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Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon) (LD): In Committee we had lengthy debates on this subject and the Paymaster General has honoured the commitments she gave us then. She couched her commitment with one or two safeguards, but we now have a provision that has met the expectations of Members on this side of the House.
I hope that the right hon. Lady will be able to give a further commitment today that all individuals with access to taxpayer-sensitive information as a result of this Bill or any other enactment will have to abide by the oath. I mean by that members of the Independent Police Complaints Commission, as well as anyone else.
That is important because the successful collection of tax depends on many factors, not least the perception of fairness and confidence by the public that their affairs
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will be kept confidential. It is vital that taxpayers are assured of the Inland Revenue's ability to keep their affairs secret, which is the principal way in which the tax base is preserved.
Members on both sides believe that we have an Inland Revenue that compares favourably with any similar organisation anywhere else in the world. It has an excellent reputation. We all concede that Customs and Excise has more of a policing role. Nevertheless, we agree that we should not accept any dilution in the standards of the Inland Revenue and Customs in dealing with legitimate individual or corporate taxpayers' affairs. We welcome the new clause. We did so in Committee, where we also welcomed the Minister's commitment. I have discussed the matter with members of the Inland Revenue. They believe that the oath is of considerable significance to them. It is not in a clause in a 22-page employment document, but brings home forcefully to members of the Inland Revenue their particular duty of confidentiality.
We agree with the new clauses, but we would be grateful if the Paymaster General would confirm that everyone who will have access to sensitive and confidential taxpayer documents or files will be obliged to take the oath and will be bound by similar criminal and employment contract constraints to those that we discussed in Committee.
Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks) (Con): I join in the general welcome for the new clauses and we do not need to make a huge meal of them. It is refreshing to see an amendment tabled in Committee and then put in the Bill by the Minister only 10 days later. I congratulate her on that. She was right to strengthen the confidentiality provisions in the Bill, and clause 17 will be of enormous assistance. It was also right to go further than simply the standard employment contract.
I only wish that in introducing the new clause today, the Paymaster General had not used the word "ceremonial". An oath is not just ceremonial: it was the solemnity and seriousness of the oath that convinced members of the Select Committee that we should not modernise too far. I thank the Paymaster General for listening and for restoring the oath and I hope that we can now accept the new clause without much further ado.
Dawn Primarolo: I was asked two brief questions. The first was about the nature of the declaration or oath, and why the precise wording has been left to the commissioners. The declaration will be a formal acknowledgement, made in front of a witness, of the duty of confidentiality under the legislation. The details of the text are best left to be developed in conjunction with the contract of employment, so the wording does not need to be included in the Bill. It is a matter for the Department to decide the exact wording, but it must be in the form of a full acknowledgement of the confidentiality obligations. I see no reason why a copy of the wording should not be placed in the Library, so that Members can see how it reinforces the duty.
I take the point that the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) made about the choice of wording. We are all seeking to ensure that new members of the Departmentcurrent members of the Inland Revenue
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have already taken the oathshould experience no diminution of its clear intent. I will make sure that that is the case and that, when completed, a copy is placed in the Library. I will also let hon. Members know that it has been placed there.
The hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) asked about the IPCC. The Bill provides safeguards to control the way in which the prosecutors and the scrutiny bodies throughout the UK can use and disclose information received from Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. That includes the criminal sanction for unlawful disclosure. However, it would not be appropriate to ask staff to sign the oath for Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. The new body's prosecution office and its equivalents in the devolved Administrations should be seen to be independent. The jurisdictions of the devolved Administrations go beyond the functions of Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, and they have procedures for reinforcing staff understanding of the obligations in respect of confidentiality and the criminal sanctions for unlawful disclosures.
We have made the Administrations independent for very good reasons, and it would be inappropriate to ask their staff to sign up to an oath for her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. However, I assure the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon that those organisations have their own procedures for ensuring that all staff understand their clear duty, and the criminal sanction for unlawful disclosure.
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