(Except clauses 4, 19, 23, 26 to 29, 87 to 92, 131 and 134 and schedules 1, 5 and 38) - Clause 132 - Mandatory e-filing

Part of Finance Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:45 pm on 25th June 2002.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury 4:45 pm, 25th June 2002

I beg to move amendment No. 230, in page 105, line 5, at end insert—

'(e) exempt from the provisions of this section any person who is a practising member of a religious society or order the tenets or beliefs of which are incompatible with the use of such means of electronic communications as may be specified in the regulations.'.

I should now like to continue the argument by dwelling on the amendment, which, as members of the Committee will be aware, was suggested by the Brethren. I stress from the outset that the Brethren are not motivated by considerations of party politics, and are unfailingly courteous and extraordinarily efficient lobbyists. They make a point of putting their case to Members on both sides of the House. They are not partisan in their motivations, as they view their relationship as being with God. Members of the Brethren do not vote in general or other elections. Without lightening or devaluing the importance of our exchanges, I hope that I can be forgiven for arguing that my hon. Friends and I are not motivated by vote-grabbing instincts.

I should also stress that there is no requirement for me or, I suspect, any other Opposition Committee member, to declare a registrable interest, because I am not a member of the Brethren. [Laughter.] The Financial Secretary laughs, but it is worth making the point, and from the Brethren's vantage point, it is jolly fortunate that I am not a member. They are upstanding people of high moral fibre, and I do not think that I could reach the standards of behaviour to which they aspire and that they attain in their daily life. They are motivated by principle, and I agreed with and respected the language that the Paymaster General used in an earlier reference to this matter. She did not name the Brethren, but she talked about a minority of people with strong convictions that are different from those of many other people but are entitled to be respected. That is the starting point of the Conservative Opposition.

The Brethren suggested that a satisfactory amendment could be made to clause 132 by inserting a subsection (4)(e) that would

''exempt from the provisions of this section any person who is a practising member of a religious society or order the tenets or beliefs of which are incompatible with the use of such means of electronic communications as may be specified in the regulations.''

Consistent with my comments about the Brethren's non-partisan motivation, it is typical of them that they should be at pains to emphasise, as they did in a letter to the Paymaster General on 13 June 2002, that they

''would much prefer the amendment to be tabled as a Government amendment rather than as a cross-party one, even although we are certain that there would be cross-party support for it on account of the fact that it is not a political issue but one of religious conscience.''

Regrettably, the Government did not want to make such an amendment, and the Brethren have had to use another vehicle to get the issue debated. However, they wanted to anticipate and diffuse political controversy rather than to stoke it up. That is not an argument for their amendment, but it is a commentary on their motives and integrity.

The Conservatives can see merit in such a provision. Originating in 1828, the Brethren are a worldwide Christian fellowship and profound believers in Jesus Christ. There are more than 14,000 Brethren in the United Kingdom alone. They have a conscience before God based on the teachings and prophecies of the holy scripture and seek to live a separated life as governed by the Bible. They respect and honour Government as ordained of God, but are of no political persuasion themselves, as has been stressed before. They pray for the Government, Ministers and all who are in authority.

For the past 20 years, during the dramatic advancement, to which the Paymaster General properly referred, of IT in the worlds of business and communication, the Brethren have practised a way of life involving the consistent refusal of the use of computers in their businesses and homes. Some prophetic scriptural warnings concerning the present mighty scientific and commercial build-up depicted in great Babylon are given in a variety of references. The Brethren referred me and other Committee members

to those in Thessalonians and Revelations, which underpin their determination to resist being caught up in the whirlpool of electronic developments.

There are about 1,200 Brethren businesses in the UK. Without computers, they trade, employ staff and pay taxes, so they need to be able to continue to communicate with the Inland Revenue and other tax authorities on paper.