Taxation (Post-transition Period) Bill

(3rd reading: House of Commons)
Pat McFadden Excerpts
Tuesday 15th December 2020

(10 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber

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HM Treasury
William Cash Portrait Sir William Cash
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Provided the treaty itself, and therefore the Act of Parliament that follows from it, maintain the principles I set out in my question to the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy yesterday, there is no question as to whether we will be entitled to exercise our sovereignty and to displace European Court jurisdiction and the EU laws, for example—there are many others—on state aid. We will be entitled to do so, but it is a matter of constitutional law and also, as I have explained, international law.

I am afraid that there has been a great deal of assertion that we are so-called potentially in breach of international law, but international law recognises the fact that a country can exercise its sovereign rights to defend its economic interests from a national point of view. In fact, Helmut Schmidt did precisely that in, I think, 1998 over the question of the deutschmark and the dollar. There are many examples, and we have not got time to go into them all today.

I will turn to some of the precedents just to illustrate the fact that it is not such a novel idea somehow or other to use a “notwithstanding” clause or formula, and that applies to all parties, whether that is the Labour party, the coalition, where the Liberal Democrats joined in and voted with us on these matters, or the Conservative party. For example, the Income and Corporation Taxes Act 1988 provides that the parts that diverge from treaty obligations—the language of the section was completely unambiguous—were “notwithstanding anything contrary” to those arrangements set out in the Act. The section was enacted to retaliate against the introduction of unitary tax systems adopted by certain states in the US, most notably in California. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) may know about that.

What I am saying is that such provisions are not exactly unusual. Indeed, in the Finance Act 2013, which was under the coalition, the Liberal Democrats went along with allowing Parliament to effectively write a blank cheque to interfere with international treaties—approximately 130 of them, in fact. That provision is still in force. No one questioned the Chancellor’s right to introduce any such legislation or, indeed, the lawfulness of the work of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which still relies on it in combating questions relating to such arrangements.

Then there are other precedents. I shall stick to Finance Acts at this juncture as that is what we are dealing with in the context of this particular Bill, which is, of course, a finance Bill. Section 52 of the Finance (No. 2) Act 1945 overrode aspects of the Ireland-UK tax treaty of 1926. I hope I may be allowed a slight smile here, as I look across the Irish sea and consider the position with regard to the Irish Government in relation to the “notwithstanding” clauses, because we actually did this in 1926. The Act was used as an example in a case involving Collco in which the court said that if the statute is unambiguous, its provisions must be followed even if they are contrary to international law. It could not be clearer. The Finance Act 1955 again overrode the Ireland-UK tax treaty. In the Inland Revenue Commissioners v. Collco Dealings, Viscount Simonds said, “The company has no rights under any agreement. Its rights arise from the Act of Parliament, which confirmed the agreement and give it the force of law.”

Section 59 of the Finance Act 2008 excluded UK residents from benefiting from provisions in respect of profits from the trade etc. Then there is the coalition arrangement under the Taxation (International and Other Provisions) Act 2010 where, again, the position was made entirely clear in accordance with the precedents.

Indeed, it is not just the UK, or even a party in the UK, that has been doing this over a period of time in its economic and national interests. An example from 2020 is the European Central Bank’s bond-buying scheme. In May 2020, the German constitutional court sought to override EU law and the Court of Justice, suggesting that the ECB’s public sector purchase programme was unconstitutional. Then there are the bail-outs. Every one of the bail-outs from 2010 to 2015 could justifiably be described as in breach of article 125 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. I will not read out the details, but I shall give some examples: the first Greek bail-out in 2010; the Irish bail-out in 2010; the Portuguese bail-out, the second Greek bail-out; the Spanish bail-out; the Cypriot bail-out; and the third Greek bail-out in 2015. There are so many examples—whether in the UK, or in relation to other member states, or, indeed, in relation to the EU itself—that have demonstrated that, when it comes to the question of sovereignty and the ability to override treaties, this is done quite often as a matter of course. I am not saying that it is done generally. I am not saying that it happens every week or every day. What I am saying, however, is that it happens and that it happens for good reasons which are directly related to the arguments on sovereignty which I gave at the beginning, and it is not for the unelected House of Lords to tell us. That is why, in this Bill, they would not have been able to do so because of the issue of financial privilege.

I am bringing forward these amendments. I shall decide as we proceed whether I will press them to a vote. I will leave it at that for the moment, because I am more than fascinated to hear the usual Europhile utterings of the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) who is about to speak.

Pat McFadden Portrait Mr Pat McFadden (Wolverhampton South East) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure, as always, to follow the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash). I rise to speak to new clause 3 in the name of the Leader of the Opposition, and, with it, amendments 1 and 2, which are also in his name and the names of my right hon. and hon. Friends. These amendments are pro-business and pro-compliance. They are motivated by trying to get as much information to the businesses affected by the changes in this Bill in as short a timescale as possible.

The Bill that we are discussing sets out a number of taxation changes, many of them as a result of the Northern Ireland protocol. These measures will have an impact on businesses throughout the United Kingdom, but in particular, businesses in Northern Ireland and those who trade with them. In a recent evidence session for the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, HMRC was asked how many new declarations there would be under the kind of system set out in the Bill. The official giving evidence said, to be fair, that it was a new system, so they could not be sure, but that there could be about 11 million new declarations a year. That is a sizeable additional amount of information that businesses have to publish.

The amendments we are putting forward this afternoon try to help those businesses to cope with the changes set out in the Bill. I should stress that nothing in these amendments alters the terms of the changes set out in the clauses or the purpose of the Bill. The Government have signed up to the protocol and we want to see them abide by the agreement they have made. There may be those in the Conservative party—in fact, there almost certainly are—who do not like the obligations that the protocol entails, but we believe that the Government should stick by the commitments they have made. The changes in the Bill are largely, though not entirely, a consequence of that agreement.

However, many of the clauses in the Bill are enabling in their nature. They confer on the Treasury powers that are to be filled in at a later date. For example, clause 1 says that the Treasury may by regulations provide a definition of goods being imported into Northern Ireland that

“are at risk of subsequently being moved into the European Union.”

It goes on to talk about which duties shall apply in the case of these so-called at-risk goods. Very similar language is used in clauses 2 and 5 and a number of the schedules—that the “Treasury may by regulations” provide.

To be fair to the Minister and to the authors of the Bill, there is nothing unusual about a Bill taking enabling powers that are then to be set out in further detail in regulations that come after the Bill has passed its parliamentary proceedings, but what is unusual is the context and the timescale involved. The end of the transition period is in just 16 days and, in the middle of those 16 days comes the Christmas holidays, so the Government are asking businesses to absorb, prepare for and comply with a new series of taxation regulations that those businesses have not yet seen, and to do so over a two-week period coinciding with the biggest holiday of the year. And they are doing that at the end of a year in which the very same businesses have already faced unprecedented turbulence in the wake of a global pandemic.

The businesses concerned do not want to fall foul of regulations. They want to comply. They want to be able to get this right. Businesses in Northern Ireland and the trade bodies that represent them have put in enormous efforts over the past few years to try to prepare for this moment. Of course, they could have spent all that time and effort doing what they were set up to do, which is to provide goods and services to their customers, but the process of Brexit and the specific circumstances of Northern Ireland, which are now enshrined in the Brexit withdrawal deal, have meant that a great deal of effort has had to go into trying to understand the trading and taxation rules that will kick in after the end of this year. So here we are with this Bill, with just over two weeks to go. With the best will in the world, how do the Government expect them to do this on this kind of timescale?

The purpose behind the amendments is very simple: it is, even at this late stage, to encourage the Government to get a move on. When I moved a similar amendment in Committee last week, the Minister said that guidance had been published in October, but that is not what we are talking about here. We are talking about the details of the regulations enabled by this Bill, which was published only last week.

The Minister cannot seriously be telling the House that everything covered by the Bill was dealt with in October, and there is nothing more to add. If that was the case, it would prompt the question as to why it was published only last week. The answer, of course, is that the Government wanted to use it to hold the threat of the kind of provisions that the hon. Member for Stone has just been talking about over the trade negotiations—a damaging and self-defeating tactic.

Many of the regulations stem from the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Act 2018. New clause 3 sets out which sections of that Act are referred to in the Bill and changed by it. It asks the Government to publish the new regulations in short order and, in future, to report on their effects. Even if the Government accepted the new clause and agreed with that, however, it would still be difficult for businesses to understand it all before the new year. Is the Minister confident that HMRC has the capacity to process all the applications for authorisation that are now likely to come in from Northern Ireland-based businesses that want to comply with the new rules from 1 January?

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Jesse Norman Portrait Jesse Norman
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As I have already said to my right hon. Friend, without venturing a percentage, the test for at-risk goods is those where there is a “genuine and substantial risk”, and therefore those are expected to be a smaller proportion of goods, but trade of course is a flexible and ever-changing thing, so whatever numbers there are may change over time.

My right hon. Friend also asked a question about the EU. I am not going to speculate on what the EU does, but I can assure him that there will be no EU customs, embassy or the like and no joint control over customs in Northern Ireland. HMRC will remain the tax authority for Northern Ireland, as it is for the whole of the UK.

The Bill also includes new powers that will enable HMRC to raise tax charges under the controlled foreign companies legislation for the period 2013 to 2018. Lastly, to help level the playing field for UK businesses, the Bill also moves VAT collection on certain imported goods away from the border and removes VAT relief on low-value consignments to clamp down on VAT abuse and to protect our high streets.

The Bill gives businesses throughout the UK certainty about the arrangements that will apply from 1 January of next year. Above all, it helps the Government to safeguard what we all prize and desire, or should all prize and desire: the unity and integrity of the United Kingdom. I commend the Bill to the House.

Pat McFadden Portrait Mr McFadden
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I do not propose to detain the House for very long. I thank the Minister for the typically courteous way in which he has led these short debates on the Bill. He has outlined the changes that the Bill makes through its various clauses on customs, VAT, insurance liability and so on, and I do not propose to repeat all that.

From our point of view, and as I have made clear all along, we do not oppose the passage of this Bill, because we understand that these changes have to be put in place. The Government reached agreement on the Northern Ireland protocol. We want them to stick to and abide by their agreements as we want the EU to stick to and abide by its agreements, too. Many of the changes in the Bill stem from those agreements. I also reiterate my party’s strong support for the Good Friday agreement and for policies and practices that uphold the spirit and letter of the agreement into the future.

We have set out our views on the timing of the Bill and the difficulties that the changes it outlines pose for businesses trying to comply with them. The Minister has said it is always last minute with the EU and that it was always going to be like this. I am not sure I fully agree with that. We are asking a lot of businesses with just a couple of weeks of the year left, in the midst of the pandemic and as we are about to enter the Christmas holiday period. I hope that the Minister and the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, the hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Kemi Badenoch), who joined him last week, are correct when they say that everything will be in place by 1 January, but I cannot help but reflect at this time of year that perhaps in the minds of many it did not always need to be like this. Perhaps the Prime Minister’s Christmas wish—all he wanted for—was that the German car manufacturers would come riding over the hill and influence the negotiations. I hope that Santa visits all good boys and girls over the Christmas period, but I do not think that that particular Christmas wish of the Prime Minister and many of his colleagues is going to come true. This week, just as last week, one gets the impression that the action is elsewhere. I do not know whether an agreement will be reached in the next couple of days. There has been some rumour and social media chatter that we are heading in that direction over the past hour or so. Time will tell and wisdom would counsel us to wait to see what happens before making any predictions.

These measures in the Bill are largely a result of the commitments that the Government have made. I hope they are not too burdensome on businesses because at the end of all this—both the Brexit process and the covid period, which we hope to see come to an end through the use of the vaccine—we will have to gather around a process of business getting back to what it does: trading, serving its customers, providing goods and services and helping economic growth to come back to the country. There may be competing visions as to how best that should happen in the future, and what a blessed debate that would be in our politics, rather than some of the issues that have coloured it over recent years. I thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and all the Members who have contributed to debates on this Bill.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
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I also wish to thank the Minister and the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson, the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), for the way in which this debate has been conducted, as well as the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) for his contributions, which were typically detailed. There is one point of detail that I was quite surprised that he missed. I have been saving this up the end, just in the hope that he might have picked up on it. He has waxed lyrical about sovereignty, as he does in every single debate I think he has ever spoken in, but I am quite surprised that he allowed to fly the EU setting the level of taxation on aviation gasoline. The reason that I am quite surprised about that, in the most ludicrous of ludicrous Brexit-based patriotic ironies, is that avgas is the fuel used not just in private and leisure aircraft, as the Minister set out, but in Spitfires, Hurricanes and other similar planes. There is some mad irony in the UK Government handing over to the EU the power to set the taxation on those vintage planes that bear so much patriotism among so many people.

I suppose that it is typical of the Government’s approach to all of this that there is so much detail in the Bill that we cannot possibly see—