Clause 51 - Penalties relating to sections 46 to 49

Pensions Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:00 pm on 11th March 2004.

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Photo of George Osborne George Osborne Shadow Minister (Treasury) 4:00 pm, 11th March 2004

I beg to move amendment No. 209, in

clause 51, page 33, line 3, at end insert

', save that it shall be a defence under this section if a person who neglects or refuses to produce any document, to answer a question or to provide information when so required, does so on the basis that he first wishes to take legal advice.'.

The clause deals with the penalties that can be imposed on people who fail to comply with the various requirements that we have been discussing. Under

subsection 2(c), a penalty could be imposed on someone who, without reasonable excuse,

''neglects to or refuses to answer a question or to provide information when so required''.

The excuse that my amendment provides may turn out to qualify as a reasonable excuse already—perhaps that is what the Under-Secretary will tell me, but I wanted to be sure. For someone to neglect or refuse to answer a question or provide information when so required because they wish to take legal advice first seems perfectly reasonable, and it may well be covered by the description in subsection (2)(c) of

''A person who without reasonable excuse . . . neglects or refuses to answer a question''.

I want to make sure that a wish to take legal advice is accepted as a reasonable excuse. Severe penalties can be imposed on individuals, and they may get themselves into trouble and incriminate themselves by answering such questions, so I wanted to ensure that they could take legal advice first. I also wanted to know whether the right to silence is a defence under the Bill.

Photo of Mr Chris Pond Mr Chris Pond Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he wants. To seek legal advice before answering questions would not be considered an unreasonable excuse. Any failure to produce documents or answer questions without a reasonable excuse is a criminal offence, and the usual criminal law applies. Those involved would receive the usual warning that anything they said might be used in evidence, and that failure to answer might allow the court to draw adverse inferences. I trust that the hon. Gentleman feels assured on his first question. As for the second, if the excuse for failing to provide information or answer questions is perceived to be unreasonable, the normal criminal law would apply, and the courts would have to consider how they would judge a refusal to give information. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of George Osborne George Osborne Shadow Minister (Treasury)

It is good to hear that reassurance. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 51 ordered to stand part of the Bill.