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Clause 10

Volume 895: debated on Monday 7 July 1975

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Disclosure Of Information By Inland Revenue

I beg to move Amendment No. 11, in page 6, line 16, at end insert

'or to a court (when disclosure is requested by that court, in connection with proceedings at which evidence is required as to the income of a person regularly incurring expenditure in respect of a child or responsible for contributing to the cost of providing for a child)'.
We are learning a lot about the social conscience of the Labour Party. I do not know whether hon. Members opposite realise what they are doing to their party's reputation by the way they are voting on this Bill. I advise them not to vote mindlessly against this amendment of mine.

I am sorry to see the Secretary of State leaving the Chamber. She knows it all, of course, and does not need to listen to a humble back bencher.

This amendment raises the important issue of the disclosure by the Inland Revenue of information which it holds, as a result of income tax returns, about circumstances which need to be investigated by the courts. I took the opportunity of mentioning this briefly on Second Reading and also when we debated whether the clause should stand part in Committee, because it struck me immediately, when I saw that the Bill contained a reference to Inland Revenue data, that an extremely important new departure in Inland Revenue practice was contemplated in the Bill.

I believe that the matter is of relatively limited importance as regards the Bill, but I have sought to move an amendment to widen it, nevertheless within the Bill because it is important that we examine the whole rôle of the Inland Revenue in cases of this kind—[Interruption.]

Order. There are too many independent debates taking place in the House at the moment. The Chair is unable to hear the hon. Member for Kensington (Sir B. Rhys Williams).

Hon. Members who are interested in this subject, as I am sure that many are, will know that it was touched on in the Finer Report under the heading

"The permissible limits of disclosure"
on page 126, paragraphs 4.156 and 4.157. Although there the Finer Report was referring to disclosure in maintenance cases, it is important to realise that what the Finer Committee had to say is also absolutely apposite to what we are considering under the Bill.

I should like to read what the Finer Committee said. It is not many lines. It is, hon. Members opposite will say, damaging to my case, so perhaps they will allow me to read it:
"We hold, therefore, that it is of overriding importance to maintain the principle that departments do not inform upon citizens by disclosing for extraneous purposes (save in the most exceptional circumstances) information which the individual is compelled by law to provide for determinate purposes such as direct taxation or national insurance. Once citizens know that information about themselves or their affairs will be passed on by the Board of Inland Revenue to persons and for purposes different from those for which it was supplied in the first instance, temptations to dishonesty and deception will multiply. The functions of the Board of Inland Revenue are to administer taxation, and to impose other unrelated duties upon them will impair their capacity for their main task."
I feel particularly unsympathetic to that last comment.

The Finer Report also refers to national insurance and says:
"The community is better served by effective administration of national insurance than by the promotion of an illegal market for uninsured labour that would be the consequence of using insurance cards for the collateral purpose of enforcing court orders."
I have moved the amendment because I totally disagree with the remarks that Finer incorporated in that paragraph. Because the tenor of those paragraphs differs from what we find in the rest of the report, it seems obvious that the ideas contained in those remarks originated with the Inland Revenue. If the Inland Revenue does not want the additional work, that is understandable, but Parliament is here to guide the Inland Revenue as to what it should do. Finer did not want this solution either, because Finer was seeking to make out the case for the guaranteed maintenance allowance, which right hon. and hon. Members opposite have not accepted. It seems that the guaranteed maintenance allowance is not immediately on the way, so perhaps we should be studying alternatives. If I were to dilate on that topic, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I feel that you would rule me out of order.

Finer did not choose to attack what might be called the Castle of Giant Despair in which the Inland Revenue has this information but will not disclose it, because the Committee thought that a better way could be found. I am not saying that they might not be right, but it does not seem to be happening at once.

I wish to make three points about the purpose of my amendment. First, I think that the Inland Revenue should disclose the information it has to the court but not to the parties to the dispute. I am not talking about disclosure in such a way that the information would soon become public knowledge. I think that the court should be able to ascertain what the actual facts are when frequently it is impossible for the parties to the dispute to do so.

Secondly, tax deductions and national insurance contributions are not for the most part at the taxpayer's or contributor's option but are handled by employers through the mechanism of pay-as-you-earn which takes in between 20 million and 25 million people. So the millions of tax dodging or national insurance dodging Don Juans who are seemingly feared by the Finer Report are mythological. It is not logical to think that the result which the report suggests would follow.

It is the function of the public service to give help to people in real need. Mothers in court cases are often in despair. The Home Office has given a lead and is prepared to disclose addresses and to release information from official sources, but the Inland Revenue has been tardy in following that lead, yet it is one of the great agencies of Government for the redistribution of income in the interests of those whom the conscience of society insists we should help. It is also one of the guardians of rectitude and integrity. It would not be out of place for it to disclose information to obtain justice in the courts. On the contrary, it would be wrong for the Revenue to continue to connive at deceit in the courts either at the expense of the public or of other members of the family involved in the hearings.

It would be a step forward if we voted in favour of greater disclosure of Inland Revenue information. I hope the Minister will explain the effect of the clause as it stands and how matters would be changed if my perhaps defective drafting were incorporated into the clause. I recognise this is a new departure, and we shall listen carefully to what the Minister has to say. It is right to give Labour Members the opportunity to show where their social consciences lie and I hope they will be willing to join me in the vote.

I recognise that the House will have to return to this matter in any event in the wider context of schemes for maintenance, and what the Minister has to say will determine whether I feel obliged to press the matter to a vote.

We appreciate why the hon. Gentleman feels that more information should be provided by the Inland Revenue, but, as I think he appreciated, this matter goes rather wider than the Bill. I do not think the amendment is relevant to the Bill.

Decisions on questions of title do not hinge on the income of the person contributing towards the cost of a child's maintenance. In those cases which wholly depend on contributions—for example, where a child is moved from one household to another—it is the level of contribution that counts and not the income of the contributor. But even if in certain circumstances the information about a person's income were required, the situation is already fully covered by subsection (2)(b) which explicity permits disclosure of Inland Revenue information.
"for the purposes of proceedings (civil or criminal) in connection with the operation of this Part of this Act".
There is therefore already written into the Bill the necessary provision for disclosure of information in those cases which are highly specific.

More generally with regard to the child benefit, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that his amendment is not relevant because it takes no account of the question of title, and if we are talking about criminal cases generally, which is perhaps what the hon. Gentleman had more in mind, I would not accept the wording of the amendment. In any event the amendment, as a constituent part of the Bill, would be particularly inappropriate in this context.

Are we to understand that under the clause information could be disclosed by the Commissioners for Inland Revenue in connection with court proceedings—but not to the court, only to the Department of Health and Social Security?

2.30 a.m.

I shall have to seek confirmation of that point. I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman is right, and he is raising a matter which is different from that involved in the amendment. I will certainly seek to clarify the matter. However, I hope that he will accept that the amendment is inappropriate.

We are in a rather unsatisfactory position because the Minister has been unable to guide us on the point of obvious importance. I recognise that even had I been successful with the amendment it would have had only a limited effect. If I withdraw it I hope that my words will not be entirely lost, because this is an important issue. I hope that the Inland Revenue will not remain adamant. In the light of the Minister's words, particularly the tone of his remarks, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.