Not the conventional approach

As it celebrates its first year in power, the Labour Party has several achievements of which it can feel proud, but how well has it maintained our nation’s greatest asset, democracy?

Last week, Blair’s crew tried to pass clause 30 of the Finance Bill – the clause which provides for quarterly payments of corporation tax – but several statutory instruments included in the Bill were not available in the House of Commons library. Cue cries of foul play from the massed – though small – ranks of the Conservative opposition.

Then Accountancy Age unearthed a rather controversial convention signed by the Inland Revenue, Customs, Crown Prosecution Service, the Serious Fraud Office, auntie Margaret Beckett and all. Seems like a pretty important document, but no one knows anything about it.

Sure, the Attorney General’s office has a press release to accompany the convention, but who actually received it? Not The Times, not the Financial Times, nor Accountancy Age.

When a member of the profession phoned the Revenue he was told to phone the House of Commons. When he phoned the House, he was told to phone the Attorney General’s office. He contacted the Attorney General’s office last Monday, but as Accountancy Age went to press, he still hadn’t received his copy of the convention.

Opinions on the significance of the convention differ. Some think that by advocating information-sharing, the convention contravenes all tax-privacy principles, and undermines the practice of negotiating settlements with the Revenue. But there is also a school of thought to say the 1986 Criminal Justice Act was all any of these departments needed to legislate for the sharing of information, and in fact nothing has changed.

But the complete absence of publicity, debate or explanation makes the document seem more sinister. If there had been innocent and constructive motives behind the convention it should have been explained to the accountancy profession, if not debated in the Commons.

As it is, this agreement looks a lot like a sneaky, ill-conceived attempt to attack the big players who have mastered the art of tax avoidance.

As a member of the taxpaying public, it’s easy to back the principle – but not the undemocratic method.

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