A happy marriage is no tax haven

Treasury rules out an incentive not all MPs would qualify for :Chief Secretary slips in a personal statement in his defence
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Indy Politics
Loyalty was the theme in the Commons yesterday, with MPs eager to hear if the Prime Minister would stick by Jonathan Aitken and the Canadian fishermen, and one Tory backbencher proposing tax incentives to bolster loyalty between wives and husbands.

For some, the last of these was the most sensitive. Several of Anthony Steen's colleagues have disqualified themselves in a rather high-profile way from the full benefits of his proposed loyalty bonus. Mr Steen, MP for South Hams, suggested the Chancellor provide a series of financial incentives to marriages which last 10 years, 20 years and 30 years.

But Sir George Young, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, did not think it appropriate to use the tax system "to encourage people to like each other and to continue to live with each other. A marriage which endures happily for 30 years is its own reward and I am sure the Inland Revenue could scarcely enhance that reward".

One qualifier, Joe Ashton, Labour MP for Bassetlaw, asked that if people like him "with 37 years' service" were not to get any financial reward, could the minister "hand out tin hats and a medal and arrange for a day like VE Day when we will celebrate the wars and the battles that we have had"?

Sir George thought Mr and Mrs Ashton had the ingenuity and resources to "celebrate each year of their infinitely happy marriage. And I'm sure that in the current framework of the Labour Party, he would not wish to advocate any expenditure of public money."

Mr Aitken basically took care of himself. Pressed by Andrew Smith, a Labour spokesman, he denied that when a board member of arms manufacturers BMARC he was ever given the slightest indication that its "wholly legitimate contract with Singapore" might subsequently result in components being shipped to Iran.

There was no reason to challenge his integrity or position in the Government, Mr Aitken said. In effect a personal statement slipped into exchanges on the economy, his denial had a touch of dj vu about it. Five months ago, the Chief Secretary seized a similar opportunity at Question Time to rebut "scurrilous allegations" over his bill for a stay at the Ritz Hotel in Paris.

When the Prime Minister was challenged on the affair, he said Mr Aitken had dealt with the matter "very forcibly" and made his position absolutely clear. "No evidence has been found to counter that, either by the Independent newspaper or by anyone else."

Mr Major went on to deliver the strongest support yet offered by a minister for Canada's stand in its dispute with Spain and the EU over halibut fishing off the Grand Banks.

"Good progress" was being made in negotiations over quotas and enforcement, he said. But Ann Winterton, Conservative MP for Congleton, wanted a tougher message and asked if Mr Major recalled "Lord Tebbit's definition of loyalty and commitment to a country as the side one supports in, for example, a cricket match. Will the Prime Minister therefore join me and this House in cheering enthusiastically for Canada in their forthcoming fixture against Spain"?

Mr Major started with something not particularly apposite he seemed to have gleaned from bedtime reading of Wisden: "I think it was in 1868 or 1874 that Canada actually beat England at cricket on an occasion in Canada."

But he went on: "I think Canada is right to take a tough line on enforcement. It has our support in doing that. We aren't going to support the imposition of sanctions. This is an area where a satisfactory accommodation between the sides can be achieved and should be achieved speedily."

Adding a warning, Mr Major hoped that in taking a tough line, Canada did "not undermine her own good case".

Mr Aitken's appearance put his boss, Kenneth Clarke, slightly out of the limelight. The Chancellor none the less remained the target of Nicholas Budgen, the MP for Wolverhampton SW, who upbraided him for blaming the whipless Tory Euro-sceptics for undermining the value of the pound.

"If that is true, will the Chancellor explain why it is important, or does he in fact have some secret exchange rate target to bring us back into the Exchange Rate Mechanism which he so much favours?"

Mr Clarke said Mr Budgen was producing the fifth or sixth version of what he had said 10 days ago in Brussels. He had been asked why the pound was declining when he was so confident the economic fundamentals in Britain were going well. "I accepted that divisions in the governing Conservative Party over Europe were not helpful to market confidence. That has been turned into me blaming Lord Tebbit for the decline in the pound, which is not what I was saying. "

But Mr Budgen seemed far from placated. In later exchanges, he claimed Mr Clarke had been grossly discourteous by refusing to meet Tory rebels this week. The pity was that he made the charge when the Chancellor had no reason to be in the chamber.