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Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that it would have been beneficial if individuals had given evidence to the Joint Committee? They might have been consultees, but at least they would not have been members of one of the committees.
Mr. Clarke: I am not aware of anyone knocking on our door to give evidence. Any such request passed me by. The evidence showed that every relevant professional body that I had ever heard of gave universal approval for the process and the Bill. We could have put an advertisement in a few national newspapers asking whether anyone wanted to protest, but that would not have been sensible. The main pressure on the Committee was to get on with delivering the desirable simplification. It was not supposed to devise a
My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South commented on the Committee's membership. We always have that discussion. He said that some people should not have been on the steering or the consultative committee. It is not the greatest advertisement for the House if we devise rules that disqualify just about every Member of either House of Parliament who has a detailed knowledge of the subject under discussion from serving on a Committee. I have the greatest respect for the Chamber and hon. Members, but it is not teeming with people who have immense expertise in the subject of capital allowances. A fresh body would not have produced the level of scrutiny that the House is entitled to expect.
There was a reasonably good spread of expertise around the Committee Room. Some members could not claim professional expertise, but they were well known and respected. For example, the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) is renowned for his independence and refusal to be rolled over by an establishment stitch-up.
Mr. Ruffley: We have all been enjoying my right hon. and learned Friend's speech. He will have heard that 66 minor changes were made. What were the thought processes of the Committee members when they were deciding whether a change was minor or substantive? A substantive change could not, of course, have been accepted.
Mr. Clarke: That was a key consideration, but before I deal with it, I shall dispose of the other main objective, which was to ensure that the drafting was improved. We sampled the drafting of the existing tax legislation, which is scattered over the past 10 years, and compared it with the redrafts. It is not possible to make the tax law of this country read like Enid Blyton. With the greatest respect, the Chancellor does nothing but complicate the tax law with every Budget that he produces. It will never be a simple matter. However, I congratulate Dr. Helen Caldwell and her colleagues from the parliamentary draftsman's office on the immense improvement that they have made to the wording of the legislation.
When the project was proposed, I was slightly hostile towards the parliamentary draftsman's office. Years of experience as a Minister meant that I had encountered draft legislation that I wanted to present to the House, but it was not expressed as clearly as I had wished. I developed something of an antipathy towards the drafting style of some of the people who produced that legislation. I began to believe that nobody in the parliamentary draftsman's office was familiar with the English language any more. Once, I asked outside lawyers to try to improve the drafting, and if they had charged a little less, they might have made progress.
I shall retract all those prejudices against the parliamentary draftsman's office if they can produce people like the team who worked on this Bill, who have undoubtedly transformed and greatly clarified the way in which the law is expressed. They have done a great service to all those who will use the law. That was the first
I can reassure my hon. Friend that the second, even more important, point for me was whether the changes fitted within the definition "minor and necessary". It is a given that any changes in tax policy by any Government are subject to the control of the whole House and should go through the normal procedures of a Finance Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South is not the only one who was suspicious of any suggestion that the Government might be slipping through subtle changes that might enable them to win a battle in the courts or to clarify a doubt in favour of the Inland Revenue, without the tedium of having to go through parliamentary scrutiny of a Budget speech and a Finance Bill Committee. We addressed ourselves to that point.
The 66 changes are of close particularity. My test for determining whether a change is a policy change that ought to be brought to the attention of the whole House is whether it alters the burden of taxation. Would a taxpayer who might have been capable of arguing that he was not liable to a tax burden find himself disadvantaged by being made subject to that burden by a tax simplification measure? The whole Committee concerned itself with that, and our report demonstrates that we are satisfied on that point. It is true that we examined some changes in more detail than others, but a clear principle applied throughout. Where the law had been changed, it usually amounted to a non-statutory concession, previously made by the Inland Revenue, now being incorporated into the law so as to place beyond doubt the non-liability of taxpayers for something that might previously have been argued as applying to them.
The Inland Revenue, led by a former Treasury colleague of mine, Robin Willis, and his team, had thought up rather ingenious arguments that might be made to alter the burden of taxation. As far as we could tell, those arguments had never been raised, and were unlikely to be raised unless the Inland Revenue staff in question were to move to a consultancy later in their career. Wherever possible, the team resolved questions in favour of the taxpayer.
The Committee went through the changes, using them as our agenda, and at the end, as my hon. Friend will agree, we unanimously agreed that we could find no basis on which we could tell the House that any change had been made which went against the spirit of the process. There was nothing that we felt we should draw to the attention of the House as requiring further study. We should certainly have drawn to its attention any example where we thought the burden of taxation was being shifted to the taxpayer without due parliamentary process.
Our scrutiny was careful and proper, and it took only three detailed sittings because it is extremely difficult to find anybody outside the House who is challenging the process. I am not aware that any member of the Committee was lobbied by anybody trying to argue against the process or to get a member of the Committee
Mr. Bercow: My right hon. and learned Friend is making a racy and intoxicating speech, but I am still trying to get a flavour of the Joint Committee. In the light of what he has just said about comprehensive consideration, will he tell the House how long the Committee sat on each of the three occasions on which it gathered under his chairmanship; and whether any of the sittings was attended and observed by any right hon. or hon. Member of this House who was not a member of the Committee?
Mr. Clarke: To the best of my recollection--I hope that I shall not be held to this without having had an opportunity to look it up--the first sitting took about half a morning, during which time we discussed the purpose of the Bill, our procedure and how we intended to tackle it. Then, we held two sittings with witnesses, which took two full mornings. When witnesses were present, the sitting was open to the public and we were all hoping that the public would pour through the doors and be queueing down to Central Lobby, but the level of interest appeared to be low; none the less, a small body of interested observers attended. I regret to say that, because of the pressure of business elsewhere in the House, I saw no Member of this House present at the back listening to our proceedings.
I am as suspicious as my hon. Friend. I do not take an apparent lack of opposition at face value. This evening, I have taken part in two Divisions in which I think the score in my Lobby only just reached--or did not reach--double figures, which shows that I am perfectly prepared to walk alone when the occasion requires it. However, the Committee was quite unable to find a hint of controversy in the process; all we found were people urging us to get on with the job.
Mr. Forth: My right hon. and learned Friend has made some play of the fact that there was no hint of controversy and no member of the Committee was able to find anything wrong with the measure it was considering. Does he not concede that that is no great surprise, given that Lord Brightman is a former member of the tax law rewrite committee, Lord Goodhart is a member of the Institute for Fiscal Studies tax law review committee, and Lord Howe of Aberavon is a chairman of the tax law rewrite committee? The Committee consisted of the same old gang getting together to congratulate each other--no wonder there was no dissent.