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Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South): I had a couple of points to make, but they have been made more effectively than I could by my hon. Friends in their perceptive interventions. We will be feeling our way in this new process. It is the first time that we have gone through it. I have listened to the points that my hon. Friends have made, and will bear them in mind. I shall certainly advocate that we sit in public, and that there is as much openness in the process as possible. I hope that the Minister will accept that, as it is the first time we will have gone through the process, it will be appropriate to review it at the end. If we feel that the process has not worked properly, it would be thoroughly appropriate for the House to reconsider this Standing Order and make the necessary amendments.

We met to discuss this matter on 19 December. We agreed the motion in principle, and we do so now.

5.19 pm

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): The Joint Committee on Tax Simplification will be important and influential. Some eminent right hon. and hon. Members have proposed to go on the Committee, and I believe that it is wrong for the quorum to be just two Members of this House. There will not be a sufficient representative sample of the House, and the Committee may well be called on to deliberate and produce a report with the views and considerations of only one political party being represented. That is not acceptable. The quorum of the Committee should be at least four. Although I appreciate that, with a quorum of four, the Committee could still sit with only Government Members present, the amendment that has not been called would have provided at least the likelihood of diversity.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Would it not be sensible for the quorum to be at least two Members of each House, given that this will be a Joint Committee?

Mr. Burnett: I entirely agree, and I see no reason why the quorum of four suggested in the amendment that was not selected could not have been so comprised. Such an arrangement might provide even more diversity, and even more expertise.

Mr. Bercow: Does the hon. Gentleman also agree that, if this is to be a highly important, extremely influential and very worthwhile Committee composed of celebrated members with many commitments and full diaries, there is no good reason why at any one time 11 of the 13 should be unavailable to fulfil their important duties? Is it not alarming that if on some occasion only two members were present, one of them, the non-voting Chairman, a single individual, could determine the Committee's proceedings?

Mr. Burnett: I must confess that my knowledge of Committee procedures is not quite as extensive as the hon. Gentleman's. Nevertheless, the central point must be made that the quorum should be at least four. I hope that the Government will reconsider; this is a most worthwhile project.

Dawn Primarolo: I think the hon. Gentleman said that the quorum should be at least four, counting Members of

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the other place. Two Members of the other place plus two Members of the House of Commons make four, and that is the quorum. I do not understand the hon. Gentleman's problem.

Mr. Burnett: Is the Paymaster General saying that, for the Committee to sit, the quorum must be in effect four--two Members of this House and two Members of the other place--and that if four such Members are not present there will be no quorum?

Dawn Primarolo: Yes: I am referring to two Members of each House. When the hon. Gentleman checks the record, he will see that I said that the quorum for the House of Lords would also be two. Furthermore, I said that a quorum of more than two for a Committee consisting of seven members would be unheard of.

Mr. Burnett: Actually, I am somewhat reassured by that.

Mr. Bercow: The hon. Gentleman is by nature a decent and generous fellow, but I hope he will not be too readily reassured. He should not jump ahead of himself. Does he not accept that what we have just heard from the Paymaster General, welcome though it sounds, is effectively amendment on the hoof--amendment at the Dispatch Box? Subsection (3) of the motion specifically states:

It does not say "two Members of each House"; it just says "two".

Mr. Burnett: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I was coming to that.

Dawn Primarolo rose--

Mr. Burnett: The Paymaster General is poised to intervene. I happily allow her to do so.

Dawn Primarolo: We are discussing only procedure relating to this House, but the hon. Gentleman will note from the record that when I replied to him earlier I said that the quorum for the House of Lords Committee would also be two, and that the procedure had been set out in a proposal from that Committee on 13 November 2000.

Mr. Burnett: There is but one Committee, which consists of Members of both this House and the other place. That Committee will not be able to go about its business unless four individuals are present--for instance, two Members of each House. On that basis, I am reasonably reassured.

5.24 pm

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): Our exchanges about the quorum illustrate one of the Committee's most important tasks--attention to detail. Its work will involve detailed scrutiny, in the context of the first parliamentary consideration of tax law simplification.

Let me say at the outset that I welcome the progress that the House is making now in establishing the procedures--the substance will be established later--

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of an exercise with which, as the Paymaster General suggested, I was closely associated during my time at the Treasury.

My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) feared that the Committee's procedure might be clothed in secrecy. He is a modern Member of the House of Commons. If he had cared to look at the various internet websites on the tax law rewrite exercise, he would have found displayed to public view in the most open way possible all the proceedings so far of the exercise. It has been conducted in the most open of fashions.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): My right hon. Friend is an e-man of some note, but for those of us who do not possess a computer, who cannot switch one on, or who would not know a website if it jumped out of their breakfast cereal, to say that something is on a website is simply not sufficient. Those of us who are traditionalists and who prefer to deal with information in a proper way, conducted through a proper medium, will continue to insist on that. My right hon. Friend's talk of a website does not impress us all.

Mr. Jack: I was going to point out that conventional means are also being used to disseminate the information. When we debate that and other matters, I am sure that my right hon. Friend will refer to the copies, in a more conventional sense, of Committee proceedings that he will have obtained, with reference later perhaps to the many exposure drafts and other information that has been more conventionally produced and that will also assist the Committee in its work. If the shelf in my office that holds much of the printed material is anything to judge by, there has been a flood of information in the public domain on all aspects of the work that the Committee will examine.

Mr. Bercow: I confess that, in common with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), on the whole I tend to prefer to communicate via use of the quill pen, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) said in seeking to reassure me that the record of the proceedings was lodged on not one, but a multiplicity of websites. Is he saying that the verbatim account of everything said was lodged on said website, or is it merely a truncated version in the form of minutes? The former would be substantially reassuring, the latter less so.

Mr. Jack: If my hon. Friend were fully acquainted with and had read all the material from all the participants during all parts of the exercise that has produced the Bill that we shall discuss later, he perhaps would not have posed the question in quite the way that he did because it is the output and decisions of the consultative and steering committee processes that are of greater interest in the public domain than the words uttered both privately and publicly to determine what we will discuss later.

The first part of the motion deals with a Standing Order. The motion says that we wish

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I was interested in a paragraph in the helpful Library note which gives some of the background to the exercise. It says on page 39:

It is interesting that later we may be able to debate the membership from this House of the Committee. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members who have volunteered their services, or whose services have been volunteered, to that exercise will have the time to carry out the part of the motion that I read out earlier. It is a time-consuming exercise. Given that it will be the first parliamentary consideration of the rewrite process, assiduous attention to detail will be required to meet the understandable questions that my right hon. and hon. Friends have posed and to give the reassurance that the matter has been properly considered.

The second paragraph of the motion states:

and more important--

I am intrigued by that provision. I should also like to ask the Paymaster General about it, as that might refresh my memory of the procedures considered by the Procedure Committee in recommending that method of considering the Capital Allowances Bill. One of the matters that we shall discuss in more detail later is how the whole exercise has helped us to arrive at the conclusions in the Bill. The exercise has had two parts, the first of which deals with ideas to improve tax law but without changing current policy. The second part deals with ideas that go beyond that stricture in relation to current policy and addresses the simplification issue in the round.

Does the Paymaster General envisage that, in the reports that it might produce, the Select Committee will be able to go wider than the narrow confines of commenting on the fruits of the labour done by both the consultative and steering committees on the Capital Allowances Bill? I am sure that the specialist advisers who will wish to advise the Select Committee will have views on some of the implications of the Bill's drafting.

As for the tax law rewrite exercise, it might be quite interesting if the reports could go a little further than simply commenting on drafting. Nevertheless, even if they comment only on drafting, such reports could be interesting when we come to subsequent rewrite Bills. Will the Select Committee have to restrict its remarks solely to the Capital Allowances Bill? If not, will it be able to comment on more general matters? Such an ability could be valuable in other aspects of the exercise.

Some of the Bill's provisions beg the question how effectively current tax law operates. Will the Select Committee be able to call for an economic assessment of some aspects of capital allowances legislation and to

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report on the operation of both current and redefined law? Such reports might be useful adjuncts to the Select Committee's work in commenting on tax simplification.

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