Finance (No. 2) Bill

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The Chairman: There is considerable doubt about the accuracy of Committee members' memory of this matter, and we are checking the situation. It is for the Government rather than for me to decide which Minister should reply on their behalf. I have called clause 116, and we should make progress. I will not take any further points of order on this matter.

Mr. Fallon: This is an abuse.

The Chairman: I assure the hon. Gentleman that it is not. I shall check the situation. It is for the Government rather than for me to decide who will reply for the Government in future debates. As to accuracy, the Official Report should record what was said.

Mr. Edward Davey rose

The Chairman: Order. I said that I would take no further points of order on this matter, and I mean that. I want no more diversions or discussions of matters that have already been debated.

Mr. Davey: I wish to seek your guidance, Mrs. Dunwoody.

The Chairman: Well, that is an original idea.

Mr. Davey: Would it be in order for the Committee to postpone the debate on clause 116 until a time when the Paymaster General will be able to attend?

The Chairman: I have made it clear that the Chair does not decide who will answer for the Government. Indeed, it would be very entertaining, on occasion, if the Chairmen's Panel could nominate which member of which Front Bench spoke on which matter but that would not assist progress.

Clause 116

Claims for income tax purposes

Question proposed [9 June], That the clause stand part of the Bill.

10.43 am

Question again proposed.

Mrs. Liddell: Thank you, Mrs. Dunwoody, and good morning. I spent yesterday afternoon watching the second half of the Scotland match, but the Committee's proceedings so far are even more riveting! I am sorry that Opposition Members are so disappointed about the fact that I will reply to the debate I wonder what it is that they fear about me.

I shall respond to some of the points that were made in the debate on Tuesday evening. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) is not in his place [Interruption.] I am glad to see that he has just sprinted to his place. He ended last Tuesday's debate by telling us about his talents on the internet, for which I commend him. He raised a specific point and it is important to clear that up now, because it is germane to everything that we are discussing. He asked whether the use of electronic communication with the Revenue would meet tax deadlines. It is important to have mechanisms in place to ensure that electronic communications are properly logged. The claim will be treated as having been received on the date of the telephone call. The hon. Gentleman asked how that could be verified if it was disputed. All telephone calls to the Revenue will be recorded and a computer fingerprint will show the time at which the call came in and how it was handled. If there is a dispute about the content of a telephone call or whether it took place, the Revenue will be able to check its records.

10.45 am

Mr. Hammond: I believe that during our debates my memory is not 100 per cent. accurate Labour Members suggested that call centres might be used to take calls. Will the hon. Lady clarify whether it is intended that these calls will be handled directly by the Revenue and taped by the Revenue, or whether they will be handled by commercial call centres and taped by them? If so, what are the implications for security.

Mrs. Liddell: It is my intention to come to the issue of call centres in a couple of minutes, but I want to clear up the matter raised on Tuesday by the hon. Member for Cotswold.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: We are breaking new ground in dealings between the Revenue and taxpayers. The issue is not whether a call is received but the contents of the call and the agreement reached. If a dispute subsequently arises, how will that be resolved?

Mrs. Liddell: I can easily answer that question. The call will be recorded, so there will be a record of it. That is not unusual in financial service businesses here and across the Atlantic. A couple of weeks ago I visited the Federal Reserve in Chicago, which has extensive means of monitoring all dealings with the public, not just in telephone calls but in banks. We need not go that far, but there will be monitoring of standards to ensure that an adequate record is kept of telephone calls.

Some hon. Gentlemen asked whether the Government wanted to do more business electronically. In a very good speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie) expertly expounded on that matter. The Government aim to do as much business as possible by electronic means, and that will increase as information technology systems become more adaptable and security of IT systems becomes more advanced. Security is very important.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: This is a positive discussion and a very useful one. When a communication is sent by E-mail, will proof of sending be acceptable to the Revenue if the sender's machine can produce a print-out showing that the communication was sent to the Revenue? Will that count as the Revenue having received it?

Mrs. Liddell: This interesting point of whether claims can be accepted by E-mail was raised in a previous debate. At the moment, the Revenue does not intend to accept claims by E-mail because it is not confident that the mechanisms are sufficient to guarantee security. The hon. Gentleman will note that the clause is widely drafted, as is clause 117, to allow the Revenue to update its methods as IT is updated and provides more opportunities. We are all using electronic means of transmission more freely in our daily lives than we would have thought possible five years ago. It is important to ensure that we leave enough scope in the Bill to allow us to update what we are doing.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge wanted to know whether the clause was one of the many that the Government had received in draft when they won the election last May. That is not the case; the initiative was taken after that.

We know from the use made by taxpayers of the self-assessment helpline and the employers' helpline how anxious people are to be able to deal with the Revenue by telephone. Until now, the only advice that the Revenue has been able to give over the telephone, in response to the 40 million calls that it receives each year has been that callers should fill in a form or write in if they want to make a claim in relation to allowances or expenses, or even to notify the Revenue of a change of address or a change to the figures in their tax returns. With 40 million calls a year to the Revenue, we know that there is a demand, which is hampered by the requirement to ask callers to fill in a form. So we are giving the Revenue the opportunity to deal with such matters over the telephone to make it easier for the taxpayer.[Mrs. Liddell]

The clause would facilitate the setting up of an experimental call centre in Scotland to deal with the affairs of 2 million employees and pensioners of Scottish-based businesses. In reply to the specific intervention of the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, I can tell him that those calls will be handled by Revenue staff. I hope that that clears up any anxieties that he may have. On behalf of some rather disappointed Scots this morning, I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley that his generous comments about Scottish accents have been noted, and we are grateful for them.

Mr. Hammond: Without wishing to disparage the Revenue's current performance in replying to correspondence, we all know that it falls somewhat short of what the Government and taxpayers would like. Does the Economic Secretary intend to set targets for the time within which calls are answered within six rings, for example as many businesses do? Otherwise, I can envisage armies of disconsolate taxpayers holding on the telephone line for many minutes without receiving a reply.

Mrs. Liddell: I am continually frustrated by the message that one often receives when telephoning that the caller knows that I am waiting and will eventually answer the call. Unfortunately, I have the serious problem of two teenage children, who seem to be incapable of listening to the bleep on the telephone that tells them to hang up and shut up.

I can tell the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge that technology will be introduced to allow callers to wait in a queue for a short time. That is common technology in the many call centres that now operate in all sorts of environments. The Revenue is aware of people's anxieties about not receiving prompt attention. That is one of the main reasons for introducing the clause.

The experimental call centre will open for business in the summer and will build up a range of services between now and April next year. That Scottish call centre will enable us to test the demand to do business by telephone, and to decide in the light of that whether the use of call centres should be extended across the United Kingdom. That is why the clause is widely drawn.

I believe that there will be demand from the public for access to the Revenue via the internet, but we must ensure that the necessary security is guaranteed. Well before the call centre opens, the Revenue will publish details of the telephone services that will be availabe in the centre, as well as in other Revenue offices, including services that will be available as a result of the clause. We hope that it will be possible to build up a much wider range of services, so that the Revenue will become more customer friendly.

Mr. Hammond: I am fascinated by what the Economic Secretary has said. Will she give us a commitment that, when the pilot takes place in Scotland, the waiting times endured by callers will be recorded and made public at the end of the trial period?

Mrs. Liddell: It is up to the management to decide what technology should be introduced and how the call centre should be managed. Lessons must be learnt from the piloting of the call centre, as we must ensure that the technology is up to the job. As a Minister, I shall be anxious as will the Financial Secretary to ensure that targets are being met. They are met in other parts of the financial services industry and in the general retail industry. An extensive range of shopping is now available through direct telephone access. Rapid response is key to that development.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge and I share an ambition to ensure that the Revenue is kept on its toes in relation to the time that it takes to answer such calls. As soon as more details of the pilot's operation are available, we will be able to determine what targets can be set. The Revenue will be asked to respond to its success or failure in meeting those targets, which is good and sensible management. The pilot will allow us to gauge public demand for different kinds of services, and enable us to decide on a national strategy for telephone business.

The clause is exciting; it brings the work of the Revenue and the Government up to date with developments in the wider world.

 
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