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PricewaterhouseCoopers has argued—in a response to HMRC’s consultation of 14 February 2007, given by its partners John Whiting and Tom Cawdron—that

Given all those serious concerns, can the Minister now provide Parliament with some specific on-the-record assurances about how these powers will be exercised in practice? First, who can exercise the powers and how limited will their exercise be within HMRC? Our amendment No. 20 argues that the ability to exercise them should be confined to HMRC’s criminal investigations directorate, which specialises in fighting fraud and criminal activity but does not ordinarily deal with day-to-day tax affairs. That might help reassure taxpayers, including businesses, that HMRC will not use the threat of powers of arrest as leverage in ordinary tax disputes.

The regulatory impact assessment that accompanied these proposals, under the heading “Training given to HMRC officers”, states:

However, the RIA is not part of the Bill, which in clause 81(9)(2)(a) states:

Given that apparent dichotomy, can the Minister assure the Committee this evening that the powers in part 6 of the Bill will be exercised only by officers of HMRC’s criminal investigations directorate, and not by other, wider elements of the organisation, as well?

Secondly, in what circumstances will the powers be used? It is important to establish that such powers should be used only to fight suspected fraud or other related crime, and not as leverage in ordinary day-to-day tax disputes. What is important is not just the power of arrest but the threat of its use. It would be quite wrong for HMRC officers—a number of whom are now incentivised regarding the annual revenue that they are targeted to bring in—to use the threat of arrest by HMRC as leverage in a tax negotiation in which there is no real suspicion of fraud or other criminality. What assurances can the Minister give the Committee that that will not be allowed to happen, and that potentially overzealous tax inspectors will be kept in check if these powers are granted?

Let us consider some simple instances. Can the Minister assure us that an individual who makes a genuine mistake on their annual tax return, even if it is in their favour, will not be threatened with arrest? Similarly, can he assure us that a small business that is experiencing genuine cash flow problems, and which is therefore having difficulty meeting its tax payments, will not have its partners or directors threatened with arrest as a result? We also presume that someone who is in dispute with HMRC over an attempt to recover an alleged tax credits overpayment—there were a third of a million such people last year—will not be threatened with arrest in any circumstances, save where there are reasonable grounds to suspect that they have been
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involved in an organised attempt to defraud the system? Conversely and for the record, we do expect such powers to be used in fighting organised fraud such as MTIC fraud, which is costing the UK taxpayer billions of pounds a year.

9.45 pm

Thirdly, when will the specific guidance that relates to the operation of the powers be issued. The RIA, under the heading “Communication of the changes”, states:

As I have already stated, the draft order to implement part 6 of the Bill has been published, but when I checked with both the Library and HMRC this afternoon, the specific guidance about the implementation of the powers in practice, as opposed to just the powers themselves, had still not been published. It would, obviously, have been very helpful to have that information before the House before today’s debate.

In addition, it should be borne in mind that even when we do have such information, it will still only be in the form of guidance, or some form of code of practice as—in fairness—has been suggested by the Liberal Democrats in amendment No. 18, and so will not be on the face of the Bill.

Similarly, the RIA, under the heading “Implementation and delivery plan”, also states:

The Treasury has already published the draft order as part of the consultation, but without a potential implementation date. So assuming for a moment that the Bill receives Royal Assent before the summer recess, when is the order intended to be made, and is the Treasury confident that all the relevant training will have been completed by that time?

In summary, we can understand why the Government might want to do this, following on from the HMRC merger. We accept that they have carried out a consultation exercise in advance of seeking to codify these combined powers in part 6 of the Bill. Nevertheless, we remain concerned by the extent of these powers and, specifically, how they might be exercised in practice. The concern spreads wider than just the Opposition. It includes the Chartered Institute of Taxation, the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, the Law Society, the Professional Contractors Group and respected members of the accounting profession, including those from PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Parliament must be reassured that the powers will not be used arbitrarily and that HMRC officials will not use them or threaten to use them simply as leverage in tax negotiations. We have already seen a significant hardening of HMRC’s attitude in respect of the adjudication of tax credit overpayments and we are concerned that such a hardening in other areas could take place once the new powers have been granted to the combined organisation.

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To this extent, we have proposed two amendments to limit the exercise of such powers to a finite number of specially trained officers—amendment No. 2—or to those working specifically in the criminal investigator’s directorate at HMRC, which is amendment No. 20. I shall listen carefully to the Minister’s reply before deciding which, if either, of the amendments to press to the vote.

Julia Goldsworthy: The full RIA outlines the necessary balance to be struck between meeting HMRC’s needs and making the provisions consistent with PACE 1984, and safeguarding citizens. Amendments Nos. 2 and 20 make much sense, although amendment No. 2 makes more sense than amendment No. 20. If one is pressed to a Division, we would be more inclined to support the former.

Amendment No. 2 makes sense because it outlines clear requirements for training, supervision and numbers. I would be interested to know where the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) got the number of 500 from, but it can be amended by order if it is not right, and that makes sense. It is also sensible to ensure that HMRC has to report back on the issue in its annual report. We need change, because PACE 1984 relies only on Customs and Excise and we do now have a merged organisation.

Amendment No. 18 reflects our concerns that we are debating these powers without being clear about how they will be exercised, the circumstances in which they will be exercised and who will exercise them.

With any other Bill, the Government would have other opportunities—such as before it went to the Lords, for instance—to lay the code before the House, but the fact that this is the Finance Bill means that we will not have another chance to debate the matter after tonight. Moreover, we are holding the debate blind because we do not have the code, and that is why the amendment would ensure proper time for appropriate parliamentary scrutiny of this matter.

At the very least, I hope that the Minister will be able to assure the House that appropriate parliamentary time will be set aside to debate the code, when the Treasury makes it available. Although amendment No. 2 is better than No. 20, we cannot support it because, in reality, it is possible that only one officer will be present when an arrest has to be made. PACE was supposed to make sure that an arresting officer would be available when an arrest had to be made, so I hope that the Minister will respond to the proposition in our amendment No. 18.

John Healey: I hope that my response will give the reassurances that the hon. Members for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) and for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) are looking for. The new powers in clause 81 and those that follow it are very important, and I hope that what I say will expedite the business on those further clauses.

The Bill is designed to improve HMRC’s ability to respond to serious criminal attacks on the UK’s tax and tax credit systems. HMRC’s criminal investigation powers will be based on the modern standard already set by Parliament for other agencies facing similar threats—that is, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. That Act is well understood by courts, lawyers
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and law enforcement agencies. It has been in force for more than 20 years, and the former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Wolff, has said that it is central to the working of the criminal justice system. He said that it reflects Parliament’s intention as to what should be the balance between the necessary protection of the rights of the individual citizen and the right of the public as a whole that those who commit crimes should be convicted and then punished.

That is precisely what the 1984 Act’s incorporation for HMRC is designed to do. As the hon. Member for Rayleigh said, it follows the merger of Inland Revenue and Customs and Revenue in 2005, which is when my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General launched the major review of powers. That review involved wide consultation about the powers and deterrents available to HMRC, and about the safeguards available to taxpayers.

Two elements of this year’s Finance Bill cover criminal investigations and civil penalties that emerge from that review of powers. The proposals are based on extensive consultation that included discussion with the review’s consultative committee of independent experts. In addition, there were three public consultation exercises, and meetings with representative bodies and legal experts from across the UK.

There was a time when the tax authority was a less obvious target for organised criminal attacks, but the threat of organised financial crime is now considerable and serious in both the public and private sectors. The MTIC fraud mentioned by the hon. Member for Rayleigh, and the organised criminal attack on the tax credit system that included the theft of thousands of identities from unsuspecting employees, are just two examples of what can happen. Staff at HMRC are uncovering serious criminal activity across a range of the agency’s duties, and the globalisation of trade and financial services is enabling criminals to scale up the amounts involved in complex business frauds.

As a result, HMRC must have modern and effective powers to respond to the changing nature of the criminal threat. However, many of the powers inherited from the Inland Revenue and from Customs and Excise are no longer suited to that purpose. Furthermore, misalignment between the powers leads to confusion; for example, under existing legislation, an HMRC team investigating a case of fraud that covered direct and indirect tax would need two separate warrants to search premises, two separate teams to undertake the search and, if arrests were made, the suspect might have to be arrested twice—once by an HMRC officer for the indirect tax fraud and once by the police. Clearly, that is nonsense and undermines the advantages of the alignment and modernisation that Parliament approved in the merger to create a single UK tax authority.

The majority of responses to our consultation recognised the importance of consistent powers for all tax fraud investigated by HMRC and supported adoption of the relevant parts of PACE as a sensible way to achieve that. The Law Society of England and Wales supported the adoption of PACE on the principle that

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The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne expressed concern about mission creep. Not all the PACE powers will be applicable to HMRC; indeed, the provisions we are debating would give HMRC access to only about one third of PACE. Powers not appropriate to the tax authority are not included; for example, PACE stop and search provisions and the powers to take fingerprints and to charge and bail suspects would not be available to HMRC. However, bringing HMRC criminal investigations into PACE would ensure that all the safeguards enshrined in that legislation are directly applied to those investigations. PACE codes of practice would apply to HMRC; they set out important safeguards, including that the powers of entry, search and seizure must be fully justified before use and that officers must consider less intrusive means before applying for search warrants.

Some people have argued that the exercise represents a levelling up of old Customs powers to the Revenue. That is not the case. In some instances, the provisions would introduce higher thresholds and stronger safeguards; they also mean a narrowing rather than an extension of the number of HMRC officers who can exercise the powers. The power of arrest would be restricted to authorised officers with the necessary training, who needed to perform an arrest in the course of their duties. That will mean removing the power of arrest from about 18,000 ex-Customs officers who at present have the power but no operational need to use it.

Some Members expressed concern that criminal and civil matters would get mixed up. I assure them that the law makes it clear that the powers we are considering can be used only where it is reasonable to suspect that a crime has been committed and only for the purposes of a criminal investigation into that crime. None of the powers can be used for civil matters. No HMRC officer is responsible for both civil and criminal inquiries. The only guidance not yet published by HMRC is on the detail of the training courses officers must complete before they are authorised to use the powers. As promised, the guidance will be published before any powers come into effect.

Subsections (2B) and (2C) of amendment No. 2 seem to be intended to ensure that PACE powers are used only by HMRC officers who are properly trained and authorised. However, that objective is already ensured by the clause. Under subsection (8) and the draft regulations applying PACE to HMRC, which were published on 2 April, PACE powers and functions are available only to HMRC officers authorised by the commissioners. Under administrative law, the commissioners may delegate functions only to properly trained and supervised officers, and only officers who need to use those powers to carry out their duties will be authorised.

The procedures for ensuring that the rules for authorising officers are applied correctly are subject to independent inspection by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary. It is correct that none of the powers will be made available to officers of HMRC who carry out more routine duties such as checking tax returns. By restricting the powers to those officers within HMRC who have a direct business need, the number of officers with the power of arrest will be reduced from a current total of about 24,500 to 6,500—a reduction of less than a third and more than a quarter. Those 6,500 include 2,000 criminal investigators and about 4,500
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officers working to protect the UK’s borders, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). Those officers need the powers to carry out their duties.

10 pm

That brings us to subsections (2D) and (2E), which are designed to limit the number of HMRC officers able to use PACE powers to 500—a figure that could be varied by order. Frankly, that is a ridiculous proposal and a random number. HMRC currently has 1,500 officers trying to tackle MTIC fraud, about 500 of whom have access to criminal investigation powers. The amendment would mean that the 200 criminal investigation officers tackling tax credit frauds, another 160 officers working on complex business fraud, 500 combating smuggling and about 230 tackling criminal finance and money laundering would simply be prevented from exercising their duties. That would certainly apply without the constraint of the constant legal amendments required to do so. What is important for the Committee to note is that the powers are available only to trained officers who need them to carry out their duties, who work in the relevant sections of HMRC and whose work is properly supervised and inspected.

The hon. Member for Rayleigh may be aware that PACE provisions already require statistics to be kept and published. HMRC will in future continue to meet the relevant standards set by PACE as applied to all law enforcement agencies and then exceed them by continuing to publish a much wider range of statistics than it does currently.

Amendment No. 18, and the requirement to prepare codes of practice relating to the exercise of powers, is also unnecessary. PACE codes of practice have been approved by Parliament and are available to the public. Clause 81, as drafted, applies those codes directly to HMRC’s criminal investigations.

Finally, on amendment No. 20, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome was again correct that it would restrict the exercise of PACE powers of arrest to officers currently and exclusively serving in the criminal investigation directorate. Although they require the power of arrest, it is also needed at the frontiers. It is obvious that officers at the frontier need to be able to arrest smugglers, where appropriate, as they are detected entering or leaving the UK. Officers carrying out that work are based in HMRC’s detection directorate rather than its criminal investigation directorate.

On that basis, I hope that the hon. Members for Rayleigh and for Falmouth and Camborne feel that they have had their reassurances and that the hon. Gentleman will not press any of his amendments. If he does, I shall have to ask my hon. Friends to resist them.

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