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Departmental Regulations

Volume 459: debated on Thursday 19 April 2007

I am grateful for that answer. DEFRA says that it has a commitment to reduce regulatory and administrative burdens by 25 per cent. The Minister shakes his head, but I have a written answer to a parliamentary question in which it says, in terms, that DEFRA is committed to better regulation and reducing the burden of administration by 25 per cent. I will send it to the Minister if he has not seen it. What is the evidence that DEFRA is providing anything other than empty words and actually doing something to reduce regulatory burdens? On the basis of what the Minister has just said, the answer seems to be not a lot.

It is always advisable, before saying something in the Chamber, to check one’s facts. The hon. Gentleman is quite right to refer to the 2005 notice where we did commit ourselves to a 25 per cent. reduction. I am delighted to be able to tell him that last December I published our simplification plan, in which we exceeded our own target, and we have now produced a simplification plan for a 30 per cent. reduction of administrative burdens. That is approximately £159 million taken off business—over and above the baseline that was independently assessed in 2005, which I believe is the hon. Gentleman’s time scale.

I wonder whether any of those new regulations related to flood plains, where higher water tables could result in the flooding of new housing developments? Does he agree that there should be a regulation requiring those with responsibility for flooding to keep a public register, particularly when planning applications are granted, sometimes on appeal, to build houses on flood plains?

I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman which one of the 150 statutory instruments would have dealt with the specific instance to which he refers. I understand that the hon. Gentleman raised this matter recently and it has been referred to the Department for Communities and Local Government. Members often talk about regulations as if they bring only costs or burdens. They do not. They often create new frameworks for markets, new jobs and wealth. They often simplify a previous regime. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Environment Agency, which is indeed part of the DEFRA family, has responsibility for flood regulation, but in so far as the specifics to which he refers, it is a matter for the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Does my hon. Friend think as I do that that is a very strange question coming from an Opposition Member because prior to 1997, the general public were clamouring for regulation in the food safety area, which is why the Government set up the Food Standards Agency—and even today, the Conservative party’s own leader is clamouring for climate change regulation?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right. If we simply add up the costs of regulation without then offsetting its benefits, what results may be convenient for a bit of parliamentary slapstick, but it does not provide the best picture of the true value of regulation. My hon. Friend referred to the position before 1997, which reminds me of a good example in the Animal By-Products Regulations 2005, which the present Government introduced. The impact assessment showed a total administrative cost of £7.58 million. I have no doubt that that was part of the reason why the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), who tabled this question, did not pursue those regulations when he was a Minister at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Actually—

Surely what matters as much as the quantity of regulation is the quality, particularly where there is a potentially serious risk to human health. Given that we learned half an hour ago that, as with foot and mouth, the Government have failed to establish the cause of the outbreak of bird flu in Suffolk, is the Minister satisfied with the quality of the regulations dealing with importing poultry meat? Does he not agree that many people will be astonished—bearing in mind that there must have been a serious breach of biosecurity at the Bernard Matthews plant—that under existing regulations nobody will he held responsible and instead the company concerned will receive £589,356.89 in compensation, funded by the taxpayer? Is it not time to look again at the regulations concerning the importation of poultry meat?

Obviously the hon. Gentleman does not take a great deal of notice of his colleague, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), who is the local MP and who, only two weeks ago, praised the Government’s handling of the whole matter. The hon. Gentleman will note from the report of the Food Standards Agency two weeks ago that it did not have sufficient evidence to prosecute in this case. The Government have received many plaudits for the way in which the whole matter of avian flu has been handled, including from his colleagues.