Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Clifton-Brown: One of the benefits of having to sit through these long debates is that one has an

13 May 1998 : Column 445

opportunity to scrutinise the Government's documents more carefully. My hon. Friend referred to a fiscal tightening in the Budget; there is no question but that it is a fiscal-tightening Budget. Is he aware of paragraph B.19 on page 116 of the Red Book, which clearly states:

    "Net tax receipts are projected to grow by 6 per cent. in 1998-99, rather faster than money GDP"?

That absolutely goes to prove that this is indeed a severe fiscal-tightening Budget.

Mr. Swayne: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I fear that I do not have his eye for detail or his intellectual rigour in examining these things. I read the Red Book as an amateur, but, without being able to refer to chapter and verse, as he has done, I could clearly see that there was scope for a more generous fiscal stance in the Budget. It was certainly my belief that it was desirable to do that. I am deeply fearful of the consequences of our fiscal stance; I have already referred to the situation that the manufacturing sector faces. I reject entirely the argument that, in proposing this measure, we are being fiscally irresponsible.

8.15 pm

We have been accused of irresponsibility over the protection of social security benefits. I sat here on this Bench listening to the Chancellor's statement. He said that social security benefits would be protected. We now discover that he said so irresponsibly, according to the criteria that were defined by the Under-Secretary. The Chancellor had not, it appears, thought through the means by which the benefits would be protected, so if I and anyone else looking to vote against amendment (a) are to be accused of irresponsibility, the same applies to the very statement that the Chancellor made.

I cannot be expected to run the country from the bottom, but I can be expected to vote for the Lords amendment and, in so doing, put proper pressure on the Chancellor to think through how these benefit rights are to be protected while a fiscal hole appears in his Budget arithmetic.

Mr. Letwin: I should like to discuss three issues. The first relates closely to the powerful speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies)--I thought that it was one of the most bravura performances that I have heard since coming to the House--but takes his argument one stage further. It relates to the point that the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) raised: why are we concerned about further-future dispute, the minutiae of Hansard against press releases and so forth?

To answer that question, one has to consider a further question--perhaps I should say the future question. What was it that the Chancellor and Mr. Whelan between them were trying to achieve by the manoeuvres, first, of raising expectations, secondly, of fostering the raised expectations by not spinning to deny them and, finally, of denying that the expectations had ever been raised by issuing a press release, which, so to speak, retrospectively uncorrected the statement?

What was the purpose of that? It is a strange set of occurrences. We have to inquire of two highly intelligent and experienced people--the Chancellor, perhaps the

13 May 1998 : Column 446

most experienced and intelligent member of the Government, to judge by much of what has been said about him; and a man who is regarded as the rival of the legendary Mr. Campbell in his management of the press. What did those two highly intelligent and experienced people seek to achieve by those manoeuvres?

I cannot bring the power of analysis that my hon. and, I would say, learned Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) has brought to the historical exposition of the matter. I cannot be expected to be certain of this highly speculative inquiry, but I do think that there is a likelihood--a strong and serious likelihood--that what was going on was a conscious attempt to try to make the British public attend to one item, in order to make them attend less to other items in the Budget.

I may be wrong. I would be happy if the Minister were to contradict what I say, or if subsequently, his hon. Friends were to deny it, but that must be--stripping away all the rhetoric and politicking of this place and places outside--the most likely explanation of what was being done. It was hoped that the British public could be persuaded that there was something so nice in the Budget for them, alongside all the other goodies--

Mr. Swayne: Could it possibly have been that the Government hoped that the public, thinking that there was to be a raising of the lower limit of national insurance contributions, would be so blinded by that that they would not notice the abolition of retirement relief on capital gains tax, which has cost a constituent of mine--of very modest means--a staggering £55,000?

Mr. Letwin: My hon. Friend may be right in suggesting that the Government wanted to throw that item into low relief, but the Budget contained other such items--for example, it made it less favourable to be married. The Government presumably did not want the public to concentrate on that, either.

Miss Kirkbride: Would my hon. Friend speculate on matters between Mr. Whelan and Mr. Campbell? I am not sure that Mr. Campbell would be pleased by my hon. Friend's suggestion that it was all Mr. Whelan's idea and therefore had not come from the Prime Minister's office.

Mr. Letwin: My hon. Friend is taking me dangerously close to deep waters with thin ice over them. I fear that the Chair would call me to order if I indulged in further speculation about the liaison between Mr. Whelan and Mr. Campbell--which is, indeed, most interesting. I will let the matter rest on the naive supposition that we are dealing here merely with the Chancellor and Mr. Whelan, and their motive.

Whether it was the particular measure mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West or other measures, as in any other Budget, this Budget contained measures which the Government did not wish the public to spend much time thinking about. However, there were also some measures that they did wish the public to think about, and they threw those into high relief. I do not think that it is any coincidence that the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) about what appeared not just in the press, but on the front pages, were the very matters that we are now discussing. I do not think that it is an accident,

13 May 1998 : Column 447

because I attribute to Mr. Whelan--not to mention Mr. Campbell--the greatest possible dexterity in steering editors towards those items that the Government would like to see on the front pages, and away from those that they would not like to see. That is not always successful, as is the case with the Foreign Secretary at the moment--

Mr. Duncan Smith: Does my hon. Friend think that had a front-page item appeared that the Government thought was not favourable, they would have let it stand and let the media commentators pursue it, enlighten the public and take it further? Or does he think that they would have used their undoubted arts to stamp on it, get rid of it, get the paper to retract it, or even go so far as expecting it to apologise for referring to it?

Mr. Letwin: Good heavens, the Government would have been there in a trice. The whole formidable armoury of their technology and their Government machine would have enabled them to clamp down on such a story in an instant. That is well established. In fact, the Government fostered the measure on to the front pages to distract attention from other items.

The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) is sitting in his place with his customary courtesy, but looking for all the world as though this is a ludicrous diversion. Why, he wonders, are we concentrating upon such a matter? It is because it tells us something about a process which even the hon. Gentleman, to do him justice, thinks a little strange--the process which underlies this group of amendments, which the Government introduced in the other place. The Chancellor, most remarkably, is attempting to enact a major part--indeed, a signal part--of his Budget without reference to this House until a very late stage, and then only for a very short debate, by means of introducing in the other place a series of amendments in a quite different Bill.

There is a profound link between the strange manoeuvrings of the Chancellor, with his fervour, and Mr. Whelan, with his fostering of the fervour and of the mistaken impression, and Mr. Whelan's subsequent future, and the process of going behind the back of this House and into another place to legislate. That profound link is that both are evasions of the parliamentary process. Both are means by which, instead of exposing issues to the full glare of debate in this House in an open fashion so that the public know what is happening, the issues are concealed--the issues that the Government do not wish to be dealt with in this House and before the public. They have arranged matters so that a few people, latish in the evening, are debating serious matters, preferably without attention, following a great splurge of publicity in which the pubic have been misled--consciously misled by the fine arts of Mr. Whelan--into believing that something very nice is being done for them.

I accept the point made--very poignantly, as always--by the hon. Member for Newbury that if we were an unprincipled and unscrupulous Opposition, all this would be a delight to us in one respect. After all, the next election is not won today or tomorrow, so it should be a delight to us--and, presumably, to the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues--that the Government will eventually be found out by the very many people who expect to benefit from a very nice benefit, but who, in the event, will not get it for the foreseeable future.

13 May 1998 : Column 448

In fact, it is not a delight to us to be in circumstances in which the Government treat the House with such contempt that they do not mind using a statement in this House--above all, a Budget statement--purely for the purpose of manipulating the press, and then subsequently using a parliamentary device to minimise debate on a crucial measure that raises vast sums of money and has a great impact on the tax and benefit system.

That is not a trivial point; it is one of the utmost seriousness. I admit that there is an element of frivolity and amusement because we are able to attack a Chancellor who is not present, but the point underlying this debate is deadly serious and deserves to be answered. It was not answered in the Under-Secretary's opening remarks. I do not know whether the Minister for the Environment, who is now sitting on the Front Bench, or the Under-Secretary will answer it, but I hope that someone will--

Next Section

IndexHome Page