Monday, March 30, 2015


BLOG 160


The Budget traditionally sets out the government’s fiscal programme.  It is followed by a Finance Bill which parliament considers, amends where appropriate, and enacts.  A parliamentary Bill goes through a number of stages.

First reading: This is a formality.  The minister states the name of the Bill and the House votes to give it a first reading.

Second reading: This is party politics at its best or worst.  It rarely considers the detail of the Bill.  Instead the government side explains how brilliant is the Chancellor’s financial acumen and the opposition scoffs at it.  The House then gives the Bill its second reasons and it passes to the Committee stage.

Committee Stage:  The bill is considered by a General Committee (formerly Standing Committee).  Up until around 1960, it was considered by a Committee of the Whole House, i.e. the Speaker left his chair to be replaced by a Committee Chairman and the House pretended that it was a Committee.  Since 1960 the Committee of the Whole House has normally considered half a dozen or so clauses of the Finance Bill and the rest has been considered by a real General Committee.

Report:  The General Committee reports to the House what changes it had made to the Bill and the House is entitled to consider and make further changes.

Third reading:  This again is a formality.  The Commons says, “We’ve done our bit”; it’s now down to the House of Lords to look at the Bill afresh.

House of Lords:  The Finance Bill is what is called a “money bill”, as it raises funds for the Crown.  Since Magna Carta, only the Commons has been able to assent on behalf of the citizenry to be taxed.  All that the House of Lords can do is to debate it and recommend to the Queen that she should agree to it.

Royal Assent:  The Queen agrees to adopt the Bill and it is transformed into an Act of Parliament and becomes part of our body of law.

The Parliament website tells us that General Committees “are unique to the Commons and mainly look at proposed legislation in detail”.  Note “in detail”; I will come back to that later.  The website also tells us that “Public Bill Committees [a species of General Committee] examine each Bill line by line”.

Of course this is an election year, so one would expect the Finance Bill procedure to be a bit truncated.  There have been two ways that this has been done in the past.  Model 1 is to start the detailed scrutiny of the Bill, and when parliament shuts down for the election, enact what has been scrutinised and scrap the rest.  Model 2 is to enact the tax rates and scrap everything else.  The Provisional Collection of Taxes Act 1964, says that HMRC can collect tax based on the Budget Resolutions pending the enactment of the legislation, but only until 5 August.  If the tax rates have not been enacted by then, HMRC has to hand back all the PAYE it has collected since 6 April, which is why at least the tax rates are always enacted before 5 August.

But in the past the House of Commons has not been populated by Superheroes.  It has been populated by mere mortals whose brainpower, like mine, is limited so are not able to scrutinise pages and pages of draft legislation in a few hours.  This parliament is apparently populated by superheroes.  The Finance Bill was published last Tuesday 24 March.  It did not contain everything in the Budget but only, I assume, the bits that the Labour party indicated to the government that it was prepared to support.  Even so, it ran to 349 pages.

It had its second reading on 25 March from 12.48pm to 2.40pm.  It then was scrutinised in detail by a Committee of the Whole House from 2.40pm to 6.56pm after which it had its third reading and went to the House of Lords.  The House of Lords debated the Bill on 26 March.  They started at 11.37am and finished at 12.40pm.

I don’t know if the Guinness Book of Records have a section for Quickest Line by Line Scrutiny of a Parliamentary Bill.  If so, I suspect this one will be unbeaten for years to come.  The facts speak for themselves.  Line by line scrutiny in detail by the House of Commons:  256 minutes = 0.44 seconds to scrutinise line by line each of the 349 pages.  Scrutiny by House of Lords 10.8 seconds per page. I cannot even read a page of the Finance Bill in 44 seconds, let alone scrutinise it!

I am probably being a bit unfair.  It may well be that the more conscientious MP’s spent all of Tuesday scrutinising the Bill on their own.  Assuming it was published at 9.00am on Tuesday and those conscientious MP’s studied the Bill through the night, before staggering into the Chamber of the House of Commons for 12.48pm, that would have given them 27¾ hours of continuous scrutiny, which means they would have been able to devote 4.8 minutes a page to the Bill. That is still an incredible feat. Imagine scrutinising page 340 line by line having been awake and furiously studying solidly for the previous 27 plus hours. I am sure that I would have been far too tired to have managed it.

I salute such dedication.  I couldn’t read a Finance Act for 27¾ hours non-stop, let alone consider whether there were potential gaps in the legislation or room for improvement in under 5 minutes a page.

Truly today’s MPs are an utterly exceptional breed of men and women.  I am justified in calling them superheroes.

I do of course accept that I might have some cynical readers who doubt that MPs have the devotion to their work and the incisive minds to properly scrutinise a 349 page Bill at the speed of 4.8 minutes a page.  Indeed some may think that many MPs did not spend much time on the Bill before the debates began at 12.48pm on Wednesday.  Some might even think it utterly beyond the bounds of credibility that anyone – even a superhero – could then have scrutinised the Bill flat out at 44 seconds a page for almost 4 hours.

Such people will doubtless wonder why MPs are paid three times average earnings plus a similar amount in tax-free expenses (the bulk of which would be taxable if paid to someone who was not an MP but had a job that involved his working say four days a week in Westminster and one day a week in Leeds (or wherever)), if they are delinquent in their obligation of line by line scrutiny of the government’s proposed legislation.  Indeed, such people might even question the role of parliament if its members believe it acceptable to rubber-stamp hundreds of pages of legislation with complete indifference as to whether it is going to be effective, riddled with loopholes, operate fairly or unfairly, or be reasonably intelligible to the citizenry.

I do not want to accuse my MP of dereliction of duty though.  I prefer to believe that he is a superhero.  My only worry is whether I might be being just a little bit naïve! 



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