HL Deb 16 July 1991 vol 531 cc107-12

3.18 p.m.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Waddington)

My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. I am moving this Business of the House Motion by agreement between the usual channels to allow the House to deal with four Bills before the Summer Recess. The Finance Bill will be taken in the House on this coming Friday, 19th July. The Armed Forces Bill and the British Railways Board (Finance) Bill will then be taken in the House on Wednesday, 24th July—both, with the agreement of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, before his Motion on the Income Support (General) Regulations. Finally, we shall take the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill on Thursday, 25th July.

Your Lordships will recognise that it is not unusual for the Government to propose the suspension of these two standing orders at this stage in the Session in order to allow the completion of business. However, 1 stress that it is by agreement through the usual channels that these Bills are being taken in this way. The suspension of the standing orders does not mean that the Government would feel free to take other Bills without the agreement of the usual channels.

Moved, That Standing Order 38 (Arrangement of the Order Paper) be suspended until the Summer Recess so far as is necessary to give Her Majesty's Government power to arrange the order of business; and that Standing Order 44 (No two stages of a Bill to he taken on one day) be suspended for the same period. —(Lord Waddington.)

Lord Cockfield

My Lords, I have a point of both legal and constitutional importance to raise on this Motion because it would appear that, if it were accepted without comment, it would jeopardise your Lordships' legal rights in relation to the Finance Bill. Under the terms of the Provisional Collection of Taxes Act 1913, as amended, your Lordships are entitled to ask that the Finance Bill should come to your Lordships' House no later than 5th July. It is today already 16th July and we have not yet seen the Finance Bill.

Your Lordships' rights arise in the following way. It was for many years assumed by the House of Commons—I refer to it as the House of Commons because we are talking about historical events—that it could impose taxation by mere resolution. Unfortunately, a Mr. Bowles disagreed with it and, in the case of Bowles v. The Bank of England, Mr. Justice Parker decided that Mr. Bowles was right and that the House of Commons had no pretended power of imposition of taxation and that taxation could be imposed only by Act of Parliament.

The House of Commons has never taken kindly to the judiciary, however eminent and learned, telling it how to conduct its business and it immediately promoted a Bill which became the Provisional Collection of Taxes Act 1913. That Act to some degree overruled the judgment in the Bowles case, but it did so on certain clearly stated conditions. One of those conditions was that Royal Assent should be given to the Finance Act not later than 5th August, but, because such a decision would seriously have infringed the rights of your Lordships' House properly to consider that measure, the Act also provided that your Lordships should be given a month to complete the stages of the Bill. It is for that reason that the Bill should come to your Lordships' House before 5th July.

Years ago it was regarded as a matter of honour for the Bill to be sent to your Lordships by that date. I can testify to that from personal knowledge and experience. In more recent years, however, the date has not been adhered to. Your Lordships have always taken an understanding view of that situation as they have felt that it has been due not to any malign intention on the part of another place, but merely to the inability of the business managers in another place to manage their affairs with the efficiency that we rightly expect from the business managers in your Lordships' House.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Lord Cockfield

Nevertheless, my Lords, in the last year or so there has grown up an unfortunate tendency in another place to treat many of the amendments and arguments put forward by your Lordships on matters of considerable importance with a certain amount of, I might almost say, disrespect. Your Lordships will remember a number of occasions on which that has occurred. I would not for a moment suggest that noble Lords should create the kind of major financial crisis that would ensue if they stuck to their clear legal rights as enacted in the Provisional Collection of Taxes Act. Nevertheless, it is somewhat ironic that, after the treatment that your Lordships have at times received from another place, it should now seek our indulgence to accommodate its deficiencies in the management of its own business. I say this simply because I am afraid that, if no one made any protest about it, it would not be long before people came out with some bogus constitutional argument that noble Lords were not entitled to stand by their clear legal rights.

Perhaps I may add one further word. If the Bill is not certified by the Speaker as a money Bill, the Government's position would be even worse because, legally, your Lordships would then be bound only by the Parliament Act and not by the much more stringer t conditions of the Provisional Collection of Taxes Act. I feel, therefore, that it is essential that we should place on record that we believe that our legal rights remain unimpaired in this matter and that we waive our rights simply to accommodate the wishes and requirements of another place.

I also wish to raise the question, because the Leader of the House himself has raised it, about the proposed debate on the Finance Bill taking place on a Friday —a date which is highly inconvenient to many of your Lordships and particularly inconvenient, if I may say so on a personal note, for myself, not that I would expect he Leader of the House to take that into consideration, although my arrangements long foredate any of his. He sought to justify the decision to hold the debate on a Friday on the basis of the argument that it had been agreed through the usual channe13. That astounds me.

Anyone who had sat in your Lordships' Chamber over the past few weeks and had listened to the sound and fury that had erupted from the Benches opposite during Question Time whenever the state of the economic affairs of the nation were mentioned would have thought that the Opposition would be the first people to insist on the Finance Bill being properly debated in prime time. Nevertheless, in their wisdom they have taken the view that the Finance Bill, which is the centrepiece of the Government's economic strategy, need not be debated except on a Friday in the hope that no one in particular will be here and particularly no one who understands the questions involved.

However, having made my point, I wish to leave the matter there, but we should have on the record what are my views and possibly the views of others of your Lordships about the way these matters have been handled

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I strongly support what my noble friend Lord Cockfield has said about the rights of this House which are being eroded and which will be further eroded if those changes are allowed to take effect without protest, but I rise mainly on the question of taking the Finance Bill on Friday.

The opportunity to debate the Finance Bill, which is the right of this House, has in the past almost always taken that shape of a full dress debate on the economy and on the Government's handling thereof. Your Lordships are well aware of the fact that, for such a debate, Friday is the least suitable day of the week. I understand that, for some mysterious reason of their own, the usual channels have accepted that, but, so far as I know, there has not been general consultation with your Lordships about it. It seems to me the greatest pity that this House, which contains people who know at least as much about public finance as they do in another place, and, perhaps I may venture to say, even a little more, should be denied the opportunity of a full and proper one-day debate, if it has to b that.

Despite the fact that my noble friend the Leader of the House may feel bound to the Opposition, with whom he appears to have made an agreement, I ask him whether, even at this stage, he will have discussions with the Opposition to release him from that commitment and try to give this House a full day's debate on the Finance Bill during the following week. If he does not do so, that will again be an erosion of the apparent rights of this House to bring to bear its expertise on the national finances in full debate, in full and proper circumstances and with plenty of time in hand. If so, I am afraid that as Leader of the House the noble Lord is to some extent letting down the House.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, as one who for a long time up to a couple of years ago had the opportunity to deal in detail with the Finance Bill and take part in the economic debates on it, I very much endorse the observations made to the House by the noble Lords, Lord Cockfield and Lord Boyd-Carpenter.

The business of the House is a matter for the Government and in particular the Leader of the House. I trust that he will not exercise undue pressure upon the Opposition who, so far as possible, have to facilitate the business of the House. I hope that in future he will make quite sure that the debate on the Finance Bill—which, as the noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, said, provides the opportunity for a discussion in this House of the economic state of the nation and its economic affairs—takes place on a day other than Friday. To do anything other than that would not be in the best interests of the Government, the Opposition or the Back Benches on any side of the House.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead

My Lords, when he comes to reply perhaps the noble Lord will bear in mind that since the 5th July rule was proclaimed there are two reasons why there is even less excuse than was hitherto the case for the other place to mismanage their business and send the Bill to this House late. First, it is now habitual for the Budget to be in mid-March rather than in mid-April, which was previously the habit. Secondly, when the Finance Bill is dealt with in the other place, a large part of its business is sent upstairs to committee rather than have the whole of it taken on the Floor of the House, as was the case until just over 20 years ago. Therefore we are entitled to expect more consideration from the other place.

Lord Peston

My Lords, will the noble Lord confirm that the Finance Bill has not yet left the other place and therefore any date is speculative? Secondly, is he aware that although no one who understands these matters will be speaking on the subject on Friday, I shall speak on it.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, let me say at the outset that I have some sympathy for what my noble friend Lord Cockfield had to say about this matter. One would wish to see business managed in a way which gives this House the maximum opportunity for proper consideration of measures; and by that I mean all measures, including Finance Bills. It is perhaps unfortunate that certain practices have grown up over the years, but I certainly would not like your Lordships to imagine that somehow or other I have departed from precedent and am inflicting on noble Lords habits that are foreign to them.

With the greatest respect to my noble friend Lord Cockfield, I have to remind him that it was my noble friend who moved the Second Reading and the remaining stages of the Finance Bill on Friday, 24th July 1981. So it would not be correct to say that it has been unusual to deal with Finance Bills on a Friday. Indeed, very many important Bills have been dealt with on Fridays, particularly at this time of the year.

I should also remind noble Lords that it is by no means unusual for Finance Bills to come to this House so late in July. Indeed, it would traduce this Government to suggest that somehow or other we have decided on a practice that is inconvenient to this House.

To deal with the matter briefly, the Finance Bill came to this House in 1973 on 24th July; in 1974 it came on 30th July; in 1975 it arrived on 31st July; in 1976 it was 27th July; in 1977 it was 28th July; in 1978 it was 31st July. In 1979 the Government did very well and got it here by 24th July but by the next year it was back to 31st July. I hardly need go on. It is not correct therefore to say that suddenly in recent years the House has been put to great inconvenience as a result of Finance Bills arriving late in July. Like it or not, that has become the practice. But that does not mean that my noble friend is wrong to suggest that we should get across the message that it is not convenient to this House for that habit to continue.

I take very much to heart the points made by my noble friends Lord Cockfield and Lord Boyd-Carpenter, as well as what was said by the noble Lords, Lord Bruce of Donington, and Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. In fact, I wrote yesterday to my noble friend Lord Cockfield, and that letter answers the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Peston. The position is as my noble friend said; namely, that it is hoped that the consideration of the Finance Bill will be completed in another place today, Tuesday 16th July. In my letter I went on to say that we were obliged to pass the Bill by the Summer Recess and, that being so, the best arrangement that I could make, taking into account other pressures on the Order Paper, was to ensure that a full Friday was available for the Second Reading debate on the Bill in this House. I should point out that important government Bills have increasingly had their Second Readings taken in the House of Lords on a Friday.

It was against that background that it was decided through the usual channels to take the course that we have adopted. I am grateful to all those concerned for having come to the arrangement which, rightly or wrongly, has become something of a customary arrangement, as I indicated. Perhaps we should put the arrangements into reverse and I shall bear very much in mind what my noble friend said.

The Earl of Perth

My Lords, I hope that it is in order for me to speak. The noble Lord the Leader of the House did not reply to the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, to the effect that after consultation through the usual channels we should make a change to one day next week. That should certainly be looked at in consultation with the usual channels.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, not from my experience in this House, because here I am a mere novice, but from my experience as a business manager in the other place, I know that negotiations of this kind are all part of a gigantic mosaic. If one little piece is taken out of its place, one has to look at how all the other Bills will fit in. When it is the wish of this House and the wish of the other place to rise must also be borne in mind.

Therefore, it was somewhat disingenuous of me to say, after the painstaking negotiations which have taken place, that we should now try to unstitch the whole deal and think in terms of a different day for the Finance Bill. An agreement has been reached, and we ought to stick to it.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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