When the House is sitting, I like to play an active part in its proceedings. On Thursdays, I usually ask the Leader of the House to find time for a debate on a subject I know the Government would find inconvenient. He usually says No.
I like to take part in debates on health and local government; twice a year, with my fellow Chairmen of Select Committees, we gently grill the Prime Minister on what he has been up to; and he takes off his jacket and smiles at us.
For the last month, and for the next two weeks, I am in the political equivalent of the salt mines of Siberia, doing time in Committee Room 13 and scrutinising the Finance Bill line by line. This is how I spend Tuesdays and Thursdays, mornings and afternoons, and sometimes evenings. Even the accountants find it unexciting.
The last time I sat on the Finance Bill Standing Committee was 13 years ago. Life was different then, as I was the Treasury Minister in charge of it. I don’t pretend I fully grasped every detail of every Clause. But I didn’t need to. I just had to know more about what we were discussing than anyone on the Opposition benches. And if someone asked a question I didn’t know the answer to, an official on my left would write out the answer, hand it to my Parliamentary Private Secretary sitting behind me who would place it my hand to read out.
The difference now is that, while I don’t need to know the answers, I do need to ask the right questions; and that can often be as difficult.
It is heavy going. In the intervening period of thirteen years, the legislation has got longer and more complex. The cat-and-mouse game between the Inland Revenue – now rebranded as HM Revenue and Customs – and tax advisers has become more complex and abstruse. The Treasury tell us that the Inheritance Tax provisions will only affect the very rich who are trying to avoid paying their dues; but my inbox is full of emails telling me that ordinary folk are having to rewrite their wills.
It will be at least thirteen years before I volunteer for the Finance Bill Standing Committee again.
Life would be easier if the Treasury had a sense of humour.
Many years ago, the country was bidding to hold the Olympic Games in Manchester. I got a letter from the Treasury saying that, if the bid were successful, the costs of providing all the infrastructure, totalling some £5 billion, would have to come from my Department’s Budget (which the Treasury had already pared to the bone.)
The odds on Manchester winning were 10 to one against. I suggested that the Treasury place half a billion of the Contingency Fund with William Hill on Manchester to win, to protect my budget from the costs of a successful bid. As to what the Treasury would say to the Public Accounts Committee about the flutter, should Manchester not win, the answer was a levy on the nation’s bookmakers.
There was no reply.