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Standing Committee Debates
Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Bill

Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Bill

Standing Committee E

Tuesday 11 January 2005


[Sir John Butterfill in the Chair]

Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Bill

9.25 am

The Paymaster General (Dawn Primarolo): I beg to move,


    (1) the Committee recommends that the programme order of the House [8th December 2004] should be amended by substituting ''18th January'' for ''13th January'';

    (2) during proceedings on the Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Bill, in addition to its first meeting on Tuesday 11th January at 9.25 a.m., the Standing Committee shall meet on Tuesday 11th January at 2.30 p.m., on Thursday 13th January at 9.25 a.m. and on Tuesday 18th January at 9.25 a.m.;

    (3) the proceedings shall be taken in the order shown above and shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 11.25 a.m. on Tuesday 18th January:

    Clauses 1 to 6; Schedule 1; Clauses 7 to 15; Schedule 2; Clauses 16 to 30; Schedule 3; Clauses 31 to 45; Schedule 4; Clauses 46 and 47; Schedule 5; Clauses 48 to 52; remaining proceedings on the Bill;

Good morning, Sir John. It is nice to see you in the Chair this morning. I am looking forward to your keeping us in order as we discuss this important Bill, which is the beginning of the process of merging Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise into a new department, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. First, I welcome the Hansard Reporters, the Clerks—who will advise the Committee—members of Her Majesty's Opposition and my colleagues to our consideration of the Bill.

On the programming motion, there have been extensive discussions between the Government and Opposition parties on our progress on the Bill, and that includes agreements on sittings. There are to be two sittings today and one on Thursday, and we are to conclude our considerations next Tuesday morning. I will do my very best to ensure that the Committee is fully informed of the Government's thinking on the Bill. As promised, draft regulations have been made available to all Committee members.

Perhaps I should say something, by way of introduction, on the Government amendments. They represent, for the most part, clarifications of or modest improvements to the Bill as introduced. I have been keen to ensure, through the early introduction of the Bill, that hon. Members have had the opportunity to consider its contents well before this scrutiny stage. That has meant that there are now some areas where the Bill needs to be improved. I have done my best to ensure that the Committee had advance notice of the amendments and an explanation of what they do.

As I have explained, the Government amendments fall into various groups. First, there are technical and consequential amendments on the establishment of Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. Also, there are
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improvements to secure the operation of the new department—for example, to ensure that provisions are applied appropriately in Scotland—and amendments consequential on the establishment of the Revenue and Customs Prosecution Office, including the introduction of three clauses providing for the disclosure of information to the director of that office.

I will provide members of the Committee with as much detail as they require when I move the amendments, but I assure Members that none of the amendments introduce new concepts to the Bill, and none make any changes to the principles embodied in the clauses that would mean that they were different from what is set out in the explanatory notes. Both in my letter sent before the Christmas recess—dated, I think, 20 December—and in the letter that I sent to all members of the Committee yesterday, I provided the full details. I explained to hon. Members on Second Reading that such Government amendments would be necessary.

Now that I have made clear how the Government intend to improve the Bill, I hope that the Opposition will forgive us these amendments. However, I am sure that they will have something to say on the number of them, but such a number is inevitable given the scale of the task of bringing such huge pieces of legislation together. I look forward to our deliberations in Committee.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): First, may I welcome you to the Chair, Sir John? It is good to see you.

I was concerned about the scale of the amendments, even though, as the Minister suggested, they appear to be technical and consequential, and in their full impact relatively minor. I was depressed to find that so many amendments had been tabled at this late stage, for which the Minister has already apologised. After all, this is not exactly rushed legislation; it has been a gleam in the eye of a number of people for many years. People have been thinking about how to put it together for a long time, yet right at the last minute and even despite the clarity with which the Opposition put forward their preparedness to give the Government a fair wind on the principle of the Bill, we find them wanting to rush through amendments at a late stage. I deprecate that. It looks like poor drafting and management of the Bill. I regret that, but as the Minister has apologised I will not prolong this discussion.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): May I also welcome you to the Chair, Sir John? It is a pleasure to serve under you again. I also welcome the Paymaster General and the Economic Secretary to the Committee.

We had a good debate on the substantive issues in the Bill on Second Reading on 8 December. I suspect that our discussions in Committee will be far narrower. As we discussed, it is a fairly minimalist Bill, so there are no big issues of principle at stake in most clauses. There are some important issues, particularly that of the prosecuting authority, which I look forward to debating, and I look forward to being
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joined by my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett), who is an expert on some of these matters and will no doubt make an effective and useful contribution.

Dawn Primarolo: Indeed.

Question put and agreed to.

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that there is a money resolution for this Bill, and copies are available in the Room. I should also like to remind right hon. and hon. Members that adequate notice should be given of amendments. As a general rule, I do not intend to call any starred amendments that may be raised during an afternoon sitting of the Committee.

Clause 1

The commissioners

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Tyrie: I want to use clause 1 to make only three points. You can rule me out of order on each one, Sir John, but I will be so brief that by the time you have got up I will have finished.

First, I want to commend the minimalism of the Bill and thank the Minister for delivering pretty much what she said she would deliver when we met to discuss it. We will not oppose the principle of the merger, as we made clear on Second Reading. Secondly, we have specific concerns about powers, confidentiality in particular, and the assessment of the overall benefits of the merger. We will need to discuss those points as the Bill goes along. Finally, we are blessed with an excellent report by the Treasury Committee. The Deputy Chairman is sitting behind me, and I commend him and that Committee for having produced a document that will enable us to scrutinise this Bill much better than would otherwise have been the case.

Mr. Laws: The clause deals with the responsibilities of the commissioners in the new combined department. One issue that came out of Second Reading, which the Paymaster General may wish to comment on, was the question of their responsibilities to Ministers in the Treasury and whether the existing structure, where the new combined department will report to a number of different Ministers, is sensible in the long term. That issue was raised by the Chairman of the Treasury Sub-Committee in the debate on 8 December. The Paymaster General appeared to indicate that her mind was not entirely closed to developments in the Treasury and to consolidation of the accountability of the commissioners to one Minister, rather than two or three, which I understand to be the present situation. Will she comment on that?

Dawn Primarolo: The hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) has laid out the parts of the Bill that he wishes to concentrate on. I will respond to those points when we reach the relevant clauses.

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The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) raised a question about there being three Ministers. I think that debate on the amendments tabled to clause 10 about Treasury direction, scope and accountability would be the appropriate place to explore his points, but that is entirely up to him to decide. I tried to make it clear on Second Reading that the chairman of the department is accountable to Parliament but that the accountable Minister is myself as Paymaster General. What we explained on Second Reading—and what the chairman explained when he appeared before the Public Accounts Committee and, I think, the Treasury Committee—was the other Ministers' responsibilities for other policy areas. As in any other Department, there is a Minister responsible to Parliament; that would normally be the Secretary of State, but in this Department it is the Chancellor, with responsibility devolved to myself, as a Minister accountable to him. The line of accountability to Parliament for the operation of the department in all aspects is through me, because the identified Minister is the Paymaster General.

For clarity, we also provided the policy areas that the Economic Secretary and the Financial Secretary work on within that remit. If the hon. Member for Yeovil wishes to explore that further, I will be more than happy to do so when we come to clause 10—or to other clauses, if that is appropriate. There are amendments tabled to clause 10 about Treasury independence of direction, and how to meet the requirements for confidentiality while protecting taxpayers and discharging statutory responsibilities—I was going to say in a quasi-legal fashion, but actually to enforce the law. Other matters are also involved, such as what the relationship is with the Ministers on policy, and what the routes are for Parliament in ensuring that there is a Minister and a chairman who will be accountable to it, so that Parliament is properly involved.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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