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10.30 pm

Mr. Letwin: I do not know whether my hon. Friends were persuaded by the Financial Secretary--[Hon. Members: "No."] He certainly did not persuade me. In response to my intervention a few moments ago, he said that the whole idea of maintaining the principle that if the commissioners delay, their decision is revoked, was "meaningless", because one would not know what to do with a provision that forced one to revoke a decision.

Let us consider the decisions in question--those specified under subsection (1), paragraphs (a) to (l). It is clear what is going on. In paragraph (a), we are told that the decision might concern

That means that the commissioners would have decided that a person is to be charged with a certain amount of aggregates levy.

A provision specifying that if after a certain number of days the commissioners had said nothing, that would effectively confirm their decision, would mean that the person would be charged with the amount. He would then have to hire some lawyers to go to a tribunal and engage in great expense to take on the august machinery of government. However, if the amendment were accepted--so that if the commissioners said nothing, they would implicitly have revoked their decision--the meaning is equally clear: the person would not be charged with an amount of aggregates levy in that case. That is perfectly clear.

Subsection (1)(b) relates to a decision on

If the commissioners had made a decision about the amount of aggregates levy charged in any case, and that decision was revoked, the person would obviously have no liability. That is a strong incentive for the

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commissioners not to allow the matter to lie fallow for 45 days--otherwise they would effectively quash the decision to raise a certain tax.

The effect of the amendment is clear, as is the effect of the drafting of the current provision: again, the commissioners could say nothing and rely on the fact that the poor old company or individual would have to hire lawyers and go to a tribunal. It would be tedious to go through paragraphs (c), (d), (e), (f), (g), (h), (i), (j), (k) and (l), but if the Minister wants me to do so, I am prepared to continue.

Mr. Timms: I am not surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not want to go beyond paragraph (b), because at that point his argument collapses. It would be wholly inappropriate for a notice along the lines of that paragraph--the amount of aggregates levy to be charged in a particular case--to be revoked. Where would that leave everybody? How much money would be outstanding? Nobody knows. Under the clauses that we have dealt with already, the liability to the levy stands; only the decision would be revoked. The meaning of that would be unclear. The amendment would give rise to a wholly unsatisfactory situation that is without precedent in the tax system; it makes no sense at all.

Mr. Letwin: I shall go on past paragraph (b), if only to disprove what the Financial Secretary says--but as he referred to paragraph (b), I shall return to that first. What he says is clearly wrong. It is clear what would happen if the decision were revoked. Customs and Excise would be precisely nowhere; there would be no levy. The commissioners would have to start all over again. It is perfectly possible for them to do that. The Financial Secretary is right when he says that the law would still apply, so any liability duly arising would still duly arise; it would be for Customs and Excise to start again and recalculate it. That is an incentive for the commissioners not to sit on their hands and wait for the 45 days to pass. That is perfectly reasonable.

The Financial Secretary thinks that problems will arise for me beyond paragraph (b), so let us consider paragraph (c), which deals with decisions on registration. We had an extremely long discussion about registration a few hours ago. It is clear that the commissioners have to make certain decisions--for example, whether it appears to them that an individual has an intention to produce something that qualifies as an aggregate for the purposes of the levy. Under amendment No. 22, if such a decision had been made, someone had sought a review, and the commissioners had not made a decision in 45 days, the decision to force a registration would be null and void and the commissioners would have to tell Customs and Excise to start all over again, or else desist.

Again, that would be a perfectly workable arrangement under amendment No. 22. Under the Bill, the difference is that the luckless individual would have to take his case to a tribunal, which would involve him in costs. There is no need to go through paragraphs (d), (e), (f), (g), (h), (i), (j), (k) and (l), but I say again that I am more than willing to do so if necessary. It is perfectly clear that there is a difference.

The Financial Secretary has said one thing that is absolutely true: unfortunately, similar provisions have repeatedly appeared in legislation. However, I am

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astonished that a person of his integrity and intelligence rests behind the cloak of that dreadful argument. The fact that we have got something wrong for many years does not mean that we are justified in getting it wrong again.

Mr. Bercow: Does my hon. Friend agree that the Financial Secretary's reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) seemed positively Wodehousian? Was he not implying that in practice, notification would be given, and that it was very important that it should be given? Indeed, so important was it that notification should be given, that apparently the clause should not require it to be given.

Mr. Letwin: My hon. Friend is entirely right, as he so often is. The Financial Secretary offered a case of what one can only call PG Tips, and he has been doing so consistently this evening. The general structure of his argument has repeatedly been that he is trying to create a perfectly sensible outcome; he thinks that he is dealing with a tax that will be levied when the stuff is sold--but actually, he is not. That is not what the Bill states, but that does not worry him, because he is sure that sooner or later, someone will do something reasonable. He used that argument again in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), saying that the fact that the tax would be reasonably administered was a good reason why we did not need to worry about whether the Bill ensured that it would be reasonably administered.

It is clear that with subsections (7) and (8)--which, in essence, represent the provisions that amendment No. 22 would change--we are dealing with a problem that has persisted in our legislation, and the time has come to put a stop to it. There is no basis at all for commissioners to be able to decide not to bother to produce a review, in the certain knowledge that only those who are very rich and powerful will be able to challenge that decision at a tribunal. That is the wrong way to structure our tax law, and now we have a good opportunity to change it, especially with a tax that is likely to be subject to greater review than almost any other, because it is so complex, so arbitrary and so difficult to enforce.

Mr. Tyrie: I can only reinforce what has just been said by asking the Financial Secretary a couple of questions. First, if a decision is deemed to have been confirmed under subsection (7), but it is appealable under clause 41(1), as he said in his defence, why are not the commissioners at least required to explain that decision? Why should they simply be able to go ahead when the decision has been deemed to be confirmed without having to give any reason at all? I can find no justification for that, and the Financial Secretary certainly has not given any this evening.

The second question is pertinent to what my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) has just said. Does not the Financial Secretary realise that the current proposals leave the man who has the liability with a huge hill to climb if he wants to challenge the assessment? Either he accepts the decision, or he has to pay all the expense of fighting the case at the tribunal, and he must do so without knowing what those on the other side feel is their case. He has no idea whether, unbeknown to him, the commissioners have a good point.

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They may be right but will not have bothered to explain their case, so perhaps that man should not go to appeal and waste all that money in a tribunal. However, he will have no way of knowing whether his judgment is correct because the commissioners will not supply him with the necessary information.

It is eminently sensible that explanations should be provided. They will not be provided under the Bill as it stands but I hope that, after a moment's reflection, the Financial Secretary might say that it is possible that he has not got the clause absolutely right and that he will return with a minor amendment to improve it.

The Financial Secretary may be right to say that amendment No. 22, which would replace the word "confirmed" with "revoked" in subsection (8), is not perfect. However, surely it is not beyond the wit of man to include a sentence that would force the commissioners to supply an explanation for their decision within a given time.

Mr. Timms: I certainly did not intend to sound Wodehousian in my remarks: I think that I have made the case very fully. If the concept of revocation were to be adopted, as the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) said, things would return to square one. Another assessment would be raised and the process would start all over again and that would cause further delay and uncertainty for taxpayers. That is certainly not in their interest.

The hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) rightly said that the word "revoked" is not perfect. Although I would go further than that, I can agree with him on that point. The current wording is certainly preferable.

In response to the hon. Gentleman's question, it is clearly in the commissioners' interests that the decision should be made and communicated, and that is what will happen in practice. It is in the interests of taxpayers that there should not be any unnecessary delay before matters move to appeal. That should take place expeditiously, and arrangements in the Bill will allow that to happen.

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