Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Before I get into the meat of the Bill, I want to take an approach slightly different from that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), by looking at the first report of the Joint Committee. That report is quite revealing--perhaps more so than the participants might have wished. It began, helpfully, by stating the declaration of interest of those involved. We were led to believe that the Joint Committee of both Houses would be a useful exercise, and that it would carry out substantial work on our behalf expertly and eruditely. My heart rose somewhat when I read not only that, mercifully, several of its members had considerable involvement in the real world, but that a number of them had already been involved up to their armpits in the whole tax law rewrite venture.

In considering the value of the work that has been done, our first judgment must be whether we believe that the fact that the Committee was substantially populated by people who had already been involved in the exercise was a plus, in the sense that their expertise or experience were being brought to bear on the matter, or a minus, because they were already so committed to the project that they would be unable or unlikely to bring an impartial and fresh eye to their work on the Committee. We should at least pause to consider that question. The report notes that three of the Committee members, Lords Brightman, Goodhart and Howe, had previously been involved in the tax law rewrite exercise, so presumably they could not reasonably be expected to bring a fresh mind to bear on the matter.

Whether Members of this House were able to do that is another matter. The Paymaster General has an honourable and proper position--albeit hardly impartial--on the subject. It would appear that my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) was rather isolated in his desire to bring a fresh mind to the matter--or, indeed, to introduce anyone else with a fresh mind. He seems largely to have been denied in that endeavour, which must heighten our suspicions.

All that is bad enough. However, we might have thought that if the Committee was to do any substantial work, it might have made some alteration to the documentation that it was offered. I read the proceedings of the Committee to try get into the minds of its members--to understand their approach to the matter. During its proceedings on 31 January 2000, the Chairman said:

He was commendably honest, as ever--as we expect our Chairmen to be. He continued:

Straight away, a glimmer of suspicion enters my mind: what on earth is the point of the Joint Committee sitting if, right at the beginning of its meeting, the Chairman says that he would be very surprised if they could amend the Bill? If the Committee is taking that position, under the guidance of its Chairman, at the outset, why have we asked it to undertake that work on our behalf?

The Chairman then went on to talk about how difficult it would be to make amendments, saying:

13 Feb 2001 : Column 279

I begin to wonder whether there was a suggestion that if the Committee decided that it needed to amend the Bill, it might have had to return to the Floor of the House, where we might have had an opportunity to consider it further in a substantial way. I therefore wonder whether the Committee had a wholehearted commitment to give the Bill proper scrutiny, and whether it had the freedom to amend it if it felt constrained in that way from the start.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke: It is most untypical of my right hon. Friend to be deficient in his reading or to misquote in quite that way. The point of the words that he quotes was that I would have been surprised if the Committee could amend the Bill without the amendment going back to the Floor of the House. I was expressing the opinion that nothing could be done to change the Bill in Committee that would avoid debate on the Floor of the House. He suggests that I was arguing that we could not amend the Bill at all, which, as I am sure he will agree, must be an entirely accidental misreading of the purport of my remarks.

Mr. Forth: I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for helping me, but the thrust of what is said later in that paragraph at the very least gives the impression that the Committee would want to avoid doing anything that would cause the Bill to return to the Floor of the House.

Mr. Clarke: I strongly dispute that interpretation; the opposite point was plainly being made.

Mr. Forth: I am delighted to hear that confirmation, because it shows that the Committee felt entirely free to make any amendment that it thought necessary, but that it did not think it necessary to make any. So we obviously need to probe much further to find out why that was the case.

Mr. Clarke: At last we reach agreement, but for the avoidance of doubt, I should say that the Committee felt perfectly free to make any amendment that it wished; we insisted that we were entitled to do so. We were clear that any amendment that we made would have to be debated on the Floor of the House, which could revise it. After considered discussion, we concluded that we wished to make no amendment.

Mr. Forth: That is extremely reassuring. We have been told over and over again that 66 allegedly minor changes--I shall return to the word "minor" later--had been identified, so we might have expected the Committee to have spent some time considering them.

Mr. Hogg: Does my right hon. Friend accept, moreover, that the consequence of the decision not to amend the Bill in Committee is that only four Members of this House had the opportunity to consider it in detail? The absence of amendments means that the House did not debate the Bill on Report.

Mr. Forth: That is the case.

13 Feb 2001 : Column 280

Perhaps my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe can help me on another matter. On page 47, he is reported as having said:

On a simple reading, without understanding the subtleties of thought involved in the Committee's deliberations, that again suggests that the Committee set out with the determination not make any amendments.

Mr. Clarke: With respect, my right hon. Friend would agree that a simple and careful reading would reveal that the remark he quotes relates to amendments on the particular topic then being raised by Lord Brightman. There was no inhibition about proposing other amendments. The fact is that no member of the Committee was in favour of any amendment, and no outside body suggested any amendment to us; nor, so far as I am aware, has any hon. Member done so during the years of consultation that took place to produce the Bill.

Mr. Forth: My right hon. and learned Friend is fond of saying that, but surely this is the point at which the House would have had an opportunity to consider the matter properly, but for the fact that the Joint Committee chose not to make any amendment so that, procedurally, the Bill could zip through without touching the sides, to confront us now, when the House has no chance to make any amendment.

Mr. Clarke: My right hon. Friend and I are great reactionaries concerning the procedures of the House, which shows that we are jealous of its privileges. Surely he will concede that we never debate any Bill on Report if the Standing Committee that considered it made no amendment.

Mr. Forth: Exactly, and we find ourselves in an invidious position. My right hon. and learned Friend may be aware that I argued against the Joint Committee, and my suspicions are being fully confirmed. It has seen fit to make no amendment to such a large Bill, and that has denied Members who were not on it the opportunity to have an input.

Mr. Hogg: Does my right hon. Friend remember that the House approved a Government motion to discharge the Committee of the whole House from considering the Bill? If that had not been approved, presumably the Bill would still be in the charge of a Committee of the whole House and, in theory, amendments could be made.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Sylvia Heal): Order. The right hon. and learned Gentleman should not be discussing procedure.

Mr. Forth: I am delighted by your nudge, Madam Deputy Speaker. Having got rid of the little preliminaries, I can get on to the meat of the Bill.

The problem with the project is that it is all smoke and mirrors. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham hinted at that. My brief perusal of the Bill has confirmed my suspicion that we have not got very far.

Next Section

IndexHome Page