Finance Bill

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Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston): Does the hon. Gentleman know whether the Brethren use telephones? All modern telephones are switched by computers. From my time as both an electronics engineer and a computer scientist, I recall a devout member of the Plymouth Brethren working as an engineer alongside me.

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Mr. Bercow: I will not comment on devout engineers or devout anything else who are not personally known to me. I have no reason to doubt the veracity of what the hon. Gentleman says, but I am not aware of the circumstances. He makes a point about the use of telephones. As I understand it, members of the Brethren use the telephone. A constituent of mine, Mr. Wells, has come to see me about various issues of concern to him as a member of the Brethren. Although I do not recall speaking to him on the telephone—[Interruption.] Yes, he does use the telephone. It is not for me or members of the Committee to make a judgment about the rationale behind or the purity of the practices of members of the Brethren. It is not for me to set myself up as the legitimate and proper umpire of the way that they conduct their affairs. They are much better informed about the reasons for conducting their affairs as they do.

Mr. Hendrick: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bercow: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman once more because I am an indulgent fellow, but after that I want to develop the argument.

Mr. Hendrick: I would not wish to pass judgment or to act as an umpire. I merely wish to understand the principles on which the Brethren operate in order to take a fair and just decision.

Mr. Bercow: Well, I will give an example. The hon. Gentleman will have to make do with it. Members of the Brethren would argue that the use of the telephone is qualitatively different from the use of the internet. Using the telephone involves a decision made by an individual who wishes to communicate with another individual. It does not involve the person using the telephone receiving information, images, pictures or depictions that he or she does not wish to receive. It is at least arguable that the difference lies in the fact that the Brethren regard the internet as a source of uncontrollable evil. They are genuinely distressed by much of the traffic on the internet.

That is a respectable opinion. It may not be the hon. Gentleman's opinion and it might not be mine. Do I tolerate such an opinion? No, I respect it. I respect the sincerity of this minority. The hon. Gentleman has a laudable track record of standing up for minorities, as do most Labour Members. The

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Paymaster General has a powerful record for doing so. We are talking about a minority who practise a particular way of life. They are law abiding, have always paid their taxes and want to continue to do so. They simply object to being compelled to pay in a particular way. They have a fair point.

Moreover, there is a precedent for an exemption. It is not specifically in this field. Although I referred earlier to the hon. Lady's correspondence with her right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, West in September 2000, about which she is rather embarrassed, on this occasion I refer to the precedent in section 42 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 under which the Brethren sought and were granted an exemption from jury service because of their religious views. The idea is not new. The precedent for granting different treatment to a particular minority in deference to the strongly held convictions of members of that minority is well established. I personally think that it is reasonable.

I do not want to engage in a philosophical discussion, Mr. Gale, as you will get jumpy if I do, but I rather subscribe to the approach of John Stuart Mill on these matters. I would invoke the harm principle and say that members of this minority are not inflicting harm on anyone else if they are granted a derogation or an exemption from this rather burdensome requirement. The Brethren are concerned that the clause is a violation of their human rights. I believe that they refer to the principle of equal treatment of taxpayers, as set out in the taxpayers charter. They believe that the principles of the taxpayers charter in respect of equal treatment are not reflected in the clause if it differentially and adversely affects them because of their principles. When they are perfectly willing to pay their taxes and have always done so, the charter is in practice, if not by design, being breached.

The Brethren wish to stick to the position that they much admired, which was set out by the Paymaster General in her letter to her right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, West in September 2000. They felt that there was much to commend that. I know that Mr. Ron Davis, Mr. Bruce Robertson, Mr. Tom Kendall and Mr. Colin Davies in their letter to the Paymaster General of 25 May went so far as to say to her:

    ''You wrote a very helpful reply on 21 September 2000 . . . Your assurance that it is not Government policy to force people to use the internet was very comforting as was the statement that those who prefer to use paper to communicate with the tax authorities will continue to be able to do so.''

I would point out to the Paymaster General that that meant a great deal to them. Being told that they can use an intermediary and, in a sense, safeguard their principles because they are not using the internet—I do appeal to the Paymaster General to at least consider this point—does not satisfy them because they feel that they are nominating someone to act on their behalf and engage in a practice of which they disapprove.

I hope that the Paymaster General will reconsider and I refer finally to her latest letter on the subject, of 20 June. I found the last paragraph a little odd, and possibly even—I regret to have to say this to her—

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disingenuous. In that final paragraph, the hon. Lady told members of the Brethren:

    ''The amendment you propose would permit, but not require, the Government to make regulations including the exemption you seek. For the reasons set out above, I do not believe that the exemption will be necessary, but even if it were, the present drafting of the clause would permit it''

—that is to say, the Brethren's amendment—

    ''to be made in secondary legislation. For these reasons, the Government will not be able to support the amendment you propose.''

Dawn Primarolo indicated assent.

Mr. Bercow: The hon. Lady is nodding enthusiastically from a sedentary position; therefore my challenge to her is simple. Is she saying that the Government do not want to agree to the amendment now, but they will reflect it, preferably word for word, in the regulations? If that is what she is saying, I would be delighted. My hon. Friends and I would retire home, celebrate and dance around the mulberry bush together. If the Paymaster General is saying that the Government are not going to reflect the amendment in the regulations, what on earth is the point of that little sop in the final paragraph of the letter? It is all very disappointing.

Our position is that the Brethren are a law-abiding minority and feel very strongly about the matter. No harm will be done by practically accommodating them. I appeal to the Paymaster General to do just that.

Mr. Burnett: I shall not keep the Committee long, but I detect, and I hope that it is not presumptuous of me to say this, that we may get some satisfaction on the amendment. The Paymaster General gently and deftly trespassed on the amendment during the previous debate. In reply to an intervention that I made, she said that in special circumstances for a very few it is possible to vary the mandatory requirement to file information electronically to the Inland Revenue. The way in which the Minister will seek to accommodate us is something that, of course, we are all looking forward to hearing.

I, too, want to advert to the conscientious and principled objections that the Brethren have to the clause. Like the hon. Member for Buckingham, I have had a brief from them—I believe that they have briefed everyone. It is a sign of the catholic nature of this debate that we shall all, including Government Members, have had an opportunity to consider carefully the matters that the Brethren have drawn to our attention.

The Brethren base their creed on their view and interpretation of the teachings and prophecy in the scriptures. This is no new principle: it has been constant, throughout the 20 years that have seen the dramatic advance of information technology. During that period, the Brethren have practised a way of life involving a refusal to use computers in their homes and businesses. They believe that the internet is uncontrollable and a source of evil. Obviously, we do not all share that view—very few in this Committee probably do—but we are all here to protect minorities, including conscientious minorities such as the Brethren.

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There are approximately 1,200 Brethren businesses in the United Kingdom. They trade, employ staff and pay taxes without computers. They need to be able to continue to communicate with the Inland Revenue and other tax authorities using paper. Unless a conscience provision is included in the clause, there is clearly no framework to allow for the protection of those with principled objections to it. A conscience clause, as is proposed, is not unprecedented. I believe that the proposal is modelled on the jury exemption clause in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. There are other conscience exemptions in statute law. I refer the Committee to regulations that allow Sikhs exemption from the use of protective helmets on motor cycles and building sites. I also refer Members to the Oaths Act 1978, which allows alternative provision for affirmation.

We should have, and should promote in this Committee, a tolerant society that respects minorities. We should not ride roughshod over the principled and constant views of a substantial group of our fellow citizens. I very much hope that the Minister will accept the amendment.

 
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