Part of FINANCE (No. 2) BILL – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 1st June 1967.

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Photo of Mr Joel Barnett Mr Joel Barnett , Heywood and Royton 12:00 am, 1st June 1967

I think that even my right hon. Friend would agree that what he foresees as likely in the next 12 months is not likely to be any better as a forecast or guess than most other economists' guesses. This is a serious point. I doubt that there are many people who could be certain. They may make a forecast, as my right hon. Friend and others have done, but there are few who could be so certain as to say, "I shall only use the regulator if such-and-such happens". That is really asking too much of any Chancellor, no matter how able, as I believe the present Chancellor to be.

There is an important question here, a question more of principle. The hon. Gentleman referred to what was said in 1961 by my right hon. Friend the present Prime Minister, and reference was made to it last year as well. My right hon. Friend made a very important point on that occasion. Speaking of the regulator, he said: But it oversteps the margins of the relation between the Government and the House in the matter of taxing power."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th May, 1961; Vol. 639, c. 1641.] Should any Government have such powers at all? As the hon. Gentleman says, this is giving power to a Chancellor not to raise that amount of revenue, but to be able to do so quickly and very much more easily than he could otherwise.

As to amount, the hon. Gentleman is quite right to get away from some of the obscurities we had last year, with all sorts of figures mentioned—£300 million, £200 million and £150 million. One understands some of the reasons for the differences. In the first place, the figure, according to the 1967–68 Financial Statement, is based only from last July, so it is not a whole year, and the figure is only £103 million because tobacco was excluded. But what is more important is how much the Chancellor can raise by the regulator, the total amount which he can raise. My understanding is that he could raise about £360 million. I would very much like to know precisely what the figure is. The Committee is entitled to know, if we are to give this power for use of the regulator, just how much money is involved in it.

4.45 p.m.

The next question is whether we should give power to use the regulator so that action can be taken quickly and easily, or whether we should leave it so that, other than for Purchase Tax, on Excise matters the Chancellor would have to come to the House with a new Bill. Nowadays, although, in theory, it is a matter for the House of Commons to decide, in practice it is one decided by the party with the majority in the House, so perhaps there is no great difference between giving this power under the regulator and insisting on the Chancellor bringing in a new Bill. Nevertheless, although that may be so in practice, I do not believe that we should give this power lightly. There is always a problem in a democracy in striking the right balance between the powers which the Executive should have in controlling a complex economy such as ours and adequate safeguards for this Committee and the House of Commons.

The majority party, in practice, ought not to give power to exercise the regulator too lightly or too easily to a Chancellor, but this is not an argument for not giving it at all. It is a dangerous argument, in spite of the way the House of Commons works in practice, to say that a Government, democratically elected, should not be given adequate powers to control the economy, and one of the useful weapons which any Government can have today is an additional power of regulator such as these provisions have perpetuated since 1961.

I have recently reread the 1961 debates. Some very good and cogent arguments were deployed by Conservative Members at that time. I cannot help wondering whether the present Opposition any longer accept those arguments. There were arguments of principle as to whether the regulator should be given at all. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle), then Financial Secretary to the Treasury, and his right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Wirral both made a powerful case, in my view, for any Chancellor having this sort of additional power to control the economy.

I am wondering whether the Opposition will now vote for their Amendment. The hon. Gentleman did not say one way or the other. If they were to vote in that way against the arguments which were presented so cogently in 1961, they would make themselves idiots in the process.