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The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon):
I recognise that there are concerns within the
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House. Changing the requirement to take the Oath or a form of the Oath would, however, require primary legislation. The Government have no plans to change it, but were there a substantial body of opinion in the House in favour of change, I would be willing to discuss it with ministerial colleagues.
Norman Baker: Does the Leader of the House agree that, in the 21st century, it is somewhat anachronistic, not to say objectionable, that Members of Parliament who arrive here with a proper democratic mandate, having been elected, are not allowed to take their seats unless they have sworn an Oath of Allegiance to an unelected institution? Would not it be more appropriate in these days for an oath to be taken to follow the law, to uphold democracy and to serve one's constituents?
Mr. Hoon: I believe that I have made the hon. Gentleman a very fair offer. This was a great constitutional debate in the 19th century and I see no particular desire in the 21st century for that great constitutional debate to be repeated. But if I am wrong about that and there is a large body of opinion in the House that wishes to revisit that great constitutional debate, I will be willing to raise it with ministerial colleagues.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will recall that I raised a point of order with you two weeks ago and subsequently wrote to you on the issue of the Minister replying to questions to the Advocate-General. We have lost the opportunity to have five special minutes of personal questioning of the Advocate-General, since such questions are now merged with those to the Secretary of State for Scotland. The Solicitor-General intimated to me informally that it would be her wish that a Law Officer of the Crown should reply to those questions. I wonder whether the Government have made intimations to you in that regard, and whether you would advise us as to the position.
Mr. Speaker: I have fond memories of the Advocate-General taking five minutes to answer questionswhich were usually put by the hon. Lady. Question 10 on the Order Paper, which we did not reachperhaps because some Members are too long-winded and because Ministers can take some time to replywas a question regarding the Advocate-General, so Ministers are answering these questions, albeit not the Advocate-General personally.
Miss McIntosh: Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The point is that while the Secretary of State for Scotland and I are non-practising, we are members of the Faculty of Advocates. The Advocate-General is now in another place, so we have lost the opportunity to have a response from a fully qualified Law Officer of the Crown.
Mr. Speaker: I would say to the hon. Lady that she is here not as an advocate but as a Member of Parliament. I am glad that she has declared that interest, but the fact is that there is a Minister of the Crown answering those questions.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): On a point of order of which I have given you notice, Mr. Speaker. You will be aware that Ministers in the Department for Constitutional Affairsto whom I have given notice of this point of order; I am sorry that they are not herehave recently transferred to the Home Office a number of questions about alternatives to jury trial and changes to the jury system. Yet in its most recent document, the Department talks about a key issue being efficient and effective fraud trials, and goes on to say that there will be alternatives to jury trial. Can it be right for the Department to claim responsibility for an area such as trial by jury and to put out a document stating that it intends to end jury trial, but then, when the difficult questions come, to dodge them by transferring them to another Department? Should not there be consistency, Mr. Speaker? If a Government Department claims an issue, it should be prepared to answer on it.
The hon. Gentleman informed me in advance of his point of order, but I am afraid I cannot help him. "Erskine May" makes it clear that it is a long-
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standing, established principle that decisions on the transfer of questions rest with Ministers, not the occupant of the Chair.
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. A question of mine, on the very issue that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) articulated, was accepted by the Table Office as Question 1 to the Department for Constitutional Affairs. I had checked the Cabinet Office register of Ministers' responsibilities, which showed that matters related to juries fell within the responsibility of the Minister of State at that Department, who is sadly no longer in her place. As my question was accepted by the Table Office and, according to the list of responsibilities provided for Members, fell within the responsibility of that Minister, is it not wrong, and discourteous not only to myself as a Member but to the House, that it was transferred at a later date to another Department?
Mr. Speaker: That has happened to every hon. Member from time to time, including myself when I was a Back Bencher. The acceptance of a question in the Table Office does not mean that the matter ends there. A Minister is entitled to transfer that question. That is all I can say to the hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will have heard the exchanges earlier and the strong support for the early re-establishment of Select Committees. Is there anything that you can do to add to that pressure on the Leader of the House and others, because it would at least enable the Constitutional Affairs Committee to ensure that such questions are answered by Ministers from that Department?
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will you therefore use your influence on the Government to persuade them to bring out at an early stage a comprehensive list of ministerial responsibilities, at least to try to minimise the problem described? You cannot prevent Ministers from dodging questions and shuffling them off to someone else, but you can surely use your very considerable influence on the Government and oblige them to help Members of the House so that we know who is responsibleallegedlyfor what.
Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con):
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I was lucky enough, and rather chuffed, to have question 3 to the Department for Constitutional Affairs, on the same subject. Naturally, I accept what you said. However, the first I knew of the fact that my question would not be called today was when I saw the Order Paper on Monday. I had no correspondence whatever from the
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Minister or the Department, and I would have liked to know before I came into the House that my question was not to be called.
Mr. Heald: On a separate point of order, Mr. Speaker. Does there need to be no consistency at all? In other words, if a Minister decides one day, "Oh, I don't fancy that question on jury trial," he or she can simply transfer it for the Home Secretary to deal with, while on another dayas todaythe Minister can decide, "That looks like a plum question. I'll answer that one."
That is why I welcomed the point of order raised by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). I will look into the matter and take up his suggestion.
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As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor outlined in the Budget debate in March, we now have a foundation of fiscal strength, enabled by our decision in 1997 radically to reduce national debt. We have the lowest debt interest payments for a century, matched by the lowest unemployment costs for a generation. As the Chancellor pointed out, social security bills for unemployment have been halved since 1997, saving another £5 billion a year, and inflation has been 3 per cent. or less annually for the past eight years, making Britain's the least volatile and most stable of all major industrialised economies. We therefore have sound foundations on which to face up to global challenges and provide domestic success, and a record of macro-economic stability that lets us invest in the future.
The Bill and the measures contained therein reflect the Government's ongoing determination to ensure that our tax system is fair and competitive. Only last September, the World Bank ranked the UK first in Europe and seventh in the top 20 countries in which to conduct business. Before that, in January, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development ranked our economic and administrative regulations as among the lowest in the OECD.
Looking forward, and faced with the accelerating pace of technological change and the rapid expansion of global competition, it is clear that our economic future cannot be founded on low-skilled, low-tech enterprises. That is why we must focus on establishing British leadership in skills, science and the knowledge economy, and on evolving a sensible, flexible fiscal framework that supports business as we face world competition.
It is against that backdrop that we introduce this Finance Bill containing the legislation announced in the last Budget statement which, owing to the election and following negotiations with the Opposition, was not enacted in the Finance Act 2005. Our aim is to support and encourage business as it tackles global economic challenges. Our underlying philosophy is both to produce fair taxationthus reducing avoidance of taxation, which is not appropriate in a modern, fair economyand to simplify the business environment to ensure clear, dependable and fair interaction with the state.
Before I discuss the individual elements of the Bill, let me inform the House that the committal motion on the Order Paper has been changed, at the request of the Opposition. The revised version is now available in the Vote Office.
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