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Report To Parliament
25 January 2001
Volume 621

(" . A Minister of the Crown shall lay before both Houses of Parliament at least once in every 12 months a report on the working of this Act.").

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 76 follows directly from the case I tried to make in the Second Reading debate. Therefore, there is no need to repeat the argument put forward at that time. Having listened to a great deal of this Committee stage debate, it is clear to me that there are two great issues in the Bill— there are at least two—namely, the scope of the Bill and its safeguards. Amendment No. 76 addresses the issue of safeguards.

As the Committee is aware, the delegated powers committee wanted the House to consider the matter of a sunset clause. I am pleased that in a few moments we shall have the opportunity to do just that. I have given the matter of a sunset clause much thought. The more I thought about it, the more I felt that it may not be the most appropriate way to introduce safeguards at this stage. What we really need—if the Committee will pardon this naive statement—are sunset clauses in new regulations. We need that much more than a sunset clause in the Bill we are discussing, which, on the contrary, should be open-ended in offering opportunities to deregulate, which is the aspect of the Bill in which I am most interested.

I am not particularly persuaded by one argument against a sunset clause; namely, that after three years Ministers might no longer be inclined to introduce any orders under this Bill, if it is enacted. I was interested to read the comments of the Law Society on the sunset issue but my main point is that what we want to see limited is the effectiveness of regulatory orders and not so much the effectiveness of the Bill. The second report of the delegated powers committee at paragraph 20 on page seven contains a valuable element which I have tried to pick up in Amendment No. 76. It requires,

"a report on the operation of the Act to be laid before Parliament".

I like that text—how can I not like it when I am a member of the delegated powers committee?—which continues,

"thereby ensuring that the Act is kept under frequent review and that the powers have been both appropriately and effectively used".

The sole purpose of Amendment No. 76 is to make sure that that safeguard is not lost. Therefore, I propose that the wording in Amendment No. 76 be included in the Bill. I propose that a report is produced every year to offer Parliament the opportunity to discuss and review the operation of the Act and to exercise the duty of scrutiny which is so central to what we are doing. That is what Amendment No. 76 seeks to achieve. I very much hope that it will gain the Minister's support. I beg to move.

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The amendment asks a Minister to lay a report every 12 months on the working of the Act. Given that the working of the Act is something in which everyone in the Committee is interested, I should have thought there would be much support for that, at any rate from the Committee as constituted here this evening. Those who are present this evening will know that the Government seek to achieve regulatory reform by means of the Bill. Some members of the Opposition who would rather it was concerned solely with deregulation know that that is not the case. We have heard important substantive arguments on that issue. Therefore, the concept that the Government should each year report on the effectiveness, or lack of effectiveness, of the Act seems well justified and worth while.

As the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee—two distinguished members of that committee are present on the Liberal Democrat Benches—produces an annual report among other reports, perhaps the simplest thing to do would be to ask Ministers to respond to that committee's annual report, or at any rate to the parts of it which deal with the Bill which we hope will be enacted in a few weeks' time.

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I support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf. It is an eminently sensible amendment. I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, says. However, I am concerned that his comments invite Ministers to follow the course he suggested. However, I would prefer to have a requirement such as that in Amendment No. 76 on the face of the Bill. The whole problem with the Bill is the extent to which the initiative is left to government rather than placing requirements on the face of the Bill. I hope that the Government will look favourably on the amendment. If I may say so, the Minister had what I would describe as a spasm of common sense earlier when he accepted the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Borrie. I hope that he will have a similar spasm in response to what I consider an eminently sensible amendment.

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I do not wish to take up more of the Committee's time. However, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, that the delegated powers committee has always insisted that it advises your Lordships' House. It would be unfortunate if in our debates and in assumptions that are made we increasingly seem to give that committee a separate and independent status which in my view it should not have. It should continue to offer this Chamber the best advice. For that reason I would prefer to see the obligation which I suggest in Amendment No. 76 on the face of the Bill.

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This is an important point. The noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, rightly identifies two entirely separate strands. I believe he said that it would be rather confusing to have a sunset clause in a regulatory reform Bill and that the Bill does not impose regulation but effectively opens the door to removing regulations where that is appropriate and therefore should be open-ended. Therefore, we must decide as a matter of principle whether we think the Bill is worth having. If we decide that it is worth having, there is no logic in then saying that it is only worth having for a few years. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, suggested on Second Reading—the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, mentioned that again today—that the House should consider the question of a sunset clause. The Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee did not recommend the sunset clause. However, he raises a separate issue which introduces a new provision for the House. Should there be some regular way of considering how the procedure is operating? That is a totally different issue. The matter is raised in the context of the increased use of a procedure that is comparatively new.

We are open-minded about the issue. I am sceptical about whether a Minister laying a report every 12 months is the critical factor. Surely we want the interaction between Parliament's view of how the procedure is operating and Ministers' response to that view. The noble Lord's point relates to how the new procedure works. The new procedure is a parliamentary procedure. In those circumstances, the better approach may be along the lines proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Borrie: the committee giving its report, and the government response. One then has both views. That is what one wants, not a report from each department saying, "We have this or that in mind".

It is an important issue. I shall consider carefully what has been said in Committee and return on Report with a reasoned response.

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I thank the Minister for his response. I look forward to the results of future deliberations. For today, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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moved Amendment No. 77:

After Clause 12, insert the following new clause—