(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 5:00 pm on 25th June 2002.

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Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury 5:00 pm, 25th June 2002

Well, I will give an example. The hon. Gentleman will have to make do with it. Members of the Brethren would argue that the use of the telephone is qualitatively different from the use of the internet. Using the telephone involves a decision made by an individual who wishes to communicate with another individual. It does not involve the person using the telephone receiving information, images, pictures or depictions that he or she does not wish to receive. It is at least arguable that the difference lies in the fact that the Brethren regard the internet as a source of uncontrollable evil. They are genuinely distressed by much of the traffic on the internet.

That is a respectable opinion. It may not be the hon. Gentleman's opinion and it might not be mine. Do I tolerate such an opinion? No, I respect it. I respect the sincerity of this minority. The hon. Gentleman has a laudable track record of standing up for minorities, as do most Labour Members. The

Paymaster General has a powerful record for doing so. We are talking about a minority who practise a particular way of life. They are law abiding, have always paid their taxes and want to continue to do so. They simply object to being compelled to pay in a particular way. They have a fair point.

Moreover, there is a precedent for an exemption. It is not specifically in this field. Although I referred earlier to the hon. Lady's correspondence with her right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, West in September 2000, about which she is rather embarrassed, on this occasion I refer to the precedent in section 42 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 under which the Brethren sought and were granted an exemption from jury service because of their religious views. The idea is not new. The precedent for granting different treatment to a particular minority in deference to the strongly held convictions of members of that minority is well established. I personally think that it is reasonable.

I do not want to engage in a philosophical discussion, Mr. Gale, as you will get jumpy if I do, but I rather subscribe to the approach of John Stuart Mill on these matters. I would invoke the harm principle and say that members of this minority are not inflicting harm on anyone else if they are granted a derogation or an exemption from this rather burdensome requirement. The Brethren are concerned that the clause is a violation of their human rights. I believe that they refer to the principle of equal treatment of taxpayers, as set out in the taxpayers charter. They believe that the principles of the taxpayers charter in respect of equal treatment are not reflected in the clause if it differentially and adversely affects them because of their principles. When they are perfectly willing to pay their taxes and have always done so, the charter is in practice, if not by design, being breached.

The Brethren wish to stick to the position that they much admired, which was set out by the Paymaster General in her letter to her right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, West in September 2000. They felt that there was much to commend that. I know that Mr. Ron Davis, Mr. Bruce Robertson, Mr. Tom Kendall and Mr. Colin Davies in their letter to the Paymaster General of 25 May went so far as to say to her:

''You wrote a very helpful reply on 21 September 2000 . . . Your assurance that it is not Government policy to force people to use the internet was very comforting as was the statement that those who prefer to use paper to communicate with the tax authorities will continue to be able to do so.''

I would point out to the Paymaster General that that meant a great deal to them. Being told that they can use an intermediary and, in a sense, safeguard their principles because they are not using the internet—I do appeal to the Paymaster General to at least consider this point—does not satisfy them because they feel that they are nominating someone to act on their behalf and engage in a practice of which they disapprove.

I hope that the Paymaster General will reconsider and I refer finally to her latest letter on the subject, of 20 June. I found the last paragraph a little odd, and possibly even—I regret to have to say this to her—

disingenuous. In that final paragraph, the hon. Lady told members of the Brethren:

''The amendment you propose would permit, but not require, the Government to make regulations including the exemption you seek. For the reasons set out above, I do not believe that the exemption will be necessary, but even if it were, the present drafting of the clause would permit it''

—that is to say, the Brethren's amendment—

''to be made in secondary legislation. For these reasons, the Government will not be able to support the amendment you propose.''

Dawn Primarolo indicated assent.