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Interpretation

Orders of the Day — Social Security Contributions (Share Options) Bill – in the House of Commons at 3:15 pm on 8th February 2001.

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Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms The Financial Secretary to the Treasury 3:15 pm, 8th February 2001

I beg to move amendment No. 9, in page 7, line 40, leave out "sixty" and insert "ninety-two".

In Committee, I was happy to accept the amendments, tabled by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight), which extended the period in which notification and payment must be made from 60 to 92 days after Royal Assent. Of course, that change must be made throughout the Bill, but we subsequently found an omission. The amendment will remedy that omission and ensures that 92 days will be referred to throughout.

Photo of Mr Howard Flight Mr Howard Flight Conservative, Arundel and South Downs

We welcome this amendment. In fact, in Committee, it was our error to have missed one of the references to 60 days. We are glad that the Government have picked up that omission, so that the Bill will refer to 92 days throughout.

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

We also welcome this amendment. We supported the amendments in Committee. The date for notification and payment will now be 92 days, not 60 days, as in the proposals as originally drafted. This worthwhile amendment is welcomed throughout the business community.

Amendment agreed to.

Order for Third Reading read.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms The Financial Secretary to the Treasury 3:27 pm, 8th February 2001

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The Bill, as hon. Members know, responds to the concerns of a number of companies about the effects of paying national insurance on employee share option gains. Following that change, some companies said that the uncapped secondary national insurance charge had led to accounting difficulties for them.

Following a period of consultation, measures were introduced last year, enabling companies to remove the accounting problems and uncertainty that the NIC charge presented. The earlier measure allowed companies to ask the employee to bear the secondary national insurance charge on the share option gain. That was announced on 19 May 2000. That legislation has enabled companies to remove the accounting difficulties and has provided them with certainty.

Although last year's legislation was drafted to cover all the options that had already been granted, it has, not surprisingly, been difficult for employers to negotiate with employees terms that change options already granted to them, so the uncertainty remained for some of the companies that granted options before 19 May 2000.

The Bill responds by giving companies the chance to settle their national insurance liabilities on the options granted between 6 April 1999 and 19 May 2000 early, in advance of the date when the actual gain is made by the employee. Companies that choose to take advantage of this measure will be able to cap their national insurance liability by calculating the amount of national insurance due by reference to the accrued gain up to 7 November 2000.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

Will the Financial Secretary clarify a basic point about the legislation? We are trying to redress an anomaly, which was created as a consequence of earlier legislation designed to prevent tax avoidance of the NIC charge by the use of share options. How much revenue do the Government reckon was at stake in the beginning, and how much revenue is at stake now? We have just heard the most extraordinary labyrinthine story of complex legislation being added to the statute book, and that has resulted in huge compliance costs for industry and a bonanza for lawyers. How much money will the Government get in return for that?

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

The Bill does not correct an anomaly; it completes the arrangements to ensure that companies will not face the uncertainties about which some of them have been concerned. On the hon. Gentleman's question about the cost, because payments in the first year will have to be made within 92 days of Royal Assent there will be a gain to the Exchequer. Money will be paid earlier than it would be if it were paid only when the options were exercised. Over a five-year period, there will be a loss to the Exchequer and we estimate that to be about £160 million.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

I am sure that the Minister has given the correct answer about the cost of the Bill, but my question was about the problem that was generated by the decision taken in 1996. I want to know how much revenue was at stake when that decision was taken. Clearly, the Government must have gone back to consider the original legislation to see whether it was worth while closing all these loopholes.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

I do not have a figure for how much was at stake when the previous Government made the changes in 1996. I have no doubt that they published figures at the time, and I shall certainly try to dig them out. Perhaps I can write to the hon. Gentleman about that.

As I have explained, companies that choose to take advantage of the measure will be able to cap their national insurance liability by calculating the amount of national insurance due by reference to the gain accrued up to 7 November 2000. They will be required to notify the Inland Revenue and pay the appropriate amount within 92 days of Royal Assent.

Our consideration of the Bill has been brief, but it has been fruitful. Several worthwhile improvements to it have been made and I am grateful to hon. Members for that. I take pleasure in commending the Bill to the House.

Photo of Mr Howard Flight Mr Howard Flight Conservative, Arundel and South Downs 3:32 pm, 8th February 2001

As the House is aware, the Bill is the Government's second attempt to correct the problems of their own making when, with inadequate consultation, they introduced in April 1999 a charge to national insurance on unapproved option gains. As has been pointed out, this attempt has resulted in excessive technical detail and it still has not got the corrections entirely right in the objectives for takeovers, under this relieving Bill.

We have welcomed, in principle, the relieving measures in the Bill and we welcome the fact that the Government accepted most of the points that we raised in Committee. They will make the operation of the relieving measures more practical by allowing a sensible period of 92 days in which to elect to pay this one-off national insurance charge.

However, as we said at some length on Second Reading and in Committee, we continue to oppose the principle of making companies gamble on their potential tax liabilities. The only comfort for most listed companies that issued options between April 1999 and May 2000 is that the options would likely have been significantly under water on 7 November 2000, given what happened to stock markets over that period. Therefore, the great majority of companies will not have any difficult decisions to make, because they will not have a special NIC liability.

I stress that we do not think it is correct for Governments to play with tax policy and offer quid pro quos, or gambles, on shareholders' funds. Let the Government never forget that the overwhelming majority of shareholders are pension funds.

The Government have not entirely understood the principles relating to market abuse on which they themselves insisted in the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000. At that time, we urged them to accept the principle of intent, but they resisted that. As a result, under the Bill, giving misleading price information—whether intended or not—will be an offence.

As we have previously pointed out, if companies do not exercise the option to make the special NIC payment, the markets will perceive them as sending a negative signal about their share price prospects. However, as the Minister agreed, the reasons for that might be quite different: companies might not exercise the right because of a shortage of cash or because of intended staff changes. The only comfort is that the latest draft of the Financial Services Authority's code of conduct on market abuse makes it clear that it has included the concept of intent in virtually every provision, as we recommended at the outset.

As we pointed out last summer in the debates on the Finance Act 2000, our main criticism is directed towards the whole approach of treating options in the same way as remuneration and the argument that gains on unapproved options should be subject to national insurance charges. Such thinking is misplaced. It is absolutely clear that if someone's remunerations arrangements involve a lower salary than he might receive at a mature company but include a package of options, whether those options have any value is entirely a matter of risk. The net effect of everything that the Government have done is to tax those options at a higher rate than ordinary income, and that cannot be logical.

In reality, the Government's proposals were an excuse for more stealth taxation. On 4 September last year, the Minister wrote to me advising that the Treasury viewed the cost of not having national insurance on unapproved options as £1 billion per annum. I think it is extremely unlikely that the Government will obtain anything like that revenue from national insurance on options. To the extent that the Government argue that the proposals are designed to close avoidance loopholes, I point out that I have never encountered arrangements whereby one can have a share option scheme with a certain return. If the Government and Revenue have encountered such an arrangement, that problem could have been dealt with specifically. The much wider measure of treating option gains as the same as earned income is the wrong path down which to go.

The issue is important because unapproved options have become central to entrepreneurial motivation in this country. The tax regime for approved options is attractive but they are limited to £30,000 in value. Sadly, the Government's new executive management incentive scheme is extremely restrictive. Therefore, unapproved options are used overwhelmingly to offer incentives to management, particularly in new businesses in the new technology and new economy sectors.

In Committee, the Minister admitted that only 100 companies of the 20,000 or so suitable have taken up the new executive management scheme incentive scheme. Although it looks very generous, it is difficult to qualify for and any company that started to achieve success would quickly disqualify itself. I am tempted to observe that the Government knew that because the amount of tax cost provided in the Red Book was modest.

Let us come to the heart of the matter. I am assuming that the Government are not disingenuous in their desire to see a much more vital economy and a much higher level of venture capital investment. We should not be complacent. The United Kingdom is doing poorly against America. Per pound or dollar of national income, America is achieving about four times the level of venture capital investment of the United Kingdom. We may be doing well against Europe, but we are certainly doing poorly against America. That has been central to the growth rates of the two economies. America has grown at about 4.6 per cent. per annum for the past three years and the United Kingdom at only about 2.3 per cent. Our under-performance is material. The huge US economy has done so well largely because of the tremendously positive level of investment and activity in new ventures in high-tech, new economy and so forth.

This is central to the Bill. When people in the venture capital industry in the United Kingdom are asked what are the key issues, interestingly they say that right now it is not about there not being enough money, but about a shortage of talented management wanting to come forward. There is a shortage of people willing to leave the more comfortable employment terms and security with large, established businesses and risk joining a new business. Often there is also a shortage of new business projects that those people might otherwise bring to the table.

When the venture capital industry is asked what is central to this issue, it says that the tax regime on share options in the United Kingdom is extremely unattractive compared with that in the United States. In the United States for the equivalent of UK approved schemes, known as ISOs, people can have $100,000 of options per annum; the employee is not taxed on exercise but only on the sale of shares following the exercise of those options; the tax rate, provided that he has held the shares for a year, is 20 per cent.; and there is no equivalent to national insurance charge because social security charges are capped for both employer and employee at incomes of $74,000.

In the United States, the new business sector which is not hugely profitable—it is building businesses where cash flow is tight—uses predominantly ISO options to pull in and motivate talented management and, inevitably, pays them lower salaries than they would get in mature businesses. That is what options are all about.

While US unapproved options have a tax of 39.6 per cent. on exercise, the issuing companies get a tax credit equal to the tax which the employee pays, so the net tax situation between employer and employee is tax paid at about 10 per cent. and, again, there is no equivalent to our national insurance charge.

If the Government genuinely want to get a higher level of venture capital activity in the United Kingdom, it is crucial that they accept and understand the message from the industry that we are going wrong on option incentives. The Computing Services and Software Association said to the Chancellor in the lead-up to the discussions behind the Bill: We need a similar regime to the USA as that is where we have to compete for staff. The Minister will be aware that the top management of Cisco, now the largest high-tech company in the world, and of companies such as Micromuse—still British but with more of its activities in the United States than here—say that the high tax on options was leading them to move their operations elsewhere, predominantly to the USA, because they could not motivate staff here where options were taxed too highly.

The staff needed in the new business areas are international. They are people who will move about the world readily. This is not necessarily about a brain drain from here to the United States; it is also about whether we attract the talent from all over the world to the UK that we need to get our high-tech sector going.

The chairman of the UK small business investment taskforce, appointed by the Government, commented in a letter two weeks ago on how restrictive the executive management incentive option schemes were and on how punitive the national insurance charge arrangements on options are. The chief executive of QXL Internet Auction company commented that the NIC situation in this country would force talented staff out of the United Kingdom.

The message from the high-tech industry is loud and clear. This relieving Bill is welcome in terms of the specifics, but it does not address the fundamental issue—namely, that the Government have hit the venture capital and new tech industries by applying a 47.3 per cent. Tax charge on unapproved options when individuals exercise them. That is right at the centre of why we are not doing nearly as well as the US in our new venture capital industry.

Last May the Government realised and accepted the threat to the cash flows of new companies by imposing NICs on options. It is the companies that are the problem with a 12.2 per cent. national insurance charge. The Government thought that they could be clever and that by a wheeze they could keep the stealth tax that they had imposed by changing the rules so that the employer's NIC could be transferred to the employee. As the Government have confirmed, that gives a 47.32 per cent. tax charge to employees on unapproved share options.

It is palpably nonsense that a risky form of remuneration—whether options are worth anything depends on the particular success or failure of an individual business, whether new high-tech areas prosper and the general economic climate and where the risk-to-reward ratio is skewed heavily to risk—should attract higher tax than a safe salary. That is theoretical nonsense. It is reducing the use of options. The reaction of talented people who are willing to work for new ventures is to want better salaries and a safer income, as well as some options. Instead of the trade-off of lower salaries and more options, they are demanding higher salaries, and that is just what new businesses cannot afford.

Behind the Bill still lies the great misfortune that just when the Government have been claiming that they want to help new ventures, venture capital and entrepreneurship, they have hit at the centre and made the key element—namely, option incentivisation—punitive and unattractive tax-wise. If the Minister goes out and about in the venture capital industry and talks to people other than the Government's cronies, he will find that the Government are not seen as bona fide friends to entrepreneurship and venture capital, and are believed not to understand how crucial the taxation of options is to entrepreneurial endeavour.

When the relieving measures that we are discussing were announced shortly before Christmas, the press reaction summed them up. It was that the proposals received one cheer from high-tech entrepreneurs, who said that they did not go far enough and did not address the fundamental issue. Others commented that the problem is of the Government's own making, with constant tinkering and a failure to sort out the fundamental issue of what the tax regime should be for share options, if we want to be able to attract many more talented people into new ventures.

The Bill is a relieving measure and we are not opposing it. We hope that the Government will correct what we believe are outstanding technical errors as the Bill passes through another place. We appreciate that the Government have accepted our proposals to make arrangements simpler and to avoid potential for unfairness in this Bill. We say to the Government, "If you are genuine about wanting to encourage entrepreneurship, go back to first principles and consider the taxation of options in the United States. Do what those who are at the centre of, and who are trying to create, more new venture capital and more new business recommend, and look to have option taxation regimes that are broadly similar to those of the US and that are not punitive, as the mainstream unapproved option regime now is."

Photo of Mr John Burnett Mr John Burnett Liberal Democrat, Torridge and West Devon 3:52 pm, 8th February 2001

This is one of the few occasions where the Government have changed their mind on a Treasury Bill. I pay tribute to the Minister for listening to, and understanding, the points that have been made. Both the changes to which he has agreed are important.

The Bill is a relieving measure and it is helpful. It caps liabilities at 7 November 2000. As I said earlier, other amendments could have been made in fairness to taxpayers. For example, the Government should have given taxpayers a choice whether to pay on 7 November or on the date on which the option was exercised. That would have been simpler, just as certain, and fair. Now, an individual will, for example, have to pay national insurance contributions on the value of an option on 7 November last of £100,000. The option might decrease significantly in value, and when he or she exercises the option in years to come, the value might be only £10,000, so the individual will be considerably worse off.

The amendments that have been agreed to are welcome. First, the period in which notice is given and contributions have to be made is extended from 60 days to 92. Secondly, there is the amendment that applies where the amount of special contribution is nil because on 7 November either the option was under water or the shares were not readily convertible assets. In those circumstances, notice would be deemed to have been given within the prescribed period. Those are helpful amendments.

We discussed the significant amendments that the Government introduced yesterday, and the Minister has confirmed that he will circulate the draft clauses and probably the entire Bill. I welcome that. I believe he said that he would circulate them to the various professional bodies and perhaps to some taxpayers who call for representation so that they have the opportunity to make submissions and produce amendments to clarify and improve the Bill.

Having had those assurances from the Minister, and realising that the Bill is a relieving measure, we welcome the Bill and the amendments to which the Minister has acquiesced. We shall not, therefore, oppose it.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester 3:55 pm, 8th February 2001

I confess that I did not understand all the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) made when he was dealing with the Government's amendments to clause 3. I doubt whether anyone else in the House did. I certainly do not think that the Minister did. The only person who fully grasped them was my hon. Friend. That reflects a serious problem that we have encountered today in trying to make legislation of this sort on the Floor of the House.

It is certain that we shall be passing a flawed Bill to the other place, where we hope that it will be put right. It seems that the programme motion will prevent virtually any discussion, if the Government so choose, of any changes made in the other place, even if they are substantive. Effectively, that which is to become law will have received virtually no scrutiny in this place. That is not a good way to produce legislation.

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs that this relieving Bill is welcome, but that the Government have hit the industry elsewhere and have not understood the damage that they have been doing. We are dealing with a complex and technical matter that relates to an awkward interaction between tax and national insurance contributions. The origins of the problem lie in the decision to treat options as remuneration. That was done as an anti-avoidance measure. I shall throw up for consideration whether that was worth it and whether the Government have thought through whether it was.

There are two ways of answering that question. First, was it worth it from the Inland Revenue's perspective and how much NIC liability has been created? The Minister gave me the figures for this relieving measure, but following my earlier intervention it was clear that he had no understanding of how much money was being brought in as a whole as a result of the underlying measure, which the Government are attempting to improve by means of the Bill. How much avoidance activity will be discouraged by putting the Bill on the statute book? The yield may be low, but firms may have written fewer options than they would otherwise have done.

The second big issue in addressing whether it was right to treat options as remuneration is the effect that that has had on the whole economy. My hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs referred to that in his excellent speech. Treating options as remuneration significantly affects economic behaviour. Share options may be extremely efficient as incentives to better business performance. That approach will have been discouraged by anti-avoidance measures.

An assessment of the entire economy would also take into account the compliance burden, the administrative burden and the legal and accounting costs involved in introducing the measure. There has been far too little analysis of those whole-economy effects and a great reluctance to put numbers on them, in terms not only of the Bill and underlying legislation but of a range of measures that the Government have taken since 1997.

Some of that work used to be done by the deregulation unit, but one of the Government's first acts was to abolish that, in July 1997.

The Government are trying to mitigate the whole-economy damage that some of their measures have caused by creating the new approved scheme. The EMI scheme and the company share option plans that the Government introduced push in that direction. They have heavily targeted the information technology sector with some of their measures. I am not convinced that it is right to create a distortive incentive to target a particular sector. The argument runs that that incentive is needed because shares in the IT sector are more volatile. So what? Volatility should be treated as a business cost and the Government should not rejig the tax system to take account of it.

I said that I do not like the way in which the Government have gone about the matter. By implication, I am criticising the way in which the previous Government tried to treat the awkward relationship between tax and national insurance contributions. Of course, that is the origin of the Bill. Let me briefly go through a few possible alternative approaches. The first would be to continue muddling through, which, clearly, the Government are trying to do now. One could continue to try to police the line between tax and national insurance; one could try to limit tax avoidance, but strike a balance between closing tax ramps and chasing small sums that might slip through. However, there is always the risk that one is chasing ever smaller sums with larger dollops of regulation and ever more pages of legislation.

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

Does the hon. Gentleman subscribe to, and agree with, the contribution principle?

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Before the hon. Gentleman answers, let me say that his remarks are becoming rather wide-ranging. Third Reading is limited to the contents of the Bill, and his remarks should be limited to those contents.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

I entirely accept your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We know that the Bill that we are now considering will not end up on the statute book because it is flawed as drafted; there will be further consultation and it will be fundamentally re-examined in the House of Lords. It is therefore helpful to flag up markers for the other place when it comes to examine the Bill.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. What happens to the Bill when it leaves this place does not affect the fact that Third Reading speeches should relate purely to the content of the Bill.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

A crucial aspect of that content is the great emphasis on the need to collect revenue, however small the amount being chased. Looking at the Bill, one sees that there is almost a light-headedness about putting on the statute book huge quantities of highly complicated legislation. I defy anybody to read the amendments and honestly say that they can work out what they mean. As I said, nobody has made the effort to work out the whole-economy effect of such measures.

Other approaches need to be adopted alongside the approach that the Government have decided to take. One is to treat share options like all shares and tax the capital gain, as was suggested by Mr. Mike Lynch, chief executive of the software group Autonomy. He said: There's no doubt that the Government is trying to do the right thing. I agree. Mr. Lynch continues: The problem is that they tinker, tinker, tinker and don't sort out the fundamental issue, which is that options should be treated as a capital gain, and not be hit with national insurance.

That has some attractions, although the logic of it leads towards integration of capital gains tax and income tax; I am not sure whether Mr. Lynch had that in mind. Of course, the treatment of capital gains as a marginal slice of income was the intellectual background to the 1988 Budget, which caused so much controversy in the venture capital industry. That is not the right way to go. Capital gains tax is in a fundamental mess, and trying to go down that route would make it even worse.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. As the hon. Gentleman is cantering around the economy, I remind him yet again that he must debate the precise content of the Bill.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for making sure that I do not canter around the economy. However, I assure you that there is an intimate inter-relationship between share options, capital gains and the anti-avoidance measures on national insurance that we are discussing. Once one is altered, the others will require attention, which is why this awkward measure is before us today.

I shall not linger for more than two sentences on the point about the contributory principle made by the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett). I disagree with the view that national insurance contributions and income tax should be integrated, and believe that the contributory principle should stay. The recent report of the Select Committee on Social Security agreed with that, and that is probably where we shall remain. If so, we are thrown back to the first option that I listed—muddling through. If we do muddle through, I urge the Government, as I said a moment ago, not to chase ever smaller sums of revenue with ever more regulation. Is it really worth trying to collect national insurance on unapproved share options?

That is the key underlying question, which I hope the other place will have in mind when they examine the Bill. When it does so, I hope that it will weigh the whole-economy cost against the diminishing return to the Inland Revenue.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst 4:07 pm, 8th February 2001

Following your general nudging of my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), Mr. Deputy Speaker, I thought that I would say a few words about the Bill. That seems to be the order of the day and is what the House expects on Third Reading. I shall have a go and see if I can deal with the Bill in the limited time that is left.

First, an irregularity that struck me—and which, I hope, will attract the attention of their Lordships in another place—is the Bill's long title. These are difficult, complicated matters to do with tax and high finance, and understanding them is obviously limited to a small number of people, of whom I am certainly not one. In those circumstances, the layman is allowed to speculate about why on earth the Bill deals retrospectively with a period beginning with 6 April 1999 and ending with 19 May 2000.

That tells one several things, including the fact that the problem was certainly not noticed when it should have been and/or was not dealt with properly when it should have been. However, with the benefit of hindsight, we shall reach back into the recesses of time and try to deal with it now. That strikes me as something that we would normally deprecate and be uneasy about. Against that background, I am a little unhappy with the consensus with which the Bill seems to be easing its way forward.

Following your helpful advice to look at the Bill, Mr. Deputy Speaker, my eye lit upon clause 2(5), in which, I thought, some sinister elements appeared. It contains the condition: If it appears to the Inland Revenue that a person who has given a notice under section 1 in respect of any right and who would (but for subsection (4) of this section), be liable by virtue of that notice to pay a special contribution". A lot of use of "appears to" and "but for" is creeping in. At the very least, that indicates something that my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) was at pains to point out from the start: the measure has not been properly thought out and, despite the expertise and tender ministrations of my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett), we still have not got it anywhere near where it should be at this stage of the proceedings. After all, the Bill is in the last gasps of its proceedings through the House of Commons. I wonder whether the Government are up to their old tricks, hoping that it will be sorted out properly in another place. That is a constitutional and parliamentary proposition of extremely dubious value.

This place should take responsibility for sorting out Bills that originate here. One could say that, when a Bill originates in another place, we expect it to come here in good order. The same must surely apply in the other direction. What seems to be happening recently, not least in respect of this Bill, is that we have come to rest more and more on the presumption that we can do sloppy, untidy, hasty, poor work here—making the law of the land, let us not forget, and affecting people very directly, as our measures must inevitably do, and this Bill no less than most—and pass it to the other end of the building, saying to their lordships, "You have more time. You can sort it out." That is not a sound constitutional principle.

My doubts grew even stronger when I read in clause 2(5)(a) the words: which he had reasonable grounds for believing was the correct amount of his liability". That is probably fair enough, but the clause goes on, almost unbelievably, in paragraph (c): has a reasonable excuse for having failed to do either of those things within that period"— not a reason, but an excuse. Excuses have now entered our statute as a term of art.

I am not a lawyer. The hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon is an eminent lawyer. It is probably too late for him to comment now, but I leave the thought with him and not least with the Minister: if we are writing excuses into our statute, matters have gone beyond all reason. It makes me wonder how on earth we could have arrived at this point in our deliberations, with all the accumulated brain power of my hon. Friends, the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon, the Minister, who has been praised lavishly today and whom I will praise modestly, and all the panoply of talent available to the Minister via the parliamentary draftsmen, when they are not engaged on hundreds of amendments to other Bills at the last minute.

The best that the Government can come up with in the Bill is a reference to someone having a reasonable excuse for having failed to do something within a specified period. It is pretty desperate stuff, when one thinks about it. It is not the stuff of which proper statutes should be made. It will provide a field day for the lawyers. Imagine them getting their minds around that, and their fees around it, as well. I will not tempt my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), who, if he were listening to me, which he wisely is not—

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I was listening closely to my right hon. Friend. He was speaking about fees.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I shall have a quiet word later with my right hon. and learned Friend. Leading up to the talk about fees, I was speaking about excuse as a concept in the law. He and I can discuss that later; even though it is in the Bill, I am sure that Mr. Deputy Speaker would not want me to elaborate further.

At that point, I was put off reading the Bill any further. I thought, "If things are as bad as that so early in the Bill, I do not see why I should upset myself or anyone else by reading on." I concluded without too much effort that it is yet another example of a Bill poorly conceived, poorly drafted and—I say this with considerable regret—poorly scrutinised, mainly because the Government have not given us proper time or opportunity to give it the attention that it deserves.

As has been pointed out, the period allowed between identification of the flaws in the Bill in Committee and its Report stage today would usually be sufficient to permit proper reflection, advice to be taken from other sources and the expertise of those whom I mentioned previously to be brought to bear. None of that has been allowed. If we are to learn a lesson from the Bill, it is that the way in which the Government are requiring the House to deal with legislation is inadequate. It palpably does not work, and the Bill is a perfect example of that.

Although I sense that we shall probably give the Bill an unopposed Third Reading—would that that were not the case, as I would love to vote against it—I hope that, at the very least, we can invite Members of another place to give it much more scrutiny than they might otherwise do.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms The Financial Secretary to the Treasury 4:14 pm, 8th February 2001

The climate for enterprise and entrepreneurship in the United Kingdom is better than it has ever been, and the Bill makes it better still. We have made a number of changes to the Bill. It has been a good example of effective scrutiny. I take great pleasure in commending it to the House.

It being a quarter past Four o'clock, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Question, pursuant to Order [this day].

Question agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.