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Dr. Reid: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his normal stentorian contribution, to which I look forward every Thursday, and for his request that I instruct the Prime Minister to come to this House to beg forgiveness. He is that type of guy, is he not? I will consider that request, but I will particularly consider whether I can find anything for which he should seek forgiveness. Given the number of occasions on which the Prime Minister has come to this House to make statements and to answer questionsfar more, incidentally, than has any other Prime Ministerit is not obvious to me what we should ask him to beg forgiveness for.
Secondly, in Britain, Parliament ratifies treaties. We do not hold referendums on them, although that happens in Ireland and several other countries. [Interruption.] Well, the Tories did not hold a referendum on the Maastricht treaty or the single European issues that came before the House when they were in government.
Thirdly, the new constitutional treaty will not fundamentally alter the position of the member states of the European Union. Powers are given by member states to the Union to achieve goals that they could not attain alone. The fundamental building blocks of the European Union will remain the individual states. The right hon. Gentleman's normal position of defending Parliament's rights has been undermined by the expediency and opportunism that Conservative Members apply to everything that appears to relate to Europe, which, individually and collectively, they hate more by the day. It is another element of their extreme position.
The right hon. Gentleman does not need to take my word about the Attorney-General, who made it clear before we went into action in Iraq and subsequently that the Government have acted in accordance with international law. Any suggestion to the contrary is wrong; that should be good enough. There will be a dozen different opinions internationally on any legal issue. That is the nature of domestic and international legal debate. Again, I hope that the Conservatives would tend to accept the opinion of this country's chief legal adviser rather than that of some critics abroad who take a different position.
The right hon. Gentleman raised the important issue of pensions. This morning's report was not entirely accurate. No computer breakdown has occurred. The annual notification service to people who have gaps in their contribution records was suspended in 1998 because priority was given to processing current benefit and pension claims. That was the right thing to do because it meant that those who had immediate needs were dealt with first.
As with any Government position, Ministers will be replaced in due course. Any insinuation that we have not given due attention to pensioners is wrong: the Government introduced the minimum guaranteed pension, the winter fuel allowance, the pension credit, free television licences for those over 70 and the extra £100 for those over 80. Any suggestion from Conservative Members that the Government have not paid sufficient attention to pensioners stretches the imagination.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the scrutiny of debates in the House. Programming has brought many benefits as part of a wider package, although I accept that it is appropriate to review its workings to ascertain
It is not justifiable to judge programming on this week's experience of Northern Ireland, which tends to produce the unique need for rapid legislation under all Governments. I accept that there were problems, not least because a personal statement and a statement by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary further reduced the limited time available to hon. Members, especially those from Northern Ireland. I am not for a minute disregarding that fact, but Northern Ireland tends to be a unique case. Nevertheless, a review of the workings of programming is something that we ought to, and indeed will, look at.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Does the Leader of the House recall that, this time last week, we were congratulating him on his birthday? He is therefore now one year nearer to his retirement and his pension. Surely he must take more seriously the incredible cock-up at the Inland Revenue, as well as the cover-upbecause that is what it is. There was no announcement about it on the radio, as the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) suggested. It was only the sharp eyes of a representative of The Daily Telegraph and my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) that discovered the fact that the Inland Revenue had failed in this respect. Is it not extraordinary that, for five years, there was no announcement, no admission and no apology about this extraordinary change of attitude? Is it not also extraordinary that 10 million people have been badly let down? Now, of course, the Inland Revenue is admitting the mistake by trying to put something in place to mitigate its failure. Surely, given the well-known humility of the Chancellor, we should have a statement from the head of the Department responsible about what has gone wrong and what is now going to be done to put it right.
I hope that the Leader of the House has had the opportunity this week to read "Parliament's Last Chance", produced by the Parliament First group, whose authors include some very distinguished members of his own party as well as of all the other parties. I am modest enough to admit to having made a small contribution to it. I hope that the Leader of the House will accept that that report reflects the all-party concern about the way in which the House holds the Government to account. To cite a particular example to which reference has been made this afternoon, the Treasury is responsible for the Inland Revenue, and the Inland Revenue has clearly made a huge mistake, which it is now admitting. That matter should come to the Floor of the House and we should be given an explanation.
Finally, I believe that, on the "Today" programme this morning, the Leader of the House referred to Mr. Ronnie Biggs as a bank robber. Should we assume that the right hon. Gentleman's other answers this morning were equally inaccurate?
Dr. Reid: I do apologise if I said "bank robber" rather than "train robber". That no doubt means that Ronnie Biggs is utterly innocent and should never have been pursued in the first place. I think that we should deal
I have already referred to pensions. When the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst referred to pensions and the radio programme this morning, I thought that he was referring to the point that the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) has just raised. I have pointed out that there has not been a computer breakdown, as was apparently alleged. The annual notification service to people with gaps in their contribution records was suspended in 1998 because priority was being given to processing current benefit and pensions claims. That was the right thing to do because it meant that people with immediate needs were being dealt with first. The Inland Revenue will start writing to people later this year to let them know of any gaps in their records since the last time the notices were issued. People will not have to respond immediately; indeed, they will have until April 2008 to make payments if they wish to do so.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall mentioned Parliament First. I welcome any contribution to the debate on the modernisation of the House of Commons, but I hope that hon. Members will recognise that we have just completed a series of fairly substantial and extensive changes. I would like some timeand I think the House would be wise to take some timeto reflect on the many proposals that have already been put in place and to see how they are working. One that was introduced some time ago was programming, to which the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst referred. I think that, in principle, that will no doubt remain, but we will want to look at the workings of the provision.
Both the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and the hon. Gentleman mentioned general scrutiny of the House. We have tried to ensure that that takes place wherever possible. During the war with Iraq we arranged debates in the House in an unprecedented fashion. An unprecedented number of statements have been made to the House by Ministers, including the Prime Minister. Today we have announced an extensive period of consultation and discussion between Cabinet members on the euro, culminating in the announcement of a decision to the House on 9 June. We will ensure that there is adequate parliamentary scrutiny of that important issue, along with many others.