HC Deb 13 December 1995 vol 268 cc913-31

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.[Mr. McLoughlin.]

9.34 am
Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

There is widespread dissatisfaction with the working of Parliament. Some reforms, such as the work of Select Committees and the introduction of television, have improved the effectiveness and visibility of Parliament's role in governance, but the changes have not gone nearly far enough.

I am glad to have this opportunity to raise in the House matters for which the Government have responsibility and which require attention if the efficiency of the House of Commons as a legislative assembly is to be improved. The reform that led to the procedure that allowed the possibility of a debate such as this is itself a useful development that I welcome.

The issues that I want to raise do not reflect the concern that is frequently expressed that the contents of legislation are unacceptable. That goes far beyond this debate. The issues that I want to touch on reflect concern that the enactments of Parliament are defective and that the citizen is too often not consulted and dissatisfied. Criticisms are often made, which reflect dislike of the policies behind legislation, but I shall not be dealing with that.

I invite the House to consider, and the Minister to respond to, some of the proposals made by the Hansard Society for Parliamentary Government commission's report on the legislative process, "Making the Law", which was published more than two years ago. The House has not yet had an opportunity of considering it, although a year ago almost to the day, in another place, there was an informed and valuable debate initiated by Lord Nathan. Many of these matters would be appropriately considered in this House. If the legislative process is to be improved, it falls to this House to take an initiative. I hope that the Government will welcome the opportunity of making clear their views about some of those matters and their willingness to consider some of the recommendations.

Perhaps a word is in order about the composition and working of the Hansard Society commission. It was chaired by Lord Rippon, and the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), Sir Michael Latham—a distinguished former Conservative Member of this House—and I were members. The matters that the commission covered have been considered from time to time by authoritative bodies, some established by previous Governments. The Heap committee reported a quarter of a century ago and the Renton committee 20 years ago.

It is unfortunate that many of the recommendations made in those reports—and the public's grievances about the legislative process and the quality of legislation, its obscurity and user-unfriendliness, and the lack of consultation in its compilation, to which attention was drawn—remain effectively unaddressed. The problem has become more acute as there has been a great increase not only in the volume of primary legislation—although, in the past decade, Acts may not have greatly increased in number, they have hugely increased in quantity—but in the volume of subordinate legislation, for which adequate scrutiny processes are not, it must be admitted, in place.

The commission's report was thorough, comprehensive and based on a mass of evidence from a wide range of bodies. It all pointed to there being much wrong with our present legislative processes. I think it almost beyond the need to argue that the results have greatly exacerbated the sense of Parliament's incompetence and that, whatever view may be taken of the Government's aspirations in legislation, the product is too often so seriously defective that it requires early amendment. That cannot be a matter of satisfaction to the House or to any Government.

One need mention only the history of the introduction and ultimate abandonment of the poll tax to have a powerful example of what is wrong with the process. It is at least arguable, and was argued by David Butler, Andrew Dennis and Tony Travers in their book on the poll tax, that its defectiveness, not only in conception but in execution, with multiple steps to amend and ameliorate it taken by the Government, committed to trying to make it work, belatedly taking on board advice which had been given in consultation, but which had not been acted upon early, contributed to the Prime Minister of the day's downfall. That may have had a lot to do with the legislation's content and the policy that lay behind it.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Is not the phenomenon to which my hon. Friend draws attention especially obvious in cases where Parliament adopts a knee-jerk reaction to an immediate problem? I am thinking of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, which was rushed through this place and the other place at great speed, and now we are living with the consequences. Is there not something to be said for the saying, "Legislate in haste and repent at leisure"? Is not that a good lesson in relation to understandable responses such as that to the knife attack on the head teacher? We must be careful that we do not adopt a policy of reacting at such speed that legislation is defective.

Mr. Maclennan

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Had he not done so, I would have drawn attention to the Dangerous Dogs Act, as it is an example of a measure that was too hastily introduced to the statute book and that has left serious problems. Recently, much criticism has been made of it by the judiciary. Almost inevitably, the measure will require amending legislation.

Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury)

Will the hon. Gentleman be somewhat more cautious about what he is saying about legislating in haste? The House should take prompt decisions when problems arise such as the recent knife attack and dangerous dogs. Surely the problem in that case was not the speed of the legislation, but the degree of consultation that went into the preparation of the measure that went through the House.

Mr. Maclennan

The Hansard Society's report recognised that there were occasions when it was appropriate for Parliament to act speedily. I signed that report and I therefore agree with the hon. Lady that there are such occasions, but the report said, and the House should reflect, that

getting a bill right should always have priority over passing it quickly"— not in every circumstance an overruling priority, but it should be the norm. That view was well expressed in evidence time and again to the commission. I refer to the evidence of the Association of British Insurers and Lloyd's, which said:

it is better for legislation to be clear and workable than for it to be enacted at the earliest possible opportunity and, before long, have to be changed by further legislation or interpretation by the courts". Another example of legislation that proved to be defective through lack of appropriate consideration and consultation was the Child Support. Act 1991. I do not make these points as partisan points, as all parties participated in passing that Act and the Dangerous Dogs Act, although, in the case of the latter Act, the Opposition parties offered alternative proposals to establish a registration system that might deal with many of the problems raised by dangerous dogs. What is clear, however, is that too many significant Bills dealing with real problems are introduced in a half-baked form. That is what we must deal with, and the Government can play the most significant role in tackling it.

The first point of substance is that it should be recognised, as the commission put it, that

proper consultation should play a central part in the preparation of bills". I imagine that the Government would have no difficulty in accepting that general proposition, but what is lacking is an institutional requirement that, in a governmental sense, that consultative process be built into Bills' preparation to allow the public fully to participate in the construction of legislation, to know when it is appropriate to intervene, and to have an opportunity to intervene, to influence both the direction of policy and the practicality of the proposals that are made.

That consultation process should be as open as possible, involving all the relevant bodies, especially those that are directly affected by the legislation proposed. There should be, as the commission put it, the minimum secrecy and the maximum feedback to those consulted.

For major policy reviews, it is sensible to involve independent inquiries. The practice that grew up during the lifetime of the Governments led by Lady Thatcher of not establishing such inquiries and of avoiding the appointment of royal commissions, for example, was much to be regretted. The examples of work carried out by such commissions and introduced as a result of their recommendations, sometimes backed by the detailed work of other bodies such as the Law Commission, can be of immense help in avoiding errors that vitiate the purposes of Acts.

The worst Department in recent years for neglecting to follow such advice, where it has existed, is the Home Office, which has produced a number of seriously defective criminal justice Bills that have been extensively criticised in the higher courts and, in some cases, have had to be subsequently amended. The knee-jerk reaction to capture the headline "Crackdown on Crime" has become a way of life under successive Home Secretaries.

On the requirement of consultation, it is right that there should be quite clear and specific questions inviting specific responses. There should also be consultation on draft Bills and draft clauses and not merely on Green Papers and White Papers. The commission found it astonishing that the Law Society was under the misapprehension that it was a constitutional impropriety to disclose the precise contents of a Bill to members of the public. The Law Society, of all bodies, genuinely believed that to be the case. I hope that that view does not prevail, because such consultation is proper and desirable. However, it is a reflection of the widespread view that the language of legislation is couched in arcana, the secrets of which are to be divulged only on the date of a Bill's publication. That is not satisfactory if the end product is to be the result of consideration. There is some welcome evidence that the Government have taken that point on board.

There is still concern about rushed consultation, which can certainly be embarrassing to parties whose interests are directly involved. Complaints about the time that is allowed for consultation on Bills were made to the commission by the Trades Union Congress, the Law Society, the Magistrates Association, the National Trust, Shelter, the BBC, the British Railways Board, the community council of Humberside, the National Consumer Council and the Industry in Parliament Trust. The evidence was that in too many cases consultation was effectively pro forma. That must be avoided. It is desirable that, as far as possible, copies of consultation documents should be freely available to those who are affected by legislation or to their representatives. That is a further recommendation by the commission.

There is good practice upon which to draw in setting guidelines for consultation, which all Departments should prepare. The Department of Trade and Industry has drawn up such guidelines and that is extremely welcome. In that context, there has been one hopeful development on consultation since the Hansard Society commission reported, and it is contained in the provisions of section 3 of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994. I am not in sympathy with the whole of that legislation, but at least in respect of the required consultation and the publication of the results it marks a creep forward, which I welcome.

It would be worth the Government's while to study the practice in some other countries, notably that in New Zealand where, for the purposes that I have described, a legislative advisory committee monitors legislation before Bills are published. Systematic and thorough consultation as part of the legislative process is not a pipe dream. It is a reality in the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act and it should be the practice for Bills and major items of delegated legislation. On that issue in particular, I should be grateful to hear the Minister's thoughts at the end of the debate.

More time and care must be devoted to the drafting of Bills. My ministerial experience occurred some time ago, although it extended over more than five years. I was concerned about the issue of ministerial responsibility for the work of parliamentary counsel. I understand that parliamentary counsel are answerable to the Prime Minister. Even a Prime Minister with an assiduous interest in detail—perhaps Lady Thatcher was an example—must find that the supervision of parliamentary counsel lies outside his daily interests and sphere of operation. The case for assigning to the Attorney-General responsibility for parliamentary counsel and for ensuring that legislation conforms to best constitutional practice and best legal drafting practice should be seriously considered.

In drafting the Consumer Credit Act 1974, I sought to make the language of the legislation more consumer friendly, but that was difficult to accomplish. The right hon. Member for Northavon (Sir J. Cope) may remember that legislation, because he was interested in some parts of it. Each step involved enlisting the support of the lawyers in one's Department, and the argument, which was nearly always difficult to sustain, was that parliamentary counsel could have drafted a passage with greater clarity and without reference to other Acts. That would have avoided complex legislation that was less helpful to those who required to use it.

As a general principle, parliamentary counsel should be pulled rather more into the supervisory overview of those within government who are responsible for the law, and their work should be assisted by some addition to their resources, because if the problems have not been tackled in the years since we received evidence on them, there are difficulties with recruitment, training and staffing.

The style of drafting should be based on the requirements of the main users of the Bill, and draftsmen should seek clarity, simplicity and brevity. The commission took the view that certainty should be paramount, and cautioned against too great a reliance on statements of principle that left too much interpretation to the courts. However, we have tended to err in the opposite direction, and greater clarity is certainly to be sought.

Achieving those ambitions will require a considerable push from the Government, not mere aspiration and generalised instruction. The commission suggested that notes on sections should be published with Acts, and that they could be used by the courts as an aid to understanding. I know that, when the Broadcasting Act 1990 was considered, such notes were provided to members of the Committee. However, we still have to rely on the practice, which is not entirely satisfactory, of dealing with ambiguities in the manner of the ruling in Pepper v. Hart. It would be preferable to avoid the type of ambiguities that arose in that case by the Government assisting the process of comprehension in the way that I have described.

The commission took the view that, on balance, it would be right to make greater use of delegated legislation, but that was under the conditions of the provision of greater scrutiny for delegated legislation, and improved arrangements being made for the publication of statute law. The failure of Parliament to scrutinise that delegated legislation effectively is very troubling. The new procedures of the Deregulation Select Committee, to which I have already referred, in scrutinising deregulation orders for their approval by the House could be applied to major delegated legislation.

The commission also welcomed, and urged on, the Government's plans to establish a statute law database. Can the Minister say what has happened to that? It was originally intended to be ready by September 1993.

We also made a number of recommendations to reform the way in which Parliament should examine and pass legislation, including, for example, more pre-legislative examination of legislation by Select Committees; more evidence from experts and the public on Bills and in Committee; and systematic post-legislative examination of how Acts have worked out in practice. Those are matters for the House, and perhaps for another debate. However, it is unfortunate that those matters do not appear to have been considered or reviewed by the Procedure Committee recently.

The points that I have made depend on the Government taking the initiative to improve our legislation. None of this—better consultation, better and less hasty drafting, and proper scrutiny—would be possible without changes in the way in which the legislation is programmed. However, that also depends on the Government.

There must be acceptance of the need for timetabling of legislation in the House of Commons to ensure the passage of the Government's legislation, but as a concomitant of that, the commission recommended a move towards the adoption of a two-year legislative programme, leaving proper time for consultation and drafting. With longer and more complex Bills, that would not only avoid the total domination of the parliamentary timetable by such Bills, which is undesirable, but would allow proper scrutiny as they passed through Parliament.

The Legislation Committee of the Cabinet would have to consider such matters, and I would suggest that it should be responsible not merely for the business management of Bills, but for their content, constitutional propriety, clarity and drafting. The Committee should also ensure that the proper, published, clear and agreed consultative processes have been followed. I do not think that that is a counsel of perfection, because, notwithstanding the point that the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) rightly made about occasions when it is necessary to legislate in haste, in most circumstances hasty legislation is not required and priority should be given to getting it right.

I am grateful to the House for the opportunity to raise those issues, and I look forward to the Minister's reply.

10.5 am

Sir John Cope (Northavon)

I am very glad that the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) secured this debate. He has opened it in a very interesting way.

I am also glad to see on the Front Bench my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service, the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), who will speak from the Dispatch Box for the first time. I am sure that he will speak many more times, but it is good to be present on the first occasion on which an ornament to the Government Front Bench makes his first speech.

The House has, of course, two main duties. The first is to monitor the Executive, which incidentally is primarily done through the fact that Members of Parliament are the main members of the Executive, rather than by other processes. The second main duty is, of course, the passage of legislation. The record suggests, and the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland has suggested, that the House is not very good at scrutinising legislation. I do not quarrel with that, and I believe that we are had at the drafting as opposed to the policy of legislation.

We often do not even attempt to draft legislation. For example, one frequently hears a Back Bencher say in Standing Committee that he is moving an amendment that he wants the Government to agree with in principle, and that he is happy for them to redraft it using the proper words. In taking that attitude, which is common, we are negating our responsibility for the drafting completely. It is understandable, but it is an illustration of the way in which we fail to even attempt to look at the drafting of legislation.

For that reason, it is right to go back up the legislative chain and consider drafting as we are doing this morning. I have had experience in various Government Departments over 15 years, half as a business manager and Whip, but the other half in various Departments. I know, as the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland has said, that it is extremely difficult for Ministers and for Departments to deal with parliamentary draftsmen. They are a small, exclusive, highly skilled band. Incidentally, they occupy a very nice office in Whitehall which was formerly the office of the Paymaster General. However, by the time I became Paymaster General, that office had long been taken over by the parliamentary counsel.

Ministers are somewhat insulated from draftsmen by their departmental lawyers. Most of Ministers' dealings on the drafting of Bills are with departmental lawyers, and they only have contact with the draftsmen on relatively rare occasions. I fully recognise the difficulties that the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland described in his dealings with the Consumer Credit Act 1974. I do not actually recall that Act passing through the House—he was kind enough to suggest that I might—but I recognise the difficulties that he had in dealing with the draftsmen. There are always good reasons, not bad ones. why it is difficult to alter the drafting. as Ministers sometimes wish. Often the process does not allow enough time for parliamentary draftsmen to do their work thoroughly.

Finance Bills represent a particular piece of the jigsaw puzzle. A number of reports have been published recently on the drafting of Finance Bills. The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland founded the debate on that published by the Hansard Society, but the tax law review committee of the Institute of Fiscal Studies published an interesting one recently. Yesterday, the Inland Revenue published its report on clause 160 of the Finance Bill, which was considered earlier this year. I shall refer to that interesting report later.

Finance Bills are obviously long and obtuse. They represent the one part of the revenue-collecting machinery that is not yet in the process of a massive sea change. They are about to be so, however, as a result of the reports to which I have already referred.

Customs and Excise and the Inland Revenue are already engaged in a massive programme of sea changes involving computerisation, the streamlining of offices and so on. The Inland Revenue used to have 104 offices, but in a few months time it will have just 29. That is one measure of the changing nature of the Inland Revenue. Another is the self-assessment of income tax, of which we are all becoming conscious.

Sometimes it is necessary to go through to complex procedures to reach simplification. The change involved in self-assessment is extremely elaborate, and legislatively and in fact the learning process through which people will have to go to get to the simpler system at the end—hopefully it will be simpler—

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby)


Sir John Cope

Yes, hopefully—that process is complex.

Both departments have made great efforts to make taxation more user friendly. While I was responsible for Customs and Excise, it won a number of plain English awards for its leaflets. I fear that the parliamentary draftsmen's office is still a long way from receiving such awards for its efforts to produce legislation. It is important to remember, however, that the preparation and drafting of legislation are the basis on which leaflets are produced. Those leaflets cannot be clear if the legislation is not clear. That is why I welcomed the recent report from the Inland Revenue and its positive attitude.

Tax legislation is included in Finance Bills by three routes. First, those Bills include the simple kind of tax legislation that implements a change in rates announced in a Budget. The Bill would act on the instruction to "delete 25p and insert 24p", to take the current example.

The second route relates to the complex changes to tax law announced in a Budget, and implemented straight away in the forthcoming Finance Bill. The third route relates to the slow-motion changes in tax law.

Even the simple change of rates can produce problems regarding drafting and complexity. I am glad to say that we reorganised the vehicle excise duty categories a couple of years ago. Over the years, the number of categories, of which there were far too many, had become encrusted with all kinds of detail. We were able to clean that up. Such problems are therefore evident even in the simple types of tax legislation.

The second type of change, the complex tax changes announced in a Budget, cause a much greater problem because of the speed at which they pass from the Budget speech—the first public announcement of the proposal—into law.

The third category, of slow-motion changes, should be the one that causes the least problem, because there is no time pressure. In the past 10 years, there has been a greater tendency to spend far longer on consultation during the period of gestation of such tax reforms. There has been far more consultation, more Green Papers and White Papers, including the publication of draft clauses to the Finance Bill in those White Papers.

Those changes are not, of course, considered in the House until the last moment in Committee, but intense consultation is conducted by committees and trade and professional groups outside the House. The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland criticised the Government for the lack of such consultation, but I hope that he will acquit the Revenue departments of that charge. After all, the report of the Hansard Society specifically mentioned Customs and Excise and the Inland Revenue as examples of good practice on consultation.

Such consultation documents often include draft clauses, and I believe that the Law Society has frequently commented on such documents, so the attitude that the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland reported it as taking surprised me somewhat. It is certainly true that other professional bodies frequently comment on such documents.

The first reason for the complexity of tax law is a desire for equity. That is natural in politicians, but it helps to make for extra complications when extra categories of people must be dealt with and given special treatment. The second reason for that complexity is the desire to prevent avoidance. Those reasons are policy reasons for complexity. Both are difficult to avoid, and both are at their worst when there are high rates of taxation.

There are other reasons for complexity. First, it feeds on itself. When one has complex laws, it involves great complexity to alter them. We must remember that the tax law and other legislation must reflect the increasing sophistication of the outside world, particularly the financial one.

Another reason for complexity is the parliamentary draftsmen's desire to avoid the uncertainty of novelty. That is why they constantly want to use the old words and phrases used in previous Acts. That is why they constantly want to bolt changes to the law on to existing law.

I have already said that avoidance rates are at their worst with high rates of tax. When the top rate of income tax was 98 per cent., there was a massive incentive for people to invent tax avoidance schemes. The Government therefore had to invent anti-avoidance schemes. They are largely responsible for the current complexity of income tax law.

The trouble is that, even though rates are now much lower, and the top rate is very much lower than it was, one cannot uninvent the tax-avoidance schemes worked out. One cannot therefore repeal that anti-avoidance legislation easily.

Complexity is also caused by the length of time a tax has been in existence. We have had income tax for a century and a half or more, so it is no wonder its legislation has become more and more complex. Value added tax is now getting complex because it is becoming an older tax. To start with it was a pretty simple tax, but it has now become extremely complicated. There is no serious accountancy firm that does not have a special department of experts to deal with VAT. An added complication are the various European Community agreements which we have made. They, too, are another reason for the complexity of VAT.

All those reasons seem to suggest to me that, to a certain extent, it is down to us as politicians—both the Government and the rest of us—to give a higher priority to the simplification of tax when putting forward policies and urging the Government to make changes.

I also think that it is important to examine our procedure in that respect. During the Budget debates, I drew attention to what my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor said—in column 1066 of Hansard, appropriately enough—on that matter:

We in the House will need to look at our procedures, to see how that tax rewrite can be sensibly handled."—[Official Report, 28 November 1995; Vol. 267, c. 1066.] He was referring to the rewrite covered in the Inland Revenue documents, which were published yesterday. My right hon. and learned Friend was right to draw attention to the issue and we should pay some attention to it.

Some say that the Finance Bill should be published earlier, perhaps before Christmas, so that there would be more time to consider it before it is debated in the House. I would prefer the Provisional Collection of Taxes Act to be altered, so that there is not the necessity, at the end of the Finance Bill, to complete it within the period presently allowed. The Finance Bill timetable could then move a little further around the year. Of course, changing the Budget date to November has already facilitated that to some extent, but it is not easy to achieve it within the context of the whole of the Government's legislative programme.

We may need to consider a different procedure for simplification Bills. We already have a special procedure for consolidation Bills, when we can discuss only whether it is an accurate consolidation. In practice, it means that those Bills are not debated. We now have the new procedures for dealing with deregulation. I believe that we also need a new procedure for simplification Bills, so that we would be allowed to discuss only the substantive changes, but not changes made to the wording simply to improve drafting and clarity.

I recognise that it would be extremely difficult to draft a Standing Order to distinguish between the substantive and the non-substantive changes, as they are inevitably wrapped up together. Such a proposal would work only with the good will of the House and a cross-party wish to make it work. If all the definitions were exploited by the Opposition or by others opposed to a particular measure for whatever reason—perhaps to delay progress on other matters, for example—it would be difficult for the Chair to manage the proposed system because of the difficulty of making a distinction between the substantive and the non-substantive changes. Nevertheless, if we are to make real progress with the simplification of tax and other legislation, we should give some thought to the proposal.

I am glad that there has been progress with the consideration of Finance Bills and the attempt to make the drafting of complex matters more readily understandable. Lessons for other legislation may be learned from what is happening with Finance Bills.

10.23 am
Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby)

I shall not attempt to follow the right hon. Member for Northavon (Sir J. Cope), who has great expertise in these matters. All that I can do is humbly to agree with the majority of what he said. However, I do not altogether agree on self-assessment, which is a disaster waiting to happen. I attended an Inland Revenue briefing on self-assessment last week, hoping to learn how the system would work and how it would affect me and my constituents. I was so baffled and so uncomprehending at the end of an hour and a half that I had to be carried sobbing from the room. The Inland Revenue had not thought to provide grief counsellors.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) on initiating the debate. It is characteristic of the earnest seriousness that he contributes to this House that he has taken up this issue and pursued it. I could barely stand the excitement of his speech. His intelligence and his devotion to serious causes are a credit to him and to the House, and no more so than today.

It is shocking that, after two years, the Government have still not dealt with the Hansard Society report on the legislative process. There has been no real reaction, despite an extensively signed early-day motion requesting one. We have not been given the opportunity to debate the report in the House, nor have the Government made any proposals to implement any of the report's recommendations. That is appalling. The report was prepared by a distinguished royal commission—not least because it had me as a member— with a distinguished chairman. It heard a wide range of serious evidence and reached an effective set of conclusions that deserve implementation.

It is a shame that a Government who are obsessed with charters; who say that they want to listen to the citizen as the consumer; who say that they want to involve people and make them feel that their views are taken into account; and who are obsessed with improving the efficiency of government, have not done something in an area where that improvement in efficiency is desperately needed.

Instead of the cones hotline, the Government should have set up a legislative hotline, saying, "Turn in your MP; complain about legislation; what is your reaction to such and such a clause?" and so on. Of course, that is reducing the matter to a partial dimension, but if the Government really want to listen to the citizen, there is no more important area where the citizen, needs to influence and needs to be heard than the legislative process. The Hansard Society recommendations would have achieved that.

I am aware that the Government are prejudiced against royal commissions. Under the previous Prime Minister, there was even a prejudice against rational analysis—it was an exercise of will. The Government's failure to listen to rational argument and their failure to reform the processes will damage not only their reputation but that of Parliament, which is far more important. Parliament is not functioning efficiently; it is not consulting and listening to the people. It could do so if we implemented the reforms recommended in the Hansard Society report.

There is a chorus of complaint—we have heard a small echo of it this morning—about inadequate, badly drafted, incomprehensible legislation, which is causing difficulty for the courts, resulting in the necessity of amendments this year to legislation enacted last year or the year before. That is creating an inadequacy in and a problem with the processes, yet the Government have done nothing about that or about the Hansard Society report. It is a serious indictment of the Government.

Why have not the Government done anything about the report? It is because it does not suit their convenience to do so. Ministerial convenience is the essence of the problem. They want their convenience to hold sway in a knee-jerk reaction to propitiate public opinion—for example, in the debate about dangerous dogs, which resulted in disastrous legislation. They want their convenience to hold sway when it comes to the exercising of will—for example, the poll tax, which again proved disastrous. They want their convenience to be dominant when it comes to political posturing by the Home Office. If the courts do not trust the Home Secretary's judgment and overrule him, why should Parliament trust him in the legislative process?

The problem is that Parliament is ill placed to prevent ministerial convenience from holding sway. Our role is to check the Executive and to protect and represent the views of the citizen, but we do not have the power to do that, because the will of the Executive dominates and therefore Parliament is the creature of the Executive, through the party system. It is bound to be so. We have an elective dictatorship and the job of the Opposition is just to heckle the steamroller. If the driver of the steamroller will not listen to the complaints of citizens, put to him by the Opposition and by Back Benchers, Parliament is impotent. The parliamentary majority overrules all. In those circumstances, the Government have a responsibility to reform procedures so that we can be more effective and have a say.

Frankly, 45 per cent. of the time of this place is devoted to legislation, and it is a farce. Our influence, control and ability to provide better legislation and check it is minimal. Standing Committees are a total farce, because all the Opposition are trying to do is hold up the Bill in the hope that public opinion will influence the Government to make the changes that should be made. The Government do not make changes because the Opposition say so or because there is obvious good sense behind the proposed changes. They make changes only because of political pressure generated outside the House. The process is therefore really a waste of a Standing Committee's time.

We could introduce a statutory delay that would allow public opinion to become effective. To be able to consult the people, to give us as Members of Parliament a useful job and to give Parliament a useful role, we need to make the kind of changes envisaged in the Hansard Society report.

I shall concentrate briefly on two major points that arise from the report and the motion. The first is about the preparation of legislation. I certainly feel strongly as a Back Bencher that people often catch up with legislation only when it has been passed. We receive letters from pressure groups and citizens asking us what we are going to do about a Bill or what is wrong with some part of it—but it is too late; the legislation has gone through.

People and pressure groups are not given adequate notice of proposed legislation and do not know enough about what is going on in this place for it to be drawn to their attention. The people want to be heard. Although they certainly complain about legislation as it is passed, there is no effective procedure that involves them and enables us to consult them and listen to complaints in the wider community.

I recommend the New Zealand practice, which the Hansard Society report endorses. A major improvement has taken place in legislative processes in New Zealand which could well be adopted here. Legislation is introduced and is referred to what they call a select committee. It is a matter of terminology. It could be a Standing Committee or a Select Committee; the title does not matter. That committee has to go through a Bill before it is discussed formally and changes are made to its drafting. That is its purpose. To do that, it puts adverts in the papers saying that a Bill has been introduced on a certain subject, with certain provisions, and calls for citizen representations.

On controversial and major non-political matters such as family, divorce and social legislation, representations pour in. Pressure groups and concerned citizens make their representations to the committee, which assesses them. If the representations are considered serious, people are called to give evidence to the committee and are given the opportunity to put the case for or against what is being done and to suggest changes to the way in which the measure is proposed to be enacted. The committee then goes through the Bill with those representations before it in a process of influencing legislation in the light of what the public want.

The great virtue of such a system is that the people feel involved. They have had a say; they have been consulted in a way that does not happen here. That strengthens the role and the perception of Parliament. The committee considers recommendations for changes and it can produce its own Bill. It has a Government majority and a Government member as the chairperson. He or she informally consults a Government caucus—the 1922 Committee, or the parliamentary Labour party in our case, or a committee thereof—and the Minister concerned.

During that process of informal consultation, changes are made. It is a negotiation process. The chairman is representing the views of the committee, the Minister is representing the views of the Department, and usually some kind of compromise is reached so that legislation is changed by the committee. That means that Members of Parliament are effectively involved. The Bill then goes through the formal processes.

That is a much more effective way in which to deal with legislation, involving Members of Parliament by giving us a useful job, and involving the citizen. Why cannot we have a similar structure here? It would take more time and slow up legislation, but that would be no bad thing given the inadequacies of much of the legislation that has been introduced. I commend that idea in the Hansard Society report. It is important.

Secondly, we recommended a review of legislation by a Select Committee after a period of, say, a year or two. It would ask how the legislation had achieved the purposes originally set out and provide a chance to set those purposes out more clearly. It would ask whether it was working and what was wrong with it. Let us have such a review—again, one in which people can make representations—to tidy it up and avoid stupid legislation lingering on the statute book and causing enormous problems in the courts, as happens now.

The Hansard Society's report is important. It produced serious and workable proposals that should be implemented to bring Parliament closer to the people; to involve them in the legislative process and make them feel that it is to do with them rather than something remote carried on in legal gobbledegook by a bunch of remote people who cannot be influenced. Let us give Back Benchers something useful to do. That is one of my dearest aspirations, not only in the party but in Parliament.

After all, the Government have time. The Budget makes it clear that there will have to be another Budget next year. That means that the election will not be called until April 1997. There is nothing for us to do until then. What are we going to do—malinger round the streets? The Government could introduce serious proposals based on the Hansard Society's report. The Minister, a welcome addition to the Government Front-Bench team, brings a high intelligence to the job that should be employed in this area. Get on with it.

10.36 am
Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) on securing the debate, which has been useful. I also welcome the Minister to what I understand is his first debate in his new post. I ought also to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) on making what is often a very dry subject somewhat more interesting and stimulating than it might otherwise have been. The amount of interest shown in the issue today is cause for regret, because we are discussing something that is fundamental to our role in the House. Much of the House's reputation is dependent on us getting legislation correct—leaving aside the political controversy surrounding it—yet, too often, that is simply not the case.

The issues raised have been the subject of many reports, and over the years many people have recommended changes. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), who could not be here this morning, sent me a well-thumbed and well-marked copy of the Renton report of 1975, to which the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland referred. On looking through it, it is alarming to find how many of the concerns that were expressed then remain concerns because nothing been done to tackle the problems. Indeed, in some very important areas, the problems have worsened in recent years.

Although I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland said and the stress that he placed on the need for Parliament to be more efficient, he must also emphasise that we must be effective. Despite very slightly improving our system of working with the Jopling proposals, we have not made any fundamental difference to the effectiveness of the House in either of the jobs mentioned by the right hon. Member for Northavon (Sir J. Cope): scrutinising legislation properly and monitoring the Executive. We must do more to improve the methods by which we fulfil those tasks.

My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby ended by mentioning that we were having a somewhat unusual parliamentary year. It is not really typical of what has been happening over the past 10 or 15 years. Certainly, in recent years, the volume of legislation has been growing and intensifying. This year, that is clearly not the case, and although there is some discussion about the reasons for that, there are only two possibilities, neither of which reflects much credit on the Government.

The first possibility is that we have so little legislation because the Government have introduced so much enabling legislation in the past. Perhaps Governments no longer need to come to the House so often to bring about the changes that they want, because so much can he done without reference to the House. That in itself has significant implications for the role of Parliament.

The second factor is that the Government have run out of steam, and there is little that they want to do. The Minister will tell us, as the Leader of the House did during the Queen's Speech debate, that the number of Bills anticipated is even greater than last year. However, we should think about the significance of those Bills. How many of them are fundamental or controversial? Most Bills proposed for this year are relatively low-key.

I could ask what has happened to some of the other Bills that we were promised, such as that on nursery vouchers. I do not want to see that Bill, because I want not vouchers but places for children in nursery education. However, the Bill is a case in point, with rumours now surrounding what is happening to it, such as the rumour that Back Benchers are concerned because the voucher system threatens nursery provision in their areas. We also hear rumours that the Government have not yet been able to draft the Bill to take full account of all the technical problems that can arise from a voucher system.

Whatever concerns there may he, and leaving aside the parliamentary controversy surrounding the issue itself, even if there are outstanding questions such as the technical ones that I mentioned, at this stage in the process we are expecting legislation in the current parliamentary year, and it will go through scrutiny in Standing Committee, along the lines suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby.

As my hon. Friend rightly said, it is now more frustrating to be a member of a Standing Committee. There was a time when Governments of both parties would take on board many of the criticisms and suggested amendments from Standing Committees. They would not necessarily accept them there and then, but they would listen, then go away and redraft the Bill to improve it as it passed through Parliament. That activity seems to have diminished over recent years, which has led to the sense of frustration that my hon. Friend mentioned when he was talking about the role of Back Benchers.

That is not good for Back Benchers; even worse, it is not good for legislation. It is one of the reasons why we get into difficulties such as those that the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland mentioned in connection with the Child Support Agency. Originally there was agreement in principle across all parties on the issue, yet because of the way that the legislation was forced through with insufficient consultation and discussion, it was clearly flawed and has brought about all the problems of which hon. Members are only too well aware from their constituency cases.

I am sure that the Minister will also tell us that there has been consultation on some of the proposed legislative measures in the Queen's Speech. That must be welcomed by Members on both sides of the House. Yesterday, we debated the Armed Forces Bill, which was shown to, and discussed with, a wide range of people. The fact that the debate finished early yesterday does not imply criticism of anybody; it may reflect the fact that, if one discusses things in the proper way, there can be agreement about the direction in which things are going, and we can make progress and get better legislation in the end.

However, in some areas there has been frustration when co-operation has been attempted. During the previous Session of Parliament, there was agreement about how we should treat some of the Law Commission Bills, but at the end of that process, after agreement had been secured in both Houses about the way to deal with the Family Homes and Domestic Violence Bill, right at the last minute, internal opposition from Conservative Members scuppered all that good work. I suppose that the moral there is that, if the Government have consultation, they had better have it with their own side as well as with everybody else. All Governments, both the present Government and any Government anticipated in the future, must bear that fact in mind.

There is not time to talk about all the issues that we should mention in a debate of this kind. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby was right to say that we could do with more time for such debates, not least because the House is so slow to move towards change. I simply say that this year will be an extremely good year to experiment with new ways of dealing with legislation.

We should not underestimate the existing problems in scrutinising delegated legislation, or the problems with the Deregulation Committee. My hon. Friend mentioned the Hansard Society commission, one of whose suggestions was that we should be able to amend delegated legislation. Such issues should be given full consideration, because the quality of our legislation is threatened if we do not get our procedures right.

We need to improve our procedures not only for the preparation and drafting of Bills but for scrutinising legislation as it passes through the House. The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland emphasised the fact that there must be complete agreement that proper consultation on legislation is the right way forward. He recommended that we look for institutional processes, so that consultation can become automatic.

I do not believe that there is one set mechanism that we should adopt for all types of legislation in all circumstances. We can and should have some flexibility. There is a role for Green Papers and White Papers, and there may be a role for pre-legislative Committees or for First Reading Committees. There is certainly a role for Special Standing Committees. We should have no illusions that it is easy to secure agreement to experiment with the way in which we conduct ourselves in the House, but there is now a degree of urgency that requires us to examine thoroughly the way in which legislation is prepared and passes through the House.

10.47 am
The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service (Mr. David Willetts)

May I begin, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by explaining that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is attending a Cabinet meeting this morning, and much regrets that he cannot be present?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) on securing the debate, and on selecting such an interesting and important subject. I am pleased to have the opportunity to draw attention to the Government's achievements in improving the quality of legislation, in which my right hon. Friend and my noble Friend the Lord Privy Seal have taken a close and productive interest.

The debate reflects a growing interest not only in what legislation contains but in the quality of its preparation and drafting, and of the scrutiny that it receives in Parliament and elsewhere. At the beginning of 1993, the Hansard Society published an important report by a commission chaired by Lord Rippon of Hexham, which has already been mentioned several times in the debate.

The Government genuinely welcome that interest in improving our procedures. The quality of legislation is not an arcane technical matter of concern only to insiders. It affects everyone directly or indirectly. In particular, it has important implications for business, in which, as the deregulation Minister, I have a close departmental interest. In the second competitiveness White Paper, we clearly set out our view that

good clear legislation is an essential part of the infrastructure for a competitive business environment". Over-complex or unclear legislation can he a burden on business and a brake on competitiveness.

Our aim is to produce legislation that is clear and coherent. On that, we have no difference with the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland or with the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor).

Many of the hon. Members who have spoken this morning do not appear to recognise how much has been done. I do not accept the remarks of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), who was thrashing around what, I must say, was a copy in a suspiciously mint condition of the Hansard Society commission report. The hon. Gentleman said that the Government have done nothing. The truth is that many of the ideas contained in the report have been acted on, although—in a typically British way—without any bravura announcements. It is simply a case of practical improvements in the legislative process gradually being introduced. Perhaps I can give some examples of that.

Many hon. Members have spoken about the subject of consultation. The White Paper on open government which we published in July 1993 said that the Government believed in the value of consultation. In recent years, the practice of consulting on the basis of drafts of Bills or parts of Bills has become more common. For example, important parts of last Session's Environment Bill were published in draft.

Of the Bills in the most recent Gracious Speech, the Armed Forces Bill was published in draft and was the subject of widespread consultation—so much consultation, in fact, that the hon. Member for Dewsbury thinks that we have debated the Bill already. That is, of course, a pleasure to which we look forward today, rather than yesterday.

In the second competitiveness White Paper, which was published in May and from which I have already quoted, the Government said:

Publication of draft Bills, in advance of introduction in Parliament, allows consultation to take place on clarity of structure and presentation, and on drafting detail, as well as on policy". We have made it clear that we hope to move further in this direction. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House announced during the debate on the Gracious Speech that we plan to publish before long Bills on adoption, building societies and merchant shipping. These are all areas where there are important business and professional interests outside Government, and indeed outside Parliament, and many people will eventually use the legislation daily and be affected by it. They are entitled to the best possible advance consultation.

We must recognise that, inevitably, there are limits to the extent to which advance drafting can be used. There are bound to be occasions when legislation is required more urgently, and when the publication of Bills in draft will not invariably be the right course. Both my right hon. Friend and my Noble Friend who is Leader in another place believe that this initiative is capable of further development.

Mr. Maclennan

I had not realised that this was the Minister's debut. May I also congratulate him on that? Will he draw the remarks that he just made about what the Government are doing on pre-publication to the attention of the Home Office, which is guilty of not consulting properly? We have heard plenty of evidence of that, including as recently as Monday, when we were considering the new proposals on asylum.

Mr. Willetts

I have noted the remarks of the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland about the work of that Department, and I will draw them to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. As the hon. Gentleman said, legislation needs to be drafted clearly, accessibly and with the eventual user in mind. First parliamentary counsel is himself wholly committed to this approach, and he has been looking at the experiences in Australia and New Zealand—which some hon. Members have cited—where innovative work is being done. The aim is for as great a degree of simplicity as is consistent with certainty. As the Hansard Society commission itself noted, there is no point in having simple statements of principle in statutes if, in the end, the law is uncertain. Certainty must be paramount.

I am not saying for a moment that we invariably get it right, but the objective is clear. I believe—as does my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House—that in pursuing that objective, we are extremely well served by parliamentary counsel, for whom I have some ministerial responsibility in the Office of Public Service.

We are also looking to other sources of advice. My right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is conducting an experiment under which, after an open competition, several private sector contractors have been engaged to draft parts of this Session's Finance Bill. The purpose of the experiment is to test whether the preparation of legislation outside Government is feasible and cost-effective, and whether there is anything that the private sector can contribute on drafting style. It is too early for me to be able to give the House any sign at this stage of how the experiment is proceeding, but it is clearly worth while.

Mr. Maclennan

May we take it that the experiences of the Bank of England—of which we have evidence—which complained that it might not be permitted to talk to parliamentary counsel, will not be repeated? Will a body of that kind have something to lend to parliamentary counsel in terms of drafting?

Mr. Willetts

I am not aware of the particular example to which the hon. Gentleman refers. It is important that parliamentary counsel are not bombarded with a variety of advice from a variety of sources, but I shall certainly take account of the point that he makes.

Legislation is complex sometimes because the underlying concepts are complex and sometimes because the concepts are expressed in a way which is not easy to grasp. In his Budget statement, my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor announced that he hoped to make a start next year on a major project to simplify tax legislation for the benefit of businesses and taxpayers generally. Yesterday, my hon Friend the Financial Secretary laid before Parliament a report on tax simplification as required in the Finance Act, together with a background paper by the Inland Revenue.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Sir J. Cope), who has great expertise in this matter, made some very important points about this important attempt to simplify tax legislation, and I greatly welcomed his comments. There is an exciting possibility of reducing the compliance costs which the tax system imposes on every taxpayer, of taking forward the deregulation unit's work in simplifying the burdens on business and of supporting the Inland Revenue's continuing efforts to improve its service to the public and to reduce costs.

Mr. Austin Mitchell

I am excited by the idea of involving private organisations such as the big six accountancy houses in the preparation of legislation. Why do the Government not involve criminals in legislation about police or Home Office matters? The point I wish to make is not that facetious one. The Minister could devote the rest of his very brief ministerial career—he can have only 16 months in the job—to reading out defensive briefs written by hack civil servants and ignoring the main points at issue. Would he try to achieve a little glory in that career by telling us what the Government are going to do about the major recommendations of the Hansard Society commission?

Mr. Willetts

I am afraid that I have only three minutes left. I have been trying in my speech to go through the practical measures that we have taken in the past few years which are intended to implement many of the ideas to be found in the report. Sadly, I will not have time to list everything that we have done. I had hoped to talk about the implementation of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994, as that is a very significant example of the sort of procedures that were envisaged in the report. We have new Select Committees to make sure that the proposals put before them have been the subject of adequate consultation, and also to make sure that appropriate account has been taken of that consultation.

When the final version of the deregulation order comes for parliamentary approval, the Committees report to both Houses on how the Minister concerned has taken account of the comments made on earlier drafts. If the Committees are not satisfied with the consultation that has taken place, they will say so in no uncertain terms. I pay tribute to the work of the Committees, and particularly to my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field) and to Lord Alexander of Weedon for the work that they have done since the new Committees came into being in the spring. That is a good practical example, which reflects some of the concerns expressed in the Hansard Society's report.

There is not enough time for me to get into the subject of law reform. In the previous Session—with the assistance of the Opposition parties—we passed law reform Bills on civil evidence, private international law and requirements of writing in Scotland, a series of measures which constitute a significant improvement in the reform of the law.

I hope that I have said enough to persuade the House of the Government's seriousness of purpose in this important sphere. We are committed to good government and, through the various means that I have described—the publication of draft Bills, close attention to drafting style, simplification wherever possible, and the sensible use of subordinate legislation—we are striving to be the Government of good legislation.

I hope that the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland and the hon. Member for Dewsbury accept the fact that, in a low-key practical way. many of the ideas floated in the Hansard Society commission report are already being reflected in the practices and procedures of the House.

Back to
Forward to