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Sir Teddy Taylor: Neither the Government Whips nor the Opposition Whips would appoint anyone to a Committee unless they had special qualifications. Is my right hon. and learned Friend suggesting that Government and Opposition Whips send any old rubbish up to the Committee? Of course, they do not.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I should point out to the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) and other right hon. and hon. Members that we are now straying well away from the motion.
I have asked the Minister three questions, which I hope he will answer. I merely want to establish whether this is simply a bit of fun--an irrelevant nonsense. Is it just a case of our having to send some documents to those in Europe--and if they do not like what we send, too bad--or is it serious business? If it is serious business, some of us would like it to come to the House of Commons, so that we can look at it carefully. If, on the other hand, this is simply something that we have to do, and we are going to send something that is not too accurate without including--as we are meant to--comparisons with other member states, some of us would like to know that.
I have been asking such questions for a long time. The Minister was very helpful in saying that he would ensure that the House of Commons Library had a copy of what the Government sent to the Commission, but I want him to answer my questions. I want to know--I have tried to find it out from Ministers responsible for Europe before, in the present and the last Government--whether this is serious business, or simply something we have to do that does not matter too much.
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): I do not want to detain the House for long, but I think it important to discuss whether these matters should be considered on the Floor of the House, or treated as delegated legislation and discussed by a Committee with just a few members. While I accept that any Member of the House would be entitled to speak, a Committee debate would take place away from public view, and would not have the prominence that would be given to a debate on the Floor of the House.
I enjoyed one or two benefits as a result of sitting out the last Parliament and resting between engagements. I did not have to vote on the Maastricht treaty, and on legislation similar to what we are discussing now. That was one of the pleasures of not being in the last Parliament. I will say that, had I been here, I would unquestionably have voted against the Maastricht treaty. I abstained when the Prime Minister came back from Maastricht in December 1991, but as I was then parliamentary private secretary to my right hon. and noble Friend Lady Thatcher, I was obliged by convention not to vote against a matter of important Government policy. However, I did not have to vote for that legislation--the motion arises from the obligations assumed by the United Kingdom as a result of the Maastricht treaty.
I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) was a smidgen uncharitable to the Minister, who treats the House with courtesy and tries to explain as much as possible to enable the House to reach a judgment. However, on this occasion the Minister has not explained--as I hope he will a little more--about the information that is required under article 103(3) of the treaty establishing the European Community.
Mr. Bercow: Am I not right in thinking that that point was clearly established towards the fag end of the previous Parliament, when my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) was subjected to scrutiny on the point?
The Government seem to be saying that, instead of drawing up new information and an entirely separate document, in which we set out the information that is required under article 103(3) or under section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993, we have a number of documents that are readily available for public scrutiny, not to mention scrutiny by right hon. and hon. Members, including this year's Budget document.
The advertising slogans on Government documents are a bit rich at public expense. One example is "Prudent for a Purpose: Working for a Stronger and Fairer Britain", which is a bit nauseating. It is the Red Book, even though it is white--I refer to the Budget 2000 statement. Another example is the pre-Budget report, which was published last month. I have not studied that. I accept that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would not wish me to study it tonight, or to acquaint the House with the results of my studies. Nevertheless, from some of the complicated pages on public finances in the pre-Budget report, it would seem that, certainly for the coming year, the Government are unlikely to run the risk of falling foul of the requirements in relation to the national budget deficit and our obligations under the Maastricht treaty to maintain the deficit within certain limits.
There could, however, come a time when the picture looked less rosy. After all, the Government have had the great benefit of inheriting a magnificently well-founded economy. My right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) left the economy in such a splendid state that even this lot have been unable to muck it up as yet.
Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend will recall the Minister saying that the Government expect the matter to be dealt with in an hour and a half--no more than that--in a Committee. Presumably, some of that time will be taken up by the Minister, if a Minister bothers to attend the Committee. Does my hon. Friend agree that an hour and a half is enough time for the entirety of the House of Commons and all its Members to consider properly the matters that he is describing?
Ministers should not allow other Labour Members weeks away from the House to fiddle around in their constituencies, clearing blocked drains for their constituents. That is not why we were sent to this place. We have been sent here to try to scrutinise complex documents, ensure that we look after the overall national interest and hold the Government to account for their actions on these very substantial matters.
I regret that a feature particularly of Liberal Democrat politics--because they do not have a view on most of the big issues--is to judge hon. Members partly on the basis of how well they address those parish pump issues, whereas what we should be doing is to spend time in the House addressing the big issues.