Clause 94 - Power to inspect premises

Finance Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:45 pm on 10th June 2003.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford for not briefing him on the contribution I am about to make. He need not worry about what I will do to his well-laid plans. It just seems time that I stretch my legs on a matter that concerns me, even though I am not a tax expert.

Clause 94 is about the power to inspect premises. I regularly twitch when I see that the powers that be will be given unfettered opportunities to do what could easily amount to raiding someone just because the Board of Inland Revenue or some other authority decides that it is a good idea. Clause 94(1) states that an authorised officer may inspect any property

''at such reasonable times as the Board may consider necessary.''

Such phrases always rings alarm bells for me. I am conscious of the fact that there may be circumstances in which giving notice and negotiating a mutually suitable time could give someone the opportunity to destroy documents or do something else that would not be very helpful. However, if the stated purpose for calling at premises is to value them, it is highly unlikely that negotiating a suitable time would give anyone time to remove the premises so that they cannot be valued. There is no risk of something awkward happening if the matter is subject to negotiation. Therefore, I am worried about the power. Raids are not necessary if the purpose is valuation.

Clause 94(2) discusses a person who

''wilfully delays or obstructs an officer''.

We must rely on the old legal wonder of reasonableness, which is usually an opportunity for lawyers to make money and for vagueness to take over. The word ''wilfully'' seems another opportunity for lawyers to make large amounts of money in defining it. I suspect that the Chief Secretary will draw my attention to clause 97, which states:

''Where a person had a reasonable excuse for not doing anything required to be done for the purposes of this Part of this Act''.

All I will say is that ''reasonable'' is again included, giving yet another opportunity to lawyers to make money.

I hope that the Chief Secretary will reassure us that he has no intention of letting the Board of Inland Revenue use the clause as a draconian means of saying when it suits them to go and raid a premise, and that he will ensure that it understands that if it wishes to invoke clause 94, it will do so in a sensible way or after negotiation with the people concerned and not in the high-handed manner that is all too often the case.

Photo of George Osborne George Osborne Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I thank my hon. Friend for spotting in clause 94 a significant extension of the power of the state. Does he know whether it would actually be Inland Revenue officials or—far more serious—chartered surveyors on behalf of the Inland Revenue who would make lightning raids on people's premises?

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

All I can say to my hon. Friend is that clause 94(1) states:

''If for the purpose of this Part the Board authorise an officer of theirs''.

It does not say—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne 4:10 pm, 10th June 2003

One of the problems with interruptions is that you sometimes forget what you were talking about.

Photo of Mr John McWilliam Mr John McWilliam Labour, Blaydon

Order. The problem is easily solved because I have not forgotten. Nor have I forgotten what was said.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

What I really meant was that I am liable to forget. However, on this occasion I have not. The other danger is that one has the opportunity to think. The longer I think about the clause, the more it begins to concern me. My hon. Friend the Member for Tatton intervened and asked whether we were talking about a dreaded officer of the Inland Revenue or, even worse, a chartered surveyor. I do not know any chartered surveyors, so I cannot join in with the description of them. However, I notice—this is where the thinking comes in—that the clause refers to authorising ''an officer of theirs''. It does not state what sort of officer. Heaven forbid, but it could mean that somebody who does the catering and who knows nothing about valuation, but who is an officer of the Revenue, could be sent round. The Chief Secretary should make it clear that the person sent round will know what he is doing and will be qualified to carry out the valuation.

Something else occurred to me while I had the opportunity to think, and I mentioned it to our spokesman, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford, who may want to comment on it. Knowing where the Bill comes from, I am not surprised, but I would have hoped that such a Bill would say that the Board can either send round an authorised officer or a qualified person appointed by

the Board. The Bill rules out using the private sector, which is usually better and cheaper than options chosen by socialist Governments.

Photo of Mark Prisk Mark Prisk Shadow Paymaster General

It may intrigue my hon. Friend to know that my understanding from all the consultations in which the private sector has participated is that the Government intend to draw it in as part of the process. Does he agree that that makes it all the more peculiar that there seems to be an omission?

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

I have stumbled on something significant. Does an officer mean somebody employed from the outside world, or does it just mean an official? I suppose that the only thing that I can take some sort of comfort from is that, whoever the Chief Secretary sends round, the person is unlikely to smash the door down to get in, because that would reduce the value of the property. At least we are saved the jackboot approach.

Will the Chief Secretary reassure me that inspections will be carried out by negotiation and will not involve doing things that the Board considers suitable for it, rather than the place being valued? There will be no opportunity to hide evidence if notice is given, because the building will always be there to be valued. Will he comment on what is meant by an authorised officer? Does that extend to using people with specialised expertise in the private sector, as well as people employed by the Board?

Photo of Mr Paul Boateng Mr Paul Boateng Chief Secretary, HM Treasury, The Chief Secretary to the Treasury

Perhaps it is the time of day or the stage that we have arrived at in our deliberations, but there seems to be an uncharacteristic note of rancour. The hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) made a most unseemly attack not only on the acquisition and creation of wealth, which seems strange in the circumstances, but on lawyers and chartered surveyors. Call me old fashioned, but I think that lawyers and chartered surveyors have made quite a good contribution to the deliberations of the Committee, and it does not do the hon. Gentleman any credit to traduce them at this late stage.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

I can easily put the Chief Secretary's mind to rest on that matter, because I invested a huge amount of money in helping my son to become a barrister. That particular lawyer is my pension fund, so I love lawyers.

Photo of Mr Paul Boateng Mr Paul Boateng Chief Secretary, HM Treasury, The Chief Secretary to the Treasury 4:15 pm, 10th June 2003

Then the hon. Gentleman ought to be thanking us for measures that we have introduced to the Committee, if they are as he has described them. Of course, I argue that they are not. He really has over-egged the pudding in his assault on this quite innocuous clause.

Photo of George Osborne George Osborne Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Treasury)

The Chief Secretary says that the clause is innocuous, but we are talking about the power to inspect people's private premises. Will he clear something up? When the clause refers to an officer of the Board of the Inland Revenue, is that someone directly employed by the Revenue or nominated by it? Will the Revenue employ a load of chartered surveyors directly, or use them? Is he happy to give chartered surveyors employed in the private sector the power to inspect people's premises?

Photo of Mr John McWilliam Mr John McWilliam Labour, Blaydon

Order. While we are being nasty to lawyers and chartered surveyors, may I admonish Committee members and say that they must make certain that they are not discussing any lawyer or chartered surveyor who happens to be a member of the Committee?

Photo of Mr Paul Boateng Mr Paul Boateng Chief Secretary, HM Treasury, The Chief Secretary to the Treasury

I find that very reassuring, particularly in the light of the fact that I have been accused by the hon. Member for Spelthorne—or was it the hon. Member for Tatton?—of sending people round to the premises of would-be taxpayers so that the Board can make a judgment on the worthiness or otherwise of any claims that they might make. Neither my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General nor I send people—members of the Board or their servants or officers—round to individual taxpayers, as Committee members know. The Board, of course, has its own valuation department and may, if it considers it necessary, send round valuers from that department. I suppose that it is possible—there appears to be nothing in the Bill to preclude it—that the Board may at some time exercise its functions using private surveyors in private practice. Why not? To my certain knowledge, this Government have pioneered the use of the private sector in various aspects of enforcement, particularly in relation to the criminal justice system.

Photo of Mr John McWilliam Mr John McWilliam Labour, Blaydon

Order. This is a very narrow clause. Whether people are in private practice or not is not within its scope.

Photo of Mr Paul Boateng Mr Paul Boateng Chief Secretary, HM Treasury, The Chief Secretary to the Treasury

I am very grateful for that, Mr. McWilliam, and hope that it has curbed the enthusiasms of the hon. Member for Tatton.

Photo of Mr Paul Boateng Mr Paul Boateng Chief Secretary, HM Treasury, The Chief Secretary to the Treasury

No, I am going to resist that temptation and go directly to the clause to give an example of why it might be necessary for the Inland Revenue to exercise a power to gain entry to premises so that they can be valued for the purposes of stamp duty land tax, with the permission of the occupier. If the occupier obstructs the Inland Revenue, he commits an offence and will be fined. Stamp duty land tax does not normally depend on valuation as it is normally paid on the consideration for the transaction, whatever the market value. However, valuation can be necessary; part 4 includes some anti-avoidance rules that require a market value. If that is the case, the clause gives the same power to the Inland Revenue to value premises that it already has for capital gains tax, where valuations are needed in many more cases.

Why might the Inland Revenue need access to buildings or land? If a building were destroyed or knocked down, or fixtures removed or other changes made to its fabric or the site that might be relevant to whether it properly qualified for reliefs or any other matter, it would make sense for there to be earlier access. In a very few cases, it might be necessary for the Revenue to insist on quick or immediate access. What could be more reasonable than that? I do not know why the hon. Member for Spelthorne is getting in such a lather about it and is so twitchy, as he puts it. If my memory serves me well, when he and I served on Finance Bills in the time of a previous Administration,

he did not get particularly twitchy when the Board was given the powers that it needed properly to exercise its function. He was a veritable mountain of Botox in the extent to which he remained completely untwitchy and passive. He will therefore excuse me if I take his strictures with a massive amount of salt.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

I appreciate that old age is creeping up and that I am getting senile, but will the Chief Secretary remind me on which Finance Bills I have served? My memory is that this is the first.

Photo of Mr Paul Boateng Mr Paul Boateng Chief Secretary, HM Treasury, The Chief Secretary to the Treasury

That is why I posed my suggestion in the way that I did. I apologise if the hon. Gentleman and I have not served together here before. We have known each other for many years and served together on many Committees, and I must admit that I thought that we had done so on Finance Bills. I have certainly served with him in circumstances in which I was as outraged as he is now at the activities of the Government of the day, and he maintained his customary equanimity. That equanimity seems to have broken down on this occasion.

I shall give way to the hon. Member for Tatton, of whom it can never be said that he displays equanimity in any matter.

Photo of George Osborne George Osborne Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I am grateful to the Chief Secretary, I think. I should like to ask him a specific question to which I have still not had a clear answer. Can the powers under clause 94 be conferred on a private surveyor acting on behalf of the Inland Revenue, or can they be conferred only on an officer of the Inland Revenue, employed by it?

Photo of Mr Paul Boateng Mr Paul Boateng Chief Secretary, HM Treasury, The Chief Secretary to the Treasury 4:21 pm, 10th June 2003

I welcome that question because I should be concerned if we were giving a power to the Inland Revenue under which, in the exercise of its professional judgment, it could not be free to determine whether or not to use an in-house professional as it saw fit—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of Mr Paul Boateng Mr Paul Boateng Chief Secretary, HM Treasury, The Chief Secretary to the Treasury 4:35 pm, 10th June 2003

We were reflecting on the point made by the hon. Member for Tatton as to whether the valuer concerned, who was sent to the premises under the clause, would have to be an employee of the Board. There is no reason why this provision should not mirror that of the TMA, which permits either an officer of the Board or an appropriate person authorised by the Board to attend. I have asked that some inquiries be made in order to ensure that the clause mirrors that of the TMA. There ought not to be any statutory inhibition on utilising appropriate professional skills, where they are to be found from outwith the direct employment of the Board. I will have those inquiries carried out, and we shall address the matter again on Report, if necessary, to ensure that the two provisions are consistent.

With those assurances and the example that I have given in mind, I would like to ensure that the concerns—such as they are—that have been expressed by at least one Opposition Member on the

operation of the clause in practice can be met. The Board would certainly seek to exercise its powers in a reasonable way and would seek to agree a suitable time with the occupant or the owner. I think that that was the concern expressed by the hon. Member for Spelthorne. I would expect the Board to act reasonably, and in my experience, it does. It is necessary for the Board to have that power for use in appropriate circumstances, and it is a power that has long existed for other taxes. We have no reason to believe that it has caused any problems in the past, and with that in mind I commend the clause to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 94 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 95 ordered to stand part of the Bill.