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Mr. Letwin: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be difficult for the Government to use that argument in any event, because there certainly is precedent--from last year and many other years--for debating amendments? The procedure that the Government have used in this case has prevented us from debating amendments on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Davey: The hon. Gentleman is right. The Government talk about modernising the procedures of the House, yet here we have an example of where we could modernise and debate issues of key importance to our country.

I ask Ministers to state where in "Erskine May" or the Standing Orders there is a barrier preventing us from debating new clauses. If they cannot produce that barrier, could they not come back to the House tomorrow with a new motion to enable Opposition parties to table new clauses, so that we could debate the way in which we can help the struggling sectors of our economy?

10.25 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): This is yet another example of the Government riding roughshod over the House of Commons, and it is disgraceful. It is interesting that no Labour Member stood to defend the motion, which the Paymaster General moved in a most perfunctory manner. She did not attempt to justify it and merely said what we would be discussing.

This is a programme motion too far. The Finance Bill is--using the word properly--a unique part of the parliamentary calendar; this is where the House of Commons, properly, has full control. This is where the House of Commons, as my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) has said, must vote Supply, exercise its judgment and call the Government to account properly.

As my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) said in his admirable speech, last year--notwithstanding the fact that the Government have an

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enormous majority--the Finance Bill was improved as a result of rigorous scrutiny and proper debate. For the Government to deny opportunity in this way and to place a straitjacket on the House of Commons is an insult, not just to Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition and the other Opposition parties, but to the whole House of Commons.

Mr. Hogg: Does my hon. Friend accept that the Government have often relied on the other place to cure Bills in respect of which they have imposed a timetable but that, in respect of the Finance Bill, the other place is under particular inhibitions in curing errors?

Sir Patrick Cormack: Of course, and that is why I referred to the Bill as unique. The other place, quite rightly, has no control over supply. What it can say about financial matters is, by precedent and by statute, limited, as the Government know only too well. The motion is an insult to every single Member of the House of Commons. It is not just a question of rubbing the noses of the Opposition parties in it. The Government, with high-handed arrogance, are saying what we will do on particular days and in what way we will debate the clauses.

The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) made a good point when he talked about the new clauses that we would have wished to debate on foot and mouth. We are gripped by a crisis, the like of which the British countryside has not seen for a century or more, but the House of Commons has not been given a single opportunity by the Government to debate foot and mouth. The Opposition have provided two opportunities.

There is nothing in the parliamentary calender, as far as one knows from the business announced last week, to enable us to debate foot and mouth in the foreseeable future. Yet on 23 and 24 April, it would have been possible for Members with real knowledge and experience of the countryside--we are getting stories every day, some of which are immensely tragic--to debate these things. In our new clauses, we could have made suggestions on which, we hope, the Government would look sympathetically.

Ministers always talk, as the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food did this afternoon, about wanting a bipartisan approach. They want us to tackle this great crisis together, they say. We are more than willing to do so, and, to be fair, so are the Liberal Democrats. There is no opposition to acting in that way, but when the Government set us the example of this motion, what do they expect? It is disgraceful that we should be faced with such a motion.

The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton mentioned precedent. When Ministers return to the Treasury, I hope that they will reflect on the precedent that they are setting tonight. When the mantle of power passes to my party--as it undoubtedly will, either at the next general election as I devoutly hope and believe, or at some subsequent one--they will not want to be ridden over as roughshod as they are riding over us. If they have the duty of scrutinising a Finance Bill from the Opposition Benches, they will not want it to be subject to diktat from the Government of the day.

A Government with a majority as immense as that enjoyed by the present Government have an obligation even greater than that of a Government with a narrow

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majority to have regard to the niceties of parliamentary democracy. The Government have, time after time, shown scant regard--indeed, contempt--for the House of Commons. Never have they shown it more graphically than in the motion perfunctorily and embarrassingly moved by the Paymaster General this evening. I hope that every hon. Member will vote against it. I hope that Labour Members will recognise what is happening and will, at the very least, have the decency to abstain.

10.32 pm

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater): I have not before spoken on a programme motion, and I did not expect to do so tonight. As I listened, however, to the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) and the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), I was struck by the decision to curtail any opportunity to speak about the problems faced by people in our country at present. We have questions about the Treasury position, but there will be no opportunity to move any amendment or make any proposal that might help.

That announcement followed the earlier confirmation by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that there will be no statement tomorrow about the rural taskforce, the chairman of which appears to have disappeared without trace. There will be no statement on whether there will be any help beyond the inadequate measures that the Paymaster General faithfully read from her brief. She told us about the Inland Revenue, value added tax, encouraging banks to be sympathetic and the small business guaranteed loans scheme. [Interruption.] I am sorry if the Paymaster General does not know that those are the Government's proposals, but that is what she said about being helpful. She may not have known what her own proposals were, but they are in the Government advertisement that is advising people on what assistance is available.

The Chief Secretary can take some pride in having played a part in accumulating a substantial Government surplus, so he cannot plead a shortage of funds for the one-off crisis that we face. He has made a point of saying, in fact, that the Government are flush with funds, and the Chancellor certainly did not understate that case in his Budget statement. Since the Chief Secretary is here, I must tell him that it is widely believed that the Treasury is blocking matters. It has been reported, and I have it on good authority, that the chairman of the taskforce, the Minister for the Environment, was going to make a statement last week--

Mr. Speaker: Order. We are debating a programme motion, and the right hon. Gentleman is going beyond its scope.

Mr. King: I accept that, Mr. Speaker. The point that I am trying to make, however, is that the programme motion allows us no opportunity to bring before Treasury Ministers the case that must be made. We want to table amendments, for which I understand no time is provided. That complaint has been made by spokesmen on the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Front Benches and is entirely in accordance with the motion.

Why do we want additional time under the programme motion? It is because the Government are concerned about tourism; I believe that the Prime Minister is genuine

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about that. In my constituency, agriculture and tourism are closely interlinked. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) is in the Chamber, as are other hon. Members who know Exmoor and Dartmoor. Anyone who represents a rural constituency knows about the problems for businesses at present. At this time last year, a business in my constituency had a turnover of £25,000; for the comparable period this year, the amount was £9.47.

In those circumstances, it is no good telling people that they will receive a VAT refund or that the Inland Revenue will look sympathetically at their problems. It is no good telling a chap that he can have a guaranteed loan under the small business scheme when he will have to pay 8.5 per cent. and add to his borrowings and outgoings.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) made proposals in as bipartisan a way as he could and gave the Prime Minister time to consider them. Unless the Treasury is prepared to put in real money and to offer interest-free loans, we can forget the rest. I would not bother about it--it is a waste of money. If other schemes are to be proposed--

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