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Mr. Hogg: Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the defects of the process that we are discussing is that the House is being asked to approve, in one of its Committees, the Financial Statement and Budget Report and other reports with no capacity to amend those documents? Surely he will agree that there will be various opinions on the accuracy of the documents that will be remitted to the Commission. If the process is to have any validity at all, the Committee should be able to amend the documents when it considers them.
Mr. Howarth: My right hon. and learned Friend is entirely right. As I said, the documents are off the shelf, not tailor made. I am not sure that I criticise the Government for not producing only tailor-made documents, as the use of other types of document may save public money. Such documents may be quite sufficient for the European Commission officials responsible for assessing whether the United Kingdom has complied with article 103(3) of the European Community treaty to make their judgment. In future, however, there may be a requirement to debate the matter in very much greater depth. I do not know how accurate the information is, and I certainly do not know how accurate the forecasts on which the Government are relying will be.
We are debating a serious matter that relates very much to a substantial and serious power that the European Commission has over our economic activity. As right hon. and hon. Members might like to ensure the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the bits of the off-the-shelf documents that are to be filleted out and forwarded by the Government to Brussels, I think that the appropriate place for the documents to be considered is not in Committee, but on the Floor of the House.
Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend has rightly dwelt on the minimal time available for consideration by the House of these important matters. Does he agree that it would be useful to know the premise--other than reference to the precedent of delegated legislation--upon which the allocation of 90 minutes is based? Are Ministers assuming that 10 hon. Members will wish to speak? Do they
Mr. Tipping: I can help to put the hon. Gentleman out of his misery. The time of 90 minutes for such debates comes under the Standing Orders of the House. It has always been 90 minutes, right back to 1993, whether the debates have been on the Floor of the House or in Committee.
Mr. Howarth: I am grateful to the Minister for that guidance. He is saying that, according to precedent, if the debate were taken on the Floor of the House, 90 minutes would be allocated for it. However, he did not tell us what happened before 1997.
This is an extremely important issue. If, in the future, the United Kingdom is in danger of being fined by the European Commission for failing to limit a budget deficit to a certain size, and if the economy turns sour and the Conservatives are returned to sort out the mess--perhaps by May--I would not like it said that precedents were created for 90 minutes to be the length of time available in which to discuss these matters.
Mr. Hogg: Is the essential question not about time but about where the matter is to be debated? Perhaps my hon. Friend should be asking not whether there was a discussion between the usual channels about the time of the debate, but whether there was a discussion on where it would take place--on the Floor of the House or in Committee.
Mr. Howarth: My right hon. and learned Friend is entirely right. I was trying to ask the Minister whether there had been a discussion with the usual channels or whether a Committee of the House had decided that that would be the appropriate procedure. Perhaps he can tell us that in his winding-up speech.
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): I do not wish to detain the House long on this matter. I am surprised, however, that today, of all days, the Government have not decided to withdraw the motion, because they have been humiliated and insulted in a most extraordinary way by the President of the European Commission. I should have thought that in the light of that, the Government would wish to have this measure dealt with by the whole House so that it could indicate whether it supported the Prime Minister or agreed with the words of the President of the European Commission, who, according to press reports, today slammed the self-serving Prime Minister--
Mr. Chope: I am seeking to address myself to the motion before the House. Should this very important issue of the pre-Budget report be referred to a Committee to be discussed by a small number of Members, and voted upon by an even smaller number, or should it be debated at greater length on the Floor of the House and be subject to a vote in which all right hon. and hon. Members can participate?
It is apparent from today's news reports that the European Commission does not think that this House takes European issues sufficiently seriously. The Commission has insulted the office of our Prime Minister. I have my own views, and so have my constituents, about the Prime Minister's personal qualities, but the office of Prime Minister has been the subject of a grave insult today by the President of the European Commission. It may be his way of saying thank you for what seems to have been an abandonment of the veto over the future appointment of the European Commission President. However, it is an appalling outrage and I am surprised that the Government are not seeking to defend the Prime Minister, and the office of Prime Minister, against that appalling insult. They could have done so either by withdrawing the motion or by saying that our relations with the European Union are sufficiently important to warrant debate by the whole House, rather than being submitted to a Committee.
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): I support what my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) has just said. A number of problems are associated with the process that we are undertaking. First, this is effectively a procedure motion. We are being asked to vote on whether a matter should be considered in Committee, but hon. Members who have not heard this debate will vote on it. I understand that the vote will proceed in a new way for a Division in the Lobby, with hon. Members recording their vote in a book tomorrow.
The second point is different. Let us assume that when the vote takes place on the motion tomorrow afternoon, a majority is in favour of remitting the matter to a Committee. Let us consider exactly what the Committee will be capable of doing, because that goes to the heart of the question whether we should remit it to a Committee. A small group of Members will be asked to consider the reports. We know perfectly well that they will not necessarily reflect the true opinion of the House; they will be chosen by the Whips. We should be able to communicate to the Commission the fact that those who consider the matter in Committee will not reflect the true opinion of either the country or the House. I know of no way in which that can be done.
It is absurd to suggest that the documents represent the unvarnished view of the House. We know perfectly well that the pre-Budget report contains many statements on which my hon. Friends and I disagree, but we have no choice--either the Committee approves the report, or it does not. The Committee has no capacity to vote on an amendment. That is surely a very extraordinary fact, given that the House knows full well that there is a variety of opinion on the economic state of the country. However, the Committee can only either approve or disapprove the reports. That is not a proper way to do business. I should have thought that the will of the House would be that the Committee should be able to amend the documents, but no such ability exists and, consequently, this is an imperfect process.