Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Bill

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Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: Before the Paymaster General finishes, will she answer the question I asked her? It was about the width of the powers. They go way beyond provisions for information exchange and provide for information to be given not just for criminal proceedings but for criminal investigations and to any body holding itself up as a prosecuting authority anywhere in the world. Therefore, the powers appear to go much wider than the example that has been given.

Dawn Primarolo: That was the right hon. Gentleman's second point on Government amendment No. 91. His first point was about Government amendment No. 92. I was going to come on to his second point.

Investigations from prosecutions will now be shared between HMRC and RCPO. Disclosures for the purpose of criminal investigation cover matters such as disclosing evidence to the Scottish sheriff to serve a search warrant under common law, and may cover disclosure of civil proceedings to get an injunction to freeze assets as part of criminal investigations.

Disclosure to foreign investigators and prosecutors are necessary when fraud spans national jurisdictions. Parliament has already endorsed that; it did so in the Criminal Justice (International Co-operation) Act 1990. The UK co-operates with our European partners for the mutual recovery of tax duties throughout the European Union. We want to make sure that those arrangements that already take place—they will have taken place when the right hon. Gentleman was a Minister—can continue to do so, but only within specific requirements. The amendments are as clear and precise as necessary; the right hon. Gentleman is right that information should be disclosed only for the intended purposes, and not for any other purposes such as fishing expeditions, or where the safeguards that I have outlined do not exist.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: I am grateful, but the Paymaster General has still not answered my point. If the measure is to comply with international obligations, why is that not stated? I can think of examples where other countries—Zimbabwe, for example—might want information about one of their citizens who is now a resident of the UK. They could apply for and receive that information on the basis that it is for what they call a criminal investigation. That would have nothing to do with any international framework, and disclosure of that information would be against the interests of that taxpayer. Can the Paymaster General answer the point that I raised, rather than the one that she wished that I had raised?

Dawn Primarolo: With respect, I did answer the question that the right hon. Gentleman asked. The example he gives is totally erroneous. I made it clear that the crime has to span national jurisdictions, and things have to fall within the requirements of the Criminal Justice (International Co-operation) Act.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: Where is that stated?
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4.45 pm

Dawn Primarolo: I am saying it to the right hon. Gentleman now, on the record. If he would like me to write to him chapter and verse on it, I should be happy to do so. These are powers from prior to 1997, and it is not necessary for their machinery to be included in the Bill. It is only necessary that the provisions tie in with the relevant legislation.

Mr. Fallon: I am grateful to the Paymaster General for the seriousness with which she has taken this debate, a seriousness that this issue deserves. She has accepted that we need to reinforce confidentiality. There is common ground among Committee members of all parties. The difference between us is how best to reinforce confidentiality. The Paymaster General says that the duty of confidentiality will be written into contracts; that there will be a section on it in the letter of appointment; that it will be included in induction training; and that the message about confidentiality will be repeated throughout an official's career.

First and foremost, none of those four things is incompatible with having the oath. She says that we would go further than the oath. If that is the position, why dispense with the oath? None of those things would replace the oath. It could stay at the beginning, and those four additional points could be incorporated. I do not see any case for dispensing with the oath.

When we asked Mr. O'Donnell about that point, he replied, as I have said, that

    ''maintaining taxpayer confidentiality is vital.''

He went on to say:

    ''The Chancellor made it absolutely clear to me at the start that under no circumstances should anything we do damage that.''

Dispensing with the oath would damage that. I welcome the steps that the Paymaster General offers to reinforce confidentiality, but I still think that there is a very strong case for retaining the statutory declaration. I shall press for a Division on this issue.

Mr. Burnett: None of us demur from what the Paymaster General has said. We all want to ensure confidentiality, and we want Inland Revenue employees to be buttressed in that. Making an oath is not just a symbolic, but a solemn matter. We ask for an oath from executors and those applying for letters of administration. We want to keep a Rolls-Royce system of Inland Revenue confidentiality and we want it grafted on to the combined agency of the Inland Revenue and Customs. The Paymaster General has made admirable points, and the criminal sanction is spelled out clearly in the relevant clauses. However, let us not allow even the perception of watering down to occur; let us keep the oath. I ask the Paymaster General to consider that matter again in the interests of preserving the highest standards at the combined agency of the Inland Revenue and Customs.

Dawn Primarolo: I want to respond specifically to the hon. Gentleman's point, but I am not sure how to do that. I am clear in my own mind. The Economic Secretary and I have taken lots of advice. Having an oath requires a wait for formal agreement. However, the requirements for the contract become immediate
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and because many staff are already employed, they will transfer as the contract becomes enforceable.

I do not see the oath as comparable to the mechanism that I have put in place in the Bill, the employment contract. I do not want to do anything that will lead any individual to believe that what we propose is less powerful, and I am not prepared to give the hon. Gentleman an undertaking today that I will reconsider the answer—that may not be strong enough for him—but I am prepared to consider the matter again in discussion with the Economic Secretary.

Let me be absolutely clear, as I do not want to mislead the hon. Gentleman; that may result in me not changing my mind. I am trying to be helpful to the hon. Gentleman. I do not want to say that I will go away and look at the matter, raising his expectations so he thinks that that really means that I will go away and add the oath. I am not prepared to give that undertaking. But I am prepared to say that I will consider looking at the Hansard report of exactly what the hon. Member for Sevenoaks said. I will look again at what I am doing and I will come back to the Committee. If that is not a strong enough undertaking, Opposition Members may want to press the amendment to a Division. If so, I ask my hon. Friends to oppose it. However, it would be better if the Committee agreed rather than had a vote on such an important issue.

Mr. Burnett: I would just like to say that I have often debated with the Paymaster General, a person of great integrity who is held in high regard in the House. I shall await the result of her deliberations.

Mr. Fallon: I suspect that that puts the onus back on me. I am grateful to the Paymaster General, who has listened to the debate. I am particularly grateful for her undertaking, which I fully understand comes with certain conditions. However, I do not see why we cannot have the new provision, providing the reinforcement that we are after. If I accept that that itself reinforces the oath, she may accept that there is some solemnity and some exceptional value to the statutory obligation. I hope that on that basis she will undertake to reflect further on the matter. I fully understand if she cannot commit herself to doing so. However, should she come to such a conclusion, of course she will understand that we may want to return to the matter at a later stage.

Mr. Tyrie: I thank the Paymaster General for being prepared to read Hansard and for agreeing to come back to us following her deliberations. I am very grateful for that.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made: No. 90, in clause 17, page 7, line 38, at end insert

    'or [Disclosure to prosecuting authority],'.

No. 91, in clause 17, page 7, line 39, leave out from 'civil' to end of line 40 and insert

    'proceedings (whether or not within the United Kingdom) relating to a matter in respect of which the Revenue and Customs have functions,'.—[Dawn Primarolo]

Amendment proposed: No. 92, in clause 17, page 7, line 40, at end insert—
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    '(ca) which is made for 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,'.—[Dawn Primarolo.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 4.

Division No. 4]

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

Burnett, Mr. John Fallon, Mr. Michael
Heathcoat-Amory, Mr. David Tyrie, Mr. Andrew

Question accordingly agreed to

Amendments made: No. 45, in clause 17, page 8, line 1, after 'Constabulary', insert 'or the Scottish inspectors'.
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No. 46, in clause 17, page 8, line 22, at end insert


    (d) a reference to the Scottish inspectors has the same meaning as in section 23.'.

No. 83, in clause 17, page 8, line 22, at end insert


    (e) a reference to an enactment does not include—

    (i) an Act of the Scottish Parliament or an instrument made under such an Act, or

    (ii) an Act of the Northern Ireland Assembly or an instrument made under such an Act.'.—[Dawn Primarolo.]

Clause 17, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Further consideration adjourned.—[Jim Fitzpatrick.]

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Five o'clock till Thursday 13 January at twenty-five minutes past Nine o'clock.

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