HC Deb 25 July 1958 vol 592 cc827-39

11.15 a.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Renton)

I beg to move, in page 20, line 30, column 3, to leave out "paragraph 6".

Paragraph 6 is one of a number of paragraphs in Part I of the First Schedule to the Income Tax Act, 1952, which were included in the repeal Schedule of the Bill as a result of a new Clause which I moved, in which, among other things, the property qualification of the General Commissioners of Income Tax was removed. On further consideration since the Committee stage, it has been found that the repeal of that paragraph of the First Schedule of the Income Tax Act, 1952, would cause difficulty in Scotland. We are therefore suggesting that that repeal should be deleted so that the paragraph will stand.

So that the House may be fully seized of the matter, I should draw attention to paragraph 6. It states that if a sufficient number of duly qualified persons to be chosen, either to act as General Commissioners or to supply vacancies, cannot be found for any city division, any person qualified to act for the county division in or adjoining which the city division is situate may be chosen for the city division. That allows for flexibility, and it allows a practical difficulty to be overcome on certain occasions. It would be a pity if we repealed the paragraph, because the machinery which it contains could no longer be used.

Sir F. Soskice

I do not demur, but I would like to raise a question which arises from what the Joint Under-Secretary has said. In the case where it is necessary, to have recourse to outside assistants, if I may so briefly term them, those outside assistants who would be called in on an occasion of that sort would still be required to have the property qualification which it was the objective of the Government to remove. If so, it is perhaps a little unfortunate in that the Government do not wholly achieve the purpose which they have in mind of wholly discarding a property qualification in the appointment of commissioners.

If that is the necessary consequence of the step which the Government have taken, and if, after all, leaving in the paragraph simply provides as it were a kind of safety valve where there is an insufficiency of persons to man the Commissioners, I suppose that the only thing one can do is to accept it. It is, however, right to call attention to the fact that in that case, which, we hope, will not be frequent, the property qualification will still be applicable.

Mr. Renton

The position, as I understand it, is that these people would not be required to have the property qualification—the property qualification has been abolished. Nevertheless, suitable people must be found, and if they cannot be found in the area in which they have to sit, it is necessary to go outside to other areas. At least in Scotland that has been found to be the case, particularly concerning the cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. The Amendment will give flexibility in that so far as those two cities are concerned it will be permissible, if necessary, to recruit the General Commissioners from county areas outside, which would not normally be the rule. It is only exceptionally that that would happen.

Sir F. Soskice

May I say another word? I should be grateful if the Government would think over this problem a little further at a later stage in the history of the Bill. A possibly anomalous position will arise if one lot of Commissioners do not require the property qualifications but others who have been recruited from outside still are required to possess it.

The Solicitor-General for Scotland

indicated dissent.

Sir F. Soskice

I see that the right hon. and learned Gentleman shakes his head. Perhaps I have misconceived the situation and it is a purely Scottish one. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman would say that he will give further consideration to that matter, I would feel gratified. It might possibly be dealt with by inserting at an appropriate place in the Bill a provision which, broadly, would have the effect that if outside assistance is called for, the outside assistants shall not be disqualified if they do not possess the necessary property qualifications. I can conceive, particularly in the large cities to which the hon. and learned Gentleman referred, the possibly almost ridiculous situation arising, that we may have a number of General Commissioners, some recruited from outside, some not recruited from outside, some required to have a property qualification, others not.

It may be that I have misconceived the situation, and in a matter of Scots law I am only too ready to think that probably, indeed very probably, that is the case; but if I have correctly stated the position I should have thought it a little unfortunate that there should be that duality of qualification requisite in the manning of the bodies of Commissioners. While I would not ask the House to oppose the Amendment, I should be gratified if the Solicitor-General for Scotland would say that he will give it further thought in order to try to prevent the anomaly, if there is an anomaly, which I have indicated.

The Solicitor-General for Scotland

I think I can set the right hon. and learned Gentleman's mind at ease. Clause 7 (2) still stands, and so the property qualification is abolished for all General Commissioners. What we are doing by this Amendment is to ensure that in two particular cases where they are rather thin on the ground we can go outside the area in order to appoint General Commissioners from outside, but the overriding consideration still applies, that those outside Commissioners do not have to have a property qualification.

Amendment agreed to.

11.22 a.m.

The Attorney-General

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I do not think the House will expect or indeed require me to make anything like a long speech in moving the Third Reading of this important Bill. We have had very full discussions in the House of the whole of the Franks Report and we had a very useful debate on Second Reading of this Bill, and there were very valuable discussions in consideration of it, and valuable suggestions made, by both sides in Committee on the Bill. I should not like it to be felt though that because the remarks I propose to make are brief in character we do not regard this as an important Measure, for it is. It really is the keystone for the implementation of a great many of the recommendations of the Franks Report which, as the Government have already made clear, they have accepted.

Under this Bill the Council on Tribunals will be constituted, and that Council will have a great deal of work to do. The work that that Council does will lead in due course to more work being done in this House in implementing its recommendations in relation to the codes of procedure and in relation to the various other questions it has to consider. I trust it will not be inappropriate if I express the hope that it will be able to make fairly rapid progress with the many tasks which will fall upon its shoulders as soon as the members of the Council are appointed. So far as one can see they will have a very heavy amount of work to do, in the first few years of their existence at least; but when that work is done they will continue to have the important duty of keeping what is happening under review.

I do not think the House would require me now, in moving the Third Reading, to go into any detail of what the Bill contains. I commend it to the House, and I should like to conclude by thanking my right hon. and hon. Friends and the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice) and his hon. Friends for their assistance in securing the passage of this important Measure.

11.25 a.m.

Sir F. Soskice

I should like to express my gratitude to the Attorney-General for what he has just said about the participation of my right hon. and hon. Friends in the passing of this Bill.

It is, as the Attorney-General has intimated, in a sense a co-operative effort. It deals with doubts and anxieties which have been felt on both sides of the House and which were exhaustively reviewed and considered in the extremely valuable Report of the Franks Committee. As the Attorney-General has said, it should not be thought that we think any less of the influence the machinery the Government are to set up will have in the future development of these tribunals and inquiries if we do not spend long on the Third Reading of the Bill. If we discuss the Third Reading at perhaps rather less than the customary length appropriate to a Bill of this importance, that is perhaps to be attributed to the fact in the first place that the problems with which we have dealt were most exhaustively considered by the Franks Committee, and secondly, as the Attorney-General has said, that we very fully examined them and the detailed proposals of the Government during Committee on the Bill.

The House has now decided upon the form of the Bill. Speaking for myself I still feel a little anxiety as to whether the functioning of the Council may not be a little too weighted on the side of the tribunals as distinct from the inquiries. That is a view which was put from our side of the Committee, and the House has now taken a decision upon it.

I would express the hope that the functioning of the Council will meet the expectations which we all entertain of the progressive improvement and perhaps also the standardisation of the proceedings both of tribunals and inquiries. If it is not disrespectful to the future membership of the Council to do so perhaps I may use the adage that the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. We hope that practice will show and experience will demonstrate that the Council is in a position, in its constitution and in the circumstances in which it works, to exercise the general supervision over the inquiries and over the proceedings of tribunals which we hope it will be able to exercise.

I think that at this stage I cannot carry the matter farther. I feel that this House will watch with interest, sometimes with anxiety, always with attention, the proceedings of the Council and its interventions where necessary and its constant vigilance, which I feel sure we all expect from it, and which I feel sure will be exercised by it.

11.28 a.m.

Sir Lionel Heald (Chertsey)

Before we pass the Bill, perhaps it would be appropriate that a back bencher on this side of the House should just say a word or two about it, and I hope it will not be considered out of place if a back bencher does so as one who did not have the privilege of sitting in Committee on the Bill. I think it is right to say that we do owe a debt of gratitude to all those who have taken part in the discussion of this matter in Committee and made some valuable improvements in the Bill.

One unfortunate thing about this Bill at this time is that it is necessarily of a complicated and technical character. It is not easy for the general public outside the House to appreciate just what it does and how important it is. I very much hope that it will be appreciated how very valuable this Bill is to the subject, his rights and liberties.

Some of us on this side of the House, and, of course, on the other side of the House too, though I speak particularly for back benchers on this side, have been concerned with this matter now for some years. It was in 1954 when some of us first made ourselves perhaps a little unpopular by being a little pressing about it. Since then the matter has been pursued, and I think it is generally accepted now that we are dealing with something which is of great public importance.

Unfortunately, owing to the technical matters involved, there is, I find, a tendency rather to think that this is some minor technical alteration which is being made in a highly complicated procedure. It is nothing of the kind, of course, and I hope that full appreciation will be given to the Government for having tackled what is a really serious problem which has caused real public dissatisfaction in many directions. I hope that that will be generally understood.

The Bill gives effect very largely to the Franks Committee recommendations, but we must remember and frankly admit that the Committee's terms of reference were definitely limited. It must not be thought that the Bill either purports to deal with or can deal with a large number of problems relating to the rights and liberties of the subject which are necessarily excluded from the ambit of any Bill based on recommendations of that nature.

It would not be proper for me to go into all those matters, but we have certain things in mind and it is right that the public, who are not very well acquainted with the niceties of the subject, should appreciate that the Bill does not purport to be a general provision dealing with all outstanding problems of the liberties of the subject. The Bill deals with them within a certain compass, and I sincerely believe that it will be found in practice to alleviate some of the complaints of hardship that we have had over many years now. I hope, for that reason, that when the Bill becomes law it will receive a very warm welcome.

11.32 a.m.

Mr. Weitzman

Like many hon. Members on both sides of the House, I too have been very interested in this Measure. I believe that it is the first practical step in legislative form to put into effect the main recommendations of the Franks Committee. I am very much in agreement with what has just been said by the right hon. and learned Member for Chertsey (Sir L. Heald).

I would point out the very glaring fact that the Press, very properly in most cases, is always ready to expose errors of bureaucratic zeal, over-interference by the State in the rights of the individual and encroachments upon the liberty of the subject, but when a Measure of this kind comes along, which is a real effort to deal with these problems, very little publicity is given to it. That is unfortunate. I am grateful to the Government for having tackled the problem in this way. It is extremely important that the greatest publicity should be given to this Measure, because it is so important that the citizen should be aware of his rights and what is being done to secure them.

I am glad to see written into the Bill a Clause requiring reasons to be given for decisions of tribunals and Ministers. That is all-important because, first, it requires the judicial body or the person arriving at the decision to give reasons and, secondly, which is perhaps still more important, it enables the citizen to know the grounds on which the decision has been made so that an appeal can be properly made if the party so desires.

I should have liked written into the Bill a Clause requiring the holding of an inquiry in public unless there was good reason to do otherwise. This will depend now on the decision of the Council on Tribunals. Indeed, as the Attorney-General has indicated, a good deal will depend on how that Council will tackle its job. On Second Reading and in Committee there was considerable criticism of the omission of administrative procedures from the necessity of review as in the case of tribunals. I am glad to think, however, that the Council on. Tribunals will have power to deal with them under Clause 1 (1, c).

I hope that it will exercise that power very fully. Much will rest upon the manner in which the Council exercises the power and upon the codes of procedure which it will draw up. These are vital matters. I hope that the Council will deal in a realistic way with them and with the other problems which form part of its work. The success of this effort to put into real effect the recommendations of the Franks Committee must depend on how the Council on Tribunals will deal with the problem.

I hope, also, that the Bill will be, as is foreshadowed, a first instalment in safeguarding the rights of the individual. It is a very important Measure which should have far-reaching effects. I hope that further instalments will not be long delayed, and I have great pleasure in supporting the Third Reading.

11.35 a.m.

Mr. Gilbert Longden (Hertfordshire, South-West)

I wish to give a brief welcome to the Bill because it fell to my lot, in the literal sense of that phrase, to move a Motion in the House on 25th March, 1955, about all these matters which are causing us such anxiety when the interests of the individual conflict, as they must in modern society, with those of the State and thereby require that we should take the utmost pains to see that fairness is the lot of the individual.

I wish very respectfully to congratulate and thank my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General and the Government for having, first of all, appointed the Franks Committee and then introduced the Measure. As has been said, it does not go all the way, but it would be ungenerous to cavil at that. I conclude by quoting from the words of the present Minister of Housing and Local Government, who wound up on the occasion of the debate of my Motion by saying: The search for perfect justice never ends, and I trust that the House will pursue that search without cessation."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th March, 1955; Vol. 538, c. 2527–8.]

11.36 a.m.

Mr. Douglas Houghton (Sowerby)

I fully support the opinions expressed about the importance of the Bill. Both my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice) and the right hon. and learned Member for Chertsey (Sir L. Heald) referred to the lack of public interest in the Bill. Unfortunately, that must be accepted. The public are interested when things go wrong. They are not so interested when the House is trying to put them right. We must find satisfaction in well-doing for its own sake in the House on these occasions.

The importance of the Bill goes beyond its boundaries, in corresponding changes in Departmental procedures connected with inquiries held under the auspices of various Ministries. More disclosures of the reports of inspectors, more fresh air in the form of investigation, would be all to the good, but it was not found necessary to incorporate all these changes in the Bill.

I pass to Clause 7 of the Bill and I hope that I shall be guided by the Chair if I stray beyond the rules of order. Clause 7 is a newcomer to the Bill and is an offshoot of our discussions on the Finance Bill. It was added in Committee at its final session on the 17th of this month. It deals with matters connected with the property qualifications of General and Additional Commissioners of Income Tax and with the method of appointment of General Commissioners of Income Tax. It does not implement any recommendation by the Franks Committee. That Committee's Report referred to General Commissioners of Income Tax, but made no recommendations about their method of appointment or about the qualifications which the Income Tax Act required the Commissioners to possess as a condition of appointment.

The working of these bodies is, quite properly, brought within the scope of the Council on Tribunals, but the constitution and the qualifications for appointment were not dealt with in the Franks Report. They were dealt with in the Report of the Royal Commission on the Taxation of Profits and Income, generally referred to as the Radcliffe Commission. In debates on the Finance Bill the Financial Secretary said in connection with a proposed Clause that the Government intended to implement the recommendations of the Radcliffe Commission and had decided, on balance, that it would be more convenient to deal with the matter in this Bill rather than to add a new Section to the Income Tax Act, 1952.

At the time I was not sure why it should be regarded as more convenient to deal with the matter in that way, unless it was solely from the point of view of time. After all, there is no particular convenience in taking something out of the Income Tax Act and amending it in this Bill when the Income Tax Act itself was open to amendment at the time when the decision was taken. I assumed that the only reason for bringing Clause 7 into this Bill was that there was not time to deal with a corresponding Clause on the Report stage of the Finance Bill. Yet I notice that the Report stage of the Finance Bill was taken on 15th and 16th July and that the very next morning Clause 7 was added to this Bill.

In a very brief speech made by the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department which, with great respect to the members of the Committee, I would say that nobody understood, the Minister got away with it far more easily in the Committee upstairs than would have been possible had it been proposed either as an addition to the Finance Bill or to this Bill had it been discussed on the Floor of the House. I am surprised that twenty-four hours made so much difference to the destination of the proposal now embodied in Clause 7.

However, who am I to complain that it appears here, when it is the reform that matters, and the reform is a subject upon which I have expressed opinions at different times. The property qualification of General Commissioners of Income Tax has remained unchanged since 1842, and this morning we are about to abolish it. That deserves some mention, if not celebration. That this qualification, which generally amounts to the possession of £5,000 real estate or £200 a year from personal or real estate, has endured so long in this democratic age is a matter of surprise.

I have referred on other occasions to the length of time it has taken to get this important reform implemented on the recommendation of various bodies which have considered the matter. I wish now to draw attention to the fact that this Clause does not do all that the Radcliffe Commission recommended should be done. It proposes to substitute the right of appointment by the Lord Chancellor in those cases—and as I read it, those cases only—where the right of appointment of General Commissioners of Income Tax now rests in the hands of the Land Tax Commissioners.

For example, it makes no proposals regarding Scotland. I make no complaint about that, because the Radcliffe Commission saw no reason to change the position in Scotland. The new Clause, however, proposes to deal with England and Wales and it distinguishes between those cases where the Land Tax Commissioners have the right of appointment and other cases where magistrates and other bodies have the right of appointment, as in the case of certain cities in England and Wales. We now have the rather extraordinary position that this Bill deals with the right of appointment only where the right of appointment rested in the hands of the Land Tax Commissioners, and Part II of the First Schedule to the Income Tax Act, 1952, deals with the appointment of Commissioners in places other than those in which the Land Tax Commissioners have the right of appointment.

That, I suggest, leaves the law in rather an untidy state and also, of course, raises the question why the right of appointment has not been transferred to the Lord Chancellor under Clause 7 of this Bill in the cases covered by Part II of the First Schedule to the Income Tax Act, 1952, where the right of appointment rests, in such cities as Birmingham, Bristol, Exeter and so forth, in the hands of authorities other than the Land Tax Commissioners. My first point then, is that the Clause does not make a clean job of it; it does not do what the Radcliffe Commission said should be done in England and Wales.

My other point is what I would describe as the mutilation of the Income Tax Act which the Clause inflicts. This matter really relates to the Income Tax Act and not to this Bill, but, for the reasons I have gone into, it is in this Bill and not elsewhere. Part I of the First Schedule to the Income Tax Act, 1952, is in a most ragged state. It is almost incoherent now about this matter and there are some important questions which will arise—probably not on this Bill but at another time and elsewhere—on how the two laws are to be brought together.

I can see, Mr. Speaker, that I ought not to pursue this matter any further but I should like to leave these comments on the record, because at some time and somewhere the matter will need attention. Having said that, and because I do not want to leave the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney-General or the Joint Under-Secretary under any misapprehension about my views on the Clause, I fully support what it does. It is a step in the right direction. Under this Bill we shall now have the power conferred upon the Lord Chancellor to select, on proper advice, persons of repute with special personal qualities to act as General Commissioners of Income Tax who do not possess, never have possessed, and never would possess the property qualifications which hitherto the Income Tax Act has required them to have as a condition of appointment.

Monied men are not always the best judges of other monied men, and the landed gentry, as most of the General Commissioners are, are not, with great respect, necessarily the only people to sit in judgment on the tax affairs of their fellow citizens, be they traders, wage earners or salary earners, who might have recourse to the additional Commissioners for the purpose of settling a dispute with the Inland Revenue.

In general, the Bill does a most important job. It sets up a Council on Tribunals to review the constitution and working of a variety of bodies put there by this House as protection for the citizen against arbitrary or unfair decisions by bureaucracy. That is a most important change in our general procedure in connection with tribunals of this kind.

I have spoken for long enough on the Third Reading of this Bill, but this is one of the occasions on which an hon. Member who has been denied the opportunity of dealing with some of these matters in the place where and when they should be dealt with is left with very little scope for bringing any knowledge which he has to bear on the topic when the Bill has reached its final stage.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, with amendments.