HC Deb 20 April 1994 vol 241 cc919-21
Mr. Dorrell

I beg to move amendment No. 13, in page 222, line 39, leave out 'or assist in the evasion or avoidance of tax'. Clause 253 requires a tax inspector to give the taxpayer his reasons for applying for consent to issue an information notice in respect of that person's tax liability. One of the exceptions to that requirement in the clause as currently drafted is where a general or special Commissioner is satisfied that there are grounds for believing that the disclosure of the reasons would prejudice the assessment or the collection of tax or assist in the evasion or avoidance of tax.

In Committee, concerns were expressed that the use of the term "avoidance" could lead to an inspector's reasons being withheld in cases of straightforward tax planning. That was never intended. In view of those concerns, we have decided to remove the reference to evasion and avoidance of tax from the clause. That should allay the fears of hon. Members and also bring the new provision into line with similar references elsewhere in the statute book.

Mr. Nicholas Brown

I welcome what the Government are doing, for which I think that the Opposition may claim some credit. It is quite an important matter. Clause 253, as it is harmlessly described now, was the much more controversial clause 240 in Committee, and was followed by the even more controversial clause 241, which the Financial Secretary withdrew, to approval from hon. Members from all parties.

The debate in Committee was heated. Points made by Labour and Conservative Members were critical of the Government's wording of their legislation. Although, I accept, as the Financial Secretary told us at the time, that the purpose of clause 253 was to grant a concession rather than to place a burden on the taxpayer, exception was rightly taken to the choice of "avoidance and evasion" as a phrase.

It was not only the phrase that the Financial Secretary used in the debate, but the wording in the Bill, and it was clear to Opposition Members and, indeed, to the Financial Secretary's hon. Friends that "avoidance" in some circumstances is open to a wide interpretation and could be construed to refer to the perfectly lawful arrangements that a taxpayer makes. I am glad that the Financial Secretary has decided to think again, and the proposed outcome is for the best.

5.30 pm

It is right to put on record the considerable disquiet that was felt on the Opposition Benches at the way in which the debate was handled in Committee. The timetable motion was set out in such a way that the debate—an important one—was the final debate on a Thursday. The Committee's sitting hours on a Thursday were shorter than those on a Tuesday under the guillotine. It was unfortunate that such an important debate was the final debate on the Thursday when it took place, a day on which other controversial matters were discussed.

I felt at the time that it might not be possible to discuss the issue in Committee because of the terms of the guillotine motion. Indeed, we almost lost the opportunity to debate it. It would have been extremely serious if there had been a straight vote for or against the clause and the following clause, without pertinent matters having been explained and explored and without the Government having the chance to change their mind.

There are two lessons for us. First, debate in Committee can be of some importance. Secondly, guillotine motions or timetable agreements, which I hope we shall have in future, should be drawn with much more care and, dare I say it, with much more consultation.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

I welcome the change that is set out in the Government's amendment. The change, together with the abandonment of former clause 241, reflects the strong feelings that were expressed in Committee. The Minister and the Revenue should recognise that it was felt in Committee that, in a combination of clauses, the Revenue were trying it on a bit. When it reached the point at which the Revenue sought to have power over the papers of taxpayers who were guilty of no misdemeanour, merely because there was a suspicion that their accountant in his dealing with another taxpayer may have assisted improperly in withholding information from the Revenue, the Committee felt that it was too much of a try-on.

The Revenue is expected seriously to chase tax evasion and to do so thoroughly. There is a difficult line to be drawn. The Minister may take some lesson from the general feeling of the members of the Committee that the two clauses taken together seemed to go too far. The Minister has obviously recognised that.

Mr. Dorrell

I intervene briefly, but not to have a re-run of the debate that took place in Committee. I shall content myself by thanking the House for its welcome for the outturn of our debates.

I shall take up the closing comments of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown). I shall not repeat old arguments about the degree of consultation on the operation of the guillotine. I wish only to observe that the hon. Gentleman did not say that we should never have a timetable motion again. Instead, he recommended the way in which a timetable motion might be better administered. I assure him that my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary and I, and perhaps more importantly for this purpose my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, heard and noted his remarks.

Mr. Nicholas Brown

For the avoidance of any doubt, it has always been my view that the sensible timetabling of the taxes management part of the Finance Bill should be encouraged and welcomed. In the past, we entered into arrangements with the Government which effectively did exactly that.

Amendment agreed to.

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