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Mr. Chisholm: I was tempted to speak because, during an earlier debate, those on the Conservative Front Bench referred to previous practice, as discussed when we first raised the issue when considering the 1994 Finance Bill. During the Division, I was able to read an interesting speech that the current shadow Chancellor made then, in which he justified taking more than £1 billion out of the married couples allowance. I invite Conservative Members to read that speech, as well as the previous one that I made, in which I said:

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I was particularly referring to families with children. It is precisely their problems that the current Government have been reversing during the past three years.

It is a simple fact that no additional costs are associated with marriage, but that many additional costs are associated with having children. That is why the children's tax credit, the working families tax credit and the record rise in child benefit have been introduced. People outside the House are more interested in targeting support on children, which is the Government's priority, rather than trying to make spurious party political capital out of the small sums that were involved in the married couples allowance.

Mr. Edward Davey: The new clause is interesting not because it would introduce a married couples allowance, but because it would change the procedures of the House. We normally scrutinise tax provisions through primary legislation, such as the Finance Bill. However, under the new clause, we are asked to give the Treasury the power to vary or change income tax allowances by regulation, rather than by primary legislation. That is an interesting idea, but I am surprised that the Conservatives have proposed it. They usually want to avoid secondary legislation and prevent Governments from trying to hide stealthy tax changes in statutory instruments.

Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds): Has the hon. Gentleman voted for or against any such measures since becoming a Member of Parliament?

Mr. Davey: I do not think that since I have been a Member the House has considered any such new clause, in which it is suggested that the Chancellor should be given the power to increase personal tax allowances. It is a very unusual new clause and I therefore began to wonder whether it represents a way to change the financial procedures of the House. Many right hon. and hon. Members will know that I take a particular interest in such matters because I believe that the House does not do its job properly. The Finance Bill procedure and the estimates and supply procedures are very inadequate.

There are arguments for changing procedures in the way proposed in the new clause. Many hon. Members have already said that this Finance Bill is one of the longest in history and that that does not help the way in which the House scrutinises detailed financial legislation. Today and tomorrow, the House will debate many Government amendments and new clauses but they will not be given the scrutiny that they deserve, given that they involve significant changes. The House has become too used to dealing with detailed tax legislation on the hoof, very quickly and not properly.

It is time that we changed that process, and perhaps the new clause represents a way of doing so. It would certainly reduce the content of future Finance Bills--perhaps Delegated Legislation Committees should deal with more tax legislation. Perhaps there would be proper scrutiny if individual Committees considered each change to tax legislation. That would certainly push the remainder of the Government's tax proposals into other legislation. I hope that such legislation could be debated in draft form, and perhaps Select Committees could take evidence on it.

Such measures could be dealt with in a more leisurely way than the Finance Bill must be proceeded with because of the need to provide the Inland Revenue with statutory

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cover for taxes. We should separate that requirement--the need to provide statutory cover for the way the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise go about their business--from the technical changes that we see in so many different forms in this and many other Finance Bills. There is a need for such reform, but I do not necessarily think that the new clause provides the best way to do it.

I have suggested in previous debates that a small Finance Bill, which would cover the statutory requirements for collecting tax, should follow the Budget and that a tax technicalities Bill, which the House could take several months to pass, could also be introduced and, perhaps, considered by the other place, changing the current process. Such a Bill could be given proper scrutiny. That would be my preferred way to reform our financial procedures, but perhaps the new clause represents another way to do so. Having expressed surprise that the Conservatives tabled the new clause, I do not think it represents a bad route to follow and perhaps we should experiment with it.

Whether the Liberal Democrats would use the power suggested in the new clause would depend on the regulations that were proposed. We might do so if the allowance that the Conservatives, or the then Chancellor of whichever party, proposed under that legislation took proper care of children. As the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Chisholm) said, the prime need is to ensure that children living in families receive the necessary support. Perhaps the proposal would be as wide as the former married couples allowance package, which recognised that some people who were not married still needed support. As the Chancellor said--indeed, the shadow Chancellor mentioned it too when in government--many people who were not married received the former married couples allowance. Perhaps the Conservative proposal would mimic many of the characteristics of the old system. The Conservatives might want to propose a tax allowance that was paid not only to married couples. However, they have not proposed such a measure so we cannot decide whether we would support it.

Having listened to the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway), I am concerned about the motives behind the proposal. A good motive would be to focus on those elderly people on the cusp, who did not retire on whatever the date was, and therefore cannot continue to receive the married couples allowance. If the intention was to focus on their needs and the fact that they had been disadvantaged, that would be a good motive. The Conservatives sometimes suggest that theirs is the only party that supports marriage, but that is not a particularly helpful or mature approach. We should be less partisan and, frankly, less immature when discussing the welfare of families.

If we want to support marriage, there are many things that we could do, such as investing in services like Relate, which try to support and save marriages that may be breaking down. We should think about other ways to support families, perhaps considering how we recognise the role of Churches and other religious institutions in supporting families and marriage. Ideas like those would make a positive contribution to the debate.

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7.30 pm

I do not believe that many people marry for tax reasons. Should we suggest that people marry for money? Is that the key message that the House wants to send? People should marry for love, not money. Perhaps the Conservatives are sending the wrong message.

Dawn Primarolo: You old softie.

Mr. Davey: As I am unmarried, my girl friend may not agree with the Paymaster General on that, but I am interested in hearing details of the Conservative proposals. I feel strongly about this matter. I lost my father when I was four. My mother was widowed, and cared for me and my two older brothers. Are the Conservatives saying that my widowed mother should not have benefited from an extra tax allowance? She was not married, and the new clause is not clear. Before the Conservatives get on their high horses about marriage, they need to flesh out their proposals with rather more detail. Would they penalise single parents, such as my widowed mother, rather than ensuring that she could benefit from extra tax allowances? I cannot believe that they would want that, but it sometimes sounds like it.

The new clause might serve some purpose in promoting reforms of our financial procedures. To that extent, the Liberal Democrats have no problem with it; it is time those matters were addressed. In supporting the new clause this evening, however, we will not be saying that we support the Conservative position, because it has not been properly spelled out.

Mr. Geraint Davies: I am pleased to speak briefly about the married couples allowance, partly because my good neighbour, the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway), would not allow me to intervene on him.

The new clause is completely incoherent. The hon. Gentleman suggested that the motivation for restoring the married couples allowance was not so much marriage as support for children in stable family relationships. Of course, the married couples allowance is not available to stable couples with children. It is available to married couples, often without children, or to single parents who are unmarried. That is completely inconsistent.

Mr. Ruffley: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davies: In a moment.

The idea behind the allowance was support of children in marriage because, when it was introduced, the majority of those who had children were married. Relationships have changed, and many children are born out of wedlock. We must be even-handed about fiscal management, although I accept that, as the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) said, we ought to think of ways to encourage stable relationships and marriage.

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