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The Chairman: Order. So is the clause.

Mr. Bercow: So is the clause, as you rightly observe, Sir Alan. I must therefore not digress, despite the temptations of the hon. Gentleman, who I know will have read the clause in detail. He is probably able to recite it word for word, unscripted, for the benefit of the House.

It is important to be specific, and I am keen to be so, if only hon. Members will allow me that opportunity, Sir Alan. Unison, for example, promotes its own health care scheme entitled Medicash. That does not win any prizes for originality but it does help members buy treatment outside the national health service. Specifically—this is interesting from the apotheosis of egalitarianism as represented by Unison—the Medicash scheme offers no fewer than three levels of cover: bronze, silver and gold. Members are offered a broad range of services and everything apart from overnight stays in hospitals can be bought from the private sector. Unison claims that Medicash—it is important to represent it fairly—

The Chairman: Order. I am not at all clear that it is important that we should discuss in detail trade union arrangements. That seems to be outwith the scope of the amendment that the hon. Gentleman seeks to explain to the House.

Mr. Bercow: I am always grateful to be guided by you, Sir Alan. If I am not entitled to develop the argument in

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detail in relation to the arrangements of particular unions, I shall refrain from doing so. I was enjoying developing the point, but I shall desist.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bercow: Not for the moment. Suffice it to say that if a union is providing such a valuable benefit for employees, notwithstanding what it might say in excoriation of private health insurance and denunciations of those who support it, it seems fair that that union should be aware that it would benefit from the relief that the Conservative amendments would provide. I can summarise the point neatly, I hope, by saying that supporters in practice—whether or not in principle—in the trade union movement, as employers, of the provision of private health insurance, as represented by Unison and others, can rest assured that the Conservative Opposition see the merit of what they are doing for their employees. We would want, courtesy of these amendments, to provide relief from the damage and pain that the Labour Government's policy would inflict on them.

John Mann rose

Mr. Kevan Jones rose

Mr. Bercow: The hon. Member for Bassetlaw has been very greedy, and I can indulge his greedy instincts not a moment longer. I shall give way, however, to the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones).

Mr. Kevan Jones: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I shall contact the general secretary of Unison about the hon. Gentleman's advocacy of that great union. Do not the schemes of Unison and many other trade unions cover dental care and other aspects of health care that are not necessarily covered by the NHS? As for what Unison and other trade unions such as mine—the GMB—advocate, the difference is that they do not favour a system whereby those in work pay through a national insurance contribution but if they fall out of work, they fall out of the system. They support a system in which delivery of health care is free at the point of need. Is the Conservative party now saying that it is against health care that is free at the point of need?

The Chairman: Order. I listened to the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), but I feared that he would tempt the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) away from the straight and narrow. He did so, and I hope that the temptation will be resisted.

Mr. Bercow: I am obliged to you, Sir Alan. As you know, there is no more partisan enthusiast for straightness and narrowness than I, especially when the gentle tickle of the rod of the Chair is felt on my back. I am very grateful to you, Sir Alan, and I will not misbehave a moment longer, despite the cheeky temptations of the hon. Member for North Durham.

I will now move at a modest pace to amendments Nos. 7 and 9, and I know that you, Sir Alan, will be excited, not to say delighted, at the prospect. Intellectually, these amendments can be grouped together.

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The arguments for amendments Nos. 6 and 8 are clear. The attempt has been made, with a good deal of wriggling and scraping of the bottom of barrels, to defend the unions, but we see the merits of the arguments in favour of those amendments even if Labour Members do not.

I wish to turn the Committee's attention to the Conservative party's desire—it is certainly not the desire of the Liberal Democrats—to support the self-employed. Amendments Nos. 7 and 9 are designed to do that by relieving the self-employed of the burden of the Bill's provisions that will increase costs. Specifically, we propose in amendment No. 7—amendment No. 9 is similar—that employers, when facing the secondary percentage, should pay the full percentage if they are not themselves subject to class 4 contributions. We specify that the 11.8 per cent.—the reduced percentage for employers who are self-employed—should be provided, and the proposed subsections (3) and (4) in amendment No. 7 make it clear that the reduced percentage that we are proposing would be available to employers who have a business turnover of less than £1 million per annum.

Labour and Conservative Members will realise that the proposal would cover a great many businesses with relatively modest turnover which will be hit if the Government get their way but to whose rescue the Conservative party is trying to come. The amendment would be of particular benefit to a number of unincorporated businesses, because it would offer the reduced rate of employers' national insurance contributions to employers who are themselves self-employed and hence subject to an increase in their class 4 NICs as well as in their employers' NICs. Subsections (3) and (4) in the amendment would target the relief at small, unincorporated businesses as an incentive to their continuing to employ people.

The case for our proposals is powerful and we have received considerable support from outside organisations that are shocked and infuriated by the provisions in the Bill and by much of the content of the Chancellor's Budget. When a small, unincorporated business has employees, the self-employed business person will be hit twice. It is interesting for my hon. Friends to note that, as I make the point that that self-employed business person will be hit twice, the new Chief Secretary to the Treasury—whom I warmly complimented on his justified and long overdue promotion—has slunk out of the Chamber. Well might he slink, because he is an extremely talented defender of his case—and no more obviously so than when the case that he has to defend is an extremely poor one. The track record speaks for itself, and I am not surprised that he has preferred other attractions to attending a debate that describes the damaging policies that it will now be his doubtful privilege to defend.

We are talking about self-employed business people hit twice by the NIC increases proposed by the Chancellor—first, on the costs of employing staff and, secondly, on their own income. As is perfectly proper in parliamentary debates, Labour Members very often cite cases from their constituencies to support their arguments. For example, the hon. Member for Bassetlaw—I must be careful not to provoke him unduly for fear of the consequences in terms of further dilations from him—will refer to people in his constituency who think that everything is absolutely magnificent. That will leave the rest of us to wonder what is in the water in Bassetlaw.

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I think that it is right to deal with practicalities and to consider the specifics and details. An unincorporated business person who employs two staff each with an annual salary of £15,000 and whose own income after expenses is £17,500 will be personally £262 a year worse off because of the changes to national insurance contributions and other tax imposts contained separately in the Budget measures.

John Mann: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bercow: The hon. Gentleman must restrain himself, then I will give way.

I compare the figures that I have just cited with those for an employee who earns £17,500 a year and who will be £158 a year worse off, or a self-employed person with no employees and an income of £17,500 who will be £100 worse off in 2002–04. I am itching to return to the thrust of my argument, but the House wants to hear the hon. Member for Bassetlaw.

John Mann: I refer to the figures in the hon. Gentleman's first example, and ask him what the costs would be should that employer choose to go forward with private health insurance. Should the hon. Gentleman not have those figures to hand? Would it not be right to suggest that, according to BUPA's statistics, the minimum cost would be about £800 a year? That would be four times more than the employer will pay in national insurance contributions.

Mr. Bercow: If I can put it in the vernacular, I fear that the hon. Gentleman is spouting off the top of his head, with modest regard, if any, for the accuracy of what he described.


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