HL Deb 23 July 1996 vol 574 cc1287-9

Brought from the Commons; read a first time.

4.18 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish)

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.— (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish.)

Lord Eatwell

My Lords, on many occasions in the past at this juncture the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, has risen to object to the fact that we do not have the opportunity to debate the Consolidated Fund. His case has been clear. He has argued that the lack of such a debate deprives your Lordships of a chance to consider the scale, structure and content of government expenditure in the round, so to speak—an opportunity which is not provided when discussing specific measures. The usual reply to the noble Lord has been that it is not customary and appropriate to have a debate at this juncture. In this instance, I agree with the Government. However, I should like to make a proposal to ease the frustrations of the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, and other noble Lords about the inability of the House to hold a broad debate on government expenditure.

Noble Lords will remember that last year, on a Motion by the Labour Group introduced by my noble friend Lord Desai the day after the Budget, noble Lords had an opportunity to discuss the matter. Noble Lords will be aware that nowadays the unified Budget consists of proposals for tax-raising powers and general consideration of government expenditure. The debate introduced by my noble friend proved very popular, even though it took place just a few days following the economic section of the Queen's Speech. Twenty-three noble Lords took part. A number of very interesting and constructive speeches were made from all sides.

My proposal is that the Government should consider whether it would be appropriate for the House annually to debate the Budget as a matter of custom on the day after the Budget. Noble Lords would then have the opportunity to have a broad debate on government expenditure and to contribute ideas on government expenditure and taxation, as they did so successfully last year. Such a debate would not be left simply to the whims of the parliamentary timetable and Opposition parties using up their time to provide noble Lords with that opportunity. I put that proposal to the Government for consideration.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I am very much indebted to the noble Lord opposite for involving me in this discussion. I share his views to a considerable extent. The Consolidated Fund Bill is probably the most important—or at least the second most important—measure with which your Lordships' House has to deal. Simply to pass it on the nod without arranging for an alternative opportunity to discuss the whole Budget, or the general level of expenditure and the proposals for expenditure, seems to me to be abandoning one of the duties of this House. I say to my noble friend the Leader of the House that I hope the Government will arrange for that at or about the time of the Budget. I hope that, in the context of the House not having debated the Consolidated Fund Bill, a full-scale economic debate will be arranged but—I say with very great enthusiasm—not on a Friday.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I do not have any difficulty with the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell. This House would probably find it helpful to have such a debate on the Budget soon after the Budget Statement in the House of Commons. With regard to the general question of debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, will be aware that this matter has been discussed many times by the Procedure Committee. It was unanimously decided by that committee that it would not be appropriate to have a general economic debate on the occasion of the passage of the Consolidated Fund Bill. Therefore, I have no difficulty with the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, but I would have very substantial difficulty with regard to the Consolidated Fund Bill.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord has somewhat misunderstood the point that I tried to make. No doubt that is my fault and not his. I tried to say that, in view of the importance of the Consolidated Fund Bill—which is beyond dispute—linked with it there ought to be an opportunity for this House to have a general economic debate as of right and it should not depend on whether or not the Procedure Committee had found that convenient.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, said that the Procedure Committee had discussed this matter on innumerable occasions. As a Member of the Procedure Committee, I endorse that. I add only that the report of the Procedure Committee on all of those occasions has been wholeheartedly endorsed by the House.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I thought that I was going to get away with not having to intervene at all, other than by uttering the words to allow the Bill to proceed through your Lordships' House. I believe that my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter has almost accepted that we will not discuss the Consolidated Fund Bill and that the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, ought to be considered. I remember with some pleasure the debate on the economy introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Desai. If the noble Lord is again lucky and manages to arrange a debate on the day after the Budget, I look forward to standing at this Dispatch Box and defending the Budget, but whether or not we have that debate is more a matter for the usual channels than for me. I shall pass on the comments that have just been made by my noble friends and the noble Lords, Lord Eatwell and Lord Harris of Greenwich, to the Lord Privy Seal and the Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down perhaps he will have the courtesy of replying to the question posed by his noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter. His noble friend suggested, quite sensibly, that at this time of year there was a need to debate the general economic situation of the country, bearing in mind that in terms of the parliamentary timetable it is only relatively recently that the unified Budget has been moved from April to November. I hope that the Minister has some sympathetic words for, if not complete acceptance of, the suggestion by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, that there should be a major economic debate at about this time of year.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I am always grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, for pulling me up when I do not answer absolutely every question. I thought that I had covered the ground fairly well. I believe that the Commons do not debate this particular Bill. As two noble Lords who are Members of the Procedure Committee have made clear, this ground has been tilled so often that I doubt whether a plough would find a piece of firm soil into which to bite. I am equally certain that your Lordships' House, if not the rest of the world, will be more than delighted to hear the views of the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell on the economy. But I believe that that is a quite different issue. I will do as I have said and draw the attention of my noble friends to the exchanges that we have had.

On Question, Bill read a second time; Committee negatived.

Then, Standing Order 44 having been dispensed with (pursuant to Resolution of 18th July), Bill read a third time, and passed.

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