Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Bill

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Clause 25

Confidentiality, &c. Amendment made: No. 56, in clause 25, page 13, line 2, after 'Constabulary', insert 'or the Scottish inspectors'.—[Dawn Primarolo.]

Amendments made:

No. 57, in clause 25, page 13, line 30, leave out 'only'.
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No. 58, in clause 25, page 13, line 31, leave out second 'and'.

No. 59, in clause 25, page 13, line 33, at end insert—

    '(8) In the application of this section to Scotland the reference in subsection (6)(b) to 12 months shall be taken as a reference to six months.

    (9) In this section ''the Scottish inspectors'' has the same meaning as in section 23.'.—[John Healey.]

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

John Healey: Members have rightly taken the issue of confidentiality very seriously. I want to explain how the operation of clause 25 relates to the responsibilities given to the HMIC and the IPCC, which we have just discussed.

Mr. Tyrie: Briefly.

John Healey: I will do so briefly, but it is important to have it clearly on the record, because the HMIC and the IPCC will carry out inspections and investigations of the HMRC and during their work they will need access to sensitive or customer-confidential information. Disclosure of information to the HMIC and the IPCC is covered in clause 17 and was discussed at some length earlier in Committee. Clause 25, however, restricts the use of such information to inspections or investigations of the HMRC, prohibiting further disclosure without the consent of the commissioners. It also establishes unauthorised disclosure as a criminal offence.

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HMIC will inspect areas of work within HMRC relating to the rules and procedures of the criminal justice system. It is not envisaged that HMIC will routinely focus on specific incidents, but in some cases it may do so and need access to confidential information. Even when that happens, HMIC will not usually need to refer to any specific confidential or sensitive information in its reports. For that reason we specified that it may not disclose any information without the consent of the commissioners.

The IPCC will, as we have discussed, investigate allegations of criminal conduct or gross misconduct against HMRC officers and in some cases that will require access to confidential information. The IPCC has procedures for keeping complainants informed during investigations and producing reports on its findings, as the hon. Gentleman knows.

The IPCC provisions for disclosure during investigations into the police are restricted in regulations made by the Home Secretary and currently restrict disclosure of information during the course of an investigation, for example in the interests of national security or to prevent crime. We will add to those restrictions in regulations to protect confidential HMRC information. However, positive and qualified provision ensures that we do not limit the IPCC's established role to investigate serious allegations and provide assurance to the public about its handling of such matters.

The provision ensures that HMIC and IPCC staff will be subject to the same restrictions and penalties regarding disclosure of information as HMRC staff.
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Mr. Burnett: I am grateful to the Economic Secretary for that explanation, but can he assure the Committee of something? Clauses 23, 24 and 25 are useful and important and add to transparency—and I hope that they will make taxpayers even more convinced than hitherto that the actions of the Revenue and Customs are under scrutiny. As we have said before, it is important that we have a just and equitable tax system, or else it is deeply corrosive of morale and makes collecting tax even more difficult. I hope that the Economic Secretary can confirm that if the IPCC needs and requests sensitive information in the course of an investigation, it will get it and there will be no inhibitions on that.

I appreciate that members of the IPCC who deal with such matters will have to sign the relevant oath and other confidentiality agreements. That is right and proper. However, they need the tools to do the job and I hope that no obstacles at all will impede them in their task.

John Healey: The hon. Gentleman and I share the concern to see the greatest possible confidence in the work of the HMRC and the greatest possible degree of transparency, without compromising the responsibilities and functions of the department.

During discussions of clause 17 we debated at some length the disclosure of information to the IPCC and HMIC. We intend the external scrutiny bodies to have open access to the work of HMRC. That is an important principle that helps to reassure Ministers and the public that the bodies are providing the level of scrutiny of HMRC that we are setting them up to provide under the Bill. I hope that the provisions of clause 17 and the general reassurances that my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General and I have given the hon. Gentleman this morning will convince him of that.

Clause 25 deals with the other side of the issue: any disclosure of confidential information that the two bodies may need to undertake, the grounds on which they may do so and the limits that it is right to put on them.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 25, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 26


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

John Healey: I rise because it may be useful if, before the Committee looks at clauses 26, 27 and 28, I say a few words about the general principles that underline the clause and the other offences. [Interruption.] I do so because I regard this as an important part of the Bill. It is at least as important as the question of rewards, which we rightly discussed at length earlier.

Mr. Tyrie: We have only two and a half hours left for scrutiny of the Bill, and we Opposition Members want to raise a number of important points that arise later in the Bill. We have already discussed this
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informally, and we have made it clear that we will not contest the clauses. I find it perplexing that the Economic Secretary should want to read material on to the record when he could perfectly well publish it.

The Chairman: Order. I am not entirely certain whether that is an intervention or a point of order, but it is a matter for Members to decide when they wish to speak, provided that it is in order in terms of the Bill.

John Healey: Thank you, Mr. Hurst. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, at present, Customs and Excise and the Revenue have different provisions and penalties for the offences of impersonating, obstructing, and assaulting an officer. In a single integrated department, there is no justification for treating one group of staff differently from another. Accordingly, clauses 26, 27 and 28 propose common consolidated provisions across the whole of HMRC. I hope that that general and brief introduction to this set of clauses is helpful to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 26 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 27 and 28 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 29

Power of arrest

Amendments made: No. 60, in clause 29, page 14, line 33, at end insert—

    '(4) In Scotland, a constable may arrest a person without warrant if he reasonably suspects that the person—

    (a) has committed an offence under this Act,

    (b) is committing an offence under this Act, or

    (c) is about to commit an offence under this Act.'.

No. 84, in clause 29, page 14, line 33, at end insert—

    '(5) In Northern Ireland, a constable may arrest a person without warrant if the constable reasonably suspects that the person—

    (a) has committed an offence under this Act,

    (b) is committing an offence under this Act, or

    (c) is about to commit an offence under this Act.'.—[John Healey.]

Clause 29, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 30

The Revenue and Customs Prosecutions Office

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

Mr. Tyrie: I rise very briefly, because at least one of my hon. Friends will develop the arguments about this part of the Bill in much more detail. As everyone can see, the clause and those that immediately follow it are about the creation of the new prosecution authority, and that is an important aspect of the Bill. Fortunately, it is also, in most respects, not particularly contentious. It arises out of recommendations in the Butterfield review, which concluded that the existing arrangements for prosecution were appalling in some respects. The report was extremely critical. I shall read only one
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passage; there are so many that I could go on for half an afternoon. It stated:

    ''The issues I identify include the absence of a strategic approach to excise diversion frauds; poor communications; serious deficiencies in the handling of informants; and failure to comply with disclosure obligations.''

An independent authority is being created; the prosecuting authority will be answerable to the Attorney-General, and we strongly welcome that. Some issues of transparency and accountability arise and I shall raise them in an amendment to schedule 3. I have one or two other remarks to make, either on schedule 3 or, probably, on clause 31, but beyond that I think that I shall leave the matter to one or two of the lawyers in the Room.

Mr. Burnett: As someone who exhorted the Government for many years to bring the prosecution authority of the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise under the aegis of the Attorney-General I support the clause and the following clauses, with one or two caveats. I should like some further information.

Presumably the Economic Secretary can assure us that the Revenue and Customs Prosecutions Office will be subject to the usual inspection regime under the Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate. Will he say a few words to the Committee also about the hierarchy of authority? The Director of Revenue and Customs Prosecutions will be appointed by—and presumably responsible to—the Attorney-General. What role, if any, will the Director of Public Prosecutions have in relation to the functions of the body? I suspect that it will be entirely independent of the DPP.

Will the Economic Secretary also ensure that the department will be housed in an area entirely separate from the mainstream Revenue and Customs officials? That is a point that I raised on Second Reading. Will he also say a few words about staff seconded from mainstream Revenue and Customs to the prosecutions office? Independence must palpably happen: it must be de facto independence.

Finally, I want to say a word about sufficient resources. I mentioned the Butterfield report earlier, and it contained trenchant criticism of certain practices. That is of course one of the reasons for the formation of a separate prosecutions office, independent under the Attorney-General. It is no good its being separate and independent if it is emasculated by having insufficient personnel and plant and machinery with which to do its work.

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