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Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, that is a large number of questions. Yes, of course the Inland Revenue keeps these matters under review. I am not especially aware that this is a bonanza for accountants. Certainly I, who used to employ an accountant, can now successfully complete the form on my own and submit it before 30th September. I am therefore saving money, for a start. If that is self-interest, then so be it.

As to the issue of whether the people who can least afford it are being penalised, yes, of course there are fines for late submission. But those fines are capped. If anyone owes less than the amount of the fine, the fine is reduced. The criteria for inclusion in self-assessment is whether the correct amount can be deducted at source; it is not based on total income. However, we are making continued efforts to eliminate from the scheme people on lower incomes who make straightforward returns. We have developed a short return form to achieve that. I am sure that there have been no custodial sentences.

Baroness Strange: My Lords, is the Minister aware that although I am fairly stupid I am not entirely stupid and I am quite incapable of filling in the form myself? Therefore, I have to employ accountants. Is he further aware that this year I have had to take out insurance in case they also make a mistake? The accountants must have some brains.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I am always willing to come up to Scotland to help the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, fill in her forms. In a debate on this issue about two years ago, people asked for "idiot's guides". There are no idiots in your Lordships' House.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, the Minister will be aware that it has been reported that this year a number of self-assessment forms have been lost in the post or elsewhere and taxpayers have been asked to re-submit. Will the Minister give some idea of the extent of the problem?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, that is difficult. Clearly, there is the possibility of forms being lost in the post, and the possibility that forms may simply be lost. After all, there are millions of forms at tax offices. We do not know the figure for the number of returns at 31st January this year because we have not yet reached that date. However, if I were challenged as to the numbers, there is no reason to suppose that it is different from previous years. In that case, the number is in hundreds rather than thousands.

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Lord Dubs: My Lords, does my noble friend know how many people do not manage to submit their returns by the end of January? Perhaps I may add, as someone who does not use an accountant, that I have always found Inland Revenue staff incredibly helpful.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I am grateful for the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. We do not yet have this year's figure. In previous years, the number of people submitting forms on time—by the end of January—has been approximately 90 per cent.

Lord Saatchi: My Lords, speaking of those who can least afford it being penalised, will the Minister confirm that the self-assessment system is enabling the Government to extract 3 billion a year in income tax from people living below the Government's official poverty line?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the self-assessment system does not change the rate or incidence of taxation; it simply affects the way in which it is collected.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, I declare an interest, given the remark by the noble Lord, Lord Russell-Johnston. The senior tax partner of my old firm does submit my tax return—on time, I am happy to say. This is not a party political issue. Surely, it should be a matter of the most efficient method in line with the public interest. In those circumstances—I have not read the latest National Audit Office report—what percentage of returns submitted are found to be in error? My noble friend says that some 90 per cent are submitted—although I am not sure how he can know that, given the tax evasion which, unfortunately, occurs.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord means tax avoidance, not tax evasion—or perhaps he means both. No, I do not know off-hand the number of forms that have to be sent back. I shall have to write to him. The evidence from the National Audit Office and that submitted to the Treasury committee last year by the Chartered Institute of Taxation and the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales are very supportive of the tax assessment system.

Baroness Sharples: My Lords, if it is proved that tax offices have lost the forms, will late payers still be fined?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: No, my Lords, certainly not. If it can be found that it is the responsibility of the Inland Revenue, there will be no fine. But, as we know from wider experience, it is very difficult to determine whether a communication has been lost in the post, or whether that is an excuse. "The cheque is in the post" is one of the most famous excuses in the world.

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Hepatitis C

2.52 p.m.

Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest—not a financial one—as president of the Haemophilia Society.

The Question was as follows:

    To ask Her Majesty's Government what new help they are considering for people infected with hepatitis C by contaminated National Health Service blood products, and for the dependants of those who have since died as a result of their infection.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, we have enormous sympathy with those affected by this tragedy. Sadly, it was not possible at the time to make blood products free from hepatitis C. We do, however, recognise the public health importance of hepatitis C and have published a strategy to improve the effectiveness of prevention, testing and treating services for people with this virus. An action plan to implement the strategy will be produced in the next few months.

Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, I thank my noble friend. Is he aware that last month, for the third time, haemophilia patients were notified that NHS blood products they were prescribed trace back to a donor with variant CJD; and that the Department of Health, with no tests for the disease, cannot say whether they have contracted it?

Over 1,000 haemophilia patients have now died from the HIV and hepatitis C viruses transmitted by contaminated NHS blood products—a huge toll for a small and already stricken patient community of only 5,000. Is it not then cruelly unjust to deny those who survive the safer recombinant treatment that would remove their fear of further infection?

Again, is my noble friend aware of the Market Research Bureau's finding that the UK now has the lowest availability of recombinant for haemophilia patients in the developed world?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I pay tribute to my noble friend for his presidency of the society. This has been a tragic event that has occurred in this country. The previous government decided that the general rule should apply in those cases: that there could not be an exception to the rule that compensation or financial help is given only when the NHS or individuals working in it are at fault. The current Government reviewed this decision by the previous government some years ago and decided that they could not move from that position.

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So far as concerns recombinant synthetic factors 8 and 9, Ministers are currently considering the case for the provision of recombinant clotting factors and hope to be able to make a decision shortly.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, what approximately is the number of people now infected in this way, and the number of their dependants as at present?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the figures that I have indicate that about 8,000 people are still living who are infected with hepatitis C through blood products and blood transfusion.

Lord Addington: My Lords, will the Government please explain to the House the difference in the circumstances of the relatives of people who have died as a result of contracting HIV through no cause of their own, and those of someone who has died of cancer of the liver caused by hepatitis C?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, these are very difficult judgments. I do not think that anyone who has gone into this matter—in the previous government or the current Government—has found making a decision in this area at all easy. At the end of the day, after careful review, we came to the conclusion that we could not make an exception to the compensation rule.

Lord Rix: My Lords, does that mean that there is a lack of conviction about the cost or about the treatment?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I do not believe that those are the issues that are paramount in considering this matter. There has long been a general rule that compensation is given by the National Health Service only when the service itself or individuals working in it are at fault. In this case, there has been no fault.

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