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Finance Bill (Programme)

10.14 pm

The Paymaster General: I beg to move,


    (3) If either of those allotted days is Thursday, the times specified for that allotted day in the third column of the Table are brought forward by three hours.

    (4) On the first of those allotted days, paragraph (1) of Standing Order No. 15 (Exempted business) shall, notwithstanding sub-paragraph (a) of that paragraph, apply to the proceedings on the Bill for only two hours after ten o'clock or, if that day is Thursday, for only two hours after seven o'clock.

    (5) On that allotted day, any period during which proceedings on the Bill may be proceeded with after ten o'clock (or, if that day is Thursday, seven o'clock) by virtue of paragraph (4) or (5) of Sessional Order I (provision in the event of a debate under Standing Order No. 24) made by the House of 7th November 2000 shall be in addition to that period of two hours.

    (6) Sessional Order B (Programming Committees) made by the House on 7th November 2000 shall not apply to proceedings in Committee of the whole House.

    (7) An allotted day is one on which the Bill is put down as first Government Order of the day.

    3.--(1) The Standing Committee shall have leave to sit twice on the first day on which it shall meet.

    (2) Proceedings in the Standing Committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion on Thursday 24th May 2001.

    4. When the provisions of the Bill considered, respectively, by the Committee of the whole House and by the Standing Committee have been reported to the House, the Bill shall be proceeded with as if it had been reported as a whole to the House from the Standing Committee.

The motion sets out the allocation of the various clauses and schedules of the Finance Bill between the Committee of the whole House and the Standing Committee.

The motion also sets out the timetable for the clauses and schedules to be debated in the Committee of the whole House. On the first day, it will discuss clauses and

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schedules on the aggregates levy, and on the second day it will consider clauses and schedules on hydrocarbon oil duties and income tax.

There is a lot of business to get through on the first day, so the motion provides for a midnight finish. On the second day, there will be fewer clauses and schedules, so it provides for the normal 10 o'clock finish. It also specifies that the proceedings of the Standing Committee shall be completed by Thursday 24 May, which will allow for a total maximum of 18 Standing Committee sittings.

10.15 pm

Mr. Letwin: The programme motion has two deficiencies: it is the wrong motion, and it is wrong to have it in the first place: otherwise, it is perfect.

What is wrong with the motion? I do not quite know the answer. I do not know what error the Whips fell into, but I know what the whole process illustrates. The Paymaster General and I had a conversation some time ago in which she properly and generously offered to allow us to debate what we wanted in the Committee of the whole House. We wanted to debate the items that I described on Second Reading.

Had there not been this barbaric and unusual practice of introducing programme motions, which have never before been imposed on a Finance Bill, there would have been no problem, because there would have been agreement through the usual channels. Even Treasury Ministers, in an honest moment, will accept that, during the entire proceedings on last year's Finance Bill we never once sought to filibuster or prolong proceedings unnecessarily. We treated the Bill seriously and helped constructively to improve various parts of it. Of course we had arguments with the Government, but we never sought to create unnecessary delay.

This year, simply because the Government are wedded to programme motions, they are curtailing debate on the Finance Bill. That is shown by the fact that it has proved impossible to come up with the right kind of programme motion, because the new clauses for which time in the first day in Committee of the whole House should have been allocated--I hope that it will be allocated in a subsequent motion tomorrow--could not have been tabled at the time when the motion was constructed, because it is a rule of the House that one cannot table amendments or new clauses before the completion of Second Reading. There was a structural inability to produce a programme motion to allow the debate that is by convention allowed on the Floor of the House on matters of concern to the Opposition.

A Finance Bill is the centrepiece of our democratic system--the Gladstonian system of control--and if we cannot debate on the Floor of the House what the Opposition consider to be essential propositions related to it, we are very close to the end of parliamentary democracy. I do not say that the Government intended that result, but they brought it about through their dogmatic adherence to programme motions and their inability, or that of their business managers, to recognise that if one tries to draft such a motion in the absence of the new clauses, because under the rules of the House they could not be tabled, one will end up with the wrong debate on the wrong subject, which is what has happened.

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The problem goes wider and relates to the very idea of programme motions. The problem is not, with the exception that I have outlined, that the substance of the motion is obnoxious--Thursday 24 May is a reasonable date--but that there is something wrong altogether with the idea that there should be imposed on Parliament a time limit for debate on matters that are necessarily complex. I admit that, on this year's Finance Bill, because there is not so much material and the matters are not so contentious, it is unlikely that our debate would have extended beyond 24 May.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): My hon. Friend made the point that these are very technical matters. He will get representations from the accountancy profession and others on the content of the Bill. That being so, does he agree that we do not and cannot know whether 24 May is, or is not, an appropriate end date?

Mr. Letwin: I was coming to that precise point. The Bill is relatively uncontroversial, with the exception of the aggregates tax in its current form, but it involves complex and technical matters, so we cannot know how the debate will carry us as we proceed. However, last year's Finance Bill, which may be a precursor of next year's Finance Bill and other future Finance Bills, was 500 pages long and dealt with immensely complex matters. On that evidence, no one can be expected to make even a reasonable guess at the right date.

We are establishing a precedent for successive attempts by the Government to guess the right date for the end of debate on a Finance Bill that, as I said, is an attack on something that is fundamental to the nature of our democracy. I do not know what, if anything, still makes the House of Commons important; perhaps Ministers regard it as wholly unimportant. However, if it has any importance, the scrutiny of Finance Bills is at the centre of that importance. The power of the House to give the Government money to spend confers on the House such power as it possesses over other matters. Had it not established the right to control taxation some centuries ago, it would not have established the power over the Executive that it then developed.

By any account, a Finance Bill is at the centre of our democracy. An attempt to guess in advance how long it will take to cash out the details of what is often an immensely complicated piece of legislation is an attempt to stifle to debate. Conservative Members will have nothing to do with that. As a result of dogmatic adherence to the idea of programme motions, the Government have managed to come up with what is, even by their own standards, the wrong programme motion. I shall therefore urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to oppose it.

10.22 pm

Mr. Edward Davey: Liberal Democrat Members support the argument of the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin). In many debates on programme motions, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) has expressed our principled opposition to such motions, but tonight our arguments involve both the principle and the substance of the motion on the Order Paper. As the hon. Member for West Dorset said, Opposition Front Bench spokesmen were contacted by Ministers, who asked courteously what we wished to

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debate in the Committee of the whole House. Liberal Democrat Members made it clear that they wished to table new clauses and to debate issues, especially in relation to foot and mouth. We wished to make sure that such issues were debated in a Committee of the whole House because they are important. Foot and mouth is not a minor matter; it affects the whole country, not just rural areas, as I made clear in my speech on Second Reading.

Both Opposition parties feel strongly about that important matter, and we should be able to debate a new clause on how to reduce the tax burden on industries hit by foot and mouth. That is our main concern about the substance of the motion: it does not enable the Committee of the whole House to debate new clauses that could relieve the tax burden confronting sectors hit by foot and mouth. I anticipate that, in replying to the debate, the Paymaster General will say that there is no precedent for debating new clauses in a Committee of the whole House. However, given the grave crisis before us, I submit that we should set a precedent. What is wrong in principle with a Committee of the whole House debating a new clause to the Finance Bill? There is nothing wrong with that. It is disgraceful for Treasury Ministers to dismiss that notion as outrageous.

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