Motion made, and Question proposed,
That the Third Reading of the Finance Bill may be taken immediately after the consideration of the Bill notwithstanding the practice of the House as to the interval between the stages of Bills brought in on Ways and Means Resolutions.—[Mr. Joel Barnett.]
§ 3.55 p.m.
§ Sir Geoffrey Howe (Surrey, East)
In view of the way in which this Finance Bill has been handled by the Government, following the disastrous pattern of their management of such legislation in the past, I suggest the House ought to think very carefully before acceding to the motion now before the House. The House will recollect the way in which the Finance Bill last year, which led to the introduction of capital transfer tax, was a pattern or chaos and confusion with quite insufficient time allowed to the House to consider important matters there being laid before it, from which we are only now beginning to recover.
There were 34 clauses on capital transfer tax in the Bill as originally introduced, which grew to 38 on its way through the House, and so disastrous was the Government's management of that legislation that in this Bill we now have no fewer than 49 clauses designed to repair the wreckage of last year's legislative irresponsibility.
The way in which this Bill is being handled bids fair to outbid even that record of confusion. It is a very serious point. We are passing, in the financial field, legislation which affects the rights of hundreds of thousands, often millions, of people closely and directly and on this pattern of performance, this House, let alone people outside, have no effective opportunity whatsoever of considering these important provisions. This flies entirely in the face of the standards that people outside ought to be able to expect of Parliament in its handling of legislation. They believe that we are capable of representing to and forcing upon the Government serious criticisms of detailed legislation of this kind. The Government by their handling of this kind of legislation, have made that literally impossible.
If we look at the extent to which the Government fall short of what is desir- 380 able, it is worth looking at the report of the Committee presided over by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) on the preparation of legislation, which reported in May of last year, and the report of which has been debated in both Houses and approved in general by the Government in both Houses. One of the important recommendations in the report is that on all Bills of considerable length or complexity there should be 14 days betwen publication of the Bill, after the Committee or Standing Committee stage, and the start of the Report stage.
This Bill was published last Thursday, and we are being required to debate it on Tuesday, not 14 days but four days after publication. As though that is not bad enough, we find that, although there are eight new clauses tabled by the Government, five of them first appeared on the Order Paper, either on Friday or Monday; and although there are 159 Government amendments, as I count them, no fewer than 146 of them appeared either last Friday or on Monday. Many of the new clauses and amendments deal with matters of vital importance to citizens up and down the country, on which this House should be able to receive advice from citizens and advisers.
My hon. Friends have laboured hard to try to get such advice as they can on these important matters, but it is a total mockery to sugest that this is the right way to consider important fiscal legislation of this kind. In a moment of inadvertent candour, during a late stage of the Committee proceedings upstairs, the Financial Secretary committed himself to some bland, benign observations on his ideal standards for consideration of fiscal legislation. He was quite right. He said that it should be handled by the publication of model clauses in time for people to consider them in advance. He might do better than that and follow the example set by my noble Friend Lord Barber and resort to the publication of Green Papers for discussion inside and outside this House, so that there could be some chance of intelligent consideration of these matters. That is not what happened with this Bill.
We have come to associate the Chief Secretary and the Financial Secretary 381 with a record of unique incompetence in the handling of these matters. In the introduction at great speed of fiscal proposals which are designed, sometimes intended sometimes not, to do great harm, with quite inadequate time for parliamentary consideration, hon. Members opposite combine a capacity for mismanagement with a capacity for malevolence to a unique extent.
This is only the last example of their pattern of behaviour. If we look at the Bill we find that on many critical matters, out of sheer incompetence, as a result of discussions in Committee stage, the Government have had to concede major changes. They have had to change their share incentive legislation in a fundamental way. They have had to make major changes in the provisions on stock relief. They have had to make major changes in the rules relating to life insurance. They have had to make major changes in their capital transfer tax proposals. They have also had to make fundamental changes, still quite inadequate, in the provisions in Schedule 6—the notorious snoopers' powers clauses—and, worst of all, in Clauses 55 to 67 for the taxation of benefits in kind.
This is a classic demonstration of the way in which the Government set about introducing fiscal legislation. The Chancellor of the Exchequer throws a few malevolent propositions at his hapless junior Ministers culled from some TUC publication, makes some general observations about them in his Budget Speech, may refer to them on Second Reading, and then leaves it to his right hon. and hon. Friends to sort things out as best they can.
The Government have produced a pattern of chaos about which we have been protesting day after day, week after week. Time and again my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) has drawn attention to this important matter. We have had the classic pattern of disorder and retreat in many respects. We tabled a motion for recommittal of Clauses 55 to 67 to a Standing Committee because, in our view, they were in a wholly inadequate condition for sensible debate by this House. They set out to fulfil the general aspirations of envy which the Chancellor contained in his Budget Speech on the basis that a bit of envy would make the rest of his economic 382 medicine go down—by strengthening the provisions for the taxation of benefits in kind.
As these propositions have emerged from Committee, where the conclusions are clear they are largely unacceptable, and over large areas they are quite obscure. Only one thing seems to stand out as a beacon of clarity in what has emerged from Committee—namely, that, whatever else happens, none of these harsh fiscal provisions designed to affect so adversely skilled workers and middle managers—the people whose skills we need more than ever—should be allowed to affect the rights, privileges, incomes or positions of Cabinet Ministers and Permanent Secretaries. The legislation seems to have been designed to leave inviolate their right to occupy the houses which they occupy in country as well as in town and their right to have access to pool cars, if that is how they are described. It is a curious principle that those who may be allowed to have access to cars without taxation of the benefit are only those who can afford—preferably at the expense of the taxpayer—such cars with chauffeurs.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I am always reluctant to pull up Front Bench spokesmen, but the right hon. and learned Gentleman is going exceptionally wide of the Question that we are discussing. I am prepared to allow a wide discussion, but not the details of the Finance Bill.
§ Sir G. Howe
I appreciate that, Mr. Speaker, but this is an important point. We are being required to consider on Report the provisions of a Bill published only four days ago. The motion now before the House is that we should add to that and proceed straight to Third Reading. My argument is that the legislation has been so badly mishandled in this and many other respects that this timetable is unacceptable.
Looking at the mysteries still before the House, the fact is that miners, but nobody else, are entitled to receive the benefit of free coal without liability to taxation. Railway and airport workers are brought into the legislation and let out of it. Commercial travellers are brought into the legislation and apparently half let out of it. The position of lorry drivers is already being considered by some committee away from this House. The position of seamen is 383 also being considered by a committee away from this House. There are many other categories about whose position we can have no certainty. It is unacceptable that this kind of legislation should be brought before the House on Report with so many uncertainties. Therefore, we should consider whether the Government should be allowed to proceed from Report to Third Reading on the time table proposed.
The Government have made more of a mess of this part of the Bill than of the rest of it. Committees miles away from this House are looking at the wholly unresolved mysteries of representative occupation. Are miners to be entitled to occupy their homes free of any tax charge? Are they in a better or a worse position than Cabinet Ministers? Are sailors to be entitled to take their wives to meet them when they are at overseas stations without being taxed? Are lorry drivers to be penalised?
On all these matters the legislation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell) said in Committee, is now in a literally liquid condition. We are having thrown at us a mass of general propositions about which the Ministers in charge of the Bill are unable to state their intentions, let alone what the Bill is intended to or does mean. This is no way in which to handle important fiscal legislation of this kind.
§ Mr. Arthur Lewis (Newham, North-West)
I am obliged to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way. I know that he is is fair and honest. I agree with much of what he said. But inadvertently, when rightly referring to whether miners and others may or may not receive their perks, he left out that the Government have already decided that ex-Prime Ministers may still have the benefit of a tax-free car worth £10,600 per year and are to be allowed to keep it.
§ Sir G. Howe
The hon. Gentleman raises a matter that was raised in Committee. One of my hon. Friends put that question, to which we have had no answer.
§ Sir G. Howe
I have seen the Written Answer given to the hon. Gentleman. We have not yet had an answer regarding the intention of this legislation.
§ Sir G. Howe
That is another good illustration of the chaotic condition of the Bill. I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to consider seriously whether this is the way in which to make major changes of this kind when the Government are grappling with substantial economic difficulties. This bundle of malevolence, designed to clobber a small minority of those whom they think benefit from perks, now turns out to clobber a large number of people who have made powerful representations to the Government. Therefore, the Government are retreating in disorder in all directions and are producing a monster of hybridity by making promises and concessions to one group after another and withdrawing one subsection after another so that nothing of principle remains. No one will know where he stands. This House will have no idea of what it is being asked to approve on Report, let alone if it allowed the matter to proceed to Third Reading as the motion suggests.
§ 4.8 p.m.
§ Mr. Nigel Lawson (Blaby)
I wholly support everything said by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Sir G. Howe). Had he served on the Standing Committee upstairs and, night after night, seen the Government's incompetence in the handling of this Bill, I do not think that he would have spoken in the moderate tones that he used.
You will be aware, Mr. Speaker, that there are 260 amendments on the Notice Paper, of which 159 are Government amendments. The reason why there are relatively few Opposition amendments is that we have not had time to submit these many Government amendments to the scrutiny that is proper and necessary. I ask you to address your mind particularly to New Clause 24 which the Government tabled only yesterday. You may understand this matter clearly, Mr. Speaker, but it is complicated for most of us. This is of importance to the nationalisation of aircraft and shipbuilding companies, because it concerns 385 whether the compensation is fair. This is a major matter for the whole House to decide. The new clause was tabled only yesterday. Therefore, it has been impossible for it to be given proper consideration.
My right hon. and learned Friend suggested that there should be a recommittal of the clauses regarding the taxation of benefits in kind. Indeed, upstairs the Financial Secretary suggested that these should be taken out and submitted as draft clauses, because they do not come into force until 1977–78. That is a practical proposition, for it would give us more time to discuss other clauses.
The Finance Bill is special not only because of its importance but because, unlike other legislation, there is no opportunity for amendments to be made in the other place. Therefore, as this is the final consideration that is possible for the Bill, we must be doubly or trebly sure that we get it right. But it is impossible, when the Government have got it all wrong and have made so many mistakes, for us to get it right and to put it right in the short time that is available to us for the tabling of amendments and new clauses and consideration on Report.
This is a scandalous way to treat the House and the taxpayer who is intimately affected by everything in the Bill. Even if the Government will not at this late stage change their business arrangements for dealing with this Bill, I feel that we must have an assurance that we shall not have to go through this sort of nonsense—it is worse than nonsense—again. It is quite impossible. It makes a mockery of this House and the whole of Parliament.
§ 4.10 p.m.
§ Mr. Michael Latham (Melton)
I support my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Sir G. Howe) and my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Lawson). We are now discussing the most important rôle of Parliament, which is the voting of supply and the taxation of our citizens. No rôle is more important than that. If that is not done with adequate time and proper consideration we shall bring democracy into total disrepute. One of our purposes is to control the Executive, especially in 386 the granting of supply and the taxation of citizens.
I shall say something that will be of concern to the Minister of State. I shall say something nice about him. That Minister ordered these matters better. We have just completed a taxation Bill. The Development Land Tax Bill was completed last night. The Minister of State handled that differently from the way in which other Treasury Ministers have handled the Finance Bill. On Report the Minister of State followed the procedure described by my right hon. and learned Friend. He produced Government new clauses at the last moment. He put them on the Order Paper and moved them. He heard the discussion in the House, during which great holes were ripped in the new clauses, as they had not been adequately thought through, and withdrew them. He said that the House had not properly discussed the clauses and that they should be thought out again. That is the way in which Parliament should operate—rather than the farcical procedure that we are likely to experience in the next few days. It is proposed that we shall discuss clauses which cannot possibly have been considered by outside interests.
My right hon. and learned and hon. Friends referred to the difficult discussions that took place in Committee. That is important. Some hon. Members have lived with the Bill. But what about those who were not members of the Committee? We may read the discussions in the Official Report. That is simple enough. But to follow the method by which the debate evolved and to sample the flavour of it is difficult if an hon. Member has not had adequate time in which to consider the amendments carefully and properly.
It is no good the Government brushing that aside and saying that it happened in the past. It is time that the practice was stopped and that the Opposition made a stand.
§ 4.12 p.m.
§ Mr. J. Grimond (Orkney and Shetland)
I support the protest made by the Opposition Front Bench at the conduct of Government business. Let us first consider the general conduct of business. For instance, take my position. I spent all 387 this morning in Committee on the Energy Bill [Lords]. I was supposed to be attending the Scottish Grand Committee as a Scottish Member of Parliament at the same time. I must return to the Energy Bill [Lords] Committee at 4.30 p.m. while this Bill is considered in the House, together with the many amendments which no one has seen in the past day or two. That makes a complete shambles of the work of the House of Commons. This is the second year that this has occurred.
The Government extracted the vital clause from the Energy Bill [Lords] and replaced it with five new clauses after the Bill had been through the House of Lords and received a Second Reading in this Chamber. The same practice is being followed with this legislation. The Finance Bill is traditionally a matter which vitally affects everyone in the country, but the majority of Members of Parliament have no opportunity to consider it. They have little opportunity to take part in the debate.
I should like to refer to the matter touched on by the right hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Sir G. Howe) concerning the taxation, or otherwise, of perks. This is one of the most monstrous pieces of mishandling that has ever occurred in the history of Parliament. We must go back to the eighteenth century to see anything like it. The Government proposes to exempt themselves and their civil servants from the impact of this tax. Now, when they find that those who support them, and must pay, object to it, they are prepared to alter the basis of the proposal.
The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Lewis) drew attention to the fact—I take his word for it as I have not checked the fact—that an ex-Prime Minister is to get a free car, free of tax.
§ Mr. Arthur Lewis
I shall explain. Two ex-Prime Ministers are each receiving a car, including tax, insurance, petrol, cleaning and garaging, worth £10,600 a year. Only two ex-Prime Ministers are drawing that. This happened only recently. Former Prime Ministers receive that. When I raised the matter it was said that that was done for security reasons. If that is so, what about ex-Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland, the Home Office and Defence? Any ex- 388 Minister might claim the benefit on the same ground. In my opinion a crooked thing has been done.
§ Mr. Grimond
I am not in a position to check what the hon. Gentleman said. I take it that what he said is true. If so, that seems a most extraordinary arrangement, to say the least. What is so serious about it—
§ Mr. Nicholas Fairbairn (Kinross and West Perthshire) rose—
§ Mr. Grimond
I shall give way in a moment. First I wish to comment on what the hon. Member for Newham, North-West said. I take the hon. Gentleman's word for it. If the position is as he described it, it is a most extraordinary arrangement. Added to what went on before, it makes the conduct of Government even odder. At the least the matter should be given adequate consideration by Parliament. There should be a statement about it by the Government. I understand that that has not happened.
§ Mr. Fairbairn
If I may add to the enlightenment afforded by what the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Lewis) said, I have checked up on this matter. Not only are two ex-Prime Ministers drawing this benefit, but only two ex-Prime Ministers were even offered it.
§ Mr. Grimond
That seems stranger still. If ex-Prime Ministers receive this, it should apply to them all as a class.
The habit of legislating for groups of people has been fought by Parliament throughout most of its history. It must continue that fight today. It should fight especially against the chaotic method in which such measures as these are introduced. These matters are being considered, so I am given to understand, by people who are not subject to parliamentary control or to Questions in this House.
The motive for the measure is that it will please the supporters of the Government. There is no other motive. If this were a general impost upon all who had perks I would have some sympathy for it, although I do not say that I should support it. However, it should apply to the cars of Ministers, civil servants and everyone else. It may be arguable that ex-Prime Ministers should benefit, but it should apply to all ex-Prime Ministers and those in a similar position.
389 This ad hoc legislation damages the country. It means that every group is now out to press its demands to the utmost. The general interest is forgotten. The Government no longer fulfil their main function—which is not to be a servant or mouthpiece of certain interests in the country, but to enforce the general interest of the people against those who simply want to obtain what they can from the Government. If the Government have good reasons for these proposals, they should have been fully explained to the House. The proposals should not be decided by bodies which are not subject to examination by the House. Above all they should not be brought forward at a time in the Session when there is no conceivable opportunity for a proper examination.
§ 4.18 p.m.
§ Mr. Douglas Crawford (Perth and East Perthshire)
I should like to add my agreement to what was said by the right hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Sir G. Howe), the hon. Member for Melton (Mr. Latham), the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Lawson) and the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond).
I shall not go into the details of whether ex-Prime Ministers should have tax-free cars. However, the Treasury Bench has indulged in a disgraceful and flagrant abuse of Back-Bench time. As a member of a minority party with little financial back-up, I say that the Scottish National Party are grateful for such backup as we have received. I speak as an ex-member of the Finance Bill Committee. It was difficult to wade through the piles of new clauses and amendments put down by the Treasury Bench.
I think that last year we went through the Bill on Report seriatim. We did not just take the new clauses to start with. We went through the Bill from beginning to end. I think I am right in saying that we took the new clauses in their logical position in the Bill.
If the Opposition do not force this matter to a vote, my party certainly will.
§ 4.20 p.m.
§ Mr. F. P. Crowder (Ruislip-Northwood)
It seems to me that the Leader of the House might have had the grace to attend a debate on a matter of 390 this importance. He seems to treat the House of Commons like a railway station. He never comes here. He never takes any interest in our debates or matters of this sort, which are of the greatest importance. Why on earth cannot he attend? I think it is utterly disgraceful that the Leader of the House does not take any part or any interest in these proceedings.
§ 4.20 p.m.
§ Mr. Barney Hayhoe (Brentford and Isleworth)
It is monstrous that a motion of this kind should be proposed by the Government. We have not yet had a ministerial speech in support of it. The Government are treating the House with contempt.
Ministers are not even prepared to argue the case for treating this House as a sausage machine for rolling legislation through as it suits them. It is totally wrong. Ministers should produce reasons why the normal practices of the House should not be followed, instead of our having to object to the motion before we can get an explanation from the Government. I wish to register my strong protest at the way in which Ministers on this occasion, as on many others, have treated this place with arrogance and contempt.
Government Back Benchers who, from time to time, express a belief in this place and in the procedures of Parliament, should not lie back and be walked over by Ministers in hobnail boots who are treating this place with contempt.
§ 4.21 p.m.
§ The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Joel Barnett)
I have left my hobnailed boots behind. [Interruption.] Do not threaten me. Do not be so silly.
§ Mr. John Peyton (Yeovil)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Ministers are not conducting themselves particularly well on this Bill anyway, but if they are to say "Do not be silly" as soon as they rise to make a speech they ought to know that they are addressing the Chair. I hope that you will remind Ministers that they are expected to observe the courtesies and rules of the House.
§ Mr. Barnett
I was telling Opposition Members not to be so absurd.
391 There is a serious case for re-examining the way in which we handle our legislation, but a debate such as that we have just had is not the best way of doing it. I should be happy to take part in serious discussion of this subject, but we should not simply say that one piece of legislation has been well or badly handled.
The Opposition complain about this Bill, but let them remember the 1972 Finance Bill. It was larger than this one, consisting as it did of 228 pages, and there were just four days between its publication and the Report stage.
I have heard my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Lewis) talk nonsense too often, and I was sorry that the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) took his remarks at their face value.
§ Mr. F. P. Crowder
Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Leader of the House should be here for a matter of this importance? We must sort out a sensible way of handling these difficulties. It is not the responsibility of the Chief Secretary. Why is the Leader of the House not here?
§ Mr. Barnett
I thought we were debating the Finance Bill. [Hon. Members: "No."] We are debating a motion that the Third Reading of the Billmay be taken immediately after the consideration of the Bill notwithstanding the practice of the House as to the interval between the stages of Bills brought in on Ways and Means Resolution.The hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mr. Hayhoe) asked why Ministers were not following the normal practices of the House, but this is the normal practice. This is the way we have handled our affairs for years. What is different about this year is that the right hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Sir G. Howe) has sought to make what I hope 392 is a serious point about the need to reexamine the way in which we handle our legislation. There is a serious case for re-examining the way in which the 1972 Finance Bill, other Finance Bills and other general legislation have been handled.
§ Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)
My right hon. Friend may not be aware that the new Procedure Committee of the House decided yesterday to embark upon an examination of the way in which legislation is conducted. The right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) may not know that because, although he is a member of the Committee, he was not present yesterday.
§ Mr. A. P. Costain (Folkestone and Hyth)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for an hon. Member to report the findings of a Committee to the House?
§ Mr. Barnett
I thought that my hon. Friend the member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) was intervening to acquaint me with the situation regarding the Procedure Committee. I thought that what he said would be helpful to the House. I am surprised that hon. Members should think it was not of assistance, whether it was in order or not. I thought we were having a serious discussion on the way in which we should handle legislation. My hon. Friend indicated that this was now being considered. I should have thought that his intervention would be welcomed by the House. It was welcome to me.
Because of the open-ended nature of our discussions in Committee, both parties when in Opposition tend to take a considerable time—I am not complaining about this—in discussing certain items, with the result that many hours can be spent on very narrow points, leaving inadequate time for the discussion of later parts of the Bill. That invariably happens and it is not very sensible. There is a better way, but I do not think that the contributions we have just heard offer the best way of changing our procedure. The best way is to have a sensible, serious, quiet discussion in the Procedure Committee.
It is nonsense to suggest that we have had inadequate discussion of the Bill
§ Mr. Lawson
Is the right hon. Gentleman suggesting that the Committee stage of the Bill was too long and should have been curtailed? If so, that is a serious and disgraceful suggestion. It appeared to be the burden of his remarks. Is he not aware that we are concerned not with the question of inadequate discussion upstairs but of inadequate discussion of what the Government have tabled subsequently?
§ Mr. Barnett
I did not say what the hon. Gentleman suggests I said. I had hoped he was listening. I should be happy to spend long hours of the day and night in Committee if the House had adequate time to debate legislation. It would be sensible to find adequate time to debate every clause in a Bill, but one of the problems of our method of handling legislation is that in considering a Bill of 100 or more clauses we take a lot of time over a few causes and then have to rush through the remainder.
§ Mr. Norman Lamont (Kingston upon Thames)
Is not this Bill very different from previous Bills, because the Financial Secretary made clear that the clauses dealing with fringe benefits were only provisional? He said that he would not reply in detail to all the points raised on that subject because the Government would be coming back with recommendations at Report stage which would be different from what was originally proposed.
§ Mr. Barnett
That is a travesty of what my hon. Friend said in Committee. I shall be coming to that point and some others.
§ Mr. Fairbairn
The Minister of State, Treasury recognised with the Development Land Tax Bill that one of the difficulties with financial Bills was that, if new clauses or amendments were found to be right in principle but wrong in detail, nothing could be done if there was no time between Report stage and Third Reading. We cannot remedy the matter if our business is conducted in this way. We are deprived of the opportunity of discussing matters sensibly.
§ Mr. Barnett
I was talking about trying to bring about a better way to examine our legislation and to deal with precisely that point. Faults lie with Governments of both parties and with 394 both parties when in Opposition. We do not handle our affairs well. There is a serious problem, but it does not help when the right hon. and learned Gentle. man produces a series of headline-hunting phrases. I know what he is seeking to do. He has to make party poiltical capital out of the situation, but it is not a party political matter. [Interruption.] If the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) had heard what his right hon. and learned Friend said, he would realise that it was put in a very partisan way. [Interruption.] I am always ready to take advice from the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Lawson) on what is and is not partisan. The right hon. and learned Gentleman was being partisan, and that is not the best way to discuss how to handle our legislation. I hope that I am dealing with the matter in a non-partisan way.
The time allowed for Clauses 55 to 67 was far from inadequate. There was the whole of one sitting and the greater part of two other sittings, and on two of the clauses two of the sittings went on until 4 o'clock in the morning. I doubt whether any of us would consider that sitting until 4 o'clock in the morning was necessarily the best way to give scrutiny to serious legislation.
§ Mr. John Nott (St. Ives)
Our points on the fringe benefits clauses are that amendments of major consequence, such as those affecting the motor industry, were not known to us until Friday. Most of us had to plough through major amendments in handwritten form over the weekend. That is the precedent established by the Bill. It has nothing to do with 1972. There was never an occasion then when we had to deal with the Government's amendments in this disreputable and disorganised way.
§ Mr. Barnett
The only information that the hon. Gentleman did not have was what kind of new scale there should be for assessing private car benefit and the break points. He knew that that was the main problem. We had a serious discussion about this matter. The motor industry has made serious representations to the Opposition, so its scales have been known and its break points have been suggested. There is a mass of information available to the Opposition about what kind of amendments they should table to the schedule.
395 It is a travesty of the truth to suggest that there is a shortage of information. In addition to the time for debate upstairs on the clauses, there was the question of Clauses 57 and 58, now Clauses 61 and 62, and Schedule 8. To try to be helpful to the Opposition, I agreed—because we were proposing significant changes—that we should defer discussion of those clauses. I wanted proper scrutiny, and tried to be reasonable.
We spent 23 hours and 32 minutes in Committee on the Floor of the House and 84 hours and 26 minutes upstairs. We could have spent double that time, and some of the time could still have been more usefully spent debating other parts of the Bill. That applies to all legislation.
§ Mr. David Howell (Guildford)
I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman has quite got the point. I know that the Government's mind is on other matters, but the point is that which was made by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Nott), that since the Bill came out of Committee last week major changes have been made, not only for cars but in regard to loans for employees of banks and other companies, changes about which we have read in the newspapers. These matters need careful examination, because they involve tens of thousands of people and their interests. It is only right that those outside the House as well as those inside should have proper time for study.
The Government have bitten off far more than they can chew. They have created chaos and Bedlam out of the situation. It would be better if the right hon. Gentleman admitted his difficulties. He might find more sympathy from the House, which understands that he is not a bad guy, although his masters have once again led him up a cul-de-sac.
§ Mr. Barnett
My masters are good guys, and so am I. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Yeovil is not as good a guy. At present he is being a very bad guy, but that is normal.
I entirely disagree with the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell). This legislation has been properly discussed in Committee upstairs. There will now be time to discuss it on Report if hon. Members want to do so. I should 396 prefer to have much more time to debate all legislation. It might be better if we had until the end of the third week in August to debate this. That might be more convenient to the House, but I am happy to say that that is not a matter for me.
§ Mr. Grimond
The matter has nothing to do with the Select Committee on Procedure. It is nothing to do with giving time for more discussion in Committee, although that may be necessary. The Government are trying to push through the House far too much legislation which they have not thought out and which is very badly drafted. Not only this Bill but every Bill—it has nothing to do with the right hon. Gentleman, whom I exonerate—is turned upside down by the Government and new amendments are introduced at the last moment at the end of July.
I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman, because I have to go to the Energy Committee. Before I leave, I tell him that since I have bene in the House no Government of any party have got into a muddle such as this Government have done.
§ Mr. Barnett
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will acquit me of any discourtesy if I do not discuss every piece of legislation that is going through the House. It might be out of order for me to do so. One of my hon. Friends hit the nail on the head in an intervention. Legislation has been steamrollered through the House with inadequate consideration of the serious arguments advanced by both sides of the House. On this occasion we have given serious consideration to all the speeches made in Committee. To complain that we have taken note of the serious points made and have decided to put down amendments to deal with them seems strange if the Opposition believe that they were talking sound sense upstairs. Where we think that they were on a good point, we have said "We shall consider that and bring forward amendments on Report if necessary." That is precisely what we have done. I do not believe that to be cause for complaint.
We have tabled many amendments which Conservative Members say they do not understand. Many of them are amendments for which they asked. They 397 were very well advised, as they are on all these matters. They have not had time to discuss the amendments as much as they would like with their advisers. They should understand that most of the amendments are broadly in line with what they requested. It is a simple matter. They have had most of the weekend to look at the amendments. I am surprised at their being so concerned. I hope that when we get down to the debate on Report we shall have serious discussions of the amendments on the concessions.
§ Mr. Fairbairn
If the Government got it wrong the first time and if they get it wrong again, what remedy does the House have? We cannot correct it if Third Reading follows immediately after Report stage.
§ Mr. Barnett
There is nothing terribly new in that. We have lived with this situation for a long time, particularly in relation to Finance Bills. Once we finish the Report stage, the other place cannot amend a Finance Bill. This creates problems if we cannot get it right on Report. In 1972, however, on a much bigger Finance Bill we had a similar problem and hon. Members opposite did not complain in the way they are complaining today.
§ Mr. Lawson
Instead of trying to play party politics, would not the Chief Secretary admit that the Government produced botched-up legislation in the first place? They promised to make corrections to the Bill on Report. The Chief Secretary then has the arrogance to say, in his magnanimity, that he has produced amendments on Report. There are four and a half to five pages of amendments on the benefits-in-kind clauses alone. As he botched it up the first time, it is likely that he may have done so the second time. The situation is simply not good enough.
§ Mr. Barnett
It is not a case of the Bill being botched up, because the amendments very often were botched up. I am not complaining about that. I understand the problems of Back Benchers. They do not have drafting facilities, and many of their amendments are not properly drafted. We have now put down amendments with the advice of parliamentary counsel, and I hope that these amendments will be acceptable to the 398 House, if we ever get round to discussing them.
§ Mr. Tony Newton (Braintree)
There is really a much more serious point here. It is not simply a question of whether amendments have been botched up or arguments of that kind. In the next five or six days we are proposing to pass a Bill which will have substantial effects on employment in the British motor industry but which in its original form would have bankrupted a number of citizens, and it will have major effects on the affairs of individuals. It is right and proper that Parliament should have time to consider and discuss with outside interests all the implications of the Government's proposals before they go through. We have not had time to do this.
It does not require a Procedure Committee to tell us that it is wrong to publish a Bill on Thursday, put down a host of major amendments on Friday and Monday, and expect the House to discuss that business on Tuesday with a view to passing it the following Monday. That is not the way to intervene in the affairs of citizens.
§ Mr. Barnett
I concede at the outset that the way in which we discuss our legislation generally in this House leaves a lot to be desired. Of course, I would have liked a lot more time. [Interruption.] With the greatest respect to the Opposition, the amount of time allocated to this Bill is just as great as the amount customarily allocated to Finance Bills.
§ Mr. Peyton
The point that the Chief Secretary continues to miss is that when the Government make errors in their legislation, which they do frequently, and when their business is in disarray, as it is now, it is not good enough for a Treasury Minister to come here and say that the Government's good intentions to put things right must be taken as an achievement. They are by no means justified in making that claim.
In answering points put by my hon. Friends, the Chief Secretary has repeatedly said that it is not within his power to make observations or give undertakings about the way in which the business of the House should be handled. Of course he is justified in saying that, but as he is obliged to rely on that defence he should 399 carry matters to their logical conclusion and send a message to the Leader of the House, who is responsible for the handling of business. He is responsible for the quite disgraceful disarray of the business of the House of Commons. As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) said before he left the Chamber, in all his years in this House he has never seen Government business handled with such total incompetence, resulting in the mess which we have today. The Chief Secretary should send that message to the Leader of the House, pointing out that this is his motion and, therefore, he should handle it.
§ Mr. Barnett
I never suggested that the amendments themselves were sufficient. There would have to be adequate debate on them. At the moment we are debating whether there is adequate time to discuss the Report stage and whether the Third Reading should come immediately after it.
As far as other business is concerned, no doubt the right hon. Member for Yeovil will have ample opportunity to raise the matter with the Leader of the House himself. At the moment, we are dealing with the question of whether there is adequate time to debate the Finance Bill at Report stage, and the longer we take on procedural motions of this kind the less time there will be for that debate.
In my view, if we proceed sensibly on Report there will be ample time to discuss all the new clauses and amendments. If the hon. Gentlemen are suggesting that there is here something new which has never happened before on a Finance Bill, they have not examined the way in which we have handled our Finance Bills or our other legislation over many years. I have never denied that there is good reason to examine the way in which we handle our affairs, but I stress that this is not the way to change the handling of our legislation.
§ Mr. Lawson
The Chief Secretary has told the House that there will be a perfectly adequate amount of time for us to discuss the Bill. If the House goes on after midnight on each of the three nights, it will mean that we spend less than 10 minutes on each Government new clause 400 or amendment, even if no Opposition amendments are debated at all. The Finance Bill does not have to receive Royal Assent until 6th August, so why is the right hon. Member rushing the House wholly unnecessarily?
§ Mr. Barnett
The last thing in the world that I would wish to do is to rush the hon. Member for Blaby. I hope that we will get through Report stage and Third Reading in the time allocated. We should be able to make it. There is a question of how much time can be allocated to one measure in a parliamentary Session. The House knows that it is difficult to get through legislation because the parliamentary timetable is very limited indeed, but with three days this week and half a day next week, given the enormous amount of time we had in Committee, we should find that we have more than an adequate amount of time. We should proceed now with the debate on the Bill by passing the motion before us.
§ 5.3 p.m.
§ Sir Geoffrey Howe
The Chief Secretary has not done justice to the case put to him—or to his own flashes of understanding of it. Of course there is agreement in many parts of the House about the inadequacies of the parliamentary machinery for handling legislation. That is why under the last Government a Committee was set up under the chairmanship of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) to consider these matters, and it made recommendations which this Government accepted. One of those recommendations was that there should be a sufficient interval between publication of a Bill of this kind and its discussion on Report.
The Chief Secretary has entirely missed the point. It is not a question of how much time we have from now on to discuss these things, but how much time we have had to consider the Bill since it was published and how much to consider the amendments tabled by the Government on Friday and Monday. Does the Chief Secretary suggest that there has been time to consider in detail the provisions relating to compensation for shipbuilding nationalisation? I hope that the Chief Secretary will pay attention to this. Does he believe that there has been time properly to consider those proposals?
401 As to the provisions for the taxation of motor cars as benefits in kind, the Chief Secretary produced a schedule in the Bill as published which was apparently the result of three years of consideration by the Tax Reform Committee, years of consideration by the Inland Revenue, and months of consideration by this Government. It is now clear that that schedule was totally and wholly wrong and likely to do grave damage to the motor industry and to people who have to use cars as tools of their trade.
Why on earth should we be expected to believe that the schedule now produced at 24 or 48 hours' notice is any more likely to be correct than the one admitted to be botched? At least we are entitled to have time in which to consider it and to know why the Chief Secretary has not tabled amendments on the points that he undertook to consider. It is a question not of time for debate but time between the publication of a Bill and the tabling of amendments and the commencement of debate.
The truth is that not one of these provisions will make a jot or tittle of difference to the Government's economic policy. Their only consequence is likely to be inadvertent, blind damage to people who do not happen to belong to interest groups and, having been hit by this casual legislation, have not been able to put sufficient pressure on the Government since this rubbish was first published. There is no urgency about this sort of provision. It can be taken back and considered next year, if the Government last that long and remain committed to this folly.
The worst aspect was illustrated by the comment by the former Leader of the Liberal Party about the way in which Ministers' benefits and perks survive like a beacon of clarity in the midst of this shambles of legislative change. They go sailing straight on, and the intention is that not a finger should be laid on the non-taxable occupation of ministerial houses and the use of ministerial so-called pool cars. Citizens outside this House are struck by the fact that these islands 402 of exemption remain while they themselves are hit by random legislation of the most venomous kind. They must feel that this is no way to pass important tax legislation.
The Chief Secretary may complain as much as he likes, and I agree with him about the inadequacy of the machinery for considering fiscal legislation. Our case is that the Chief Secretary and his colleague, the Financial Secretary, have set out, deliberately or otherwise, to test that machine to destruction. They have destroyed the faith of hon. Members and people outside the House by this package of fiscal legislation. The sooner they recognise it, the better.
I invite my hon. Friends to join me in the Lobby in voting against this motion.
§ Mr. F. P. Crowder
I am a little worried about the casual disregard of these matters shown by the Leader of the House. Twenty minutes ago I asked for his attendance. He has not yet appeared. He seems to think that he can ride roughshod over the House of Commons. It will not do. I should like to hear my right hon. and learned Friend's comments on that.
§ Sir G. Howe
My hon. and learned Friend has raised an important point. The Leader of the House, on this as on so many other pieces of legislation, is treating the House with contempt. The great champion of parliamentary rights has disappeared in a cloud of smoke and has become one of the most disreputable representatives of the Government we have seen in this House. I ask the House to ensure that the motion before it is defeated, as it ought to be.
§ Question put:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 223, Noes 197.
§ [For Division List No. 240 see col. 609]
§ Question accordingy agreed to.
That the Third Reading of the Finance Bill may be taken immediately after the consideration of the Bill notwithstanding the practice of the House as to the interval between the stages of Bills brought in on Ways and Means Resolutions.