Motion made, and Question proposed,
That in accordance with the resolution of the Programming Committee of 30th June 2003 and pursuant to the Programme Order of 6th May 2003 relating to the Finance Bill:
(1) Proceedings on consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion 8 hours after the commencement of proceedings on the first of the Ways and Means motions relating to the Bill set down this day.
(2) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion 9½ hours after the commencement of the proceedings on that motion.
(3) Paragraph (2) of this Order has effect notwithstanding the practice of the House as to the intervals between stages of Bills brought in upon Ways and Means Resolutions.
(4) The proceedings on consideration shall be taken in the order shown in the following Table, and each part of the proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the time specified in the second column.
|Proceedings||Time for conclusion of proceedings|
|New Clauses and new Schedules, except those relating to stamp duty land tax or stamp duty.||3½ hours after the commencement of the proceedings on the motion referred to in paragraph (1) above.|
|Amendments relating to Clauses 1 to 41 and Schedules 1 and 2; amendments relating to Clauses 130 to 211 and Schedules 21 to 42.||5½ hours after the commencement of those proceedings.|
|New Clauses and new Schedules relating to stamp duty land tax or stamp duty; amendments relating to Clauses 42 to 129 and Schedules 3 to 20; remaining proceedings.||8 hours after the commencement of those proceedings.|
I do not understand why the Minister does not see fit to explain to us why on earth so little time is being allocated to such important material. The Government seem at least to be acting consistently in their wish to deny the House proper opportunity to debate the matters before it.
I suspect that were the Minister to seek to catch Mr. Speaker's eye, she would make some spurious claim about the programme motion being agreed in the Programming Committee. That, from my information, may be technically true, but the Minister knows that, in effect, the Opposition had no choice. We were offered inadequate time or potentially no time at all. Faced with such an option, my hon. Friends on the Programming Committee were probably right to accept, reluctantly and under the Government's pressure, inadequate time, because we would otherwise get even less time. I hope the Minister will not say that the Opposition signed up to the programme motion and were content with it. We are not.
The reason we are not content is straightforward. The Finance Bill is always a special Bill, not only because of its content and the effect it has on everybody's daily lives, both individual and corporate, but because there exists no safety net in the House of Lords, as exists for other Bills. That puts the Finance Bill in a special category. I have never accepted an excuse that may be offered from time to time by the Government and others that if, by some mismanagement, we do not have adequate time in this House to scrutinise a Bill and hold the Government to account, there is always the safety net of the House of Lords.
As we know, their lordships do a wonderful job of scrutinising legislation. They sit for more hours and more days than we do, and they do the job that we should be doing. The reason we cannot do it is that the Government do not let us do it. Systematically, and this is another case in point, the Government take an arbitrary view of how much time the House requires to scrutinise the Government, and then feign surprise when we fail adequately to do so, in spite of the sterling efforts of my right hon. and hon. Friends. The Finance Bill is therefore in a special category. We have no safety net and no alternative to the scrutiny that the House can bring to bear. That is the general point.
What are the Government seriously suggesting in the programme motion? Not only are they arbitrarily imposing an overall time limit on our proceedings, but they compound that error by claiming to know how long the House will require for each grouping within, as we call it in this place, the knives. In the first grouping there are, by my calculation, nine distinct and separate issues to be considered in a mere three and a half hours. Those include items such as ISAs and PEPs, children's tax credit for persons subject to immigration control, capital allowances for small and medium-sized enterprises, and a very controversial issue that affects many people—vehicle excise duty on historic vehicles.
One could argue that each of those issues would merit three and a half hours. I am sure that hon. Members could take up that time subjecting those matters to proper scrutiny, but the Government tell us that all those issues together will be allowed only three and a half hours. There is the potential for several hundred Members of Parliament to want to contribute to a debate on behalf of their constituents on issues that may affect them individually, whether through their investments in ISAs and PEPs or their much loved historic vehicle, but they will be allowed only that limited amount of time.
In the next group there are seven major issues and 30 Government amendments. The Government are at this stage introducing substantial amendments to their own Finance Bill, yet they have the gall and the impertinence to tell us that only two hours will be allowed to consider those seven separate issues covered by 30 Government amendments. That is an insult to the House.
Finally, and perhaps worst of all, the Government are allowing us only two and a half hours to consider, of all things, stamp duty and stamp duty land tax—a major and extremely important issue covered, by my reckoning, by about 90 separate amendments. I hope that the point has by now become clear: whereas historically we have always been allowed two days for this stage of proceedings on the Finance Bill to consider such matters, the Government have taken it upon themselves to say, as they did originally, that one day should suffice, and they have only grudgingly given us a little extra time so that we now have eight hours in total to deal with all the matters that I have just adumbrated.
Why do the Government take the view that we have to finish our work and deliberations here in the House of Commons at 10 or 11 o'clock tonight? What is so magical about that hour? Does the Paymaster General turn into a pumpkin? Are we no longer able properly to consider the Finance Bill at later hours, as many of us who have been around for a while used to do routinely? Are the Government now telling us that so delicate are Labour Members, so lacking in stamina, so lacking in commitment to the parliamentary process, that they insist on bunking off at 10 or 11 o'clock at night regardless of whether the measure before the House has been given proper scrutiny? That is the only conclusion that we can draw—it really is. Instead of saying, "Let us examine the size, scope and nature of the issues and then attempt to agree on what constitutes a reasonable amount of time", the Government march along in hobnailed boots—I am sure the Paymaster General rarely wears such footwear, but I suspect that on this occasion she did so—and tell us that this arbitrary amount of time is the time that we will take: three and a half hours for nine major issues, two hours for seven further issues, and two and a half hours for a group encompassing 90 separate amendments. The figures speak for themselves.
I endorse the right hon. Gentleman's observations. I hope that he agrees with me that, given the shortage of time in Committee and in view of the matters being drawn to our attention by business people throughout the country, surely now is an opportunity to have at least two or three days for Report and Third Reading.
The hon. Gentleman is right. I suspect that even Committee stage did not take as much time as has often and traditionally been allotted in the past. He makes a wholly valid point, and I admit to him and to my colleagues that I might have been rather selfish in concentrating on the parliamentary aspects of the programme. Outside interests legitimately take as much interest in and have as much to say about the Finance Bill as about any other measure, and perhaps more than most. At this stage, given the new material being introduced by the Government, such outside interests should be able to expect Members of Parliament to have ample time in which to reflect their legitimate views.
I suspect that people outside this place looking in on the parliamentary process can only draw the same conclusion as I have drawn. The Government do not really care what they have to say and do not see any need for anyone outside this place or, indeed, Members of Parliament to show a proper interest in the contents of the Finance Bill. Instead, we have the usual Government assumption that because they will it, it must be so, and there is no need for proper scrutiny. This is yet another sad episode in what I can only perceive to be the decline of opportunities for the House of Commons properly to scrutinise the Government's business.
I hope on this occasion, as I always do, that the House will resist the programme motion—or even that the Paymaster General will have a last-minute change of heart. I am always optimistic about such things and the compliant look on her face makes me even more optimistic. I hope that she is about to tell us that, having heard my argument, she is prepared to give us more time. That is my earnest wish. If that is not the case, those outside the House can draw only one conclusion.
It is fair to say that this year's Finance Bill has not been politically high profile. Perhaps that tempted the Government to think that they could accelerate the progress of the Bill through Parliament, including the proceedings to be dealt with today. However, the Bill's lack of a high political profile does not mean that it does not contain a tremendous amount of very important detail that is important to individuals, businesses and those who have to use the tax system. This is the fourth longest Finance Bill on record, and those who have examined the Committee proceedings will know that although we were able to cover a substantial proportion of the Bill, parts that arose during the earlier sittings in particular were not touched upon. Given that those parts deal with some of the issues that are most important to us, and which might create problems for the tax system in future, we must be concerned.
Also of concern is the fact that we are faced with an accelerated timetable in circumstances in which we cannot rely on the other place to mop up some of the aspects that we are unable to cover. We have to be able to cover all of the issues contained in the Finance Bill in adequate time during proceedings in this place. Given the length of this year's Finance Bill, it is not obvious why we are to have only nine and a half hours today to debate the range of issues encompassed by the amendments, compared with approximately 13 and a quarter hours of debate last year. Even if I do not share the optimism expressed by the shadow Leader of the House that the Paymaster General will suddenly announce that the House will sit into the early hours of the morning, I ask her at least to put on the record the fact that this year's curtailment to one day of the final stages of the Finance Bill does not set a precedent for future years.
I will be brief. I always find debates on programme motions intriguing in that they eat into the time that hon. Members say they desperately require.
I take issue with the shadow Leader of the House who, when listing the important amendments before the House, failed to mention the oil and gas industry-related amendments tabled by Scottish National party Members. That was uncharacteristic of him: as a Scot, he knows that the industry supports approximately 250,000 people and has brought £160 billion to the Treasury over the past 25 years.
My point is direct and straightforward. In Committee, SNP Members tabled two amendments: one on the whisky industry and the other relating to our concerns about the changes to the fiscal regime covering the North sea oil and gas industry. The amendments were submitted in good faith and we were given a reasonable assurance through the usual channels that we would get our usual time during Committee stage to debate those issues. However, our amendments were put way down the list and our time was squeezed by a developing row between the Opposition and Government Front Benches that resulted in a series of inconsequential amendments being tabled and debated at length. Although we had time to debate our whisky amendment, our amendment on oil and gas fell without debate.
We believed that we would therefore have the opportunity to debate that subject on Report, so we tabled a similar amendment. However, such are the rigours of the programme motion that it seems likely that we will be disappointed once again. It is no great secret that the programme motion will pass, so let me make an appeal—a plea—to Front Benchers and others who seek to catch your eye during the debate, Mr. Speaker: give us this opportunity to debate oil and gas, even though it is way down at the bottom of the list of matters for debate.
I want to put on the record something that the hon. Gentleman, who was not a member of the Programming Committee, may not know. A strong submission and argument was made by Her Majesty's official Opposition, supported by the Liberal Democrats, that there should be no knife after new clause 9 and that we should have a package of time running from the beginning of our consideration of amendments to the start of consideration of the amendments relating to stamp duty. Had that been allowed, the hon. Gentleman would not have to suffer the concerns that he has expressed. As he knows, the order in which new clauses are considered depends to some extent on the time of their tabling, so it behoves him to try to get his new clauses tabled rather more quickly. None the less, it is important that he recognise that the Opposition did all we could to assist him. It was entirely the Government's edict that demanded that a knife fall at the point that gives rise to his complaint.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I appreciate his assistance in the Programming Committee. I go further and thank him for the assistance that Conservative Front Benchers gave us in the Standing Committee: they rushed through business so that we had an opportunity at least to discuss our concerns about the whisky industry. I hope that similar consideration is given today.
I am sure that you, Mr. Speaker, agree that debates on the Finance Bill should be open and accessible to hon. Members of all parties, regardless of size. The oil and gas industry is a massive industry of substantial significance to Scotland. I hope that we will secure assistance and that we will reach our amendments, which are of fundamental importance to Scotland.
To give Pete Wishart the assistance that he seeks, I shall be brief.
The record shows that the motion was agreed to without a Division. If the shadow Leader of the House checks the draft programme motion that was circulated to his representatives last Thursday, he will see that the Government, in discussions with the Opposition, ensured that the nine and a half hours allocated for debate, including of the ways and means and programme motions, were protected. The motion provides the equivalent of one and a half days and sets out three groupings for debate—the new clauses, the amendments and a very substantial section 3 on stamp duty.
I should like to finish my comments. The hon. Gentleman was present in the Committee, where there was discussion about the division of time, but no dispute about how much time would be taken in respect of the first group, which consists of new clauses, and the second group, which consists of amendments. There was a question about the inclusion of the programme and the way in which we proceeded. If less time is taken on the new clauses, more time will roll forward into the amendments—
I am explaining the position. If 45 minutes are not taken in debating the programme motion, the time will roll forward and there will be more time for the new clauses.
I will not do so, because I am explaining that, as has been discussed, as the record demonstrates, and as those who were present in the Committee can testify, after considerable informal discussion we finally reached agreement without a Division on today's business. That is why I moved the motion formally.
That is a point for debate. Hon. Members have an opportunity to rebut any case that is made.
Does the hon. Gentleman wish to raise a point of order?
I am grateful to the Paymaster General for at last giving way; I had not realised that she was doing so, as it appeared that she had concluded her speech.
The Paymaster General will recall that, in the Programming Committee yesterday, after extensive formal and informal discussions, and in the absence of the Government being prepared even to consider allowing the usual two days for Report and Third Reading of the Finance Bill, Her Majesty's official Opposition, under protest and recording their displeasure at the arrogant approach taken by the Government in confining today's business to one parliamentary day, albeit with a few extended hours, and with some dispute on where the knives fell, decided that it was better when faced with that situation that we should pragmatically and responsibly seek to ensure that there was some form of workable programme for today. We did so under protest at not being able to secure two days. Furthermore, as she knows, it would therefore have been wholly inappropriate for us merely to play gesture politics by voting "no" after we had come through informal discussions on our secondary line of argument about getting the programme that we wanted for today.
Finally, as the Paymaster General well knows, the important concession extracted from the Government was to get at least some time by way of protected business. That formed a central part of the negotiations. I hope that the record will show that the primary argument is about having two days—[Interruption.] This may be an intervention, but I am making sure that the record is set straight about the fact that two days are required and that it is under protest that we agreed to the proposals, pragmatically and responsibly, to ensure that today's programme can at least work, despite the falling of the first knife, which we do not regard as necessary.
There we have it. The Opposition agreed to the programme motion as a workable programme for today. They said that they wanted two days and the Government have met their concerns and given them more time. That is what is being proposed and the hon. Gentleman confirms that.
I shall be as brief as I possibly can. We have heard some inaccuracies from the Government Front Bench. I was present in the Programming Committee yesterday afternoon. The version of events that we have heard from the Paymaster General does not represent what genuinely took place. The meeting started with a discussion of whether there should be two days of debate. That is all that the debate was about. I personally made the point that we believe that two days are necessary. We discussed that point and continued to do so until she said, in words of one syllable, "There will not be another day"—[Interruption.] I do not want to give way to the Paymaster General; she would not give way to Opposition Members, so I shall return the compliment. I have learned my lessons from her.
The first part of the discussion was about the need for two days. We got an emphatic no and were told that there would not be two days. Such an approach leaves an Opposition with two options—to be responsible or to take a wrecking approach. Faced with an intransigent and arrogant Government who were not prepared to respect democracy, we had no choice but to make the best of a bad job. That was explained at the meeting, and it is to my regret, and I hope that of the House, that the Paymaster General did not do the decent thing and say exactly what happened rather than give her own version, saying "Ah well, they agreed with it." We did not do so; we objected to what went on and I object to what is going on now. The real version should be the version that is in the record, and not her contrived version.
I have declared my interests in the register.
I am amazed by the Government's attitude and conduct in this matter, and I am very disappointed, as I had thought that the Paymaster General was one of those rarer Ministers in this Administration who understood the feelings of the House and tried from time to time to adjust the script accordingly. Today, she is failing us badly, but I should like to have one quick go at persuading her to adopt a new way of handling this business in view of the great unease among Opposition Members about the shortage of time and the truncated programme that we are being asked to approve.
I see on the Order Paper that, towards the end of our proceedings today, there will be a relatively short debate on what amounts not merely to a completely new tax, but to a completely new way of handling that new tax and running our economy. We are invited to approve within two and a half hours a complete rejigging of stamp duty and stamp duty land tax and, I assume, its use—at a much higher level than we have been accustomed to in this country regarding property taxes—as a regulator of the economy, instead of the normal monetary and interest rate methods, in preparation for joining the euro.
I think that that is worth a day's debate on its own, and separate legislation. It is a massive change in the conduct of economy policy that will have a huge impact on homeowners and house values throughout the country if the Government are planning, on the back of that legislative change, to impose much higher rates of stamp duty to bring us into line with our European partners and to try to take the heat out of the housing market, of which euroland does not seem to approve.
I would therefore suggest to the Paymaster General, at this late stage, that she allow us sufficient time today to do all the business, up to and including that on insurance companies, which must be completed in five and a half hours but could probably be done within the eight hours that we have overall. The stamp duty provisions should be brought back at a later stage as separate legislation to allow us to have a proper debate on a new and very dangerous method of running our economy.