Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Bill

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Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: I very much support the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks. As a member of the Treasury Committee, I, too, support the recommendation that there should be no dilution in the defences against unauthorised disclosure. We should not simply take taxpayer confidentiality for granted. It is important, and it is very much in the interests of the Revenue departments, because people will co-operate freely with the Revenue authorities only if they can be sure that the information given is protected. I do not know if it is still the case, but I was told some years ago that all tax returns in Greece are published. A book is published
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every year of the tax returns of all the taxpayers in that country, which is immediately filed in the fiction department of all public libraries. It is often said that openness and transparency has a beneficial effect on the client.

Mr. Burnett: In a similar vein, I understood that the same prevails in Italy. When Fiat took over Ferrari, people looked to see what contributions the Ferrari family would make in the tax year in question, but I do not know whether they managed to do so and to locate where they were in the order of merit, as it were.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: The hon. Gentleman is right. It is a Latin habit to publish everything of that nature, but it does not help compliance—quite the reverse; it is when people feel that their private affairs are to be respected that they co-operate most freely and give the necessary information.

It is vital that that culture and the safeguards are reformed in the way proposed in amendment No. 4 and in the new schedule. The financial temptations for Revenue officers are considerable. The tabloid press would love to get detailed tax returns of prominent people, and companies would like to see the tax returns of their competitors. That reinforces the point that our every defence, including the statutory declaration, should be carried forward.

Government amendment No. 92 allows disclosure for certain purposes. It mentions

    ''the purposes of a criminal investigation or criminal proceedings (whether or not within the United Kingdom) relating to matter in respect of which the Revenue and Customs have functions''.

The amendment is a late addition. The Bill is littered with Government amendments, which is regrettable; the Government have had months to prepare the legislation, yet many amendments are being brought forward. Will the Minister explain precisely why the amendment is to be made? The Bill already provides for disclosure for the purposes of civil or criminal proceedings, so why are we adding criminal investigations, whether or not within the United Kingdom?

I can easily envisage a situation in which foreign Governments and authorities would wish to receive information about British taxpayers, companies or partnerships, in pursuit of real or imaginary crime, or acts that may not be crimes under our own law. The amendment authorises the Revenue to disclose information to people in other countries for unspecified purposes, because ''a criminal investigation'' is very wide.

The notes on the amendment simply say that the amendment provides for disclosure to the prosecution authorities. I do not know whether that means foreign Governments, Revenue departments, governmental and quasi-governmental agencies elsewhere, the United Nations or agencies of it, and countries within or outside Europe. The amendment is very wide. I would like the Minister to tell us what she envisages under it, particularly as there has been a change as to whether it should relate to Revenue or Customs functions. Under the Bill as originally published, disclosure for criminal proceedings has to relate to a function of Revenue and Customs. That has
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now become much more contorted. It has only to relate to a

    ''matter in respect of which the Revenue and Customs have functions''.

We are getting further away from the function of the Revenue and Customs. I am unclear as to why that should be. It seems to me that it will simply widen the possibility of allowing the departments to pass on information to pretty well anyone, in any part of the world, who purports to be an authority that may be undertaking a criminal investigation. Perhaps the Minister could give advice on those specific points about the Government amendment in addition to taking on board my strong support for the amendment that we have tabled.

Mr. Tyrie: I rise to support amendment No. 4. I agree with just about everything that I have heard so far. It seems to me that this clause raises two questions, one of which was put to me by a number of accountancy bodies.

The first is whether clause 17(2)(a)(i), which states that disclosure can be

    ''made for the purposes of a function of the Revenue and Customs'',

could mean that a decision could be made by officials to trigger the disclosure of information to bring about a demonstration effect in order to secure a better practice by an industry. If the Minister and the Revenue department conclude that the behaviour of a section of an industry or a tax loophole is unacceptable, could the clause be used to expose what that company is doing, as a demonstration in order to achieve a particular outcome?

I raise that point not for hypothetical reasons, but because I have in my hand an extract from Accountancy Age, which states:

    ''Vodafone, one of the world's biggest mobile phone companies, has denied dodging hundreds of millions of pounds worth of VAT, following a confidential meeting with Customs and Excise.''

It goes on:

    ''Details of the meeting were leaked to the Financial Times just hours after the meeting took place.''

I do not think that Vodafone had much interest in leaking that information. It is possible that it was somebody at Vodafone, such as one of the advisers, but it is also possible that it was leaked by someone in government, who should not have done so. The main beneficiaries of the leak were the Government, because it is widely held in the industry that the demonstration effect has shocked parts of that sector into wondering whether the way in which they were hoping to achieve tax liability was appropriate.

I am confident that the Minister will reply that that has nothing to do with the Bill, and I will believe her if she tells me so. I am fairly confident that she will be able to tell me that the intention of the proposal is not that it would be used to trigger such demonstrations. I would like that reassurance, because a number of people who work in the industry have told me that they are worried that it could be used for that purpose.

The second major issue about this clause is the one that has seen most debate so far. Will the fact that the Government intend to remove oaths of confidentiality
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result in a change in the culture of confidentiality? I worry that it might. I support David Varney's appointment. He seems to be a good man, from everything that I have read about him. I have met him only once. He has been heard saying at a number of functions, talking to the tax industry, that his experience of Sweden has shaped his thinking about the way to collect tax.

4.15 pm

I heard my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells say that it is a Latin trait for countries to want to make information public, but in Sweden one can apparently look up any citizen's tax returns for a token fee. David Varney goes around telling everybody this, and then points out that this is one possible route that countries might want to pursue in the long run. Doubtless this is his policy, and I hope—referring back to clause 10—that it will remain an election priority.

It is not only not our policy; it is not our culture. We do not have a culture of such disclosure in this country. Nor is it our culture to disclose information about people in public life; in the United States there are very clear limitations on the duty of confidentiality laid down in order to produce a higher level of accountability for politicians, for example.

In the UK, we start with the principle of confidentiality and we stick with it. We do not want the Swedish model, and we do not want the American model. I think political culture is crucial to the whole matter. I once had a meeting with the then Finance Minister of Malta, and we ended up discussing champagne socialism. He certainly was not a socialist. He said, ''I do not know why you are so squeamish about exposing champagne socialists, Andrew. Just get hold of their tax returns and publish them! What are you doing?''. He continued, ''You are far too soft. You should realise that, in Malta, at various times, if you are on the wrong side of the political fence you can soon find yourself pushing up the tulips.'' He described to me a political culture that was, with respect to tax collection, completely alien to the one I was trying to describe to him.

Mr. Burnett: It sounds Sicilian.

Mr. Tyrie: Of course, Malta was ruled from Sicily for a while.

Dawn Primarolo: That is a very interesting story. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could tell us in what capacity he was meeting a Minister of another country. Was he an adviser? Was he employed in the Treasury? Or was he there as a shadow Minister?

Mr. Tyrie: I cannot—

The Chairman: Order. We should return to the subject under discussion.

Mr. Tyrie: I will certainly tell the Paymaster General in some detail after the sitting.

The oath is important to us. I am sorry that the Government seem to think that we should get rid of it. We accept oaths as part of our culture in many ways. We accept that they bring an extra degree of solemnity
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and a sense of importance to what people say in courtrooms. We accept that it is important to take oaths before we take our seats in the House of Commons. A good number of my colleagues think that it should be appropriate for people giving evidence before Select Committees to take an oath to reinforce their duties.

I cannot see any harm at all in keeping the oath. I cannot see any downside whatsoever in the status quo. Even if some who take the oath consider it a bit old fashioned, it cannot do any harm. Even if only a minority of those who take the oath find they are the few that it means something to, it must surely be worth keeping. I feel that there is a spurious cult of modernity about with respect to the oath. I do not think that that will do anybody any good.

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Prepared 11 January 2005