HC Deb 24 June 1954 vol 529 cc650-3

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

Mr. Houghton

This is the shortest Clause we have had to consider since Clause 13, and for that we should be truly grateful. It is an inoffensive looking Clause and proposes to omit something from the Income Tax Act, 1952. There is quite a lot about the Income Tax Act, 1952, which could be omitted without anybody missing it, because it contains antique survivals of ancient law.

The Clause proposes to omit subsections (2) and (3) of Section 34 of the 1952 Act. Those two subsections deal with the mechanics, to some extent, of making assessments under Schedule A. Schedule A is popularly known as property tax, which many people think is something different from Income Tax, but, of course, we all know better. Those two subsections in the 1952 Act say that assessors shall deliver to the Additional Commissioners their certificates of assessment under Schedules A and B and that such assessments, when delivered with the relative papers, shall be progressively numbered.

In the Acts of years gone by, the details of what assessors and clerks and commissioners should do were specified in the Act. Subsection (2) of Section 34 in the 1952 Act says that such assessments, together with all statements which have been delivered to the assessors, both of annual value and of any deductions claimed to be made therefrom, shall be progressively numbered. 6.30 p.m.

This Clause proposes to omit those words. It is not clear whether, in the absence of directions, these assessments have to be numbered at all, or numbered in some way different from progressively. They might be numbered the wrong way round. There is nothing to indicate what is to be done when these assessments have no longer to be progressively numbered.

Subsection (3) states: The clerks to the respective General Commissioners shall, with all convenient speed, extract the particulars contained in the lists and statements delivered to the Commissioners, so far as they concern assessments under Schedule A, into books provided for the purpose… It is not clear, by omitting these words, whether the clerks to the respective General Commissioners shall do something with all speed, or all convenient speed, or just speed, or no speed at all. It is not clear what the clerks to the Commissioners are expected to do.

Then what about the books which are provided for the purpose? Does the omission of these words mean that the Inland Revenue is no longer to provide books for this purpose? If so, have these poor, wretched clerks to the Commissioners to buy the books out of their own pockets? What is the idea behind the emission of these particular provisions of the 1952 Act?

I have an idea that behind this Clause [...]ies a measure of modernisation of the mechanics of making and recording these assessments. Presumably, by passing this Clause, we are authorising the Inland Revenue to modernise the machinery and the office methods of dealing with the Schedule. If the Financial Secretary really wants to assist the Chancellor of the Exchequer to reduce the administrative costs in the public service, he should look at the Schedule A assessment books in the tax offices in the country today. He will see the cumbersome size of them, and the scratching out and inking in of changes of ownership and occupation which have been written into these books year by year since the last valuation 15 years ago. Many of these books have been entirely re-copied because they were quite unusable in their old and tattered form.

If I understand aright, it is now proposed to give the Inland Revenue permission to get away from the idea of putting the assessments in books at all, and to adopt a card index system, a loose-leaf system, or something more in accordance with modern office methods and management. I am sure the Committee will approve of that step.

I do not know what the timing of this new measure is to be, but I am sure that the Committee will be looking to the Radcliffe Commission, in its final report, to say something about the future of Income Tax under Schedule A. There are many different opinions as to whether Schedule A should be abolished, whether income from property should be assessed under the conditions of Schedule D and so on. The point that I am making is that I hope that it is not proposed to go to elaborate lengths to modernise the office machinery if, before very long, the whole thing may come under quite drastic review.

I acknowledge straight away that, from my information, it is very likely that quite urgent steps will have to be taken, whatever the Radcliffe Commission may say and however relatively short the time may be before this matter can be considered afresh.

Perhaps the Financial Secretary will say a few words about whether my impression is correct, and assure the Committee, as I am sure he can, that there is nothing in this Clause which alters the basis of assessment or makes any difference whatever to the taxpayer. I understand that it imposes no new charge and gives no new concessions, not even administrative concessions, and that it is purely and simply to relieve the Inland Revenue of the cumbersome requirements of Section 34 of the Act and to give them freedom to arrange their affairs on more up-to-date lines.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

The hon. Gentleman, in his concluding observations, has, I think, summarised very clearly the purpose of this Clause. It does not alter the tax position, liability or assessment of individuals. It is purely and simply, to use his own phrase, a measure of modernisation.

The relative Sections—Sections 34 and 67 of the Income Tax Act, 1952—describe the recording of Schedule Assessments in books. The hon. Gentleman referred to what he had seen in tax offices, and although my experience is more modest than his, I have gone to the trouble of looking at these books, and I think that he will confirm my impression that some of them are practically disintegrating. The purpose of the Clause is to enable a clearer and simpler method to be used, which will largely consist of loose leaves which will he put in due course in binders.

We are advised that this more modern method does not comply with the Sections in that these binders are not books, and it is necessary to get rid of the duty of using books. There is also a small provision making it unnecessary to record the name of the occupier in cases where the landlord pays the tax.

Question put, and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.