Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Bill – in a Public Bill Committee on 18th January 2005.
Thank you, Sir John, and I welcome you back to the Chair.
In discussing the clause, which sets out the functions of the Revenue and Customs Prosecutions Office and the director in particular, the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) raised a concern that had been put to him by the Law Society. He explained its questions about the interaction between the clause and clauses 54 and 55 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill currently also being considered in Committee.
It may be helpful for the Committee and reassure the hon. Gentleman if I explain how clause 54 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill links with the clause we are considering. It permits the RCPO director along with the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Lord Advocate, or a prosecutor delegated by any of them, to issue a disclosure notice. Such notices can be issued only if the director—in our case, of the RCPO—has reasonable grounds to believe that a person has committed a specified offence and that some other person has information that is relevant to, and will be of substantial value to the investigation of, that offence.
Such a notice excludes from a disclosure notice material such as confidential banking information or personal records relating to any business or profession. The prosecutor would still not be able to authorise the use of coercive powers in relation to materials specified in the notice. If the material is not voluntarily provided in response to the service of the notice authorised by the prosecutor, an application must still be made to a magistrate for a warrant to enter and search premises and seize that material.
It may help the Committee and the hon. Member for Chichester if I confirm the further assurances that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), gave to the Committee considering the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill. The use of powers within Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs is subject to a wide-ranging review, which was announced by the Paymaster General. The new powers in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill, which were trailed in ''One Step Ahead'', the White Paper on organised crime, will not be exercised for tax offences pending the outcome of that review of HMRC powers. That was confirmed by the Under-Secretary during Committee proceedings on that Bill. Furthermore, the use of such powers will be subject to guidance issued by the Attorney-General to ensure that they are used only where they are necessary and proportionate.
Will that guidance from the Attorney-General be in the public domain?
It will indeed. The hon. Gentleman and the Law Society have expressed concerns that the powers relating to tax and excise offensives are wide ranging. That is because the offences in clause 55 to which he drew attention are listed generically and individual instances will inevitably vary in seriousness. Therefore, discretion must be exercised because not all such offences will require or justify the use of SOCAP special powers. That discretion will not be placed with investigators; it will be vested in prosecutors acting under the superintendents of the Attorney-General.
I have to say that the provision offers the necessary safeguards as well as the necessary transparency and it is in line with the overall rationale in the Bill for establishing the RCPO—in other words, it will ensure that there is an independent assessment of the merits of prosecution of HMRC business by lawyers. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Gentleman and the Law Society will be reassured and the Committee will accept the clause.