View from the House – Chris Moncrieff

As Budget speeches get shorter and less obscure, so the Finance Bills which follow in their wake – and which to a large extent enact the Budget proposals – get longer and more impenetrable.

This year’s is no exception. Lloyd George’s 1909 Budget lasted over four hours, and the subsequent Finance Bill took up a mere 50 pages, with 96 clauses and six schedules.

This year Gordon Brown spoke for 69 minutes, yet the Finance Bill runs to more than 170 pages, with 129 clauses and 20 schedules. The ‘explanatory’ notes occupy more than 500 pages of mind-boggling figures, plus the famous ‘Red Book’.

None of it is recommended for light holiday reading.

Even though attempts have been made to simplify Treasury-speak, the Bill and its accompanying documents contain some ponderous passages as straightforward as Spaghetti Junction. For example: ‘Wireless telegraphy apparatus designed or adapted for the purpose of transmitting and receiving spoken messages’, is your actual mobile telephone.

Chancellors have been known to use Finance Bills to sneak in – via the small print – unpopular measures which they dared not include in the Budget speech.

This year, Brown largely resisted the temptations of such subterfuge. Strangely, much of his document relates to complex tax avoidance measures and relatively minor tax reforms, while the headline features of the Budget – like the new 10p starting rate – take up comparatively little space.

This emphasis on tax avoidance has led accountants to accuse the government of paranoia.

A spokesman for Ernst & Young fulminated: ‘The man on the street just trying to get a bit of tax relief is suddenly being accused of avoidance.’

Given Labour’s majority, the Tories stand no chance of removing, blocking or amending what they see as the ‘nefarious’ parts of the Bill. These include petrol and diesel duty hikes (6% above inflation), more on tobacco, and a ‘fair deal’ for Britain’s lorry drivers through a tax on foreign hauliers using British roads – a tax British drivers pay on Continental roads.

This epic Bill must receive Royal Assent by 5 August. A far cry from the 1909 Bill which, despite its ‘brevity’, the Lords blocked for two years. Their Lordships would not get away with that today …

Chris Moncrieff is a political analyst at PA News.

Related reading