Proceeds of Crime Bill

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The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 631, in page 245, line 3, leave out 'an' and insert—

    'a District Tax Inspector or higher grade'.

No. 627, in page 245, line 5, after 'a', insert—

    'collector or higher grade'.

No. 607, in clause 422, page 245, line 17, leave out paragraph (b).

No. 608. in page 245, line 19, leave out subsection (4).

No. 632, in page 245, line 21, leave out 'an' and insert—

    'a District Tax Inspector or higher grade'

No. 628, in page 245, line 23, after 'a', insert—

    'collector or higher grade'.

No. 619, in clause 425, page 247, line 27, leave out subsection (9).

No. 633, in page 247, line 29, leave out 'an' and insert—

    'a District Tax Inspector or higher grade'.

No. 629, in page 247, line 31, after 'a', insert—

    'collector or higher grade'.

No. 620, in clause 426, page 248, line 3, leave out subsection (4).

No. 634, in clause 426, page 248, line 5, leave out 'an' and insert—

    'a District Tax Inspector or higher grade'

No. 630, in page 248, line 7, after 'a', insert—

    'collector or higher grade'.

11.15 am

Mr. Grieve: I was a little daunted when I saw first how the amendments were grouped, but now that seems completely sensible, although it will require a moment to work my way through them. The group has doubled in size, because it is necessary to amend the Scottish legislation as well as that for England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The amendments relate to a point that we discussed earlier about the Inland Revenue, and which also dovetails with Customs and Excise.

As the Committee will recall, we agree that the Inland Revenue should be a permitted person for the

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purposes of disclosure of information. However, a question arises about the level in the Inland Revenue at which a decision about the disclosure of information should be made. Given the comments made by Opposition Members, including me, earlier this morning, the Minister will not be surprised to hear that we are concerned to ensure that the decision is taken at the highest level possible. It should not simply become a rubber-stamp job, so that requests are passed from the director to an inspector and a habit of operation prevails whereby they are not given proper consideration.

I do not know—the Minister may be able to say—exactly how many such applications are likely to be winging their way from the director to the Inland Revenue in any one year. I should have thought that in view of the limits on the director's scope for operation, and of the fact that the provisions are serious and should be exercised sparingly, there are unlikely to be hundreds. I may be wrong, and perhaps such requests will become a matter of routine. If they may, that raises the anxiety that I expressed earlier about the mechanism turning into a rubber stamp.

Subsection (8) states:

    Information must not be disclosed under this section on behalf of the . . . Inland Revenue or on behalf of the Commissioners of Customs and Excise unless the Commissioners concerned authorise the disclosure.

However, that is subsequently qualified by subsection (9), which provides that the commissioners may delegate the decision making, in the case of the Inland Revenue to an officer of the board, and in the case of Customs and Excise to a customs officer.

Amendment No. 606 would delete that provision and leave squarely with the Board of Inland Revenue, or the Commissioners of Customs and Excise, the duty to make such decisions. Knowing the workings of bureaucracy, I would assume that that would ensure that any such request came before the Commissioners of Inland Revenue or of Customs and Excise, even if it is likely to come with a note or memorandum prepared by someone else, saying whether they believe that the application should be granted.

Ultimately the buck stops with the Commissioners of Inland Revenue and of Customs and Excise, so that strikes me as a powerful mechanism for ensuring that control of the process is maintained, and that they are constantly aware of the volume of traffic passing between them and the director for such requests, so if they feel that the system is getting out of control, or requests are being made that cause them anxiety, that can be rapidly transmitted, if necessary, to the Government so that something can be done about it. That is my object.

If we leave subsection (9) as it stands, it seems that the decision could be made by someone quite low down the hierarchy—a customs officer or an officer of the Board of Inland Revenue, although there may be a hierarchical distinction between an officer of the Board of Inland Revenue and a customs officer, which is why one of the amendments would delete the reference to one but not the other. That, too, is a probing

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amendment designed to offer the Committee the maximum number of possibilities.

Other possibilities in several of the other amendments include defining officers of a higher grade than a straightforward officer of the Board of Inland Revenue—such as a collector or higher grade, or a district tax inspector or higher grade—in order to offer variety to the Committee and the Minister. We could examine whether we should pitch the decision-making process at a higher level, but without taking it as far as the board. That is a multi-track approach to allow the Committee to decide where the decisions should be taken. My preference is still that the Commissioners of Inland Revenue or Commissioners of Customs and Excise should take the decisions. If the Minister puts forward a persuasive argument, however, I may be talked out of that.

A further issue addressed by the amendments is the power to consent to further disclosure, which clause 422 relates to. It states that once information has been exchanged, it

    must not be further disclosed except . . . for a purpose connected with the exercise of the Director's functions, and . . . with the consent of the Commissioners concerned.

However, subsection (3) states:

    Consent under subsection (2) may be given—

    (a) in relation to a particular disclosure;

    (b) in relation to disclosures made in circumstances specified or described in the consent.

I want clarification from the Minister on that. If I understand it correctly, it would mean that at the time of granting the original consent it would be possible to add to it, and to agree that it could be used for such purposes as are specified. That is about control. I am anxious about it, and unless the Minister provides me with reassurance, I would be happier if people had to return and get an application to disclose again in relation to a particular disclosure. That would be the effect of amendment No. 607, and its mirror image for Scotland, although the Minister may be able to persuade me that subsection (3)(b) is necessary.

Clause 422(4) says:

    The power to consent to further disclosure . . . may be delegated.

That returns us to the question of to whom the power should be delegated, and the level at which the decision should be taken. Again, I am anxious to ensure that we do not have a rubber-stamp procedure.

Clearly, it is desirable that there should be a free flow of information for the purposes that the Bill requires. The Minister may have no difficulty in agreeing that it is undesirable that the free flow should become a matter of habit, so that people do not apply their minds to deciding whether it is necessary or not. When a request comes through, a person may say, ''Ah. Here's another request,'' and simply write ''Yes'' on it. Someone must think about these matters, and the higher up the hierarchy that that occurs, the greater reassurance the Committee will have that it will happen. If the Minister persuades me that it can be done at a lower level, so be it, but the Committee should examine all the possibilities.

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Mr. Wilshire: Again, I agree with my hon. Friend. However, I shall make the case more firmly for my preferred choice of amendment No. 606. The amendment would delete the power to delegate.

In my hon. Friend's defence, if the Minister tells us that although there should be delegation, the choice of a district tax inspector or collector of Customs of Excise is inappropriate, I would have to plead guilty to leading my hon. Friend astray, because I chose those grades without much research. If the Minister is minded to accept the amendments, I would be delighted to hear him say that such grades are not appropriate, and different grades should be specified.

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However, the principle is correct. If the Minister were to insist on the power to delegate I think that if he tried hard enough, I could be persuaded. The rubber-stamp issue concerns me, but if decisions must be taken at too high a level, and if the size of the work load and the importance of the issues mean that there is no time to consider details, there is a danger—

It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at half-past Two o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Gale, Mr. Roger (Chairman)
Ainsworth, Mr. Bob
Baird, Vera
Carmichael, Mr.
Clark, Mrs. Helen
David, Mr.
Davidson, Mr.
Field, Mr. Mark
Foulkes, Mr.
Grieve, Mr.
Harris, Mr. Tom
Hawkins, Mr.
Hesford, Stephen
Johnson, Mr. Boris
Lazarowicz, Mr.
Lucas, Ian
McCabe, Mr.
McGuire, Mrs.
Robertson, John
Stinchcombe, Mr.
Stoate, Dr.
Watson, Mr.
Wilshire, Mr.

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