Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Letwin: Yes.

Mr. Browne: That accusation was immediately undermined by the hype from the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), who flashed before us a press release with the word "future" in place of "further", which he argued was issued within minutes of the Chancellor sitting down. If the hon. Gentleman's copy is correct, the press release, which was, no doubt, designed to give all members of the press the information that the Chancellor intended to convey in his speech--

13 May 1998 : Column 455

indeed, the hon. Gentleman portrayed it as a word-for-word record of the Chancellor's speech--clearly used the word "future".

The issue of that press release within minutes of the Chancellor's speech, and clearly therefore within the 48-hour window, grossly undermines the whole thesis that the hon. Member for West Dorset has constructed on a bed of sand, simply because Conservative Members do not seem to understand the definition of "further".

Mr. Letwin: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, with whom I always enjoy debating, for giving way. Does he agree that if the purpose of the press release was to change the minds of members of the press and make it clear that reforms would take place in the future, it is a little odd that Mr. Whelan--who, as far as we know, was awake and present on Budget day--did not make the slightest effort to persuade editors to read it in that light?

Mr. Browne: I have no way of knowing what Mr. Whelan said in conversations that he may or may not have had with economic journalists. Having sat through and listened carefully to the debate, I am merely trying to distil the evidence put before the House by Conservative Members to support their argument. Two successive contributions contained contradictory evidence from the same witnesses, which grossly undermines that argument.

I leave the public and those who will read Hansard tomorrow to make up their mind whether the argument of the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green, who spoke from the Conservative Front Bench, stands the test of a Conservative Back Bencher's analysis. I suggest that those who want to do so--there will be some--consider carefully the contribution by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford and his reference to the press release.

I may be over-simplifying the matter, but if the press release containing the word "future" was issued within minutes of the Chancellor sitting down, no one was trying to take advantage of a 48-hour window to mislead anyone.

Mr. Letwin: I find the hon. Gentleman's naivety charming, and it does him credit. I ask him to imagine, for a moment, being inside the mind of someone so utterly different from himself as Mr. Whelan. Might it not enter his mind to foster an impression, to have a record that contradicts it, but not to correct that impression among journalists?

Mr. Browne: This is the first time that anybody has accused me of being charming. [Hon. Members: "Ah."] It is sad to have reached this age and never have been accused of being charming.

I have no doubt that the hon. Member for West Dorset is far more capable than I am of analysing the mind of the fictitious Machiavellian character that he has created.

I am analysing the diversion to which we have been subjected for the past couple of hours because, with one or two notable exceptions, the Opposition--as they usually do in social security debates--are seeking to divert attention from the fundamentally beneficial effects on the structure of the national insurance contributions scheme for employees and employers that the Government seek to introduce from April next year. That is the intention of the bulk of the amendments. I make

13 May 1998 : Column 456

that general criticism, but exclude individuals from it because at least some hon. Members could not bring themselves to continue the charade to which we have been treated without having to concede that point.

Mr. Swayne: Will the hon. Gentleman reflect on whether tabling amendments in such a way as to implement what the Red Book describes as the most fundamental reform since 1975 is a proper way in which to deal with the measures to which he referred?

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because I shall reflect on that very subject in due course. Indeed, the Minister dealt with that issue directly in his opening remarks.

The Opposition are seeking to divert attention from the Chancellor's measures. They seek at every turn to divert attention from one of the Government's driving forces. We are debating but one of a package of measures that are designed to help the low-paid and get those who are not in work into work. That the Opposition divert attention in such a fashion by seeking to accelerate a change, when it must have been very clear to them and anyone else who looked at the Chancellor's speech that my right hon. Friend intended to introduce the same change at some future date when the preparatory work had been done, is very obvious. They do so despite the valiant attempts by the hon. Member for West Dorset to explain why the Lords amendment is not reckless or irresponsible. They do so mindless of the damage that legislation in such a form would do to the very people whom the Government's changes are designed to benefit.

The damage that the Lords amendment would do has already been catalogued and debated, particularly by my hon. Friend the Minister, but it bears repeating. Without a deeming measure--the sort of Saturday afternoon matinee legislation that the hon. Member for West Dorset suggested very late in the debate--it would prevent 1 million low-paid workers from having access to contributory benefits. Although I am not in a position to judge the hon. Gentleman's suggestion of a deeming measure without giving it greater consideration, I suspect that the issue cannot be as simple as that. We cannot be tied up on the railway tracks one Saturday, and the next Saturday, with one bound, be free. It is no answer to the reduction in the £1.5 billion hole inside the Easter egg to say that the Government seem to be doing a fair enough job with the economy and there seems to be more money than some anticipated, so some of it can be used to fill the gap.

It is no part of the Opposition's role to be in sync--as the hon. Member for West Dorset said--with the Chancellor's thinking. They must respect that it is the Chancellor's prerogative to make decisions about the management of the economy when he is in government, which relate to his and the Government's priorities. If the Government's priorities are to run the economy efficiently, to try to squeeze out inflation, to try to level off the economy to avoid boom and bust and to pay back some of the crippling debt that they inherited, they happen to be priorities of the people, too. They happen to be the appropriate priorities.

Mr. Hope: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Swayne rose--

Mr. Browne: I am giving way to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Hope: My hon. Friend mentioned earlier the 1 million low-paid workers who would suffer as a result

13 May 1998 : Column 457

of the Opposition's proposals. Is he aware that four fifths of those low-paid workers are women, so it is women who would cease to build up their rights to jobseeker's allowance were we to pursue those proposals? They would also lose the ability to build up their rights to incapacity benefit, maternity allowances and even the basic state pension. What the Opposition want to do would be a fundamental attack on some of the poorest women in the nation.

Mr. Browne: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Clearly, it is part of the Government's strategy to deliver work for the low-paid and to make it pay. That will be significantly to the advantage of women. It is no surprise that such damaging effects can be proposed by the Opposition in such a cavalier fashion, because at every turn in the short history of the Labour Government, when the Government have tried to introduce measures to bring work to workless people and to make that work pay, the Opposition have opposed them.

9 pm

Mr. Duncan Smith: I sense that the hon. Gentleman is beginning to tie himself up in knots. He and his hon. Friends are trying to say what a terrible business the proposals are, while maintaining that their Chancellor never gets anything wrong. May I ask him a simple question? What does he think the Chancellor was trying to do when he announced to the public, by making a speech in this place and through the radio and the other media, including the press, that further changes--changes that the hon. Gentleman says that he does not like--would be made, although there was no provision in the Red Book for them, at least in the lifetime of this Parliament?

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to share my interpretation of the Budget speech with the House--although I hasten to add that I have not had the benefit of discussing it with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. In my interpretation, the Chancellor was laying out in the Budget, not only in specific terms for the immediate future but, in general terms, the direction in which the Government were moving. He was giving both employers and low-paid employees the maximum notice of where the Government were going.

When the whole speech is read, it is clear that my right hon. Friend was saying that those objectives would be achieved when the circumstances were right and the preparatory work had been done.

Next Section

IndexHome Page