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Session 1997-98
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Standing Committee Debates
Finance (No. 2) Bill

Finance (No. 2) Bill

Standing Committee E

Tuesday 16 June 1998


[Part III]

[Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody in the Chair]

Finance (No. 2) Bill

(Except Clauses 1, 7, 10, 11, 25, 27, 30 75, 119 and 147)

[Continuation from col. 884]

10.30 pm

On resuming--

Mr. Fallon: Before we suspended, I was dealing with the Financial Secretary's sleight of hand in suggesting that all these things would be done by agreement. I think that I demonstrated to the Committee's satisfaction that although there is an initial approach towards agreement, if there is no agreement, the commissioners simply impose a decision.

Without reiterating my earlier remarks, I remind the Committee that paragraph 24 of the explanatory note says that

    ``the Inland Revenue will have power to secure extended access''.

Furthermore, paragraph 25 states:

    ``If no agreement can be reached and a Special Commissioner considers it just and reasonable to require the proposed change to be made, he or she may make a direction accordingly''.

That is not agreement--it is imposition by the Financial Secretary's special commissioner. Let us forget any idea that there has to be agreement between the Revenue and the owner of the works of art. In the end, the Financial Secretary sends in her commissioners. In the end, her uniformed commissioners can march in and impose--[Hon. Members: ``A dawn raid''.] Labour Members suggest that there will be dawn raids, but I suggest that they would take place somewhat later in the day.

It is equally untrue that the provisions have the consent of the arts and heritage world. Indeed, before we broke I drew attention to a memorandum that was submitted by the Museums and Galleries Commission and signed by Penelope, the Viscountess Cobham. Doubtless with the assistance of a former Minister responsible for the arts, and after consulting a range of other bodies--I shall not read out all their names--she drew up a list of substantial objections to the proposal. The Viscountess is concerned about the retention of appointment viewing--a system that served us reasonably well for 20 years, as I hope the Financial Secretary would agree--not in perpetuity, but in exceptional cases.

I want to put four categories to the Financial Secretary and ask whether she has considered any exceptional cases under them. Perhaps the Paymaster General will be replying--

Dawn Primarolo: No, it is me.

Mr. Fallon: It is the Financial Secretary.

There are four specific categories. First there are those objects that are too fragile to allow more general access to them. Secondly, there are those objects that carry a very high security risk--you will recall, Mrs. Dunwoody, that in the long years in which this tax exemption has been debated there has also been debate about whether it is a burglar's charter to allow photographs of the objects to appear and to let the public see them in particular homes. Thirdly, the object may be housed in a building that it is impractical to open to the general public, due to the size of the building or its location. Fourthly, objects loaned for a minimum number of days to buildings that are already open to the general public should also be covered by the new restrictions imposed by the Bill.

We shall discuss the nature of public access and the arrangements to be made and so on when we debate amendments to the schedule. But first we should hear from the Financial Secretary whether she will answer the charge that this is not something to be done by agreement and that her special commissioners would be tramping through the salons of houses. Is the hon. Lady prepared to accept that in a limited number of exceptional cases there cannot be automatic and general public access?

Dawn Primarolo: I thought that the hon. Gentleman knew that the special commissioners are independent of Ministers. To my knowledge, they do not wear uniforms and they do not stamp through people's houses or salons. The suggestion is indicative of the almost deliberate way in which hon. Gentlemen are misinterpreting the proposals. I put on record my confidence in the special commissioners to continue to adjudicate and to defend their independent role.

When there is no agreement, it is true that the special commissioners will have to decide on the Revenue's proposals on a just and reasonable basis. If the commissioners decide that the proposal should be made, the decision would not come into effect for at least 60 days. However, the commissioners could decide that the proposals from the Revenue on public access in certain cases--I cannot think of any off hand, but they would be able to do so--would enable them to decide on a just and reasonable basis that what the Revenue proposed was not reasonable access and therefore would rule against the Revenue. The idea that line 1 of attack is for the Revenue to say, ``We must have public access'' and line 2 is that the special commissioners come in and support whatever the Inland Revenue says is not something that happens on a regular basis.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Dawn Primarolo: I shall finish my point first. The proposals are clear. If the hon. Member for Cotswold and other hon. Members want us to consider the role of special commissioners with regard to the Inland Revenue, that is a different proposition, which goes much wider than the amendment. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will explain why we should not allow public access to the assets.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am not going to explain anything. I am asking the Minister to explain. Will she help the special commissioners in their task by making it clear to them what the Inland Revenue intend and in that respect will she publish guidance and, if so, when will it be published?

Dawn Primarolo: The Inland Revenue intends to ensure reasonable public access to the assets. The commissioners will be made fully aware of the decisions taken by the Inland Revenue and why it came to its conclusions when it decided what was just and reasonable.

The other issues raised in the debate have covered matters that refer back to a previous clause. Members were scurrilous in trying to rewrite the Hansard report of the debate on clause 56.

Mr. Fallon: Clause 39.

Dawn Primarolo: The hon. Gentleman corrects me--it is Clause 56. It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman can remember the clause but not what was said. I refer him to column 314 of the Official Report of our sitting on 19 May, in which my hon. Friend made it clear that he would review the correspondence to discover the position with regard to the suggestions made by the hon. Member for Witney without commitment. The Historic Houses Association newsletter complimented the Government and particularly the Inland Revenue on the consultation that took place on several issues. I will not embarrass the hon. Member for Sevenoaks, but I will send him a copy. It is clear that the points that he tried to make were totally unfounded and a way of padding out the Committee's proceedings.

Mr. Woodward: In order that we are precise for the record, I have it on authority--yet again, this was confirmed only five minutes ago--that the Historic Houses Association has not been given the meeting and has not been invited to consultations. It is outrageous for the Financial Secretary to impugn the reputation of Opposition Members by making the suggestion she did when she must know full well that the Historic Houses Association has been offered no meeting.

Dawn Primarolo: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is using earplugs so that he cannot hear what I am saying, so I will say it a little louder. The record shows that my right hon. Friend said:

    ``I will review the correspondence to which the hon. Member for Whitney referred. I have spoken to the Financial Secretary and we will look at it together''.--Official Report, Standing Committee E, 19 May 1998; c. 314.]

In column 315, he went on to say that he trusted that ``that gesture, without commitment'' would be clearly understood. That is a matter of record. I do not need to impugn the hon. Gentleman, nor would I. I am sure that he would not seek to mislead the Committee. We are doing precisely what we said we would do.

Finally, Opposition Members spoke about by-appointment-system-only assisted tourism. Perhaps they could explain in the concluding remarks of this debate how a visitor who is in this country for only two weeks could manage access on that basis.

Mr. Fallon: The Financial Secretary has conceded our first point. At first, she suggested that everything could be done by agreement, but she has now confessed that it will not be. If there is no agreement in the end, the special commissioners will decide--that is not agreement.

Derek Twigg (Halton): They will decide.

Mr. Fallon: The hon. Gentleman says that they will decide--I think that that is the first time that he has spoken in the Committee in eight weeks, and we welcome that. The point is that the matter is not being dealt with by agreement and that the special commissioners decide. We are not talking about an agreement between those who have the objects and the Revenue. Under the Bill, if there is no agreement in the end, the special commissioners decide. That is unilateral. I hope that the hon. Gentleman has got that because the Financial Secretary, when she first spoke, tried to suggest that everything would be done by agreement. That is nonsense, as she has conceded. We have won that point.

On the second issue, I asked whether the Financial Secretary would reply to the criticism that had been made by all the bodies in the field, as it were, which had been called together by the Museums and Galleries Commission. It related to exceptional cases where there was a high security risk or where objects were too fragile, happened to be in a building to which it was difficult to grant public access, or were already out on loan for a minimum number of days to a public gallery. The Financial Secretary has not yet answered that point, although perhaps that is inadvertent. I now give her the opportunity to do so.


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