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Mr. Macdonald : I apologised to Madam Speaker in advance for not being able to be present for the beginning of yesterday's debate. I was coming down from my constituency, which the Leader of the House may realise is quite some distance from here. In my speech, I tried to elicit an explanation of why, in his Budget speech, the Chancellor suggested that the Scottish islands would be exempt when detailed scrutiny of the Budget showed that there was no such exemption. We are still waiting for an answer.
Column 774in less than a minute to make the point that took him 50 minutes last night. That tells us something about what was going on. Several hon. Members rose --
Mr. Illsley : Yesterday the Leader of the House referred to an agreement having been reached, and just now he referred to contacts and the possibility of agreement on the progress of the Bill. As the Opposition Treasury Whip, I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that as far as I am concerned there was no contact and no agreement whatever about the handling of the debate last night. There had been no contact with the Whips Office and no agreement.
Mr. Newton : That emerged clearly from the course of events yesterday. Nevertheless, what I have been told by my hon. Friends was told to me in good faith and I have no doubt that such contacts as took place took place in good faith. I am simply stating our perspective on those matters.
Mr. Malcolm Chisholm (Edinburgh, Leith) : Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is quite common for the Government to timetable business to take place after 10 o'clock at night and also common for hon. Members on both sides of the House to speak for 50 minutes or more? Why does he single out yesterday evening and say that there was something unusual about it? I spoke for only 10 minutes, so I take it that that would be accepted as proof that I was not engaged in any plot. I have no particular constituency interest in the tax, but my hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) has a very special constituency interest and it is perfectly understandable that he should have spoken for 50 minutes, and also that he could not be present for the beginning of the debate. Why have the Government overreacted in this way? We know what the answer is, but could we have an explanation from the Government?
Mr. Newton : I have already acknowledged the constituency interest of the hon. Member for Western Isles. I also said that he could have made his point a great deal more crisply--as indeed he has just demonstrated.
In response to the other objections, I make the point that while I have been Leader of the House, among the main pressures exerted on me by many hon. Members on both sides of the House--not, I accept, by all hon. Members --have been requests that I take steps to enable the House more regularly to finish its business at 10 o'clock rather than continuing late into the night.
The motion therefore provides for the orderly completion of discussion of the clauses committed to the whole House by 10 o'clock tonight. That fulfils our commitment to provide two full days on the Floor of the House. Of course, the less time that is taken on the motion, the more time there will be for discussion of the clauses themselves.
The motion goes on to provide for proceedings in the Standing Committee to be concluded by 29 March--the Tuesday before Easter, eight weeks from today --and then to provide for two days, which would of course be after Easter, for Report and Third Reading.
Mr. Michael Stern (Bristol, North-West) : In view of the obvious obstruction that we saw yesterday in the Chamber--[ Hon. Members :-- "What obstruction?"]--and the declared tactics of the Opposition to continue it, will my right hon. Friend give the House an undertaking that if that obstruction continues in Committee he will introduce a further motion to ensure adequate debate of all clauses in Committee? Mr. Newton : The motion provides for the establishment of a Business Sub-Committee to do precisely that in Committee, and in due course for a Business Committee when the Bill returns to the Floor of the House.
For both Committee and remaining stages, our proposals are entirely consistent with what has been achieved by other means when the affairs of the House have been conducted more normally and with giving a full and proper opportunity for discussion of the Bill. To underline that fact, I might add that of the past six normal Finance Bills--I exclude the Bill that was debated in the rather special circumstances immediately before the 1992 election--the time taken in Standing Committee was respectively 14 days, 13, days, 11 days, nine days, seven days and 10 days.
That would provide for about 100 hours to be spent considering the Bill, which compares with 70 hours last year. The provision for remaining stages is precisely the same as that for all six Finance Bills that I have mentioned.
Mr. Illsley : I understood the Leader of the House to say that the Standing Committee on the Finance Bill last year sat for 10 days. I checked with the Library yesterday and the Finance Bill 1993 had three days on the Floor of the House and 17 sittings in Standing Committee. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with that? Does he mean 10 sittings, or what? Last year there were 17 sittings--17 separate days in Committee.
Mr. Newton : The Bill certainly had three days on the Floor of the House, but my information is that it had 10 days in Standing Committee--of course, the number of sittings could embrace more than one sitting in a day. The figure of 10 days for last year compares with 16 days this year, under the motion before the House. Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) rose-- Mr. Campbell-Savours rose--
Mr. Foulkes : Will the Leader of the House tell us which of the previous Finance Bills included totally new taxation, such as the airline tax, the tax on insurance and all the other taxes? This year's Finance Bill is revolutionary in many ways, quite different from the others that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned.
Mr. Campbell-Savours : Does the Leader of the House accept that the Bill is twice the normal size? It contains 244 clauses, as against-- [Interruption.] My hon. Friends tell me that it is 40 per cent. longer. Surely that requires additional time for hon. Members to debate the Bill.
Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman maintains that yesterday a small number of Members gave long speeches. That is the basis on which he justifies the guillotine motion-- [Hon. Members :-- "No."] That is what he told us.
Mr. Campbell-Savours : Why does he think that four or five long speeches should prevent another 635 Members of Parliament from reasonably debating a Bill in the House of Commons? Why should that small number dictate to others in the House whether the Bill is properly debated?
Mr. Newton : First, let me make it clear that I rest my case on the combination of factors on which I touched in my speech--[ Hon. Members : -- "Oh!"] Justifiably, the nature and length of some of the speeches yesterday, and the fact that some were made by hon. Members who, so far as I am aware, had not even attended the beginning of the debate, have been taken into account.
As for the length of the Bill, my information is that this year's Bill is 417 pages long and last year's was 296. My Treasury colleagues, whose instant maths is obviously better than mine, tell me that this year's Bill is 40 per cent. longer. That sounds about right--and there will be 50 per cent. more time in Standing Committee.
As I said at the outset, I moved the motion with regret but without apology. In bringing my remarks to an end, I make a point that is often overlooked on such occasions, but which I believe is important. I accept unequivocally that it is right in arranging the business of the House to have due regard to the rights of the Opposition. Indeed, that is clearly reflected in the efforts that we made to achieve an understanding and in the way in which, even in the absence of any understanding, we have sought to follow precedent in the timetable proposed. However, I do not accept the proposition that sometimes seems implicit in the rhetoric deployed by the Opposition, which is that the rights of the Opposition are the same as the rights of Back Benchers or the rights of the House as a whole.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) made the point tellingly in his intervention last night, when he gave his eye-witness account of yesterday's proceedings and clearly said that he felt that his rights, as a Back Bencher wishing to take part in the debate on clause 46, had been infringed. In his judgment, what occurred was an abuse of the House.
Column 777As Leader of the House, I have a responsibility to Back Benchers on both sides of the House, not merely to the Opposition Front Bench. Above all, I have a responsibility to the House as a whole, to ensure that our business can be conducted in an orderly and sensible way, to fulfil the duty that we all share to those outside the House who will be affected by the measures that we discuss. The motion fulfils those responsibilities, and I commend it to the House.
Mrs. Margaret Beckett (Derby, South) : I listened with some amazement to the closing words of the Lord President. I do not understand how he had the gall to stand at the Dispatch Box and talk about his responsibility to the House and to Back Benchers on both sides for the orderly scrutiny of debate. He has abrogated that responsibility utterly by moving this motion.
Some days ago, the Chief Secretary made a speech in which he deplored the cynicism that he perceived as prevalent in Britain today. That observation was received by most of the populace with hilarious incredulity, it being obvious to everyone else that, as far as the Government are concerned, cynicism, like charity, begins at home. Today, we have before us a classic reason why people are cynical.
The subject of this guillotine motion--taking all control of the debate out of the hands of Parliament and putting it in the hands of the Government-- is the biggest single tax hike in British history : taxes on travel, taxes on work, taxes on income, taxes on insurance, taxes on home ownership, and taxes on fuel. For a typical family, that is an extra tax bill of £1,330 over the next two years. The taxes are being imposed because of the utter collapse of the Government's economic policy, and to pick up the tab for the Government's failure.
The purpose of the motion is not simply about taking control of the debate ; it is about concealment--the Government think that, if they hide debate away, people will not notice the extra taxes they are paying--and cowardice. The Government are trying to run away from a further vote on value added tax on fuel.
Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton and Wallington) : Does the right hon. Lady realise that, if the timetable motion is passed and we have some sensible hours and sensible procedure for considering the measure, it is much more likely that interested parties outside will pay close attention to it ? What is not likely is that, if we allow debate on the Bill to be extended into the early hours through filibustering, we will get a sensible discussion either in the House or among interested parties outside.
Mrs. Beckett : The hon. Gentleman should not have intervened at that point, because I had just made the case that the reason for the guillotine is not to allow sensible debate ; rather, it is to curtail debate and to avoid a vote on VAT on fuel.
Mr. Stern : The right hon. Lady says that the Government are trying to avoid a further vote on VAT on fuel. The fact is that Labour Members have been soundly trounced every time we have voted on that subject. How much more punishment does the right hon. Lady want ?
Mrs. Beckett : The hon. Gentleman has just agreed with me. The Government are worried about a debate and vote on VAT on fuel, because they are concerned about the number of times that they can get their Members to support it.
The spectacle of the Lord President trying to defend these guillotines is getting ever more farcical. As I pointed out in the previous guillotine debate, Back Benchers on both sides of the House are here to examine the Government's legislation for mistakes and flaws, and to ensure, so far as we can, that their intentions are exposed and explained. To no legislation does that apply with greater force than legislation on the Budget. To no Budget does it apply with greater force than one that implements the biggest tax hike in British history. Increasingly, the Government are held in contempt, because they consistently treat others with contempt.
This is the fourth guillotine motion in the past four parliamentary weeks. [Interruption.] I am about to explain that to hon. Members. The Lord President justified the first guillotine by saying that there was no need to discuss the detail of a measure that had been announced months ago. He justified the second by saying that, although it had just been announced, the measure was beneficial in its net effect--that in itself is a highly dubious, probably untruthful, claim, which certainly deserves scrutiny. He justified the third by saying that it was an uncontroversial measure and that the debate--only a few hours--was taking too long.
The Lord President cannot make any one of those arguments for this guillotine motion. Even he cannot say that there is no need to discuss a Finance Bill of 244 clauses and 23 schedules--the longest Finance Bill in history, because it contains more taxes than almost any other Finance Bill. Even he cannot say that it is beneficial, when it puts up all our taxes-- not to finance much-needed investment in Britain's future but to pay for the Government's failure in the past. He certainly cannot say that it is uncontroversial--either that every British family is picking up the bill, or where and how that money is being raised.
The right hon. Gentleman is being ridiculous when he pretends that the Bill has been debated for too long when only part of one parliamentary day has elapsed. All hon. Members know perfectly well that we intended to finish the second debate on insurance with dispatch last night and to deal today with another important issue--the increased income tax we all face, first, because of frozen personal allowances and, secondly, because of cuts in mortgage interest relief. That is a clear breach of the promises in the Government's fraudulent election manifesto.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) pointed out, on the two previous occasions when Finance Bills were
guillotined--apart from debates on the Floor--they spent hours in Committee. In Committee, there were 62 hours on a 56-clause Bill and over 110 hours on a 53-clause Bill--the most recent occasion when a guillotine was imposed. That is not a few hours in Committee and on the Floor.
There is no justification for the precedent of a guillotine at this stage of the Finance Bill, or for its substance. While we can easily see that there is no justification, it is just as hard to see a reason for it. Today, the Lord President suggested, as he did last night, that there was undue and unusual delay in the first debate. He knows, and the whole House knows, that that is absolute claptrap.
Column 779It is not in the slightest degree unusual for the first debate to take longer than other debates on this or any other Bill. But overall, as the Lord President said, the previous seven or eight Finance Bills have been dealt with efficiently and expeditiously, although some debates have taken a good deal of time and others have taken less time.
Is the Lord President asking us to believe that yesterday evening he was shocked, stunned and dismayed by the perfectly ordinary spectacle of a debate until 10 pm, and that, when he hunted through his pockets, he happened to find about his person a four-page, carefully drafted guillotine motion? No one believes that. Why did the Lord President not say, as television cooks do, "And here's one I prepared earlier"?
All that matters to any Government is that they get their legislation through in reasonable consistency with their overall legislative programme and timetable. This Government had every reason to suppose that they would get this Bill through, consistent with a reasonable timetable and before Easter--the best possible reason, because we proclaimed to the world that we intended to force another vote on VAT on fuel before the proceedings are completed. Even the Government are not so incompetent that they are unaware that no such vote or debate can be held within the rules of the House once the tax is imposed on 1 April.
The Government knew perfectly well that, if we were to have another vote on VAT on fuel, they would have their Bill out of Committee before Easter. Not only did the Government know that that was our proclaimed intention ; the clauses on which we intended to vote are on the Order Paper.
That means that, to ensure proper public scrutiny and coverage of this substantial Bill, the Committee might have to work some long hours into the night. But the Government claim that they are not trying to avoid parliamentary scrutiny, so they could have no objection to the Bill being properly dealt with, as long as it was expeditiously dealt with. The fact is--the evidence for this is on our side--that that is what we were trying to do.
The Government are trying to avoid either a full discussion on the scale that both sides of the House normally think is needed for a Bill of this length, or a vote on our amendment about VAT on fuel, or both. It has now become clear that it is a further vote on VAT from which the Government are trying to run away, because the Lord President said that he does not anticipate Report or Third Reading--of course, we want that vote on Report- -until after Easter.
Mr. Newton : I want to be absolutely clear, because I have become a little puzzled by the drift of the right hon. Lady's argument. Is the case which she is presenting to the House that the Government have provided too much time for discussion of the Bill?
Mrs. Beckett : We have made it clear that the Bill could have come out of Committee before Easter, and that we would have sought to ensure that there was a reasonable debate within that time in Committee to scrutinise the whole Bill. The Lord President has tried to claim that the evidence of the debate so far in some way suggests that the Opposition are trying to obstruct the passage of the Bill. I am pointing out to him, the House and the country not only that there is no truth in that suggestion, but that he had
Column 780every reason in the world to know that we intended to scrutinise the Bill properly, and to make sure that we had a vote on VAT before the Bill left the House.
We had anticipated that we would be able to deal with the Bill, and then have a vote on VAT on the Floor of the House. That is a perfectly reasonable procedure, and that is why we are so suspicious about why the Government have tabled the guillotine. They either wish not to allow enough time to scrutinise the Bill reasonably in Committee and to curtail what otherwise might be a lengthy debate, or they want to take control of the timetable so that they can prevent Report taking place before Easter.
If we are being unduly suspicious, and if it is simply due to sheer incompetence that the Government have not appreciated that we wanted a debate on VAT before Easter, even though we said so repeatedly and even though the Order Paper confirms it, let the Lord President get to his feet now and say that he was in error. Let him say that he did not realise that the Opposition wanted to have a vote before Easter, and that he is perfectly prepared to allow Report and a vote on VAT before Easter. There would then be no difficulty.
I am perfectly happy to give way to any Minister who will give the House an explanation. No? Are there no volunteers? The question of the right hon. Member for Worthing (Sir T. Higgins) has just been answered. The Government wish to take control of the timetable because they do not wish to have a vote on VAT and, after all, they are being perfectly consistent.
The Government would not let members of their own party discuss VAT on fuel at all at the Conservative party conference, and they do not want hon. Members to have a chance to vote for our new clause. The reason is quite simple. The clause contains a new and sensible proposal. It proposes that we delay the implementation of VAT on fuel for a year, and there are many Conservative Members who could perfectly well vote for such a clause.
Much has changed since those Conservative Members voted for VAT on fuel in the first place. We know that, in 1992, the Government wrote off nearly twice as much money in uncollected taxes as will be raised by VAT on fuel in the first year. That shows that there is always a choice, and that the Government have a choice whether they need to go ahead with the measure this year. Secondly, we have seen the compensation package which has been promised for the least well-off, and most hon. Members judge it to be wholly inadequate.
Thirdly, we now know that it is only one of a whole gaggle of new taxes. VAT on fuel was presented originally as an alternative to increased taxes on income, and we now know that it is in addition to increased taxes on income.
Fourthly, we have now been told by the Government and by the Financial Secretary that the tax package of which VAT on fuel forms a part--the biggest tax package in British history--could check the recovery which everyone in Britain wants to see.
Column 781Those are four good reasons for delaying VAT on fuel for a year, and four good reasons why the Government are afraid to have that vote.
Mr. Gary Streeter (Plymouth, Sutton) : Does the right hon. Lady understand that she is completely and utterly wrong on that point and, as usual, is well behind the times? Does she understand that the reason why Conservative Members are perfectly happy with VAT on fuel is the generous compensation package that my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor introduced in the Budget, which satisfied Conservative Members and our constituents?
Mrs. Beckett : It is interesting to hear the hon. Gentleman say that, and I am sure that his constituents would be even more interested. His remarks do not wholly square with the letters that some of his hon. Friends have been sending.
Bearing in mind the exchange that has just taken place, will you give some consideration during the next few minutes to whether you would be prepared to accept from anywhere in the House a manuscript amendment altering the date of Report from 29 March to 15 March? That would give the Government an opportunity to meet the point made by my right hon. Friend, and the Committee stage would then finish early enough for Report to take place before Good Friday. That is clearly a way out which would be acceptable to the Opposition. That would require you to accept a manuscript amendment for that date, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Mrs. Beckett : That is most helpful, Madam Deputy Speaker. My strong advice to my hon. Friend is that he writes that a report should come back to the House before Easter into any motion or amendment which he might move. He would otherwise rely on the good faith of the Government, and I do not think that I need say more about that.
I was most interested that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter) said that Conservative Members were delighted with the compensation package, and that they no longer had problems with VAT on fuel. First, may I tell him that we have received substantial petitions from people in his constituency complaining about the impostion of VAT on fuel. I am surprised if he has not also received the petitions.
Mr. Streeter indicated dissent.
Mrs. Beckett : Perhaps the hon. Gentleman's constituents did not think that it was worth while writing to him, and I must admit that I am beginning to see why. The hon. Gentleman's remarks about the happiness of Conservative Members do not square with letters that some of his hon. Friends have been sending to constituents, which some of those constituents are inconsiderately sending on to us.
Column 782One letter from a Conservative Member said, for example, that he was worried about VAT on fuel, and that he would have been delighted to vote against it. Owing to the incompetence of the Labour party, however, the hon. Gentleman did not have a chance. The hon. Member who wrote that letter has had one chance since that time, and he has not shown up in the Lobby to vote against it. The Opposition are willing to recognise that it may be difficult for that hon. Member, and we are prepared to give him a second chance. Why will the Government not do the same?
Sir Terence Higgins : I am still genuinely puzzled. If it would have been possible for the right hon. Lady to table an amendment on Report on VAT on fuel, why is she unable to do so in Committee on the Floor of the House?
Mrs. Beckett : The right hon. Gentleman is being disingenuous. We want a further vote on VAT on the Floor of the House with the whole House able to vote. We want the House as a whole, not merely those who serve on the Committee, to have an opportunity to defer it. We can only do that by bringing it back on Report.
Sir Terence Higgins : I genuinely do not understand. If the right hon. Lady were so anxious to have another vote on VAT on fuel, why did not she suggest that we have the vote in Committee on the Floor of the House ?
Mrs. Beckett : We are not in that position. We must have a new clause to move this provision, and the means of doing that is to do so on Report. We provided the opportunity to vote on Second Reading, and we now want the opportunity of a new clause.
Sir Terence Higgins rose --
Mrs. Beckett : I do not wish to continue to debate this subject with the right hon. Gentleman. He will readily acknowledge that what we are suggesting would certainly provide the means for the House to discuss and to reach a decision on the matter. The only thing which could prevent that is if, for some reason--
Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale) rose --
Mr. Greenway : I have been listening carefully to what the right hon. Lady has said. The gist of it seems to be that it does not matter any more how much time is available for consideration of the Bill in Standing Committee and all the technical measures to which she has referred, so long as it is out of Committee in time for there to be the Report before Easter. Hon. Members who are concerned about proper debate--whether in Committee on the Floor of the House or Upstairs--want adequate time for discussion, and my right hon. Friend the Lord President has provided adequate time through this motion.
Mrs. Beckett : The hon. Gentleman is missing the point completely. We believe that adequate time can be provided in Committee. It will not be easy, but it is possible, and it can be handled expeditiously and in the same way as previous Finance Bills. We do not have the hon. Gentleman's trust in the Government's good faith, however, or believe that that is what they intend to do ; and I suspect that we, rather than the hon. Gentleman, will turn out to be correct. We believed and believe--it has been
Column 783confirmed by this debate--that the Government moved the motion to take control of the Bill so that they can prevent Parliament from having an opportunity to decide on the matter.
It is strange to hear members of the Government talk--in this debate and on other guillotine motions on various measures--as if they were a popular Government, engaged only in carrying out the election pledges that they so recently made, and being unreasonably obstructed by the Opposition somehow misusing the procedures of the House.
In fact, they are a ludicrously incompetent Government--the most unpopular in modern times, and not because they have the courage to take hard decisions, as they claim, but because they did not have the courage to tell the country the truth about those decisions, for which, in any case, they always blame someone else ; and because they are breaking all the election pledges they so recently made. Not only did the Government lack the courage and integrity to tell the truth about the state of Britain : they lack the integrity and courage to face the music now.
We are not misusing the procedures of the House, but are using them for the purpose for which they were intended--to hold an elected Government to account on behalf of the people who elected them. We shall continue to do so. They are a Government of weak men, with weak excuses, and a weakening hold on power.
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire) : I beg to move, in paragraph 1(1), leave out Ten o'clock' and insert midnight'. The amendment occurred to us last night, when we had precious little time--as did the rest of the House--to take account of the business statement. The Government have tabled ever more embellished guillotine motions. They could have taken into account--but did not--the fact that a matter of privilege would have to be discussed on the Floor of the House this afternoon. That has eaten into a good hour of the time allocated for consideration of the Finance Bill, although that time was already constrained. For that reason alone, the Leader of the House should be prepared to accept our modest amendment to enable another two hours of debate. It will allow only the amount of time that the Government thought reasonable before we lost time on the question of privilege.
It will seem wholly unreasonable if the Government set their face against this attempt to protect urgent consideration of brand new taxes and issues of fundamental importance in the Finance Bill. Those issues were considered important enough to be debated in a Committee of the whole House. As the House knows, this debate can continue for three hours, and we are likely to have to squeeze the three remaining substantial items into one and a half to two and a half hours of debate, which is totally unreasonable.
Although it is very much the least worst option, I am offering the Government a chance to give the House a more sensible timetable within which to debate the outstanding clauses on the Floor of the House before the Finance Bill goes into Committee. Unless the Leader of the House accepts that offer, I shall not feel able to support the guillotine motion.
We are in an extremely serious situation. I take a slightly different view from that of the right hon. Member