Chris Presents His Regulatory Impact Assessments Bill
This Bill has not had the benefit of being discussed previously, but I think it is a very important issue and I am delighted that we have the opportunity to give it a bit of airtime.
Regulatory impact assessments lie at the core, or should lie at the core, of policymaking and public legislation. If the tool if a regulatory impact assessment is not properly applied, the quality of the legislation suffers. We have seen a large number of examples of that. Perhaps one of the most telling is that we have legislated for net zero without ever really going through the full implications of what it will entail. I have the privilege of serving on the Environmental Audit Committee. It is willing to discuss almost everything on the environment, but it is not prepared to engage in an inquiry into an audit of the costs and benefits of net zero. The Government should have introduced an audit of the costs and benefits of net zero before the legislation was passed. The same is true of the Climate Change Act 2008. It is also true of HS2. There was never a proper cost-benefit analysis regulatory impact assessment of HS2.
More recently, the Renters (Reform) Bill—which I see, much to my horror, is having its Second Reading on Monday—was published in May. It was the subject of severe criticism by the Regulatory Policy Committee because no proper impact assessment was produced at the time the Bill was introduced. It was introduced by Ministers who had not gone through the process of thinking through the implications of what they were doing. That is what the Bill before us is about. I had the privilege of being a Minister for six years or so—some time ago now, Madam Deputy Speaker—and it was very important, when introducing legislation, to think about the implications and consequences. That should be done in the first instance internally by Ministers with officials before it is exposed to public debate. A well organised regulatory policy framework should ensure that that is what happens.
The Bill is based on the fact that, too frequently, that is not what happens. Even more frequently recently than in the past, the requirement for impact assessments to be produced prior to a Bill being published has not been complied with. The consequences, to which I have referred, are that Bills come forward that are badly formulated and unnecessarily contentious. Was it not extraordinary that two or three weeks back, we had a statutory instrument in relation to the implementation of the Windsor framework? The Windsor framework agreement was back in spring. We were told that there had been insufficient time for the Government to produce an impact assessment of its contents. How ridiculous is that?
The Bill basically says that we have rules in place, but there is no point in having a command without a sanction. Clause 1 sets out in plain language a requirement that the
“Government must, on or before the appointed day, lay before Parliament a qualifying regulatory impact assessment for—
(a) any Bill introduced to Parliament by a Minister;
(b) any draft statutory instrument laid before Parliament by a Minister that may not be made unless it is laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament; and
(c) any statutory instrument made by a Minister and subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.”
Clause 2 is the sanction:
“If His Majesty’s Government fails to comply with the duty under section 1, subsection (2) applies.”
We cannot have a proposal requiring that the Minister be locked up, suspended from the House or whatever, so I did the best I could, which is basically to say that the Minister would be embarrassed into action. That embarrassment will require the Minister responsible for the Bill or the statutory instrument in question to
“make a statement to the relevant House…as soon as reasonably practicable, and…on every third sitting day until a qualifying regulatory impact assessment has been laid before Parliament.”
If that had happened in relation to the Renters (Reform) Bill, we would not be where we are now, with a totally inadequate impact assessment that has been produced late and much amended; at one stage it was given the red pencil treatment.
My Bill would enable this House, and the Members of this House who take legislation seriously, to be properly informed. Quite often, it is impossible to get answers to questions about Bills; there are questions that should have been raised during the impact assessment process, but have not been raised; and Ministers are ignorant of the implications of what they are doing. That is why I suggest that this is a sensible way forward. I do not often say this in relation to a Bill of mine, but I cannot see why anybody would be against it—except a Minister who does not want to comply with the normal rules. This is a short Bill, but I think it would be revolutionary in improving the quality of legislation.
This is not written into the Bill, but if the cost-benefit analysis in a Minister’s impact assessment shows that the cost outweighs the benefit, what does my hon. Friend feel should happen as a result? He will remember that when the Labour Government introduced the Bill that became the Climate Change Act 2008, they had done an impact assessment and a cost-benefit analysis. By their own admission, the costs were twice as big as the benefits, yet they pressed on with the Bill anyway. Is my hon. Friend saying that where the costs outweigh the benefits the Government should do something about it, or is it enough just to publish the analysis?
I think it is sufficient to publish it. It is then for Members of Parliament to look at what it contains, including the costs. My hon. Friend and I were two of the five people who voted against the Climate Change Bill on Third Reading. Why did we vote against it? Because we could see that the costs would far outweigh the benefits. We had read the impact assessments—well, I cannot remember reading them at the time, I must say, but I had the very strong feeling that we were entering unknown territory and the costs would be very significant. I am not saying that we should not bring forward legislation when the costs are greater than the benefits; I am saying that Members of Parliament should be able to take responsibility and say to Ministers, “Why are you bringing forward legislation whose costs will be far greater than the benefits?”
This debate takes place just after the Government have changed the rules on business impact targets, the provision on which has been repealed. Despite the Government’s policy of zero increase in the total costs of regulation on business in this Parliament, the Regulatory Policy Committee, which is responsible for looking at better regulation, has stated:
“When combined with the figures for the previous two years, the total increase for the parliament to date is £14.3 billion.”
That was in February 2023; I think there has since been an update. Having said that they would not increase the costs on business in this Parliament, and that we would have better regulation and an independent scrutiny process for holding them to account on that, the Government have found themselves on the wrong side of their own rules—so what have they done? They have decided to change the rules. They are now saying that for the last period, they will no longer calculate the cost of Government regulation to business.
If one starts with from a cynical viewpoint, one becomes even more sceptical after looking at the detail. I do not think that, at heart, the Government really want to be held to account by the House for their measures. They would much prefer measures to be nodded through with no questions to be answered: they would like everyone to be nodding donkeys. However, if that is not the Government’s view, I hope they will accept the Bill.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Sir Christopher Chope on his Bill. As he suggested, it focuses all our minds, including that of the Minister, on the impact of the rules, regulations and laws that we make in the House.
I want to look at the Bill with a view to reforming the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 to provide the democratic checks and balances that would allow better decision making in future emergencies. As my hon. Friend said, there was, from the very start, a failure to weigh up the potential benefits of, for example, lockdowns and closing schools and balance them against the costs, which have proved catastrophic. Robust benefit and cost-benefit analyses should have been carried out, and should have played a crucial role in getting the balance right when it came to what rules, regulations and laws were to be introduced.
Whatever views may be held on such far-reaching measures, it should be completely uncontroversial to want to conduct an analysis of potential policy consequences—and experts did predict that the lockdown measures would have dire consequences. In fact, the Government said themselves, in a report published in July 2020, that more than 200,000 lives could be lost as a result of lockdown. Cost-benefit analyses, impact assessments and benefit-versus-benefit analyses of health and mental health education should have been carried out, and politicians should have carried out a 360° review of the lockdown measures.
Only this week, the covid inquiry heard evidence from Professor Mark Woolhouse in which he described lockdowns not as a public health policy, but as a failure of public health policy. They were, in fact, a failure that could only have been implemented under the Public Health Act. Do Members really want to risk allowing such a failure of public health policy to occur again in the future by leaving in place an Act that will allow a Government to shut down society without scrutiny or debate—without looking at the impact of the measures being taken—or do they want to take simple precautions that would prevent that? If we are being honest, we must conclude that this was not just a public health policy failure, as Professor Mark Woolhouse said; our entire democratic system failed us, just when we needed it most.
Some of us raised concerns at an early stage about the removal of parliamentary oversight, feeling that the Government were using loopholes in the Public Health Act to regulate without being held responsible. There were precious few opportunities to hold Ministers to account. In normal times, if a Minister is unable to present a persuasive case for his or her actions we have a chance to vote down the regulations involved, but that important due process all but collapsed in March 2020.
We discussed this topic earlier in the year at a session of the all-party parliamentary group on pandemic response and recovery, during which we heard from Lord Sumption., a former Supreme Court judge. He described the way in which Parliament had been effectively rendered impotent under the Public Health Act, which had allowed Ministers to avoid the proper debate and scrutiny that we would previously have expected. For example, the first lockdown order was made on 26 March 2020, but was not considered in this place until 11 May. Is it really appropriate for policies that have such a severe impact on every bit of people’s daily lives to be implemented without such scrutiny, and some sort of scrutiny afterwards?
The Public Health Act was designed to authorise bans on mass gatherings, isolate infectious people and close infected premises. There is nothing in it about locking down an entire nation, whether infected or not, in their own homes. The Act should be amended to make sure that any future emergency measures are debated before they come into effect. If the situation is too urgent, measures should be provisional for, say, seven days, with Parliament being recalled if necessary to give the proper approval.
We cannot have the threat of such far-reaching measures hanging over society, ready to be imposed by a Minister with no notice, without having to defend their decisions at the Dispatch Box. That threat is made very real by the spectre of the World Health Organisation pandemic treaty and the amendments to the International Health Regulations 2005, both of which the UK will be asked to adopt next May.
It seems likely that lockdown will be considered as a public health intervention in future, with the Public Health Act as it stands. We must make sure that we have debate and scrutiny and that we do this impact assessment before lockdowns happen again, because they cause such disruption to livelihoods, education, healthcare and life itself. We all have constituents with heartbreaking stories of not being able to share the joy of a child being born or not being by the side of a dying loved one; of children who now have severe mental health issues or who have lost education; and of livelihoods and futures that have been ruined.
Of course, Parliament must have access to emergency powers in extreme situations, but their use must be limited to when they are truly needed. Surely that is the only way to proceed. We must be able to have scrutiny in the House—it must not be missing; it must not be avoided. We have scrutiny to ensure that laws and regulations are the best they can be. Surely this is the only way to proceed without such significant breaches of personal life.
Amending the Public Health Act will help us to make better, more confident decisions in the event of any future crisis. I commend what my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is doing about an impact assessment to make sure that Ministers truly understand what they are putting in place before they do it—something that was lacking during the covid lockdown.
I welcome this Bill. In the light of recent experience, it seems to be an excellent idea. It gives Parliament more power to scrutinise what is going on. A Conservative Government surely, above all, is about low taxes and deregulation, but unfortunately—maybe for reasons beyond our control, and we all know what those reasons are—we have had too many taxes and too much regulation. I will not deal in detail with the whole covid saga, because my right hon. Friend Esther McVey has dealt with that powerfully, but the fact is that we all now know that there should have been far more consideration within Government of not just regulatory impact but every other kind of impact.
In terms of ensuring scrutiny of Government, we have the other place, and it does its job. We should be very wary of meddling with the structure of that place, because it seems to be able to scrutinise legislation more effectively than we do in this House. In recent weeks and months, I have been particularly involved with a lack of impact assessments in terms of my own constituency. If we look at all the borders Bills and the recently passed Illegal Migration Bill, we can see that some sort of impact assessment would have been very useful in determining whether that Bill was going to achieve what it set out to. I am particularly interested in how illegal migrants are going to be dealt with when they arrive on these shores, whether or not the Government win their Supreme Court case. There is an understanding that they will be illegal and that they will be detained, but the Government have now determined that they are going to send 2,000 illegal migrants to the former RAF Scampton base in my constituency. We are still awaiting any clear idea of when they will arrive.
Have serious impact assessments been carried out on the pollution levels that naturally remain at this base, which was originally the home of the Dambusters, for a long time was used by Vulcan aeroplanes carrying nuclear bombs and was used latterly by the Red Arrows? Surely there should be a proper, published impact assessment of environmental pollution and of security arrangements.
Apparently, these 2,000 migrants will not be detained and will be able to come and go, so what is the security impact on the 700 residents who live there? Interestingly, Scampton Parish Council has put in a freedom of information request to the Home Office about a community impact assessment, but the FOI request has been turned down by the Government. Astonishingly—the House will be amazed at this language coming out of government— it was turned down with the excuse that the Government need to have, “A clear space, immune from exposure to public view, in which it can debate matters internally with candour and free from the pressures of public political debate.” That is a reply to Scampton Parish Council, which is only trying to do its job; 700 people have put their life savings into buying a house on this base and the Government say that they need a clear space free from public scrutiny. The Minister who is sitting on the Front Bench, the Under-Secretary of State for Business and Trade, my hon. Friend Kevin Hollinrake, knows all about this issue because he went through all this with a proposed migrant camp in his constituency, which is not now happening because it was a victim of the Conservative leadership campaign.
Will my right hon. Friend explain what he has just said?
I will not go further into former grief.
We are simply saying that, when it comes to housing illegal migrants, it should be done on the basis of, for instance, value for money. We have conclusively proved that, because there has not been any properly published impact assessment, it will cost the taxpayer more money to put migrants into the former RAF base at Scampton than to put them into hotels, because a 2-mile long runway has to be maintained and there are 100 buildings, many of them listed, including the office of Guy Gibson and the ones relating to the Dambusters. I have made the point about the impact on the local community.
I believe in transparent government and what I fear about this whole RAF Scampton episode is that this is not being done to save money or to look after migrants properly—obviously, it is not in their interest to have 2,000 migrants in one place, overwhelming local social services, the police and everybody else. It is being done because the Government simply want to make the statement, “Sadly, we have not managed to stop these people coming over in boats and therefore we are going to put them in former military bases, rather than in hotels.” But of course this has no deterrent value at all. We cannot do an impact assessment on what is going on in the minds of people fleeing various hellholes in the world, but I can tell the House one thing: someone fleeing Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan is not going to be deterred from coming to these shores because they might end up in a comfortable room in a former RAF base. So this provides no value for money or deterrence, there are worries about security, pollution and community impact, and no assessment has been made, yet the Government just carry on.
The worst thing is that I keep emailing, writing to or texting Ministers, but I never get a serious response. The parish council and West Lindsey District Council are treated with contempt and given generic replies. As the environmental enforcement authority, West Lindsey District Council put a stop notice on the Home Office a few weeks ago, and the Home Office simply ignored it and carried on working, presumably because it thinks the land is Crown land. If the Home Office were a private sector employer, it would be taken to court and made to pay huge fines, but the Government think they can get away with it.
My constituents and I are victims of a lack of candour by the Government—a lack of proper impact assessments in a variety of fields. We have seen that with the whole covid saga, of course, and above all, we have seen it with High Speed 2. We need not go on about HS2, but it is probably the biggest waste of public money that any Government have ever indulged in. It is ludicrously over-engineered and we are still facing the consequences of it. For years, I have been arguing for us to have a through train from Grimsby and Cleethorpes through Market Rasen and Lincoln to London, which would cost £1 million. I have been told, “No, no, there’s no money, but we’re quite happy as a Government to spend £100 billion on HS2.”
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
I am not going to go on and on about this, but I will give way to my hon. Friend if he wishes.
I do not want my right hon. Friend to go on and on about HS2, but does he agree that one of the issues now is that there is no impact assessment of the revised proposals, and there has not even been a fresh instruction to the Committee of this House that is dealing with it?
Above all, there has been no impact assessment for the poor people living north of Birmingham who live on the line, whose farms have been taken and who have perhaps been forced to give up a place that they have farmed for generations.
I do not think there will ever be enough scrutiny of what went on with HS2. Is my right hon. Friend concerned at all that the cost went up from about £36 billion to—if Lord Berkeley, the Labour peer in the other place, is to be believed—£180 billion? Thankfully, it was stopped, but is my right hon. Friend concerned that an impact assessment was not done on those staggering changes of cost?
It is just amazing how we walked into this disaster: how no one questioned why HS2 was so ludicrously over-engineered, with the trains running far faster than they do on the continent, for instance.
Before I end, I want to deal with a matter very close to where we are now standing: this building. The whole restoration and renewal saga of Parliament is an HS2 in bricks and mortar. There has never been any proper assessment of what we have been doing. I sat on the sponsor board and I have been dealing with this matter in various Committees for years. I am now on the programme board, which reports directly to Mr Speaker. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been sunk into making ever more complex and over-engineered plans for restoring and renewing this building. We should just have got on with it six years ago, but we still have not come to a final decision.
We are meeting on Tuesday—yet another meeting in which we are going to be asked, believe it or not, whether we should have a full decant. I have been arguing about this for years. We are still talking about going to Richmond House, if the House of Commons ever voted for a full decant, which is totally unsuitable. We would have to rip out the courtyard and knock down bits of a listed building. There would be years of argument, another public inquiry and more delays. This decant will not affect anybody who is now sitting in the House of Commons. It will not happen for years, but still we are returning to the same arguments. The delivery authority keeps returning to this; it keeps saying that it is cheaper, more cost-effective, and all the rest of it to have the full decant. However, we have got on with repairing Speaker’s House and Elizabeth Tower, and we are going to work on Victoria Tower. We should just get on with the work.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising the R and R issue. This week, there was a meeting of the Procedure Committee to which representatives came along and in response to questions they told us that, if there was to be a complete decant, it would probably take between five and seven years to build the building into which the decant would go, so the works could not begin until 2029 at the earliest.
As a former Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, what I hate so much in politics is that people are so casual with the expenditure of taxpayers’ money. I loathe that attitude. If it was their own affairs in dealing with restoration and renewal, they would just get on with the job. They would get various estimates and do what was necessary—the minimum necessary—to make this building safe. But because it is public money, we set up committees and create these huge bodies such as the one running HS2 and the one running R and R, with people paid huge salaries and making endless, over-engineered plans. It is frankly disgraceful.
Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that, should the House decant somewhere else, it may be to an inferior Chamber? It may be not as secure or safe. In such an inferior Chamber, everything we are talking about here—full scrutiny, proper debates and being held to account—might be overlooked, just as how we were not holding the Government to account during the lockdown period, when we missed some debates and some votes.
We all know how a Chamber is so important. We saw that through the extraordinarily anaemic debates we had during the whole covid period, when there was, frankly, an appalling lack of scrutiny of the Government.
The Bill is extremely timely. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, I cannot understand why the Government will not accept it, but I am sure that in a few moments this eminently sensible Minister will give it the green light.
The Government would do well to listen to the former Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, my right hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh, who I think was in that role for nine years, particularly about how we should better protect and better care about precious taxpayers’ money, which seems to be frittered away willy-nilly by politicians across the House—that is not a party political point.
I am conflicted. On the face of it, this seems like such an obvious thing to do. At face value, the Bill seems to be one of those where we think, “How on earth could anyone object to a Minister having to bring forward a cost-benefit analysis and impact assessment for any legislation they introduce?” But I am not sure that it is quite as simple as that. I will try to explain why and give some examples.
We have heard some examples, which are all interesting case studies about the pros and cons of what my hon. Friend Sir Christopher Chope is proposing, and perhaps some of the reasons why, even if it were introduced, it would end up being completely pointless and meaningless and serve no purpose at all. The first example is about covid, as mentioned by my right hon. Friend Esther McVey. She was right to do so, and it is good for my welfare to say that she was absolutely right in everything she said—I would not dream of saying otherwise. It was astonishing that the Government not only did not do a cost-benefit analysis of the most draconian restrictions on our freedoms that anyone can remember, but freely admitted that they had not done so. They looked at any Member of Parliament who asked for a cost-benefit analysis as if they had three heads—as if that was the most ridiculous thing in the world to ask for. Of course they should have done a cost-benefit analysis. Had they done so, with an impact assessment, they certainly would not have concluded that locking down the country for two years would be a good thing to do, not only because of the effect of locking down schools on children’s education, mental health and all the rest of it, which my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch mentioned, but because of the impact on the economy.
All the problems that we have seen in the economy since the pandemic have been because of the lockdown. The consequences of lockdown, and of coming out of it, are the main reasons why we have such high inflation. All of that was easily predictable, but neither the Government nor the Opposition seemed interested in what might come afterwards. Nobody could see beyond the end of their noses. That is basically the issue: nobody was prepared even to have the debate about what long-term impact the lockdown would have on the economy, on people’s finances, on NHS waiting times—the list goes on. Nobody was interested. Anybody who raised those concerns—even worse, some of us voted against the restrictions and lockdowns—was vilified for doing so. Everything that we predicted has come to pass, but Ministers were not interested.
It is even worse in many respects. The so-called experts on whom the Government were relying, who modelled how many people would die if we did not have lockdowns, and came out with all that absolute tripe at the time, have been giving evidence to the covid inquiry. It seems from what has been said that, in all that modelling, they did not even take into account how Government advice would change people’s behaviour without the need to introduce a law to force that change. They had not even looked at that. How on earth can we get to the point where supposedly intelligent experts did not even consider the impact on people’s behaviour of the Government saying, “We will not introduce any laws, but we think you should avoid close contact with elderly people and keep a two-metre distance”? In that sense, of course it would be right for the Government to conduct robust cost-benefit analyses and impact assessments when they come to decisions. We might hope that, if they did so, they would not come up with such ridiculous decisions as locking down the country for two years.
That also lies at the heart of my reservations about the Bill, which I relayed in my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch when I asked whether, if a Government introduced a cost-benefit analysis and the cost was seen to outweigh the benefit, they would therefore be obliged not to bring forward that measure. My hon. Friend said that, no, they would still be free to bring forward that measure and it would be up to Members of Parliament to take that analysis into account. Somewhere therein lies the flaw in my hon. Friend’s plan, for a number of reasons that I will touch on.
The first is that, based on my covid analysis, the cost-benefit analysis would presumably have been done by the so-called experts, but they would not even have taken some costs into account anyway. Their cost-benefit analysis would not even have factored in whether or not the Government just advising people to do something would have changed behaviour—they had not thought about that—so how on earth could they be involved in a cost-benefit analysis? It would have been flawed in that sense. How much trust could we put in it? I do not really know. I think that my hon. Friend is, in effect, placing greater confidence in cost-benefit analyses than perhaps they deserve. He seems to be hanging his hat on them.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I had better.
Surely, if a cost-benefit analysis came forward in one way or another and was scrutinised on the Floor of the House, people could probe it and point out the failures within it. Without one, there is no opportunity to do even that. Would it not at least be a step in the right direction to make sure there is an impact assessment and cost-benefit analysis, because at least then we could have debated those for lockdown on the Floor of the House?
My right hon. Friend makes a fair point, but I am not entirely sure that that necessarily follows, and I will give another example as to why.
I should say in passing that I cannot for the life of me understand why any Minister would not want to do a cost-benefit analysis of any proposal they were bringing forward. It seems to me extraordinary that a Minister would want to bring forward a proposal and not say, “Can somebody do a cost-benefit analysis of this, or an impact assessment?” Why on earth they would not want to do that Lord only knows, but that is a slightly different point. My point is this: what benefit does it have for the decision-making process?
Before my hon. Friend goes on to his next example, may I say that there is no reason why an impact assessment should not look at the behavioural consequences of a particular policy measure? One of my gripes has been that the Renters (Reform) Bill does not give any account of its consequences for reducing the number of people who will be making their houses and homes available to let.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I agree wholeheartedly. That is why, as I say, for the life of me I cannot see why a Minister would not want to do that impact assessment.
May I suggest an instance where we might not want to do an impact assessment? My hon. Friend makes a good point, and of course the default position is that we should, but in a situation earlier this year the economy faced being ground to a halt because of industrial action—strikes—across the country. Does he think that sometimes the Government have to legislate quickly and may not have time to go through the processes that he and I would normally like to see?
The Minister makes a fair point. Perhaps it is one of the reasons that I am perhaps not quite as persuaded as I would normally be by one of the Bills from my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch. I want to come back to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton.
I am not sure whether I could have intervened on the Minister there, but there should have been a cost-benefit analysis of industrial action, so that the public knew exactly how detrimental those strikes were, particularly on the railways, with the drop in productivity of the whole country. I do not agree that there are times when we should not do a cost-benefit analysis.
If I have to choose between the Minister and my wife, I know who I am going to agree with, and the Minister is on a loser here. Unusually for me, there might be a compromise option, which is that a cost-benefit analysis should be done, but it may not necessarily need to be done before the original decision is made. Perhaps that could be a fair compromise and be considered subsequently.
I want to come back to the reason why what my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton said earlier might not flow, though it logically should. She said that if we have a cost-benefit analysis, MPs can scrutinise things and make sensible decisions on whatever. I guess in an ideal world that would happen, but it seems to me that in the real world that does not happen. The House should not just take my word for it, because it did not happen during the passing of the Climate Change Act 2008.
As I touched on briefly in my intervention, when the Labour Government brought forward the Climate Change Bill, they did a cost-benefit analysis, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch would have urged them to do. These were not meaningless numbers—we were talking serious money, and literally hundreds of billions of pounds were in the credit and debit columns on this cost-benefit analysis. It was not one with a few hundred thousand here or a few million there.
The Labour Government at the time brought forward the Climate Change Bill with a cost-benefit analysis, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch would have wanted. The original impact assessment showed that the potential costs of introducing the Climate Change Bill were almost twice the maximum benefits, as calculated by the Government who were bringing forward the legislation. One would think that when a Government bring forward a Bill where the potential costs are twice as high as the maximum benefits, Members of Parliament would be fighting over themselves to vote it down. How on earth could anybody support such a ridiculous notion, let alone why a Government would bring forward such a Bill? However, on Second Reading just five MPs voted against it, when a cost-benefit analysis showed it was a non-starter.
What then happened was that Lord Lilley—at that time he was my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden—kicked up a fuss. I must add that during the passage of the Bill the potential cost barely came up—none of the Front Benchers from any party raised the cost, even though it was going to be hundreds of billions of pounds. However, Lord Lilley seized on the fact that the costs were twice the benefits and asked how on earth that could be, so the Government went away with a flea in their ear. But—would you believe it, Mr Deputy Speaker?—they came back having recalculated the cost-benefit analysis and having discovered hundreds of billions of pounds of new benefits that they had not identified when the Bill started its passage through this place. It was miraculous that they found hundreds of billions of pounds of benefits that they had not even thought about.
Either we should believe they were utterly incompetent and had not fully thought through the implications of their Bill before they brought it forward, or, if we are more cynical—I probably fall into that camp—we might believe they redid the figures and came back with some dodgy figures to make it look as if the Bill had a greater benefit than cost.
I am not sure the Bill succeeds on any level. The Climate Change Act 2008 showed me two things. First, the Government will come back with any figures they want just to prove there is a bigger benefit than cost, even if that is dubious, to say the least. Secondly, Members of Parliament are not even interested in cost-benefit analysis. If they were, more than five of us would have voted against the Bill on Second Reading. I am not being funny, Mr Deputy Speaker, but if you go into the voting Lobby and ask people what we are voting on, half the time they do not know, let alone know the cost-benefit analysis of what they are voting on, so I am not sure that a cost-benefit analysis would serve the purpose that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch thinks it would. Therefore, I think the Climate Change Act 2008 represents an argument against his Bill.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough was absolutely right to mention a third Bill, which was about HS2. Everybody has known for years that HS2 was a catastrophic waste of money that was not even intended to benefit the north. History has been rewritten to say that it was going to be some great thing to benefit the north. The last Labour Government envisaged HS2 in order to try to reduce short-haul flights from Leeds Bradford and Manchester airports to Heathrow. It was never intended to benefit the north—that was not the purpose of HS2. History was rewritten and if we listen to Andy Burnham it was going to be the saviour of the north. What an absolute load of tripe. The cost went up and up. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton said, it went from £37 billion until it eventually got to £180 billion, and pretty much all the people who were arguing for it when it was £37 billion were still arguing for it when it was £180 billion.
In many regards, the only person to have a sensible approach to HS2, in terms of cost-benefit analysis, has been the Prime Minister. He said, not unreasonably, that he supported HS2 when the cost was £37 billion, but he could not support it when the cost reached £180 billion. That is a sensible decision for somebody to make, having looked at a cost-benefit analysis. The Leader of the Opposition will not be interested in a cost-benefit analysis—he opposed HS2 when it was £37 billion and supported it when it was £180 billion. How on earth are we expected to make sense of that? The decision making is absolutely ludicrous.
Politicians do not tend to make logical or financially sensible decisions; they make political decisions. They are not really interested in the cost-benefit analysis. They are interested in what it might look like in a headline in a paper, or in a campaign in a by-election. In many respects, the reason why HS2 goes against what my hon. Friend is trying to achieve here is that actually the Government had done a cost-benefit analysis of HS2. They just kept it quiet, because it did not deliver what people wanted it to deliver. Andrew Gilligan, who was the transport adviser when Boris Johnson was Prime Minister, revealed that, even before the latest increase in cost, the Treasury’s cost-benefit analysis had shown that for every pound spent on HS2, it would deliver only a 90p return. Although that was the Government’s official cost-benefit analysis, they were still pressing ahead with it at the time, until the costs became even more astronomical.
Although my hon. Friend is right that cost-benefit analyses should be at the forefront of decision making by Government and by Members of Parliament when they are scrutinising legislation, I just wonder, really and truly, how often people care that much about it. I can only conclude that they do not really care that much at all.
Going back to the HS2 example, I was one of those supporting the objectors who wanted more of the track to go in tunnels. I was supporting them because I thought that it would push up the costs so much that the project would become unviable. That never materialised. Essentially, though, is my hon. Friend not arguing for additional impact assessments during the course of the project?
My hon. Friend is highlighting how shrewd a politician he is and what shrewd decision-making skills he has. Ultimately, he was successful in getting the project stopped, but I cannot speculate on whether that was due to the number of tunnels. However, perhaps he helped, and more power to his elbow, because in places like Shipley we support the Prime Minister in wanting better connectivity across the north. The bit that works is north to south; it is across the north that it does not work, and the Prime Minister is absolutely right to focus his money on that. Whether it was down to the cost of the tunnels, I do not know, but it cannot have done much harm.
Finally, the other element of the Bill that I am nervous about, even though it is logical, is how much extra power it gives to what my hon. Friend described in a previous debate today as “the blob”. If we were to be, in effect, governed by cost-benefit analyses in the way that he envisages and in the way that I would like things to be done, I do not think that it is beyond anybody’s imagination that the civil service would, if it was particularly keen on the Government adopting a policy, miraculously produce figures that showed a tremendous benefit and not much of a cost. I am pretty sure that it is not beyond people’s imagination to think that, were the blob, as he described it earlier, particularly determined to block a proposal from the Government, its advice to the Government would be that the cost far exceeded the benefit. I am rather nervous about giving civil servants more power over Government decisions than they already have.
I think the hon. Member raised that point earlier in his remarks. I am sure that he is aware that whatever figures the Government produce, they are then scrutinised by an independent body, the Regulatory Policy Committee, to make sure that those figures hold water. Is he not reassured by that?
No, I am not. I know the Minister well—he is a very good man—and I know he would not be swayed by what the blob was trying to tell him to do or not do. He is a man of his own mind and a very talented Minister, and I have no doubts about his decision-making skills. However, I am afraid that the idea that I should be reassured at the Government, in effect, handing over more decision making to some unelected body of the great and the good of the elite, and that I should put all my trust in them, does not give me any reassurance. To be perfectly honest, it somewhat horrifies me that the Government are farming out these things to the great and the good of the establishment.
I am rather confused by my hon. Friend’s speech. Normally, he is a sunny chap who looks on the positive side of life, but from what he is saying, it does not matter whether or not we have a serious impact assessment and whether or not it is worked on, because Governments of all persuasions at all times are so hopeless that nothing is ever going to improve, and we are going to have as many cock-ups in the next 100 years as we have had in the last 100 years. Is that really what he is saying?
I think that is a pretty fair summary. If my right hon. Friend wants me to give a summary, that is not far off the mark. Yes, I am pretty sure that that will be the case.
I am afraid to say that, frankly, that is not going to change until Members of Parliament raise their game, to be perfectly honest. I am not particularly pinning the blame on the Government. They do their thing and their job is to get through what they want to get through. The people who should be holding the Government to account are us—those on these Back Benches and on the Opposition Benches. Our solemn duty is to hold the Government of the day to account, yet my point is that we are absolutely hopeless at doing so. As I have said, during the passage of the Climate Change Act, nobody was interested in the cost-benefit analysis. They were just voting for it like sheep because they thought it would be popular, or because there had been an email campaign encouraging them to do so. They were not doing the job they were paid to do, which was to scrutinise the legislation.
This comes back to the other flaw in the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch said that the Government should have to bring forward a cost-benefit analysis, and Members of Parliament could then scrutinise it and make a decision. I have to say to him that, if the Government refuse to bring forward an impact assessment or cost-benefit analysis, Members already have the power to say, “Actually, we’re not going to support this until you do bring forward a cost-benefit analysis.” The solution to the problem he is seeking to solve already lies in the hands of Members on the Back Benches and on the Opposition Benches if they are simply prepared to assert themselves and make it clear to Ministers, “We’re not just going to rubber-stamp something because you tell us it’s a good thing to do. Until you bring forward the evidence that shows it’s a good thing to do, we’re not going to support it.”
How many times do Members of Parliament ever say that to the Government? They do not say that; they just nod and go along with it. I do not think the Government are actually the biggest problem. I think it is Members of Parliament on the Back Benches and on the Opposition Benches who are the biggest problem, because we do not need this legislation. Members of Parliament should assert themselves and force Ministers to do this anyway.
A cost-benefit analysis brought forward by the Government in effect amounts to Ministers marking their own homework in that, when they bring forward a Bill, they also bring forward the cost-benefit analysis. I am not persuaded at all by the Minister that some body of the great and the good is rubber-stamping what the Government have come up with, no doubt after being appointed by the Government to do that job. What use is that? We want people who have not been appointed by the Government to scrutinise the Bill, not people who have been appointed by them.
Of course, we know that this is the case because it goes back to what George Osborne said at the time he set up the Office for Budget Responsibility. The reason he set it up, as colleagues will remember, is that he was fed up of the previous Government coming up with bogus forecasts to justify their policies and decisions at Budgets and autumn statements. They had, in effect, manipulated the figures to stick within the arbitrary rules they had set for themselves, which they then perhaps no longer wanted to keep. They were in charge of the forecasts and the figures, and they manipulated the figures for their own political advantage. George Osborne’s stated reason for introducing the Office for Budget Responsibility was, in effect, that the Treasury could not be trusted to come up with honest figures that we could all rely on, all the figures were dodgy and we needed an independent body to do it.
If the Bill passes and my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch says, “I want the Minister to come up with a cost-benefit analysis,” all we are doing is handing the cost-benefit analysis to the Treasury, which previous Chancellors have said cannot be trusted to come up with accurate forecasts and figures. I am not entirely sure what use it would be to the decision-making process if we ever got to the point where a Member of Parliament was actually interested in what the cost-benefit analysis said.
I feel slightly conflicted. On the basis of what my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and my right hon. Friends the Members for Tatton and for Gainsborough said, this seems, at face value, a very obvious, simple thing to do. I repeat that I cannot understand why any Minister who wanted to make decisions would not want to go through this process. But I fear that, despite the best intentions of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, it would not deliver the outcome that he seeks or, in the end, particularly improve decision making in this House.
Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Employment Rights and Protections) 1:45, 20 October 2023
I thank Sir Christopher Chope for introducing this Bill. This has been a wide-ranging debate that has covered a whole range of topics, but it is, at heart, about accountability for Government decisions, and it is clear that there are concerns about that.
It is worth drawing the House’s attention to the report of the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee of 10 October 2022, entitled “Losing Impact: why the Government’s impact assessment system is failing Parliament and the public”. I know that minds were probably elsewhere around that time last year, but it is a very important report, and it draws on many of the points that have been raised today. The executive summary of the report said:
“In 2017, we noted that there had been some improvement in the quality of Impact Assessments (IA) provided with secondary legislation. Unfortunately, this improvement has not survived the dual challenges of Brexit and the pandemic, during which time the speed of legislating meant that corners were cut. We had hoped that the return to more normal working would provide an opportunity not just to reinstate the previous IA system but to improve it: this has not happened.”
To pick up on the points raised by Esther McVey, as the shadow Health Minister at the time I spent an awful lot of days on the Committee corridor opposite Edward Argar. Unfortunately, he is not here now, but I am sure he will recall fondly a number of occasions on which we drew to his attention the fact that many of the regulations introduced under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 had no impact assessment and very little information to back up the decisions that had been made. We understood at the start of the pandemic why that was not always possible, but as time moved on, it felt that that was a pattern that did not have any justification. This matter is not limited to public health regulations.
Does the hon. Member agree that we need to change the 1984 Act so that we do not bypass the House and go into lockdowns without full scrutiny by all Members of this House?
Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Employment Rights and Protections)
I would like to wait and see what the inquiry says about the way that that was handled. An awful lot of evidence has been given about Government decision making at the time, which it makes clear was less than ideal. It is probably best for us to wait and see what comes out of the inquiry on how we as a Parliament can best deal with these issues in future. Hopefully that situation will never repeat itself, but Philip Davies made the point that the solution to many of these challenges lies in Members robustly challenging Government when opportunities arise.
The House of Lords Committee said that an impact statement
“should not just be treated as an item on a ‘to do’ list but be an integral part of the policy formulation process… One of our major concerns is that IAs which are published late, or that appear to have been scrambled together at the last minute to justify a decision already taken, may undermine the quality of the policy choices that underpin the legislation.”
Again, that theme has been picked up in the debate.
Reflecting on that particular statement, does the hon. Gentleman think his party was wrong to call for longer lockdowns on the basis of no evidence in cost-benefit analysis?
Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Employment Rights and Protections)
That is a bit rich from a Minister of a Government who did not introduce any impact assessments when they first brought in the lockdowns or various restrictions. I can recall on numerous occasions asking Ministers why people were limited to being in groups of six or why pubs had to close at 10 o’clock. We never got a satisfactory answer to any of those questions, so for the Government to try to put that on us is a little rich.
The hon. Member has just said to the House that he did not have sufficient answers for the rule of six and the 10 pm curfew. Does he not think it curious that Members, except for a handful of us here, still voted for them? Even he went along with it and voted for them.
Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Employment Rights and Protections)
We are not going to relitigate the entire pandemic here, but it is very important to say that the Opposition’s position was to support the Government in trying to get on top of the pandemic. I think it is fair to say that, while we did that, we were concerned there was not always the evidence to support some of the Government’s policies. We took it on trust that they had those conversations with the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies and so on, but again, I think those things—the level of detail and the consideration taken before recommendations came forward—will come out during the inquiries.
To pick up on another point from the Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee recommendations, it said:
“Our concern is that the number of qualifying instruments which have not followed the IA”— impact assessment—
“procedure has increased and, given that no sanctions appear to be applied where a department fails to comply, there would seem to be little incentive for departments to improve.”
Obviously, the Bill would create an incentive in the sense of bringing a Minister here every three days to answer for the lack of an impact assessment when one is not produced. As much as I enjoy seeing the Minister, I do not think it would be a particularly good use of parliamentary time to have him come here every three days to explain why an impact assessment had not been prepared. It would probably create an unnecessary pressure to produce one in a rushed manner that might not actually be fit for purpose. On that point, the Minister referred to the Regulatory Policy Committee, which does a kind of audit of impact assessments. It has said itself that around a quarter of all impact assessments are not fit for purpose. If we are to rely on the RPC for approval of the way impact assessments are delivered, we ought to listen to its recommendations a little bit more. They are not always as glowing as we would like.
I will not detain the House any longer, but some important points have been raised.
On the hon. Member’s last point, if he accepts that the system is not working, what does he think should be the sanction for failing to ensure that it does work?
Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Employment Rights and Protections)
The answer lies in Members’ own hands. It is up to Parliament itself to object to or vote against legislation if it does not think the impact assessments support the policy direction. The powers have always been there. Members can turn up to any secondary legislation Committee if they wish to. I understand the thrust of what the hon. Member is saying with this private Member’s Bill, but I am not quite sure it is the right method to deliver it. What needs to happen is for the Government to instil from day one a commitment to evidence-based decision making. There have, I am afraid, been too many examples recently where that has not happened.
Kevin Hollinrake Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade) 1:54, 20 October 2023
I congratulate my hon. Friend Sir Christopher Chope on his important Bill. I very much agree with his sentiments about ensuring that we have good financial justifications for our policies as soon as they are introduced to this House, although—as I said in an intervention on my hon. Friend Philip Davies—I think there are occasions on which we must be able to set those things aside.
What my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch seeks to do through his Bill is to formalise a process that should happen anyway, by making impact assessments a statutory requirement as soon as primary or secondary legislation is introduced. Currently, this is a process that happens through collective agreement.
As I always do when speaking in this House, I will try to put myself in the shoes I was in when I was in business. This place is not always that businesslike; I think it should be more businesslike. When someone in business is about to spend some money or invest in a new policy area, they will look at the costs and benefits of the interventions they are likely to make. However, I do not think that any business will simply bind itself to its own process. This legislation is itself a form of regulation, so I think it is right that we look at outcomes rather than processes. The Government are strongly committed to ensuring proper assessment of our policies, assessing the impacts and seeking to ease the burdens. That is the principle behind my hon. Friend’s Bill.
On my travels around the business community, I talk to many businesses. The principal issue raised by small and medium-sized enterprises is access to finance, but for the large businesses operating in our economy, which are clearly hugely important, the principal concerns are about the impact of regulation and sometimes about the slowness of the regulatory framework; I will come on to that point in a second. Importantly, we are making changes right now that I think my hon. Friend will approve of and that will meet his objectives.
There has been much speculation about the role of Parliament. My hon. Friend asked whether we are simply nodding donkeys. He certainly is not one, and neither is anybody who has spoken in this debate. Parliamentarians across the House can always make changes if they can apply enough pressure to the Government of the day. In my seven and a half years on the Back Benches, I certainly did not feel that I was a nodding donkey.
My hon. Friend wants impact assessments to be carried out prior to legislation even being tabled. He is absolutely right. That point feeds into something even more important, which is that we will ensure we introduce only legislation that is fit for purpose and will have a positive effect on our economy. With the better regulation framework we are introducing, our intention is that consideration of the impact assessment and the cost-benefit analysis will happen even before the legislation has been drafted. That is the principle.
Before a Department decides to legislate, it must first consider other routes that would achieve the same end. If it ultimately decides to legislate in a certain area, a key moment is the write-round, which is where a Minister or Secretary of State writes to other Departments to say that they want to legislate. At that point, the impact assessment should be made available to other Ministers. Hopefully, that will prevent unnecessary legislation resulting from other measures being brought forward that would have the same effect.
I think our recent reform to the better regulation framework meets the intent of my hon. Friend’s Bill. I do not want to put words in his mouth, but I am sure he agrees that the intent is to reduce business burdens. Reducing burdens on business means supply-side reform and more competition, and we know that more competition is the best regulator.
We are focusing on three things within the framework. The first is the existing stock of regulation on our statute book; the second is the flow of new regulation and the need to ensure that anything we introduce has the right purpose and the right effect; and the third, which has not really been discussed in today’s debate, is regulatory practice. What do our regulators actually do in practice when they are carrying out their regulatory duties?
On the existing stock of regulation, for the purposes of the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Act 2023, we have been hunting out bits of regulation that can be removed or amended now that we have the ability to amend what were previously EU requirements. However, the programme covers a wider area than retained EU law; we are looking for other areas in which we can streamline regulation. My right hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh was right to say that, as a Conservative Government, we should be in favour of low tax and low regulation, and that is certainly our intention. My right hon. Friend referred extensively to his local RAF base, and we have had many discussions about that because we have had similar experiences over the last couple of years. He may be reassured to know that future impact assessments will look beyond purely economic impacts, and may include some of the measures to which he alluded.
We have already reformed or revoked more than 1,000 pieces of legislation, and 1,000 more reforms and revocations are under way. We have, for instance, either reformed or revoked 500 measures in the Financial Services and Markets Act 2023 and the Procurement Bill. We have also consulted on reforming retained EU employment law, such as the working time directive recording requirements and wine sector reforms, and consultations are currently taking place on the product safety review and the fire safety of domestic upholstered furniture. The latter two consultations will future-proof our approach to product regulation, alongside our proposal to extend recognition of the CE mark indefinitely.
A number of observations have been made about the work of parliamentarians and its effect on regulation. I congratulate my right hon. Friends the Members for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) and for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) on their work on the taskforce on innovation, growth and regulatory reform, which made 69 recommendations for the easing or simplification of regulations. We have already implemented 10 of those recommendations, and are in the process of implementing a further 49. They involve key issues such as grid connections and reform of our clinical trials process.
We have simplified or scrapped many other regulations. Our reform of the nutrient neutrality rules will potentially release 150,000 previously stalled homes into the marketplace. The reform of the GDPR requirements will save businesses about £1 billion, and the reform of the working time directive recording requirements will have similar benefits. There are also pension and Solvency II reforms and changes, the setting aside of the requirement for small and medium-sized enterprises to provide insurance cover and audited accounts when bidding for public sector contracts in advance of those contracts—that should make it much easier for SMEs to secure such contracts—and changes relating to gene editing, holiday requirements and listing rules for the London Stock Exchange. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch mentioned the increase in the number of burdens placed on businesses over the last few years. I cannot comment on the figure that he mentioned—I think it was £14 billion—but regulation does, of course, have its purpose at times. We cannot have clean rivers without regulation. However, I am happy to write to my hon. Friend. I thought he might also mention smart meters, which are included in those figures, because I have heard him mention them in the Chamber before. As we know, the roll-out of smart meters is important to reducing energy use. We have also reformed measures on climate-related reporting in large companies, the energy efficiency of buildings and electric vehicle charging, so that we can have charging stations all around the country. I declare my interest here: as an electric vehicle driver for the past six and a half years, I welcome that, because I know all about range anxiety. The telecoms measures relating to national security—that alone was £2.4 billion—resulted from concerns raised in the House the security threat from foreign actors.
To complement the work that we are doing on the existing stock of regulation, we are working on controlling the flow of new regulation. The better regulation framework, about which I will say more shortly, has been reformed to make it more effective at putting a downward pressure on that flow.
Back in the dim and dark past—when David Cameron was Prime Minister, I think—the Government introduced a “one in, one out” rule for regulations, and then increased that to a “one in, two out” rule. Does that still apply to the Government?
No, that does not currently apply to the Government. As I say, there are reasons why we regulate, and I have pointed out some of those reasons; I am very happy to write to my hon. Friend regarding some of the reasons we do need to regulate. That is not necessarily the right way to go about it: looking at costs and benefits across the piece is important. In his speech, which I listened to very carefully, he cast some doubts on our ability to properly analyse costs and benefits, so I think it is right that we look at this issue across the piece. Our policymaking should be more nuanced than that.
I have mentioned the landscape of regulators. The third important part of our smarter regulation agenda relates to ensuring we have a well-functioning landscape of independent regulators. These have a significant footprint on the economy, and it is essential that they work well for the United Kingdom. They should operate in an agile and outcome-driven fashion, helping to drive economic growth while protecting consumers and ensuring that markets work as well as they can.
We have launched a series of consultations aimed at improving the outcomes that independent regulation delivers, including a strategic steer for the Competition and Markets Authority and a strategy and policy statement for energy regulation. We have also published findings of an independent review into the Civil Aviation Authority as part of the Cabinet Office’s public bodies review programme. Most recently, we consulted on extending the existing growth duty to Ofgem, Ofcom and Ofwat.
We have launched a call for evidence on the regulatory landscape as a whole, seeking views from businesses, consumers and regulators on what works well and what could be improved on to deliver for the sectors they serve. That call for evidence also seeks views on any further steps we can take to reform the stock of regulation to remove unnecessary burdens, so I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley that this Government are completely committed to doing everything possible to keep the impacts on business to an absolute minimum. Those impact assessments play a key role when it comes to controlling the flow of new regulation. They set out the conclusions of evidence-based processes and procedures that assess the economic, social and environmental aspects of public policy for businesses and wider society.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch mentioned some of the legislation that has not necessarily been accompanied by an impact assessment. He may want to ask questions of the different Ministers responsible for the policy areas concerned: net zero, HS2, and renters’ reform. For something as strategic as net zero, for example, it is hugely complex to identify both costs and benefits: there are some things that we simply do not know. While listening to my hon. Friend speak about those issues, a famous quote from the former Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai came to mind: in 1972, he was asked about the impact of the French revolution, and he said, “It’s too early to tell.” There are so many things that we just do not know, which I think was a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley. As I used to say in our boardroom, “You can make anything look good on a spreadsheet”, so we have to cast a critical eye over any cost-benefit analysis.
The other thing I would say about more parliamentary scrutiny is that we hear from businesses all the time that they are crying out for us to get on and deliver certain key infrastructure projects, so I do not think it would be helpful to extend the time they take to deliver. One example is the East Anglia pylon project, which is 112 miles of electricity cable going through the east of England. I realise that that project is very controversial, but stopping these things from happening has a cost to business, too. There are different dynamics going on in this conversation.
Impact assessments have evolved into an important and valuable component of the UK’s better regulation system. They have added transparent accountability to the work of supporting policy development. As I have said, independent scrutiny by the Regulatory Policy Committee should offer some reassurance to Ministers, parliamentarians and other stakeholders that the impacts have been considered rigorously. The UK’s approach is already highly regarded internationally, and we continue to score highly in impact assessments and post-implementation reviews compared with the other 38 OECD members. We should be justifiably proud of our world-leading reputation in this area.
The reforms to the better regulation framework deliver on the intent set out in May in the “Smarter regulation to grow the economy” document, and will put downward pressure on the flow of new regulation. The reforms require policymakers across Government to think even more carefully about alternative approaches, before concluding that regulation is the best answer. They will also encourage impact assessments, supporting proposals to focus on a wider range of impacts than was the case under the old system that had a narrow focus on impacts on business. The reforms encourage earlier consideration of how to evaluate whether regulations have achieved what was intended, so they can be revised or removed where they are not working as intended.
To support that, our new approach brings independent scrutiny by the independent advisory body, the RPC, to earlier in the policy cycle. That means that the RPC’s opinion can better inform Ministers’ decisions at an earlier stage on whether proceeding with regulation is the right approach, and whether the impacts are proportionate. All that should further improve the quality and value of the impact assessments that will reach Parliament, and help to ensure that the Government are regulating only where necessary, and designing regulation that is both proportionate and future-proof. We want this to drive the best regulatory environment, and ensure that UK businesses can grow and consumers stay safe.
My right hon. Friend Esther McVey raised the issue of covid and the Public Health Act, and she is right to say that we must learn from our experiences during that time. There is always a price for acting and a price for not acting, and it is right that we look at policy decisions that were taken to ensure that we make better decisions in future—not that we ever want to suffer from the same experiences again.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley spoke about the Government frittering money away, and suggested that both parties do that. I am not saying that money is not wasted sometimes. I come from Yorkshire and that is not something we do on an everyday basis—we are keen to avoid it. However, in my eight and a half years in Parliament, and even though we are guilty of it at times, it has always occurred to me that those on the Opposition Benches have an awful lot of money to spend. Time after time, they have voted for tax cuts, or against tax increases, while at the same time calling for increased spending. It simply does not add up.
To conclude, although the Government are not minded to support the Bill, we recognise the vital role that regulatory impact assessments play both in ensuring that Government consider the need for, and likely impact of, new regulations to support legislative change, and in informing decision making and parliamentary scrutiny. The Government do not think the Bill is necessary because there are already proportionate requirements around impact assessments. The framework has always evolved to target regulatory impact assessments where there is the greatest benefit, and we believe our recent reforms move further in that direction.
In the spirit of smarter regulation, which I trust I have shown I very much care about, we should not create new legislation about impact assessment requirements unless it is essential to do so. Our recent changes to the better regulation framework seek to reinforce the processes used in Government, while removing regulation rather than adding to it. We believe that is the correct approach. I again thank my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch for his contributions to this debate, as well as everyone who has worked hard to raise awareness of the vital role that regulatory impact assessments play when legislative or policy changes are made.
This has been an excellent debate, and I thank everybody who has participated in it. In the Minister we have somebody who actually believes in his brief, and it is refreshing to hear him bring his knowledge and experience to this important subject. It was also interesting to hear Justin Madders make it clear that the Labour party supports this as an important tool in ensuring that we have proper scrutiny and good legislation.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend Esther McVey for dwelling on the amendment of the Public Health Act, and the abuse of power to which that gave rise. I will finish in a moment with a quote from Lord Sumption, who has a phrase that encapsulates our concerns. My right hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh spoke eloquently about the problems he has at Scampton. On the basis of what he said, I am almost prepared to come along with my banner and help him to persuade the Government to relent and allow his constituents to continue as they have been.
My right hon. Friend made a good point about restoration and renewal, which made me think about a question I asked at the Procedure Committee about how, when the cost-benefit analysis is done, we are going to evaluate the benefit to our democracy of having the House of Commons continuing to sit within the Palace of Westminster and not being decanted. The answer I got was that that is not something they can do. All they can do is tell us what various options will cost, but they are not prepared to evaluate the benefits of staying in this Palace and not decanting. That is an example of the issue that we have.
That was expanded on by my hon. Friend Philip Davies, who as always brought an independent mind to these debates. He gave me a nightmare by reminding me of the Climate Change Act 2008 and the extent of that legislation. You will recall, Mr Deputy Speaker, that we were in opposition at the time. The leader of the Conservative party, David Cameron, felt so strongly about it that those of us who voted against it—my hon. Friend and I, along with Peter Lilley, Ann Widdecombe and Andrew Tyrie—have never been forgiven by him. Indeed, my noble Friend Lord Tyrie was told expressly by David Cameron that, as a result of his voting against that Bill’s Third Reading, he would never have office on the Front Bench either in opposition or in government under his leadership. That is the pressure that MPs are often up against in having an independent mind and not being a nodding donkey.
I finish by quoting from “Canary in a Covid World: How Propaganda and Censorship Changed Our (My) World”, in which Lord Sumption reminds us in an essay that
“Governments have immense powers, not just in the field of public health but generally. These powers have existed for many years. Their existence has been tolerable in a liberal democracy only because of a culture of restraint…which made it unthinkable that they should be used in a despotic manner.”
In a sense, that is what this debate is all about—trying to constrain the natural tendency of the Government to want to behave in a despotic manner. Mr Deputy Speaker, this is an issue that will continue to be of interest to hon. Members, so I would like to see whether we can adjourn the debate.
Ordered, That the debate be now adjourned.— (Mr Mohindra.)
Debate to be resumed on Friday 27 October.
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