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Lord Brightman, Lord Howe and the other noble Lord my right hon. Friend named are among the small minority of people who either understand the subject or are prepared to give up three mornings to the task of taking the project forward after already giving up hours and hours of their time serving on other committees that scrutinised the subject. I do not believe that any of the three would approve a process that did not simplify the law or, more importantly, one that represented any attempt to evade the privileges of the House in respect of tax legislation. I am sure that my right hon. Friend did not wish to traduce them in any way.
Finally, let me tell the House at whom I think this process is aimed. I have already said that the public did not flock to our proceedings, and I doubt whether many members of the public will pull the Capital Allowances Act 2001 from the shelf for a bedtime read--it will not be a best seller in that quarter. The users of such legislation will almost certainly be specialists. I hope that the intelligent layman who wants to understand the reasons why his advisers have given him certain advice will do so by reading the plain English of the legislation, but the main users of the measure will be tax professionals. They will be accountants, tax lawyers and some business men, especially the finance directors of companies, or self-employed business men who are trying to understand the tax liabilities that they might incur and the allowances for their capital against the tax liability of their businesses.
The other main users of the proposed legislation should be parliamentarians. It damages our debates on Finance Bills when most Members, with the greatest respect to them, do not understand the provisions before them because of the way they are drafted. [Interruption.] I do not want to hear shouts of horror. I listened to Budget speeches for many years, and I looked round the Chamber on those occasions. In the old days, we used to deal with intractable and unintelligible minor amendments that Customs and Excise used to insist on putting into Budget speeches. I looked to see which Members were nodding sagely to enhance their reputations as tax experts. Most of them were nodding sagely to words that they did not understand--any more than the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the draftsman did.
We need to move away from all that. There are definite benefits to be had in simplifying the expression of the law. Not only a closed group of Members but everybody will be able to understand the policy that lies behind tax changes. The process of simplifying the language of legislation clarifies many tax issues. It will throw out the areas that will be beyond the scope of the Joint
Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine): Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman offering some hope to the pensioner who was in my constituency office recently, pleading that the self- assessment form should be made intelligible so that he could complete it without the use of professional advice?
Mr. Clarke: This is not yet enough, because it is only the first part of the process. The intention is that the tax law rewrite project should include the entirety of the Inland Revenue's responsibilities. Capital allowances were chosen first because they constitute one of the most closed and self-defined chunks of the law. I believe that the project team is now working on income tax, and the next Bill of this sort to come before the House will attempt to cover the clarification and rewriting of the law on income tax.
The hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir R. Smith) is right. Now that we have introduced self-assessment, it is essential that we endeavour to rewrite income tax law so that someone who has a decent degree in mathematics, and perhaps some background in accountancy, will at least be able to understand the process. I would like to set our sights higher, and I hope that the ordinary, intelligent and reasonably educated taxpayer might be able to embark on a process of understanding.
We shall never reach that position if the present Chancellor of the Exchequer keeps complicating income tax legislation at the present pace, Budget after Budget. Self-assessment would have been difficult enough when it was introduced. It has been made almost incomprehensible by the subsequent changes that the Chancellor has made, with so many different rates of taxation.
Income tax comes next. We must aim ourselves at the intelligent taxpayer who is being asked to assess himself for his income tax liability and does not feel that he should be obliged to pay professional fees to do so when he is doing so much work for the Inland Revenue.
The new procedure that we have set up works, but it needs some refining. By and large, it is a proper process. We do not want the full procedures of the House to hold things up for months. Everyone who has worked on the project over the years has fulfilled a valuable public service, and I hope that the Bill passes through the House without dissent.
The principles of the tax rewrite project and the object of simplification of legislation could be applied far more widely. Ever since I entered the House, when I was a practising member of the Bar--I practised for a time when I was last in opposition--I have felt that the language of legislation produced by the House is ridiculous. It is
I have been a practitioner in the courts and practised on and off for the best part of 16 years. I know many practitioners in the courts; I am now so old that most of my friends are on the Bench. I know scarcely any practitioners who have a good word for the wording of legislation that emerges from the House. I hear frequent complaints about the incomprehensibility of the law as produced by the parliamentary process. At the moment, a huge undertaking is in hand: rewriting tax law and producing simplification. I hope that, one day, the use of plain English, the search for clarity and the ambition of making laws passed by the House intelligible to the ordinary, intelligent citizen who applies himself or herself to trying to read and understand them, will be achieved.
Meanwhile, as we go back tomorrow, no doubt, to yet another Bill to which the Government have drafted hundreds of amendments at the last moment, we shall continue to produce what is sometimes gobbledegook, but which passes for legislation and passes through both Houses. We have passed a lot of gobbledegook on tax law in the past 10 years; the Bill before us this evening clarifies some of it, and I commend it to the House.
I declare an interest as a lawyer. I used to practise in taxation, but I do not practise any more. I should also declare the fact that I was not a member of the Joint Committee. Nevertheless, on Second Reading, there were tributes from both sides of the House to Lord Howe of Aberavon, the tax rewrite steering committee, the consultative committee and all of the individuals who contributed, either in the past or currently, to the introduction of the Bill. I was, and am, happy to join in the tributes and congratulations to Lord Howe and his committee.
I should like to tackle a few points that arose in the Joint Committee, which have been alluded to this evening. I was surprised that, in that Committee, no evidence was taken in person from a practising tax lawyer or a non-Committee tax expert. I am not sure what steps were taken to encourage outside experts to give evidence, but it is a shame that no one did so. I refer the House to the comments of the eminent accountant, Mr. Adam Broke, who was referred to by the Paymaster General and the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway). Mr. Broke said: