Good morning, Mr Sheridan. What a pleasure it is to be in our third Committee Room during the short course of this Bill.
Amendment 11 proposes to address the issue of the efficacy and efficiency with which applications for a national insurance holiday should be processed. It is a simple and, I think, perfectly formed amendment, and given our discussions in the evidence session, it is also entirely unobjectionable. During those discussions, the assistant director of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, Mr Mitha, was quizzed about not just the volume of applications that had so far been made, but the trajectory, given that 400,000 applications are eventually expected. It was clearly felt that HMRC potentially had the capability to process any applications and inquiries within a relatively short space of time. Nevertheless, I, in my humble experience, and many hon. and right hon. Members will know—from the processing of passports or Child Support Agency casework, on which we have had cause to make inquiries in the past—that, from time to time, the best intentions of Departments can sometimes fall short of the reality. Therefore, we feel that it is prudent to ensure that a gold standard of service can be achieved by HMRC in respect of this particular national insurance holiday.
The amendment suggests that HMRC should aim to process all applications within a three-month period. Mr Mitha said:
“I would be disappointed if we were not able to turn them around far more quickly than three months.”—–[Official Report, National Insurance Contributions Public Bill Committee, 2 December 2010; c. 28, Q99.]
Given that businesses themselves are quite wary of the bureaucracy involved in dealing with Government, the form-filling processes can make them feel as though they are being distracted from their core activities. The amendment gives the Minister an opportunity to rise to the challenge and fly the flag of efficiency on behalf of his Department, and accept the fact that businesses want speedy processing of applications.
Of course, it would be good practice to give a verbal undertaking. If the Minister wishes to set out the convention that he will guarantee that all applications are processed within a three-month period it would go some way towards addressing our concern. However, it would be far better to enshrine the matter firmly in legislation so that the standard is clear. Let us call it a citizen’s charter in the best traditions of the former Prime Minister, John Major. I not talking about a cones hotline but proposing that a commitment to the rights that businesses can expect should be contained within the Bill. It would be good practice and would set expectations. As students of management theory know, it would be a SMART initiative—specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and targeted.