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Mr. Clifton-Brown: I wonder whether my hon. Friend agrees that part of the difficulty in developing the type of credit system that I mentioned in my speech is the knock-on effect of the gateway benefits that it would involve, such as housing benefit, council tax reduction benefit and other benefits? It is therefore not simply a matter of giving credits to those earning between £64 and £81 a week.

Mr. Letwin: I have given some thought to that matter, both during my hon. Friend's speech and before it, when considering the question of deeming. I do not think that a deeming clause would have had that effect, although I stand to be corrected by the Minister. My understanding is that passporting arises only when a benefit that carries a passporting entitlement is introduced. If what is deemed to have occurred is a contribution, I do not think that passporting arises. I may be wrong, but I think that is how it would work. The Minister will no doubt correct me if I am wrong.

We come now to the real question. I have taken care to dismiss the first part of the Minister's argument, which leaves us solely with the second. The argument has to be that we are irresponsible in having fostered the

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amendment because the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in his wisdom, has decided that now is not the time for this policy--not, I stress, that it is a good policy made bad, as the Minister mentioned, because it could be unmade as a bad policy and made back into a good one by the simple deeming clause. No, the argument has to be solely that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in his wisdom, has decided that now is not the right time to have introduced it; it is irresponsible on our part, it is alleged, to introduce what is effectively a spending measure, or negative revenue measure, at a time when the Chancellor has decided that it is not right to do so.

Mr. Browne: I greatly enjoy the hon. Gentleman's contributions although they always remind me of an Easter egg--they promise much in the packaging but have very little in the way of substance.

The criticism of the amendment from those on the Government Benches is not of the irresponsibility that the hon. Gentleman and his Front-Bench colleagues have locked into the Chancellor's thinking but of the irresponsibility in tabling such an amendment without facing up to its consequences. The amendment would generate a hole of £1.5 billion in revenue and would have consequences for the lowest paid, but the official Opposition are not prepared to face that.

Mr. Letwin: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the kindness of his remarks about my speaking style and the substance of my speeches and also for making his point as he does, because his comments expose the problems with the arguments deployed by Labour.

We have already dealt with the question whether the amendment would cause a problem for the low-paid--with the deeming clause, it would not. The question is whether we are accused of being irresponsible in bringing forward a negative revenue measure at a time--the hon. Gentleman was very keen to point out in an earlier intervention that he was talking about timing and the Chancellor's view of timing--when the Chancellor does not regard it as sensible; or whether, according to the hon. Gentleman's new variant, we are irresponsible in bringing forward a negative revenue measure without proposing how to fill the gap. I shall deal with the first part first and the second second; if the hon. Gentleman has, by then, thought of a third variant, perhaps we can deal with that.

It is no part of the duty of the Opposition to be in sync--to use a ghastly phrase which has been used in my hearing by the Chancellor--with the Chancellor. The Chancellor has his views on timing and we have ours. That argument can be laid to rest.

The serious argument is the second variant deployed by the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun although not, I think, by the Minister. I may be wrong about that; when we inspect Hansard, we might find that he did mention it and I did not hear him. The hon. Gentleman asserts that there would be a £1.4 billion hole in the Budget if this measure were introduced. He is no doubt extremely acute in matters of the economy and therefore needs to consult only the productions of his own Government which daily tell us about the Chancellor's surplus.

This is a Chancellor of the Exchequer who, for one reason or another--one may say it is through good planning, through inheritance or through luck--is in the

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extraordinary position of having the terrible problem of what to do with all his money. He is collecting far more that he ever dreamed of. He is reducing the national debt by an extraordinary proportion. The previous Government had to do things which the then Opposition said was selling the family silver to reduce the debt to a similar extent. Although the Chancellor's privatisation programme, such as it is, is failing at the moment, he is nevertheless able not only to fill gaps and plug holes, but to remove great swathes of the national debt. Where is the hole?

If I may presume, I shall set out for the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun what should have been his argument--the third variant.

Mr. Denham: Just out of curiosity, is the view that the hon. Gentleman is advocating on the question of the public finances that of the official Opposition?

Mr. Letwin: Unfortunately, neither the current shadow Chancellor nor the previous Chancellor is currently the Chancellor, but the previous Chancellor has said many times that were he Chancellor, he would not have stuck in an extraordinarily rigid fashion to every item among his own projections, which is what the Government are intending to do. I have no way of knowing what would have been the case, but I know that a great pile of money is sitting there. We are not talking about a cash shortage.

The serious argument, whether deployed by the Minister or the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun, is very clear. They must be asserting not that there is a hole in the Budget but that serious macro-economic consequences would arise from a decision to produce a revenue negative measure of this scale on top of what is already produced. That must be the shape of the argument. They did not put it that way, but it must be what the Government are asserting. It is the only intellectually respectable argument.

Obviously there are doubts and disagreements. None of us is perfect at projecting macro-economic effects, but it is probably the unanimous view of Opposition Members and I suspect, if they examine their souls, of the great majority of Labour Members, that the Chancellor's fiscal stance today is too tight in macro-economic terms. Certainly, I have heard Labour Members make eloquent pronouncements about the effect on the manufacturing sector of the current combination of a fiscal squeeze and an exchange rate squeeze. Under circumstances of very tight money, a very tight exchange rate and a very tight fiscal stance, there is ample evidence that the current recession in the manufacturing sector will continue and intensify.

8.45 pm

It is no part of the Opposition's argument to suggest that we should have too loose a fiscal stance, but, under circumstances where there is ample cash available, the national debt is decreasing and there are good economic arguments for supposing that the fiscal stance is too tight, it is perfectly responsible to introduce such a measure. I see nothing irresponsible in that; nor is it irresponsible to have introduced an amendment that needs to be debated in the House and not by subterfuge in another place; nor

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is it irresponsible at least to probe, as an Opposition must, whether the fiscal stance is too tight. Nor can it be asserted--as I have laboured mightily to establish--that there is any mechanical difficulty involved in restoring the benefit entitlement of those between the £64 and £81 limits. Consequently, I utterly refute the suggestion that there is the slightest irresponsibility entailed in amendment No. 64 or any need for amendment (a).

On the contrary, what is happening is clear. The Chancellor of the Exchequer made efforts with Mr. Whelan to mislead the British public by saying one thing in his Budget speech, by promoting and fostering an opinion in the press, by not correcting that opinion and by subsequently revising the truth through a press release--all with the intent of creating a euphoria that he then denied and sought to minimise in public by a back-door route of legislation in another place with the shortest possible debate here and with an accusation against the Opposition, no doubt dreamt up at a later date by the spin doctors, that we were being irresponsible even in raising the issue. That accusation is without substance, particularly in the light of the fact that it has at least served the purpose of bringing the matter to the attention of the House where it properly belongs.

Mr. Browne: I had not intended to speak in this debate, but I have been driven to do so--[Interruption.] Therefore, hon. Members are responsible for the fact that they have to suffer me for the next few minutes.

I have been amused and entertained for the past couple of hours, and I am sure that that was at least part of what Opposition Members intended to do with the froth of a debate that they have foisted on the House. I was mostly amused by the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), who described the Bill as a measly Social Security Bill. Hitherto, I have heard it described as the Peter Lilley memorial Bill, so perhaps the subtitle of a measly Social Security Bill is appropriate, given the provenance attributed to it by the Opposition.

If I understood the thesis put forward by the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith)--in the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), he made a four-course meal out of a pan of boiling water, repeated by the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin)--he accused my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer of taking advantage of a 48-hour window of public credibility. The Chancellor is accused of taking advantage of that 48 hours to mislead the public and create a false acceptance and bonhomie for his Budget, by deliberately using the word "further" instead of "future" in his Budget speech, having beforehand tested that subterfuge on the public in focus groups. Have I understood the accusation?

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