Before I call the Minister to move the sittings motion, I have a few announcements to make. If hon. Members wish to remove their jackets, they may do so. Will they please ensure that mobile phones and pagers are turned off or switched to silent during the sittings?
As Mr Leslie has discovered already, red document boxes are being provided for hon. Members, which is one of the privileges of serving on this important Committee. They are available in the cupboard to my right and, as a general rule, it will be appreciated if they are returned to the cupboard at the end of the sitting. Adequate notice needs to be given of amendments. Mr Caton, my fellow Chairman, and I do not intend to call starred amendments, which means that members of the Committee will need to be mindful of the short time scale if they wish to table new amendments.
I beg to move,
That the Committee shall meet—
(a) on Tuesdays at 10.30 am and 4.30 pm, and
(b) on Thursdays (other than 21 October 2010) at 9.00 am and 1.00 pm, when the House is sitting.
I wish to make a few brief introductory remarks. I welcome you, Mr Chope, to the Chair. It will be a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship and, indeed, that of Mr Caton. I note that you have already highlighted the document boxes, which you described as one of the privileges for members of the Committee; I am sure that they look forward to discovering what other privileges there are, if any. I know that you will provide your usual sage guidance and, while we tackle a somewhat technical Bill, I am sure that you will ensure that our deliberations are kept to the point. I also wish to extend my welcome to Mr Patrick, Clerk to the Committee, who will be assisting you.
This has been a political year, given the general election and the many contentious issues that face the country, and I am pleased to welcome to the Committee the hon. Members on the Opposition Benches. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Delyn and the hon. Members for Nottingham East and for Bristol East on their appointments as shadow Treasury spokespeople. They will no doubt delight at the opportunity to be members of many more Public Bill Committees in respect of Finance Bills, although I hope that they enjoy doing so from the Opposition side of the room, as I did for many years. Furthermore, I am sure that they and the Committee as a whole will be served admirably by their hon. Friends on the Opposition Benches. This Bill is shorter than most Finance Bills; none the less, I am sure that hon. Members serving for the first time in Committee will find it a challenge.
I have certainly not forgotten the hon. Member for Strangford, who I know will forcefully represent the views of Democrat Unionists. I shall be joined in later proceedings by the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Putney, and I know that she will want to extend her welcome to our hon. Friends, all of whom will be considering the Finance Bill for the first time, and also to our coalition partners, the hon. Members for Bristol West and for Solihull. I look forward to hearing enthralling and valuable contributions from them all.
This Finance Bill, more than most, has been a product of consultation and deliberation. Given that 97% of it was proposed by the previous Government, I hope that those on the Opposition Benches are already familiar with the details. We also consulted on the Bill during the summer and received more than 40 responses. I thank all those who worked with the Treasury and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs on the preparation of the Bill, especially those who prepared the draft legislation; the Bill is the better for that. I look forward to our deliberations over the next week and a half, and I am sure that the Committee will approach the Bill with fortitude and dedication.
Thank you, Mr Chope. I wish you a very good morning, and I look forward to serving under both you and your co-Chair, Mr Caton. Before we begin, I want to thank the team, led by Mr Patrick, that will be assisting you.
I welcome the Minister’s initial comments on the proceedings today. He is right to say that the Bill is, in large part, a Labour Government Bill that he has inherited. Although we will scrutinise it over the next few sittings, we agree with much of it. As the Minister will recognise, it is still the duty of the Opposition to table amendments, to test the Government’s thinking and to ensure that, even with the perfection that the Labour Government put in place, the Bill will be practicable and deliverable on the ground.
I welcome my hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham East and for Bristol East, who join me on the Opposition Front Benches as the new shadow Treasury team. I also welcome the Labour Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, and my hon. Friends the Members for Islwyn, for Edinburgh East and for Wirral South, who are serving on a Public Bill Committee for the first time. I know that Members on the Government Benches will also enjoy the Committee, and I look forward to their possible contributions. However, having served in Government myself, I know that there is often a remit for Government Back Benchers, and they do not necessarily contribute as much as they might like. We will see whether any contributions are forthcoming.
I thank the Committee for providing a red document box—it is the first red box I have had since May. It is a great pleasure to get one again, and I will give it back in due course.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham and the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby for their discussions on the sittings motion. However, it is important that we consider that motion in context before we finally agree it. I have some concerns, which have arisen since their discussions and are worthy of consideration. As I said, we strongly support much of the Bill, but we want to test it.
We are sitting today, this morning and this afternoon. According to the sittings motion, we will not be sitting this Thursday—presumably because of the pressures over the comprehensive spending review on Wednesday and the overflow from it. Potentially, we will be sitting on Tuesday morning and afternoon and Thursday morning and afternoon next week. Since my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham discussed this matter with the Government Whip, the business of the House has been announced for Tuesday and Thursday next week. That will be Treasury-led business, on which my hon. Friends from both the Front and Back Benches may wish to make contributions on the Floor of the House, as they follow such matters with interest.
I want to test the Minister on whether he feels that that situation is appropriate for him, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury and the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby; for my hon. Friends the Members for West Ham, for Bristol East and for Nottingham East and me; and, not least, for the Back-Bench Members on both sides, including the hon. Member for Strangford, whom I welcome to the Committee. Would we not potentially wish to look at the challenges that we face on two Bills that are coming up next week?
While the Savings Accounts and Health in Pregnancy Grant Bill is being taken on the Floor of the House on Tuesday, we will be at the Committee’s afternoon sitting, which will presumably commence at 4.30 and go through to 7 pm. If there is no statement in the House, the debate on that Bill will commence at about 3.30 and go through to 10 pm, as is usual for a Second Reading debate. I have studied that Bill with some interest; there are interesting matters in it about which my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol East and for Nottingham East, and my other hon. Friends and I, would wish to say a few words on the Floor of the House. Yet we might find ourselves sitting in this Committee that day.
I do not know about you, Mr Chope—I would not wish to draw you into this political debate in any way, shape or form—but the abolition of the maternity grant of £190 to mothers at their 25th week of pregnancy is a matter of concern to Labour Members. That will be a major issue, on which we will contest the Government during the next few weeks and months. Mothers receive the health in pregnancy grant—
I raise those important matters because we find ourselves in two places at once. There are matters before the Committee, but equally there are important matters on the Floor of the House about which we wish to comment. We wish to discuss the Savings Accounts and Health in Pregnancy Grant Bill.
Abolition of the health in pregnancy grant is a key issue, as is the abolition of the child trust fund in the same Bill. We debated that matter previously in Committee, but the abolition of that fund will be enshrined in the Bill. I dealt with the initial discussions on the child trust fund in Committee, and we stopped the payments to new entrants several weeks ago. I wish to deal with that matter on the Floor of the House, yet I find that I cannot be there for the opening speeches or contributions, although I could be giving the winding-up speech on the evening in question.
Without testing your patience too much, Mr Chope, dare I mention the abolition of the saving gateway scheme in that same Bill? It should have been available from July 2010 but has now been frozen and will potentially be abolished by the Government. In that Bill on Tuesday, saving gateways, child trust funds and maternity grants are big key issues, of which Labour Members were proud. We wished to see those issues developed, but the current Government are now pledged to abolish them. In my view, that will hit some of the poorest people who most need those provisions.
Before I move on to Thursday, I want to remind the Minister that next Tuesday there is a major Bill that hits poor people hardest. Labour Members wish to oppose it, but we will find ourselves in here as members of this Committee dealing with important Finance Bill matters. We will find ourselves as Treasury spokespeople dealing with issues in two places at once.
The comprehensive spending review announcements come tomorrow, and on Thursday next week we will have a full day’s debate on the Floor of the House, probably commencing around 12.30 or 1 o’clock. Again, we will find ourselves—three Treasury shadow spokespeople, the Labour Treasury Whip and interested parties on Labour’s Back Benches—with two Ministers and the Treasury Whip in this Committee from 1 o’clock until 4 o’clock next Thursday afternoon, while there is a major debate on the comprehensive spending review on the Floor of the House. Again, without wishing to widen the debate too much, I simply say that a potential 50% cut has been announced in public sector housing allocations for the relevant Government Department.
While we are discussing the programme of sittings, it occurs to me that there is one issue that I would like to address. For instance, I ought to have been in Downing street today presenting a petition from my constituents in Nottingham on the cuts to the decent homes grant. Obviously, I cannot do that today, but I would certainly like to be able to raise that on the subsequent Thursday.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who will know that a 50% cut in housing grant in England will be devastating in relation to the problems that all Members who represent English seats face in future housing allocations. That is just one issue that we will want to discuss on the Floor of the House while we are in this Committee.
Potential cuts of 30% at the Ministry of Justice were being touted in The Observer on Sunday. On the Floor of the House next Thursday, I will want to know how we are going to fund prison places and community-based sentences if we are facing a 30% cut at the Ministry of Justice. As the former Minister with responsibility for policing and counter-terrorism, I want to know what the expenditure on policing will be given that we face a potential 20% to 25% cut in policing and the loss of 16,000 police officers.
Those important issues will be debated on the Floor of the House next Thursday as part of the comprehensive spending review, while we, rightly, will be scrutinising the Government here in Committee with two Ministers from the Treasury team, three shadow Ministers, the Whips of both parties and Members who often contribute to such debates.
For instance, the hon. Members for Dover, for Solihull and for Elmet and Rothwell, who often intervene on matters relating to public spending issues, will find themselves tied to the Committee at a time when they should be downstairs arguing and discussing important matters of state relating to police funding, justice funding, housing cuts and the defence review—where today we find ourselves with aircraft carriers and no planes to fly on them, strange though that may seem. We find ourselves with unfair choices made in a comprehensive spending review that will hit the poorest hardest and which we want to challenge on the Floor of the House.
My right hon. Friend has listed in detail some of the issues that we will need to debate when we analyse the comprehensive spending review. Is it not shocking that, at the very most—if there is no statement next Thursday—the debate will be timetabled for only five hours on the Floor of the House? Would not the solution be for the Government Whip to try to get a proper debate for the following week that could span a couple of days? We could then serve in this Committee a week on Thursday and also contribute to the comprehensive spending review debate, as we should.
Order. That is going too far. We are discussing this Bill and its timetable. The issue of how much time is allocated for the comprehensive spending review debate cannot be our business today.
I will try to stick to that guidance, Mr Chope, because it is important that we consider the sittings motion before us. I have tried to tailor my remarks around that motion. The Committee will be discussing the Bill’s 33 clauses and the 14 schedules to it. Those measures relate to important issues. Although there is large-scale agreement, we have tabled amendments so that we can discuss particular points of principle.
We are in a position in which there are two big debates relating to important matters for our constituents to which we wish to contribute. Without wishing to politicise this too much, the proposals in both the Savings Accounts and Health in Pregnancy Grants Bill and the comprehensive spending review will hit our constituents and the poorest in society hard. They contain unfair choices and cuts in public spending. Those cuts tackle a deficit that we need to tackle, but they are too quick, too deep, unfair and inappropriate. Those are issues that we will want to debate on the Floor of the House.
With the leave of the Committee, I might make a further contribution to this debate, but I would welcome the Minister’s initial view of whether, on reflection, he shares our belief that there might be problems with the sittings motion. Does he think that we should consider an alternative to sitting on Tuesday afternoon and Thursday afternoon next week? Will he look at my suggestions in a positive way? We could allow our sitting to continue today as planned so that the matter can be discussed through usual channels. Alternatively, if necessary, I could move an amendment to the sittings motion. We should, however, consider some arrangements that might resolve the problem.
It is a pleasure to serve for the first time on a Bill Committee under your chairmanship, Mr Chope.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that many of the clauses in the Bill are important to my constituents in Wirral? I am keen to serve diligently and to examine them all, but I am concerned about some of the issues that he has mentioned, most specifically about the comprehensive spending review. Since I became a Member of Parliament, that is what people have contacted me about most, in addition to some of the Bill’s clauses that relate to tax. There does seem to be a conflict, so will he briefly comment on how we can resolve this for the good of all our constituents?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there is a great deal of trepidation and concern about the impact of the comprehensive spending review. Indeed, I have also received representations on the child trust fund, health in pregnancy grants, the savings gateway and other matters—those issues are important. Although the comprehensive spending review will be announced tomorrow and we do not yet know what it will contain, I read the papers, so I have seen the Government machine gently indicating some of the directions of travel. Even today, Treasury spokespeople wish to debate housing grant cuts, policing and justice cuts, today’s defence review, the potential child benefit changes and the winter fuel allowance, which might be hit. My Back-Bench colleagues in Committee may also wish to contribute, but there seems to be a clash.
I would welcome the Minister’s initial view on whether he regards that as a problem, because we do. I would like some discussion about this, and I would also welcome hearing the views of my hon. Friends about whether they, too, see it as a problem. I hope that the matter can be resolved, either outside the room today or through some other discussion and arrangement. I do not feel that we can proceed with the Committee while such important Treasury matters are being dealt with on the Floor of the House.
There are always clashes between Committee business and business on the Floor of the House, and hon. Members make a choice between them when they sit on Committees. These clashes have arisen, however, since the Bill’s Second Reading last week. Because the debates next Tuesday and Thursday are explicitly Treasury matters for Treasury Ministers and the shadow team, there should be scope for us to consider the arrangements a little more. I would welcome the Minister’s view on those points.
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Delyn for his opening remarks. He raises a perfectly reasonable point, but I am not persuaded by his arguments. As he has acknowledged, there are always clashes between Committee duty and what is happening on the Floor of the House, where, I accept, there will be Treasury business next Tuesday and Thursday. None the less, there are five House of Commons Treasury Ministers and five House of Commons shadow Treasury Ministers, so it is not beyond our capabilities to deal with two matters at the same time. Indeed, that situation has arisen on a number of occasions in recent years.
It is also worth pointing out that there is currently a considerable amount of Treasury business. I have no desire to open up the whole debate about our public finances but, such is the state of them, there is a lot for Treasury and shadow Treasury Ministers to do. At a time when we must look at everything that we do to try to work as efficiently as possible and achieve more for less, it is not unreasonable for the Treasury and shadow Treasury teams also to improve productivity and efficiency and to be capable of dealing with two matters at the same time. We believe that we are capable of doing so and I see no reason why Opposition Members should not also be able to cope with such challenges.
As I say, there is always a difficulty for Members because there will always be plenty of things occurring at the same time. For example, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will wish to be in the Chamber this afternoon to hear the statement on the strategic defence review. However, we must address such challenges to our individual time management on a day-to-day basis.
I am conscious, as the right hon. Member for Delyn rightly said, that the Bill is largely non-contentious. He is right to say that Opposition Members should test the Bill by tabling amendments, making speeches and asking searching questions about it. However, I see no reason why Opposition Members, who include highly capable shadow Ministers, should not be able to deal with the Bill as well as organising themselves so there is sufficient cover in the Chamber to address the matters that the right hon. Gentleman raises. Consequently, I am not persuaded by his argument, however eloquently and passionately he put it, that we need to change the sittings motion.
I have listened to the Minister, but I still think that there is an argument for us to look at the matter positively. This is no reflection on the discussions and negotiations that have taken place between my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham and the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby, but I think that a significant change has occurred since the initial discussions were held. I suggest to the Minister that we look at amending the motion so that we can meet his objective of completing our proceedings on the Bill in reasonable time and also allow Members on both sides of the Committee to contribute to the two important debates on the Savings Accounts and Health in Pregnancy Grant Bill and the comprehensive spending review. The Committee could then still consider the Finance (No. 2) Bill in a fruitful and productive way.
If you will allow me, Mr Chope, I would like to table the following amendment: at the end of the Government’s motion, insert, “except that there shall be no afternoon sittings on Tuesday 26 and Thursday 28 October.” That would give us the option of two sittings on 2 November, which is the Tuesday following. Our proceedings might conclude on the morning of 2 November. They might even be completed as early as the morning of Thursday 28 October—we do not know; we go at the pace we go. I do not want to cause the Minister trepidation, so I should say that we could finish the Bill on Thursday morning next week without needing to sit on 2 November. However, if we are faced with sittings on the afternoons of Tuesday and Thursday next week, when the House considers the CSR and the health in pregnancy grants Bill, it might be that my hon. Friends and I will find details in the Finance (No. 2) Bill that we will wish to test even more than we might have done.
I do not think that anything would be lost by accepting an amendment that would allow us to clear Tuesday and Thursday afternoon. We could then attend the health in pregnancy debate and stand up for our constituents who are being unfairly hit by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government on pregnancy grants, on the savings gateway and on child trust funds. We could also stand up for them on issues to do with cuts in housing, defence, police and justice, and on tackling the deficit. The Government could get their Bill as early as next Thursday afternoon, and certainly no later than Tuesday 2 November. I commend such an amendment to the Committee and ask whether my hon. Friends or other Members wish to speak to it.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South, I welcome the opportunity to sit for the first time on a Committee of this type. I certainly hope that I will learn a great deal from it that will be useful in the future.
I am particularly concerned about the position of all Back-Bench Members in respect of such debates, because our ability to put forward the views of our constituents and the issues that we have been taking up depends on our presence in the Chamber to indicate that we want to be part of the debate. In some ways, I think the position of Back Benchers is more difficult than that of Front Benchers, who can divide up responsibility for who is going to be where. These are extremely important issues. For example, I made a point in a Westminster Hall debate last week about the number of affordable homes being built and said that the best way to reduce the housing benefit bill would be to build more affordable homes. I was told by coalition Members that if the Government of my party had built more homes, there would not be a problem. To hear this morning that the amount being spent on affordable homes might be halved suggests that if our record in building homes was not as good as I would like, the coalition Members who made that comment last week will have to explain why they are supporting their Government’s proposal. As a Back-Bench Member, I certainly welcome the opportunity to take part in such debates, so it would make sense to rearrange the Committee sittings.
I thank the right hon. Member for Delyn for moving the amendment, which represents a satisfactory method to enable us all to participate in the debates in the Chamber next week. As one of the new boys at Westminster, as well as in the Committee, I assure everyone that my job is to try to enable us all to move forward on a satisfactory basis whereby we will have an opportunity to express ourselves on behalf of our constituents. I certainly want the opportunity to participate fully in next week’s debate in the Chamber, and the amendment would give me the opportunity to do so. It is not too much for any of us to ask that the amendment be considered fully and that we all have the opportunity to participate in such debates.
This perhaps tells us a lot about people, but my constituents tell me that they watch the parliamentary channel to see whether MPs are participating in business, after which they give their comments. I want to make sure that everyone has the ability to participate. The issues involved are critical. As someone who represents a constituency in which many will be disadvantaged because of the proposed changes, I want the opportunity to express my feelings. The amendment would give me that opportunity, so I ask members of the Committee to consider it appropriately.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support. I had the great pleasure of serving for two years as a Minister of State for Northern Ireland and found his constituency to be one of the most beautiful in the Province.
I do not wish to start our proceedings in Committee with a major falling out. The amendment is there to be tested and I will welcome the Minister’s view of it. I would even be happy, if you would agree, Mr Chope, for us to have a five-minute suspension so that the usual channels may discuss the matter—that might be helpful. I served on 24 Bill Committees as a Minister, and I was involved in probably 10 or 11 others as an Opposition Member when John Major was Prime Minister, so I think that I am in order in asking for such an suspension. If that proposal is not accepted, however, I will press the amendment to a Division it because it would give us scope to meet our responsibilities on the CSR, the Savings Accounts and Health in Pregnancy Grants Bill and the Finance (No. 2) Bill.
I hope that the Minister accepts that I am trying to be helpful. We do not oppose much of this Bill. We want it to reach the statute book. We will ensure that it does so, but we might take a little longer over our scrutiny if we cannot participate in the debates on the CSR and the Savings Accounts and Health in Pregnancy Grants Bill accordingly.
I refer the Committee to the argument I made some moments ago that I have utter confidence in the ability of both Government and Opposition Members to perform their parliamentary duties satisfactorily, notwithstanding the fact that there is Treasury business in both this room and the Chamber next week. I also note what the right hon. Member for Delyn said about the Committee perhaps being able to complete its proceedings by next Thursday morning. I assure the Committee, and particularly those Members who are keen to participate in the spending review debate next Thursday, that Government Members will do all that we can to ensure that we move through the Bill thoroughly but expeditiously. If Opposition Members join us in the same spirit, I am sure that we could conclude our proceedings by next Thursday lunch time. We shall watch carefully to see whether they act in that particular spirit. I have no desire to fall out on this point, but it is perfectly possible that we can achieve that, although I note that we have lost 35 minutes to scrutinise the Bill that we might otherwise have had.
Will the hon. Gentleman take up the suggestion made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn that we have a five-minute suspension so that the matter can be considered by the usual channels?
No, that is not necessary. The sittings motion as it stands is perfectly adequate. I hope that we can proceed to the proper scrutiny of the important measures in the Bill. If we are able to do that thoroughly but expeditiously, I am sure that there will be plenty of opportunity for all Committee members to in participate other debates.
Before we proceed to a Division, I would be interested to hear whether the Minister’s hon. Friends the Members for Bristol West and for Solihull—given their independence as Members representing a separate party in this great coalition, as well as their position as supporters of the coalition—share his views. I would welcome their interventions so that we can hear their views on the matter and whether the Government are as one on all these issues.
Whether my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol West and for Solihull wish to intervene is entirely a matter for them. This matter is not specifically addressed in the coalition agreement. However, for those of us who want to proceed with the Bill, it is entirely reasonable that we do so on the basis of the sittings motion.
That the order in which proceedings are taken shall be Clause 1, Schedule 1, Clauses 2 to 5, Schedule 2, Clauses 6 to 9, Schedule 3, Clause 10, Schedule 4, Clause 11, Schedule 5, Clause 12, Schedule 6, Clauses 13 to 18, Schedule 7, Clause 19, Schedule 8, Clauses 20 to 25, Schedule 9, Clause 26, Schedule 10, Clause 27, Schedule 11, Clause 28, Schedule 12, Clause 29, Schedule 13, Clauses 30 and 31, Schedule 14, new Clauses, new Schedules, Clauses 32 and 33. —(Mr Gauke.)