Selective Employment Payments Bill (Allocation of Time)

Part of Bill Presented – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 18th July 1966.

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Photo of Mr John Hill Mr John Hill , South Norfolk 12:00 am, 18th July 1966

The hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) has emphasised the procedural aspects of the debate, but I shall not follow him or any of his predecessors into a discussion on procedure as, for me, this is a matter that concerns my constituents very considerably. That is that fact that makes this timetable Motion perhaps rather different from some others. One thing that any time spent in a Government Whip's office teaches us is that the Government are under a necessity to get their business, particularly at this time of year. That I fully accept. The difference here is the gravity of this type of legislation, and the care with which its details need to be examined.

Two kinds of Bill can be subject to the Guillotine. In the one case, the subject matter may not be important but happens to be a vehicle for party conflict. The conflict develops in Standing Committee where, perhaps, the Opposition are seeking to obstruct for purposes not solely connected with the Bill. The need for the imposition of a timetable is then perfectly clear, and the Government use their majority.

There are, however, other Bills which, by their very nature, touch many different interests and will quite clearly have very wide and unpredictable repercussions. Such Bills give rise to many Amendments, and often during their passage more arid more difficulties come to light. The Government of the day are faced with the problem of trying to get the Bill, while the Opposition have a very great number of points that need to be discussed. In this case, it is important to get consensus if we can, through the usual channels, not as to fact of the timetable—because the Government can insist on that—but as to what is a reasonable time to cover the great amount that will have to be discussed.

I can remember in the last Parliament but one the question of a timetable for the London Government Bill. I remember thinking as a Whip that the sooner the timetable started, the better because so many interests were concerned that the balance of debate would be better achieved for hon, Members on both sides who wished to make important constituency points and points dealing with many subjects and Departments. The only essential matter was to decide in advance to make the timetable as generous as possible so that there should be no question of truncating and excluding matters which needed discussion.

I should have thought it manifestly obvious that the time suggested by the Government is unrealistic. The Leader of the House, in opening the debate, mentioned that we have accepted limitations on our procedures in different ways. He instanced the Prayer procedure in which discussion of a Prayer is limited usually to one and a half hours. There are 31 Amendments suggested to this Motion, where we seek a definite allocation of time to various grouped discussions which cover some of the subjects and interests which have been raised with us by constituents or which are obvious under the circumstances of the Bill. Looking through the grouped lists, it does not seem that anyone could say that each was not fully worth the amount of time usually given to a Prayer. In the 30 or more subjects there we have a potential need for 40 hours' debate, which would be perfectly proper. If the Government were to make their answers that would be the minimum time required.

The Amendments we have put down are not necessarily exhaustive. Neither are the Amendments to the Bill itself, numerous as they are. For example, to the Bill itself we have put down only one Amendment dealing with a subject which I know is dear to your heart, Mr. Speaker —education. It would he perfectly possible to put down a whole string of Amendments to cover important aspects of that great field. The effect of the Bill will go most unevenly across the field of education. It is the same with various other Amendments. I know of several important points which need to be decided but which are not yet the subject of specific Amendments.

It may be that all this would take time if it were properly discussed but the Government have only themselves to blame if they find themselves in grievous need of time now. It would have been perfectly possible to bring in this type of tax by taking power, if necessary, to be selective, but simply to start with a flat rate. The Government could have got its yield and it would have had a marked deflationary effect. Because they are seeking suddenly to provide all these variations which make up the whole theme of this Bill, we are faced with so many anomalies and difficulties. The reasons for extending the time are overwhelming.

I should have thought that the first requirement we as Parliamentarians ought to have in the front of our minds is the quality of the legislation we pass. A Labour Government seem to judge their productivity by the sheer volume of legislation put out and not by its quality. From some of the remarks made this afternoon it would seem that once a Bill has got the Royal Assent, the Government can wash their hands of it and consider that that is another milestone passed. One knows that in fact that is only the beginning of the story, and usually the beginning of the trouble.

The Leader of the House quoted Mr. Chuter Ede as saying that in his opinion legislation could never be too swift. Recent events have shown that that is a very dangerous maxim to follow. We have had some legislation in these last two years which has blotted the Statute Book and from which we are now getting a great deal of trouble. In passing, I refer to the current effects of the Finance Act, 1965. This year we did not have enough time even to discuss some of the matters arising from last year's Finance Act which urgently need consideration and decision.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) said, the Inland Revenue is immensely overburdened at the moment. There is evidence of that at high level and low level. The burden of this method of tax collection and operation has had to be transferred to another Government Department. The legislation is itself not clear, and many decisions and rulings have not been publicly given. An enormous volume of inquiry will be directed at the Ministry's local branches but no answers will be obtainable on the record to guide the officials concerned or the members of the public making inquiries.

If when this great brainchild was born—as it may have been, after dinner —even the humblest Parliamentary delegation had been present to have the idea put to it, I am quite sure that any group of Members chosen at random could have set out many of the anomalies and difficulties which were likely to arise and for which there was needed careful preparation and decision. Now this process is having to be done in this House, and largely at the instance of the Opposition.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer said that this tax was welcomed generally throughout the country. If he really believes that, he has a shock coming to him. It may be that there was some relief after the Budget Statement when it was known that there would be no direct impact on the voter's pocket. There may have been a sigh of relief, but what the voter may not have realised was that the Chancellor had put a time bomb in that pocket which will go off later in the year. This must concern employers and people who have to plan and manage business. They are anxious to know exactly what their position will be.

The result is that most of us have had a large volume of detailed correspondence in respect of this Bill. It is not a mass of correspondence all saying the same on the same point. Far from it—usually the letters raise cases of anomalies which one would not otherwise have suspected because they arise in, and are special to, some calling or occupation. Most of them have been practical questions which need answering.

If the guillotine Motion is passed in its present form, it will operate, not to shorten debates against the principle of the tax, but to prevent Parliament from doing its proper job of examining and improving the legislation. That need has been admitted by the Government. In winding up the Second Reading debate the Chancellor of the Exchequer said this: As to marginal cases that are left. I want to go into those very carefully. There is not much time to do this under the proposed programme. If the points are not raised and answered in Parliament, doubts and uncertainties will go out from here unresolved. They will clog up the administrative machine and the processes of commerce.

I do not want to be a party to adding to the burden of unproductive work which the Government are piling upon civil servants and on business and professional people. Another group of important officers may well be asking for a bonus for overtime they will have to put in trying to understand, not perhaps the Bill. but its implications. If they can get no guidance from information the Government present to the House, it means further delays and uncertainty for them.

If professional advisers in response to their business clients' inquiries have to say that there is no answer yet, good or bad, the clients will not be able to make decisions as to how to conduct their business. More and more time will be lost by their wondering how to organise or reorganise their business so that they do not expose themselves to some severe tax from which their competitors may escape because of the ill-drawn and vaguely defined borderlines of the Bill. Some are more affected by the Bill than others.

A tri-focal view of the Bill has been presented by someone who, as a Director of the Bank of England, will pay the tax. who, as a member of the National Coal Board, will presumably get it refunded, and who, in a private capacity as a printer, will get the premium. I refer to Mr. King who, if he is anyone's darling, is less the darling of the Right than of the Left. Mr. King described this tax last week as "ill-thought-out and as causing a ludicrous distraction of business effort". This is how confidence is eroded, because in this respect nothing fails like failure. People do not know where they are. They lose all inclination to press ahead with the things they should be doing. Decisions are not taken. Instead, there is a harvest of disappointment, friction and frustration, with little progress. That is what is happening because of some of the defects of earlier legislation.

I am anxious that sufficient time should be given to the Bill to ensure that we do not set up that process again in the constituencies on top of what the last Finance Bill did. If the muddle is added to through a badly finished Bill, the result will be a paralysis of decision. This is the worst possible state to be in if it is desired either to increase productivity or to fight an economic crisis.

The economic situation is changing faster than the Government can react. The Prime Minister keeps giving himself weeks when he has only days for decision. This will affect the Bill. The economic crisis is hound to add to the matters which need arid ought to be discussed as the Bill goes through its later stages. The Chancellor of the Exchequer said this on Second Reading: As regards bank loans, we had a discussion in the course of the Committee stage of the Finance Bill the night before last. I have nothing to add to what I said then. I said it was too soon yet to give an indication."—[OFFICIAL. REPORT, 23rd June, 1966; Vol. 730. c. 1049.] Last Tuesday the Chancellor of the Exchequer said in reply to a Parliamentary Question that the commercial banks will not be given any general dispensation to increase lending in September when the Selective Employment Tax will take about £100 million per month out of the economy and transfer it to the Treasury. The Economist made this comment: Very sough though this measure could be, it managed to offend against all three canons for sound present policy "—