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Question agreed to.





24 Jun 2002 : Column 705

Business of the House

Motion made, and Question proposed,

9.35 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): It is all very well for the motion to be moved formally. However, this important motion starts with a phrase with which we have become all too familiar—

so we might have been entitled to an explanation from either the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the Leader of the House. Neither of them is present and that practice has become all too frequent. It well illustrates the Government's attitude to the House of Commons. The motion seeks to change our normal practice on something as important as the Finance Bill of all things, but we have not even had the courtesy of an explanation as to why that is happening.

Perhaps the Chancellor of the Exchequer does not understand his motion, but I do not expect that of the Leader of the House. I would have thought that he understands it all too well. However, neither of them are here to explain to the House what is going on.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): We should draw the House's attention to the fact that, although the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Leader of the House are not here, no one from their Departments is either.

Mr. Forth: Sadly, that is the case. Many Government Whips are present, and that suggests that the Government expect their Members to vote the motion through willy-nilly without the courtesy of an explanation from anyone on the Government Front Bench. [Interruption.] In fairness to the Leader of the House—he knows that I am always fair to him—he has just turned up.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): Does my right hon. Friend think that he should start his comments again so that the Leader of the House can hear them?

Mr. Forth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would not want to find himself guilty of breaching Standing Order No. 42 by obeying the advice of the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin).

Mr. Forth: Indeed, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was just about to explain that I have not even got into my preamble yet. The Leader of the House has not missed anything of substance and neither have you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The Leader of the House has not seen fit to provide us with an explanation despite the fact that the game is given away by the phrase "notwithstanding the practice". The details of the motion entitle us to a measure of alarm. Normally—you know this almost better than anyone in the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker—the Finance Bill is very much regarded as a special case by the House of

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Commons. That is as it should be, because the provision of finance and the raising and spending of moneys are among the things about which we in the House are extremely jealous, and rightly so. Therefore, we have always given the Finance Bill a very special place and we have always treated it with very great care. For example, we deal with many aspects of it on the Floor of the House and then other more detailed provisions upstairs in Committee. The motion suggests that more than one stage of the Finance Bill

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, when his Government were in power, they cut the grant for all gypsy site refurbishments? Will he tell us why?

Mr. Forth: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that very important point. When my party had the privilege of being in government, we allowed a proper amount of time to deal with such matters. The House would have given those subjects more than adequate time—both on the Floor and upstairs in Committee. I do not know whether he knows, but we almost certainly did not try to deal with more than stage of the Finance Bill—even the one containing the measure about which he has reminded us—in any one sitting.

I suspect that, given the importance of that measure, it would have been properly considered in Committee, on Report and on Third Reading. Even if the hon. Gentleman was not happy with the outcome, in the good old days when my party had the privilege of being in government, proper time would have been allowed by the House to consider a matter even as detailed as that, never mind the great issues about the raising of revenue and the concomitant expenditure that confront the House in a Finance Bill.

A mysterious proposition is before the House and we are left wondering why the Government would want to give such special treatment to the Finance Bill. I am forced to speculate on that because no explanation has been given. It is just possible that one of the arguments might have been that we do not have enough time to treat the Finance Bill in the traditional way, but that argument does not stand up.

Hon. Members will be aware not only of the fact that a number of make-weight measures are on the Order Paper for this week and next week, but of the proposed date of our rising. The Leader of the House was kind enough to say to us last Thursday that the House would rise on 24 July subject to the passage of business. Does he want to rush the Finance Bill through with unseemly haste so that the House can adjourn early? I hope not. I like to think that he would not dare to come to us with such a proposition.

If we dismiss that speculation as outrageous even by the standards of this Government and Chancellor of the Exchequer, we are forced to consider other possibilities. One of them might be that the Government are so ashamed of what is in the Finance Bill that they do not want it to be properly scrutinised. I incline to the view that that is probably a more credible explanation than the Leader of the House wanting us to go off on our hols early. Again, however, I can only speculate because we have not been told.

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The right hon. Gentleman came rushing back into the Chamber having been told that the House was impertinent enough to want to query the measure, which he assumed would go through on the nod. I hope that he has a thorough briefing from his assiduous officials so that he can give us at least one credible reason why the motion has been tabled. [Hon. Members: "Where are they?"] I assume that hon. Members are referring to a certain box at the end of the Chamber where officials are wont to sit. That comment is probably out of order, however, and I would not want to be caught out in such a way. Some of us have been around long enough to avoid that trap.

We have a parliamentary conundrum. We have before us an important, possibly ground-breaking measure that may well set a precedent. If the House agrees exceptionally to the measure after hearing a proper explanation of it, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman gives an undertaking that it will not be regarded as a precedent. I want to be reassured that the Government or the Leader of the House will not quote it as a precedent if we agree to it. We slip all too easily into bad practices in which something is brought before the House and slipped through on the QT at an early stage of the evening, and the night is still young in parliamentary terms.

The right hon. Gentleman should give a full explanation of why he wants the measure. Is it to do with an early recess? Is it to do with his shame at the Bill's content? When he explains his reason for the motion and if we accept it, I hope that it will be explicitly stated that it is not a precedent and will not be quoted as such by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, should he ever deign to come to the House. We need to be assured that we will treat each future Finance Bill on its merits. Only if we get that explanation will we be satisfied and allow the measure to proceed.

9.44 pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I thought there was some levity in the approach to the subject. That disturbed me because it is a serious matter, and I strongly agree with the concerns raised by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth).

In recent years, Finance Bills have got longer and longer and have become increasingly complex. This year's Bill is no exception. The articulation of the debate—quite apart from its length—is important if the House is to have a proper opportunity to assess all the complex issues that arise from it.

In recent weeks, some major, serious Bills have not received proper attention in Committee or in the House as a result of the programming and guillotining of those measures. The Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill is an obvious example. We must ask those on the Government Front Bench on precisely what grounds the usual practice is being broken on this occasion, as it would appear. No attempt so far has been made to explain the precedents for this practice. Before we even reach the question whether it should be a precedent for the future, as the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said, we should surely at least be told whether there have been precedents in the recent past for approaching the Finance Bill in this way.

We should never forget that the Finance Bill is unusual. That is because it is the House alone that considers the measure. There is no second chance. There is no second

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guessing at the other end of the building. The Lords cannot consider the mistakes that are made in this place. Only we can do that, and only during consideration of remaining stages. If those stages are hurried in any way—if they are managed in such a way to achieve a rapid result rather than a comprehensive result—that would be entirely wrong.

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