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9.45 pm

The Chancellor is being economical with the truth. He never used the word future. The Official Report of the Budget speech clearly says "Further".

The Chancellor is only too well aware of the fact that the Budget speech is probably the most important speech that is delivered in the House during the parliamentary year. It is thoroughly prepared and looked over before it is delivered and anyone who has been a Minister will know that, immediately after it has been delivered, it is combed upstairs by civil servants to ensure that it is 100 per cent. accurate, so it is inconceivable that Hansard got it wrong and that the Chancellor said something else. The Chancellor made a mistake and is seeking to run away from that mistake.

Frankly, the real reason the Chancellor decided to include the statement in his speech is that he had the idea tested on focus groups--we have a Government of focus groups now. As the reaction was positive, he decided to press ahead with it for a soundbite in the hope that it would help to create the general feel-good factor for press coverage.

The Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel), said that he shared our concerns on this issue and agreed that people would now be disappointed--because they thought that they would benefit financially from what the Chancellor promised on national insurance contributions under £81 and would not now receive that benefit in the next 12 months--but, sadly, he then spoilt his remarks, because it became apparent that he had completely missed the point of the debate when he suggested that we should be grateful that the Government had misled the people and what on earth were we doing seeking to draw attention to that; we should have sat on our hands and said nothing about it. That seems an extraordinary raison d'etre, but I suppose that anyone who has had the misfortune to fight a Liberal Democrat at a parliamentary election will understand that there is nothing comprehensive or consistent about their views. What does interest me is what will happen at 10 o'clock, if and when a Division is called.

Mr. Rendel: I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has given me the chance to intervene. I thought that I had made it absolutely clear at the end of my speech that we would support the Government's amendment.

Mr. Burns: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I admit to making the classic mistake of forgetting that we are in a state of coalition politics--the Liberal Democrats support the Government through thick and thin.

The Minister, in his opening speech--we await his closing speech--failed to deal with any of the important issues behind this sorry episode. I now specifically ask him to explain to the House, in his reply, why the Chancellor behaved in such a disingenuous way. Will he explain why national insurance for those earning less than £81 will not be cut when everyone expected it to be? Can he give some time scale for when the Government will do that? Will he also explain or repudiate the spin-doctoring behaviour of Charlie Whelan et al at No. 10 and No. 11 Downing street?

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Because we believe that the Government have knowingly misled the public for party political reasons, we will vote against the Government's amendment that would reverse the measures that the Lords have put into the Bill.

Mr. Denham: The speech of the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) was in large part identical to the speech of the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith)--the first example of the single transferable speech.

It is not good for a Government to face an Opposition as fatuous, vacuous, time wasting, leaderless and incapable of serious scrutiny as that we have faced tonight. My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne) highlighted their irresponsibility towards public expenditure--£1.4 billion appears to be of no consequence to them. We now know why debt doubled under the Conservative Government. As we have seen tonight, they are an Opposition with nothing to say.

Two charges have been made. The first is that the Bill is being dealt with in the wrong place. Any doubts that there might have been about the way in which the Bill has been handled have been dispelled tonight. In four hours, the Opposition have shown that they are incapable of maintaining any serious critique of the policies that we are meant to be discussing.

The reality is that the measures mean that business has to implement major changes. It will have to revise its software and administrative procedures. If it has to rush those changes, that will cost it money. We did not want unnecessarily to limit the time that business had to implement the changes. We decided that, given the wide range of support for the measures, we should make use of the earliest available vehicle--this Bill. This allows time for debate in both Houses and gives business the time that it needs.

This Bill contained a substantial section concerning national insurance contributions before the introduction of the new clauses. It is the most appropriate legislative vehicle to introduce changes to national insurance. The changes have been widely welcomed and they need to be on the statute book quickly to provide employers with the time they need to make the changes.

The more serious charge was that the Government have deliberately misled the public about our intentions. I shall deal first with the Red Book. It is clear that when the proposals are introduced, the implications of the changes will be reflected in the Red Book at the time. It was obviously right and good for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to indicate the direction in which the Government wish to move and the way we want to restructure national insurance in the future so that there is no misunderstanding about the Government's intentions.

The second charge was essentially that the constituents, specifically of West Dorset, of Cotswold and of Grantham and Stamford--generally Daily Telegraph readers of all constituencies--had been led to believe that there would be a larger reduction in their weekly income than was made.

I took the precaution of reading The Daily Telegraph of 18 March, the day after the Budget. It stated:

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    That was said in The Daily Telegraph not once, but twice. On the same page, it mentioned

    "the £1.28 per week saving created by the Chancellor's proposal to scrap what he called 'the entry charge' for National Insurance contributions."

Was that misleading? It was exactly what the Chancellor said in his Budget speech. He said:

    "from next April, 20 million employees in Britain will benefit by paying £1.28 a week, or £66 a year, less in national insurance."--[Official Report, 17 March 1998; Vol. 308, c. 1106.]

After four hours of debate, the official Opposition have failed to make a case that any misunderstanding could have arisen about the impact of my right hon. Friend's Budget on the pockets of 20 million employees. He stated in his Budget speech the exact cash amount by which every individual would be better off.

I am pleased to be able to tell the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride)--who worked for The Daily Telegraph--that the Budget's impact was accurately reported by that newspaper not once, but twice, which is only what we would expect from a great national newspaper.

The entire basis of this debate, and of the debate in another place, was that the Chancellor had misled people about the amount by which they would be better off. The basis has been destroyed not only by the words of the Chancellor of the Exchequer but by the words reported twice, on the same page, by the one national newspaper that has been quoted as saying that the Government misled the public.

The proposition that the Chancellor misled the public is the whole reason why this debate has lasted for four hours. No criticism of the Government's policy has been made.

Mr. Burns rose--

Mr. Denham: No. The hon. Gentleman did not give way in his speech, and I do not have time to give way now.

I believe that there will be considerable embarrassment among Opposition Members at the way in which their leadership has led them into today's ridiculous debate, chasing round and emptying the tea rooms and bars to find sufficient Members--who were not in the Chamber for the earlier part of the debate--to spin it out to 10 o'clock.

There was nothing of substance in the comments of the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green. Moreover, he and his colleagues cannot escape the consequences of the measures that they will vote for at the end of this debate. They have confirmed that they will vote for measures that would remove up to 1 million low-paid people from contributory benefit rights. Those people's jobseeker's allowance, statutory maternity pay and pension rights would all be hit by the measures that the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will vote for.

Mr. Quentin Davies: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Denham: I shall not give way, because Conservative Members did not give way.

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