Finance Bill

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Dawn Primarolo: The intermediary provisions, which allow returns to be made on an employer's behalf, are no different from the current arrangements. Intermediaries already file information electronically, and we want to move to a situation in which all the information arrives in that way. I accept that we do not yet have the provisions concerning the move to require electronic filing for all submissions by 2010.

4.45 pm

It will be necessary, following on from the Carter review and the fact that the Government put the review out to further consultation—[Interruption.] The idea that there was a huge clamour of horror from all businesses saying that they did not want the change is

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not correct. There was a request about the drafting of the regulations and agreement on the areas covered by them, and that will be subject to further discussions. In 2004–05, we shall start the process of paying over the five years the £420 million that we are prepared to invest to help small businesses to move to electronic filing.

All the amendments are designed to prevent the requirement for filing to occur electronically by 2010. I understand Opposition Members' objections, but I simply do not agree with them, and I ask my hon. Friends to reject the amendments if they are put to a vote. Following some of the points that have drifted into this debate, perhaps the debate on the next amendment will be a suitable forum in which to clarify the issue of exceptions, should any be needed, to the regulations.

Mr. Bercow: As you know, Mr. Gale, and the Committee can confirm, I am as open-minded as any hon. Member. I am always willing to be persuaded of an argument and, at the risk of embarrassing the Paymaster General, I do not mind disclosing that, since the difficult days when I fought the Bristol, South constituency and it fought back to such good effect, I have come increasingly to both like and respect her. The hon. Lady therefore knows where I am starting from: I like and respect her very much and I think that she is an extremely effective exponent of her case. However, the case is sometimes so poor that it just does not pass muster, and although I admire her professionalism, I cannot say that I was persuaded by her argument.

Dawn Primarolo: Flattery sometimes works, but on this occasion it will not. Despite the hon. Gentleman's eloquence, I am still not minded to accept the amendments. I just thought that I would save him from having to make his speech.

Mr. Bercow: That is a pity. I wondered whether charm would work on this occasion, rather than aggression, but I have been sadly disappointed at an early stage in my speech. That approach was worth a go, but I shall have to be careful about trying it too often.

In any event, I was not persuaded by the hon. Lady's argument. She argues on one hand that there will be a great beneficence from the state as it offers financial incentives—some might use the more unflattering, but perhaps more accurate, term ''bribes''—to businesses to comply with the Government's will. On the other hand, she talks about the crucial importance of ensuring 100 per cent. compliance if the savings that she wants and envisages are to be achieved. It seems a peculiar state of affairs that the Government, to secure 100 per cent. compliance and the savings that will result therefrom, judge it necessary in the first instance to lob sums of money at businesses to sweeten the pill of being coerced into doing something that they would otherwise not choose to do.

Leaving aside the hon. Lady's arguments so far, I shall not dilate on the additional point—you would be displeased if I did, Mr. Gale—of deadweight costs. If many companies are proposing to comply in any case,

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it is not sensible for a Treasury Minister to lob money at them like confetti as a bribe. On this occasion, the Treasury brief was less compelling than it might have been.

In truth, though, the hon. Lady made the most sensible of her points when she said that she understood the Opposition arguments but simply did not agree with them. In other words, we agree to differ. Rather than rehearse all the arguments again, it would better to agree with her on that. We disagree. The subventions are unnecessary and coercion is undesirable. It would be better to allow a choice. I have listened with interest and respect to the Paymaster General, but I have not been converted. She will be astonished and mortified, but I am compelled to press for a vote.

Mr. Jack rose—

The Chairman: I am terribly sorry. I tried to encourage the right hon. Gentleman to intervene earlier on the hon. Member for Buckingham when he was winding up the debate. I shall now put the motion.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 18.

Division No. 8]

Bercow, Mr. John Burnett, Mr. John Field, Mr. Mark Flight, Mr. Howard Grayling, Chris
Hoban, Mr. Mark Jack, Mr. Michael Luff, Mr. Peter Pugh, Dr. John

Brennan, Kevin Casale, Roger Cruddas, Jon Cunningham, Mr. Jim David, Mr. Wayne Harris, Mr. Tom Healey, John Hendrick, Mr. Mark Kelly, Ruth
Luke, Mr. Iain McKechin, Ann Marris, Rob Pond, Mr. Chris Primarolo, Dawn Ryan, Joan Smith, Angela Southworth, Helen Wright, David

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. Bercow: I beg to move amendment No. 230, in page 105, line 5, at end insert—

    '(e) exempt from the provisions of this section any person who is a practising member of a religious society or order the tenets or beliefs of which are incompatible with the use of such means of electronic communications as may be specified in the regulations.'.

I should now like to continue the argument by dwelling on the amendment, which, as members of the Committee will be aware, was suggested by the Brethren. I stress from the outset that the Brethren are not motivated by considerations of party politics, and are unfailingly courteous and extraordinarily efficient lobbyists. They make a point of putting their case to Members on both sides of the House. They are not partisan in their motivations, as they view their relationship as being with God. Members of the Brethren do not vote in general or other elections. Without lightening or devaluing the importance of our exchanges, I hope that I can be forgiven for arguing that my hon. Friends and I are not motivated by vote-grabbing instincts.

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I should also stress that there is no requirement for me or, I suspect, any other Opposition Committee member, to declare a registrable interest, because I am not a member of the Brethren. [Laughter.] The Financial Secretary laughs, but it is worth making the point, and from the Brethren's vantage point, it is jolly fortunate that I am not a member. They are upstanding people of high moral fibre, and I do not think that I could reach the standards of behaviour to which they aspire and that they attain in their daily life. They are motivated by principle, and I agreed with and respected the language that the Paymaster General used in an earlier reference to this matter. She did not name the Brethren, but she talked about a minority of people with strong convictions that are different from those of many other people but are entitled to be respected. That is the starting point of the Conservative Opposition.

The Brethren suggested that a satisfactory amendment could be made to clause 132 by inserting a subsection (4)(e) that would

    ''exempt from the provisions of this section any person who is a practising member of a religious society or order the tenets or beliefs of which are incompatible with the use of such means of electronic communications as may be specified in the regulations.''

Consistent with my comments about the Brethren's non-partisan motivation, it is typical of them that they should be at pains to emphasise, as they did in a letter to the Paymaster General on 13 June 2002, that they

    ''would much prefer the amendment to be tabled as a Government amendment rather than as a cross-party one, even although we are certain that there would be cross-party support for it on account of the fact that it is not a political issue but one of religious conscience.''

Regrettably, the Government did not want to make such an amendment, and the Brethren have had to use another vehicle to get the issue debated. However, they wanted to anticipate and diffuse political controversy rather than to stoke it up. That is not an argument for their amendment, but it is a commentary on their motives and integrity.

The Conservatives can see merit in such a provision. Originating in 1828, the Brethren are a worldwide Christian fellowship and profound believers in Jesus Christ. There are more than 14,000 Brethren in the United Kingdom alone. They have a conscience before God based on the teachings and prophecies of the holy scripture and seek to live a separated life as governed by the Bible. They respect and honour Government as ordained of God, but are of no political persuasion themselves, as has been stressed before. They pray for the Government, Ministers and all who are in authority.

For the past 20 years, during the dramatic advancement, to which the Paymaster General properly referred, of IT in the worlds of business and communication, the Brethren have practised a way of life involving the consistent refusal of the use of computers in their businesses and homes. Some prophetic scriptural warnings concerning the present mighty scientific and commercial build-up depicted in great Babylon are given in a variety of references. The Brethren referred me and other Committee members

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to those in Thessalonians and Revelations, which underpin their determination to resist being caught up in the whirlpool of electronic developments.

There are about 1,200 Brethren businesses in the UK. Without computers, they trade, employ staff and pay taxes, so they need to be able to continue to communicate with the Inland Revenue and other tax authorities on paper.

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