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Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 83A(9)(Programming of Bills),

Question agreed to.

26 Jan 2005 : Column 394

Orders of the Day

Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Bill

As amended in the Committee, considered.

New Clause 3

Declaration of Confidentiality

'(1)   Each person who is appointed under this Act as a Commissioner or officer of Revenue and Customs shall make a declaration acknowledging his obligation of confidentiality under section 17.

(2)   A declaration under subsection (1) shall be made —

(a)   as soon as is reasonably practicable following the person's appointment, and

(b)   in such form, and before such a person, as the Commissioners may direct.

(3)   For the purposes of this section, the renewal of a fixed term appointment shall not be treated as an appointment.'. [Dawn Primarolo.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

5.35 pm

Dawn Primarolo: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): With this it will be convenient to consider new clause 4.—Freedom of Information.

Dawn Primarolo: On Second Reading and in Committee, I made it clear that the new department, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, would take taxpayer confidentiality every bit as seriously as its predecessors. The new clauses underline our commitment to taxpayer confidentiality, and I hope that as such they will be uncontroversial.

Let me remind Members briefly of our high standards of confidentiality. The issue is taken seriously by everyone: staff, Members in all parts of the House and, indeed, taxpayers. The Bill contains provisions for safeguarding taxpayer confidentiality that strengthen those previously available. That includes, in clause 17, a civil sanction for unauthorised disclosure of any information held by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs which is binding on appointment, and in clause 18, in relation to customer confidential information, the additional safeguard of a criminal sanction. That too applies to all functions of Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs.

Let me deal first with new clause 3. On Second Reading and in particular in Committee, Members—particularly the hon. Members for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) and for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon)—expressed concern that the Inland Revenue oath was being superseded. They said they accepted that the Bill provided for enhanced enforcement of taxpayer confidentiality, but considered the oath not only symbolic but important to remind members of the new department of their obligations.

Both my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary and I consider it a great honour to be Ministers in charge of both the current department and the new one. We know that the staff, operating to the very highest standards,
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accept the concerns as well, and we have every confidence in them; but, having considered carefully, my hon. Friend and I still believe that the statutory duty in the Bill as it stands strengthens the provisions safeguarding taxpayer confidentiality. The duty included in the Bill is immediately binding on staff on appointment and covers all functions of the department. All members of staff currently employed in the department adhere to that, and understand their obligations.

My hon. Friend the Economic Secretary and I felt that the House should have an opportunity to convey a united view, from all parties, of the great importance that we attach to taxpayer confidentiality.

Therefore, while appreciating that the staff already employed by the departments understand that, the new clause requires new staff joining the department once the Bill has received Royal Assent to sign a declaration. That is recognised as bringing a ceremonial quality to the equivalent of the oath. We would not want to give the appearance of diminishing the high and excellent standards that those fine departments have adhered to for taxpayers' confidentiality. I hope that the House will take the view from all the parties represented here that we are sending a clear message. Although I am satisfied with the safeguards on taxpayer confidentiality, the new clause will require new staff to acknowledge the duty of confidentiality under the Act, before a witness.

New clause 4 similarly deals with taxpayer confidentiality and how the Bill relates to the Freedom of Information Act 2000. It is a technical clarification that aims to make it clear how the Bill will interact with that Act. Compliance with the Act is, of course, Government policy.

Taxpayer confidentiality remains of paramount importance in the new department. As I have said, for that reason, the Bill ensures that information connected with a taxpayer is not discloseable under the Freedom of Information Act. That was always the intention, but the new clause puts that beyond doubt—that information will not be discloseable under that Act. However, much of the information that Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs will hold is not taxpayer confidential—for example, information about the department's internal processes. The new clause clarifies that such information will be subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Therefore, if a person requests information that is not taxpayer confidential, that request will be considered under the Act.

I hope that the House will feel confident in these two new clauses and confident in the management and staff of the new department, who will be committed to the principles of taxpayer confidentiality. There will be no reduction in the exceptionally high standards that they have always followed. I hope that, in agreeing these new clauses, all hon. Members will not only acknowledge the professionalism and dedication of the staff, but agree that we have a role in supporting them in the discharge of the duty on taxpayers' confidentiality and that that is well served by the new clauses.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): It is nice to be able to come to the Dispatch Box and, for once, agree
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almost entirely with what a Minister has just said. I have had only a brief chance to examine new clause 4; I discussed it with a lawyer this morning. As far as I can tell, although I have not had much time to look at it, it does what the Paymaster General says it does and certainly what she has described as her intention. On that basis, we support it.

I am particularly pleased that the Government have had a change of heart over the retention of the oath—the declaration as it is more properly called. As the Paymaster General knows, we were concerned about that. We came to see her before Christmas, when she first raised it with us, although there were rumours some time before that there might be changes. I expressed much stronger concern at the Dispatch Box on Second Reading, and in Committee. I am pleased that she has listened carefully to the debate in Committee and come back to us with a new clause that I think does what we require. The Paymaster General is right to say that there should be all-party support for the retention of confidentiality. I back her in that, as it is at the heart of safeguarding the Revenue and crucial to safeguarding people's right to privacy and, therefore, to their trust in the Revenue service.

5.45 pm

I am particularly pleased that we were able to make progress on this in light of the support that I have had from a number of colleagues, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) who spared me the trouble of tabling an amendment by tabling his own, which I felt able to support. He brings great expertise to the subject as deputy Chairman of the Treasury Committee. He has thought about the issue a great deal and the scrutiny of that Committee has been of use to us in the Standing Committee.

None the less, I have several questions for the Paymaster General. The new clause on the oath, as drafted, leaves some discretion to the commissioners to decide how exactly the oath will be performed. I shall not read the passage out, to save the House time, but will she confirm that that discretion will be exercised to ensure that the oath will be performed as it is now in the Inland Revenue? Will she make sure that before there is any change in the way it is done, she or her successor will be consulted? Will she commit the Government to come to the House with an oral statement if, subsequently, the commissioners decide to vary the way in which that duty of confidentiality is dealt with?

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