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12 Feb 2003 : Column 959—continued

Mr. Bercow: Far be it from me to seek to check my hon. Friend's heady and almost Panglossian optimism about pages 72 and 91, and the charts therein, of the explanatory notes, but will he remind the House that, as is customary with all legislation, there is a proviso on the front page of the explanatory notes reminding us that they are to be read in conjunction with, but are in no sense a part of, the Bill? Does he therefore think it necessary to issue a warning that the charts may not be a full, accurate and exhaustive description of the matters to which they relate?

Mr. O'Brien: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I had hoped that he was listening a tiny bit more attentively, as I suggested that the charts were a helpful model that could be incorporated in legislation. I fully accept that the explanatory notes should be read in conjunction with a draft Bill and that they would always be available after a Bill was enacted. None the less, if such information were included in the legislation as a schedule or annexe, it would help us to understand whether it was a genuine, full and fair representation of reality. It would be readily understood by hon.

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Members as well as all the users who will have to deal with such provisions once they become law. Indeed, it would be reviewed from time to time if the legislation were amended.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) will be reassured by that clarification or restatement of the position that I sought to outline earlier. He is an example to all hon. Members of the benefits of a tremendous arts-based education, not least because of the great literary prowess that he demonstrates on numerous occasions, as well as his acrobatic ability with the English language. I hope that he will recognise that not everybody's mind works completely as his does and that some people may find the more diagrammatic and figurative—and even, dare I say it, more numerate—approach of some help.

As I seek to bring what I hoped would be short remarks to a conclusion—I do so somewhat desperately, given the late hour—I must highlight one area of caution.

Mr. George Osborne: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. O'Brien: I am trying not to be delayed, but I shall give way once more.

Mr. Osborne: My hon. Friend referred to the late hour, but I remind him that, as I am sure he knows, the business can continue until any hour. We are still only at 6 o'clock in the evening, which is fairly early in what used to be the parliamentary day.

Mr. O'Brien: I am aware that the business can continue until any hour, but I would not regard it as our proper duty as Her Majesty's loyal and official Opposition to do anything other than use the time of the House effectively, as I have been seeking to do. Given the shortness of the earlier debate, which occurred in Opposition time and dealt with the absolutely crucial matter of holding the Government to account for their failed economic policies and failure on public services, the way in which Labour Members used that time was questionable. I therefore feel no compunction or compulsion to feel constrained except by the need to hold the Government properly to account in the Chamber, where we have the opportunity to do just that. If it takes us until any hour to do that, we will take until any hour, but I hope that that will not be necessary and, given the number of questions that I have asked, I am looking forward to the assurances that I am sure the Paymaster General will be able readily to give us.

I was about to deal with an area of caution. Everything that today's Chancellor does works in contrary motion to the underlying principles of the rewrite project. There is growing evidence to suggest that the tax system has become more complex, especially in recent years, as a result of the weight and size of tax legislation and the guides written to assist persons or businesses that wish to understand it. The cost of administering the system has grown along with feedback from professional surveys. There has been growing criticism of the complexity of the tax system. Accountants and others have been arguing that the

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situation is beyond the comprehension of most ordinary taxpayers and is imposing an unnecessary burden on business.

Mr. George Osborne: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. O'Brien: My hon. Friend is exceptionally assiduous.

Mr. Osborne: My hon. Friend will be aware that "Tolley's Tax Guide", the bible of tax accountants, has grown in size by 30 per cent. in the past few years. Indeed, smaller print now has to be used to accommodate all the extra complication of the tax law that has occurred under the current Chancellor.

Mr. O'Brien: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. It is clear that he has received the same briefing as me. Indeed, I was about to deal with that point. Tolley's standard tax manual, the bible for tax accountants, has indeed grown by more than 30 per cent. in the past three years. This is a point with which I happen to be familiar, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising it. The Financial Times on 24 November 2001 highlighted the increase in the weight of tax manuals since Labour came to power in 1997:

A gospel is normally described as good news, so I have to take serious issue with the Financial Times on that. It goes on:

When my hon. Friend talked about reducing the size, I was worried that hon. Members might be confused and think that the volume had contracted. Far from it—it has grown and has had to reduce its print size so as to cram everything in.

This is quite an extraordinary record, and one that fully illustrates how this Government's actions are going in contrary motion to the very proper tax law rewrite project that is gaining tremendous consensual cross-party support—and rightly so—in the House. Throughout the Chancellor of the Exchequer's tenure in office, a feature of his Budgets has been the sheer size of the subsequent legislation published in each Finance Bill. According, again, to the Financial Times, the "door-stopping" Finance Bill of 2002, with 140 clauses and 39 schedules, was the third largest ever. The Financial Times states:

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which we will all have to suffer in 53 days' time. Can you believe it, Mr. Deputy Speaker?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. We are not discussing the Finance Bill this evening. Perhaps we can discuss the Third Reading of the Bill that is before the House?

Mr. O'Brien: I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I may have taken slightly longer than you think necessary to make my point about the 53 days—

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): Not true.

Mr. O'Brien: I think that the hon. Gentleman is trying to place on record a comment about the question of 53 days. Of course, it depends on whether one is an employee or an employer. Both will face tax rises. The employers' contributions will increase at the beginning of the month and, as anyone who has worked in the real world of industry will know, the employees' contributions will rise at the end of the month, unless they have a special dispensation through their employer or through any other legislation or regulations—there are plenty of them—to change that to another date in the month. So it is 53 days until the employers' contributions will change, and we shall all have to suffer in 53 days' time—or more, depending on whether we are talking about employers' or employees' contributions. Given the appalling attack that this will represent on the pockets of the citizens of this country, I am very surprised that the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) should have the gall to highlight this matter in the way that he has done.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way so generously yet again. Surely the essence of this matter is that the tax law rewrite project has to be viewed in the context of the central charge against the Government, which is that of more complexity, on the one hand, and less information being made available to the public on the other. In that context, what consideration has my hon. Friend given to the verdict of the Treasury Committee, which is very germane to our considerations tonight, that the Chancellor is to be excoriated for his failure to publish the impact of his direct and indirect taxation measures on people in the respective income deciles?

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