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Mr. Swayne: Will my hon. Friend reflect on the fact that where the Government have introduced very significant tax-raising measures, that has been done in a complicated way that has ensured that no one has noticed, but that where they have introduced measures that amount, in effect, to a giveaway, their approach has been quite the opposite?

Mr. Letwin: That is exactly the point that I am making. The contrast is between that which appears to be done in the light and that which is done, as far as is possible, in the dark. That is not the way to conduct government.

My second point relates to a matter raised by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West in response to a serious accusation made by the Under-Secretary. The hon. Gentleman described the efforts of our noble Friends to amend the Bill, in the way that the Government's amendment would reverse, as irresponsible. As my hon. Friend pointed out, there were two elements to the accusation. One related to what was said to be the irresponsibility of not correcting the problems associated with the contributory principle--the problems for people who would otherwise lose their benefit--as part of raising the lower earnings limit.

The hon. Member for Newbury is learned in these matters and he spoke about them at great length in Committee and elsewhere. He pointed out his distaste for the contributory principle, at least so far as it affects people lower down the chain. He was making the argument--I hope that he will intervene if I am misrepresenting him--that people on lower earnings should not have to contribute in order to qualify for some of the benefits which, currently, require contributions in order to qualify. That is a serious argument and it may, in part, be right. However, that was not the substantive issue that the Under-Secretary raised. His argument was that we had failed to allow for the fact that it would take a long time to sort out--mechanistically, legally and through legislation--the problem that would arise in trying to protect the benefits of people below the £81 limit but above the £64 limit if amendment No. 64 were introduced without other changes.

The Under-Secretary of State for Social Security told the House that it was impossible--I am not sure that he used that word, but that was certainly the burden of his remarks--for the Government to introduce appropriate provisions in the other place. The fact is that, at that very

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time, the other place was itself producing a vast array of measures. The "Lords amendments to the Social Security Bill" is a huge document. Although I am not an experienced parliamentarian, I have not, since being elected to the House, seen anything like that number of amendments. After speaking to other hon. Members who are much older and more experienced than I am, I have been assured that the number of amendments in this group of Lords amendments is wholly exceptional.

8.30 pm

The Government were therefore tabling in the other place a vast array of technically complex amendments. They took months and months to do so. In Committee, we ended discussion on the matter months ago, but it took months for the issue even to reach Second Reading in the other place--although the Government had ample opportunity, if they so wished, to ensure that that happened earlier. The Government took their time on this measure.

The Under-Secretary was trying to tell the House that, in all those months, it was impossible for the Government--with all their ingenuity, and with all their officials supporting them; after they had, as my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West said, considered the issues sufficiently to allow the Chancellor to make the statement that the benefits would be protected--to find a way of dealing with the problem of people who are below the £81 and above the £64 limit, and who should continue to be entitled to have their benefits.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I wonder whether my hon. Friend agrees that the genesis of the problem was the pledge made by the Labour party during the general election that it would not increase income tax? Having put themselves on that specific hook, they were unable to introduce measures that would have been wholly popular and helped some of the lowest paid and most vulnerable people in our society.

Mr. Letwin: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I shall deal in a moment with that matter, which is the second part of the gravamen of the attack made by the Under-Secretary--which was to do with whether a surplus was available for distribution. We will come back to that matter.

I should like to continue on the question of whether the Government could have produced mechanistic devices to remedy the problem of entitlement to benefit for those between the current and proposed lower earnings limits.

Mr. Desmond Browne (Kilmarnock and Loudoun): As entertaining as this discourse is, does it not substantially misrepresent the Minister's argument, which is that the Chancellor's view is that this is not the appropriate time to be making such changes? The Minister's view was not that it could not be done, but that it would take time. He also said that the Chancellor had decided that this was not

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the appropriate time to make the changes, and that it was the Chancellor's prerogative to decide on the appropriate time.

Mr. Letwin: I shall deal with precisely that point in the second part of my remarks. I agree that that was part of what the Minister said.

Mr. Browne: It is what he said.

Mr. Letwin: No, it was not. If the hon. Gentleman reads Hansard tomorrow, I think that he will find that the Minister made two points. I took careful notes of what he said. The first point was that there was not time to consider what would have to be done about the very specific problem of benefit entitlement. Secondly--exactly as the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne) said--he asserted that it was the Chancellor's prerogative to decide whether the money was available.

Mr. Browne: On this occasion, I intervene not because the hon. Gentleman has misrepresented the Minister's comments but because he has misrepresented mine. I reminded the hon. Gentleman that the Minister said that it was the Chancellor's prerogative to decide when the time was right.

Mr. Letwin: I agree that that is exactly what the hon. Gentleman said, and I shall deal with exactly that matter of whether the Chancellor should have taken that decision. However, that was only half of the Minister's argument; the other half was about insufficient time to make the change on benefit entitlement.

It is not only a matter of the Government not mustering the resources to make the change--although I am somewhat surprised about that--because the matter is much more serious than that. At least pro tem, the change could have been made with little difficulty. It certainly would not have required a Bill as large as the Social Security Bill, or such a vast array of Lords amendments.

The Government could have simply introduced a straightforward amendment, allowing it to be "deemed"--a simple word which the Government have used repeatedly in the Bill, and elsewhere--that people who had not made their contributions, but whose incomes lay between the earlier and later earnings limits of £64 and £81, had made such contributions as they would have made regardless. I do not say that that solution is perfect. It may be that, over time, the ingenuity of officials and Ministers would lead to a superior solution.

Mr. Rendel: If, as the hon. Gentleman says, it would have been comparatively simple to have done that, why did not he or other Conservative Members table an amendment to that effect for this debate?

Mr. Letwin: We did not table such an amendment because of the problem of trying to table amendments at this stage.

Mr. Rendel: It is possible.

Mr. Letwin: Had I realised that it was possible, I would have done it.

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The serious question is why our noble Friends did not table an amendment in the other place during their consideration of the Bill, when, manifestly, it could have been done. I know, from discussion with those who were responsible, why it was not done. I believe that our noble Friends concluded that the Government were never planning on accepting Lords amendment No. 64. My noble Friends' sole reason for forcing the amendment through in the other place was to make the point--when the Bill was considered in this place, so that debate was focused on the issue--that it is the proper prerogative of the House to debate money issues, and that it is quite wrong that such a provision should go through on the nod in another place.

It would have been perfectly appropriate for my noble Friends to table a deeming amendment, but it was not necessary for them to do so to achieve their objective. However, it is something which the Government could have done. If Ministers had said--there were repeated discussions on the matter--"We accept the burden of the amendment. We should like to table, by agreement, a further amendment deeming a benefit entitlement", I do not suppose--and I do not suppose that the hon. Member for Newbury supposes--that my noble Friends would have objected to it.

Such an amendment would have been acceptable and would have done the job, although perhaps not perfectly. Nevertheless, the possibility utterly kiboshes the Minister's assertion that there was insufficient time to make the change. There was time to do so. An amendment would have taken less than half an hour to draft, and less than half an hour for the House to pass. It would also have been acceptable to those tabling the amendment.

Why was such an amendment not tabled? One was not tabled--taking us back to the earlier assertions--because the entire procedure was so bizarre. The Government had no intention of allowing such a change to occur at this time--which takes us to the very point made by the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun which I now propose to deal with.


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