HC Deb 02 March 2000 vol 345 cc555-60
8. Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

What plans he has to reduce the burden of regulation on business. [111537]

11. Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

What steps he is taking to reduce the regulatory burden on business. [111541]

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Stephen Byers)

We keep under review all measures that may increase the burden of regulation on business. As a result, we have been considering the views expressed by the telecoms operators in relation to the provisions in the Utilities Bill. We intend to publish a communications White Paper later this year. I believe that there is a powerful argument for dealing with the reforms needed in one measure. I have therefore decided to remove the telecoms provisions from the Bill. In addition, we shall remove the provisions relating to water, and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions will instead introduce measures covering those matters in a draft water Bill, which it intends to publish later this year. That will enable Parliament to consider proposed changes to the water regime alongside other proposals resulting from the review of competition in that sector.

Sir Sydney Chapman

I am staggered that the Secretary of State sees fit to hang his important statement to the House on my equally important but somewhat unrelated question. Is not the truth that he has just butchered a flagship Bill because it is ill thought out? Returning to my question, what has his announcement done to reduce the 2,700 regulations introduced under his Administration, 17 of which alone, it is estimated, will cost British industry £10 billion in the lifetime of this Parliament?

Mr. Byers

The Conservative party's problem is that it is unable to distinguish between red tape and the need to provide decent standards for people in the workplace. Conservative Members regard the working time directive, paid holidays and the national minimum wage as red tape, but Labour Members know that they represent decent conditions for working people. Conservative Members oppose those measures, although we heard recently that their party now supports the national minimum wage. It would be interesting to hear the views of Opposition Front Benchers on that matter. We have in Committee a Bill that will cut the cost of electricity by 10 per cent. That is an important measure and we shall introduce the other proposals elsewhere in a more appropriate way.

Mr. Fabricant

I can see why the statement has been linked to my question: the Secretary of State recognises that the Utilities Bill is indeed a burden on business. He has now decided to scrap about half of it, despite the fact that BT made the recommendations over a year ago. The Bill was 170 pages long. Precisely how much has it cost the taxpayer to prepare it? How much has it cost the taxpayer to have civil servants sitting in during consideration of it? Why does not he accept that it is a burden on business and dump the whole lot?

Mr. Byers

I must warn the hon. Gentleman that a London telephone directory is about to be brought into the Chamber and we shall be interested to see whether he can tear that in half as well.

There is an important issue here. The Government received strong representations from the telecoms operators after announcing on 3 February that there would be a communications White Paper. That announcement came after the debate on Second Reading of the Bill. Therefore, we listened to industry and its genuine concerns. We make no apology for saying, following its representations, that we believe—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker


Mr. Byers

The proposals that were in the Bill received representations from the telecoms operators. We have listened to those. We feel that it is more appropriate to deal with the matter in the communications White Paper, which we have announced since Second Reading of the Utilities Bill. We will introduce it in the autumn. In the light of that, we feel that it is wholly appropriate to deal with the matter in that way. By doing so, we will reduce the regulation on the telecoms industry because it will not have two sets of regulations.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

On the general question of regulation, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is a question of quality as well as quantity? No one is arguing for increased bureaucracy, but does he agree that, in certain circumstances, quality is at the heart of the issue? For example, in view of the recent report by the nuclear installations inspectorate on the safety record of British Nuclear Fuels, does he not agree that there is an overwhelming argument for improving the quality of regulation in many industries?

Mr. Byers

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Where regulation is necessary—there will be circumstances where it is—it must be clear and precise and, wherever possible, produce the least burdens on business. There are clear issues to do with regulation of sensitive industries. I agree with him. Often, a combination of appropriate regulation and good, effective management is needed. In some cases, the two have not come together very often.

Mrs. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the synthetic anger of the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) illustrates in its entirety the attitude of the previous Government: if we listen, we are damned, if we do not, we are damned, so why listen—and the previous Government did not listen? In not only listening but acting, will my right hon. Friend ensure that we carry forward the parts of the Bill that will help to reduce prices for all consumers, to tackle fuel poverty and to achieve regulatory certainty? In particular, will he listen to the opinions of PowerGen, which, in a briefing to members of the Utilities Bill Standing Committee, said: PowerGen supports many aspects of the Bill, including the objectives of improving the consistency, predictability and transparency of regulation, and bringing the regulatory framework up to date with the competitive markets that have developed since privatisation?

Mr. Byers

It is interesting that the Conservative Opposition have gone on record as being against the electricity and gas provisions in the Utilities Bill, measures that will reduce the wholesale price of electricity by at least 10 per cent. and address the whole question of fuel poverty—a point that was raised on the Opposition Benches. Those measures will remain in place.

I make no apology for listening to the concerns of business and industry. The Bill will be a better Bill because we have listened to the views of telecommunications operators. We will introduce measures in the communications White Paper. We are a listening Government, putting the interest of business first.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

If I hear the Secretary of State say once more that he makes no apology, I think I shall puke. It is an outrage to the important global businesses involved in the four important sectors that are covered by the Bill, and an affront to the democratic process of the House that he did not have the guts to stand at the Dispatch Box and give a proper statement, with proper scrutiny by the House.

The Secretary of State talks about consultation. I refer him to his own words, 31 days ago at that Dispatch Box on Second Reading: Our first action was not to rush into legislating, but to consult widely on the structures that would fulfil the needs of consumers, be good for business and provide a stable framework for utility companies.—[Official Report, 31 January 2000; Vol. 343, c. 788.] He may have consulted, but listen he did not.

We warned the Secretary of State on Second Reading and we have warned him consistently in Committee that the Bill was flawed from the start. We warned him when the so-called flagship Bill from the Queen's Speech was put before the House, and I warn him again today, that he will come back to the Dispatch Box to answer questions on the issues because we will no longer put up with lectures from him about the utilities industries that have benefited from the way in which the Conservative Government privatised them.

It is incredible that the Secretary of State and his colleagues did not make the connection between telecommunications and broadcasting before they brought the Bill to the House. It is incredible that, apparently, he had no discussions with the Deputy Prime Minister about the future of the water industry. Goodness knows what will happen in the mélée that will now ensue.

This morning, I listened to proceedings on the Bill in Committee. Clearly, there is no timetable yet for the part of the Bill that deals with the water industry. We are now told that we have a White Paper, but that will not help the telecommunications industry. The Government must have known about the White Paper before they drafted the Bill. What will happen to part IV, which deals with the Competition Commission and all four utilities sectors?

Why can the Secretary of State not do the decent thing and come to the House to answer detailed questions that are important to businesses not only in this country, but globally, which have now been thrown into disarray because of the shambles of the way in which he runs the Department and the pseudo way in which the Department and the Labour party are supposed to consult? It is about time that he started listening to people who know about these issues. He would not have done badly to listen to my hon. Friends in Committee—it was good advice, freely given—but he did not. Instead, he gave us arrogance and no apology. I warn him that his reputation and that of his Department is that they are unbusinesslike and do not know what they are doing. The Bill is a shambles. He should withdraw it and bring it back a second time.

Mr. Byers

It was interesting that the hon. Lady referred to advice from Conservative Members that was "freely given". I have to say that that is a rare occurrence. I make no apology for the way in which the Bill has been amended to reflect the interests of business. Let me take Opposition Members through the sequence of events since it was considered on Second Reading. On 3 February—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. I will not have questions put from a sedentary position.

Mr. Byers

On 3 February, we announced that there would be a White Paper on communications policy. As a result of our announcement, of which the telecommunications operators were unaware until it was made, there were further representations to the Government from the industry in the light of the fact that there was to be a White Paper. There had been consultation before, but at that stage the telecommunications operators were unaware that there was to be a White Paper on communications. Further representations were made by the sector and, in the light of those representations, we decided to remove telecommunications from the Bill. As for the water industry, there is to be a water Bill to deal with provisions affecting that industry.

We still have a measure that will radically change electricity and gas trading. It will benefit millions of people and businesses. Therefore we make no apology for introducing a Utilities Bill that will benefit business and individuals. We make no apology for listening to the interests of business. We will put practical policies before political dogma, unlike the Conservative party.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

I am delighted that my right hon. Friend is paying so much attention to business, but he will be aware that both those major industries are not ones that enjoy the unequivocal support of all consumers. Could he, therefore, tell us why it would not have been easier to have left them both in the existing Utilities Bill, and, subsequently, to table amendments on them in the interests of consumers—who, after all, may not have the same view of privatisation as Opposition Front Benchers?

Mr. Byers

In relation to the four areas that were considered in the Utilities Bill, and certainly in cases that are being considered, we shall have to ensure that the interests of consumers are effectively represented. I am confident that, when the measures on water and telecommunications are introduced, a strong voice will have to be given to consumers' interests. There will be such a voice on gas and electricity in the Utilities Bill.

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)

Is not this a case of joined-up chaos, rather than joined-up Government? The Secretary of State talks about the communications White Paper, but has he only just found out about it? The Government have been talking about it for months. Liberal Democrat Members warned him that it was sensible to deal with telecommunications in a telecommunications Bill, but he included provisions on telecommunications in the Utilities Bill. He has now discovered that they will have to be withdrawn.

Is there not a pitched battle between the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions on how to regulate water—with the DTI favouring a light touch and the DETR favouring a heavy one? Is not the truth that the Deputy Prime Minister has taken his ball home because he has not been able to get his way on water regulation in the Bill?

The Utilities Bill is a shambles, and the Secretary of State will have to answer the question whether its remaining threads hang together at all.

Mr. Byers

We have a Bill dealing with gas and electricity that will make a very real difference to many thousands of people in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. He needs to be aware of that. If he is saying that the Bill should be withdrawn, he is saying that those benefits should be denied to his constituents. It is interesting—it is on the record—that that is his approach. I think that he will be condemned on that particular issue.

There is no disagreement between the Deputy Prime Minister and me on the need to deal with water within a water Bill: it is a sensible place to deal with it. As I said, on 3 February we announced that there will be a telecommunications White Paper. In the light of that, the operators themselves have made further representations. Our view is that we should take account of those representations, reflect on the issues and include them in a White Paper later this year.