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Mr. Ruffley: The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question should be clear to him; I am rather surprised that

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he bothered to ask it. He should scrutinise the proceedings of some of the Standing Committees on which I have had the pleasure, and sometimes the misfortune, to serve. Treasury orders of this kind are often to be found; our proposal is not especially unusual. I was rather surprised by the perplexity of the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) about that. It is a device that those on the Treasury Bench have used on many occasions.

To return to my original point, the Prime Minister has said that his Government's policy is weak on the family, and unconvincing and unappealing to the people of this country. He is quite right there. The new clause would remedy the defect in current Government policy.

Before Labour Members get to their feet in a desperate attempt to win brownie points with the Treasury Whip, let me tackle head on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) about the reductions in the value of the married couples allowance under the previous Government. I remember it well. In the March 1993 Budget, the Chancellor, Norman Lamont--Lord Lamont as he is now--set in train a two-tranche reduction in the married couples allowance from the basic rate of 25 per cent. to 15 per cent. That is a matter of record. However, the then Conservative Government did not go on to abolish the allowance, as this Government have.

Why was the reduction in the MCA so necessary? It was an important part of deficit reduction. [Laughter.] The guffaws from the glove puppets on the Government Benches would lead one to think that they considered deficit reduction a bad thing--but it is a good thing. The Chancellor celebrated it today, and he is the proud heir and inheritor of the previous Government's sensible fiscal policies.

What was the attitude of today's Ministers to the sensible but limited deficit-reducing measures in 1993, which stopped at 15 per cent? The present Government have gone for the next 15 per cent. What was the record of the Paymaster General on the 1993 Finance Bill? I hope that she will tell us when she winds up.

I remind the House of the importance of the new clause in terms of the tax policy of the Conservative party. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition made it clear this week that the next Conservative Government will reintroduce recognition of marriage in the tax system. The Government have abolished it, and so have no claim to be the defenders of married couples and families.

One issue has angered pensioners in my constituency. My mailbag is full of letters from them--I should be surprised if Labour Members had not received similar letters--about a decision in the March 1999 Budget. The Chancellor gave the distinct impression that pensioners would continue to receive the married couples allowance. However, we had to find in the small print one thing that he did not spell out--that pensioners reaching the age of 65 after April 2000 would not get any married couples allowance. That meant that those individuals found themselves some £500 worse off when that 1999 Budget tax change took effect.

The Conservatives were not alone in being intelligent enough to read the small print. Help the Aged was on

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to the matter fairly rapidly. Mr. Mervyn Kohler of that organisation described the pernicious effect of the change on pensioners who reach the age of 65 this fiscal year:

Many of my pensioner constituents who were 63 or 64 before the 1999 Budget change now realise that they will not get the £500 that they had counted on getting when they turned 65 this fiscal year. I have had many letters to that effect.

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

Mr. Ruffley: No, I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman. I may reconsider if he has something sensible to say. He rarely has.

Mr. Mervyn Kohler said that pensioners would take a hammering, and many of my pensioner constituents felt that they had been hammered by the Government, especially by the abolition of the married couples allowance. They had no warning or notice of the change, as Lady Greengross, the director general of Age Concern, said when she described how pensioners in their early 60s would have woken one morning to find out what was in the 1999 Budget.

Lady Greengross did say:

but it was a rather limited welcome, as she went on to make it clear that she wanted the measure to be phased in for people who will not get the allowance when they reach 65 this year. The argument for some transitional relief for people turning 60 was rather callously ignored by the Chancellor. He has not rethought things, and as a result many pensioners in many constituencies are very aggrieved.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton: One of my great concerns about what happened to people in the situation described by my hon. Friend is that the change, which they had not anticipated, occurred too late to allow them to make alternative financial arrangements to ensure that the quality and standard of their lives were not adversely affected. That is why I support my hon. Friend in his contention about transitional arrangements.

Mr. Ruffley: My hon. Friend has made my day. I am supported by Help the Aged, by Age Concern, and now by him. I could want for nothing more.

Labour Members have made no attempt to answer those important points in the debate. Age Concern and Help the Aged say that the change is a problem, and Labour Members who read their mail agree. It ill behoves them to smirk and grin and ignore the point. The Paymaster General owes the House an answer when she winds up.

Mr. Geraint Davies: Will the hon. Gentleman accept that any change in the tax system will be unplanned, in

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the sense that before the Chancellor stands at the Dispatch Box, no one knows what he will say? People plan for the world to go on as before. Does not the hon. Gentleman therefore agree that his is a rather silly argument?

Mr. Ruffley: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be applauded in his constituency by Age Concern and Help the Aged when he refers to their arguments as silly, misplaced or misguided. Old people are vulnerable. They do not have large incomes, and we believe that they are a special case, as do Help the Aged and Age Concern.

Mr. David Taylor: Will the hon. Gentleman cast his mind back to 1980, when he might still have been in primary school? Then, the Administration of the lady now known as Lady Thatcher perpetrated one of the meanest acts of their 18 years in office. They broke the link between pensions and pay in the economy. Does the hon. Gentleman think that that showed due regard to a vulnerable group?

Mr. Ruffley: This Labour Government have never said that they would reintroduce that link. There is a good reason for that. Baroness Hollis, the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security in the House of Lords, has said that if the link were restored now it would cost £25 billion by 2025. Not even this profligate Chancellor would be able to find that sort of money, which is why the Government have not decided to restore the link. The hon. Gentleman should know his party policy before he intervenes in that way.

Non-pensioners have also lost their married couples allowance to the value of some £200 a year plus. Added to the other stealth taxes--the petrol tax, the personal pension tax, and increases in council tax--the net result is that the average hard-working family is £670 worse off. That is the tax bill they face. The abolition of the married couples allowance is part of that £670. It is for that reason, and the other reasons that I have adduced, that I strongly support new clause 6, and I urge hon. Members to support it.

8 pm

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): I shall not detain the House long, because the matter has been well aired by my hon. Friends and by Labour Members. Strangely enough, I share the view of the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor) that changes in the married couples allowance such as that made in the last Budget are unlikely to have any measurable effect on the incentive to marry. Indeed, it would pose profound questions about the nature of marriage if they were an incentive.

Nevertheless, I share the view expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton). This matter has a symbolic importance that rises well above the issue of how much the allowance may be worth.

The attraction of the new clause is the speedy remedy that it provides. Previously, married people enjoyed a tax allowance that they no longer enjoy. In other words, there is now a tax on marriage.

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Mr. David Taylor: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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