Bishop of Truro takes part in debate on Deregulation Bill

“In general, the question of whether or to what extent a particular type of economic activity is a legitimate driver of economic growth is a moral one that should not just be subsumed under a catch-all principle that regulators should promote economic growth. The prevention of damaging or unjust economic activity, surely, is equally germane to their mission.” – The Bishop of Truro, 07/07/14

On 7th July 2014, the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Tim Thornton, took part in the Second Reading debate on the Government’s Deregulation Bill, led by Lord Wallace of Saltaire. In his speech he welcomed many of the measures, but raised concerns about two areas covered by the Bill – the work of employment tribunals and provisions that would require regulators to have regard for promoting economic growth.

Bishop of Truro 20.6.13The Lord Bishop of Truro: My Lords, I think that I need to begin with an apology. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, for drawing our attention to matters relating to dog collars. I was not going to refer to them but I will make sure that one of my colleagues does when we get to Committee.

I have no more interest than any other Member of this House in regulation for its own sake. In fact the New Testament, on the principle that,

“where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom”,

specifically warns people against submitting to unnecessary regulations in matters of religion. This is something on which I will comment when we get to York later this week for the meeting of the General Synod.

In the same spirit, I welcome many of the provisions in this very miscellaneous Bill. The exemption of members of the Sikh community from the requirement to wear safety helmets in carefully defined circumstances has been consistently asked for by that community—and since the Health and Safety Executive supports it, so do I. The additional test required from driving instructors with a disability is unnecessary: every applicant should be tested for their suitability to do the job on the same basis. Many other provisions update past legislation on the basis of change in technology or of circumstances. The fact that we can use more sophisticated and reliable equipment to test drivers for drink or drugs at the roadside, for example, is very welcome, and it is reasonable to permit healthcare professionals, for whom this sort of work is normal in other professional contexts, to carry out such tests.

I will comment on the closing of prisons, even though I am the bishop for a county in which there is not a single prison. The removal of the requirement for a statutory order to close a prison, when none is needed to open one, is logical enough. However, we should not let this pass without observing that closing a prison is not a trivial matter, in at least two respects. First, the present wave of prison closures is shutting long-standing smaller prisons with a strong track record of working constructively with offenders and building instead large establishments, whose physical fabric is doubtless much superior to the old buildings but whose effectiveness in actually reducing reoffending is, to say the least, unproven.

Secondly, closing prisons has a real and often negative effect on the communities in which the prisons are set. There are cities where the closure of a prison has not only cost jobs but worsened planning blight in that area. There are also rural communities that have been hard hit by short-notice closures.

Some would regard any relaxation of rules about alcohol as a bad thing. As has been commented already, the small revisions in this Bill to the licensing arrangements for the sale of alcohol at informal and irregular community occasions seem a prudent step, which will not catapult church halls irresistibly into the centre of the excesses of the night-time economy.

I also welcome the measures on rights of way. These will help to retain and protect indefinitely those rights of way that have existed for centuries but do not necessarily appear on the definitive map. I am much less enthusiastic, however, about the removal in Schedule 19 of a requirement to consult statutory bodies such as Natural England when proposing new by-laws, orders or regulations. No longer will there be a requirement to consult,

“bodies whose statutory functions include giving advice to Ministers on matters relating to environmental conservation”.

In total, there are 15 instances of the removal of the statutory duty to consult, but very few of these proposals relate to obsolete bodies or legislation.

There are two aspects of the Bill which may be moving deregulation in the wrong direction. First, as has been said, there is the removal from employment tribunals of the power to make “wider recommendations”. The task of the tribunal would be solely to respond to the situation of the particular person in front of it. If there were any evidence that tribunals had exceeded their natural remit by ranging over issues remote from the one brought to them, there might be cause for concern. There seems to be no such evidence.

If some injustice done to a particular employee is found not to be a one-off event but to be due to an element of unfairness built into a policy or practice of the organisation, the most economical way to deal with that is for the employment tribunal to point it out. For example, if an employee has a just complaint of direct discrimination, the tribunal may well deal with that as an isolated incident. If, however, the case is one of indirect discrimination, it is most likely that there is something wrong embedded in the way in which the organisation works. This clause would prevent the tribunal from making a sensible recommendation in such a case. It is unclear how such a point, made at an early stage by an employment tribunal, could amount to an illegitimate burden on a business when it may well remove the need for a more complex resolution of the problem further downstream.

Clauses 73 to 76 impose a duty on regulators to have regard to the desirability of promoting economic growth. I have great respect for the judgment and experience of the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, to whose report these proposals owe their origin, and his concern that regulatory functions should not place any unnecessary check on economic growth. Nevertheless, the integrity and independence of regulators is important. They come in many varieties, of course, but at least some of them stand for objective principles of justice, in many cases articulated in international law, and all of them must have regard to law. For many of them, also, their independence is important, so a Bill that gives Ministers the power to issue guidance on how regulatory functions can be exercised so as to promote economic growth looks like a prima facie compromising of independence.

Of course I am not suggesting that anyone in this House regards economic growth as good in all cases. A burgeoning industry in illegal drugs would be agreed by all not to be good—but what about, for example, growth in the alcohol industry or the tobacco industry? Judgments here would be more nuanced. Then there is the gambling industry. Current government policy tends to see the gambling industry primarily as an engine of economic growth. To place the Gambling Commission, for example, under a statutory duty of this kind is questionable. In general, the question of whether or to what extent a particular type of economic activity is a legitimate driver of economic growth is a moral one that should not just be subsumed under a catch-all principle that regulators should promote economic growth. The prevention of damaging or unjust economic activity, surely, is equally germane to their mission.