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Column 1460Trend, Michael
Twinn, Dr Ian
Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Waldegrave, Rt Hon William
Walker, Bill (N Tayside)
Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Wiggin, Sir Jerry
Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Tellers for the Noes: Mr. Timothy Kirkhope and Mr. David Willetts.
Column 1460Question accordingly negatived.
`(1) In subsection (2) of section 199 of the Finance Act 1994, for "1996- 97" there shall be substituted "1997-98"
(2) In subsection (3) of section 199 of the Finance Act 1994, for "1996" there shall be substituted "1997".'.-- [Ms Armstrong.] Brought up, and read the First time.
Ms Armstrong: Once again, we return to self-assessment. We do so because we foresee problems for the Government who are in office when the proposed provisions take effect. The factor dominating many of our debates in Committee was the complexity of taxation legislation. Two of the aims of self-assessment are for the taxation process to be simplified and for it to be made open to taxpayers who will, in a new way, become liable for self- assessment. We remain unconvinced--we take this view because of the way in which the Government have framed the self-assessment procedure and developed the complexity of legislation in general--that self-assessment will work in the interests of taxpayers and will secure the advantages that the Government were trumpeting when they first introduced the principle.
The Opposition are in favour of the principle of self-assessment but we are wary of the proposed manner of implementation. There was a clear defeat for the Government in Committee--it added to the defeat that the Government suffered on the imposition of value added tax on domestic fuel, which took place on the Floor of the House--on an amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith), which is now known, as I understand it, as the Smith amendment. The amendment was tabled in an endeavour to simplify the mechanism of tax law.
Column 1461Members of the Committee felt so strongly that the Government suffered a defeat. It is clear, however, that although members of the Committee pushed the Government to introduce measures to simplify taxation legislation, we are still a long way from having a mechanism whereby legislation can make taxation simpler.
This year's Finance Bill is one of the longest in history and is testament to the sheer complexity of British taxation legislation. The Bill was put down by commentators as one that contained little contentious legislation. The Budget was seen as simple, not too contentious and fairly neutral. Even so, in Committee, clause after clause was described as impenetrable and extremely complex. Even hon. Members who, before they came into the House, earned their professional reputations as interpreters of and advisers on tax law, made that point. Indeed, many of the people who have talked to us during the passage of the Bill have said that it is complex and have called for the legislation to be simplified. The Institute of Taxation is one of the many organisations that have made this case. We are moving ahead quickly with self-assessment, despite the fact that both sides of the House recognise that taxation legislation has become increasingly complex and that it is increasingly difficult to thread one's way through it. That is the context in which self-assessment is being introduced. We are fearful about the introduction of self-assessment at this stage. We all acknowledge that it will be quite a culture shock for many taxpayers and that it may lead to all sorts of difficulties which will make taxpayers upset and which will make the Government of the day fairly unpopular. The Financial Secretary has written to my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn); my hon. Friend is not feeling well today which is why I am dealing with the letter. The Minister was answering questions raised in Committee relating to the introduction of self-assessment. I am especially concerned about two aspects. The first is risk analysis and how the Government intend to pursue that matter. The second is advertising and how the Government intend to ensure that people who will be eligible for self- assessment know what is coming and how to deal with it.
On the latter point, the Government say that they estimate that they will spend some £25 million over the next three years in a public information campaign, and that on
"present plans, they expect to spend some £15 million on advertising, mainly television and press. The remaining £10 million is intended to fund supporting activity and materials".
The letter gives no indication of when the campaign will start and no indication that it has already started. If the Government are serious about their plans, they should be doing work now. The general public and the taxpayers concerned should already be aware of what will hit them next year.
We propose, through the new clause, simply that the Government should delay the introduction of these measures for a year so that the House can be assured that every possible means has been taken to ensure that taxpayers and Inland Revenue staff know what is expected of them. We also need to be sure that the cultural change, which the Government acknowledge is necessary, has
Column 1462begun, both in terms of the taxpayers involved and Inland Revenue staff. We remain unconvinced that this is happening.
In his letter the Minister raises the issue of risk analysis and he describes how the Government intend to monitor taxpayers who submit forms. Obviously, each individual form will not be analysed rigorously so the Government will make a risk analysis of the number of forms that should be examined and of what, in terms of an individual taxpayer, should lead Inland Revenue staff to examine the form. The Minister also says:
"the present assumption, on the basis of research to date, is that following risk analysis something like a third of returns will be considered for enquiry, with enquiries actually being made in something like two thirds of those cases. Of those enquiries, only a small percentage (as now) will involve a detailed examination of technical aspects or a full investigation of the underlying records."
That is not very reassuring.
There is to be a wholly new means by which people will fill in their tax liability forms. We want to know to what research the Minister refers. Is it research from the pilot studies on self-assessment currently being undertaken? The risk analysis for existing forms may not be the same as that required for self-assessment.
The temptations may be different under self-assessment. I want to be reassured that the Government are absolutely sure that they have the right criteria for identifying the forms of taxpayers whom they want to examine rigorously in terms of whether they have submitted the forms properly and in terms of whether they are declaring what needs to be declared. I am not implying that everyone will automatically cheat--far from it--but I am making the point that this is a new means of assessment; we have not experienced this before. We do not want to read headlines in the tabloid press about it having uncovered someone who has said on the self-assessment form that he is liable for a small amount of tax, but who has not declared all sorts of things. That would put the whole system into disrepute and would undermine the general public's confidence in it. It is, therefore, important that the Government err on the side of caution in the early years of the process. The Minister says in his letter that the figures are "highly provisional". I hope that they are and I hope that he can reassure us more than he did in the letter. If self-assessment is part of the Government's drive to reduce the number of Inland Revenue staff, it will undoubtedly fail. The Inland Revenue currently proposes to reduce staff levels from 54,000 in April 1995 to 48,000 in April 1988 and to 42,000 by April 2001. The latter round of job cuts includes some 3,000 job losses as a result of the introduction of self-assessment. The Inland Revenue Staff Federation and the Opposition are pressing the Government to redeploy staff on the customer service side of simplified assessment as well as on compliance and investigation work instead of making them redundant.
We maintain our deep concern about the manner of the introduction of what was a sound principle. We back the sound principle, but we remain unconvinced by the Government's determination to introduce the measures in a serious way. Unless the Government can reassure us, we shall call on the House to vote to delay the introduction of the measures for a further year until we can be assured about the manner of implementation of this good principle.
Column 14637.30 pm
Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne): Like my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West (Ms Armstrong), I am in favour of the principle of self-assessment. We have what has been called a Rolls-Royce system, whereby the Inland Revenue does all the work and taxpayers merely answer a few questions. The system will change fundamentally to one in which the taxpayer is asked to fill in forms on a range of matters in which they have not previously been involved. The United States, which is the model for this sort of thing, has been at it for a long time. Accountants who deal with people with modest tax dues are used to handling such matters. Here we are starting from scratch and there are serious problems. The particular problem that I am worried about is the need for simpler legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West was right to draw attention to that. One book in Somerset house contained all the income tax legislation for 1840 to 1855. Now, there is a whole shelf of regulations for each year. So the mass of problems has undoubtedly increased enormously. That means that the ordinary taxpayer has to be guided through. I do not believe that the work has been done sufficiently well until now.
As my hon. Friend rightly said, we are dealing with a decline in the morale of Inland Revenue staff. The Government cannot improve the staff's morale when they are cutting their jobs. To give them new responsibilities at such a time could be dangerous. So it is right to talk about the risk factor. There is the greater danger that the new system could become a matter of some disrepute. An attempt will be made to separate out fraud from genuine mistakes. There will be a large number of genuine mistakes. However much is spent on advertisements and background, a large number of people will come to self-assessment unprepared and will make mistakes. It will be a serious matter to separate mistakes which arise out of the novelty of the system from those which arise out of less worthy motives. The legislation is being rushed. We have to be very careful about that. We have had a large number of pieces of legislation which have not been properly considered. Self- assessment is of such fundamental importance, particularly to a Government who talk about reducing the level of income tax, and especially when there will be further complications, that it needs further careful consideration. The letter that the Financial Secretary sent to my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn), which my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West quoted, says:
"These broad figures are highly provisional".
It is a bit late in the day to have highly provisional assessments. We should be coming to fairly clear conclusions at this stage. For those reasons, a delay such as that proposed in the new clause should be accepted.
Sir George Young: I am grateful to both hon. Members who have spoken for their support in principle of the move towards self-assessment. I agree with what they both said about the need to move towards a less complex system. I believe that self-assessment will be
Column 1464simpler. I remind the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) that those taxpayers who do not want to go the final mile and assess themselves will not need to do so. They will be able to complete the return broadly as they do now and send it in a few months earlier. The Inland Revenue will do the final calculations for them.
I cannot accept the new clause. It would put back the introduction of self- assessment by one year from 1996-97 to 1997-98. A similar amendment was tabled last year, but was not moved in the Standing Committee.
I should like to respond to some of the points that were raised in the debate, particularly publicity and compliance. I can confirm that a substantial programme of publicity and education for taxpayers is planned and is already under way. So far, it has covered raising awareness and understanding of the changes among tax advisers through mailings and presentations. As I said in the debates in Standing Committee, a major advertising campaign, aimed directly at the 9 million people who will receive tax returns, using television and national press as well as specialist magazines, is due to be launched before the summer and will continue until well after self-assessment has been introduced. That will be backed by leaflets and video material.
As for compliance, a number of hon. Members have seen the letter which I wrote to the hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn), whom I am sorry to hear is not well. All tax returns will be checked. They will be subjected to an initial risk analysis which will take account, not only of the information in the taxpayers' return, but of information from third parties, previous history and so on. Following that initial risk analysis, a percentage of returns regarded as potentially presenting a high risk will be reviewed in detail for inquiry. In a percentage of those cases, inquiries will be started. The inquiries needed to deal with the risks identified may range from straightforward clarification of individual items to more detailed examination of one or more technical issues, or right through to full investigation of the taxpayer's affairs. In addition, a small percentage of cases may be selected for inquiry on an entirely random basis to increase deterrence and to enable the Revenue to monitor compliance levels and identify new areas of risk. We have already devoted substantial resources to tackling tax evasion. There has been a 20 per cent. increase in compliance resources in the past six years. That will not change under self-assessment.
The hon. Member for Durham, North-West expressed anxiety about compliance. The Revenue's plans are at least to maintain present coverage levels for the more searching types of inquiry and, indeed, gradually to increase them both by switching resources into compliance work and by improving compliance training, organisation and working methods.
Let me confirm the good progress that is being made in the move towards self-assessment. Returns for the first year of
self-assessment will not be issued until April 1997--still two years away. Nothing that has happened in the past few months has changed the Government's considered view that we should proceed to the planned timetable. Indeed as this year goes by, we are passing a number of milestones which would
Column 1465make it more difficult to adopt the course suggested by the new clause.
The main legislation was passed last year and more legislation is before the House now. Businesses and tax practitioners are gearing up for the changes in line with the published timetable. We are well on track for the implementation of self-assessment as planned. We have an extensive education and publicity programme. We have been testing the new tax return and the results of this latest consultation are encouraging. Some 90 per cent. of the volunteers completed the return well enough for the Inland Revenue to process it. However, there is still room for improving the tax return so the consultation and testing will continue throughout 1995, starting later this week with the full trial of self-assessment in Leicester, involving some 5,000 taxpayers.
In conclusion, delaying the start of self-assessment is not sensible in practical terms. It would only cause confusion and add a layer of complexity. Nor is it necessary. I urge the House to reject the new clause.
Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:--
The House divided: Ayes 244, Noes 277.
Division No. 124] [7.38 pm
Column 1465Abbott, Ms Diane
Adams, Mrs Irene
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)
Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale)
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)
Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret
Beith, Rt Hon A J
Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Bennett, Andrew F
Bray, Dr Jeremy
Brown, Gordon (Dunfermline E)
Brown, N (N'c'tle upon Tyne E)
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Campbell-Savours, D N