Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Bill

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Mr. Burnett: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Tyrie: I am just winding up. I support my hon. Friend's amendment. We need to send a clear signal that we should keep things as they are.

Dawn Primarolo: This is has been an interesting and important debate. We want to ensure beyond any shadow of doubt that those who have access to taxpayer-confidential information for the purposes of their employment should be under a duty not to disclose it. There should be a sanction for any civil servant foolish enough to do so. The issue is how we do that, rather than whether it should exist.

The hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) talked about Treasury officials and said that if they had access to taxpayer-confidential information they should be covered by the confidentiality provisions. I must make it clear that Treasury officials will not have access to taxpayer-confidential information. If they do not need it to discharge their functions they will not receive information. The new Department of Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs will not disclose to the Treasury officials any confidential information. Members of the Committee are correct to raise that matter. I want that to be clear on the record.

Mr. Burnett rose—

Mr. Tyrie: Will the Minister give way?

Dawn Primarolo: I will give way, but as I was responding to a point made by the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon, I will take his intervention first.

Mr. Burnett: I am grateful to the Paymaster General. I know that she regards this issue as one of great importance. I am glad that she has put that point on the record. There will be other organisations, for example, the Independent Police Complaints Commission—

Dawn Primarolo: I was coming on to that point.

Mr. Burnett: Fine. I will wait for her to knock that point on the head.

Dawn Primarolo: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for being patient. I wanted to make it clear that Treasury officials will not have information and that any disclosure to them will be a criminal offence. Secondly, where information is required to
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carry out the responsibilities of, for instance, the Revenue and Customs prosecution service, the duty not to disclose it will transfer with the information together with a criminal sanction. Where taxpayer information is disclosed to the Independent Police Complaints Commission or to the Crown Prosecution Service there will be the same requirement to protect it.

Before I deal with the demonstration effect in the case that has been quoted, does the hon. Member for Chichester want to intervene?

Mr. Tyrie: I am very grateful to the Paymaster General. A moment ago she said that Treasury officials would not have access to the information, but they will be sitting in offices next door to people who presumably will have access. We all know how offices work. Will the Revenue officials who are in the Treasury building have access to individual files and information on cases? Will the files containing that information be stored in the Treasury building?

Dawn Primarolo: Yes, the Revenue officials who require access to that taxpayer information in discharging their duties will have access to information and they will be under a duty not to disclose that information. The hon. Gentleman seems to suggest that, despite that, the location, in a complex of offices, will somehow blur things. There is a requirement to protect information and the duty on an individual official is enforceable by prosecution for a criminal offence. That is extremely important. On protection, the question is not just whether offices happen to be shared, but how information is transmitted in offices.

The hon. Member for Chichester raised two points, one of which was about the demonstration effect. I am happy to reassure him that is not the Government's policy to name and shame, which would in any case require access to confidential information. As a Minister, I do not think that it would be possible to maintain taxpayer confidentiality under such a scheme. Taxpayer confidentiality and the confidence of the taxpayer to comply with the obligations relates exactly to the hon. Gentleman's point about disclosure of information in the knowledge that it will be used appropriately and not inappropriately, which must be continued.

The hon. Gentleman went on—I am mystified by this, quite genuinely—to refer to a individual taxpayer, Vodafone. I am afraid I have no knowledge of that. I could not comment on a taxpayer's information. Sometimes hon. Members laugh when I say that I cannot answer a question because of taxpayer confidentiality. In fact, that happened at the last Treasury questions, when I was asked about a taxpayer. I said that I was afraid I could not answer the question because of taxpayer confidentiality, which prevented me from having access to information on whether the organisation in question paid corporation tax.

I genuinely have no idea about the answer to the question that the hon. Member for Chichester asked. I am not aware of any complaints. No issue has been raised with me. The matter is important and I checked quickly with the Economic Secretary to ensure that the
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issue had not been raised with him. I am genuinely mystified and do not know the answer. The clear and important answer is that the demonstration effect is not being applied, will not be applied and is not sensible.

4.30 pm

On the issue of whether to have an oath, the current state of play is that the Inland Revenue requires a declaration, but Customs and Excise does not and never has done. Provisions are written into the legislation and even into employment contracts. Staff understand clearly that they are not to breach confidentiality and have not taken the view that they should not protect it. Therefore, we needed to consider how to take forward the powerful arguments that hon. Members have made today, and I absolutely concur about the importance of protecting confidentiality.

Perhaps it would be helpful if I explained how the statutory duty will work, why it is preferable to the oath and why we took this route. The essential issues are standards and confidentiality. Clause 17 sets out a binding statutory duty of confidentiality, which will automatically bind all the staff of the new department on its creation, without the need to wait for any formal agreement on their part. It will also become binding on any new members of staff upon their taking up their job, even before the formalities have been concluded. Therefore, our approach immediately places a binding statutory duty on staff, whether they are in post at HMRC at its inception or join later.

I recognise the point hon. Members have made about culture, but a culture of taxpayer confidentiality requires continuous reinforcement within the organisation. That culture must be constantly reinforced during the working lifetime of an official. I appreciate that hon. Members see a formal statement on joining the department as important, but I think that we need to go further. The letter of appointment to the new department will include a specific section on the duty of confidentiality, and officers will have to sign to acknowledge and accept the terms.

I entirely recognise, as I did on Second Reading, the points that hon. Gentlemen have made about provisions in someone's employment contract not being drawn to their attention and about people not reading all their contract. However, the duty will be drawn to officers' attention and will be emphasised during induction training and in regular messages throughout their career. The uniform way in which the statutory duty will apply to every member of staff will be a valuable tool for building and maintaining the culture of confidentiality that we all want.

The route that the Government have taken is to place the duty in the employment contract and to require all staff to have the contract on moving to the new department. We want to ensure that the requirement of confidentiality is drawn specifically to their attention and that they are constantly reminded of it throughout their career through regular intranet communications. All of that is vital.

I need to correct myself about what I said was the current position. For Inland Revenue staff, it is at the beginning of their career; for Customs and Excise the
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matter is in legislation, but I think that I said it is not in long contracts. That is not correct. It is in the employment contacts of Customs and Excise. However, I want to go further.

My hon. Friend the Economic Secretary and I are looking at the matter. First, on appointment, it has to be drawn to the attention of the individual. Secondly, it must be done on induction, so that new members of staff know. Thirdly, it must be constantly reinforced throughout the career, which does not always happen. That underlines my contention, in reply to the hon. Member for Chichester, that being in the same building will not necessarily result in slippage, and that those who have the duty will not somehow forget it or breach it, even inadvertently. It is an enforceable part of their duty, yet we have gone much further.

We take many oaths at the beginning of a process; we do, as Members of Parliament, and so do Ministers. I certainly did as Paymaster General. However, I consider that not to be enough. The fact that taxpayer information is confidential will be constantly reinforced in the department, and it will be underlined in the employment contract. With respect to the strongly held views of the Treasury Select Committee, of which I took a great deal of notice, and with respect to the points that have been made today, I am still of the view that the route that the Government have chosen is stronger and better. I say that with regret because it is something on which we should agree. Should the matter of the oath be put to the Committee on a vote, I would ask my hon. Friends to oppose it.

Other, wider questions were put by the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon about IPCC, the HMRC and the Crown Prosecution Service. Lawful disclosure of that information is covered in clauses 25 and 26. It is absolutely correct to make that clear.

Lastly, I shall deal with Government amendment No. 92. The amendment changes the wording because, on advice from my officials—I concurred with them—it was thought that the original formulation could be improved. There are proceedings to recover unpaid taxes; for example, it would relate to matters for which HMRC had a function for the collection of tax. However, the function proceedings themselves mean that there must be a drafting change to ensure that the wording is right but without changing the substance of the provision. The proceedings and investigations are limited to those having a connection with a function. It seems sensible to have a parallel power to make foreign disclosures, so that those HMRC and RCPO—Revenue and Customs Prosecutions Office—provisions can continue. However, they should be limited. We already have those arrangements.

The hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon and I frequently discuss double taxation treaties. There is an exchange of information provision to facilitate this type of exchange of information. That is provided for, improved and tightly controlled. It is negotiated within treaties. For the record, we have followed the agreements on the exchange of this information that
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are in double taxation treaties that have been negotiated.

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