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I leave it to the House to judge whether it was a tactful calculation or an inadvertent error on the part of the Government that the pages of the explanatory notes were left unnumbered. My indefatigable assistant was obliged to do the counting herself on my behalf.
Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): The hon. Gentleman is right to make a point about the inflating size of Finance Bills under this Government. Would he, however, care to comment on that trend under the Conservative Government? In 1995, the Finance Act ran to 566 pages.
David Taylor: The hon. Gentleman is taking the House on an illuminating peregrination round the dimensions of the document before us. Is he not, however, living proof that a small size does not necessarily produce concise coherence of the kind with which he suggests Lady Thatcher's early legislation is associated?
Mr. Bercow: There are two answers to that. First, so far as I am concerned, there is hope yet, and I am still growing. Secondly, I say to the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor)who is always, if nothing else, very fairthat nothing was ever to be heard from my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Howe of Aberavon on the subject of Finance Bills that was not penetrating, persuasive and concise in equal measure.
Mr. Jack: As someone who was responsible for quite a long Finance Bill, I wonder whether my hon. Friend would agree that the pages of the Finance Bills for which the last Conservative Government were responsible were quality pages that laid the foundations for the reform of the British economy and helped to leave it in its current robust state?
Mr. Bercow: My right hon. Friend is entirely right. He was a distinguished Financial Secretary to the Treasury, and the last Conservative Government bequeathed an outstanding economic legacy to this Government. The simple reality is that, as a consequence of successful economic policies pursued over 18 years by the Conservative party, we achieved record prosperity at home, secured respect abroad and helped to rediscover that sense of belief in ourselves that for so long, under Governments of both colours, had deserted us. That is the reality, and my right hon. Friend is sensible to point it out to me.
The facts about the size of the Bill are all the more remarkable given the factto which the Chief Secretary elliptically referredthat it does not even include provision for the increases in national insurance contributions. The sheer, unbridled, crass ineptitude of the
Kevin Brennan: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that it is not normal practice to include national insurance matters in a Finance Bill, because national insurance contributions go not into the Consolidated Fund, but into the national insurance fund?
Mr. Bercow: That was an unfortunate intervention, because the reality is that the Government believed that that was the plan, but suddenly discovered that they had erred. They then grovelled to the Opposition in recognition of the fact that an extra parliamentary day would be required for this purpose. I would simply say, in all kindness to the hon. Gentleman, who is an agreeable companion outside the Palace of Westminster, that grovelling sycophancy should not be taken too far. I know that the hon. Gentleman is keen to impress those on the Treasury Bench, but if he is going to make interventions he should be clear that they are in line with the nous and information available to Ministers.
In the context of complexity, from which I know Labour Members are keen to distract attention, I refer to the verdict of John Whiting of PricewaterhouseCoopers, a distinguished and senior accountant on 25 April in the Financial Times:
Mr. Bercow: The right hon. Gentleman is very anxious. I can say beyond peradventure that we will set out our tax and spending plans with total clarity and absolute specificity well in time for the next election. If he seriously expects me, 10 months after we lost the last election on our previous manifesto, to announce the contents of the next manifesto, he is sadly deluding himself.
Mr. McLoughlin: The Chief Secretary has asked a very stupid question, which we are used to from him. It was only just under 10 months ago that the Government said that they had no plans to raise national insurance charges.
Mr. Bercow: Deputy Chief Whips have many merits. One of them is that they remind people of points they should have made but did not. That is exactly what my hon. Friend has done. I am bestirred by what he has just said. On 29 May last year, the right hon. Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt), now Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, said that the Government had no plans to increase national insurance contributions. She went on boldlybut unwisely, as it transpiredto say, "It isn't going to happen." Given that the Government cannot make up their mind and stick to it over a period of 10 months, it is absurd and preposterous of the Chief Secretary to expect me, during today's Second Reading of the Finance Bill, to unveil the contents of the next Conservative manifesto. I shall do so later, but not now.
Until this Budget, the various tax credits for families that the Chancellor had introducedparticularly the working families tax credithad been treated as negative taxation. As such, the tax burden appeared lower than if the credits had been treated as public expenditure, in accordance with international accounting convention. For years, Ministers have been stubbornly insisting that they are right and all their critics are wrong. A delicious irony is therefore to be found by fiscal anoraks who peruse box C2 of the Red Book, which illuminatingly states:
Yet for all the complexity, minutiae and fog of statistics with which the Chancellor and his colleagues seek to blind us, the basic facts about the tax burden are brutally simple. The total tax take will rise by £6.1 billion by 200304, and by approximately £8 billion a year by 200506. The Government claim that this unprecedented pickpocketing is for the benefit of public services, but I ask the House to consider who will be worse off as a result of the Bill. Nurses will be worse off; police inspectors will be worse off; teachers will be worse off; average earners will be worse off; through measures to come, the national health service will be worse off as an employer; the police service will be worse off as an employer; and the education service will be worse off as an employer.
What we are getting from this Government is just more talk, more taxes, no change and no difference. Frankly, British people deserve better. In the past five years, taxes have gone up and public services have got worse. This country demands and deserves world-class public services, yet all the Labour Government do is tax more, waste more, fail to deliver improvements and refuse to learn from abroad. The Government demand more of voters' money, but they do not know how to make the NHS and other public services better. Every man, woman and child in this country is paying £1,600 more in taxation than in 1997, yet waiting lists are rising again, and the chances of surviving cancer in Britain are among the worst in Europe. Violent crime and street crime are reaching epidemic proportions, teacher vacancies doubled last year and truancy has risen. Under this Administration and the worst Secretary of State for Transport since his immediate predecessor, the trains have now descended into chaos.
Perhaps most shamefully of all, the Government are failing to meet the plethora of public service agreement targets that they set. For Ministers to fail to meet voters' expectations is bad enoughbut for them to fail to meet their own expectations requires a breathtaking incompetence that is fast becoming the hallmark of this over-hyped and underperforming Administration. What a shower they are.
We read recently of what always starts to happen in Governments who have a chasm between the words they utter and the deeds they do. They start to fight like ferrets in a sack. The most recent manifestation of the discordant note that has been injected into Government business appeared in an article in The Independent last Friday by the respected political editor, Andrew Grice, under the title, "Brown wins battle with Blunkett on crime cash". The trouble with the Chancellor, who is a ministerial and departmental imperialist par excellence, is that he loves to trample over the terrain of all of his Cabinet colleagues. Is a new low being reached? It looks like it. The article says: