HC Deb 10 April 1974 vol 872 cc457-62
Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Brent, South)

I beg to move, That if the National Insurance Bill be committed to a Committee of the whole house, further proceedings on the Bill shall stand postponed and that as soon as the Proceedings on any Resolution come to by the House on National Insurance [Money] have been concluded, this House will immediately resolve itself into a Committee on the Bill.

Sir Brandon Rhys Williams (Kensington)

Mr. Speaker, I wish to raise with you a matter of procedure. Yesterday I warned the Leader of the House that I wished to raise this point today. I am sorry that he has not chosen to be in his place.

I hope that the Government will not proceed with their intention to force the House to the great inconvenience of taking the remaining stages of this important Bill in the course of today. I appreciate that the reason given is that if the House of Commons does not complete all stages of the Bill today the pensioners will not receive their benefits on 22nd July.

That reason is totally unconvincing for two reasons. First, I do not think that anyone in the House supposes that the Department will refuse to start work on this necessary change until the Bill has passed through all its stages.

Secondly, the Government are not adopting this procedure in the other place. The House of Lords is sitting today. If it were so essential that the Bill should go through to the statute book today, it should be possible for the other place to be asked to take it this evening, when we have done with it, and it could go for Royal Assent tomorrow.

On investigation I find that Second Reading in the Lords is not to be taken until after the Easter Recess, that the Committee stage should take place on 9th May, and that the Third Reading should be on 13th May. Therefore, in the other place this important Bill is to be treated with proper respect. However, in the Commons, for some reason that is not yet clear, we are to be asked possibly to sit late tonight to complete our examination of the Bill.

When I spoke to the Leader of the House yesterday he mentioned as a precedent the Pensioners' Payments and National Insurance Contributions Act 1973, which was taken through all its stages in one day by the previous Government. But that example should not have been used for this matter, because it was an Act of a totally different character. It was introduced to benefit fewer than 8,000 people. and the Money Resolution associated with it required the expenditure of only £75,000. What a contrast that is with this enormously important Bill which will bring benefit to millions of pensioners, somewhat less benefit to the unemployed, the disabled, and so on, but will also place a heavy burden on a large section of the population! It may force some people into changing their businesses and others into bankruptcy

I believe that the business of the House of Commons is to protect the taxpayer and the contributor by minutely examining the Government's proposals for expenditure. In examining the Government's proposals for expenditure, it may not necessarily he hostile, but when an amount of £1,100 million is involved, as with this Bill, it is wrong and a derogation from the rights of the House to expect us to deal with it in a few hours.

Moreover, from a back-bench Member's point of view, it is exceedingly inconvenient to be asked late last night to table Committee stage amendments before hearing what is to be said on Second Reading or being able to express our views. How can we have a valid Committee stage when amendments have to be put down before we have heard the Secretary of State and before there have been any replies to our Second Reading points? It makes a mockery of Second Reading to use this procedure, it makes a mockery of the Committee stage, which will be artificial and truncated, and it makes a mockery of the House.

I hope that the right hon. Lady and others who are responsible for business on the Government Front Bench will recognise that what they are doing is entirely wrong, totally without precedent, and should be abandoned forthwith.

I hope that we may have reassurance on that point now and can proceed to Second Reading in a proper and orderly way.

The Secretary of State for Social Services (Mrs. Barbara Castle)

I have considerable sympathy with the hon. Member for Kensington (Sir B. Rhys Williams). This is an unusual procedure. It certainly is not one that any Government wish to adopt in the normal way, but we are in an unusual situation

Rightly or wrongly—I think rightly—we have introduced this uprating on one of the most restricted timetables in the whole history of national insurance—I think in the shortest period that has ever been attempted. That has put burdens on many people. It has caused difficulties for my staff, as I have explained before, and I recognise that it puts us in the position of having to do some overtime tonight

Surely the hon. Member is not suggesting that we could not have a very good and adequate discussion on the various points of the Bill, or is his main complaint that we have to sit all night to do it—[Interruption.] That was one of his points. He said he thought it was wrong that we should have to sit all night in order to express our views. I am asking my staff to do an excessive amount of overtime to push this matter through and it is helpful and valuable to get the utmost clarity, not merely on Second Reading but in the views of the House on the details of the Bill. There is therefore good reason for pushing ahead with the Bill now before the Easter Recess.

The arrangement has not been imposed upon the House by the Government. There were discussions through the usual channels and I had intended to open my Second Reading speech by thanking the House, particularly the Opposition, for the co-operation shown in accepting this unusual procedure.

The hon. Member for Kensington tried to draw a distinction between the Tory Government's Christmas bonus Bill and the measure before us. I see no difference in principle. It is not as though the full details of the uprating were not known as long ago as 27th March when I spelt them out in a full and comprehensive statement which included a reference to the contribution rates. The House was well aware a considerable time ago of what would be in the Bill. When we were in Opposition we had many points we wanted to raise on the Christmas bonus legislation. There were many categories to whom we felt the Christmas bonus should have been paid. Nevertheless, we agreed to make our points more succinctly than would otherwise have been the case to enable the then Government to get their legislation in one day.

Of course, I can give the assurance that this will not be a regular occurrence. This is a one-off emergency which arises because we want to push the uprating through as soon as possible. We have asked for the co-operation of all hon. Members in that. That does not mean that they will not be free to move their amendments or put forward their views. On this occasion, however, we ask them to help us in getting the uprating through by 22nd July, a date I was originally told was impossible. I should have thought that all hon. Members would want to achieve that goal, and for that reason we should get on.

I have already warned hon. Members that we are taking a risk in fixing the date at 22nd July, the risk being that some pensioners might have to get their increases in arrears. We want to minimise that risk as much as possible. I am asking my staff to do overtime they do not want to do in order to keep the risk down. That was one of the reasons it was necessary to get as many stages as possible of the Bill completed before the Easter Recess.

I express my appreciation for the response we have had from the Opposition. I had hoped that the assurance that this procedure will not be repeated by the Government would convince the House of our good intentions. I ask the House to accept that this is an exceptional situation and to help us to get the up-rating through in exceptionally quick time.

Sir B. Rhys Williams

I appreciate the Secretary of State's difficulties in this matter since the Leader of the House is the right person to deal with our queries. I am not sure whether the Secretary of State is entitled to speak on his behalf. Is she saying that the staff are not prepared to start work on the necessary changes to implement the higher scale of pensions until after the Bill is on the Statute Book? If that is her argument, why has there been no attempt to hurry the proceedings in the other place?

If it were necessary for us to complete all stages in this House this week, why could not we have taken the Second Reading on Monday, which would have given us yesterday to consider that debate and table our Committee points for discussion today? An attempt has been made to stifle debate on the Bill. The Secretary of State is making a mockery of the Committee stage and is handicapping back benchers. It makes no difference that she is hoping to get the new scales paid by 22nd July. That is weeks ahead and there would have been plenty of time for proper discussion of the minor aspects of the Bill after the holiday if the Secretary of State had not insisted on getting the measure through at a stroke.

Mr. E. Fernyhough (Jarrow)

It seems necessary to remind Conservative Members how frequently discussion was curtailed in the last Parliament by use of the Guillotine. Clause after clause of important Bills went through without a word of discussion. It ill becomes hon. Members who supported that approach to moan and groan because we now want to speed up the payment of higher pensions to those in need.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

Is not the point here that my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir B. Rhys Williams) is seeking an explanation why this measure has to go through the House in all its stages today when it will not be finished in the House of Lords before 9th May? If I understand the Secretary of State correctly, she is saying that she accepts that all hon. Members wish the benefits under the Bill to be available at the earliest possible date. and that the most significant amendments are expected to be made in the House of Commons, which should be achieved before the holiday. She is saying that on that basis her staff will be able to progress that much further forward in preparing the necessary steps for implementation. Is she suggesting that she expects most of the amendments to be made here and that she is prepared to take the risk that another place will not do too much to change the plans that have already been made?

Mrs. Castle

The hon. Member for Kensington (Sir B. Rhys Williams) must realise that this week's business has been arranged through the usual channels. Today's business was agreed. I recognise that back benchers have their rights and freedom and their different and independent views. In my time as a back bencher I have had a few independent views. I should have thought that both the hon. Member for Kensington and the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) appreciated that the process of implementation of an uprating has a number of stages, some starting as soon as the announcement is made, others depending upon the Second Reading and others depending upon the greatest possible clarity.

I do not suggest that we can in any way inhibit what is done in another place, but I think it was generally agreed that it would be helpful to get all stages in this House so that my Department can proceed with the maximum clarity. There will not be final clarity until the Bill receives the Royal Assent, but the passing of each stage of the Bill is valuable in speeding up the process and in lightening the burdens on what will be a heavily over-burdened staff.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered, That if the National Insurance Bill be committed to a Committee of the whole House, further proceedings on the Bill shall stand postponed and that as soon as the Proceeding on any Resolution come to by the House on National Insurance [Money] have been concluded, this House will immediately resolve itself into a Committee on the Bill.