Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Bill

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Dawn Primarolo indicated assent.

Mr. Tyrie: The Paymaster General confirms that. I am surprised that this information has never found its way into the public domain. I think that sooner or later somebody will start asking for this stuff under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, but I do not think we need to go down that road. It is possible that one of the questions I have asked, for some reason that I do not know, is an unreasonable one. If it is, the Paymaster General will explain that to us and I am sure we will want to accept her explanation.

Armed with that information, we will then have a baseline for working out what will happen with the new Department. It would be helpful if the Minister was prepared to commit to publishing these figures annually in a similar form—we are only talking about four or five numbers—so that people can get a feel for what is going on in the field of rewards and payments for informants.

I have a couple of further points on the clause. I understand that there is an Inland Revenue manual on informers, setting out guidelines on how informers should be treated by staff. This is an eminently sensible idea. I do not think most of it is in the public domain. I ask the Paymaster General to look extremely carefully at whether that does need to be kept secret. I realise that small parts of it need to be kept secret, but I wonder whether large chunks of that document could be put into the public domain, in order to satisfy and allay public concerns about informers. Again, if we do not put it into the public domain, it is just the sort of thing which can be the subject of a Freedom of Information investigation; a fishing expedition. I think we can avoid that by putting it into the public domain now.

9.45 am

I have one final point to make. I have in front me the interesting research document on informers and the current practice. It largely governs how the police operate in that area. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 is this Government's piece of legislation. It was brought in days before the October 2000 deadline for the Human Rights Act 1998 because it was felt that it needed to be on the statute books before the Human Rights Act started to trample over this territory. I am not an expert on whether the legislation working well. My information about that is confined to that one piece of rather sophisticated research that has been done by academics, and I am not going to rehearse the points that have been made.

However, what is happening in the police field is obviously extremely relevant to the way in which HMRC will operate. In that regard, in order to allay public concerns with respect to the legislation that governs the police, the Government have put the covert human intelligence sources code of practice into
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the public domain. I have it with me and I looked at it last night. I could allude to some interesting questions in relation to the clause. I know that the Minister might not have all the answers to the questions that I have asked, so rather than ask some more now, I will leave it there for a moment.

The crucial point is that the code, because it is established under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, is effectively statutory guidance. I presume that the Inland Revenue manual will become an HMRC manual—perhaps the Minister will tell me whether that is the case—and it will presumably amalgamate guidelines that also apply to Customs and Excise. My last question to the Minister is whether that composite manual—whether it is called the code of practice or not, which does not really matter—will also acquire the quasi-statutory status that I understand the code of practice enjoys. I will stop there for the time being.

Mr. Burnett: We also have concerns about the particularly wide nature of the clause and we look forward to getting further details.

I want to highlight a couple of points. When things go seriously wrong and power is abused, sometimes the public and Parliament get a rigorous examination of the abuse of powers when those matters come into the public domain; I hope that they always would do.

We have had the advantage of the excellent report in July 2003 of the hon. Mr. Justice Butterfield into the London City Bond cases. In those cases, there was criticism by the trial judge of the role of the national investigation service and other branches of Customs and Excise. It is worth our paying considerable attention to the report. These matters have been debated in the House, and I suspect that that will continue.

Opposition Members are anxious to receive further information, such as knowledge of what safeguards will be in place. We would have liked those safeguards to be included in the Bill. We know the dangers surrounding the use of agents provocateurs; unreliability, difficulty with regard to evidence and openness to corruption. We want to know who monitors these practices and authorises these payments. How often does it happen? How much is paid? What is the competence and level of authority of those who sanction these practices and payments?

Before Report and Third Reading, we want proper safeguards to be in place in what is a very wide clause. We want to ensure that opportunities for collusion are nil, and that someone who is independent monitors this system. Does the adjudicator or ombudsman get a look in? Will the Independent Police Complaints Commission have authority to look into these matters and monitor whether they are done in accordance with the law and with scrupulous integrity?

There will be much more to be said on this clause when we have further information about it.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): I support the comments of the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett), as well as
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those of my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester, on this very clear clause.

The Revenue department has made these payments for many years. It is proper in principle for it to pay rewards and inducements on occasion, provided that the system is properly accountable and controlled.

The Paymaster General suggested that previous practices will be carried forward, but I am not sure that that quite takes the trick here. That is partly because a new Bill should be an opportunity to provide a clearer and more precise statutory authority for practices of this nature; there is now a chance to take a look at previous practices without having explicit parliamentary authority. The other reason is that the clause appears to be even shorter and more general than the current statutory basis, which means that we are going in the wrong direction by reducing the clarity and detail.

There is Treasury involvement in these payments, but I have to say that when I was a Treasury Minister I do not recall authorising payments by Customs and Excise; certainly not on anything like an individual basis. I would be interested if the Paymaster General said what the Treasury involvement amounts to in what can be large payments. Will that be done in aggregate?

We are talking about public money and it is a function of Parliament to devote money to Departments for clear purposes on behalf of taxpayers. I agree with the questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester. Our attitude towards the clause, both here and in court, will be guided by what the Paymaster General can tell us, because the background is not wholly reassuring.

As the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon said, there have been a number of high-profile cases in the past, particularly involving Customs and Excise, where court cases had to be abandoned at least partly because of the use of informers in controversial circumstances. The courts quite rightly look carefully at prosecution cases where the Government are running informers who may be claiming immunities in return for their evidence. If informers are being paid, or if they have been induced at an earlier stage, to behave in certain ways and to give certain evidence, that is naturally of great concern to the courts. It does not automatically invalidate the prosecution, but it means that both the courts and the House ought to look carefully at the propriety of those payments, who authorises them and the general question of accountability.

There is also the question of foreign involvement, because much of the work of the Customs and Excise, particularly, is not simply involved with revenue raising in this country; it is also about countering smuggling and always has been. Indeed, the historic powers granted to that department arose from its efforts against smuggling, particularly in the west country, where we make cider. In my constituency 300 years ago a customs official tried to put an end to the widespread smuggling and evasion of duty and was pinned to a tree by his ears by the local manufacturers as a warning. That was how they regarded the
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question of enforcement. Doubtless, that led at the time to greater powers being given to the department, which is why when people visit Customs and Excise they see the ancient cutlasses and weapons used in countering illegality.

The history of that department, however, is rather different to the more recent history of the Inland Revenue. As my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester mentioned, we would like to know whether the powers under the Bill for the payment of informers were modelled on the Customs experience or that of the Inland Revenue, because we are now consolidating them in a single clause.

I look forward to the Paymaster General giving some extensive information about the authorisation and extent of these payments. If she is not able to provide that today, I hope that she will at least promise it, particularly as it relates to foreign payments, because we could be interfering in the administrative and criminal justice systems of foreign countries. Just as we would be careful about allowing foreign Governments to pay British citizens in this country for the provision of information to other countries, so that must apply in reverse. The question of such payments, which is inadequately dealt with in the Bill and the explanatory notes, needs considerable elaboration before we are satisfied.

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Prepared 13 January 2005