We are being invited to pronounce our verdict and to decide whether to give the Bill a Third
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Reading. How can we be confident that the decision not to table amendments was reached by members of the Joint Committee after a thorough consideration of the Bill's contents when, sadly, three of its members who hail from this House have been unable to be present for our deliberations?
I greatly regret the fact that key Committee members have not felt it necessary to guide us tonight. We have received guidance from the Chairman, which was most welcome, and the Minister will no doubt guide us further. In the meantime, we are having to engage in much unguided speculation, which simply lengthens our proceedings.
Does my right hon. Friend recall that when we appointed the Committee members a few weeks ago, only one prospective candidate was in the Chamber when the nominations were made?
There seems to have been a rather casual attitude throughout our proceedings. I was going to analyse the attendance of Committee members, but I decided not to embarrass them.
I shall now deal with the Bill itself; you can see, Madam Deputy Speaker, that it is in my hands. I have annotated it so that I can guide myself and the House through it.
Is my right hon. Friend proposing a new rule of procedure to ensure that anyone who is nominated to a Standing Committee is in the Chamber when nominated? If so, would it ever be possible to man a Standing Committee on a major Bill?
I am not proposing that, but it might be beneficial to the House if only those people who showed a sufficient interest in Bills were appointed to Standing Committees, so that they were not composed of the usual zombies--
Madam Deputy Speaker:
Order. I remind the right hon. Gentleman about parliamentary language.
Perhaps I should have said robots. I would not dream of calling any hon. Member, irrespective of his party, a zombie. However, I want to get on with debating the Bill and shall not be led astray any further by my right hon. and hon. Friends.
There have been several references to "minor changes". That concept has bedevilled our deliberations. "Minor" is a subjective word at best. As the Chairman explained, it was a prime consideration of the Committee to determine what was a minor change. The magic figure of 66 minor changes has been mentioned. We have not got to the bottom of the question of whether the Committee considered in detail each of the minor changes, satisfied itself that they were minor, and then decided to approve them without amendment. We can assume that it probably did. I remain worried, however, about whether that formed part of the Committee's deliberations.
That worry increased when I considered the wording used in the Bill, which was unamended by the Committee. We must therefore assume that the wording has the
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Committee's approval, and that it saw no need to amend it. My eye first lit on clause 33, headed "Personal security", which says:
"This section applies to expenditure if . . . it is incurred by an individual or partnership of individuals in connection with the provision for, or for use by, the individual, or any of the individuals, of a security asset".
I wonder whether that form of words is remotely detailed or specific enough to help those who seek to interpret it. It involves the use of terms such as "in connection with", "any of the individuals" and "of a security asset" in one sentence, and I should have thought that any of those terms could reasonably give rise to doubt. Given that the whole point is supposed to be simplification, and that it was stressed earlier that all the experts have considered the Bill at great length and pronounced themselves satisfied, I wonder whether they have done the job properly.
My suspicion grew when I read clause 45, headed "ICT expenditure incurred by small enterprises". That starts rather encouragingly by saying:
"Expenditure is first-year qualifying expenditure if . . . it is incurred on or before 31st March 2003".
I should have thought that one could be reasonably satisfied that that is specific and definite and could therefore be relied on by those who look to the Bill for guidance on capital allowances. The clause then plunges into uncertainty, however, because it says that expenditure is first-year qualifying expenditure if
"it is incurred by a small enterprise".
Let us give the Bill the benefit of the doubt and say that small enterprises are adequately defined in prior statute.
The Bill goes on to say that expenditure qualifies if
"it is expenditure on information and communications technology, and . . . is not excluded by section 46 (general exclusions)".
"'Expenditure on information and communications technology' means expenditure on items within any of the following classes."
One assumes that the Bill will now give sufficient information to put the matter beyond doubt. It says that the first class covers computers.
At this point, doubts start to arise in my mind. I confess straight away that I am not a computer expert, nerd or anorak. I do not use a computer; indeed, I do not know how to use one. Even I should have thought, however, that simply to say that the first class covers computers can hardly, in this day and age, be sufficient. I imagine that the term now covers state-of-the-art, hand-held telephones with an internet capability, hand-held computers that are not telephones, and also any other device that is capable of computing. That encompasses a wide range of equipment.
Mr. Stephen O'Brien:
I have been following my right hon. Friend's argument, and although of course it carries the force of logic and eloquence, as ever, I find it confusing that he seems to be arguing for greater detail. As we are dealing with a simplification Bill, surely he should be seeking a change in the other direction.
I am afraid that I have to disagree with my hon. Friend, because simplification, in tax matters above all things, does not mean reducing phrases to one word, which could have a variety of interpretations.
Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire):
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the Bill's objective
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is not simplification as he has described it, but clarification and codification, which makes legislation more acceptable to practitioners, businesses and other interested individuals, and that his remarks are misguided in that respect?
I do not believe so. The whole purpose of the exercise was alleged to be tax simplification; that is what the Joint Committee--indeed, the whole exercise--was supposed to be about. Therefore, that is what I am looking for in the Bill and why my search has been so frustrating.
There is a real problem. The hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor) has contributed to the debate, apparently without having had sight of the relevant material. My right hon. Friend was a bit soft on him, but does he not think it unfortunate that the hon. Gentleman is unaware that he has only to look at the cover of the first report to see that the name of the Committee is the Joint Committee on Tax Simplification Bills--not codification, but simplification?
Yes, the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire appears to have wandered into the Chamber unarmed with any documentation, so he was presumably guessing when he intervened. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for providing that guidance to the hon. Gentleman, who might want to go to the Vote Office and arm himself before he intervenes again.
Moving on swiftly, as is my wont, I turn to clause 81, which is headed "Extended meaning of 'car'" and states:
I do not know much about computers, but I do know a little bit about cars. Contemplating categories that include sports utility vehicles, the vehicle known in the United States as a pick-up truck, and all the other varieties of vehicle in between, which might have an open rear part for carrying goods, but a cabin designed to carry a number of people, or be a four-wheel drive vehicle designed primarily for off-road purposes but also able to carry heavy burdens, causes me to wonder whether the description provides sufficiently flexible coverage of the range of vehicles known generally or generically as "car" to serve as any useful guide in the matter of capital allowances.
Confusingly, the clause then states:
"References to a car accordingly include a motor cycle."
If that is the fruit of the work of the Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament on tax simplification, I despair. I begin to have great sympathy with my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway), who uttered a cry of frustration when speaking about the Bill. I suspect that he had nightmares about clause 81 after reading it, and well might it cause him to wonder why he spent all that time--well, not much time at all, as it turns out--in the Committee during its deliberations.