Government Assessment for the Purposes of Section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993

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Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage): The Minister has described a benign economic situation that has been in place for some time. I think that she will agree that it originated in the previous Parliament. She will also recall from the previous Parliament how quickly such situations can turn around. We too had a time in the late 1980s when it looked as though we were going through major periods of debt repayment. Will she say a few words about the Government's precautions at the prospect of an American recession and its implications working their way into the United Kingdom economy?

Miss Johnson: I differ from the hon. Gentleman in one respect. He remarked on the inheritance that we received, but it was neither so good nor so productive as he suggested. I would like to mention one or two of the problems that arose—problems that this Government are now tackling—as part of our inheritance from the previous Government.

Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth): Does my hon. Friend consider it rather tactless of the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) to have intervened precisely at the point at which she mentioned our success in getting young people off the dole and into work? As one who has worked with unemployed young people, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that, under the previous Government, young people were left on the dole and were not helped. The schemes that supposedly assisted them did not do the job, whereas during the past three years we have seen young people going into work, being able to hold their heads up with pride and having hope for the future.

Miss Johnson: My right hon. Friend is right. Of course, the claimant count generally rose by almost 50 per cent. between 1979 and 1997, and the International Labour Organisation unemployment figure reached 3 million in 1993. By 1997, around 326,000 over-25s had been out of work for more than two years. The Government are doing everything that we can to tackle that, and we are succeeding.

The pre-Budget report has announced a new job transition service to help people in areas affected by large-scale redundancies to move into new jobs. The new deal for lone parents has been extended, and the new deal for the over-25s has been extended and intensified. All those measures will commence in April 2001. The PBR also announced plans to extend the new deal for disabled people nationwide. There is no better time to encourage the long-term unemployed and those who have been especially detached from the labour market to come back to work. It is estimated that there are 1.1 million vacancies in the economy as a whole.

I mentioned fairness. The Government continue to work on building a fairer and more inclusive society, especially by tackling child poverty, helping pensioners, rewarding saving, investing in public services and ensuring a fair tax system. Everyone should have the opportunity to fulfil his or her potential and enjoy the benefits of high and stable economic growth. To build a stronger economic future, society needs to be able to invest in today's children and give a better deal to families.

The PBR takes further steps towards achieving a fairer society, which include other measures to raise standards in schools, a package of £200 million a year to help disabled people and carers, and the abolition of capital limits in Surestart maternity grants and funeral payments by October 2001.

In addition, the PBR includes a major package of measures to boost pensioner incomes, acting to end pensioner poverty and ensuring that all pensioners share in the nation's rising prosperity. From 2003, the pensioner credit will channel more help to low-income and middle-income pensioners by rewarding those who have worked hard to save a little for their retirement. We are also providing immediate extra support for pensioners, and increasing the basic state pension and, for this year, the winter fuel payment. We are also increasing the lower rates of the minimum income guarantee to equal its higher rate. By next year, 98 per cent. of pensioner households will be better off under the Government's measures since 1998 than they would have been with an earnings-linked pensions. Lower-income households will benefit most.

We have set a course for long-term economic prosperity, investing money where it is needed to the benefit of not only the current, but future generations. Economic growth needs to take place to ensure effective protection of the environment and the prudent use of natural resources. Key elements of the Government's environmental strategy include tackling climate change, improving air quality and regenerating Britain's town and cities.

The PBR, consistent with our environmental principles, includes an affordable and targeted series of measures to help motorists and improve the competitiveness of the UK transport sector. There will be specific help for farmers and for the modernisation of the road haulage industry. That includes the definite freeze on nominal duties in Budget 2001, and the proposed reforms to lorry vehicle excise duty, which are part of a package worth £1.75 billion that is currently being consulted on.

The Government are building a strong economic future for Britain. It will give a better deal for the people of Britain, and help us to meet our objectives of a fairer society for all and high and stable growth and employment. We have the right economic policies for Britain, and they are in line with the objectives of the European Union.

Approval of the motion will enable the United Kingdom to meet our treaty obligations, to provide information and to participate fully in the important process of multilateral surveillance and economic co-operation, which is provided for in articles 99 and 104 of the treaty. I urge the Committee to support it.

4.47 pm

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): May I say first, Mr. Olner, what a great pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon? It is the first time that I have done so, and I look forward to doing so again. I am sure that the whole Committee would join me in expressing that sentiment.

The Minister was correct in her brief outline of the procedures in which we participate today, because section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993—better known to many of us as the Maastricht Act—specifies that the Government should report to Parliament for its approval the assessment of the economic and financial issues that have to be submitted.

It is worth pausing for a moment to consider how the matter came to be before the Committee this afternoon. On Tuesday evening, there was apparently a lively debate on the Floor of the House about the procedure that should be employed for making the necessary report to the European institutions. Under our new procedures in the House, there was a vote on Wednesday as to whether the debate should take place on the Floor of the House or, as we now have it, in Committee under delegated legislation procedures.

Although the debate on Tuesday evening was lively, it was not too well attended. One estimate was that only 14 Members from all parties took part. However, after that debate there was a huge upsurge of parliamentary interest in the subject among hon. Members. The issue seems to have caught fire between Tuesday evening and Wednesday afternoon, as 483 Members took part in the Division and voted to send the matter to Committee by some considerable margin. I infer from that that it is incumbent on the Committee to do justice to the task that the House placed before us. We cannot do that unless we see the matter against the background of possible United Kingdom membership of the single currency and economic and monetary union, as that is what the procedure is all about. That brings us to the so-called Maastricht criteria on inflation, long-term interest rates, the financial position, the Government deficit, gross Government debt and exchange rates.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): The hon. Gentleman touched on the procedural issues before the House last week. Before he gets to the meat of his argument, can he tell the Committee how many times under the last Government the section 5 obligation on Parliament was debated on the Floor of the House and how many times it was debated in Committee?

Mr. Clappison: The hon. Gentleman seems to make an assumption about my view; I thought that I was setting out what had taken place in a factual and objective way. The matter has been debated previously both on the Floor of the House and in Committee and, given the hon. Gentleman's command of the minutiae of parliamentary history, he will doubtless be able to regale us with tales of past delegated legislation Committees. I shall happily give way again if he wants to enlighten us; there is no mystery about the matter.

Mr. Davey: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, although I do not want to assist his filibuster. Will he answer my previous question?

Mr. Clappison: The hon. Gentleman is mistaken in his assumption; he will have his opportunity in due course if he wishes to make his points. I was simply saying that I am satisfied with the procedure. The hon. Gentleman will see from the Division list that the House voted by a large margin to send the matter to Committee; I was one of the many who voted for that. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that I was obstructing the measure or trying to suggest that it should be taken on the Floor of the House, I can tell him that I voted to have confidence in the Committee. The hon. Gentleman's assumption is mistaken.

Given the vast number of Members—483—who took part in the Division on Wednesday evening, it is incumbent on us to do justice to the proposal. We can do so by looking at the criteria for Maastricht entry.

Mr. Michael: On a point of logic, I recall that under the previous Government, Ministers came to Committees on delegated legislation expecting to be there for two minutes. They were affronted that we should debate such matters at length. I seem to remember that the Government Whips got quite grumpy. We, however, are prepared to discuss the proposal; the Government have an excellent record on the matter, which my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary outlined.

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