Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am greatly privileged to have obtained this short debate. In the time allowed to me I wish to explore a broad yet specific matter of principle rather than an individual problem. I am conscious that the attendance today is rather small but I am sure that the wisdom is great. I suspect that I will learn rather more than I impart today.
I want to talk about the unhealthy balance that has arisen over the years between the quantity of legislation produced and sound government administration. In particular, I want us to acknowledge and accept that while some legislation has succeeded in its objective, much has failed badly and, in some cases, done more harm than good. I am certain we can all think of our own examples.
There can be no doubt that the volume of ill-considered legislation has grown over the years. The average length of Bills introduced to Parliament seems significantly greater than in previous decades. Multi-purpose Bills, sometimes called Christmas tree Bills, are more common than they were. Daniel Greenberg, a former parliamentary counsel, argued in a report earlier this year:
“The length of new Bills and the number of clauses that they include is becoming so great that Parliament is unable to properly scrutinise them”.
He calculated that while the number of Acts passed by Governments had stayed “approximately the same” over the last 50 years, the average number of clauses in them has doubled.
The Cabinet Office Guide to Making Legislation, prepared by the Secretariat to the Parliamentary Business and Legislation Committee of Cabinet, says:
“The committee will look ‘favourably’ on bills that have been published in draft for consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny although, if a bill is ‘politically important’, then it may be given a slot in the programme ‘before many of the details have been fully worked out’”.
Green Papers and White Papers allowing the detailed, progressive and lengthy study of a proposed Bill are now rarely produced. Some pre-legislative scrutiny of Bills is undertaken, but not always and not necessarily comprehensively. Because the old, once rare, guillotine system in the House of Commons has been permanently transformed into the routine programming of all Bills, few Bills of any size get the scrutiny in Standing Committee that all their clauses and schedules warrant. As a result, a regular procession of ill-digested Bills makes its way to your Lordships’ House, where we carry out our rightful revising role with as much patience and competence as time and the sheer volume of legislation will allow. In the last Session, while we were dealing with the Housing and Planning Bill, several Peers described it as the worst-prepared Bill they had ever seen in their lives.
Manifestos are often unrealistic. They are frequently designed to be eye-catching and dramatic and many government departments seem to feel obliged to bid for a slot for a Bill. As a result, the House of Lords is continually being set unrealistic and frustrating volumes of revising to undertake, and too often this produces poorer, less effective legislation, with the people affected by it badly served and disillusioned.
This has become routine and accepted although, of course, it is completely unacceptable. It must change. It needs to be looked at through a new pair of eyes at the highest level. Theresa May, our new Prime Minister, has already shown by her words and deeds her willingness to look afresh at some of our seemingly intractable problems. I sincerely hope she will see action on this issue as not only necessary in its own right but also likely to lead the whole government machine in a much more organised and competent direction.
As I said earlier, we are all aware of the effect of legislation in our national life, for good or ill—capital punishment, seat belts, Sunday trading, foxhunting, dangerous dogs. I take great pride in the Private Member’s Bill I successfully took through the House of Commons which had the world-shaking effect of extending the coverage of a gun licence from three to five years. All these Bills had specific and limited objectives. They were not, as has all too often happened in recent years, attempts to micromanage by legislation.
Let us deal with just health and education. Over the last 50 years, there have been 95 Acts of Parliament to do with the health service. In that time, we have banished the traditional matron, who was the backbone of every hospital in the country, totally altered nurse training and completely reorganised the entire health service, and now what a desperate mess we are in. In the same period, we passed 52 Acts relating to education. During this time, educational standards have fallen. Most grammar schools have disappeared. Teacher training has been completely altered and we even stopped teaching children to read in the time-honoured way of phonetics: “The cat sat on the mat”. And we wonder why children leave school unable to read. Recently, a professor responsible for these matters said that social mobility in this country is at its lowest level for 40 years, with all the potential problems that implies.
These are huge issues in massive departments, affecting the lives of millions of people every day. We have got much of it badly wrong and done much damage to our national fabric. We need to get it right—if not impossibly perfect, at least much, much better. I am obviously not suggesting, as the title of this debate suggests, that there should be no legislation at all—although I must say I find that prospect extremely tempting—just that it should not be the first tool we reach for. It is a step we should take reluctantly when it has become essential, not eagerly as a matter of policy. We should then take it only after the deepest and most careful consideration, in the conviction that no other routes are available.
Legislation will never produce caring and competent nurses, thoughtful and inspiring teachers, or aspiring pupils and parents. Personal desire, example and careful instruction are surely the best way to achieve these aims. Having created sound systems in our schools and hospitals, we should, while keeping the closest possible eye on standards, trust those responsible to get on with the job, not seek to micromanage through constant legislative tinkering. Gentle, thoughtful improvement is often much more sensible and effective than drastic and dramatic change, and crucially avoids the inevitable upheaval that is always expensive, so upsets people and systems, and often causes more problems than it solves.
As a country, we face so many difficult issues. It is the task of Parliament, not just the Government, to try to resolve them. Your Lordships’ House, with all its accumulated experience, is uniquely placed to help, but the list is a long one: education and, in particular, the serious problems with the NHS are far from resolved; from immigration to population, from energy supplies to an ageing population, and from Hinkley Point to Heathrow Airport and on to HS2. We have to deal with diesel pollution, and, in a rapidly shirking world, we must decide whether we will continue to allow foreign investors to take control of our strategic industries. All this is on top of the day-to-day issues for the economy, unemployment, welfare and so on.
What is important in all these issues is not to rush to legislate, not even to feel the need to make immediate decisions, but to discuss and debate in depth and at length to come to the right decision and carry the country with us. At the same time, every government department should ensure that it is working as well as it can. Any serious shortcomings require the effort and time-consuming task of legislation, rather than internal, departmental management correction.
In conclusion, I am trying to explain my belief in the need for a different approach to legislation—not too radical, but different; a shift that would see less major legislation, all of it better thought-through and all of it, with no exceptions, subjected to pre-legislative scrutiny. Much more time would be spent, particularly in your Lordships’ House, on debating honestly and at length the major issues of the day, with the time we spend on revising legislation being much more proportionate and constructive. I believe this step change in legislative pressure will be of huge benefit to Parliament as a whole, the House of Lords in particular, and the people we serve.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Framlingham, has done us a great service—I would expect no less from a distinguished former Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons—by focusing attention on legislation and the alternative, which is getting on with the job of running the country. In that respect, I am delighted to be debating once again with my old friend the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, who has never left office without buying a return ticket. No Government in which his party is involved can really cope without him, and we well understand why. We have worked together in the past, including during the coalition, and I hope he will agree that one of the benefits of the coalition proved to be a degree of extra restraint in some areas of legislation. If you have to get two parties to agree to proceed with a Bill, you have another hurdle over which to climb.
The noble Lord, Lord Framlingham, referred to the size and complexity of the statute book. As chairman of the Justice Committee, I visited the National Archives. It is a wonderful place in that you see all the records that you expect to see, but tucked away in the corner is a small group of people whom I did not know about until I went there. Their job is to know what the law actually is because they are the people who assemble the statutes, statutory instruments, commencement orders and modifying orders. They are probably the only people in the country who really know what the law is and which bits of it are in force at any one time, because it has become so complex.
In some respects we have improved legislative scrutiny to try to prevent some of these problems, but for much of the time it is like trying to climb up a down escalator. Pre-legislative scrutiny by Parliament has brought about a real improvement. Public Bill Committees in the Commons have also offered some significant advantages, and then there is the essential work that this House does on so much legislation.
As a Liberal Democrat, I believe that some degree of restraint is needed when you decide to bring in new laws. By nature, law tends to restrict the individual and therefore you should think twice and have a strong justification for it. You should not bring in laws because you have to be seen to do something. We are entering that rather dangerous season of the party conferences, when Ministers, in particular, feel that they have to throw some meat to the assembled ranks. Out of that come commitments to bring in legislation.
Nor should you legislate as a signal. When I hear laws described as a signal that things have to change, I know that the content of the legislation will probably not be much use at all. It is really just another way of saying that we have to be seen to do something. That is a particular problem in the area of criminal law, where we have so much criminal justice legislation. I will not even bother to go into the statistics—we all know them. Much of that legislation simply makes the task of those in the criminal justice system more difficult by increasing the number of mandatory sentences, for example.
However, I also believe that law is needed for some purposes. It is needed to establish rights and to protect citizens from violence, fraud, abuse of power and environmental or health damage. It is also how we define the structure of governance—for example, how we might reform the House of Lords, which the coalition proved unable to do. That requires changes in the law. Taxation also requires law. It is better to be regulated by law than by the arbitrary use of executive power. There are some countries that delight in not having many laws because the Executive have an enormous capacity to rule by decree, but that is not what we want. Laws are also required to provide a framework for commerce and trade—in the sense of not just commercial companies but private individuals. At the moment I am one of those pressing for the Government to do what they say they want to do when the legislative opportunity arises and provide legislation on the guardianship of the property of missing persons. These detailed matters are often dealt with in Private Members’ Bills, which are important.
However, legislation can be a distraction from vital things such as enforcement by departments, resourcing in departments and the delivery and provision of services—the things that departments really should get on with. There is an elephant in the room, though, and departments will have to stop devising new laws pretty soon. When I listened to the Queen’s Speech, I thought about what version might have been written if the referendum had already been held and gone the way it eventually went. It would go roughly: “My Government will be wholly occupied with bringing forward legislation to implement our exit from the European Union, and no other measures will be laid before you”. That is not too far from the reality, because there will be a gargantuan programme of legislative change, including repeal of the 1972 Act and replacement of the vast range of EU laws which apply directly in this country. If there are things that have to be temporarily retained, there will need to be measures relating to subsequent changes to EU law in areas on which we continue to rely on what was previously EU law.
It is a massive programme, and anyone who wants to know a bit more about it only needs to look at the report from the European Union Committee on withdrawing from the European Union, which records Sir David Edward as saying that the Government,
“would need to enact in law everything that it wanted to keep in law, which is currently either the consequence of the direct effect of the EU Treaties or, for example, the product of a Directive”.
It really is a massive legislative task. Departments are already finding that their civil servants are being borrowed by the Department for Exiting the European Union, whose Ministers now proudly proclaim that they are increasing the size of their bureaucracy all the time, which is not what Conservative Ministers are supposed to say. Not only that, but their time and energy within the department will be involved in reviewing the whole corpus of European law which affects them. It may please the noble Lord, Lord Framlingham, that at least there will be some restraint on other laws being brought forward, but it is a bigger block in our system even than that.
What can we do to improve the laws that we do pass? Before we start, we should ask: is there anything this Bill can do that cannot be done at least as well under existing law? That is the primary question we should always ask. Then, is the Bill fit for purpose? Has it been discussed in detail with those whom it will affect and their elected representatives in Parliament? Has it been through pre-legislative scrutiny and other processes that allow it to be examined by people who really know what its impact would be? Has previous law in this area had adequate post-legislative scrutiny and are there any lessons to be learned from that? Has the proposed new law been tested for unintended impact and legislative clarity?
That, of course, is an argument for the quite often canvassed idea of a legislative standards committee, which is not about the substance of law but about whether the law is framed in such a way that it can achieve its intended purpose. When I think about that proposal, I cast my mind back to the late Lord Renton—Sir David Renton—and the committee that I served on with him years ago, which looked at trying to improve the standard and quality of legislation. We have to apply tests like that and recognise that sometimes in this country we rush to legislation when really Governments should simply be doing their job properly.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Beith, who started his professional life as a politics lecturer before being deflected by other interests. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Framlingham on raising this important question. I appreciate the sentiment that underpins the question and want to reinforce some of the points advanced by my noble friend and indeed touched upon by the noble Lord, Lord Beith.
We certainly need sound administration, but also good legislation. I have some sympathy for the position of Governments, as they are in a situation that they cannot win. If a Government bring forward a full legislative programme for a session, they are criticised for legislating too much and we hear calls for less legislation. If they fail to produce a full legislative programme, they are accused of running out of steam. We have accusations of a “zombie Parliament”, with parliamentarians filling time by debating issues instead of being able to get to grips with legislative measures.
We could well do with less legislation, but better legislation. Governments are too prone to legislate in haste, usually on the basis that “something must be done”, responding to a moral panic by seeking not to educate but to placate. Too much rests on hope or beliefs and not enough on evidence.
I want to follow up on my noble friend’s speech and identify some ways in which we can move forwards to achieving an improvement in the quality of legislation. As has been mentioned, Parliament clearly has a role to play in ensuring effective scrutiny. I too welcome the use of pre-legislative scrutiny. It is a means of ensuring that a Bill is tested prior to the Government becoming too committed to its provisions while allowing for engagement with those outside Parliament who understand or are affected by the measure.
There are problems in terms of the timeframe for such scrutiny and in the fact that pre-legislative scrutiny is not the norm for Bills. When the Constitution Committee undertook its review Parliament and the Legislative Process in 2004, it was envisaged by government that it would become the standard practice. Since then, the number of Bills subject to pre-legislative scrutiny has fluctuated from Session to Session. There was a welcome increase in the last Parliament; I know that is something in which my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham can rightfully take some pride. Indeed, in replying to this debate perhaps my noble friend could give some indication of the Government’s plans for, and commitment to the principle of, pre-legislative scrutiny.
It is an extremely positive development that your Lordships’ House now has a role to play in post-legislative scrutiny. Post-legislative review by departments has been the norm since 2008. I very much welcome that, as it derives from the recommendation of the Constitution Committee’s 2004 report. However, no mechanism was set in place for post-legislative scrutiny by either House. That has changed, with at least one ad hoc committee being appointed in this House each Session to review one or more Acts covering a subject. That scrutiny has proved productive and we should seek to build on it. Post-legislative scrutiny can improve the quality of legislation, in that if a department knows that a measure will be subject to it, it is more likely to focus on ensuring that the provisions are crafted to deliver what is expected of the measure. In short, the measure of success will shift from being Royal Assent to whether it has achieved its purpose. Stipulating how one will know that a measure has been successful will also help to concentrate minds, providing a clear basis for assessment when an Act is scrutinised.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Beith, I am persuaded that there is a case for a legislative standards committee to ensure that Bills meet clear standards when introduced. The Leader’s Group on Working Practices recommended in 2011 that such a committee be created. In 2013, the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee identified various standards that could be applied, including that a policy should be well tested, for example through the use of internal and external consultation. I know my noble friend Lord Young will argue that there is in effect such a committee within government: the Parliamentary Business and Legislation Committee, where Bills are checked against certain standards before introduction. However, I fear that that argument is not persuasive in light of some of the Bills that have been brought forward in recent years.
There is much that both Houses can do to ensure that legislation is improved but the fundamental challenge lies with government. Parties tend to out-promise one another at elections and believe that problems can be solved by legislating them away. We are in danger of moving towards measures that impose obligations that are essentially aspirational—“By such and such a date, sin must be eradicated”—and without any attendant penalties. They do not keep to the Cabinet Office’s own guidelines, a point that my noble friend touched upon. They seek to take action but in a way that is not appropriate to legislative propositions. Like my noble friend, I shall quote the Cabinet Office Guide to Making Legislation. It states at paragraph 10.9:
“It can sometimes be tempting to ask the drafter to prepare a provision that is not intended to change the law but is instead designed to serve some political purpose or to explain or emphasise an existing law. However, non-legislative provisions of this sort are likely to go wrong because the courts will be inclined to attribute legal effect to them on the grounds that that Parliament does not legislate unnecessarily—and the legal effect attributed may be one the Government could not have predicted”.
What is needed is a culture shift in government so that legislation, as my noble friend has already said, is seen as a last resort, not as a useful political tool for giving the impression that something is being done. In the long term, the use of legislation for this purpose undermines the impact of legislation.
I fear that the defence that the number of Bills introduced by government has not increased in recent years will not work. It is the volume of legislation that counts, and that applies to primary and secondary legislation. Nor is the defence open to government that the quality of legislation is improving. That is belied by looking at some of the Acts that have made it on to the statute book in recent years. Tomorrow we shall be debating a Private Member’s Bill designed to correct some of the failings of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014. That is a prime example of how not to legislate. Part 1 is supposedly to do with transparency of lobbying. If the short titles of Acts of Parliament were subject to the Trade Descriptions Act, the Government would not have a leg to stand on. The 2014 Act is not concerned with lobbying—it focuses on the person, the lobbyist, and not the activity—and does nothing to enhance transparency.
On the face of it, the Cabinet Office Guide to Making Legislation is a model of best practice, but it comes up against Ministers wanting to get their big Bills on to the statute book and against successive Governments wanting to be seen to be taking action. As has been touched upon, my noble friend Lord Young has gone from poacher to gamekeeper—I estimate four times—in his distinguished parliamentary career. He is ideally placed to recognise the scale of the problem, so I look forward to him telling us what the Government are doing to achieve that essential culture shift and to produce not more but better legislation.
My Lords, this has been an interesting and stimulating debate. I must admit, I made some notes before I came in but I wanted to hear the debate first before deciding in what direction to take some of my comments. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Framlingham, who has done the Committee a service today. He has focused our minds on an issue which goes right to the heart of what we do. It feels slightly odd to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, to his new responsibilities in government. The noble Lord, Lord Norton, described him as a poacher turned gamekeeper, but I always thought that the life of a Minister was more that of the quarry in many ways, so perhaps he has gone from poacher to gamekeeper and then, as Minister, back to being the quarry. However, I hope he will not feel that in this debate.
We understand that we are part of the legislature. Our role is different from that of the House of Commons, and as an unelected House it is rightly both constrained and specific. We are a scrutinising and revising Chamber. The proposal today is not to be taken literally—it would be a big leap to go from too much legislation to no legislation—but it is a mechanism to allow the experience in this House to consider the basic principles of why we legislate and how we can do it better. We have heard some of those principles already: we should legislate with care; we should bring in new legislation only if Parliament also ensures that there are the means to enforce it; and we should take post-legislative scrutiny far more seriously.
It is understandable that any potential Government set out the legislative programme on which they seek to be elected. Once elected, there is a duty on that Government to implement the commitments in that manifesto in the lifetime of the Parliament. It is the nature of the political system that new Governments have new programmes. I was interested in the list of legislation that the noble Lord, Lord Framlingham, referred to. I felt that he did not like the Labour Government’s legislation. Fox hunting and the death penalty are two causes particularly dear to my heart. He mentioned those as things that perhaps we should not have done. They would be at the top of my list of things that should be done. That is the nature of the political system: different parties will have different policies, which by nature will be contradictory. Obviously, some will have a higher priority than others, and issues will come along. Circumstances can change and make legislation in the manifesto more or less desirable, but there is also the matter that all noble Lords have referred to, which is that issues will arise and a response is needed. That response too often becomes a legislative response. “Legislate in haste and repent at leisure” might be worth adopting in this regard.
When looking at the amount of legislation, we have to look at both primary legislation and secondary legislation. Part of the picture is the number of Bills and the amount of delegated legislation, but that is only part of the picture; as we have heard, it is also its complexity. The noble Lord, Lord Framlingham, referred to “Christmas tree Bills”. There are not baubles and presents on those Bills. It seems to me that “kitchen sink Bills” might be a more appropriate term for them. It seems that as a Bill progresses through Parliament, more and more things are thrown into it. I remember dealing with the Immigration Bill and the Criminal Justice Bill, which got bigger and bigger—like snowballs rolling down a hill picking up more and more as they went along. That does not work. It also undermines scrutiny as things are introduced later.
We have not really talked about the use of secondary legislation and its complexity. Tax credits are a good example. Whether we consider that the Government were technically correct to bring the SI forward or were even wise to use an SI for that issue, there is no doubt that a controversial policy matter was brought to Parliament through a statutory instrument. We are seeing that now in primary legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Framlingham, quoted the Cabinet Office guidance on politically important Bills, which might not have been addressed in detail before they being introduced to the House. The Childcare Bill was in effect only a framework Bill. It lacked detail. It was a very cavalier approach.
It strikes me that perhaps that is sometimes one of the problems of a Lords starter. Governments always use Lords starters for the most non-controversial Bills, but because a Bill is non-controversial in its principle does not mean we will not want to look at the detail to ensure that the Bill carries out the policy intention that has been announced. The problem with the Childcare Bill was that it was thought it could be started in the House of Lords as it was not controversial, yet the lack of detail was embarrassing. There was no financial information, and we could not be confident that the detail supported the policy objective. There have been other examples in this Session. The Children and Social Work Bill and the Buses Bill have far too many pieces of secondary legislation attached to them, 20 or 30 pieces in both cases, and as we go down the line, we will see more.
We have heard some suggestions about the way forward. All legislation needs great clarity of purpose at the very beginning. I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Young, will also recognise that we need to be careful about Ministers coming back from Cabinet meetings boasting about how much parliamentary time they have got for legislation as a mark of honour.
We should also look at how much legislation is not properly enforced. There have been no prosecutions under the FGM legislation. So often now the police are telling us that they cannot implement or enforce certain laws. As there is so much legislation, they do not have the resources to implement it. We have ended up in a position where other agencies are making decisions about which laws to implement and which to not. That has been taken away from Parliament. Does that mean we have too much legislation? It may, in some cases, but it may just mean that we are passing legislation without ensuring that we have the means or resources to enforce it.
My final point is about the adequacy of post-legislative scrutiny. Once legislation is passed by Parliament, there is no automatic, systematic, effective mechanism to monitor its effectiveness. That might deal with some of the issues about how much legislation we have. It could be done through a Joint Select Committee of both Houses. I am not really fussed about the mechanism, but we have to address the issue and look much more seriously at post-legislative scrutiny.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating my noble friend Lord Framlingham on giving us the opportunity to debate this important subject. The bait that he put on the hook may not have attracted very many fish, but it has attracted some very big fish. It has been a good debate with sound advice and recommendations for Governments of all complexions. I am grateful for the kind words that people have said about me personally. I feel like one of those fireworks that everyone thinks has gone out, and you are about to pick it up and throw it away when suddenly it bursts into flame before finally expiring.
Putting this debate in context, legislation is an important function of Parliament but not the only one. There is the key function of holding the Government to account and debating the important issues of the day. In the time that I have been in Parliament, there has been a shift in the centre of gravity away from legislation on the Floors of the Houses towards scrutiny by the Select Committees. I am sure that that is a process which my noble friend would welcome. I recall that in a recent debate my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth noted that Parliament is now arguably at its strongest in modern political history in scrutinising the Executive.
I have enormous sympathy with the proposition that my noble friend has put forward: that there should be reluctance before we legislate and we should do it only when there is no other route. During my time as Leader in another place, I chaired the Cabinet sub-committee responsible for the legislative programme, the PBL, which meant overseeing the process of drawing up the programme of Bills. I can assure my noble friend that under any Government the demand for legislation exceeds the capacity, and it may please him to know that many government Ministers went away empty-handed when they were told there was no slot in the legislative programme for their ambitious social reforms. Part of the job was to ensure not just that the Bills were in good shape but that the totality of the Bills in the programme was commensurate with the capacity of Parliament to scrutinise it.
Government departments have to go through a fairly rigorous process before they are given access to primary legislation; it is a bidding process and quite competitive. One of the things that business managers always do is push back to see whether a policy can be delivered without resorting to legislation, a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Beith. During my time as Leader of the House in the other place, we were able to sift out a large number of prospective Bills with that particular challenge.
The Government are of course responsible for a lot of the demand for new legislation, but there are others. Our statute book stretches back to the 11th century, so we have inherited quite a lot. Ministers are lobbied on a daily basis to reform different aspects of the law. Indeed, we need look only at your Lordships’ House where 51 noble Lords have sought a place in the ballot for their own Bills, some of which are to be debated tomorrow. As the noble Lord, Lord Beith, said, a Finance Bill is required each year to prevent certain taxes from lapsing, and quite often we need emergency legislation to respond to events such as in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. The noble Lord, Lord Beith, eloquently made the case for a measure of legislation.
However, we also need legislation to achieve the changes set out in a party manifesto. This Government have already legislated for several manifesto commitments. Sound administration, which is mentioned in the second half of my noble friend’s Question, in itself requires good, relevant legislation to underpin it. Indeed, in some cases legislation can be deregulatory or can simply consolidate and simplify existing legislation. The Deregulation Act 2015, for example, contained a wide range of measures to relieve unnecessary burdens on public authorities, or the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 which will improve administration by pushing back on overcentralisation—I am sure my noble friend will welcome those particular pieces of legislation. On top of that, we have regular legislation from the law commissions to update and tidy the statute book.
I know that some of your Lordships have concerns about the quantity of government legislation. That was one of the themes of the excellent debate we had on 9 June when we went around some of this course. I reassure noble Lords that legislation has actually decreased in recent years. Only about 750 statutory instruments were laid in the last Session, fewer than in any other Session since 1997. The average since 1997 is nearly double that, at 1,315. Over the whole of the last Parliament, fewer statutory instruments were laid than in any Parliament since 1997, and of course the last Parliament, unlike most of its predecessors, ran for a full five years. It is a similar story for primary legislation. Twenty-six government Bills were introduced in the previous Session compared with an average of 35 since 1997. The previous Parliament saw fewer government Bills introduced than in any Parliament since 1997—again, despite its longer than average length.
In my experience, as has been said in the debate, Governments are criticised either for legislating too much or for not bringing forward enough legislation, and indeed we had accusations of a zombie Parliament at the tail end of the previous Parliament. From a business manager’s point of view, with fixed-term Parliaments and five equal Sessions, it should prove easier to plan the legislative programme as we move forward rather than worrying that the Prime Minister will push the button after three and a half years and you have to get everything through quickly. However, we also have to be prepared for extra legislation, as we have seen in the wake of the EU referendum, and I will come on to that in a moment.
My noble friend is right to point out that it is important that as well as passing legislation, we continue to deliver good policy. This Government are committed to ensuring that we maintain the right balance between developing new policy and delivering it effectively. Within government and alongside Cabinet committees, the implementation task forces monitor progress on implementing existing policies. The Government also track delivery of progress on their priorities through the single departmental plans. These set out each department’s priority objectives, the key programmes and policies that will deliver them and the metrics by which performance can be measured. These show the importance that the Government attach to ensuring good policy rather than simply reaching for yet another change to the statute book.
The Select Committees—not least the Public Accounts Committee—also have a key role in monitoring existing policies, and I will return to that in a moment. We also have a regulatory policy that requires the equivalent of £3 of regulatory burden on business to be lifted for every £1 of new burdens imposed. That is independently audited and the Government have set a target of lifting £10 billion-worth of burden by 2020.
I shall try to deal with some of the points raised during this interesting debate. I mentioned the number of Bills, but I may have heard someone ask about the number of pages. While the number of Bills and statutory instruments may have dropped, it is asserted that the number of pages has increased. That was true up until 2010, but again in the previous Parliament the number of pages of primary legislation was lower than in any of the three previous Parliaments. Between 1997 and 2010, on average more than 3,000 pages of primary legislation were introduced per year, but between 2010 and 2015, the figure fell to fewer than 2,650.
My noble friend Lord Framlingham made a point about scheduling Bills. It is indeed the case that when he was in another place, in the 2005-10 Parliament, there was regular guillotining of Bills and inadequate time was left. In the 2010 Parliament, it changed. All credit to the Opposition as well as the Government for making that change. Nowadays, programme Motions are increasingly agreed by discussion through the usual channels and it is relatively unusual, although not totally exceptional, for the programme Motion to be voted against because of that discussion. That may not automatically guarantee that there is enough time for debate in Committee, but it shows that a genuine attempt is being made to ensure adequate time.
I think that lessons can be learned from the Housing and Planning Bill, but it is worth making the point that in the first Session of a Parliament there is less opportunity to deal with Bills in draft. The nature of the coalition was such that no one party could pursue its individual policy through the Civil Service, so the first Session was different.
I agree with everything that has been said about the virtues of draft legislation and pre-legislative scrutiny. We are committed to publishing Bills in draft where possible. Examples before the House at the moment are the Investigatory Powers Bill and the draft Wales Bill.
The noble Lord, Lord Beith, said quite rightly that the coalition imposed a slightly finer sieve through which legislative proposals had to pass. That was certainly the case and it took slightly more time to develop policy because of the coalition.
The noble Lord asked about the impact of the decision to exit the European Union. All I can say is that, in preparation for the negotiations to leave the EU, the Government are undertaking work across a range of areas, including with their legal teams, to establish how best to deliver the Government’s objectives. That covers the issue that the noble Lord raised about separating domestic law from EU law.
I entirely agree with what has been said about the importance of post-legislative scrutiny. Each government department produces a memo on Acts five years after Royal Assent, which is then passed to the House of Commons but, with relatively few exceptions, the Select Committees have other priorities and most memos have not been scrutinised by Parliament. It is not the fault of the Government, to that extent, that there has not been post-legislative scrutiny; it is simply that Select Committees—for very good reasons, possibly—have other priorities than looking at those reports.
In conclusion, my noble friend has raised an important question, one that Governments grapple with every day, and there is a balance to be struck. Of course, we should not seek endlessly to change the law without stopping to consider whether the current law is working or looking at the impact that there would be on business or civil society. But legislation is often needed simply to make the changes that the people elected this Government to enact. It does not have to and it should not come at the expense of sound administration— on the contrary. It can support and enable effective government.
I heed the warning from my noble friend that we should be mindful about the amount of legislation that we bring forward. I hope he will be comforted that the overall numbers have decreased under a Conservative Government. The lesson that I will take away from this debate is that of the three words used by my noble friend Lord Norton: “Less, but better”. I thank my noble friend and others who have spoken in this valuable debate.
Committee adjourned at 5.47 pm.