Orders of the Day — Finance Bill (Committee Stage)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 6th May 1976.

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Question again proposed.

Photo of Mr Nigel Lawson Mr Nigel Lawson , Blaby

At the time when I tabled my amendment, there was some dispute still in the House about the interpretation of Standing Order No. 62 and, therefore, the composition of Standing Committees, and it seemed to me that, while the doubt remained, the only sensible course was for the whole Bill to be committed to a Committee of the whole House until the dispute was resolved and that this should be applied to every Bill.

I understand that a motion has been tabled late tonight which produces an interpretation of Standing Order No. 62 which will no doubt be agreeable to the House. But these disputes might recur, though one hopes not, and, therefore, I put forward the suggestion that in future, if there is a dispute over this, any legislation should have its whole Committee stage on the Floor of the House, because obviously Committees upstairs are not an essential part of our legislative process. Legislation can get on to the statute book without them.

We have before us a rather curious motion. It is not the normal committal motion. In fact, what happened was that the original committal motion to commit part of the Bill to the Floor of the House and another part upstairs was withdrawn at the last moment, with the result that the whole Bill was automatically committed upstairs. Therefore, there has to be this new motion to bring some clauses down again.

Under the new motion it was possible to table an amendment, although, Mr. Speaker, in your wisdom you have not seen fit to select it. But a defect in our procedures is that under Standing Order No. 40, which is the normal Standing Order under which a committal motion is tabled to commit a Finance Bill part to the Floor of the House and part to a Committee upstairs, such a motion is unamendable.

A further consequence flows. It is that in the case of any Bill which automatically is to be committed to a Committee upstairs, under Standing Order No. 40, any hon. Member may move that the Bill be committed to a Committee of the whole House so that it may be discussed by all hon. Members who wish to take part in the debate. Anyone can do that. But if there is this, relatively new, split committal motion so that it is part on the Floor of the House and part committed to a Committee upstairs, because it cannot be amended one of only two results is possible. Either the motion is carried, in which case a large part of the Bill will go upstairs and a little part will remain to be discussed on the Floor, or the motion is defeated, in which case, under Standing Order No. 40, the whole Bill goes upstairs; so that in either event the House is deprived of any opportunity of deciding that there should be a full Committee stage on the Floor of the House.

This is a serious defect in our procedures. It is possible, though I do not suggest that any Government would be likely to do it, that on an issue which clearly should have its whole Committee stage taken on the Floor of the House the Government might propose as a committal motion that one schedule should be taken on the Floor of the House and that all the rest of the Bill should be committed to a Committee upstairs. If that is the committal motion, it becomes wholly impossible for any hon. Member to move and for the House to have the opportunity to decide that the Bill should be committed to a Committee of the whole House.

It is true that it is possible by a roundabout route, a Bill having been committed upstairs, for a new motion to be tabled to try to get it recommitted to a Committee of the whole House. But that is a cumbersome and difficult process. I hope, therefore, that this will be looked at, perhaps by the new Procedure Committee which I understand we are to have.

A further reason, on this Finance Bill, for looking at this process is the conditional nature of part of the Bill. The conditional nature of part of the Bill means that new clauses may be introduced at a later stage—that is to say, they are not in the Bill as it is first published. If that is to be the precedent for practice in the future, it may be that more and more future clauses will be in this conditional form, because we do not know the full extent and ambit of the TUC's interest in our fiscal matters. If that is to be the practice, it is important to have these new clauses introduced on the Floor of the House, and they are obviously of such importance that this should be done at Committee stage and not on Report.

Finally, I should like to go back to the substance of the debates held in the past as to where the Committee stage of a Finance Bill should be held. Should it be on the Floor of the House or should it be split as it now is? The first Bill ever to be taken wholly upstairs was the 1968 Finance Bill and the first Bill to have been split was the 1969 Finance Bill. This is, therefore, a relatively experimental procedure.

There are arguments which still worry me. Many hon. Members will feel—the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) is one of them—that the whole of the Committee stage should be on the Floor of the House. I understand his reason for saying that. Certainly the powers which this House has over taxation are of a very special nature, and the right of every hon. Member to take part in the discussion of the powers in the Finance Bill is also a very special right.

Indeed, when Mr. Richard Crossman originally proposed at the end of 1967 that the Bill should go upstairs he undertook that there should be no diminution of the rights of other Members who were not on the Standing Committee on the Bill and that, therefore, there should be full opportunity at other stages for the whole House to participate in the debates. It became clear that what he had in mind was that there should be a recommittal stage on the Floor of the House followed by a lengthy Report stage. What has happened, in practice, is that after the one experiment in 1968, the recommittal stage was abandoned altogether and the Report stage in the House has been wholly inadequate for proper discussion of the Finance Bill by all hon. Members. We saw this clearly with the second Finance Bill of 1974—the first Finance Act of 1975—which introduced capital transfer tax, when we had a substantially amended Bill. We were given, notionally, five days for Report stage, but a guillotine motion was applied and the actual time was perhaps equivalent to three normal days. It certainly was not five days. It was a travesty of debate. It was impossible for hon. Members who were not members of the Standing Committee to contribute properly in the legislative process on that Finance Bill.

There are procedural reasons why there should be a recommittal stage on the Floor of the House before Report stage. In particular, the House of Lords cannot amend a Finance Bill. It is therefore very difficult to change the Bill on Report. Not only is there the absence of adequate time for discussion but it is virtually impossible to amend the Bill at that stage.

Unlike the right hon. Member for Down, South—perhaps I am prejudging what he may say—I do not think that the Committee stage of the Finance Bill up-stairs has been a mistake as such. The opportunity which it has given us for detailed and precise scrutiny, line by line, in a very intense atmosphere, has been extremely helpful.

Governments are slightly less disinclined to accept amendments upstairs than on the Floor of the House. The number of Government amendments has shown this to be a procedure which serves a valuable purpose. But it should be in addition to the full time on the Floor of the House. What legislation needs from us is better scrutiny, even if no time is saved. What I propose would not save any time but it would provide better scrutiny. What I believe should happen with Finance Bills, and what is not embodied clearly in the new motion, is that there should be a different kind of split. There should certainly be close scrutiny upstairs line by line, clause by clause, but the time saved by taking many of the clauses upstairs should be given back to the House by a recommittal stage on the Floor of the House, as Mr. Crossman originally suggested, and by a Report stage thereafter which would not be subject to a timetable motion. A timetable motion on Report makes a farce of proper discussion by all hon. Members—as is their right—of the provisions of a Finance Bill.

10.16 p.m.

Photo of Mr Enoch Powell Mr Enoch Powell , South Down

It is right that this motion should be debated. The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Lawson) has performed a service by reminding the House how recent, and to that extent experimental, is the procedure into which we have gotten in handling the Finance Bill. He is not mistaken in his belief that it was and remains my opinion that this procedure is inferior to that which it superseded of taking the Committee as well as the other stages of the Finance Bill on the Floor of the House.

Experience has shown that one consequence is that we spend in total much more of the time of hon. Members one way or another on the Finance Bill. I do not believe that we get any proportionate return from that extra time and effort which are spent. The debates in Committee on the Floor of the House on the clauses which are reserved for consideration on the Floor take the form of set-piece debates of which not merely the subject matter but the tenor is largely known in advance. In the result, they are extraordinarily lifeless compared with the big debates as they arose at the appropriate points when the whole Finance Bill was dealt with in Committee on the Floor of the House.

While I am by no means a critic—indeed, being an admirer—of the Standing Committee procedure for the purpose of tooth-combing the wording of a Bill, and acknowledging that the hon. Member for Blaby is probably right in saying that there have been a number of instances in which improvements have been secured in Committee upstairs which might not have been secured on the Floor of the House, nevertheless the Committee stage of the Finance Bill on the Floor of the House made possible a general scrutiny of the Bill by the House in a manner which has not been replaced and is irreplaceable.

One reason why the House was persuaded to adopt an inferior procedure was the extraordinary notion that the House makes a fool of itself and behaves inefficiently when it sits very late or through the night. The possibility of sitting very late and sitting once or twice through the night in the course of the Committee stage on the Floor was one way in which ventilation of the points in which the House generally, or a section of it, was interested was made possible without the Government's entire legislative programme being thrown out of gear. I am far from sure that the emphasis of attention and the allocation of time in Standing Committee correspond with what the House as a whole, if it could express it, would wish to devote to various parts of the Finance Bill.

Nor is it at all true that, except in certain years when other considerations were probably operating, the conduct of the Finance Bills in Committee, even though it involved late sittings, has been at all inefficient or unduly laborious for hon. Members. There was indeed a period in the early 1950s when the Finance Bill was a severe burden to the House. But my impression is that by the second half of the 1950s the House, in its extraordinary way, had learned to cope and to set that inconvenience aside. There was very little constraint or limitation upon genuine debate desired by any section of the House in Committee on the Finance Bill.

The hon. Member for Blaby wants to have the best of all worlds—an attempt which is commonly unsuccessful in this life. He believes that we can, so to speak, have our Standing Committee and eat it, by having a Report stage just as if we had not considered the Bill upstairs and a recommittal stage on the Floor of the House as well. That is not real life.

The fact is that everyone, knowing that the House has had an exhausting Standing Committee stage, approaches the remaining stages of the Bill with a different attitude, in an atmosphere in which it is impossible to capture the quality of a real Committee stage, even though all of us wanted to do so. Report stage, too, is now a lame affair following Standing Committee upstairs, whereas, with a Committee on the Floor of the House—I hope that I am not idealising my recollections—the Report stage was a genuine review of those crucial matters which had been actually thrown up, sometimes to the surprise of the Government, in the progress of the Committee stage.

Without wishing to delay the next motion on the Order Paper, I believe that it is useful for the House, if that is its mind, to record, by debating the motion seriously, that there is a large question mark over the procedure which we have been following with minor variations since 1968. We should now perhaps reflect on whether we attained wisdom first after so many years in 1968, or whether an experimental return to what might prove in this instance to be the "good old days" might be considered for future years. As an inducement to the three most interested parties—the Patronage Secretary, the Leader of the House and the Chancellor of the Exchequer—I put forward the belief that the net effect would be a reduction in exhaustion and in effort, both for Ministers and for the House as a whole, combined with an improved sense of satisfaction on the part of the House about the manner in which it had dealt with the Finance Bill.

10.19 p.m.

Photo of Mr Joel Barnett Mr Joel Barnett , Heywood and Royton

I am in favour of a net reduction in the exhaustion of hon. Members. I recall the 1965 Finance Bill, which was taken wholly on the Floor of the House, and the 1968 Finance Bill, which was taken wholly upstairs. That was an interesting Bill. The late Mr. Iain Macleod led for the Opposition and we had a most fascinating Committee stage, particularly because Mr. Macleod was not happy about the Bill being taken upstairs.

Tradition is a strange thing in the House, but since 1969, when we split the Bill, the tradition has been that Oppositions have chosen the committal motion and the clauses which it specifies are literally the clauses selected by the official Opposition.

I had discussions with the right hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Sir G. Howe), the Shadow Chancellor, who decided on the advice available to him, in consultation with his right hon. and hon. Friends, that he wanted a committal motion as it now stands on the Order Paper. By our traditions, which admittedly are very short in this instance, going back only to 1969, the Opposition choose the clauses. To that extent, the motion is to all intents and purposes the Opposition's. I commend the motion, because it is what the Opposition wanted. I think that it is not unreasonable, given that we have decided on this procedure whereby we split the Bill, to take upstairs what are broadly the technical parts.

Unlike the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Lawson) believes that the idea of a split Bill is basically not bad, because we have an opportunity to consider it in greater detail and at more length upstairs. Downstairs, we take broadly the clauses that an Opposition want to allow hon. Members who are not on the Committee to debate. In that way we try to have the best of all worlds, although the hon. Gentleman wants to go even further and have an even longer recommittal and Report stage.

Photo of Mr Nigel Lawson Mr Nigel Lawson , Blaby

The recommittal was proposed by Mr. Crossman on 6th December 1967. When the right hon. Gentleman says that it is the Opposition's motion and that they have agreed it, to be fair would he not add that the Government are giving only three days? Clearly, it would be impossible in three days to conduct the whole Committee stage on the Floor of the House, and the three days are not of the Opposition's choosing.

Photo of Mr Joel Barnett Mr Joel Barnett , Heywood and Royton

I accept that that is a reasonable point, but I discussed the number of days on the Floor of the House with the Shadow Chancellor and I suppose he recognised that, given the limited number of days available to us on the Floor, there is a limit to the number we can have for this business. I do not think I misquote him when I say that he accepted that three days constituted a reasonable period on the Floor, given that the bulk of the Bill will be debated in detail for many long hours, day and night, upstairs in Committee, where I look forward with great interest to debating it with the hon. Gentleman.

While I accept that if we had allocated many more days the Opposition would have wanted to select many more clauses to debate on the Floor, I think they recognise, as we all do, that there is a limited amount of time on the Floor in a parliamentary Session and that if we took more days for the Finance Bill there would be fewer for something else. The Opposition and the Shadow Chancellor were very reasonable in accepting that three days would be adequate to deal with the clauses that the right hon. and learned Gentleman wanted to debate on the Floor.

I take the point made by the right hon. Member for Down, South. Unlike the hon. Member for Blaby, he would rather have the whole Bill debated on the Floor, as was done before 1968. He believes that in some ways that was a better procedure and that there was more interest. But we have moved on a bit since those days. The right hon. Gentleman said that the way in which it worked in the old days was perhaps rather better than it is now that we split the Bill, but I am not sure that hon. Members would necessarily agree. They want to see a proper scrutiny of the Bill, and it is right that there should be such scrutiny. We must decide whether that is secured upstairs in Committee, with 34, 35, or 36 Members all very interested in the Bill, or on the Floor, where at times we might have the kind of general debate which is not necessarily the best way to amend the Bill. With the greatest respect to the hon. Member for Blaby, it is my feeling that we are more likely to get a reasoned and reasonable debate, and the reasonable prospect of a Minister accepting an amendment, in the intimacy of our proceedings in Committee.

I know that only very recently the right hon. Member for Down, South was a member of the Committee which considered a Finance Bill. I always felt that if I could convince him, with his open mind on these matters, I had achieved a great deal. I was very grateful for his support on various amendments. I think that we had very much better debates in Committee on technical matters than we are likely to get on the Floor of the House.

I am not suggesting that the committal motion is ideal. No one could suggest that our proceedings on the Finance Bill are ideal. We are still feeling our way, even though it is some years ago—in fact, since 1969—since we started to split the Bill. It is not quite such a new procedure as the hon. Member for Blaby suggests. It is quite a while since 1969, and having served on every Finance Bill Committee since then it seems a very long time, particularly with the last few Finance Bills.

I do not suggest that there are not ways of changing our procedure for the better in future. I have noted what the hon.

Gentleman has said about how we might change things for the better. One might be able to have a recommittal on the lines he has suggested, as long as he recognises, in the same way as I constantly tell colleagues that an extra 1 million in one direction is £1 million less in another, that one hour or one day extra on the Floor of the House means that there is one hour or one day less to discuss some other matter.

Photo of Mr Nigel Lawson Mr Nigel Lawson , Blaby

indicated assent.

Photo of Mr Joel Barnett Mr Joel Barnett , Heywood and Royton

Although we can look again at the whole procedure of splitting the Finance Bill—I should be happy to consider that—I hope that the House will accept the motion before us, which was put on the Order Paper with the full agreement of the Opposition because they wanted to have certain clauses debated on the Floor of the House.

10.27 p.m.

Photo of Mr Cecil Parkinson Mr Cecil Parkinson , Hertfordshire South

I only hope that the Chief Secretary will set just as much store by our approval or disapproval of other measures as he appears to set by our approval of the motion.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Lawson), with that combination of ingenuity and optimism which is his hallmark, used what could have been a very standard and formal occasion to introduce an interesting but albeit short debate on the procedure under which we discuss the Finance Bill.

I found the contribution of the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) extremely interesting. The days when Finance Bills were discussed on the Floor of the House are becoming a memory for a minority of the House, something which the rest of us have only read about. I can well imagine that the set-piece debates which now emerge as a result of committal motions, for example, compare rather unfavourably with the build-up to a big occasion after a series of comparatively minor debates on minor clauses. One can imagine the House, having been slightly bored by a series of comparatively formal clauses, looking forward to the big occasion. Many people would have been present. There would have been the sense of occasion developing and the sense of a much better debate.

I say to the right hon. Gentleman that as a chartered accountant I have received a number of criticisms from those who have to operate Finance Acts, who think that the general debates on the Floor of the House dealt in a rather trivial way, and in a party way, with complicated sections that a large number of Members did not fully understand. Criticism emerged from those who had to operate Finance Acts when they finally became law. It was said that they had been discussed by many people who had not understood them. I suggest that under our present procedure a degree of expertise and detailed scrutiny can be given to clauses that perhaps the previous procedure did not offer.

Having said that very briefly, I confirm that this committal motion has the full approval of the official Opposition. It was arrived at after discussions between the Chief Secretary and a number of my right hon. and hon. Friends. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby, having achieved his ambition of staging a debate on a subject that the House did not expect to be discussing tonight—as a result of the ingenuity and optimism that I have mentioned—will now feel happy that the motion should be allowed to go through.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,That the Standing Committee to which the Finance Bill stands committed be discharged from considering the following provisions, namely—

  1. (a) clauses 14, 21, 24, 26, 27, 48, 52 and 64;
  2. (b) any new clause first appearing on the Order Paper not later than Monday 10th May and relating to capital gains tax,

and that those provisions be committed to a Committee of the whole House.

Ordered,That, when the provisions of the Bill considered respectively by the Committee of the whole House and by the Standing Committee have been reported to the House, the Bill be proceeded with as if the Bill had been reported as a whole to the House from the Standing Committee.