Inside Parliament: Bill wrecks peers' holiday plans: Lords forced into Friday sitting for Finance Bill - Attempt to lift GCHQ union ban fails

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Indy Politics
Standing on their dignity, aggrieved members of the House of Lords yesterday toyed with the idea of delaying the Finance Bill and putting at risk the collection of income tax and duties on wine, beer, tobacco and petrol.

Peers were annoyed at the scheduling of the Bill, implementing Kenneth Clarke's November Budget, for Friday. At this time of year the House does not normally sit on a Friday, and, as Lord Simon of Glaisdale pointed out, many peers had already made plans for the bank holiday weekend.

Lord Cockfield, a former Conservative Treasury minister, said that the Government's behaviour was monstrous. 'Over the years it has increasingly ridden roughshod over Lords' rights, even those rights which are enshrined in statute.'

Peers protested that the 452- page Bill was only made available to them yesterday morning. Although they are not able to amend a Budget Bill, its passage through the House is usually the occasion for a major debate on tax and the economy.

'It is absurd to suggest that it is possible to debate this Bill properly when you have only had it for less than 48 hours,' the Conservative, Lord Boyd- Carpenter, Chief Secretary to the Treasury between 1962 and 1964, said.

Lord Simon wanted the debate postponed to next Tuesday, perilously close to the 5 May deadline for the Bill's Royal Assent if taxes are to be collected in 1994-95.

A crossbencher and former law lord, he emphasised the expertise the House had to offer - five former chancellors, four former chief secretaries, a former Treasury permanent secretary, three former governors of the Bank of England, and so on. He was Financial Secretary in 1958-59.

'How many of these sort of people were consulted? How far was their convenience taken into account? How many indeed are likely to be available on Friday?'

Certainly Lord Cockfield had not been consulted, perhaps not surprisingly. 'The Finance Bill this year is a monstrous document. It is an absurd document,' he said. 'As a result of the vigorous efforts of the present Chancellor and his predecessor (Norman Lamont), we are reducing the tax system of this country to a state of total chaos.'

However during an hour of heated exchanges it emerged that while government business managers might not have consulted the ageing luminaries on the backbenches, they had certainly squared the sitting with Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

When the necessary motion from Lord Wakeham, Leader of the House, was called, the angry brigade twice raised their voices in dissent but then acquiesced.

The Tory, Lord Harmar- Nicholls, said Lord Simon was 'carrying the fact that he is a purist in these matters to the point where it is in conflict with commonsense'. More emollient, Lord Wakeham promised to look at arrangements for the Bill in future, though he noted that 11 peers had already put their names down to speak on Friday.

MPs, meanwhile, were concerned with a group over whose rights the Government rode roughshod more than 10 years ago. As the Intelligence Services Bill completed its passage through the Commons, Labour and the Liberal Democrats made one more attempt - defeated by 283 votes to 222 - to lift the ban on union membership at the GCHQ intelligence-gathering centre at Cheltenham.

The Bill acknowledges the existence of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and provides for limited scrutiny covering also the Security Service (MI5) and GCHQ. It has already passed the Lords and now awaits Royal Assent.

Jack Cunningham, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, said it was not tenable for the Government to continue with its 'mulish obstinacy' over restoring union rights at GCHQ. There was not a shred of evidence to suggest that Britain's security would be threatened if ministers were to admit they had made a mistake.

Roger Evans, Conservative MP for Monmouth, insisted it was not an issue of human rights but of public duties. 'Those who serve their country in GCHQ extremely well should not be allowed to behave in the way in which trade unionists in GCHQ behaved in 1979-81.'

In the course of that industrial action some 10,000 hours of work were reportedly lost. But Mr Cunningham said that amounted to 0.2 per cent of working time. 'Far more time was lost because people were absent ill.'

Alex Carlile, for the Liberal Democrats, said much had changed in the trade union world. Undertakings had been given that GCHQ's operations would not be disrupted by industrial action. 'What is this windmill that the Government is tilting at? What are they afraid of?'

John Gilbert, Labour MP for Dudley East, said he did not need the International Labour Organisation or the European Court of Human Rights to tell him 'that what was done was sleazy and vindictive and had nothing whatever to do with defence considerations'.

But David Davis, public service minister, said the dispute at GCHQ had posed a 'substantive risk' to the country. He did not accept that the ban breached ILO conventions.

The Government, including the Prime Minister, had held 'substantive' talks with the unions, Mr Davis added. 'We are still willing to consider any proposals the unions bring forward.'