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Proceeds of Crime Bill

Proceeds of Crime Bill

Column Number: 1309

Standing Committee B

Thursday 31 January 2002


[Mr. John McWilliam in the Chair]

Proceeds of Crime Bill

Clause 421

Disclosure of information to Director

Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 606, in page 245, line 1, leave out subsection (9).  --  [Mr. Grieve.]

2.30 pm

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are taking 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 clause 422, page 245, line 19, leave out subsection (4).

No. 632, in clause 422, page 245, line 21, leave out 'an' and insert  -- 

    'a District Tax Inspector or higher grade'

No. 628, in clause 422, 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 clause 425, page 247, line 29, leave out 'an' and insert  -- 

    'a District Tax Inspector or higher grade'.

No. 629, in clause 425, 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 clause 426, page 248, line 7, after 'a', insert  -- 

    'collector or higher grade'.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): Before I was rudely interrupted at 11.25 this morning, I was making some relevant and informative points. [Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman is entitled to be heard, no matter how facetious he may be.

Mr. Wilshire: I am grateful to you for that ruling, Mr. McWilliam. Some Labour Members found what I

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had to say this morning not to their liking. I was referring to important matters, but they fell on ears that did not want to hear.

This morning's debate was about whether to delete the power to have other people undertake duties for the commissioners or whether it should be specified who, on behalf of the commissioners, could exercise that power. I hope that, during the lunch break, the Minister reflected on those two choices. As I suggested earlier, probably the best course of action is that the commissioners make such decisions. The powers of disclosure run counter to many of the customs of this country. We have always prided ourselves on saying that a particular investigation will be specific if it is carried out by, say, the Child Support Agency or the Inland Revenue. There will be an end to it and there will be confidentiality within the investigation.

We are now saying, however, that there will be the passing of information. I am not sure that I object to that in principle. All of us have had experiences when it would have been much more sensible if only the national insurance contributions computer had spoken to the Child Support Agency computer. I can understand that argument, but the Bill is a great departure from the way in which such matters have been handled in the past. It probably is right for the cross-fertilisation of information that such a decision should be made at the highest possible level. Amendment No. 606 would make it clear that the commissioners themselves should make such a decision.

I understand only too well that it could be argued that the commissioners have so much else to do that delegation would happen at the end of an agenda, and if there was a large number of requests, there would be neither the time nor the inclination other than to rubber-stamp them. My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) rightly said that rubber-stamping was the last thing that we needed. If that argument does not find favour with the Minister, amendments Nos. 631 and 627 are the alternatives. I said to the Committee before lunch that I took personal responsibility for selecting the district tax inspector or a collector of taxes. Perhaps that is not the appropriate grade of officer, but it is important to explain why I chose that grade. It was born of my knowledge and experience of dealing with tax inspectors and Customs and Excise. When I ran my own business, not only was I registered for VAT, but I go back to the dim and distant past of being registered for purchase tax.

In the case of both my VAT and my purchase tax affairs, I saw how the system worked. There was always a raft of Customs officers doing all sorts of things. Sometimes I would see one, and sometimes another. My constituency work involves me closely with Heathrow and its customs operations. There is not necessarily consistency in who deals with what.

Such decisions will be delegated to an individual Customs officer if the amendment is not accepted. It is possible that on, say, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, one person might apply his mind to it, and on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, the person involved might be someone else. There will not

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necessarily be consistency in decisions or depth of experience from an individual Customs officer.

In my own experience, and from my experience of speaking to people, when a serious issue arises, whether in relation to the collection of tax or, as in this case, in deciding whether to disclose information, all individual Customs officers will ultimately defer to their collector, who has a consistency of view, knows the overall workings of the system and what individual officers are doing, and can examine their work and arrive at a clear, balanced and consistent point of view. That is why I chose a collector. It is the lowest grade of which I am aware that involves consistency and personal involvement at a senior level in difficult issues.

I readily accept that the Minister may say that the collector is the wrong person. I am not aware of the grades, ranks and hierarchy of the upper echelons of Her Majesty's Customs and Excise. I am pleased to say that I have never had to tangle with that level of Customs and Excise, which is a plus, rather than a minus. It might be argued that the collector would not be the appropriate person.

The same arguments apply to the district tax inspector. My experience over the years of running my own businesses has brought me into contact with assorted tax inspectors, as is inevitable. Whether or not they run businesses, hon. Members will, because of our salaries and allowances, have come into contact with tax inspectors of one sort or another. The same principle applies. It is possible to come into contact rapidly with several inspectors in the same tax office. Sometimes they apply one way of thinking, sometimes another. My experience has taught me that, in the event of a serious issue to settle, a matter of principle, or a decision to be made on how to proceed, ultimately the district inspector in the tax office will have the file on his desk and can be asked to ensure that consistency is upheld and that the rules are applied.

If the Minister's argument is that the commissioners themselves could not cope with the work involved and that it should be delegated, and if he wants the amendments to be dropped or his colleagues to vote against them, he needs to reassure the Committee that handing the power to every Customs officer and tax official is justifiable and will not lead to inconsistency and, at worst, abuse or lack of experience leading to the wrong conclusion. He must deal with that question. There should be some consistency and control. I have no figures for the number of tax inspectors or Customs officers, but I expect that there are quite a few. I do not believe that such a power should be handed out to the many thousands of people who are bound to be involved. I imagine that the number of times that the power will be exercised will not be in the thousands, although it might well be in the hundreds in the course of time. It is not unreasonable to ask that the exercise of such a power be confined to senior officers in Customs and Excise and the Inland Revenue. I look forward to hearing the Minister's comments.

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): Amendments Nos. 606 and 619 would limit disclosure to those authorised personally by the Commissioners of Inland Revenue or Customs and Excise. Amendments Nos. 608 and 620 would similarly restrict the power to consent to further disclosures. That would be impractical and bureaucratic. It would limit the numbers of disclosures that are possible, and could introduce unhelpful delays into the process.

For example, there are only five individuals who are Commissioners of Inland Revenue. It would not be a good use of their time to authorise every disclosure. The delegation of the authority to disclose will be to specialist staff who will be adequately trained and supervised, and subject to strict statutory rules of confidentiality. I think that the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) adds another argument to that, because there would be a potential for a lack of quality if powers were delegated too far up. He knows how these things work, and he made goods points about ends of agendas.

Mr. Wilshire: The Minister seeks to reassure me, but he may have a different copy of the Bill from mine. There is no provision in my copy to ensure that delegation shall be to a specialist who is properly trained. If the Bill said that, I could accept his comments. If he thinks that my argument is right, will he, after rejecting these amendments, table another that says exactly what he just offered?

Mr. Ainsworth: Hold on.

Commissioners of Customs and Excise would normally delegate their authority to commissioned Customs officers. Delegation will be at the discretion of the commissioners concerned. The provision that requires special treatment for these forms of information reflects the particular sensitivity of the information to the Revenue and Customs and Excise. We are, therefore, justified in being confident about how they will use their powers of delegation.

Amendments Nos. 627 and 634 are alternatives to those that I already mentioned, because they would not remove the power to delegate but establish that delegation must be to only a specific rank. Amendments Nos. 631 to 634 would mean that the Commissioners of Inland Revenue could delegate the power to disclose or further delegate information to a district tax inspector or higher grade only. Amendments Nos. 627 to 630 would mean that Customs delegations could be made only to a collector or higher-grade Customs officer.

The same arguments apply here as those that I made in response to the other amendments in the group. The resulting system would be bureaucratic and lead to delay. Both Revenue and Customs officers are able to take the responsibility for authorising disclosure. They do not see the need to make that a matter for a higher-grade officer.

Opposition Members mentioned our Revenue. It may be dangerous for politicians to become great fans of the Revenue, but it operates its rules and confidentiality to a high standard, and we want to hang on to that. Do we want our legislation to show

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confidence in organisations' ability to deal with matters appropriately and to delegate to specialist officers with the necessary training and commitment to confidentiality? Alternatively, do we think that the organisations will delegate responsibility to people who, as the hon. Member for Spelthorne said, are not at work on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and who have not received any training and are not capable of the task?

Do we want to lay out a bureaucratic stricture in legislation, or are we confident that the organisations can deal with confidential information and pass it on appropriately? Everything that has been said seriously in Committee shows that we do have confidence that the organisations will deal with matters appropriately, and that the Revenue cherishes its reputation for handling confidential information appropriately. The Revenue will not put that at risk by delegating the powers inappropriately.

Amendment No. 607 would limit cases of onward disclosure of taxpayer information that is consented to by the Commissioners of Inland Revenue or Customs and Excise to a case-by-case consideration. Again, that would be impractical and unnecessarily bureaucratic. In addition to case-by-case consideration by the Revenue or Customs and Excise, there may be circumstances in which the nature of disclosure follows a similar pattern. Clause 422(3)(b) provides for the Revenue or Customs and Excise to consent to further disclosures of a kind, rather than requiring them to consent to disclosure repeatedly in very similar circumstances. The provision provides flexibility. If the Revenue or Customs and Excise consider that a case-by-case consideration is warranted, they can, and will, adopt that approach. We will not tell them that they cannot.


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Prepared 31 January 2002