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12 Feb 2003 : Column 946—continued

Mr. Forth: The Minister can now claim almost to have achieved a full house, or a running flush, or whatever the appropriate term may be.

In paragraph 3 of the Joint Committee's first report, we are told

I must confess that phrases such as that cause me some concern. I take the view that nothing is of such minor significance that it need not be referred to Parliament. While I accept that the process we are now undergoing constitutes a reference to Parliament, what reassurance can we have that these matters are indeed of "such minor significance"? Even if they are of minor significance, why is there an implication that the rest of us need not be bothered about them?

Dawn Primarolo: Extra-statutory concessions would not normally be in the body of the tax legislation, but would be used alongside it. One example of a minor change would be the incorporation of such a concession in the legislation.

The right hon. Gentleman suggested that he might want to elaborate on his point. If he looks at the explanatory notes, he will see that every minor change in that category is flagged up. The notes explain what the change is, and where it can be found in the Bill. Committee members focused specifically on those changes to satisfy themselves as to the procedure. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Committee considering the Bill was not dissimilar to one that would consider a consolidation Bill. It is a Committee of both Houses, in which the Government do not carry their automatic majority. Its discussions follow a slightly different procedure from those in other Committees, and it is able to call independent witnesses if it so chooses.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): Will the Paymaster General give way?

Dawn Primarolo: This is the very last time that I shall give way before I sit down.

Mr. Burnett: I am extremely grateful to the Paymaster General for giving way. Are those the only changes that are being made through this legislation? I had heard that one or two others are perhaps being made, particularly with regard to pay-as-you-earn regulations, some of which may well have been ultra vires since about 1960.

Dawn Primarolo: I wish I had had written notice of that question. As I said in my opening remarks,

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the PAYE regulations are being re-drafted and are going out for consultation. They will be fully scrutinised through such public consultation before they are updated.

Mr. Cameron rose—

Dawn Primarolo: I have been extremely generous in giving way, and if hon. Members want to make other points during the debate, I shall of course pick up on them, if I can catch your eye at the end of the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I commend this Bill to the House.

5.6 pm

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): Let me begin by noting that when my colleagues saw that the Paymaster General would be taking this very interesting measure through the House on Third Reading, they could not resist packing the Chamber to listen to her. Hers has been a useful opening to this important provision, which affects everybody in this country who has income.

This Third Reading debate follows Second Reading upstairs in Committee on 16 December, and the formal granting by the House of a Second Reading two days later. I thank the Paymaster General for the lucid and comprehensive way in which she has set this important Bill before the House—[Interruption.] She seems to be implying from a sedentary position that that might be the kiss of death, but I should like to thank her for the courteous and patient way in which she dealt with numerous interventions from my colleagues, who on this occasion are themselves numerous. Collectively, they have provided a remarkable fount of wisdom to assist her in today's discussion. I hope to cover some of the points that they made in those interventions, to the extent that I can possibly add to the answers already given.

As the Paymaster General said, this is the second Bill to emanate from the tax law rewrite project. The first became the Capital Allowances Act 2001, which applies primarily to businesses. This Bill has a much wider application and involves many of our constituents, which is why it has attracted so much interest and attention. It is no mean Bill, as it consists of 725 clauses and eight schedules. That may come as no surprise, given that it deals with the significant arena within the overall income tax field of earnings and pensions and, as she rightly said, of social security income.

Against the background of the introduction of income tax in 1799, the Bill seeks to encapsulate law that has more than 200 years of history behind it. Given the Bill's sheer size, right hon. and hon. Members will doubtless have found that the best way to gain the clearest possible understanding of it—given the remarkable speed with which my colleagues have attended to it, they must have used this technique—is to start with the exceptionally helpful accompanying explanatory notes, and then to contrast and compare provisions and expressions in specific parts of the Bill with what they replace.

Mr. Greg Knight : May I associate myself with my hon. Friend's remarks about the Paymaster General?

Has my hon. Friend received any assurances from the Government that the whole rewrite process is not putting undue burdens on the office of the

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parliamentary draftsman? I am among those Members who want more pre-legislative scrutiny. The Leader of the House has told us that there are difficulties due to the pressure of work on the parliamentary draftsmen. This process—worthwhile though it is—should not mean the neglect of other work that I regard as more important.

Mr. O'Brien: My right hon. Friend raises a fundamental and important point about both the rewrite project and the pressure on parliamentary draftsmen generally. Under the ghastly guillotining procedure, the bulk of legislation is passed with no scrutiny, which puts even greater burdens of responsibility on the parliamentary draftsmen.

Later, in what I hope will be relatively short remarks, I shall ask the Paymaster General to answer particular questions, one of which will address the point that my right hon. Friend has raised.

Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend will have seen that the Order Paper helpfully notes that this debate can continue until any hour, so I hope that he will not deprive the House of his research and comments on the Bill by feeling any time constraints whatever. The House is at my hon. Friend's disposal. We want to hear what he has to say "until any hour", so I hope that he will take every advantage of that.

Mr. O'Brien: I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend. No one in the House has a greater reputation than my right hon. Friend for day-in, day-out commitment to parliamentary scrutiny and for using this Chamber as the proper forum for debate and holding the Government to account. I noted the words on the Order Paper and, as we explore the issues, we may be glad to avail ourselves of the opportunities that they offer us. Under the hideous new hours to which we are subjected, the 10 o'clock motion is now the 7 o'clock motion, so we shall have to contend with that. If my right hon. and hon. Friends and, indeed, right hon. and hon. Members from other parties find that they are fully engaged with the issues, they may feel that they need time to explore them.

These important issues relating to income tax apply to many citizens.

Mr. Bercow: The compassionate instincts of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) are never far from public view. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) agree, however, that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) is indeed right, and that it is especially incumbent on my hon. Friend to discharge his responsibility and to offer us his exegesis of the work and lucubrations of the parliamentary draftsman, as represented by the 13 major publications in the form of exposure drafts issued during the past five years?

Mr. O'Brien: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I wonder whether "exegesis" might not qualify for the tax rewrite project itself, but I take his point on board. In what I thought were going to be brief opening remarks, I was trying to show that I had genuinely tried to understand this vast mass of documentation before we allow the House to enact the measure. I hope that gives my hon. Friend some comfort.

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I am confident that the Bill is a genuine stride forward in making our existing primary, direct income tax legislation on earnings and pensions clearer and easier to use. I do not propose to take up too much time itemising, contrasting and comparing each clause—save to admit to donning an anorak for that purpose. With a wet towel wrapped around my head, I have studied the Bill. In my view, the Joint Committee has done a truly excellent and admirable job.

Mr. Hoban : Does my hon. Friend share my concern that a Bill of such magnitude and importance was covered by only four sittings of the Joint Committee? Notwithstanding that it received extensive pre-legislative scrutiny, should not the House spend more time on a Bill of such magnitude and importance?

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