All 1 Lord Bates contributions to the Finance Act 2019

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Thu 7th Feb 2019
Finance (No. 3) Bill
Lords Chamber

2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords & 3rd reading (Hansard): House of Lords & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords & Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords

Finance (No. 3) Bill

Lord Bates Excerpts
2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords & 3rd reading (Hansard): House of Lords & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords & Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords
Thursday 7th February 2019

(5 years, 5 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Finance Act 2019 Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: Consideration of Bill Amendments as at 8 January 2019 - (8 Jan 2019)
Moved by
Lord Bates Portrait Lord Bates
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That the Bill be now read a second time.

Lord Bates Portrait The Minister of State, Department for International Development (Lord Bates) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the Economic Affairs Finance Bill Sub-Committee for its close consideration of the draft version of the Bill before the House today and its subsequent reports on HMRC powers and making tax digital. The sub-committee’s findings made for very informative reading, and the Government have carefully studied each of the recommendations. On 22 January, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury wrote to the chairman, my noble friend Lord Forsyth, setting out a comprehensive response to these reports. My noble friend is disappointed that he is unable to attend this debate but he is ably represented by other members of the sub-committee, who we will have an opportunity to hear from. I am pleased to confirm to the House that the Government have accepted the majority of the sub-committee’s recommendations in whole or in part.

Before I turn to the main measures enacted in the Bill, I shall briefly set out the broader economic and fiscal context. In October, the Chancellor delivered a Budget which reflected the Government’s commitment to build a stronger, fairer and more resilient economy. The economy has grown every year for the past eight years, and it is expected to continue to grow every year of the OBR’s forecast. There are 3.4 million more people in work since 2010 and employment is at a record high of 32.5 million. We have higher employment and lower unemployment in every region and every nation of the United Kingdom. Since 2010, almost 75% of the fall in unemployment has been outside London and the south-east, with the biggest fall in Scotland. Real regular wages have risen for eight consecutive months, and wages are now growing at their fastest pace in over a decade, putting more money into the pockets of hard-working families, supported by the national living wage.

We understand that the only sustainable way to improve real wages and living standards is through boosting long-term productivity. At the Budget, the Chancellor set out a number of measures to support that ambition, including, as I will come to, a new structures and buildings allowance which will be enacted in this Bill. The Government’s commitment to restoring the health of public finances is stated and we have now reached a turning point. The deficit has been reduced by four-fifths from its post-crisis peak and debt has begun its first sustained fall in a generation. Borrowing and debt are both lower in every year of the forecast than they were in the spring and, at the Budget, the OBR forecast that the Government met both their interim fiscal targets in 2017-18, three years early. However, debt remains too high. It is around £65,000 for each household, so it is important that we continue to take our balanced approach to fiscal policy, which has enabled debt to fall while supporting public services, keeping taxes low and investing in Britain’s future.

At the heart of the Government’s economic and fiscal policy is a desire to improve living standards for ordinary people. That is why we have taken concrete steps to help hard-working taxpayers by allowing them to keep more of their own money. At the Budget, the Chancellor announced that the Government would deliver on their manifesto commitment to increase the personal allowance and higher rate tax threshold a year ahead of schedule. The Bill enacts that change, introducing a tax cut for 32 million people and increasing the personal allowance and higher rate threshold to £12,500 and £50,000 respectively. This means that a typical basic-rate taxpayer will pay £130 less in income tax in 2019-20 than during this tax year.

The Government also announced that the living wage will increase by 4.9% from this April. The Bill takes further steps to keep living costs down for hard-working people by freezing fuel duty for the ninth year in a row, and by delivering a freeze on the duty on beer and spirits and a real-terms freeze on air passenger duty for short-haul flights.

The Government continue to champion home ownership and are committed to making housing more affordable for first-time buyers through direct spending and changes to the tax system. In the previous Finance Bill, the Government legislated for a first-time buyers’ relief on stamp duty. This has already been used to help first-time homeowners in more than 120,000 transactions. In this Bill, we will help take this a step further by expanding that relief to first-time buyers who enter a shared ownership arrangement, and will backdate this relief to benefit those who entered into their purchase on or before the date of the Budget.

The Bill also enacts new measures to encourage business investment and ensure that the UK maintains its status as one of the best places in the world to start a business. The Government have consistently backed business, including by cutting corporation tax to 17% in 2020. The Bill builds on that foundation, continuing to support businesses by introducing key allowances to important tax reliefs. The new structures and buildings allowance, which came into effect from Budget Day, will provide a vital tax break for those businesses investing in new commercial property. The annual investment allowance will be increased from £200,000 to £1 million for the next two years, ensuring that companies have an additional incentive to invest. Businesses will also benefit from a new good will relief in the intangible fixed assets regime.

The Bill also introduces a new transferable tax history mechanism for late-life oil and gas fields. This will support businesses, jobs and expertise in our vital deep-sea oil industry.

The Bill supports the Government’s commitment to a fair and sustainable tax system by introducing new measures to tackle tax avoidance and evasion. The Government have always been clear that taxes should be low, but they must be paid. This is what has been delivered. Since 2010, we have secured and protected over £200 billion by clamping down on tax avoidance and evasion, and have reduced the UK’s tax gap to less than 6%, which is one of the lowest in the world. The Bill continues that commitment to clamping down on avoidance, evasion and non-compliance. Specifically, it enacts provisions to ensure that non-residents pay tax on capital gains they make on UK commercial property and targets more contrived avoidance and evasion by clamping down on those who artificially lower their tax bill through profit fragmentation, whereby companies reduce their tax burden by artificially shifting their revenues around. The Bill also strengthens our diverted profits tax, which has already brought in and protected £700 million since 2015. These measures and others like them demonstrate the Government’s enduring commitment to ensuring that tax is paid, protecting essential revenue for our vital public services.

This Government have made real progress since 2010 in building a stronger and more resilient economy, but we recognise that there is still more to do. We remain committed to supporting our businesses, boosting productivity, reducing living costs for hard-working people and ensuring that tax is paid where it is due. The Bill supports the Government in these ambitions. I commend it to the House and I beg to move.

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Lord Davies of Oldham Portrait Lord Davies of Oldham (Lab)
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My Lords, this has been an excellent debate, although the participation numbers are a long way below the usual ones. That is a reflection of the exhaustion which Brexit has brought on noble Lords as we have discussed whether we can see the future of the economy with any accuracy at all in the context of that issue. I think a number of noble Lords are holding their weapons ready for the point which the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, referred to; we cannot be far off another Budget and a clear economic Statement which will take account of whatever deal the Prime Minister succeeds in bringing back to the nation before 29 March.

The Minister sought to put a number of issues in context—a context that I could scarcely recognise. When will the Government face up to the many failures in their economic strategy of nearly a decade? Their long-term economic plan disappeared as a concept embraced by their Members of Parliament and noble Lords, but a great many of its characteristics have persisted. In particular, the Government still follow a broad strategy of considering austerity to be good for the nation. It was directed, in the first instance, at clearing up the deficit, which was meant to be cleared by 2015. The latest target date appears to be somewhere around 2025. However, the OBR and a number of interest groups in the country think that remains a challenging target. It is a measure of the Government setting out a clear objective and falling many years short of reaching it.

The Government have presided over the slowest recovery since the 1920s. The key indicators of investment, growth and productivity still place us among the lowest of the advanced economies. The Minister referred to the growth rate of 1.6%. My goodness, what an achievement. It is lower than in any other advanced country and a long way below the levels of economic growth to which we had been accustomed before the financial crash. The Government have had nearly a decade to recover from that calamity, but have precious little to show for it.

We consider that the alternative strategy is obvious. We need to borrow in order to invest, so that instead of being starved of resources—particularly in respect of the regional imbalance of resources from the Government—our economy will be able to get the resources necessary for growth. There is no doubt that austerity is not yet over. This Bill offers tax cuts for the richest members of our society and welfare cuts for the less fortunate. We are facing the challenges of Brexit with low investment, low wages and low productivity. The Minister mentioned the recent increase in wage rates, but that is the first year in which the Government have been able to say that for a decade. It is quite clear that the Government’s progress is very slow.

Meanwhile, our public services are suffering. Our Armed Forces have had severe cuts; our police numbers are drastically down, while violent crime is up. But contrast the restrictions on public sector pay with what happens in the private sector. Last year, the chief executives of FTSE companies averaged an 11% pay increase on what was a pretty big number beforehand. When will the Government face up to the fact that they cannot expect to build a good society unless they build a fair society? In the real world, outside the FTSE top earners, homelessness has doubled, use of food banks has increased significantly and the number of rough sleepers has increased, and not just in our northern towns and cities, where it is sometimes suggested so many are neglected, but in London itself. Even Westminster has seen growth in these numbers.

The report of the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights condemns the UK as a two-speed society, where the very richest flourish yet there are many in poverty. Two-thirds of children growing up in poverty are in households where there is at least one earner. That says something about the payment of wages at the lower end of society. I suggest it will not do for the Government to do anything other than take considerable responsibility for creating this situation. The rapporteur went on to say that it was absolutely scandalous for so many children to be poor in a 21st-century economy. It reflected “a social calamity” for our country and “an economic disaster”.

That is what we think in Her Majesty’s Opposition. We will halt the rollout of universal credit, which has been identified so accurately by noble Lords in this debate; particularly the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, who identified for the Minister some pretty challenging figures on how the Government address low-income families and those dependent on benefits. I hope the Minister will respond to what was, after all, an extremely detailed and significant contribution.

The Government’s record shows little success in improving productivity. I have stood at this Dispatch Box for the past 10 years opposite a succession of Ministers, including Ministers who certainly knew what they were talking about on productivity. They were not able to persuade their Governments and their colleagues to do anything about the appalling levels of British productivity that have sustained through to today. It means that, although the Government have put money into apprenticeships—there is much criticism in industry and commerce about the nature of these apprenticeships and the funding for them—they also slashed the improvement of vocational skills, for which they were directly responsible, and hammered the further education colleges. Although we have seen universities make considerable progress in tackling the tuition fees issue, FE colleges have had a devastating onslaught from this Government. It is clear that they are the biggest losers in education spending.

That is to say nothing of the fact that schools are stressed by inadequate resources. In an economy which needs new schools, it is depressing that adult learners—people who recognise that they need to improve their skills and change the potential of their economic role in society—are down from 5.1 million to 1.9 million. The Government should be ashamed of that figure. If the Government is serious about the tax take, it is clear we need a well-resourced HMRC.

I very much enjoyed the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull. He asked specifically about loan charge schemes, and he also identified that the digitisation of tax was misdirected when it expected organisations with such small turnovers to be able to cope. The whole position needs to be rethought. We have a report coming out shortly, to which the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, referred, but nevertheless, this is pretty obvious incompetence by the Government in this area.

The Government also have a very poor record on climate change. Their response has been to cut support for solar energy and slash the subsidies for onshore wind. This is done against a background where we all know that climate change is going to make big demands on the resources of our society. We are also all obliged to look through a glass darkly on the question of Brexit and its implications for the economy.

I am not expecting the Minister to respond on the Brexit issue at great length today. In the other place, they are going to get another dose next Wednesday. Many noble Lords have indicated that they have said pretty much all that can be said about Brexit. But we still have not entered the final act and cannot, at this stage, predict exactly what it will be. The one prediction we all hope will not be fulfilled is to crash out of the European Community without agreement.

My noble friend Lady Quin asked a specific question of the Minister on the taxation position of a museum. Having been a Member of the other place, she knows as well as anyone here that it is not within the power of this House to render a ready solution to this by any direct action we can take. Nevertheless, I hope the Minister can give some response.

I thank all noble Lords who have participated. I particularly appreciated the contributions of my noble friend Lord Chandos. He did what I thought was necessary at this stage in the debate: he looked at the wider issues to which the Government need to respond. The Minister has got quite a lot to answer, and I am sure he is looking forward to the opportunity as much as we are looking forward to listening to him.

Lord Bates Portrait Lord Bates
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What a kind invitation from the noble Lord. I hope not to disappoint.

The noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, expressed the hope that we might get a day off from the relentless grind of Brexit. I am afraid that we were not quite able to deliver. Brexit was mentioned in the contributions of the noble Lords, Lord Tunnicliffe, who opened, and Lord Davies, as he wound up, and in between by the noble Baronesses, Lady Quin and Lady Kramer. They talked about the uncertainty of the times and the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, said that these were not normal times—to which the answer, which they have heard many times, is therefore to remove the uncertainty and back the deal, so that we can move on to negotiating the future economic relationship with our friends in the European Union. We could also then remove the necessity to plan for no deal, Yet, so long as no deal remains even as a possible option, it would be remiss of any Government acting responsibly not to plan for that eventuality—although we hope with all our hearts that that outcome does not occur.

This has been an excellent debate and I therefore want to use what time I have available simply to address some of the points raised during the course of it. First, the noble Lord, Lord Davies, talked about income inequality. I should say that income inequality is now lower than it was in 2010 and lower than at any point under the previous Labour Government, in which he was a distinguished Minister. Compared with 2010, there are 1 million fewer people, including 300,000 fewer children, in absolute low income. Moreover, in the context of this legislation the Government’s policy continues to be highly redistributive. In 2019-20, households in the lowest income decile will receive over £4 in public spending for every £1 they pay in tax, while those in the highest income decile will contribute on average over £5 in tax for every £1 that they receive in public spending.

The noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, asked about the reclassification of student loans and its impact. After its review of the treatment of student loans in government finances, the Office for National Statistics has decided that some of the spending on student loans will be included in the deficit when the money is first lent to students. This is a technical accounting decision by the ONS and, although the noble Viscount was very critical of it, I stress that we operate on independent advice in this respect. We support the independence of the ONS and commend its diligence in recognising this.

The noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, talked about Making Tax Digital. I will come back to some of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, in this respect. She focused on the specific impact on SMEs, on behalf of which she has been a consistent advocate. As the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, mentioned, that is why only businesses with a taxable turnover above the VAT threshold, which is currently £85,000, will be in the scope of Making Tax Digital. The noble Lord is of course a former distinguished Permanent Secretary at the Treasury, among other things, and he talked about the work done by the committee. He said—I think I have this right—that it would be nice if a Minister were to say, “You did us a good turn there” when the committee advised on making changes and delaying implementation. Having been given that invitation, I am very happy to say that it did a good job there. It did a good turn not just in giving advice to the Government but for small businesses, in terms of how they will be affected.

With respect to all noble Lords, I think that the House will have found the technical analysis of marginal tax rates by the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, very thought-provoking. I will want to take that away and reflect further on it with colleagues. However, the Government are committed to making work pay. The noble Lord said that hard work should be incentivised, and we can all echo that. He said that it was a key measure of aspiration; again, I think we would echo that. In fact, it was part of the rationale for the introduction of universal credit.

The Budget announced that the personal allowance would be increased to £12,500. We are also investing an additional £1.7 billion per year in universal credit to increase the work allowance for working families and disabled claimants. The national living wage will rise to £8.21 from April 2019. In total, it will have delivered a pay rise of £2,750 for a full-time minimum wage worker since its introduction in 2016.

I am hesitant about reading out more such responses, not because they are not right but because I sense that the mood of the House and, certainly, our mood on the Front Bench—my noble friend Lord Young is with me—is that the noble Lord’s analysis is worthy of further consideration. I am delighted that the Financial Secretary to the Treasury and Paymaster-General said in response to the Budget debate that he would write substantively and reflect on that matter. I will take back to him the noble Lord’s contribution today to ensure that that response encompasses some of the points which he has raised.

A number of comments were made on the health of the economy. The noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, talked about the wide range of allowances and then criticised me for not responding to my noble friend Lord Horam in the Budget debate on his point about the 1,200 allowances which exist. Allowances have been used by successive Governments to incentivise right behaviour in certain areas. This Budget is no different, because it increases the annual investment allowance to £1 million for two years, thus significantly increasing the amount of relief given to businesses that do the right thing by investing in their own businesses and therefore increase our productivity—which the noble Lord, Lord Davies, was concerned about—and increase our tax revenues and growth.

One of the allowances referred to related to the issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, whom I thank for giving me advance notice. She declared her interest as the chair of the board, but I should declare an interest as having been a beneficiary of the museums of Tyne and Wear as a child and as an adult. I am a frequent visitor to the Shipley Art Gallery, which is a fantastic treasure trove of different art, from old masters to modern, contemporary and regional art, as well as crafts and ceramics. I have enjoyed that since I was taken there as a child at school—education is a key part of it. Anything which enhances the wonderful town of Gateshead, which she and I care for, and its cultural heritage—which is not just the Shipley but the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, the Sage, a music centre and the Angel of the North—is welcome. It really is becoming a cultural centre.

The noble Baroness came up with some innovative suggestions as to how the Interpretation Act 1978 could be invoked in the matter that she raised. We have looked carefully at that, and my advice is that the existing legislation is unambiguous and cannot be interpreted in any other way. Any changes would require primary legislation. However—the former Permanent Secretary will be watching carefully what I say here—I think that the spirit and intention behind that measure were clear. Manifestly, it was intended that organisations such as the Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums should be able to benefit from it. The challenge I ask her to leave me with—I have already commenced informal discussions with the Financial Secretary to the Treasury—is how we go about correcting that. Clearly, if it requires primary legislation, which is the current advice, that limits our options as to how quickly we can move, but if there are other ways to do it, we would want to do so. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Davies, echoed his support for efforts in that area and I give her a commitment that it is an anomaly that we want to resolve.

The noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, talked about local authorities. I am conscious that time is short, but loan charges is a hugely important issue that was also raised by my noble friend Lady Noakes in the Budget debate. I wrote to her, and copied in the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, having gone back to the department and looked again at it. There is no requirement on an individual who is not an employee to use a disguised remuneration loan scheme. The tax system expects people to take responsibility for their own tax affairs and if an arrangement looks too good to be true, then it probably is. Hundreds of thousands of people work and pay tax as self-employed workers or through their company without using highly contrived tax avoidance schemes.

The noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, drew attention to what was new Clause 26. The Government chose to accept new Clause 26 during the passage of the Bill and will lay a report in line with the requirements of that new clause no later than 30 March—that is probably going to be a busy day in Parliament. The report will include a comparison with the time limits for the recovery of lost tax relating to disguised remuneration loans. HMRC is working to help people put things right but can only help those who come forward, so we encourage people to come forward. For those people who settle, there are schemes, depending on the income threshold, whereby people can make those tax settlements over a five to seven-year period. As for why taxpayers do not have the right to appeal against advance payment notices and follower notices, Parliament granted HMRC these powers to discourage tax avoidance. Advance payment notices prevent tax avoiders gaining an economic advantage by holding money during the time it takes to complete lengthy tax litigation. Importantly, these rules in no way affect a taxpayer’s right to appeal their tax liability.

The noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, and the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, spoke about future plans for Making Tax Digital. The Government set out a vision for modernisation of the tax system through Making Tax Digital in 2015 and our vision remains unchanged. There will be no further Making Tax Digital mandation until the system has been shown to work well. The sub-committee recommended an independent review of HMRC’s powers. The Government agree that HMRC has to balance the collection of tax with important taxpayer safeguards—again, this was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, and the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull. The powers review was a major project designed to support the merger of Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise and the Inland Revenue. It took seven years and concluded in 2012. There has been no such fundamental change to the department since which might justify a further review. However, the Government keep the tax system under review and note the sub-committee’s recommendation to update the power review in line with principles about the digital age.

I have tried to address noble Lords’ questions. I will review the record of the debate, which has been of a very high quality with lots of points of insight, and if I have missed anything, I will follow up in the usual way and write to those who spoke in the debate. I beg to move.

Bill read a second time. Committee negatived. Standing Order 46 having been dispensed with, the Bill was read a third time and passed.