Clause 47 - E-conveyancing

Finance Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:30 pm ar 30 Mehefin 2005.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Shadow Paymaster General 2:30, 30 Mehefin 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 92, in clause 47, page 39, line 11, after ''regulations'', insert

'laid in draft at least 90 days before such regulations would otherwise come into effect'.

We now move on to part 3, which deals with stamp taxes, and in particular stamp duty land tax. The two biggest headline matters in relation to stamp duty land tax, the increase in the basic threshold to £120,000 and the abolition of disadvantaged areas relief, were dealt with in the previous Finance Bill, which was passed during the pre-election wash-up period, so I shall resist the temptation to go over those matters again. Part 3 of this Bill deals with the remaining measures in relation to stamp duty land tax. However, some important proposals dealing with a very broadly drafted power of HMRC—not least in schedule 10—still have to be discussed.

Amendment No. 92 deals with the proposed regulations for e-conveyancing, on which I shall focus specifically as I address the amendments. In the clause stand part debate, I should like to raise some concerns, of which I have given the Minister private—albeit brief—notice, following a number of representations made to us indicating that the new electronic systems for recording and processing this type of information in relation to stamp duty land tax are not working well at present. I hope, Mr. Cook, that you see how I am trying to divide the two for the sake of clarity.

I turn to amendment No. 92. The stamp duty land tax regime, which replaced the well established stamp duty system, was introduced in late 2003. Clause 47 further amends the new stamp duty land tax regime to take account of the e-revolution by modifying the scheme to allow for the developing trend of e-conveyancing for property purchases. The Government have stated that they will produce regulations setting out in detail how this new system is designed to operate. Amendment No. 92 seeks to ensure that the regulations are available in draft format at least 90 days before they are due to come into force.

We tabled the amendment partly because the stamp duty land tax regime is generally agreed to be very much more complicated than the scheme that it   replaced. Perfectly understandably, those who are likely to be affected want something of a lead-in period when they have had sight of the new regulations, so that they can adjust to the new arrangements before they go live. To be fair to the Government, they have acknowledged that problem. Recently, the Economic Secretary wrote to Committee members on this point. I quote from his letter of 16 June:

''It is likely that e-conveyancing and e-registration processes will involve a single set of information, including information relating to stamp duty land tax, being delivered in electronic form to a central core. Thus the regulations will, for example, need to provide that delivery of stamp duty land tax information to the central core counts as valid delivery of a stamp duty land tax return.''

The Minister provided some partial reassurance on the timings for the new regulations, which are the specific topic of the amendment. In that same letter, he wrote:

''The regulations will not be made until the processes for e-conveyancing and e-registration have been developed. This may not be for some time. There will be full consultation with conveyancing practitioners and others before the regulations are made.''

In terms of adjusting to the new system, that may be of some comfort to those working in this field, particularly as it states that they will be fully consulted before the regulations come into force. We acknowledge that. However, the letter states that that may not happen ''for some time''. To try to reduce uncertainty, will the Minister say anything further about the anticipated timings? When, roughly, does he expect the draft regulations to come out? How long in principle is the consultation exercise intended to last before the regulations go live? What is his target date for their coming fully into effect? Having asked the Economic Secretary those specific questions, I look forward to what I hope will be some clear answers.

Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris Llafur, Wolverhampton South West

I declare an interest as a member of the Law Society, although it has probably been 20 years since I did any conveyancing. I have heard comments and sometimes complaints from the Wolverhampton Law Society about difficulties with what I think is called SDLT form 1, which, as I remember, has to be provided within 30 days of a transaction involving the transfer of a title of land to ensure that the stamp duty land tax is paid. I believe that within 56 days of the transfer of a title of land, the application has to be made to the district land registry for registration. Like the hon. Gentleman, I should like some reassurance that the profession will have adequate notice of any regulations that may be made under clause 47(2). It is very important to consult with bodies, as the Government and Treasury always do, but I have to tell my hon. Friend the Minister that although consulting with the Law Society of England and Wales is important, such consultation does not necessarily reach the average solicitor, licensed conveyancer or conveyancing clerk in a solicitor's office. Some helpful lead time would be of great assistance to the profession.

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) said from a sedentary position that draft regulations have become the bane of our collective lives. I suspect that he is right, because when his party was in government it did not produce any draft regulations alongside the Finance Bill;   perhaps we could learn some lessons from that approach. However, this is a far more transparent and open Government, as Opposition Members will be glad to concur.

My point to my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West and the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) is that it is absolutely guaranteed that there will be proper and appropriate consultation on the regulations. If we do not have the understanding and support of the profession, the system will not work. It is therefore very much in our interest to consult properly over a reasonable period, and to seek agreement. Now that I have placed that assurance on the record, I hope that the hon. Member for Rayleigh will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Shadow Paymaster General

I hear what the Minister says about what, in principle, will happen, but I was asking whether he could at least provide us with some indicative dates. I do not expect him to give us the precise day, but I was hoping that he would at least say in which months the process might get going. It would be helpful if he did that before concluding.

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

I am not going to say ''immediately'' on this occasion, because I am in enough difficulty as it is for having said that in respect of a previous amendment. The key is to get the regulations right, and to ensure that they are not bounced on the profession. We must take the profession with us, so we will ensure that the regulations are brought in over a reasonable period in full consultation with the profession. As long as the profession understands that and is engaged in the consultation, it does not need me to give some artificial date that may turn out not to be doable. A date may turn out not to be doable not because of the Treasury, but because of the profession's approach.

Once again, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment, as I have genuinely tried to respond to his concerns. Then we can have a brief debate on the other issue that he raised, which was to do with systems.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Shadow Paymaster General

I have heard what the Minister has to say. I assure the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West that I am not trying to get him into trouble with his Whip—well, no more trouble than he is in already. It was interesting that, from his own practical experience and that of ex-colleagues in the profession, he was able to amplify on the fact that there are genuine operating problems out there. I am grateful for his honesty in doing so.

In all fairness to the Minister, he has listened to us on this matter. He has assured us that the profession will be fully consulted, and we welcome that. At the risk of being churlish, I still think that it would have been nice to have had some slightly more indicative dates. Nevertheless, he has given a pretty solid commitment that people will be consulted. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.  

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Shadow Paymaster General

I should like to bring to the Minister's attention a number of problems concerning the electronic systems for dealing with the administration of stamp duty land tax. The summary of clause 47 in—dare I mention them—the explanatory notes says that the clause

''gives HM Revenue and Customs power to make regulations to facilitate the integration of the stamp duty land tax process into electronic conveyancing initiatives.''

However, the practical problems of administering SDLT are complicated by the comparative complexity of the tax itself, a point highlighted by the president of the Law Society in a letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer dated 28 February 2005. The president opened the letter by saying:

''It is now over a year since the new tax Stamp Duty Land Tax . . . was introduced. However, instead of SDLT being seamlessly assimilated into the tax system, the opposite has occurred and increasing numbers of practical, legal and technical problems continue to be discovered. This is not satisfactory to taxpayers and their advisers who need the modernised stamp duty to be simple, certain and fair.''

There is a particular problem arising from the switch to electronic scanning of SDLT returns, because the scanners apparently have trouble accurately recognising the information on the forms, especially figures. On a tax return, it could be argued that that is a drawback. About a third of the submitted returns are rejected by the computer system and that often leads to the Department's computers raising fines or requisitions—as they are known—for £100 for failing to submit an accurate return on time, even though the documentation has been properly completed and forwarded in good time, but not properly scanned. Mr. Nally said of the practice:

''In circumstances where requisitions have been raised because the IR scanner has been unable to accurately read a postcode or if there is a typographical error the raising of a penalty of £100 is unfair. Where there has been no loss to the exchequer penalties are unnecessarily harsh.''

In fairness, I should say that HMRC has established a telephone inquiry line to help solicitors and their clients to deal with problems when completing their returns. However, there have been reports of severe problems in getting through to the call centre because the lines are constantly engaged and there are insufficient trained advisers to man them at the other end. The president of the Law Society was cutting about that and said:

''Because of the issues referred to above both solicitors and their clients are trying to obtain help through the enquiry lines but these are constantly engaged. Waiting times of up to 40 minutes have been reported. No business or individual taxpayer can afford to spend that amount of time especially in circumstances where all requisite information has been supplied.''

That complaint was corroborated by the Chartered Institute of Taxation, which in correspondence with HMRC has also highlighted the weaknesses in the electronic systems used for administering the tax. In a comparatively recent letter—it is dated 20 May—to HMRC officials Lakshmi Narain, the chairman of the Chartered Institute of Taxation's corporate tax sub-committee, stated:  

''we would also draw attention to the fact that practitioners are reporting significant problems when trying to file land transaction returns electronically, and we understand that Stamp Taxes are experiencing difficulties in scanning paper returns into their computer.''

It is beyond doubt that there is a practical problem that needs to be dealt with. By the sound of it, legal practitioners and their clients are pretty displeased with the way in which the system is operating at present. Will the Minister explain how the problems will be addressed? For example, will the scanners be upgraded or reprogrammed to make them more robust and able to record accurately the information on tax returns? Is the matter of inappropriate requisitions being looked at to stop practitioners being fined for something that is not really their fault? There are parallels with other taxes at present, when the Revenue has agreed publicly that, if it was its fault, it will not try to claw back money. That principle could be well applied in the circumstances to which I have referred. I am sure that the Paymaster General can provide the Economic Secretary with appropriate advice if he needs it.

In addition, given the complexity of stamp duty land tax—a complexity of the Government's creation; it was their brain child, after all—are more specially trained advisers being posted to man the associated telephone helpline and thus reduce the delay for callers? In short, what are the Government doing to rectify the obvious shortcomings in the electronic and telephone elements of the stamp duty land tax system, even before their proposed new arrangements are brought in? We have received quite a few representations on the matter. There is a genuine operating problem and it would be useful if the Minister gave us an idea of how the practical difficulties will be sorted out.

Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris Llafur, Wolverhampton South West 2:45, 30 Mehefin 2005

I have to endorse some of the hon. Gentleman's comments. Will my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary give us an assurance that he and his officials will at least look into the matter? Some hiccups—to say the least—in the system's operation have been reported to me by the Wolverhampton Law Society.

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

I thank the hon. Member for Rayleigh for giving me advance notice of his contribution. We take these issues seriously and do not dismiss them as unreasonable concerns. However, more factors are involved than our systems not working to maximum effect. The hon. Gentleman is unaware, or chose not to mention, that the deputy chairman of the board of HMRC recently met with the president of the Law Society to discuss the problems. It was a very productive meeting.

Initially, there were problems with call centre waiting times—they were unacceptable. As I understand it, however, the average waiting time is now less than five minutes. If that figure is accurate, it represents pretty good going by any standard.

It is important that we are clear about the responsibilities that the professionals submitting the forms have to fulfil, as well as about our responsibility to put the systems right. Let me take a moment to explain why problems occur. In many cases, returned   forms are rejected because they are incomplete or incorrect. The scanning technology that we use makes it important that forms completed by hand are accurate. It seems reasonable to expect them to be completed accurately, particularly as they are coming from reasonably well qualified and, I assume, reasonably well paid lawyers. However, as an alternative, I urge practitioners to use the online or CD-ROM versions of the return forms, because the rejection rate of those forms is very low. That is an important point. We also issue all practitioners with regular newsletters—more newsletters—that give guidance on completion of the forms, and there is comprehensive guidance on the HMRC website.

Issues have been raised and we intend to take them seriously—we are already doing so—but I hope that the profession will take account of the fact that we need it to fulfil its responsibilities in an appropriate way if some of the systems failures are not to continue. In recognising that, I bring my comments to a close.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Shadow Paymaster General

I thank the Economic Secretary for what he said. Judging by the tone of his answer, he acknowledges that there were practical difficulties, so we were right to have raised them. I have listened carefully to his replies. For instance, he talked about filing electronically. If people fill in their return online, it goes straight to the receiving computer and so does not need to be scanned. That is a practical way of getting round the problem of the scanner, but, in my humble opinion, it would be better if the scanner worked properly in the first place. Nevertheless, we have heard what the Economic Secretary had to say.

I would like to drive home one other point, which relates to requisitions. I would like reassurance that they will be double checked, to ensure that where something is HMRC's responsibility because of a technical problem, requisitions will not be raised against people. The form could be manually double-checked and everything could be seen to be in order. That process should be undertaken before the requisitions go out, so that the computer does not automatically fine people for something that is the scanner's fault. Will he provide reassurance on that?

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

I am happy to provide the hon. Gentleman with that reassurance. Penalties are not levied when we receive a return on time, but HMRC raises a requisition. I hope that that reassures him.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 47 ordered to stand part of the Bill.