Column 433We have always made it clear that we support the principles agreed at Edinburgh, but that we believe that the Government can do far more to examine and scrutinise properly fraud, waste and the common agricultural policy. At the moment, scrutiny is insufficient and ineffective, and much more could be done. Speeches made during the passage of the Bill have made it clear that hon. Members on both sides of the House believe that much more can and should be done. It was always clear to us that the Government would get the Second Reading of the Bill, because despite their Euro-sceptics there was sufficient support for it in the House. Yet it seems as though the Prime Minister decided that this was the time when he had to show his authority. This was the time to show that he would tolerate no more, and that he would not have people constantly disrupting his Government. So, in spite of what common sense should have told him, he decided to make the Bill an occasion for a great show of strength. The result was-- [Hon. Members:-- "Why not?"] Hon. Members ask why not. A politician has to decide when it is time to take such action and when it is not necessary. What happened last week was that the Prime Minister showed incalculably bad judgment, which has split his party and left him with a minority Government. It led to his Government being defeated last night and today, it has led to ignominious, backstairs dealing-- [Hon. Members:-- "Say it again."]--backstairs dealing to get a shabby agreement from those who, last week, were prepared to vote and to stick with their consciences and who, today, were doing deals with the Prime Minister to sell out what they had supposedly gone to the stake for last week.
Many people outside the House will wonder what all the fuss was about last week. We know now that the party in government is in a shambles. The Government do not know how they want to govern, they do not know what their priorities are and they do not have the confidence of their own party, let alone the confidence of the country.
The debate today began interestingly, with the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) making a long speech to draw out from the Paymaster General and to get on the record exactly what the shady deal had been. As I said, he and his colleagues disappeared; we have seen no more of them. Their determination to scrutinise disappeared and we can only guess at what was said within No. 10 Downing street about it. That is no way to run a Government. What a shambles and what a disgrace to British democracy!
The people of this country want to see a Government who scrutinise effectively the raising of money from them and the way in which that money is spent. They have the right to expect that and we in the House have the right to expect that. That is what the new clauses were all about. The Government have wavered today, not sure quite what they were going to do until they were sure that the Euro-sceptics had been bought off. Once the Euro-sceptics were bought off, the Government wanted to run and to get home quickly. I know that they have had too much of this place this week, but the country has had too much of them.
The Government will get their Bill tonight because, as I have said, we agree with the principle, but they have lost their credibility and their competence to govern. Many hon. Members now believe that the Government are unfit to govern.
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Mr. Rowlands: As a preamble to the Bill, every hon. Member was sent a letter by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in which he explained what a minor and minimum sum was involved in the Bill. As the explanatory and financial memorandum states, the figure will be a mere £75 million net additional cost in 1995-96, rising to £250 million. Frankly, the reason why I did not believe that letter and why I believe that we are being conned is based on my own experience in this House. I came here in 1966, years before we were a member of the European Community. I voted in the referendum in 1975 to stay in the European Community and it is interesting to note that in that year, the gross contribution made by the United Kingdom to the EC budget was £341 million. The public sector receipts from the European Community were £398 million. The only year in which we were net beneficiaries of the whole system was 1975, when I voted to stay in the European Community and when we were net beneficiaries by some £57 million as a result of transitional arrangements and so on. It is worth reminding the House of what I have seen those figures become. We have been asked to agree that the Bill represents a mere £75 million now and a mere £250 million by net increase next year. In 1975, the year I voted in a referendum to stay in the Community, the gross contribution was a mere £341 million. The gross contribution in 1994 is £7,203 million. As a result of the changes in this Bill, the gross United Kingdom contribution will reach £10 billion by 1996- 97. If I look back again at the time when I voted in 1975, the net contribution was minus £57 million. In 1994, it will be £1.3 billion and by 1996, net contribution to the European budget will become £3.53 billion. So, we have every reason, if one takes into account about a 20-year period since the key decision was made in 1975, to wonder about, question and worry about whether we should pass a Bill on the basis of a Chancellor's letter that tells us that we will be paying a mere £75 million extra this year and a mere £250 million next year.
I have lost any belief that Governments have meaningful control over the UK contribution. I am an old-fashioned parliamentarian. I came here because I thought that this was where influence and power lay. As a parliamentary historian, before and during my time here, I believe passionately that this House matters and that the procedures, means and the basis on which we have built parliamentary traditions in this House are based on scrutiny and control of public expenditure. The term that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) used about redress before Supply was old-fashioned, but good nevertheless. It was the basis on which this House was created, formed and became a continuous institution. Before then, it was an occasional occurrence when the House met. Years would go by when Parliament did not even meet. Problems of annual estimates and the creation of the first Public Accounts Committee occurred 300 years ago this year, in the 1690s, as I said on Second Reading. From there, annual Sessions were perpetuated.
Others may not care a damn about whether that tradition matters. I believe that it does. I believe that it is very important. It gave people the confidence to give Government money because they knew that there was
Column 435some method and degree of parliamentary accountability. What do I see now? I witness a gross, growing erosion of that basic fundamental power of control over expenditure.
One of the worrying beliefs which I have heard expressed tonight is the illusion, which has been gradually created between the Minister and his Back Benchers, that, somehow, our Public Accounts Committee will be able to get a handle on the issue. I raised the matter with the Minister and he said that it was a House of Commons matter and not one for him, but when replying to earlier debates he offered the idea that the Public Accounts Committee would be able to get involved in the detailed control and scrutiny of European expenditure. I ask him again: how?
Public Accounts Committee procedure is based on the simple principle that the permanent secretary, as the accounting officer of the Department, is ultimately responsible to the PAC, the National Audit Office and the Comptroller and Auditor General. As I understand it, no individual permanent secretary will be responsible to the House for a penny of the expenditure that is involved in the Bill. It would seem that the same comment could be made in respect of the PAC. If I am wrong, I hope that the Minister will tell me, but I do not think that I am. No estimates flow from own resources. The financial prospectus, as it was called, that was attached to the Edinburgh accord, or conclusions, was a five-year forward budget for individual items, not one of which will be subject to parliamentary accountability. No permanent secretary, as the accounting officer of a Department, will be responsible and answerable to the PAC. Money is being handed over to another body to spend. The permanent secretaries of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of Trade and Industry will not be responsible for structural funds or the CAP. There is no connection between the money being handed over and the system of parliamentary accountability that we have devised. The Paymaster General was offering an illusion when he suggested to Conservative Back-Bench Members that the PAC would be able to become involved. The Minister should not try to kid us or persuade us that a new form of accountability will emerge as a consequence of the "promises" from the Government Front Bench to Conservative Back-Bench Members. Perhaps the Minister will care to tell me by what procedures it will emerge.
The system of permanent secretaries becoming accounting officers was one of the consequences of Treasury changes that were introduced in the 1920s, and related to the estimates of Departments. I questioned the Paymaster General about the financial prospectus. We have been much concerned about own resources but alongside them is a five-year projected budget. The prospectus for 1993-99 lists various areas of expenditure, including the increased expenditure that will take place. The Minister told us that it was a political agreement, not one that was legally binding.
Will the Minister tell us in future that the prospectus was not legally binding, but that it was politically internationally binding on the Government that the figures be observed? Will we be told that there can be no fundamental alterations in the budgets that were laid down at Edinburgh? That will mean that the 41 per cent.
Column 436increase in the structural operations, for example, is laid down and will have to be spent. There will not be a major alteration unless all parties agree.
Will the Minister tell us, just as we were told on Second Reading, that the own resources part of the Bill was a matter of confidence and had to be driven through unamended? Will he say that because the Government have given their word, we are bound to the own resources decisions and to all of the budget arrangements for the next five years and the expenditure there outlined? Are those arrangements immutable in the sense that they have been signed and agreed politically? Are they binding on us unless all parties agree to alter them?
Irrespective of its not being legally binding, does the political agreement which was created at Edinburgh have the same moral force of an international arrangement of the kind that the Paymaster General has tried to sell us and to which we are committed in terms of own resources? If it is, for the next four or five years, the way in which the money will be raised and where it will be spent will be outside our control. We cannot alter the various budgets. The Government are binding us not only to resources but to a four or five-year expenditure programme.
I should like to believe that my constituency will be a beneficiary, but I am growing increasingly disillusioned. Anyone who was involved in RECHAR or structural funds, and anyone who has tried to beg money from the European Commission in the past couple of years goes away feeling very sorry. Anyway, it is only begging for money that we have sent. It is only trying to obtain a small proportion of the gross contribution that we have made. We are major net contributors. Even the curious recycling process is elaborate and bureaucratic. We are now told that the financial perspective is a political agreement, and that that, too, is as unalterable as the own resources decision. I have been slow in waking up to the matter. I said on Second Reading, and I repeat on Third Reading, that I was a slow learner on the European Community. I did not appreciate what was involved. Other hon. Members who are much more perceptive than I am spotted the arguments earlier. I am a good pupil, and I have learnt my lesson. I will not support a Bill which has been driven through in such a way, with its consequences for expenditure and parliamentary and public accountability. I will not be conned by the letter which the Chancellor sent to me before the Bill began its progress or by the promises of a Minister who obviously does not know much about parliamentary procedure and who is offering a fig leaf by way of control of public accountability through the Public Accounts Committee. For those reasons, I shall certainly oppose the Third Reading.
Mr. Charles Kennedy: I wish to contribute briefly to the Third Reading debate. It is a fair indication of the confusion at the heart of the Government on this and many other matters that a Bill which began its life with its Second Reading becoming a motion of confidence, which threatened to bring down the Government and send off the Prime Minister to see Her Majesty the Queen to seek an immediate dissolution and a pre- Christmas general election, all within the space of 10 days, has its Third Reading moved formally by the Minister. That is a breathtaking constitutional development in little more than one working week at Westminster.
Column 437As has been said, in the past 10 days, the Government have technically turned themselves into a minority Government. We saw the Minister, when he replied to his hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash)--I do not know whether he is one of his hon. Friends at the moment--offer a palliative via the Public Accounts Committee. That was a clear sign that the Government are desperate to get the rebels back on board.
If there is one group of people who have shown consistency in this matter, it is the Conservative Euro-sceptics. I have said it before, and I repeat, that they stick to their guns and they argue their case. They did so again in the Lobby last night, and we must respect them. I completely and utterly disagree with them. They are wrong on the European issue and they are doing great damage to the country's interests because of the influence that they are exerting within their own party at the moment; but I must respect the fact that they stick to their guns and argue their case.
I just wish that we had a Prime Minister who knew what his case on Europe was. I wish that he would argue with conviction and consistency, but alas the Prime Minister does not. We have now reached the Third Reading of a Bill of which, had there been a free vote on Second Reading, 500 hon. Members would have voted in favour.
The Prime Minister managed to turn the vote into an issue of confidence. He has not just sundered what should have been all-party support for the principles of the Bill on Second Reading, but in the process he has allowed the Back-Bench sceptics to have still more influence over the Government on matters European. We have seen hopeless parliamentary tactics and very poor political leadership from the Prime Minister in the past 10 days.
The Government are in the utterly farcical situation-- not seen since the days of Denis Healey-- of having to deliver a mini-Budget tomorrow afternoon as a result of a defeat which can be traced directly to the Bill's Second Reading and to the way that the issue was mishandled by the Conservative party. That is a matter of internal grief for the Conservatives, but the problem is that this country will pay a heavy price in terms of its interests. If the Conservatives hang on to power for another year or 18 months, the sceptics will have more influence over the Government's stance vis-a -vis the 1996 intergovernmental conference. I predict that two things will happen. First, the Government will have to come out in favour of a referendum on the European issue. I believe in that myself. I voted for it during the debate on Maastricht; I thought that we should have had a referendum about that issue. There should be referendums to decide any constitutional implications arising out of the IGC, such as the single currency issue and the like. Secondly, as we saw in the Prime Minister's speech to the Conservative women's conference at the end of last week, the Government will adopt a more chauvinistic and nationalistic approach.
Mr. Kennedy: I contend that these are the implications which flow from the approach which the Government and the Cabinet have taken to the Bill. Therefore, my comments are absolutely generic to the case.
Column 438As a result of the way in which the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have handled the Bill, the stance that the Government will adopt at the next IGC will be damaging to our national interests. At the end of the day, the Prime Minister will be more concerned about appeasing a vocal and determined minority within his own ranks than he will be about addressing the broader issues of greater integration, greater democracy and greater decentralisation for European institutions as a whole. Regrettably, that is the price that we will pay.
Pressing the nuclear trigger in the form of the confidence vote, technically losing an overall majority in the House and finally losing the vote on the Budget measure last night and having to come up with an emergency package tomorrow will be seen as the beginning of the end for the Prime Minister, and I hope the beginning of the end for the Government.
It is a great shame that a Bill which should have commanded all-party support cannot do so because the Government have quite erroneously turned it into an issue of confidence. It is impossible for the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats, who support the principles of the Bill, to vote for it because of the Government's stupid handling of the issue.
Mrs. Dunwoody: I shall not follow the hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy) in his remarks. Whatever my views about the Conservative party, if there comes a time when the House of Commons does not listen to the differing opinions of Back Benchers there will be absolutely no point in having democratic elections. The House has control over taxation. It has the power to increase taxes, to decide priority spending areas and to monitor whether taxes are paid. That constitutes the basis of House of Commons procedure. The majority of hon. Members come to this place because we have priorities about those things that we believe are of concern in our electorates. I believe that constant erosion of the House of Commons' power to examine in considerable detail where taxation money should be spent would frighten those whom we seek to represent. That is increasingly the situation in which the House of Commons finds itself.
I have the honour to sit on a European Committee that is charged with the responsibility of looking not only at the constant flow of directives and regulations but at the precise monetary implications of the legislation which is brought before us. We are failing to examine in sufficient detail what is happening within the Community. We are certainly failing to examine the flow of moneys, over which we have little control, from the United Kingdom into the Community. It is all very well to use slightly sophisticated and superficial phrases such as, "If you belong to a club, you have to pay the subscription." It is tremendously important to understand that the Bill means a great deal more than a subscription. It is the movement of a very large amount of money raised from the British people by taxation, but not controlled by them or by the democratic Government who are elected by them. Indeed, the money is not even supervised by the Members of Parliament for whom they have the opportunity to vote.
Throughout the coming years, it will become clear that the priorities for the use of the money will not be those set by the House. Monitoring of the proper use of that
Column 439money will not be undertaken by the House. The Government seek to mislead if they imply that we will have extra powers which will enable us to examine in detail what is happening.
I deplore the way in which the Bill has been handled. I certainly deplore the fact that a major piece of legislation should be handled at this hour with such superficiality. That approach is defended by the Government, giving the impression that a few Members of Parliament seek to detain the House without having a legitimate political reason. I believe that simply being a democrat and being proud to be a Member of Parliament is enough reason for me to detain the House. I am deeply worried by what we are doing tonight. I am frightened that in the near future the House of Commons will have real reason to rue the decisions that we are about to take. 12.11 am
Mr. Austin Mitchell: I agree with the hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy) that the Bill has moved from crisis to cursory contempt. The cursory contempt has been shown in the way in which it has been pushed through tonight. The Bill started out with the most incompetent piece of parliamentary management that has been seen this century. It has overwhelming support in the House, although not from me. About 500 Members might well support the Bill. The episode ended last week with the farce of having to push the Bill through on a vote of confidence. That guaranteed that the Liberals were desperate to grovel and to support any initiative from Europe. The Labour party, which is now communautaire and friendly to all things European, was forced to vote against the measure because it has been handled in such an incompetent way. The Bill could have been passed easily. The matter has been turned into a tremendous difficulty, which ends only tonight. That is insane incompetence. It has ended in a squalid scuttle, as the midnight hour passes and most people are sensibly at home in bed.
"Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive!"
That has been the progress of the Bill. The Government have got their legislation. The Prime Minister gave his word at Edinburgh and that word is upheld by the House by the procedure that I have described, but at what cost? No trust. Trust has been broken. It can never be glad, confident Major again, if it ever was. The Prime Minister has cashed in all his credit chips to get this measure through in such a fashion.
The Prime Minister cannot get any support from that section of his party that he has treated so contemptuously and stupidly. He will get the Bill on the back of a widespread realisation that it has been pushed through by what amounts to a confidence trick on Parliament and on the British people, by using the treaty power to push through a measure that will tax the people, against their consent and without that of Parliament.
If the money is justified, why not ask the people for it honestly? If belonging to the club brings them benefits, they will be prepared to pay the contribution. Why should the case not be put before the people and before us, and our honest consent asked for? Why should it be treated in such a deceitful and half-baked fashion, with the legacy of ill-will and hostility that that builds up? I am happy
Column 440that it builds up that feeling in the Conservative party, but it has also built up unease outside because the people see what has been done and how. They might not have a clear understanding of the deceit that has been used, but they are uneasy and unhappy about what has happened. The Government are trying to build a commitment to Europe on that unease.
The Bill has been dealt with contemptuously and without any safeguards, checks, audit, justification or controls. The Government have rejected all the controls in the amendments that were tabled. There are no safeguards. The Bill is just the latest part of that long, humiliating and embittering experience that is our relationship with Europe and our membership of the European Union.
It is no wonder that every poll shows a widespread hostility, distaste and dislike for Europe. The people sense that the relationship has brought them no benefit--in fact, they know it from their experiences with jobs, food prices, regulations, interference and the unjustified actions imposed on them. They know that they are asked to pay an accumulating total--£22 billion net since the relationship began--to belong to a club that is doing damage to the economy, jobs and food prices. They are asked to pay a contribution that cannot be justified, and the bill will increase--to £10 billion in 1996.
Because that cost cannot be justified and the Government cannot explain why the people should pay that money to have damage done, we are forced into what amounts to an agenda of lies in the democratic dialogue of this country. It has become a dialogue of lies and of half-truths. We have to pretend that loss is benefit, that drain is success and that humiliation is triumph. All that has to be reinterpreted for the British people because they know instinctively what is wrong and they cannot be told the truth.
The Bill prolongs that process. It is no longer Lady Curzon's motto on matters sexual, "Lie back and think of England," but "Lie back and think of Europe." That is the only justification that the Government can give for the Bill and for the half-truths, distortions, dodges and the Chancellor's letter. That becomes a culture--a habit of lies and dodges like the ones used to push through as a treaty a measure that should have been scrutinised, audited, costed and controlled. I am concluding, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Long tenure of power makes one contemptuous, and an even longer tenure of power makes the Government absolutely contemptuous of the Parliament, the people and, worst of all, their own party--an instrument that has been so badly messed about in pushing through the Bill.
The Bill, and that relationship, has been an embittering experience. Fortunately, that experience carries its own nemesis because it is building its own antibodies, alienation, dislike and mistrust for the institution in whose name all that is done and for the Government who are doing it.
Mr. Spearing: My right hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) properly asked why we have had such extraordinary political and constitutional contortions about this Bill. The answer, I think, is that the Conservative party has got itself into
Column 441what might be termed a form of political crack. It has a certain amount of muscle when operating along the traditional lines, but those traditional lines no longer work. That is why the Conservative party is proposing the Bill in the form of an extended crisis on two or three fronts.
The main reason for that is that the power which the Government once had in this House as sole decision makers as to what money should be spent and what money should be taxed has gone elsewhere. No longer is the Conservative party--nor, indeed, any party holding a majority--in the position in which it might have been even in 1975 when we had the referendum.
I put it to the Government Front Bench that there have been two ministerial statements of untruth in the media in relation to the Bill, one of which was made in this House. The Chancellor tried to make out in the House that there was an international or treaty obligation that the Bill should be passed. As recently as this week, the Secretary of State for Defence--I gave the right hon. and learned Gentleman warning that I intended to raise the matter in the House--said the same thing.
We had better get it straight. The claims of those Cabinet Ministers are wrong. Either they do not know the treaty, or they have been misinformed. Article 201 of the treaty--we should get this firmly on the record in the closing minutes of debate on this important Bill--says in relation to own resources:
"To this end, the Commission shall submit proposals to the Council. After consulting the European Parliament on these proposals the Council may, acting unanimously, lay down the appropriate provisions, which it shall recommend to the Member States for adoption in accordance with their respective constitutional requirements."
The treaty was signed on the basis of an option to this House. It may be that the Government have given some undertaking, but that was not the constitutional last decision, which is for this House alone. Yet the Chancellor, the Secretary of State for Defence and possibly other members of the Cabinet pretend otherwise.
I suggest that the wording of article 201 gives a clue as to what we now have. We have a cascade of coercion in which the Prime Minister himself is entangled, as is the Chancellor and any hon. Member who goes along with the principle of the treaties that we have signed. Why is that? It is because that article says that the Commission shall propose what taxes will be. The last word is not with the Commission, but it is the originator of any proposal for own resources taxation.
The article then says that the Council will take that proposal up. The Council may do that but, in secret bargaining inside the Council, there is coercion on the back markers, who must take something which they do not want because they have to pay for something else. In relation to that, individual Governments--whether they wish to or not--must go to their respective Parliaments or assemblies and say, "We have got the best deal we could. Here are the tax proposals. Please will you pass them?"
We then go down to our constituents and tell them that they will have to pay the taxes, extra heating charges or VAT to supply the money which was first proposed by
Column 442the Commission. In other words, we are back to the constitutional position that we were in before 1688, when proposals for expenditure came from the Crown and not from the revolutionary representatives of the House acting on behalf of a neutralised Crown. Our new Crown is primarily an amalgam of the Commission and the Council. That is the constitutional position and I challenge any Conservative Member to controvert it in absolute principle. It lies behind the reason why the Government--and, I believe, members of any future Conservative Government-- will find themselves in considerable difficulty. That was illustrated by my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands), who demonstrated in his speech that we are now being asked to pay the price of the sort of Maastricht treaty that the Prime Minister--after a great deal of negotiation--thought that he could recommend. That treaty arose from the much fiercer, more tightly bound treaty proposed by the Dutch presidency, which was changed. The Prime Minister managed to persuade his party to accept it only because the Foreign Secretary said, "It is not a great unity; we have the pillars--we have the trunk. The court cannot get at the whole thing, nor can the Community institutions." He tried to make out, in fact, that the Union was bigger than the Community.
There is a technical and legal difference, but is there such a difference in practice, in the Council of Ministers? I doubt it very much. The Prime Minister had to pay for that opt-out--that modification. He also had to pay for a temporary, theoretical opt-out from the requirements of economic and monetary union. The third thing that he secured, and perhaps the most controversial of all, was a so-called opt-out from the social chapter--or so we are told, although that is not what the treaty says.
Indeed, there is no social chapter in the Union treaty that was agreed at Maastricht. It is in the Single European Act, and we have to pay for it with the money on which we are now voting. That is why I speak of a unity: the measure that we shall pass tonight constitutes a decision to pay for the whole Community and all its works--not just to pay for a few things in future, but to make payments to which we are already committed.
The Community's stability is fuelled only by libations of additional cash. Agreements can be reached only if everyone wins more money--more grants. Problems with the common agricultural policy, for instance, are solved by surpluses. That is the only way in which negotiation can be reasonably successful for everyone. Everyone gets a prize, says the president of the Commission. The Community staggers on, and is stable--up to a point--only because of that inherent instability, fuelled by the cash that the Bill will provide in the future.
If that were not so, common sense would dictate that the Community should remain at its institutional level and that we should find out how things are going before we go on to the next stage, instead of which we go on and on and on-- [Hon. Members:-- "And on, and on, and on."]
Column 443Indeed. We go on and on to lose the powers that Conservative Members, and the rest of us, were elected to exercise.
Legislation is now encompassed in an invisible cage of existing regulation. Taxation relates increasingly to the EC; the allocation of expenditure relates more and more to the EC; administration becomes more like that of county councils year by year; and adjudication, the other function of sovereign Governments, is increasingly a matter for the European Court.
The passing of this Act, and especially the passing of the European Communities (Finance) Act 1988--which initiated own resources--mean that we are returning to the constitutional position that obtained before 1688. We are losing not only our own financial resources--the source of our power, as my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) admirably noted--but the sources of our own democracy, because we now have to bow to what is fundamentally an authoritarian system, over which we have lost, and will lose, more and more control.
Mr. Salmond: I was moved to speak, not so much by the prospect of keeping so many Conservative Members of Parliament from their beds, attractive though that prospect is, but rather by the comments of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), who a few moments ago estimated that about 500 Members of the House of Commons basically supported the legislation. I should think that that is an underestimate. I believe that at least 550 Members basically support the legislation. I cannot believe that there are any more than 100 fundamental Euro-sceptics in the Conservative and Labour parties who would really want to vote against the legislation.
It is worth reflecting on the extraordinary progress of the legislation in the past few weeks. I know that many Conservative Members were not in the Chamber at the start of proceedings this evening, but I was, and I heard the Minister define what we were doing and say that there would be two votes of confidence this evening. The first was to be on the Question that clause 1 stand part of the Bill, which we then did not actually vote on, if I remember correctly, and the second was to be on Third Reading.
I thought that I was entitled in those circumstances to turn up for the Third Reading debate and to participate in that vote of confidence, as defined by Ministers. I am not sure why the other votes that we had this evening were not to be defined as votes of confidence. I have reached the conclusion that the Conservative party Whips Office is now so incompetent that it could not do the basic arithmetic and realise that it was not in any conceivable danger of losing any of the earlier votes this evening. None the less, as defined by the Government Front Bench, the vote on Third Reading of the legislation is a vote of confidence, which is why I find myself in the extraordinary position of being more in support of the legislation than, I believe, the vast majority of hon. Members on the Conservative Benches, but none the less having to vote against it if, indeed, a vote is forced in a few minutes' time.
Column 444How can we arrive at a position in which a Government defeat on part of their Budget legislation--which happened yesterday evening--is not defined as a vote of confidence and not even placed on the Order Paper as a formal vote of confidence while the vote on the legislation before us now, supported by about 550 Members of the House of Commons, is defined as a vote of confidence?
I leave the following thought with Conservative Members: if the Government are now in the extraordinary position of having such enormous difficulty in forcing through the House of Commons a piece of legislation which carries the support of 550 Members, how on earth will they progress the business of the rest of the Session, which might be more contentious? I hope that the more thoughtful Conservative Members--which may be only a few of the people on the Conservative Benches--will reflect on that when they go to their beds tonight, because I do not think that they will have a happy new year to look forward to.
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: There has always been a majority in the House in favour of the Bill, and only the opportunistic manoeuvres of the Opposition parties tried to block the Bill on Second Reading. The Bill gives effect to the financial arrangements agreed at the Edinburgh Council two years ago. That agreement was not legally binding, and no Member on the Conservative side of the House has suggested otherwise, so I can assure both the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) and the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) that they are correct: we have always agreed that that Edinburgh agreement needed to be given legal effect by the Bill. That is the precise purpose and intent of the Bill before the House.
The abatement is safe under the Bill. Our contribution will increase between now and the end of the century in line with the projections in the own resources decision, adding seven hundredths of 1 per cent. of Community gross national product to the budget. We shall pay a lower share of the total cost than many other member states.
Today's debate has shown the seriousness with which the House takes the issue of financial mismanagement and the related issue of fraud. The fight against fraud will not be won by grand gestures, by setting up new institutions or even by the involvement of the Public Accounts Committee in this country, although I welcome that possible development. It will be won by relentless and grinding vigilance, by attention to detail and by giving it the highest possible political impetus and attention, as has been promised by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I am pleased that that attitude has received the full support of the House today and I hope that the House will also give the Bill a Third Reading.
Question put, That the Bill be now read the Third time:-- The House divided: Ayes 295, Noes 23.
Division No. 17] [12.35 am
Column 444Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey)
Aitken, Rt Hon Jonathan
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby)
Column 444Allason, Rupert (Torbay)
Column 445Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)
Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel Grv)
Atkinson, David (Bour'mouth E)
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset North)
Baker, Rt Hon K (Mole Valley)
Banks, Matthew (Southport)
Banks, Robert (Harrogate)
Beresford, Sir Paul
Biffen, Rt Hon John
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham)
Bottomley, Rt Hon Virginia
Bright, Sir Graham
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter
Brown, M (Brigg & Cl'thorpes)
Browning, Mrs. Angela
Bruce, Ian (Dorset)
Carlisle, Sir Kenneth (Lincoln)
Channon, Rt Hon Paul
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ru'clif)
Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Cope, Rt Hon Sir John
Currie, Mrs Edwina (S D'by'ire)
Curry, David (Skipton & Ripon)
Davies, Quentin (Stamford)
Davis, David (Boothferry)
Deva, Nirj Joseph
Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James
Duncan Smith, Iain
Durant, Sir Anthony
Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatfield)
Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley)
Evans, Roger (Monmouth)