HC Deb 17 April 1913 vol 51 cc2186-91

The Commissioners of Customs and the Commissioners of Inland Revenue shall be liable to be sued in respect of any moneys which ought to be repaid or made good by them under this Act.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause be now read a second time."


The object of this Clause is to render the Commissioners of Customs and the Commissioners of Inland Revenue liable to be sued in respect of any money which ought to be repaid or made good by them under the Act. The scheme of the Act is that the duty shall have statutory effect from the moment the Resolution is passed. If that Resolution is ultimately rejected, or if it is not embodied in the Act of Parliament, any duties which have been paid will have to be repaid. Suppose the Customs Duties have been paid and have found their way into the hands of the Commissioners of Customs and thence into the Consolidated Fund, what is the remedy of the subject? So far as I can see, his only remedy is a Petition of Right. It has been established that no action or mandamus would lie against the Commissioners. But the Petition of Rights is a very cumbrous procedure. It cannot be taken in the County Court. Why, in the cases where small sums are involved, should not the more simple procedure of the County Court be applicable? It certainly would be preferable, and it would be cheaper for the subject. This Clause is put forward really as a protection for small people in getting back their money. It is a fact that nowadays people pay Income Tax over and over again beyond what they are liable to pay. Hundreds of people do so, and they simply do not recover it because of the expense which would be involved in the process. We ought to have the simplest kind of procedure to recover moneys which have been paid under the provisional effect of the Resolution. With regard to the Petition of Rights, it rests with the Attorney-General to say whether or not he will allow it to proceed. It is a matter solely within his discretion. Of course, I should not suspect any Attorney-General, and least of all the right hon. Gentleman opposite, of exercising the power except with perfect fairness. But, as a matter of fact, it is simply an act of grace or favour; it is not a matter of right. I see no reason why the ordinary procedure should not be available to the subject. Why should he not have the procedure of the County Court open to him? Under the National Insurance Act a Clause was specially inserted enabling the Insurance Commissioners to be sued. If it is not below the dignity of Insurance Commissioners to be sued, why should it be below the dignity of the Inland Revenue Commissioners?


I beg to second the Motion.

The ATTORNEY-GENERAL (Sir Rufus Isaacs)

I do not think there is any necessity for this Clause. The provisions of the Act are not new; there is nothing novel in the procedure which is laid down; the only difference is in the authority which is affected. These provisions have actually been in existence for a considerable time. My hon. and learned Friend knows that they are to be found in other Acts of Parliament, and I would suggest that it is neither necessary nor desirable in this particular Statute to introduce provisions for a different kind of procedure. I will not argue the question whether there may or may not be something to be said for enabling the Commissioners of Inland Revenue to be sued. But I am quite sure it would be very undesirable to devise a means of procedure to recover money under this Bill different from that provided for in Statutes already in existence. There may be a good deal to be said for securing a better form of procedure than the Petition of Rights. But that plan acts very well. When a Petition of Rights is presented it goes in the ordinary course before the Attorney-General, who advises first the Home Secretary and then His Majesty. That is the constitutional procedure and, if the right is allowed, then the Petition comes before the Court in the ordinary way. The fiat is always granted, as the hon. and learned Gentleman knows. What I should strongly deprecate, from every point of view, is that you should introduce a special kind of procedure in regard to this Bill differing from any other under which you have to recover money from the Treasury, the Inland Revenue or Customs. I hope my hon. and learned Friend will see fit, in view of that, to withdraw the Clause. It may be a proper subject matter for discussion on a more general question on another occasion, but we certainly ought not to single out that form of procedure for application to this Bill.


There can be no doubt that the Petition of Right as against the Commissioners of Customs is an archaic form of procedure, and very unusual when a man wants to recover money. I understand the Attorney-General's view that this is a matter which might well be considered if we were dealing with this subject as a whole, and not with this particular Bill. But my hon. and learned Friend is really well advised to raise the question here, because we are dealing with a very exceptional case, the case of money which has been paid or collected under the terms of a Resolution, which is subsequently overridden either by no Act being passed or by an Act being passed in a different form. Take the position of a person who in these circumstances, having paid the money, desires to get it back. The particular individual may be very poor, and it is utterly impossible for poor individuals to obtain a remedy by means of a Petition of Right; I think the Attorney-General will agree with that.


I know some poor people who have recovered on a Petition of Right.


They must have had very exceptional nerve. Sometimes I have been asked to advise, and I have said, "If you do not want to get into bankruptcy you had better put up with your loss than put forward a Petition of Right, which is a very expensive form of remedy." In Section 30 of the Customs Consolidation Act, 1874, which deals with all questions relating to duties and Excise, it is said:— The duty paid in the first instance shall be deemed to be taken to be the proper duty payable unless an action or suit shall be commenced by the importer within three months after. I am not sure whether that means that the suit or action must be by Petition of Right. Perhaps the Attorney-General can tell us that. So far as the terms of the Section are concerned, they seem to contemplate an ordinary suit or action. What we are seeking to get is a remedy very much like the remedy under Section 30 of the Customs Consolidation Act. That is a case where the duty payable in the first instance is afterwards found to be wrong in amount, and then an easy form of remedy is given to the importer by which he may recover the amount from the Commissioners of Inland Revenue. If that is a true reading of Section 30 of the Customs Consolidation Act, 1874, there is a stronger case for giving an easy remedy such as is suggested by my hon. and learned Friend, because the whole assumption here is that the payment has been wrongly made or the sum wrongly collected, and so wrongly collected that a subsequent Act of Parliament has determined it is so. You may have men who want to recover anything from a few shillings to a small number of pounds, and you ought to afford them the easiest form of remedy the law allows. The easiest form of remedy the law allows in respect to small sums is the County Court. Why should not a man who wants to obtain repayment of a small sum of shillings or pounds go to the County Court against the Inland Revenue Commissioners, just as he would against any other man who owes him money? The old notion is that the Inland Revenue Commissioners are the Crown. They, like every other public body who have taken money wrongly, ought to be made to refund it in the easiest possible way known to our law. Having regard to the exceptional circumstances of the Bill, an exceptional and easy form of remedy might be allowed.


The Attorney-General seems to overlook the fact that under this Bill he is taking exceptional powers which have never hitherto been given, and which are now being embodied in a Statute which is quite new to our present procedure and to our system of collecting taxes. I appreciate the difficulty he has foreshadowed as to our dealings with the whole question of the right to recover from the Crown. No doubt that is a very serious difficulty, and would properly be considered on broader lines than it is possible to consider it now, but we have in this Bill a provision which takes care to make it plain that where there has been a modification of the Resolution or a modification in the Act of the tax as originally introduced under the authority of the Resolution, the money which would have been payable under the new conditions shall be repaid or made good, and consequently in Clause 1, paragraph (d), any deduction is deemed to be an unauthorised deduction. The matter stops there. The Government have made it clear that where the conditions have been varied there is an unauthorised deduction or payment. What possible remedy at the present moment has the subject in respect to these payments or deductions? I take the case of the Income Tax. If he applies to Somerset House he can obtain certain forms, and after going through a considerable amount of torturous procedure he may get the money back, but he has to possess his soul in patience during weeks and months. I should like the Attorney General to say that this matter will be considered by the Inland Revenue Commissioners from the point of view of the subject, in order that they might give some notice that there was this right to claim money which could be pursued by the taxpayer. It is a matter of some importance, because it is all very well to declare a right in Act of Parliament, with which very few subjects are familiar, and to say it is a deduction which ought not to have been made and shall be repaid or made good. It is not likely to arise very often that the Resolution on Report or the Act does modify the tax, and it would be satisfactory if we could be assured that the Commissioners in these cases would, either by public notice or in some other way, indicate that easy facilities for the repayment of money would be given. If the Attorney-General could make some statement of that sort it would meet the difficulty. I recognise that it would not be fair to press the Government to accept the new Clause.


I should like to say one word in answer to the hon. and learned Gentleman (Mr. Pollock), who made a very good and reasonable suggestion. I think it is quite right that the Commissioners should make all provision they can to bring to the notice of those who have paid, if the Resolution is modified in any way, that the money can be claimed and that the Commissioners would be bound to return it. I think that suggestion is a very good one. It would not be possible to put it in the Bill, but I agree with him that it ought to be done. I will certainly take care to bring to the minds of the Commissioners that I have said it should be done, and that, whatever money has to be returned in these circumstances, great care should be taken to give very full notice. I see that the Bank of England, in the form they are now issuing, state that they are deducting the money, but if any persons object they will be bound to return the money as the law stands at present. They could easily put in a notice stating that if there is any change in the Resolution or in the Bill which is subsequently introduced which in any way gives the subject a right, that the money would be returned. That might be sufficient to bring to the notice of poorer persons that they were entitled to return the money. The Commissioners would not desire to keep one penny of the money which was not lawfully due. I am much obliged to the hon. and learned Gentleman for the suggestion.


In view of what the right hon. Gentleman has said, and in view of his promise to take the general question into consideration, I ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.