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Volume 724: debated on Monday 17 January 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what proposals they have to reduce the volume and complexity of new legislation.

My Lords, the Government are committed to simplifying and improving the quality of legislation. We will improve quality by publishing in draft for pre-legislative scrutiny, where possible, and through post-legislative scrutiny. We have established a mechanism to prevent the proliferation of unnecessary criminal offences and introduced a one-in, one-out rule for regulations which impose costs on business or civil society.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that reply, but is he aware that we legislate at between 200 and 400 per cent the rate of any comparable country in Europe? Is he aware that the cumulative effect of making legislation at the rate of between 11,000 and 13,000 pages a year over the past 15 years has been a state of indigestion in this country that some might call citizen constipation, which has parlous consequences? If I cannot ask him for a moratorium for a year on all legislation to allow us to catch up and see to implementation, will he at least consider introducing a provision, as in the Charities Act 2006, requiring a report to Parliament within four to five years of enactment of legislation in order that Parliament can consider its effectiveness and take necessary measures?

My Lords, I think there is general agreement around the House about the necessity to legislate less, but the problem is—and I have heard this throughout my time around Whitehall and Westminster—that although Oppositions have the absolute determination to legislate less, when they get into government they find that every department has at least two or three, or perhaps even more, good ideas they want to legislate on. Indeed, every Secretary of State who followed my noble friend’s advice would start reading in the gossip columns that he was for the chop, because he was a do-nothing Secretary of State. It is a dilemma, but my noble friend is pointing us in the right direction.

Did I overhear the noble Lord correctly, when he said that the Government were committed to improving the quality of legislation by pre-legislative scrutiny? Tired people make tired laws. How does he reconcile that with what the Government are doing today?

Because sometimes, my Lords, the procedures of the House do not allow for non-tired Lords, but I cannot believe that a piece of legislation the total number of hours for which it has been scrutinised by this House will, at some time tonight, exceed the total time for which it was scrutinised in the other place has been subject to any abuse whatever on this side of the Chamber.

My Lords, are there any plans, as there once were, to consolidate the mass of recent legislation on terrorism? That would be a great aid towards simplification.

I cannot give an instant response but, as so often with the noble and learned Lord’s interventions, it is a good suggestion, not least because I understand that some of the pieces of terrorism legislation passed over the past decade were never actually put into practice.

Would the Minister consider recommending to his colleagues that departments of government receive a budget for drafting future legislation at a stage before it is known whether it will form part of the Queen’s Speech, so that the good ideas may be more adequately translated into prose?

Again, I will take that sound suggestion back. From my limited experience, if I had my time over again, I would become a parliamentary draftsman, because it seems to be a well protected trade.

Does the Minister think that the quality of scrutiny of legislation would improve if we had an elected upper House?

My Lords, when it comes to constitutional legislation, what lessons does my noble friend take from the fact that only 27 amendments to the United States constitution have been made in the past 200-plus years, two of those being prohibition and a reversal of prohibition? Will he take into account such lessons when bringing forward any legislation on House of Lords reform?

Indeed, that is why I am very enthusiastic about the concept of pre-legislative scrutiny for a Bill, because it will give an ample opportunity for all sides and opinions to be heard.

My Lords, there are two parts to my question. First, the noble Lord talks passionately about the need for pre-legislative scrutiny, so why was the Bill before us today not subject to pre-legislative scrutiny? The Minister also talks about the need for less complex Bills to come before us and for pre-legislative scrutiny, yet we are told that this week a Bill with 400 clauses will come before the House of Commons. It is a Bill on the National Health Service that was not proposed in the manifesto of either party; and it was specifically stated in the coalition agreement that there would be no major Bill to reorganise the NHS. What is the rationale for that Bill?

I thought that the Prime Minister explained that excellently on the “Today” programme this morning. It was a most impressive performance. One of the problems about the commitment to pre-legislative scrutiny is what happens in the first year of a radical and reforming Government. That is one of the things that we run against. A Government who are determined to hit the ground running, with radical reforms, are bound to run into some problems on this. I have explained where we are going on legislation, and we will make efforts to make sure that both Houses are fully involved in the pre-legislative scrutiny and—the point made by my noble friend—that there is the opportunity for both Houses of Parliament to take a second look, in the form of post-legislative scrutiny, to see whether we have got certain legislation right.