Section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993

– in the House of Commons at 10:22 pm on 12th December 2000.

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Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office 10:22 pm, 12th December 2000

I beg to move, That, for the purposes of their approval under section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993, the Financial Statement and Budget Report 2000–01, the Economic and Fiscal Strategy Report 2000–01 and the Pre-Budget Report 2000 shall be treated as if they were instruments subject to the provisions of Standing Order No. 118 (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation). I stress that I want to say little about the 1993 Act, the Financial Statement and Budget Report 2000–01, the Economic and Fiscal Strategy Report 2000–01 or the Pre-Budget Report 2000. Even if I wished to focus on their content, I suspect that you, Mr. Speaker, would rule me out of order. I am sure that many right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House will have much to say, and the motion before us allows that to happen in an appropriate way, but at present we are discussing the process for that discussion rather than the content of it.

Section 5 of the—

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

The Minister will know that section 5 states that these reports will be the basis of submissions to the European Commission. Will the House read what information the Government send on the basis of that, or will the information be kept secret and away from the House? In other words, will the Government tell us what information they will pass on, which we note must be based on two large reports?

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

I am about to describe the process and I shall take the hon. Gentleman through it before answering his point. Section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act provides that both Houses must approve a report to Parliament on the Government's assessment of the medium term economic and budgetary position in relation to public investment expenditure and to the social, economic and environmental goals set out in Article 2 of the treaty. As in previous years, the section 5 report is to be the Financial Statement and Budget Report, the Economic and Fiscal Strategy Report and the Pre-Budget Report published on 8 November. That is the material to be discussed by the Committee. It is important that we have that discussion before discussing the material to be sent on to the Commission, but the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) makes a fair point: in the interests of openness, the material sent by the Treasury to the Commission should be available for public inspection.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

The Minister is being helpful. Will he confirm that all Members of Parliament will be able to read the information that the Government send to the Commission, if they wish to do so? That would be a most helpful concession and clarification.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

If the hon. Gentleman is asking me to ensure that, following the discussion in Committee, the report sent by the Government to the Commission is made available in the Library to all Members of Parliament, I am happy to arrange that. The answer is yes.

The motion allows the discussion to take place in Standing Committee, rather than on the Floor of the House. The motion is not unprecedented: this is the third annual programme to be submitted in that way, and the section 5 debate was carried out upstairs in 1997–98 and 1998–99. Debate in Committee will last for exactly the same time as it would on the Floor of the House—one and a half hours—and any Member will be able to participate in that debate.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Is the Minister telling us that, if we agree to the motion, all Members of Parliament—or at least, over 500 of them—will have only an hour and a half to consider these matters and that there will be no further opportunity to do so?

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

Let me make two points in response. The documents for discussion are the Financial Statement and Budget Report 2000–01, the Economic and Fiscal Strategy Report 2000–01 and the Pre-Budget Report 2000, all of which the House has had an opportunity to discuss. The right hon. Gentleman asks whether only an hour and a half is to be available for the debate. That is so, and it would be so if the debate were held on the Floor of the House. With those remarks, I commend this simple motion to the House.

Photo of Angela Browning Angela Browning Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 10:28 pm, 12th December 2000

Based on the figures in the documents, will the Minister tell the House how close the Government are to meeting the two tests relating to the deficit criterion and the debt criterion, and in which year they will meet their own five key convergence tests for giving up the pound for the euro? The figures on which the Minister is working go up to 2005–06, but in which year are we likely to meet the convergence criteria set by the Government—or have we already done so?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst 10:29 pm, 12th December 2000

The motion is one of those seemingly innocuous motions which the Government would prefer the House to nod through quietly. It will probably be subject to the ghastly new deferred vote mechanism. Given the number of hon. Members who are present tonight, several hundred hon. Members will magically appear to vote on Wednesday with little or no idea of what has been discussed. However, that is how the Government want to run the House of Commons and the country and, for the time being, that is how it must be. I am delighted to say that the debate has no time limit, and presumably cannot be subject to a closure motion because all the Government Members have gone home. That is another interesting thought which we might wish to ponder and explore on future occasions. These debates literally mean "until any hour", unless Members are brought back to impose a closure.

We are being asked to deliberate on some substantial documents. The Pre-Budget Report alone is a large and expensive document, with a cover price of £40. Here, according to the Government, is £40-worth of material, along with several other documents, which the Minister now tells us will have to be dealt with in an hour and a half in a Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation, in which he says, with great generosity, that all Members of Parliament may participate.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

It may be true that all Members of Parliament may participate, but will my right hon. Friend confirm that not all Members of Parliament can vote?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I regret that my right hon. and learned Friend is correct on that matter. Roughly 500 Members who are not on the payroll can turn up in the Committee—I hope that a large Room has been booked for the purpose—and seek to catch the Chairman's eye to debate the Pre-Budget Report, among other documents, for an hour and a half, but, regrettably, at the end of the process, only the members of the Committee will be able to vote on the matter, and that will be the last word that the House has.

The Government are trying, in order to conceal I know not what, to slip some substantial and important material through a Committee which, by its very nature, can hardly be representative of the House. That would be bad enough—I refer to the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor)—but section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993, referred to in the motion, states: Her Majesty's Government shall report to Parliament for its approval— it says only "for its approval", not "or not", or "for its consideration", which rather prejudges the matter in an undesirable way— an assessment of the medium term economic and budgetary position in relation to public investment expenditure and to the social, economic and environmental goals … That is presumably what this large amount of material is about. Then the section says: which report shall form the basis of any submission to the Council and Commission. Presumably, "which report" must and can only in this context refer to all the documentation referred to in the motion. But the section says "shall form the basis". The Committee is presumably being asked to consider all this material in some way, and then to take as a matter of faith the means by which Her Majesty's Government will report it.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

Would it not be right for the Government to attach a health warning to any recommendation in the report that they may make to the effect that it has been considered in Committee by a small number of hon. Members, with an even smaller number of hon. Members able to vote?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Yes, that would certainly be in the cause of transparency—about which we hear quite a lot from the Government these days—to say nothing of freedom of information. Why on earth we should be reporting anything to the Council and Commission is beyond me, but that is a matter for another day. But given that we are apparently now obliged to make such reports to these bureaucracies, then—as my right hon. and learned Friend says—in order that the Council and Commission may assess the value of the report, we should tell them that it has been dealt with in a scanty way by the House.

Things get worse. I pick up here the reference to Standing Order No. 118, which deals with Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation. I am not sure whether what we are talking about is delegated legislation at all. The Standing Order states: There shall be one or more standing committees, to be called Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation, for the consideration of such instruments (whether or not in draft) as may be referred to them. I do not know whether we are considering instruments in the strict sense of the term; we are certainly not considering legislation. It is therefore odd, to say the least, that Standing Order No. 118 has been chosen to deal with those matters.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Do not the seven words shall be treated as if they were give the game away?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

They do. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. The whole procedure smacks of some sort of shameful sleight of hand. We would be better served if the Government were more straightforward with the House, and gave us many opportunities to consider such matters properly.

We have dealt—but not properly—with motion 6, which is in the name of the Leader of the House. It proposed: That the House shall not sit on the following Fridays — It goes on to name 10 or 11 Fridays in 2001 on which the Government do not want the House of Commons to sit. Why do the Government want to slip the material in motion 9 through in an hour and a half when we could deal with it properly on any of the Fridays on which they have the gall to suggest that the House should not sit?

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the health warning should state that, notwithstanding the fact that we had ample time, the Government chose not to use it, but instead to stick the reports mentioned in the motion upstairs in Committee, where only a small number of hon. Members can speak and vote?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

My right hon. and learned Friend makes a helpful suggestion. The European bureaucracies apparently insist on receiving a meaningless report after scant or no scrutiny by the House of Commons. It would therefore make a lot of sense if we attached all sorts of warnings to it, saying, "Don't be fooled by this document; it has barely been examined by the House of Commons. It is simply the Government's version of what is going on, and, if I were you, oh bureaucrats of Europe, I should pay little or no attention to it." If nothing else emerges from the open-ended debate with no time limit on which we are embarking, such valuable information may be discerned and passed on to the bureaucrats.

I have expressed brief, preliminary thoughts. I am sure that other hon. Members want to elaborate on them. They have plenty of time to do that because the Government have generously allowed us all night to consider the motion. Subsequently, I must check the procedure for what would happen if the debate continued until 2.30 pm tomorrow. It is an intriguing thought that, were we able to discuss the substance of the reports, the Government, in their generosity, might have allowed us sufficient time to do that. I know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you will watch like a hawk to ensure that I make no attempt to discuss the substance; I shall not do that. I simply speculate that, under some circumstances, such a debate could continue throughout the night because a closure is no longer possible. I should like to ponder that thought and return to it on a subsequent occasion.

I urge the House to vote against the motion because I believe that it is superficial and secretive and suggests that the Government have much more to hide.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My right hon. Friend alluded to an important point: the possibility—I put it no more strongly—that the debate might continue throughout the night. In such circumstances, does my right hon. Friend believe that it would be a definite breach of protocol if, at some stage during the night, no member of the Treasury Bench were present?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I think that that would not only be extremely irregular but would display contempt of the House. However, that would be nothing new from the Government. We have come to expect from them constant and continual contempt of the House and its traditions, and an attitude that the House of Commons does not matter any more because the Government must have their way and are entitled to do everything that they present to the House without proper scrutiny and now without even a proper vote.

We now have the ridiculous procedure of so-called deferred Divisions. I suggest that when we embark on such Divisions, probably as soon as tomorrow, the world will see how ludicrous and bizarre they are. Again, that is a story for another day. I urge the House to reject the motion.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor Conservative, Rochford and Southend East 10:40 pm, 12th December 2000

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) has rightly attacked the Government in a vicious manner for the scandalous activities in which they are involved, but it is only fair to say that I am grateful to them for the chance to ask some questions that I tried hard to put during debates on the Maastricht Bill and the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993, which was passed by the previous Government.

I have two simple questions, which I was unable to have clarified at that time. First, are we obliged to submit such reports to the European Union and what would happen if we did not do so? I want the Government to make the position clear. Is there an absolute obligation to submit those reports? Would Treasury Ministers end up in a Euro prison if they did not do so and could Britain be fined? Those are important matters.

My second question is also important. Is there any procedure whereby the European Commission or European officials could take the view that the information provided by Britain was not accurate or proper and could they ask for further information? Obviously, we cannot go into the detail of the reports in any way, but I want to put to the Government three brief points that worry me.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

Well, I do not want to waste any time. I appreciate that the Minister works extremely hard in the House of Commons, and I do not want to keep him from his bed unnecessarily.

We must consider environmental issues. I have two brief points to make on "Budget 2000", one of which concerns pesticides, which are vital to the environment. The Government say that their policy—

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I have been lenient, but I must say to the hon. Gentleman that we are debating not the content of the reports, but simply whether they shall be treated as if they were instruments subject to the provisions of Standing Order No. 118 … We cannot discuss the detail.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

I accept that absolutely; I simply point out that the question of whether information is accurate or propaganda is terribly important in relation to whether it should be considered by a specialist Committee of MPs or by the whole House. If there were any question of misunderstandings being created, the whole House should discuss such information. That point might influence how Members vote on the motion.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

Does my hon. Friend accept that a defect of the process that we are being asked to approve is that that process will not allow the House an opportunity to add to or subtract from the reports? That means that they will be imperfect documents because they cannot properly reflect the views of the House.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

My right hon. and learned Friend is right to point out that our democracy was effectively destroyed by membership of the European Union and the various treaties cast by previous Parliaments. I have argued for many years that joining a European Union that has approved such treaties has effectively destroyed our democracy. I am very glad indeed that he accepts that point, which is why I am sure that he must have been with me in opposing all those dreadful treaties.

It is crucial to consider what would happen if the EU said, "This is not the information that we want—it is a lot of silly propaganda." That is important in terms of whether such information should be considered by a Committee or the whole House. "Budget 2000" states: There is increasing evidence that pesticides use is associated with significant environmental impacts … and water quality. The Government is committed to minimising the environmental impact of pesticides, consistent with adequate crop protection. What on earth does that mean? Basically, that we are on everyone's side and have no policy at all. Please do not think that I am attacking the Government—I am asking a simple question: the Commission could say that a report was a load of rubbish and not what it wanted, but would it have the power to say to us, "We do not think that the report is adequate or appropriate in terms of the legislation"?

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

Does my hon. Friend agree that there should be some process whereby we can make it clear in the report that there were 14 Members of the House present when the report that is to be transmitted to the Commission was debated? The fact that there are but 14 Members present rather undermines the suggestion that the report has the approval of the House.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

I cannot be responsible for the number of Members present in the Chamber. That is a difficult argument, because if we are deciding whether the matter should go to a Committee or be considered on the Floor of the House, some people may say, "What does it matter whether we have 14 people down here or 14 people upstairs in Committee?".

What happens if the Commission, when it considers the report, takes the view that it is not accurate? I shall give a specific example.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman again, but I shall increasingly have to interrupt hon. Members unless they stick more strictly to the motion before the House. The House is being asked whether it will treat these reports as if they were instruments subject to the provisions of Standing Order No. 118. That is all.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

You are absolutely right, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That is why I want to make this one point. If we approved or rejected this motion, how would the Committee or the House view a letter from the Commission saying, "In our opinion, this point is not accurate"?

I shall just mention the issue of EU contributions, because I asked the Prime Minister about that when he made his statement yesterday and he said that they were going down. Page 190 of the report says that our EU contributions in the forthcoming year will be £6.6 billion.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that he is now persisting along a route that he should not be taking. I ask him to bear in mind what I have already said.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

I certainly will, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I shall bring my remarks to a close.

Should the motion go to a Committee or should it be considered on the Floor of the House? Will the Government say specifically and clearly what we will be considering? Will we simply consider the Government sending a piece of paper to the European Commission saying, "That's it. If you don't like it, too bad"? Will the Government say that we must send it by a certain date? What will happen if we do not send the report, and what will happen if the Commission takes the view that it is either inaccurate or it does not deal with the policy issues as effectively as it should?

We are considering a motion about whether reports should go to a Committee or to the House as a whole. Before we decide whether they should go to a small group of experts or should be considered by all of us, it is terribly important for us to know whether this is a serious issue or just a bit of fun.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My hon. Friend has flagged up important issues of concern to all right hon. and hon. Members. Does he agree that it would have been courteous and true to form if the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, had set out some of these points right at the beginning? It is peculiar that a request for information should have to be made.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

I appreciate fully what my hon. Friend says. Although he is a recent arrival, he is a leading and outstanding Member of the House of Commons. I can assure him that some of the old lags and I have asked Ministers these questions on the treaties year after year. I have felt the same frustration as he has. Even Ministers from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—an outstanding former Minister of Agriculture is present—

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

Will my hon. Friend please reconsider the use of the word "expert"? He suggested that this matter will be committed to a Committee of experts. Perhaps he would care to confirm, lest the Commission is listening, that those whom he calls experts are in fact designated by the Government Whips.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

Neither the Government Whips nor the Opposition Whips would appoint anyone to a Committee unless they had special qualifications. Is my right hon. and learned Friend suggesting that Government and Opposition Whips send any old rubbish up to the Committee? Of course, they do not.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I am suggesting not that the Whips would send any old rubbish up to the Committee, but that they would send tame Members of Parliament.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I should point out to the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) and other right hon. and hon. Members that we are now straying well away from the motion.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

I agree, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Unfair attacks have been made on the party Whips, who always do their job with great care and attention.

I have asked the Minister three questions, which I hope he will answer. I merely want to establish whether this is simply a bit of fun—an irrelevant nonsense. Is it just a case of our having to send some documents to those in Europe—and if they do not like what we send, too bad—or is it serious business? If it is serious business, some of us would like it to come to the House of Commons, so that we can look at it carefully. If, on the other hand, this is simply something that we have to do, and we are going to send something that is not too accurate without including—as we are meant to—comparisons with other member states, some of us would like to know that.

I have been asking such questions for a long time. The Minister was very helpful in saying that he would ensure that the House of Commons Library had a copy of what the Government sent to the Commission, but I want him to answer my questions. I want to know—I have tried to find it out from Ministers responsible for Europe before, in the present and the last Government—whether this is serious business, or simply something we have to do that does not matter too much.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Conservative, Aldershot 10:51 pm, 12th December 2000

I do not want to detain the House for long, but I think it important to discuss whether these matters should be considered on the Floor of the House, or treated as delegated legislation and discussed by a Committee with just a few members. While I accept that any Member of the House would be entitled to speak, a Committee debate would take place away from public view, and would not have the prominence that would be given to a debate on the Floor of the House.

I enjoyed one or two benefits as a result of sitting out the last Parliament and resting between engagements. I did not have to vote on the Maastricht treaty, and on legislation similar to what we are discussing now. That was one of the pleasures of not being in the last Parliament. I will say that, had I been here, I would unquestionably have voted against the Maastricht treaty. I abstained when the Prime Minister came back from Maastricht in December 1991, but as I was then parliamentary private secretary to my right hon. and noble Friend Lady Thatcher, I was obliged by convention not to vote against a matter of important Government policy. However, I did not have to vote for that legislation—the motion arises from the obligations assumed by the United Kingdom as a result of the Maastricht treaty.

I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) was a smidgen uncharitable to the Minister, who treats the House with courtesy and tries to explain as much as possible to enable the House to reach a judgment. However, on this occasion the Minister has not explained—as I hope he will a little more—about the information that is required under article 103(3) of the treaty establishing the European Community.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) asked about convergence criteria. In the margin next to section 5 are the words Convergence criteria: assessment of deficits. I do not have a copy of the treaty with me—despite my known scepticism, I do not keep a copy under my pillow or close to my person—but I recall that the business of deficits is extremely important. The treaty confers substantial powers on the European Commission to fine Governments who are found to have run up budget deficits in excess of—is it 3.5 per cent. of gross domestic product? I am sure that the Minister for Europe has the figure at his fingertips. A budget deficit in excess of that would render any member state liable to a fine, and the United kingdom would be one of those members. Although we have an opt-out on the single currency, as I recall—my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton may be able to correct me if I am wrong—the measures apply to us, so we are bound by the legislation. It is material legislation in so far as it confers a substantial power on the European Commission.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Am I not right in thinking that that point was clearly established towards the fag end of the previous Parliament, when my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) was subjected to scrutiny on the point?

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Conservative, Aldershot

My hon. Friend probably has a better memory on those matters than me, but I recall that it was a big issue. Therefore, the importance of the issue has a bearing on whether the matter should be dealt with in a Committee upstairs, or on the Floor of the House. The Minister has already said that a previous example is being followed. It may be that we do not wish to be thought to be creating a precedent.

The Government seem to be saying that, instead of drawing up new information and an entirely separate document, in which we set out the information that is required under article 103(3) or under section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993, we have a number of documents that are readily available for public scrutiny, not to mention scrutiny by right hon. and hon. Members, including this year's Budget document.

The advertising slogans on Government documents are a bit rich at public expense. One example is "Prudent for a Purpose: Working for a Stronger and Fairer Britain", which is a bit nauseating. It is the Red Book, even though it is white—I refer to the Budget 2000 statement. Another example is the pre-Budget report, which was published last month. I have not studied that. I accept that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would not wish me to study it tonight, or to acquaint the House with the results of my studies. Nevertheless, from some of the complicated pages on public finances in the pre-Budget report, it would seem that, certainly for the coming year, the Government are unlikely to run the risk of falling foul of the requirements in relation to the national budget deficit and our obligations under the Maastricht treaty to maintain the deficit within certain limits.

There could, however, come a time when the picture looked less rosy. After all, the Government have had the great benefit of inheriting a magnificently well-founded economy. My right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) left the economy in such a splendid state that even this lot have been unable to muck it up as yet.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Conservative, Aldershot

It is not a joke. It is a serious point. I say in parenthesis that the Government have made great claims about the success of the economy.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Conservative, Aldershot

I thought that I might be pulled up.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

The hon. Gentleman knows that he is straying way away from the motion. He must come back to the motion.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Conservative, Aldershot

I thought that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, might allow me a tiny stray because I was provoked.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

My hon. Friend will recall the Minister saying that the Government expect the matter to be dealt with in an hour and a half—no more than that—in a Committee. Presumably, some of that time will be taken up by the Minister, if a Minister bothers to attend the Committee. Does my hon. Friend agree that an hour and a half is enough time for the entirety of the House of Commons and all its Members to consider properly the matters that he is describing?

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Conservative, Aldershot

My right hon. Friend asks a good and interesting question. I do not underestimate the gravity with which the matter should be regarded, as it deals with a sphere of United Kingdom Government policy over which the European Commission has very substantial powers. It is therefore only right and proper that as many hon. Members as possible are given an opportunity to discuss the matter before a submission is made to Brussels.

Ministers should not allow other Labour Members weeks away from the House to fiddle around in their constituencies, clearing blocked drains for their constituents. That is not why we were sent to this place. We have been sent here to try to scrutinise complex documents, ensure that we look after the overall national interest and hold the Government to account for their actions on these very substantial matters.

I regret that a feature particularly of Liberal Democrat politics—because they do not have a view on most of the big issues—is to judge hon. Members partly on the basis of how well they address those parish pump issues, whereas what we should be doing is to spend time in the House addressing the big issues.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

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.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Conservative, Aldershot

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.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

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 suppose that 20 or 30 hon. Members will wish to speak? What does my hon. Friend think the Government's response would be if substantially more hon. Members wished to speak?

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I do not wish the hon. Gentleman to go down that track. The time has been established.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Conservative, Aldershot

I am most grateful to you, as ever, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for that guidance. As I understand it, most delegated legislation Committees run for 90 minutes.

By what process of consultation was this decided? Was it through the usual channels?

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

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.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Conservative, Aldershot

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.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Conservative, Aldershot

May I allow the Minister to explain first?

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

Such debates have always been 90 minutes. They were 90 minutes under the Government that the hon. Gentleman supported.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Conservative, Aldershot

Again, I am grateful to the Minister.

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.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

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.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Conservative, Aldershot

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.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch 11:07 pm, 12th December 2000

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

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. Unless the hon. Gentleman can address himself precisely to the motion before the House, I shall have to ask him to take his seat.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

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.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham 11:10 pm, 12th December 2000

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.

We need to be able to communicate at least to the reports' recipients that the procedure motion has not been considered by those who are voting on it. It is perfectly true that hon. Members who have not heard the debates on motions often vote on them, but to vote the following day—

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. We are here to debate the motion, not the voting procedure.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

Of course I shall adhere to your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but that was the first point that I wanted to make.

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.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

Does not my right hon. and learned Friend accept that the situation is far more serious that he suggests? Even if we could change the wording of the documents, under section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993—an unusual measure—the amended documents would not be sent to the Commission. A report based on such documents is sent. So even if all our hon. Friends said that they did not like what the documents say about agriculture and wanted to change that, it would not matter because the Government send a report based on the documents; they do not send the documents themselves. So democracy has been more undermined by section 5 of that Act than perhaps my right hon. and learned Friend realises.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. He may well be right. Although we have differed on many matters in the past, we are broadly saying the same thing on this occasion—whatever view the Committee expresses and sends to the Commission, it will not necessarily reflect the true view of either the country or the House.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

How on earth did the legislation go through the House?

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I am not disagreeing with my hon. Friend. He makes an additional point that may well be right, but the essential fact is that the process on which we are embarking enables us either to approve or disapprove the reports, but gives us no ability to amend them. That lies at the root of my objection. In theory, there may be a case for a Committee to consider the matter, but only on the basis that it can amend the reports.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

My hon. Friend says that the Committee cannot do that, and I agree with him. That is why the procedure is so defective.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that one of the reasons why it is wrong to treat the documents on a par with and as if they were delegated legislation is that to do so gives the impression that they are a fait accompli? In fact, far from being delegated legislation, they are precursors to legislation.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I do not agree with my hon. Friend, but he makes an interesting point that I would like to amplify. When people deal with legislation, they consider the consequences of what they write rather more carefully than they would if they were concerned only with a report. If they write legislation, they have to consider, for example, the penal sanctions for those people who contravene its terms. Naturally, even this Government consider carefully the terms of legislation. However, they are able to take a much more cavalier attitude to reports, because they know full well that a report—as distinct from legislation—can never be the subject of judicial review.

My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) makes an interesting point. By referring to this matter as though it were delegated legislation, we are cloaking the process with a degree of respectability that Government propaganda does not deserve. One of the things that most of our colleagues in the European Union would accept is that this country is, generally speaking, careful about legislation.

By moving the motion, the Government are indulging in a sleight of hand that is not respectable. The House needs to devise a mechanism by which we can say, when we remit the matter to the Commission, that it is not legislation but Government propaganda; that the Committee that has considered it has not had the opportunity to amend it; that the issue has been considered only by those Members who are acceptable to the Government Whips and, by definition, that is not a test of the view of the House; and that the House has not had a chance to express a view or to vote on the matter. In short, this is worthless report and should be treated as such. My advice to Members is that they should have nothing to do with a process that is a denial of democracy.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office 11:18 pm, 12th December 2000

Several hon. Members have said that this has been a serious and interesting debate, and I agree with them. It has been extremely interesting and it has given the House the opportunity to test out our new processes, a point that the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) acknowledged. This is the first opportunity that we have had to test the procedures to be used this Session. If I read the mood of the House correctly, there will be plenty more testing of them, and we shall see how we proceed. I have certainly enjoyed the debate.

As I said in my introductory remarks, I shall focus on the process behind the motion rather than on the substance of section 5. I shall try to resist the temptation of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), who challenged me by saying that I should have answered the questions before they were asked. That is an interesting concept. I know that I have a degree of telepathy and understanding of the House, but he will forgive me for not answering all his questions before he asked them. He would think me churlish if I answered the wrong question.

The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham realised, on reflection, that this was a matter of process rather than substance. Nevertheless, several questions have been asked, and I shall try, with your forbearance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to answer them without straying outside what I see as the terms of the debate.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

Yes, there is, and if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I shall make progress. I have not even begun to answer any of the questions that were asked.

The shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), asked me, in effect, whether this was to be a debate on whether the United Kingdom was meeting the five economic tests. She questioned whether the documents that have figured in our debate are sufficiently up to date to enable Members on the Floor of the House or in a Committee to decide whether those tests are being met.

This debate does not concern an update on the five economic tests. The programme provides information on UK economic policies in line with the stability and growth pact. It does not assess whether the UK has achieved cyclical conversion within the euro area. The hon. Lady will know—my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury reassures me on this point and tells me to be firm, and it is widespread currency—that the Government have said that we will produce another assessment of the five tests early in the next Parliament.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), whom I suspect will be with us shortly, made a good case for himself being a member of the Committee. There has been much debate about who the members of the Committee should be. There are plenty of volunteers on the Opposition Whips Bench. I want to reinforce the point that hon. Members can attend Committees and speak in their debates, whether or not they are members of those Committees. In preparing for the debate, I took the precaution of looking at Opposition Members' attendance at the previous two such Committee debates, and I have to say that it was extremely sparse. I look forward, if this matter is referred to a Committee, to studying the attendance record and reading the report of its proceedings.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

Would the hon. Gentleman care to remind the House that although hon. Members who are not members of a Committee may attend and speak, they may not vote?

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

That is clearly the case, and that is one of the reasons for this debate. It has also been one of its themes. The right hon. and learned Gentleman and many of his colleagues—the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, in particular—have accused the Government of trying to slip the motion through the House without allowing sufficient time for debate. As I said to the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), the time allowed for the debate has not changed. Such debates are always allotted 90 minutes, whether they are held on the Floor of the House, if that is what the House chooses, or in Standing Committee. That is the nature of our Standing Orders.

The hon. Gentleman told us that we were sending the matter to a Standing Committee to put it out of sight and out of mind. He did not use those words, but he said that the debate would take place away from public view. The Committee will be open to the public, and there is no question of us trying to hide it.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Conservative, Aldershot

I entirely accept that the Standing Committee will be open to the public. My point was that proceedings are generally more visible if they take place on the Floor of the House. I know that the Press Gallery is empty now, but there is more focus on what goes on in the House than on what happens in Committee.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

I look forward to reading the hon. Gentleman's important comments in tomorrow's national press. He has made many valid points and I would be disappointed if The Daily Telegraph and The Times did not quote him at length.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, who, surprisingly, has not yet rejoined the debate, asked whether the procedure under Standing Order No. 16 was appropriate. Standing Order No. 16 provides for the Question to be put after one and a half hours on any motion pursuant to an Act. He argued that, since the motion was not a statutory instrument, Standing Order No. 16 did not apply. As section 5 of the 1993 Act is clearly part of an Act, it is eligible for such debate.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Does not the fact that, effectively, the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993 is a constitutional measure lend prima facie support to the notion that debate should take place not in Committee but on the Floor of the House?

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

I do not think that that leads to prima facie support. Some of the hon. Gentleman's colleagues asked whether there had been a request from those on the Opposition Front Bench for the matter to be debated on the Floor of the House. I say directly to him that there has not been such a request. I have no problem with that. There are frequent discussions between the Front-Bench teams about the ordering of business, but, on this occasion, we have not been asked for such a debate. However, other hon. Members have asked for a debate on the Floor of the House.

I was pleased to be able to help the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) earlier. I confirm that when the report is produced—following debate in Committee, I hope—I will arrange for any document that goes to the Commission to be placed, for his perusal and that of other Members, in the Library. He asked me some questions and I must be careful about my answers because I do not want to stray out of order. He asked whether we were obliged to submit a report to the Commission. That is the nature of the treaty; that is the agreement; that is our treaty obligation. He asked whether there is any procedure for the Commission to question the Government's report. Yes, I would expect the possibility of the Commission asking questions about it. Thirdly, he asked by what date must we get the report to the Commission. It is our intention to ensure that the report is with the Commission by the end of this calendar year.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

What the Minister has said is most helpful, but I have just one tiny further point. If, by chance, the Commission were to say to the Government after they submit their report that it is not happy, that it is doubtful and that it disapproves of the report, would the Government make that public and tell the House of Commons? That is relevant to whether we should consider the matter in Committee or on the Floor of the House, and it is a terribly important constitutional issue.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

It is an important issue. If such queries are raised, there will be opportunities for the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members to pursue the matter. Clearly, if there is conflict between the Government and the Commission, one ought to be open about it and give hon. Members, perhaps through the Treasury Select Committee, the opportunity to pursue the matter.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

The Minister has been very helpful so far, and explained to the House how he intends that the documents will be sent to the Commission. He will have heard Opposition Members express anxieties about our inability to amend the report. If an early-day motion expressing concern about the accuracy of documents to be remitted to the report were signed by a number of hon. Members, would he be good enough to undertake that the early-day motion would also be remitted to the Commission, so that the Commission would know that this House was not 100 per cent. in support of the report?

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

One thing that I learned early in my career in the House, which has not been as long as that of the right hon. and learned Gentleman, is not to pay a great deal of attention to early-day motions.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

Let me tell the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) that I shall do a little research tomorrow to see how often his name has appeared on them. I suspect that, to put it charitably, he is not in the leading ranks of the charge. However, an early-day motion is not an expression of the House's opinion, but the expression of an opinion of a group of Members, some of whom have a clear interest in a proposition.

The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham asked a process question about whether it is appropriate to amend the report. The report is not amendable, whether it is taken on the Floor of the House or in Committee. The matter simply does not arise.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

What are the nature, extent, duration and limits of the available sanctions and are they subject to appeal?

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

I am not certain about the focus and remit of the hon. Gentleman's question. Would he like to have another go and let me try again?

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am grateful, as a second bite is always welcome and, in consequence, the taste is that much juicier. Is the penalty financial? Can it be multiplied and be imposed more than once? For what period or periods could it apply, and is there a right of appeal? Need I make myself clearer?

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. Before the Minister seeks to answer, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's question is relevant to the order before the House—if that helps him.

Photo of Mr Kevin Hughes Mr Kevin Hughes Assistant Whip

The Minister should take the advice of the Deputy Speaker.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

I shall take the advice of my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes)-I always take the advice of the Whips on the Government Front Bench.

The hon. Member for Aldershot made several points. He asked about the nature of article 103(3). The report that we shall submit to the Commission for its approval gives an assessment of the medium-term economic and budgetary position in relation to public investment, expenditure and to the social, economic and environmental goals set out in article 2. Earlier, the hon. Gentleman said that he did not want a precedent to be set. That is a matter for the House and it is why we are having a debate tonight. The hon. Gentleman also asked for extensive debate on the process. We have had the opportunity for that debate, and I am grateful that my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary has joined us. I understand that she will initiate the debate in Committee, and that she intends to reflect on the points of substance that hon. Members have helpfully made tonight. I know that she does not intend to speak for too long in Committee.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

My hon. Friend the Economic Secretary wants to hear the views of hon. Members to ensure that any report that we make to the Commission fulfils our needs and obligations.

Question put:

Hon. Members:

No.

Division deferred till Wednesday 13 December, pursuant to Order [7 November 2000]