With your permission, Mr. Armstrong, I should like to press the Financial Secretary to explain the change in business. As the Committee will recall, yesterday we had before us a procedural motion which outlined the order in which the clauses would be taken on the Floor of the House. Some of us, especially those who had tabled a motion to reduce the petrol price by 2p, which was to have been considered first this afternoon, were surprised at the motion to change the order of business. It would be helpful to the Committee if the right hon. Gentleman explained why this rather unusual and rapid change of business has been proposed.
For the convenience of the Committee, I shall explain the reason. I shall not go into the substance of the point. The proposed amendment may not lead to a reduction in the price of petrol. It may lead to an increase in vehicle excise duty. I thought that it would be for the convenience of the official Opposition if we took the clauses in a different order. That matter was considered through the usual channels. We have plenty of time, I gather, to discuss both issues. That was the sole reason for the change.
With your permission Mr. Armstrong, I do not think that that is a very satisfactory explanation. As the Financial Secretary and the Committee will know, the price of petrol considerably affects rural areas, not least areas such as west Derbyshire and Ryedale. I always hesitate to think badly of Ministers, or of the usual channels, which do not incorporate these Benches, but, like other hon. Members, I shall be interested to hear the attitude of the Labour party to the change of business. Last year on the Finance Bill, the Labour party opposed changes in the price of petrol and the increase in petrol duty. I had assumend that Labour Members would want to seek the full glare of publicity for the alliance motion by taking it early in the debate, so that voters in tomorrow's elections and all the people in rural areas could note that the alliance and Labour Members opposed the increase in petrol tax and—
Of course, Mr. Armstrong, but I think that you will agree that it is unusual for the business to be changed in this way. Although the inheritance tax —it is proposed to be the first business that we consider—is important to some, it is not important to the large majority of people in the same way as petrol duty, which the Government have increased substantially. For that reason, my hon. Friends and I were anxious to have an extensive debate on the increase in petrol taxes arid an opportunity to reduce the price of petrol, especially for people in rural areas.
I should have been happy to respond to that point, but I shall bear in mind your ruling, Mr. Armstrong.
This is an important matter, not only to those in rural areas but to all car owners and to businesses which will have to pay more than the duty because of the Government's increases in petrol tax. The Committee deserves a better explanation of the reasons why the Labour party and the Conservative party got together through the usual channels to stop the debate on the alliance motion from taking place in the early part of the evening, and to shuttle it off into the late hours when it would not receive the public attention that it deserved.
It may help the Committee —[Interruption.] I thought that the alliance was anxious to get on with the debate. The Labour party is certainly anxious to debate the increase in petrol tax and the abolition of capital transfer tax on gifts.
I make it clear that there was no question of the Labour party and the Conservative party getting together. [Interruption.] I do not usually divulge what happens through the usual channels, but on this occasion I shall. It was a matter not of the Conservative party and the Labour party getting together but of the Government responding to a perfectly proper request by the Opposition about the order in which—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Wrigglesworth) claimed that he would like to understand the reasons. If he restrains himself a little, I shall give him all the reasons.
The Labour party made a request to the Government. We appreciate the Government's courtesy and their willingness to accommodate us. When the hon. Member for Stockton, South has more experience of our proceedings in Standing Committees on Finance Bills—
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will study the debate more closely and attend more frequently.
My experience of Standing Committees on Finance Bills is that representatives of the alliance have been more noticeable by their absence than by their presence. I shall not go any further. I was going to explain why I asked the Government to change the order of business. I realise that the reason may be strange to the alliance, but my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Dr. McDonald) will deal with the capital transfer tax provisions and, as a gentleman, I wanted the lady to speak first.
Like the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Wrigglesworth), I have tabled an amendment to clause 2, but, unlike the hon. Gentleman and his alliance colleagues, I feel that my amendment is so important that I am prepared to stay, no matter how late the debate goes. Alliance Members merely want to dash off home.
I should like to support the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Wrigglesworth). Last week, during Scottish Question Time, we had exchanges with Scottish Office Ministers about the price of petrol. Because I represent a highlands and islands constituency, the matter is obviously of considerable importance to me. I was therefore extremely pleased that my alliance colleagues took the opportunity this afternoon to table an amendment on petrol prices and so enable us to have a debate during which I could express some of the genuine concerns in that part of the United Kingdom.
Does the hon. Gentleman realise that we shall debate clause 2 when the alliance allows us to proceed with the business? We shall deal with capital transfer tax, and then petrol tax. The alliance seems to be concerned about the petrol tax, and I am delighted to note that, because last year when we debated the petrol tax I did not notice alliance Members in either Division Lobby. They did not vote for the Government, or against them. It seems that this year they have decided that this is the most important political issue of the moment. It is certainly extremely important. It was important to the Labour party last year, as it is this year. It seems that it is important to the alliance only this year. I can only conclude that there is something different about this year. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that tomorrow there will be by-elections and there were none at this time last year.
I feel that the hon. Gentleman's memory is somewhat at fault. If he looks at the Division lists of a year ago, he will find that the alliance firmly took the view that we were willing to support indexation. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will check on that, and if my memory is wrong I shall retract what I said, with apologies. However, that is my firm recollection.
I know that Ministers appreciate that this is an important issue for rural areas, and no more so than for the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. That is why it struck me that the opportunity for a debate at this time of the day, when considerable public attention would be focused on it, was worth while. I find it somewhat disappointing that those who are only too willing to call for debates at certain times of the day in order to focus public attention on them—quite rightly on major issues, whatever they may be —are willing to turn that argument on its head when it suits them to ensure that this issue is not debated now. I echo the disappointment expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South.
There is much indignation about this matter. Will the hon. Gentleman say whether he and his colleagues and members of the Liberal party will vote on this issue? Does it matter so much? Is it the timing that matters, or are they so serious that they will vote on this issue?
Will the hon. Gentleman explain to me, a mere Ulster Unionist Member excluded from the main stream of British politics, why Conservative Members seem to want to avoid this issue?
I am not quite sure what the issue is to which the hon. Gentleman is referring. If I assume, as I am sure the Chair would want me to, that he is referring to the issue that we are debating, I share his sense of curiosity. I am sure that his constituents, like mine, will share a sense of disappointment when it is known locally that this important matter, which deserves public debate and has been raised consistently by alliance Members and by others from both sides of the House—
—representing all shades of political opinion, is not to be debated at this time. Like my hon. Friends the Members for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) and for Stockton, South, I should like to express my considerable regret that the usual channels have taken this short-sighted and damaging decision.
On a point of order, Mr. Armstrong. Is it in order for the hon. Gentleman, who represents a party which has consistently voted with the Labour party to raise rates, to introduce a populist tax-cutting measure on the eve of a by-election without explaining how the alliance will pay for its high-spending policies?
I am inherently far less suspicious of my hon. Friends. I have no doubt that Conservative Members are rather disappointed that we will not have an opportunity to discuss petrol tax first. My complaint is not that the change has taken place. It is conceivable that the reasons and arguments put forward for the change through the official channels are such that if one were familiar with them one would accept them. My complaint is that, although somebody might have been inconvenienced by the original prescribed order of business, that is what was announced, and that is what we all react to and try to deal with.
Changes have been made, and I might approve of them if I knew the reasons. The fact is that alliance Members are excluded from discussions on proposed changes and therefore we cannot make a value judgment on the reasons for the changes. It may be that the reasons are overwhelming and that we would be more than willing to go along with them, but we were excluded from the discussions. Having been a member of the House for a while, although I would regard my level of suspicion as very low, I cannot help but wonder whether putting the petrol debate off has something to do with polling day tomorrow. I could not say that with confidence, but one wonders whether behind the scenes the request was subject to other considerations. That is the point that we are making.
If there is to be an official change in business—I accept that without them the House could not operate—more than just the official Opposition should be involved in those channels. In an odd way it does the Government no good, because it looks as though they are operating a Lab-Con pact—which many of us suspect they operate, to their mutual benefit — and to limit the alliance's opportunity to argue its case. That is my moderate case compared with the more strident views expressed by my hon. Friends the Members for Stockton, South (Mr. Wrigglesworth) and for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy). I believe that the way in which the business has been changed is unsatisfactory.
I know that the House is keen to come to a decision on this matter as quickly as possible, and the arguments have been canvassed. However, there can be no doubt that in the context of this year's budget the decisions which the Government have made on the abolition of capital transfer tax and its replacement by inheritance tax are of fundamental importance.
The House listened with respect, as it always does, to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Davis) telling us why the official Opposition wish to deal with this issue as a matter of priority. The hon. Gentleman's reasons are cogent enough for the Committee to follow and to support the motion which my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary has proposed.
The Liberal party and the alliance are always making great play of the fact that they support small businesses. The future of small businesses, especially in Ryedale and West Derbyshire, to which the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Wrigglesworth) referred, are of fundamental importance. I do not have the slightest doubt that all those in those constituencies who can see that their businesses are threatened by the continuation of capital transfer tax will be conscious of the fact that the alliance parties are postponing the decision while the rest of the Committee, including the official Opposition, wish to get on with it.
I am sure that we wish to proceed to the real business of the day. I have some sympathy with the comments of the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon). I understand his sense of being excluded, and his concern. However, I remember the awkwardness of the poor alliance parties last night. Between the Second Reading of the Bill and last night they decided not to vote, having voted on one key issue—income tax.
They obviously want to move on with the business as rapidly as possible, because they might change their mind between now and when the issue is raised in the next hour or two.
Having said that, I am looking forward with enormous pleasure, especially remembering the Public Accounts Committee and the contributions of the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon), let alone the Liberal party's policy document of 22 April on the environment and vehicle excise duty, to the debate on the motorist, because the Government have an outstanding record on that issue.