made plenty of recommendations. There is a growing sense, especially among my generation, if I can put it that way—although I am older than I look—that the House is overloaded. At some time or another, someone will have to grasp that nettle.
I am in favour of the fast-track procedure, subject to safeguards, but I do not think that it is enough. I should not want the Leader of the House to go away thinking that, if he obtains the agreement of the House to the procedure, that is the end of the matter, because it is not. Europe will produce more important legislation, and anxieties will grow in Scotland and in Wales that inadequate time is available on the Floor of the House of Commons. I am not by any means suggesting that that leads one to a conclusion about separation. There are all sorts of other ways, in a federal context, in which those problems could be tackled. There is a long agenda, which we ignore at our peril and which is not tackled by the narrower but nevertheless significant changes that are proposed in the Bill.
While I have the attention of the Leader of the House, I want to tell him that the measures that we are considering should only be temporary. If we accept the fact that in the past there has been over-regulation and over-legislation, presumably the penny has now dropped: the day has dawned; we all now see the error of our ways; and after the forthcoming Queen's Speech, all those problems will be solved. That is the responsibility of the Leader of the House. If the right hon. Gentleman lacks the bottle to say to Departments in future, "Up with these excessive attempts at legislation we will not put in future," he will fail the House and will not be doing his duty properly. He must take that seriously, and the measures should be temporary.
I am worried that the work that the Procedure Committee has done, in rightly and thoroughly scrutinising the problem that it was set, will turn into a procedure that will be built into the bricks of this place and that, in future, we shall have primary legislation that will need to be stripped out by the fast-track procedure in due course. If the House gets into that mind-set, it will fail in its duty. The procedures should be used, appropriately and thoroughly, for the next few years, until we return to the situation in which we want to be, which is that we only introduce legislation in this place when it is essential.
The hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) rightly argued that rights, checks and balances must all be borne in mind. I must say in parenthesis that I am attracted by the solution that he proposed, which would provide a viable alternative, and I wonder whether the Government have given that suggestion the serious consideration that I believe that it deserves.
402 There are some anxieties about the context in which the debate is taking place and I hope that the Leader of the House will realise that he has a duty to go away and think longer and harder about some of the longer-term issues that stand behind the proposals that we are considering.
Putting all that to one side, speaking for myself, I am willing to contemplate a fast-track procedure and I think that the Committee was right to propose it. I would add the qualification that it is essential, for the procedure to operate safely, that the House has ultimate control of the way in which the legislation and the new provisions are executed.
I say to the Leader of the House that I believe that an important factor in that—it may be a minor point—is that the Government should seriously consider offering the chairmanship of the Committee to an Opposition party. It is a special Committee and we must mark it out as a special Committee. The Leader of the House gave me an understandable response to my intervention, that the usual channels will dispose of questions such as that. From my perspective as someone who plays a minor part in the usual channels, I am not convinced that that will not be lost in the normal carve-up of perfectly ordinary and acceptable party interests. It will simply be lost.
I believe that the right hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) is right in saying that the Committee should be set slightly apart from Select Committees. One of the ways that we can slightly set it apart—it is done in terms of the Public Accounts Committee and it works perfectly well in that regard—is to select and nominate a chairman from the Opposition ranks.
§ Mr. William Ross
The hon. Gentleman said that he was hoping that the Chairman would come from a minority party, or rather from an Opposition party. How many minority party Members does he think will be on that Committee?
§ Mr. Kirkwood
I hope that there will be at least one; perhaps two. It depends on the size of the Committee.
We can have an argument about the rights and the balances and the opportunities that minority parties have —and as shop steward for the minority parties on the Committee of Selection I try to do my best, within the confines of the contest between the two major parties, to protect our interests; however, although I accept what the hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) said, my argument is slightly different. By virtue of our allowing the chairmanship to fall into the hands of the Opposition parties, the Committee will be given a certain distinction. Such a move would set the Committee apart and give the House added protection in the sense that the Committee would not then be driven simply by the perceptions, needs and desires of the Executive, which is a significant worry.
If the Government are not willing to do that, and if they are not willing to put proper safeguards into the fast-track procedure, which gives the House some sense that it has ultimate control, they will fail in what they are setting out to do. That would be a retrograde step.
I hope that the Leader of the House will consider the longer-term issues as well as some of the shorter-term ones. In particular, I hope that he will give some added thought to the question of offering the chairmanship to a party that is outwith the party of government, because if those Committees are to be enshrined for all time, Governments will come and Governments will go. I know the Leader of the House well enough to trust him. I do not 403 subscribe to the conspiracy theory that the procedure will be taken over and used in some nefarious way for Government political purposes. I do not believe that in the current context, but we cannot say that that will not change in future Parliaments, with different incumbents in the office that he holds. He must tackle those genuine anxieties to assure the House that that is being done properly.
§ Mr. George Galloway (Glasgow, Hillhead)
That was a terribly disappointing close to the hon. Gentleman's speech, and I think that he might have been better informed about the true nature of the measures and the procedural infrastructure that is being instituted this evening to bring the measures into effect. If the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) had been here last night or this evening, he would have been better informed. He at least was able to see the beast face to face.
Although the Government have fielded some jolly decent coves this evening, and have shown us a decent face —although, as one paragraph made clear, the report is not as nice as the person who introduced it looks—the measures are an affront to the constitution. They are an abuse of democracy. That is something that has not been fully reflected during a debate in which we have ranged very widely: we have had the latest battle in the hundred years war over Britain's membership of the European Union; the Jopling report; and all sorts of other essentially extraneous issues.
What we are talking about is the procedural infrastructure to give the Government what have been described as Henry VIII powers, so draconian are those powers in relation to Parliament and to the further accretion of control on the part of an Executive who have done more than enough over the past 15 years to lead us to conclude that their purpose is ignoble. The Government's accretion of executive powers is an ignoble crusade, however nice the gentlemen sent here to argue for it may have been.
I said in the Committee that considered the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill that the Government were ill advised to choose Henry VIII as a role model at this parlous time in the Conservative party's political history. Henry VIII was a mass murderer; he was a serial adulterer, leaving what I think are known as love children all over the country; he disposed of parliamentary and any other opposition in the most brutal and undemocratic fashion. He even tucked his trousers into his socks. They were not actually trousers—more a kind of frock. But perhaps I had better not go further down that line.
All in all, Henry VIII was a very unsavoury character in British history. It is inappropriate for any Government in a modern democracy to be bent on taking powers so dictatorial that they have now become known universally as Henry VIII powers. From some mail received today I see that the Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists is to bring Henry VIII back to life with a personal appearance, including axes and stocks, on Westminster bridge at 11.15 tomorrow. No doubt the country's media will be there in force.
We are talking about giving a discredited Executive, a discredited Cabinet, a discredited Government, draconian 404 powers to dispose of primary legislation that the House, in its proper way, has passed in years gone by. This is no laughing matter. A reading of the speeches of the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) and of other Conservative Members during the Second Reading debate on the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill makes it clear that attitudes to the constitutional aspects of this matter are shared by Members on both sides of the House and will be shared in another place. I, for one, am not at all sure that the other place will tamely roll over to the constitutional implications.
I come now to the very emollient and gentlemanly discourse that the Chairman of the Procedure Committee gave at the beginning of the debate. In the few minutes available to me I shall deal with one or two aspects of it. The idea that we can be satisfied with the proposals that the Procedure Committee has come up with, especially with regard to the issue of the chairmanship, simply will not wash.
The very decent Leader of the House made it clear by implication that an Opposition Member will not chair the Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), in an intervention today and repeatedly in Committee, elicited, by implication, the answer that there will be a Chairman's sift. There is to be a Conservative placeman in the Chair, and that Chairman will have power to sift. There will be a majority of Government placemen, as is clear from responses to interventions during this debate. There will therefore be no real protection whatever.
I am very sure that the usual procedures, the Government's powers of patronage, fear of the Whips and the inducement of promotion and of other favours will be such that the Minister bringing forward a deregulation proposal will manage, no doubt with 40 or 60 days' huffing and puffing but ultimately with very little difficulty, to get it through by partisan vote. After that, we shall have only a 90–minute debate at the end of the evening, when the press have gone home and the nation sleeps. Primary legislation will be swept away as the Whips whip the majority through the Lobbies.
This is a coarsening, cheapening and brutalising of the procedures of the House of Commons that sits well with the coarsening, cheapening and brutalising project that the deregulation legislation itself represents. The legislation chips away yet more of the edifice of civilised British society. This is the necessary concurrent procedural infrastructure. I am very disappointed at the tame response of the Liberal party, as enunciated by the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire, whom I admire very much and with whom I very rarely disagree. It will not be the tame response of the Labour party. We reject these proposals, as we reject the Bill.
§ The Minister for Industry (Mr. Tim Sainsbury)
Has it occurred to the hon. Gentleman, in the course of his hyperbolic defence of democracy, that the reason for others taking a different view is that, unlike him, they think that deregulation is a good idea?
§ Mr. Galloway
If it is a good idea, why cannot it be brought to the Floor of the House with debate on an annual deregulation Bill? If it is such a good idea, it would no doubt stand the test of parliamentary democracy and would be approved by a majority of the House after due debate. If it is such a good idea, let the Government put it to the test. The truth is that it is a rotten idea, at least in so far as 405 it exists in the minds of Ministers, who are engaging in the exercise at the behest of vested interests, many of whom have stuffed the Conservative party's coffers with gold in exchange for deregulation measures.
It is because it is such a rotten idea that the Government want to push these things through in a 90–minute debate, after normal parliamentary business and while the nation sleeps. The purpose is to dispose of the business as quickly and in as much shadow as possible. This is to be done precisely because it is a rotten idea conceived by the rotten lot opposite.
There is undoubtedly legislation that should, and could easily in a bipartisan way, be dispensed with. We could take a couple of hours upstairs night after night and, with the statute book in front of us, agree among ourselves that this or that piece of legislation is no longer necessary. However, we know that this project, this bonfire—how inappropriate that term may turn out to be in the context of the deregulation of fire protection with which we dealt last night—of civilised society in Britain is something that the Government would prefer to hold very quickly and quietly and, if possible, when no one is looking.
§ Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)
I shall be brief because I know that several of my colleagues wish to contribute to the debate.
It is a privilege to be able to take up the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway), for what he said was essentially correct. It is true that the entire exercise that we are debating is ideologically driven. It is true also, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) said, that if the Government wanted to clear away the legislative undergrowth they could do so annually in a deregulation Bill. They could repeal redundant legislation by that means.
I smiled wryly to myself when the hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) made his ignorant contribution. We know from the Minister and his ministerial colleagues —this was made clear in Committee—that 71 per cent. of the regulations that the Government want to sweep away were introduced since 1979. They are Conservative, not Labour, regulations. A full fifth of the regulations have been introduced since November 1990, when the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) moved into No. 10. The idea that satanic socialists from previous Administrations are responsible for all the regulations is nonsense.
Who will chair the Deregulation Committee? It should be a member of one of the Opposition parties. The Chairman will have the power to sift. He will decide what goes to the full Committee. In Committee, the Minister said that the Government
do not intend to introduce many draft orders initially. We shall begin with a small number, depending on how many proposals the new Committee wished to inquire into in greater detail. That aspect may not have been appreciated. We anticipate that a Chairman's sift would identify those which the Committee wished to spend time on, or call witnesses to, or have further papers on."—[Official Report, Standing Committee F, 24 February 1994; c. 231.]The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons, who is not in his place, gave evidence to the Procedure Committee. He said:For example, if a procedure were adopted that did entail a sift, a chairman's sift, of the kind that exists under some other 406 arrangements, or perhaps a sift by a sub-committee to decide which one seemed not to require a great deal of attention by the proposed new committee and others which really did require some investigation, then there would be the possibility, for example, that the Government would put forward a number which appeared, on the face of it, unlikely to be felt by the committee to require a major investigation.So the role of the Chairman and the Chairman's sift is crucial.
§ Mr. Prentice
I shall give way in a moment.
I move on to the evidence that was given to the Procedure Committee by no less a person than the Clerk of the House, Sir Clifford Boulton. He was asked specifically about the proprieties of the Chairman's sift by my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire). She wanted to know whether it was established procedure in the House for a Chairman to act on a Committee's authority without the Committee actually meeting. Sir Clifford said:it is … not the practice of our Committees to give devolved powers to the Chairman and then ask for some kind of restrospective approval of action he had taken, if that was going to go to the extent of certifying to the Leader of the House that the Committee would not be bothering with certain proposals or something like that.Later, he said:our Committees do not have power to sub-delegate authority to the Chairman.
§ Sir Peter Emery
May I make it absolutely clear to the hon. Gentleman that there was no intention in any aspect of the recommendation in the Procedure Committee's report that anything but every regulation should go to the complete Committee for its consideration? That is absolute. It is most important that the hon. Gentleman should realise that that was the Committee's judgment.
§ Mr. Prentice
I do not know for the life of me how it will work in practice. The whole thing has not been thought through.
§ Mr. Prentice
It has not been thought through. One of the problems was that the Standing Committee which was considering the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill was running in parallel with the Select Committee on Procedure and the latter could not realistically be expected to know what was being discussed and being debated in the Standing Committee. I forget the number of occasions on which we were speculating on what would be the response of the Procedure Committee. We did not know because the Procedure Committee had not got round to dealing with the matters with which we were wrestling in the Standing Committee.
I say to the right hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) that a fundamental contradiction exists. If there are a large number of deregulation orders and lots of legislative undergrowth needs to be cut and hacked down, there has to be a Chairman's sift. If there are not many deregulation orders, why bother in the first place? The whole thing is ideologically driven.
I shall say bluntly what, perhaps, my hon. Friends would not say. I do not think that the Procedure Committee report measures up. It falls far short of what we are entitled to expect from such a senior Committee of the House. The genesis of the proposal was in the minds of Conservative Members who could not conceive of Britain ever electing 407 anything other than a Conservative Government. It was Conservatism in perpetuity. After the local elections and after what happens next month, Conservative Members ought to start considering—not chortling—that the boot may be on the other foot.
§ Mr. Prentice
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman has considered that. It is a problem that we are considering tomorrow in the final stages of a Bill that will dramatically alter the constitutional landscape of the country. The report that we are discussing does not measure up to that.
§ 9.6 pm
§ Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock and Burntwood)
We are, in a sense, discussing clause 4 of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill tonight. Clause 4 has a certain history in the annals of my party and I suspect that the present clause 4 will acquire a certain historical significance in the annals of the Conservative party. Perhaps it was because Conservative Members had been in power too long that they thought that the time had come when they could start to legislate by order. They began to get worried, because people—some in the other place, some constitutional lawyers outside and, indeed, some citizens—said that they did not think that they should proceed like that, and, if they did, there would be certain consequences.
So Conservative Members thought to themselves, "Well, we had better introduce a certain parliamentary device to make it all right and to legitimise what we want to do." So clause 4 was introduced. Clause 4 refers to the role of Parliament in the order-making process. There will be a device for parliamentary consideration and it is, of course, that device, that clause 4 mechanism, that we are being asked to consider. I believe that that mechanism will acquire a significance when the current period is considered, as our own clause 4 has over the years.
I want to consider the Procedure Committee report at face value. I shall not say what the report should have contained or, as some of my hon. Friends have said, how it is inadequate generally and that its genesis has problems. I shall take it as it comes because, remember, it is the device that we are being offered to make the process of the Government doing what they wish all right.
In its own terms, the Committee tried to do that. Indeed, it came up with what it called five safeguards, which, if any hon. Member would care to consider them, are in paragraph 102. Those safeguards are the bottom line that the Committee offers the House as the device to make the process all right. I will not read out all five of those safeguards as they are in the report.
However, it is most revealing that two of those extremely important safeguards have been rejected by the Government. They are:the Deregulation Committee should have the power to summon Ministers to give evidence.and:a Deregulation Committee report that the order-making power should not be used for a specific deregulation proposal would prevent a final deregulation order being laid".The Government rejected that and said that they would prefer to use the process in relation to draft orders rather than proposals. [Interruption.] The Chairman of the 408 Procedure Committee wants to know whether that is correct. He seems to be asking the Leader of the House whether that is correct.
§ Sir Peter Emery
I wanted to know whether the Government's rejection of that was correct. I do not believe that the Government's rejection has ever been suggested.
§ Dr. Wright
That is very interesting. Time is short, but I simply advise the right hon. Gentleman to consider the Government's reply contained in paragraphs 15 to 18, which state precisely what I have just described.
The Procedure Committee report refers to the importance that the Committee attaches to the rejection power. Paragraph 64 states:We recommend that, if the Deregulation Committee reports that the order-making power should not be used in respect of a specific deregulation proposal, no deregulation order should be laid before the House in respect of that proposal.That could not be clearer. It is a bottom-line demand in relation to the safeguards that are being suggested, but the Government have rejected that bottom-line demand.
We have five safeguards, but two of them have been rejected. In addition, the Procedure Committee's report states that the existing Government suggestions do not go far enough and paragraph 104 states very clearly:We recommend that acceptance of these recommendations should be signified by the Government before the third reading of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill in this House.There we have it.
There is a clear declaration that the order-making machinery is acceptable to the Procedure Committee only if those five safeguards are met and the acceptance is given before the Third Reading of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill. However, two of the five safeguards have been rejected and we are to have Third Reading tomorrow. The Chairman of the Procedure Committee may be happy with that. Indeed, the House may be happy with that. However, I warn against the consequences of having embarked on a road of providing protections, but having two of those fundamental protections rejected, and then still pressing on.
I have raised important points and I want briefly to add a further point. During consideration of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill we offered the Government several tests of good faith. One test asked whether the Government were sure that nothing controversial would be introduced under the order-making power. We were not given that assurance in Committee. The Leader of the House seemed to give that assurance tonight, but there is great uncertainty about that point.
The Government do not know whether the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill is a little Bill or a big Bill. If it is a big Bill, the order-making power is not appropriate. If it is a little Bill, how on earth can it deliver the promise of deregulation? That is the contradiction which is more exposed the more we talk about it. The Government would not respond to the tests of good faith that we put to them.
When we asked that certain key areas of protection, such as health and safety and employment protection, be written into the Bill so that they could not be included in the order-making powers, the Government refused to do so. They failed that test of good faith.
We asked the Government to accept in full the Procedure Committee's report. We specifically asked the Government to accept the recommendation of the Procedure Committee if it said that it was not appropriate 409 to use the order-making power for a particular proposal. That was one of the Committee's five recommendations, but the Government rejected it. All tests of good faith, such as the suggestion about an annual renewal of the Bill, were rejected. Yet we are being asked by the Chairman of the Procedure Committee to say that it is all right and that we can proceed nevertheless.
I am tempted to conclude my remarks here, but I want to go a little further. I cannot really join in the paeans that some of my hon. Friends have delivered to the normal legislative process in the House. I wish that there were enough time for me to share all the information that I have with the House. However, I will share some and my hon. Friends can tell me when to stop.
I have just emerged from the Committee which considered the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill—which I suppose in one sense is an untypical Bill, but in another sense is very typical. It is the first big Bill that I have considered in Committee in this place. I hear regular descriptions in the House—I have heard them today—of the glories of the legislative process. Frankly, it is an illusion; it is self-delusion. It is a collective delusion of the Parliament. We have been rumbled outside, but in here I presume that we still believe this sort of thing.
I have made a quick analysis of exactly what happened with the deregulation Bill in Committee. The Committee sat from 15 February until 28 April. We sat for 35 sessions and for 88 hours. About 200 amendments were moved. Shall I give the House the terrible details? The 100 amendments moved by the Government went through and two of ours went through. One of those was passed because the Whip on the other side was asleep—I hope that it will not do irreparable damage to his political advancement. I am giving the House only the barest details.
I am afraid that this is the reality of the legislative process in the House. It is a case of Members not being present, Members conducting business in the corridors, being summoned by bells and doing their correspondence in Committee. The textbooks call it "scrutiny". It is an hilarious situation, and the hilarity was compounded when the Bill came back to the House last night.
We spent many hours in Committee talking about markets. We explained to the Government that we thought that we needed new liberalising legislation to clear away some of the antique provisions and to regulate where unregulated markets were causing trouble. We were assured that this was not an issue at all and that the thing to do was simply abolish charter market rights. Of course, all hon. Members from the Government party voted happily for that provision when the bell rang and they were required to do so.
After that process was completed, the Minister came into the House last night and told us that what we had said all along was right and that it would be sensible to bring in some new provisions. But this did not happen as a result of scrutiny in the House or because of the legislative process; it happened because the Opposition could not get away with it. That is the only way that changes are made. To make it even worse, there was a new provision about racing which had never been discussed in Committee and which had had no scrutiny at all. The Minister said that he was sorry that the matter had not been not consulted upon, but it was introduced and passed. That is the reality of the legislative process.
§ Mr. Bennett
I accept the cynical view which my hon. Friend is putting forward, but I would suggest that, on markets, perhaps spending those 80 hours in Committee did something useful. While the Committee was consuming time, an awful lot of people were lobbying outside. Therefore, while the scrutiny in the House may not have been very effective, the scrutiny in the country perhaps was.
§ Dr. Wright
There is a little truth in what my hon. Friend says, but I am afraid that the big truth still lies with my description of the process.
I have a certain ambivalence about the whole matter. In some ways, I find the new scrutiny machinery quite interesting. I do not like it in so far as it allows Ministers to legislate by order, but in so far as it begins to address some of the problems with the normal legislative process in the House, I begin to get interested.
§ Mr. Spearing
Is my hon. Friend aware that, for 10 or 15 years, those who understand what he has been saying have made strong efforts to introduce a public Bill procedure where, prior to the legislative procedure of amendments, Ministers appear as witnesses in a Select Committee format to justify their Bill? Does my hon. Friend agree that that would improve things enormously?
§ Dr. Wright
I agree very much. I feel myself being lured towards territory which I would like to enter, but I must prevent myself from doing that.
There is a reform agenda, and there is no difficulty in knowing what we ought to do. The Hansard Society produced the definitive reform agenda for the legislative process two years ago. The weight of evidence which came in from every part of society to that learned commission showed that there was massive and profound dissatisfaction with the way in which this place operates.
The society produced an agenda for reform which incorporated some of the ideas which my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) mentioned, and it included First Reading Committees and a wider consultative process. Those ideas were available to us. The tragedy is that the House is not taking advantage of them.
I am not going back to the Jopling report, because I do not think that Jopling begins to go far enough. However, I shall quote from the Leader of House, who said on 2 July 1992 in reference to a debate on the Jopling report on the following Monday:I hope that the debate … will pave the way for the House to reach some decisions very soon after it returns in the autumn." —[Official Report, 2 July 1992; Vol. 210, c. 964.]That was two years ago.
Of course, the problem is that the House seems incapable of reforming itself. Everyone outside knows that we have to do that, but the House seems incapable of understanding that.
A result of our not acting in this case is that we will allow an order-making power to be introduced. We will do it in a way which does not have adequate safeguards built in, and which does not incorporate the safeguards which were suggested by the Procedure Committee. More important, the House is refusing to reform its own procedures in a sensible and comprehensive way.
Worst of all is that the House does not care about this at all. Tomorrow night, hon. Members will troop through to vote for the Third Reading of the Bill which has 411 inadequate protections. The Government will have got the Bill, but the House will have fallen a further notch in the public's esteem.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)
The deregulation Bill will not solve the problem of the number of regulations produced by the Government. I have some sympathy on that score with the hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen), although I think he missed the point about the sheer number of regulations that Ministers produce.
While the debate was going on I slipped out to the Board to collect my agenda for the Select and Joint Statutory Instrument Committees, just to see the number of instruments that we shall have to scrutinise next week. There are more than 30 of them, and the Government turn out that many week after week.
Last year the Government introduced more than 3,000 sets of new regulations and already this year the number has reached more than 1,000. Although the Government continually churn out regulations, Ministers do have a choice. They have tried to tell people that, because there is too much regulation, they intend to introduce a deregulation Bill—but the Bill is irrelevant to the problem. They have therefore tried to devise a new parliamentary procedure which I would suggest is wholly inadequate, as was the whole Procedure Committee report. It did not even consider the crucial issues.
Most regulations confer freedom on one group of people and restrictions on another group. I therefore can see no constitutional difference between a Bill that deregulates and a Bill that regulates.
§ Mr. William Ross
The hon. Gentleman has forgotten to point out that many of the pieces of legislation that we scrutinise in Committee every week are defective, so we often have to look at them twice or three times before the Government get them right. Does he agree that if Departments did their work properly there would be a great deal less work for us?
§ Mr. Bennett
Certainly, but the whole problem with legislating by regulation is that it offers the temptation of not drafting regulations particularly well.
If the Government will go along with my proposal for new legislation, I will accept that the procedure they propose is reasonable. Let us imagine, in the next Parliament, that an Act is passed to allow, by regulation, for the safety and good governance of the United Kingdom, and to ensure the fair distribution of wealth and power. If we passed such an Act and then proceeded by regulation to achieve those ends, would the Conservatives think that that was a fair use of parliamentary procedure? I suspect not. But that has not stopped the Government arming themselves with sweeping powers to make legislation under the terms of our accession to the European Union. The sort of Act that I have described might provide my constituents with much speedier remedies for many of the problems that they face. Still, I think that it would be constitutionally unacceptable.
The Chairman of the Procedure Committee said that deregulation measures should be treated like primary 412 legislation. If so, I find it puzzling that the Committee failed to analyse the proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) that there be a deregulation Bill every year. I believe that such a Bill, scrutinised on the Floor of the House, would take up less time than the proposed new procedures might take.
We are told that there is a possibility of 20 or 30 deregulation orders. Assuming that many of them are controversial, that would mean an hour and a half for each, or 30 or 40 hours of parliamentary time. If there were a deregulation Bill, it would mean some six hours for a Second Reading. A small group of people would discuss the Bill, possibly for a long time, in Committee. There would then be 10 or 12 hours for Report and Third Reading. So in terms of efficient use of parliamentary time, an annual deregulation Bill would be a more efficient procedure than the hybrid mess that the Procedure Committee has come up with.
The main safeguard of a proper piece of legislation would be the amount of time that would be taken. I tend to accept the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Dr. Wright) that the time spent in Committee often is not very useful. But while that time is being consumed, debate often takes place outside. Groups of people lobby Ministers and come to see individual Members of Parliament. It is an important part of the parliamentary process that a certain amount of time is taken up. One of the problems with the deregulation measure is that the time will be compressed, and there is a possibility that things can be stampeded through.
On the proposals for markets, I find it remarkable that, although I spoke to one or two of my constituents when the Bill was first published, only in the past fortnight have a substantial number of letters begun to come in. We are talking about almost six months from its publishing to this stage. It is a sad fact, but in a democracy it takes a lot of time for the information to be disseminated to the country. One of the fatal flaws of the procedure suggested is that it does not allow sufficient time for trade associations, trade unions and lobbying groups to get the information out to their members, find out whether people are concerned and start the lobbying process.
We are told that, under the new procedure, 40 days will be allowed. If the Committee thinks that the matter is more extensive, it can be extended to 60 days.
§ Mr. Newton
I am beginning to wonder increasingly whether some hon. Members who are making speeches —I say this with due deference to the hon. Gentleman—have read the proposals. No proposal goes to the Deregulation Committee unless it has already been the subject of consultation, and a report on the outcome of that consultation is made to the Committee with the proposal.
§ Mr. Bennett
Who does one consult? The proposal will not be widely publicised. I find it amazing that the Leader of the House does not understand what happens with the general public. There is a substantial time lag. One can write to a particular group if one knows that a regulation affects a trade union or an industry, but that is the limit of the consultation. Only when it gets into the public domain do people become concerned about it.
If the Government are saying that there will be a 12–month process from the point at which a Minister proposes the deregulation to the point at which the order goes through, they might as well go along with the 413 proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock and Burntwood to have a deregulation Bill each Parliament. The only excuse for the procedure is that it is supposed to be a short cut—a quicker way of doing it than having legislation. The Government cannot have it both ways. If there is to be all the consultation and safeguards that I think there should be, they might as well do it through primary legislation rather than their intended short-cut.
§ Mr. Newton
I do not wish to prolong the proceedings or be unduly tiresome, but I will make the point that while I happen to believe—as do my colleagues generally—in consultation wherever possible, although there is a requirement to consult here before introducing the proposal, there is no such requirement in respect of introducing primary legislation.
§ Mr. Bennett
I accept that there is no need for that requirement. I do not think that the proceedings of the House are particularly well reported, but almost always on Second Reading there is a reasonable debate in the House about the proposals, and from that point on people begin to become interested in the matter. I think that the consultation process is pretty effective; certainly most of the organisations that would be formally consulted, as required by the legislation, would spot anything in primary legislation.
§ Mr. Spearing
Is my hon. Friend aware that, under consultation procedures, the Department of Transport sent out a letter on 11 February asking various official bodies what they thought about getting rid of three schedules of the London Transport Act 1982, taking away the burden of running a lost property service? I do not think that many London Transport passengers know about that—and I did not until yesterday, despite having asked a question to which I received a misleading answer.
§ Mr. Bennett
I accept that it takes time. If the Government are anxious for the consultation process to be effective, they should look to primary legislation.
Primary legislation, moreover, gives the power to amend. Again, the markets provision, which was discussed last night, is a good illustration. The power to amend in detail allows the possibility of cross-party activity in the House and the defeat of the Government. Regulations, because of the way in which they are presented, give the Government much more power: there is a "take it or leave it" approach. I understand that some power to amend has been suggested, but that would be a result of the Committee's scrutiny rather than any opportunity to make amendments in the House.
Appointing 16 Committee members for the duration of a Parliament would be a disadvantage. Although they may follow the procedures, my experience in the House suggests that during such a long period at least some members of the party in government will be promoted—perhaps not very far, but at least to parliamentary private secretary—and will leave the Committee. There may be a turnover of members for various other reasons.
I think it is easier to persuade people to volunteer for involvement in primary legislation—which will give them the interest to follow through the issues involved—than to hope for good attendance in a Committee that meets week after week, often dealing with matters in which individual members have very little interest. I can say from my experience of the Select Committee on Statutory 414 Instruments that it is very difficult to maintain good attendance, although members are appointed for the duration of a Parliament.
I believe that there are major defects in the new procedure. If the Government cannot secure agreement, it will start at a disadvantage: people will be aiming to wreck it, rather than to make it work. I suggest that, even at this late stage, the Leader of the House should scrap the Procedure Committee's report and think again about finding some consensus—perhaps through the usual channels—if the Government are determined to bring about deregulation of Acts of Parliament by regulation. It would be far better to scrap the whole Bill and start again, perhaps promising an annual deregulation measure.
§ Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East)
I shall be brief. I read paragraph 16 of the Committee's report with interest. It consists of only one sentence, stating that the Committee has sought to ensure
that no Act of Parliament is repealed or amended under this new power without examination at least as thorough as if the change had been made by a Bill passing through the House.As I said earlier in an intervention on the speech of the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), Northern Ireland has been governed by Order in Council for some 22 years. I was astonished and delighted this evening to hear so many Opposition Members condemn that procedure as applied to their constituents; I hope that they will now understand how those of us who represent the Province have felt for the past 22 years, 20 of which I have spent in the House.
Our experience is that the procedure suggested by the Government invariably results in legislation by civil servants rather than by Parliament. That is literally what happens with Northern Ireland legislation. I do not think that we should adopt such a procedure and I commend what was said by the hon. Member for Newham, South. A deregulation Bill each year might not be particularly satisfactory, but it would be a sight better than what the Government propose.
§ Mr. Derek Fatchett (Leeds, Central)
We have had an important debate on the Select Committee's report.
I should like to preface my remarks by referring to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Dr. Wright), who raised some important issues about the role of the House and ministerial accountability. It would do us all a great deal of good to explore that agenda because it is important for our democracy. It is extremely relevant to the debate that we have had this evening.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock and Burntwood referred to the issue of the markets and the three clauses that were deleted last night from the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill. I offer my hon. Friend one thought: if the procedures recommended in the report had been in place, I contend that the clauses dealing with markets would have been enacted speedily without the process of consultation and opposition that eventually occurred. The short-cut procedure would have led to bad legislation which would have been highly unpopular. It may be a warning to the Government that, if the procedures 415 that they are now trying to implement had been in place, they would have pushed through some unpopular measures on markets. That is one of the lessons that we need to draw.
§ Mr. Newton
That was in the Bill because the Government judged that it was not a proper use for the regulation-making power. It is a good illustration of where we think that it is appropriate to have new primary legislation.
§ Mr. Fatchett
With respect, there is no definition in the Bill or in the Procedure Committee's report of what is to come in the future, what is defined as important and what Bills or proposals can be used via the mechanism. The right hon. Gentleman's argument falls on its face because that sort of measure can come in the future.
The situation was well summed up by a telling intervention made by the Minister for Industry during the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway). The Minister said that many people want to get on with the deregulation initiative. That was an interesting perspective and it was embodied in all our debates in the Standing Committee. It was highly and wholly practical, with no reference to the underpinning constitutional issues. The Minister's primary concern was to deal with a deregulation initiative. That is an extremely dangerous approach to legislation and administration. The best approach takes account of our constitutional principles and tries to bring legislation within those principles.
We objected to the Bill on Second Reading, and we shall vote against it tomorrow on Third Reading, because it gives extensive powers to the Executive to repeal primary legislation. I shall quote a passage from the evidence of the Procedure Committee which has not been quoted by any of my hon. Friends. It sums up our key objection. The right hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), the Chairman of the Procedure Committee—
§ Mr. Fatchett
I have received a note from the right hon. Gentleman saying that he has to fulfil another appointment.
The right hon. Member for Honiton asked the Clerk of Committees the following question:do you know of any other instances where primary legislation has been altered, other than by a Statutory Instrument which arises from the primary legislation"?The Clerk said:No, I do not, Sir. I think this is recognised to be an innovation".Is not the crucial point the fact that, under the Bill, the Government are taking the power to repeal and amend primary legislation? That is the key constitutional point.
It is a sad reflection on the House that no Conservative Member has felt this to be an important enough principle to come to the debate and to speak on these issues. Once that principle is accepted, others may use it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock and Burntwood said, Conservative Members believe that they will be the Government for ever and that they will implement the powers for ever. That is a foolish view in terms of their stewardship and of our political processes. It is also a dangerous and arrogant view which the House and the country should note.
Once the Government take that direction, one precedent will lead to many others. Do not Conservative Members 416 recognise the danger that others with different motives and objectives may wish to use the same procedures? They will not have the right to come back to the House and object. I should not want a Labour Government to use the executive powers proposed in the first four clauses of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill, or anything like them, but the Government have introduced them, to which we object in principle.
The Government argue that safeguards are included in the procedures, which is swallowed by the Procedure Committee report. It relies on two phrases—"burden" and "necessary protection"—which arose time and again in Committee. The report and Ministers believe that those words have an objectivity that can be applied in each circumstance, which is nonsense. Those terms are highly political; they are charged with political controversy. A burden on business or a cost to an employer may be a safeguard for an employee or a consumer.
The hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) is not in his place, but I would have said this even if he were. Time and again, he has gone on about fire regulations and environmental health inspectors. Many consumers prefer to eat in a restaurant or hotel that is subject to environmental health standards. They regard that as a necessary price to pay in a civilised society. For some, including the hon. Member for South Hams, however, that price is seen as a burden.
Those terms are not charged with objectivity. They are at the heart of the political controversy. Last night, the debate on health and safety regulations at work and fire protection regulations divided the House. It is no use the Select Committee's report or Conservative Members trying to pretend that those words will enable to us make objective judgments; they will not.
The next argument of Ministers and in the Committee report is contradictory. We have been told by the right hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) and by Ministers that the deregulation Bill is a modest Bill. That slightly contradicts the great fanfare of trumpets at the Conservative party conference that heralded this great deregulation initiative. Many great ideas at Conservative party conference suddenly become modest ideas; deregulation may be one.
Is there not a clear contradiction? If these are modest measures, and the deregulation Bill is a modest measure, why, in the words of the Clerk of the House, must we invent a new constitutional procedure to deal with this modest Bill? Is there not a better way of proceeding?
If the other side of the equation is correct and these are not modest but extensive measures, as the Under-Secretary of State for Corporate Affairs told the Conservative party conference last year, and if we believe the rhetoric of that conference, is that not a greater warning to the House? If the powers are extensive, should not we be saying that we shall not give the Government innovative powers to do things differently and undermine our constitution? The more extensive the powers, the greater should be the vigilance and scrutiny by the House of Commons. It saddens me that these powers are being taken by the Executive without one voice being raised on the Tory Benches, despite the fact that the Government's arguments about the nature of the Bill do not add up.
We have also been told that the Bill is an on-going process. That makes me extremely cautious because, if we regard it as an on-going process, we must remember that what is on today's deregulation agenda may not be on 417 tomorrow's. The present Ministers may disappear, and it is not impossible that the Conservative party could lurch even further to the right and be even more out of touch with public opinion. I could write the hypothesis of how that could happen. What would happen to these powers in such circumstances?
We tried repeatedly in Committee to control the scrutiny powers and to put a time limit on them, but our attempts failed. The Minister for Industry said that deregulation was an on-going, rolling process. He forgot the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) that 71 per cent. of regulations have been introduced by this Government in the past 15 years. If deregulation is an on-going process, today's menu could change tomorrow and the new menu could be even more damaging for the interests that we should be protecting.
On the day the Bill was published, I said that the new powers contained in it would allow the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 to be repealed. I received a letter from the Minister of State, Department of Employment, saying that I was scaremongering, that there was no truth in what I said and that it was not the Government's intention to operate in that way. Let us consider what could happen; I offer the House an hypothesis.
The Minister of State could tell the Deregulation Committee that the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 is a burden on employers and that, if we are to compete against the Government's new model of industrial economies—against Taiwan and South Korea, where he sees Britain's future—we have to get rid of that Act. He could say that, because we have good employers, we have the necessary protection, so the two categories—burden and necessary protection—are satisfied. The Scrutiny Committee, under the control of a Conservative majority, could agree that, as the two conditions of "necessary protection" and "burden" have been met, the Act should be repealed. What is there in the Committee's report or in the Bill to stop the 1974 Act being repealed in that way? There is absolutely nothing. That is the real danger of this Bill.
The problem is not what is happening now but what will happen if new powers are given to the Government and the Government remain in office. My colleagues said many times in Committee and again tonight that the Bill and this initiative have been driven by people who have made substantial contributions to the Conservative party. The list of such people has been published and it is self-evident. The agenda can be pushed even further. There are no safeguards in the report or in the Bill to protect employee or consumer interests. That is why we asked for time scales and have disagreed strongly with these powers, but the Government persist in their strategy.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) mentioned an alternative way of doing things. I am sure that he read the proceedings of the Standing Committee, and he will have seen that, for the first four clauses, we advanced the same argument. My hon. Friends and I said that there were other ways of dealing with the deregulation proposals.
I say the same thing again now. If the proposals are modest, small in number and limited in scope, why do the Government not take up the Opposition's suggestion? It would in no sense stop the Government's deregulation initiative, but it would help them to say that each year a miscellaneous deregulation Bill would pass through the House. That would have the advantage of providing greater scrutiny, accountability and openness. Why do the 418 Government not take up that proposal? Why use the back door? Why do things through a scrutiny Committee, which will not have the powers to operate as we think it should?
I shall say a few final words about that Committee. In Standing Committee, I argued strongly that there should be a Chairman from among the Opposition parties. That is vital. But there is something else that we need to understand about this place. Flanked as I am by two Opposition Whips, I had better be careful what I say and how I phrase it, but I suspect that that crucial Committee defined in the report will consist of those whom the Whips know that they can manage—the ambitious, and those self-important enough to do the Whips' bidding. It will be a Government-controlled and Government-sponsored Committee. That will not help the reputation of the House, or answer the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock and Burntwood about the way in which the general public regard the House. We need a Committee with more independence. There will be little faith in it if it is fixed by the Government Whips, like everything else these days.
We voted against the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill on Second Reading because of the extensive powers being given away. I ask my hon. Friends not to vote against the Select Committee's report now, but to join me in the Lobby tomorrow night to vote against Third Reading of the deregulation Bill. That will not be because, unlike the Government, we believe in red tape—after all, we did not introduce 71 per cent. of the current regulations—but because we believe in the House, in the accountability of Ministers and in a rolling scrutiny by Members of Parliament. That is why we shall vote against the Bill, and that is why we reject the report, which does not deal with the principal issues that the House should have tackled.
§ Mr. Newton
I see that I have only three minutes in which to reply, so clearly I shall not be able to make any substantial comment on what has been said. I make no complaint about that, but I shall make one or two observations.
First, there has been some unfairness in attacks made on my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) and the Procedure Committee for the alleged inadequacies of the report—I do not share that view of it —by a party that declined to take a full part in its proceedings.
Secondly, there is something slightly peculiar in the implication of the hon. Members for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway) and for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) that proposals for orders that would allow the Patent Office to accept documents in forms other than paper—such as electronic filing—or exempt purchasers of small and statistically insignificant annual tonnages of corn from the requirement to make returns of information under the Corn Returns Act 1882 somehow constitute an astonishing attack on the whole of our parliamentary democracy—
§ Mr. Newton
No, I shall not give way.
Thirdly, with due deference to the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Dr. Wright), who made an interesting speech, and to one or two others, I must say that the repeated emphasis on executive powers and the 419 Government's power to legislate by order implies something verging on contempt of the House. We are speaking about orders that have to be passed by the House, whereas people persistently speak as if we are talking about government by fiat. To return to the argument that I made to the hon. Member for Newham, South, it is perhaps curious that I, standing here, have greater confidence in the House than many of the Members who have spoken.
Most of what the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood wanted was closer to what we have in the proposals from the Procedure Committee than to an existing study of legislation. Most of the things that we are speaking about would have been passed on the nod in some schedule in a primary Bill. Here we have a Committee that will have to consider them. The hon. Gentleman should consider whether we are moving in the direction that he wants. I sense that he recognised that in many of his remarks. I leave the matter there.
§ Mr. Timothy Wood (Lords Commissioner to the Treasury)
I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion, by leave, withdrawn.