(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 Mr John Burnett Mr John Burnett Liberal Democrat, Torridge and West Devon 5:00 pm, 25th June 2002

I shall not keep the Committee long, but I detect, and I hope that it is not presumptuous of me to say this, that we may get some satisfaction on the amendment. The Paymaster General gently and deftly trespassed on the amendment during the previous debate. In reply to an intervention that I made, she said that in special circumstances for a very few it is possible to vary the mandatory requirement to file information electronically to the Inland Revenue. The way in which the Minister will seek to accommodate us is something that, of course, we are all looking forward to hearing.

I, too, want to advert to the conscientious and principled objections that the Brethren have to the clause. Like the hon. Member for Buckingham, I have had a brief from them—I believe that they have briefed everyone. It is a sign of the catholic nature of this debate that we shall all, including Government Members, have had an opportunity to consider carefully the matters that the Brethren have drawn to our attention.

The Brethren base their creed on their view and interpretation of the teachings and prophecy in the scriptures. This is no new principle: it has been constant, throughout the 20 years that have seen the dramatic advance of information technology. During that period, the Brethren have practised a way of life involving a refusal to use computers in their homes and businesses. They believe that the internet is uncontrollable and a source of evil. Obviously, we do not all share that view—very few in this Committee probably do—but we are all here to protect minorities, including conscientious minorities such as the Brethren.

There are approximately 1,200 Brethren businesses in the United Kingdom. They trade, employ staff and pay taxes without computers. They need to be able to continue to communicate with the Inland Revenue and other tax authorities using paper. Unless a conscience provision is included in the clause, there is clearly no framework to allow for the protection of those with principled objections to it. A conscience clause, as is proposed, is not unprecedented. I believe that the proposal is modelled on the jury exemption clause in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. There are other conscience exemptions in statute law. I refer the Committee to regulations that allow Sikhs exemption from the use of protective helmets on motor cycles and building sites. I also refer Members to the Oaths Act 1978, which allows alternative provision for affirmation.

We should have, and should promote in this Committee, a tolerant society that respects minorities. We should not ride roughshod over the principled and constant views of a substantial group of our fellow citizens. I very much hope that the Minister will accept the amendment.