Finance Bill

[back to previous text]

Dawn Primarolo: Yes, I confirm that that would be a sensible hook. It covers a wide area. For example, any change to the construction industry scheme to assist contractors would need specification.

I do not wish to prolong the proceedings. The Revenue will consider the principle and ensure that these points are covered. The amendment is unnecessary. We already have the relevant power, and will conduct the necessary discussions. The irony is that the negative procedure allows us to do that speedily, which is why PAYE is done in this way. The thing that the hon. Gentleman did not like this

Column Number: 557

morning about the clause provides the flexibility to respond to a group of people, albeit a small one, and to respect their deeply held views. I hope that the hon. Member for Buckingham will withdraw the amendment, and accept that his point will be covered in regulations.

Mr. Bercow: I appreciate what the Paymaster General has just said. I am reluctant to dwell on the point of difference, but I refer to it as there is a difference between us. I do not accept that the negative procedure alone allows for the meeting of grievances, or that the affirmative procedure, which Opposition Members generally prefer as it allows debate, somehow does not allow a person to address them. However, I respect the fact that the Government have chosen to proceed in this way. The result is what matters, not the technique used.

I am bound to say that I am pleasantly surprised and considerably encouraged by the Paymaster General's remarks, as I hope that members of the Brethren will be. We will keenly attend to the discussions that the hon. Lady and her officials will have with members of the Brethren. She has put it on the record in unmistakable terms that she wants to meet their concern, and I am prepared to take her at her word. She knows that I will probably bestir myself to raise the matter again in future, perhaps at length and with some vigour if I feel that the pledge has been broken. I know that she would not entertain that scenario with any enthusiasm. I shall take her at her word and beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

5.30 pm

Mr. Bercow: I beg to move amendment No. 232, in page 105, line 44, leave out subsection (9) and insert—

    '(9) Regulations under this section shall be made by statutory instrument subject to an affirmative resolution of the House of Commons.'.

I shall be brief as we have debated these issues at length and I have been a modest participant in that length. The amendment enjoys the support of the Law Society as well as of Opposition Members and would make the regulations subject to an affirmative resolution. When I mix with people who are not involved in politics, I am often conscious that the language of our exchanges is almost entirely impenetrable to those outside the political system. That makes it necessary to explain the difference between negative and affirmative procedures for dealing with statutory instruments.

The negative procedure effectively denies debate. It just happens when the House has already taken a view about a Bill. Matters of great detail and potential controversy can end up being covered in regulations that the House has never debated, although the negative procedure can be taken more quickly. The affirmative procedure allows the House to debate the issues and reach a view on them.

My hon. Friends and I believe that both the controversy about this part of the Bill and the scope

Column Number: 558

of the regulations make the affirmative procedure appropriate. These matters should be subject to proper debate and parliamentary scrutiny. That is the Opposition view that underpins the amendment. If necessary, I shall invite my right hon. and hon. Friends to support it in a Division.

Mr. Burnett: We support this amendment. It is important to have an opportunity to debate these matters so that any errors can be corrected. After all, Governments are not infallible. We can see that in our proceedings almost every day. The amendment is worth while. Let us have matters in the open and properly debated.

Mr. Jack: I rise to explain my views and put on record the fact that the amendment has been proposed to make the provision work properly in practical terms. The Paymaster General suggested that her word as a Minister was not taken with the seriousness that she would like. When she winds up debate on the clause, I hope that she will acknowledge the good intentions of Opposition Members who favour modern technology and want the Government to benefit from improved and efficient ways to operate. We want to make the provision work properly.

As explained in Committee earlier, many serious practical questions surround what the regulations cover. If Parliament is to pass a mandatory requirement into law, we do not want it subjected to further debate and questions because we never had the chance to discuss it properly in the first place. The Government's willingness to consult in greater detail would be helpful. Will the Paymaster General assure us that discussions about the workings of the regulations will take place, particularly with the industry? The regulations say little about what would happen to the system if the current provider of IT services to Inland Revenue were to suffer a major financial failure and a successor company were employed to replace Electronic Data Systems and provide the specialist services necessary to drive the system. We know nothing about that. We need reassurance about consultation. How robust do the Government believe are the systems underpinning what we are asked to accept? They should put that on the record.

What we propose is important, because the affirmative resolution would, if necessary, enable a motion of amendment to the motion to agree those regulations to be tabled in such a way that any practical objections could be stated in public, on the record. The negative process would not allow the House of Commons to do that. If we are to make something an absolute requirement on the majority of our citizens, they will want to know that we have debated it properly.

I want the Government to conduct a proper consultation exercise on the matter and give the House of Commons the opportunity to review, for one last time, whether the proposal would work in practice.

Dr. Pugh: I think that we have seen enough to know that this little clause is creating quite a problem. Issues of conscience have been aired in the debate this

Column Number: 559

afternoon, and issues of commercial security were aired this morning. Issues of competence, concerning some people's ability actually to use the system, have been aired, and I raised the issue of competition. We cannot simply give the measure a fair wind and say, ''Get on with it. We will draw it in only if a problem arises,'' because it needs constant scrutiny. A close eye must be kept on it.

I want to touch briefly on the issue of competition, which I raised this morning. It is not as though things never go wrong—

The Chairman: Order. We cannot go over debates that were held this morning. What the hon. Gentleman says must relate directly to the amendment.

Dr. Pugh: It relates specifically to the need for scrutiny. If I may do so, I will illustrate why there is a reason for scrutiny.

The Chairman: The hon. Gentleman may make the case relating to the amendment that we are debating now. He may not re-rehearse arguments that have already been rehearsed.

Dr. Pugh: I am not presenting the same argument, Mr. Gale. I want to point out that in e-filing in the past, or the use of e-government, the Government's record is not one of undifferentiated success. The e-government portal that they set up, which was designed by Microsoft, excluded non-Windows browsers. More importantly, as far as taxation is concerned, there was a serious problem with digital certification which ruled out lots of equipment that was not the appropriate brand designed by the firm concerned. In this case, it happened to be Microsoft, coincidentally.

There are important issues regarding e-filing that I want to press home, at the pain of being tedious—[Hon. Members: ''Yes.''] I will be tedious, if necessary. If we commit ourselves to a system that runs the risk of a particular brand of software and a particular brand of computers having pre-eminence in every business enterprise in the country, that has enormous significance for the software accountancy industry and so on. I am simply pleading with the Minister: there will be concerns that this will be an anti-enterprise measure and a drift to technological conformity.

This morning, the general line of the Minister suggested that good practice was in place. I agree with that; there is good practice in place, but there is nothing in the Bill to ensure that it stays in place and nothing in what has been said compromises the need for strenuous monitoring. I point to a specific item: if people check the Inland Revenue site at present, and simply look for details of their tax return, they find other things, too, for example, a little notice with ''spin of the day'' from the Government and completely unnecessary details of what is the Government's flavour-of-the-month policy. Why should that be there? It is an issue for us later on; it is the kind of thing that will intrude if things are not constantly monitored. What we ask for is serious and constant monitoring.

Column Number: 560

Dawn Primarolo: Let us place it on the record and make it absolutely clear that the Inland Revenue's website carries only information for taxpayers on their obligations, and gateways into that information. It does not carry any information that the hon. Gentleman referred to, such as ''spin of the day'' from the Government.

Dr. Pugh rose—

Dawn Primarolo: Just one moment, please. The Inland Revenue operates, under care and management of the tax system, a very strict division and its websites provide precise information to the taxpayer. I have never heard such a misinformed understanding or description of the Inland Revenue's website or of the services offered to taxpayers through that website. It has absolutely nothing to do with affirmative resolutions. If the hon. Gentleman knew anything about the procedure of the House, he would know that affirmative resolutions cannot be amended. They are only accepted or rejected. Regulations under negative resolution are placed before the House for 21 days so that Members and lobbyists can see them.

The hon. Gentleman also fails to understand that the PAYE system operates on the updating of regulations and has done so under not only this Government but the previous Government. It is an effective way of ensuring that responses are taken on board, regulations are properly drafted and changes can be made to the tax system. Anyone who understood the tax system, the vastness of the work undertaken by the Inland Revenue and the detail of its everyday communication with taxpayers would never make such incorrect statements about its professionalism.

 
Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index


©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 25 June 2002