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Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee: Secondary Legislation

Volume 687: debated on Wednesday 29 November 2006

rose to move, That this House takes note of the report of the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee on the Management of Secondary Legislation [29th Report, HL Paper 149, Session 2005-06].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I shall say a few words initially—because I know that is why noble Lords have come—about what the committee does and what we believe our purpose is. The committee was an innovation set up by the House in April 2004, built out of the concern that the vast volume of secondary legislation that passed through Parliament often received scant attention in the Chamber itself because of the volume of legislation that was passed. We believe that the House was right to have that concern. Therefore the committee’s job, at its nub, is as a sieving committee to try to identify secondary legislation that may be of interest to the House, is of potential importance and potentially has flaws in it. Not to be too grandiloquent, we are a sieve—and we try to do our sieving function with efficiency and humour.

The committee was chaired by my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath before he was returned to government. I followed him in May this year. I hope that there is no truth in the rumour that goes around that the Chief Whip awards the chairmanship of the Merits Committee to Ministers who have misbehaved as a gulag and an encouragement to others.

In fulfilling our scrutiny function we seek to make essentially political judgments. We try to identify across the committee’s experience whether an issue may be of interest to at least some in the House. That does not necessarily mean that we expect the House to stimulate a debate on it, although we are often interested when that happens; but we think it important that the House has a fairly efficient means of drawing things to its attention without scanning the vast volume of legislation that looks as if it may be of interest in public policy and political terms or because it appears to have faults in it.

In the last Session we reported 41 affirmative instruments to the House and 139 negative instruments. Perhaps reporting the negative instruments is more important than reporting the affirmatives, because the affirmatives naturally come before the House while the negatives are lost in oblivion unless we have some process of bringing them to the House’s attention.

After that brief résumé of what we do, I give warm thanks to the members of the committee with whom I have had the pleasure to work in my period and to the clerks who so supportively and expertly helped and advised us. Sometimes when a Member asks what you are doing in the House and you say, “I serve on the Merits Committee”, a sad sort of smile crosses their face—of pity and wonder that one can cope with the almost Sisyphean task resulting from the mountain of paper that lands on one’s desk. Because we meet weekly, the volume of paperwork is enormous, but the attendance record of the committee is remarkably high and the attention to detail is remarkably high, too—sometimes even higher than the chairman would wish. Lastly, the commitment of the committee and its good humour could hardly be bettered.

In practice, much of the work of the committee takes place outside the committee meetings, because our Clerks engage vigorously with departments, as we want them to, to draw additional information from officials, clarify areas of doubt and at times to put direct challenges to them prior to our meetings. That is a crucial if unseen part of our work. We also try to be balanced and to give praise as well as censure to departments, because we believe that we have a role in that respect.

Perhaps I do not have to say a lot—although that always means that the speaker is going to say a lot—about why it matters that we scrutinise in this way. The fundamental point is that statutory instruments themselves matter, as they are the expression of the power of the state in all its force, detail and volume. They impose burdens, obligations and often costs on a variety of members of society. On the positive side, they are intended to be for a purpose—to create a mechanism by which the Government can achieve their objectives. So the policy debate is whether the statutory instruments achieve the policy objective in practice in the most economical and efficient way possible. I paint the broader picture of what statutory instruments are about and why they matter without necessarily advancing the argument that that is the central focus of our work. We have a more humble focus.

The way in which the Government legislate in practice through statutory instruments and whether they achieve their policy objective—and whether they do that with the least burden and cost commensurate with the policy objective—matters a lot to civil society. There is therefore a question that is not in our remit on which departments need to spend more time reflecting: whether in the policy delivery debate, which is essentially one of the biggest difficulties that all Governments face, this is the best way in which they can achieve their policy objective. As has been said by many, the default mechanism is that if you want to achieve a policy objective you should legislate, regulate and create statutory instruments. The evidence is not perfect that that is always the best way in which to achieve one’s policy objective.

Why did we decide that there should be an inquiry? After the committee had been going for some time and we had scrutinised hundreds and hundreds of instruments, the picture was patchy. By and large, instruments are well made by departments within their remit at that point in the legislative process. However, too often there was evidence that they were not well made, and we wanted to get under the skin of how departments managed their secondary legislation to see whether there were lessons that we could learn from that and lessons that they should learn so as to do things better, for all the reasons that I have touched on.

We have been reinforced on the importance of this—again, this is a point of context—by the stance that the Better Regulation Task Force has set itself, cautioning against the mindset that legislation is always the default solution to problems, and noting the position of the Government themselves that they wish to achieve less regulation and less burdensome regulation. Of course, that has a bearing on the work of the Merits Committee. Only on Monday, the Prime Minister committed the Government at the CBI to a 25 per cent reduction in red tape, form-filling, inspection and record-keeping. If that is to be achieved—I am sure that most of us hope that it is—it will mean less regulation and statutory instruments and fewer and better regulations.

As my noble friend Lord Hunt is now in his place, I should repeat the praises that I granted him before—but I shall probably do that afterwards, at the end.

The inquiry that we set up, which was the first to be held by the committee, sought to cause a number of witnesses to give evidence to us from government departments, Ministers, senior officials, the Better Regulation Executive and the Better Regulation Task Force, as well as representatives who might speak for wider civil society such as the CBI, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and others, to get a view of how the world seemed to them and what they felt about it.

Our focus was essentially on whether departments achieve the clarity that they should on their secondary legislation, whether the process of consultation was adequate and effective, and how departments planned and timetabled their secondary legislation to avoid—which they do not often do—the enormous end-of-term or end-of-Session rush of legislation. That matters not just because the committee does not want to be overburdened but because it weakens the ability of Parliament to scrutinise the Executive’s actions, which matters a lot. We wanted to engage with the Government about what they were going to do to minimise some of those peaks and troughs so that legislation could be better scrutinised by Parliament and to ensure that there was effective timing of introduction of secondary legislation, such as the 21-day period of laying, to give the House adequate time.

I shall not cover all the areas that the committee covered as I shall be well supported in the debate by many of the eminent members of our committee, but I shall talk on one theme, which was a leitmotif running through our inquiry—the search for who is responsible. We sought to find who was responsible in government overall for the process. The Cabinet Office clearly had some responsibility; it issued guidance that departments were meant to follow. However, it was pretty chary about going much further than that, and about going into the territory of saying it was going to be vigorous about trying to ensure that the guidance was followed and that there was a learning process about making secondary legislation better. HMSO, surprisingly to us, had a significant role, but it was essentially limited to the standards for the drafting and presentation of legislation. It gave us good and clear evidence, but its remit was that and no further.

We were also surprised that the Better Regulation Executive put secondary legislation off limits. It said it was not getting involved in looking at secondary legislation at all; that was not its focus. We question that. We can see that it will prioritise its work to the regulatory burdens that have the most impact, but not occasionally to fish into the detail of secondary regulations seems to us to miss a point of the BRE’s function. You need to put a mineshaft down periodically to have a look at the detail and see what is going on.

There was a less than crisp picture of how the Government themselves led the scrutiny of the secondary legislation process across government. We put that to them and we had a response, which I shall come to. We also took evidence from three departments, either because we thought they appeared to have some very good practice or because there was room for improvement. I shall not name names and leave you to guess which was which. One of the most interesting and touching of the questions was when we asked one department, “Which official in your department is responsible overall managerially for the quality of secondary legislation?”. It took months to get a reply. That was eloquent in terms of what was going on there.

We have had the Government’s response. I do not want to damn it too much with faint praise, but it would be fair if I said that the committee’s response to it was lukewarm. In essence the Government have said, “We have issued the guidance. It’s there. We trust that the departments, which are effectively fiefdoms”—not their words, but mine—“will do it, and we can leave it to them. All will be well”. I wish we believed that. Some of us might say that the ability to join up across government and enforce or promote good standards effectively was a reflection of the surprising weakness of the centre of government in some respects, rather than its excessive centralism. So we have not been overwhelmed by the Government’s response. It is not that they disagreed with the goals of what we said in our report—by and large, we were all in the same territory and saying, “This is what should happen”—but we were doubtful whether we saw the commitment to the means to achieve the goals we thought were important.

I also draw attention to the response of one government department to our report. The Home Office came in for a lot of stick, and it continues to do so. It has not been the easiest of years for it. The response we have had from the Permanent Secretary to the committee’s report, which we have received in the last day or so, is very clear. It raises the bar for a Permanent Secretary by saying, “I will make my department respond to what the committee has said, and I own that”. I commend him on that. He has plenty of other things on his plate at present, and it is good to see a Permanent Secretary standing forward in that respect.

I shall touch on what we think should be done better, and what we will be keeping an eye on in the future. There are two levels of consultation. There is the technical level, where you allow consultation on the draft instrument itself. Departments are meant to allow 12 weeks for that process. It is crucial that they do it, and that they listen to the responses. We believe consultation should be more positive than that, however. We saw that good consultation—there is some evidence of this from the DTI—was when a department brought stakeholders and wider civil society into discussion before it even drafted the instrument to talk with them about the policy objective it was trying to achieve, and had an active discussion with them about what might be the best way of achieving it. In other words, it consulted not about the commas and the semicolons, but about the objectives. It tried to think about whether there were better ways through an active engagement with those groups. We think there is a lot of scope for doing more of that, and we are not convinced that there is a strong enough central mechanism to promote it—see previous remarks.

We also think it important that, although not putting excessive burdens on business is important, there is a recognition that others are affected by secondary legislation. We came across a particular example, which others may speak on, where significant burdens were being placed on ordinary citizens. The Government therefore have to find mechanisms for consulting them as well. It is not always easy, but it is certainly possible. Charities and local government are also affected by secondary legislation, and should not be ignored during the consultation process. Consultation matters massively. It is an issue to which we pay great attention in Explanatory Memorandums; we are looking to see evidence of the quality of the consultation that has been done and of the responses that have been given. Our officials are diligent in going into more detail about that.

We know why simplification is difficult, but, at times, seeing tier on tier of amendments to the original secondary legislation makes it almost impossible for some parts of civil society to understand what is going on. Others of our committee who are much more expert will no doubt speak on this, but the importance of simplification and consolidation needs to be stressed again and again to officials. The problem is that we all see the world from our own position, not from the position of those we are affecting. Legislators and officials who are acting preparatory to legislators need more imagination at times, to think about what it feels like if you are a small business in Wigan and you have a shower of this stuff hitting you. How are you meant to understand and engage with it? They should have that imagination, not because it is a decent and human thing to do, but because if they want their regulations complied with, which is what it is all about, they have to try to make the process of compliance as comprehensible, transparent and simple as possible, otherwise they just will not get compliance. Simplification, clarity, transparency and accessibility matter because they go to the heart of the policy objective.

My last point is on EU directives. We gave evidence as a committee to the House of Lords EU Committee on why EU legislation was an example of how consultation had to be done differently. Essentially our argument was that when Ministers—having been there, I know it is the last thing on one’s mind—are negotiating late at night, with what used to be 12 or 15 others but is now 25, before they can get agreement at the European level they have to have involved those who will be affected by the consequential directives and regulations that will flow from that ministerial decision. Why so? Because if you do something wrong on a domestic piece of legislation, it is conceivable that you can change it. However, it is almost impossible to change European legislation when you are required to get 24 other states to agree. We saw examples where departments, which we commended for it, had brought those who would be affected by a measure right into the discussion before Ministers agreed. We thought the way that was done was superb, and that it needs to be done more often, otherwise you are just locked on to a directive or a regulation, and you are just amending the detail. There is nothing you can do about it in practice, however much you consult about the detail.

I am out of time. The message to government departments: please attend to this—it matters. Please own the need to improve. Please give it serious attention at the top of departments in the way that I have already suggested. Seek to avoid such legislation when you can, and evaluate the effectiveness. In other words, have some process where, periodically, you take an instrument—perhaps a controversial one—and see whether there is evidence that it actually worked or did not. All too often, that is not done, so there is no learning process within government.

The message to the House is: please engage; please support us, because it is a lonely and sad life we lead in our little gulag; please also do not mistake the convention of the House. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, for whom I have the greatest respect, misquoted the convention on secondary legislation. The Companion states:

“The House of Lords has only occasionally rejected delegated legislation”.

It does not say it should not; it does not say it could not. It makes the statement of fact that it happens “only occasionally”.

I think the view of the committee is that the House has probably too infrequently rejected delegated legislation. Without wishing to cause a heart attack to the Chief Whip, I should add that there are occasions when it should be rejected. That does not collapse Parliament or the Government. It usually leads to the Government rushing back with an amending piece of secondary legislation which sorts out the problem. It does not half concentrate the attention. So, without wishing to upset my very good friend the Chief Whip, I do not think we should misquote the Companion in this respect. We should use our powers in the interests of the public with discretion, but periodically.

Moved, That this House takes note of the report of the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee on the Management of Secondary Legislation [29th Report, HL Paper 149, Session 2005-06].— (Lord Filkin.)

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, and to congratulate him and other members of the Merits Committee on producing what in my view is an excellent report, and one that I believe may come to be recognised as a seminal document. I shall be reinforcing some of the points that the noble Lord has made in opening.

It has long been recognised that there are problems with our legislative process and with parliamentary scrutiny of legislation. The problems have been quantitative as well as qualitative. As the noble Lord said, there has been a growth decade by decade in the volume of legislation. Bills are getting longer. More and more statutory instruments are being promulgated. Many provisions are complex and not easy for Members of either House, let alone the public, to understand. We know from experience that they do not always work in the way they are intended to work. Unfortunately, we usually know that only when they have gone badly wrong. We lack any systematic means of post-legislative scrutiny.

There have been some improvements in recent years. With primary legislation, there has been the very welcome growth of pre-legislative scrutiny. At the beginning of this month the other place resolved that Bills should normally be referred to evidence-taking public Bill committees, in my view a major advance and possibly the most important reform of the legislative process in recent history. The Law Commission has made recommendations for post-legislative scrutiny.

In respect of delegated legislation, the most important changes have taken place in your Lordships' House. We have the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee and now the Merits Committee. Both are doing a superb job. This report alone demonstrates the worth of the Merits Committee.

The committee is part of the answer to the problem of delegated legislation and, in this report, it has succinctly and effectively identified what the problem is. There is, as it shows, a systemic failure in government in promulgating delegated legislation. With primary legislation, there is at least some central co-ordination. Bills have to be agreed by the Cabinet and the Ministerial Committee on Legislative Programme. There is a means of ensuring that measures are appropriate and fit in with the time available in the Session. With delegated legislation, there is no central co-ordination and responsibility is dispersed to departments. As the report shows, departments deal with such legislation in different ways.

As a result, delegated legislation is generated in what is essentially a disparate and discrete manner. There is no co-ordinated mechanism for ensuring that each statutory instrument achieves its goals efficiently, that it is necessary and that it is clear to those at whom it is addressed. The absence of such a mechanism also makes difficult effective parliamentary scrutiny. Consultation and parliamentary scrutiny are means to an end; namely, ensuring that delegated legislation is fit for purpose. There is thus something of a vicious cycle. Because there is no central co-ordination, delegated legislation may be brought forward late and there can be bunching at a particular time of the year. That limits the capacity of the two Houses to consider the legislation. The problem is compounded by limitations of time in the other place, thus putting a particular onus on this House to ensure that delegated legislation is fit for purpose.

To ensure that delegated legislation is fit for purpose, there needs to be action not just by Government but also by the House. The action to be taken by Government is very clearly laid out in the report. I endorse all the recommendations that are made.

The Government's response to the recommendations is, I fear, disappointing. Here I echo what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Filkin. The Government recognise the importance of what the committee is arguing but primarily commit themselves to beefing up the guidance and extending some of the existing practices. In so far as there is an improvement in the existing guidance and in practices, I welcome the changes. But they do not go far enough to deal with the problems identified by the committee. The Government's response does not really engage as much as it should and could with the recommendations. It is a missed opportunity. It really should do more to ensure that there is co-ordination. I believe that the same principle that applies to primary legislation should apply to secondary legislation. I disagree with the Government on the point that they make in their response.

In terms of laying orders at least 21 days before they are to come into force, it is not enough simply to remind departments that the 21-day period is a minimum period. There needs to be some mechanism for ensuring compliance. Simply reminding departments is not going to change the culture within departments. The Government's response appears to be driven from the bottom up, from departments, rather than from the top down, from the Cabinet.

The point that I would stress to the Minister is that it is in the Government’s interest to implement these recommendations. The Government want legislation that achieves its intended goals. They are also committed to ensuring better regulation. I draw attention especially to the opening sentence of paragraph 80 of the report, where it notes that central co-ordination will not be effective,

“unless there is a recognition on the part of the Government machine that efficient planning and management of secondary legislation is as much a part of good regulation as are regulatory impact assessments and consultation”.

As it goes on to note, the Better Regulation Executive cannot distance itself from the matter as being of no more than procedural interest to HMSO. This has to be seen as part of the process of better regulation and not as somehow detached from it. I am not sure that in their response the Government have fully grasped that point.

I very much endorse the recommendations on simplicity and consultation in addition to the core recommendations covering co-ordination and post-implementation review. The committee's recommendation on post-implementation review mirrors the recommendation of the Constitution Committee in its 2004 report on the legislative process. The Constitution Committee, which I chaired, argued the case for post-legislative scrutiny to be undertaken by departments and for Parliament itself to have some mechanism for reviewing whether Acts have fulfilled their purpose. The Law Commission has recommended the creation of a Joint Committee to undertake post-legislative scrutiny. It sees the committee as evolving and it could be that it—or the Merits Committee—could come to engage in oversight of post-implementation review of delegated legislation.

I wish to raise one particular point in respect of government. The Merits Committee wants to encourage officials responsible for producing delegated legislation to see the process from the perspective of Parliament. That will enable them to appreciate the need for laying instruments in a timely manner and to avoid congestion. That touches on a wider problem; namely, the fact that officials often have a limited grasp of Parliament in terms of both its significance and its procedures. That can result in the sort of problem identified in this report, but it results also in problems encountered by other committees. Though senior civil servants often understand the role of Parliament, less senior officials sometimes do not and it is the less senior officials who are frequently responsible for producing statutory instruments as well as other material laid before Parliament. It would therefore be helpful to hear from the Minister what the Government are doing to address this problem. Is there a role for the National School of Government, not least in ensuring that officials responsible for delegated legislation are schooled in understanding Parliament and its procedures?

I turn to the role of Parliament. As the report shows, one of the explanations of why delegated legislation is not given the attention it deserves within government is the fact that there is no strong incentive to do so. Delegated legislation is not subject to the same scrutiny by Government or by Parliament as primary legislation is. Instruments subject to the negative resolution procedure are usually not debated in the Commons; time cannot be found even if they are prayed against. In this House, even if debated, they are not usually subject to a vote. Instruments subject to affirmative resolution are debated, but usually briefly and again without a vote. There is no scope for amendment and, as there is usually no Division, few members take an interest. Delegated legislation is very much the poor relation in the legislative process.

If officials responsible for delegated legislation are to take Parliament seriously, Parliament has to take seriously delegated legislation. We have the Merits Committee, but by itself it cannot ensure that officials take Parliament seriously. We have to be prepared to act on reports from the committee and if a statutory instrument is not fit for purpose to reject it. We will in due course debate the report of the Joint Committee on Conventions. It recognises that there is no convention that prevents the House from rejecting a statutory instrument. As the noble Lord said, it may be exceptional for it to do so, but its ability to do so—as the Merits Committee noted in its evidence to the Joint Committee—gives the House some leverage in ensuring that instruments are fit for purpose. As I argued in my evidence to the Joint Committee, I see no reason why we should not reject statutory instruments. They do not usually deal with great issues of principle and they can be relaid. I do not go along with the recommendations of the Wakeham commission. I think that existing powers to reject an SI should remain, but we should be prepared to use those powers. As the noble Lord said, rejecting an SI that is not fit for purpose will concentrate the minds of Ministers and, especially, officials.

I am not arguing that we should regularly reject SIs. Once there is a clear awareness on the part of departments that poorly drafted and inadequate statutory instruments—those that do not meet the criteria specified by the Merits Committee—will not be approved by the House, I have no doubt that SIs will be better drafted and that they will be more likely, in the words of the Merits Committee at the end of paragraph 119, to be,

“well thought-through and free from defect”.

The publication of the report of the Joint Committee on Conventions prior to this debate is timely. If we put the two reports together, we have the basis for ensuring that we use our power to support the work of the Merits Committee and that delegated legislation is fit for purpose. I reiterate that this is an excellent report. It is essential that we see this debate not as an end point but as the beginning of the process in ensuring that the report’s recommendations—all its recommendations—are implemented.

My Lords, I welcome this debate on the report the Merits Committee on the management of secondary legislation, produced under the guidance of our chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Filkin. I came on to the committee at its inception in 2003, not knowing precisely what I had let myself in for. It was extremely interesting to be there from the start, as we had to decide how we were to operate and report to the House. We were lucky to have such an excellent first chairman in the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, backed up by our first clerk, Christine Salmon, and our excellent secretariat, who were especially recruited for us from the Civil Service—truly a case of poacher turned gamekeeper.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Norton, that one task that has been carried out is educating members of the various departments concerned with making statutory instruments on how we wish to have things presented to us and how to improve the general quality. Forums have been run to enable departments to achieve this.

During my three years on the committee, I was amazed at the broad range of subjects covered by statutory instruments, ranging from a single sheet of A4 paper from the Electoral Commission, stating that no party shall call itself “None of the Above”, to hundreds of pages reorganising the medical or dental professions. There was even one on the preservation of Antarctic monuments such as Scott’s hut.

On a more serious note, it is noticeable that the quality of SIs, particularly the Explanatory Memorandum, has improved dramatically, and our insistence on full details of the consultation carried out by the relevant department is starting to achieve our objectives. However, as has been said, there are still too many occasions when the required 12-week period for consultation is not achieved. It is a pity that the Explanatory Memorandum is not—on grounds of cost—a part of the official statutory instrument document and is available only on the departmental website. The Explanatory Note, which is part of the document, is totally useless.

Many of the SIs that we see are completely incomprehensible, consisting solely of amending references to the primary legislation or preceding amending SIs. It is with regard to this that I think a consolidated version of the primary legislation with all the amendments made by the relevant SIs incorporated should be freely available on the relevant departmental website or on the Department for Constitutional Affairs’ proposed statute law database. Such a baseline version must exist, as otherwise it would be impossible to produce the SI.

We had evidence from the Kent Police College concerning the difficulty of knowing which sections of primary legislation had been activated by an SI. An example was quoted whereby a section of a 33 year-old Act—the Criminal Justice Act 1972—still had unactivated sections which could be brought into force at 21 days’ notice, giving the police new powers of which they might be unaware.

Another issue that concerned us was ensuring that adequate publicity was given to SIs affecting the general public. There was one instance, to which I believe the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, referred, concerning the use of licensed waste disposal operators or skip hirers, where we felt that very inadequate provision was made to inform the public of their responsibilities in this matter. Similarly, we had misgivings on the varying impact of SIs on large firms with comprehensive legal departments versus an SME or voluntary organisation where there may be nobody available to be made aware of the significance of the SI or to take any action to implement it. In many cases, it will just be ignored.

Another problem that we observed, and into which no doubt the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, will go in some detail, is the transposition of EU legislation by SIs imposing undefined penalties for undefined offences that can be determined only by extensive trawling through the parent EU legislation—something quite impractical for most members of the public, such as a farmer who may well be affected by such an SI. Details of the offences and penalties should be clearly defined on the face of the SI in such instances.

Management of the SI process and ensuring that adequate time is allowed for scrutiny and subsequent debate have been constant subjects for concern. On too many occasions the 21-day rule between the laying of the SI and its coming into force has not been observed. While there may be some emergency occasions when this is justified, in most cases it is not. The situation becomes even more acute in the run-up to the common commencement dates in April and October—the latter occasion being aggravated by the long Summer Recess preceding it. Departments must plan to ensure that there is always time for adequate parliamentary scrutiny.

Other suggestions in our report were that more consideration should be given by departments to whether an SI was the best way to achieve the objective required, or whether a non-legislative approach was possible and desirable.

I have enjoyed my time on the Merits Committee. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, for introducing the debate.

My Lords, not having been involved or having any great expertise in this area, I hope that the House will forgive my intervening. However, I do so if only to thank the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, and his committee for their excellent report. I despair as I listen to the Government say that they will reduce the regulatory burden by 25 per cent. I remember saying the same thing when I was in government, and failing to do so. When I was first appointed a Minister in the Department of Employment, with responsibility for health and safety, I recall asking officials if they would get me all the regulations that applied to small and medium-sized businesses, with which request they had to comply.

My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord will forgive me but, so far as I am aware, he is not included in the speakers list. He may speak in the gap, but not otherwise.

My Lords, I must say that I thought I was next, but if the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, wishes to intervene briefly, I will not object.

My Lords, I shall just say briefly to the noble Lord, Lord Methuen, that I am not going to resurrect the point about transparency of criminal offences that are imposed under EU regulations. The happy outcome of our previous discussions on that is that it is in the hands of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Davidson of Glen Clova, and he will include something about it in his review. I believe it is relevant to what he is doing, and I look forward very much to the results.

I am happy to support my chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Filkin. He said that the Better Regulation Executive did not go in any depth into statutory instruments. The same of course applies to the Joint Committee on Conventions. It dealt with the rejection of statutory instruments, about which various things have been said. It said, in terms, that it had not been asked to consider amendments. Very few statutory instruments can be amended. This is a point that a number of noble Lords are interested in. In fact, it simply is not feasible to have a system of amending statutory instruments in Parliament; the volume alone would preclude that. On the Library shelves, as an example, the statutory instruments from 2001 run to 10,800 pages and, looking at a slightly smaller set of books, those from 2005 go to 8,800 pages. Not all of those are subject to the parliamentary process, but quite a lot of them are, and it just would not be possible for either House to contemplate amending them.

If the departments that produce statutory instruments are going to be immune from a process of detailed scrutiny and amendment in the House, we must ask for compensation by return. It has already been mentioned by previous speakers, and it comes in the form of consultation. The experience so far is that if there is adequate consultation, changes can be made before the instrument is made or laid. It depends entirely on the adequacy of the consultation. This must be particularly important, with the ever-increasing number of framework Bills where, on the hangers, will come an enormous number of details in the form of statutory instruments. Some Ministers are better than others at giving the House notice when the actual Bill is being discussed of what those details are going to be. We need more consultation.

It is all about this cult word “stakeholders”. I am bound to say that I have found this very confusing. I understand what it is in the business context, but what about others? What about the people who have to enforce the requirements of the statutory instrument—particularly, perhaps, local authority trading standards departments, who are notoriously short of staff and money? When we are told that the Local Government Association is being consulted, are we to suppose—because we are never told—that it has actually asked trading standards departments round the country whether they can take this on, or are we simply to understand that it will later notify the trading standards departments that this subordinate legislation has been passed? It goes into innumerable types of investigation that they will have to enforce—chemical levels in crops, seeds and food, pesticides, cosmetics, grades of animal feedstuff, and so on. We never hear whether these things are enforced, and we never hear whether the trading standards departments say that they are able to do it. I do not know, but I have been to a number of trading standards departments, and I know that they are very stretched as it is.

Are the Government therefore satisfied that the people who are supposed to enforce these requirements do so? What are the figures? We do not know. We have never been told. They do not turn up in the Home Office statistics. We do not know whether this is simply an exercise on paper to which no one pays the smallest attention. It would be very interesting to know more detail about that. Then there is the public. The Government say, in their response to the report at paragraph 38, that they are committed to ensuring that consultation exercises are accessible to all relevant “stakeholders”—again—whether they are citizens, businesses, charities or voluntary groups. The Cabinet Office code of practice on consultation emphasises the importance of making special efforts to reach certain stakeholders, such as small businesses, children, consumers, and those from minority groups. It can be done by public surveys, focus groups, regional events, and so on. Is it? We are not told. We see a few examples of it, but not very many. An enormous number of these instruments affect individual members of the public, and I am very uncertain whether they have any idea that these instruments have been passed and that they will affect their lives.

There was one example in the bundle of papers that we had at yesterday’s meeting about compensation claim management. The Explanatory Memorandum says that the sectors intended to be regulated were announced during the passage of the Act and that the Government consulted last July and August. There was a series of meetings with key stakeholders. Who were they? Did they include the people who are dissatisfied, for instance, with pneumoconiosis claims, who we know have been trying to get better justice round the country? Are they key stakeholders? We are not told whether they were consulted and, if so, what they said.

It really is not good enough that the process of consultation is so obscured. I very much hope that the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, if he cannot do it today, will at any rate say something later about this and be able to reassure us. If people like that do not go to the workshops, do not go to the meetings and do not go to the focus groups because they are not invited, their point of view will not be taken into account. That is one point about consultation.

The other thing that is missing at the moment is any account of the results. We are told that some changes have been made. Is that the replacement of a semi-colon, or is it a much more substantial change in the text of the instrument? I am not sure that the Merits Committee quite made that point in paragraph 11 but, if it did not, I think that we have learnt more since then and I believe it to be a valid point which requires attention now. After all, we learnt in the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act that transparency is a key concept in the Cabinet Office. If that is so, the sort of improvement that I have just suggested must be a small price to pay for not having to go into detailed examination and amendment of the instrument when it comes before Parliament.

I shall be brief on my last point because it has already been covered by previous speakers, including the noble Lord, Lord Filkin. As the noble Lord said, it is absolutely true that, whatever the European Communities Act may say about consultation, it is too late once the European instrument has been made and has to be transposed in this country. At that stage, it cannot be changed, however much consultation you engage in, and possibly you will simply be able to make some minor alterations around the edges. The noble Lord was right: it may have been very difficult for him as a Minister, but he took the right approach if he tried to get consultation at the early stage before going to Brussels to meet the other state delegations and discuss the proposed instrument. Such action would give us the basis of some sort of view from the stakeholders, whoever they may be, and then perhaps we would not be so upset if there was less opportunity for meaningful consultation when the instrument came back to be transposed.

I have concentrated on consultation because I believe that it is the essence of improving the standard of these instruments. I hope that we shall go on imploring the Government to improve their act on this matter.

My Lords, some 18 months on the Merits Committee provided a chance to reflect not only on process but on wider issues which face Parliament. The volume of domestic primary and European legislation over the past 10 years has, as has already been referred to, led to a doubling in the length of manuals setting out the state of the law. The Merits Committee considers more than 1,000 regulations each year and, although the net addition to the total is considerably smaller, nevertheless the appetite for regulations persists. There are some 60 order-making powers in the Bill that was read for the second time in this House this afternoon.

The impact on institutions and the public has been given some recognition. The Better Regulation Executive has been set up, as has the Better Regulation Commission. We now have what remains of the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act, during the passage of which the Minister several times told the House that, if deregulation was wanted, the Act would achieve it. We shall see how busy the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee becomes.

This mounting pile of regulation is, I believe, a major contributor to the worrying trend of public indifference to our democratic process; nor would much necessarily follow from a fuller explanation of the importance and system of secondary legislation. Indeed, given its complexity and detail, there might well be greater disenchantment as people spotted unresolved policy dilemmas and did not see much sign that they were being tackled. For example, business consistently says that it is over-regulated both by the number of regulations and by what has to be done to comply. Indeed, Parliament may well need to achieve a greater understanding of what people have to do to comply. Simpler, shorter and less frequent reporting would reduce burdens.

It follows that, although there is some awareness in both London and Brussels that business has a case and that Europe’s competitive position, and that of the United Kingdom, is weakening, there is no certainty—is there even a likelihood?—that those who like and lobby for more regulation will take heed. It must be doubtful, for the search for villains is the daily fare of pressure groups, and the media delight in feeding their addiction.

Here lies the dilemma, because the search for the perfectly regulated level playing field, with penalties for all infringements, runs directly counter to the market-driven dynamic of business. Business would always tilt the playing field if it could. If regulation is too prescriptive, it flies in the face of comparative advantage and product differentiation. To combat all such levelling, business will be less open and as ingenious as possible in coping with and outflanking regulation, while staying—just—within the rules. The business operators in the field will always know things which the politicians and administrators do not, and, when that becomes clear, the temptation is to tighten up. Then we face a self-reinforcing process, which, to some extent, may well have happened already. Now, we await deregulation or, perhaps more realistically, less and lighter regulation, which will not come just as a result of changed—shall I say “better”?—procedures; a change in political direction is also needed.

In a quite different category comes regulation designed to be in the interests of the most vulnerable members of society. I am not sure how often Ministers or, indeed, Members of this House would confidently tell an individual that he or she was “most vulnerable”. It is not a flattering description but has become a catch-all to refer, for example, to the 10 million people classified as disabled, to all those people over a certain age who live alone or to retired miners who have claims for compensation. The recent Compensation Act relies heavily on regulation in the interests of the most vulnerable, and I suppose that similar thinking lies behind the drive towards home information packs.

The dilemma here is that society is too diverse. Its standards of living and education—rising, as we hope and expect—spread so widely that many people who might qualify under departmental rules will neither see themselves as most vulnerable nor wish to be described as such. It is, in fact, undemocratic to compartmentalise society.

Here again, much careful thought is needed about what will be appropriate and acceptable within the very varied expectations of the many. It is not enough to listen to the vocal few; nor will this issue be tackled to the benefit of the public interest by process alone. It needs political leadership and direction because the five accepted principles of proportionality, accountability, consistency, transparency and targeting, sensible as they are, can be and are being interpreted in many different ways in default of clear policy.

It would be good to be assured that, when we write our next report, we will record continuous improvement in procedure and will be able to identify from the Explanatory Memoranda in front of us policy clarification.

My Lords, it is with great pleasure that I take part in this debate, although I do not plan to speak for long. I shall refer to the report, but I hope that the House will forgive me if I indulge in a little nostalgia.

Having worked here in my party’s Whips’ Office since 1977, I have watched with some alarm the growth in the importance of legislation by statutory instrument. It was not the volume of statutory instruments that caused that alarm, but the fact that much secondary legislation was being created about matters that some Peers believed should more properly be contained in primary legislation and, particularly, that those matters should be amendable by Parliament.

A few voices crying in the wilderness drew attention to that unsatisfactory state of affairs. One was that of my noble friend Lord Hooson, whose speech on 19 December 1984, in a debate about the parliamentary role of the House of Lords, was strangely familiar when I looked it up the other day. I shall quote one sentence, which I believe I may have written. He stated:

“It seems to me that the scope and quality of powers reserved to Ministers in vital Bills for changing the state of things by means of statutory instruments indicates a fairly determined effort to bypass effective parliamentary scrutiny, particularly in your Lordships' House”.—[Official Report, 19/12/84; col. 661.]

Much water has flowed under the bridge since those days. In 1992, the Jellicoe committee recommended the establishment of the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee to examine whether the Government were using delegated legislation appropriately in new Bills. Since 2003, that committee’s successor, the equally powerful Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, has been joined by the Merits Committee, which I am very pleased to be joining this Session.

I found the report that we are debating to be a model of lucidity. Its recommendations are constructive, although I do not believe that they will all be acted on with the alacrity and enthusiasm that the committee would perhaps like. The need for action was borne out by much of the evidence.

Like my noble friend Lord Methuen, I was struck by the written evidence of Mrs Linda Weeks, the learning support centre manager at Kent Police College. She provides monthly updates on new legislation that she obtains from Parliament and from other sources, but states that she would very much like more notice of instruments coming into force, particularly as the press often know about these things in advance. I wonder how on Earth police officers keep track of these things when they suddenly find out via the press that they have new powers as from that very day.

Mrs Weeks went on to say that there could often be confusion when parts of Acts come into force—sometimes only part of a subsection. She wrote tellingly of all the various criminal justice Acts—for example, those of 1972, 1982, 1988 and 1991, all of which have parts in force and parts not in force. I repeat my noble friend’s astonishment that part of an old Act might suddenly be brought into effect in 21 days’ time. Her evidence makes the case for the report’s recommendation that annual statutory instrument plans by government departments should be compiled and published to give valuable long-range warning to those affected.

The other matter that I was pleased to read about in the report was the emphasis on clear Explanatory Notes. Many is the time that I have looked to those for enlightenment, only to be completely daunted by complicated cross-referencing and minimal explanation that give absolutely nothing away as to the meaning of the instrument. I fervently endorse the committee’s recommendation that statutory instruments and their Explanatory Notes in particular should be subjected to review by a senior official—although a junior official might better mirror the general public—who is,

“sufficiently detached from the subject in question to be able to assess its intelligibility to the layman reader”.

Finally, I pay tribute to all those Peers who have in the past 30 years to my knowledge flagged up the importance of the proper scrutiny of secondary legislation, and particularly to those no longer with us, including Lord Rippon and Lord Simon of Glaisdale and, from these Benches, the much missed Lord Russell. I am very honoured to have a place on this important committee.

My Lords, I have worked man and boy in this building for 42 years and I spent a great many of them doing everything that I could to keep as far away as possible from secondary legislation. I did that successfully until three years ago when, out of nothing else but love for my Chief Whip, I agreed to serve on this new committee. Years ago, there was a time when I was responsible in another place for recommending Members of the rather desultory Statutory Instruments Committee that met down the other end of the Corridor. Mercifully, a great and good man, Sir Graham Page, whom some of my colleagues may remember, was the ultimate guru on statutory instruments and I was delighted to be able to recommend his appointment on to that committee down the Corridor.

I have now spent some three years as a Member of this committee and have found it immensely absorbing. We have been graced by two helpful and patient chairmen—I was particularly glad to see the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, pop in for a few moments earlier in this debate. We have been given outstanding help by our clerks and advisers. Although I am not allowed to refer to people outside the House, they sit not as my personal advisers, but as advisers to the whole committee.

One matter that has struck me forcefully in those three years is that even in this building there are few who realise the massive scale and scope of secondary legislation. I am glad that the committee has concentrated its thoughts and work over these first years by looking at secondary legislation in terms of how it will affect the individual citizen, the small businessman, the charity and the local authority. This is exactly the way that we should conduct ourselves, because secondary legislation often affects the individual citizen, the individual business and the small organisation much more heavily than does primary legislation. Parliament as a whole has been woefully inadequate over the years in the way in which it deals with secondary legislation.

I want to talk about what I call “the three cons”, all of which have been referred to. I do not mean confidence tricks; I mean consultation, consolidation and content. First, I cannot add very much to the wise things that have been said in the field of consultation. I believe that the work of the committee has already concentrated the minds of most departments on the need for consultation and the need to explain the result of that consultation in detail to Parliament. The noble Viscount, Lord Colville, spoke about the need to be more precise in these matters. Over the past few years, the quality of Explanatory Memoranda has improved notably. I agree with those who have said that proper and full consolidation is likely to mean that the legislation itself will be more sensible and workable.

On consolidation, briefly, I was struck by the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester, just a moment ago. She said that she remembers having pored over some of these instruments and being able to make neither head nor tail of them; I hope that is what she meant—she nods. Looking at some of these things, you sometimes cannot begin to understand what they are all about. There is often a desperate need for more regular consolidation; you cannot say that there should be consolidation every year, or even every few years, but there must be much more regular consolidation of legislation than at present. So many people and organisations do not have the time, the facilities or the expertise to go progressively back into prior legislation to uncover all the implications.

The third “con” is content. In my time on the committee, I have continually drawn attention to sloppy drafting, which has led to orders being reprinted free of charge after an error has been found in the original drafting. It is lamentable to see, on the back of our report, that no fewer than 62 negative instruments over the last Parliament—March 2005 to 9 November, a week or two ago—had to be reprinted. In addition, 21 instruments were laid including a correction, bringing the total up to 83. A number of departments are woefully inadequate when it comes to proper, careful, accurate drafting. The noble Lord, Lord Filkin, said that he was not going to refer to departments. I am afraid that I shall be less delicate.

Four departments are really awful culprits. One in 16 of Defra’s orders has had to be reprinted free of charge. The figure for the Home Office is one in 15 and the figure for the Department of Health is one in 14. One in 12 orders from the Department for Work and Pensions—I cannot believe it—has contained errors. It is absolutely infuriating for the customers—the public and organisations that must note and deal with these things. When they have been through one, it is infuriating to find that a mess has been made of the drafting and that they must start considering what the orders are about all over again. It is not good enough. I hope that those four departments will take careful note of the black list on the back of our report, of which they should be most embarrassed.

Some departments are better than others, but I must draw attention to two particular culprits. I declare an interest in Defra, as I was once a Minister at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I am shamed by how that department conducts itself nowadays. I will not weary your Lordships tonight with the dreadful scandal that it has brought about with the single farm payment, with the Rural Payments Agency continually in a state of collapse. The chief executive, our friend and colleague, was quoted in the press the other day as saying that he had been fired because of the mess. Strangely, the Secretary of State responsible for all of it became the Foreign Secretary. The Government conduct themselves in funny ways. I also note that, in one of our documents before the House, Defra is again a disgraceful culprit in laying instruments where the date in force is less than 21 days after the laying date. Of the 61 orders that have broken the 21-day rule, Defra is responsible for no fewer than 11. It certainly ought to be very ashamed indeed.

Finally, the Home Office seems to show very little respect for Parliament as a whole. I shall cite two examples demonstrating its apparent indifference and contempt. In your Lordships’ House, the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, put down two Questions for Written Answer on 5 June. The rule is that they should be answered within two weeks. It took the Home Office until the very last day of the last Session, in excess of 22 weeks, to answer those Questions. That is the most lamentable record of idleness and contempt from that woeful department.

I cite another case, from just over a year ago, where the clerk of our committee wrote to the Home Office’s parliamentary and briefing delivery unit about four instruments that the committee was concerned about. It took this person, a parliamentary adviser whom I shall not name, just short of three weeks to reply to this, saying,

“the Home Office Parliamentary Briefing and Delivery Unit play no part in the drafting or laying of delegated legislation. This is dealt with by the Legal Advisers Branch and our role is to arrange and oversee the parliamentary debates required for Affirmative Orders or prayed against Negative Orders after they have been laid”.

This is three weeks after we approached him, and I cannot remember whether the orders were held in abeyance or not. Then he has the impertinence to end his letter saying,

“having now received advice from the Legal Adviser’s Branch on this, I am advised that it is to these officials you should be approaching for the information sought”.

The idle beggar did not even have the courtesy to say, “I have passed your queries on to them and hope they will respond very soon”. That department is an absolute scandal in Whitehall. I hope somebody is doing something about it. It keeps writing letters saying, “We are trying to do better; we are going to do better”. Yet it almost exactly analogous to a schoolboy I heard of some time ago, whose end-of-term report said, “This boy sets himself lamentably low standards and usually fails to attain them”.

The committee must continue this work. The importance of secondary legislation is huge, and this committee is doing a fine job in getting departments to help Parliament and the public to better understand the implications of these instruments.

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Methuen, for barging in ahead of him. That was an example of failure to self-regulate, and I am grateful to the Front Bench for regulating me appropriately. I wished to indicate that, when I was the Minister in the Department of Employment responsible for health and safety, I thought it might be a good idea to read all the regulations that applied to small and medium-sized businesses. After about three months, no regulations had arrived, and when I made queries I was told that the Health and Safety Executive would have to hire a special van to deliver them. That illustrates the extent of the problem.

I am greatly encouraged by this report, for a number of reasons that were eloquently spelt out by my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth. It makes a series of recommendations which, if taken seriously and implemented with zeal by Ministers in their departments, would make a huge difference. I am not making a partisan point when I say that the Government’s response is a little disappointing. I understand why it is disappointing; it is because it is part of the culture of government, whichever party is in power. I plead guilty to it. There is a story in the newspapers, there is a campaign or there is a need for action, so Ministers give a commitment that they will produce a Bill. The Bill is rushed through the House; it comes to this place; the detail has not been thought through and is left to secondary legislation. The caravan moves on, and Ministers are no longer interested in the detail.

Wherever I go in the country—not just in business, but in sport or other aspects of everyday life—I see that there is a real head of steam about regulation and a resentment that it seems to be out of touch and insensitive. The Merits Committee is an innovation and an example of the sort of work that is done by this House of which we should be proud, but around the Chamber its importance is not always recognised. This is one of the most important reports to come before the House. In terms of the impact on the country, this issue is of the greatest importance and is the single issue that is causing concern in business and throughout society, so I welcome the report.

There is a tendency for us to assume, when looking at regulation, that it is all the fault of Europe. People will say, often in error, that regulations that they do not like were produced by the European Union. It has also been suggested that the problem is caused by civil servants in government departments gold-plating legislation—that may be partly true. The noble Lord, Lord Filkin, made the extraordinarily important point that it is difficult to reverse decisions of the Council of Ministers. It is difficult not only to get agreement on a change but to get agreement even to put it on the agenda. That is a fundamental failure of the operation of the European Union.

I have only one more minute, but I want to say to all the members of the committee that their work is valued greatly by those of us who are concerned about the problem of regulation, and I hope that the Government will think about instructing Ministers to take these recommendations seriously and to change the culture by which they operate. I know what it is like to get four red boxes at night, with the statutory instruments at the bottom. The tendency is just to sign them off and not read through them, even if you can understand what they are about. If the Prime Minister is serious, he and the whole Government should read this report, tell all the Permanent Secretaries that they should act on its recommendations and hold them to account for so doing.

My Lords, I am pleased to be able to take part in this debate, which was so ably introduced by our chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Filkin. I have been on the Merits Committee for only a relatively short time, but two things struck me very forcibly when I became a member. One has already been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Jopling: the incredible workload of the committee advisers. They get on top of a huge raft of information. There are thick agendas each week, and they get on top of them and are always there, being very helpful and giving us excellent advice. Secondly, individual members of the committee—and I am sorry that, at the last minute, the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, was unable to be with us—have a wealth of experience and knowledge.

I have been a Front-Bench spokesman for the Liberal Democrats for most of my parliamentary career, here and in another place, so the majority of my time has been spent on primary legislation. However, to echo the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, it has been fascinating to look closely at how secondary legislation is scrutinised and dealt with. As a Front-Bencher, I rarely had much time for it, and in this House, where I am unable to pay a researcher to work for me full time, trying to keep up with the progress of secondary legislation has been difficult. Our committee is a good aid for people in this House.

The last Bill that I dealt with as a Front-Bencher was the Housing Act 2004, which was so thick that I decided that I did not want to be a Front-Bencher any more. The trouble with local government and housing is that those concerned have to fight to get time in Parliament therefore the Bills become very thick. As with many Bills, the detail of large parts of secondary legislation was not available during the passage of the Bill, which meant that, after the Act was passed in 2004, a large number of statutory instruments came forward. They were still coming forward when I arrived on the committee in 2006, which was quite helpful because at least I knew about them already. We have discussed the required processes and the importance of consultation, which was addressed by the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, and the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, who explained how we should try to be better at it. However, what I described illustrates our passion as a Parliament for long, complicated legislation.

I have not clocked up 42 years like the noble Lord, Lord Jopling. I discovered yesterday that the noble Viscount has clocked up 52 years. I have done only 13 years across the two Houses, but in that time I have seen huge growth in the amount of legislation. In this Session’s Queen’s Speech we have the 11th education Bill, the 12th health and social care Bill, the 8th terrorism Bill and the 24th criminal justice Bill since Labour came into Government in 1997. What is more, 52 sections and five schedules of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 have still not been brought into force, two sections were repealed without having been brought into force and a further three were brought into force and then repealed, so some of the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, are borne out in my experience. Since 1997, 365 Acts have been passed and there have been 32,000 statutory instruments, so there has been no shortage of work for our committee, and there will be lots to come.

Our chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, referred to the Prime Minister wanting to do something about regulation, and we were all disappointed by the evidence from the Better Regulation Task Force to our committee. Despite its intentions, it did not seem to be taking this terribly seriously, so one of the things that I particularly support in our committee’s report is that we urge all government departments to do something about consolidation. We have heard graphic descriptions of the problems of trying to understand Bills that amend this, that and the other, going a long way back. Some departments do better than others. As the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, said, we have been very critical, but we try to praise people when they get it right. There is no doubt that our committee and the House of Lords play a vital role in scrutinising secondary legislation, as reflected in the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth.

When writing this speech I was reminded of the comments of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor last week, when he was talking to us about the future of the House. He said:

“Members of this House, of all parties and of none, are loyal and dedicated servants of Parliament”.

Every week there are jolly dedicated members on the Merits of Statutory Instruments Select Committee, I can tell you. The Lord Chancellor continued:

“They attend, they stay, they vote—and they do so, day after day, night after night, very often little noticed by the other place or the wider public. But without those efforts, that consistency and that application, regardless of party affiliation, the legislative process in our Parliament would not and could not work”.—[Official Report, 23/11/06; col. 439.]

His words are very relevant to the debate tonight.

How we scrutinise legislation has been looked at recently not only by our own committee but also by the Joint Committee on Conventions. The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, referred to that as well. He and other noble Lords pointed out that, although we often have debates on instruments and Ministers are required to reply—sometimes very constructively and at other times not quite so constructively—the House can reject a statutory instrument by Motion. It is not the usual practice; more often than not it is a non-fatal Motion. Even if we win a vote on a non-fatal Motion, the Government are completely at liberty to ignore what we have said. Sometimes they do take notice—I give praise where it is due.

The Joint Committee on Conventions addressed that matter and the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, referred to it. The committee also obliquely referred to the fact that we are not allowed to amend statutory instruments here. The noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, thought that we would grind to a halt if we tried to do that, but the matter was raised in the committee’s report and we should look at it again when considering Lords reform. I think that many of us would agree that, if the process is not working properly, we should use our powers more boldly. That came out in much of the evidence to the Joint Committee on Conventions. I remind the House that that committee has members from both Houses. That is very important.

I hope that this short debate will inform the House and a wider audience of the important and very useful role played by the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee. As the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, said, many people do not understand how secondary legislation operates. Every instrument we deal with affects individuals; the committee was very conscious of that in making its recommendations. We need to ensure that the laws are fair and effective and that those affected by them have the information they need to respond in the right way. One of our members explained graphically the terrible legal difficulties for people who do not understand that they might be committing a heinous crime and who must try to find their way through the legislation to discover what it is they have done.

The committee has been trying to find ways to get its reports circulated more widely. This week I rang the local government solicitor on Northumberland County Council, of which I am now a member. In our conversation it emerged that he reads our reports weekly. That was very encouraging. I am not surprised, because a great deal of what passes through our committee affects local government.

As we start this new Session, membership of the committee has changed slightly. I am very pleased to be able to welcome my noble friend Lady Thomas of Winchester. I am sure noble Lords will agree with me that she has added greatly to our debate. I am sure that she will be an enthusiastic member of the committee. There will clearly be plenty of business this Session. As we say on page 3 of our most recent report about the work of the previous Session,

“Despite this workload, the Committee has maintained good humour and a consensual approach”.

I am sure we will continue to do so under the very good leadership of our chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Filkin.

Tonight we have seen around the Chamber cross-party consensus about where we go on this. I sincerely hope that we will get a satisfactory response from the Government and that they will look again at our recommendations. There has been huge agreement around the Chamber tonight.

My Lords, many years ago I was asked by the then government Chief Whip, my noble friend Lord Denham, to serve on the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. Being a dutiful and relatively new Member of this House of course I agreed, only to find that on that committee there was no discussion of the merits of the statutory instruments, but it was merely a question of looking at their vires. It was all what one might call pretty dry stuff. I think that it was the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, who referred to his own committee as being something of a gulag. Well, the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments in those days was positively the outer Siberia of committees. I discovered that even more, like my noble friend Lord Jopling, many years later when I was Chief Whip and trying to find people to go on to that committee. One really had to approach them at a very early stage in their career in this House if they were to be persuaded to serve on it.

I remember one or two keen enthusiasts. The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester, will remember the late Lord Airedale, who was certainly a very enthusiastic member of that committee, and probably kept it going. But its particular problem was that it could not discuss the merits of the statutory instruments put before us. That is why I welcome the fact that this committee was created some years ago. I am very grateful for the explanation we have had from its chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, about exactly what it does and how it goes about it.

I would like from these Benches to pay our tribute to the work of that committee. One particular innovation it has brought in in the way committees are run is that regular e-mails are sent out. I do not know whether they are sent to all Members of the House or only to those who request them—I must have requested them at some stage because I receive them—but to receive e-mails highlighting the statutory instruments to which the committee wants to draw the House’s attention is very useful, and leads one to go down to get hold of the statutory instrument if it is relevant to one’s sphere of work in the House.

I remember, when first in opposition, sharing an office with my late friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, finding as one went through the Order Paper—this was especially true when we returned after the long Summer Recess—that a vast number of statutory instruments were laid. We had no idea where to start or how to set about doing the proper job that anyone in opposition or, for that matter, anyone in this House other than those on the government Front Bench, should do—the proper job of scrutinising what comes before us—because of the sheer size and number of instruments brought before the House.

That brings me to my first point, which is that, as we all know, there is far too much delegated, secondary legislation. It is easy to say that; we have all said it; and those of us who have been in government, like my noble friends Lord Forsyth and Lord Jopling, have probably been as guilty as anyone else in putting it about. But it is still worth reminding the Government again, again and again that they are the guilty ones and must do something to reduce it.

To give just one example from the primary legislation that we were debating only this afternoon, we have a Bill, the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill. It is a thick, heavy, large Bill. It has 290 pages; it has 140 clauses; it has 23 schedules. But it still manages rightly to be described by my noble friend Lord Kingsland at Second Reading, only a few hours ago, as a skeleton Bill. That was not denied by the Government. Far too much in it is left to secondary legislation. I thought that he was probably exaggerating, so I opened it at random. First, I opened page 130 in Schedule 5. I counted up to 12 occurrences of:

“Rules may make provision for”.

It may be quite appropriate that rules should be made, but it is jolly difficult to consider all these matters in advance of seeing the rules. Those may be matters that should quite rightly be left to secondary legislation.

Turning to page 86 of the Bill—Clauses 103 and 104—in a short space, without trying to, I found “Regulations may make” or “Regulations under this section” four times. No doubt if we went through the rest of the Bill, we would find even more and I am sure that someone fairly assiduous will, by the time that the Bill goes into Committee, have counted the number of order-making powers that the Government are giving themselves and can then offer some advice to the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee on how much extra work that Bill will provide in due course.

I hope that the Government realise that not only is that unsatisfactory in that it makes it harder for end-users to know what will come out, but it makes it very difficult to discuss the primary legislation—the Bill itself—when all we have is a skeleton on which will be tacked all the orders in due course. I hope that the Government will take some note of that.

I welcome the fact that the Government responded to the 29th report of the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee. I must say that I found it difficult to find that response. In fact, when I went to the Printed Paper Office, I was assured that it did not exist. I was given the response to another report. So, as I always do, I went to the Library, which is rather good at these things, and someone dug out the response for me. There it was in some other volume, where it was supposed to be.

I had a sneaking suspicion that the Government would not mind if their response was not noticed that much. It has not received what one would call a wholehearted welcome. The words that I seem to remember being used by the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, were that the committee's response was “somewhat lukewarm”. I think that another expression that he used was that the committee was “not exactly overwhelmed” by the government response. Perhaps I misunderstood him; but listening to the reaction of other noble Lords who have spoken in the debate, his words might have been an understatement. The noble Lord made, if I may say so, an excellent speech but one that was moderate, calm and considered. He was very careful, as he put it, not to name names. I was grateful that my noble friend Lord Jopling took it on himself to name names, and mentioned what we might call some of the guilty departments. It is quite right that they should be named, and one hopes that will have some effect.

I have been only the second non-member of the committee to speak in this debate, and I am grateful to have been joined by my noble friend Lord Forsyth, who brings a great deal of experience to these matters. I think both of us would hope that many other Members of the House who are not members of the committee will take part in any future debate, or even if not taking part in the debate will listen to it. It is rather sad that it is happening late at night, and that there are very few Members here. We would like the Government to be held properly to account, and to hear their response in due course.

My noble friend stressed, and the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, echoed, the great importance of the report. Others have underlined the weakness of the Government’s response. I simply hope that we can now have a slightly stronger response from the Minister on behalf of the Government, and an assurance from him that, even after his response, the Government will continue to take notice of the report and to push all departments—in particular the guilty departments named by my noble friend Lord Jopling—to get their act together and try to ensure that there is proper consultation on statutory instruments, and that statutory instruments are properly drafted, properly brought before the House, and can be used by everyone, whether or not they are called stakeholders, in due course.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Filkin for introducing his report, and for the very constructive and challenging way in which he did so. I also thank all other members of the committee who have attended the debate this evening and who have made their telling contributions. It might surprise some Members of your Lordships’ House to know that I have enjoyed listening to the comments and commentary on the content of the report, and have found the debate very valuable.

I reassure my noble friend Lord Filkin that I, and other members of the Government, do not see the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee as a gulag. That denial is very important and we should have it on the record because the committee is certainly not a gulag. The Merits Committee, with the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, does first-rate work. Indeed, it does exactly what my noble friend says it should do: it considers, and makes telling points about, whether key statutory instruments achieve the policy objectives behind them—something that is very important to the development and implementation of policy.

I should also tell your Lordships’ House that I struggled this morning when I was explaining to my 16 year-old daughter Lauren, who is a politics student, what the content of the debate might be. She was not entirely convinced that my time would be well spent, but I intend to return home this evening and advise her that she was quite wrong and that an urgent study of Hansard will demonstrate that to her satisfaction.

To the debate. It is worth noting that, since the committee published its report and following a machinery of government change, ministerial responsibility for the management of the statutory instruments procedures recently transferred to the Department for Constitutional Affairs as a consequence of the merger of Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, the Office of Public Sector Information and the National Archives. I suppose I should take some joy in that, because it means that I may no longer have to respond to these points. Having heard the quality of the debate, however, I should add that that would be a disappointment for me. As a result of this, many of the issues discussed in the committee’s report will henceforth be matters for the DCA, as I said.

It is many years since any parliamentary committee has carried out such a far-reaching inquiry into the arrangements for the management of secondary legislation. For that reason, if for no other, the committee must be congratulated on its work, and the Government record their gratitude for a report that addressed a wide range of issues and highlighted a number of areas in which the committee believes improvements will be required. These are important issues and, although the House will not expect the Government fully to accept all the committee’s recommendations, we acknowledge the importance of the issues. In our formal written response and in our response this evening, we also acknowledge the value of the recommendations and conclusions that the committee made. Noble Lords today have given very good voice to those.

This debate comes at a highly opportune time following the Prime Minister’s speech to the CBI, to which a number of noble Lords referred, and the reports that the Chancellor of the Exchequer published yesterday. The Prime Minister told industry leaders at the CBI conference that the Government are embarking on one of the most radical programmes of regulatory reform in the world. He announced to the conference that government departments will, as the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, said, plan to reduce by 25 per cent the red tape that they oversee through form-filling, inspections and record-keeping, thus reducing the administrative burdens on business and third-sector organisations, which we believe will offer savings worth up to £2.2 billion. These new measures will be formally launched when 18 departments and regulators publish their simplification plans, which many noble Lords seek, before the end of the year.

Yesterday, the Chancellor published the report from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Davidson, to which the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, referred, on his review of the implementation of EU regulations. Its overall findings are that inappropriate gold-plating of European legislation is perhaps not as widespread as is sometimes claimed. The progress report was published on the implementation of the Hampton report relating to enforcement and compliance. This week, the Cabinet Office has also published the report of the Macrory Review of Regulatory Penalties, which makes a number of recommendations that aim to ensure that regulators have access to a flexible set of modern, fit-for-purpose sanctioning tools that are consistent with the risk-based approach to enforcement outlined by Philip Hampton. In his telling contribution, the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, referred to the fact that these issues were discussed in detail. I hope that the House will have the opportunity to discuss these reports on another occasion and I shall therefore concentrate on the report from the Merits Committee.

The Government fully accept that, although much delegated legislation is not newsworthy, it may none the less be highly significant in its impact on the citizen, business and the voluntary sector. It is important that all secondary legislation is properly thought through and is of a consistently high quality. The primary legislation that Parliament puts in place generally provides a framework and secondary legislation is required to put much flesh on this before practical effect can be given to Parliament’s intentions. One example is the major reforms that Parliament enacted in relation to the introduction of civil partnerships, which required more than 40 separate instruments to effect the changes necessary to the various elements of law that were impacted before the benefits of those reforms could be realised for the benefit of many citizens across the country.

Over recent years, the Government have sought to ensure that the quality of secondary legislation is maintained and improved. We have also made a key commitment to improving the process of regulation so that the impact on businesses and the voluntary sector can be reduced. We were therefore pleased to note the committee’s conclusion that we had put in place resources to give effect to that commitment. The committee also concluded that much of the regulation with which it was concerned lives up to the prospectus for better regulation.

The Government are concerned to make improvements in the process and to aid proper and effective parliamentary scrutiny. One improvement has been made in relation to the supply of Explanatory Memoranda, which were introduced for affirmative instruments in 2001 and extended to negative instruments in 2004. We have been anxious to ensure that the memoranda provide noble Lords and the Merits and Joint Committees with the information that is required so that the task of scrutinising instruments can be thoroughly conducted. I was pleased to hear praise for the improvements in Explanatory Memoranda made by the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, and the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester.

When the committee produced its report, it noted that there were examples, however, of a lack of clarity in some memoranda. We note though that in its end-of-Session review the committee has confirmed that the Explanatory Memoranda that departments provide are generally of a high standard. The Government are committed to ensuring that any instances of failure to meet these standards are eliminated. New guidance on their preparation, which officials from HMSO have agreed with the committee’s officials, should assist in that task. That guidance features in the new edition of Statutory Instrument Practice, which is effectively the bible with which departments are required to comply. This guidance is kept under constant review and is reissued periodically. Moreover, it can be downloaded quite readily from the OPSI website, and copies are available in the Library.

The committee suggested that all memoranda should be reviewed by someone who is sufficiently detached from the subject to be able to assess their intelligibility to lay people. That recommendation has been adopted in a number of instances and is now being considered by all departments.

My noble friend Lord Filkin was very concerned to ensure that the case for central co-ordination of the process was understood in terms of whether there should be some mechanism put in place for overseeing departmental programmes. The committee made a number of recommendations about how departments should manage their secondary legislation, the production of annual management plans including milestones to be met, and the publication of annual statements of their projected secondary legislative programme. The committee also proposed that departmental lists of planned secondary legislation should be consolidated into a single list in order to establish whether the resultant Whitehall-wide programme was likely to be manageable at the stage of parliamentary scrutiny.

It should be emphasised that the role of the centre is not comparable to its role in the management of the programme for primary legislation. The Government do not believe that it would be practical to have one Minister responsible for co-ordination across government. Individual Secretaries of State are ultimately responsible and best able to manage their own departments’ secondary legislation.

My Lords, is there not already one Minister who is responsible for the co-ordination of policy across government, and is that not the Prime Minister? Should it not be his responsibility?

My Lords, of course the Prime Minister takes the lead in those matters, but as I am sure the noble Lord will appreciate, simply to assert that the Prime Minister should be responsible for the detail of secondary legislation when Secretaries of State are far more closely connected to the need for it has to be understood.

My Lords, the Minister has said that the report suggests that one person should be in charge over the whole of government. If he were to look towards the end of our report, I think he would find that what we said was that we would like one person, a senior official, in each department to be in charge of the production of statutory instruments. As I recall, I do not think we asked for one person over the whole of government to be in charge. While there are organisations doing this already, what we would like to see is one person in each department in overall charge.

My Lords, I understand the point and it is something I intend to address.

In the December 2004 Pre-Budget Report, the Chancellor announced that the common commencement date initiative would be extended progressively to all domestic regulations with a bearing on business. Under this initiative departments are required to prepare an annual statement, to be issued in January, listing regulations affecting business which they expect to commence on the following 6 April and 1 October. Common commencement dates and the accompanying annual statements help businesses to plan for new regulation, increase awareness of new or amended regulations and give Ministers a strategic overview of departments’ regulation programmes. The introduction of common commencement dates has generally been welcomed by stakeholders, who benefit from the knowledge that the regulations which might affect their businesses will be changed on only two dates each year. Alongside that, many departments whose secondary legislation is not formally subject to common commencement dates have in place alternative commencement dates for some of their statutory instruments which have been agreed in conjunction with stakeholders.

Departments’ timetables for projected legislation can be subject to amendment and revision in response to a wide range of policy developments and external events. Any management plans would of course be subject to substantial and frequent revision. As a result, they are likely to be of limited benefit to either Parliament or stakeholders. To attempt to reduce such plans could accordingly impose a disproportionate burden on departments. Given that and the information already published under the common commencement date initiative, the Government do not think that departments can produce effective detailed management plans for all projected secondary legislation, with such plans being centrally consolidated, but the scope for that will be kept carefully under review. The Government acknowledge the importance of good planning and the use of project management techniques in the statutory instrument process.

The Government acknowledge, too, the committee’s concerns about congestion in the parliamentary scrutiny stage and the bunching of instruments at various times of the year. Every effort is made to give sufficient notice of debates on statutory instruments to enable the committee to report beforehand. A good working relationship has been established between the Government Whips’ Office and the committee, which has enabled both sides to show flexibility in the past year.

We share the committee’s view about the desirability of minimising the bunching of instruments during peak periods in March, July and December. Parliamentary scrutiny of instruments is a key part of the process, and departments need to allow adequate time within their planning, including contingencies, to allow for slippage to ensure that this scrutiny occurs. I emphasise again that bunching is not a new phenomenon; it has occurred under previous Administrations. Improved planning is a key issue for departments but, even if that is achieved, it is unlikely that bunching will be avoided completely.

The Government acknowledge that there is scope for improved management of the statutory instrument process in some departments. The committee’s inquiry has helped Government in bringing this to the attention of those departments. However, even with improved management of the departmental statutory instrument process, the Government do not believe it will be possible to eliminate completely congestion or bunching. Departments make every effort to introduce their secondary legislation within the parliamentary calendar to allow for proper scrutiny and approval. The guidance to departments makes it clear that they must allow time for proper and effective scrutiny. They should avoid laying instruments just ahead of the 21-day minimum period before commencement, avoid laying negative instruments in the summer Recess, and allow sufficient time for instruments subject to affirmative resolution to be considered and reported upon by Select Committees before any Motion to approve can be moved.

The guidance also emphasises that good project management and planning skills are key elements of the common commencement date process and that all key stakeholders, policy divisions, legal teams and parliamentary clerks should be involved in that process.

The committee has been particularly concerned that no instruments are laid before Parliament fewer than 21 days before they are due to come into force unless there are clear and compelling reasons of operational urgency for such action. The new edition of Statutory Instrument Practice emphasises that the 21-day period is a minimum and that, whenever possible, instruments should be laid well in advance of this to allow Parliament to consider their impact. The examples highlighted by the committee of failure to comply with this rule include many instances where it was necessary to take urgent action and where, had it not been taken, the Government would probably have been criticised by noble Lords for their slow response. Such examples included preventive measures for dealing with avian influenza, food import emergency control regulations, export control orders, the application of United Nations measures and sanctions against overseas territories, and instruments implementing Budget announcements where prior notice could not be given. As I understand it, the committee noted in its report that some breaches derived from the need to take that urgent action. If the more recent report on the work of the committee is to be understood clearly, it specifically cited food safety issues as one area where urgency might be required.

On internal departmental controls, the committee recommended that each department should have one member of its top management who is accountable to the relevant Minister for the efficiency and effectiveness of preparing SIs and for ensuring that the finished instruments meet the requirements of good regulation. The noble Lord, Lord Jopling, referred to that. It is the Government’s view that it would not be possible for departments to have a single accountable person along the lines suggested. Each department already has a better regulation champion who works with the department’s better regulation Minister, and many already have a member of their management board carrying out a role broadly similar to that envisaged by the committee.

It is worth pointing out that the circumstances of individual departments in the context of secondary legislation are not all the same, and the way they are structured to handle the process needs to accommodate these differences. Against that background, we acknowledge that there is scope for improvement in the way in which individual departments manage their processes, and the committee's report is helpful in promoting such improvement.

The committee also raised concerns about the nature of the guidance on best practice and the need to ensure that this is followed by departments. Extensive guidance on the SI process is available to officials. The statutory instrument practice and the common commencement dates guidance are very helpful in that regard. There is also the code of practice on consultation, regulatory impact assessment guidance and the transposition guide about how to implement European directives effectively. All that is now linked via the new statutory instrument practice section of the Office of Public Sector Information website. The Government do not feel that it is necessary to add to that guidance. In addition, departmental lawyers can access guidance materials and advice on drafting secondary legislation through the Government Legal Service intranet.

Many noble Lords spoke about the importance and value of consultation and the means of improving it. My noble friend Lord Filkin, in particular, expressed the need for greater emphasis on quality of contact with stakeholders. The noble Viscount, Lord Colville, stressed the importance of a pre-secondary legislative consultative process and of making sure that we consulted effectively with those most affected. One would find it hard to disagree with any of those points; we agree with the committee about the importance of ensuring that consultation requirements are met. The Better Regulation Executive already takes action to achieve this in relation to domestic and European legislation. In addition to working on a day-to-day basis with departments on all aspects of better regulation, including consultation, the BRE reports annually on compliance of these consultation arrangements against the code of practice.

Consulting as early as possible is promoted across government not only for domestic policy work but as a way of assisting Ministers to determine UK positions on EU proposals. The transposition guide states that before a proposal is published, departments should carry out appropriate informal consultation with other government departments and with external stakeholders. The code of practice makes it clear that departments are required to consult fully on instruments implementing EU legislation. Moreover, government departments are required to carry out full impact assessments when preparing to transpose EU law into national law, and the consultation of stakeholders is a significant part of the regulatory impact assessment process. We recognise fully the issues noble Lords have raised about the value and importance of consultation, particularly with regard to measures originating from the EU.

The revised guidance on the preparation of Explanatory Memoranda makes it clear that departments should set out who was consulted, over what period and with what responses. There should also be some analysis of the outcome and the department's policy response to the opinions expressed. A summary of the responses given and an explanation of how the proposal will change in the light of the responses received will generally be included in the regulatory impact assessment which is attached to the Explanatory Memorandum.

On consolidation and simplification, the committee was concerned that the Government should put more impetus behind the process of consolidation and that we should aim as a general rule to publish consolidated electronic versions of each instrument following amendment. There is a distinction to be drawn between formal consolidation—making new legislation—and the publication “informally”, without making a new instrument, of an unofficial text of an instrument taking account of textual amendments that have been made to it in subsequent instruments. The key consideration as to whether an instrument should be consolidated is the convenience and ease of comprehension for users, about which noble Lords were particularly concerned. Consolidation can also make a major contribution to better regulation.

The Government agree that consideration should be given to formal legislative consolidation, both in cases in which there are large numbers of instruments and amending instruments, and when minor changes are made in the principal instrument. The Government will continue to dedicate resources to the task of formally consolidating instruments when departmental Ministers can identify appropriate cases for action. The task of consolidation can be a complex and resource-intensive operation, involving not only the mechanical task of applying amendments but a review of the policy objectives.

I am very grateful to the committee for its report and to the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, for his strenuous efforts to ensure that we are kept well informed on the committee and its work. I hope that in this response I have covered most of the major points raised by the committee and noble Lords during the debate. I shall study Hansard closely to ensure that those I have missed are followed up, and I shall happily put those consolidation points in correspondence to the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, as chair of the committee—and to those other noble Lords who have contributed to the debate.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his response. He knows, as I do, that the trouble with being a government Whip is that you are expected to read out the stuff that they put before you. The most generous comment that I can make is that there has been a considerable consistency between the Government’s written response and the response from the Dispatch Box. That has been characterised—and I shall choose my words as patiently as I can—by an analysis of the problem that basically listens to what the departments say. The response was the expression of a lowest common denominator of the individual views of departments. It lacked any central sense of a guiding intelligence, energy, commitment or force to own the problem or to do anything about it.

I hope that I am wrong, but we shall wait and see. The committee will be vigorous in watching whether there will be clear evidence of change, because the Government have said that they abide by these standards, so we do not need to worry our heads about all the mechanisms that we have sought for getting progress on these issues.

I am further surprised by the Government’s response because what we are asking for is perhaps the most trivial thing that you could ask a Government to do. We are not asking them to make people happy or stop crime or make a happier world; we are asking them to deal in a fairly straightforward way with some processes and good administrative practice across government. I think that I expected more from my Government in their response to this pretty trivial request. We will wait and see, but we will not wait passively; we will monitor the process actively and, if we find it lacking, will come back again with further action—and we will look for the support of the House in so doing.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House adjourned at 9.13 pm.