Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Bill

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Mr. Burnett: Will the Paymaster General give way?

Dawn Primarolo: If I may just clarify my point first, because I made a mistake, and we need to make sure that the record is correct. The external scrutiny is by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary and that is the right place for it to be done. We are trying to
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anchor it in at that point. I have nearly concluded, but I will briefly take one intervention.

10.15 am

Mr. Burnett: Briefly, I agree that the National Audit Office scrutiny is the sort of sanction that Liberal Democrat Members look for, but I have not quite understood whether the NAO audits all of the payments each year or whether every now and again it makes an audit on an as-and-when basis.

Dawn Primarolo: The NAO audits the departments every year, in order for the accounts to be presented to Parliament. As I understand it, what happened in 2003–04 was a specific revisiting of the root and branch consideration. I do not think that that would necessarily be done annually. It was, so to speak, a random check; I should not say that, because I do not know whether it was.

The NAO undertakes its duties as it thinks appropriate, in order to report to Parliament that all the money is accounted for. I am not exactly sure why in that year the NAO decided specifically to examine those issues to which we are referring, over and above the normal audit. It would be free to do so every year if it wants, but that would be a matter for it in considering the accounts. Such examination is not required by the Bill and would not be required by any action of the departments. That is a matter for the NAO to decide.

I have concluded my remarks, Mr. Hurst, and I sincerely hope that I have given as much information as is helpful to the hon. Member for Chichester. If there are any points that he still wants clarified, I would be happy to listen and I am sure that he would be gracious enough to allow me to write to him and to other members of the Committee to fill in the gaps, should there be any.

Mr. Tyrie: I am very grateful to the Minister for having listened carefully to what I said and for her attempt to answer as many questions as she could, more or less on the hoof. I am not one of those who thinks that Ministers should carry great wodges of highly detailed information in their head and by some miracle be able to parrot from it on demand. It is far more sensible to ask for information and get it in written form, so that others may also take a look at it. That is what 21st century scrutiny should be all about. I shall not prolong the point, but it leads me to wonder whether this Standing Committee procedure that we have for the scrutiny of Bills is remotely adequate for the kind of legislation that we deal with these days. We need something much more sophisticated, as almost every other country has decided.

The Chairman: Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman knows that he is straying outside the confines of the clause.

Mr. Tyrie: Yah. I could not possibly disagree with that. I never do disagree with you, Mr. Hurst, and I certainly do not disagree with you, even privately, on that one.

I am grateful to the Minister for agreeing to come back to me and to other Committee members by letter on some of the further detailed questions that I asked.
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Would it be possible for her to do so well before Report? I have become a bit concerned even about our existing level of transparency. It seems to hark back, to some degree, to an earlier era—decades ago—when there was far less access to information generally; I am talking about the existing rules as laid down in statute. Therefore, I would not be entirely happy anyway and we have an opportunity to look anew.

My concern is also raised by the fact that at least in theory the Treasury was in a position to poke around a little now and again if it so wanted, and if something particularly egregious appeared, to alert Ministers to it. That is often the function of a spending control Department and is legitimate: it often starts with money and leads to a consideration of other, broader issues, which is how it should function. I expect that is partly why those clauses were in the original legislation.

I am concerned that the reference to the Treasury has now been removed. I asked for information from the Paymaster General before Report, because if she feels unable to give me the level of basic transparency that is required I might want to return to this issue then. Perhaps she could, in her letter, also deal explicitly with the kind of arrangement that she thinks can be put in place to ensure that there is the maximum level of transparency that is consistent with the efficiency of a reward-and-informer system. We need such a system, it is right that there should be one and it is crucial that we have something in place, given how the Bill is drafted.

The Paymaster General referred to the level of scrutiny that already exists and in doing so made my point. I do not think that she was having a go at me—far from it—and I am not having a go at her now. However, she talked about the external scrutiny by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary and the National Audit Office reports. The NAO will do a general audit, but that will not remotely go into the detail of the questions that I have raised. The hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon was right to draw that point out in an intervention.

If the NAO thinks that there is something egregious, it can launch a value for money study, which may uncover all sorts of things, but those are ad hoc and periodic studies, not annual reports and reviews. The Paymaster General has just described two or three different avenues by which there will be some scrutiny. Perhaps those should be brought together. However, there is no statutory basis for that and it would be wonderful if she came forward with her own amendment on Report that achieved that and put us back, broadly, where we were. The Treasury should have a role and there should be some statutory commitment to a level of transparency higher than that which we have at the moment. Such a process will enable the different levels and types of scrutiny that already exist to be drawn together. I look forward to her letter and will take it from there.

Mr. Burnett: This has been another constructive debate. I agree with what the hon. Member for Chichester said in a measured way. I am grateful to
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the Paymaster General, who always considers questions conscientiously and does her best to reply—and it is not an easy job. Those of us who have never had the good fortune to be on the Government Benches can only wonder what it is like.

Dawn Primarolo: And never will.

Mr. Burnett: Et tu, Brute? It is unkind of the right hon. Lady to say that.

Dawn Primarolo: I understand that the hon. Gentleman is leaving the House, so he has not got much time if he wants to cross the Floor.

Mr. Burnett: You never know; it could be 18 months.

Mr. Tyrie: That is enough generosity.

Mr. Burnett: Perhaps the Paymaster General will look again at the scrutiny by the National Audit Office. Such is the sensitivity of the payments that they are open to possible corruption, so whenever they are made they should always be audited annually by the NAO. That was the thrust of my earlier intervention. I hope that the Paymaster General will consider the matter; we shall no doubt return to it on Report. I am grateful for her commitment to write to me about the level of authority and competence of the individual who will sanction the payments in the new Inland Revenue and Customs department.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 22 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 23

Inspection: England and Wales

Amendments made:

No. 50, in clause 23, page 11, line 42, after 'Constabulary', insert 'or the Scottish inspectors'.

No. 51, in clause 23, page 12, line 4, after 'may', insert—

    (i) in relation to Her Majesty's Inspectors of Constabulary,'.

No. 52, in clause 23, page 12, line 6, at end insert—

    '(ii) in relation to the Scottish inspectors, apply (with or without modification) or make provision similar to any provision of section 33 or 34 of the Police (Scotland) Act 1967 (c.77) (inspection);'.

No. 53, in clause 23, page 12, line 14, after 'Constabulary', insert 'or the Scottish inspectors'.

No. 54, in clause 23, page 12, line 17, at end insert—

    '(3A) An inspection carried out by virtue of this section shall be carried out jointly by Her Majesty's Inspectors of Constabulary and the Scottish inspectors—

    (a) if it is carried out wholly in Scotland, or

    (b) in a case where it is carried out partly in Scotland, to the extent that it is carried out there.'.

No. 55, in clause 23, page 12, line 24, at end insert

    'or Scotland.

    (6) In this section ''the Scottish inspectors'' means the inspectors of constabulary appointed under section 33(1) of the Police (Scotland) Act 1967 (c.77).'.—[Dawn Primarolo.]

Mr. Burnett: On a point of order, Mr. Hurst. May I make a general comment on clause 23?
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The Chairman: Not now, but the hon. Gentleman may in a moment.

Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Burnett: I have had a chance to look at the draft statutory instrument. Will the Paymaster General give an outline of how the inspections will work and the interrelation between Her Majesty's inspectorate and the Independent Police Complaints Commission? Presumably, we are considering general inspections into the functions of the Revenue and Customs department, and there will be no duplication of function between the inspectorate and the IPCC. I also look forward to hearing from the Paymaster General about whether there will be an annual report—in the public domain and open to scrutiny—on the inspections. Presumably, there will be.

If wrongful practices are unearthed during the inspections, to whom in the police service or the IPCC will the inspectorate report them? I am concerned that there is duplication in this clause and the subsequent clause—possibly triplication in the subsequent clause.

Will the Economic Secretary respond to this debate?

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