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Non-Domestic Rating (Chargeable Amounts) (England) Regulations 1999

7.36 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 25th November be approved [2nd Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to move the second Motion standing in the name of my noble friend Lord Whitty.

On 1st April 2000 there will be a general revaluation of all non-domestic property. These regulations will phase in the impact of the revaluation on individual ratepayers through a transitional relief scheme.

Under the Local Government Finance Act 1988 revaluations must be carried out every five years. The purpose is not to increase the amount of rates paid nationally but to adjust the individual bills in line with relative movements in the property market. This means that at revaluation many ratepayers benefit with their rate bills being reduced but others will see their bills increased.

The transitional relief scheme will give businesses, in particular small businesses, time to adjust to the effects of the revaluation by limiting the size of annual increases in rate bills for the five-year life of the new rating list. Next year a small property--that is, one with a rateable value of less than £12,000, or in Greater London less than £18,000--will at most be faced with

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an increase of 5 per cent in real terms. For large properties the maximum possible increase next year will be 12.5 per cent in real terms.

In later years larger maximum annual increases will be allowed in bills which are still less than the full bill based on new rateable values. For small properties the annual limits will be 7.5 per cent in real terms, but for larger properties they will rise to 15 per cent in the second year and thereafter will be 17.5 per cent a year in real terms. However, most properties will have either decreases in their bills or increases below these maximum levels.

The loss of rate revenue caused by phasing in increases will be made good by phasing in decreases of the bills for those who are benefiting from the revaluation. As their bills are falling they are best able to help meet the cost of the scheme. In the early years the reductions allowed will be less than in the later years, given that transitional relief costs most in the early years when the greater number of properties needing relief is present.

Next year the maximum reduction in the bill of a small property will be 5 per cent in real terms. For a large property it will be 2.5 per cent. But by 2004-05 any small property still having reductions in bills phased in will pay 25 per cent less in real terms than they were paying the year before. The equivalent figure for large properties will be 15 per cent.

I am pleased to say that this scheme has, in the words of the Financial Times, been praised by the business community as fair. As the Financial Times suggests, such praise is unusual in this area. We have consulted widely with the CBI and the chambers of commerce, which are satisfied that good consultation has taken place. I commend the regulations to the House.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 25th November be approved [2nd Report from the Joint Committee].--(Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Financial Statement and Budget Report

7.40 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey rose to move, That this House approves the Government's assessment as set out in the Financial Statement and Budget Report 1999-2000, the Economic and Fiscal Strategy Report 1999-2000, and the Pre-Budget Report 1999 for the purposes of Section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, as part of the process for multilateral surveillance in the European Union, the Government are required to send a report to the European Commission setting out our main economic policy measures. The purpose of the procedure is to help ensure member states' economic policies are consistent with the goals of the treaty. These include non-inflationary economic growth respecting the environment, a high level of employment and social protection, and raising the

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standard of living and quality of life. Section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993, usually known as the Maastricht Act, requires Parliament to approve the government report sent to the Commission for the purposes of multilateral surveillance.

The Government's strategy for economic policy is set out in the Economic and Fiscal Strategy Report and the Financial Statement and Budget Report, brought together in the government report, Budget 99. This House had the opportunity to debate these documents for the purposes of Section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993 on 26th May 1999. However, as noble Lords will be aware, it chose not to do so other than formally. The intention today is to debate the Pre-Budget Report published on 9th November 1999 which completes the material that forms the basis of the information we send to the Commission.

The Pre-Budget Report, which I shall call PBR, describes the Government's strategy to raise Britain's national economic potential and deliver the Government's central objective of high and stable levels of growth and employment and ensuring that the benefits of economic success can be shared by everyone.

The key elements of the Government's strategy, in categories matching the requirements of the Act, are delivering macro-economic stability, meeting the productivity challenge; increasing employment opportunity for all; ensuring fairness for families and communities; and protecting the environment. I shall deal with each of those in turn.

As regards delivering macro-economic stability, the Government's first priority is to secure economic stability and avoid a return to the boom and bust cycles that have been a feature of the British economy for the past 30 years. The Government dealt successfully with the problems of an economy in 1997 characterised by rising inflationary pressures, unsustainable consumer spending, a large structural deficit in the public finances and the global financial turbulence of last year, and are delivering economic stability.

The new monetary and fiscal policy frameworks are based on clear objectives, procedural rules and a greater degree of openness and transparency than has been seen in the past. By rigorously adhering to these new frameworks, early and decisive action has been taken which has enabled the Government to steer a course of economic stability. The challenge now is to lock in that stability and--by pressing ahead with our economic reforms to promote enterprise and fairness--secure rising living standards for all.

During the past year, inflation has remained around or at our target, and expectations of inflation 10 years on are now at 2.5 per cent compared with 4.3 per cent when the Government came to power. Having come this far, we will not relax our discipline. The PBR is based on meeting the inflation target of 2.5 per cent per year, not just this year, but next year, and the year after that.

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At the time of the last Budget, there were predictions of recession from experts and others, including the Opposition, with the Government forecasting much stronger growth than most independent forecasts of 1 to 1.5 per cent for 1999. But as economic prospects have brightened since March, independent forecasts for GDP growth in the UK have risen, coming closely into line with the Government's Budget forecast, making the Budget forecast among the most accurate.

The PBR forecasts GDP growth to be 1.75 per cent this year, 2.5 to 3 per cent next year and 2.25 to 2.75 per cent in 2001 and 2002--at all times consistent with meeting the inflation target. The forecasts for 2001 and 2002 are centred around the Government's neutral view of our economic prospects, based on a trend growth assumption of 2.5 per cent per year. But, taking a deliberately cautious approach which is supported by the National Audit Office, the projections for the public finances will continue to be based at the low end of the growth range at 2.25 per cent.

The Government will continue to lock in the structural improvement in the public finances they have achieved and avoid the mistakes of the past. In line with the Code for Fiscal Stability, the fiscal projections published in November 1999 in the Pre-Budget Report take into account the decision to take a more prudent and flexible Budget-by-Budget approach to the real increases on fuel and tobacco duty.

These interim projections of the public finances show that the current budget is expected to be in surplus by £9.5 billion this year. In subsequent years, the surplus is forecast to be £11 billion, £13 billion, £13 billion, £12 billion and £11 billion. Cyclically-adjusted public sector net borrowing projections show, however, that the fiscal stance is broadly unchanged from the last Budget.

Public sector net investment is set to almost double to 1 per cent of GDP by 2001 to 2002 and to reach 1.5 per cent of GDP by 2003 to 2004, beginning to address the years of neglect in public sector infrastructure. This remains consistent with a failing debt/GDP ratio. The PBR shows that public sector net debt is set to fall below 40 per cent GDP by March next year and remain below 40 per cent GDP over the economic cycle.

Based on prudent and cautious assumptions, audited by the National Audit Office, the Government are on course to balance the current budget over the cycle and meet our tough fiscal rules.

I turn to raising productivity. For too long, British investment has been too low and productivity increases too slow. This has meant that Britain's productivity performance lags behind that of other major economies. The Government have a strategy for closing this gap based on strengthening competition, promoting innovation and enterprise, improving skills, promoting investment and improving public sector productivity.

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The British economy needs high levels of invest- ment and entrepreneurship. The Government have introduced a series of measures to promote investment and enterprise. For example, we have already cut mainstream corporation tax from 33p to its lowest ever level of 30p, introduced a starting rate of small business tax at 10 pence in the pound and cut small business tax from 23p, and introduced first year investment incentives which are of particular help to manufacturing.

On employment, the Government want a higher percentage of men and women employed than ever before. There are 700,000 more jobs in the economy than in 1997 and unemployment is now lower than at any time in the last 20 years. The Government's priorities are to move people from welfare to work, to make work pay and to ease the transition into work. The Government announced in the Pre-Budget Report that they were extending the New Deal for the under 25s to those over 25 in every part of the country. This would include offers of work, self-employment or training, backed up by advice counselling and mentoring. The Government are also introducing a national jobs phone-line so that the employment service can continually update unemployed men and women about new vacancies suitable for their skills and will be enhancing the New Deal for lone parents by inviting parents with children from the age of three to participate.

The Government are continuing to reform the tax and benefit system to make work pay. The new 10p rate, combined with the working families' tax credit increases, means a minimum income guarantee of £200 a week for a family with a full-time earner. No working family with earnings of less than £235 a week--that is about £12,000 a year--will pay net income tax from October 1999.

In order to build a stronger economic future, society needs to invest in today's children and give a better deal to families. The Government are pursuing an extensive programme to tackle the causes of poverty, especially child poverty, which they wish to halve by the end of the next decade and eliminate within 20 years.

The Government have already supported children through the largest ever increases in child benefit to £15 a week for the first child and £10 a week for subsequent children. Targeted increases have also been made to allowances in income support and the new working families' tax credit and, from April 2001, the new children's tax credit, which replaced the married couple's allowance.

As a result of measures introduced in the last two Budgets, seven million families will be on average £740 a year better off and 800,000 children will be lifted out of poverty. The Government are also meeting their manifesto pledge that pensioners should share fairly in the nation's prosperity with a £100 winter fuel allowance this year. Over three million households will benefit from free TV licences for pensioners over 75 years old.

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The Government are committed to meeting their environmental objectives and will continue to explore the scope for using the tax system to meet their environmental objectives, building on the significant progress already made. The Pre-Budget Report announced further details of the new climate change levy, which will encourage energy efficiency in business and help to meet the United Kingdom's legally binding Kyoto targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The Government have reviewed the way that any increases in fuel duty are determined, and the Chancellor has decided that the appropriate level of fuel duties will be set on a Budget-by-Budget basis, taking into account the Government's economic, social and environmental objectives. Revenues from any increases in fuel duties, over and above inflation, will in future go straight to a ring-fenced fund for improving public transport and modernising the road network.

This Government are building a stronger economic future for Britain. This will give a better deal for the people of Britain; it will help us to meet our objectives of high and stable levels of growth and employment and to achieve a fairer society for all. These are the right economic policies for Britain. They are also in line with the objectives of the European Union. Approving this Motion tonight will enable the United Kingdom to meet its treaty obligations, to provide information and to participate fully in the important process of multilateral surveillance and economic co-operation, as provided for in Articles 99 and 104 of the treaty. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House approves the Government's assessment as set out in the Financial Statement and Budget Report 1999-2000, the Economic and Fiscal Strategy Report 1999-2000, and the Pre-Budget Report 1999 for the purposes of Section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993.--(Lord McIntosh of Haringey.)

7.53 p.m.

Lord Newby: My Lords, this is an essentially pointless debate. We are being called upon to approve documents which were dealt with in some cases many months ago and which, in some cases at least, have already led to legislation in the shape of this year's Finance Bill. We are now asked to approve them. I had a mischievous thought earlier in the day of sidling up to the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, and suggesting that we should spring an ambush on the Government and "disapprove" the Motion, just to see what happened. Looking at the numbers in your Lordships' House, perhaps it is not too late to contemplate that even now.

Frankly, there would be no purpose in doing that but it illustrates the futility of this exercise. The Motion does not even present a sensible basis for a broad economic debate, as we see from the number of noble Lords who are now in the Chamber. This typifies, I think, the problems that we have in this House in discussing economic and fiscal matters. Last year, for example, when we were going through the same process, one of these documents was considered

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in April; the other was considered in July and, exactly on the following day, we had virtually a replica debate on the Finance Bill. I would like to begin with a plea, therefore, that the House should give further consideration to the way in which we discuss in future economic, financial and fiscal affairs.

I have three suggestions to make. First, given that there is a legal requirement for this House to approve these documents, would it not be more sensible to combine approval of them with a more general economic debate at a time of the week and the year when we are more likely to get a sensible number of noble Lords wishing to participate?

Secondly, as my noble colleague Lord Jacobs suggested at Question Time earlier this week, would it not be sensible to discuss the Finance Bill at an earlier stage than at a time when it has gone through all its stages in the other place and we are about to break up for the summer? Again, at present it is not subject to serious consideration in a House which has among its Members many noble Lords who have wide experience of the issues raised by the Bill.

Thirdly, I wish to refer to another proposal, which has come in the past from noble Lords on all sides of the Chamber: would it not be worth considering having each year a separate taxes management Act, which could look at the technical nature of the Budget and separate out from it those matters requiring detailed technical scrutiny as compared simply to tax rates, which are properly and understandably a priority and responsibility of another place? Those are preliminary thoughts on the Motion before us this evening, but I believe that we need to give more urgency to the issues that lie behind it.

As to the substance of these documents, the truth is that the economy is doing pretty well--better, if I may say so, than I and my colleagues on this side of the House would have thought a year ago. There are a number of reasons for this. Some of them are of the Government's doing; some of them are not. Some of them, arguably, are the result of the previous government's actions. Suddenly, the adoption of the golden rule and the creation of an independent Bank of England has laid a framework for stability in the way that we conduct these affairs which has been sadly lacking in the past.

Equally, if the Government are to claim credit, as they will and should, for those matters, then matters across the Atlantic have arguably had at least as beneficial an effect upon our economy as any specific proactive activity by the Government. The strength of the American economy continues to surprise the world and, for our sake as well as the Americans', long may that continue.

The big remaining macro-economic question on which there is considerable dispute and on which the Government sound a less than clarion note, relates to the exchange rate and the related issue of British membership of EMU. Our view remains that Britain loses out by not being a member of the euro zone and

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that we now need leadership from the Government on this issue. As to the exchange rate, clearly there is no current proactive Government policy. The rate fluctuates as the markets dictate.

We understand only too well the difficulties of attempting to control the exchange rate, but we believe that if we were committed to a timetable for a referendum on joining the euro it would be possible for the Government, some months before any referendum was due to take place, to indicate the level at which they thought it appropriate for sterling to join. We believe there is a very good chance that the markets would give effect in large measure to the wish of the Government in that respect.

The effect of the strength of the economy on public finances is of course extremely strong. We have talked for a significant amount of time about the "war chest" which the Government have been gathering, and what should be done with it. It will come as no surprise to your Lordships that we on this side of the House believe that priority should not be given to further tax cuts. Instead, further consideration should be given to making good deficits in expenditure on the principal areas of health, education and transport. On all these matters the Government are now spending significantly more than in the past and they plan to continue to do so. In our view, this is often too little too late.

Their track record in the first half of this Parliament would have done credit to Philip Snowden, and their loosening of the purse strings now is being done as a result of an even greater problem of under-investment than the one which they inherited.

Your Lordships will be relieved to know that I do not propose to detain the House further. I simply hope that by the time we come to discuss these matters further we will be doing so within a more sensible framework for considering economic matters more generally in this House.

7.58 p.m.

Lord Saatchi: My Lords, let me first thank the Minister for his very clear opening remarks. Then may I particularly support the three proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Newby, which reflect on the fact that the House has changed and that it may be time to look again at some of the conventions that have previously applied to the way in which the House looks at financial and economic matters.

I should like nothing more than to be able to accommodate the noble Lord by saying right away that we approve the Government's assessment of the economy as set out in these three documents. He can reasonably have had every expectation that this would indeed be our position, as I gather that this debate has in the past been regarded as a formality.

I am sorry to say that on this occasion we take a different view. It is not a formality: it is at the root of one of the fundamental problems of our society, which is cynicism about politics and politicians. That is not because politicians famously make promises which

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they do not keep. To fail is human. It is because politicians who self-evidently have not kept promises sometimes claim that they have, and always seem able to present statistics to support their claim. People find that practice quite irritating. That undisciplined use of statistics presumably is how politicians the world over gained a reputation for manipulating figures to avoid too close a comparison between the promise and the outcome.

There is an uncomfortable comparison to be drawn here with what happens in the private sector. Over the years, the accounting profession has made strenuous efforts to make company accounts more consistent and reliable so that management can be objectively called to account for raising expectations beyond what it can deliver. Thus, various aspects of so-called "creative accounting" steadily have been eliminated. Differential treatments of good will, reorganisation provisions, different merger accounting procedures, exceptional items and extraordinary items have all been addressed and standardised in a search for a more transparent presentation of company accounts which can be relied on by investors, staff and shareholders.

With the best will in the world, it is hard to say that we should be proud to send those three documents to our European partners as ambassadors for Britain. On the contrary, I have to tell the Minister--and the noble Lord, Lord Newby, may be particularly interested in this in light of his remarks earlier--that we have given serious consideration to voting against the dispatch of these documents to Brussels. It would be fair for me to give notice that we may still do so in the future. However, I hope that the Government feel able to give a sympathetic hearing to some of the issues that I shall raise.

I had planned to set out three reasons for dissatisfaction with the government accounts, and then suggest how we may yet find a way to avoid a party political disagreement on this in the future. First, the accounts format is too complicated. The Government have not attached enough importance to the need for simplification. There is no intellectual merit in complexity. On the contrary, simplicity is the outcome of technical subtlety; it is the goal, not the starting point.

I believe that Winston Churchill liked to quote Mark Twain's letter to a friend, which started:

    "I wanted to write you a short letter, but I didn't have time".

Churchill understood that simplicity is all, but he also knew that to achieve it is very hard. He knew that to achieve simplicity required what Bertrand Russell called "the painful necessity of thought". That is why it took longer. This is not in any way to downplay the work of those who have toiled long and hard to compile the documents. On the contrary, they are to be congratulated on their diligence and professionalism. My complaint is addressed to Ministers for failing to see the enormous demand for much greater clarity of presentation.

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I draw your Lordships' attention to some important statements made in a recent article. First:

    "Financial reporting in the public sector is a key element in the accountability of public sector bodies".

The Minister and I would certainly agree on that, as I am sure would the noble Lord, Lord Newby. Secondly:

    "While it is recognised that financial reports should be readable and intelligible, improved reader understanding is sometimes felt by those who compile them to be a disadvantage".

I hope that that is not true. Thirdly:

    "A number of steps can be taken to help the process. For example, the report should ... minimise jargon ... have a logical structure ... [and] not be unduly distorted by"--

I draw your Lordships' attention to this--

    "public relations considerations".

The importance of those comments lies in the fact that they were made by none other than the current Chief Adviser to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Professor Likierman, on the financial reporting systems. He also said in a report:

    "Those who wish to find out what is going on are faced with major hurdles".

That will not do. Therefore, complexity is the first of the three problems which we hope the Government may want to consider in future presentation of those accounts. The second concerns the too wide scope given to the Treasury in deciding on the definitions used in compiling the accounts.

I accept that the Government's intention is to apply generally accepted accounting principles to public accounts. That is a splendid aim, shared by all, to give the public sector a proper balance sheet and proper accounts. But how seriously can we take that when the Government's new Bill on public accounting methods, just introduced, tells us in Clause 5(2) that accounts under subsection (1):

    "shall be prepared in accordance with directions issued by"--

yes, you have guessed it--

    "the Treasury"?

Then, when it comes to the so-called "whole of Government" accounts described in Clause 10(2), we are told:

    "The accounts shall--

    (a) contain such information in such form as the Treasury thinks fit, and

    (b) be designed to conform to generally accepted accounting practice subject to"--

our old friend--

    "such adaptations as are necessary",

as determined by, yes, the Treasury.

Perhaps I may draw your Lordships' attention to one particular example of what I am driving at. I refer to the working families tax credit. That is at the root of the arguments about the UK tax burden with which the Minister and I have tried the patience of your Lordships' House on many occasions. These accounts clearly show that the Government attempted to reduce public spending levels by up to £5 billion per annum by treating the working families' tax credit as part of the income tax system and not as social security

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expenditure. The system which the working families' tax credit replaced--family credit--was classified as DSS expenditure.

The change in treatment of this one item alone accounts for a miraculous reduction in the burden of tax in Britain of 0.5 per cent in both 2000-01 and 2001-02. That inconsistent treatment is not a generally accepted accounting principle. It is a generally atrocious accounting practice.

Some of your Lordships who are here this evening may believe that this is all just special pleading and that the Conservative Party was just as manipulative in office, as all politicians are thought likely to be. However, I am rescued from that charge by an interview on "The World at One" on 16th November given by Sir Peter Kemp, previously the most senior civil servant in the Treasury. He was asked straight out if one could trust the figures given by this Government less than one could those of previous governments. He replied:

    "Yes. I won't say there weren't the odd heresies in the past, but I think there were fewer of them".

On the working families' tax credit itself, one of the chief statisticians at the OECD, Filip de Kan, has said:

    "We have had clear guidelines on how we treat tax credits since the 1970s. If the tax credit is given to a family that does not pay any tax because it is a low income family, we treat this tax credit as a social expenditure".

The heart of the problem is that the presentation of these documents allows too many hiding places in the presentation of tax. For example, in the Treasury document on this year's Budget, changes to income tax rates--the 10p starting rate and the new 22p band--are dealt with in two lines, whereas another 62 lines are taken to describe changes to a mass of complicated allowances, reliefs and exemptions.

Thus, the documents which we are considering tonight have given the Chancellor of the Exchequer the ability to increase tax without ever announcing a tax increase, and they have given the Government the means to implement what it no doubt thought was the brilliant strategy of cutting visible taxes on voters while raising invisible taxes elsewhere. It was precisely that practice which led the Treasury Select Committee to ask the Government to display greater transparency in the presentation of tax statistics so that the Government could not hide from the political consequences of their tax actions.

This week the Government published a White Paper encouragingly entitled, Building Trust in Statistics. This has already been criticised by the Royal Statistical Society for failing to deliver Labour's manifesto promise of a fully independent statistics service. The Royal Statistical Society finds it:

    "strange that a continuation of the loose legislative position is considered acceptable".

It strikes at the heart of a representative democracy if the public get the idea that they cannot trust the figures produced by their own government, especially perhaps if that concerns what is happening to their own money in taxation. The public is entitled to expect

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a cross-party consensus on this matter, and I believe that none of the parties should stand in the way of achieving that.

Therefore, my first two points--lack of simplicity and lack of consistency--would lose their power were it not for the fact (this is my final point) that the new Government Resources and Accounts Bill will not, in its present form, solve the two problems I have described. That is why in another place we have tabled a reasoned amendment to the Bill. It is true that the Bill seeks to apply to the public finances generally accepted accounting principles that currently apply to the private sector. That is welcome. The Bill speeds up the process already under way to replace the historic and outdated cash accounting system with a resource accounting system that more accurately reflects the true nature of income, expenditure, assets and liabilities. That is welcome, too. But while we support the principle of resource accounting and other measures which improve the authenticity, transparency and accountability of the public accounts--and I must briefly remind your Lordships that it was the previous Conservative government who began the process of changing to resource accounting--we believe that the Bill is deficient.

Our main area of anxiety is not the parts which are included within resource accounting but those parts which are not. There are vast areas of government income and expenditure to which resource accounting apparently will not apply. It is arguable that those include such significant sums that it negates the whole point of resource accounting in facilitating a clearer set of government accounts.

For example, much of the country's expenditure on schools, hospitals and roads seems to be excluded, as are the public sector's liabilities for future state pension payments, as well as such trivial items as all of taxation and national insurance.

The Bill gives the Treasury carte blanche to include or exclude items in the accounts as it sees fit and there is nothing in the Bill to prevent actions such as the reclassification of the working families' tax credit from benefit expenditure to tax reduction.

Company accounts in the private sector have the great advantage of consistency and relative simplicity. The combination of those two advantages means that people who are skilled with such accounts and the notes accompanying them, because they are composed by independent auditors under standards of accounting practice, are able to find out what is really happening. Because the new Bill contains no such provisions in the public sector, there will still be no such ability in the public accounts.

I have raised three complaints this evening but perhaps I may end on a constructive note. We wish to bind ourselves with the Government once and for all, arm in arm, for all to see, to produce a clear, complete and comprehensible set of public accounts. That is democratically proper and a matter of what my right honourable friend William Hague would call common sense.

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As proof of our serious purpose, we have asked Sir Bryan Carsberg--the chairman of the International Accounting Standards Committee and one of Britain's most distinguished accountants--to head a new shadow accounts commission. It will set out standards of national accounting practice, clear definitions and clear systems of presentation which mirror the statements of standard accounting practice in the private sector so that no future Chancellor--Labour or Conservative--will ever have the temptation or the opportunity to misrepresent the accounts and mislead the public. If we could achieve that together, I believe that that would be one of the great advances in the evolution of fair, open and accountable government in this country.

I opened with a mild threat, so let me end with a firm promise. We shall support the Government entirely if they will accept that offer: take our shadow accounts commission; set it up as an independent body; imbue it with the authority of cross-party consensus; and thus let the world see that at least in that basic area we can co-operate to end the lamentable lack of trust in politicians and start to restore faith in data on which our Parliament and our country rely.

8.12 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, we have heard two splendid speeches, both of which deserved a much wider audience than they have achieved, unless the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, is going to publish his as a pamphlet. I rather think he is, based on past experience, and it will be very interesting to see it. I enjoyed enormously the one about levels of taxation and I shall enjoy reading his remarks at leisure, other than in Hansard.

I have a great deal of sympathy with both noble Lords who criticised the way in which we debate economic matters in this House. It certainly is true that we tend to have debates on serious subjects late at night, with very few people around, which are triggered by such mechanisms as the Section 5 requirement which do not seem to attract the notice of a very large number of noble Lords who have serious and important contributions to make on those subjects.

When we were in opposition we overcame that by giving a day of opposition time--Wednesday debate day--several years running immediately after the Budget to a debate on the Budget and economic policy generally. We had a five-hour debate with a very good range of speakers. I commend that to the usual channels opposite as a way of achieving a better debate than we have achieved at present. That would certainly meet the requirement of the noble Lord, Lord Newby, that we should be able to deal with important documents in prime time.

I am much less sympathetic to the idea of debating the Finance Bill concurrently with the House of Commons. Not only would that be very much in conflict with the Parliament Act 1911--and I hope we are not going back on that--but also, what would we be debating? We should be debating the Finance Bill as

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presented to Committee before the hundreds, or even thousands, of amendments are inserted into it. We should be debating something that was constantly in flux and we should not be able to take any sensible decisions nor make any sensible recommendations.

There are no easy solutions to concurrent debate of the Finance Bill. Certainly there are huge calendar objections to consecutive debate. The Finance Bill does not come out of the Commons until late in July. It must be enacted, for taxation purposes, very soon after that. I am sure that we do not want to repeat the debates which took place on Lloyd George's people's Budget of 1909. I am sure that I need not remind the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, of this, but that was the year in which the House of Commons sat all night, every night, right the way through August and September. Cabinet Ministers took turns to sit up all night for those debates. I do not think that that would be very acceptable to government or opposition in either House. If we are to have better debate on economic, fiscal and financial matters, as the noble Lord, Lord Newby, wants, it will have to be in a form other than a debate on the Finance Bill. We could, of course, as he asks, have a debate on the technical aspects of taxation, but that again is something which the usual channels should support. But I suspect that, on past experience, it would be more likely to be in opposition time--certainly in the summer--than in government time.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Newby, for his comments on the substantive issues. He is right to say that there are influences other than the remarkable success of this Government's policies. Of course, we live in a global economy and in an economy which has developed from previous years. That is always the case. But was it Napoleon who said that the one requirement he had of his marshals was to be lucky? Even if it were only that we were lucky--and I do not accept that--that is a good qualification for a Chancellor as well.

I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Newby, says about exchange rates. I do not think it is possible for us to set the Bank of England exchange rate targets in addition to price stability targets. That means that there is a certain degree to which the timing of decisions about entering EMU are still imponderable because, clearly, the right exchange rate is one of the elements that we shall have to consider.

The noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, made the same points about debating time. I return the challenge to him, as I did to the noble Lord, Lord Newby. But he made some very interesting points, to which I am quite sympathetic, about statistics. I do not know whether he heard the "Today" programme this morning when exactly that issue was debated. A professor of social statistics was commenting on what is undoubtedly the case that when we talk about economic statistics or any kind of statistics--and I earned my living from figures for 40 years--we tend to talk at cross purposes because we have different definitions.

He accused our accounts format of being too complicated and inconsistent. He has spent time with figures, as I have. There is no absolute God-given best

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way in which statistics can be produced for all purposes. The Government produce statistics for one purpose. We have given the Office for National Statistics sufficient independence that it produces the national accounts on the basis that the Office for National Statistics itself determines and which is itself consistent with European statistics.

In the Red Book and in the pre-Budget report we make sure that the assumptions we use and the national accounts basis from the ONS can be compared and that calculations can be made to see what the differences are; and we make sure that we understand those differences. That is transparency. It may not be consistency, but it is transparency and it is better than what has gone before.

I accept the criticism that these documents are too long. I accept that they are too complicated. Every time we try to cut something out of them someone protests and says, "Oh, well, you gave these figures last year so there must be some sinister motive in depriving us of them this year". It is not as easy as the noble Lord believes. He and I would like to believe, as we would in business, that if there is a problem of definition or a problem of objectives one simply has to put the decision-makers around the table, lock the door and

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not let them out until they have reached a conclusion. Politics is not like that. It will be a continual battle. We shall never reach agreement because of the wide variety of purposes for which statistics have to be used and not because we choose to conceal the facts.

On many of these matters I look forward to debating the issues with the noble Lord at great length--at moderate length anyway--when we consider the Government Resources and Accounts Bill which he has "pre-launched" from the Opposition Dispatch Box this evening. The Bill is complicated. I do not know in what form it will come to us after Commons consideration. But we shall have plenty of opportunity to consider it then.

The offer from an opposition to bind itself, with government, to a set of principles is an offer that always comes from oppositions and never from governments. I recall similar temptations myself. I have actually seen it happen with legislation in the United States. However high and admirable the motives and however good much of the argument may be, it does not work. I am grateful to noble Lords for what they have said.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

        House adjourned at twenty-three minutes past eight o'clock.

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