HC Deb 10 December 1993 vol 234 cc629-49

Motion made, and Question proposed, That, in respect of the Social Security (Contributions) Bill and the Statutory Sick Pay Bill, notices of Amendments, new Clauses and new Schedules to be moved in Committee may be accepted by the Clerks at the Table before the Bills have been read a second time.—(Mr. Newton.]

11.32 am
Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden)

I did not anticipate speaking on this motion or having an opportunity to do so. However, it is worth asking the House to delay proceedings for just a few minutes. The Leader of the House, whose reputation for being a reasonable man has withstood the test of time—though it has been damaged in the past few days—will understand that this is an unusual motion. It relates directly to the equally unusual business next week and the way in which the House is to deal with significant and important measures. What the motion does in short order is not just telescope but almost reverse the normal procedure for dealing with Bills.

All hon. Members will be familiar with the fact that Bills receive a Second Reading and normally then go to Committee, occasionally on the Floor of the House but usually upstairs. Only once the House has given Bills a Second Reading are we in a position to put down various amendments.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

Is there not also normally a gap between Second Reading and Committee stage so that hon. Members have an opportunity to table amendments before the Committee stage starts? The motion would wipe out that opportunity.

Mr. Dewar

The tabloid cliche is "indecent haste", which is a mark of Government procedures. We are being invited not to wait to see whether the House will give Second Reading approval to the Social Security (Contributions) Bill and the Statutory Sick Pay Bill. We are being invited to table amendments in anticipation of that approval. The reason is simple. The timetable motion to steam roller those measures through is so brutal that it will be impossible, other than by means of manuscript amendments handed in at the end of Second Reading, to table any amendments, new clauses or new schedules. Therefore, special arrangements are being made to enable that to be done before Second Reading.

I must confess that I find it extraordinary. I genuinely do not understand the necessity for such an odd procedure. I do not know why the House is being invited to push through two Bills of considerable significance in terms of their impact on ordinary people. The Government will no doubt argue that the Bills are narrow and technical in their drafting and I concede that they are, to a limited extent, but they raise considerable matters of principle about what the Government are doing and how they want to run our affairs. It is—I use the word advisedly—monstrous that we should be asked to approve this motion today and bulldoze the Bills through all their stages in two days.

We do not know the details because I have not seen a guillotine motion yet. As far as I know, until yesterday, when the position changed, there had been no consultation on the matter between myself and my opposite number and I was given no indication that the measure was being contemplated. It is an abuse of process and I find it offensive that we should be put in this position. It is all the more puzzling because there was no evidence this morning of urgency in the Government's management of our affairs; we discovered that they could not even keep a quorum for a debate that was no doubt important to the hon. Member whose name had been drawn in the ballot and who raised the subject of business and industry.

I must make it clear that I shall not advise my hon. Friends to oppose this procedural motion, because, although it is unacceptable from the point of view of public policy and parliamentary procedure, I want the limited opportunity that the timetable motion may give me and my hon. Friends to put down motions. I do not wish to put you, Madam Deputy Speaker, in a position of having to accept manuscript amendments in a flurry and scurry around the Clerk's Table after Second Reading, assuming that the House grants those measures a Second Reading. I am therefore mindful to advise my hon. Friends to nod the motion through. However, I am right to protest about it because it is central to a flawed parliamentary strategy that cannot be justified.

May I explain why we take that view? I said that the Government would argue that the measures are narrow and technical. However, they are important. I was interested to notice that Ministers referred to the 1 per cent. increase in national insurance contributions as an increase in taxation. As the Leader of the House will know, the Chancellor is taking some £2 billion from the people of this country, which is over £300 million more than he would get by putting 1 p on the standard rate of income tax.

The measure is of considerable substance and represents a significant contribution to the massive hike in taxation contained in the recent Budget proposals. The measure also has a wider social significance. The motion paves the way to force through a package. I do not want to debate that subject at length, as I would be testing your patience, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I shall mention the importance of the motion.

The Government are not only taking a substantial sum in increased taxation through the Social Security (Contributions) Bill that they wish to expedite with today's motion, but are taking more money by changing the unemployment benefit provisions and cutting the entitlement period from 12 to six months with the new job-seeker's allowance. The Bill is part of an important thrust of social policy which is arguably—I am not arrogant enough to say that there is no other side to the argument—challenging and undermining the contributory principle.

The Leader of the House was a sympathetic and well-respected Secretary of State for Social Security. There is no Minister better able to appreciate the implications and importance of what is being proposed. Therefore, I deplore the fact that the motion has been tabled as part of the steam-rollering exercise to which the Leader of the House has given his name.

The Statutory Sick Pay Bill has been dealt with in the same way. It is an important technical measure as it alters a system that is important to industry. At present, if an employee is ill, the employer can reclaim 80 per cent. of the statutory sick pay from the state. Some £750 million is to be transferred to larger firms that are being asked to shoulder that burden. This morning on breakfast television —I am sure that the Leader of the House was loyally watching—the Prime Minister, in some part of Brussels, said that he could not accept the Delors package because it would make our industry less competitive. He said that we should fight unemployment by cutting industrial costs and competing effectively in the marketplace.

The measure is being railroaded through in one day —it may be less, as the Social Security (Contributions) Bill may win the lion's share of the timetable motion, which we have not seen. However, if we assume that the measure is to be railroaded through in one day, industry will face a massive £750 million additional impost created by the Government in a hole and corner way. At the very same time, the Government are breaching the primacy of cutting industrial costs in the interests of allowing us to trade successfully in the free market of the European Union. At the very least, the issues are controversial, and should be allowed substantial debate, but we are being gagged.

The motion, which is part of the gagging process, should be challenged, not just in the name of decent parliamentary scrutiny and the parliamentary process, but in the interests of the many people outside the House with an interest in the legislation who have had no opportunity to lobby, influence opinion or state their view. Those people do not belong to unrepresentative groups. I know from private conversations of the deep dismay in organisations that are normally seen as loyal to the Government's general approach, such as the Institute of Directors and the Confederation of British Industry. They will have views on suddenly having to shoulder a bill of several hundred millions of pounds.

I appreciate that there is to be a package to offset employers' contributions, but it is not clear to me and to many other people exactly how that is to work and whether it will provide an adequate trade-off. We are discussing highly technical and complex issues. If I, as a Front-Bench spokesman, am having to run hard to try to catch up with the issues involved on Second Reading, in Committee and on Report—which have been rolled into one next week —people outside will definitely find it difficult to ensure that they are not diddled by the arithmetic of such a complex change. It is nonsense to put people in that position.

We must also consider the interests of those who have lost benefit due to the changes involved in the new incapacity benefit. They may be thinking about moving into the labour market but wonder whether the measure provides them with a disincentive to work. Sadly, the provision may also provide an incentive for employers to look at employees' health records less sympathetically and to terminate employment before they face the risk of a claim for unfair dismissal.

The issues are all major, and we should have had a decent amount of time to consider them. There should also have been time for consultation, and to draw into the parliamentary process the public and vested interests—in the best sense of the phrase. That is an important factor of the democratic system, and it does us no credit if the issues are telescoped for reasons that I genuinely do not understand.

Next week, we shall debate the subjects, not at length, but for longer than today. It is not true that there is nothing that we can do but vote "Yea" or "Nay". Both Bills have a Northern Ireland dimension. The Statutory Sick Pay Bill preserves the small employers' exemption, but, as I understand it, as many as 85 per cent. of employees will not fall within the exemption category. I welcome the presence of the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People, who will have a greater understanding of the subject. My understanding of the calculations carried out by the Library is that only 15 per cent. of the work force will fall within the category and 85 per cent. will not receive payment. The motion paves the way for an unsatisfactory measure.

I recognise that there is always a difference of approach between Opposition and Government—that is the law of the jungle and, certainly, of Parliament. On occasions, we clash richly about the organisation of business, and there is a certain amount of posturing. However, that is not true of our approach today—we are not posturing. We regard the measures as important and of genuine public interest. When I was a young Back Bencher a long time ago, I had something of a reputation as a menace on Committees. I enjoyed them, and it used to be said that my idea of heaven was a Scottish Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill that never ended, so perhaps I am prejudiced. Now I am older and cynical, and realise that one should not be starry-eyed about parliamentary procedures. However, I still believe that scrutiny is important and forms part of the parliamentary process that lies at the heart of our democracy. We should probe, test and look at the detail of the measures. On this occasion, we have been unnecessarily prevented from doing so. There should be a driving, self-evident and pressing reason for using such a procedure.

The argument does not even arise. At best, it seems that it has been done for the convenience of the Government. Some of my hon. Friends, with whom I have some sympathy, think that it has been done out of a sense of pique. There have been recent problems and troubles—the unified Budget procedure has not perhaps worked as smoothly as the Government had hoped. Now, the Budget is unravelling before our eyes. I am not one for trying to speculate about the Government's motives, but I am entitled to pass judgment on the results of their actions and must conclude that there has not been any real attempt to explain why the Bills have been treated in such a way.

Perhaps I am exceeding my authority, as I have not discussed it with the deputy Chief Whip, but had the Bills gone into Committee in the normal way, they would not have been artificially elongated and the Leader of the House should be reassured that the rules of order would have made any sort of filibustering in Committee difficult. There are points of importance that we wanted to discuss and specific amendments that we wanted to table. If we had had time to do that on a considered basis, we would have had time to involve others in the process. It would have been more sensible, knowing that there would not have been an abuse in Committee, to allow time for full consideration and it would have been much better to allow us to do so, rather than end up in—perhaps jiggery pokery is an offensive parliamentary term—let us say the unnatural procedures which the motions represent.

On Monday and Tuesday, I shall be scribbling out my new clauses to a Bill that has not even appeared on Second Reading. I sometimes wonder about the logicality of the parliamentary procedure—it has grown like Topsy over the years and centuries—but there is a certain logic to the Second Reading. It provides time for consideration.

The Committee stage provides further time for consideration and the Report stage is for a final look at what the Government have been doing. The Report stage also gives the Government a chance to change their mind and consider suggestions that have been made—perhaps a rarer event than the Opposition would like. It is being absolutely squashing in a way that cannot be defended.

Although I shall not advise my hon. Friends to oppose the motions—I do not want to have to rely on the goodwill of the Chair to accept manuscript amendments—and shall advise them to let the unusual procedure take place, it must not be thought that that is in any way an approval of what is happening and we shall take the opportunity next week to stress in the Lobbies our strong disapproval of what the Government are doing.

I realise that I cannot ask the Deputy Speaker for a ruling, but, under such unusual procedure, I presume that the starring arrangements do not strictly apply. It is a matter of some importance to some of my hon. Friends on the Back Benches. Normally, I would have to table the amendments on Monday. We must clarify that if they were tabled on Tuesday they would have to be starred. I recognise, Madam Deputy Speaker, that it may be a matter for Madam Speaker to consider whether amendments that are tabled on Tuesday—in the extraordinary circumstances of the procedure being followed—would be sympathetically viewed and that the normal starring arrangements would not be enforced.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

I wish in no way to pre-empt the decision, which will not be for me to make, but whether starred amendments are accepted or not is always at the discretion of the Chair.

Mr. Dewar

All sorts of words such as "dignified" and "delphic" may apply to that remark. At least I have my point on the record and merely leave it there.

I gave the pledge that I would not unnaturally elongate events, especially because it is an unplanned outing caused by a nod from the Government Whips because they could not raise a quorum to keep the normal business going. I shall be debating next week whether such action is in the best interests of Parliament. I do not think that it is and I am not aware of the pressing necessity to justify the Government not allowing one or two Second Readings —not on successive days—and the normal Committee stage to be dispatched in a businesslike manner under the normal procedures.

It further undermines public confidence in the way in which Parliament conducts its work and certainly does not encourage good relations that inevitably make the place run. It is a shame, a bad day and it deprives us of the opportunity to consider matters of real importance. I recognise that the Leader of the House cannot think again because he has unwisely committed himself to this course, but I hope that over the weekend he may, at least, worry whether he was right and justified.

11.57 am
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

It is important that we should make a few points about the motion.

In the ordinary course of events, the Government use Friday mornings and afternoons to table convenient business resolutions to the effect that there should be a vote by 10 o'clock on that business, and that is understood and accepted. The motion today goes further than anything I can recall and compresses the procedure on two Bills to such an extent that it denies, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) said, proper scrutiny of the legislation.

I draw the attention of the House to what the Bills will do. I always look at the financial effects of a Bill and, as many hon. Members know, I sometimes raise questions on money resolutions that are authorised by Parliament. The Bills mentioned in the motion do not have inconsiderable effects. We have spent much more time debating Bills with much fewer and smaller financial implications. The Bill on social security contributions will increase contributions to the insurance fund by £1.9 billion in a full year, and the Government want to get it through on the nod. When local authorities treat expenditure and revenue in such a cavalier fashion, the Government say that they are irresponsible. They must bear some portion of such criticism themselves.

The Bill also authorises payments of £5.5 billion—a huge sum of money. In the past, Parliaments have fallen into disrepute because they have passed money resolutions on the nod in far too casual a way. Criticisms were made, and some of us tried to stop that procedure.

Some of us try to raise issues on money resolutions. Ministers are now prepared with defensive briefs on money resolutions in case I am in the Chamber, as I generally am. That may be inconvenient, but Parliament is here to ensure that Ministers are inconvenienced and that they have to explain the issues. People sit in the Galleries and think that this is a rowdy place. I take the view that if Parliament is rowdy, a Minister has to be up to the job and has to be able to present his case. It is true that it is easier to get legislation through a meek, quiet assembly of people. Parliament is rowdy because the clash of opinions comes out in the open.

Many other assemblies, such as the French Assembly and the United Nations Assembly, do not have clashes of opinion. The proceedings there are ordered and dull because all the clashes take place in committee rooms beforehand. In the conduct of human affairs, there are bound to be disagreements. In other organisations and institutions, matters are arranged so that everything looks neat and tidy. Parliament is not neat and tidy. It involves angry scenes and exchanges, and Ministers have to be well prepared if they are to put their case effectively.

Shortening the arrangements for the two Bills will remove even background scrutiny and will prevent us from examining them in detail, as we want to do. Our right to table amendments will be limited.

The Statutory Sick Pay Bill will reduce public expenditure by £695 million in 1994–95. The figure for the following year will be more than £700 million, and the figure for the year after will be £750 million. The abolition of the recovery of statutory sick pay, under clause 1, will cost employers about £695 million. Should we not debate such costs to employers in some detail and for a reasonable time rather than simply rushing the legislation through because it is convenient for the Government? The position is entirely unsatisfactory.

The guillotine motion will compress the timetable to such a degree that we shall have difficulty in tabling amendments. The Leader of the House knows that I take a particular interest in statutory instruments because I am the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. Clause 4 of each Bill will remove the provision for affirmative resolutions for the statutory instruments involved and will put them under the negative procedure. There may be a perfectly good reason for that, which would ordinarily be brought out on Second Reading.

Our procedures on Second Reading are often not a monologue, but a dialogue. Hon. Members frequently give way to Ministers so that they can offer explanations. In the ordinary course of events, we should have an explanation of why the Government seek to remove what I regard as an important safeguard in delegated legislation. We shall not have that chance. The motion removes the normal procedure by which amendments are tabled after Second Reading. Under the normal procedure, we could make a better judgment about whether the Minister had made a good case for an important change.

Many hon. Members do not take too much trouble over delegated legislation and the vast majority of the population do not know what it is about. In fact, everyone is affected by delegated powers and everything is covered by delegated legislation. The Under-Secretary of State for Technology, who took part in the proceedings on the Transport and Works Bill, is in the Chamber and he will remember that we discussed delegated legislation in some detail. Delegated powers cover people from birth to death.

The House has given virtually untrammelled powers to Ministers over the years to the extent that they can now individually change legislation, sometimes through instruments that do not require further parliamentary procedures. That is outrageous. I accept that delegated powers may be necessary because details of Acts sometimes need to be carried out swiftly. In this case, we shall not be given an explanation, so we shall not know whether the fairly important changes under clause 4 of each Bill are justified.

We shall have to table amendments beforehand to retain the affirmative procedure, although that may not be entirely justified; we do not know. Inevitably, many amendments will be tabled, but our discussions will be affected by the guillotine. We do not know the details of the timing because they have not yet been made available to Parliament. We may not have adequate time to discuss all the amendments. I am not talking about tabling 150 or so amendments simply to delay the issue; this is not the European Communities (Amendment) Bill. Incidentally, both Bills mentioned in the motion are longer than the Maastricht Bill. We should remember the number of amendments tabled on that Bill, and we should realise that the length of a Bill is no indication of its importance. The argument that these are two small, technical, four-clause Bills is not necessarily a justification for the compressed procedure.

Secondly, there is no question but that the Government have been in office a long time and have grown arrogant and insular. They regard Parliament as a legislative sausage machine that is used for their convenience. Maastricht gave them a shock, because the Prime Minister went off and made an arrangement, and when he came back he found dissension. By and large—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is well aware of the procedures of the House. I think that his argument is now going rather wide of the motion.

Mr. Cryer

It has always been the custom and practice for Members to be allowed to use examples in passing by way of illustration. When we are debating a motion that rips up the usual parliamentary procedures and deliberately deprives Members of the opportunity of tabling amendments, I think that it is relevant to show the arrogance of the Government who are doing that and the fact that they have had a recent shock over their arrogant attitudes. Unfortunately, the Government have been slipping back into their old pre-Maastricht ways in tabling the motion, because it is convenient for them to do that.

The Government determine the recesses and, as the Leader of the House knows, they have been asked questions about their length and time. In the week leading up to Christmas eve, the Government could have put in an extra two or three days to enable us to consider the Bills. No doubt an extra two or three days would be regarded with mixed feelings by various Members, but I tabled a genuine amendment that we should continue the Session until 23 December. If the amendment had been agreed to, I would have been here, as would several of my hon. Friends, arguing the case.

The Leader of the House cannot say that the motion is necessary because we do not have enough days for the business because the Government determine the parliamentary timetable and the agenda. They could have timetabled an extra two or three days if, as no doubt the Leader of the House will claim, there is a need to get the legislation through for various administrative reasons. If they are being discussed and proposed for administrative reasons, it suggests that the administration is not very good and that the Government are having to bypass the usual parliamentary procedures and use a short cut to get the Bill passed because they had not planned far enough ahead. That seems a pretty shoddy way of dealing with Parliament.

As the Leader of the House knows full well, the torrent of legislation that the Government have produced is an indication of the degree of contempt that the Government have for Parliament. For example, last year they produced a record number of statutory instruments—3,500. The Government must overhaul their attitude towards Parliament and undertake a review of their procedures to ensure that that does not happen again.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) said, the Opposition are always in something of a dilemma, because we want the opportunity —even though it is one with which we do not agree, because it is presented in such limited and absolute terms by the Government—to table amendments. Voting against the motion would deprive us of that opportunity, which would be cutting off our nose to spite our face.

Although we are opposed to the motion, we must take what little opportunity the Government have proffered. It is like dealing with Bills. Sometimes we hate, oppose and detest legislation that the Government propose. That has been the case with most of the legislation over the past 14 years. What are the Opposition to do? Are we to maintain complete, untrammelled and unqualified opposition, or are we to say that we hate the Bill and the legislation but will try to table minor improvements where we can? By and large, that is the way in which the Opposition work.

I do not think that we shall persuade the Government —they have cloth ears when it comes to these things—so we shall just have to use the machinery provided to table amendments as best we can. I must say to the Leader of the House that the position remains extremely unsatisfactory. What has been done is an abuse of the House. The Leader of the House will no doubt say, "The Labour Government tabled three guillotine motions in a day—

The Minister for Social Security and Disabled People (Mr. Nicholas Scott)


Mr. Cryer

Five, then. We certainly used guillotines and, at that time, I endorsed the procedure. But I have changed my mind, and that is not unreasonable because after 14 years a Government can grow too arrogant and too confident of their powers.

We should be chary of the use of guillotines. I hope that we shall also be chary of them after the next general election, when Labour is in power. I say that because. as we all know, it is possible to distinguish between amendments that are meant to improve legislation and safeguard those affected by it and amendments that are tabled simply to spin out a debate.

There are two ways in which the Opposition can deal with proceedings on a Bill. Either they can talk for so long that they force concessions from a Government who want to get their legislation through—that worked fairly satisfactorily in respect of the Transport and Works Act—or they can reach a tacit understanding with the Government about the Committee stage and the way in which amendments are dealt with. They can say, "We will allow the Bill through if we get an extra day on it on the Floor of the House." We all know that such negotiation takes place. We have to judge which approach will best serve the interests of those whom we represent. The motion before us in effect rules that out and prevents us from making such a judgment. We are to be given only very limited scope.

The Government have enjoyed enormous majorities since 1979. Their present majority of 17 is the smallest that they have had since they came to power. We would have given our right arm for such a majority between 1974 and 1979, when we governed with a majority of one until John Stonehouse disappeared, after which we had no majority at all and governed on a minority. Yet, despite their majority, the Government insist on imposing guillotine after guillotine. It is fair to say that the Labour Government were in a somewhat different position from the present Government, who have enjoyed an enormous advantage. [Interruption.] The deputy Chief Whip says, "We are in a mess." He is right: they are in a mess. The hon. Gentleman's comment, uttered sotto voce as he sits on the Treasury Bench in what should be his mute position of inner silence, is correct.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton)

As my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) who is part of what were the usual channels—and I hope at some stage will be so again—has been referred to and cannot reply, I should make it absolutely clear that his words were not, "We are in a mess," but, "They"—the Labour Government of which the hon. Gentleman was a member —"were in a mess." With that, I wholly concur.

Mr. Cryer

That just goes to show that Whips should not mutter under their breath: their remarks can be misinterpreted. It sounded to me as though the hon. Gentleman was saying that the Government were in a mess. By saying anything this morning, when the Government have been completely outmanoeuvred, the deputy Chief Whip is going beyond his remit.

The Government should not press the motion. The Leader of the House ought to accept the view that it should be withdrawn, although I suppose that he will press it. As I have said, I regard it as an abuse of Parliament. I have never seen a motion couched in such terms before. We are talking about two important items of legislation involving a massive chunk of expenditure. Incidentally, I hope that the Government will not start talking about accountability as regards local authority expenditure because their behaviour shows clearly that they want merely to rubber-stamp the expenditure of huge sums. It is simply not good enough.

I hope that, having listened to our brief debate, the Leader of the House will decide not to go ahead. I hope that he will give us the usual amount of time, either extending our proceedings beyond 17 December, which we should be quite happy to accept, or deferring the Committee stage until we return on 11 January, which is only a few weeks off. We can then get down to the job of examining the whole thing properly and giving the legislation the sort of scrutiny that we are used to. It is a sad day when legislation is rushed through in such a manner and when Parliament is given such short shrift.

12.14 pm
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

What a difference a day makes. The Leader of the House was present and on time yesterday when he announced the business for next week. He wants to introduce a guillotine on a proposal that will rip off millions of people through extra taxation. That is what national insurance contributions are all about. They are a form of tax. The Government profess to be a low taxation Government, but they are not a low taxation Government at all. What they do is switch taxes; it is either value added tax going up or, as in this case, national insurance contributions going up.

Let us be fair about it—tax increases are in the Budget. The Budget can have as many as five or six days of debate on the Floor of the House and the Bill then goes to Committee. Many years ago, debates on a Finance Bill could last for five, six or seven weeks. Most of its stages had to be completed by 20 July and, before then, extensive debate took place. We might not have liked the results, but at least we used to have major debates about tax increases.

The motion has been tabled today because of what the Leader of the House announced yesterday. It is not personal, but he is being pushed by others in the Cabinet who are so full of arrogance and contempt for the British people that they have decided to push through next week, without any proper debate, a tax increase which will affect all workers and employers.

I could understand it if the House did not have sufficient time for debate. I mentioned the other week, and yesterday, that 1993 has been a non-election year. I have calculated that the House of Commons will have been in session for only seven months by 17 December, the date of finishing for Christmas. It is an outrage. Why did not the Government accept the motion tabled by myself and my hon. Friends last week, when we proposed that Parliament should sit for an extra week up to 24 December? What is wrong with that? A lot of people out there have to work until Christmas eve; they cannot pack up on 17 December.

Mr. Don Dixon (Jarrow)

Santa Clause does not come down their chimney until 25 December.

Mr. Skinner

I packed up believing in Santa Clause at the same time that I packed up believing in the royal family, when I was about three. He did not do me much good, being in a family of 10 just before the war.

There is plenty of time. Anybody out there who watches "Westminster Live" would ask why Parliament is not sitting the week after next week. We have done it before. It is not as though Parliament has risen every year on 17 December. There have been a few odd occasions when we rose earlier, but generally we have gone on to 21 or 22 December and, on occasions, to 23 December.

The Government do not want anybody to oppose them. They have become used to power and they are contemptuous of anybody having the guts to take them on. They say, "We will get the Leader of the House to move the motion quickly. There will not be too many people there and nobody will notice." As it happened, it was spotted by my hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench, and we said, "We are not having it; it is not playing the game to put up taxes in a day, without proper scrutiny."

Mr. Cryer

The Government say that they are short of time and that they must get the legislation through. My hon. Friend will recall that the Jopling report, which the Government back would close down Parliament even more. In that event, we would have no time at all and the Government would escape scot free from the scrutiny that they richly deserve.

Mr. Skinner

My hon. Friend has taken a strong position against the Jopling report, as I have, and one or two others, including my hon. Friend the Opposition Deputy Chief Whip—I do not know whether I can speak for him on this occasion, but I think that it is fair to say that he holds strong views on it.

It may seem all right to get rid of another day or week spent in Parliament—it is organised truancy—but let us face it, the Opposition's job is to oppose. That is why I hope that all my hon. Friends, along with my hon. Friends the Members for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) and for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer), will oppose the Jopling report. I do not know whether they will, but I hope that they understand that, although we might be in the minority in the House, we have a chance to stand up and speak and to vote on important issues.

I am pleased that we had a vote this morning—I say that en passant, Mr. Deputy Speaker—because the Government lost their majority. In fact, they did not have a quorum. Those Tory Members who are in favour of next week's guillotine, which will enable the Government to increase people's taxes, were not here to vote this morning. Only 20 of them voted and I did not see any members of the Cabinet, apart from the Chief Whip. The Leader of the House was missing.

Mr. Cryer

Good God.

Mr. Skinner

He had to be brought here, as well as others, but it was too late. The big vote today was just after 10 am. Tory Members are not used to being here at this time. Parliament starts at 2.30 pm Monday to Thursday and they do not realise that one has to get here for at least 10.30 am on Fridays.

The Leader of the House may be the innocent in all this. I will give him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he was pushed into tabling the motion and, yesterday, he probably thought that no one would be here today. The Government's behaviour is outrageous. They tell the House that a guillotine will be imposed next week and they then say to all the Tory Members," Go on, pack up for the holidays. You are on a four-day week."

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

That is what the Leader of the Opposition has signed up to.

Mr. Skinner

I believe in a four-day week for workers. When that is offered to every worker in Britain, Parliament can have it as well, but not until then. Four million people do not have a job and it would be a great idea to have a four-day for workers because that would give young lasses and lads the chance to have a job.

Mr. Cryer


Mr. Skinner

I am on a different tack and I know that I must keep in order, because this is a narrow procedural motion. Should my hon. Friend intervene, I hope that he will do so on a straightforward procedural basis.

The Government have a cheek to flaunt their power. We gave them the opportunity last Friday to extend the debate on the Bills when we tabled our amendment, which was voted on. The Tories only managed to muster 99 votes then. That was a few more than today. I wonder where they go to. It is pretty clear that the Government told them to pack up and come back on Monday to pass the guillotine motion. The Government told them to refresh themselves and then come back to attack the working-class people. The tax increase also represents an attack on the middle class—all those Tory voters who have got pampas grass in their gardens in Surrey and everywhere else. They will be hit as well.

The Tory Government have dealt with the miners, the steelworkers and the shipyard workers. Now they are attacking their own middle class. No wonder they will get clobbered at the next election. We should have that election now. Instead of debating the motion, we should be debating a resignation motion, because I believe that 90 per cent. of the electorate, or perhaps 80 per cent.—I do not want to over-egg the pudding—want this lot out. They are fed up with all the Government's attacks. The tax increases are yet another one, right at the end of the autumn part of the Session.

I do not know whether it would have been possible to discuss the legislation in January. The Government would still have got it through in time to fit in with the appropriate resolutions. So why have all the rush? I can only assume that they had a gathering of the Cabinet, and they said, "I will tell you what; there will not be many there next week. Some of them will have gone—bobbied off. Let's slip it through in the week before Christmas." Well, some of us are not going to have it and that is why we call upon the Leader of the House. He got a bloody nose this morning and so did the Government—I am speaking metaphorically. The Government got a bloody nose this morning and the Leader of the House was not even here to carry through his business. Someone said to me that they lost a debate this morning. I said, "I did not lose a debate; all I did was move a procedural motion." All that the Government had to do was to bring 40 people in.

Mr. Dixon


Mr. Skinner

Thirty-five plus the Tellers and the Speaker or Deputy Speaker. The people who lost the business this morning were the Government. They have a duty to have 40 people here. I have heard them attack the Labour Government between 1974 and 1979, but whatever attacks have been made—I have made a few myself, as a matter of fact—during that period we were never in a position of not having a quorum. We always made sure that we had people here during 1974 and 1979, when we were living on the breadline. We made sure that we had the requisite number of people here.

That is why we are debating this subject now. Why are we debating it now? We are debating it because the Government lost their business this morning. That shows that perhaps the Government, having attacked all those sections of the people, are getting weary. Perhaps it is the fag end of the Government. Perhaps they really have lost; they have run out of steam and they have lost control. It does happen.

There was a feeling like that in 1979, after those five years. I say that in a non-political fashion. It does happen.

Mr. Cryer

Of course.

Mr. Skinner

I think that the Government are running out of steam.

I do not think that Lady Thatcher would have allowed what has happened this morning to happen. She did some terrible things—she attacked working-class people left, right and centre—but I do not believe in my guts that she would have had fewer than 40 people here this morning. If they had not been here, there would have been blood on the carpet.

I do not know what will happen to the Government Whips. I see the Deputy Whip here now, the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight). He was here this morning, along with the Chief Whip, but half his staff were missing. It is really coming to summat, is it not?

Mr. Cryer

They are collapsing.

Mr. Skinner

It is coming to something when the Lords Commissioners, as they call them, are not even present. That is why we are debating the subject now. The Government are losing control of the House.

Mr. Cryer

They get paid extra money.

Mr. Skinner

There is another reason why the Government are in trouble on a Friday morning, which is worth remembering. The hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence), who stands at the Bar of the House, has just prompted me to say it. The reason they are in trouble on a Friday—and they would like to get rid of Friday—is that on Friday we start at half-past 9 and the courts are still open. Hon. Members who are on a City board of directors as non-executive members, such as, say, the right hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell), who just left one that went bankrupt, Queen's Moat House—it is a real scandal, and he ran away just before the colloquial so-and-so hit the fan—cannot get here on a Friday. Those people, who come after half-past 2 on Monday to Thursday, obviously cannot get here on a Friday because they are in the courts, making money hand over fist. Guinness—

Mr. Ken Livingstone (Brent, East)

will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Skinner

I shall let my hon. Friend intervene because we have to get back to the narrow procedural motion.

Mr. Livingstone

Has my hon. Friend read Suetonius's "Twelve Caesars"? That describes an identical procedural position. When Julius Caesar was having trouble getting something through the senate, which was dominated by reactionaries, he always called a special meeting of the senate on Friday because so many of the rich reactionaries had gone home to their country estates and he could always get things through. There seems to be the same problem with the Government today. After 2000 years, the rich and the corrupt still have trouble working on a Friday.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Let us now get back to the narrow motion.

Mr. Cryer

But Caesar did have a point.

Mr. Skinner

As a matter of fact, I do not want to stray, except to say, in passing, that Caesar got done by his own, did he not, just like Thatcher?

So history repeats itself. Look at them sitting on the Government Front Bench. They support this narrow procedural motion. There used to be a pair of knee pads in Mrs. Thatcher's office for when they got on their hands and knees to grovel to her. As soon as her back was turned it was—I was going to say it was, "Hail Major", but it was not really. Most of them would like to get rid of him now because he does not know whether he is on this earth or fuller's earth.

As you reminded us, Mr. Deputy Speaker, we are talking about why the Government should not have moved this narrow procedural motion today. It is worth remembering that if the Government had not lost their business today, we would not have debated the motion. If we had proceeded through the normal business, the motion would have been moved at 2.30 pm. We might have objected to it and that would have been the end of it. I am right, am I not?

Mr. Dixon

indicated assent.

Mr. Skinner

We are debating the motion because of what happened earlier today. The Government have had their chance. They could have debated the measure the week after next. They could have moved an amendment to our amendment which proposed that the House rise for the Christmas recess on 24 December. The Government could have moved a compromise amendment proposing that the House rise on 22 December and we could have had more time to debate the measure.

It is outrageous for the Government to table a motion which will allow a measure to raise taxes throughout Britain to be pushed through in one day. If this had happened in the Soviet Union 10 or 15 years ago, it would have been expected. People would have said, "Well, that's par for the course. That's what they do here."

The Government are so contemptuous in the use of their power and think that they are going to be here for ever that they believe that they can do what they like. What we have done today is to shove a locker in the tub wheel, as we say in the pit, to stop the train from moving further. At some point, the Government must understand that they are out of step with people outside.

The Government are out of step on the question of tax and also in relation to the health service and housing. People are living on the streets while others live in the lap of luxury. The Government are not building houses. Those are the kind of issues that we should be debating. We should not be debating this narrow procedural motion. We should be debating a motion to allow local authorities to build houses in every town and city in Britain to put roofs over people's heads. Why did not the Leader of the House table such a motion?

Why are we not talking today about education and the fact that we need to spend £4 billion on repairs to schools? That shows the size of the problem. That spending would allow us to put people back to work. That is the kind of subject that we should be debating instead of this narrow procedural motion.

We could also be debating about the pits and arguing that all the pits should be kept open. Instead of debating this narrow procedural motion, we should be debating the reasons why we are throwing thousands of miners and others out of work. What this Government have got away with is a scandal.

More than 1 million people are on NHS waiting lists. It used to be said that we had to have nuclear weapons to stop the Russians from invading Britain. I said then that I did not believe that the Russians would want to join NHS waiting lists. It is all crazy.

At the fag end of this part of the Session we are talking about raising taxes once again, without any proper debate in Parliament. This is a debate about democracy and free speech. It is about gagging people who have the guts to stand up to this mob.

Mr. Livingstone

I wonder whether my hon. Friend is aware that it is being reported on the tapes that the Government have collapsed in Parliament today and have lost control of the agenda and that this is the first victory following the announcement by my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition of a policy of non-co-operation with the Government as a result of the way in which business is being managed. Does my hon. Friend believe that we may see further disasters for the Government, with more business lost, more incompetence and more mismanagement as signs of a Government who are beginning to lose their grip?

Mr. Skinner


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) may believe that, but we are discussing a narrow motion. I have already pointed that out and I should be grateful if the hon. Member would address his remarks to the motion.

Mr. Skinner

I cannot follow my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) down that road because you have made it clear, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that we are considering a narrow procedural motion. I was about to say—this is in order—that, instead of having this narrow procedural motion, we should be talking about the problems of the people outside this place. [Interruption.] We could not do that because the Government had not got a majority here in order to keep it going. Tory Members should not blame Labour Members. None of my hon. Friends voted this morning, although they could have done so. They could have defeated the Government.

I hear about the Common Market Commissioners and the way in which they do things and about the lack of democracy in the Common Market. Not only do I hear people talk about it; I know that it is true. That is why I am against the Common Market. The Government are learning the methods of those commissars or commissioners in the Common Market—perhaps I was right the first time—by conducting business in this way. It is high time they understood that there are 651 Members of Parliament and about 270 represent the Labour party. The Tory party has about 230 Members of Parliament, so the Government should not assume that they can steamroller things through. They do not have a majority of 150 or 100, as they had in the past. They should understand that Parliament is more clearly divided now and they do not have that massive majority. The Government have been taught a lesson this morning. They have been shown that they do not have a majority all the time.

The Government should allow debate to take place in a proper manner. We should not be putting taxes up in the course of one day. That is why I hope that, on reflection the Leader of the House will decide not to move the motion but accept that there should be more than one day's debate and that, if necessary, we should continue until 22, 23 or 24 December fully to debate the tax increases.

12.36 pm
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton)

Before I make one or two observations about what has been said in the debate, I simply acknowledge that, with his usual courtesy, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) told me that he was not able to stay very long after his speech from the Labour Front Bench because of long-standing commitments. Of course, I want to make it clear that I understand that and do not regard it as discourtesy.

If I am allowed to use rather less tempered language and fall into the vernacular, much of what the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) said is completely up the creek. It was not Government business this morning which the Government had a duty to protect; it was private Members' business.

Mr. Skinner


Mr. Newton

Perhaps I might just finish. There was a private Member's motion moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Sir D. Thompson) on a number of business and industry matters including the sort of issues that the hon. Gentleman said we should be discussing. As a result of the hon. Gentleman's manoeuvre, those matters have not been discussed and we are now discussing this procedural motion. There is no question of the Government's not being in control. The hon. Gentleman has wrecked private Members' business and demolished an opportunity to discuss the things that he said we should be talking about.

Mr. Skinner

Let us get this on the record. I agree that the first three items of business today were private Members' business. But the next series of items is Government business. We are now debating Government business because the Government put down their motion. Do not let the Leader of the House kid anyone outside the House and in the media that Friday is not about Government business. Government business is on this agenda.

The truth is that the Government had a duty to protect the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Sir D. Thompson), who moved the original motion. Any decent Government would have had 40 Members here to protect him. The truth is that I did not lose any business, the hon. Gentleman did not lose any business and my hon. Friends did not lose any business. The Government shot the hon. Gentleman in the back.

Mr. Livingstone

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When I entered the building this morning, I was told by a Tory Member that they had been told by their Whips to continue at sufficient length to ensure that my motion was not reached.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That is not a point of order for the Chair, as the hon. Gentleman knows.

Mr. Newton

I repeat that what the hon. Member for Bolsover did today was effectively to wreck private Members' business, not Government business. He deprived the House of an opportunity to discuss exactly the sort of matters which he spent 10 minutes saying we should be talking about. His case simply does not stand up.

Mr. Cryer

Is the Leader of the House saying that if private Members' business had operated in the normal way, the important motion that the Government have tabled would not have been debated at all, and would have been put through on the nod?

Mr. Newton

That would have depended on the hon. Gentleman and on his hon. Friends. The hon. Member for Garscadden acknowledged that the motion is helpful in the context in which we are talking—and I emphasise "in the context"—by stating that he did not intend to oppose the motion. It allows amendments to be made in a more orderly and straightforward way than would otherwise be possible. If the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) had been here and had objected to it, the motion would not have been passed.

Mr. Dixon

Does the Leader of the House accept that the reason that the motion is down is that the Government are trying to put the Bill through in one day? Will not that allow amendments prior to Second Reading?

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman is quite right on the background to the situation, which was why I emphasised that it was helpful in the context in which we are talking. We are talking about how the Bill should be dealt with next week. Such a motion would also have been required if the House had been dealing with the Bill in two days next week. There would still not have been a sufficient interval between day one and day two for the amendments to be unstarred. In those circumstances, the Government would have tabled a motion of this kind also.

Despite what was said earlier, there is nothing particularly unusual about the motion, although I accept that the situation more usually arises when there has been agreement in the usual channels to deal with such things rapidly. That is not the background in this case. Nevertheless, there is nothing unusual about the motion in the circumstances where the House is asked to deal with something in one day or a couple of days. A motion of this kind facilitates the tabling of amendments on that basis. The hon. Member for Garscadden suggested that he did not intend to oppose it, even though he did not like the background.

Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

I am intervening only because I have never heard such utter baloney as I have heard this morning from the maverick hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and his hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer).

Had this been a Government day and had the Labour party felt as strongly as the maverick hon. Gentleman pretends that it does, would the Opposition Benches be so empty? Clearly it is not a Government day, but a private Members' day. Will not the way in which the hon. Gentleman is behaving only prejudice the type of argument that he says we ought to be having?

Mr. Newton

My hon. and learned Friend makes a good point, and it links with one that I had been tempted to make myself. I had almost decided not to make the point, but I have been tempted back again. When the hon. Member for Bolsover spoke so vigorously in favour of the House sitting almost until it was time for Christmas lunch, the number of hon. Members that he could persuade to be here to vote against my proposal for the dates of the recess was precisely five, if I remember rightly. That was out of a total number of about 650 hon. Members, excluding the Chair.

Mr. Cryer

There were seven, including the Tellers.

Mr. Newton

Well, all right. That takes the figure fractionally above 1 per cent. of the total number of Members of Parliament.

I will make two other points quickly, because I do not want to detain the House for too long. The hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) gave the impression that, as Leader of the House, I had been scattering guillotines about like confetti. This is only the fourth guillotine in well over 18 months during which I have been the Leader of the House. I suspect that that has been a more sparing record than most in recent times. The figure contrasts with the five in one day which were once announced by the former right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale—that is how I most clearly remember him—Michael Foot.

I will make one other factual point quickly to the hon. Gentleman. I have been advised by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People that the type of secondary procedures that are involved in such Bills—that is to say negative rather than affirmative—mirrors the existing procedures. We shall look further at the point that the hon. Gentleman raised.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)


Mr. Skinner

He has just got out of bed.

Mr. Hughes

I was here earlier. Things have moved on since then. I apologise that I was not here for the beginning of the debate. I wish to ask the Leader of the House a simple factual question about the motion.

Mr. Greg Knight (Treasurer of Her Majesty's Household)

The hon. Gentleman has only just walked in.

Mr. Hughes

I apologised that I was not here for the beginning of the debate. I was here earlier. I have been away and come back.

If the motion is defeated, will it be possible to go through the proceedings on the Bill? The normal procedure is that hon. Members can table amendments and so on only after Second Reading. If no motion has been passed to change that procedure, would the Government be unable to complete the proceedings in a day, irrespective of amendments?

Mr. Newton

Such guidance more properly belongs to the Chair. If I may venture into this delicate field—unless the Chair wishes to venture into it—I think that under those circumstances there would be many requests for the Chair to accept manuscript amendments between Second Reading and the Committee stage. I see that you are about to be helpful to me, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Yes, all amendments would become manuscript amendments.

Mr. Newton

As I suspected, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you have confirmed in your ever-helpful way what I could not say so definitely. I am grateful to you for stating that, in those circumstances, the Chair would accept manuscript amendments. So rejection of the motion would not prevent proceedings on the Bill.

I accept that people do not like what I have said that I shall propose next week. In that context, it has been acknowledged in various quarters that the motion is designed to be helpful to the House. It is designed to facilitate the drafting and tabling of amendments in a sensible way.

I do not need to make a huge number of further points, but I wish to make a few. I do not wish to stray out of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. A fair number of points have been made which perhaps relate more properly to the timetable motion that we shall table than to today's motion. I accept that the motions are a little difficult to disentangle.

It has been suggested that there has been hardly any time to reflect on or discuss the proposal on national insurance contributions. The proposal was announced in the March Budget this year. That was followed by five days of Budget debate. The proposal has been referred to in a variety of other debates by Opposition spokesmen in the intervening period. The proposal was also an integral part of the judgment in the latest Budget, on which we had a six-day debate.

The proposal was also in the Queen's Speech, so one could say that that was another four or five days of opportunity for debate on national insurance contributions. There have been at least 15 days on which hon. Members had the opportunity to debate the national insurance contributions proposal announced last March.

I accept that there has not been such an extensive opportunity to debate the proposal on statutory sick pay. Nevertheless, it is a public expenditure proposal produced in the context of the first unified Budget. At the request of the Opposition, we had an extra day of Budget debate. It was increased from five to six days specifically to allow further discussion of the public expenditure proposals. Not only has there been the opportunity to debate the national insurance proposal, but many references were made to the statutory sick pay proposal.

It has been suggested that the reason for today's motion is the convenience of the Government. That is not the case. The position is this. The national insurance proposals taken broadly—not specifically the proposals for which the Bill is required but the other proposals on employers' contributions—and the SSP proposals go hand in hand. If they are to be implemented in an orderly and sensible way as part of the Budget judgment, which is designed to ensure the continued economic recovery, they must be implemented at the beginning of the next financial year, in April.

We are talking about proposals which affect every firm in Britain, including many with massive payroll systems. Implementation needs to start by March at the latest. Before implementation, extensive secondary legislation needs to be prepared and passed, with the details discussed in the House. Unless we proceed in such a way, we shall not be able to carry through important ingredients of our policy, which are essential to the economic interests of the nation, and to do so in a manner with which businesses could be expected to cope sensibly. That is the basis for our actions.

As I have said, there will be many opportunities for debate. The Bills are very short—although I accept that the Maastricht Bill was also short—and are effectively only one clause, which will have the major effect that we are discussing. One Bill will increase national insurance contributions and the other will change the reimbursement for statutory sick pay. Those are the key clauses and they are basically simple propositions. The detail will come later, in secondary legislation. The national insurance re-rating exercise will be further debated in the House when the necessary instruments are introduced.

Against that background, it is not reasonable to suggest that the Government are somehow trying to steamroller things through. They are trying to achieve a sensible basis on which to proceed with the detail, which can be the subject of further examination and discussion.

In order not to trespass further on the time of the House, I shall conclude on the following two matters that did not seem to be fully understood, judging from some of the contributions to the debate. Repeated references have been made to the changes to national insurance contributions as if they were the same as a variety of other tax increases. Hon. Members know perfectly well that the national insurance fund operates on the basis that this year's contributions pay for this year's benefits, which are overwhelmingly retirement pensions. The money is required to ensure that the fund has a sound basis from which it can continue to pay those benefits and against a background in which, in line with something that the hon. Member for Garscadden is reported to have said in the papers, the Government have announced a significant increase, over and above the normal, in retirement pensions —the increase in relation to value added tax on fuel, which has to be paid out of the fund.

The national insurance proposal is not the same as any other tax increase, but is related to the need to meet the Government's and the country's commitments to retired people and to many others who are dependent on payments out of the national insurance fund.

The hon. Member for Garscadden said that he was not sure of the effects of the changes in statutory sick pay on industry and that there had been talk of some compensation package. The effects are very clear. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the proposal will reduce public spending by about £700 million a year, but the Government are also proposing to reduce the main rates of employers' national insurance contributions by 0.2 per cent. from next April and the lower rates by one percentage point. Those reductions in employers' contributions, which are the other side of the package, will be worth about £830 million, rising to £1 billion by 1996–97.

The net effect of the package of changes to statutory sick pay and employers' national insurance contributions, even allowing for one or two other factors that it could be argued need to be taken into account, is a reduction of at least £100 million in the costs imposed on British industry, but perhaps those are matters for debate when we come to the issues in other ways next week.

I shall not trespass further on the time of the House, but I must emphasise that further opportunities for debate will be properly provided by the Government.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered, That, in respect of the Social Security (Contributions) Bill and the Statutory Sick Pay Bill, notices of Amendments, new Clauses and new Schedules to be moved in Committee may be accepted by the Clerks at the Table before the Bills have been read a Second time.

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