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Mr. Forth: In many ways, these amendments bring us to the core of the Bill. I shall leave my right hon. and hon. Friends perhaps to concentrate on other aspects of the measure, but the matters in clause 1(1) that attracted my attention relate to subsections (4) and (5) of proposed new section 4B of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992, which I seek effectively to delete from the Bill.
That is blatant beyond all belief. The Government now no longer even attempt to conceal what they are up to or to divert our attention from it. I suppose that I grudgingly give them almost a degree of credit for the fact that they are being perfectly blatant in what they are saying. We now have a Bill, for which the Government have aspirations of its becoming an Act on the statute book, that says, "It does not matter. We can do pretty much what we want, whether or not it was passed now or at some other timewho cares?"
Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): My right hon. Friend is being uncommonly generous. In fact, the Government are being just as arbitrary about what they pay out, let alone what they get infor example, the discrimination against any of our pensioners who live in Canada, rather than the United States, or in the rest of Europe, rather than the European Union. That happens all the time.
Mr. Forth: Of course I agree with my hon. Friend. The Government would probably say, "Well, it does not matter really, does it?" because those folk are far away and do not have a direct voice in what is going on here. We are talking about the Government saying that it does not matter how, when or whether they raise money, but I suspect that that would apply equally to their attitude to whether they disburse money.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) has tabled an amendment by which he seeks to alter that date. I would prefer to remove it altogether. The Paymaster General attempted to justify that date in summing up the previous debate. She said something along the lines of, "If a Minister says on a certain date we may legislate in the future to do something that you may do in the future but we are not sure and we really don't care very much, that is all right."
We are now into the era of blanket provision, forecasting or attempting to forecast what might be and giving the Government what amounts to a blank
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legislative cheque to do whatever they like. That may be all right in the minds of Ministers whose attitude, frankly, to government and Parliament over the past seven or eight years has been consistently contemptuouswe have almost come to accept thatbut to have it spelled out in a Bill is going way too far. It is one thing to alter the procedures of the House, to reduce, curtail or deny debate or to cut down almost to nothing the time available to scrutinise legislation in Committee, but when phrases such as "it does not matter" or "any time before" this or that date are included in a Bill, we are getting into extremely dangerous territory.
Mr. Greg Knight: My right hon. Friend is making a good point. If passed, will not the Bill rip up the rights that we have enjoyed in this country since Magna Carta? Under legislation passed by the House, the citizens of this country should know precisely where they stand. Are we not returning to the pre-Magna Carta age, when law used to be made at the whim of the king, but it is now being made at the whim of the Government?
Mr. Forth: Yes, I fear that my right hon. Friend is right. I am worried that we are finding that gradually over timeBill by Bill and Act by Actwhat we always thought was sacrosanct, even though we do not have a written constitution, is being eroded by such phrases. For most of my life, I have taken a lofty attitude to written constitutions. I thought that we did not need them and that they were for only people such as the Americans and the French. I have now come to the view that only a properly written constitution will protect us from Governments such as this. Such phrases in Bills have the effectwhether openly or surreptitiously and gradually or suddenlyof removing from our lives what we thought were precious certainties. If we do nothing else, surely we must remove phrases such as "It does not matter" from our legislation.
David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): I am following what the right hon. Gentleman says with great interest and agree with most of it. However, I am puzzled about the effect of amendment No. 6. Surely leaving out those lines from the Bill would increase the Government's powers under proposed new section 4B(2) and thus make things worse?
Mr. Forth: I concede to the hon. Gentleman that that is a possibility. It is something that he and the House must take into account when they decide what to do about the amendment. I am trying to make the general point at the moment that such provisions appear to give the Government enormous and unlimited powers to do whatever they want, whenever they want, and, indeed, to do so retrospectively. That danger exists throughout the Bill.
When we consider the other amendments in the group, we will find that they address a similar area of concern. Proposed new section 4C(3)(a) is a similar measure that says that regulations may make provision to modify
Again, the Bill will give extraordinarily wide powers under regulations. The problem is that owing to the way in which our parliamentary procedures work, regulations cannot be amended. Whether regulations
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are considered under the affirmative or negative procedure, they come before the House on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.
Bad enough though such a phrase is, it is in many ways worse than it would be if it related to primary legislation. Such legislation is at least, in theory, amendable, although goodness knows that we get little opportunity to amend legislation these days, unless the Government have cocked something up and have to amend their own legislation, which happens all too frequently.
The wording is becoming more general and generous, but less restrictive and specific. When confronted with such wording, the House is being asked to say to the Government, "We trust you. We think that this is generally rather a good idea,"which, by the way, I do not, but we will come back to that on Third Reading. However, the Government are saying to us, "If you sign up to these words, there will and can be no comeback whatsoever." By using the word "any" over and over again, the Government are telling us that they will do what they think is appropriate at the time, retrospectively or otherwise.
Mr. Forth: That line is not retrospectiveit must be the only provision in the Bill that is not. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on finding the one line of the Bill that is not retrospective, but that does not exonerate the Government from any guilt about, or blame for, the way in which they are trying to give themselves the broadest possible powers to do almost anything that they want at any time. Regarding that provision, I concede to the hon. Gentleman that the Government may use such powers only after the commencement day, but I am not sure that that gives me much comfort.
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