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Rob Marris: I understand the right hon. Gentleman's remarks about the powers of the Government and I tend to agree with him about the lack of ability to amend certain statutory instruments. However, in terms of the part of the Bill that I read out, it would be open to the House in a subsequent enactment to say that new section 4C(3)(a) and so on will not apply. There could be an override, decided in the House, in subsequent legislation, so the House could have the opportunity to decide.
The hon. Gentleman has been here long enough to know that subsequent legislation is not as easy as it sounds when he says it quickly. If he were to ask his hon. Friends who are Ministers how easy it is for them to get the Bills that they want, to do the things that they want or to correct the things that they want to
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correct, he would get a pretty dusty response. There is always a debate, and it is a very important one, as to whether it is better to have a measure in a Bill, thus making it difficult to change by subsequent primary legislation, or whether, ironically, it is preferable to have it in regulations because although, under the current procedure, they cannot be amended, they can be returned to somewhat more easily.
I make a half-concession to the hon. Gentleman in the sense that if something were to be done by regulations, and they were faulty, that could at least be picked up. In fact, I can assure him that the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments spends its entire life doing just that, if I may say so with all due modesty, very well indeed and with great competence and élan.
Ed Balls (Normanton) (Lab): I am struggling to follow the argument, but I was interested in some of the right hon. Gentleman's earlier comments about constitutional reform and a commitment to a written constitution, which seemed to be an important statement. He said that having a written constitution was a rather French thing to do because, in the past, the Frenchand the Americanshave tended to have such constitutions. Presumably, a written constitution would, in some ways, make us a bit more French, rather than a bit more British, although presumably we would have a British written constitution rather than a European written constitution. I thought that more clarity would be helpful.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: I can see that the hon. Gentleman is getting himself into training for elevation to the Chairmen's Panel one day. He beat me to the draw. What he said is very apposite, and what the hon. Member for Normanton (Ed Balls) said was not.
I am grateful for the chance to intervene again, and I shall try to make sure that I phrase my question more properly. If we had a British written constitution, would that mean that concerns such as those that the right hon. Gentleman has about the Bill would be tackled in another place or through the courts
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rather than in Parliament? Does he think that that would strengthen or weaken our parliamentary democracy?
Mr. Forth: With more than half an eye on you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I say briefly that we should have a British written constitution, which would, among other things, protect us from further depredations from the ghastly European Union and go a long way towards protecting taxpayers from the ghastly Government. I hope that gives the hon. Gentleman some idea of where I am coming from and where I would like to go.
I have given enough of a flavour of my reasons for believing that these amendments, too, are an important part of our scrutiny of the Bill. Given my unhappiness about the whole concept of retrospection in any case, it is the words in the parts of the Bill that I have highlighted that give me great unease. For that reason I hope that the House is able to support, if not all the amendments before it, certainly the one referring to amendment No. 5.
Mr. Chope: I enthusiastically support amendment No.5. With no collusion, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and I filed amendments in exactly the same terms. That must show something, although I am not quite sure what. I hope the House will take the view that it shows that we are working on the right lines.
Amendment No. 5 is important as it removes one of the worst and most oppressive elements of the Bill, which offends against all the principles of natural justice. I am not convinced about amendments Nos. 6 and 20.
I shall devote most of my remarks to the support of amendment No. 16, which proposes leaving out the words "2nd December 2004" and inserting instead "11th October 2005"; in other words it substitutes the date when the Paymaster General made her written statement to the House for the date when the Bill was published and thus available for inspection of its contents. Although ideally, retrospection should not take effect before the date of a Bill's enactment, it is a well-established convention for Finance Bills that retrospection can apply from the date when the Bill was published.
Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend has just pointed out that the measure was originally promulgated through a ministerial written statement. Does he share my extreme unease that written ministerial statements are an ever more common way of promulgating Government policy because they cannot be questioned? Ministers know that instead of coming to the House, making a proper statement and subjecting themselves to questioning by Members of Parliament the written statement cannot be subject to questioning.
I think that I can help the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). The 2 December 2004 statement
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was part of the pre-Budget report, which was subject to statement and questions in the House. It was then subject to debate, as some of their right hon. and hon. Friends can confirm, in the proceedings on what became the Finance (No.2) Act 2005 when the tax measures, the sister measures to national insurance, were debated. It has in fact been questioned and debated a lot.
Mr. Chope: The point at issue is whether on that date in December 2004 anyone reading that written statement, which was headed "Finance Bill"it did not say "National Insurance Contributions Scam", which might have put people on notice
Mr. Chope: Certainly. The idea of governing by ministerial fiat, by statement, is dangerous, and not only in the context of the measure that we are discussing. One might consider the consequences of this year's pre-Budget report, where the Treasury unsaid what it had previously said about the eligibility of the inclusion of ordinary houses in self-invested personal pensions. An earlier ministerial statement had announced that from April 2006 it would be possible for people to include property in their SIPPs and on that basis many companies set up businesses and incurred expense and risk. The Government will not compensate people who were adversely affected by anticipating Government legislation. I have no quarrel with people anticipating legislation. They took the Government's word as a true intention of what would happen.
It turns out that that is not going to happen. As recently as 14 November this year, I received a letter from the Economic Secretary justifying and, indeed, commending the proposals that SIPPs should include assets such as houses. He pointed out that that would not have an adverse effect on the property market. In any event, he said, only 1 per cent. of pension funds would be affected. Anyone who assumed from that letter that they should invest in such pension funds or set up schemes to facilitate such investment would have been acting in advance of the Finance Bill and therefore at their own risk. Unfortunately, no compensation is available in such a situation, but the Government are suggesting that if they make an announcement through a written answer on national insurance contributions, it should be regarded as gospel. Their approach is therefore inconsistent. We appear to be moving into a new era of government by fiatwhatever Ministers say goeswhile, at the same time, letters are written to introduce provisions for compensation for people who act on the basis of those Government statements only to find that they have acted to the detriment of their interests.
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