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The Attorney-General (Lord Goldsmith): I am grateful to the noble Baroness for referring to my correspondence with the noble Lord, Lord Holme. Copies of that have been made available and I hope that it deals with the general issue with which Clause 11 is concerned. I do not wish to take up the time of the Committee, given the way that the debate has been opened by the noble Baroness. Putting it very briefly, it is a way of allowing proper overall accountability in certain areas, while keeping Ministers away from the tax affairs of individual taxpayers.
I do not wish to respond in detail to the specific example given by the noble Lord, Lord Newby, except to say that, at the moment, the collection of management tax from individual taxpayers is a matter for Customs and Excise and the individual taxpayer. The Treasury does not get involved in such matters and did not get involved in the discussions between HM Customs and Excise and MG Rover, nor did the Treasuryneither Ministers nor officialsgive any direction to Customs and Excise.
That is not the subject of our concern at the moment. I am sorry that the noble Baroness was concerned about the way in which the Explanatory Notes explained this provision. They state:
"It carries forward the existing oversight by the Treasury of the predecessor Commissioners' exercise of their statutory functions".
As I made clear in my letter to the noble Lord, Lord Holme, an area that is not subject to that at the moment, will be subject to that under Clause 11. I do not believe that anyone is hiding anything and the noble Baroness made clear that she was well aware of what Clause 11 would deal withI draw attention to the bottom of page 2 of my letter to the noble Lord, Lord Holme.
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Baroness Noakes: I fully accept that that matter was included in the noble and learned Lord's letter to the noble Lord, Lord Holme, but I think that the Minister will accept that the Explanatory Notes were silent on that matter. That was the burden of my complaint, because we have been invited to consider the Bill and the Explanatory Notes. Given that the Bill was portrayed as one which did not extend such powers and, in fact, did so, my complaint is that the Government were not open in the Explanatory Notes, although I completely accept that the noble and learned Lord was open when he corresponded with the Constitution Committee.
Lord Goldsmith: I do not want to take up too much in debating this. The noble Baroness pointed that out as an aside in the course of moving her amendment. All I want to add is that I would not accept any criticism on the grounds of lack of honesty in the Explanatory Notes. They talk about carrying,
"forward the existing oversight by the Treasury of the predecessor Commissioners' exercise of their statutory functions".
I repeat that I do not accept that there is anything misleading here.
However, I have been provided with the opportunity to raise a further point. In our Committee proceedings on Tuesday a point was raised about the technical seminar which took place on 8 February. Members of the Committee will recall that certain noble Lords attended it while others, including the noble Baroness, did not appear to have received notification. I have asked my officials to check that the correct procedure was followed. I can report that the seminar was publicised on 3 February in the party notices, and notification was given on the Whips' website, so there we are. However, copies of the notes which were handed out at the seminar have been placed on the Committee Table for any noble Lord who, for whatever reason, was either unaware of or unable to attend the meeting. I repeat the offer I made on Tuesday to the noble Baroness that my officials would be pleased to set up a further seminar. I mention it at this point because that will provide another opportunity to raise issues on the detail which the noble Baroness or other noble Lords might have.
Let me return to the amendment before us. The noble Lord, Lord Newby, has identified a real problem with it. The key issue when considering this amendment is the nature and frequency of what might be described as directions. Some see them as rare, exceptional and matters of great momentthat I believe is how the noble Baroness perceives themand that may be because they are arrangements which apply to other bodies. But as I said in my letter to the Select Committee on the Constitution, in the case of the Revenue departments there is unavoidable and legitimate ministerial accountability for a fair and effective tax system, and with that accountability comes the need to have general oversight of the department.
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One must look to the relationship that has developed between Treasury and Revenue departments, which involves frequent and informal contact between Ministers and the Revenue departments, very much as the noble Lord, Lord Newby, outlined. My right honourable friend the Paymaster General will continue to exercise her oversight of HMRC as currently for the Inland Revenue and Customs. As I said in my letter, that is done in a number of ways: initiating work by the department, setting overall direction for HMRC, or reacting to a submission from HMRC setting out proposals and asking her to make a decision. Examples often involve matters of strategy, their development and any significant changes to them by noting and commenting as necessary on the publication of HMRC's regular reports and statistics.
The point made by my right honourable friend in another place is that the departmental Minister for HM Revenue and Customs will deal with these matters in the same manner as departmental Ministers generally. She will consider submissions and often meet with officials and the commissioners where appropriate. She will then take any necessary decisions and communicate them to the department with the intention that they should be implemented. However, as we have recognised throughout this debate, there is a critical difference from a ministerial department in that the departmental Minister for HMRC will be concerned only at the general level of detail and for precisely that reason will not direct the commissioners in their consideration of an individual taxpayer's affairs. That is the fundamental reason for the use of the word "general" in Clause 11. The noble Baroness has graciously acknowledged that while she might have had a different formulation, she accepts what lies behind it and that broadly it meets the case.
Given the nature and frequency of these contacts and discussions, and therefore these directions, it is clear that they are not of a kind that would warrant all of them being laid before the House in written form within seven days of their issue, as proposed in the amendment. They really are of a nature and frequency comparable to how other departmental Ministers oversee a substantial department. Therefore, like my right honourable friend, I do not consider that these directions justify the special treatment set out in the proposed amendmenttreatment which departs from the customary relationship between the Revenue department and Treasury Ministers. That focuses on the point drawn out by the noble Lord, Lord Newby. I resist the amendment and I invite the noble Baroness to withdraw it.
Baroness Noakes: This has been a useful debate. I entirely accept the point that the noble Lord, Lord Newby, made, as I understand how business is conducted between Revenue officials, Customs and Excise officials and the Treasury. At the heart of this lies the point on which the noble Lord, Lord Newby, put his finger: what are we trying to identify that requires parliamentary scrutiny? I certainly do not believe that the toing and froing on a day-to-day basis is such a matter.
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However, if we step outside government departmentswe are discussing a special government department as it deals with taxpayers, so it is not like the Treasury or the DTI; it is somewhat different from the run-of-the-mill government departmentthe NHS, for example, has a specific statutory power of direction. Those directions must be made public, as they arise when the Secretary of State tells a particular part of the NHS, or the whole of it, to do something that it would not otherwise do. Therefore, one is searching for a formulation"direction" is the word used elsewhere in legislation concerning public bodiesthat homes in on the occasions when Ministers say, "Do something that you would not otherwise do within your powers and responsibilities". I am prepared to accept for today that the formulation in my amendment does not work, but I do not think I am prepared to acceptdoes the noble Lord wish to intervene?
Lord Sheldon: Please do not bring the contribution to an end.
Baroness Noakes: I shall sit down because I might inadvertently bring it to an end.
Lord Sheldon: I just want to point out that the relationship between the Treasury and the Revenue department is close and continuous. There is no question of them having an argument. A direction suggests that there is something very seriously amiss in the relationship between the Revenue department and the Treasury. In my experience that rarely occurred. In the light of the frequent discussions that take place, the rarity of the need for such a provision should be emphasised. Perhaps my noble and learned friend might care to consider a longstop provision that would not be used generally but only when something has gone a little wrong and the relationship between the Treasury and the Revenue department is not quite as good as it is normally. We need to consider a longstop provision in those circumstances.
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