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Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I am not convinced by the point that my right hon. Friend makes. Perhaps he could clarify. If the Government make the overarching decision on the direction of Her Majesty's Customs and Revenue, I do not understand how there can be any real discretion.

Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend makes a fair point. The judgment that we must make is between the overall statutory framework in which the commissioners operate on the one hand and their more detailed management and day-to-day responsibilities on the other. What I want to go on to suggest in support of the amendment is that we can be perhaps somewhat more optimistic that, in the detailed implementation of the Bill, we should expect the commissioners to be able to exercise that rather more detached position that I suggested just a moment ago in that they may do anything that they think

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): Has my right hon. Friend noticed the difference between what he is now reading from the text about such things being "necessary or expedient" and the wording of the Bill, which refers particularly to expediency, without any reference to necessity?

Mr. Forth: I am sure that my hon. Friend would not want to hurry me on to the next part of my argument because that relates, quite properly, to some of the other amendments in the group, on which we will consider whether we prefer the words "expedient" or "reasonable", as set out in the amendment that he has
 
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tabled. I will not get to that quite yet, if he will forgive me, because we are about to get to the meat of this section of the amendments.

We are seeking in our amendments to oblige the Treasury to consult the Commissioners for Revenue and Customs and we are faced with a straightforward and simple proposition that occurs fairly frequently when we consider Bills of this kind: are we content with what the Government are trying to tell us in the Bill? Clause 1(1) states:

We see the phrase, "it appears to the Treasury", full stop. That is what the Government want us to accept. In other words, they are saying "Trust us. We are the Treasury; we are the Government, so it will all be okay." That would be bad enough in any normal circumstances, but we are talking about retrospective tax provision and we are asked to be doubly trusting of the Government and the Treasury's ability to implement a retrospective provision. That, of course, is the theme of the Bill.

I hope that, on Third Reading, we might have an opportunity to reconsider the principle of retrospection, with which I feel as uneasy now as I did when I first had the honour of coming to the House in 1983. Sadly, I recall being told by much wiser and more senior people than I was at the time—although I am now very wise and very senior, as you know, Madam Deputy Speaker—back in 1983 that retrospection was completely out of the question given the traditions of the House, the terms of our unwritten constitution and Magna Carta and all that.

The Paymaster General (Dawn Primarolo): While the right hon. Gentleman is setting out his views on retrospection, will he explain why he voted with the Conservative Government on a Finance Bill that introduced a retrospective tax arrangement? He did not seem to have such an objection then.

2 pm

Mr. Forth: The answer is probably shame and guilt. I slaved in the low foothills of government for some nine years, as the Minister might recall, and there were occasions on which I was less than happy with what the Government did. I am sure that she has been utterly content with everything that her Government have done during her honourable period in the Treasury, but, frankly, that is not always the case. It will not wash for her to suggest that I cannot criticise her Government now just because I voted for something as a loyal Minister in the lower levels of government because, as I said, I am now older and wiser. I am now guilt-free, and I hope that the Minister shares that condition.

Mr. Greg Knight: Has my right hon. Friend not missed a point in his reply to the Minister? The Bill introduces unspecified retrospection—that is the difference.

Mr. Forth: Perhaps we will come back to that broader question later, but my right hon. Friend is right. The Bill is shot through with all sorts of broad and worrying
 
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powers with an assumption that retrospection is desirable and something for which the Treasury can reach almost at will. That is the whole point of amendment No. 1, because I wanted to find a safety net that would give us a degree of reassurance about what the Treasury might be able to do under the broad terms of the Bill's present wording. I lit upon the commissioners as being probably the best bet.

The fact that my amendment was selected was an important first step in that direction. Hon. Members will know that it is one thing to table an amendment, but quite another for it to get through the rigorous filters and mechanisms that exist to ensure that our amendments are properly as they should be. I was encouraged—there was a skip in my step—when I read the selection list this morning and found that my amendment had got through that rigorous process. That indicates that it has real substance and that the House can thus consider it carefully and seriously.

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on moving the amendment and seek his wise counsel as someone who has been involved in parliamentary matters for much longer than me. I was worried about retrospective legislation when I entered the Chamber and I am now more worried after hearing what he has said. Is this part of a broader trend? I made my maiden speech on the Consumer Credit Bill, which introduces retrospection. Is it the case that the Government are using many Bills to go back and change the rule book?

Mr. Forth: I share my hon. Friend's reservations. He and I must chide our Front-Bench spokesmen a little—I do that from time to time—because we are being sucked into this modern idea of consensus. We are being asked to sign up to the idea that the more Bills and Government measures to which we agree, the more popular we will somehow be outside the House. I plead guilty to the fact that I regard the proper work of the Chamber as that which is being exemplified today. Our proper job is to assume the worst of the Government until they prove otherwise, not the reverse. We should not assume that the Government are doing—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Of course the proper job of the right hon. Gentleman now is to speak to his amendment, which I am sure that he will do.

Mr. Forth: I will do that with enthusiasm, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I am asking hon. Members to judge whether they are content that the Treasury should be able to make regulations without any further mechanisms or consultation, or whether, as I suggest in the amendment, the commissioners should be able to examine the proposals, or at least be consulted about them. Although I have been open with the House about my reservations about the powers and role of the commissioners, I thought that they had sufficient substance, and that we should respect them sufficiently, to allow the Bill to be amended in the way in which I suggest.
 
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Let me move on to the second broad theme of the amendments. That revolves around proposed new subsection (2), which states:

Amendment No. 14, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), would remove the word "expedient" and insert the word "reasonable".

I have resorted to the oldest trick in the parliamentary book because given the words that we are considering, I thought that it would be appropriate to look up the word "expedient" in the dictionary. The definition was:

I thought that that summed up the word rather well. Straight away, we find that the Treasury is amoral, or even immoral, because according to the dictionary definition, expediency is not moral.


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