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Column 542scale established by the Committee. That would go a long way towards providing a better opportunity for petitioners to air their concerns and for the very real worries of all those who are likely to be affected by the high-speed rail link, and by similar important legislation, to be expressed with confidence.
The public demonstrations against the rail link in Kent and the problems that will arise because of people's fears are partly due to the fact that the public are not familiar with the private Bill procedure. Very few Members of Parliament are familiar with the procedure. That point is clearly made in the report, and it has been referred to in the debate. The existing framework allows the fears of the public to be well aired, but it does not inspire confidence. In supporting the thrust of the Joint Committee report, I realise that such changes will take time, but they need not take very long if the Government and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House are prepared to put their full weight behind the changes which I believe to be long overdue.
Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury) : I apologise for having been unable to be present for much of the debate this afternoon, but I listened very carefully to the speech of the Leader of the House, and I was disappointed in the Government's apparent lack of sympathetic response to many of the recommendations in the Joint Committee report.
The Joint Committee report addressed a number of problems which are evident in relation to private Bills submitted to the House, especially private Bills of a highly controversial nature. I am becoming ever more familiar with the niceties of private Bill procedure. For the first time in a number of years, a private Bill relates to very specific matters which will have an enormous impact on my constituents--the King's Cross Railways Bill. The forces ranged against local people in voicing their protest against British Rail's plans, in trying to understand private Bill procedure and find out how to petition against British Rail's proposals, in facing objections to their locus standi as petitioners and in trying to find their way around the current complex and daunting private Bill procedures have been something of an eye-opener.
I wish to pick up a point on which I had a brief exchange with the Leader of the House. He seemed to imply that in his view the present procedure was fair between petitioners and promotors, but I cannot agree with him. The present system is heavily biased in favour of the promotors of a Bill and against the petitioners. I can provide one or two examples that relate specifically to the King's Cross Railways Bill.
That Bill will destroy an entire neighbourhood in my constituency. If implemented, it will demolish a considerable number of homes and destroy a considerable number of businesses. It will knock the stuffing out of a community that has been under threat for 10, 15 or 20 years and has been painstakingly rebuilt by local residents. It is a precious flower that is about to be trampled, and the people of King's Cross do not want that to happen.
Quite justifiably, they are anxious to make their views known in the most effective way they can about British Rail's absurd proposals for a vast underground international station at King's Cross. Understandably, many of them decided to petition. Leaving aside the sheer
Column 543difficulty of petitioning--the petition has to be in a particular form of words in a particular format and it has to be submitted on a particular day--there is a specific deadline which is not publicly advertised and which they have to find out by contacting their Member of Parliament or the Private Bill Office. Having submitted their petitions against the Bill, many of them have encountered objections, not directly from British Rail, but from the agents acting for British Rail who are challenging their locus standi as petitioners. I shall give just one example of the absurdity of that. Many of my constituents who live in Northdown street, which is immediately adjacent to the site for the proposed railway station, have submitted petitions. It appears that the agents acting for British Rail have accepted the locus standi of virtually all the petitions from Northdown street, but they have objected to the locus standi of one petitioner who lives in the middle of Northdown street, surrounded by other petitioners whose locus standi has not been objected to by the agents acting for British Rail.
I do not want to trespass beyond the limits of the debate, but it seems to me that a private Bill procedure that allows petitioners to face that sort of difficulty cannot possibly be right.
Mr. Smith : I understand that the matter will come before the Court of Referees in due course, but, as far as I am aware, the petitions to which I referred have not yet been before the Court of Referees.
Mr. Smith : Of course I shall accept your guidance, Mr. Speaker. I raised the issue merely to illustrate my point that the procedure for petitioning is extremely difficult, daunting and complex for people who wish to object to a private Bill.
In claiming that the private Bill procedure was even-handed between petitioners and promoters, the Leader of the House said that, in his opinion, the recommendations in the Joint Committee report would make life very difficult for the promoters of Bills. He said that it would be much more time-consuming, expensive and difficult for promoters if they had to go through normal planning procedures on planning matters.
Surely that is the nub of the point. It is my contention that if British Rail wants to carry out a considerable amount of work in the south-western corner of my constituency at King's Cross, if it wants to change the face of the neighbourhood and if it wants to decide a major transport issue about the best location for an international train station, those are matters that should be considered at greater length, in greater detail and by a more democratic procedure than is possible under the present private Bill procedure. If that means that British Rail has to take more time about it and has to do the job better than it has hitherto given evidence of doing in relation to King's Cross, so much the better.
Column 544For the Leader of the House to argue that we should not accept more proposals of the Joint Committee because they would make life more difficult for the promoters of private Bills is not good enough. In many respects, life should be made more difficult for the promoters of private Bills. Life is too easy for them. The sloppy way in which British Rail has hitherto made its decisions in relation to King's Cross bears out that point.
Mr. Dobson : Does my hon. Friend agree that British Rail has been sloppy, or devious, in that it has submitted to the House its Bill to dig rather than build a station at King's Cross in such a way that it can successfully challenge the locus standi of Members all along the line intended to connect that station with the Channel tunnel, and also in such a way that it has even excluded works at King's Cross associated with the Euro-tunnel, which means that those works will have to be the subject of part of its second Bill? Does he agree that that salami tactic would be impossible at a public inquiry?
Mr. Smith : My hon. Friend is right. I suspect that he and I will shortly be making common cause on that Bill. He will know better than I, because it is on his side of the constituency boundary, that the residents of Acton street and Swinton street in the immediate vicinity of King's Cross have already received approaches from people acting for British Rail, seeking to prepare material for another private Bill which is due to be tabled in the House in six to eight months' time, and which will relate to work directly relevant to the works contained in the private Bill currently before the House. As yet, we do not know the details of those works. It is absurd that we are talking about a private Bill whose ramifications we cannot discuss until another Bill is tabled in the House, some 12 months after the initial proposal.
The inadequacies of the private Bill procedure when addressing such detailed and important planning matters are all too clear. I cannot agree with the argument of the Leader of the House that we cannot accept that part of the Joint Committee's report because it would make life more difficult for the promoters of private Bills. It would make life more difficult for them, but it is important that that happens, because life is too difficult for petitioners and too easy for promoters at present.
Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South) : I have been listening carefully to my hon. Friend's remarks. He can correct me if I am wrong, but is he saying in effect that, if the second part of the report is not accepted, the gross inequality because of resources between promoters and petitioners will continue, and that in some way it is fair that that gross inequality should continue to exist?
Mr. Smith : The Leader of the House seems to be saying that he is not prepared to accept some of the earlier recommendations in the Joint Committee report, which would take out of the private Bill procedure many of the planning issues that I object to being included in the procedure-- the Joint Committee agrees with me--but he is prepared to accept some of the later recommendations which will make the procedure in the House for private Bills smoother, quicker and easier. By saying that, the Leader of the House has dangerously unbalanced the careful package that the Joint Committee put together.
The Joint Committee wants to exclude the planning issues from the private Bill procedure in the House, but as
Column 545a counterweight wants to make it easier to get the things that should be part of private Bills through the House in a more shipshape fashion. The Leader of the House seems to be saying, "Let's drop all the proposals for taking planning issues out of this procedure but let's speed up the procedures none the less"--which, to my mind, might result in the worst of all possible worlds. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) has raised an extremely interesting point.
Mr. Spearing : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out the essential balance incorporated by the Committee--and by the hon. Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson)--to which I accede, but does he agree that, even if that balance were incorporated, Bills such as those referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy)--such as the North Killingholme Cargo Terminal Bill and the Associated British Ports Bills-- might still get through because, while they do not necessarily involve planning, although they might incidentally, they involve matters of considerable public policy that should be dealt with in another way than through private legislation?
Mr. Smith : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. At the moment, two major issues that can come within the content of private Bills are not appropriate for private Bill procedures. The first are planning issues, which should be dealt with by public local inquiries, and the second are issues of public policy, such as those relating to the energy policy of the country, or to whatever else is relevant to the Bill. Such issues should not be subject to the private Bill procedure. Instead, they could be subject to primary legislation in this House and be preceded by a Select Committee report. There are other and better ways of addressing major public policy issues than the private Bill procedure.
The initial response of the Leader of the House to this excellent Joint Committee report--I congratulate all those involved in producing it--has been deeply disappointing. He has missed the considerable number of good points in the report, and he believes too much in the fairness of the present system. He has failed to take account of the inadequacies of the private Bill procedure to deal with planning matters or with major public policy issues and he has failed also to take account of the desperate need for this House to sort out better ways of dealing with such matters than those we have at the moment. 9.37 pm
Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes) : Next month, I shall have been a Member for 10 years, during which time I have taken a close interest in private Bills for various reasons. Like other hon. Members who have spoken in the debate, I have found myself at various times passionately seeking to oppose private Bills and in recent times I have found myself passionately seeking to sponsor two private Bills which are currently before the House in one form or another, and which have been referred to several times in the debate. In addition, although I have not had the opportunity of serving for as long as the hon. Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Wall), I have served for a considerable time as a member of a Private Bill Committee. In fact, I have served on two such Committees. Therefore, I come to the debate from every angle and you will recall, Mr. Speaker,
Column 546that in previous debates on private Bills you will have seen me rise and then sit down an hour or two later when I have been seeking to oppose certain private Bills.
I hope that my few words will bring to bear the benefit of some experience and, at the outset, I should declare an interest because I am seeking to promote the Associated British Ports (No. 2) Bill and the North Killingholme Cargo Terminal Bill.
The private Bill procedure has served reasonably well during the 10 years that I have been a Member of the House. I have lost some and I have won some. I have opposed some private Bills that have subsequently received the Royal Assent. I may have the opportunity of being able to move the Third Reading of one private Bill but it may be that I will be unable to move the Third Reading of the other. Obviously, it will be for the House as a whole to decide whether the Third Readings are given and it will also be for the other place to decide whether the Bills should be proceeded with.
I do not want to dwell too much on the specific Bills for which I have a responsibility, except to say that I understand the point made by the hon. Member for Bradford, North. It is a great stress and strain on any hon. Member who is selected by the Committee of Selection to serve on a private Bill. I have been in the hon. Gentleman's circumstance, but not for the same length of time. I was unable to participate in the Private Bill Committee, because I had an interest, but I sat in the Public Gallery for many of the deliberations and I readily place on record the fact that it must have been a considerable strain to the four hon. Members who served from October last year until March of this year on the two Bills concerned. I accept that there is probably a case for considering the Joint Committee's proposals regarding the quorum and the size of the Committee. I imagine that it must have been difficult for the hon. Member for Bradford, North and his colleagues who have demanding constituencies, and who are active in the House in other ways, to give all the time that they would wish to all their other duties. I am worried about one approach that appears to be envisaged by the Joint Committee, which is the feeling that there should be a transfer to ministerial control of some of the policy decisions that are sometimes implicit in private Bills.
One of the great joys that I relish as a Back Bench Member is the opportunity, when considering private legislation, to play some direct role in the outcome of that legislation. I am concerned about the prospect of transferring yet more decisions to ministerial control, with all that that implies in terms of party discipline and votes. I am not sure that there is much pressure to curtail parliamentary involvement or transfer subjects that have been handled in Parliament to ministerial control. I do not believe that there would be any obvious advantage in doing so or that there would necessarily be any greater safeguards. I would argue that Back Benchers with an assiduous ability and knowledge of parliamentary procedure can do a great deal either to promote or frustrate the passage of a private Bill. There is a strong argument for keeping such matters within the direct scrutiny of Parliament, rather than leaving them to Ministers and local authorities.
For the two private Bills in which I have a direct constituency interest, I would submit that, if the proposals of the Joint Committee were to be accepted in full, it would
Column 547have been possible for the projects to come to fruition much more easily. As the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) made clear in an intervention in the speech of his hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) if only local authorities had been involved in giving planning permission for the Associated British Ports (No. 2) Bill and the North Killingholme Cargo Terminal Bill projects, the procedures would have been easier. I know that both the Humberside county council and the Glanford borough council were in favour of the proposals that had been submitted to the House by the promoters of both those Bills. Recommendation 9 says :
"The permitted scope of Harbour Orders under the Harbours Act 1964 should be broadened, so as to allow general powers to be included and a wider range of development to be authorised. S.62 of the 1964 Act should be repealed."
The Joint Committee refers the House to paragraph 60 of its recommendations.
I argue that that recommendation, coupled with the suggestion that, where possible, local authority planning powers should be used more, would, in the instance of the two private Bills I have mentioned, have enabled those proposals to be put forward by the promoters much more easily. Hon. Members, such as the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) and his colleagues, have legitimate and genuine concerns about those two Bills.
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett : Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, although the local authority might have been inclined to give planning permission easily, the Secretary of State always had the power to call in those projects and, therefore, to set up an inquiry? Had a proper public inquiry been held, it would have probably taken as long as consideration of the private Bills in Committee.
Those private Bills were deposited before the House in November 1987. On the assumption that the Chairman of Ways and Means might name the day for the Third Reading of the Associated British Ports (No. 2) Bill during this Session, it is more than probable--even if the House grants the Bill a Third Reading and even if it gets a Third Reading in the other place--that it will be 1990, at the earliest, before the Bill is given the Royal Assent. I would be distressed if a public inquiry procedure took three years.
In the case of the two Bills mentioned, I believe that recommendation would lead to the House being bypassed to a greater extent. That would reduce the ability of the hon. Member for Wentworth and his colleagues, who have a legitimate interest in following the passage of those Bills, to raise relevant matters in public debate. It would also deny them the chance to delay and scrutinise those Bills.
Mr. Spearing : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that even if the planning inquiry had been called in--that would have been wise and necessary before a short-circuiting Bill was presented ; I deplore that procedure--the second element of public policy and purpose, which is of even greater concern to my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy), would not have been covered? Therefore, does he agree that, because of that, even if the planning matters had been dealt with sufficiently-- they were not--it was inopportune to produce the Bills?
We are entering an era in which private enterprise will have a much greater role to play in our national economy. In the 19th century, at the height of the industrial revolution, private projects were the engine of industrial development. Private capital was the driving force behind the creation of the railway system. Therefore, it was inevitable that the private Bill procedure grew and grew in the 19th century.
During the latter part of the 20th century, more private ventures are being launched and they are the engine of further industrial development. As industrial development is underpinned by private enterprise, which is responsible for the new great development of our industries, docks, harbours, railways and the light transit projects, it is natural that more private Bills should be put before the House. They are a natural reflection of the industrial development currently taking place and they are no more than a repetition of what took place in the 19th century.
Mr. Wall : I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for his kind recognition of the work carried out by the hon. Members who sit on the Committees on the Bills which he is sponsoring. The general thrust of the hon. Gentleman's argument is that a private Bill should be seen as an opportunity for a Back Bencher to make a major contribution to issues relating to national policy. Can that not be seen from the opposite point of view? The Government have an opportunity through the back door with the private Bill procedure to extend their legislation, particularly with regard to the two Bills referred to by the hon. Gentleman, the privatisation of weights and measures and other Bills relating to local transport systems.
Mr. Brown : I am not sure whether I would argue that. I can think of many examples over the past 10 years where I have been on the other side of private Bills when it has been possible to frustrate a private Bill's passage.
Much of the Joint Committee report is commendable. However, it would involve our giving up many of the powers available to hon. Members to play a part in the decision-making process of the economic and industrial activities of this country. We should be cautious before we give up that valuable procedure.
Mr. Wakeham : I said at the start of this debate that I wanted to hear the views of the House, and I have not been disappointed. I mentioned the complexity of the subject, and that too has been demonstrated. I am grateful for the comments by right hon. and hon. Members. They have been thoughtful and helpful. Apart from the difficulty in responding to them all in the time available, they require more detailed and considered reflection. In particular, I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) for his masterly exposition of the Joint Committee's thinking. I want also to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Sir P. Dean), the Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means, for giving us his views.
Several hon. Members stressed the need to consider the report as a total package, not as a menu from which a selection might be made. I expressed our reservations about several of the major recommendations, but I also
Column 549indicated the willingness of my right hon. Friends to consult on the issues which would involve primary legislation. I know that they will study the report of this debate carefully. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has heard much of this debate and I am grateful to him for that.
However, with the best will in the world, even if that leads to legislation, that legislation could not be brought forward in the near future and if the House wished to treat the recommendations as a package, the procedural recommendations for which there is general support would have to await that legislation. I am not sure whether the streamlining of procedures is necessarily for the benefit of promoters. It is also for the benefit of the House. I note also that some hon. Members share our reservations about certain of the procedural recommendations, such as those concerned with blocking Bills and carry-over motions. The hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) was among those who appreciated the problems which could arise if control over rail schemes were removed from Parliament. In brief, I think that it will be very difficult for the report to be taken as a total package.
There are some procedural matters on which there would appear to be general agreement. If, after studying this debate, there seems to be a reasonable package of measures which can be put together, I will discuss that through the usual channels and with the Chairman of Ways and Means and see what might be done in time for the next Session. I cannot give the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) a date on which the House will be able to vote on these issues until those discussions have taken place. I am sure that in this, as in so much of our procedure, it is best to try to proceed on the basis of agreement.
Many hon. Members have espoused the cause of the petitioners and have made great play of the complexities and costs of the present procedure. They have even gone so far as to suggest that the balance of advantage lies unfairly with the promoters. That was the theme of a number of speeches, but several of the procedural recommendations--I am thinking particularly of those relating to costs and guidance--will help. I have already spoken of our reservations about other recommendations which would have worked against petitioners' interests. A specific point was that petitioners were disadvantaged by having to travel to London. But Private Bill Committees do have power to sit locally. Indeed, that was done in the case of the Channel Tunnel Bill. At the end of the day, the remedy lies in the hands of hon. Members who sit on those Committees.
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett : In the case of the Cardiff Bay Barrage Bill, which is in the House of Lords at the moment, clearly it would be in the interests of many people in Cardiff who want to make representations about that Bill if the Committee were to sit in Cardiff. Bearing in mind their Lordships' other duties which have to be carried out in this building, that would be extremely difficult. In the case of the North Killingholme Cargo Terminal Bill and the Associated British Ports (Hull) Bill, it would have been very difficult for the four members to spend a great deal of time taking evidence locally.
Mr. Wakeham : I am not saying that it would be easy or that it would be appropriate, and I am certainly not commenting on what goes on in the House of Lords--I have more sense than to begin to do that. I am saying simply that there is power to sit locally and that, on some occasions, that could be helpful. It is a factor that was not mentioned earlier in the debate, and it is right that I should mention it. I am sure that, even within the existing procedures, petitioners could be helped better to understand the processes and to present their case more effectively.
Much has been said during the debate about the superiority of the planning process over the private Bill procedure. On the face of it, the arguments sound attractive, but I am not convinced. The inquiry process on a major project involves the preparation and submission of a packaged scheme to a planning authority and thence to a Government Department, as a precursor to the inquiry stage of consideration. Once an inquiry has been arranged, voluminous evidence is produced and exchanged between the parties prior to the inquiry, but once the inquiry has opened, there is subsequently little if any room for negotiation leading to amendment of the proposals. The system is far less flexible in respect of precisely those major schemes where maximum scope for negotiation and compromise ought to be in operation.
Moreover, an inspector, in considering what evidence is relevant to the eventual decision, is heavily constrained by existing Government planning and related policies. These are not matters which he has discretion to override in his recommendations. If he were to attempt to do so, it is unlikely that the relevant Minister would be happy to agree to it.
Several hon. Members--perfectly understandably--took the opportunity to refer to King's Cross. I do not quarrel with that at all. I do not intend to consider the merits and issues of this particular case, nor would it be right for me to do so. However, I recognise the passion and force with which hon. Members have pursued it. My right hon. Friend has heard much of the debate and will, I know, read the report with great interest and close attention. I think that this debate has shown that this is an important subject, and not one to be dismissed as an obscure procedural matter on the periphery of matters of real concern. The topics with which private Bills deal are matters of real concern to those who promote them and those who object to them. They are matters of concern to Parliament, and we shall return to the subject.
Motion, by leave, withdrawn.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(5) (Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.). That the draft Building Societies (Money Transmission Services) Order 1989, which was laid before this House on 22nd March, be approved.-- [Mr. Alan Howarth.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Alan Howarth.]
Mr. Michael Marshall (Arundel) : My reason for putting forward the case for drawing up comprehensive rules of procedure for the general commissioners of income tax is twofold. First, I have been seeking to meet the justified complaints of a constituent in his dealings with the general commissioners. Secondly, it it evident that this is not an isolated case and I intend to refer specifically to the appropriate recommendations of the Council on Tribunals on the matter.
The complaint made by my constituent, Mr. P. H. J. Palmer of Bognor Regis, first reached me nearly three years ago. Mr. Palmer, who was then 74 years of age, wrote to me as a result of his experience in an appeal to the commissioners of taxes, Chichester division, in May 1986. The appeal was for an allowance on his income tax for expenses and legal fees in revising the level of his pension through negotiations with a former employer.
However, it is important to grasp that Mr. Palmer's principal objections--
It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Alan Howarth.]
Mr. Marshall : It is important to stress that neither then nor subsequently did my constituent argue with the fact that his appeal was refused, but rather with the manner in which the decision was made. Among the complaints that he made were that a large number of persons attended what was supposed to be a private hearing with commissioners and those persons clearly had no involvement with his case ; that the chairman gave no reasons or explanation for the decision ; that he was refused permission to ask questions or make a statement after the decision was announced ; that the general commissioners did not have the necessary professional expertise to understand the detailed submission made by the tax inspector, and that the clerk to the commissioners failed to respond to written questions on the basis for the decision or to suggest any other authority to whom he could turn by way of appeal.
At that stage, Mr. Palmer approached me and I wrote to my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury. He advised me that the commissioners' decision was final and took the view that it would be improper for the Treasury or the Inland Revenue to comment on decisions of the general commissioners or the conduct of their meetings because of their function as an independent appeal body and given the Inland Revenue's own need--and, by extension, that of the Treasury--to accept a ruling in a case in which it was one of the competing parties.
I could not believe that there could be a total lack of accountability for the general commissioners and the clerk whom they appoint. Approaches to the ombudsman confirmed that the general commissioners were appointed by the Lord Chancellor, and their allowances, as well as the salaries for their clerks, were met from the Inland
Column 552Revenue vote. The ombudsman also recommended an approach to the Council on Tribunals which monitors the activities and efficiency of such bodies.
Correspondence between my constituent and myself with the Council on Tribunals over a period of many months revealed that a number of options were open to Mr. Palmer. Although it is correct that the commissioners do not have to give reasons for their decisions, those could be obtained by asking for a case to be stated in the High Court as part of an appeal. In the light of that advice, Mr. Palmer contended, almost a year after the initial hearing, that the chairman's refusal to answer questions and the clerk's unwillingness to provide information by subsequent letters all ruled out his opportunities for a prompt appeal. He also objected, as many would, to the necessity and expense of going to law for the purpose of unearthing the commissioners' reasons for rejecting his case. Meanwhile, I had kept my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary informed, and in a letter of 23 March 1987 he advised me--this is particularly significant-- that the Inland Revenue felt that it was arguable that the procedures at the original hearing were inadequate. He added :
"The Inland Revenue agree that they would not want to deprive Mr. Palmer of the opportunity to air his views properly and accordingly they proposed to approach the matter afresh."
Unfortunately, the meeting which followed produced only a further agreement to disagree on the details of the claim. Meanwhile, the Council on Tribunals had taken up Mr. Palmer's complaints with the clerk to the general commissioners. In a letter to Mr. Palmer of 5 May 1987, the council, acting on information received from the clerk, criticised a number of aspects of the procedures followed at the original hearing. They included the number of income tax inspectors attending the case, with which they were not concerned. In addition, they said that the clerk should have explained in response to subsequent letters why no reasons had been given for the decision, and he should also have provided information on how to appeal. However, it is fair to add that the clerk, himself a solicitor, subsequently said that he advised Mr. Palmer to seek legal advice. Arising from all this and from later correspondence--we are now about 18 months away from the original hearing, which illustrates the sort of difficulty that members of the public, and even Members of Parliament, have in unearthing the detailed opportunities that exist to pursue such matters--it became clear that both the Treasury and the Council on Tribunals recognised the problems caused by a lack of procedural rules for the general commissioners, and indeed the Treasury had put forward a consultation document in response to the Keith committee's recommendations, with a deadline of 31 October 1987.
The scene in this long-running detective story now shifts to the Lord Chancellor's office. It was clear that my constituent still felt that his complaints should be considered by a responsible person. Accordingly, on the advice of the Council on Tribunals, I took up the case with the Lord Chancellor. In letters of 31 March and 10 June 1988, he replied to a number of letters in considerable detail, and I pay tribute to his part in this in responding in the way he did, although, as I shall show later, that highlights one of the problems in the present procedures.
Column 553In the interest of time, I will comment only on a number of points that arose from correspondence with the Lord Chancellor. First, it seems ridiculous that complaints against the general commissioners and their clerk, particularly in cases not involving massive matters of principle, and possibly involving even relatively small complaints, should have to involve the highest Law Officer in the land in pursuing complaints about procedure.
Secondly, if he wishes to consider complaints against an individual commissioner, the Lord Chancellor has powers to ask his advisory committee to investigate and make recommendations. Thirdly, in the case of the clerk, his powers are those of outright dismissal. All those powers constitute using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, and it is typical of the problems that I have highlighted--the delays in finding out who could do what--that the clerk concerned had retired before the Lord Chancellor had an opportunity of considering the matter and deciding whether dismissal would be appropriate in such a case.
To summarise, I can do no better than to draw attention to the annual report of the Council on Tribunals which was laid before the House on 16 January 1989, and which I hope that the House will find an opportunity to debate before long in its wider context. In paragraph 2.21 of that report, the council says :
"The need for change is clear from the visits made by our members to hearings, from representations that have been made to us and from complaints we have dealt with. We urge the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Inland Revenue to consider our proposals as a whole and to introduce a comprehensive range of reforms. In particular, we stress the need for--
(1) an early change of departmental responsibility for General Commissioners from the Inland Revenue to the Lord Chancellor's Department ;
(2) establishment of a central body capable of representing General Commissioners, whether by introduction of a presidential system or of a national consultative body ;
(3) early provision of procedural rules for conduct of tribunal proceedings ; and
(4) introduction of proper training and the provision of adequate resources for this to be undertaken."
I understand that at present, the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Inland Revenue accept the need for change in departmental responsibility to overcome any doubts about the impartiality of the commissioners as a result of their close working relationship with the Inland Revenue.
The problem here seems to be one of time and other commitments, and the council has already expressed its concern at what it sees as delays in making a vital change. But on the question of rules of procedure, I understand that consideration was to be given to the possibility of including such proposals in this year's Finance Bill. I hope that the Solicitor-General will give a clear indication of the Government's intentions in that matter.
Training is a key element in ensuring that the procedural rules can be implemented effectively. That bears directly on my constituent's concern and that of the Council on Tribunals about lack of technical expertise. I understand that training will be undertaken in future by the recently established tribunals committee of the Judicial Studies Board. Will the Solicitor-General comment on that?
To sum up, my constituent is clearly not alone in feeling that there is too much of "a law unto themselves" about the procedures of the general commissioners. I join the
Column 554Council on Tribunals in expressing admiration of the substantial amount of work done by the commissioners on an unpaid basis, which is a measure of their dedication of public service. I recognise the value of the important work that they willingly undertake in communities throughout the country. However, it is equally clear that the problem is not with the commissioners but with the lack of procedural rules and the training that goes with them. Together with an over- dependence on the Inland Revenue, those are all factors which require early change if my constituent and others are to feel that they have not suffered injustice.
The Solicitor-General (Sir Nicholas Lyell) : I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel (Mr. Marshall) for raising a number of interesting and significant points on a subject of considerable importance relating to the general commissioners of income tax. I welcome the opportunity that the debate gives to meet his points and to outline for the benefit of my hon. Friend and of a wider audience the considerations that lie behind our present policy and our proposals to meet some of the concerns that my hon. Friend expressed.
I shall concentrate, as my hon. Friend expects me to do, on matters of principle and practice rather than on the case of his individual constituent. That case is not itself the subject of a complaint as to the decision reached, which was fully and fairly dealt with at a number of levels, concluding with a long and detailed letter from my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor himself.
The starting point to any understanding of the role of general commissioners is the Taxes Management Act 1970. In England and Wales, and recently Northern Ireland, the Act places responsibility for the appointment of general commissioners upon the Lord Chancellor. Scotland has different arrangements. At the last count, there were 4, 081 general commissioners in England and Wales, and to that number must be added the 55 commissioners appointed in Northern Ireland. General commissioners are appointed to sit in a division, and the country is divided into 417 of those.
It is important to emphasise one of the safeguards for the general public, which is also a ground for reassurance. The general commissioners are lay people who volunteer their service. I express my thanks to my hon. Friend for his kind remarks about the enormous bulk of good work that the general commissioners perform. Their names come to the Lord Chancellor for appointment through 80 advisory committees that he established for that purpose. The general commissioners have a clerk--and if needs be, an assistant clerk--to assist them in the discharge of their duties. It is for the clerk to make the necessary arrangements for the disposal of work, including notice of appeal hearing dates, and to advise the general commissioners on procedural matters and on any questions of law that may arise.
A distinction must be drawn between general and special commissioners. The latter are full-time, legally qualified appointees who deal mainly with more complicated cases--and I know from my limited experience that some cases are very complicated--or those likely to last for some considerable time. The jurisdiction of general commissioners covers income tax, corporation