“It is the immediacy with which concerns can be raised through correspondence – and the ability to secure swift replies from ministers thereafter – that is fundamental to our system of governance.”
Not my words, but those of Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, the Leader of the House of Commons, in a Cabinet Office document which provides officials with a guide to handling correspondence.
These are sentiments we must all applaud. In his introduction, Mr Rees-Mogg highlights the important role that correspondence between MPs and Ministers can play in saving lives.
The document goes further, adding: “MPs, Peers and members of the public have the right to write to the Government to challenge or seek clarity on the Government’s position on any issues.
“Timely responses to correspondence are of great interest to all correspondents, including MPs and Peers, and so it is important that Government departments and agencies work effectively to ensure responses to correspondence are of a high quality and sent in a timely manner.”
According to the guidelines, Government departments and agencies should set a deadline, with agreement from their ministers, for replying to ministerial and public correspondence.
To quote the document: “The deadlines set by departments and agencies for responding to correspondence should not exceed 20 working days. The clock (i.e. the first working day) starts the day after a piece of correspondence is received.”
It is with more sorrow than anger that I must note the Government ‘s failure to respond to an open letter to the Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak calling for a “fair resolution” to the loan charge, following a number of disclosures in Freedom of Information requests related to the controversial policy.
The letter, which has now been signed by more than 140 Parliamentarians, was sent by the Loan Charge and Taxpayer Fairness All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on July 9, 2021. Today, the group confirmed that no response had been received from the Prime Minister or the Chancellor.
How is this in keeping with the spirit of the Cabinet Office guidelines, which call for “timely and detailed” replies to correspondence?
At the very least, it appears extremely discourteous. The letter cannot be dismissed as trifling or partisan. According to the cross-party group, the FOI disclosures strengthen the case for the Government to change course over the loan charge, to avoid bankruptcies and the risk of further suicides.
The Government has previously stated that the loan charge was introduced to ensure those who used disguised remuneration tax avoidance schemes paid their fair share of income tax and national insurance contributions.
The Government believes it is right that it continues to tackle these type of avoidance schemes because they deprive public services of vital funding.
However, in the APPG letter, the Tory MP Greg Smith, who is co-chair of the APPG, says it is “abundantly clear that individuals were mis-sold these schemes, given no warning of any risk of pursuit by HMRC, yet it is these individuals who are facing ruin, whilst those who mis-sold the schemes to them have faced no action at all".
"This is unfair and we implore the Government to look at the Loan Charge again and find a better way to resolve this whole mess without ruining lives."
Even if you support the Government’s position over the loan charge, you must be concerned about the failure to respond to an open letter signed by one of the biggest all-party Parliamentary groups.
This is an issue that transcends party politics. Open letters signed by the people we elect must be treated with respect. Evidence they have uncovered must be analysed and help to shape policy.
This is particularly important when correspondence relates to a policy which has been found to cause “serious distress”. Taxation must always be based around Parliamentary oversight.
As Mr Rees-Mogg has stated, ministers and officials should remain committed to the highest standards of behaviour. In this case, these standards do not appear to have been upheld.
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