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James Duddridge : My hon. Friend's amendment would replace one word with another. Did he consider adding both "expedient" and "reasonable"? If his proposal is not accepted by the Secretary of State and Ministers, would that mean that they could do something unreasonable? Would the addition of both words therefore not be sensible?
Mr. Chope: Obviously, it would be better than not accepting the amendment at all but, in deference to my hon. Friend, the word "expedient" is far too broad for the Bill, which gives the Government power by regulation to introduce retrospective legislation to penalise British citizens with higher taxes, especially national insurance contributions. If my hon. Friend had tabled such an amendment, I would have been happy to address it, but I do not wish to encourage a joint test of reasonableness and expediency, as there is an inherent conflict between the two concepts. That is why I did not table such an amendment.
That is exactly what we are trying to achieve. The Government should act reasonably in the exercise of the great powers that it seeks in the Bill. There is no reason why we should discuss all the other uses of the word "reasonable", but it is worth remembering that expressions such as "reasonable acts", "a reasonable amount", "reasonable and probable cause", "a reasonable time" and "reasonable care" are frequently included in legislation, and have been the subject of judicial decisions. If we are to introduce strong regulations that can penalise people retrospectively and if the Government act unreasonably, it should be possible to challenge such action in the courts.
Although the concept of reasonableness frequently occurs in legislation sponsored by other Government Departments, it may be strange and foreign to the Treasury which, uniquely in government, lives a completely unreasonable existence. Although my hon. Friend has found other examples of such usage, they may not impress the Treasury sufficiently to persuade it to include the word in Bills such as the one that we are considering.
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Mr. Chope: My right hon. Friend is right, as I have not been able to find any reference in a Treasury statute to the word "reasonableness", but I am sure that the Minister will correct me if my inquiries were insufficient.
Mr. Newmark : I may be able to help my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). The Treasury may consider the perspective of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) unreasonable. However, it may view it as reasonable, necessary and even expedient to claw back more money through the tax system. I suggest that my hon. Friend look at measure from the Treasury's perspective, which may well deem such behaviour reasonable. That, however, makes me uncomfortable with the use of the word "reasonable".
Mr. Chope: My hon. Friend appears to be criticising amendment No. 15, which would leave the test of reasonableness with the Treasury. Amendment No. 14, however, would leave the test of reasonableness to the objective observer or the courts so, even if he does not support amendment No. 15, I hope that he will support amendment No. 14 for the articulate reasons that he gave.
So the case is made. That does not mean that nobody else needs to participate in the debate, but we already have evidence that the Government are on the back foot. They want to be seen to be reasonable, and what could be more reasonable than accepting the amendments, particularly amendment No. 14?
Mr. Greg Knight: My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) have done the House a service by tabling the amendments. When I perused the amendments last night, I was more attracted to my right hon. Friend's amendment No. 2, which unfortunately has not been selected. I was unsure whether his amendment No. 1 would have any effect at all if implemented. The commissioners are not at arm's length from the Treasury. They have a similar purpose, and one struggles to think of occasions when the commissioners have stood up strongly to a Treasury view on a particular matter.
I started out not being sympathetic to my right hon. Friend's amendment because I took the view that it was too weak to be worth the candle, but on reflecting on the matter and listening to what he said, it occurred to me that if approved by the House, it may bring some benefits in that Ministers might decide to set out guidelines to the commissioners telling them, if the power of consultation was incorporated in the Bill, that they were required to take evidence from interested third parties and listen to representations made to them. The issuing of guidelines, which is not part of my right hon. Friend's amendment but which Ministers could nevertheless do, could make his amendment worthwhile. I have been won over as the debate has progressed, because the amendment could be made to work and have some effect. So, on balance, I can say that my right hon. Friend has my support.
I am with my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch all the way on the amendments that he tabled. I cannot see how the Minister can justify resisting the use of the word "reasonable". A number of
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definitions were quoted to the House, but the essence of my hon. Friend's argument is contained in the "Concise Oxford English Dictionary" quotation that I read to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst earlier. The "Concise Oxford English Dictionary" defines "expedient" as "advantageous" and goes on to saythis is a killing phrase"politic rather than just". The Paymaster General is asking us to accept the use of a power that can be taken to be unjust. I wonder why she has not thus far signified that she accepts my hon. Friend's amendments.
I suspect it is highly likely that the courts would not interfere with the use of a power where that power can be used expediently. I do not think the courts would interfere with a Minister saying, "I took that decision because I deemed it was expedient", whereas we know from a raft of court decisions that the courts eagerly give their view where the statute concerned refers to "reasonable". Using the word "expedient" in effect gives Ministers carte blanche.
I agree with what was said earlier. I have nothing but praise for the Paymaster General, but when we are making law and examining the phraseology that we use, we must assume the worst. I am far from happy to allow a future Government of whatever political persuasion to give powers enabling a Minister to deem, on a whim, that a decision is expedient. I hope that on reflection the House will accept my hon. Friend's amendment, and I hope the Minister will accept it.
Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): First, may I apologise to the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)? I missed the opening part of his speech when he moved his first amendment, but I think that he will accept that I got the flavour from his subsequent remarks.
The amendments are an attempt to make mischief, which is arguably what the Opposition should do. The right hon. Gentleman has discussed his disquiet about the concept of consensus. I think that I understand where he is coming from, but the amendments involve "consultation", which is meaningless mischief making unless there is hope that consensus, compromise and agreement will be reached, so his position is contradictory.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst on his verbal sleight of hand when we got into definitions. He more or less accused my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General of siding with the forces of immorality and contrasted that with definitions of "morality" and "expediency", which he got from a dictionary. In this context, however, the converse of the moral position is not immorality but amorality, which is a point that the Opposition do not seem to grasp when they discuss morality and definitions of reasonableness. It is almost impossible to discuss reasonable taxation, which is almost an oxymoron.
I shall provide a parallel to illustrate where I am coming from in the moral argument. Most hon. Members accept that it would not be reasonable in criminal law to carry out the death penalty on someone who had shoplifted a bar of confectionary.
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