Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Bill

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Dawn Primarolo: In the working relationship between a Minister and a department—any department, but particularly those under discussion—given the overriding importance of taxpayer confidentiality, there is not always an outcome every time a Minister speaks to officials. If there is, it does not have to be logged in the Library. I fail to see what the hon. Gentleman thinks Ministers may or may not be doing that requires disclosure to the Library. I remind him that the new department has its public service agreement targets. His own Committee calls Ministers regularly to account on the issues that it considers important, issues that this Committee is settling today by discussing clauses that it considers important and not pressing those on which there is general agreement. He knows that PSA targets are directions in the broadest sense. They are targets and they must be reported. I have been before his Committee to explain that when he has been in the Chair.

The hon. Member for Sevenoaks will know also that the new department will receive an annual remit from the Chancellor that will set its strategic direction. That will be published. The hon. Gentleman has the checks and balances; there is the annual report, the comments and the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General, all the accounting officer powers and the PSA targets, and there will be a published annual remit. Members of the House will be fully aware of the strategic direction. What they will not have—I cannot see the point in them having it—is the Minister's diary logged in the House of Commons Library, with the time of meetings with officials and the subject discussed.

Unless the hon. Gentleman can be more specific about what he thinks is happening without his knowledge, but which he should know about, I continue to be of the view that the checks and balances are in place. Many of those did not exist before 1997. The general direction from Treasury Ministers to the departments was not then considered a problem. The Bill merely carries that state of affairs forward with the additional safeguards that the Government have established.

11.15 am

Mr. Laws: I was hoping to save my comments on clause 10 until we reached amendment No. 79, but I was a little disappointed with the Paymaster General's response to amendment No. 3. The amendment seems to touch on the heart of the relationship between the Treasury and those parts of it that are, in theory, run
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separately; the Paymaster General spoke of arm's length ministerial accountability.

The description that she gave us was of a Revenue department that would be able to run its own affairs from day to day without interference from the Minister, as part of a situation in which the Minister would clearly take an interest in strategic direction and in any major issues that might arise for discussion in Parliament. She would of course engage in continuing discussion and debate. She might be having meetings with the commissioners in the new department. She might have a block booking in her diary for discussion of relevant issues with them.

The amendment is not an attempt to obtain from the Minister all sorts of information about her diary engagements and discussions with the commissioners. It is designed to get the Treasury specifically to put into the public domain those occasions when it gives the commissioners explicit directions—even if they are general in nature—to guide them in their activities. Surely the point is that, if the Paymaster General is correct in her description of the relationship between the Treasury and the commissioners, such directions will be quite few and relatively specific about what they relate to. If the relationship between the Treasury and the Revenue department is really as we have heard, surely it will be possible—and sensible, and in the public interest—for the directions to be put into the public domain.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Sevenoaks is right to say that it is not realistic to think that freedom of information legislation will result in people constantly trawling for information in general to discover what directions the Paymaster General or the Treasury have given to a department such as the Revenue department about ongoing matters. The tax credit issue, which was mentioned earlier, is one on which we might well want the Minister to be very active.

If we are really to understand clause 10 and what the relationship between the Treasury and the Revenue department will be in practice—something that we shall debate further on amendment No. 79—the Paymaster General should be willing to go further on amendment No. 3. The only reason for not accepting amendment No. 3 would be that the relationship between the Treasury, the departments and the commissioners was rather different from the one described by the Paymaster General, with more being dictated, and more attempts to micro-manage the departments. That would mean a ream of directions having to be put in the public domain. That might be uncomfortable and embarrassing for the Government, as it would appear that there was less of an arm's length relationship than the Paymaster General has suggested. It is a great pity that the Paymaster General
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has not been willing to go any further in underlining her view of the right relationship between the Treasury and the new Revenue department by accepting the amendment.

Mr. Tyrie: I shall be brief. I agree with almost everything that the hon. Member for Yeovil and my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks have said. Having listened to the argument, I am more concerned than I was before the sitting. I understood the clause to refer to directions that would need to be made only in the most exceptional circumstances. The relationship between a Revenue department and the Treasury involves constant dialogue. It does not involve someone sending out countersigned instructions with dates at the bottom by which everything must be complied with. At that point, the relationship between the Treasury and the Revenue department would clearly have broken down or would be close to breaking down, or an issue of great sensitivity would have led to a clash between the commissioners and Ministers that Ministers believed they needed to resolve by exercising this power. That is what I had assumed the clause to mean. When the Paymaster General defended her position, she seemed to be saying that the amendment would mean that she would have to put her diary and other miscellaneous details into the Library. As I understood it, that is not what it is about, and it worried me that she seemed to believe that it might be. The amendment relates to rare and exceptional circumstances.

We all know that Revenue powers are often one of the methods used in countries with less effective and less highly developed democratic checks to bring pressure to bear on institutions, businesses or individuals. We see that in an extreme form in Russia at the moment with respect to Yukos. Such an infringement of what people consider to be their rights in this area lies at the far end of the spectrum. It is of concern that the Paymaster General is not prepared at least to consider some means by which these rare instructions—I would be grateful for her confirmation that they are rare—could be put into the public domain.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks insisted on them being put into the Library, which seems to be a successful approach. By giving the Opposition that assurance, she will reassure us at a stroke that the clause does not mean what I took it to mean when we started debating it about 25 minutes ago.

Mr. Fallon: The Paymaster General has rather disappointed me. We are not talking about diaries, informal working or any meetings that she may have with the chairman or others; we are talking about what the clause means. It refers to Treasury directions, so somewhere between the annual remit, which I fully accept is published with the PSA targets, and the day-to-day operational area, there is provision for
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directions to be given. The clause imposes a duty on the commissioners to abide by those directions. If those directions are issued, I can see no reason why they should be secret. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment, but I shall seek to press amendment No. 3 to a vote.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment proposed: No. 3 in clause 10, page 5, line 20, at end add

    ''and a copy of any such direction shall be placed in the Library of each House.''—[Mr. Fallon.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 3, Noes 9.

Division No. 1]

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Fallon, Mr. Michael
Laws, Mr. David
Tyrie, Mr. Andrew

Bailey, Mr. Adrian
Berry, Mr. Roger
Clark, Mrs. Helen
Fitzpatrick, Jim
Healey, John
Henderson, Mr. Ivan
Perham, Linda
Primarolo, Dawn
Williams, Mrs. Betty

Question accordingly negatived.

It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at half-past Two o'clock.

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