Tax Simplification (Joint Committee)

– in the House of Commons at 4:59 pm on 15th January 2001.

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Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Paymaster General (HM Treasury) 4:59 pm, 15th January 2001

I beg to move, That the following Standing Order be made—

  1. (1) There shall be a Select Committee, to consist of seven Members, to join with the committee appointed by the Lords as the Joint Committee on Tax Simplification Bills, to consider tax simplification bills, and in particular to consider whether each bill committed to it preserves the effect of the existing law, subject to any minor changes which may be desirable.
  2. (2) The Committee shall have power to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House, to report from time to time, and to appoint specialist advisers either to supply information which is not readily available or to elucidate matters of complexity within the committee's order of reference.
  3. (3) The quorum of the Committee shall be two.
  4. (4) Unless the House otherwise orders, each Member nominated to the committee shall continue to be a member of it for the remainder of the Parliament.
  5. (5) The procedure of the Joint Committee shall follow the procedure of select committees of this House when such procedure differs from that of select committees of the House of Lords.
  6. (6) The chairman shall have the like powers of selection as are given to the chairman of a standing committee under paragraph (3)(a) of Standing Order No. 89 (Procedure in standing committees).
In moving the first motion, I should like to explain briefly to the House the procedure for a Joint Committee to be set up to consider tax simplification Bills. The House has already agreed in principle that it is expedient for such a Committee to be established, and agreement to two motions on the Order Paper, this being the first, is the next step in that process.

The first of those Bills—the Capital Allowances Bill—was introduced on 9 January. The procedure for them has been refined over the past four years to recognise their particular nature while providing for proper parliamentary scrutiny of the legislation. The procedure draws on that for the consolidation Bills. The tax simplification Bills are not consolidation Bills, but have a lot in common with them. Their purpose is to rewrite the law so that it is clearer and more easily understood, but they will also make minor changes in the law, just as a consolidation Bill may contain minor changes giving effect to recommendations made by the Law Commission. The importance of providing proper parliamentary scrutiny of the rewritten legislation was recognised from the outset.

The motion provides for detailed scrutiny of the Bill, including what are very minor and largely technical changes to be undertaken by a Joint Committee, and is in the form of a Standing Order as there will be a series of tax simplification Bills. The second will, on current plans, be ready to be introduced in autumn 2002. Making a Standing Order will mean that the House will avoid the need to go through the process again. That, again, was envisaged in the original Procedure Committee report to the House in 1997.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Will the proposed Joint Committee meet in private or in public and can the Minister offer me any encouragement to believe that the said Committee will be mercifully free among its members from representatives of either the Government or the Opposition Whips Office?

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Paymaster General (HM Treasury)

I was about to explain the procedure for the Select Committee. I hope to address the points that the hon. Gentleman has raised, but, if I do not, I shall of course give way to him.

The Committee to be established is a Select Committee, not a Standing Committee. As the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) knows, Select Committees are free to determine how and when they meet and whether to do so in open or closed session. The Select Committee will be free to proceed by taking evidence and informal deliberation as well as by proposing formal amendments to the Bill. The Procedure Committee recommended that the greatest possible latitude be permitted to the committee in its terms of reference … That is what we have tried to achieve. The Procedure Committee, in 1997, also recommended that a Minister should sit on the Joint Committee. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman will be delighted to hear that, should the House agree another motion on the Order Paper, I would be a member of that Committee.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The Minister will understand the purport of my continuing inquiries. I note what she says, although I confess that I do so with some distaste that the Committee will include a Minister, but will she confirm that the said Minister will be regarded not as a witness before, but as a member of, the Committee? Will not it therefore be open to the Committee at a meeting attended by a ministerial member to judge that, lacking witnesses, it should choose to meet in private? Does she understand that, as a champion of freedom of information in those matters and one who is concerned about possible dastardly works that might be perpetrated by the Government, I am uneasy about such private confabs?

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Paymaster General (HM Treasury)

I understand, the hon. Gentleman's concern that the transparency of the process should be upheld. The Committee will be free to elect its Chairman and I understand that my role is to be an individual member of that Committee. It will be for the Committee to decide how to conduct its business—it would be quite improper for me to suggest from the Dispatch Box how it should do so—but I am sure that whoever is appointed to chair the Committee will of course scrutinise today's debates and pay particular attention to ensuring that the rights of the House are properly protected.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

What are these pigs that I see flying?

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Paymaster General (HM Treasury)

I could not possibly comment.

The Joint Committee is expected to have 13 members. Six will be from another place and seven from this place. The Procedure Committees of both Houses have recommended that the Chairman be drawn from this place.

To return to the point made by the hon. Member for Buckingham, the procedure which was set up under Standing Order and introduced by the Conservative Government prior to the 1997 election provided that the House should have the majority—seven members—on the Committee and that the Chairman should be drawn from one of those seven members. That recognises that the Bills concern tax and would not normally be matters for another place, while bringing to bear the expertise of Members of the other place in the process of consideration. In the previous Parliament, the Procedure Committee stated: It is likely that a joint committee would only be generally acceptable if it was clear that the Commons was in a sense the driving force. The division of seven members from this place and six from another place reflects that desire.

Given that it is somewhat unusual to engage the expertise of Members of another place in the debate on tax measures, the proposal is that House of Commons procedures shall be followed where they differ from those in the other place. That is most significant in the role of the Chairman in voting. In the other place, the Chairman votes like any other member and has no casting vote in the event of a tie. In this place, the Chairman does not have a vote unless a tie occurs, when he or she has a casting vote.

Secondly, the Committee will have powers to take evidence, as I have said, from anyone it wishes and to appoint specialist advisers if it judges that helpful to supplement the lengthy consultation already undertaken by the rewrite project.

Thirdly, there were some questions about the Committee's ability to change the underlying tax law. I hope that the motion will make it clearer that the Committee's remit is to consider tax simplification Bills, not to review and revise underlying tax policy. That is consistent with the recommendations made to the House when the tax law rewrite project was set up and with the Procedure Committee's reports to the House.

The motion is simply about taking forward Bills which rewrite existing legislation, with some minor changes only. That is a matter on which I am pleased to find that there has so far been a great deal of agreement. The work undertaken by Lord Howe of Aberavon and his enthusiasm, along with all the other members of the tax law rewrite body, of which the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) is one, has demonstrated both the commitment of the previous Government and of the present Government to take this important work forward.

The motion puts in place the machinery for delivering the first rewrite Bill after a great deal of effort over several years. I hope that the House will accept the procedures.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I support the proposal, but has no thought been given to making the quorum of the Committee not merely two, as proposed? Should not the higher proportion that is required in the House constitute the quorum?

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that sedentary interjection.

I served on the Joint Committee that is designed to reject defunct or obsolete Acts on the statute book. I felt vulnerable when I attended. It was almost as if I were trespassing on House of Lords proceedings, as it were. I was somewhat alone on that occasion, and I believe that it is unhealthy for the House not to ensure that the deliberations of the Joint Committee are a mutual undertaking, rather than one that is not pursued with any great vigour by some hon. Members.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Paymaster General (HM Treasury)

I understand my hon. Friend's point. All these matters were considered by the Procedure Committees of both Houses. The Select Committee has only seven members from this House, and it would be extraordinary for the quorum to include more than half of those members—hence, the number two as the proposed quorum.

The Joint Committee on Consolidation Bills has 12 members and a quorum of two, as does the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, where the number of members is not fixed by Standing Order, but is, I understand, currently seven.

The new procedure that has been agreed is laid down by Standing Order No. 60. As the process of tax law rewrite is taken through the House for the first time, it will be necessary to reconsider the procedure.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The hon. Lady has been exceptionally generous, which I much appreciate. Nevertheless, I am a little concerned by the progressively byzantine arrangement that she has set out before the House. She said a moment ago, if I understood her correctly, that the Chairman of the Joint Committee would have to come from this House. Is that because of something in Sessional or Standing Orders, or is it merely by way of a gentlemen's or ladies' agreement?

Furthermore, with reference to paragraph (2) of the motion, does the hon. Lady understand that many of us are rather perturbed by the idea that the Committee might conduct its secretive work when the House is adjourned? That seems to be a recipe for trouble.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Paymaster General (HM Treasury)

First, I assure that hon. Gentleman that nothing in the deliberations on the tax law rewrite Bills will be concealed from the House. There must be a report back to the House, and it will be for the House to decide. Secondly, I remind him that the Government are in a minority on the Committee—a somewhat unusual position for the Government to be in on Committees.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Paymaster General (HM Treasury)

If I may answer one question at a time, I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in due course.

There is no chance that, without a majority, the Government could railroad anything through the Committee, nor would we want to. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) scoffs. If he studied the subject, he would find that from its inception under the previous Government, the proposal had received widespread support in the House and huge support among all the professions, and that it has been the subject of extensive consultation. The procedure to review it and consider Bills in the House has now been properly arranged.

On the question of the Chair of the Committee, it would be improper for me to express any view. It will be for the Committee to elect its Chair.

I give way to the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), even though I have concluded my remarks.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I thank the Minister for giving way. She said that Government members on the Committee would be in a minority. As four out of seven members listed on the Order Paper are from the Government side, it follows that she knows who the other six from the Lords are. If she does, will she please tell the House, and if she does not, can she tell the House when they will be appointed or when their lordships will deliberate on the matter? With regard to the quorum, does the quorum of two bind only Members of this House, or does it bind the entire Committee, including Members of the other House?

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Paymaster General (HM Treasury)

The House of Lords returns from its break today, and it will appoint its members of the Committee. If we are notified during our debates that those appointments have been confirmed by the other place, I shall be happy to tell the hon. Gentleman. It is for the other place to determine who its six members will be.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I do not want to get at the Minister, but her statement that Government Members will be in a minority on the Committee cannot be correct, because she does not know what its total membership will be.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Paymaster General (HM Treasury)

I thought that the hon. Gentleman was asking who the members from the other place will be. The breakdown of those six members will be two Labour, two Conservative, one Cross Bencher and one Liberal Democrat. It is not for me to determine which peers will be members: that is a matter for the House of Lords. The Joint Committee will follow the procedure and rules of Select Committees of this House.

Photo of Mr John Burnett Mr John Burnett Liberal Democrat, Torridge and West Devon

Is it the Government's intention that they will be in a minority for the duration of the Committee?

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Paymaster General (HM Treasury)

I am not entirely sure what the hon. Gentleman is asking. The procedure is laid down in Standing Order No. 60. The requirement is for the seven members of the Committee to reflect the balance in this House, but when the six members from the other place have been added the Government will be in a minority—not a majority.

The hon. Gentleman is concerned about the quorum. A quorum of two is what Lords Committees use. The procedure was set out in proposals from the Committee in the Lords on 13 November 2000. The quorum, the procedure, and the fact that the Select Committee procedure for the Commons will be followed because tax questions are involved have now all been agreed by both Houses.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

I should make it clear to the House that Mr. Speaker has not been able to accept any of the amendments.

Photo of Richard Ottaway Richard Ottaway Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury) 5:17 pm, 15th January 2001

I had a couple of points to make, but they have been made more effectively than I could by my hon. Friends in their perceptive interventions. We will be feeling our way in this new process. It is the first time that we have gone through it. I have listened to the points that my hon. Friends have made, and will bear them in mind. I shall certainly advocate that we sit in public, and that there is as much openness in the process as possible. I hope that the Minister will accept that, as it is the first time we will have gone through the process, it will be appropriate to review it at the end. If we feel that the process has not worked properly, it would he thoroughly appropriate for the House to reconsider this Standing Order and make the necessary amendments.

We met to discuss this matter on 19 December. We agreed the motion in principle, and we do so now.

Photo of Mr John Burnett Mr John Burnett Liberal Democrat, Torridge and West Devon 5:19 pm, 15th January 2001

The Joint Committee on Tax Simplification will be important and influential. Some eminent right hon. and hon. Members have proposed to go on the Committee, and I believe that it is wrong for the quorum to be just two Members of this House. There will not be a sufficient representative sample of the House, and the Committee may well be called on to deliberate and produce a report with the views and considerations of only one political party being represented. That is not acceptable. The quorum of the Committee should be at least four. Although I appreciate that, with a quorum of four, the Committee could still sit with only Government Members present, the amendment that has not been called would have provided at least the likelihood of diversity.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Would it not be sensible for the quorum to be at least two Members of each House, given that this will be a Joint Committee?

Photo of Mr John Burnett Mr John Burnett Liberal Democrat, Torridge and West Devon

I entirely agree, and I see no reason why the quorum of four suggested in the amendment that was not selected could not have been so comprised. Such an arrangement might provide even more diversity, and even more expertise.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Does the hon. Gentleman also agree that, if this is to be a highly important, extremely influential and very worthwhile Committee composed of celebrated members with many commitments and full diaries, there is no good reason why at any one time 11 of the 13 should be unavailable to fulfil their important duties? Is it not alarming that if on some occasion only two members were present, one of them, the non-voting Chairman, a single individual, could determine the Committee's proceedings?

Photo of Mr John Burnett Mr John Burnett Liberal Democrat, Torridge and West Devon

I must confess that my knowledge of Committee procedures is not quite as extensive as the hon. Gentleman's. Nevertheless, the central point must be made that the quorum should be at least four. I hope that the Government will reconsider; this is a most worthwhile project.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Paymaster General (HM Treasury)

I think the hon. Gentleman said that the quorum should be at least four, counting Members of the other place. Two Members of the other place plus two Members of the House of Commons make four, and that is the quorum. I do not understand the hon. Gentleman's problem.

Photo of Mr John Burnett Mr John Burnett Liberal Democrat, Torridge and West Devon

Is the Paymaster General saying that, for the Committee to sit, the quorum must be in effect four—two Members of this House and two Members of the other place—and that if four such Members are not present there will be no quorum?

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Paymaster General (HM Treasury)

Yes: I am referring to two Members of each House. When the hon. Gentleman checks the record, he will see that I said that the quorum for the House of Lords would also be two. Furthermore, I said that a quorum of more than two for a Committee consisting of seven members would be unheard of.

Photo of Mr John Burnett Mr John Burnett Liberal Democrat, Torridge and West Devon

Actually, I am somewhat reassured by that.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman is by nature a decent and generous fellow, but I hope he will not be too readily reassured. He should not jump ahead of himself. Does he not accept that what we have just heard from the Paymaster General, welcome though it sounds, is effectively amendment on the hoof—amendment at the Dispatch Box? Subsection (3) of the motion specifically states: The quorum of the Committee shall be two. It does not say "two Members of each House"; it just says "two".

Photo of Mr John Burnett Mr John Burnett Liberal Democrat, Torridge and West Devon

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I was coming to that.

Photo of Mr John Burnett Mr John Burnett Liberal Democrat, Torridge and West Devon

The Paymaster General is poised to intervene. I happily allow her to do so.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Paymaster General (HM Treasury)

We are discussing only procedure relating to this House, but the hon. Gentleman will note from the record that when I replied to him earlier I said that the quorum for the House of Lords Committee would also be two, and that the procedure had been set out in a proposal from that Committee on 13 November 2000.

Photo of Mr John Burnett Mr John Burnett Liberal Democrat, Torridge and West Devon

There is but one Committee, which consists of Members of both this House and the other place. That Committee will not be able to go about its business unless four individuals are present—for instance, two Members of each House. On that basis, I am reasonably reassured.

Photo of Michael Jack Michael Jack Conservative, Fylde 5:24 pm, 15th January 2001

Our exchanges about the quorum illustrate one of the Committee's most important tasks—attention to detail. Its work will involve detailed scrutiny, in the context of the first parliamentary consideration of tax law simplification.

Let me say at the outset that I welcome the progress that the House is making now in establishing the procedures—the substance will be established later— of an exercise with which, as the Paymaster General suggested, I was closely associated during my time at the Treasury.

My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) feared that the Committee's procedure might be clothed in secrecy. He is a modern Member of the House of Commons. If he had cared to look at the various internet websites on the tax law rewrite exercise, he would have found displayed to public view in the most open way possible all the proceedings so far of the exercise. It has been conducted in the most open of fashions.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

My right hon. Friend is an e-man of some note, but for those of us who do not possess a computer, who cannot switch one on, or who would not know a website if it jumped out of their breakfast cereal, to say that something is on a website is simply not sufficient. Those of us who are traditionalists and who prefer to deal with information in a proper way, conducted through a proper medium, will continue to insist on that. My right hon. Friend's talk of a website does not impress us all.

Photo of Michael Jack Michael Jack Conservative, Fylde

I was going to point out that conventional means are also being used to disseminate the information. When we debate that and other matters, I am sure that my right hon. Friend will refer to the copies, in a more conventional sense, of Committee proceedings that he will have obtained, with reference later perhaps to the many exposure drafts and other information that has been more conventionally produced and that will also assist the Committee in its work. If the shelf in my office that holds much of the printed material is anything to judge by, there has been a flood of information in the public domain on all aspects of the work that the Committee will examine.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I confess that, in common with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), on the whole I tend to prefer to communicate via use of the quill pen, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) said in seeking to reassure me that the record of the proceedings was lodged on not one, but a multiplicity of websites. Is he saying that the verbatim account of everything said was lodged on said website, or is it merely a truncated version in the form of minutes? The former would be substantially reassuring, the latter less so.

Photo of Michael Jack Michael Jack Conservative, Fylde

If my hon. Friend were fully acquainted with and had read all the material from all the participants during all parts of the exercise that has produced the Bill that we shall discuss later, he perhaps would not have posed the question in quite the way that he did because it is the output and decisions of the consultative and steering committee processes that are of greater interest in the public domain than the words uttered both privately and publicly to determine what we will discuss later.

The first part of the motion deals with a Standing Order. The motion says that we wish to consider whether each bill committed to it preserves the effect of the existing law, subject to any minor changes which may be desirable. That is the most positive part of the tax law rewrite exercise, but one of the challenges will be the considerable amount of detail that the Committee will have to go into in determining the answer, almost, to the question in the first part of the motion.

I was interested in a paragraph in the helpful Library note which gives some of the background to the exercise. It says on page 39: Experience with the Joint Committee on Consolidation suggests that the Lords Members play a dominant part and that there are indeed frequent problems with ensuring sufficient attendance of Commons Members to provide the quorum. It is interesting that later we may be able to debate the membership from this House of the Committee. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members who have volunteered their services, or whose services have been volunteered, to that exercise will have the time to carry out the part of the motion that I read out earlier. It is a time-consuming exercise. Given that it will be the first parliamentary consideration of the rewrite process, assiduous attention to detail will be required to meet the understandable questions that my right hon. and hon. Friends have posed and to give the reassurance that the matter has been properly considered.

The second paragraph of the motion states: The Committee shall have power to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House and more important— to report from time to firm, and to appoint specialist advisers either to supply information which is not readily available or to elucidate matters of complexity within the committee's order of reference. I am intrigued by that provision. I should also like to ask the Paymaster General about it, as that might refresh my memory of the procedures considered by the Procedure Committee in recommending that method of considering the Capital Allowances Bill. One of the matters that we shall discuss in more detail later is how the whole exercise has helped us to arrive at the conclusions in the Bill. The exercise has had two parts, the first of which deals with ideas to improve tax law but without changing current policy. The second part deals with ideas that go beyond that stricture in relation to current policy and addresses the simplification issue in the round.

Does the Paymaster General envisage that, in the reports that it might produce, the Select Committee will be able to go wider than the narrow confines of commenting on the fruits of the labour done by both the consultative and steering committees on the Capital Allowances Bill? I am sure that the specialist advisers who will wish to advise the Select Committee will have views on some of the implications of the Bill's drafting.

As for the tax law rewrite exercise, it might be quite interesting if the reports could go a little further than simply commenting on drafting. Nevertheless, even if they comment only on drafting, such reports could be interesting when we come to subsequent rewrite Bills. Will the Select Committee have to restrict its remarks solely to the Capital Allowances Bill? If not, will it be able to comment on more general matters? Such an ability could be valuable in other aspects of the exercise.

Some of the Bill's provisions beg the question how effectively current tax law operates. Will the Select Committee be able to call for an economic assessment of some aspects of capital allowances legislation and to report on the operation of both current and redefined law? Such reports might be useful adjuncts to the Select Committee's work in commenting on tax simplification.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that paragraph (2) of the motion is a standard provision in motions establishing all Committees and that it is just so much hogwash? The Committee, even with the benefit of paragraph (2), will not be able to ask for the advice given to Ministers. Therefore, requests for all the really important information that the Committee might wish to know could well be refused by Ministers—even by the Minister dealing with the Capital Allowances Bill. Can that Minister be called before the Committee to give evidence?

Photo of Michael Jack Michael Jack Conservative, Fylde

As the relevant Minister will be part of the Select Committee, she will be able to contribute to its proceedings in her own way.

As for my hon. Friend's point on advice to Ministers, it is true that documentation that moved between Revenue officials and Treasury officials when I was a Treasury Minister would not be available to Ministers now. I would also not expect Select Committees to be able to gain access to information on the policy issues discussed by officials. However, in relation to the consultative committee's work and the number of exposure drafts that have preceded the Bill, the Bill has been written in such a transparent manner that the exercise itself has been very transparent.

If my hon. Friend wishes to avail himself of the available information, like the Select Committee he will have to conduct a comparative exercise between the "old" Bill and the "new" one. Then he will be aware of precisely the issues that would have been before Ministers. I recommend, however, that he conducts such an exercise only if he is an insomniac. Assuming that he wants to remain sane and normal, as he usually is, I remind him that he would be embarking on an extremely complex and difficult task—a remark that I shall repeat during the wider debate on tax simplification, if I have the opportunity to do so.

Photo of Michael Jack Michael Jack Conservative, Fylde

My hon. Friend is correct, although the towels will have gone stony cold by the time such an exercise is complete.

I am grateful to the Paymaster General for her clarification on quorums. As I said, the issue is an interesting insight into the points of detail that will be the stuff of the hon. Members who comprise the Joint Committee. I welcome the original proposal on which the Procedure Committee deliberated and I wish the Joint Committee well. I hope that the House will approve the motion.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst 5:36 pm, 15th January 2001

I confess that I cannot join in the cosy unanimity that has so far been displayed. I am always suspicious when I am assured that everybody has been in agreement, not least when that assurance is given by Labour Members. Such statements always strike me as a recipe for sure disaster. Everybody will remember the agreement about the Child Support Agency, the Dangerous Dogs Act 1989 and many other measures that were brought to the House in a rush of consensual happiness, but which ended in universal tears. Might not the House now be considering another such measure?

When I see the words "tax" and "Lords" mentioned together in one motion, I become suspicious and wonder why we have all suffered from collective amnesia on the history of this place and on the relative roles of the Commons and the Lords, especially in respect of tax matters. The original Procedure Committee report of 27 January 1997 gave the lie to that. It states: the Lords Procedure Committee has pronounced itself as content with the proposal for a Joint Committee. It would, wouldn't it? The House of Lords has been trying for centuries to get its collective toes into tax matters.

The Procedure Committee went on to state that the only evident drawback would be on the constitutional ground of whether it is appropriate for the Upper House to play any significant role in the consideration of bills relating to taxation. It continued: We do not, on balance, consider any such objection to be well founded. The Committee conceded that a genuine judgment had to be made on whether it was appropriate for members of the other place to be involved in taxation matters at the current stage in our constitutional development.

Those recommendations set the tone that should have been reflected in the current debate. After reading them, I consulted "Erskine May", as one does on these occasions; indeed, I am sure that all hon. Members have done so. Under the interesting headings "Restrictions Under Constitutional Usage" and "Basis of modern practice with respect to privilege", page 797 of "Erskine May" reminds us that the original resolution relating to practice in respect of the Commons' financial privileges dates back to 1671. The resolution, which I have before me, therefore relates directly to the legitimacy of the role of the other place in taxation matters, which is precisely the substance of the motion. It states: That, in all Aids given to the King, by the Commons, the Rate or Tax ought not to be altered by the Lords. As was the practice in those days, the resolution is written clearly and succinctly—would that such practices were followed now. Interestingly—I add this in passing—the record states: And then the House adjourned till To-morrow Morning, Eight of the Clock.

Photo of Michael Jack Michael Jack Conservative, Fylde

Can my right hon. Friend point out any specific words within the tax law rewrite exercise that give powers to those involved in the exercise to make the type of changes to which he has just referred?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I need not do that, because I referred only to the motion and I shall return to this matter later. The motion refers to the responsibilities of the Joint Committee to consider tax simplification bills, and in particular to consider whether each bill committed to it preserves the effect of the existing law, subject to any minor changes which may be desirable. In answer to my right hon. Friend's question, I read that wording as almost inviting the proposed Joint Committee—about which I am unhappy and do not share the general approval so far expressed—to make minor but significant changes to tax law and possibly, therefore, to the burden of tax or to the rates of tax.

Photo of Michael Jack Michael Jack Conservative, Fylde

Has my right hon. Friend considered the before-and-after effect by reading the old law and the new law?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

If I catch your eye in a subsequent debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I hope to argue that dangerous scope for a stealth tax drift is built into the procedure, mechanism and wording of the proposal. However, I would not want to pre-empt that argument now.

Suffice it to say to my right hon. Friend that I am sufficiently unhappy that there is at least a danger that the mechanisms could alter the burden of tax, either inadvertently or deliberately—I know not which, yet; perhaps we shall consider that later.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I appreciate the vantage point from which my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) is approaching the subject. He thinks that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) has unjustified fears. However, would my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst care to entertain a scenario in which six members were present at a meeting of the Joint Committee, two of whom hailed from this House and four from the other place? Does he accept that, in those circumstances, decisions would effectively be made by noble Lords and that they could be decisions to which absentee members of the Committee subsequently declared themselves to be profoundly opposed?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

My hon. Friend has, as he often does, pre-empted an argument that I hope to make later on the quorum. I am going to work steadily and methodically through my many headings in this debate, and I have barely scratched the surface of the first.

Perhaps my hon. Friend will bear with me, but he has anticipated one of my anxieties. Not only does the motion give potentially equal say on tax matters to Members of another place but, as he pointed out, we could end up with Members of another place determining matters relating to tax by outnumbering Members of this House on the Committee. Later, I shall again quote the Procedure Committee on the matter because it has given the lie to the whole issue.

Undeterred, I shall press on. I shall be brief, as I am just setting the scene. "Erskine May" also helpfully draws our attention to a further resolution of 1678 entitled—or "intituled", as they used to say in the good old days—"Rights of Commons in granting Money". It states that it was resolved: That all Aids and Supplies, and Aids to his Majesty in Parliament, are the sole Gift of the Commons: And all Bills for the Granting of any such Aids and Supplies ought to begin with the Commons: And that it is the undoubted and sole Right of the Commons to direct, limit, and appoint in such Bills the Ends, Purposes, Considerations, Conditions, Limitations, and Qualifications of such grants; which ought not to be changed, or altered by the House of Lords. The history of this argument is clear—or, at least, it was in the balmy days of 1678. "Erskine May" also states that: the House adjourned until To-morrow Morning, Eight of the Clock. Those were the good old days when the House did a proper day's work, unlike the abbreviated consideration that we have now.

A further reference that I wish to pray in aid is also drawn to our attention by "Erskine May". It dates from 1860—we are getting more up to date—and is headed Tax Bills: The Order of the day being read, for resuming the adjourned Debate on the Question proposed upon the 5th day of this instant July, That the right of granting Aids and Supplies to the Crown is in the Commons alone, as an essential part of their constitution; and the limitation of all such Grants as to the matter, manner, measure, and time, is only in them. I quote that to illustrate the constancy and consistency of the attitude of the House of Commons over the centuries—that it is to this House alone that the raising of money and revenues, and the disposing of tax matters, should rest.

I add in parenthesis that that quotation continues: And the House having continued to sit till after Twelve of the clock on Saturday morning … In those good old days the House did a proper week's work—none of this bunking off on a Thursday—

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. The right hon. Gentleman has now made three references to something that is clearly outside the scope of the motion before us. I suggest that he desist

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

That was just a bit of whimsy, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I thought that it was brief enough to escape your notice—

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. Even whimsy must be taken in moderation.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I shall try to restrict my whimsy, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to get on with the really meaty part of what I want to say.

The quotation from 1860 continues: Resolved, That the right of granting Aids and Supplies to the Crown is in the Commons alone, as an essential part of their constitution; and the limitation of all such Grants, as to matter, manner, measure, and time, is only in them. Intriguingly, another resolution passed on the same day reads as follows: Resolved, That although the Lords have exercised the power of rejecting Bills of several descriptions relating to Taxation by negativing the whole, yet the exercise of that power by them has not been frequent, and is justly regarded by this House with peculiar jealousy as affecting the rights of the Commons to grant the Supplies and provide the Ways and Means for the Service of the year.A Motion was made, and the Question being proposed, That, to guard for the future against an undue exercise of that power by the Lords, and to secure to the Commons their rightful control over Taxation and Supply, this House has in its own hands the power so to impose and remit Taxes, and to frame Bills of Supply, that the right of the Commons as to the matter, manner, measure, and time, may be maintained inviolate … At that time, too—we are talking about relatively recent times now—the House of Commons was very jealous of its rights.

The last quotation that "Erskine May" refers to in connection with the subject dates from 1910; the historians present will know the importance of that date. The heading is "Relations between the Two Houses and Duration of Parliament": The Prime Minister reported from the Committee on Relations between the Two Houses and Duration of Parliament several Resolutions …Money Bills1. That it is expedient that the House of Lords be disabled by Law from rejecting or amending a Money Bill, but that any such limitation by Law shall not be taken to diminish or qualify the existing rights and privileges of the House of Commons. It is clear that, as I think we all know and understand, history shows us that it is to this elected House of Commons that the rights are given in the matter of taxation. The old but potent phrase "No taxation without representation", to which I shall refer briefly later, Mr. Deputy Speaker, is the handy reference to that principle—a principle that the resolution before us, if we supported it, would be in danger of breaching.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

At a certain point in my right hon. Friend's speech I noticed that the Paymaster General—the one Government Member present, apart from the Whip—seemed to be in agreement with him.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

The Paymaster General seems to be agreeing with my right hon. Friend's extremely learned and lucid argument that this House, rather than the other place, should have control of taxation matters. I therefore hope that my right hon. Friend will subject to some analysis the wording: subject to any minor changes which may be desirable. I suspect that that, rather than the principle of where the power over taxation should lie, is the real issue between him and the hon. Lady. I share my right hon. Friend's fear that the motion before us could lead to stealth taxes by the back door, and I think that it is here that the Minister would be even more vulnerable.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, but I fear that it is not only the Minister with whom I am at odds, but our right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), who is wrapped up in the process and naturally, I think, approves of it. He appears not to believe that there is any possibility built into the mechanisms in the motion that the tax rate or burden could be altered, even within the phrase subject to any minor changes which may be desirable. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) that in the end, whether inadvertently or deliberately, that phrase could give effect to a change in taxation

Photo of Michael Jack Michael Jack Conservative, Fylde

Does my right hon. Friend consider that the change in the rate of taxation is a minor matter?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

That is the whole point at issue. We do not at this stage know whether the members of the Committee will regard it as a minor matter. Simply referring to it as a minor matter in the motion tells us no more about what the Committee will or will not regal d as a minor matter. Given that the Committee will be dominated by Members of a tax-raising Government, I should have thought that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) pointed out—I will come back to this later when I speak about the quorum—it is all too possible that decisions could be made by a thinly attended Committee that could easily be dominated by Government Members.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde and I may readily agree that rates of taxation are an extremely important matter, but I am not confident, given the Committee's proposed composition, that we can rest easy in our mind that it will never use the mechanisms that will be made available to it by this motion—if we agree to it—to alter rates of taxation. That is the source of my anxiety.

Photo of Mr John Burnett Mr John Burnett Liberal Democrat, Torridge and West Devon

It is, of course, for this House to implement and enact any changes. Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that the power of the Committee to consider tax simplification Bills—including Bills on corporation tax, capital gains tax, and any taxation measure—gives it such great influence that it is an unwarranted trespass on the powers of this House?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

That is what I am suggesting. It will presumably be a matter for the Government whether they designate a Bill as a tax simplification matter. Even within the designation process, something could be concealed by the Government—either by incompetence, which would be entirely possible and, in fact, very likely, or by malice, which would be equally possible—and connived at by those of my right hon. and hon. Friends who are enthusiastic about the process that would give rise to the sort of breach that the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My right hon. Friend said a moment ago that it was a matter for the Government to determine whether something constituted a tax simplification measure. I do not know whether his beady eye noticed that at that point the Paymaster General shook her head, obviously dissenting from what he was saying. I am sure that she will want to clarify the situation by speedily rushing to the Dispatch Box.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I suspect that the Minister, courteous and considerate as ever, will want to listen very carefully to the entire debate and then seek to wind it up, with the permission of the House. I would not want to rush the Minister into giving a reply at this stage. I have only just got into my stride, in any case, and have a number of other points to make.

I resorted once more to "Erskine May". On page 63, under the heading "The Principal Power of the Commons", it says: the House of Commons possesses the most important power vested in any branch of the legislature, the right of imposing taxes upon the people and of voting money for the public service. It then says on page 798: the Commons treat as a breach of privilege by the Lords not merely the imposition or increase of such a charge but also any alteration, whether by increase or reduction, of its amount or of its duration, mode of assessment, levy, collection, appropriation or management; and, in addition, any alteration in respect of the persons who pay, receive, manage, or control it, or in respect of the limits within which it is leviable. It is perfectly clear from "Erskine May" and the historical records to which I briefly referred, notwithstanding the times at which the House then sat, that these matters are well entrenched and well established in our history and in the only constitution that we have—namely, our statute, resolutions of the House of Commons and in "Erskine May", which some might think is as close to a written constitution as we may ever have. That matter is therefore beyond doubt.

We seem to be sliding, quietly but inexorably, from the well-established position that I thought was well understood—that this representative, elected, accountable House of Commons was the sole repository of responsibility for tax and taxation matters—to being asked to nod through a mechanism whereby another place is fully engaged in this process.

Photo of Michael Jack Michael Jack Conservative, Fylde

I am trying to follow my right hon. Friend with care. Where, in the rewritten Capital Allowances Bill that the Committee will consider, are measures that raise the fears that he mentions in the context of the supremacy of this House to determine tax matters?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I do not need to refer just to that Bill because the Minister told us, if I heard her correctly, that a series of Bills would be referred to the Committee. It is not just the Bill on the Order Paper with which we should be concerned, but any future Bill that comes to the Committee, designated by the Government as a tax simplification Bill, regardless of content, and containing within it the possibility of taxation by stealth and modification of tax burden or rates by incompetence or deliberately—I know not yet.

It is not only the Capital Allowances Bill, to which we will come in due course later in the evening, about which we should be concerned, although we are right to be concerned about it. I know that my right hon. Friend has made a detailed study of it and I look forward to his comments. However, we should be concerned about whatever Bills may follow that are designated as tax simplification Bills, which may contain within them the sort of drift or stealth process of which I am so fearful.

Photo of David Ruffley David Ruffley Conservative, Bury St Edmunds

Is my right hon. Friend aware that future tax simplification Bills of the kind to which he refers are already known about—to wit, the first income tax Bill covering employment and possibly social security and pensions income, which we are told will be ready in November 2002? There is also a second income tax Bill of a simplifying kind, which will cover trading income, property income, savings and investment income.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I was aware of something of the kind. It occurs to me that even a cursory glance at the Capital Allowances Bill to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde referred, and now, more speculatively, the matters that my hon. Friend talks about contain at least the possibility of an increase in tax rates or burden or a change in the basis on which some taxes are assessed or levied in a way that is not yet clear or predictable. However, we know that the process through which the motion proposes that these Bills will go then allows the possibility of such changes.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham pointed out not long ago, the very words subject to any minor changes admit the possibility of changes, but try to provide reassurance by designating them as minor. However, my right hon. Friend has been around long enough to know that what is minor to one person may not be minor to another. We have no indication—and I am not aware of any in the provisions, the motion or any of the Bills—whether there is any limitation or cap on what can be deemed or designated as minor. In that respect, I believe that this mechanism gives rise to an open season.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) made the point that the Joint Committee's scope for future consideration of Bills is wide, and he helpfully adumbrated a couple of examples to make the point. However, will my right hon. Friend accept from the other end of the spectrum that the scope is not that wide? Does he agree that the signing away of a variety of tax privileges that we enjoy, under the auspices of the so-called harmful tax competition working party, is not a matter under the guidance of this Treasury that is subject to a Bill, and would not therefore be—and has not been to date—subject to scrutiny by any committee?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

That is part of the problem; we are left wondering about the effectiveness of procedures that we always thought were well established—I will not say that they were foolproof, but we certainly thought that they were well understood. They enabled the voter and the taxpayer to be reassured that their interests were properly safeguarded when it came to raising and spending money. My fear is that the proposed mechanism may well breach that reassurance—

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman, but he is straying into repetition. I have heard certain points made several times—I must warn him on that.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I can now move on to the next part of my argument, in which I again refer to the January 1997 report of the Procedure Committee that gave rise to all these matters. Interestingly, paragraph 21 states: The perceived advantages of having a Joint Committee— the very subject of the motion— are avoiding duplication or the process of scrutiny by oral evidence being undertaken in both Houses. The interesting point is that the presumption is that it is highly desirable for that small group of Members of both Houses—seven from this place and six from another place—to be brought together in the Joint Committee and then to engage in the process of taking oral evidence all in one go.

I can see the superficial attraction of that, but I want to turn the argument on its head: there is a far greater attraction in the sequential taking of evidence by one House and then the other, so that each could examine the evidence given to the other and build it into their own taking of oral evidence. The apparent and seductive efficiency offered by the Procedure Committee's suggestion contains a danger. It is all very well for that cosy little group of people to get together, to take their oral evidence and to say, "That's that then", but I should feel as reassured—probably more so—if we had proceeded in the more traditional way, whereby each House took evidence separately, perhaps taking into account what the other had done in developing both the argument and the taking of evidence.

The second of what the report fairly characterises as "perceived advantages" refers to using the level of legal expertise available in the Lords to the mutual benefit of both Houses. Again, that may or may not be the case. I am not sure whether the legal evidence available in the Lords is not avail able to the Commons—we might want to consider that point. It certainly seems to be a slender argument on which to base the dramatic move suggested.

The report notes—giving the lie to a matter to which I shall return in a moment—that the third perceived advantage is spreading the workload between the Houses; as the Howe Report observed "peers have fewer other duties". We are really in some sensitive and interesting territory, are we not? We are being told that one of the main reasons for setting up a Joint Committee is that their lordships have so little to do that they will be able to spend quite a lot of time on the Committee, whereas Members of this House are so busy that they will, presumably, be unable to give much time to the Committee.

Looking around the Chamber, it is obvious that Members of this House are certainly so busy that they have been unable to attend this evening's debate—notwithstanding its important substance. However, the Procedure Committee had the gall to suggest, in January 1997, that the reason for setting up a Joint Committee was that their lordships had fewer other things to do and would thus, by implication, be doing most of the work. That Lords element in the Committee worries me—and, I should like to think, other Members of this House. It worries me that the Lords should be involved in taxation at all.

Those were the reasons given by the Procedure Committee for taking that path. I, for one, am reluctant to accept much or any of them. The report made several recommendations. It stated: It is important to bear in mind that the committal of tax simplification bills to a Joint Committee would set a precedent. Well, you can say that again, Madam Deputy Speaker—it would indeed set a precedent; a very worrying one. Such a precedent, if we were mistaken enough to accept this motion, could be prayed in aid for many other developments.

My rooted objection, which is reflected in the passages I cited from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries—

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Paymaster General (HM Treasury)

I am listening carefully to the important points that the right hon. Gentleman makes about the supremacy of this House in taxation matters. What puzzles me is that Standing Order No. 60 was agreed when his party was in government, and when he was, I think, a member of the Government. If these matters worry him so much, why did he remain silent when his Government introduced Standing Order No. 60 and voted it through the House?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Because I was on the payroll. I suspect that the hon. Lady may not necessarily agree with everything that her Government have done since May 1997—although she will not admit it at present, she will when she is in opposition again. Her colleague, the Financial Secretary, who is sitting on the Treasury Bench beside her, may share that view. Ministers do not make such a powerful argument as they think when they tell someone such as myself, who had the privilege of serving in government for almost nine years, that if I signed up to something during that time, I cannot possibly argue against it now. The answer is that that was then and this is now. I was on the payroll then and judged that the matter was not one on which to resign. I suspect that if the hon. Lady and I were to have a quiet drink together, I could probably winkle out of her that she was pretty unhappy about a few things done by her Government during the past three years, but that she did not think them quite important enough to resign over—[Interruption.]—perhaps she is about to confess.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Paymaster General (HM Treasury)

No, I was about to reassure the right hon. Gentleman that my inquiry was genuine. His answer to the House is perfectly acceptable. He might have said that he did not have time to consider the matter because he was a busy Minister or for other reasons. I do not for a moment cast aspersions on the validity of the reason—I was interested to hear it.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I am most grateful to the Minister.

The Procedure Committee stated that the matter would set a precedent. It then noted that: It is likely that a Joint Committee would only be generally acceptable if it was plain that the Commons was in a sense the driving force. Helpful as ever, the Minister told us that the Committee would consist of seven Members from this place and six from another place. I leave others to judge whether a majority of seven members over six is a "driving force", especially as the Committee pointed out a few paragraphs earlier that the House of Lords members would do what Americans call the "heavy lifting" because the House of Commons members would be too busy. I realise that you would not allow me to do so, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I should love the House to inquire into what Members of the Commons could possibly be doing that made them too busy to attend that important and influential Committee. We shall have to leave that matter on one side at the moment—although I might return to it when we talk about the quorum.

Suffice it to say that the Procedure Committee was clear that the Commons should be the driving force. For the moment, I shall leave hanging the question of whether seven members as opposed to six could be categorised as a driving force. The report continued: There is however something to be said for the House of Commons to have a majority on the Committee, if only for formal purposes and as a symbol of its primacy in this area. That is all it will be; it will be either a driving force or for formal purposes. Within a few lines of the report, there is, apparently, a contradiction.

The report states: We therefore consider that there should be one more Member from the Commons than from the Lords. In one respect, the motion reflects that point. The report continues: A Treasury Minister will also have to be included, since it will be the Minister responsible for the bill who will have to defend it in both informal discussion and in the process of consideration of any amendments.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the Procedure Committee were genuinely concerned that this House rather than the other place should be the driving force of the Joint Committee, it would have been open to the Procedure Committee to propose that the quorum should comprise more Members of this place than of the other place? It could have specified a larger quorum: say—for the sake of argument—six members rather than the four we have weaseled out of the Government. That would have been a ratio of 4:2, and might possibly have offered some modest succour or reassurance to my right hon. Friend.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I promise that I shall mention the quorum later. It is the subject of a separate part of my argument and for the moment, in my unimaginative way, I am plodding through the motion in sequence. If my hon. Friend rushes me, I might lose my thread, and he would not want that to happen. The quorum is a later heading in my notes and I cannot miss it.

My hon. Friend will recall that the Minister tried to reassure the House that the Chairman of the Joint Committee will be a Member of the House of Commons but, quite properly—as ever—the hon. Lady said that she was unable to predict who the Chairman would be because it was a matter for the Committee. I was pleased to hear her confirm that the Chairman will be a Member of this House, but it is not in the Standing Orders. In addition, we are unable to discuss my amendment because it has not been selected for debate.

The Minister told us that the Committee will select its Chairman. Let us suppose that when the Committee convenes to do that, the majority of its members are from the other place and they decide to elect a Chairman from their own number. That would be only natural because we have been told that they will do most of the work and have most of the expertise. That is the thrust of the Procedure Committee's rationale for the motion. In that case, I do not understand how we or the Minister can guarantee that the Chairman will be from this House. We cannot determine who will be present, and because the quorum is so pitifully small, it could be decided by five people, three from another place and two from this House. That inevitably challenges her reassurance, which was no doubt given in good faith.

How can the Minister reassure us that the Chairman of the Joint Committee will come from the House of Commons rather than another place? We must bear it in mind that the Procedure Committee recommended that the Chairman should be drawn from the House of Commons. The Minister is reflecting that view, but I cannot see anything in the motion—which will be a Standing Order—to give effect to that, which is why I tabled an amendment.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

Before my right hon. Friend moves on, has he thought about the possibility that the Minister herself—or another Minister, were one to serve on the Committee—could become the Chairman? Would not that be unfortunate? Surely a Minister should be separate from the chairmanship of the Committee. Should not the proposal cover that? Does he agree that that has not been clarified?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising that matter. I am sure that the Committee would be honoured if the Minister were prepared to chair it, but the hon Lady would have to make a commitment to do that and, understandably, she might be unable to do so.

If the House—mistakenly, in my view—approves this poorly drafted and poorly thought-out motion, we will discuss the next motion, which deals with the Committee's membership. I am looking forward to that and will have something to say on the matter. I have looked at the proposed members, and the Minister is, indeed, one of them. Perhaps we will be able to return briefly to the issue of the Chairman when we debate that.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the Standing Order does not oblige a Minister who chairs the Committee to be present throughout its proceedings, he or she would be expected to be present as a matter of courtesy? On the strength of last week's experience, does he also agree that such an idea and arrangement might not commend itself to a Minister? In the context of an earlier Committee—about which I shall not dilate because you would not allow me, Madam Deputy Speaker—the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), attended a meeting that a mere Whip had told him would last for five minutes. He seemed in a state of considerable perturbation—

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. We are wandering wide of the motion.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I shall not directly follow my hon. Friend's point, but it gives rise to another thought. Let us suppose that the Committee follows the Minister's direction and elects a member from this place. If he or she is sometimes unable to be present, will there be a designated Deputy Chairman, or will the most senior member preside? If so, how will that be defined? Will it be on the basis of length of service? If so, will that start from the period of election to this House and the taking of the oath in the other place?

Those are important matters. We have been told that the Committee will follow the Commons rules for Select Committees. The Chairman will have a specific and important role. Even if the Chairman is from this House, we do not know how the Committee will conduct its business in his or her absence. It is simply not good enough for the Government to come to the House with a motion that is becoming increasingly inadequate and shot full of loopholes, doubts and dubieties. However, I do not want to digress too much. I am anxious to discuss the quorum, which has attracted the attention of the House and was the subject of my modest amendment.

We are talking about a Committee of 13—seven members from the House of Commons and six from another place. The Procedure Committee, which is a Committee of this House, said in its report: Experience with the Joint Committee on Consolidation suggests that the Lords Members play a dominant part and that there are indeed frequent problems with ensuring sufficient attendance of Commons Members to provide the quorum. That is in black and white. I hope that I am not giving away too many trade secrets if I say that it is not unknown for Select Committees of the House of Commons to struggle to get a quorum to conduct their meetings. Within the context of what the Procedure Committee said, we should have real anxieties about how the quorum of the Joint Committee will be sustained and how it will do its work.

We know from the motion that the Commons quorum will be two. We are pitching our expectations pretty low. Perhaps that is because the people who framed the motion took account not only of what the Procedure Committee said, but of the recent attendance record of Members of the House of Commons to their own Select Committees. I know not, but it is increasingly clear that this important and influential Committee, as someone else described it, may be scratching around to get a quorum to meet and do its business.

The Minister cleared up an earlier confusion and confirmed that a quorum will require two members from the Commons and two from another place to be present. Therefore, it will be able to deliberate and decide on matters relating to tax even if only four out of 13 members are present. If three members from the other place and two from the Commons—five in all—are present, the members of the other place could decide on tax matters in the United Kingdom.

If the motion on the Committee's membership is accepted, the situation will be even worse. I calculate that three members of the Government payroll—Ministers and their hangers-on, who are usually described as Parliamentary Private Secretaries—are to be proposed as Committee members. It is entirely possible that the three members of the payroll would turn up for the Committee along with the two Members of the House of Lords

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. We are not discussing the membership of the Committee. The motion on that follows.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Yes, I know that, Madam Deputy Speaker. I tried to reassure you by saying, as I led into my argument, that I was dealing with the fact that the quorum is two. I am trying to illustrate the problems that could arise from having such a low quorum. Three of the members present could be members of the payroll, and only two not on the payroll, and so the Government could drive the Committee. However, I will not linger on that if it makes you uneasy, Madam Deputy Speaker. One can readily see that by setting the quorum at only two for the Commons element and only two for the Lords element, all sorts of difficulties could arise, either with the Lords determining tax matters or the Government dominating the Committee. That gives me considerable unease.

I turn now to the text of the motion. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham anticipated this point when he properly pointed out that the Joint Committee's remit, bland as it may sound at first reading, contains potential difficulties. The motion says that the Committee is charged with the responsibility to consider tax simplification bills. We do not know what safeguard there is against the Government designating any old Bill a tax simplification Bill, and trying to smuggle through measures in that guise. That matter has not yet been properly examined. It may come up in the debate on the Capital Allowances Bill.

The motion goes on to say that the Committee is charged with the responsibility in particular to consider whether each bill committed to it preserves the effect of the existing law. That is a matter of interpretation. Those in favour of this process will say, "Don't worry folks. This is all good stuff. It is simplification, that's all." However, we are discovering that an unrepresentative number of the members of the Committee, which may be dominated by the Government or by the House of Lords, depending on who is present, could deem that any measure preserves the effect of the existing law, in their judgment.

That is bad enough, but the motion goes on to say that the Committee is charged with that task, subject to any minor changes which may be desirable. That almost encourages a process of making changes in the name of simplification. Obviously, the motion gives considerable scope to the Joint Committee, composed as it is of Members of the Commons and of the unelected House of Lords, to make changes to the tax regime in the name of simplification. Indeed, it almost invites it to do so, and that is potentially very dangerous.

Paragraph (6) of the motion says: The chairman shall have the like powers of selection as are given to the chairman of a standing committee in our procedures. That increases the importance of the person who is selected to be Chairman and the traditional and proper powers that we give Chairmen in our procedures.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The subjective nature of the remit is becoming ever clearer as my right hon. Friend remorselessly takes us through the issues. At what point does a minor change become a major change? Would it not be helpful if the Paymaster General were to set out indicative circumstances, which would show, at least as far as the Government are concerned, which changes fell into one category and which the other?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

That would indeed be helpful. However, I suggest that my hon. Friend does not hold his breath waiting for that because we can almost anticipate that the Minister will say that those matters are to be determined by the Committee. That takes us back to where we started. I should have hoped, at the very least, for some reassurance to taxpayers, who are also voters, but who will have no vote concerning the members of the Committee. I should have thought that taxpayers would want such reassurance because what constitutes a minor change is highly subjective and a matter of judgment.

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. I remind the right hon. Gentleman once again that we are straying wide of the mark, and he appears to be repeating himself. Perhaps we could move on.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Certainly, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I want gently to bring my remarks towards a conclusion.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

On the point about minor changes, given that we start with extremely complicated tax laws owing to the actions of successive Governments, are not changes essential for simplification? Might the Committee not find that important changes were needed to achieve its overriding objective of simplification? My right hon. Friend is being a little too cautious because the Committee will of course need to make changes if it is to simplify tax law.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. We may return to that point when we discuss the Capital Allowances Bill later. That will be a proper discussion about whether simplification inevitably involves change and whether change can take place without a substantive increase in the tax burden, tax rates or anything else to do with tax.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. His forbearance is legendary, although it is not quite on a par with your own, Madam Deputy Speaker.

To pursue the point a little further, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is at least possible that the only available minor change in a Bill could have the effect of making tax law more, rather than less, complicated? What would he say to the notion that a major change that achieved simplification might be greatly preferred over a minor change, even though the motion does not allow for that eventuality?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

It is interesting that my hon. Friend should say that because I have here the 2000 Hardman memorial lecture, which was to form part of my peroration. The lecture was given by the right hon. the Lord Howe of Aberavon, CH, QC, who is well known to and revered by us all, at the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales. It was entitled, "Simplicity and Stability: the Politics of Tax Policy", and delivered on Thursday 9 November 2000. It was a seminal work in the matter to which we are now giving consideration.

Interestingly, and directly relevant to what my hon. Friend said, Lord Howe said that those who have studied the problem…conclude that, so far from seeking a "big bang" solution, we need instead to identify, define and establish not an event but a process. The motion endeavours to establish that process, and the mechanism whereby the review will take place.

Lord Howe went on: We must, in other words, establish a comprehensive mechanism, through which the problems can be addressed and managed tenaciously over a period of years—not unlike the Tax Law Rewrite project itself. The Minister told us, when she introduced the debate, that we will have a series of Bills over a number of years, of which the Capital Allowances Bill is only the first.

Lord Howe can rightly make a substantial claim to the parenthood of the motion that we are considering, because he said later in his remarks that we can learn from the Rewrite Project, even though its purpose-built Parliamentary procedure has yet to be tested. That gives another indication of how new all this is. As my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) said, we are in the early stages of this process and therefore cannot really be sure about what it means.

Lord Howe continued—there is not much more of this, Madam Deputy Speaker—by saying: The crucial feature is that Rewrite Bills should go—not unlike present Consolidation Bills—for detailed consideration after Second Reading, not to the usual Commons Standing Committee but to the equivalent of what is known as a Special Standing Committee. This…would include members of both Houses (under the chairmanship of a Commons Minister)— that reflects the view of the Procedure Committeeand be able to hear evidence about the Rewrite Bill before—or in parallel with—more form d consideration of its contents. We will want to return to Lord Howe's remarks in the later debate. I do not want to draw excessively on his comments at this stage; I just wanted to give a flavour of them because they are important in the context of the Capital Allowances Bill.

All in all, in the brief comments that I have been able to make in this packed debate, I am very unhappy about the motion. I was unhappy right at the start of the debate when I heard both Front Benchers say how consensual, cosy and comfortable they were with the matter. That set alarm bells ringing in my head. When I listened to interventions on the Minister and to my own speech, I developed more and more doubts about what all this means. Subject to what the Minister may say, there are far too many serious questions and by no means sufficient answers. I am minded not to support the motion unless I receive much more assurance.

Come the day when we have a properly elected, representative upper House, I will be much more comfortable with the process. Given the constitutional and historical allusions that I made earlier and, whatever respect I may have for the other place, its Members and their expertise, my unease about enabling and, indeed, encouraging them to participate on taxation matters, the Minister will have to make an awful lot more good and persuasive arguments before I support the measure.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham 6:31 pm, 15th January 2001

I have declared my interests in the Register of Members' Interests, but I guess that that is not strictly relevant as we are assured that the intention of the proposal is not to change or affect the law.

There have been some diversions of opinion on the Opposition Benches, and I should like to pull those strands together. We are basically agreed. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) thinks that the proposal could pose a substantial threat, but I hope that he will reflect on the matter a little. I believe that the Paymaster General is being honest when she says that the intention is not to change the law, that such changes would normally be made through a Finance Bill, and that the Government are trying to simplify the way in which the law is phrased without making serious tax changes. Although my right hon. Friend is understandably suspicious, because sometimes Governments do things about which they have not told us, he may be a little too worried. I suspect that the Minister is trying to keep the law as it is.

To reassure my right hon. Friend, I agree with my hon. Friends the Members for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) and for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) that, with a different Minister, the matter could be more serious. Inadvertently, I fear, even with this Paymaster General, we might find that we got into difficulty with the procedure, as my right hon. Friend so sensibly set out. There are many concerns and all sorts of worries.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I hope that, despite his characteristic generosity of spirit, my right hon. Friend is not suggesting that the Paymaster General is safe and unthreatening.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

I was saying that, on this issue, I believe that the Paymaster General is speaking honestly and honourably, as a Member of this House should strive to do, but that we have on occasions felt rather misled by the Government. I do not think that the Minister has any intention to mislead us. The Government have been trying to come up with a system that might meet the cross-party spirit. We want to simplify our tax laws, but if the Government wanted to change tax rates, introduce more stealth taxes or do all the other things that the Paymaster General's boss, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is so good at doing and has done on so many occasions, we would still want proper, robust debate and different procedure.

My main concern relates to the phrase in the motion subject to any minor changes which may be desirable about which my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst is also concerned. Our tax laws are so wide-ranging, complicated and difficult to understand that the task before the Committee is herculean. The Minister must concede that substantial change in the way in which tax law is written will be required if the Committee is to fulfil its rather grand remit and not to disappoint or simply make matters complex in a way different from the complicated and Byzantine legislation that we inherit.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Paymaster General (HM Treasury)

Just to clarify matters for the right hon. Gentleman, the Joint Committee will be checking that the tax law rewrite committee, which has already done all the work on simplification of the Capital Allowances Bill, has not changed the underlying policy of the law—in line with his comments and those of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth).

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

I quite agree; that is the point that I am trying to make. The task is difficult because the law is so complicated. I am sure that the Minister does not intend that the law will be changed as a result of the process, but the experts undertaking the rewrite and the Joint Committee, which is the eyes and ears of this House and the other place, may well find that almost impossible. Achieving the objective of simplification will require so many changes that it will be very difficult to ensure that the law is not changed.

My worry is about inadvertent change. Because we have extremely complicated legislation—Ministers will always say that that is for good reasons, but I am not sure that I am entirely persuaded of that—the job of determining it often falls to tax accountants, lawyers, experts and specialists. Very often, important issues are resolved not in the House of Commons but in courts of law. We know that lawyers, paid very large fees for their expertise, intelligence and high training in such fields, are very good on behalf of their clients at highlighting any slight shift in the weight of words, in punctuation or in the way in which a sentence appears in the overall text.

It would be possible for the Joint Committee to nod through a Bill that had been drafted with the best of motives. The word of the law would then be slightly different—presumably, that is the whole point of the simplification exercise. The Government could be embarrassed by the courts construing a law revised under the procedure in a way that had not been expected. Far be it from me to want to protect the Government from embarrassment, but I want certainty and clarity in tax matters. Inadvertently, the House, the Joint Committee and the proposed procedure would have failed because a change in the law would have occurred.

Such inadvertent change would be even worse: as there had been no debate about changing the law, as is normal, and Ministers had not intended to change the incidence of tax, people would be without warning. They might not notice that anything important had changed; they might have said to themselves that they need not read the new version of the law because it implements exactly the same policy as the Budget or Finance Act they had previously studied. However, because the words had changed, there had been a court case and lawyers and a judge had construed the law differently, such people might suddenly discover an unexpected tax liability.

Photo of Michael Jack Michael Jack Conservative, Fylde

In preparing his remarks for the debate, my right hon. Friend will no doubt have looked at the Capital Allowances Bill, which the Committee is to consider, and come to his own conclusions. Will he give me an illustration of the concern that he thinks might cause difficulty for the Committee, as he has described?

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

The point of my argument is no, I could not do so because we are talking about very complicated and detailed issues for which one needs to be a tax lawyer or specialist concentrating on such matters on behalf of one's client. Those who are paid big sums of money will of course look very carefully at a Bill such as the Capital Allowances Bill for evidence of any change. I am sure that my right hon. Friend is right that those drafting the Bill will have tried to avoid that, but he surely at least concedes the theoretical possibility that one day a change of words—he will agree that the words must be changed in order to simplify—could trigger such a court case, much expense and even a change in interpretation.

Photo of Mr John Burnett Mr John Burnett Liberal Democrat, Torridge and West Devon

Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman had in mind clause 153(1), concerning whether a ship is a qualifying ship or not. It is not if it is used "for sport or recreation". Perhaps a ship could be used partly for one and partly for the other. Might not that be the sort of discussion in the Joint Committee or the House?

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point on which I had not alighted. The example he gives could be only one of many cases in which the form of words is changed from the underlying legislation to the new and allegedly more simple legislation. Wherever a change occurs, lawyers and accountants will pore over it, and although I happily accept that, in 99 per cent. of such cases, they will conclude—reluctantly—that, because the underlying intention is clear, they cannot bring a case or advise their client to pay good fees for bringing the change before the courts, there might be cases into which clever lawyers and accountants will probe and delve. We know that at times the courts construe tax legislation in a way that was not envisaged by the Ministers who originally introduced the legislation, with the result that, because not everything has been thought through in advance, the Government has to return to the House to tie up loose ends or amend the law yet again—

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. Will the right hon. Gentleman confine his remarks to whether or not the Joint Committee should be established?

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

I shall indeed, Madam Deputy Speaker. You are quite right.

I pass on to paragraph (2) of the motion, which states that The Committee shall have power to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House And— to report from time to time. That reinforces my argument. In the motion, we see clearly envisaged a difficult task for the Committee. It will have to look at a complicated rewrite of the law and ask itself two crucial questions: is it more simple than it was before and, at the same time, is it exactly the same as it was before? My argument is that it will be difficult to meet both requirements. Paragraph (2) reveals that the Government accept, rightly, that the exercise will be difficult, long-winded and probably expensive.

When the Paymaster General rises to allay some of the fears expressed by my right hon. and hon. Friends and me, I hope that she will explain how long she thinks the process will take in relation to a Bill such as the one that we are shortly to discuss, and how much money might be spent on specialist advisers to supply information which is not readily available or to elucidate matters of complexity within the committee's order of reference. It strikes me that that could be a fairly large budget item, because the Paymaster General must have in mind expenditure on extremely expensive tax lawyers and tax accountants. If, like my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, we want to make sure that no slips occur, the Committee and the Government will need to employ lawyers and accountants who are every bit as sharp and as good as those who will be examining the issues from the other side.

Photo of David Ruffley David Ruffley Conservative, Bury St Edmunds

In that context, is my right hon. Friend aware that many City partners who practise tax law at the high levels to which he refers charge about £500 an hour or more?

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

I am sure that that is true and that, in some cases, they are worth every penny of their fee, given the complexity of the law and the way in which they can legally arrange their clients' affairs to ensure that they pay what is necessary without paying too much toward the funds which the Government wastefully disburse around the country and spend on all sorts of things. That is a real concern, so the Paymaster General should tell the House what sort of budget she has in mind to back up the motion and how long she thinks it might be necessary for the Committee to examine a Bill of the complexity of the one that is shortly to come before us. In that way, we can get a feel for how much the exercise might cost and how long it might take.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

As my right hon. Friend will be aware, I always favour specificity over ambiguity. I am, therefore, genuinely troubled by the reference to the scope for "minor changes". Is it his understanding that, in that context, each minor change will ordinarily be considered independently of every other such minor change, or is the consideration to be of the cumulative impact of all of the minor changes, which might be to bring about a major change?

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

My hon. Friend makes another good point. I fear that, if the Committee is to discharge its duties fully and to the letter, it will have to examine both every clause and every phrase that is changed separately, and the collective impact of the changes. The two might differ because of changes in the way in which phrases are juxtaposed or placed in relation to each other, as well as changes in the phrases and clauses themselves. That is why the process will be so complicated and time-consuming.

Those who sit on the Committee will deserve a medal for the work they have to do. Although, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst says, the work is important, it will not attract the headlines or glamour that is sometimes sought by Members of Parliament. Although the work will be of great importance, it will tend to be hidden from the light of day, so colleagues will need encouragement to engage in it. They will have to make a substantial commitment of time if they are to fulfil the remit which is in some ways fairly exacting and in others rather loosely drafted.

On the question of the quorum, I am relieved to hear that the wishes of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst have been fulfilled to some degree. He thought that four was better than two and I entirely agree with him. I understand his concern that four in the form of two plus two, from the different Houses of Parliament, is not as strong or as good as it might have been, but it marks a dear improvement on the original draft as he and I understood it: we thought that the quorum was two out of a Committee of 13 members, seven drawn from the Commons and six from the other place.

However, I continue to share my right hon. Friend's fears and I hope that the Paymaster General will deal with them in full. I believe that it would be better to have a quorum that required three Members of the House of Commons, given the combination of hon. Members on the Committee that might result from the next motion on the Order Paper. The House would be reassured by having a larger quorum of Members of the House of Commons. It would reinforce the message, which I am sure the Paymaster General wants to send, that the House of Commons is in charge of taxation matters and members of the Committee drawn from the House of Commons will be important in relation to voting and forming a quorum, even if Members of the other place have expertise on which the Committee wishes to draw.

I am intrigued by the fact that each member of the Committee shall continue to be a member of it for the remainder of the Parliament. That would not give a Committee selected shortly very long, if we correctly understand the Prime Minister's intentions. However, if the condition applied from the beginning of a new Parliament, members of the Committee would be asked to take on a commitment of extremely long duration. Does the Paymaster General have a reason for imposing that condition, other than a desire for continuity? The nature of the work is technical and, if one was interested and amused by such work, it would be satisfying to see through at least one complete Bill.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Given that two Parliamentary Private Secretaries have been proposed for membership of the Committee and that they might expect promotion in the lifetime of this Parliament or the next, were the Government to be re-elected, might we not expect a considerable number of what might be called by-elections to the Committee? Continuity is by no means guaranteed under the current proposals.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

My right hon. Friend has foreseen an issue that might arise later. I am concerned about pursuing his point, but I understand it.

I believe that membership of the Committee should be related to tasks, rather than to the duration of a Parliament, which is subject to the vagaries of prime ministerial will and electoral balance. It might be better—perhaps working through the usual channels—to ensure that a member of the Committee is selected to carry out the review of one, two or even three Bills, depending on that person's wishes, availability and inclinations and the time needed to scrutinise and consider pieces of legislation that are long and complex. A task related duration of membership might be better than making it continue for the remainder of a Parliament, which is a variable feast, depending on the point reached in the lifetime of a Parliament and which Parliament is involved. We are considering a procedure that will not only apply to the tail end of the current Parliament, but flourish and move forward into the next. That is why my right hon. and hon. Friends and I are keen to get it right and why we are worried about the loose drafting with which we have been presented.

I also have concerns about the chairmanship. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst has urged that the Committee should elect the Chairman from among its members I think that that is a democratic and sensible procedure, and I am glad that the Minister came to the same conclusion—perhaps for her own independent reasons, or perhaps she has an inkling of what my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst would have wished to move this evening, had he been given leave to do so. However, that degree of agreement is welcome.

Now that the Minister has adopted the proposal, I hope that she will deal with the question of whether there should be any limitations on the proposal. Should the Committee be able to elect a different Chairman every time it meets, to reflect its different membership? More than one person may wish to be Chairman. Will the chairmanship change, depending on when the Committee meets and who turns up? My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst was generous in saying that it would be wonderful if the Minister herself was on the Committee and chaired it.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

I am glad that my right hon. Friend is such a fan of the Paymaster General. There are many worse Ministers in the Government, and I have never had to criticise her in the way that I have her boss, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, whose sins are obviously much greater.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

There we are: praise indeed across the Floor of the House just before an election.

I am worried, not about the personality of the Paymaster General, but about the principle of a Minister chairing the Committee. Given the worries of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst that minor changes could become major changes, and given my worries that an inadvertent change could trigger a court case which then extended the tax to persons or companies who were not then paying it—or vice versa—it seems invidious for the Paymaster General to chair the Committee, as that would place her in a rather difficult position. It is better if the Paymaster General is in the Committee on behalf of the Treasury and the Government, but there should be a more independent Chairman. I should like the Chairman to come from the Back Benches, rather than the Government Front Bench.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

I see the Paymaster General nodding in agreement, and I am delighted that what I suggested is true. As we seem to agree on this point, is there a way of embedding it in the resolution or the procedure to be followed? It would be better for the House if we had the reassurance that someone dedicated to the task, who had more time than the Minister and came to it with a more independent mind, could be Chairman on a continuing basis.

I would prefer a Chairman from this House, rather than the other place, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst suggested. It would be good if some kind of arrangement on that could be reached. I hasten to add that I do not seek to be on the Committee: I do not seek that honour. However, one of my Back Bench colleagues who is interested and expert in that area could discharge that honour extremely well.

In summary, my worry is that the proposal has been hastily cobbled together, and has not tackled the underlying difficulty of all tax simplification measures: how does one simplify without inadvertently—or, sometimes, deliberately—making changes that impact on who pays the tax and how much they pay. Not for one moment do I think that any changes from the review Committee and the Joint Committee would mean a change in tax rates. Of course not: such matters would come before the House in a Finance Bill. However, it is possible that changes could be made affecting who had to pay a tax, and which category they fell into. Such things can turn on wording, and Members are trying to change the wording through the procedure.

I therefore urge the Minister to give us more information on how much advice will be given and what quality it will be. Will it equal the weight of advice of those who are trying to prove that the proposal has changed things in a way that favours them? I should like a little more information on the quorum and whether, to reassure people, it can be rather larger. I should also like to hear something on the independence of the Chairman of the Committee. Having received those assurances, I believe that the proposal may be rather better.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Paymaster General (HM Treasury) 6:54 pm, 15th January 2001

All of our debate this afternoon has revolved around four points: the question of the quorum; the remit of the Committee; the importance of the House of Commons in retaining absolute control over issues of tax; and the question of the definition of a minor issue, and how that is dealt with.

May I deal first with the quorum? Select Committee quorums are normally between one third and one quarter, and require three members out of a total of 11. Departmental committees normally require four out of 13, but sometimes the Treasury departmental committee requires three out of 12. The procedure taken in the proposal is the normal procedure for quorums.

The issues raised by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) go to the heart of questions about the power of the House. Members of Parliament will have the majority in the Joint Committee at every opportunity and can assert their supremacy. There will be seven such Members on that Committee.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Paymaster General (HM Treasury)

No, I shall not give way. The right hon. Gentleman spoke for a long time, and I covered many issues in my opening remarks. However, it is right that clear answers should be given to the House.

The right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) asked about the remit of the Committee and its powers. As he knows, paragraph 25 of the report on legislative procedure for tax simplification Bills states: The committee should have the standard powers of select committees— That answers many questions asked by Conservative Members in the House— including the power to appoint specialist advisers. That power is in our view a useful adjunct should the occasion arise to require expert advice independent of both the Government and those from outside bodies who might be expected to be called as witnesses. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst asked a legitimate question about the role of this House—and this House alone—in determining tax issues. The main features of the project on the tax law rewrite can be summarised as follows: it aims to restructure existing legislation into a more logical order than its present purposes allow. Its remit is not to revise the underlying tax policy. Anything that happens in the Joint Committee comes back to the House of Commons, and it will be for the House to determine what happens. Given the dedication that Members have shown this afternoon to what is quite a small matter, I have every confidence that, when we move on to more substantive matters on the power of the House of Commons, they will assert the same precision and concentration in targeting the main issues.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst made many points about excluding the House of Lords from decisions, starting with an example from 1671. Tax will remain for the House of Commons. As I said, after the Joint Committee has considered a Bill, it will come back to the House of Commons for final agreement. It is not open to the other place to change rates, tax or any of those issues.

There was also a question about how tax should be decided by the House of Commons and how the House set in train those procedures. The Joint Committee does not diminish the role of the House of Commons because, ultimately, it will be for the whole House to decide if a Bill proceeds or not. However, the House has long had procedures for Bills that restate the law with, or without, minor amendments. Tax simplification Bills are a new type of those Bills. Tax legislation has long benefited from the courts' decisions and judicial interpretation. We are using the expertise of other people in much the same way. I should say that the House agreed overwhelmingly to that principle after the debate on 19 December 2000 on a motion providing for the Joint Committee to be appointed in the way suggested.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said that this is a new proposal. However, the Joint Committee on Consolidation of Bills—which are of a very similar type to tax simplification Bills—was formed in 1894. Legislation of 1949 allowed minor changes to consolidation Bills and, of course, what is minor is a matter for the House of Commons to determine. That brings me to the final point of the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), who said that simplification inevitably entails change. The project is to simplify the language and structure of the legislation, not the underlying tax system.

Minor changes include such things as legislating for extra statutory concessions or repealing obsolete legislation, and of course I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the provisions are ultimately a matter for the judgment of the House. What is or is not a minor change needs to be scrutinised very carefully, and he will see 66 changes in annexe 1 of the explanatory notes. Where the Bill varies from the legislation in respect of such a minor change is specifically identified—clause by clause, line by line—to assist the Joint Committee to undertake its work.

The House's powers on tax are defended and preserved; the House will make the final decision; the quorum proposal follows normal practice; Select Committees have a right to have advisers and, therefore, to call expert witnesses, should they decide to do so; and the Chairman of the Committee will be a Back Bencher.

I expect all members of the Committee from this House to ensure that they defend the House's rights on tax matters, attend the Committee and vote for such a Chairman.

Question put:—

The House divided:Ayes 279, Noes 4.

Division No. 51][7.1 pm
AYES
Abbott, Ms DianeAshdown, Rt Hon Paddy
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N)Ashton, Joe
Ainger, NickAtherton, Ms Candy
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)Atkins, Charlotte
Allan, RichardBailey, Adrian
Allen, GrahamBallard, Jackie
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale)Banks, Tony
Armstrong, Rt Hon Ms HilaryBarnes, Harry
Barron, KevinFlynn, Paul
Bayley, HughFoster, Don (Bath)
Beard, NigelFoulkes, George
Begg, Miss AnneGapes, Mike
Bell, Martin (Tatton)Gardiner, Barry
Benn, Hilary (Leeds C)George, Rt Hon Bruce (Walsall S)
Berry, RogerGerrard, Neil
Best, HaroldGilroy, Mrs Linda
Blackman, LizGodsiff, Roger
Blears, Ms HazelGoggins, Paul
Blizzard, BobGolding, Mrs Llin
Borrow, DavidGriffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Bradley, Keith (Withington)Hain, Peter
Bradshaw, BenHall, Patrick (Bedford)
Brake, TomHarvey, Nick
Breed, ColinHealey, John
Brinton, Mrs HelenHeath, David (Somerton & Frome)
Brown, Russell (Dumfries)Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N)
Browne, DesmondHendrick, Mark
Buck, Ms KarenHepbum, Stephen
Burden, RichardHeppell, John
Burgon, ColinHill, Keith
Burnett, JohnHodge, Ms Margaret
Caborn, Rt Hon RichardHome Robertson, John
Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth)Hoon, Rt Hon Geoffrey
Campbell, Rt Hon Menzies (NE Fife)Hope, Phil
(NE Fife)Hopkins, Kelvin
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)Hoyle, Lindsay
Campbell-Savours, DaleHughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)
Cann, JamieHumble, Mrs Joan
Casale, RogerHurst, Alan
Cawsey, IanIddon, Dr Brian
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Chaytor, DavidJamieson, David
Clapham, MichaelJenkins, Brian
Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)Jones, Rt Hon Barry (Alyn)
Clark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands)Jones. Helen (Warrington N)
Jones. Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Clarke, Charles (Norwich S)Joyce, Eric
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S)Keeble, Ms Sally
Clelland, DavidKeen, Ann (Feltham & Heston)
Clwyd, AnnKeen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth)
Coaker, VernonKemp. Fraser
Coffey, Ms AnnKhabra, Piara S
Cohen, HarryKilfoyle, Peter
Coleman, lainKing, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth)
Connarty, MichaelKumar, Dr Ashok
Cooper, YvetteLadyman, Dr Stephen
Corbett, RobinLawrence, Mrs Jackie
Corbyn, JeremyLaxton, Bob
Corston, JeanLepper, David
Cotter, BrianLeslie, Christopher
Cousins, JimLevitt, Tom
Crausby, DavidLewis, Terry (Worsley)
Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley)Liddell, Rt Hon Mrs Helen
Cryer, John (Hornchurch)Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)
Cummings, JohnLock, David
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)Love, Andrew
Dalyell, TamMcAvoy Thomas
Darvill, KeithMcCafferty, Ms Chris
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)McCartney, Rt Hon Ian
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)(Makerfieid)
Dawson, HiltonMcDonagh, Siobhain
Dismore, AndrewMacdonald, Calum
Dobbin, JimMcDonnell, John
Donohoe, Brian HMcFall, John
Doran, FrankMcGuire, Mrs Anne
Dowd, JimMackinlay, Andrew
Drew, DavidMcNamara, Kevin
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)McNulty, Tony
Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)Mactaggart, Fiona
Efford, CliveMcWilliam, John
Ellman, Mrs LouiseMallaber, Judy
Etherington, BillMarsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Field, Rt Hon FrankMarshall, David (Shettleston)
Fisher, MarkMarshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Marshall-Andrews, RobertSmith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)
Meacher, Rt Hon MichaelSmith, Angela (Basildon)
Merron, GillianSmith, Miss Geraldine (Morecambe & Lunesdale)
Michael, Rt Hon Alun
Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)Smith, John (Glamorgan)
Milburn, Rt Hon AlanSmith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Miller, AndrewSnape, Peter
Mitchell, AustinSoley, Clive
Moffatt, LauraSouthworth, Ms Helen
Moonie, Dr LewisSquire, Ms Rachel
Moran, Ms MargaretSteinberg, Gerry
Morris, Rt Hon Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)Stevenson, George Stewart, David (Inverness E)
Mountford, KaliStewart, Ian (Eccles)
Mudie, GeorgeStinchcombe, Paul
Mullin, ChrisStoate, Dr Howard
Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)Straw, Rt Hon Jack
Naysmith, Dr DougStringer, Graham
Oaten, MarkStuart, Ms Gisela
O'Neill, MartinStunell, Andrew
Öpik, LembitSutcliffe, Gerry
Organ, Mrs DianaTaylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Osborne, Ms Sandra(Dewsbury)
Pearson, IanTaylor, David (NW Leics)
Pickthall, ColinTaylor, Matthew (Truro)
Pike, Peter LTemple-Morris, Peter
Pollard, KerryThomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Pond, ChrisThomas, Simon (Ceredigion)
Pope, GregTimms, Stephen
Pound, StephenTipping, Paddy
Powell, Sir RaymondTodd, Mark
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)Tonge, Dr Jenny
Primarolo, DawnTouhig, Don
Purchase, KenTurner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Quinn, LawrieTurner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Radice, Rt Hon GilesTurner, Neil (Wigan)
Rammell, BillTwigg, Derek (Halton)
Rapson, SydTwigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Raynsford, NickTyler, Paul
Reid, Rt Hon Dr John (Hamilton N)Tynan, Bill
Rendel, DavidVaz, Keith
Robertson, John (Glasgow Anniesland)Walley, Ms Joan Ward, Ms Claire
Roche, Mrs BarbaraWareing, Robert N
Rooker, Rt Hon JeffWatts, David
Rooney, TerryWhite, Brian
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)Whitehead, Dr Alan
Roy, FrankWicks, Malcolm
Ruddock, JoanWigley, Rt Hon Dafydd
Ryan, Ms JoanWilliams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Salter, MartinWillis, Phil
Sanders, AdrianWinnick, David
Sarwar, MohammadWoolas, Phil
Savidge, MalcolmWorthington, Tony
Sedgemore, BrianWray, James
Shaw, JonathanWright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Sheerman, BarryWyatt, Derek
Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)Tellers for the Ayes:
Singh, MarshaMr. Kevin Hughes and
Skinner, DennisMr. Mike Hall.
NOES
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W)Tellers for the Noes:
Chope, ChristopherMr. Eric Forth and
Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas
Redwood, Rt Hon JohnMr. David Ruffley.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved,That the following Standing Order be made—

  1. (1) There shall be a Select Committee, to consist of seven Members, to join with the committee appointed by the Lords as the Joint Committee on Tax Simplification Bills, to consider tax simplification bills, and in particular to consider whether each bill committed to it preserves the effect of the existing law, subject to any minor changes which may be desirable.
  2. (2) The Committee shall have power to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House, to report from time to time, and to appoint specialist advisers either to supply information which is not readily available or to elucidate matters of complexity within the committee's order of reference.
  3. (3) The quorum of the Committee shall be two.
  4. (4) Unless the House otherwise orders, each Member nominated to the committee shall continue to be a member of it for the remainder of the Parliament.
  5. (5) The procedure of the Joint Committee shall follow the procedure of select committees of this House when such procedure differs from that of select committees of the House of Lords.
  6. (6) The chairman shall have the like powers of selection as are given to the chairman of a standing committee under paragraph (3)(a) of Standing Order No. 89 (Procedure in standing committees).