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Heald: Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill needs Sunset Clause

Speech in the Commons

We in Parliament are getting better at considering Bills in advance, and I am a strong supporter of pre-legislative scrutiny. To be fair to the Government, they have published more than 40 bills in draft form, many of which have been considered by Committees in advance. A sunset clause is for the other end: the consideration of matters afterwards. The Minister knows that great concern is developing about part 1, particularly because there are no adequate safeguards for such a wide, general order-making power.

The latest of many submissions that I have seen from people and organisations that are worried about the Bill comes from the Maranatha community. It says that the Bill has been presented as a low-key, tidying-up measure, but in any other European country a proposal with such far-reaching effects would require an amendment to the constitution. It goes on to say that the Bill as proposed threatens to undermine what remains of parliamentary democracy, and that it could be used to endanger the liberty or freedom of speech of any individual, group or organisation. The Maranatha community submits that the Bill should not continue in its present form.

Members of a gentle Christian community have put forward that view because they are worried that some future Minister—not this particular Minister—might have the power to affect the protections available to individuals or ethnic or religious groups. They do not want that sort of change to be made unless the traditional full procedures of the House and all the protections that those involve are available to them as individuals and to us as parliamentarians

As we have discussed, the background to the Bill is that the Government consulted on a deregulatory Bill with non-controversial changes. The Bill that has followed that consultation does not meet the terms on which the consultation was taken. What we have now is the wide, fast-track power to amend, repeal or introduce primary or secondary legislation by order for any purpose. The Bill does not refer to using the power for deregulation. Indeed, clause 12(2) openly contemplates the use of the fast-track power to increase costs to business or to cause disbenefits, and requires the Minister to assess them in a statement to be filed with the draft order. That is not what business expected. As John Cridland of the CBI commented recently, the intended outcome should be "to deliver more and swifter deregulatory measures for the benefit of business and society".

The Bill is controversial because that wide order-making power is not being given for a clear or well-defined purpose such as deregulation. It is being given for any purpose. That must be changed.

Clause 4 gives that fast-track power not just to a Minister but to any person. I assumed that that proposed mechanism was designed to build on the suggestion in the Hampton review that regulators' regulation-making powers should be merged, a suggestion which I support. However, when I suggested that the Bill should say that, the Minister replied, "The Bill doesn't say that partly because our ambitions are wider than that." What are those wider ambitions?

The Bill needs three kinds of safeguard, and I have tabled amendments on three things. First, purpose: it should only be possible for the fast track to be used to deregulate or make non-controversial simplifications or pass Law Commission Bills. Secondly, reserved matters: it should not be possible to use the fast track for constitutional, important or controversial changes. Those should be reserved for our usual procedures. Thirdly, procedural veto: there should be a procedure whereby a Committee or the Houses of Parliament can simply veto use of the fast track for inappropriate measures.

Until the Bill is amended to provide safeguards, it is unlikely to be passed. During Committee debate, the Minister has promised to make changes, but so far we have not seen those amendments, although a meeting has been arranged. He has welcomed the Select Committee report suggesting changes, but it is worth noting that many of my amendments—there have been dozens of them—have been based on the Select Committee's findings and have followed its wording almost exactly, and those amendments have not found favour with him. Unless proper protections are put in place, the Bill will have profound implications for democracy and will be a move towards government by ministerial fiat.

We have bent over backwards in Committee to provide the Minister with opportunities to put things right. It is not just me; the Liberal Democrats have tabled amendments on the same themes, and all parties on the Opposition Benches have supported them.

There is a need for a Bill to help with deregulation, and the Government's own consultation showed support for the sort of Bill for which we are arguing. But concern is growing on both sides of the business world, with business organisations pressing for the necessary safeguards and not wishing to lose a Bill that could help with deregulation, and the TUC expressing concern that the Bill should not be too widely drawn in case another Government with a different political perspective were to remove valuable protections that it holds dear.

I am not saying that a sunset clause is my preferred option. I would prefer to see amendments of the sort that I have tabled being accepted by the Minister. Maybe he will want to redraft them, but I want those safeguards in the Bill. As a last resort, if we go ahead and have a Bill, it must be limited in time so that we can reflect on whether the order-making powers have created the sort of problems that many think they will create, myself included.

A sunset clause is a last-ditch attempt to put at least some protection or roadblock in place. The real answer would be for the Minister to come back on Report with the strong safeguards that everybody wants.

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