Finance Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart): I have some sympathy with the spirit of the amendment. I hope that this will be the first and last time that I say this, but I agree with a great deal of what the hon. Member for Buckingham said in his earlier remarks, although I am not quite ready to dance round a mulberry bush with him.

For the record, although the Brethren have been described in the press in the past week as a sect, they are absolutely not to be described in that way. They are a completely legitimate branch of the Protestant Christian Church. I spent some time in my earlier life as an evangelical Christian. The phrase ''misspent youth'' can be fully understood and appreciated only by someone who has spent 10 years of their life, from the age of 16, as an evangelical Christian. However, one of the legacies that that left me with is a somewhat improved knowledge and understanding of holy scripture. I was intrigued to see some of the references with which the Brethren provided us.

It is a Christian prerogative to use the Bible and scripture to justify various social and even political opinions. The Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, believe that they should not take part in any kind of political activity, including voting. It is something of an un-Christian joy for me, during general elections, to canvass the doors of Jehovah's Witnesses, as revenge for the number of times that they have chapped me up on Saturday mornings, just to ask them whether they intend to vote, and their answer is the same as the one that I always give them: no.

5.15 pm

I was sceptical when I was contacted by the Brethren, so I did my research into the passages that they presented to me: Thessalonians chapter 2, and five references to Revelations. I admit that I looked in my Bible with some trepidation. I was quite excited at the thought that the Lord had decided that the

Column Number: 554

Microsoft empire was not to his liking. I was dying to find out some justification for any suspicion of Bill Gates. I was disappointed that Apple Macintosh was not the preferred platform of the apostles.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): Is my hon. Friend aware that to justify their actions the Rebecca rioters in Wales used the quotation from scriptures that people should tear down the gates of the oppressors? Perhaps that is the reference that he has been searching for.

Mr. Harris: I am grateful, in a way, to my hon. Friend and I am sure that in his own world that is quite relevant.

The Government must be careful. I have some reservations about the specific wording of the amendment. Although the amendment and its wording were specifically used to excuse members of the Brethren from jury duty, I have some concerns that if the wording is used in a Finance Bill—although intended as an exception—it could turn into a loophole that may be exploited by some who are more cynical and less principled than the Brethren.

Mr. Burnett: I think that the Paymaster General has said that some 94 per cent. of people already communicate with the Revenue through the internet.

Mr. Harris: I think that the hon. Gentleman is correct, but I do not want to go over old arguments that have been made by previous speakers in the debate. Whether we agree with the principles or not, I would hope that the Government show some sort of understanding of and sensitivity to the fact that members of the Brethren are completely principled and have genuine beliefs. They do not intend to avoid their commitment to the Government in terms of paying taxes or filing returns. I hope that the Government recognise that any reservations that they have about the way in which they do that should be dealt with in the Bill, and perhaps in the Committee today.

Personal religious conviction must be respected, even when there is disagreement on such matters. The evidence, as the hon. Member for Buckingham has said, is that members of the Brethren are exemplary in the running of their business affairs, not least because they understand that they and their faith would be judged by others if anything else were the case. They are diligent in paying their taxes. When the Paymaster General replies, I should like to hear an explanation to address the fears that the Brethren have that not only will their PAYE returns have to be carried out over the internet, but any further communication might have to take place by e-mail instead of the usual methods of telephone or mail. I hope that the Government will address that concern.

I hope that the Government will show their customary flexibility on the matter and recognise that such reservations are held in sincerity. Any changes to the clause are being sought by the Brethren for no other reason than a desire to worship God with a clear conscience, and at the same time to pay to Caesar what is Caesar's.

Column Number: 555

Dr. John Pugh (Southport): I support the amendment, but I must say that I do not share the convictions of the Brethren. I would go as far as to say that I do not understand their convictions. I understand that the Pope uses a computer and that makes it rather difficult for me to see it as the instrument of the devil. It may not make it quite so difficult for the Brethren to see it in that context.

I do not really understand how people can have a principle against a specific piece of machinery, but I understand that they do. Quakers have real difficulties with pieces of military machinery, and certain orthodox Jews object to cameras. I think that we have to accept that there is an element of diversity that none of us can explain or find a rationale for. However, this is a case of coercing people to act against their convictions. Were their religious convictions such that they refused to pay tax at all—a sect set up on that basis would be very popular—the Government would have to overrule them. The hon. Member for Buckingham presents a very strong argument: who essentially loses if we make an exception? The people who I think are the losers—the hon. Gentleman has already identified them—are the bureaucrats, who seem to be the winners in the legislation as a whole. There exists a satisfactory alternative technology to computers called pen and paper. It is more secure, more reliable and has withstood the test of time.

However, the Government are in a dilemma. They can go down one route and accept the amendment, which is not perfectly worded and which may create problems. They can accept specific nominated groups but, as has been mentioned, other people may abuse any loopholes that are allowed. Rather than deal with that, the Government can take a simpler route, which has been telegraphed all day. They can abandon compulsion and rely on incentives—there is no point in using incentives if there is compulsion—and simply move away from mandatory e-filing. Such a course would not generate insoluble problems for the Government.

Dawn Primarolo: I can be very brief. I do not intend to go over the debate on amendments on which we have voted, and the importance of e-filing. I am sure that hon. Members will want to return to that. I also do not want to comment specifically on the Christian Brethren but accept the points that have been made this afternoon about them. I am a little saddened that my word as a Minister before the Committee and in writing has not been taken with the same charity as views that are slightly different. Hon. Members who have contributed to the debate have rightly stressed the need for tolerance, which one would expect in any democratic Parliament.

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South): I understand the difficulties with the amendment for reasons of precedent, but I have had some correspondence with the Paymaster General regarding the plight in which the Brethren find themselves. I know that she does not wish to name the Brethren, but can she give us at least a hint that she will consider their situation?

Column Number: 556

Dawn Primarolo: Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that undertaking, as I have in correspondence with the Brethren, much of which was quoted today. I find it sad that some people seek to read other meanings in the paragraphs that I wrote. I can say absolutely clearly that we entirely understand the few individuals—it is only a few, compared with the millions of taxpayers—who have expressed their genuinely held religious objections to using electronic communication, even if we do not personally take that view.

I stress again that the requirement is on employers. It is perfectly possible to arrange to have all the records passed in paper form from the employer to the intermediary; the intermediary would then make the return. As I understand the points that have been made, there are intermediaries who would have religious objections to undertaking e-filing, and that is the point at issue.

I would say to the hon. Member for Buckingham, who read out the paragraph, that his amendment is unnecessary. It would give the Government the opportunity—it does not force the Government to do it—to draft regulations that would exclude from electronic filing in circumstances such as those of the Brethren. The Bill already provides for those regulations to be made. The Government are therefore adding nothing, whereas the Committee is putting it slightly more strongly by pressing the Government to consider the option. I ask my hon. Friends to reject the amendment. The officials concerned at the Inland Revenue will have discussions with the Brethren to ensure that the regulations, when drafted, cover the point that they have been making. That was my point in my letter to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, West in the year 2000, and in all the letters that I have since written. I place it on the record today that that is what will happen.

Mr. Bercow: I am sorry if the Paymaster General believes that her integrity has been impugned, because it has not. My point was that the relevant paragraph to which I referred did not reflect what the Government plan to do. For the avoidance of doubt, and given that the hon. Lady implies that she always intended to take account of, and satisfy, the concerns of the Brethren, could subsection (7)(c) be used for that purpose where it refers to making

    ''different provision for different cases?''

Is that partly, at least, what the hon. Lady has in mind?

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 25 June 2002