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Mr. Tyrie: As I have said, it is the politicians, not the officials, who should be blamed. Tax policy can be dramatically improved and the tax system dramatically reformed if politicians have the will to do so. The system has become far more complicated and it has set the economy back some way in the medium and long term. Eventually, it will have a corrosive and sclerotic influence on the economy's performance. I do not want to blame Treasury officials; rather, I put the blame fairly and squarely at Ministers' door. In many cases, these often distributional reforms have been pushed through with the best of intentions, but in the long run they are likely to have the opposite effect to the intended one. If one presses the right buttons in respect of the officials, one gets the right results. I am sure that the new arrangements can be made to worka way will be found to make them workbut I am simply trying to point out that I am not absolutely sure that this apparently major reshuffle will make much difference to the overall quality of policy work.
There are a few more issues that I want to touch on, and which we shall discuss in more detail in Committee. The first is information sharing and confidentiality, to which the Paymaster General referred. Clause 16 and schedule 2 enable the use of information acquired by the Revenue and Customs in connection with a function for any other function. Before integration, information could be passed between the Revenue and Customs only through statutory gateways. As I understand it, the Bill will enable the new department to pool all its information, irrespective of the purpose for which it was originally obtained. That issue could also be of concern, and we need to examine it carefully in Committee.
The hon. Gentleman is right: that is why the gateways were created in the first place. The question is, are we confident that relaxing them is either necessary
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or desirable? As I said at the outset, if it can be shown that relaxing the gateways could increase yield, such a provision might be worth considering carefully, but it must be balanced against the consequential risk to confidentiality.
It is vital that nothing in the Bill threatens taxpayer confidentiality. If people do not have confidence in the Revenue department, they will not share information and the tax yield will suffer. According to clause 19, information can be disclosed "in the public interest", but the explanatory notes provide little clarification. I should be grateful for an explanation of the meaning behind this apparent widening of the disclosure provisions.
I am surprised and disappointed by the Government's decision to abolish the oath that officers are expected to take and to read out in front of a witnessit is properly known as the statutory declarationthereby impressing on them their duty of confidentiality. The Law Society told the Treasury Committee that there would be advantages in restating the Inland Revenue oath in legislation, so that it is made clear that officials keep taxpayers' information confidential. I agree, and I am really perplexed by the Government's decision to abolish it. It is used in courts for witnesses, and we swear the Oath of Allegiance before we can take our seats in the House. The oath has previously been the subject of much controversy, but many hon. Members feel that it should be used even for witnesses who appear before Select Committees, particularly during major investigations; in other words, they feel that the use of the oath should be extended. Keeping the oath of confidentiality would certainly do no harm, and might even do some good. I find it difficult to justify its removal.
Mr. Tyrie: I shall listen very carefully to what the Government have to say on this issue, but I am inclined to say no, I do not think it sufficient. I want to stay on the road that we are currently on, which is keeping the oath. In fact, we should extend the Revenue oath to all members of the new department. However, let us discuss this issue in Committee.
Let me say a brief work on IT systems. Although not the most crucial questions, two important ones are: to what extent can these systems be merged, bearing in
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mind the different needs of the two departments; and what savings are to be made from such a merger? As David Varney said in giving evidence to the Select Committee, the new department will have 250 major IT systems and 3,000 staff working them. It will
I was not at all surprised to see that, in its report, the National Audit Office told Customs that contingency plans were needed to deal with the O'Donnell review. Are the Government prepared to put into the public domain the necessary information to reassure us that contingency planning has indeed been conducted? Do the Government have a contingency plan for weaknesses in IT that they could publish, and can we please have it before we consider the Bill in Committee? I hope that the Government do not think that I am wasting officials' time by asking Whitehall to produce a document or amend an existing document before January.
IT systems are never easy, but the truth is that the Government's record on them does not inspire confidence. My hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) will discuss it in greater detail later, but let me give a few brief examples. The Child Support Agency's computer system, which cost nearly £500 million, recently failed and staff at the Department for Work and Pensions were unable recently to process new benefits and pension claims for several days because the system went down. The computer systems of the Passport Service, the Criminal Records Bureau and National Air Traffic Services have also had problems. And so we go on.
Mr. Tyrie: Actually, what the hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position is not true. I checked every one of those before I mentioned them and they have all been substantially altered or completely renewed under the present Government.
I would like to say a few words about the law enforcement provisions. I support in principle the creation of a new prosecuting authority, but we need to look carefully at the detail in Committee. That new authority is, in its way, the single most important direct, clear and visible change made as a consequence of the merger. Outsiders will see it and it is extremely important that we get it right. Rather than go into detail nowI notice that I have been going on for more than half an hourlet us leave that for examination in Committee.
I want to make a general point before concluding. Many business people say that when they deal with the Inland Revenue at its best, they are having a conversation with someone who is thinking carefully about the needs of the business as well as a narrow calculation of the yield. Both parties know that accounting practice can vary and that recourse to the law will probably not help very much. The idea that they should always pay exactly the correct amount of tax in any one year needs to be taken in the light of the fact that accounting practices vary and companies' decisions can alter liability in any particular year. The Revenue knows
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that most companies do not want to break the law and do not want to find themselves on the wrong side of the Revenue, so a modus vivendi delivers the yield.
We should compare that with Customs. As the Paymaster General said, anyone who walks into its headquartersI have not done so for a few years, but my opportunity will come shortlyis confronted with a wall laden with cutlasses. That shows that its history and approach are closer to that of a police force than a revenue service. The Revenue has had many decades of dealing with reluctant but honest men and women. Customs has had rather more experience of chasing dishonest men and women. It is still chasing smugglers and other highly organised criminals who seek to evade the excise. I spoke earlier about the blending of cultures and it is crucial that we pick up the best of each. In many ways, that means the Revenue showing Customs what can be achieved on the basis of its culture, whereby dealing with basically honest but often busy business men brings about more co-operation and yields more tax.
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