Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Tom Pursglove.)
I shall start with some quotes from my constituents about the Government:
“The most inept and incompetent administration in my lifetime.”
“Incoherent and indecisive.” “Authoritarian and arrogant.” “Inconsistent and incomprehensible.” “Socialist in all but name.” As these criticisms become increasingly difficult to rebut, it is indeed essential that the Prime Minister gets a grip. The constructive purpose of this debate is to remind the Government that one key tool to enable them to get a grip is to use regulatory impact assessments as part of the policy-making process.
A regulatory impact assessment is a well-established, internationally acclaimed toolkit for good policy making. It facilitates transparency and public accountability, promotes democratic discussion by enabling potential possible policy options to be evaluated and compared. It prevents the inconsistency that arises from knee-jerk reactions and policies being developed on the hoof.
It helps to ensure that sudden changes are the exception and are made in response to changes in hard evidence rather than in response to the chorus of a single-issue pressure group—and I think it is probably fair to say that the covid alarmists are the most successful pressure group in British history. If, for the past six months, the Government had been using this toolkit, it would not have been possible for commentators to observe, as one did on Sunday:
“Britain has become a paradise for those who like to answer questions with ‘rules is rules’; even when they’re clearly made up on the spot or nonsensical.”
Allowing beard and eyebrow trimming for men but not eyebrow treatments for women was but one ridiculous example.
Most fair-minded observers supported the Government’s initial response to the covid-19 pandemic. The Government had no option but to make their priority ensuring that our hospitals were able to treat all those seriously ill as a result of covid-19. Our NHS was not as well-prepared as it would have been if the recommendations of Exercise Cygnus had been implemented. Cygnus was a brilliant initiative to war-game a serious epidemic of respiratory illness in order to identify where investment was needed to fill the gaps and thereby ensure an effective response. Tragically, Public Health England did not learn the lessons identified and failed to put the recommended preparatory work in place. We, the public, have been denied access to the full results. It remains a mystery to me as to why the Government are so defensive about the whole matter—and have indeed been dodging parliamentary questions that I have put down on the subject.
The hon. Gentleman often brings things to the House that are very important, and this is certainly one of them. Does he agree that impact assessments, if produced reliably, can form a critical element of the better regulation agenda? Regulatory impact assessments need to be the right foundation and the right basis to ensure that legislative scrutiny is not just a checklist but is instead an effective mechanism. I think that that is what he was referring to.
The hon. Gentleman has given a brilliant summary of my Adjournment thesis. He is saying that this should not be a tick-box exercise but that clear evidence should be presented that can then lead to proper debate and facilitate scrutiny, and that is what this is all about. I hope the Government are still wedded to that, because their better regulation unit has had consultations and is, I think, still taking the line that we need to have proper regulatory impact assessments. The purpose of this debate is to try to get some more assurance from the Government that they are going to apply these principles not just to covid-19 but to other regulatory measures that are, at the moment, being brought in with far too insufficient scrutiny.
Tomorrow it will be six months since the Department of Health and Social Care policy paper on coronavirus was published. This action plan, as it became, on which the Coronavirus Act 2020 was based, envisaged four phases: contain, delay, research and mitigate. The delay phase was to
“slow the spread in this country, if it does take hold, lowering the peak impact and pushing it away from the winter season”.
Because of the emergency timetable, the legislation had the sketchiest of regulatory impact assessments, without any cost-benefit analysis. But who would have thought that none of the regulations being made under that primary legislation would be properly evaluated before implementation? I certainly hoped that that would happen, but it has not.
The basic steps in the RIA process should involve consultation and an assessment of the nature and extent of the problems to be addressed. There should be a clear statement of the policy objectives and goals of the regulatory proposal, which should include the enforcement regime and strategy for ensuring compliance. Alternative courses of action should be identified, including any non-regulatory approaches considered as potential solutions to the identified problem. There should also be a clear outline of the benefits and costs expected from the proposal and identified alternatives. The conclusion should not only identify the preferred solution but explain how it is superior to the other alternatives considered. Finally, there should be a monitoring and evaluation framework set out describing how performance will be measured.
Although the processes I have set out could not be embarked on in the immediate emergency of introducing lockdown, they should surely form an inherent part of the process of easing lockdown, and ensuring consistent and timely relaxations of the regulations. It is the failure to do this that has resulted in sudden and contradictory changes to the regulations.
This has also led to unacceptable mission creep, which increasingly embodies a gradual shift in objectives. Hon. and right hon. Members will remember that the original objective was to enable the NHS to provide the best care to all the victims of covid-19 who needed it. That clear mission has now widened into a mission to suppress the spread of covid-19 as an end in itself, regardless of the cost. The irony is that, in allowing the original objective to be blurred, the important subsidiary objective of preventing the virus peaking again in the winter is being put in jeopardy.
The easing of lockdown has, sadly, become a veritable shambles. While the number of deaths from covid-19 has mercifully plummeted from its April peak, there has not been a corresponding relaxation of the emergency regulations. I shall refer later to the OECD principles of best practice for regulatory policy, but one of the key principles is:
“Proposed solutions should be appropriate to the risk posed, and costs identified and minimised.”
In the statement he made yesterday to the House, the Secretary of State for Health said that there are now
“60 patients in mechanical ventilator beds with coronavirus”.—[Official Report, 1 September 2020; Vol. 679, c. 23.]
This compares with 3,300 at the peak of the epidemic, and he then said that the latest quoted number for reported deaths is two in one day. Today, The Sun newspaper has calculated from these figures that the odds of catching covid-19 in England are about 44 in 1 million per day. Economist Tim Harford, who presents what I think is one, if not the only, good programme on the BBC—the statistics programme, “More or Less”—has said:
“Covid-19 currently presents a background risk of a one in a million chance of death or lasting harm, every day.”
While age, gender, geography, behaviour and other aspects affect the risk, it is now far lower than the risk of death or serious injury in a motor accident. On average, five people continue to be killed each day on our roads, yet I have not yet heard from the Government any proposals to ban people from driving because of the risks associated with so doing.
One sure way of ensuring consistency would be to impose the discipline of a regulatory impact assessment on each and every continuing restriction, so that the justification for loss of personal liberty could be evaluated against the alleged benefits. It is not too late for this to start, and I hope that the Minister, in responding to this debate, will provide an assurance that the forthcoming six-month review of the legislation will include a full regulatory impact assessment and an evaluation of the performance of the emergency regulations introduced.
The public would then be able to see the evidence about whether the decisions taken were correct. For example, was closing schools and setting back the education of the covid regeneration a proportionate and necessary measure? Was the postponement of 107,000 weddings across the United Kingdom justified? Could any of the 4,452 weddings which should have taken place last Saturday have been permitted? Why can people sit safely side by side with strangers on an aircraft, but not at a wedding breakfast or in a church, a theatre or a concert hall—or even in this Chamber?
Why was the World Health Organisation advice, which was originally that there should be 1 metre social distancing, not applied from the outset? We introduced a 2-metre or 6-foot rule, but that has now been modified with the 1 metre-plus rule, but at the same time the additional safeguards required for the 1 metre-plus situation are being applied to the 2-metre situation, which is creating all sorts of problems, conflicts and uncertainties for our constituents.
Is it protecting the NHS to create a situation where, as was revealed in The Times on 27 August, 15.3 million people are now on the hidden waiting list for treatment? Is it reasonable that we should try to prevent two deaths a day and keep 15.3 million people on waiting lists for treatment, with all the dire consequences that flow from that? Madam Deputy Speaker, I do not know whether you were listening to the Secretary of State for Health when he made his statement yesterday, but in my view his responses on the issue of NHS waiting lists were the weakest and least convincing parts of what he had to say.
Is the continuing economic cost of lockdown now disproportionate to the benefits? Well, let us have an exercise and see. Let us see the data presented, so that we can have a proper debate about it. I raised the importance of regulatory impact assessments in public policy making with the Leader of the House at business questions on 2 July. It was his response on that occasion which caused me to apply for this Adjournment debate, which I am delighted that we are having this evening. I said that we would be able to achieve much more consistency in Government advice with regulatory impact assessments. The Leader of the House, however, argued that
“if we spend too long doing all this, by the time we have done it we have moved on to the next stage of the lockdown.”
He accused me of “calling for bureaucratic folderol”, which would inhibit moving
“at a pace to ensure that things happen in a timely manner”.—[Official Report, 2 July 2020; Vol. 678, c. 534.]
Would that they were. But I must correct the Leader of the House, because, far from being the worthless trifles described in the expression “folderol”, regulatory impact assessments are fundamental to ensuring that we make the right decisions as legislators.
It is incredible that, instead of lockdown continuing to be relaxed, new restrictions on freedom, such as mandatory face coverings, have been introduced. The consequence is that I detect a growing atmosphere of gloom and foreboding as we see winter approaching: no vaccine availability for many months; the economy in a worse state than most of our competitors; and the prospect of the resurgence of the pandemic coinciding with the flu season. I do not like the expression “waves” because it makes it seem as though we are talking about something equivalent to the Atlantic rollers so much enjoyed by our former Prime Minister and colleague, David Cameron. We are not talking about waves. We are talking about the potential resurgence of the pandemic—not everywhere, but in particular hotspots.
This scenario demands a rational evaluation of conflicting risks to the economy and public health, together with a cost-benefit analysis, and now is the time for the Government to reinstate the intellectual rigour of the regulatory impact assessment process. Sooner or later, the incredible economic cost of the Government’s failure to remove lockdown restrictions in a timely and effective manner will become apparent. If that coincides with the Government asking their natural supporters to pay the price for their failure through higher taxes, the political consequences will indeed be dire. It is for that reason that I commend to the Government what the OECD says about regulatory impact analysis. It describes it as an
“important element of an evidence-based approach to policy-making…that…can underpin the capacity of governments to ensure that regulations are efficient and effective in a changing and complex world.”
I will not read from the whole OECD regulatory impact assessment report on best practice principles for regulatory policy, but it extends to about 40 or 50 pages and is extremely well researched and documented. As I understand it—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—these principles are supported by the Government; the trouble is that they do not seem to be being implemented by the Government and by Government Departments. I hope that in his response the Minister will tell us what he is doing to try and put that right.
The Government should revert to following their own “better regulation framework” established under the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015, which requires that
“A RIA should be prepared for all significant regulatory provisions as a standard of good policy making and where an appropriate RIA is expected by parliament and other stakeholders.”
The interim guidance issued in March this year sets out a general threshold for independent scrutiny of regulatory impact assessments and post-implementation reviews, where the annual net direct cost to business is greater than £5 million. It calls on Government Departments to undertake proportionate cost-benefit analysis to inform decision making.
The trouble is that this is not being done, and I will give just one topical example, to which I referred in my brief comments in the previous debate. Under the Coronavirus Act 2020, there was specific primary legislation saying that residential tenancies should be protected from eviction until 20 September this year. On Friday last week—27 August—regulations were made extending that period from 20 September for another six months. The regulations came into force on 28 August, which was last Saturday, the very same day that they were laid before Parliament. Regulation 1(2) says:
“These Regulations come into force on the day after the day on which they are laid”.
Those regulations have caused a storm of protest from residential landlords in my constituency; they are apoplectic about the fact that they are not going to be able to recover possession of their premises. Notwithstanding the contractual agreements they have entered into with their tenants, they are not going to be able to recover their premises until 31 March 2021.
It says in the explanatory notes to the regulations that they amend schedule 29 of the 2020 Act. This is primary legislation being amended by subordinate legislation subject only to the negative resolution procedure, and so one might have expected that there would be a regulatory impact assessment or something which would indicate to us, on behalf of our constituents, that the Government have thought this whole process through, but that is not there, and instead there is a little note which says:
“A full impact assessment has not been produced for this instrument due to the temporary nature of the provision.”
I thank my good friend for allowing me to intervene. In my constituency I have a huge backlash from residential landlords about this extension. I find it almost impossible to believe that the Department has not done an assessment of this, and I make the assumption—perhaps my hon. Friend or the Minister will correct me—that an assessment was done. I cannot believe that civil servants and decent Ministers would have made such a decision without actually looking at it, as this is a really bad thing for people who are trying to provide accommodation, because they see no good in this whatsoever; in fact it is extremely bad.
I agree with my hon. Friend. One would have expected that an assessment was carried out—we will hear from the Minister in a minute whether there was—but what was so extraordinary is that it was only a week or two before the U-turn of last week that we were being assured by Ministers that there was no proposal to extend the application time for these regulations. I imagine that when Ministers were briefing that, they had not done any work suggesting that they wanted to extend the regulations, and then, at the last minute—perhaps as a result of the pressure group behaviours to which I referred—the Government just changed their mind. They had imposed this regulation at enormous cost, but we do not know what cost, because there is no estimate of that.
I hope that that is on the record—it makes us look like clowns. That is why I hope that we can persuade the Government to reform their ways. It is also extraordinary that the excuse should be put forward that this is a temporary arrangement and that is why there is no need for a regulatory impact assessment. That is not set out anywhere in any of the books on this, and it is a novel interpretation of what should be happening.
Switching away from the regulations directly related to coronavirus, I have received support for raising this issue from the Internet Association, which is the only trade association that exclusively represents leading global internet companies on matters of public policy. The organisation responded to the Government’s invitation when they went out to consultation in June inquiring about the reforming regulation initiative. It said, “Regulation in the digital sector has a wide range of potential impacts which extend beyond traditional economic impact analysis. As a matter of course, the Internet Association recommends that Government Departments and regulators undertake a wider impact assessment of their proposals covering not only the economic impact, but also issues such as technological feasibility and impacts on freedom of expression and privacy.” It goes on to say that “there have been a number of recent policy and regulatory initiatives in the digital sector where it has not been clear whether an impact assessment has been conducted and/or the impact assessment has not been published for external scrutiny.” It gives an example of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport/Home Office online harms White Paper. The Internet Association believes that wider regulatory impact assessments, as specified, should be required for major digital policy and regulatory initiatives. Therefore, this extends into that field also, as it does to all legislative and Government policy making—or it should do—and I hope that we will be able to get ourselves back on track.
The interim guidance to which I refer, which was published in March this year, referred to the Government considering how best the better regulation framework can be delivered
“more effectively over the course of this Parliament”.
Now is the time, surely, to take some action. As their first step, the Government should promise that the six-monthly review of the Coronavirus Act 2020 will be accompanied by a full post-implementation review and that a full cost-benefit analysis of those emergency regulations that it recommends should be kept in place. I hope that the Minister will announce that he is going to do that tonight and thereby help to restore public confidence in the Government’s decision making and the ability of Parliament to scrutinise it, because that is fundamental. I am grateful for the opportunity to put this point to the House.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) for bringing this important issue to the House. Parliamentary debate and the exchange of views reflect the importance of parliamentary scrutiny.
When a policy decision is made, it is informed by an assessment of the potential impacts of a range of different policy options. The evidence and analysis informing these decisions will inform consultation and engagement with stakeholders, and for legislative proposals, it is usually presented to Parliament in a regulatory impact assessment alongside the legislation. In the UK, regulatory impact assessments present the outcomes of evidence-based processes and procedures that assess the economic, social and environmental effects of public policy on businesses and wider society. Their use has contributed to better policy making and reduced the cost to business, which is so important.
Our commitment to conducting such impact assessments remains strong. The analysis that goes into impact assessments ensures that Government consider the need for and likely impact of new regulations to support legislative change. They ensure that we consider how regulation will affect the operation of markets and best enable businesses to innovate, and, in line with the subject of this debate, they inform parliamentary decision making.
Where Government intervention requires a legislative or policy change to be made, Departments are expected to analyse and assess the impact of the change on the different groups affected. That is generally published in the form of a regulatory impact assessment. However, attempts to conduct regulatory impact assessments for public policy making, particularly in the current climate of the coronavirus pandemic, could be problematic. That is because responding to emergencies requires legislation to be introduced at a much greater pace than during normal times.
The Coronavirus Bill, introduced in March this year, provided powers needed to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. The powers enabled the Government to introduce temporary emergency legislation to respond to the pandemic. To allow the Government to deliver at the required pace, formal regulatory impact assessments are not required for better regulation purposes for the temporary measures put in place in response to the pandemic. Further flexibility in the approach to impact assessments is appropriate where permanent measures need to be enforced urgently.
My hon. Friend mentioned some specific examples where we have assessed the impact in a different way. He is right to talk about the importance of regulatory impact assessments. Some of the guidelines that he mentioned fall within my area. The specific residential landlord and tenant issue that he mentioned falls to my colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, but in terms of the commercial Landlord and Tenant Act 1954 changes, we found from listening and speaking to businesses over a period that some companies that were struggling to pay their rent were being wound up by some landlords, so we acted.
This is on the basis of detailed, long-standing conversation and engagement with businesses on both sides of the debate. In my short time as a Minister, I have had around 500 meetings with, I estimate, 3,000 to 4,000 businesses, so I think I have a reasonable handle on retail, hospitality, weddings and the beauticians who do eyebrows and beard trimming that my hon. Friend mentioned. It is a source of great regret that we are unable to allow wedding celebrations of more than 30 people to occur at the moment. I have seen at first hand and heard from people in the wedding sector, which is an enormous contributor to the UK economy, how badly they are suffering as a result.
I know that my hon. Friend has been working hard with a range of different sectors, including the wedding industry. Will he reassure the House that work is ongoing to try to find a way for wedding venues to reopen more fully, beyond the current 30-person limit, so that they can see a future ahead of them?
I am glad that my hon. Friend made that point. He has been working tirelessly with his local wedding venues in Eddisbury to try to get a road map. We continue to work and engage on that issue to make sure that the sector, which is a really important contributor to the UK economy, can reopen, and that people whose special day is being put off, and in some cases ruined, can come together.
I fully accept that in certain Departments, including the Minister’s own, Ministers are trying conscientiously to weigh up the different factors, come to sensible decisions and stick to them, but will he take the message back to the Government that the inability of Government at a very high level to choose policies that seem capable of withstanding gusts of public opinion or media opinion, which is something else, is undermining confidence in the process, at least in part of Government, because if a decision has to be changed in the way that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) described in his rather splendid opening speech, that suggests that a certain degree of rigour is absent.
I think that rather than gusts of public pressure, the Government have been working in what is, in effect, as close to real-time decision making as we are ever going to get, and it is based on health advice and the business response. My right hon. Friend talked about the press and the media; I direct him to the example with which my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch started—male eyebrow trimming and beard trimming—because that was never actually in the guidance. The guidance, which I worked on, was such that male beard trimming could work out, apart from detailing at the front if there was close, face-to-face, near contact. That was exactly the same as female eyebrow trimming, so there was no sense that men could go and get their eyebrows trimmed and women could not. The rhetoric in the media that men were getting a better deal than females, which understandably upset beauticians, just was not the actuality—it was not what was happening—but unfortunately, as we know, it is sometimes difficult to work with the media to stop a good story.
We must continue to engage. We do want to get back to the formality of regulatory impact assessments but, as I say, we need to engage at pace, so we will continue to listen to businesses. Sometimes, the consultations on the guidance we have been working on have lasted literally 12 hours on a Sunday. That guidance has come to me, to the unions and to businesses and we have all been acting within the same time constraints. We have not been hiding things away from businesses and those people who are most affected by this situation.
I must say that I am impressed by the number of people and businesses the Minister has met; that is an indication of the knowledge that he has gauged from them. May I make a quick suggestion on weddings? It is possible, in a bigger venue, to have people self-distanced and to have more than 30 people. It is also possible at weddings to have clusters of families who live closely together: there could be tables of 10 people —genuinely—which could increase the numbers who can go to weddings. To go back to the issue of regulatory impact assessments, if that was done, more people could attend weddings.
As I say, weddings have been a big source of concern for me and others and, understandably, that argument has been put to me. The huge difference between weddings and, say, restaurants—an example that has often been cited—is that the wedding parties tend to know each other, whereas in a restaurant people have little interest in speaking to those at the table next door. Clearly, if someone’s grandmother or extended family are sitting at the next table, as the wedding and the evening develops, social distance suddenly starts to fall by the wayside.
I totally get the fact that wedding organisers know everybody who is there, so they can register and have test and trace working effectively, but it is a concern to the scientists. We are trying to balance the economy from the economic point of view, the human behaviour point of view and the science point of view, which is a difficult mix to deal with. Because we are working at pace, the regulatory impact assessments, which are the source of this debate, are not always easy to compile. For the reasons that the Leader of the House gave—I understand the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch about the way that was worded—when compiling a formal regulatory impact assessment while working at pace, it is not always possible to go through that procedure.
We are reminding Departments of the importance of ensuring that appropriate resources are invested in gathering and analysing evidence about the regulatory impacts of the affected policies, and to publish it, where appropriate, throughout the period, if not at that particular time.
May I present a challenge to the Minister? Will he publish for our benefit a regulatory impact assessment on the issue of not allowing larger weddings? That would bring into the open all the issues with which he is familiar but which have not yet been exposed to public debate and scrutiny. Is that not what it is all about? This has now been going on for six months, and people want to know where the future lies for the small organisations involved in weddings. Will he offer to do that for us, notwithstanding the fact that his Department is very busy? That would be really helpful.
While I have the Floor, let me also say that I am concerned that the Minister seemed to distance himself from what is happening to individual landlords. Although they may not be incorporated, they are small businesses.
To answer my hon. Friend’s last point, I am not distancing myself; I literally was not involved in that decision. I do not want to offer a line of thought on something that I was not involved in, but I understand his point.
On weddings and the public debate, my hon. Friend has clearly not been following my Twitter feed—totally understandably—which is full of such debates about the wedding sector. We are trying to work with the sector to make sure it can open. My primary concern is about ensuring we get our economy open again with a warm but safe welcome to people. The Government’s first priority has always been to save and protect lives, but restoring livelihoods, protecting jobs and protecting businesses are right up there, for the reasons that my hon. Friend set out. If we do not get this kick-started now, the effect on the economy will be huge, so it is important that we work together to give people not just confidence but joy, so that when they come out to use services in their local high streets and city centres they enjoy the experience and come back time and time again.
A one-off hit to our economy is not good enough. We know it is not going to go back to how it was in February, and there are some permanent behaviour changes that seem to be kicking in. None the less, we need to work with the new normal, which means working with the virus, because we will be living with it. My hon. Friend talked about a second wave, or spike or whatever he wants to call it. If we learn to live with it, there may be a third and a fourth until we get a vaccine, but live with it we must. There will be a new reality of the permanent behaviour change.
Well-designed and effective regulation, which my hon. Friend wants to see in our legislation, and which we are championing, enables markets and business to flourish, grow and innovate. It can provide certainty for investors and protection for individuals and society. The use of impact assessments in informing regulatory design can help us to achieve those outcomes. Excessive or poorly designed regulation can impede innovation and create unnecessary barriers to trade, investment and economic efficiency. We have sought to limit that by ensuring that regulation changes in response to the pandemic are targeted and time-limited.
One of the biggest things that the Government have insisted on is facemasks, which we have mentioned already. I would be intrigued to know whether there is a regulatory impact assessment on why we all have to wear facemasks in public and various other places, because I have not seen it. If there is one that could be made public, perhaps it could be put in the House of Commons Library. There are growing numbers of people in my constituency of Beckenham who are rebelling against that idea.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I get the train and the underground into London each and every day, and the adherence of people to wearing face masks is, on the whole, good. Tube use, I am glad to say, is increasing substantially. London city centre—the central activity zone in London—is incredibly quiet. That is affecting the west end in particular, and the City.
The west end represents 3% of the entire UK economy—just the west end—so although we need to make sure that the whole country is able to restore the confidence and joy that I was talking about, it would be remiss of me, as Minister for London as well, not to showcase those areas that make up a massive amount of our capital city as a strategic and world city, so that it is ready for international travellers when they have the confidence to travel.
The Government’s focus has been on improving design and proportionality in regulation. That is done through the Better Regulation Executive, which is responsible for embedding smarter, more cost-efficient and better regulation across Government, and which has recently introduced new guidance templates and training to improve the quality of impact assessments. As a result, impact assessments have clearer presentation of results, better planning for implementation and more quantification of costs and benefits.
The better regulation guidance represents the agreed Government policy on evidence and independent scrutiny, including when to seek independent scrutiny. It is clear that legislation should be accompanied by robust evidence and assessment of impact.
Forgive me. The Minister is a really good friend of mine, but he did not answer my question. I would really like to see the Government’s justification, in writing, as to why so many people have to wear face masks. Can we know what that justification is in this House?
There has been a long debate about the use of face masks, both on transport and in retail. There are arguments either side—whether it gives a false sense of security or whether people touch their face when they put on or take off their mask. None the less, we have a better understanding of the transmission of the virus and the aerosol nature of its transmission. That is why the World Health Organisation has changed its advice from the beginning, when it said people do not need to have masks or face coverings, to, “Yes, you do.” Actually, we can learn from history. In the 19th century, cholera was assumed to be transmitted by air, but by greater understanding and by working through it—they did not need a regulatory impact assessment to figure it out— eventually people found that it was the water supply that was causing cholera, so they were able better to tackle that particular issue at that given time.
The Regulatory Policy Committee undertakes the verification role that provides independent oversight of the quality of the regulatory impact assessments, as well as providing the Government with external independent scrutiny of evidence and analysis supporting regulatory impact assessments of the proposals. The RPC also has a role in scrutinising the quality of post-implementation evaluations of legislation to help the Government develop the evidence base on how regulation has worked in practice.
Is this body to which the Minister is referring going to look at the issue of face masks, or face coverings? In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) he has said that there are arguments on both sides of this. In those circumstances, why are the Government taking one side and criminalising behaviour instead of trusting people to reach their own decisions on the information provided by the Government?
I am sure the necessary people will have heard my hon. Friend’s call for that to be examined, but on the use of face masks, it is the same as self-isolation as a result of the test and trace system: the number of people who are having to self-isolate at any one time means that millions of us can go about our relatively normal lives by going to retail, hospitality or our places of work, which we were not able to do for so many months.
Those changes are evolving. I, like my hon. Friend, do not take any infringement of our civil liberties lightly, but this is a situation—I am not going to use the word “unprecedented” even though I just have; it has been used an unprecedented number of times—that we have never had to face before. No Government have ever had to face such a situation, so we are learning as we go along. We will not always get it right, but we have to make sure we are using the best engagement, listening to both sides of the argument, and working through as the science evolves and as we see what is in front of us in terms of human behaviour.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch talked about the OECD, whose latest report acknowledged that better regulation is an area of strength in the UK. It notes that the UK has been a leader in regulatory policy in general, with the early adoption of the better regulation agenda. Our ambitious agenda is reflected in the results of the OECD’s monitoring of regulatory management tools, as displayed in the “OECD Regulatory Policy Outlook 2018”, with the UK displaying the highest composite indicator score for stakeholder engagement for primary laws. Our score for secondary legislation is also significantly above the OECD average. We also had the highest composite indicator score for regulatory impact assessments across the OECD. That includes strong formal regulatory impact assessment requirements in areas such as establishing a process to identify how the achievement of the regulation’s goals will be evaluated; assessing a broad range of environmental and social impacts; and undertaking risk assessments as part of regulatory proposals. So we should be justifiably proud of our world-leading reputation in this area.
These assessments are valuable documents, and the Government should be applauded for encouraging their production and the transparent scrutiny of them, but, as with some individual impact assessments themselves, there is always room for improvement. As with the principles underpinning better regulation, we are always looking for ways to learn and improve our approach.
Obviously, we are fortunate in having a bit of extra time this evening, which is great. Will the OECD be asked to opine on the effectiveness of the Government’s regulatory response to the coronavirus epidemic? For example, will the OECD be able to comment on the distinction, which my hon. Friend has made, between rules on face coverings, for which there are lots of exemptions, and rules about isolation and quarantine, for which there are no exemptions. I am afraid that there is an anomaly there.
I am afraid I do not have the OECD on speed dial, but I am sure that my hon. Friend will be able to ask it to look into all these things. I am glad that we have extra time, because there is nothing I like more than to discuss regulatory impact assessments—I am afraid that Hansard does not detect sarcasm. Although I make light, it is good that we have parliamentary scrutiny of an important topic to cover.
As I say, there is a further cultural shift in Whitehall to make on such impact assessments across the board. We do have a responsibility to monitor the extent to which the laws we have passed are implemented as intended and have the expected impact. My hon. Friend is justified in raising this important issue, so that we can consider, learn and move forward together. The planning for monitoring and evaluating regulatory changes could be more effective. There is a risk that laws are passed that result in unexpected consequences or inappropriately stifle innovation. I have seen that at first hand as we have been changing and tweaking various support measures for businesses; we have had to change them so that they are supporting businesses as intended, rather than with an unintended consequence. Better planning for monitoring and evaluating will help to ensure that there is sufficient information to assess the actual state of a law’s implementation and its effects.
In conclusion, regulatory impact assessments, in themselves, have evolved into an important and valuable component of the UK’s better regulation system. The transparent publication of impact assessments has added accountability to the analytical dimensions to policy development, which has increased the amount of evidence presented alongside policy proposals, and the existence of the independent scrutiny has increased both the transparency of the process and the accountability of government. I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important issue.
Question put and agreed to.