Karen Bradley is the new MP for Staffordshire Moorlands, the seat in which she was born. In her maiden speech yesterday she called for more clarity and simplicity in the legislation passed by Parliament:
“My professional background is as a chartered accountant and chartered tax adviser—and I realise how many people would be disappointed if the word “tax” did not appear in this maiden speech. Over the years I have advised businesses, large and small, on their tax affairs, I have seen many instances of where the intention of the law has been altered in practice, not by another Act of Parliament or even by a judge, but by officials in Government Departments—in my particular case, by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. That is a question not necessarily of unintended consequences, but of deliberately altered consequences by officials.
“Let me provide a concrete example of what I mean; it relates directly to our debate on green energy and reducing carbon emissions. Under the Finance Act 1999, the then Government encouraged people to cycle to work—which given the terrain in the Moorlands, would keep us extra fit. Parliament determined that if businesses provided cycles for their staff, that provision would be exempt from tax. There are several ways that a business could do that—for example, by creating a pool of bikes or by setting up a salary sacrifice scheme. In the latter case, a credit agreement between the employer and employee is required.
“One of the principles in the legislation is that the benefit should be “generally available”. However, HMRC guidance drawn up in the normal way on the matter results in a subtle, but different, position—that the benefit must be “available to all”. Crucially, employees under the age of 18 cannot enter into a credit agreement. This means that most employers could not offer the option to all employees; and, according to the Revenue, if it is not available to all, it cannot be available to any.
“A Department for Transport guideline produced 10 years later attempted to clear up the anomaly, but why did we need guidelines from one Department to interpret guidelines from another when the intent of the law was quite clear? Why should HMRC apply the rules in this way? Did not Parliament say that it wanted this tax exemption to be given to employees to encourage green transport? Who gave the Revenue, a Government agency, the right to re-interpret the law? That may seem a small instance, but it is indicative of the larger problem we face. There is a culture of control often masquerading as advice, and there is a tendency to complicate the law—and not just in the area of tax.
“Too many times my constituents have said to me that they do not understand why MPs or councillors have to take legal advice or are following the official guidance rather than doing what the intent of the law says. Parliament must be supreme, and not just in fiscal matters. Ministers and Members of this House must be confident that they are the masters of the rules, because they are accountable to those who have sent them here. If we pass fewer but simpler and clearer laws, there will be less scope for confusion. Simplicity will help Parliament maintain that supremacy, while transparency will also help to restore the reputation of politics.
“Our electors are more than capable of judging what we are doing—and seeing whether it is worth while—if they can see what it is, and clarity of principle might even increase interest in the business of Parliament. People will see this House as a place of serious and relevant debate, and, dare I say it, simplicity might even help us make efficiency savings. I therefore ask that in this Budget debate, and in the debates that follow on of the Finance and other Bills, we ensure that what we intend the legislation to do is what officials implement and enforce.”