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Lords Chamber

Volume 620: debated on Thursday 21 December 2000

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House Of Lords

Thursday, 21st December 2000.

The House met at eleven of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

PrayersRead by the Lord Bishop of Southwark.

Royal Assent

My Lords, I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

Consolidated Fund (No. 2) Act,

City of Newcastle upon Tyne Act.

London: Street Works

Whether they will arrange for a census to be taken of all the holes in the road in the London area, making clear the age of each hole.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions
(Lord Whitty)

My Lords, it is fitting that on the last sitting day of the year 2000 we should return to the question of holes in the road. London boroughs and other local authorities should keep information on street works that are notified to them by undertakers, as well as information on their own road networks, on a street works register, although it may not be possible in all cases to obtain the precise information requested in the noble Lord's Question. However, early in the new year my department will launch a research project to assess the scale of street works in England, including London.

My Lords, while I am obliged to the Minister, does he agree that the mere fact that no one can possibly say how many holes there are in London's roads, who owns them or how long they have been there indicates a total lack of control of the problem? Will the noble Lord take time to remind highway authorities that they have a duty to make possible and sustain movement, not to impede it? Will the Minister also remind those who are responsible for digging the holes that their disregard for the convenience and interests of the public should not continue indefinitely, because that way they will win the detestation and contempt of the public?

My Lords, while I accept much of what the noble Lord says, it ignores the progress that has been made, particularly in central London, on the initiative of the central boroughs. The Central London Partnership, which together with the utility and cable companies co-ordinates the approach to this problem, is developing a forward plan for the purposes of routine maintenance to ensure that particular roads in central London are dealt with by all the undertakers only within a specified period of the year. That procedure cannot entirely cater for emergencies, but normal installations and repairs will take place on a much more rational basis. That plan is now being drawn up. As to the attitude of the undertakers, while there may have been an element of truth in what the noble Lord says, they now co-operate closely with the plan. My honourable friend Keith Hill will meet the cable and utility companies at very senior level early in the new year. We have made clear our concern that they should contribute to solving the problem.

My Lords, behind this amusing Question lies a very serious point which applies not only to London but to Manchester. Does my noble friend agree that one day this very serious point may be dealt with by suggesting to my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, who is obviously short of Ministers, that he should appoint a Minister for the coordination of holes?

My Lords, the designation of ministerial responsibilities is entirely a matter for the Prime Minister, not me. I suspect my right honourable friend believes that he has already designated transport Ministers within the department. in particular my honourable friend Keith Hill, to deal with this precise problem. As my noble friend Lord Macdonald indicated to the House a few weeks ago, under the Transport Act we are taking new powers to ensure that, at least in part, the costs of road disruptions are met by those who undertake these works. By triggering Section 74 of the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991 next year and keeping open the possibility of full lane rental if serious problems persist, we now have the legislative means with which to deal with the problem. I believe that Ministers have already paid enough attention to this matter without the Prime Minister having to designate anybody else.

My Lords, is that not exactly the point? The Minister referred to Section 74 of the New Roads and Street Works Act. He promised us an order back in the spring and then said that it would happen by the autumn. It is now mid-winter. When was it laid, and where is it?

My Lords, the provisions of Section 74 will be triggered early in the new year. The provisions of the Transport Act to allow for full lane rental, which means that one pays from day one—whereas Section 74 is only for overstay—is to be kept in reserve and will be available to Ministers should the Section 74 powers not work.

My Lords, have the Government given consideration to the possibility that in major cities all of the services could be put into small tunnels under the roads so that access to them and the provision of new services would be possible without the need for any digging?

My Lords, it is hoped that these additional financial pressures will force companies into taking the matter more seriously. In certain locations there is a possibility of trenchless technology. The problem is that there is so much underground in the centre of our cites that is not properly mapped. In old city centres it is difficult to provide a single duct because there are already so many ducts in place. In new or less congested situations that is a possibility. Even in the City of London provision has been made for ducts for new works, but that does not deal with the problem of repairing existing facilities.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that except for emergencies, such as a burst watermain, no new holes should be dug in roads anywhere until train services are back to normal? The combination of endless roadworks plus 20 per cent more traffic than normal on the roads is fatal.

My Lords, first, there is not more than 20 per cent more traffic. If all those who previously travelled on the railways transferred to the roads there would be an increase in traffic of considerably less than 10 per cent. They are not doing so because rail services are beginning to improve and will continue quickly to do so in the new year. So that is not a problem. There is a need not only to maintain the roads, for which highway authorities now have the facilities, but also to improve and update Britain's cabling so that we can take advantage of the new technologies.

In many cases the increase in the number of roads being dug up is because we have made a step-change in adopting new technology, principally in city centres but increasingly elsewhere. That is a positive step, supported by the Government and which should be supported by this House. The measures that the Central London Partnership and authorities are taking better to co-ordinate this work and to ensure that particular parts of the city are dealt with at the same time are a major step forward.

Poverty In The United Kingdom

11.14 a.m.

Whether they will make public their latest assessment of poverty in the United Kingdom in the light of the study by the New Policy Institute published on 11 th December by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security
(Baroness Hollis of Heigham)

My Lords, we have already done so in our reportOpportunity for all.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her reply, especially because I believe that it has affected her personal arrangements for starting the Recess. I would have accepted and understood if another member of the Government had taken her place todady.

Has the noble Baroness noticed that this study records that the very poor have increased by 0.5 million since 1997; its definition being households living on less than 40 per cent of the average income in the country? Since the study records that there has been no reduction in the numbers of poor children during those three years, how do the Government expect to reach their target for eliminating child poverty?

My Lords, that is a very pertinent question. Government measures will have lifted 1 million children out of poverty by 2001. Turning to the first part of the noble Lord's question, we know that of those below 40 per cent mean or 50 per cent median income about one-fifth are pensioners, two-fifths are families not in work, and two-fifths of those are lone parents. The answer to the issue is to bring those not in work into work, but I remind the noble Lord that the income statistics on which this report is based were drawn up from late 1998, before the minimum income guarantee which helps pensioners over the 40 per cent line was introduced; before the minimum wage was introduced, and before working families' tax credit was introduced. Those are measures to help people into work where appropriate or to support them with higher levels of benefit.

My Lords, as the noble Baroness is aware, fuel poverty, which affects some 4.5 million households in Britain, is an important and unfortunate aspect of poverty in this country. Can she confirm that it is the Government's objective to eliminate fuel poverty within the next 10 years?

My Lords, so far as we possibly can we intend so to do. The noble Lord is right, we have seen winter death figures for the elderly going back up after a temporary drop, which is unacceptable. That is why I am sure he, like us, welcomes the £200 winter fuel allowance and the increased money being spent by my colleagues in the DETR on warm home insulation projects both here and in Scotland.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in the report mentioned on the Order Paper there is a finding that at any time during 1999,

"around 150,000 young adults aged 16 to 18 were not in education, in training or in work"?
Can the Minister say what material support was open to those people and on which forms of support they actually relied?

My Lords, I believe I can help the noble Earl. Of those young people aged 16 to 18 who were not in work, in education or training and not claiming benefit, 50 per cent were living with their families; 27 per cent were living with their families and claiming benefit; 15 per cent were living independently and claiming benefit; and 8 per cent were living independently and not claiming benefit. It is the 8 per cent figure of that 150,000 that the noble Earl and I would both be concerned about. We are seeking to work with them.

My Lords, will the Minister agree that the Rowntree Foundation should be congratulated on the major contribution it has made in this area since the original study in York at the beginning of the last century? The Prime Minister has said that the Government's aim is to eliminate child poverty within 20 years. According to the report there has so far been no improvement. Does this precisely mean absolute poverty or relative poverty? Against what criteria do the Government propose to measure their performance? The Minister mentioned that the figures are somewhat out of date. The report stresses that reporting of those figures needs to be speeded up. What are the Government doing to eliminate or reduce the gap between the period when the figures are collected and when they are published?

My Lords, there were about six questions there. We would all welcome having more up-to-date statistics. These income figures are based on figures in the autumn of 1998. Therefore, the below average incomes for households are already two years out of date. The Government also have to rely on similar statistics for their report.

Since April 1997 our budget measures have taken 1 million children out of poverty. We are on target to take one quarter of all children in poverty out of poverty in the next five years; half, we hope, in 10 years; and all in 20 years. As the noble Lord knows, the ways in which we are so doing are not only raising benefit levels but encouraging their parents—they are predominantly the children of lone parents—into the labour market. If we can do that, both the lone child and the parent will benefit. Those are our tests.

The noble Lord asked what was our definition of poverty. Poverty is multi-faceted. It is not just about poverty of income but also poverty of poor life chances. On the poverty definition of income, we are looking at either 50 per cent mean or 60 per cent median, as the mean is tweaked by high average incomes. Otherwise one could get a situation whereby, if the national wealth increases by 20 per cent but the wealth of low income families increases by only 10 per cent, they become poorer, and if the country's wealth falls by 20 per cent but the wealth of poorer families falls by only 10 per cent, they become richer. That is the problem of relative definition. It is about equality as much as it is about poverty. But our hope—and our expectation and strategy—is to lift those children out of poverty in the next 20 years. We are already on target to do so.

Road Schemes: Environmental Considerations

11.20 a.m.

How their decision to approve 39 road schemes in the local transport settlement accords with the statement in the Ten Year Transport Plan that,

"there will be a strong presumption against schemes that would significantly affect environmentally sensitive sites, or important species, habitats or landscapes".

My Lords, the Government have not changed their policy towards roads and the environment. We retain a strong presumption against accepting road schemes which would adversely affect environmentally sensitive sites. All road schemes accepted in the local transport plans have been examined against the Government's transport criteria of safety, environment, economy, accessibility and integration, using the new approach to appraisal. That ensures that all relevant factors are taken into account when making decisions to give schemes the go-ahead, including any potential impact on sensitive sites.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that very full Answer. The presumption against road schemes in environmentally sensitive sites was reinforced by my noble friend Lord Macdonald in AONBs letter to the Guardian of 31st July. Given that presumption, is it not a little odd that, of the 39 schemes, none was rejected on environmental grounds but nine of them go through SSSIs or AONBs?

My Lords, the approach to appraisal has to take strong account of all relevant factors, but the presumption is there. However, where there is no alternative to a road scheme, other factors may outweigh marginal damage to SSSIs. My noble friend will find that of the nine schemes to which he referred the majority involve slight damage and that in other cases we are talking about, for example, crossing a waterway, which does not damage or affect the whole of that site. I appreciate that in a number of those locations there has been anxiety. But the majority of the schemes which were put forward and appraised by local authorities have not been accepted. My noble friend must also recognise that in the local transport plan as a whole less than 15 per cent of the total funding allocation went to major road schemes. The bulk of it was used for local schemes, public transport improvements and safety and environmental improvements.

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on this albeit rather modest resumption, after nearly four years of famine, of the road improvement schemes. I hope that many more schemes will be approved in the near future.

My Lords, I am happy to accept the congratulations of the Opposition. I have a feeling that there was an underlying theme to the noble Lord's intervention of which perhaps I would not entirely approve. The Government have been consistent. We have never said that we would not have new road schemes. We have said that roads have to be put into an integrated transport context and that the environmental dimension has to be taken fully into account. That has been done in relation to these local transport schemes and it is being done in relation to a number of potential improvements to the highways network. But that needs to be looked at in a multimodal context so that we take some traffic off the roads as well as improve, in appropriate circumstances, the road network.

My Lords, does the Minister remember that the biggest cut in the road programme was made on 30th November 1996 by the previous government? On that occasion a large number of very much desired bypasses were eliminated from the programme. Do the Government agree that when people's quality of life in small towns and villages suffers as much as it often has from the huge increase in traffic, it is most important that they should eventually receive bypasses? Does he further agree that there is a problem with the Government's programme for detrunking roads? It will mean that responsibility for bypasses will be with local authorities, which, first, are likely to have much less money with which to provide them and, secondly, are in some cases much less sensitive to the environment than has been the Highways Agency in recent years.

My Lords, I do not think that the process of detrunking roads will have the adverse effects to which the noble Lord refers. It will allow the local transport authority to take account of the role of those roads within its overall transport strategy. The roads are not necessarily strategic roads. They just happen historically to be part of the Highways Agency's network. It is better to look at them as local and regional roads rather than as strategic roads. Resources will follow the transfer of responsibility. I believe that local authorities will be sensitive to the environment and will go through the same appraisal system as should Highways Agency roads. As far as concerns the general point on bypasses, what the noble Lord said underlines the fact that there are environmental aspects to consider on both sides. Quality of life, noise, safety and traffic congestion within villages need to be tackled for environmental reasons. In some cases, those matters are outweighed by the fact that the bypass might destroy beautiful land. In other cases, the balance of the argument goes the other way. However, in both cases, environmental aspects are important.

Postal Disruption

11.26 a.m.

What arrangements they are making to meet representatives of the Post Office management to discuss the current disruption of mail services.

The Minister for Science, Department of Trade and Industry
(Lord Sainsbury of Turville)

My Lords, there have been two reasons for recent disruption to mail services—industrial action, both official and unofficial, by mail and counters staff and the effects of disruption on the railways, which has caused mail trains to miss vital connections. The delivery of the mail services is a matter for the Post Office management, which has been keeping my department informed about these recent problems.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful Answer. Does he not agree that this is now becoming a matter of significant public concern? Long before the Hatfield rail accident and the ensuing disruption of rail services there were significant delays in postal services as a result of official and unofficial strike action. Does he agree that there has been a conspiracy of silence in terms of not informing the public about the disruption? What do the Government intend to do about it?

My Lords, the main problem has undoubtedly been rail disruption, which was bound to have an impact on services. Some 20 million letters are carried on an ordinary day and as many as 60 million at other times. The Post Office has been working extremely hard to use air and road transport to compensate for the problem of rail disruption. There have also been minor unofficial walk-outs, but those have been dealt with. I do not think that there has been a conspiracy of silence. On the contrary, in a number of press releases the Post Office has drawn attention to the situation and asked the public to help by posting early. The public have responded to that.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a former postman. Does my noble friend agree that no one is happy about industrial action? Does he further agree that what is required are meaningful discussions between the representatives of the people who work in the Post Office and the management to overcome some of the difficulties that have been apparent for some time? Should we not pay tribute to those men and women who over the past few weeks have done a tremendous job in delivering the mail through flooded areas and in clearing the record backlog of mail caused by the rail disruption? Is this not a time for us to be grateful to people who get up in the early hours of the morning or who work all night to make sure that we get a wonderful postal service which is still the envy of the world?

My Lords, I agree that the Post Office should not be criticised heavily for the low level of service due to rail disruption. I believe that their workers have tried extremely hard to cope with that. Furthermore, I agree that, at this time of year and in these circumstances, enormous pressures are put on Post Office workers. Something in the order of 150 million items are passing through sorting offices each day. However, in terms of industrial relations, I have to say that that is a matter for which the Post Office management and the workers must take some blame.

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether he was satisfied with the press release sent out yesterday by his department concerning the high street banks? I understand that they are now prepared to fund the universal bank. Because no further information was given on the matter, can the Minister tell the House for how much, for how long and on what terms this has been agreed?

My Lords, I do not think that the question put by the noble Baroness has a great deal to do with the delivery of mail, but I am happy to respond to it. It is clear that, because we put out the press release, we are happy that an agreement in principle has been reached with the banks on the universal bank, in spite of the scepticism which has been voiced about it. I have also made it clear on previous occasions that negotiations are continuing. When those are finalised, we shall give details as regards exactly what contribution will be made by the banks and the services to be provided.

My Lords, further to the question put by my noble friend, does the Minister accept that it is important for those of us who live in rural areas to pay a special tribute to the quality of service maintained by the Post Office in such areas, and indeed to show appreciation for the way in which those workers maintain it? We should acknowledge the key role played by many Post Office workers in sustaining contact with isolated people, in particular the elderly. As we come up to Christmas, this is an appropriate time to extend our special thanks to those postal workers.

My noble friend referred to the pressure being put on the Post Office to use road services. Does he agree that, in the context of strategic environmental policy, it would be a disaster if the Post Office were to be forced to use the roads rather than the railways? Does he further agree that there is a tremendous need for the Government to bring together the Post Office and the railway companies to ensure that an effective and strategic service will be maintained in the future?

My Lords, my noble friend has put two questions to me. I am happy to join him in paying tribute to those who provide postal services in rural areas. Not only do they provide a good service, but they also make a real contribution to the community.

As regards the use of road services, this is simply a response to the current situation. I believe that the Post Office has been quite right to make every effort to ensure deliveries to customers. If that means that it is necessary to use alternative methods of transport., that is surely right. However, I do not think that that is relevant to the fundamental question; namely, that for environmental reasons we all wish to see as much mail carried by rail and public transport as is possible.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that none of us would wish to understate the significance of the problems faced by the Post Office following the Hatfield rail disaster? However, is he also aware that what is going on in some parts of the Post Office at present rather reminds one of some of the industrial relations problems of the late 1970s and early 1980s? Industrial relations in the Post Office are now among the worst in this country. Does the Minister believe that the Post Office management now recognises that it has a major problem with which it must deal? Let us hope that that view will be shared by the trade unions. They appear to walk away from problems of this kind and pretend that they are exclusively the responsibility of management.

My Lords, I hope that I have made it clear that, while the matter of rail disruption is not something for which the Post Office should be heavily criticised, the question of industrial relations, which are certainly not good, is a matter for which the whole of the Post Office—I repeat, the whole of the Post Office—has to accept responsibility.

My Lords, further to the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, the Minister stated that this problem has been "dealt with". Can he explain that curious phrase, which seems to resemble the "final solution"?

My Lords, that comment was made in the context that the official walkout and demonstrations which took place in a number of areas—Coventry, Kensington, Westminster and Romford—have now come to an end, with the exception of an overtime ban in Romford. My comment had no greater significance than that of confirming that those situations have now been resolved, with the single exception of the Romford overtime ban.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, while postal services in the countryside continue at a high level, the reverse is now the case in many city centres, even leaving aside the current difficulties? Can the Minister tell the House what plans the Government have put in place to address those difficulties? Furthermore, can he ensure that, when the Government are re-elected, this will be made a priority in the order of events?

my Lords, these are matters for the Post Office. We have put in place the Postal Services Commission. It will take a great interest in the level of service provided both in rural areas and in city centres. It will be for the commission to put pressure on the Post Office to achieve its targets.

Psychotherapy Bill Hl

My Lords, I beg to introduce a Bill to establish a body to be known as the general psychotherapy council; to provide for the regulation of the profession of psychotherapy, including making provision as to the registration of psychotherapists and as to their professional education and conduct; to make provision in connection with the development and promotion of the profession; and for connected purposes. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a first time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a first time.—(Lord Alderdice.)

On Question, Bill read a first time, and to be printed.


11.36 a.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health
(Lord Hunt of Kings Heath)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health. The Statement is as follows:

"I wish to make a Statement on the White Paper, Adoption, A New Approach, which I am publishing today. Every child should have the best possible start in life. As the country now with one of the largest economies in the world we should be aiming to provide opportunities for all children, whatever their backgrounds.

"The Government have a special responsibility to ensure that every child in our society has the opportunity to grow up in a stable and secure family. This is why we have taken action to lift over a million children out of poverty, to raise child benefit by record levels and to increase support to families through the working families' tax credit. In all, we are spending an extra £6 billion each year in real terms on financial support for children. It is also why we have taken action to strengthen safeguards for children, with new legislation, new resources and new programmes such as Sure Start and Quality Protects. Together, these two programmes alone will see the investment of over —1.8 billion over the next three years in services helping some of the most vulnerable children in the country.

"Ultimately, it is stable families and strong communities which provide the foundations for a fair society. Children do best when they grow up in a stable, loving family. When children cannot live with their birth parents, we have a shared responsibility to make sure that they can enjoy the kind of loving family life which most of us take for granted.

"As every Member of this House knows, the opportunity to grow up in a stable family environment has not been properly extended to looked-after children who, for one reason or another, cannot live with their birth families. It is not only the children who have lost out. Society as a whole has paid a heavy price for this failure. At any one time, local councils look after 58,000 children. Seven in 10 of them leave care at 16 without a single qualification. Almost four in 10 male prisoners under the age of 21 have been looked-after at some stage in their lives. Some 25 per cent of people sleeping rough on the streets of London have been in care. This is not a failure of the child in care. This is a failure of the system of care.

"These children—perhaps above all others—need the safety, stability and loving care of a permanent new family; and they need that stability as quickly as is humanly possible. That is not the case at present. Children stay in the care system far longer than they should. Over 28,000 children have been in care continuously for more than two years. Too often, despite the best intentions of all involved, they are passed from pillar to post. Nearly one in five looked-after children have three or more placements in a single year. Some have six or more. For those children, the care system does not provide the stability they need to overcome their troubled pasts and to build a successful future. These children need a better chance in life. They deserve a better deal.

"Adoption can provide just such a new start in life for a looked-after child. Too often, it has been seen as a last resort when it should be considered as a first resort. In some councils, 10 per cent of looked-after children are adopted.

"In others, it is less than 1 per cent. Because adoption services are run on a local basis, both children and adoptive parents can miss the chance that adoption brings. Overall, the system—including the courts—can be slow, cumbersome and unfair. Of course, the safety of every child should be of paramount concern but, on average, children are waiting nearly a year and a half before it is decided that adoption is best for them; and even after a decision is taken that they can be adopted, they wait still longer. Overall, the average time taken to adopt a looked-after child is three years—an eternity in a child's eyes.

"People who want to adopt children from the care system need a better deal as well. We are short of adoptive parents but the system deters people from adopting. It is slow, intrusive and simply inappropriate in many cases. There have indeed been cases where potential adopters have been told that they cannot adopt simply because they are too old or too middle class. Blanket bans of this kind only have one effect—they fail to put the needs of children first. Families who do adopt children overwhelmingly do a brilliant job for those children. It is not an easy job because many of the children are not easy. They and their adoptive parents deserve more support.

"Adoption services and adoption laws are in need of reform. The current 1976 Act is based on legislation that dates back to 1958; nor is it consistent with the Children Act 1989.

"In February this year my right honourable friend the Prime Minister launched a thorough review of adoption. He commissioned the Performance and Innovation Unit in the Cabinet Office to look at the evidence and make recommendations for action. The PIU report was published for consultation on 7th July this year. The report found that there was clearly scope for many more looked-after children to be adopted. The Prime Minister made it clear in July that the Government accepted some of its key recommendations. In particular, the Prime Minister announced that new legislation would be brought forward next year.

"The White Paper I am publishing today outlines the most radical overhaul of adoption law and practice in 25 years. New legislation will seek to place children's safety, welfare and interests at the heart of the adoption process. It will link adoption more closely with the principles of the Children Act; and it will extend the options courts have to secure a permanent family life for looked-after children. A new 'special guardianship' order will be created for those children who want a more legally secure permanent family than can be delivered through foster care or residence orders, but who do not want to sever all legal ties with their birth family.

"A clearer legal duty will be placed on local councils to plan for and provide comprehensive support services for adoptive families. Families adopting children will be entitled to have their needs for support services properly assessed. They will have access to a comprehensive package of post-adoption support—including adoption allowances—in a way which is more consistent across the country. We are already consulting on introducing paid leave for adoptive parents; and for potential adopters whose application is rejected, we shall introduce a new right to an independent review.

"Local councils and voluntary adoption agencies will need to make substantial improvements to their adoption services. Some are already doing so. Last year the number of adoptions rose from 2,200 to 2,700. But much more needs to be done. New resources will be made available to produce better results. The Government will provide —66 million-worth of investment in local authorities over the next three years to help to transform adoption services for children. In exchange for this cash, I shall expect to see clear improvements in performance.

"In the future we expect the majority of councils to do what the minority are already successfully doing—working collaboratively with other councils and local adoption agencies. Council performance on adoption will be more rigorously monitored—not least through the SSI and the Audit Commission. Where a council is persistently failing to deliver, I shall not hesitate to use my intervention powers to transfer its adoption services to a different agency.

"An adoption register for England and Wales will be established. It will match children with adoptive parents across the country where a local family cannot be found or where the child needs to move away from the local area. I am today issuing invitations to tender for the new register with a view to it becoming operational next summer.

"The courts too will need to improve their performance. My noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor has been looking carefully at the causes of delay in children's cases. The White Paper sets out how we shall speed up adoption cases. In the corning year. the Lord Chancellor's Department will, first of all, increase the number of judges specifically trained to deal with family work, and make better use of the available expertise; secondly, set up pilots to evaluate the benefits of concentrating adoption work in specialist adoption courts with experienced judges and court staff; and, thirdly, work with the president of the Family Court Division on guidance to courts on better case management and take further steps to improve the way the courts deal with adoption cases.

"Next year too the new Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service will be set up, bringing together services for children in one comprehensive agency, allowing them better to meet the needs of children.

"These changes in local courts and in local councils will not—by themselves—be enough to bring about the step change in adoption services that children need. So today I am also publishing for consultation the first ever set of national adoption standards. They will help to drive up the standards of service for children and adoptive parents in all parts of the country. The standards set challenging new targets to speed up adoption processes.

"Six months after becoming looked-after continuously, every looked-after child will have an agreed plan for permanence. It may cover efforts to rehabilitate a child with their birth family, but where adoption is the plan for permanence, suitable adoptive parents should be found within a further six months. This will be a major improvement on the current situation. It will almost halve the average time it takes to find an adoptive family for the child. For foster parents who want to adopt a child and it is in the child's interests to do so, we shall go further. For foster carers' applications to adopt a child in their care, where it is in the best interests of the child to do so, in future the application will be processed in just three months.

"The standards will also set out how prospective adopters will be welcomed and treated in an open and fair way. There will be no blanket bans on people because of their age, health or other factors. While it is clear, for example, that the best family for a child will be one that reflects their birth heritage—and certainly more needs to be done to recruit adopters from diverse ethnic backgrounds—no child should be denied loving adoptive parents solely on the grounds that the child and the parents have different racial or cultural backgrounds. The child's interest—their safety and well-being—will be the crucial factor in determining their adoptive parents. I hope that these measures will help us to treat adopters better and support them better so that we can attract more adoptive parents to adopt more children successfully.

"It is right that we are ambitious for these children. It is right that we are ambitious for the prospective families. There is no shortage of children looking for a stable, loving, permanent family. A 1999 report for my department found 2,400 children waiting to be adopted and 1,300 adopters waiting for children. Adoption must become a first-choice option for looked-after children who cannot return home. The White Paper therefore sets a new national target to deliver a minimum 40 per cent increase in lasting adoptions by the year 2005, although I hope that the measures that I have outlined today will help us to achieve a 50 per cent increase over that period. Our aim must be to give many hundreds more looked-after children the chance to live as a permanent member of a stable, secure and loving new family.

"Children get only one chance to grow up. A looked-after child should have the same life chance as any other child: a chance to belong; to have a stake; to get on in life. For too long too many have been denied these chances—the innocent victims of a system which has failed to meet their needs for a permanent secure loving family. It is a failure we would not tolerate for ourselves. We should not tolerate it for others. The reforms to adoption I have announced today will transform the life chances of hundreds, hopefully thousands, of children. They deserve no less. I commend our proposals to the House".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

11.49 a.m.

My Lords, it is with more than my usual degree of warmth that I thank the Minister for coming to the House to repeat the Statement on the final day of the pre-Christmas Session. It is a great pity—although, of course, understandable—that not more noble Lords are present to listen to this extremely important set of announcements.

Perhaps I may begin by saying that I greatly welcome almost everything that the Statement contains. The Minister will know that just before the 1997 general election the previous government had prepared a Bill in draft to reform the current adoption laws. Since the election, successive health Ministers, beginning most notably with Mr Paul Boateng, have devoted considerable effort to the same end and, I may say, on much the same lines.

I am in no doubt that adoption, fostering and the care system generally are, together, a pivotal area of social policy. What we do or fail to do for our looked-after children influences every aspect of society. We therefore owe it to them and to ourselves to put the system right where it is failing.

As the Minister has told us, a great deal in the system is failing. The Statement speaks of the variability of performance among local authorities in the numbers of looked-after children successfully placed with adoptive parents. That is putting it mildly. I have in front of me a table showing the percentages of children adopted under each local authority in 1999. Near the bottom of the league is Barnet, with 0.47 per cent and Lambeth, with 0.61 per cent. Twenty-seven local authorities score under 2 per cent. By contrast, at the top of the league come Warrington, with 9.03 per cent; York, 9.6 per cent; Middlesbrough, 10.86 per cent; and Sutton, with 13.74 per cent.

Why should this be, when it is plain to all who have had anything to do with this subject that children who grow up in a loving and supportive family progress, flourish and grow to adulthood in a way that children in care, with their disrupted lives, cannot hope to do?

Yet, at 31st March 2000, 58,100 children were being looked after. That was 5 per cent more than a year earlier. Although the rate of children entering care is now falling, children in the care system are staying there longer. What is striking about the statistics is the large number of children who are under one year of age when entering care. Many stay in care for years on end.

It is often said that behavioural problems and disabilities in children are what prevent more children being adopted. The truth is that the majority of children in care are of normal intelligence and do not have serious health problems, other than those that perhaps result from neglect while being looked after.

The Statement does not go so far as to use the phrase "political correctness", but it is entirely appropriate to cite misplaced theory and dogma as among the prime reasons for the failure to adopt more children from care. In many cases, social workers are neither trained nor resourced to cope with what is inevitably a very difficult set of decisions about a child's future welfare.

In particular, there is evidence that many are not aware of the implications for a child's development of attachment to an individual couple. The courts often introduce delay by insisting that birth parents have every possible chance to show themselves capable of caring for the child, even when those birth parents may have failed repeatedly to do so.

I welcome the emphasis in the Statement on more and better training for judges in family courts. I also very much welcome the new legal duty to be placed on local councils to plan for and provide support for adoptive families and to produce plans for permanence for every looked-after child within six months of his or her entering the care system. I am delighted that there is to be a national adoption register and national standards. I am delighted that there are to be targets for delivery. It is excellent news that potential adopters whose application is rejected will have the right to seek an independent review. Above all, it is excellent that the needs and interests of children are to be the governing principles for the new measures. All these are measures for which my party has been enthusiastically pressing for some considerable time.

Will the Minister say a little more about the concept of special guardianship? I shall need to reflect further on the idea. I probably need convincing of the wisdom of divided legal rights in relation to a child with two sets of parents who may be pulling in opposite directions. When, and in what circumstances, do the Government envisage this mechanism being used? Secondly, what support is envisaged for adoptive parents and children? Often, a family needs help and advice well after the adoption has taken place.

Thirdly, we should not overlook the needs of parents who relinquish children for adoption as the result of unplanned pregnancies. Do the Government acknowledge the value of mother-and-baby refuges? Is it not highly regrettable that so few refuges exist? There is a lack of facilities for mothers considering adoption, which itself prevents infant adoption; and there is a reluctance among social workers to discuss adoption with women who are contemplating it. I cannot be alone among your Lordships in viewing the abortion statistics in England and Wales as an appalling testament to the attitudes towards unplanned pregnancy that are currently prevalent.

I turn finally to the issue of training, particularly training for social workers. Does the Minister agree that many social workers lack adequate training, not least in the field of child development? What measures will the Government take to improve training and to address the shortage of trained social workers in many parts of the country? Do they agree that more support needs to be given to voluntary adoption agencies, where much expertise resides?

I hope that legislation in this area can be brought forward at an early date. We on these Benches look forward to giving it our constructive support.

11.57 a.m.

My Lords, I should like to strike the same festive note as the noble Earl in thanking the Minister warmly for repeating the Statement. Looked-after children suffer many disadvantages which children from stable homes do not; and they face a greater risk of criminality and homelessness later in life. Following the passage of the Children (Leaving Care) Act earlier this year, the proposals in the Statement are an extremely welcome approach to tackling the problem at its roots and minimising the number of children in long-term care. The Minister and the noble Earl cited the current adoption figures for children in care. Clearly, that performance is not good enough.

This is, however, an acutely difficult area of public policy. There are many issues relating to the rights of birth parents, the speed of care and adoption processes and the suitability of certain types of prospective adopters. The reasons quoted by social services departments for not allowing adoption have included being overweight, being over 35, being too middle-class, being the wrong race, and so on. The Government have steered an effective but principled course in making these recommendations and I warmly welcome them.

To some degree, there are challenges regarding implementation of the reforms. The history of government attempts to tackle these issues over the past few years is instructive. They might properly have been optimistic about the impact of a circular from Mr Boateng in August 1998; however, it became apparent that indirect management by circular was not enough—hence the Prime Minister's summit in April 1999. I pay tribute to him for his personal involvement in this matter. That was followed in July by the excellent report of the Performance and Innovation Unit. I am delighted to see the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, in his place, in a sense seeing the birth of his child.

Clearly it became apparent that a more radical approach was required in tackling such issues. Hence we have the White Paper.

The underlying principles to be adopted are of the most fundamental importance. I welcome the commitment to legislation to bring adoption principles in line with those in the Children Act 989. The essence of the decision on adoption must be the interests of the child: his or her needs and rights must be paramount. However, the consent of a natural parent is important, and that consent should be overridden only where the advantages are significantly greater for a child if consent is not forthcoming.

Quite often, the process followed as regards care orders, freeing orders and adoption is so delayed that the child is prejudiced. Some of the figures in the PIU report are quite startling. The process can take several years. As the Minister said, this can be an eternity for a young child and prevents the bonding that is so necessary with adoptive parents. Then there are the figures about multiple placements. Some 29 per cent of children in care had had four or more placements. Nearly one-fifth of placements fail. There are also, as the noble Earl, Lord Howe, pointed out, massive variations in the time taken and in the performance of different local authorities.

I live in Lambeth, and London has been a particularly under-performing area. The fact is that the earlier a placement takes place, the more successful it is. That means that a fast process is vital. We certainly welcome the new combined one-year target within which care and adoption processes should take place. We also welcome other elements in the White Paper; for example, the pledge on improvements of performance by local authorities. There is also the setting up of the adoption and permanence task force, especially its remit to "scrutinise the backlog"—a phrase used in the PIU report. But what powers will that task force have? Will it simply have the right to make reports and review progress? In particular, what relationship will it have with the Lord Chancellor's Department and the court services area?

Will the task force have the right to review the availability of legal aid and the speed of court processes? Will it be able to sort out the "lack of grip" referred to so often in adoption and care processes? I understand that it will exercise its responsibility together with the Social Services Inspectorate and the national care standards commission, but the key objectives regarding responsibility for enforcing national standards and ensuring that local authorities are put to the task must be clearly identified.

We very much welcome the setting of national standards, but some clarity about whether that also applies to the court services and to the Legal Services Commission would be helpful. I should like to know how that will relate to the earlier circular of 1998. We strongly welcome the proposed review by the independent body where adoption is refused, and the setting up of a national adoption register. We especially welcome the new duty to be imposed on local authorities to plan and provide, subject to assessment, support services post-adoption. The Government have mentioned a significant figure of £66 million in that context. Can the Minister say whether that will be ring-fenced? Further, will the new adoption allowances be included within that figure or be excluded from it?

There are other key areas that I have no doubt will be covered in the proposed legislation, or in further measures to be introduced in due course. I refer particularly to the changes to maternity and paternity leave provision, which are much more generous to adopters. We welcome the consultation that is taking place and hope that that will reach an early conclusion. Mention was made in previous consultations about the need to ensure that freeing orders are not made, and that the child's relationship with both parents is not broken until adoption takes place. I wonder whether the Minister has anything to say on that subject.

The access to records is mentioned in passing in the White Paper. Again, it consists of a pure outline; there are no details as to the contents. We look forward therefore to the way that that will be settled in due course because that is clearly a very sensitive area. The area of websites and how they are used in this context are also most important. I have seen no reference in the White Paper to the latter. I assume that that will also be the subject of legislation at some stage.

Generally, we very much welcome the contents of this White Paper. I am sure that the legislation will not be easy to draft in some of the areas. However, I can assure the Minister that such legislation will get a very fair wind from these Benches.

12.4 p.m.

My Lords, perhaps I may begin by thanking the noble Earl, Lord Howe, and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for the warm welcome that they have given to the principles contained in the White Paper. I am sure that we shall be able to take forward the general consensus that this is the right way to proceed when legislation is introduced. I cannot give a firm date in that respect, but earlier in the year the Prime Minister said that legislation would be introduced next year. Therefore, we can hope to make speedy progress on the matter.

I very much share the key point made by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, about the importance of ensuring that adoption, fostering and the care system work well together. That is necessary if we are really to provide the high quality support and services that are required for this huge number of children—58,000, as the noble Earl said—who are being looked after at present.

The various actions that the Government have taken—the Quality Protects programme; the enhanced monitoring of local authorities; the establishment of the general social care council; and the introduction of the Children (Leaving Care) Act—will, together, provide a much more robust package that will enable us to deal with the problems that many noble Lords have graphically illustrated over the years. Ultimately, much of this comes down to local authority performance. The noble Earl, Lord Howe, referred to variations in performance, especially in relation to the percentage of children looked after who had subsequently been adopted. I, too, have a similar range of figures: 0.5 per cent of looked-after children in Merton in 1998–99, compared to 10.5 per cent in Calderdale.

Although huge variations in performance between different local authorities cause concern, they also show that we can turn the problem around. As ever, the task is to pull up the performance of the less good to a point that is nearer the level of those which perform best. I believe that the various mechanisms that we have put in place will enable us to do so; for example, the adoption and permanence task force will play a very important role in that respect both in spreading best practice and in working with poorly-performing councils.

I take the point that the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, raised about the task force's remit in relation to the courts. There are two points that I can make in response. First, we are working very closely with the Lord Chancellor's Department in its review of issues relating to childcare in the courts. We aim to achieve a consistency of approach. Secondly, in monitoring the performance of local authorities, I am sure that the task force will undoubtedly wish to talk to those involved in the court administration in a particular area to ensure that there is a consistency of approach across the boundaries. That is most important and has been one of the problems in terms of the huge delay experienced in completing an adoption process.

As the Statement makes clear, we have, in addition to the task force, set robust targets for local authorities. Our performance assessment approach in terms of measuring the progress that it makes, our ability to intervene in a number of ways, special measures with very close monitoring by the Social Services Inspectorate, and the ability for the Secretary of State ultimately to take intervention powers, will, I believe, give us the tools with which to ensure that local authorities do perform much better than they have in the past.

The issue of political correctness has raised its head. All of us have been concerned about the reported decisions of some local authorities in relation to adoption. The Statement makes clear the principles under which we expect local authorities to perform. It is just worth mentioning that the full facts regarding certain cases that have featured in media reports have not always been revealed because, clearly, the issue of confidentiality must be considered. When social services departments are subject to enormous criticism, there is sometimes very little that they can say about the aspects of a specific case.

Having said that, it does not take away my concern about the performance of many local authorities and the need to move away from so-called ideological considerations to a more balanced approach. I also believe that the poor adoption rates in some local authorities have little to do with political correctness or ideology but are due to a lack of priority, grip and attention. We have the ability now to ensure that local authorities give sufficient attention to the matter.

The noble Earl, Lord Howe, asked about workforce training. I agree that it is crucial. All work undertaken with children as part of the adoption process and the assessment and preparation of adoptive families must be carried out by qualified social workers. The only tasks related to adoption which do not need to be undertaken by qualified social workers are administrative. We have a recruitment and retention problem with social workers. We also need to address the worrying trend in the reduction in applications for training as social workers. The work we are doing 'with the ADSS, the local government association, will help in this area. We have also to consider how we can improve the status of social workers. The bashings that they receive—sometimes justified, more often not—do not encourage people into social work. Yet society relies on these people to carry an enormous workload and pressure. The answer is undoubtedly to see what we can do to boost their image. I am a great believer in the general social care council. Setting up a professional statutory regulatory body is one way in which we can enhance the quality.

The noble Earl, Lord Howe, asked me about special guardianship. Essentially, this is for the use of the court if it decides in the child's interest—to meet the needs of children for whom adoption is not appropriate. It might include older children who do not wish to be separated legally from their birth parents even though they cannot live with them but would like a more formal relationship with their foster parents. That is likely to be in relation to older children.

Post-adoption support is very important. Parents who adopt children often complain that once they adopt the child the local authority loses interest in them. We know that it is a challenging process, often with children who have been very disturbed. So one of the most important parts of the White Paper is the provision of assessment to see what support the adoptive parents require. It will also involve the ability to provide financial support. This is very important. Some foster parents who would have wished to adopt children have incurred a real financial disadvantage because some local authorities phase out rapidly the financial payments they receive as foster parents. This proposal will enable us to get over that problem.

Finally, the £66.5 million funding for adoption will be ring-fenced.

12.13 p.m.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Statement and share his objective of stability. I seek amplification on a couple of points. First, will the rights of the adopted child to know the circumstances and identity of his or her natural parent be affected by these proposals? Is it proposed to make any changes?

Secondly, can he say a little more about the other side of the equation: the protection provided for an adopted child and the adoptive parents from capricious and often unpredictable behaviour in subsequent years by the natural parents? I am sure that the Minister will be aware of cases where secure relationships have been disrupted quite unjustifiably, without there being apparently any proper legal protection for the child or his adoptive parents. If we cannot get the balance right in those two areas, we are unlikely to be able to achieve the stability that he and, I am sure, all noble Lords seek.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that question. These are difficult issues in terms of the relationship between birth parents, the adoptive parents and the child who has been adopted. I am aware of some of the tensions and, sometimes, the difficult situations in which adoptive parents have found themselves. There clearly is no easy answer. I do not have specific answers.

Having a support system for adoptive parents after the child has been adopted would enable the adoptive parents to talk over those problems with and seek advice from a key worker within the local authority's adoption service. That might not be as much comfort as the noble Lord would wish. But it is important that parents who have taken the step of adopting a child feel that at the end of the day they are not on their own: that if they need to look for information, advice and support, it is there.

The noble Lord asked whether birth parents were being given new rights under the proposals. No, there are no new rights. But we recognise that losing a child is a significant event for an entire family. Therefore one believes that birth families should be given support and help. They need to understand the adoption process and to come to terms with the child being adopted if that is in the child's best interests.

My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on these excellent and reassuring proposals. I declare an interest as the parent of an adopted child.

Perhaps I may seek assurance that in assessing parents social workers will not ask irrelevant questions about the religious or political affiliation of prospective parents. I base the question on information given to me by my own very good social worker about the reasons why parents have been prohibited from adopting—for instance, through membership of a perfectly legal political party or a perfectly respectable small religious sect.

My Lords, I hope that the noble Baroness will accept that we do not believe the process should be governed by ideological political correctness but by a sensible, level-headed approach to assessing the ability of potential adopters to take on an adopted child.

We publish today the draft national standards. They will set out clearly what adopters can expect from the assessment process, including the criteria to be used. The standards and code of practice that will back them up will ensure that assessment decisions are made on a clear and consistent basis across the country. That is certain to mean that inappropriate questions will not be posed. If they are posed, a performance management of the whole process would pick that up.

One of the important developments that we shall take forward is to set up a review mechanism. If the application of adoptive parents is rejected, they will have the right to a fully independent review of the case. An independent body appointed by the Secretary of State would convene a review panel to look again at all the evidence and make a new recommendation to the agency, either in support of or against the original decision. The adoption agency, which will still be the body responsible for placement, will have to take account of any new recommendation before making a final decision.

Clearly, we hope that in many cases the issue will not need to go that far, because the adoption process should be handled in a professional and acceptable way, but at least there is a backup for the circumstances that my noble friend mentioned so that parents can ask for the case to be reviewed.

My Lords, I warmly welcome the Minister's Statement and the documentation that goes with it. It is good to know that the Government are fully committed to facilitating and supporting adoption. I very much hope that they will be successful in that endeavour. The Minister also mentioned foster care, which is equally important, particularly long-term and semi-permanent fostering. We hope that both aspects of care will cope with a greater number of children.

However, large numbers of children will remain in children's homes. Will the Minister assure us that the staff in those homes are not being forgotten? What do the Government have in mind for their training and their pay and conditions? Work in children's homes must not be seen as a dead-end job.

How do those issues relate to the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000? Will there be more resources for improving standards in children's homes?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for raising the issue of the management of children's homes. He is right that some children will continue to reside in children's homes. At the moment about 6,500 children are resident in children's homes in England. We need to do everything that we can to ensure that they receive the effective care and support that they need. We all know that there have been a number of inquiries into children's homes over the past few years that have shown considerable failings, not least in the lack of support from local authorities for the staff and managers working in those homes and in the quality of training of the staff who work there. The Quality Protects programme is the start of a process of investing and prioritising the provision of children's services and ensuring a more professional approach, backed up by the monitoring and performance management with which the Social Services Inspectorate is concerned in relation to the overall performance of local authorities.

In addition, the general social care council will have an important role in raising standards among the 1 million people who work in the care industry. When it is established, it is likely to concentrate initially on qualified professional social workers and then on residential care workers, including the staff of children's homes, because those are important priorities. The process of improvement will make that possible, provided that we can at the same time attract more good people into the social care workforce, which is a tremendous challenge for the Government and for individual employers.

Perhaps I can take this opportunity to clarify a point that I made to the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones. The £66 million within the Quality Protects programme is not ring-fenced for adoption services, but it is part of the Quality Protects specific grant. That is what I meant by ring-fencing. We will expect local authorities to spend the necessary money to ensure that adoption services are properly organised and run. The performance management process will pick up any problems.

My Lords, I greatly welcome the Statement. I briefly declare my interests. First, I have had lifelong contact with adoption. My mother was in social work and in her time she probably placed more children for adoption than anybody else in England and Wales. Also, in the past 35 years of my professional life I have daily come into contact with prospective adoptive parents.

I have a couple of important points to make that cannot be overplayed. The first is the situation with social workers. It is very welcome that efforts will be made to improve their status, because there are clearly major problems with the way in which adoptive parents are handled, often insensitively and sometimes almost arrogantly. That is a pity, not least because many infertile people who would undoubtedly be very good parents do not regard adoption as a path that they should follow. I suspect that there are a lot of prospective parents who would be prepared to adopt children, even at an older age, if there were better support at their initial contact with social services. The Government's measures on that will be greatly welcomed.

The noble Earl, Lord Howe, emphasised the tremendous importance of the formative years, particularly the first year of life. That is when neurological connections are made. It is very beneficial if babies can be got into a stable relationship at that stage.

I have one brief question for the Minister. A number of couples who cannot adopt in the United Kingdom seek adoption outside the UK. Do the Government have any plans to improve the counselling, advice and regulation for such couples?

My Lords, my noble friend is right that we need to think about how to increase the number of prospective adoptive parents. There is clearly a shortage at the moment. To reach our target we shall need to encourage more parents to come forward as adopters. The most effective way to do that will be by ensuring that the process is sympathetic, supportive and efficient. Many of the problems that we currently face with the shortage of adoptive parents stem from the number of hurdles that they have to go through, which can lead them to becoming discouraged and finding the process very off-putting. If we get that right, I am sure that we shall be able to attract more parents to adopt. That must be encouraged.

My noble friend may recall the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999, which provides a statutory basis for the regulation of intercountry adoption to afford children living abroad the maximum protection from adoption trafficking. The Act created a framework of minimum standards to be applied by countries that have ratified, so that intercountry adoption takes place only when it is in the best interests of the child. A commencement order under the 1999 Act was made on 10th January 2000 and came into effect on 31st January 2000. It provides a much more effective regulatory system. The White Paper proposes no further structural changes to intercountry adoptions, but fairer, faster and more transparent new adoption standards will impact on adoption agencies that approve adopters for overseas adoptions.

Baroness Howells of St Davids: My Lords, I. too, thank the Minister for the extremely important reform that is being put forward today. However, wish to take up the matter of the term "politically correct". That term is often used in the media—even in this House—to cover up the discussion of important issues. I know of no serious investigation that has been carried out into children who are brought up outside their culture, but we know of many children who have suffered enormously as a result of being brought up thus.

In the early days we used to ask: can a Protestant bring up a Roman Catholic child to be a Roman Catholic child? When we talk about political correctness and opening the way for white parents to adopt black children, I ask how we would feel if white children were adopted by Asian or Caribbean families in this country. As we are now saying that we shall not look at "politically correct issues"—I do not believe that we should use that term—I wonder what support will be given to parents who adopt outside their race, to ensure that the children are brought up in a manner that is fitting to their culture. A serious problem exists in relation to children who do not know who they are. They listen to comments and suffer as a result of sometimes unintentional racism within the home. We should consider how they feel about that.

One morning I was present in a church whose very good vicar had brought up a black child in his white family. That child hanged himself in the church on his 21st birthday and left a note that I would not dare to repeat in this House. It was a most painful experience. I should like the Government to consider what they are saying on this issue and how they respond to it.

My Lords, one must distinguish between a number of cases where local authorities have made inappropriate decisions and arbitrary judgments about who is suitable to be an adoptive parent and who is not. I believe that the guidance which will come out of the national framework will enable a consistent approach to be taken.

However, I recognise that my noble friend has raised a particularly important point. Prospective adopters are asked to consider all aspects of their own background. I believe that it is right that they do so when deciding on the type of children whom they are prepared to adopt. That helps the adoption agency to match a child with a family which best meets the child's needs, including educational, cultural and medical needs and the need for contact with the birth family.

Social workers are advised that children's birth heritage and religious, cultural and linguistic background are all important factors to consider in finding them a new family. The best family for a child will often be one that best reflects the child's birth heritage. Councils should be proactive in monitoring their local population of looked-after children to enable them to recruit permanent carers who can meet the children's needs.

I also believe that the child's welfare is paramount. No child should be denied loving adoptive parents solely on the ground that the child and the parents do not share the same racial or cultural background. I also say to my noble friend that the support mechanisms that will be put in place, under which adoptive parents will be assessed, will provide a way in which some of the issues that she raised can be tackled.

Criminal Defence Service (Advice And Assistance) Bill Hl

12.34 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Lord Chancellor's Department
(Lord Bach)

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

The Bill seeks to clarify two points arising out of the Access to Justice Act 1999 where it has become apparent that the powers taken are probably insufficient to maintain the current levels of legal assistance available to those involved in criminal investigations and proceedings.

First, there is a doubt that the interaction of Sections 13 and 14 of the Act allow for advice and assistance to take the form of advocacy in certain proceedings. Secondly, the Bill seeks to ensure that advice and assistance is available to those involved in criminal proceedings, rather than only to those involved in criminal investigations.

As your Lordships know, the provision of criminal legal aid is governed by the Legal Aid Act 1988. That Act makes it possible for those involved in criminal proceedings or investigations to receive advice and assistance, including limited representation at a court or in certain other hearings. That is known as "advice by way of representation" or, more commonly, as "ABWOR".

The Government always intended that that form of limited representation should continue to be available when the relevant provisions of the Access to Justice Act are brought into force on 2nd April this year. These provisions replace criminal legal aid with representation orders from the criminal defence service. The criminal defence service is to be administered by the Legal Services Commission, which is to replace the Legal Aid Board.

It was during the drafting of the detailed secondary legislation necessary to support the new criminal defence service scheme that my officials raised doubts as to whether the Access to Justice Act did all that was intended. As noble Lords will no doubt recall, the Access to Justice Bill, as it then was, was amended considerably in response to issues raised by both Members of Parliament and your Lordships. One inadvertent result of those amendments appears to be that the continued provision of limited representation will probably not be possible.

Therefore, this Bill clarifies the extent of the Legal Services Commission's duty to fund advice and assistance as part of the new criminal defence service from April 2001. The limited form of representation for which the Bill provides will be known as "advocacy assistance".

I hope that it may be helpful if briefly I clear up any confusion that may have arisen between the terms "criminal defence service" and "salaried defence service". The criminal defence service is the name given to the service which provides all forms of publicly funded legal help for individuals who face a criminal investigation or prosecution. The vast majority of expenditure on the criminal defence service—in the region of £430 million per year—will be needed to pay independent solicitors and barristers who represent those accused of criminal offences.

The salaried defence service will be a tiny part of the criminal defence service. It will also be administered by the Legal Services Commission. The Government believe that a mixed service with some directly employed lawyers and some private practitioners will provide the best service to the public. The salaried defence service will be very small for the foreseeable future. We are planning to open only six offices during the pilot phase, compared to the 3,000 or more solicitors' firms which will have a contract with the Legal Services Commission for the provision of criminal defence services.

The Bill affects only the services which can be provided—it does not distinguish by whom—but, from what I have said, it follows that in the vast majority of cases advocacy assistance will be provided by private practitioners.

Advocacy assistance will form the basis of the court duty solicitor scheme. That scheme provides that, where an individual is remanded in custody or where there is a risk of imprisonment, a duty solicitor at court can give advice and representation at the first hearing. The benefits of the scheme are that vulnerable individuals are represented and, for the criminal justice system as a whole, delay will be avoided in cases where there is no time for the individual to apply for a full representation order.

Advocacy assistance will be available to a prisoner who appears before a parole board hearing or to an individual who faces imprisonment as a result of non-payment of a debt. In a letter generally supporting this Bill, the President of the Law Society, Mr Michael Napier, sought reassurance on one aspect—that is, on those who face imprisonment as a result of non-payment of a debt. I can say to the House—and I do so on Second Reading—that those who face such a sentence of imprisonment as a result of non-payment of a debt are dealt with by the provisions of this Bill.

The second point which the Bill addresses is to ensure that advice and assistance is available for those involved in criminal proceedings as well as in investigations. Section 13 of the Access to Justice Act currently refers only to investigations. It is arguable that once an individual appears in court. he is no longer under "investigation".

I hope that your Lordships will agree that this is a small but important Bill which clears up any doubt about whether the Legal Services Commission will have the power to fund advice and assistance as it was originally intended.

My noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor has spoken, as I understand it, to both the noble Lords, Lord Kingsland and Lord Goodhart, who have kindly indicated their support for the Bill and have agreed to facilitate a fairly smooth passage through this House. I am grateful to them and hope that your Lordships in general will agree that the Bill should have a smooth and speedy passage, reaching the statute book before the Access to Justice Act is brought into force in April next year.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—( Lord Bach.)

12.41 p.m.

My Lords, I am tempted to use the old judicial formula of saying "I concur", sitting down and saying nothing more. Indeed, I intend to be very brief indeed on this.

There is no doubt that the old ABWOR scheme was extremely useful. It provided a cheap and relatively informal but useful method of providing a limited degree of assistance in certain circumstances. It would, of course, be most unfortunate if it turned out that similar assistance by way of advocacy were not available under the Access to Justice Act. For that reason, I entirely support the aim of the Bill.

Again, I support entirely the idea that the category of those entitled, under Section 13 of the Act, should be widened to include a group of people who are the subject of criminal proceedings, other than "investigation".

The Minister referred to the salaried defender service. That is something which we opposed strongly during the debates on the Access to Justice Bill and we continue to oppose it in principle. Of course, it has nothing to do with the subject matter of this Bill and, therefore, I do not propose to take up the time of your Lordships' House in repeating our objection to the setting up of a system for public salaried defenders. Therefore, I am happy to support the Second Reading of this Bill.

12.43 p.m.

My Lords, this Bill arises from the unintended consequences of the relationship between Sections 13 and 14 of the Access to Justice Act 1999, consequences which the Government readily acknowledge.

Under the Legal Aid Act 1988, the initial advice and assistance available to those facing criminal proceedings includes limited support in court. By contrast, it is unlikely, as the Minister has said already, that Section 13 of the Access to Justice Act 1999 will now allow the Legal Services Commission to fund advocacy services in situations such as making a bail application or representing an accused person who is at risk of being imprisoned.

In addition, help granted in accordance with Section 14 and Schedule 3 to the Act will no longer be available to individuals in the circumstances covered by the existing assistance by way of representation (ABWOR) arrangements which form the basis of the duty solicitor scheme.

In short, the Act fails to provide assistance in many of the areas in which it is presently available, thus derogating from existing individual rights. Moreover, the particular rights concerned are almost certainly protected by Article 6(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights with which we were assured, at the time of its enactment, that the Act would conform.

I do not propose to embroider my observations on what the Government have readily acknowledged to be a clear breach of their human rights obligations. But it is important now to ensure that those regrettable and serious defects are rectified as soon as possible.

However, an error of that magnitude serves to amplify the Opposition's frequently expressed concerns about the quality of representation that the public will receive from the criminal defence service. Those are directed in particular to the proposals to establish a salaried criminal defence service. As the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, said, in the course of the debates on the Access to Justice Bill, his party opposed in principle a salaried criminal defence service. The Opposition did likewise.

During the passage of the Access to Justice Bill through your Lordships' House, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor envisaged a salaried service playing a role only where there was clear evidence that the private sector was unable to provide, in a particular location, services of an acceptable quality and quantity. Can your Lordships' House be reassured that that commitment will continue to be honoured?

Can your Lordships' House also be reassured that before establishing salaried defence lawyers in a particular location, a proper cost/benefit analysis will be undertaken so as to compare the merits of such an initiative with the alternatives available through the private practising profession?

Will the Minister further assure your Lordships' House that the Government have every intention of respecting the guarantee contained in Section 15(4) of the Access to Justice Act 1999 that no one can be compelled to be represented by a CDS salaried lawyer?

I hope that the Minister will go some way to restoring our confidence in the Government's handling of criminal defence matters by giving unequivocally positive responses to each of those questions.

12.48 p.m.

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords who have spoken for their support for the Bill. It is an important Bill because it protects the rights of individuals involved in criminal proceedings to receive advice and assistance at the same level as is available now.

The background to this is that the Access to Justice Bill contained all the relevant clauses on advice and assistance but, as I said, the Bill underwent a large number of significant amendments during its passage through Parliament. It was while working out the detailed secondary legislation necessary that officials concluded that the most probable construction of the Act as it now stands omitted the power to provide advice and assistance in all the circumstances where that is presently available.

The fault was basically a technical one. While we did not spot it, it is right to say that nor did anyone else.

We know the concerns that have been expressed in this House about the setting up of a salaried defence service. We are confident that, in time, it will prove a success and that the fears for it expressed today, quite legitimately, by noble Lords will, in the end, come to nothing.

I repeat that it is not our intention to move to a full scale salaried defence scheme. Initially, we shall establish six offices to see how they work in the context of the criminal justice system in England and Wales. That is to be compared with the 3,300 independent firms currently in England and Wales.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for kindly giving way. The noble Lord mentioned the intention of the Government to establish a number of salaried criminal defence service offices in particular locations in England and Wales. Is he in a position at this stage to tell us whether in his opinion those will be locations where the provision of equivalent services by the private practising sector is inadequate?

My Lords, I am not in a position to be able to give that information to the noble Lord. The commission has appointed a team of researchers headed by Professor Lee Bridges, director of the Legal Research Institute at the University of Warwick. The LSC is in the process of agreeing the research programme with Professor Bridges and his team and identifying the cities and towns in which to establish the first salaried defence service offices.

The commission is also in the process of recruiting professional lawyer heads for each salaried service. As I have stated, in our view the important role that the service will play will be very small compared to that which independent solicitors and barristers will continue to play in our criminal justice system.

We have had these debates before. Nothing has altered. It is incumbent upon the House to give the scheme a chance. Let us see how it works. If it does not work well, no doubt that will be seen pretty quickly. If it works well, perhaps there is a future for it.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord the Minister for giving way again. I think that he will have seen the direction of my previous question to him. The point is that before the locations are identified as sites which merit a salaried defence service, the Government should undertake an exercise which identifies them as locations which require salaried defenders because of the scarcity of private practising lawyers.

My Lords, I am unable to tell the noble Lord that that will be the basis upon which we decide where the pilot schemes will be tried. I can say that a number will be in urban areas. As I understand it, there will also be at least one in a semi-rural or rural area in which concern has been expressed in the past over whether such a scheme would work well. I am unable to give the noble Lord the answer that he requires. However, he can be assured that we will be careful about where we set up the pilot schemes. We want them to have every chance of success. We certainly do not want them to compete unfairly with independent solicitors.

That is all I intend to say today about the salaried defence service. Perhaps I may say again that I am grateful for the attitude taken both inside and outside the House by both noble Lords who have spoken.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

Regulatory Reform Bill Hl

12.54 p.m.

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

The Bill will provide a major tool for this and future governments to reform entire regulatory regimes and to tackle unnecessary, overlapping, over-complex and over-burdensome legislation. It builds on the acknowledged strengths of the deregulation order-making procedure, including the rigorous parliamentary scrutiny of proposed orders, and provides additional safeguards. It facilities reducing the burden of regulation.

The clauses in the Bill can be briefly described as follows. The first group, Clauses 1 to 3, contains the main regulatory reform order-making power. Clause 1 sets out the order-making power and the context within which it will operate. Clause 2 explains what is meant by "burden" and related terms, and Clause 3 sets out the tests that have to be met by proposed orders, and limits the level of penalties that can be imposed.

The second group of clauses is concerned with the mechanics of order making. Clause 4 provides that orders shall be made by affirmative resolution, and sets out the subordinate provisions order-making procedure. Clause 5 details the consultation process required for each proposed order, and Clause 6 details the information that the Minister must provide to Parliament when the proposed order is scrutinised. Clause 7 sets out the disclosure arrangements for representations made during consultation. Clause 8 details the procedures for parliamentary scrutiny of draft orders.

The third group, Clauses 9 to 11, makes provision for Ministers to make codes of practice in relation to enforcement matters, and the fourth and final group of clauses, Clauses 12 to 15, deals with supplementary matters.

The principles in the Bill received a great deal of close attention before being put to the House today. The Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee of this House, and its sister committee in another place, each reported on the consultation exercise undertaken in March 1999 and then on the subsequent government response. They reported once informally and privately on an early draft of the Bill, and twice formally on the Bill's publication in draft as Command Paper 4713 in April 2000. The Lords committee reported on it again last month in its report on its work in the 1999–2000 Session, and in its commendably thorough report earlier this week to your Lordships on the three delegated powers that make up the Bill. It comes before your Lordships benefiting from that thorough and immensely helpful scrutiny.

Our Bill is evolutionary in approach, building on two propositions. I refer first to the deregulation order-making power in Sections 1 to 4 of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994. That was described at the time by the committee now chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Alexander of Weedon, as
"unprecedented in time of peace".
Experience has taught us the value of the new kind of amendable secondary legislation created by the 1994 Act.

Secondly, the Bill seeks to convert the little-used enforcement provisions in Section 5 of the 1994 Act into a reserve power for Ministers to make a code of enforcement practice. We are committed to securing continuous improvement in service delivery. In enforcement matters, we shall continue with a voluntary approach asking enforcers to sign up to our enforcement concordat. That seeks to promulgate best practice.

The reserve code-making power would be used if we encountered problems with the voluntary approach and saw the need for improvement; for example, in cases where there was a persistent and demonstrable failure of enforcement practice by enforcers.

As your Lordships will have spotted, the Bill is purely enabling, containing nothing more than two order-making powers. One of the powers, the proposed regulatory reform power, is wide in scope, and I know that this House will want to scrutinise the issues raised thoroughly.

Perhaps I may now set it in context. Regulation is important. Getting it right first time is important, as is ensuring that the benefits must justify the costs. But the ability to change legislation subsequently to reflect changes in the world around us is just as important. There is no easy answer. Our approach to regulatory reform has to be broadly based. We have appointed regulatory reform Ministers in each of the main regulatory departments to account for their department's regulatory activities. The Panel for Regulatory Accountability is pursuing vigorously its remit of modernising the regulatory system, simplifying existing regulation and easing regulatory pressures on business and the public sector. We have set up the Small Business Service so that for the first time small businesses have a clear advocate inside government. We benefit from the ever-watchful eyes of the Better Regulation Task Force chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Haskins—I am particularly glad to see the noble Lord in his place today—and we are bringing forward this Bill.

Your Lordships may ask what is wrong with the current deregulatory order-making power. After all, the 1994 Act introduced the procedural innovation of the super-affirmative order-making process. It is well engineered, providing for robust scrutiny of the deregulation process.

There have been some notable successes. The Bills of Exchange Order (1996/2993) saved the banking industry tens of millions of pounds in costs by removing an unnecessary statutory requirement for the processing of cheques; and the check-off order (1998/129) removed the need for three-yearly reauthorisation of deduction of trade union subscriptions from pay, thereby reducing costs for business.

Although the process has worked well, limitations identified in the power mean that, with only 46 orders to date, it has been something of a disappointment in terms of the scale of the deregulation delivered. The peak year of activity was 1996 with 23 orders, tailing off ever since—but not because of lack of will; rather, the supply of simple statutory burdens on business that the 1994 Act was designed to remove is drying up. We can only fish for deregulation orders in the pool of pre—1994 legislation.

We want to do more and we need the right tools for the job. We intend preserving the strengths of the existing deregulation process. First, thorough and effective consultation will remain the gateway to the order-making process; secondly, the two Houses will be true co-equals in the scrutiny process—highly controversial or party-political measures will naturally remain more suited to debate on the Floor of the House; and, thirdly, the rigours of the scrutiny process will also be preserved and enhanced. Each proposed order must undergo an intense scrutiny. After consultation, it has to go before a committee in each House not once, but twice, with Ministers required to provide detailed explanatory material in justification.

But, for all its innovation, the deregulation order-making power has turned out to have considerable weaknesses. There are not many small and discrete burdens in statute that can be easily repealed; rather, the real burdens stem from outdated, overlapping and over-complex regulation. To tackle that, we need a wider—ranging reform power so that we can over-haul and reduce burdens on business. It is not only business that will benefit, but also individuals, the voluntary sector, charities and the wider public sector too.

The ability to remove burdens from the wider public sector should not be seen as a charter for the Government to abrogate their responsibilities. Neither we nor the committees have found a satisfactory way to differentiate between proposals that would remove minor administrative burdens from government and those that would, for instance, remove a Minister's duty to provide essential public services. The Bill therefore provides that Ministers will not be able to remove burdens that fall solely on themselves or their departments. Somebody else would have to benefit too.

We should like to see a shift in gear. Until now the deregulation process has produced generally small, but significant, proposals. We should like to see this high quality scrutiny process used for more substantial items, such as reform of fire safety legislation currently spread over 120 Acts; or reform of weights and measures legislation. Those are the sorts of worthwhile reforms that are well overdue and may not otherwise see the light of day. The Prime Minister announced an initial tranche of 22 proposals that could be taken forward as regulatory reform orders. Today I am pleased to be able to tell the House that I have placed in the Libraries a list of a further 27 measures to illustrate the Bill, bringing the total to date to 49.

The Bill also removes the artificial limitation on reforming post—1994 legislation. But we have provided that the order-making power should apply only to legislation which is more than two years old. The two-year waiting period should address the possible temptation to resort immediately to corrective order-making if we cannot get our legislation right first time.

The Bill redefines "burden" to include any limit on the statutory powers of any person. This is an important change. We envisage that regulatory reform orders should be able to deal with circumstances where people do not have the legal authority to do perfectly sensible things. In line with our National Childcare Strategy, for example, we propose to enable school governing bodies to offer after-hours childcare, which at present they can do only if they provide education at the same time. This is something for which many schools have asked.

We want the Bill to bring about the sensible reform of regulatory regimes, and such rebalancing will often involve the redistribution of burdens. That cannot happen without the ability to make new provisions imposing a burden. But that is why any proposal to increase burdens will be subject to additional safeguards laid down in the Bill. First, the new burden must be proportionate to any benefits, considered in general terms, which are expected to result from its creation. This means that Ministers cannot impose new burdens without being able to show clearly that they are justified by the benefits.

Secondly, the order as a whole must strike a fair balance between the public interest and the interests of those affected by the new burden. So, if a Minister were to seek to rebalance an entire regulatory regime, it is likely that a small number of people might be faced with increased burdens. But, under the Bill, the Minister has a duty to show that a fair balance is being maintained; that the additional burden on a small number of people is justified by the greater public benefit of simplifying the entire regulatory regime.

In addition to those stringent tests that apply only where new burdens are proposed, the Bill requires all draft orders to be tested against two other safeguards. First, as was the case with deregulation orders under the 1994 Act, no order may reduce or remove any necessary protection. This was a key concept under the 1994 Act and has been seen to work well. Your Lordships have not hesitated to criticise proposals under that Act that they did not believe maintained this protection and in each case the government of the day amended their proposals to take account of your Lordships' views.

Secondly, no order may prevent anyone exercising an existing right or freedom which,
"they might reasonably expect to continue to exercise"
. That is a familiar concept in terms of case law on the European Convention on Human Rights. For example, a proposal might be seeking to reduce the regulatory burdens on the retail trade, but one effect of that might be to reduce some consumer rights. The order could not legally proceed unless it could be shown that consumers had no reasonable expectation of continuing to enjoy those rights. In each case, the consultation process will explicitly seek views on the safeguards, and the scrutiny process in the committees will then examine the conclusions.

So we are proposing a broad power; it has to be, to enable us to achieve the sensible reforms I mentioned. But, as we have widened the power, so we have also toughened up the safeguards. I should add that those safeguards are real; they are on the face of the Bill and they are legally binding.

The Bill has been framed to respect the devolution settlement. It is fully compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. I signed the Section 19 Human Rights Act statement as I consider that the proposed powers do not require anything to be done that is contrary to the Human Rights Act 1999.

I am particularly grateful to the two committees—the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee and its sister committee in another place. They made a significant contribution to the Bill's development. I recognise, of course, that this Bill will entail a considerable increase in the workload of the scrutiny committees and I am sure that at some stage the House will consider the issue of resourcing.

In their recent report on the delegated powers in the Bill, the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee raised the serious matter of an amendment to provide for a sunset provision including limiting the operation of the Act to a maximum period of five years, unless renewed by an affirmative instrument for a further period.

We carefully considered that proposal, but I must tell the House that we see serious difficulties with the "sunsetting" of the Act itself. We fear that it would stem the flow of orders, particularly towards the end of the period. Departments would be loath to commit the considerable resources needed to begin the order-making process where they were unsure that the powers would be available to their Minister.

This is a Bill with very important consequences. I look forward to your Lordships' views not only on matters of detail but also following the report from the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee on the important points of principle it raises.

In summary, the Bill will provide a valuable tool for this and future governments to tackle unnecessary, overlapping, over-complex and burdensome legislation. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—( Lord Falconer of Thoroton.)

1.10 p.m.

My Lords, in rising to speak to the Bill, perhaps I may first thank the Minister for his introduction and pay tribute to the Select Committees of both Houses which have over a period of two years considered with care the Government's proposal to amend the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994.

First, I want to put down an important marker. We are committed to deregulation and supportive of all measures which effectively—and I use the word —effectively" with care—reduce both the cost and bureaucratic burden of red tape. To that end, we do not oppose the Bill in principle but there are a number of important issues which are of considerable concern arid which we shall want to debate in detail during later stages. Indeed, given that there are fewer than four days to Christmas, the fact that so many noble Lords are present today to speak in the debate indicates the importance that we all attach to the possible implications of the Bill.

We introduced the 1994 Act in the face of vehement opposition by the then Labour opposition which described it among other things as "monstrous" and "a constitutional outrage". That Act is clear in its intent. It enables what one might call "a one-way street" to facilitate deregulation; hence its name. What we have before us now is a proposal for a two-way street which will allow the imposition by orders of new burdens, new costs and new regulations; hence its name, "Regulatory Reform".

It is worth noting that there was considerable discussion at the outset of the consultative process on the Bill with regard to the sensibility of changing the name of the Select Committee in the House of Commons from "Deregulation Committee" to something more akin to "Better Regulation Committee". That is a clear indication of the Government's thinking. It certainly reflects the Government's action, given the enormous increase in regulations in the past three and a half years. Indeed, the British Chambers of Commerce have calculated the extra burdens on business of regulation as £10 billion during this Parliament. Those costly burdens are thanks in large part to this Government signing up to the Social Chapter as well as all those home-grown regulations attaching themselves, for example, to our utilities. As a recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal, entitled "Britain is regulating itself to death", states:
"The burden of regulation is one of the main criticisms of Labour's record in government",

"It is important to rip out whole rafts of the regulatory regime where such regulation is no longer necessary".
We say "Amen" to that!

That brings me to the real intent of the Bill. Are the Government sincere in their stated desire to deregulate or is this more regulation by another supposedly more expedient means? Should we agree to the widening of a power to allow Ministers to decide whether it is right to introduce new legislation by orders, by committee, in essence behind closed doors, by secondary means? It is one thing for secondary legislation to strike down burdens; it is another for secondary legislation to add burdens, especially financial ones.

There is a risk, notwithstanding the obligation to consult, together with the procedures expressed in the Bill, of a new Act being used for broader purposes than those for which it is presently said to be intended. The risk should, we believe, be considered in the context of a concern expressed on a number of occasions by members of both Select Committees and which relates to the role of Ministers. The noble Lord, Lord Haskins, stated in evidence on 30th June 1998:
"The impediment to better regulation seems to me to be departmental. I am amazed how little control of the day-to-day running of government the Prime Minister and the centre have over departments. Departments are notoriously vertical in their approach towards regulation rather than horizontal. This is a weakness of the British system".
The unprecedented increase in the number of regulations since that was said in 1998 confirms that neither the Better Regulation Taskforce, the Government's Small Business Service nor even the right honourable Mo Mowlam's Star Chamber has yet succeeded in changing that culture. I believe that we must all keep that in mind during the passage of the Bill.

Furthermore, another factor which causes us real concern with regard to approving in principle the widening of the powers of the executive, and which relates to the proposed procedures for scrutinising draft orders, is the degree of oversight provided by the committee which rests on a "convention". It is a convention which dictates that if the committee rejected the proposal or requires it to be amended, appropriate steps would be taken to comply with the committee's wishes.

This Government have shown themselves almost proud of their willingness to dispense with conventions, and when pressed by the Select Committee the Minister appeared to hedge his bets. When asked what would be an appropriate matter for this so-called "streamlined" procedure, he could merely answer that he could not define such a matter but would know it when he saw it.

While one may have complete confidence in the judgment of the Minister, the same might not be said of others who follow in his footsteps. In short, any guarantee based upon a convention is not much of a guarantee. Indeed, it would be quite easy to imagine situations where the truncated procedure could be invoked under a guise of its being "appropriate" for a particular matter and the convention would wither away, as have so many other conventions during this Parliament.

Turning to the Bill, I would like to raise some of the issues that we shall want to consider in detail at the Committee stage. The Bill, at Clause 1(1)(b), provides for the imposition of burdens. Therefore, in legislation directed to the reduction of burdens, there is immediate provision for the imposition of burdens which affect any person in the carrying on of an activity but is,
"proportionate to the benefit which is expected to result from its retention".
The key word "proportionate" has, as your Lordships will know, a quasi technical legal meaning, although it is far from precise. It means that an appropriate balance is struck between the interests of the individual and the public interest and that a particular burden is no greater than that which is judged necessary to achieve a particular object.

What is missing in the formulation in Clause 1(1)(c)(ii) is a primary requirement that the imposition of a burden should be necessary as well as proportionate. We believe that both conditions should be satisfied because it is possible for a burden to be proportionate but unnecessary.

In Clause 2, the word "burden" is interpreted imaginatively to embrace a restriction, requirement or condition, including one requiring the payment of fees or preventing the incurring of expenditure. That is a very different definition from that found in Section 1(5)(b) of the 1994 Act. That definition referred to a burden as one requiring the payment of fees and allowed the procedure set up in the Act to repeal such a requirement. This accords with the more conventional notion of a burden as an imposition, including one requiring the payment of fees.

By contrast, the definition in this Bill turns the conventional notion of "burden" on its head and defines the burden as something which prevents the charging of fees or of incurring expenditure. If one starts from the individual, this is better described as freedom from an imposition. If one starts from the view of the state, preventing a charge is obviously a fetter or burden on state power.

The marked difference of approach revealed in our language in 1994 and what is proposed in this Bill is a very eloquent way of noting the fundamental difference between promoting and preserving the rights of the individual, which is our focus, and extending state power, which is the Government's focus.

Yes, there may be many situations in which it is entirely right to levy a charge or to allow an expenditure where the existing law does not allow for that. It is quite another question to authorise such charges using procedures which by their nature were designed speedily to eliminate the burden of regulation.

Moving on to Clause 3, we are not persuaded that the so-called limitations on order-making powers actually provides much of a limitation on the exercise of ministerial power. While we support the need to prevent the removal of any necessary protection, it is equally important to ensure that any new order does not impose any unnecessary protection, thereby adding to the burden of regulation. In essence we believe that the Minister must never lose sight of the fact that extra regulation must be necessary before making any assessment of how the regulatory burden is to be imposed.

We also have some concerns with regard to Clause 4 with the distinction between ordinary provisions, which require the protection of an affirmative resolution of each House, and something called a subordinate provision. The latter can go through on the nod without any consultation and be subject only to a negative resolution. What Ministers, and also their departments, might consider consequential, transitional or supplemental might actually be vital to those who may be more directly concerned with the proposal in hand.

That said, we would be more receptive to subsequent amendments to an existing order being treated in this way. At least there would already have been some consultation in relation to the principle and initial level of fees or requirements. The important point is that the so-called incidental details, when taken together, may tip the balance when considering issues of necessity and proportionality and it is right that the Minister should be informed by those most directly involved who are likely to be consulted as to the wisdom of the proposed action.

With regard to codes of practice, we are curious as to why, if a person is in breach of a particular provision, that person's position should be any different as a result of the failure of the enforcement officer to comply with the provision of any code of practice. If the basic regulation is too harsh or bites on too many irrelevant and incidental matters, the right solution is surely to amend the legislation. The fact that the enforcement officer may have taken zealous steps to enforce the law ought to be irrelevant. If the ccde contains the necessary procedural steps before liability can be established, those steps should be set out in the appropriate regulation. If the steps are not necessary, why should any court or tribunal take into account failure to abide by any code setting out such steps?

We believe that the whole process of deregulation can and should be further strengthened. To that end, we believe that there should be a requirement on the face of the Bill for a regulatory impact assessment to accompany any new regulations. Furthermore, we entirely agree with the House of Lords Select Committee in its suggestion of an additional potential safeguard in the form of a sunset provision which could limit the operation of the Act to a maximum period of five years, unless renewed by an affirmative instrument for a further period. To that end, I would inform the Minister that we do not agree with him that this would create difficulties. We believe that the importance attached to the sunset clause would easily outweigh such potential difficulties. The provision should also, as suggested by the committee, require a report on the operation of the Act to be laid before Parliament at the same time as a draft affirmative renewal instrument, thereby ensuring that the Act is kept under frequent review and that the powers have been both appropriately and effectively used.

In conclusion, while we agree with the House of Lords Select Committee when it states that the potential gains are considerable, we are also very concerned to ensure that sufficient safeguards are put in place to avert any potential abuse of the power. We therefore give a very cautious welcome to the Bill, and look forward to careful consideration of the detail, including assurances from the Minister that we can rely on more than trust and constructive relationships before the Bill is passed.

1.24 p.m.

My Lords, I should like to start very briefly by explaining my own position on this Bill. I am of course a member of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee. The unanimous view of the committee was that this Bill raises important issues which need to be fully debated in your Lordships' House. However, the committee felt that it was inappropriate to express any collective view on the merits of the Bill and the committee agreed that because it did not take a collective view its members should be free to express their own individual views or, as in my own case, speak on behalf of their own parties in this debate. I would like to add that the chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Alexander of Weedon, asked me to express his regret that he is unable to be present today. He would very much have wished to take part in this debate.

The Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994 has undoubtedly proved useful. Annex A contains a list of 46 deregulation orders which have been confirmed since the 1994 Act came into force. Perhaps two more should be added to the list: the Sunday Dancing and Sunday Licensing orders are awaiting affirmation. It is hoped that one of them will receive affirmation today. However, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, said, the number of orders has slowed down noticeably during the past couple of years.

Appendix C to the memorandum by the Cabinet Office, which is published as Annex 2 to the Second Report of the Delegated Powers Committee for the current Session, contains a list of proposals which the Government either intend to implement or say could be implemented under the new Bill. There are 10 on that list which they intend to bring forward and 14 which they say could be brought forward. I now understand from what the noble and learned Lord said that there is a further list which has been placed in the Library. Some of these could be implemented under the 1994 Act; for example, the proposal to remove the remaining restrictions on the size of partnerships. However we accept that some desirable reforms would involve the shifting of burdens from one body to another or the creating of new burdens in place of old, and that this cannot be done under the existing Act.

We have no doubt that making deregulation easier is a desirable objective. We support the Bill in principle: my noble friend Lord Razzall made that clear during the debate on the gracious Speech. We have received briefings from several organisations who support the Bill, such as the Local Government Association, the CBI and the Law Society. We have received no briefings against it, so it obviously has wide support outside your Lordships. House. However, the Bill is of constitutional importance, as the committee said, and it needs to be looked at with great care.

The Bill gives greater powers to government to legislate by order rather than by statute. The orders are of course subject to parliamentary control. Indeed they are in a sense subject to greater control than a statute would be as the right of your Lordships' House to reject an order is absolute, as was established during the last Session, and is not subject to the Parliament Act. It will of course take up less time—perhaps one day of debate, whereas even a modest Bill might take three or four days.

It is often said that the principal weapon of an Opposition in facing a clear majority in the other place is its power to delay, and it could be said that the Bill, by giving greater power to legislate by order, reduces the power of the Opposition to carry out its constitutional duty of opposing. I do not myself accept that argument. This Bill should be used mainly for relatively minor and uncontroversial reforms which, if they cannot be done by order, will not be done at all because parliamentary time will not be found for them. I therefore do not believe that the Bill weakens the powers of the Opposition.

Here we are developing a new form of order, the super-affirmative order, which appeared for the first time in the 1994 Act. There is now something very similar in the form of remedial orders under Section 10 and Schedule 2 of the Human Rights Act for the purpose of correcting incompatibility of primary legislation with that Act. We believe that a super-affirmative procedure is a good idea. It gives greater flexibility and creates a useful new tool for revising relatively uncontroversial primary legislation.

The procedure provided by Clauses 4 to 8 provides an opportunity for very wide consultation; for example, it enables the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee to take evidence in public from Ministers or interested parties, as the 1994 Act already provides. In some ways orders under the Bill will receive better scrutiny than many public Bills under present circumstances and, therefore, I have no complaints about the procedure in Clauses 4 to 8. I also have no complaints of any substance about the enforcement procedure which is dealt with in Clauses 9 to 11.

But there are some matters which will need to be considered very carefully at later stages of the Bill. As to that, we share some of the concerns expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe. The first matter which concerns me is central to the nature of the powers which the Bill confers on the Government. Clause 1(1) sets out four objects for which an order may be made and each can be used independently of the others. Paragraph (a) is concerned with the removal or reduction of burdens; paragraph (b) deals with the re-enactment of provisions which impose burdens; and paragraph (d) is concerned with the removal of inconsistencies and anomalies. I see no objection to those provisions as they now stand.

However, paragraph (c) is objectionable. It provides that one of the objects of proceedings under this Bill is,
"the making of new provision having the effect of imposing a burden which— (i) affects any person in the carrying on of the activity, but (ii) is proportionate to the benefit which is expected to result from its creation"
. Taken by itself, that provision would enable an order to be made to increase burdens without any offsetting removal of other burdens. I can see that some such power is needed to enable existing burdens to be shifted from one body which is now subject to them to a more appropriate body, but I am unhappy with a free-standing power to impose new burdens. I believe that the thrust of the Bill should be deregulation. As the noble and learned Lord said in his introduction, the Bill is intended to facilitate a reduction in the burden of regulation. Therefore, we should consider whether the operation of Clause 1(1)(c) should be limited to circumstances in which it is necessary to create new burdens in order to remove or reduce other burdens.

The second matter is whether the references in Clause 3 to the Minister's opinion should be deleted. Clause 3(1), for example, provides that,
"An order under section 1 may be made only if the Minister making the order is of the opinion that the order does not (a) remove any necessary protection, or (b) prevent any person from continuing to exercise any right or freedom which he might reasonably expect to continue to exercise".
The question is whether the test should be the subjective opinion of the Minister or an objective, factual test. The important difference is that the Minister's opinion can be overruled only by the court on judicial review if it is irrational, but if it is a factual, objective test the court could substitute its own view on the footing that the Minister's view, though not irrational, was wrong. I noted that in opening the debate the noble and learned Lord spoke as if the requirements in Clause 3(1) were objective.

One factor in this is that in practice the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee expresses its own view as to whether, for example, a proposed order removes any necessary protection. If the Minister and the committee disagree it may be difficult to get any orders through. Clearly, that issue requires debate in Committee.

The third matter which has already been touched on by the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, is whether, as the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee suggested—it did not make a recommendation—there should be a sunset clause together with provision for a review of the legislation on the face of the Bill. The noble and learned Lord said that he did not agree with that, but that is plainly an issue which needs to be debated in Committee.

I turn finally to the matter which causes me the greatest concern. It proved impossible during the consultation process to come up with a draft which would confer on the Minister powers only in appropriate circumstances. The committee accepted that that could not be done. It is of the greatest importance that there are effective safeguards to prevent an inappropriate use of the powers under the Bill. As matters now stand, I believe that safeguards do exist, especially in your Lordships' House where any government is unlikely to have a compliant majority. Paragraph 10 of the Explanatory Notes and paragraph 3.13 of the Cabinet Office memorandum, to which I have already referred, refer to an undertaking that the Government will accept a decision of your Lordships' House to reject an order. I hope that in winding up the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, will confirm that that undertaking still reflects the view of the Government.

The safeguard does not rest solely on that undertaking or convention but on the fact that, as clearly shown in the previous Session, in the last resort your Lordships' House has the power to veto an order which is not subject to the Parliament Act. In effect, it confers on your Lordships' House the power to say that it is inappropriate for a particular matter to be dealt with by order and if the Government want to get it through they must take it away and deal with it by way of primary legislation. The problem here is that it is generally believed that the Government are likely to seek to impose the proposals in the Wakeham report after the next general election. Recommendation 41 of that report reads:
"Where the second chamber votes against a draft instrument, the draft should nevertheless be deemed to be approved if the House of Commons subsequently gives … its approval within three months".
If that was implemented any vote by your Lordships' House to reject a statutory instrument, particularly any order under this Bill, could be overruled immediately by a vote in the other place. That would make the existing safeguards against inappropriate use of the power under the Bill almost valueless.

I quite understand that the Government cannot now make any statement about how far, if at all, the Wakeham recommendations will be implemented. However, can they give noble Lords any reassurance that the rights of your Lordships' House to veto the inappropriate use of powers under this Bill will be preserved whatever view they may take of the Wakeham report in general? If no such undertaking can be given, I have serious concerns that the safeguards are inadequate. Those concerns may affect the extent to which we wish to press amendments to restrict the powers in the Bill.

1.39 p.m.

My Lords, in the light of three years at the coal face as chair of the Government's Better Regulation Task Force I believe it is helpful for me to comment on the purpose and value of the Bill. But before so doing, I should like to make four general observations about regulatory issues in a modern society.

First, increasing regulation somewhat contradictorily goes hand in hand with increasing affluence, a safer society and increased education. That curious paradox was also experienced by the founders of the National Health Service who thought that by making the nation healthier they would also save costs in providing that health service. Unfortunately, their success was undermined by the fact that we all started living too long.

Secondly, the pursuit of a risk-free society can lead to very bad counter-productive regulatory proposals. Thirdly, the culture of government bureaucracy, including a public accounts committee and a media which are intolerant of any regulatory failure—so different from the private sector—drives the system toward over-prescriptive gold-plated regulation. Fourthly, the parliamentary process itself can lead to excess of regulation which can prove wholly impractical when it is implemented. Recently this House approved an amendment restricting the use of extended dog leads in the countryside. It is an amendment which is unlikely to stand the test of time and, I suspect, will come to haunt some unfortunate law-enforcer in the future.

The Bill is a vital element in the Government's strategy for improving the quality and controlling the quantity of regulations. There are four strands to the Government's approach in this matter. The first is to test the need for regulatory intervention, which is done by extensive consultation with all interested parties. I am delighted that the Government have accepted our recommendation that that consultation should take a minimum of three months. The second strand is fully to evaluate the costs and benefits of any regulatory proposals. The third is to ensure that the regulation can be enforced effectively. If it cannot be—for example, the poll tax—do not regulate. Fourthly, in the case of an existing regulation, we should check whether it is still relevant.

The Government, with much encouragement from the task force, have put in place a number of checks and balances to make sure that these tests are rigorously pursued. First, the key departments have been asked to make one of their Ministers specifically responsible for the regulatory process in that department. Secondly, the regulatory impact unit in the Cabinet Office makes sure that the cost/benefit exercise is carried out on all significant regulatory proposals. That procedure is called the regulatory impact assessment.

Thirdly, the Better Regulation Task Force has established five principles of good regulation—transparency, proportionality, accountability, consistency and targeting—which are widely used to test new and existing regulation. The task force also publishes reports—eight this year—making recommendations to Ministers on how regulatory problems can be improved.

The strength of the task force lies in its independence and the credibility of its published reports. In its responses to our reports, the Government have accepted all but six of our 264 recommendations, although we shall be pressing to make sure that acceptance becomes commitment. The Prime Minister has been strongly supportive of the approach and work of the task force. He has also set up a regulatory reform panel, chaired by the Minister for the Cabinet Office. The other members include the Chief Financial Secretary, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer, the Chief of the Small Business Service David Irwin and myself. The panel calls Ministers to account for controversial regulatory proposals.

So far, so good. Departments and Ministers are now much more aware of the pitfalls of poor regulation, particularly with regard to costs and effectiveness. There can of course be a political aspect to the need for new regulation—for example, the Social Chapter or rail safety; although I would argue that a worthy political goal, such as greater entitlement to parental leave, must be tested in terms of cost and effectiveness.

However, that is still not enough. To achieve real change Parliament must have the capacity to amend, improve or get rid of outdated and over-complex legislation in a more expeditious way than currently prevails. The Bill will significantly improve that process without undermining Parliament's powers to scrutinise government initiatives.

Regulations on the statute books can be unsatisfactory for all kinds of reasons: they may have been introduced too hastily without giving enough thought to unintended consequences which then emerge in the light of experience; or they may have been drafted badly, confusing both enforcers and those being regulated. Rapid scientific and technological change can make regulations obsolete, even though at the time they seem to make perfect sense. The regulation of e-commerce where the speed of change is breathtaking is a striking example of that. Changing public perceptions can make regulations redundant, irrelevant and ineffective. The laws against Sunday trading were largely ignored and ultimately amended, requiring a considerable amount of somewhat irrelevant parliamentary discussion in the process.

The parliamentary process itself is a major obstruction to reforming and modernising defective existing regulation. Until 1994, regulations which had required primary or secondary legislation to get onto the statute book had to go through exactly the same process if they were to be reformed or repealed.

Most departments have in their locker an ambitious package of legislative proposals for which they are allocated a restricted amount of parliamentary time. They inevitably have to prune their ambitions and prioritise, and, understandably, but unfortunately, departments always prefer introducing new, and, to them, important legislation, as opposed to getting rid of irrelevant existing stuff.

The previous Government started to address this problem with the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act of 1994 (the DCOA). That was a step in the right direction, but the powers under the Act have not often been used by the Government and Parliament.

The Bill is designed to increase Parliament's capacity to modernise the Government's regulatory framework in an efficient but, also, democratic way. Parliament rightly would be very suspicious of giving the Government too much power to amend or abandon existing legislation without proper scrutiny. Indeed, some have already suggested that the wide order-making powers of the Bill are anti-constitutional. But I do not agree. In addition to widening the powers of the DCOA, the Bill adds to the tests and safeguards governing their use. The new powers will be wide enough, but no wider than is required to deal with the regulatory reform which the Government wish to achieve.

All proposals for orders will have to undergo extensive public consultation. Following that, the Commons and Lords deregulation committees will simultaneously, but separately, consider the document for 60 days. It is estimated that the whole process should take nine months, not long in the legislative world, but not a procedure which unscrupulous Ministers can use to rush through radical change and bypass Parliament. Primary legislation could be enacted much more quickly than the Bill would allow.

The Bill strikes a proper balance between ensuring that proposals to modernise or withdraw existing regulation are properly discussed and tested by Parliament and its committees, and ensuring that essential and desirable reforms are carried out promptly, and without unnecessary and unreasonable bureaucratic obstructions.

Those are the technical aspects of the legislation. I want to move on to some examples of potential reforms under the Bill which would save time and money for ordinary citizens. Earlier this month I had a letter from a farmer pointing out that the British Wool Marketing Board was the last state-sponsored marketing board of its kind, and that he would be writing to the Office of Fair Trading asking for an investigation into how it handles its money. I thought it was a very good letter. MAFF has now suggested to the Cabinet Office that the wool board is an historic anachronism which could be scrapped under the Bill.

The Passport Agency has a database of all passport holders, but, at present, staff at the Department of Vehicle Licensing Authority are not allowed to use it to check the identity of people applying for driving licences. That means that anyone applying for a licence must send their passport off to the DVLA in Cardiff for an identity check. This potential reform would allow DVLA to use the passport database and would save customers having to post off their passports with all the hassle and lack of security which that involves.

Over the past three years I have come across a number of existing or potential regulatory idiosyncrasies which might well benefit from being subjected to the powers of the Bill—the fact that a British loaf continues to exist, some absurd regulations about kneeling buses, and some potentially absurd regulations about the great British pint. However, the Bill is not just about removing obvious red-tape; one proposal is for the Department of Health to use the Bill to make much-needed changes to the Vaccine Damage Payments Act 1979. Up to now payments have been made only to children who are 80 per cent disabled. The proposal now is to lower that point to 60 per cent. Parents would also be allowed to make a claim until the child is 21, an improvement on the current six-year limit. This admirable proposal could be introduced quickly and to the benefit of all under the new Bill.

In closing, I suggest that the Bill builds on the strengths and eradicates the weaknesses of the DCOA. The scope of that Act was restricted to dealing with legislation which had been enacted prior to 1994. This new Bill can be applied to any legislation which has been on the statute book for more than two years. Furthermore, whereas the present Act can address only regulations affecting business, the Bill will enable Parliament to tackle regulatory issues affecting citizens, charities and the public sector, in addition of course to business. I commend the Bill to the House.

1.51 p.m.

My Lords, it is a great honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, whose commitment to better regulation is undoubted. Like many noble Lords, I welcome much of the Bill, but not all of it. When I was very young I had the good fortune in life to start a business from scratch—just me and one other—and build it up into a fairly substantial manufacturing public company. I could be described now, I suppose, as a "whizz-kid turned was-kid". But that gave me first-hand experience—something not everyone has had—of the application of regulation when it is done well and when it is done badly.

One of my criticisms of the Bill—the point was not mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Haskins—is that it abolishes Section 5 of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act. That part of the Act attempted to introduce a fairer and better balance between the regulator and the regulatee at the point of application of regulations. In other words, it dealt with enforcement procedures. The Bill changes what are currently statutory enforcement procedures into a wishy-washy voluntary code called a concordat. That is a new animal to me.

The existing Act was rightly designed to prevent the over-zealous application of regulation. That does happen. All of us sometimes get out of the wrong side of the bed. That applies to regulators as well. All of us find it difficult to admit that we are wrong. That also applies to regulators. I have seen examples of over-zealous regulation—the threatening of the closing of businesses—when the purported error on the part of the business was minimal and had been misjudged by the regulator.

To meet that problem the previous Bill brought forward some sensible procedural arrangements to try to achieve a better balance between the regulator and the regulatee at the point of application. It was designed to put right things that were going wrong and to ensure better regulation overall. It was designed to help to prevent the incorrect application of the law. A simple leaflet was issued to those organisations that had begun to adopt this procedure. It stated:
"You are entitled to fair and consistent enforcement action, clearly explained … The right, where it is suggested that you should do something, to receive on request a written explanation of what you need to do, by when and why (eg. scientific reasons or legal requirement)… The right, if any immediate enforcement action is taken against you, to an explanation in writing as to why this action was necessary … The right to have your point of view heard before action is taken against you, unless immediate action is needed … The right to know how to appeal if formal action is taken against you, wherever an appeal mechanism exists".
I find it difficult to see why any regulating officer could object to that. But the fact is that many do because it makes their job slightly harder, as it was meant to do. That very sensible statutory right of enforcement is now being substituted by a concordat which can be voluntarily adopted. So far it has been adopted by 75 per cent of the organisations, but not by the remaining 25 per cent of regulatory authorities. I should like the Minister to point out why it has not been more widely adopted. If it was designed to be voluntary, what are the problems that are preventing people from voluntarily adopting it?

It is true that the new concordat repeatedly uses the word "proportionality". That is at the heart of all good regulation. I welcome that emphasis in the new concordat but I do not welcome the fact that it is no longer statutory. In my view it will lead to many unfair applications of the law. In the subsequent debates in the Chamber on this matter I hope that the Minister will reconsider the nature of that concordat and certainly consider giving it more teeth with the overall aim of better and fairer regulation.

1.57 p.m.

My Lords, at the core of this important Bill there is an intriguing paradox. On the one hand, it is intended and supposed to alleviate, if not remove, the heavy hand of government or, in the words of the gracious Speech,

"to reduce regulatory burdens by removing inappropriate and overcomplex regulation".
On the other hand, and in order to achieve that objective, it proposes considerably to strengthen the hand of government and to give government unprecedented powers to legislate by order.

The noble Lord, Lord Haskins, also called the Bill a paradox— a curious paradox. He described it as if it was entirely inevitable. Currently, a certain amount of scepticism is in place. It is striking—it remains striking despite the explanations offered by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer—that very few deregulation orders have been made in the past few years. Indeed, in the first three years after the enactment of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act, there were 37; in the past three years there have been nine. If we hold that against the fact, of which, as a member of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee, I am well aware, that there is a growing tendency for legislation to come before us which has enabling clauses for Ministers which in effect reduce the role of Parliament, a picture emerges which forces us in our role as a control and check on governmental power to be particularly attentive and to ensure that no mistakes which strengthen this double tendency are made in the future.

Having said that, I welcome the intention behind the Bill. The House should not be in doubt of my own support of the view that the deregulation element of the Bill is highly desirable. It is also only fair to recognise that there has been, if not unprecedented, then certainly highly desirable pre-legislative consultation on the Bill and on its effects. It appears that this will not be one of those Bills where we may expect dozens of government amendments in the process of our deliberations. I accept also that the "super-affirmative procedure" foreseen in the Bill provides important and, on the whole, satisfactory safeguards. However, it has to be said that some of the examples cited by the noble and learned Lord as candidates for deregulation are of quite major importance. The reference to fire services provisions in many places is both plausible and 'Indicative of the importance of possible action under the Bill once i t has been enacted.

I was also interested to see among the possible candidates for action under the Bill the reform of charity law, an area in which I am particularly interested. Indeed, there may be others. Some of the material sent to the committee from organisations such as the Law Society list matters of particular interest to particular groups. No doubt many others will submit such lists. In the light of that, and in the light of what I have referred to as the intriguing paradox at the core of the Bill, I believe that we have to be exceptionally attentive to the safeguards which we introduce for the operation of its provisions. Without wishing to repeat what others have said, I should like to emphasise two of those safeguards.

First, through the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee, I think that the House will have to gear up towards a procedure of scrutiny which will impose new burdens on noble Lords. However, those burdens will be utterly necessary because they will concern our core functions. Some reference has been made to resources. The main resource which will be needed is time, but I am sure that your Lordships' Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee will wish to spend the necessary time on the scrutiny of orders which emanate from this Bill. However, as a House we shall have to consider precisely how we shall enable the committee to carry out its job properly and how the House will find the time to look at the recommendations made by the committee.

My second point refers to the "sunset clause". As my noble friend Lord Goodhart rightly pointed out, the committee did not intend to make a recommendation to the House, but it did want to put before the House the suggestion that there might have to be unusual further safeguards. I for one shall be interested to hear the views of other noble Lords on this issue.

My own view is that, contained in the suggestion put forward by the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee, there is one element which I would regard as a minimal requirement for additional safeguard. I refer to the second bullet point contained on page 7 of the committee's report which refers to the requirement that a report on the operation of the Act should be laid before Parliament in order to ensure that the Act is kept under frequent review. Perhaps I may suggest that, in theory at least, it should be possible to require such a report to be laid, even without a sunset clause in place. In that sense, we shall be able to discuss the various alternatives for further strengthening the necessary safeguards to ensure that the beneficial effects of the Bill come fully into play on those from whom burdens are removed, but that the right of, and necessity for, Parliament to control important acts of government is equally fully observed and satisfied. Having said that, I hope that, after thorough debate, this Bill will in due course reach the statute book.

2.5 p.m.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf. I agree with most of what he said and wish to reinforce some of the points that he made.

The fact that we are debating the Bill on the day before a Recess, indeed on the last sitting day of this millennium—and doing so in a very cold Chamber—should not detract from the fact that it is a major constitutional Bill.

As we have already heard, there is a general welcome for the Bill in terms of what it is intended to achieve, or rather, for the purposes for which the Government state that it will be used; that is, to remove unnecessary regulations from the statute book. However, the means designed to achieve that end are profound in their constitutional implications. Contrary to what one or two noble Lords have suggested, this Bill is not a modest extension of the provisions of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act. It confers what the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Deregulation has rightly described as an "unprecedentedly wide power". The Government have conceded that the scope of the Bill is broad. On that there is no dispute.

What we are called upon to do is to consider the relationship between means and ends. The position is admirably summarised by the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee in its latest report on this measure:
"The potential gains are considerable—but so too, without stringent safeguards, would be the risks inherent in this unprecedentedly wide power. We consider the essential question for the House is whether the potential gains of effective regulatory reform can be achieved whilst providing sufficiently strong safeguards against potential abuse of the power".
That encapsulates the problem. The committee, like the deregulation committee in the other place, has done an excellent job in delineating the nature of the problem. It is for noble Lords to decide whether the costs outweigh the benefits.

There are two principal problems with the Bill as presently drafted. The first concerns the powers conferred by the Bill; the second concerns the safeguards against abuse of those powers. They are obviously related but, for reasons I shall explain, they may be considered separately.

As to the powers conferred by the Bill, they are excessive in two respects. They take the Bill way beyond being a deregulation Bill. Indeed, the Title is instructive—the Regulatory Reform Bill—not, as in 1994, a deregulation Bill. As identified by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, the problem here is subsection (1)(c) of Clause 1. This confers a power to introduce an order to make a new provision imposing a burden. If Ministers were to ignore the other subsections of the clause—and, as the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, pointed out, they are independent of one another—this has the potential to be an extended regulation Bill rather than a deregulation Bill. I realise that this power can be exercised only in relation to legislation which has the effect of imposing burdens. However, that is not much of a restraint.

Which brings me to the second component of the problem—that is, the definition of a burden. Under Clause 2 a burden is defined so broadly as to encompass most legislation. Most Acts create a restriction, requirement or condition, and even the definition offered under the clause is not exhaustive. We thus have a situation where a Minister may seek, by order, to impose or remove a burden—a burden that may be onerous and constitute a criminal offence.

The Government have made plain that the intention is to use the powers conferred by the Bill to get rid of regulations that are not controversial and do not impact, for example, on essential elements of our constitutional arrangements. The provisions of the Bill allow Ministers to go way beyond what they intend to do. The language of the Bill does not meet the intention.

The solution to the first element of the problem is to remove or considerably amend subsection (1)(c) of Clause 1. The solution to the second element is to bring the language into line with the limited intent. That, I appreciate, is a mammoth task. The Government have sought to find the language to limit the provisions to what they intend to do but have found it an impossible task. So, too, has the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee. As the Committee explains in its second report of this Session—which is its latest report—on this Bill:
"The Committee has searched, over an extended period, for a way of limiting the order-making power contained in this Bill whilst at the same time enabling the substantial reform of the statute book which it would facilitate. Neither we nor the Government have found a satisfactory way of doing this".
It may be that it is an impossible task, but we must not let this Bill through simply on the basis that we believe it to be so. We must test the provisions, through amendments, to see if the powers can be limited to those which the Government claim they wish only to use. I have discussed this with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer. Since that discussion I have had one or two ideas for amendments, which may be brought forward to allow us to test it. That is the way forward. It may not be perfect and we may not meet hat particular task.

If we fail in that, then we have to look at the safeguards in the Bill. In other words, if we cannot limit the scope of the order-making power, then we have to ensure that the power is not abused. There are essentially three forms of safeguard identified in the Explanatory Notes—self-restraint by Ministers; statutory interpretation by the courts; and scrutiny and potential veto by Parliament.

Let me take those in reverse order. The scrutiny undertaken by both Houses of orders under the 1994 Act is far superior to any other scrutiny of secondary legislation. We can indeed learn a lot from it. The procedures adopted by your Lordships' House are especially rigorous. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, mentioned, in addition to two-stage scrutiny by the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee, there is the capacity to table an amendable motion. There is scope to strengthen aspects of our procedures, but in so far as there is a problem for your Lordships' House, it is not primarily in terms of procedures but, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, and the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, have mentioned, it is in terms of resources. To scrutinise orders under the Bill may require a significant boost to the resources of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee.

As for the potential to veto an order, the ultimate power of each House, there is always the possibility of the Government employing their majority in the other place. As has been touched upon, that places a particular responsibility on this House as the body to prevent an abuse of power. It bolsters the case for the House as presently constituted and operating. This House is likely to prove a far greater deterrent to the abuse of the order-making power than is the other place. If this measure is to be properly policed it is essential to protect this House.

As for statutory interpretation by the courts, this is clearly an important safeguard. The formal safeguards written into the Bill are to be delineated by the courts. The safeguards, as such, are welcome, but it means that we are dependent on the courts at some point in the future to determine the line between what is proportionate and what is not, what is a fair balance and what is a legitimate expectation. The courts may or may not take a view sympathetic to the Government's position. I prefer, as far as it is possible to do so, to circumscribe Ministers' powers clearly and precisely by statute rather than by giving too much discretion to judges. Nonetheless, I accept that this form of safeguard is worth having. Ministers can be challenged by the courts.

The other safeguard is that of self-restraint by Ministers. This is the weakest safeguard. The noble and learned Lord the Minister tends to proceed on the basis of seeing the good side of everyone, or at least the good side of Ministers and officials. We saw that in the Freedom of Information Act and we see it in this Bill. One has to legislate on the basis that not everyone is well-intentioned. Ministers may consult—indeed they are required by the Bill to do so—but that does not mean that they listen. Assurances given by Ministers today may not be honoured by Ministers tomorrow.

The most effective way of taking temptation out of Ministers' way is to restrict the scope of the Bill in terms of the definition of burdens. If we cannot do that (or indeed, even if we can), we need to subject remaining provisions of the Bill to a test of potential exploitation—in other words, to ask: is this provision open to exploitation by Ministers? I gave as an example—one that was picked up by the Commons Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee—the provision for subordinate provision orders. There is the danger that important changes may be slipped in by this route and escape parliamentary deliberation—not even, as was suggested, just nodded through; they would not reach that stage. At a minimum. the orders should be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. We must look at other provisions with an equally critical eye.

I appreciate that the Minister will argue that, if there is an attempt to exploit the provisions, the other safeguards will kick in. That is not necessarily the case in respect of all provisions: subordinate provision orders could be used to circumvent the scrutiny afforded to other orders under the Bill. Hence the importance of the potential exploitation test. Furthermore, in practice, political realities mean that once Ministers have gone public with a proposal they may sometimes be reluctant to withdraw it and may persist in the face of informed opposition. This places particular pressure on this House to exercise the ultimate power of veto. It is far better to remove or limit the temptation in the first place.

For the reasons I have given, it is essential that we subject the Bill to the most rigorous scrutiny. The fundamental constitutional issues that it raises prompts me to conclude with a proposal as to how we might proceed in the future. It picks up and extends a recommendation made by the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee, but deals with it in a somewhat different way from those touched upon. Why not, in Bills that impose substantial burdens, make the burdens subject to sunset provisions, with renewal subject to scrutiny and recommended continuance by the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee—or committees, as I suspect it may well become? That way of proceeding will obviate the problem at the heart of the Bill; namely, seeking to change primary legislation by order.

That, though, is for the future. Our immediate concern must be to get the Bill right. On that there is agreement between the two sides. It will require a major effort on the part of your Lordships during the remaining stages. That is, in large part, why we are here.

2.17 p.m.

My Lords, as someone who has been involved in regulation and its enforcement for many years, I start out rather more wary than your Lordships about a Bill which will make it more possible than it has been in the past to reduce and eliminate regulation. The regulations with which I was concerned as Director-General of Fair Trading covered a wide range of law enforcement to promote such desirable principles as adequate competition in industry, consumer safety, and trying to ensure that consumers were not misled or cheated. I believed then, as I do now, that the kind of law and regulations to which I have referred are vital in today's complex market-place in order to ensure that markets work properly and fairly.

So I start out with a positive attitude—which I did not detect, for example, in the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe. I start with an assumption and belief that in this modern world many valuable things can arise from regulation. Of course, I realise that in some spheres, as the Minister made clear, regulation is unnecessary, over-elaborate, overlapping and confusing. So I certainly favour the principles in the Bill to get rid of over-burdensome, outdated and ineffective regulation and to improve on the legislation of the previous government in 1994. I recognise also the detrimental and adverse financial effect that over-detailed legislation and regulation can have on the endeavours of British management, especially the management of small businesses, in terms of simply keeping abreast of legislation and regulation, whether from Westminster or from Brussels. I have in mind small businesses in particular, because they clearly do not have the resources of larger businesses to keep abreast of such matters. I should just like to mention the word "compliance" in that respect. Compliance with the regulations that govern industry today is a job that requires the most tremendous amount of effort.

However, in so far as concerns are held by your Lordships about this Bill—I listened with especially great interest to the previous speaker the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth—I am encouraged by the fact that this Bill does not deal merely with the simplistic matter of deregulation and getting rid of old regulations that we can cast on one side because they are of no value. Instead of being simplistic like the 1994 Act, this Bill has what the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, referred to as a "two-way street". But whereas the noble Baroness attacked it, I believe that it provides a great advantage because it can deal with a whole raft of regulations that may in some way adversely affect industry and the community.

One does not just want to get shot of it all; one wants to bring it up to date, to replace it and to take advantage of the greater knowledge and experience that has arisen as a result of such regulations in order to reform it. It is most appropriate. The fact that this is not just a deregulation Bill is not a matter for disagreement and dislike: it is a regulatory reform Bill. With wider powers, which I value, it is appropriate that there should also be wider safeguards. As the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, reminded us—and, indeed, as has often been mentioned in other contexts in this House—we should all bear in mind that parliamentary procedures upon which both we and the other place have singularly failed to improve very much are really quite inappropriate for dealing with the mass of regulation that ought to be reformed. Therefore, to some extent it is faute de mieux, but it is also essential in this new millennium that there should be adequate procedures with appropriate safeguards, other than by way of primary legislation because that is clearly not enough.

I have one concern that I should like to flag up, so to speak, for the attention of the Minister. The Deregulation Committee in the other place expressed concern about the power in Clause 4(3) to make "specified provisions" of an order into "subordinate provisions". That subsection permits measures of regulatory reform to be designated as "subordinate", thereby enabling them to be subsequently amended without being subject to the very stringent and desirable provisions in Clauses 5 to 8 of the Bill. The Deregulation Committee in another place reported against the negative resolution procedure for subordinate provisions of an order.

I turn now to the other matters with which I should like to deal. Unfortunately, the noble Lord, Lord Vinson, is not now in his place. He is the only other speaker thus far today to concern himself with Section 5 of the 1994 Act. My concern arises in the following way. I wonder whether the use of the new powers will swing the balance too far against regulation and its enforcement. The noble and learned Lord mentioned Clause 3(1) in his opening speech. Much will turn on those words and how they are interpreted by him and his successors; and, indeed, by other Ministers. An order may be made only if the Minister believes that the order does not, "remove any necessary protection".

One aspect of the 1994 Act that seems to me to have been unsuccessful—judging by the fact that it was only ever used once—is Section 5. The noble Lord, Lord Vinson, did not mention the complete failure of that section. It was intended to protect businesses against overzealous enforcement by regulators. For example, Ministers were given powers to require enforcers to give notice that they were minded to take enforcement action before actually doing so.

According to paragraph 17 of the present Bill's Explanatory Notes, at the end of 1996, when the Conservative government proposed to apply Section 5 to trading standards and other fields, trading standards officers of local authorities and others expressed concern that to require them to give that "minded to enforce" notice before actually taking enforcement notice could be readily manipulated by rogue traders.

The Bill proposes a voluntary agreement by enforcement officers to an enforcement concordat. The noble Lord, Lord Vinson, described it as a wishy-washy approach: a concordat which, according to the Explanatory Notes, is to be drawn up by representatives of business, consumers and the enforcement community to ensure that business is given adequate warning of likely enforcement orders, that the enforcement is proportionate, and so on.

I hope that the Minister will assure me that the figure of 75 per cent referred to in the Explanatory Notes is not a round figure. Perhaps it has been increased since the Explanatory Notes were written. Seventy-five per cent of local authorities have signed up to the concordat. That is why the Government are taking only a reserve power in the Bill to set out a code of enforcement if the voluntary approach fails. I believe that a 75 per cent adoption of a concordat is not good enough, especially when one considers that one purpose is to ensure consistency of enforcement across the many local authorities in the country. If 25 per cent of local authorities through apathy, bloody-mindedness, or for whatever reason, have not signed up, it seems likely that the Government will have to use the reserve powers. We shall be back to the failure of the 1994 Act with a Section 5 which was largely unused.

This is my real concern. Clearly, every effort is being made to ensure the good behaviour of enforcement officers. I have nothing against that, whether it is done by concordat or statutory means. It represents best practice. Of course we want enforcement officers to behave. The Government's consumer White Paper—I somewhat unhappily remind them that it is 18 months old and that no such Bill was mentioned in the gracious Speech—states:
"Most businesses want to comply with their obligations and look to the authorities to assist them in doing so".
But the requirements being laid upon enforcement officers could enable—it was the worry in 1996—manipulative rogue traders to continue their misconduct for longer periods than otherwise to the detriment of consumers. The Government, and perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, are fond of the phrase "light touch regulation". Light touch and better regulation are apt for the great majority of., but not all, traders. In taking action against the miscreant minority, I do not want enforcers to be hobbled from taking necessary strong measures. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me on that point.

2.29 p.m.

My Lords, we on these Benches fully support the aim of reducing regulatory burdens. However, reading the Bill I was reminded of a line from Horace:

"The mountains laboured, and brought forth a ridiculous mouse".
We have waited a long time for a real deregulatory measure. What we have is a relatively insignificant Bill in terms of deregulation.

One of the biggest concerns of businesses today is the burdens placed on them by the Government. Those burdens increase every year—they do not abate, or even stand still. The Institute of Chartered Accountants, of which I am a council member, carries out annual surveys on the effects of burdens on small and medium-sized enterprises. Those surveys show that the costs go up year by year. In the latest survey, small businesses estimated that over the past year it cost them £8,600 to introduce new regulations. Even for micro-businesses—those with fewer than nine employees—the figure was £3,600. Across the economy, that amounts to many hundreds of millions of pounds just for one year of additional regulation for small businesses.

However, money is not the only issue. The real cost to the economy is in the effort that is diverted away from running successful businesses. Every hour spent on regulation is not spent on innovating new products and services, marketing or streamlining business processes.

The Small Business Research Trust has estimated that small businesses spend around 25 hours per month dealing with the processes forced on them by the Government. That is around three working days per month lost to the economy for wealth creation. Just think what could be achieved if that time could be liberated.

I had hoped to find in the Bill a genuine desire to reduce burdens on business, but it is far from clear that it will do so. The Bill allows burdens to be reduced, but places no obligation on the Government to initiate their removal. It does not even start to create an environment that will promote the removal of burdens. There is nothing in the Bill to require a Minister to initiate a reduction of regulatory burdens. The Government can continue to ignore representations made about the burdens imposed.

What about introducing an external impetus for the reduction of burdens? If the Government are serious about deregulation, perhaps the Bill should give powers to, say, the Better Regulation Task Force, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, or to the Small Business Service, to require Ministers to review regulatory burdens and then reduce them using the powers of this or another Bill, or to report to Parliament on why they have not done so. That would keep extra pressure on moving the burden of regulation in the right direction—downwards.

Several noble Lords have already referred to the provisions in the Bill to allow an increase in regulatory burdens. Any increase in regulatory burdens must be created in a direct way. The impact of regulatory burdens is so important for the health of our economy that I hope that the Government will not seek to create a back-door method of harming British business.

If the Government pursue the ability to increase burdens, I hope that they will explain in detail how the assessment under Clause 3(2) is to be made. It requires the Minister to form an opinion that the proposed order strikes a fair balance between the public interest and the interests of persons affected by the burdens—being created. As the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, has already pointed out, that is a subjective test.

How is that fair balance to be judged? Let me take the example of the increasing use being made by the Government of the business sector as their unpaid tax collector and distributor of benefits. The Inland Revenue's research shows that it costs small businesses £279 per employee to administer PAYE, national insurance and statutory sick pay. That is before the significant increased costs of the working families' tax credit are taken into account.

The Government will doubtless say that it is in the public interest to collect tax and pay benefits at the least cost to the public purse, but how would the burden on those unpaid administrators of those systems be weighed in a fair balance? Would the indirect impact of diverting companies from their proper purpose of pursuing profitable business be placed on the scales? I hope that, when we consider the Bill in detail, the Government will be much more specific about the judgments of fair balance.

Clause 1 is designed to prevent legislation or orders being amended within two years. If there is to be a provision to increase regulatory burdens, I can understand why a two-year wait would be appropriate. However, if we are talking about reducing burdens, why should we wait a minute longer than is necessary? Surely a regulatory burden needs to be reduced as soon as it is apparent that it is too onerous. Who gains from waiting?

Clause 5 contains provisions about consultations, giving the Minister concerned very wide discretion. I am concerned that these are not effective enough. The Government's code of practice on consultation goes some way to improving matters. But would it not be safer if Clause 5 were to require Ministers to publicise widely that they are considering making an order which affects regulatory burdens?

The vast majority of regulatory burdens impact most severely on small and medium-sized entities. Even if the Government resist a wider publicity requirement in the Bill, I believe that they should think again about SMEs. Clause 5 is silent. Surely SMEs and their representative bodies should always be consulted in any consideration of the burden of regulation. As a minimum, the Government's own small firms service should also be consulted. I hope that the Government will consider reflecting on those points in the Bill.

I welcome the opportunity in the Bill to reduce regulatory burdens on business, and I look forward to discussing the details of the Bill in Committee. I hope that at that stage we shall have an opportunity to make the Bill more effective in providing a more active approach to deregulation for the benefit of business. The Bill may remain a mouse in terms of its deregulatory impact, but I hope that it will not end up as a ridiculous one.

2.37 p.m.

My Lords, the Regulatory Reform Bill is welcomed by many people and institutions. I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, mentioned the benefits that charities may hope to seek under the Bill. However, I want to concentrate particularly on business and especially on SMEs. This is a Christmas package to small businesses from the Government but, thankfully, not one wrapped up in red tape.

Previous governments said that they would do away with red tape. Noble Lords will recall that Mr Michael Heseltine was going to intervene before breakfast, lunch and dinner in order to light a bonfire of red tape regulations. As is so often the case with that particular gentleman, it rather turned out to be a bonfire of the vanities, as regulations increased and did not diminish under the previous administration.

The secret of this reform is the use of secondary legislation. The objection that has been raised that the Bill brings in certain constitutional issues should be considered. Nevertheless, I am satisfied, first, that the Bill has been introduced with the best purposes in mind. Secondly, I believe that sufficient safeguards are in place. I well recall that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, said that nothing could be removed from the face of the Bill which would be deemed to be a necessary protection and that existing rights or freedoms could not be revoked.

I also recall that at the time of the 1994 Act, referred to in the report of the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Deregulation, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, was quoted in relation to that Act as stating that nothing would be done which might effect large and controversial measures. Therefore, I believe that safeguards are already in place.

However, it will have the effect of trying to overcome the problem of limited parliamentary time, where otherwise we might have used primary legislation to deal with matters which confront business, and small business in particular. So those who pursue the constitutional argument should also acknowledge the imperative need for reform of our own Parliament's rules and regulations. In our own case here in the House of Lords, too much is done in the Chamber and too little done in the off-the-Floor scrutiny committees. This Bill is a step in the direction of changing that particular procedure. I agree with some of the comments made earlier by my noble friend Lord Borrie about such reform.

I dispute also the proposition of the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, that what will happen is that more decisions are made behind closed doors. I believe that there will be an improvement in the forms of scrutiny which will make law-making more open.

Also curious is the fact that both Houses have a Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee. Why is that? Surely some rationalisation and concentration of great minds would be welcome in that regard.

The essential point is that small firms cannot for ever be waiting for Christmas. We need action now and this Bill supplies it. The Bill attacks red tape which can, from time to time, be simplified and rationalised. A very good example is given in the annual report of the Better Regulation Task Force chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Haskins. There he shows us, for example, the burden confronting small restaurants which need to be familiar with some 86 Acts of Parliaments before they ever serve up a dish. That is a veritable spaghetti junction of interleaving, interweaving and confusing legislation.

More examples are offered in the Bill's Explanatory Notes. However, I sound a word of caution. Example 22 refers to the removal of duplicatory requirements for the licensing of slaughterhouses for Acts which were relevant in 1974 and 1996. The good news is that £100,000 was thought to have been saved by that rationalisation. But those of us who recall the BSE tragedy know that the problem was compounded by the wrong kind of deregulation of abattoirs where the consumer was sacrificed to the farmers' lobby.

We need to find a happy balance between the needs and desires of business on the one hand and workers, consumers and those who want to support a good environment on the other. I reject the proposition from a Manchester law consultant's view of workers' rights which I found in some of the literature with which I was presented as background to this Bill where he made the declaration that a right for an employee is a burden for the employer. That is wrong. I support the Forum of Private Business's view of regulatory regimes: they need to be appropriate, consistent, simple, give guidance, demonstrate common sense and show understanding of the business environment. When those criteria apply, then the FPB says that such regulation,
"may well even provide a competitive advantage".
Incidentally, I praise the Forum of Private Business for the joint venture work that it has undertaken with the TUC; for example, in the HSE audit for small businesses or its current initiative, the "Comply as you Complete" campaign. Each of those initiatives demonstrates that sensible regulation can give added value.

We must ensure that the small business community does not confuse manifesto commitments of the Government, like the minimum wage, parental leave or working time directive, with the areas covered by this Bill—tidying up accumulated layers of law which, like congealed wax in the ears, have clogged up the smooth running of small businesses and sometimes made us deaf to their needs.

Compliance has been mentioned. Many of the laws governing business often impact on small and micro-businesses disproportionately, certainly in terms of compliance. The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, has already mentioned the ICA report which indicates that there has been a 5 per cent increase in compliance costs. But when you look at micro-businesses with five people or fewer, there is a massive 112 per cent purported increase in those compliance costs. Something must be done about that. I recommend to the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, that she updates her Horace. In the computer age in which we live., a mouse is now an important business tool.

We do not want to throw out the baby of high standards for workers, consumers and the environment with the bath water of deregulation, and that need not happen. I believe that we should encourage the Government to consider tax breaks, for instance, for the smallest firms which are differentially affected in terms of costs and staff time in ensuring that their enterprises conform to the law of the land. Their task is harder than that of well-resourced big businesses.

Enforcement of the law is a pertinent issue for small firms. The Bill's proposal to permit Government to intervene with the enforcement authorities to ensure that such enforcement is neither disproportionate nor overbearing is welcome. A recent survey of the food sector by the Forum of Private Business reveals that three in five respondents felt that existing legislation represented a real threat to the viability of their businesses. That may well be an exaggeration, but perception is all. If you feel threatened, you may develop a bunker mentality, and the bunker is no place to do business.

I turn to the European dimension of the Bill. The Forum of Private Business rightly state that SMEs want to compete safely with large businesses and with their European neighbours in a safe and compliant environment. But the Bill makes no mention of Europe or the single European market with which those small businesses need to contend. It was, indeed, the Prime Minister's premier job for the next government as listed in his priorities in his Warsaw speech. There is no mention of the European Commission's SLIM programme, simplifying legislation in the internal market, which should run in parallel with and be complementary to the work we are doing here. There is no mention of gold plating; that frustration when legislation often emerges from Brussels in a slim and viable form and becomes encrusted in the process here. Some unpicking of that would be useful. I am sorry that it is not mentioned. We must stop being forgetful of the "E" word or Europe, or in time Europe will begin to forget us.

We also need to acknowledge that the whole process of framing laws on the Continent is different from ours. Unless we adjust, or at the very least intervene more assiduously in the law-making process in Brussels, we shall be condemned as letting down the home side, especially our small businesses. I have still not solved the riddle of the sands, whereby Britain is the most deregulated country in Europe, yet British business is much more vocal than its continental counterparts in complaining about red tape.

I turn to my sunset point. At the dawn of the Bill we are already talking of things crepuscular. The noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, suggests inserting a sunset clause, but why? Markets are always changing. It is arguable that the most dynamic markets can never be completed because of their dynamism and change. Hence, why do we want to do away with a tool which will bring such help to British businesses at this early stage?

This is a good Bill which needs all the support it can get. I hope that before the end of the Parliament, the Bill will see the light of day.

2.45 p.m.

My Lords, I shall not follow the criticisms of existing legislative procedures made by the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, with his long experience of this matter, nor indeed his hyperbole. However, I am reminded that Horace said,

"I strive to be brief, and I become obscure".
There is a long list of speakers at Second Reading of a Bill of such scope. It is surprising that the usual channels agreed that it should be the last major business before the Christmas Recess.

My noble friend Lord Norton of Louth got it in one—make no mistake about it—this is a Bill of prime constitutional importance. It is not surprising that those stalwart watchdogs of ours—I cannot actually see them at the moment—from the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee spent a great deal of time considering it. Despite its high strike rate, of which Michael Atherton to name but one would be proud, the Bill still leaves a lot to be desired.

I cannot think offhand of any recommendation that the committee has put forward that has not been accepted by the government of the day, more often than not without the need for the backing of your Lordships' House as a whole. It was therefore with some surprise that I noted the conclusion of its report on this Bill. It states:
"The main issue which the present draft Bill raises—the considerable widening of the power to legislate by order—is one for the House as a whole to decide".
In other words, it made no recommendation on the central theme, as the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, said.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, will recall saying in relation to the major safeguard in the Bill—that of the burdens being proportionate—that it is like an elephant; we cannot describe it but we know it when we see it. It may, as he claimed, be an old saying, but, like many old wives' tales, it is untrue. I learned many years ago, in my time in Zambia, that from certain angles as night is falling, a small elephant with its trunk at rest can easily be confused with a rhinoceros.

That said, Christmas is almost upon us, so let us be charitable. Let us say that we can identify the noble and learned Lord's elephant. It is not being proportionate in my view that that is the elephant; it is the whole of the first four clauses of the Bill, especially Clause 1. You just have to look at it. It gives powers to reform legislation—unspecified legislation, so clearly that is either primary or secondary legislation—which has the effect of imposing burdens affecting persons in the carrying on of any activity with a view, first, to their removal or reduction—that is basically what we have under the 1994 Act—and, secondly, to their re-enaction when they are proportionate to their retention. The obvious question there is: why bother? They are already on the statute book and in most cases can already be amended by order to take account of up-to-date circumstances.

Then we have the real elephant, the making of new provisions having the effect of imposing a burden not by primary legislation, but by affirmative instrument which in itself can subsequently be amended by negative instruments. I refer to subsections (3) to (7) of Clause 4. In the past I have dilated for far too long on the relationship between statutory instruments, whether the super-affirmative, the affirmative or the negative; it would be unkind to do so now. I have no doubt that I shall have plenty of opportunity during the subsequent stages of this Bill.

Lastly, Clause 1 refers to the removal of inconsistencies; anomalies which do not even have to be proportionate. Even if I understood, like at least one other noble Lord, what the word means in this context, why is not the great defence, which the noble and learned Lord sets such store by, included? Anyway, who is the arbiter of "proportionality"? The noble and learned Lord said it was legally binding. Is it the Select Committee of this House or of another place which will decide? Is it one or the other House of Parliament as a whole? If the new order gets through Parliament, is it justiciable? Will there be a defence upon which a judge, perhaps ultimately your Lordships in their judicial capacity, will have to decide? Who, in a word, is to identify the noble and learned Lord's elephant?

Even if the noble and learned Lord can answer those questions, the Select Committee states—mildly for the indignation I for one feel—that there are few limits to the power in Clause 1 to amend existing legislation and it goes much wider than the current deregulation power.

My noble friend Lady Buscome and the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, mentioned that this Government have not used the present power very much. Indeed, I am informed that in the last Session of Parliament only one order was tabled, although ultimately it was split into two. Ironically, the last business today, before Royal Assent, is one. Is there really no more that can be done under the present Bill or, in relation to replacement, by the normal statutory order procedure?

To be fair, the Government have given examples of orders they would like to lay I refer to an order to simplify and rationalise the legislation governing fire safety, which we are told is enshrined in approximately 120 Acts of Parliament and a similar number of statutory instruments. Again, what is wrong with our normal procedure of a Consolidation Bill, with or without amendments, or a consolidating order? The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments receives them all the time.

I refer also to Example 4 on page 18 of the Explanatory Notes; that of allowing school governing bodies to provide "pure childcare", whatever that may mean! What is "impure" childcare? But let us pass that to one side. Currently, they would have to do that by primary legislation. I understand that there is no power in the Education Acts, with their endless amendments, to do it by order. Therefore, unless time for primary legislation is provided, it would not happen. I take the point, but I do not take the point that it is a suitable subject for an order, ever. Not only would it be new policy, it would impose an additional cost on the governors of the schools concerned.

What the Bill does is shift the burden of legislation from primary, with all the parliamentary time that takes, to the speedier process of an order-making power, ultimately enabling more legislation to be put on the statute book. Last night from the Library I obtained a list of the number of pages currently on the statute book and by how much it had increased in recent years. However, it would not be appropriate to read it out.

As regards sunset clauses, I have had the opportunity of representing Parliament at two Commonwealth conferences on statutory instruments where 1 have learnt of the growing acceptance across the Commonwealth of the widespread Australian use of them. I am sorry that the Government have turned their face to the wall on this. After all, neither the 1994 Act nor the present Bill allows the reform of recent Acts of Parliament. One of the best rationales of the Bill is that the 1994 Act is now out of date. A properly framed sunset clause would stop this Bill from suffering the same fate. The Government ought to welcome it with open arms, obviating as it does the need for another Bill in another five or six years' time.

Finally, the Government are relying on the protection of so-called "super-affirmative" procedure, with prior consultation on a draft and then referring it to your Lordships' deregulation Select Committee, the deregulation Select Committee of another place and the noble and learned Lord's elephant. I make no comment on the committee of another place—it would be invidious to do so—but with the greatest respect to my noble friend Lord Alexander of Weedon and his committee members, past and present, our Select Committee is already overburdened. At the very least, it would need a consolidation sub-committee to achieve the work it does now and the enormous volume of work which a subject such as the fire safety example in the Explanatory Notes would entail.

The noble and learned Lord may recognise an elephant when he sees one but I see an albatross!

2.58 p.m.

My Lords, I rise to associate myself with the comments made by other noble Lords on the concerns for small and medium-sized enterprises. I speak today with a background of the regulations which brought many farmers and small country abattoirs to their knees. I read the Bill with them in mind and thought what it would do for them in terms of regulation.

For that reason, I turned to the principles of good regulation, referred to earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, which his task force prepared. I found an excellent list of what we should be striving for and wondered whether those matters had been borne in mind in the drafting of the Bill. I want to make two points in order to illustrate that and to ask the Minister whether the draftsmen did in fact follow the principles when drafting the Bill.

There are two particular illustrations which I choose to take because of the interest in small businesses. The first is that where regulation disproportionately affects small businesses the state should consider supporting options for those who are disadvantaged. Clause 6 deals with what will be laid before Parliament when considering regulations and it refers to costs and benefits. However, no attempt is made there to define costs to large and to small businesses, and so the hidden costs to small businesses could be disguised by averaging out those costs. I think that is something that noble Lords may wish to consider as the Bill passes through the House.

The second issue is again on cost. One of the difficulties in the past has been that regulation has been brought in that applied to businesses, but resources have not been available to those agencies which are supposed to give support and advice on compliance Indeed, at a time, for example, when small food businesses such as restaurants and pubs were being hit with more and more regulations local authorities, who were supposed to advise and help them, were having their budgets cut. My question to the Minister is this: is he satisfied that the Bill as drafted follows all the principles of good regulation laid down by the excellent task force of the noble Lord, Lord Haskins?

3.1 p.m.

My Lords, as we have heard, the statute book is a weighty tome and it is getting fuller by the minute. We have heard of the Bills that have been introduced during this Session. To take just one of them, the Private Security Industry Bill will bring 300,000 people under a new licensing regime. There are good reasons for looking at that particular industry, but we are seeing a very rapid rise in the amount of regulation.

Clearly, deregulation was at the core of the efforts by the last Conservative government to reduce burdens on industry, and it was a ground-breaking move to bring forward the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994. That legislation has worked well although clearly there are limitations to the type of issue that could be addressed by it. Of course that Bill was, rightly, very tightly drawn. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Strathclyde, in introducing it to this House, said that Parliament was being asked to grant unprecedently wide powers and that there would have to be a leap of faith by Parliament to grant those powers. Against that was a very tightly-drawn piece of legislation with very tightly-drawn objectives to remove that burden. Even so, I clearly recall the response of what was then the opposition Labour Party and of the description by the noble Lord, Lord Peston, of this measure as a constitutional outrage.

We see a measure being brought before Parliament now which is much wider in scope and objective than the relatively more modest Deregulation and Contracting Out Act. So I welcome the Labour Party to the table of deregulation. Clearly this is a very important Bill which has wide-ranging constitutional implications. This House, in particular, should give it extremely close scrutiny. We have heard powerful arguments from my noble friend, Lord Norton, among others about particular areas of concern. I would not follow the line of the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, of, if I might say so, impatience over the time which scrutiny takes in your Lordships' House. The reason why we take time to debate issues on the Floor of the House is that we believe this House has a clear duty to scrutinise measures closely. The House has a powerful reputation in that particular field and I, for one, would not wish to see that role diminished.

The importance of the Bill has been underlined by the report of the work of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee, to whom the House is in considerable debt.

Before we consider the detail of the Bill we should look at the Government's record on regulation and their attitude to Parliament. In this Bill the Government place great reliance on the super-affirmative procedure, which in turn means that they must accept decisions of your Lordships' House. I believe that events of the past month show that the Government are far from prepared to accept those decisions. I am glad that this Bill was introduced by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer. He was associated with a number of measures on which your Lordships' House took strong views that were overruled. No better illustration of the attitude of the Government to Parliament, in particular this House, is the reintroduction of the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) Bill, the arguments against which were so ably put by the Attorney-General before he entered government.

A great deal of regulation has been brought forward by the Government—for example, the Working Time Directive, the working families' tax credit strategy, trade union recognition and many more—where there is compelling evidence from reputable bodies, such as the Institute of Chartered Accountants, about the great increase in financial burdens, particularly on small and medium size enterprises in ensuring that member firms comply with it. The background is a great increase in regulation and perhaps the cavalier treatment of Parliament. Therefore, we must be careful that we do not endorse what may be described as a smokescreen to give the Government some credentials in the field of deregulation while with the other hand they impose a greatly increased burden of regulation.

The main safeguards against the considerable powers which the Government invite Parliament to give them fall under the following categories: first, parliamentary procedures, particularly those of your Lordships' House; secondly, criteria written onto the face of the Bill under which such measures can be taken forward; and, thirdly, the potential for challenge in the courts. Emphasis has been placed on assurances given by Ministers. While we accept those assurances, they are merely statements of intent by present government Ministers. I do not believe that we should legislate on the basis of promises.

My noble friend Lord Norton indicated areas in which greater safeguards could be written onto the face of the Bill. The Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee felt that considerable safeguards would be required not only in relation to promises by Ministers but amendments to the Bill. Many of the assurances are open to interpretation. We understand that the noble and learned Lord is minded to give assurances during consideration of the Bill, perhaps in Committee, that the legislation would not be used for constitutional measures. We accept that. However, there is a question of definition. What is a constitutional measure? The House will recall that during the passage of the Disqualifications Bill the noble and learned Lord described it as a very minor measure to fill a lacuna in legislation. Almost every other speaker who contributed to the debate took a contrary view and regarded it as a major amendment to our constitution. It is by no means clear——I believe that the Minister himself demonstrated it—that there is unanimity as to what is and what is not a constitutional measure.

We are asked to give the executive considerable new powers. We are not asked just to give it these new powers in the context of deregulation, because we know from the breadth of the Bill that at the same time regulation can be brought forward with no direct link to a deregulation measure. Perhaps in Committee there may be scope to explore whether such a link should exist.

This is an important Bill. We have heard some powerful speeches today as to why this House should give it very particular scrutiny. I look forward to the later stages of the Bill

3.10 p.m.

My Lords, I served on the first deregulation task force which looked into the legislation covering charities in the voluntary sector. I know how useful the 1994 Act was and is. Like other noble Lords, in the broadest of principles I welcome the Bill.

However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, made clear, the Bill is about giving governments the power by secondary legislation to impose new burdens on society and organisations within it. The Government have readily accepted that to do so by secondary means is novel and potentially dangerous. I agree with noble Lords who urged the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, to look at the issue of the potential of abuse wholly outside his own skin, so to speak, because we all know what a loveable and decent chap he is.

We can think of other elephants, perhaps not even elephants but rhinoceroses, of other persuasions and ilks. Like the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, I accept absolutely that the potential for ill here would be formidable unless we ensure that the safeguards against the new powers are adequate.

I should like to look at a few issues concerning that matter. The first is a rather dry matter in the Bill. Clause 1 sets out the objects of the Bill and some preconditions which must be satisfied before new burdens can be imposed. I refer particularly to Clause 1(1)(c)(ii) which states that no new burden can be imposed unless it,
"is proportionate to the benefit which is expected to result from its creation".
We then turn to Clause 3 subsections (1) and (2) and find further preconditions for the imposition of new burdens. Noble Lords have spoken about the language, but I am particularly keen to understand what difference there is between the test in Clause 1(1), that is proportionality, and the test in Clause 3(2) which says that there should be no new burden unless, taking the new provision as a whole, they,
"strike a fair balance between the public interest and the interests of the persons affected".
It is particularly important that the drafting of this piece of legislation is as crystal-clear as possible. Perhaps we should come back to those two vital provisions; and I wonder whether they would be better put in one clause rather than separated?

I should like to turn to consultation. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, said in opening the debate that the Bill provided for "thorough and effective consultation". It does not. In the Explanatory Notes it says that the Bill provides for thorough public scrutiny. On the face of the Bill one cannot say that. There is no consultation period provided, although there is the 60-day period before the matter enters Parliament.

The noble and learned Lord made those remarks in reliance upon the fact that the Government are developing a code of practice on written consultation generally. That code has reached an advanced stage. No doubt the Government intend to put it into a final form and will tell us that we can rely on it. Well, we cannot. It is of persuasive and not legally binding effect. I strongly believe that if we are proposing to allow secondary legislation to create new burdens for citizens the issue of prior consultation should be anchored in some minimum period of consultation in order for any new burden to be imposed. If we told that that is not possible because of the exigencies of government in this age, we should at least insist that Clause 6(2)(j), which specifies the document that must be laid before Parliament when consultation starts with the two committees, spells out what consultation must have occurred and requires the Government to specify any variation from their own code of consultation.

I turn now to the criminal penalties that can be imposed under the Bill. This issue has not so far been mentioned. I am not at all happy with the way things are left. Clause 3(3) provides that an order under Clause 1 can create a new criminal offence provided it is not punishable on indictment with imprisonment for a term exceeding two years. That provision exactly mirrors a provision in the 1994 Act and so the Government may be reassured that nothing new is happening. But that is not the case. The 1994 Act allowed the creation of new regulatory burdens only where they were "less onerous" than the existing burdens. The provision in that Act limiting criminal powers in the course of imposing these new but lesser burdens is in a wholly different context. In this Bill are talking about new and more onerous burdens. I am extremely unhappy about the thought that one could create an entirely new criminal offence in respect of an entirely new and unforeseen regulatory burden. We shall need to return to that point.

Finally, I should like to be a little more sanguine than many noble Lords appear to be about the satisfactory nature or otherwise of our present arrangements. First, I am struck by the fact that the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee can consider only technical issues vis-à-vis delegation and deregulation. It cannot look at the underlying policy of substantial issue. That is not within its remit. That is precisely where we as a House, as a revising Chamber and as a watchdog should be at our most vigilant.

Secondly, I should like to refer to the capacity of this House to turn back a statutory instrument put before it. Paragraph 10 of the Explanatory Notes states that,
"in the event of a motion hostile to a draft regulation order being agreed to by the House, the motion for the draft order would not be moved".
There is also the right, which has never been used, of an individual Peer to put a parallel Motion before the House which, if passed, would have the effect of torpedoing the whole statutory instrument. When he was cross-examined by the committee, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, said that it was clearly the "strongest ultimate safeguard". I am totally unimpressed by what the noble and learned Lord called the "strongest ultimate safeguard".

We all know that the way in which such statutory instruments are dealt with almost ensures that one could never muster sufficient votes to defeat the Government. They are often tabled on a Friday to a thin House. Scrutiny of the substance of draft statutory instruments does not fall within the remit of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee. I think that it is a blunderbuss remedy which has not been used precisely for that reason. As I have said, I am not happy about the safeguards currently available under the Bill for future impositions.

I wonder whether it would be possible to contemplate conferring on this House the power to amend a draft statutory instrument. At present, we have only an all-or-nothing blunderbuss remedy. However, that power is given in around 10 pieces of legislation: the Local Government Act 1933, the Emergency Powers Act 1920 and the Burma Act 1947. Those Acts are not modern; practically all of the relevant legislation was enacted before the last war. Nevertheless, I see no reason why we should not contemplate introducing a provision in the Bill to allow a Motion which would amend a draft statutory instrument, thus allowing the House to vote on the amended resolution as a whole. That would be more constructive and would stand a far better prospect of appealing to both sides of the House. I put that suggestion to noble Lords as a point to which we should perhaps return during later consideration of the Bill.

Subject to those remarks, like other noble Lords, I hope that the Bill will eventually emerge in a form that we shall all be able to support.

3.21 p.m.

My Lords, I sense that my popularity with noble Lords will be in inverse proportion to the length of my speech. I shall endeavour to oblige.

Once again, we are indebted to the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Deregulation for the high quality of its work and the subsequent report. We have become accustomed to expect such high standards from the committee. The Bill is to be welcomed in many ways as easing the path of deregulation. However, I must echo the points made by my noble friends Lady Buscombe and Lady Noakes. This Government have spent the last three years wrapping more red tape round businesses and not, with respect to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, in a Christmas spirit. Last year, the Labour Government introduced over 3,400 regulations, the highest number on record. The Institute of Directors has estimated that, since coming into office, Labour has imposed an extra —2 billion a year on business. The Bill is effectively a housekeeper to help to keep the legislative home clean. Its effectiveness must not be compromised by a flood of unwelcome intruders entering the home in the form of new regulations, of which there is a regrettably increasing stream.

Perhaps I may cite one particular case where I feel that an improvement has been made over the 1994 Act. Under Section 3 of that Act, before making an order, the Minister is required to consult with parties likely to be affected by the order and other interested parties whom the Minister considers appropriate. This section will be replaced by Clause 3 of the new Bill which requires the Minister to be satisfied that the order does not,
"(a) remove any necessary protection. or (b) prevent any person from exercising any right or freedom which he might reasonably expect to continue to exercise".
During the course of the 1994 Bill, I, together with the noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden, and the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, spoke of the concerns expressed by Westminster City Council as regards damage to the environment and services which it expected as a result of the wholesale repeal of the Shops Act and the consequent removal of restrictions on late night shopping. We thought that we had made an eloquent case, but we were unsuccessful in preventing the Shops Act from being repealed in full. I feel that the additional safeguards offered by Clause 3 of this Bill give much greater protection to those potentially adversely affected by any order. However, I have some misgivings about subjectivity, a point raised by my noble friend Lady Noakes; namely, the subjectivity of the proportionality test under Clause 3(3).

Turning to Clauses 9 and 10, the codes of practice were treated with a certain scepticism by my noble friend Lord Vinson but with more eloquent enthusiasm by the noble Lord, Lord Borrie. These codes of practice have a certain attraction to Ministers as they require minimum consultation with relevant bodies and give a very wide measure of discretion to enforcement officers. Clause 9(2) could, for instance, be interpreted as giving legislative approval to the turning of a blind eye. While I note that these codes of practice are subject to negative procedures, I should like an assurance from the Minister that the code of practice route will not be used in substantially by-passing more effective scrutiny.

There was considerable misgiving at the time of the 1994 Bill that the then government's proposal would cut out the ability of parliamentarians to go through legislation, line by line, to make Ministers justify their actions, a role to which this House is admirably suited and which it performs, if I may suggest, to great effect. The Committee, in all fairness, stated that the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee procedures have worked well and that parliamentary scrutiny, far from being inhibited, has been enhanced.

However, we read in paragraph 51 of the Select Committee's report that the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee, as it was then called, drew attention to the powers conferred on Ministers by Part I, Chapter I of that Bill, describing them as "unprecedented in time of peace". I think your Lordships will agree that since the inception of that Act these powers have not been abused, thanks in no small part to the diligence of the Select Committee. It is however the view of that Committee that,
"that power pales into insignificance when compared with the powers which are proposed to be taken by the draft Regulatory Reform Bill".
I am pleased to note that a number of safeguards and undertakings have been given by the Government. I shall particularly await the reply of the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, that the Government intend to accept any rejection of an order. On the subject of the Wakeham Commission's proposal that a decision by this House can be reversed in another place I am less sanguine. It will, however, be our duty during the course of this very significant Bill to satisfy ourselves that these safeguards are adequate.

3.27 p.m.

My Lords, in 1993, I was asked to be an adviser to the President of the Board of Trade on the subject of deregulation. It was my responsibility to co-ordinate the deregulation initiative and to set up task forces. It is in that capacity that I want, very briefly, to make a few points relevant to good regulation as well as to deregulation.

Seven task forces were set up, spread across industry and commerce, plus one other, set up a little later, on the subject of charity. After a year, we came up with 605 recommendations—recommendations not to deregulate but to improve regulation. In some cases it was a question of repeal and in other cases it was a question of simplification, which made it easier to follow the regulation and easier to oversee it. Of those 605 recommendations, all but 76 were accepted by the government of the time.

In addition to those recommendations, the task force as a whole set out three very simple principles: first, to make sure that, when framing a new regulation, you start out by measuring the impact of that regulation on small firms; secondly, that we should always avoid regulations that are out of proportion to the benefits to be obtained; and, thirdly, that regulations should be goal-based rather than over-prescriptive. Those who came as outsiders, as it were, were very impressed by the terrific political pressure for more regulation at all times. Ministers were always, of course, pleased to claim that they were "entirely behind deregulation and a reduction in regulations, but that in their department they had a particular problem which would require—and so on".

As I worked through the details, I was very aware of what might be called the political knee-jerk: that something must be done, that I must be seen, as a Minister, to be doing something. What can a Minister do, other than invent a new, ingenious regulation? And the quicker it is brought to the attention of the public the better, in order that the Minister can be seen to be the hero of the hour. As a businessman, I was aware over many years of the inefficiency of some regulations, of the need for many regulations, of the importance of their being easy to follow and easy to monitor.

What, during my year, was set up as a task force to keep up the momentum of deregulation came to an end with the change of government, and the very good title of "better regulation" was invented for what had formerly been "deregulation". So far as I was concerned, better regulation also included deregulation, but I was pleased to welcome the continuation of the task force with its broad brief.

I was even more pleased to note—and I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, is not present to hear what I say—and to praise much of what the noble Lord's commission has done. It has adopted principles very similar to those that applied when I was concerned with deregulation. Usually the wording is different; however, I noted in the commission's last annual report that the wording was exactly the same in one important case: namely, the three words, "Think small first". For heavens sake, it is essential for us to think all the time of the effect on small business. Those of us in large businesses know perfectly well that the health and strength of an economy depends more than anything else on the health and strength of small businesses, and on the ease with which they are created and the difficulties that can occur for a new business through foolish and badly drafted regulation.

Having had the experience at that time of welcoming many of the actions, policies and principles that are espoused by the present Better Regulation Task Force, I am conscious that it does not seem to have the clout that we had. We, after all, produced 605 recommendations in a year. The noble Lord, Lord Haskins, told us earlier that he had proposed 264 in three years. I think we can concur that there was greater productivity in my case!

Perhaps I may make three suggestions that are relative to assessing the wisdom or otherwise of new regulation and the relevance and value of existing regulation. Looking at the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, I say that because I favour deregulation, because I worked hard at it for a year, does not mean that I do not, as a businessman, recognise much of what he said about the importance to all business of sensible regulations. But experience tells me that there is a need today for a serious effort at risk analysis when it affects regulation. Before assessing the need for and importance of a new regulation, we want to have a clever, professionally refined discipline, with a credible intellectual rigour in terms of risk analysis.

Such information regarding the degree of risk that the regulation proposed is intended to alleviate should be published and be available for all to see. Moreover, before that risk analysis is made, government should consult in detail those who know most about the subject; that is to say, those who are most concerned. They should then publish that risk analysis so that others can see why it is in the public interest that a certain regulation be changed or a new one introduced. Transparency is another factor and one which the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, used in his annual report on better regulation. Transparency of risk analysis would make the importance of the new regulation easier to understand and to measure.

Compliance costs are also important. That has been included and I believe that it is now referred to as, "administrative cost compliance". When establishing good regulations, it is vital to include the cost of compliance. Before assessing the compliance cost, detailed consultation should take place. When dealing with Whitehall departments, I found that, very often, they had very little understanding of the real impact and consequence of what seemed on the surface to be perfectly reasonable regulations. So consultation must take place before the compliance cost is calculated.

I was also aware of the skill of officials to minimise the compliance cost whenever it was a matter about which they were particularly keen. Therefore, I suggest that there should, again, be transparency. Detail should be available for those concerned to see how the compliance cost was assessed and what principles were adopted. Thereafter, I believe that details of the compliance cost should be published before the regulation is finalised. Further, I believe that there should be independent verification of compliance cost assessments, together with an annual audit that could go back on previous compliance costs to say whether certain aspects were either overstated or understated, and so on. We shall be living with new regulations for ever, so let us become good at understanding their impact. Let us have independent, professional audits of the methods used to assess compliance.

There is a case for undertaking a wholesale review of the spectrum of regulations, say, every five years— something along the lines of the 1993 initiative. This should involve perhaps as many as 10 task forces, coordinated by the chairman of the Better Regulation Task Force, so that much greater consultation can take place across the whole spectrum. In our day, we had 70 businessmen from small and large businesses. If the Government are really interested in having regulations that are needed and easy to follow, as well as being easy to oversee, a review every five or seven years would bring benefit to the economy as a whole because such regulations are bound to get out of date. Indeed, to use a popular word of the Government, it would be possible to modernise the regulatory regime every five or seven years.

Although I welcome the Bill in principle to the extent that it improves and deregulates, I question whether there is the necessary political will to lighten the burden on business imposed by over-regulation. I also question whether there is the ability to restrain EU directives, which increase that burden still further. Most of all, I welcome the statement by the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, that the Prime Minister takes a personal interest in deregulation. From my experience of the previous government—I am sure that this is true of any government—I know that deregulation, or better regulation, will never work significantly unless the Prime Minister is 100 per cent behind it and curtailing the Ministers' natural desire to introduce more new regulations.

3.40 p.m.

My Lords, I am sure your Lordships will all agree that it has been an outstanding debate. It has underlined in particular, that most important characteristic of your Lordships' House: that a substantial number of noble Lords are Members of your Lordships' House in addition to what they normally do. That factor has been underlined today in the contributions made. I know that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, and the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, will have taken note of everything said by those bringing their experience to the subject in hand.

Perhaps most surprising was the reaction of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, to the suggestion that the Bill might benefit from a sunset clause. "Oh, no", he said. The consequence of a sunset clause would mean that officials would be reluctant to bring forward measures because they would fear suffocation at the end of the five years. What a vote of no confidence in the Bill! Surely the noble and learned Lord should have said, "How wonderful". Every five years the Government would have the chance to explain to the nation the terrific success of the Bill and how much deregulating legislation had been passed. It would have been a splendid opportunity to advertise the success of the Bill and to demonstrate the complete confidence of the Government in gaining a new endorsement for it.

Her Majesty's loyal Opposition should be extremely flattered by the fact that the Government have introduced this Bill. In 1994, when the former government introduced a deregulation Bill, it was received with much vituperation from the then opposition Front Bench. But we should not be deceived into thinking that the Bill before your Lordships' House today is the same kind of Bill.

It is clear that the 1994 Bill was a genuine deregulatory Bill. It was a Bill exclusively addressed to reducing burdens. Not so this Bill, as so many noble Lords have explained. There are provisions in Clause 1 of the Bill to impose burdens in certain circumstances. If this measure is pursued with enthusiasm by this Government and future governments, we shall see a dramatic change in the ratio between primary legislation and delegated legislation.

In our constitution, the procedures in your Lordships' House and in another place play a particularly important role. We are not a nation which has entrenched political rights. A Back-Bencher in another place is presented with an insoluble dilemma. On the one hand, he or she is responsible for keeping the executive in power and, on the other, at the same time, for keeping the executive under control. In the modern world, where party organisation is so powerful, the choice that that Back-Bencher makes is almost invariably the same: to keep the executive in power.

In the circumstances of any government with a majority, the only way to scrutinise their actions and keep them under control is through parliamentary procedures. If a substantially greater proportion of business in your Lordships' House and another place is by delegated measures, it will lead to a reduction in Parliament's power to control the executive. We should be in no doubt whatsoever, therefore, that this is a measure of major constitutional importance; and it should be scrutinised as such by your Lordships' House.

In that context, two concerns have emerged today that ought to be looked at carefully throughout all the procedures in your Lordships' House. The first relates to the role of constitutional conventions. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, has made much of the fact that it is a convention in your Lordships' House that if the responsible Committee is unhappy with a particular measure under the deregulatory legislation, its decision is binding.

I hear what the noble and learned Lord says; but he is well aware that constitutional conventions last only for as long as the people who are party to them choose to make them last. He need only reflect on the constitutional convention of ministerial responsibility for the acts of a Minister's official. I think that I am right in saying that on only two occasions since the Second World War has that convention been respected by Ministers of the Crown. Nowadays it is almost unheard of, even for a Minister who is personally responsible for something that goes wrong to resign. What confidence, therefore, should we have in the protection of a constitutional convention? We need a clearer commitment from the noble and learned Lord than that before we are prepared to buy it as a satisfactory means of control of the powers that have been granted to the executive.

What are those powers? The noble and learned Lord has said that he cannot define what subjects would merit the truncated legislative procedure, but he would know them when he saw them. Of course, while the noble and learned Lord is in government, we can be confident that he will exercise his usual mature judgment and restraint in deciding what should and should not be subject to this legislation; but what of his successors? That is an important question when guarantees are not written into statutes.

A number of your Lordships have rightly said that the Devil is in the detail of the Bill. Our approach to the Bill will depend on the extent to which we succeed in persuading the Government that our amendments are worthy of adoption.

In conclusion, I draw the attention of Labour Ministers to one or two specific matters in the text of the Bill. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, with his penchant for instant solutions, might even give me an undertaking on some of these points. I claim no originality for what I am going to say, because many of your Lordships have already emphasised these points.

The first point relates to Clause 1(1)(c), which refers to:
"the making of new provision having the effect of imposing a burden which— (i) affects any person in the carrying on of the activity, but (ii) is proportionate to the benefit which is expected to result from its creation"
. The word "proportionate" should be supplemented with the word "necessary". It is not enough to require proportionality. If the Government want to introduce a new burden, they must first prove that it is necessary. Only then should the test of proportionality apply. I should be much obliged if the Minister would give me some help on that.

Clause 2(1)(a) gives a curious definition of a restriction or constraint as,
"preventing the incurring of expenditure".
I find that peculiarly worrying. It could easily be used by the executive as a licence to spend.

A number of your Lordships have already drawn the Minister's attention to Clause 3(1), where reference is made to the Minister making the order when the Minister is "of the opinion", and so on. There was some suggestion from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, that the test is objective. I believe that it would help the House enormously if that could be confirmed in such a way that it had the status of a Pepper v. Hart undertaking.

My final point refers to Clause 3(2) and concerns a matter that was very well explained by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, when he drew our attention to the expression,
"strike a fair balance between the public interest and the interests of the persons affected by the burden being created".
Is that, in effect, another definition of "proportionality" and is it an expression of what is already in Clause 1(1)(c)(ii)?

The Opposition look forward intensely to the Committee stage of the Bill in which we shall pursue our ends vigorously but, I hope, in a fair and sporting manner.

3.51 p.m.

My Lords, I am in the same minority as the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. He and I both believe that this is the last year of the previous millennium rather than the first year of the new millennium. This debate is none the worse for taking place on the last day that this House sits in the last millennium. Indeed, the quality of the debate has given sufficient evidence of that for there to he no need for us to apologise in any way for its timing.

It is not only the quality but the diversity of the debate which will cause me some difficulty. I shall try to put my response into some kind of order by dealing, first, with constitutional issues and the scope of the Bill, then with questions of safeguards, then with questions of process, and then I shall deal to the best of my ability and within a reasonable time frame with a whole series of points raised by individual Peers.

The first, I suppose, constitutional issue which must be tackled is whether the Bill represents, as is alleged, a fundamental change in the balance between primary and secondary legislation. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, described this as an intriguing paradox in that, in attempting to devolve power, we are, in his words, increasing the power of central government.

It is certainly true that the Bill introduces a powerful new tool for reforming primary legislation by means of secondary legislation. However, it is also true that the route for enacting parliamentary regulatory reform is unique—what is called the "super affirmative order", which provides for a uniquely high level of parliamentary scrutiny.

I shall not follow my noble friend Lord Harrison in making a judgment about the proportion of our business that should take place on the Floor of the House and that which should take place off it. But certainly, as, inevitably, a significant part of our activities takes place off the Floor of the House, it is important that we ensure that that which is carried on off the Floor should be as effective as possible and should represent and reflect the rights of individual Members of both Houses.

Therefore, I say to the noble Viscount, that this legislation does not undermine the position of primary legislation. That will continue to be the way in which the Government achieve their legislative ends. The restriction on the kind of subject which can be covered by this Bill is set out clearly in Clause 1. I believe that significant safeguards exist which I shall be able to explain. Those safeguards protect the rights of the legislature in the face of increasing efforts of all Executives to diminish those rights.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, in particular for his recognition of the degree of pre-legislative consultation which took place on the Bill. It has certainly led to very significant changes in the wording of the Bill since the earlier drafts.

Before I leave that point, the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, asked whether there would be power to amend regulatory reform orders. Yes, indeed, that could be done because a Motion could be tabled and debated and, if it were passed, then the draft order would have to be amended. That is a significant change from the existing provisions relating to secondary legislation.

I do not think that I can help the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, who asked about the potential effect of any legislation to implement Wakeham or any other longer term solution for the composition and powers of the House of Lords. We must frame this Bill to reflect the current situation and, if any changes were to be required as a result of further reform of the House of Lords, then they would have to be debated at that time.

I turn now to a very significant part of the debate which is the claim that this Bill imposes new burdens rather than removing them, which was the purpose, it is claimed, of the 1994 Act. I am greatly comforted by the statement of the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover, that, when he took up the baton in 1993, he took the view that he should be concerned not with deregulation but with improved regulation and by his approval of the phrase "better regulation" which is the title of the task force chaired by my noble friend Lord Haskins.

My noble friend Lord Haskins has asked me to apologise to the House for his absence. There was only one seat available on his only train home and he had to take it. I am sure that the House will forgive him for that.

I find difficulty with the argument first used by the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, that in the 1994 legislation there was a one-way street and that it is somehow deplorable that this should be a two-way street; that somehow it is impossible to have better regulation which is achieved by exchanging some reduction of burdens with some increase in burdens, provided there are adequate burdens to ensure that any increase is proportionate. On occasions, one man's burden is another man's liberation. There is no simple spectrum which says the less burden, the greater net benefit there will be. As the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, will confirm from his experience, sometimes there must be regulation in order to protect certain interests. If, in removing the gross burden of regulation, you have sometimes to add other burdens, that is a price worth paying.

A number of noble Lords talked about the burden of regulation in this country, but the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, was forced to use an example from the United States' press rather than something closer to home.

I say as clearly as I can to the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, who raised this issue in particular, that this Government are not more inclined to regulate than previous administrations. The noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, said in horror that we had over 3,400 regulations in 1999. In 1995, there were 3,367 regulations, so it is not a very great increase. Even if it were, I remind him that almost none of this regulation has any impact on business.

I simply rebut the accusation that this Government are increasing burdens on business by regulation. There is no significant change in the number of regulations. Where there have been increases in the burden on business—I acknowledge that there have been, particularly with the minimum wage and the Working Time Directive—I challenge the Opposition to say, as they did at the beginning but do not say now, that they are opposed to the minimum wage and the Working Time Directive. I notice that they have been conspicuously silent on those matters in recent months.

There is no sinister motive in the Bill behind the provision in Clauses 1 and 3, that on some occasions and in certain circumstances there may have to be an increase in burden. While people will in general find burdens eased, it is inevitable that some will find them increased, but only proportionately and in ways that preserve necessary protection, strike the right balance between the rights of the individual in society and preserve rights and freedoms that people could reasonably be expected to enjoy.

The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, suggested that the word "appropriate" should be added, although I notice that the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee did not suggest that. I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, say that the word "necessary" should be added. I do not believe that there would be any significant improvement in the wording of the Bill by either of those changes, and I am not able to give him the undertaking that he seeks.

Despite the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, this is not a free-standing power to impose new burdens. It is a strictly limited power, for the purposes that I have explained. Any additional burdens would have to meet the strict requirements of the new safeguards: proportionality and fair balance. It would also have to be consulted on, including seeking the views of those who could be adversely affected.

The noble Lord, Lord Phillips, expressed doubt about the effectiveness of consultation. There is provision for parliamentary control of the way in which the consultation would be carried out. It would have to be acceptable to the Committees of both Houses. There is always a temptation to treat consultation as supporting the prejudices of those carrying it out. However, I believe that the safeguards provided here are adequate for the purpose.

There was an accusation that somehow the regulatory impact assessment system was not working and that it should be extended further. I am not sure which was the more significant accusation. We are determined that the regulatory impact assessment should provide a reliable estimate of the costs and benefits of proposed regulation. In August 2000 we published tough new guidance to departments on impact assessment. We believe that the regulatory impact assessment system provides a better and more robust analysis than the rudimentary system of compliance cost assessment which we inherited. All proposals under the Bill must be accompanied by a full assessment of costs and benefits.

I refer to the use of the word "appropriate". There is always a suspicion—not about this marvellous Minister of State for the Cabinet Office who sits behind me—that some future wicked Minister of State for the Cabinet Office or some future wicked Member of the Government would use this legislation to do unspecified wicked things. I notice again that the committees did not recommend any changes to the Bill in that respect. Perhaps I may say, in a most friendly way, that the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, was particularly paranoid about that.

On the contrary, the Bill contains robust safeguards against misuse. The fact of mandatory and thorough public consultation and rigorous two-stage scrutiny by committees would make it a curious vehicle for the Government to use to do "wicked" things. A government who had a majority and were determined to do wicked things would be more likely to do them by primary legislation. In any case, under this Bill Ministers would have to show that the order preserved necessary protection; that it did not violate anyone's legitimate expectation that they could continue to enjoy any specific right or freedom; and new burdens would have to be proportionate and maintain a fair balance between conflicting interests.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Will he accept that everything he said relates to the first time round, to the primary order? Subsequent to that, under Clause 4, there are likely to be, in many if not in most cases, supplementary orders flowing from the primary order. Therefore none of what he said about the processes attached to the primary order will last the test of time. By definition, the primary order will have to be amended at some stage.

My Lords, I was going to come to that point. It was raised not only by the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, but also by the noble Lord, Lord Norton, and my noble friend Lord Borrie. The noble Lord is referring to the subordinate provisions.

In our view those provisions are key to the regulatory reform order-making process. In order to secure it, we are open to suggestions for amending that part of the Bill. Perhaps we could provide for such orders to be made by either positive or negative resolution. Either type of order could flow from this provision. But we rely on the advice of the committees in each instance as to whether or not matters should be identified as subordinate and, if so, which procedure is appropriate. This is a matter we can certainly debate in Committee. But it gives me the opportunity to repeat the assurance given by my noble and learned friend in May of last year. At that time the Government undertook to continue to respect the convention that no measure under the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act should be forced through in the face of the committee's opposition. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, and the noble Viscounts, Lord Goschen and Lord Bridgeman, asked for that assurance and I am happy to repeat the undertaking today.

I turn to the issue of sunset provisions. There are two kinds of sunset provision. They can apply to the Bill as a whole or they can apply to individual orders. We listened carefully to what was said about sunset provisions. Of course it is always an interesting idea and was canvassed in the course of the passage of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill. It is raised again in the 18th report of our own Select Committee. But we see serious disadvantages in accepting a sunset clause for the whole Bill. My noble and learned friend clearly set that out.

The difficulty is that departments which are to be encouraged to use the regulatory reform order procedure will be persuaded to do so if they see that procedure as continuing into the future. If they think that they have not reached the point of putting a measure before Parliament before the sun sets—perhaps a considerable time before the time of sunset is advertised in the meteorological reports—then they will not do it. We might have—if we had, for example, a five-year sunset—only a three-year effective period.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Is it possible to overcome that problem to a large extent by, for instance, allowing the renewal order for the Act to be passed, say, 12 to 18 months before the sun was due to set?

My Lords, that is an interesting suggestion and no doubt an amendment can be tabled and we can debate it. But it was not so much the time scale that concerned rne, though I used the timescale as an advantage. The difficulty is the uncertainty as to whether the provisions will continue. We accept that there is concern about the matter and that there are arguments, which we would like to debate in Committee, about the review of these important powers and at what stage that should be undertaken. I do not in any way want to close off debate on this important matter.

I noticed that the previous government opposed an amendment to the 1994 Bill as it went through Parliament and my present judgment is that they were right to do so. It introduces a note of uncertainty into the future of the power, a constraint which makes it less effective.

The noble Lord, Lord Norton, made a different point about a sunset order for all orders on the face of the Bill. That may happen and it may be appropriate to do that. We are doing it for Part I of the Electronic Communications Act 2000—I shall be speaking to that in a few moments—and we have done so for the Football Disorder Act 2000. But we must balance the benefits of ending outdated regulations against the burdens of uncertainty and change. I am not convinced that a blanket sunset provision for orders would be appropriate, although I would not want to set the face of the Government against sunset orders where they seem to be appropriate.

I appreciate everything said by my noble friend Lord Harrison about the dangers of gold-plating European legislation and the many other valuable points he made about it. However, the Bill is concerned with domestic legislation and if we began to widen the scope we should be in serious trouble.

I turn to the issue which was raised in particular by the noble Lords, Lord Dahrendorf and Lord Norton. I am not accusing them of being paranoid, any more than I was really accusing the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, but it is a fear of the control-freak government. No one is suggesting that this Government are a control-freak government—people shy away from that and quite right, too! However, I must emphasise that the legal safeguards on what is proposed in the Bill are very strict. I have already referred to the need for proportionality, for necessary protection, for a fair balance and for not damaging reasonable expectations. If we were to flout any of the restrictions and safeguards, we should be under risk of successful judicial review and we would hardly use a measure of this kind for that purpose.

I turn to the question of whether the Minister should make the decision and the fear that such a decision would mean that the test was not objective. That was raised by the noble Lords, Lord Kingsland and Lord Goodhart. It is for the committees to accept or reject that decision and therefore it comes back to the legislature rather than to the executive. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, recognised that the necessary protection is a concept taken over from the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994 and it has been seen to work well. Where the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Select Committee and its sister committee have criticised proposals, in each case the Government have amended them to take account of the committee's views.

I turn to a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Vinson, who has had to leave because he has the last seat on the last plane. He said that we should stick to Section 5 of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act but my noble friend Lord Borrie rightly reminded us that the old Section 5 procedures were, in the event, hardly used. In December 1996 there was a consultation exercise on its use. The feedback for the enforcers was that enforcers—mainly local authorities—felt that the "minded to" provisions involved in Section 5 were too bureaucratic and could be manipulated by illegitimate businesses. Instead, we preferred to draw up the enforcement concordat, which was the result of extensive consultation with business, the voluntary sector, the enforcement community and consumer groups.

The noble Lord, Lord Borrie, asked whether the 75 per cent figure for those who signed up to the concordat was correct. My answer is twofold. First there is a full list of those who have signed up on the Cabinet Office website. Secondly, the figure is rising. We are on target for 85 per cent compliance by the end of this year. I am sure that we can beat that. Surely under those circumstances it is better to secure agreement to a concordat rather than reviving provisions that were not effective.

There may well be other issues that noble Lords have raised that ought to be responded to, but in view of the hour, I think that your Lordships would wish me to write to those noble Lords to whom I have not responded. I see the Opposition Chief Whip expressing his approval.

The Bill is enormously important. None of us would be here unless it were. We have been very interested in and grateful for the comments that have been made, particularly as almost everybody—except, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland—said that they supported the general principles behind it. Let us ensure that when the Bill leaves this House those general principles, which have achieved widespread approval, survive and that the detail is as good as it can be.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

Companies Act 1985 (Electronic Communications) Order 2000

4.17 p.m.

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 23rd October be approved [29th Report from the Joint Committee, Session 1999–2000].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I had thought that those noble Lords who were so keen on the constitutional principles might be interested in staying to hear something about how it works in practice. However, the draft order removes obstacles in the Companies Act 1985 to electronic communications made by a company and its members. This is the first order brought forward under Section 8 of the Electronic Communications Act 2000. After describing the order's main provisions, I shall set out the Government's current plans under Section 8 of the Act.

A number of provisions in the 1985 Companies Act either require communications to be made in writing or are unclear as to whether electronic means can be used. The draft order amends those provisions. The order will permit three types of electronic communications: from companies to the Registrar of Companies when they are incorporating or reregistering; from companies to their shareholders—for example, sending out the annual report and accounts; from shareholders to their company—for example, when the shareholder is appointing a proxy. As required by the Electronic Communications Act. the draft order is permissive. It enables but does not require companies and shareholders to use electronic communications. Companies must ask their members to opt into electronic communications rather than to opt out. The order sets out how a company may satisfy its obligations under the 1985 Act by sending electronic rather than hard copies of documents. For example, when sending the annual report and accounts the company must have been notified by the shareholder of an address for electronic communications. By sending the report and accounts electronically the requirement in the Act to send the copy is satisfied, and no further paper copy is required.

The order leaves considerable flexibility for companies and their members to decide on the best means of electronic communication and the method for agreeing to it. Companies need that flexibility to accommodate their varying circumstances and adapt to developments in technology, so guidance rather than legislation is appropriate. I welcome the initiative of the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators in preparing best practice guidance for companies that choose to take advantage of the order. That guidance was published in December this year.

In accordance with the undertaking given by the Attorney-General last year, I confirm that in my view the proposed amendments to the Companies Act are compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. This order is a good example of the way in which Section 8 of the Electronic Communications Act 2000 can be used to reduce burdens on companies and individuals while improving the service that they provide or receive. Section 8 contains a power to remove obstacles in other legislation to the use of electronic communication and storage in place of paper. That is a major element in delivering the Government's policy to promote electronic commerce and meet their target for making government services available electronically. That includes connection to the Internet of all schools and libraries by 2002, with 100 per cent of all government services to be deliverable on line by 2005.

Our current plans for the use of Section 8 include orders for the following purposes: to facilitate electronic conveyancing; the electronic submission of trade statistics to the Office for National Statistics; to permit the electronic submission of a statutory off-road declaration in respect of a vehicle; to allow electronic authentication of public records for court proceedings; to give legal recognition to the official legislation website version of statutes; and to allow the electronic submission of information by oil companies under the Petroleum Act 1998. The Electronic Communications Act will at last bring the statute book into the information age of the 21st century. The draft order before us was widely welcomed by companies when it was issued for consultation earlier this year. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 23rd October be approved [ 29th Report from the Joint Committee, Session 1999–2000].—( Lord McIntosh of Haringey.)

My Lords, I am grateful to the Deputy Chief Whip for his explanation of the order. I have discussed this matter with my noble friends. We find nothing controversial in this order and, therefore, on behalf of Her Majesty's Opposition I happily accept it. Perhaps I may say to the Government Chief Whip that when we deal with the next four orders my response will be fairly similar. On this occasion short speeches are probably desirable.

My Lords, I too am happy to accept the order which is plainly desirable in the interests of modernisation and keeping up with the development of e-commerce. We believe that we can approve this order without reservation.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Producer Responsibility Obligations (Packaging Waste) (Amendment) (England And Wales) Regulations 2000

4.23 p.m.

rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 20th November be approved [32nd Report from the Joint Committee, Session 1999–2000].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, these regulations relate to changes that the Government propose to make to the packaging regulations. Revised recovery and recycling targets for the years 1999 and 2000 were announced in January 1999, but the Government have kept under review the targets for 2001 so that they can assess what they should be in the light of further work on the packaging data and the returns for 1999. That work has now been done. The proposed targets for 2001 are: 56 per cent recovery and 18 per cent material-specific recycling of packaging waste. The regulations are intended to enable the UK to meet the mandatory targets in the EU directive on packaging and packaging waste; that is, 50 per cent recovery, 25 per centrecycling and 15 per cent recycling for each type of packaging material. Those European targets must be met next year.

The other part of these changes in regulations relates to the scheme fee mechanism. The Government propose to change the mechanism according to which the registration fee paid each year by members of compliant schemes is determined. We propose that from January 2001 there should be an annual flat registration fee of £460 for each compliant scheme member regardless of the size of the scheme. That replaces the sliding scale mechanism according to which the higher the number of members in the scheme the lower the fee paid by the scheme members. We believe that that will be generally welcomed particularly by smaller businesses. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 20th November be approved [32nd Report from the Joint Committee, Session 1999–2000].—(Lord Whitty.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Mink Keeping (England) Order 2000

4.25 p.m.

rose to move, That the order laid before the House on 23rd November be approved [33rd Report from the Joint Committee, Session 1999–2000].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I move this order on behalf of my noble friend Lady Hayman. The Mink Keeping (England) Order 2000 has already been made and will come into force when it has obtained the approval of both Houses. The order is made under the Destructive Imported Animals Act 1932 and will ensure that mink are kept securely to prevent their escape into the wild. It replaces the existing order, which expires on 1st January 2001.

Last month the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Act 2000 received Royal Assent and fulfilled the Government's pre-election pledge to ban fur farming. The order we are debating today will have no effect on the banning of fur farming under that Act and the ban will go ahead after a winding-down period of at least until the end of 2002. During that winding-down period, we need to ensure mink continue to be kept securely. If the order is not renewed mink farming will be deregulated. The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food would then not have the powers to enforce the stringent security conditions that are required to prevent farmed mink from escaping into the wild. That situation would be unacceptable to the Government and to anyone who is concerned about the environment.

I must stress that neither the order nor the regulations cover welfare issues. Those are dealt with under separate legislation. We shall, of course, continue to ensure that fur farmers comply with the welfare requirements which will remain in force while the industry is winding down.

Previous mink keeping orders covered Great Britain as a whole, but, following devolution, the Mink Keeping (England) Order 2000 will cover England only. Separate orders are being made in Scotland and Wales to renew their powers to enforce security conditions. The keeping of mink will be prohibited absolutely in those areas where there is currently neither a feral mink population nor any mink farms; that is, all off-shore islands, excluding the Isle of Wight, which already has a mink farm. That is the reason for the exclusion. The purpose of the absolute prohibition in these areas is to prevent the establishment of feral mink populations. Mink keeping can continue in all other areas of England under licence until the end of the winding-down period under the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Act 2000, when fur farming will be banned absolutely in England, and, in fact, in Wales, as the Act also applies there.

Under the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Act 2000, the earliest that a ban can be brought into force is 1st January 2003. While this might suggest renewal of the order for two years only, I propose a three-year order as that will allow some flexibility as to when the ban is brought into force without the need to renew the order. A modified form of mink keeping order will still be needed when fur farming is banned to permit the licensed keeping of mink and coypu for special purposes such as exhibition and research.

The order is essential in order to maintain the powers needed to enforce the stringent security conditions required to prevent farmed mink from escaping into the wild. Until fur farming is prohibited, applications for licences will be considered in the usual way and licences will be issued where the required standards have been met.

My noble and learned friend Lord Williams of Mostyn gave an undertaking to this House that, when moving regulations which are subject to affirmative procedure, Ministers will always inform the House whether they are satisfied that the instrument is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. In accordance with this undertaking, I can confirm that it is the Government's view that the provisions of the Mink Keeping (England) Order 2000 are compatible with convention rights. I commend the order to the House.

Moved, That the order laid before the House on 23rd November be approved [33rd Report from the Joint Committee, Session 1999-2000].—(Lord Carter.)

My Lords, I have two brief points. First, I am grateful to the noble Lord the Chief Whip for mentioning the Isle of Wight. That caused me some problems because I could not understand why the Isle of Wight was mentioned and not other islands. He has now dealt with that point.

Secondly, I have a point about compensation. Compensation will be offered in due course following the passage of the Act this year in relation to mink-keeping. Mink farmers are very concerned as to when they will get compensation, particularly as the breeding season will arrive in about March. Can the noble Lord say when they will get compensation because it is of concern to them in terms of their farming operations?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord the Opposition Chief Whip. I am dealing with only the one order today; I think that he is dealing with four or five. I am sure his fellow Whips and his shadow Ministers are grateful to him.

With regard to compensation, the advertisement has been placed for the independent consultant who is required. It is hoped that he will be appointed by the end of January. All farms will be visited by 21st February.

The noble Lord mentioned the breeding cycle. It is intended that there will be three months of consultation on the draft order from around June onwards. It is hoped that the statutory instrument to deal with compensation will be laid in October.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Eutelsat (Immunities A And Privileges) (Amendment) Order 2000

4.30 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office
(Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 30th October be approved [30th Report from the Joint Committee, Session 1999–2000].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the European Telecommunications Satellite Organisation—EUTELSAT—is based in Paris. It was established in 1977 and ranks as one of the world's leading satellite operators, with reach across Europe, Africa, large parts of Asia and connectivity with America. EUTELSAT provides TV and radio broadcasts and pioneered the delivery of Internet services. It also provides capacity for corporate networks, satellite news gathering, telephony and mobile voice, data and positioning services. Forty-eight countries are shareholders in EUTELSAT, the largest being Italy, with 20.3 per cent, followed by France, with 20 per cent, and the UK, with 19 per cent.

The draft order will enable the Government to notify their acceptance of the amendments to the convention and the operating agreement relating to the European Telecommunications Satellite Organisation—EUTELSAT. These amendments were presented to Parliament, in Cm. 4572, in February 2000, under negative procedure, by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. The present draft order is made under the International Organisations Act 1968 and will give effect in UK law to those additional privileges and immunities, which we are obliged to confer under the convention and operating agreement, as amended.

As an intergovernmental organisation, EUTELSAT already enjoys the usual privileges and immunities, including tax free status, under the EUTELSAT (Immunities and Privileges) Order 1988. Agreement was reached in 1999 for EUTELSAT t o be split into a privatised French company and a residual, three to four person, intergovernmental organisation to oversee its obligation to provide public service telephony. The former will be called EUTELSAT SA (Societe Anonyme), to distinguish it from the latter which will retain the title EUTELSAT.

The draft order will exempt the residual intergovernmental organisation, after EUTELSAT is put on a commercial footing, from all customs duties on goods and publications of the organisation imported by the organisation into the UK in the course of its official activities. It does not apply to or affect employees of EUTELSAT or any other individual connected with EUTELSAT. The newly formed commercial company, EUTELSAT SA, will not enjoy any privileges and immunities.

In accordance with Section 1(6)(a) of the International Organisations Act 1968, the privileges and immunities conferred by the draft order are no greater in extent than those required by the convention and operating agreement, as amended, or those authorised by the Act.

I very much hope that your Lordships will approve this modest, non-controversial order. I commend the order to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 30th October be approved [30th Report from the Joint Committee, Session 1999–2000].—(Baroness Scotland of Asthal.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Deregulation (Sunday Dancing) Order 2000

4.34 p.m.

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 28th November be approved [9th and 36th Reports. from the Deregulation Committee, Session 1999–2000]

. The noble Lord said: My Lords, it falls to me to move the final order of the millennium year and I suppose that in a way it is a quite good one to move. One might describe it as the "boogey on down, bop 'til you drop order". What lies between people having a good time on New Year's Eve and not having a good time on New Year's Eve is actually us, because if we do not approve the order we will not be going to the Paradox, the Zap Club, the Catfish Club or the Fridge; nor will we be taking our pleasures in the Ministry of Sound. People will be marching on the ministries to demand better deregulation. Having listened to some of the earlier debate, I guess that it is good and perhaps novel for the Home Office to be bringing forward a measure which does away with a regulation and perhaps does something to enhance my department's reputation as no longer being the home for blue meanies. This is the order that helps in that respect.

The order is designed to allow commercial dancing on Sundays for the first time in over 200 years. As I have explained, this will greatly benefit nightclubs, discotheques and charities which cannot currently charge for entry to a public dance on Sundays. The order achieves the change by removing dancing and musical accompaniment to such dancing from the scope of the Sunday Observance Act 1780.

The order will therefore sweep away an antiquated and unnecessary prohibition which has no place in a modern, multi-faith society. The 1780 Act has already been disapplied in respect of most other forms of public entertainment, so there can be no justification for retaining special provisions for dancing only. The order would enable people to enjoy commercial dance events, subject to licensing rules for public entertainment, whether they be a discotheque or a tea dance.

The House will want to note that this order does not alter permitted licensing hours on normal Sundays, which currently end at 10.30 in the evening. Licensing hours on normal Sunday evenings and early Monday mornings are the subject of a separate order which we hope that the House will consider in the new year.

We believed that it was sensible to separate the two orders because there was little or no controversy about allowing people to dance on Sundays, while issues of public protection do arise in respect of the related licensing hours. Anxieties expressed earlier this year, during the parliamentary scrutiny of the original draft of this order, focused on "hours" and not on "dancing".

All sides of the House will want to ensure that the Sunday dancing order comes into force in time for this New Year's Eve, which falls on a Sunday, so that public events involving dancing can go ahead on that special day. On each New Year's Eve, most licensed premises obtain "special orders of exemption" which, if granted by local magistrates or by the Commissioner in the case of the Metropolitan Police District, allow the sale of alcohol beyond normal permitted hours. So where premises have a special order of exemption and a public entertainment licence, the provisions of this order will enable them to charge for a dance on New Year's Eve and enjoy a drink or two, or perhaps several more, as well.

The Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee recommended approval of the draft order on 29th November; it was approved in another place yesterday. For all of those good reasons, and the fact that I shall certainly want to go dancing on New Year's Eve, I commend the order to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 28th November be approved [ 9th and 36th Reports from the Deregulation Committee, Session 1999–2000].—( Lord Bassam of Brighton.)

My Lords, I am not a dancing man and I do not intend to join the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, in the Catfish club or any of the other establishments he mentioned.

My Lords, perhaps on another occasion we could celebrate in some other way. As I said, I do not intend to dance on Sunday and I do not intend to oppose the order. I have only one question to put to the noble Lord: why has the order come to this House so late? We have reached 21st December. The year comes to an end on Sunday, 31st December. No doubt the noble Lord's noble and learned friend Lord Falconer will wish to dance in the Dome, if there are to be any celebrations there. Could not this order have been brought forward somewhat earlier?

Despite its lack of political controversy, I understand that some people do feel quite deeply about this matter. Given that, I wonder why the order could not have been brought forward slightly earlier so that it could have received a somewhat fuller discussion than it will receive on the last day before we break up for Christmas.

My Lords, I have already warned the Government Chief Whip that I may have within me a speech lasting half an hour on this subject.

My Lords, would the noble Lord object if we now adjourn for Christmas and allow him simply to carry on?

My Lords, the noble Lord did warn me that I would have to switch off the lights if I did so.

It is entirely appropriate that Lord McNally of Blackpool and the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, should take the last waltz on this occasion. My claim to expertise in dancing stems from the fact that I used to sell chicken sandwiches in the Tower Ballroom while Reginald Dixon played and the merry throng danced.

This is an important order. It is absolutely ridiculous that we should still need to deregulate an Act from 1780.

I draw attention to the reports that show that throughout the 20th century this Act has been slowly picked apart. Each time it was picked at—the Sunday opening of cinemas, the Sunday opening of bars and so on—it was suggested that civilisation as we know it was bound to come to an end. But, lo and behold, it did not.

The Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee made the point that we have always previously taken the view that the Sunday licensing and Sunday dancing issues were linked. We therefore expressed our willingness in principle to accept a deregulation proposal that reflected this reality. We may talk about tea dances, but dancing and drinking go together and it was silly—or perhaps a little cowardly—to have separated the two. I can only assume that it will help the hip-flask industry and that old stand-by at tea dances, whisky in the teapot.

I understand the concerns about public order. Instead of clinging on to these absurd regulations and imposing blanket bans, public order should be maintained by proper policing and the withdrawal of licences from pubs and dance halls which cannot maintain it. It is interesting that the report mentions the Scottish experience, where Sunday has clearly established itself as the third most popular trading night of the week.

I welcome the order as part of a process—which should be accelerated—where people are able to spend their leisure time and money as they think fit, rather than being nannied by ancient laws. That process should move forward. Where there are concerns for public order, there should be other powers for the police and local authorities to clamp down on miscreants; we should not try to impose blanket refusals. We should allow people to do those things which are perfectly within their rights and add to their general enjoyment.

On a previous occasion, we found out that on Sunday afternoons the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, read the local government journal. Now the House has on public record a full list of the clubs of which he is a member.

My Lords, as a semi-professional musician, perhaps I may say how much I welcome this order. It will benefit me and thousands of others who earn their livings as musicians and the providers of discotheque music. It has not been a problem for me in the past, but I have never played the Tower Ballroom in Blackpool. I am, however, free for this New Year's Eve.

My Lords, if the noble Lord, Lord Henley, would like me to work through it, I have a four-page brief containing an explanation of why this order has taken so long to reach this stage. It started its life before Parliament on 17th January this year, but many representations were made and there was a lot of discussion in the deregulation subcommittee which held it up a little. But we have now got there. If we pass this order—as I am sure we will—this New Year we will be able to enjoy jazz and—

My Lords, in regard to the deregulation sub-committee, if one looks at its membership, one can be absolutely certain that none of its members had to declare an interest.

My Lords, the noble Lord is being a little unkind. Perhaps they should declare an interest.

No matter whether you enjoy the last waltz or boogying on down to the latest sounds, I am sure we are doing something which everyone will acclaim. Whether it is jazz or funk, I am sure that we will all want to be there. I hope that your Lordships will agree to the order.

On Question, Motion agreed to.


4.45 p.m.

My Lords, as I rise to move the adjournment of the House for the Christmas Recess, I find myself brimming over with seasonal good cheer, so perhaps I may say a few words of thanks and appreciation. Before doing so, I can tell my noble friend Lord Bassam that I intend to read Hansard with great care in relation to the previous order. His apparently encyclopaedic knowledge of night-clubs is the sort of information a Chief Whip needs to have about his colleagues!

As ever, I am particularly grateful to the noble Lords the Opposition Chief Whip and the Leader of the Opposition for their constructive approach to the management of business and their unfailing good nature. In a House where the usual channels must operate by agreement, it is a great advantage when they are themselves agreeable. I include also the noble Lords, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, Lord Harris of Greenwich and Lord Craig of Radley in these remarks. It has been a pleasure doing business with them all.

I should also like to record my warmest thanks to the staff of the House who serve us so diligently. In so doing, I know that I speak for the whole House. The staff have had to work extremely hard over the past year. I am sure that all noble Lords will join me in expressing our appreciation for the work that they do. So much of that work is invisible, but is none the less important for that. Members of the House do realise that Bills are not printed by magic, that corridors do not clean themselves and that late night meals are not conjured out of thin air. Indeed, on one occasion, after an all-night sitting, we had a marvellous breakfast provided for us. I wish all the staff of the House a happy and relaxing Christmas.

I am sure that noble Lords share my delight that I have been able to arrange matters so that none of us will have to be here—unless we want to be— for a full three weeks and one day. I hope that your Lordships will enjoy the break. I wish everyone, both Peers and staff, a very happy Christmas and a good New Year.

My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Lord the Government Chief Whip for his remarks about myself and my noble friend Lord Strathclyde and the constructive approach that we have taken. I hope that it really has been constructive. We all accept that the Government must get their business through; but they must also allow us a reasonable amount of time to discuss the vast array of business that they bring before us.

I endorse everything that the noble Lord said about the staff of the House. We owe them an enormous debt of thanks, particularly after the Session that we have just been through. I am thinking especially of the spillover period which began at the end of September and went on until the end of November, when we sat more or less until midnight virtually every night. We owe the staff enormous thanks for the vast amount of work that they put in, allowing the Government to get their business through. We must say, however, that it was the Government's own fault for bringing so much business forward, and was due in particular—I see the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, sitting next to the Chief Whip—to the vast amount of legislation that we had from the Home Office. Perhaps the Home Office could cut down the amount in future. I shall not comment on the look that appears on the face of the Government Chief Whip. Perhaps the Home Office will not only reduce the amount of legislation that it brings forward but also make sure that it is properly drafted.

I am grateful to the Government Chief Whip for allowing us, after discussions between the usual channels, a good three-week break. All of us in this House, whether Members or staff, are well in need of that break. I certainly need it; I think the Government Chief Whip needs it; as does the deputy Chief Whip and many others. We all look forward to coming back on 15th January.

My Lords, it was a great 18th century Englishman who said: "I look upon every day to be lost in which I do not make a new acquaintance". Bearing that sentiment in mind, I say on behalf of my colleagues that this first year after the partial reform of this House has been a rich and full one. That could not happen without the wisdom and cheerfulness of this House, which has been maintained in this first year. It would not be maintained, were it not for the support that we have from all those who serve us in this House: Doorkeepers, those who clean, and all the others.

Over the several years in which it has been my duty to give a Christmas message, I have always made it a habit to select some area where I feel that special recognition is required. This year I have chosen the Office of Black Rod. It has done excellent work over a very difficult period. Black Rod and his staff—and this has nothing whatever to do with the small space that he allows me and my friends who come here on two motorised wheels rather than four, to park our machines—are not always appreciated for the breadth of area that they cover and the polite service that they give, sometimes under considerable strain.

Having said that, on behalf of these Benches I should like to join other noble Lords and wish the whole House, especially those who serve us, a very happy Christmas and, as the Scots say, a good New Year.

My Lords, perhaps I may begin by thanking the Government Chief Whip for the kind words that he said about me. On behalf of all Cross-Benchers—perhaps too numberless to name this afternoon—I should like to say that we associate ourselves very much with all the plaudits that have been made and the thanks that have been expressed to the staff and to all those who support us in our work.

As has been said, it has been a very busy time with very many Friday sittings. I had hoped that the Government Chief Whip would have thought it right to avoid Friday sittings in the future; but, clearly, that New Year resolution has yet to pass his lips. Indeed, we shall sit on Friday 19th of January. The last time that the House sat on a Friday in January was in 1997, when one of the Bills that never found its place on the statute book was the harassment Bill. If that Bill had come through we might not be sitting on Friday 19th! Nevertheless, I thank the whole House on behalf of all Cross-Benchers for the support that we have received and wish everyone not only a happy and peaceful New Year, but also a very happy Christmas.

House adjourned for the Christmas Recess at nine minutes before five o'clock until Monday 15th January next.