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The whole process started as a result of some of the debates about my 1996 Budget. I was sensitive to the criticisms that came from the Labour Benches about the growing length of my Finance Bills. My hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh has already pointed out that my successor, the present Chancellor, produces Finance Bills that are about twice the length of mine, which are having a substantial impact on the tax code. I was also sensitive to the growing criticisms from practitioners that I was producing legislation that was getting longer. Indeed, the experts themselvesincluding members of the judiciary who found
themselves hearing tax cases, and practitioners who were meant to be giving advice to their clientswere finding it increasingly difficult to understand the drafting of the legislation that was being applied. That led to a process of rewriting it in plain English. As my hon. Friend said, it is my successor and a succession of Labour Ministersthe Financial Secretary to the Treasury is following the Paymaster General, who implemented many of these provisionswho have carried the process through. I have merely chaired the Joint Committee for some years, and marvelled at the progress that we have made.
I want briefly to reinforce the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh. We are rewriting into plain English tax law that is becoming ever more complex. Our tax law may still have some advantages compared with the law overseas, but we are eroding any competitive advantage that might have resulted from having simple tax law in the past. This stems from a policy difference, a difference of approach, and a difference of instinct and philosophy.
When I was Chancellor, I tried to follow a practice that I thought I had acquired from watching Lord Lawson of Blaby when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. His principle was that taxation should be as simple as possible, with exemptions and exceptions as limited as possible, and that it should be imposed at the lowest level possible, while still raising the revenue that one needed. I fear that the present Chancellor does not have the same instincts. He is a micro-manager, and he keeps introducing more complexity into the policies of taxation, which the rewrite project must then turn into plainer English. The result is thousands of clauses of ever greater length. The whole House should continue to press the next Chancellorwho will have the unhappy task of being Chancellor for the next Prime Minister, and will probably have a limited scope in some policy areasto be a tax reformer and to return to some simplicity of policy, which would be welcomed in all quarters.
My other point has already been raised by the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy). When the project was set up, we talked about rewriting the entire tax code in five years. A little more than 10 years later, we have a long way to go; I think that the next item on the agenda is a rewrite of the entire law on corporation tax. There have been some criticisms as to whether that fantastic effort is justified; I was somewhat concerned that the Institute of Chartered Accountants queried whether we were getting the right return on all the effort being put in. I have reflected on that since the Joint Committee. I think that the answer is yes, but I suspect that, as has been mentioned, part of the problema familiar one to me, as someone who used to practise lawis that those who have practised for a long time and have wrestled to become familiar with the existing law find it slightly irksome that they must start all over again and remember where the law is now in the rewritten Bill, whereas new practitioners, who were recently at law school, find the straightforward language much simpler. That is inevitable when any law is simplified.
There was a problem with language and drafting, and many distinguished practitioners were beginningunfairly, as it turned outto curse the office of the parliamentary draftsman, which I also did, for
producing such impenetrable language. Representatives of the office of parliamentary draftsman have played a leading role, however, in turning that into the nearest that one can get to plain English, given the legal language that a tax code must have to provide certainty and fairness. The whole thing will become impossible if we do not continue the process and continue to clarify what has been enacted.
At some stageI do not think that it was todaythe Economic Secretary to the Treasury said that the acid test was whether the professional bodies continue to be prepared to devote time and effort and to apply themselves to the consultation process, which is essential if we are to make sure that no serious mistakes are made. As far as I can tell, the members of the professional bodies do appreciate that: plenty of people in the professional world are prepared to give a great deal of what would otherwise be their expensive time to that. Therefore, the labours of Hercules should be continued.
The process will require the same levels of professionalism and application as we have had from the Ministers whom we have been lucky enough to have handling the matter over the past 10 years; for a long time it was one Minister, and I am sure that she is mightily glad to be rid of it and pass it on to her successor. The process is worthwhile, however, and today marks an extremely significant step. I just hope that we find that only two errors have been made in the hundreds of pages, and that the provision that has rightly been included to achieve minor corrections and return to the old law if anything is wrong does not have to be overused. I shall be very surprised if it does, because I was so impressed by the way in which the whole Bill had been put together.
That the draft European Communities (Employment in the Civil Service) Order 2007, which was laid before this House on 25th January, be approved.
That the draft Tax and Civil Partnership Regulations 2006, which were laid before this House on 12th December, be approved.
That the draft Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 (Amnesty Period) Order 2007, which was laid before this House on 11th December, be approved.
That the draft Local Authorities (Contracting Out of Anti-Social Behaviour Order Functions) (England) Order 2007, which was laid before this House on 9th January, be approved.
That the draft Mental Capacity Act 2005 (Loss of Capacity during Research Project) (England) Regulations 2007, which were laid before this House on 15th January, be approved. [Tony Cunningham.]
The Petition of the residents of Oxfordshire,
Declares that the Petitioners are extremely concerned that in some instances Council Tax Bands do not fairly reflect the decreased market value of some properties;
Further declares that the residents of Guardian Court in Banbury are in Council Tax Bands B and C for properties which the Valuation Office acknowledge are closer to the lower-rate Bands A and B based on almost identical properties near-by in Banbury;
Further declares that despite what is a record 37 appeals by one road in Oxfordshire to the Council Tax Appeals Tribunal, the Tribunal remains powerless to re-value Council Tax within bands to ensure Guardian Court residents pay a fair Council Tax;
Further declares that because of the Government's postponement of the Council Tax revaluation because of the
Lyons Commission, residents in Guardian Court will continue to pay Council Tax in some instances almost two Bands higher than the market value of their property until at least 2012;
Further declares that Council Tax payers just want to pay a fair price for their property rather than wait for a revaluation by stealth.
The Petitioners therefore call on the House of Commons to urge the Government to empower Council Tax Appeals Tribunals to re-value the amount of Council Tax paid within a band where there is a clear case of the property being lower than its market value.
And the Petitioners remain, etc.
The Petition of Harborough Rail Users Group and others
Declares that the petitioners support the campaign to safeguard all off-peak rail services to and from Market Harborough from December 2008.
The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Department for Transport to ensure that the company awarded the new East Midlands franchise maintains these services during the term of the franchise.
And the Petitioners remain, etc.
Members may be wondering why I have asked for this debate on the British steel industry, considering that the steelworks in my constituency closed over four years ago, after some 200 years of steel making. The reason is that I was employed in the steel industry for over 26 yearsthe last of four generations of my family to be so employedand I care for those who are still involved in the industry. I believe that the retention of steel making in this country is vital for the economy, and that it is unthinkable that our country could be left without this strategic industry.
During the 18-month closure period of the steelworks in my constituency, partnership working between Corus management and the senior trade union representatives on site, including me, meant that over 300 individuals were able to transfer to other steel sites in south Wales. Because those individuals commute to work, the wages that they earn come back into the local economysignificant salaries that my constituency can ill afford to lose. There is also a Corus site still located in my constituency that employs around 70 people and pays in excess of the minimum wage, providing quality jobs in an area in which few jobs do pay above the minimum wage.
In 1976, when I started working for the then British Steel Corporation, there were in excess of 200,000 employees in the industry. Today, that number is down to around 24,000. I accept that a significant number of those job losses were attributable to increased technology, but that is still a massive loss to local economies around the country, especially when we take into account that one job lost in the steel industry has a knock-on effect of four times on relevant jobs in the community such as transport and jobs that are linked to the industry. The effect is devastating for the area and people concerned.
My concern for the British steel industry is heightened by the recent buy-out of Corus by Tata Steel. Although it is still inconceivable that our country could lose its steel industry or steel-making capacity, I have seen nothing in the press or in news coverage that fills me with any certainty about the future of the industry.
During the steel closures and 7,000 redundancies in 2001-02, meetings were held with the Prime Minister and the joint trade unions on two occasions to ask him to intervene and to speak to the Corus management, but that was after the closure announcements were made. The Prime Minister made it clear that, because the steel industry was privately owned, there was very little he could do to prevent the closures, although the Government helped by providing retraining packages for the areas affected. However, the quality employment has not been replaced.
Having received the news of our works closure via the media as a fait accompli, and then been involved in after-the-event saviour negotiations, which were all rejected, I ask the Government to do all they can to ensure that the steel industry has a future in this country. I urge them to have continuous dialogue with Tata Steel in an attempt to gain assurances that it intends to invest in the steel industry in this country and not asset strip.
Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): Is the hon. Gentleman saying that he does not have confidence in Tata Steel, despite all the assurances that it has given? It is investing about £6 billion in buying Corus. If it did not have confidence in the first place, it would not be purchasing the steel industry here.
Mr. Davies: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. When the buy-out was first mooted, there was talk in the press of investment and growth. Since then, the press coverage has worried me. One of the words that was used during the closure time was synergies. At the time, we did not really understand what it meant, which is that if there was a cheaper cost route or like product, there was a chance of closure. That is what happened under the merger with Corus. All I am asking for is that we continue dialogue with Tata Steel to ensure that that promise of investment and support is carried through.
I have been contacted over the past few months by numerous people who have transferred to other sites. They have expressed concern, and of course the stress and worry are passed on to families. The more we can do to alleviate that, the better it will be.
I know from my experience as a senior negotiator in the industry that the trade unions have argued for a level playing field within the European steel industry. There is an urgent need for a review of energy prices in this country because there is an imbalance between our production of steel and that in the plants across Europe.
Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the dead-end that the full liberalisation of energy policies across the whole of the EU has recently run into offers an ideal opportunity for our Government to reconsider the way in which energy prices are meted out to industry?
Mr. Davies: I thank the hon. Lady. That is an extremely important point. In this country, the energy prices are significant in terms of the cost of a tonne of steel. We need to review those and to ensure that we are making our steel industry as competitive as possible. We also need to review business rates. Some work has been done on that in previous years, but we need to look at business rate levels for the industry.
Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op):
Before the hon. Gentleman moves off Europe, does he agree that one of the things that has put the British steel industry at a competitive disadvantage has been not having a level playing field on the emissions trading scheme? The Government have to be robust with the European Commission to ensure that it does
not allow European steel companies to get away with a higher rate of emissions than the British steel industry is allowed. We need a level playing field in that sector in Europe, too.
Mr. Davies: I thank the hon. Gentleman. That was my next point. We tend to look at our industry as a dirty industry, and our first reaction is to fine it. I ask the Government to work with the steel industry to help it to become more efficient in terms of carbon emissions. We need to do everything we can to support it, not fine it. As for the level playing field in Europe, there have been problems with other Governments ignoring what has come out of the plants across Europe. That is an important point.
The steel industry has more to offer than its traditional products. Its apprentice training structure is second to none and one of the few such schemes left. It includes traditional craft training to degree level, team working programmes, business administration, chemical engineering and health and safety, to name just a few. We could go on and on. Those training programmes are among the best in the world.
One of the drawbacks of college-based training is that, at the end of the course, the individual has little, if any, on-site experience. I ask the Government to discuss with Tata Steel the possibility of establishing a sponsoring system where colleges and other companies external to the steel industry would be able to access the industrys training schemes. The aim would be to establish training partnerships to produce the skilled work force that this country desperately needs.
I cannot end this Adjournment debate without placing alongside securing the long term future of the steel industry in this country the importance of ensuring the security of the British Steel pension fund, which forms part of the Tata takeover. As the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) said, Tata has made moves to pay into that scheme. That is an important point. As a former trustee of the scheme for some four and a half years I know that it is a very good scheme. It has some 90,000 members across the country. It has helped in no small measure to mitigate the impact of steel redundancies in the past 20 years on communities such as mine. In the present climate of pension uncertainty, I urge the Government to do all they can to protect that scheme.
I believe that part of the cause of antisocial behaviour in our communities is the loss of manufacturing jobs. Industries such as steel and coal give an identity to the people working in them and to the areas in which they are located. We need to ensure that young people have a role in life, a sense of belonging and a purpose to their existence. The industries were hard, are hard and are dangerous, but communities were built around them. I have always looked at the area I represent as a community of steelit was built around the steel industry and would not exist today without it. That is probably the case across many parts of the country. We can use the influence of those industries to help to get youngsters involved in training and in manufacturing production. I hope that the Government will be able to work on some of those ideas to secure the industry for the future.
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