|Proceeds of Crime Bill
Mr. Wilshire: I wanted to raise several matters, but the Minister said two things that concern me and raise additional issues. If I heard him correctly, he referred to raising tax assessments. There may have been occasions during the proceedings when I was not here or not listening carefully, or both, but I was not aware that we were creating another sort of tax inspector. If he said what I thought he said, we now have a system whereby the director is supposed to be raising tax assessments. If that is the concept, I find that extraordinary, as it runs counter to the Bill's real purpose, which is about removing the proceeds of crime. If the director is going to use the information from the Commissioners of Inland Revenue to raise tax assessments, he is taxing the proceeds of crime, not confiscating them.
That is a peculiar departure from what I thought this legislation was about. Taxing something makes it legitimate; it is saying, ''You can keep it but you'll pay 35 per cent tax on it.'' Is the Minister suggesting that this clause is there to provide an alternative tax collector? Is the director going to be a tax inspector in his own right? I would be amazed if many Committee members had seen that point before now.
I understood from the beginning that this legislation was about confiscation, not taxation. If at this late stage we are going to say that this is a tax raising activity rather than a confiscation of the proceeds of crime activity, we should be debating whether the director is the right person to levy taxes. The Minister triggered that thought so he should explain what he has in mind before we proceed further.
The second of the Minister's remarks to trigger my concern was that the director would obtain information on request. Nowhere in the clause is it stated that information is obtained when the director asks for it. I would have assumed that the permitted persons might of their own free will decide that they had useful information. The Minister's justification was that the director would make a request for information. If that is the case, it should be made clear. The clause does not state whether permitted persons should pass on information because they believe it is useful or whether the director should ask any of the people on the list whether they have information.
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If the principle to be used is on request, what assurances can the Minister give us that this is not a licence to go on fishing expeditions; whenever people have a vague suspicion, they can fire off requests to all these people in the hope that they will say something that will justify what they want to do. If we are in the business of fishing expeditions against innocent people, what assurances can we be given that we will not suddenly find our tax affairs being disclosed to the director on the off-chance that if he has no other work to do he might, by asking random questions of the permitted persons, come up with information to keep him busy?
This would then be a snooper's charter, and the Minister rather suggests that it will be. I was originally going to say, on the basis that people were going to disclose information, that the other way round is important. How will the information be released, if it is going to be passed on by these people? Will there be a formal procedure whereby a tax inspector looks at an individual's tax returns and says, ''There are grounds for suspicion here that proceeds of crime are involved, and as the district tax inspector, I am looking into it, so I shall formally report it in such a way that it is on file for the future''? If that route is to be taken, the district tax inspector is not covered by many of the restrictions and regulations that apply to the director. The tax inspector would therefore be free to do whatever he likes and to act unfettered as the director's ears and eyes, while we have been trying to ensure that the director works within the law as passed by Parliament.
What will the procedure be? How will the information be released? Will it be recorded if there is any redress to be had from an investigation into someone's activities where the courts found no criminality? Can the acquitted say, ''Under freedom of information and human rights legislation I want to know what information was disclosed''? Will they be assured of the ability to find out what information the tax inspector released, which would otherwise have been confidential? I believe that they should be, and that the Minister should tell us so. If that is not the case, we will be opening the floodgates. Tax inspectors all over the country will be picking up the phone and saying, ''I can't put this in writing, and it isn't necessarily something I can justify, but I have a hunch. Why don't you have a look at it?''
Is that the sort of system there will be? Is that how information will be released? Will we have, on the one hand, a snooper's charter, and on the other hand, a group of people who might not be able to justify slapping a tax assessment on someone, but who believe they might be able to cause difficulty for that person by suggesting that the director carry out an investigation and cause trouble? My experience over the years suggests that if a tax inspector cannot sort something out, he sometimes decides that a good solution is to make an accountant take the money from a taxpayer. Would the clause enable a tax inspector who cannot get his mind round an assessment to generate trouble for a taxpayer by having him investigated by the director, at enormous expense?
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The second question that the Minister must address is who will decide what information it is appropriate to release. We have spent hour upon hour talking about what the director can do, and what he can and cannot release, or say, and so on. Now we are given a list of people who are to be allowed to pass on whatever information they like, without restrictions. I see no safeguards in the Bill; if there are some, the Minister will doubtless tell me. A tax inspector, or any of the other people listed, can take it on themselves to release whatever they think suitable or desirable. That is not the sort of society in which I want to live—and I suspect that the Minister would not want to live in that sort of society either. He must tell us what safeguards exist, what the rules are and who will decide what is appropriate.
There must be rules and tests. One cannot have tax inspectors coming into work one morning feeling a bit crotchety and thinking, on a whim, ''I know what I'll do: I'll release some information because it may cause trouble for someone''. [Laughter.] The Minister may laugh; he may think that life is not like that—but from my experience, and that of an awful lot of other people, it does seem like that. If there is genuine evidence that meets criteria that Parliament has approved, implemented in a way that Parliament has also approved, I have no objection in principle to the Commissioners of Inland Revenue providing information about it, but it is our duty to require to know whether they will do so in response to a request or off their own bat, how they will do so, and who will take the decision to release such information. Will it be a junior in the office, or someone at senior level, who decides?
We are coming to a group of amendments that address the question of which people can take the decisions, but we also need to know what rules will exist to determine what is appropriate. My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield has put down a probing amendment; it is not sensible remove a proposal at random for the sake of it, and I agree that we do not wish to divide on the matter now. However, unless there is a reasonable explanation on Report, I would be sorely tempted to take the whole lot out.
The Minister of State, Scotland Office (Mr. George Foulkes) rose—
Mr. Wilshire: I give way to the Minister of State; I am sorry to have disturbed his sleep.
Mr. Foulkes: I was going to ask the hon. Gentleman whether he gets into trouble with his Chief Whip if he does not fill all the time available.
Mr. Wilshire: I get into trouble with my Chief Whip irrespective of whether I fill the time, so in that sense today is no different from any other day. However, I am grateful to the Minister for listening, and for trying to judge the quality of what I am saying. That is a pleasure that he may also have later in the day.
I believe that I have touched on the key issues, and I hope that the Under-Secretary is willing to spare a little of his precious time to address them.
Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster): I endorse my hon. Friend's comments.
Column Number: 1292The matter is of great concern. One of the most insidious phrases in English, particularly in relation to any investigation by a state authority, is, ''Well, if you had nothing to hide, you would allow things to move ahead.'' If I may digress briefly, one of the advantages—or disadvantages—of representing the Cities of London and Westminster is that many constituency duties can be carried out during the day. Only yesterday I toddled down to the Department for Education and Skills in Tothill street, where the retired civil servants have their monthly meeting. A range of domestic and international political issues was discussed, and an elderly woman asked, in quite a hostile fashion, ''Where do you stand on identity cards?'' I am implacably against making them compulsory. She then said, ''If people have nothing to hide, what is wrong with identity cards?''
Mr. Davidson: May I clarify for the Committee whether the hon. Gentleman is the individual who, on leaving Parliament yesterday, gave me a cheery wave and said, ''I'm off to launder some money''?
Mr. Field: I am glad that there is a good sense of humour on both sides of the Committee. Those were indeed my precise words yesterday, when I was wearing rather different attire from what I am wearing today. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley—who is no longer present—and I are wearing the traditional bird's eye pattern Back-Bench attire today, but yesterday I was in my thick pin-stripe suit, which looks very City-oriented. At about a quarter past 11 yesterday morning I encountered the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok, doubtless after a particularly boozy night at the rugby club dinner, staggering through the Members Entrance. He caught my eye and we had a little exchange—
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