Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Sir Teddy Taylor: Neither the Government Whips nor the Opposition Whips would appoint anyone to a Committee unless they had special qualifications. Is my right hon. and learned Friend suggesting that Government and Opposition Whips send any old rubbish up to the Committee? Of course, they do not.

Mr. Hogg: I am suggesting not that the Whips would send any old rubbish up to the Committee, but that they would send tame Members of Parliament.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I should point out to the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) and other right hon. and hon. Members that we are now straying well away from the motion.

Sir Teddy Taylor: I agree, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Unfair attacks have been made on the party Whips, who always do their job with great care and attention.

I have asked the Minister three questions, which I hope he will answer. I merely want to establish whether this is simply a bit of fun--an irrelevant nonsense. Is it just a case of our having to send some documents to those in Europe--and if they do not like what we send, too bad--or is it serious business? If it is serious business, some of us would like it to come to the House of Commons, so that we can look at it carefully. If, on the other hand, this is simply something that we have to do, and we are going to send something that is not too accurate without including--as we are meant to--comparisons with other member states, some of us would like to know that.

I have been asking such questions for a long time. The Minister was very helpful in saying that he would ensure that the House of Commons Library had a copy of what the Government sent to the Commission, but I want him to answer my questions. I want to know--I have tried to find it out from Ministers responsible for Europe before, in the present and the last Government--whether this is serious business, or simply something we have to do that does not matter too much.

12 Dec 2000 : Column 601

10.51 pm

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): I do not want to detain the House for long, but I think it important to discuss whether these matters should be considered on the Floor of the House, or treated as delegated legislation and discussed by a Committee with just a few members. While I accept that any Member of the House would be entitled to speak, a Committee debate would take place away from public view, and would not have the prominence that would be given to a debate on the Floor of the House.

I enjoyed one or two benefits as a result of sitting out the last Parliament and resting between engagements. I did not have to vote on the Maastricht treaty, and on legislation similar to what we are discussing now. That was one of the pleasures of not being in the last Parliament. I will say that, had I been here, I would unquestionably have voted against the Maastricht treaty. I abstained when the Prime Minister came back from Maastricht in December 1991, but as I was then parliamentary private secretary to my right hon. and noble Friend Lady Thatcher, I was obliged by convention not to vote against a matter of important Government policy. However, I did not have to vote for that legislation--the motion arises from the obligations assumed by the United Kingdom as a result of the Maastricht treaty.

I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) was a smidgen uncharitable to the Minister, who treats the House with courtesy and tries to explain as much as possible to enable the House to reach a judgment. However, on this occasion the Minister has not explained--as I hope he will a little more--about the information that is required under article 103(3) of the treaty establishing the European Community.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) asked about convergence criteria. In the margin next to section 5 are the words

I do not have a copy of the treaty with me--despite my known scepticism, I do not keep a copy under my pillow or close to my person--but I recall that the business of deficits is extremely important. The treaty confers substantial powers on the European Commission to fine Governments who are found to have run up budget deficits in excess of--is it 3.5 per cent. of gross domestic product? I am sure that the Minister for Europe has the figure at his fingertips. A budget deficit in excess of that would render any member state liable to a fine, and the United kingdom would be one of those members. Although we have an opt-out on the single currency, as I recall--my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton may be able to correct me if I am wrong--the measures apply to us, so we are bound by the legislation. It is material legislation in so far as it confers a substantial power on the European Commission.

Mr. Bercow: Am I not right in thinking that that point was clearly established towards the fag end of the previous Parliament, when my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) was subjected to scrutiny on the point?

Mr. Howarth: My hon. Friend probably has a better memory on those matters than me, but I recall that it was a big issue. Therefore, the importance of the issue has a

12 Dec 2000 : Column 602

bearing on whether the matter should be dealt with in a Committee upstairs, or on the Floor of the House. The Minister has already said that a previous example is being followed. It may be that we do not wish to be thought to be creating a precedent.

The Government seem to be saying that, instead of drawing up new information and an entirely separate document, in which we set out the information that is required under article 103(3) or under section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993, we have a number of documents that are readily available for public scrutiny, not to mention scrutiny by right hon. and hon. Members, including this year's Budget document.

The advertising slogans on Government documents are a bit rich at public expense. One example is "Prudent for a Purpose: Working for a Stronger and Fairer Britain", which is a bit nauseating. It is the Red Book, even though it is white--I refer to the Budget 2000 statement. Another example is the pre-Budget report, which was published last month. I have not studied that. I accept that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would not wish me to study it tonight, or to acquaint the House with the results of my studies. Nevertheless, from some of the complicated pages on public finances in the pre-Budget report, it would seem that, certainly for the coming year, the Government are unlikely to run the risk of falling foul of the requirements in relation to the national budget deficit and our obligations under the Maastricht treaty to maintain the deficit within certain limits.

There could, however, come a time when the picture looked less rosy. After all, the Government have had the great benefit of inheriting a magnificently well-founded economy. My right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) left the economy in such a splendid state that even this lot have been unable to muck it up as yet.

Mr. David Jamieson (Lord Commissioner to the Treasury): That is a joke.

Mr. Howarth: It is not a joke. It is a serious point. I say in parenthesis that the Government have made great claims about the success of the economy.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order.

Mr. Howarth: I thought that I might be pulled up.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The hon. Gentleman knows that he is straying way away from the motion. He must come back to the motion.

Mr. Howarth: I thought that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, might allow me a tiny stray because I was provoked.

Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend will recall the Minister saying that the Government expect the matter to be dealt with in an hour and a half--no more than that--in a Committee. Presumably, some of that time will be taken up by the Minister, if a Minister bothers to attend the Committee. Does my hon. Friend agree that an hour and a half is enough time for the entirety of the House of Commons and all its Members to consider properly the matters that he is describing?

Mr. Howarth: My right hon. Friend asks a good and interesting question. I do not underestimate the gravity

12 Dec 2000 : Column 603

with which the matter should be regarded, as it deals with a sphere of United Kingdom Government policy over which the European Commission has very substantial powers. It is therefore only right and proper that as many hon. Members as possible are given an opportunity to discuss the matter before a submission is made to Brussels.

Ministers should not allow other Labour Members weeks away from the House to fiddle around in their constituencies, clearing blocked drains for their constituents. That is not why we were sent to this place. We have been sent here to try to scrutinise complex documents, ensure that we look after the overall national interest and hold the Government to account for their actions on these very substantial matters.

I regret that a feature particularly of Liberal Democrat politics--because they do not have a view on most of the big issues--is to judge hon. Members partly on the basis of how well they address those parish pump issues, whereas what we should be doing is to spend time in the House addressing the big issues.

Next Section

IndexHome Page