There have been 7 exchanges between Sir Christopher Chope and HM Treasury
|Fri 11th September 2020||Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies (Environmentally Sustainable Investment) Bill||9 interactions (2,274 words)|
|Wed 8th July 2020||Economic Update||3 interactions (108 words)|
|Wed 1st July 2020||Finance Bill||3 interactions (37 words)|
|Fri 13th March 2020||Public Sector Exit Payments (Limitation) Bill||16 interactions (1,466 words)|
|Fri 8th February 2019||Value Added Tax Bill||46 interactions (5,568 words)|
|Tue 6th November 2018||Oral Answers to Questions||3 interactions (67 words)|
|Wed 5th July 2017||Public Sector Pay Cap||3 interactions (60 words)|
I am grateful again for the intervention. I am not sure how the hon. Lady can make the comment, “Does he understand the definition of sustainability?” and then go on to say, “Obviously, we need to define what sustainability means.” That is exactly my point. The Bill is well-intentioned but not clear enough in its definition of sustainability—[Interruption.] She can protest all she likes but it is there in black and white, and I urge every colleague in this place to read the text.
The second issue I have is that the Bill allows green shares to be issued to external investors but not to co-operative members, as I mentioned in an earlier intervention. By limiting the issuance of green shares to non-members, it would limit the co-operative’s ability to raise capital for green causes. If green causes are so important, why not make the ability to buy green shares available to all members? The hon. Lady intervened earlier to say that members could do so, but that is not true. She says that because when an external investor buys a green share, they become a member. That is the only way in which members can buy a green share.
Thirdly, the new powers for co-operatives apply only if they issue green shares. If the new powers are so beneficial, why not provide them for all co-operatives without the requirement to issue green shares? The Bill says, if a co-operative issues a green share, it will get additional powers essentially to prevent it from becoming a company. If that is such a good idea, why limit it to green shares?
Fourthly, the power permanently to prevent a co-operative from becoming a business is against members’ interests. Currently, the decision to become a company is left with members. Why take that power away from them? Whether a firm is better run as a company or as a co-operative is beside the point. We should let members decide. It is unclear who in the co-operative gets to decide on such matters. Perhaps she will clarify that in her closing remarks. The real purpose of the Bill would be to sustain the co-operative model at the expense of members’ and workers’ interests.
Finally, the Bill lacks sufficient detail, as I have outlined before. The framework for deciding whether shares are green is vague and requires the Treasury to fill in the detail. Likewise, rules to ensure that the shares are not abused for tax avoidance are left out of the Bill again for the Treasury to decide the detail. I am getting déjà vu from Wednesday, when the Opposition called for an extension to the furlough but could not say what was to be extended, for how long, or how much it would cost.
I can only conclude that this idea is nice in principle and right in spirit, but it is merely an idea and not a substantive, workable piece of legislation. For that reason, I cannot support it.
The hon. Member is making some important points that we have discussed throughout the development of the Bill. Environmentally sustainable projects are just that—it needs that definition—but can he point to any projects within the co-operative movement that do not meet a sustainable objective? It is in the very values of the co-operative movement. Also, does he not see that we are facing a climate emergency and that unless we take drastic action now, on the ground, and radically transform our economies, we will not succeed?
The hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) does not need me to come to her rescue, but the Bill does clearly refer to sustainable development goals, which covers a broad spectrum of issues that could be addressed on this point.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope)—a veteran, as he says, of sitting Fridays—on this, my first sitting Friday. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) on securing this Bill and on choosing this issue. Her clear concern for the environment and for strengthening the UK’s economy after the coronavirus pandemic is truly commendable.
As I have mentioned to the House before, now is the time for promoting green investments. Their performance, quality and potential are widely documented. The environment is an issue that the whole House and indeed both Houses stand firmly behind, and I am grateful to be a part of the debate on the Bill. As colleagues have said, Members will be aware of the benefits that co-operatives bring to productivity, innovation and entrepreneurialism across the economy. The Government are in no doubt about the added value they bring. Indeed, I know that previous Governments have legislated to make the setting up and running of our co-operatives simpler, cutting red tape and promoting parity between co-operatives and companies when it comes to areas such as registration and audit.
Across the UK, membership of co-operatives has remained firm in recent years, with more than 7,000 independent co-operatives employing nearly a quarter of a million people and serving more than 14 million members. Clearly, co-operative values are popular among a significant cross-section of society: values of democratic ownership; autonomy; independence; promoting common economic, social and cultural interests of their members; and concern for the community. Without this shared ownership, many people may feel that they have less of a stake in society, in their community and in the economy.
Co-operatives have historically proven their mettle. This year’s annual assessment of the sector by the industry network, Co-operatives UK, indicates that a staggering 76% of co-operative start-ups are still running after the first five years, compared with less than half of all new companies. At a time when we are embracing innovation and entrepreneurship, co-operatives have demonstrated that they remain a productive part of the UK’s competitive spirit going forward.
I join my colleagues in paying enormous tribute to those on the frontline during this crisis, who have done an extraordinary job under incredibly difficult circumstances. They deserve not just our thanks, but our praise, and they have it. In terms of public sector pay we are in the midst of the second year of inflation-busting pay rises for almost a million people, and we have got social care who are funded from local authorities. As I said, local government has enjoyed two years of record increases in core spending power, which hopefully will help find its way to the frontline.
I remember that when I had the Chief Secretary’s job we discussed this very topic, and my hon. Friend is right to keep highlighting it. What I can tell him is that, as the Chief Secretary said, I believe, very recently, we are well on the way to implementing the measure and will bring forward appropriate legislation in due course.
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend, and he puts it far more clearly than I have done. I was trying to make the point that he has just made, which is that, ultimately, HMRC and the Treasury are responsible for this in not giving proper advice and in creating an over-complex tax system, and that has created this kind of behaviour. It is natural behaviour and we should not blame the people who have tried to take advantage of these sort of schemes. This complexity kills the economy.
We have learned to expect that sort of behaviour. As Ronald Reagan said—we have heard about Roosevelt, so why can we not hear from Ronald Reagan, who was a better sort of Conservative as far as I am concerned?—when we tax something, we get less of it, and when we subsidise something, we get more of it. Research from the European Central Bank shows that when the tax burden is raised by 1%, economic growth is reduced by 0.13%. We have heard a lot about job creation, but that change means many fewer jobs. Every time we create taxes, we destroy jobs.
The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that the UK tax burden will grow to 34.6% of GDP by 2024, which is the highest tax burden for this country in more than half a century. We think of ourselves as a seafaring, deal-doing, trading nation, but how can we compete when the trend of tax burden is going the wrong way? That is how we will stifle job creation. We must look at a comprehensive reform of our economy, not the usual tinkering under the hood, and we can do some of that through regulatory reform. That is not aiming for deregulation—instead, the Government should ensure that the UK’s regulatory structure is simple, clear, and appropriate. That is the genesis of this entire debate: our tax system is not simple, not clear, and not straightforward.
If we radically simplify the tax system we will spur more activity, so it is a virtuous circle of benefit to the whole of our society. Imagine if all the money spent on corporate or personal tax avoidance—tax avoidance is perfectly legal, I say to the Minister—could be invested in productive activity instead. Imagine all those thousands of accountants going off and taking up machine tools—I know it is unlikely, but at least it is a thought. That would also be fairer, as it would no longer mean that the richer someone is, or the bigger their company, the more they are capable of exploiting complicated tax loopholes.
We know it is simplistic to base our economy on Singapore or Hong Kong—we are a larger country with more complex needs—but on tax policy, the example they have set is applicable. Let us consider per capita GDP of the UK, Singapore and Hong Kong. They were all more or less at a parity in 1989, about five years after I came to this House, with each at around $25,000 a year. All three countries have improved their GDP per capita, but the scale of the difference is notable. By 2016, six years into a Conservative Government, the UK, with its complex tax code, had a per capita GDP of $37,000. Low tax, simple tax Hong Kong was at more than $48,000, and Singapore at $65,000 to our $37,000. We neglect at our peril that opportunity for a huge growth in numbers of jobs, for our per capita GDP and for income for the Treasury. My simple point to the Minister is this: when he sums up, will he say something about tax simplification and tax reduction?
As a former local government leader, I was involved in many cases in which we had to ensure that the person leaving had received the correct money and final settlement, but does my hon. Friend agree that some of these people have often been working for a local authority —I can only speak for local authorities—for decades? Their salaries will have increased over time, and there should, whatever the legislation, be flexibility in such cases. If a case is sensitive, the local authority should be given powers to ensure that that person is given the amount of money that they are due, but not too much for the public purse.
My hon. Friend is highlighting an important point. Is he aware that the same issue arises in Scotland, where we have police chiefs, university bosses and other public sector servants getting paid huge six-figure sums as they leave their taxpayer-funded jobs?
The hon. Gentleman is rightly drawing attention to a significant problem. Is there not another aspect to it, which is that many of these individuals, quite frankly, should not be being given any payments, because they should actually be being sacked for failure to perform their jobs? They are taking sums of money and then transferring to other parts of the public sector, where they will have a repeated pattern of failure. Is there not a need for a real change in culture inside the public sector, particularly, I regret to say, inside management levels of the national health service?
In one of my small local councils, Hambleton District Council, two officials have had pay-offs in excess of £300,000 over the past three years. One of them was only earning £100,000—“only”, he says. The local authority says that it wants the measures brought forward so that it can cap future payments. Does my hon. Friend not agree that it is high time that we did that?
Does my hon. Friend accept that the Government have been rather distracted in the past few years getting Brexit done?
The hon. Gentleman should come down a bit harder on that explanation from his hon. Friend, who is fundamentally saying that the Government are incapable of chewing gum and walking at the same time.
The problem of high public sector exit payments is not only the amount—sometimes £100,000 or £200,000; truly shocking amounts—but the acceptance of such payments by public sector workers when they seamlessly take up employment with another public sector body. For example, a council officer I knew received a £200,000 exit payment from one council and started at a new local authority the following week. There is no statutory obligation to post a declaration of interest in the way we do as Members of Parliament. We would have to declare that payment and it would be on public record. We do not have any sort of mechanism for, say, the chief executive of a council who moves to another council to do that. There is no way to see how much money they have received from the public sector for—we are not sure what. I see this happen again and again in the public sector. I welcome the transparency that we now have for Members of Parliament. We are held to account.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the Bill. It is certainly very timely, but the increase in the tax rate and in taxes generally is due to the increase in our outgoings on the national health service, the state pension and so on. Although I welcome the principle, I am concerned that to fund any significant changes in VAT will be expensive to the Treasury at a time when we face increasing costs in the health service and so on.
What estimate has my hon. Friend made of the cost to the Exchequer of increasing the threshold to that level?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the Bill to discuss this important issue and this potentially big simplification, but am I right that the £6 billion price tag is roughly equivalent to half the budget for the entire police force of England? This is a substantial sum. Beyond the £39 billion, does he have an suggestions for how to raise enough money to make good the hole?
I want to highlight the point my hon. Friend is making. When the income tax rate went up to 50%, I had small businessmen come to me saying, “I’m not going to work any harder if I have to hand over 50%. I’ll work four days a week and play golf on Fridays. I’m not going to invest my capital in a business if the Treasury doesn’t understand the pressures of running a small business”, and they stepped away from increasing their productivity—indeed, went backwards—until we started to reduce the rate. Too often, we fail to understand the consequences of tax policy on behavioural patterns.
I thank my hon. Friend for being so generous in giving way again. I think he is wrong to say that it is not the approach of the Front Bench to think in dynamic terms: the Treasury has produced a wonderful paper showing that a third of the cuts in corporation tax are made up for by dynamic gains. Active work is being done on this; it is a Conservative belief. However, I would only ask my hon. Friend what proportion of the £4 billion or £6 billion loss to the Exchequer that he is talking about does he think might be made up for by dynamic effects? I agree that there are dynamic effects and I agree that this is a wonderful simplification; I just caution him that another Conservative principle is sound money and not running a huge £150 billion a year deficit like Labour did.
I hate to sound like a stuck record but want to repeat a point. My hon. Friend gave a basic estimate of the cost of raising the threshold, but it seems to me that this would bring a separate cost to the Exchequer; has he a cost for these exemptions in terms of potential lost revenue?
Many households in my constituency, including my own, use heating oil, and I am sure that people would be very grateful. However, it is not an accountancy view to ask about the impact on the Treasury given the cost of vital public services, such as health and education, which we all want to see better funded. That is my angle, and it not about accountancy.
As always, my hon. Friend is giving a detailed explanation of his proposals. On the topic of fitness, how would he deal with the fact that while a computer console can run fitness games that allow for physical movement, people may just buy one to sit in front of TV and play games? How would that be defined under this Bill?
Given that lawyers spent several decades arguing over whether a teacake was a type of biscuit, I caution my hon. Friend that allowing the Treasury to define “fitness equipment” and other general terms has the potential to be a bean feast for lawyers.
My hon. Friend knows what I am going to ask. How much?
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope), although I would highlight that I am a chartered account—and proud to be so. My training perhaps gives me a different perspective on politics, and I often from myself thinking in a different way from Members who are lawyers—not in a good or a bad way, but simply in a different way. Such training offers a breadth of policy, planning and thinking that we need to bring together. I am thrilled to speak on my hon. Friend’s important Value Added Tax Bill, and about how we might start to make significant improvements to this regressive and most punitive of taxes on the poorest, and on small businesses’ growth and productivity, after we leave the EU—very shortly, I hope—and are free to make such improvements once again.
I will address three areas of policy change proposed by the Bill, although there is much more I could discuss: VAT thresholds for small businesses; the flexibility of VAT rates on energy; and the big, thorny question of the sanitary products challenge that we have to solve. The first area on which this Bill offers an excellent improvement to our present VAT rules is the threshold for paying VAT. A small business whose main activity is one of human endeavour—the “services” part of goods and services—must monitor its monthly sales on a rolling 12-month basis these days, and must register to pay VAT as soon as the cumulative total reaches £85,000. Most small businesses that have many VAT-charged goods, such as plumbing businesses, are more likely to be VAT registered from the beginning, so such monitoring does not have to happen—those businesses are already in the VAT system because they want to reclaim the VAT on goods they have to use.
The threshold means that, overnight, a business suddenly goes from not being VAT registered to being VAT registered, and having to charge an extra 20% on its bills. Imagine going in for a monthly haircut that used to cost £20 and suddenly finding that it costs £24. That business will then find that a smaller, non-VAT registered business down the road is more competitive, and it will immediately risk losing customers, so what does it do? Does it hold down prices by employing another staff member, at great speed, to increase business and grow the volume of sales, or does it stop accepting custom in order not to hit the threshold in the first place? My hon. Friend gave the example of cafés, but in Northumberland, there are tourism businesses that see the threshold coming and therefore slow down or close their doors early in order to not make further sales. This arrangement is simply anti-competitive and surely it is not the sort of business driver that any Conservative Government would mean to be encouraging.
A real-life example that highlights the problem is that of a young businesswoman with exactly this dilemma in my constituency. This young woman owns a small hairdressing business in a small town, and employs two stylists full time and one part time. Her turnover is about £100,000—above the £85,000 threshold—and she is therefore VAT registered. Her VAT payments to the Treasury are in the region of £16,000, leaving her with net sales of £84,000. A number of competitors have set up business in the area and purposely kept their audited income below the £85,000 threshold to avoid paying VAT, while still charging prices comparable to VAT-registered retailers. Of course, the clients do not know whether a business is VAT-registered in that small business environment, but there is a 20% advantage in favour of that non-VAT-registered business—20% more for doing less work. This young woman does not make any profit worth mentioning, but she pays herself a wage and keeps three trainees employed, and she enjoys her work. Her father, who is also a constituent, has advised her to close the business and save all the hassle that goes along with self-employment and running a business. Is it not a tragedy that a father feels he has to say that to his energetic and business-focused daughter?
Let us look at this woman’s options and the consequences. She could follow her father’s advice and close her business, putting four people out of work. That would involve vacating the premises and creating an empty shop on one of the small high streets in my constituency. She could lay off a member of staff to reduce the income to below the threshold and de-register for VAT, although perhaps still charge the VAT-hiked prices and seeing whether clients will pay. This is a simple but brutal example of the anti-business growth of our present VAT rules. I have been frustrated by this for a long time—as an accountant and in politics—because we have been trapped in this position. We have no control over it because we are operating under the EU VAT directive.
I would go further than my hon. Friend has proposed in his Bill so far. It is wonderful to have a Treasury Minister in the Chamber, because I have written a number of times to a number of Chancellors on this subject, and I have the opportunity to make my argument again verbally today. Where other thresholds exist, such as for income tax, national insurance and stamp duty, there is an exemption on charges for amounts up to the threshold, with payments made only against the remaining amount over the threshold limit. If, in the case of any small business, we made VAT payable only on income above the threshold, we would offer a sliding scale of price increases or sales volume that would support the business and encourage the employment of more staff, unlike with the disincentive of the dramatic cliff edge at £85,000. Whether we are talking about £100,000 or £20,000, the effect is the same: there is a cliff edge from paying no VAT to entering the VAT world, with all the commensurate costs, stress and extra time spent dealing with it. It seems odd that there is no threshold step for VAT, just a cliff edge.
In the context of small business as a whole, the threshold is very low, despite the fact that it is one of the higher ones in the EU. It is an excellent start to see the Bill’s proposal of, in the first instance, raising the threshold to £104,000. Should this excellent Bill gain Government support and make progress, however, I would propose to go further and call on the Treasury to make all income below the threshold exempt from VAT, with further turnover up to a certain point—for example, £150,000—having VAT charged only on that marginal trading activity. Businesses could then carry the sales tax burden across all sales without having to force it on the customer in the hard way that happens now. This is important for the small business cohort; we are not talking about businesses whose turnover has reached £1 million and are employing 10, 15, 20 or more people. We are talking about the small business that suddenly falls under the complex and heavy burden of VAT, which is genuinely having an anti-competitive effect on them. We are doing ourselves and our businesses no favours at all.
The approach I am setting out would give small businesses a window of growth and investment opportunity, and the chance to take on more staff, before being hit with a 20% surcharge on all sales. Such a fairer, graduated system would level the playing field between small below-the-threshold firms and those growing businesses. It would stimulate growth in the small independent retail sector and might even be a policy that could help to revitalise our empty high street shops.
The Bill offers much more besides increasing the threshold for VAT for small businesses, as it takes up the long-overdue opportunity to exempt some critical goods from VAT altogether once we have left the EU and the limitations that the EU’s VAT directive forced upon us in 2006. The directive aimed to harmonise VAT across the European Union. Although it makes cross-border sales activity easier and has some merit for the simplification of sales taxes, it has limited any individual country’s ability to determine whether or not to exempt goods from VAT. VAT on fuel has been a matter of contention for years. To his credit—everyone take note, because I am not going to say that very often—the then Chancellor, Gordon Brown, brought that tax levy down to 5%, which was a very creditable decision, but under the EU directive, he had no independent authority to scrap it completely.
Let us consider the position for my poorest constituents in rural Northumberland—“deepest, darkest rural Northumberland”, as my mother refers to some of my more wonderful and hard-to-reach communities. In these areas, the choice in heating solutions is limited to wood, coal, expensive electric heating, which often does not work when the weather is really bad, or oil tanks, assuming the snow does not prevent the tanker from getting to a farm in the first place. There is no mains gas, so people do not have the opportunity of consumers in more urban areas of choosing a supplier from a competitive range of offers. The 5% VAT levy adds to their already higher than average heating cost burden, because all those other products are just more expensive. It would be a wise Government, after Brexit, who at last agreed that rural poverty—it has been ignored for far too long by Whitehall, in my humble opinion—could be alleviated in the first instance by removing this tax. As my hon. Friend identified, there might be an initial cost to the Exchequer of up to £1.6 billion, but the policy would have a broad range of principled and practical social and health benefits. The Government’s commitment to those is clear by their words, but such a change would make that clear by their actions, too.
If my rural constituents are disadvantaged by VAT on fuel supplies to keep their families warm, how much worse is it that our own Government could not unilaterally determine—nor indeed manage to persuade the EU while we have still been within its laws—that a 5% tax on sanitary products is a direct discriminatory charge against all women of menstruating age? A friend said to me on learning that I was going to speaking in support of my hon. Friend’s Bill today that
“women really ought to have tax deductions for being female—what with tampons and tights that ladder, being expected to wear makeup and have changes of wardrobe, you all should get a discount from the Government”
I concur wholeheartedly, as I am sure you do, Madam Deputy Speaker, although that might be a step too far for the Treasury. A small and immediately helpful step in that direction would be to scrap VAT on all sanitary products, and indeed on incontinence products, which are also listed in the Bill. This outrageous tax puts these things into the “luxury items” category of products and reminds me that we have far to go to make sure that policy making has common sense at its heart.
It is wonderful that, as in the battles for women’s voting rights 100 years ago, there are men like my hon. Friend leading the charge to change the law in support of women’s rights and fairness. There have been excellent campaigns from across this House in recent years to push the Government to effect change, and the Bill is the next step to get this VAT discrimination sorted out. By scrapping VAT on sanitary products and making them exempt, as is the case for food and children’s clothes, this Government would be sending a clear message that they understand that the tax system can be an incentiviser or a punisher. For too long, I have been shocked that the EU has chosen to continue to ignore this call for fairness, allowing—no, forcing—women to have to pay more for sanitary products, which are an indispensable part of our daily lives, in order to boost Treasury coffers across Europe. I look forward to hearing from the Treasury in the Budget that follows our departure from the EU that it has understood and will immediately remedy this discriminatory tax.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Personally, I would rather leave with a deal that ensures that the bucket of issues that have to be sorted out are dealt with as we move forward from our legacy relationship into a new relationship, because that would make things easier for everybody, but the approach has to be right. The reality is that until we have left the EU, we have to follow the VAT directive, which means that we are not able to control that part of our tax law. I am grateful that we are leaving and that we will not move into the whole area of tax that the EU is looking to take control of across the board, which is a terrifying issue of taxation without representation. I am very glad that the British people have decided to step off the EU train before we move into that part of its policy making.
It would be a shocking failure not to remedy the discriminatory tax on sanitary products, so I hope that, in the most visible and practical of senses, the Government appreciate that constituents feel we have lost the ability to make good choices. We must take the opportunity, as soon as possible, to set the train in the right direction on this issue.
The VAT directive may not sound sexy or dramatic, but it has long been one of my most hated of all the directives under which we have had to work as members of the EU, as it emasculates Chancellors of whatever political colour in critical policy areas and disenfranchises us from being able to support small business, our poorest and, indeed, the female 52% of our population. It has meant that in a major area of tax policy, we have had to suffer taxation without representation for far too long. We will be able to send the clear message to the senior people in the EU Commission who determine, without oversight, what EU laws should be, that as in so many policy areas, the UK will lead the way in improving our citizens’ lives. I commend the Bill to the House and wish it every success in reaching deep into the Treasury’s conscience, which I know is there, so that we can make these proposals a reality after 29 March.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) on getting one of his many private Members’ Bills to Second Reading. I thank him for giving such a comprehensive history of VAT in the early part of his speech and for his forensic analysis of each part of the Bill.
At first, I thought that the subject of the Bill seemed rather dry, but the more I looked into it, the more interesting it became. Prior to my entering this place, I ran my own marketing business, which was registered for VAT. I did not see being registered for VAT as a hindrance; I saw it as a sign of success, as it meant that my turnover was growing and quite substantial. Some business owners I spoke to were concerned that splitting VAT on a quarterly basis was quite onerous. I always found that the quarterly returns helped me to focus on the financial side of my business and provided an opportunity for a regular review. They helped me to review my business costs and the charging structure for my marketing services. In effect, I was carrying out a quarterly audit that helped me to keep my business on the straight and narrow over the 19 years for which I ran it. Some businesses may have criticised me for carrying out such a check only every three months, but it worked for me.
We are debating whether the £85,000 VAT threshold is the right one and if we should make provisions to exempt certain goods and services from VAT liability. In November 2017, the Office of Tax Simplification produced an excellent report. I must declare that I could be slightly biased, because the chair of the office is Angela Knight CBE. For those Members who are not fully aware of the political history of the Erewash constituency, Angela Knight was its Member of Parliament from 1992 to 1997. One of her claims to fame—among many, of course—was that she was the Treasury Minister responsible for the introduction of the £2 coin. She has had a varied and at times much-publicised career since leaving this place, and she was the perfect person to be appointed chair of the Office of Tax Simplification.
The views of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch on the EU are well known, and he has expressed them today. His Bill is timely, because Conservative Members want to take back control on 29 March. We need to make sure that the VAT threshold will encourage businesses to grow while at the same time maintaining the tax take for Government, because that pays for our vital public services. Members from all parties want to make sure that we have the right investment for our wonderful public services. The current £85,000 threshold is the highest general threshold in the OECD, so some may argue that we should consider lowering the threshold rather than looking to increase it.
Some anomalies have already been mentioned. The Bill proposes exemptions, including for domestic fuel and power and for repairs to historic buildings. We have also already discussed fitness equipment and the difference between cakes and biscuits. The prime example of the latter is Jaffa Cakes: if it is a cake, it is zero rateable, but if it is a biscuit, it is taxable. It has been deemed to be a cake, so it is zero rated. Closer to my heart are the gingerbread men made by Stacey’s bakery in my Erewash constituency. In my opinion, they are the best gingerbread men a person could buy in the whole country. If the gingerbread men have chocolate trousers, they are subject to VAT. If they just have chocolate eyes but no chocolate trousers, there is no VAT. In the interests of equality, why do we not have gingerbread ladies? If we did and they had chocolate dresses, would they be subject to VAT? I am sure that we could all highlight many more anomalies, but the ones I have mentioned help to illustrate just how important it is to ensure that any changes to VAT legislation are well thought through and appropriate.
I could spend a lot more time talking about whether higher or lower threshold levels encourage more or less entrepreneurship, or about the optimal threshold to maximise the tax take without stifling business, but I am sure all that will be thrashed out in Committee. VAT is the third largest source of tax revenue collected by HMRC, after income tax and national insurance contributions, so I am sure it is above my pay grade to recommend a new threshold to the Treasury. It is clear to me that we should not jeopardise the £120 billion collected in 2016-17—I am not sure of the figures for the following year—which represented 22.5% of all taxes. I fear that the removal of one tax would only result in the increase of another tax to balance the nation’s books.
I was just about to finish, but I will give way.
My hon. Friend makes an important point; this is about priorities, and our priority may not actually be changing the level of VAT.
I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response and analysis of the proposed changes in this Bill.
Break in Debate
I hear that.
We are told that the Chancellor was forced into ditching the policy only because Conservative Members were up in arms. It seems quite clear, therefore, that there are political rather than technical reasons for what we choose to exempt and not to exempt from VAT.
We should also understand that fraud continues to be a serious issue for the Exchequer in relation to the collection of VAT. On Government estimates, VAT fraud currently costs the UK about half a billion pounds a year, with an extra £1.5 billion of uncollected debts and around £100 million of avoidance. VAT fraud was discussed at length during the Committee stage of the Finance Bill in October 2017, when the Government introduced a new clause to place new obligations on fulfilment houses to help tackle VAT fraud, which has worsened with the rise of online sellers who obtain goods through third-party vendors based abroad.
The Opposition believe that small businesses need more support in getting to grips with the tax if we are ever to close the VAT gap. The situation has been worsened by the Government’s disaster-struck attempts to transition to making tax digital, which have thankfully been delayed until next year to give businesses the chance to adapt.
Many of us spend a large proportion of our lives online, so it is unsurprising that more UK consumers than ever buy a larger proportion of their goods through online marketplaces such as Amazon, eBay and others. In 2016, 14.5% of UK retail sites were online—up from 2% in 2006. Just over 50% of these sales were through online marketplaces, rather than directly from the seller.
The Campaign Against VAT Fraud on eBay & Amazon in the UK—a snappy title, which was possibly created by accountants—estimated that online VAT fraud
“equates to £27 billion in lost sales revenue”
“additional taxes to UK businesses and the public purse in the last 3 years.”
Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has stated that it does not have data on online fraud and other losses before 2015-16.
Sadly, the slowness of HMRC in responding to growing fraud online has been criticised by the Public Accounts Committee, which first raised concerns in April 2013. It found that HMRC had only recently begun to tackle the problem seriously, despite the fact that such fraud leads to significant loss of revenue to the Exchequer. It found that HMRC, rather than trying to use its existing powers, waited until the introduction of new measures under the Finance Act 2016 before even attempting to hold online marketplaces responsible for the VAT fraudulently evaded by traders. HMRC has been too cautious in using these powers, and the Government have refused to name and shame complacent traders. To my knowledge, they have not prosecuted a single one for committing online VAT fraud.
As the UK leaves the protection of the EU VAT area, the possibility of VAT fraud will, arguably, rise. It is therefore logical that any new legislation on VAT should consider additional measures to tackle online VAT fraud. I understand from the Treasury Committee that HMRC believes there is a £3.5 billion VAT gap resulting from mistakes made by businesses when they submit their VAT returns. The overall VAT gap in 2016-17 was £11.7 billion. I am sure we can all agree that that is a high number and therefore probably requires some fairly urgent, radical action.
The Chartered Institute of Taxation has six recommendations to help address this gap. I want to focus on just one of them today, in the interests of time and sanity, which is
“resisting the temptation to introduce widespread changes that are disruptive to the majority of compliant businesses”.
Possibly, this connects to a concern about the clause we are addressing.
I am aware that there is something of a live debate on registration thresholds. There were several briefings ahead of last year’s Budget that moves were afoot to reduce the threshold and force more small businesses to register for VAT. There are, I honestly believe, arguments both in favour and against such an approach. I have actually debated this over my breakfast table with my husband, who just happens to be a small business owner. A concern about the threshold is not an argument for a particular threshold, because I think the only way to address such a concern would be to reduce the threshold to zero, which is something we certainly do not support. Conservative Members may claim that by setting the threshold too low we are disincentivising businesses. There are some who claim that the existence of health and safety legislation or, indeed, employment law is a disincentive to business—I know that to be true because I have done many Friday mornings—so we should be very careful where that argument takes us.
There is much in this Bill that I am sure the hon. Member for Christchurch would agree needs further consultation. First, it is not sure how the shift in threshold for registering taxable supplies in this Bill, from £85,000 to £104,000, has been worked out. It would be great if the hon. Gentleman, in his summing up, could let me know. It would also be useful to know how much consultation has gone into the exemptions for the use of coal, oil and gas as domestic fuel or power, because it is not clear to me that, as we seek to reduce fossil fuel emissions, the use of such fuels should be subsidised. I am sure he would agree that, again, this needs a broader consultation and consideration of how such a measure sits alongside other measures being taken, including by this Government—
Let me finish my sentence. Such consultation should include how such a measure sits comfortably alongside other measures being taken by the Government—for example, through the Climate Change Act 2008. If I finish the next bit, just to wrap it all up, the hon. Gentleman may find that easier. I wonder how workable or sensible it is to propose exempting VAT from items already subject to excise duty, such as alcohol and tobacco, and whether this could be counterproductive as it could amount to two policy measures pulling in different directions, with excise duty increases to try to discourage consumption and a VAT exemption in effect reducing the price.
Can I say that I am not at all surprised—not at all—by that? No, I do not remember the 1993 Christchurch by-election. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that, after I have driven to my friends’ this evening, I will ask them to look it up for me so that as soon as I get my gin and tonic, I will have an opportunity to refresh my memory of the politics of that by-election.
I am genuinely delighted—I mean this sincerely, which is why I wanted to say this at the end—that the hon. Gentleman wants to exempt women’s sanitary products through this Bill. There has been ongoing work, driven by some of my Labour colleagues and, to be fair, by some Conservative Members as well, to allow lower VAT rates or even a zero rating for sanitary products. I wholeheartedly agree, and I genuinely believe that we should be striving massively to do it. There is real poverty in some sections of our communities and poverty in relation to sanitary products really should not be exacerbated by having VAT on them. In January last year the European Commission came back to us with revised proposals to allow countries in the EU to introduce lower rates for sanitary products, and in part that was in response to campaigns from this Chamber. As we know, the proposals still have to be agreed at EU level, and of course the UK has yet to finalise its relationship with the EU.
This has been a genuinely interesting debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Christchurch for entertaining me so thoroughly on a Friday morning. He will be unsurprised to hear that should the Bill be pressed to a vote, sadly I will not be able to support him in the Lobby.
Break in Debate
That suggestion, which my hon. Friend set out so eloquently in her speech, has been discussed on many occasions. It is an interesting proposal, but it would have significant fiscal implications, and it would mean that any business would be able to take advantage of that; large multinational corporations would benefit, not just small and medium-sized businesses. However, it is something we might consider in future.
As one might expect, many people wanted it to be increased, but a very large number of those who took part in the survey came to the conclusion that the bunching effect that my hon. Friend described, which is the fundamental issue here, would simply be kicked further down the road if we increased the threshold to £100,000. Of course, if one increased it to a very large figure such as £500,000 or £1 million, that might be of less concern because it would take out a swathe of small and medium-sized businesses, but the fiscal cost would be even higher. While I am the first person to seek a dynamic approach to taxation and lower taxes, we have to balance those two considerations and ensure that we do not live beyond our means as a country. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk said, taken together the proposals in the Bill carry a significant fiscal cost of several billion pounds, which I will mention briefly later.
The Bill proposes a threshold of £104,000. We already have the highest in the EU and OECD, so we lead the international business community in that respect. There is no evidence to suggest that the policies that the Government have adopted are leading to a diminution in the number of small businesses created in this country. There is a new start-up every 75 seconds. We are the start-up capital of Europe. We are the most dynamic and supportive economy in the world for entrepreneurs. If the UK economy has any challenge in this respect, it is how to help a business to scale up into a much more substantial business, far beyond the VAT threshold. We have been trying to tackle that issue in a number of ways that I do not have time to discuss today.
The measure is expensive, as we have heard. Its estimated cost to the Exchequer would be about £2.1 billion per year. I take my hon. Friend’s point that it might have a dynamic effect and that we need to take such things into consideration. It can be a criticism of the Treasury and the OBR that the processes that we have created in the past 15 years make it much harder to take the kind of attitude that a Chancellor such as Nigel Lawson would have taken in the 1980s. None the less, there is a substantial fiscal cost to the measure. The loss in revenue has to be balanced by reduced public spending, increased borrowing or increased taxation elsewhere, all of which we want to avoid. While we support the desire to improve business growth, concerns remain that increasing the threshold would simply shift the problem higher up the level.
I want to mention some of the issues that my hon. Friend and others spoke about. I know that many right hon. and hon. Members care strongly about VAT on women’s sanitary products, as do I, and wish to see change as soon as possible. The Government have taken action to address the issue, but we have been unable to succeed as a result of our continued membership of the EU. There will be opportunities for reform in the future, but not until the UK leaves the EU or after the end of the implementation period, should there be a deal, which we hope there will be. At that point, we will have the opportunity to address some of the issues.
It is worth saying that since the referendum on leaving the EU, the Government have received in excess of £40 billion of requests for reliefs from VAT using the additional flexibilities that we may have when we leave the EU. In addition, numerous other requests have been made to us, whether it be on excise duties or air passenger duty. In aggregate, these produce a substantial cost to the Exchequer, which would harm our ability to fund public services. We have to be realistic about our ability to act and to reform these taxes once we leave the EU.
It is not a secret. These matters are frequently discussed in the House. If my hon. Friend comes to Treasury questions, he will hear debates from colleagues who have regional airports, who would like us to reduce air passenger duty. He will hear colleagues from Northern Ireland asking us to reduce the aggregates tax so that they can increase their competitive position with the Republic of Ireland. There are numerous requests for us to use the freedoms that we will have when we leave the EU. We may be able to meet some of them, but we will have to do so judiciously. If we did all of them, as I think he might wish, we would end up with tens, if not hundreds, of billions of pounds less revenue with which to fund our public services, but he is absolutely right to want a good public debate in the years ahead about how we do this.
The Government agree that women’s sanitary products should not be subject to VAT and, in the Finance Act 2016, introduced measures to enable the zero rating of VAT for women’s sanitary products to take effect as soon as legally possible. In the meantime, at 5%, the UK applies the lowest VAT rate currently possible under EU law.
Until we are legally able to remove this tax, the Government will continue to award £15 million a year to women’s charities—equivalent to the amount of VAT raised for the Exchequer from the sale of women’s sanitary products. To date, over 70 charities have received grants from the tampon tax fund and £62 million has been allocated since autumn statement 2015. This is a ridiculous and unfair tax that we want to remove as soon as we have ability. Rest assured, this Chancellor and this Government will do so.
In summary, I thank my hon. Friend for raising these issues and for the good debate we have had today. I would not always say this, but he is ahead of his time in raising these issues. The flexibilities he wants are not available today but might be in the years ahead. This prompts an important national debate about how we can continue to champion small businesses and have a tax system that supports enterprise and entrepreneurship long into the future. Unfortunately, at the present time, under EU law, we cannot act on many, if not all the measures, he has set out and so cannot support the Bill.
The hon. Lady will have heard the Chief Secretary remind the House earlier that the Resolution Foundation has now identified that, with the additional money we have put into universal credit, the system is now more generous than the legacy system that it replaces. It has a clear incentivisation to work, and those of us on the Government Benches believe that the best way we support and help and families is to help them into work. That is the sustainable route out of poverty.
I would answer the hon. Gentleman by saying that my pay has gone both up and down since 2010, but my pay is set independently. The important point is that the pay of public sector workers is determined by the pay review bodies, whose recommendations I take very seriously, and that is how we should approach this issue. Rather than trying to politicise the issue and saying that we should have a blanket approach, we have set public sector pay review bodies the remit to make such decisions themselves.