First, the hon. Gentleman’s knowledge of my constituency is obviously rather deficient, because I expect that mine shares many characteristics in common with his. I do not dispute the fact that any major fiscal move, such as putting up national insurance and bringing in this levy in this manner, will have associated complexities and difficulties. My pledge to the House is that the Treasury Committee will, I am sure, after private discussion, decide that we wish to look more closely at a number of the issues that are being raised in this debate, including the one that he mentioned.
Let us be honest about the options that were available to the Treasury. How could we have squared the circle and funded £10 billion-plus a year? The first thing that the Treasury could have done is to seek to cut expenditure in other areas, yet I have no doubt that if it came forward with any proposals of that nature, the Opposition would have fiercely resisted that as austerity all over again. We have to understand that on the current projections, there are many unfunded commitments, including, for example, keeping our railways going, going for net zero, additional funding that will be needed for school catch-up and so on.
I will come back to the hon. Gentleman’s point, but let me just stick with the options. The second option was to lean into growth, to assume that we could grow our way out of this problem. We have just had a huge contraction of the economy. We are not yet back up to the pre-pandemic level, although the Bank of England thinks that we may arrive at that point some time towards the end of the year, and we have many headwinds to growth ahead of us, not least the bottlenecks in supply chains, the labour shortages that we have witnessed in certain areas, and many other issues.
The third thing that the Treasury could have done is to borrow more money, and that is probably what the Opposition would have done in this situation. Despite the fact that the Bank of England now seems to feel that there is more money—I suspect that the Office for Budget Responsibility will confirm that around the time of the Budget— because the economy is doing a bit better than we expected, probably to the tune of about £25 billion, it would be a very brave Chancellor who started to borrow yet more and more, knowing that one day it is possible that the markets might turn around and look at the United Kingdom and decide that they no longer have confidence to lend to us. That would be a very dark day.
This area of social care has not had a happy history in respect of political point scoring, and, unfortunately, we have seen plenty of that today on the Opposition Benches. However, it is unacceptable for us to play Russian roulette with people’s life savings when it comes to social care. One in seven people are going to be affected by this. Just because their loved one died of dementia rather than cancer, their life savings are being entirely wiped out. That is not right, but it is right that we are doing something about it, and I am glad that we are seeing some element of cross-party consensus on the model. It is the Dilnot model, and the Health and Social Committee, of which I am a member, put it forward as a proposal. It was supported by the Liberal Democrats when we were in government with them, and to a degree, I think, by the Labour party. So at least we are moving forward slightly in that regard. The real question now is how we pay for this. There has been a lot of confected indignation on the other side of the House to cover up a lack of a plan. National insurance is imperfect in many ways, but, as Tony Blair said:
“If we want sustained investment in the NHS over a period of time, we are going to have to pay for it.”
He suggested that national insurance was the fairest and best way to do it. I agree with him, even if members of his own party do not seem to. Paul Johnson from the Institute for Fiscal Studies says that
“overall much needed reforms to social care are being introduced and unavoidable pressures on the NHS are being funded through a broad based and broadly progressive tax increase. That is better than doing nothing.”
It is incumbent on Opposition Members to really look at themselves and to understand whether they think real change is needed. If it is, they need to come up with a better alternative. Otherwise, they need to walk through the Lobby with Members on this side of the House who are taking difficult decisions on behalf of our constituents. These are not easy decisions. They are not decisions that can be explained away by saying that we are not doing this in a broad-based way when we are, or by making things up about this not being progressive when it is. We are taking these difficult decisions because that is what the Conservatives do in a moment of crisis.
My colleague on the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow), was right to say that reform was needed. This is an awful lot of money that we are putting into a system that is very broken. A third of social care staff leave every year and there are 120,000 vacancies in the sector. We will need to up the quality of provision and to inspect it properly. We will need to ensure that the integrated care services that are being put in place are assessed by the Care Quality Commission. We will also need to ensure that local government is held to account on the standards of care that it provides. These are all important reforms. We need to ensure that social care is truly part of the NHS, so that a nurse can take a year to go and work in the care service and then come back into a hospital. These reforms will all be necessary to ensure that we deliver on our high ambitions for change. We are taking steps to make that change. We will ensure that the options available to families are of high quality and that they will not take away their life savings. We are taking difficult decisions, and the Opposition need to look at themselves and decide whether they are doing the same.
I have just given way and addressed my right hon. Friend’s points head on. Let me, in turn, address head on the points raised by the shadow Chancellor, the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves).
In the shadow Chancellor’s speech, she said that she opposed the levy despite, as a number of Members pointed out, the previous Labour Government taking a similar approach in 2002-03, because she supports taxing wealth. The problem with that is that only a broad-based tax base, such as income tax, VAT or national insurance contributions, can raise the sums needed for such a significant investment. Again, that was a point made by critics of the Government, including my good friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker). It could not be raised by taxes on wealth. Currently £6 billion is raised from inheritance tax, £8.7 billion from capital gains tax and £12.3 billion from property transaction tax. Indeed, that case was demolished by the Chair of the Treasury Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride), as well as by my hon. Friends the Members for Dudley South (Mike Wood) and for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), who highlighted that to raise the revenue required requires a broad-based approach.
One of the features of the Dilnot proposals—Dilnot has been very frank about this—is that his costs ramp up over time. That is why the initial funding is £5.4 billion, but obviously, the social care element will increase. I will come to the case put forward by SNP Members, who seem bizarrely not to want the Union dividend that is offered and to not be seeking that additional funding. Let me finish on the Opposition amendment—
The hon. Gentleman mentions the regulatory framework, and I am sure that he will go on to say whether he feels there were also shortcomings from the regulator itself in this case. The FCA’s attention was drawn to the boiler-room tactics of Blackmore Bond and the fact that it was pretty much a Ponzi scheme back in March 2017, yet three years later the company was still operating. It is simply unacceptable that the FCA should have taken that approach and not been more proactive.
I am sure the sky will not fall down, but I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s giving way.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that financial devastations such as the Blackmore Bond scandal have the potential to be avoided if there is proper scrutiny by regulatory authorities, which the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) referred to? Does he also acknowledge that, often, that work starts with us in this House making legislative change?
I congratulate the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) on securing this debate. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) for their contributions. I extend my sympathies to the Blackmore Bond investors. The hon. Member for Glenrothes set out the distress that has been caused to those many individuals, some of whom are his constituents. I am painfully aware of their very challenging situation through my own conversations and correspondence, and this evening we have heard more of those troubling accounts. Given these difficult circumstances, it is only right that I explain the reasoning behind the Government’s course of action and some of the decisions that we have made so far. I will also touch on the conduct of the FCA, the independent regulator.
Let me first remind the House of the background to this situation. As Members will be aware, Blackmore Bond was an unregulated firm established in 2016. Between 2016 and 2018, it issued non-transferable debt securities, otherwise known as mini-bonds, to retail investors. It raised £46 million, involving approximately 2,800 UK investors, to be used in property development projects. Blackmore stopped making coupon payments in 2019 and administrators were appointed on 22 April last year.
The orientation of most of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks was about the failures of the FCA, but I want to try to address some of his other specific points. He asked about the way that Blackmore hid behind other regulated firms such as Amyma. It is true that although several other firms were involved in the distribution of Blackmore bonds, some of which were authorised by the FCA, the Blackmore bond itself was not regulated. Amyma was not directly authorised by the FCA. It was an appointed representative of another authorised firm, Equity For Growth (Securities) Ltd, between July 2018 and September 2019, when its status was terminated. The FCA intervened to take down Amyma’s website following further investigation. Similarly, as a result of steps taken by the FCA, Northern Provident Investments, an FCA-authorised firm, withdrew its approval of Blackmore’s promotional materials, meaning that its bonds could no longer be marketed. This is clearly a very complex area, but ultimately the FCA cannot be said to have the same set of responsibilities towards unauthorised firms engaged in unregulated activities.
I have set out the record as the FCA has presented it. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will wish to continue correspondence with the FCA on some of those unresolved matters. However, I do make the distinction between the different responsibilities that the FCA has with regard to the different actors in this case.
It is only right that we do our utmost to minimise the chance of episodes like Blackmore Bond taking place in future, so I want to turn to the regulation of mini-bonds and the steps we are taking to safeguard consumers, which was a key focus of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. I want to be clear to the House that the Government are committed to ensuring that the financial services sector is well regulated and consumers are adequately protected. That is why in April we launched a consultation that includes proposals to bring the issuance of mini-bonds into regulation. This follows the action taken by the FCA to ban the promotion of high-risk mini-bonds. This work is the culmination of a review into the regulation of mini-bonds that I announced in May 2019, and it delivers on one of the recommendations of Dame Elizabeth Gloster’s recent report. The consultation closes next month, in July, after which the Government hope to bring forward plans to legislate in the autumn.
The hon. Member for Glenrothes also referred to the financial promotions regime, and I think that underlying that was a concern about what the Government are doing to improve the efficacy of the regime. We continue to keep the legislative framework underpinning the regulation of financial promotions under review, including whether it is suitable for the digital age. The Government have set out our intention to bring forward legislation to create a regulatory gateway for authorised firms approving the promotion of unauthorised firms. That change is designed to strengthen the regime by ensuring that the firms able to approve financial promotions are limited to those with the relevant expertise to do so. The FCA will be able to better identify when a financial promotion has breached the restriction and take action accordingly.
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. There are many reasons why clarity about the limitations of Government responsibility and taxpayer responsibility, to put it another way, would be extremely helpful. The very fact of producing the Bill will mean that the Government have asked those questions anyway. As I said earlier, the cost in this case is expected to be about £120 million. The costs of clause 2, which we will come to later, are expected to be over £300 million. Over both clauses the cost will therefore be more than £400 million. That is a large sum of public money that will, in the case of clause 2, be recouped over a period of years from pension scheme members.
Of course, it is possible to have investment failings on an even greater scale. Is there any upper limit that the Treasury would see to such taxpayer exposure, or is it always to be on a case-by-case basis? In theory, investment failings could cost billions rather than hundreds of millions. Our amendment seeks to clarify the Government’s thinking on that, which would be beneficial to Parliament and the public.
Those are the reasons why we have tabled this amendment. We think that the compensation scheme and the whole story of the collapse of LCF demands such clarity and that reports such as the one we have called for would be beneficial.
I am particularly drawn to proposed subsection 5(b) of amendment 7. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman shares my view that one measure the Government need to require of the FCA in the future, to prevent further such regulatory failures, is for it to take a more hands-on approach when customers get in contact to raise concerns about particular businesses; and to make it a point of principle that, when a significant number of customers raise concerns about the activities of a firm, the FCA might actually try to meet some of those customers, rather than, as appears to be the case at the moment, only bothering to meet representatives of the board and management of said firm.
I do not intend to detain the Committee long, because my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East made an excellent speech on this issue; I merely want to underline the point that I made in when intervening on him. There seems to be a degree of risk in the Government’s approach. Again, it would be good to hear from the Minister to better understand why the level of regulatory failure in this particular case should merit Government compensation, whereas if there were to be regulatory failure in, say, the case of the FCA’s handling of the demutualisation of Liverpool Victoria, that would not merit compensation for the 1 million-plus customers and owners of that financial services business.
I also underline the point that I made when intervening on the hon. Member for Glenrothes, who speaks for the Scottish National party, on the need of the FCA to perhaps rethink its approach to consumers more generally. At least one of the regulators in the financial services business case that I have particularly been following—that of Liverpool Victoria—has met representatives of that organisation some 35-plus times but has not met consumers at all. That seems to be an example of the FCA continuing not to have properly thought through where it might need to change its practices going forward. I know the Minister will be looking at this issue, and I gently encourage him to focus particularly on that aspect of the regulatory failure.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East underlined the point in Dame Elizabeth Gloster’s report that there have been 600 phone calls from customers about LCF’s poor performance, yet that still did not seem to spur on the FCA to take action quickly. There are almost 10 times as many consumers who are members of Liverpool Victoria as those who invested in LCF, which surely further underlines the need to get right how the FCA handles the consumer interests going forward. I look forward to the Minister’s answers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani, and I thank all Committee members for their consideration of this important legislation.
As I set out on Second Reading, the Bill is a vital step in compensating LCF bondholders, and I will now turn directly to the consideration of amendments 1 and 7. As the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East set out, amendment 1 seeks to add a requirement for the Secretary of State to lay before Parliament a set of criteria for when the taxpayer should compensate investors for investment failures. In essence, it brings some clarity about when the mechanism that we are adopting, and hopefully funding, through the passage of the Bill would be used. Amendment 7 seeks to require the Secretary of State to lay before Parliament a report that assesses the impact of the Government’s compensating the customers of London Capital & Finance plc, as well as broader issues relevant to the mis-selling scandal.
I have listened very carefully to the speeches made during the passage of the Bill, on Second Reading and today, and to the evidence that we received this morning. I am particularly drawn to the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire, who acknowledged that a degree of risk is involved with any investment. With the right set of regulations and requirements, however, investors can be equipped with the right information to understand their risks and to make informed choices. The Government’s scheme appropriately balances the interests of both bondholders and the taxpayer, and it will ensure that all LCF bondholders receive a fair level of compensation for the financial loss they have suffered.
I turn now to compensation. I must reiterate that LCF’s failure was unique and exceptional. It is the only failed mini-bond issuer that was FCA-authorised and was selling bonds in order to on-lend to other companies. In conjunction with the FCA, the Treasury has looked at eight mini-bond firms that have failed in recent years, and LCF is unique in that respect. It is important to emphasise that the Government cannot and should not stand behind every investment loss. As I have probably said previously, LCF’s business model was highly unusual in both its scale and structure, and the extraordinary circumstances surrounding its collapse are unique.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention because it takes me to the question of what the Government are doing to improve the efficacy of the financial promotions regime that he mentioned in respect of a different failure. We continue to keep the legislative framework underpinning the regulation of financial promotions under review, including whether it is suitable for the digital age. Many of the promotions are obviously online. We will publish a response in the early summer to the consultation on a regulatory gateway for authorised firms approving the promotion of unauthorised firms. It is not an issue that we take lightly. Change, once in place, is designed to strengthen the regime by ensuring that firms able to approve financial promotions are limited to those with the relevant expertise to do so. The FCA will be better able to identify when a financial promotion has breached the restrictions and take action accordingly, but that does not mean that the LCF failure is not unique and of a different scale and quality from some of the other failures.
I am grateful for the Minister’s response.
I am not entirely convinced about the relationship between on-lending and the decision to compensate. I am sure that the Minister is correct in the literal sense that this was the only regulated firm that was selling unregulated mini-bonds. I am not saying that the Minister is wrong, but from reading the report I believe that Dame Elizabeth would have made the same findings. The mini-bonds were not doing what it said on the tin: they were not on-lending but pyramid selling.
The degree of failure, the degree of investment loss and the degree of regulatory failure are not directly related to the point about on-lending: it is more substantial than that. I am not convinced that all the elements of the Government’s case add up. It looks to me as though they have had to find a unique element to insulate themselves from court action or other claims.
We are trying to put ourselves into discussions that we have not been party to so, to some extent, I am speculating on the way that the Government have built their argument.
I have made the point and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
My hon. Friend makes a very strong point. The question of the perimeter is inescapable. One of Dame Elizabeth’s recommendations is that the Government consider the FCA’s remit, and the Government have said that they accept all her recommendations. The Minister said in his evidence to the Select Committee that this cannot be pinned on the perimeter, as it were, but as a conclusion of what has happened the perimeter must be considered. The Government have accepted that.
One way to deal with this is to say that regulated firms and regulated products must be brought together—I shall be grateful for the Minister’s response on that—but if that is not deemed to be the right response how will the question of the remit and the perimeter be responded to? At the heart of this failure is the halo effect of a regulated firm selling unregulated products.
Recommendation 13 is about ensuring that the legislative framework keeps pace with the sale of products through technology platforms. This field of activity is growing daily. It is driven by technological innovation—the movement of more and more activity online—and perhaps by the increased time people have had during the lockdowns to invest online. I do not want to try your patience, Ms Ghani, by delving too deeply into that today, but I think that this issue will occupy the House and this Minister in particular over the next couple of years. We will have to return to it again and again in the House, but recommendation 13 is precisely about legislation on selling things through technological platforms, and the Government and the FCA will have to adapt to it or they will fall behind the reality of the market and of financial crime.
Most of these issues have been put in the hands of the new chief executive, Nikhil Rathi, and the trans-formation programme to which the Minister referred on Second Reading. How are we to know that the 13 recommendations have been implemented? It is easy when a report is published to say, “We accept the findings.” The key is: are they followed through and properly implemented?
Dame Elizabeth’s report should be more than a series of individual recommendations. As she said this morning, it should result in a culture change. Much more communication needs to take place between different parts of the FCA while, crucially, not dropping the ball on regulated firms and unregulated products.
It is unfair of any of us, in government or in opposition, to load more responsibilities on to the FCA if it does not have the resources to fulfil them. We are clear in our amendment that the resources of the FCA have to be covered. Does the FCA have the resources to meet the ever-expanding list of responsibilities, including those on-shored as a result of our departure from the EU? It is funded through a levy on the sectors for which it is responsible. Is the levy giving it enough resources?
The failure of LCF exposed such a degree of dysfunctionality that it prompted the question: can the FCA really do its job? If not, the Government have to act because the public need the protection of a powerful regulator. The imbalance of information between the sellers of financial services products and the buyers absolutely demands that. This amendment is aimed at our receiving a report on the 13 recommendations and on their implementation by both the FCA and the Treasury. Its acceptance would provide Parliament and the public with a mechanism to ensure that statements saying that the recommendations had been accepted had actually been followed through and action taken.
I rise to support amendment 2, in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East. I share some of the frustration that the hon. Member for Glenrothes aired: this is the only route available to the Opposition to signal to the Government and the FCA the need to provide a continuing update on their progress in implementing the lessons that have been learned from the LCF scandal. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East went through some of the many issues and recommendations that Dame Elizabeth Gloster’s report highlighted, but let me pick out five in particular.
First, the FCA failed to consider LCF holistically. Indeed, as my right hon. Friend pointed out, we got Dame Elizabeth to emphasise again in the evidence session today that the most significant issue was a very restricted approach to the regulatory perimeter. I will come back to that point.
Secondly, the FCA’s policy documents were unclear on the handling of key questions. Thirdly, its staff had not been trained sufficiently in various key and crucial matters. Fourthly, there was a series of gaps in the law that needed fixing in order to enable proper regulation. Fifthly, the issue that my right hon. Friend touched on last was the FCA’s scope and capacity to intervene effectively on consumers’ behalf—did it have sufficient powers?
Let me turn to the first of those concerns—the restricted approach to the regulatory perimeter and whether the FCA has learned to consider issues to do with consumers holistically. The example that I gave when I intervened on my right hon. Friend was that of a financial service business that has recommended to its customers something that the FCA has approved, only for it to come down the line, 12 months later, and suggest the reverse approach. That is effectively what is happening in the case of Liverpool Victoria. I do not want to test your patience too much, Ms Ghani, but let me clarify that example very briefly.
Liverpool Victoria converted to a company limited by guarantee from a friendly society two years ago. The FCA looked at it—
Out of courtesy, I am very happy to respond to my colleagues. The right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East asked why the 80% figure was not 100%. As I have tried to explain through the submissions that I have made, the Government have been trying throughout to balance the interests of bondholders and the taxpayer to ensure that we have a fair level of compensation in respect of the financial losses incurred. The scheme is based on the FSCS level of compensation but, as he knows, it is 80% up to that cap of £68,000 to reflect the unregulated nature of the LCF product.
I emphasise that it is imperative to avoid creating the misconception that Government will stand behind bad investments in future, even where the FSCS does not apply. That would create a moral hazard for investors and potentially lead individuals to choose unsuitable investments thinking that the Government will provide compensation when things go wrong. To avoid creating that misconception, and to take into account the wide range of factors that contributed to the losses that the Government would not ordinarily compensate for, the Government will establish the scheme at the level of 80% of LCF bondholders’ initial investment up to the maximum of £68,000. With any investment, there is clearly a risk that sometimes investors will lose money, and the Government and taxpayer cannot and should not be expected to step in and compensate for every failure and every loss. It would not be right or fair for investors in non-regulated products to receive fuller compensation than those who have invested in regulated products, for which the maximum amount is capped at £85,000 under the FSCS.
On the remarks of the hon. Member for Glenrothes about the individuals involved in an ongoing serious fraud inquiry, I am not familiar with the detail, but obviously I am happy to receive any representations. I hope that brings satisfaction to the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Loans to the Board of the Pension Protection Fund
I gather that we have a possible vote in the House, so I will attempt my entire response in 10 minutes. Before I do so, it is right that, on behalf of the entire Committee, I thank you for chairing the Committee, Ms Ghani. As the former ports and shipping Minister, and in a month when we celebrate the first female Royal Navy captain, some might argue that you are a well-qualified captain to keep what is—let us be honest—a motley crew in order. If you run for Speaker, Ms Ghani, I will definitely be supporting you.
Let me discuss what clause 2 does and does not do. It creates a power to make a loan to the board of the Pension Protection Fund, following the decision of 6 November 2020 in the case of the PPF v. Dalriada. It achieves that by inserting a new section into the Pensions Act 2004 to provide the Secretary of State with a power to loan money to the board of the PPF.
I think it is fair to point out to the Committee that the clause deals with matters that are predominantly––almost entirely––to do with 2010 to 2014. Many would wish to make this a case about pension freedoms, when in fact pension freedoms post-dated these matters. It is clearly a serious and important matter, and, following a court decision, the Government have accepted the entirety of that decision.
The practical reality is that the Fraud Compensation Fund has assets of £26.2 million, and the potential liability arising from the court judgment is £350 million. I accept that points have been made in respect of how the loan is to be repaid in the longer term and I will address that, but I shall now turn briefly to the amendments.
Amendment 3 seeks an impact assessment. With great respect to the Members who tabled that request, it is utterly unnecessary. It is, in fact, precluded by the decision of the House on section 22 of the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015, of which I am sure Members are acutely aware. It states that impact assessments are not required in respect of levies or other such charges in these particular circumstances.
Secondly, the clause is implementing a court judgment.
That is a very fair question that I shall attempt to answer while I am on my feet, but I believe that it is not required. Section 22 of the 2015 Act excludes impact from the definition of regulatory provision, so I believe that it is an exclusion rather than a requirement. If I am wrong in any way, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman and correct myself. I may be corrected while I am on my feet, although in the brave new world of covid, that is quite difficult, as I am sure that he understands.
Clearly, if we were to do an impact assessment at this time, it would fundamentally delay the implementation of payment to members, and the blunt truth is that the PPF will run out of money by October if we do not progress this legislation. The levy increase will be consulted on post the passing of this Bill. It will need consultation, regulations and debate in the usual way.
Amendment 5 would also delay the progress of this matter. The Government will respond to the Work and Pensions Committee, to which I gave detailed evidence, before the end of the summer term. The full response of the Government in respect of all matters relating to such scams will be made before the end of term. We are already progressing Project Bloom and there is the work of the Money and Pensions Service that was introduced by my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury in the previous Act that we worked on. We have produced section 125 of the Pension Schemes Act 2021, which Her Majesty signed on the dotted line in early February, and the consequential transfer regulations that we have consulted on over the past month to ensure that pension scams are prevented on an ongoing basis.
I have been asked to address other matters. It is clear that Ministers are engaging with various organisations, including Google and Facebook. The two of us have made our views very clear to those organisations about how they should regulate themselves. I agree that Pension Wise should be used more but, with great respect, I disagree with the Chair of the Select Committee’s proposal for the many good reasons that I outlined in the debates on Report and Third Reading of the 2021 Act. Clearly the work that we are doing jointly with the Treasury and other organisations, including the FCA, on stronger nudges towards using Pension Wise and other things will make a massive difference.
On amendment 6, there is already an annual report. In true Chamberlain style, I have it here in my hand: the annual report of the Pension Protection Fund, which is published every July. I know, Ms Ghani, that you will have read the most recent version, and will be looking forward with bated breath to the July 2021 report, which will specifically address the issues whose importance today’s witness made very clear.
In those circumstances, I invite hon. Members not to press their amendments.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. His words resonate with my own. The family will be greatly encouraged by our comments.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and her reasoned and valuable contribution—a well-thought-out contribution, which we wholeheartedly support. She referred to cross-party support. I hope my comments today will add cross-party support to the two previous speakers.
I understand that the regulations for business rates relief are handled in a different way in Northern Ireland than here on the mainland, and in Scotland, but the issues are the same. The ten-minute rule Bill regarding business rates means that we perhaps can and should take a UK-wide, holistic view of this matter.
I read with great interest the comments that highlight the belief that business rates were designed for a bygone era, where business went hand-in-hand with high street premises. The way we shop is now changing forever and the coronavirus has exacerbated those changes. Online sales now account for 33% of all retail sales, compared with 20% only a year ago.
I have been very impressed with my local council in my constituency of Strangford, which is working with businesses on the high street to retain their presence while they enter online forums. I have seen businesses, many of which were only able to open last week in Northern Ireland, come to terms with the new click-and-collect era and other ways of doing business. As we have watched businesses roll with gut-wrenching punches, it has highlighted to me that perhaps we, too, in this place, must advocate for change that makes sense in the post-covid world, where we are today. I see the wisdom, as I have seen many times in the past, of the rationale of the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton. I am interested to hear more and learn more of the outworking of the proposals that I have heard from my respected colleague and friend, as well as of those from the hon. Member for Walthamstow.
When I read the Library briefing for today’s debate, I was dismayed but not shocked at the companies seeking to take advantage of struggling businesses who are appealing the rates. The scams were wide-ranging and intricate, and it is clear that the current system leaves itself open for the kinds of abuses that both hon. Members refer to—yet another indicator that something needs to change, and change soon. The FSB contacted and asked me to put on record, as others have done, that they believe business rate companies should be licensed to access business rates records on behalf of businesses. There would be a low barrier to access, but a condition of the license would be to ban cowboy practices. The hon. Gentleman for Thirsk and Malton’s introduction used a lot of descriptive nouns for them without using any bad language, which I thought was quite good and I really relate to that. We could probably think of other things which would be unparliamentary and not appropriate. Nonetheless, it illustrates how we all feel.
While recent business rates reductions during the pandemic were welcome, too many businesses find themselves with an unexpected bill from these companies. Their predatory payment tactics mean that where Government policy reduced the bill to nil, these companies claim the reduction as part of their work, and charge year on year. Many businesses end up with a bill for £1,000 plus, when the only change has been as a result of Government policy. The Government does it, and they do it because that is their job. These guys come along and charge for it, when the Government does all the work. It reminds me of the cuckoo. We all know what the cuckoo does—he jumps into the nest of another bird, eats all the food that the parents give and has nothing to do with the parent birds. These are cuckoo companies and in my opinion deliver something that is totally wrong. Too often the conditions are hidden in the trading terms and conditions.
I welcome the schemes in England, such as extra targeted support packages for businesses and relief for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses, and the corresponding help in Northern Ireland. I put on record my thanks to the Minister and the Government—my Government—for all they have done to help businesses in the constituency of Strangford, and across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. They have kept those businesses afloat and we thank them for it. However, the fact of the matter is that businesses will need ongoing help. Rather than further complex and detailed schemes, now is the time to overview and change the entire system, as the hon. Gentleman for Thirsk and Malton referred to in his introduction. There must be a genuine review of how we can support businesses to survive, maintain a presence, and importantly continue with job creation. I believe we will get a bounce whenever we come out of lockdown, but we need to continue that bounce right through into the months and years ahead. When it comes to business, we have to play the long game, investing in small businesses, and knowing that in the end we will recoup every penny that has been outlaid when jobs continue and taxes are paid in manageable amounts to keep the business open and viable.
In conclusion, I believe the suggestions of the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton are useful in moving forward, and I join him and the hon. Member for Walthamstow in asking the Government to put serious thought and manpower behind making this change for the good of business, our economy, and consequently, the quality of life throughout the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for the chance to respond on behalf of the Opposition to this important debate. I applaud the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) for having secured the debate on the need to regulate business rate relief services and for drawing our attention to the shocking and distressing detail of what happened to Miss Carter’s business in his constituency and of the wider appalling behaviour of RVA Surveyors.
I welcome the comments made by the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) on the wider need for action on predatory business practices, and those made by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), who added to the description of the shocking behaviour of RVA Surveyors, reminding us that she is a tireless campaigner for businesses in her constituency. I also recognise the comments of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who mentioned the need for business rates to be looked at more widely to reflect the modern world and to support our high streets.
Our high streets are only just beginning to be able to get back on their feet after more than a year of covid restrictions in some form. Many of the problems they face, however, did not begin when covid hit; they have faced challenges in making ends meet since long before the pandemic started. In that context, it is shameful that con artists should prey on the financial insecurity of some small and medium-sized businesses at this of all times, and I am sure that all Members welcome the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton bringing such concerning practice to our attention.
Let us be clear about how some providers of so-called business rate relief services operate. As we have heard, they claim that they will navigate through the local authority’s system on behalf of businesses and perhaps play hard ball with the Valuation Office Agency to negotiate business rate relief for companies. Their claims, however, could not be further from the truth. In fact, some of the businesses that need support most are lured—often on a no relief, no fee basis—into multi-year contracts that entitle the service providers to a huge percentage of any business rates savings made by the company. That results in astonishing and predatory commission fees for arranging benefits that are often applied freely and automatically by local authorities. Many businesses are entitled to small business rate relief, and others in the retail, leisure and hospitality sectors receive grants automatically or can apply through their local council website.
To spell out what that means in practice, let me set out an example, using conservative values nowhere near as bad as the worst cases that have been reported in the media. Take a new small business with a rateable value of about £13,500—a nursery, perhaps, or a small café. Its business rate prior to any relief would be in the region of £6,750. Were it unaware that it was entitled to small business rate relief, it might be tempted to contract with a business rate relief service, which would promise to negotiate a discounted rate for business in exchange for—again being conservative—say a 30% commission on any money saved. The service might stipulate—again, conservatively—a two-year contract, well below the five years or far longer that we have seen in the press or spoken about today.
In the 2019 financial year, that business would have been entitled to a 50% deduction through the small business rate relief. In the following year, covid measures increased that to 100%. Over those two years alone, with just a 30% commission, the provider of that so-called business rate relief service would take just shy of £3,000 off the new café or nursery. That is money that the new business was automatically entitled to and should have benefited from, yet the service provider took it off that business having added no meaningful value.
That is a deeply unethical business practice; it is exploitative, and targets those who need the relief the most. At present, these services are free to prey on vulnerable businesses, because there is no regulation in place and perhaps because too many businesses are unaware of the reliefs they are automatically entitled to. Although the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton disagrees with me fairly often in the Chamber, I have no disagreement with him whatever in saying that there is no place for this kind of practice in the UK. I look forward to hearing from the Minister what the Government intend to do about this parasitic behaviour, which can do so much to harm small businesses.
I would also be grateful if, as the hon. Gentleman alluded to, the Minister would take the opportunity in his response to set out his position on some of the wider challenges posed by the business rates system to small and medium businesses, particularly those on the high street, which have faced difficulties for many years in making ends meet. I am of course aware that the Government have said that their final report on a fundamental review of business rates will be published in autumn 2021, so perhaps the Minister can start by confirming that this deadline will still be met. While recognising the promised publication date in the autumn, will the Minister none the less take this opportunity to update us on the Government’s thinking regarding any alternatives they are considering to the current system, as introduced in 1988? Can he guarantee that high street businesses will benefit from the reform and that online retailers will be asked to take on a fairer share? Finally, despite restrictions potentially—hopefully—being lifted on 21 June, we expect the impact of covid on businesses to continue beyond that date. Are there any circumstances in which the Minister would consider extending the 100% business rate relief for a further three months beyond the end of June, as called for by the Opposition ahead of the Budget?
As I have made clear, we agree with the concerns raised by the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton. He is right to raise them, and I hope the Minister will be clear about what the Government will do to tackle the parasitic behaviour of so-called business rate relief services. As he will know, however, business rates are in need of a comprehensive review, so I would welcome his also updating us on the Government’s latest position on the wider points I have raised.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Angela. I thank the Minister for her explanation of clause 98, which restricts the entitlement to use red diesel and related biodiesel for most sectors from April 2022.
We support the Government’s intention behind the measure, which was first announced in the 2020 Budget. There is a clear need to ensure that fuel duty rebates are as limited as possible in order to meet our net-zero commitment. I note that several sectors retain their entitlement to use red diesel, including agriculture, rail transport and permanently moored houseboats. More recently, the Government have announced further exemptions, including generating power from non-commercial premises for amateur sports clubs and for travelling fairs and circuses.
I have a couple of questions for the Minister about the impact on individual sectors. I know that the waste sector made a representation to the Treasury arguing that removing its red diesel entitlements
“could increase the cost of recycling, which may result in waste being diverted to landfill instead and the cost of recycled goods increasing relative to virgin materials.”
Would the Exchequer Secretary assure us that that issue was looked at carefully and that the impact on recycling was considered? Would she also say a little about compliance in the industries where the entitlement is being removed? She mentioned that the Treasury had been working closely with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to ensure that compliance was followed, but what monitoring and enforcement will the Government use to ensure that red diesel is used only for approved purposes?
May I turn briefly to recreational boat owners in Northern Ireland? The Government have confirmed that private pleasure craft in Northern Ireland will have to use white diesel from June this year in order to implement a ruling of the European Court of Justice. The Royal Yachting Association, British Marine and the Cruising Association have raised concerns about the practical effects of the decision, including the limited supply of white diesel for private pleasure craft users in Northern Ireland. Would the Minister reassure us that HMRC and the Treasury will work closely with those organisations to minimise disruption? Would she give us more information on the steps that have been taken so far to ensure that? Finally, will the Government take any further action to encourage the growth of cleaner fuel alternatives in sectors such as the construction industry?
I will take hon. Members’ questions in turn, starting with the question on private pleasure craft in Northern Ireland.
From later this year, private pleasure-craft users in Northern Ireland will no longer be able to use red diesel for propelling their craft, as the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead mentioned. This will achieve consistency with the 2018 judgment by the Court of Justice of the European Union and ensure that the UK meets its international obligations under the Northern Ireland protocol. That is the primary reason for it, but it will also align with the way in which fuel used by private pleasure craft in the Republic of Ireland is treated, which should make it simpler for craft users to access the fuel that they need if they sail between Northern Ireland and Ireland. On the hon. Lady’s point about easy access to white diesel, I think that it will work in the same way as in the Republic of Ireland. The Government also intend to introduce a new relief scheme in Northern Ireland to ensure that the average private pleasure-craft user will not pay a higher rate of duty on non-propulsion use than they do now.
On new clause 3, we fully understand the point that the hon. Member for Glenrothes makes, but it takes time for us to be able to analyse what is happening with changes to tax. That is why we want to monitor fuel-duty receipts for red and white diesel, which will enable us to evaluate the extent to which the users of red diesel who have lost their entitlement are switching to greener alternatives. It is really important that we allow time for the policy to bed in before we carry out reviews, but the Treasury always keeps all tax policy under review. We want to ensure that we encourage the transition to net zero as well as maximising revenue for the Exchequer. We do not want to lose money, nor do we want emissions. I reassure him that we are all on common ground and will work together to achieve those stated goals.
On the sectors that continue to have the red diesel entitlement, I can tell the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead that we looked very hard at the sectors that could not easily switch to alternatives, and at those in which the impact on the consumer would be quite high, as opposed to those within the supply chain. That is how we came to specific sectors such as travelling circuses and amateur sports clubs, which we feel would benefit from continued red diesel entitlement.
On the question of biofuels, to respond to the hon. Member for Glenrothes, all users of biofuels will be taxed at the same rate as ordinary diesel, to reflect the fact that biodiesel releases just as much carbon dioxide when burned. The Government recognise that renewable biofuels deliver greenhouse gas savings, as they are sourced from feedstocks that extract CO2 from the atmosphere. To incentivise the use of these low-carbon fuels and reduce emissions from fuel supplied for use in transport, the Government introduced the renewable transport fuel obligation in 2008, whereby all road transport fossil-fuel suppliers in the UK are required to show that a percentage of the total road and non-road mobile machinery fuels they supply come from sustainable and renewable energy sources. Again, I remind him that the Government keep all of these rates under review.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 98 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedule 20 agreed to.
Rates of tobacco products duty
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 105 and 106 make changes to ensure that the climate change levy’s main and reduced rates are updated for years 2022-23 and 2023-24, to reflect the rates announced at Budget 2020. Clause 107 increases both the standard and the lower rates of landfill tax in line with inflation from 1 April 2021, as announced at Budget 2020. Clause 108 repeals the provisions in the Finance Acts 2019 and 2020 relating to carbon emissions tax, which were not commenced following the Government’s decision to implement a UK emissions trading scheme from 1 January 2021 instead.
The climate change levy came into effect in April 2001. It is a UK-wide tax on the non-domestic use of energy from gas, electricity, liquefied petroleum gas and solid fuels. It promotes the efficient use of energy to help meet the UK’s international and domestic targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. At Budget 2016, it was announced that electricity and gas climate change levy rates would be equalised by 2025, because electricity is becoming a much cleaner source of energy than gas as we reduce our reliance on coal and use more renewable sources instead.
Landfill tax has been immensely successful in reducing the amount of waste sent to landfill. That tax provides a disincentive to landfill and has contributed to a 70% decrease in waste sent to landfill since 2000. Reducing waste sent to landfill provides both economic and environmental benefits.
I believe that a significant amount of it is due to the landfill tax. We have been looking at the rate in comparison year on year, and our analysis shows that the landfill tax is having a significant impact. There will always be fly-tipping, irrespective of what the tax rate on landfill is.
Clauses 105 and 106 make changes to the climate change levy rates for 2022-23 and 2023-24, to continue the rebalancing of electricity and gas rates announced in Budget 2016. The 2022-23 and 2023-24 rates were announced in Budget 2020 in order to give businesses plenty of notice to prepare for the changes. At Budget 2020, it was also announced that rates for liquified petroleum gas would be frozen to 31 March 2024.
To limit the economic impact of the tax rate changes on energy-intensive businesses, participants in the climate change agreement scheme will see their climate change levy liability increase by RPI inflation only. That protects the competitiveness of more than 9,000 facilities from energy-intensive industries across some 50 sectors.
When disposed of at a landfill site, each tonne of standard-rated material is currently taxed at £94.15, and lower-rate material draws a tax of £3.00 per tonne. These changes will see rates per tonne increase to £96.70 and £3.10 respectively from 1 April 2021. By increasing rates in line with RPI, we maintain the crucial incentive for the industry to use alternative waste treatment methods and continue the move towards a more circular economy. The changes made by clause 108 will repeal the provisions in the Finance Acts 2019 and 2020 relating to carbon emissions tax, which were not commenced.
New clause 5, tabled by the hon. Members for Glasgow Central, for Glenrothes, for Gordon and for Midlothian, would require the Government to publish a report, within six months of the passing of the Act, on the effects of what would then be sections 105, 106 and 108 on progress towards the Government’s climate emissions targets. As clauses 105 and 106 make changes to ensure that the climate change levy’s main and reduced rates are updated for years 2022-23 and 2023-24, such a report would not be able meaningfully to assess the impact of these changes within six months of the passing of the Act. The Government currently assess and monitor environmental impacts across existing tax measures, and do that alongside other, complementary measures, such as regulation and spending, to understand the impact of policy making in the round. That alludes to the point made by the hon. Member for Glenrothes about landfill tax.
Clause 108 repeals the provisions in Finance Acts 2019 and 2020 relating to a carbon emissions tax, which was not commenced because the Government decided that a UK emissions trading scheme administered by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy would be the best replacement for the EU emissions trading system from 1 January 2021.
As it was not commenced, the carbon emissions tax’s role in meeting the Government’s climate emissions targets cannot be measured. However, Opposition Members should be reassured that the UK ETS, a market-based measure covering a third of UK emissions, will help to deliver a robust carbon price signal. The energy White Paper committed to exploring expanding the UK emissions trading scheme to other sectors and set out our aspirations to continue to lead the world on carbon pricing in the run-up to COP26. The Treasury will continue to work closely with BEIS on the introduction of the UK emissions trading scheme and will keep all environmental taxes under review to ensure that they continue to support the Government’s climate commitments.
In conclusion, the changes made by clauses 105 and 106 will update the climate change levy main and reduced rates for 2022-23 and 2023-24, as announced at Budget 2020 and to deliver on previous Budget announcements. Clause 107 will increase the two rates of landfill tax in line with inflation from 1 April 2021, as announced at Budget 2020. Clause 108 will ensure that the statute book is up to date by repealing the provisions in Finance Acts 2019 and 2020 relating to a carbon emissions tax that were not commenced. I therefore commend the clauses to the Committee and ask that the Committee rejects new clause 5.
If I may, I will address the clauses in reverse order. Clause 108 repeals the carbon emissions tax. As the Minister said, the Government introduced this legislation when deciding what to replace the EU emissions trading system with. We welcome the fact that the Government have decided to implement a UK emissions trading system, rather than a carbon emissions tax. The Minister and I recently debated regulations relating to the UK ETS, and I will not repeat the points I made then. However, I stress that our belief is that the UK ETS must be linked with the EU ETS in order to achieve a robust system of carbon pricing to meet our net zero target.
Clause 107 increases the landfill tax in line with inflation. We welcome this small, uncontroversial measure. We talked at considerable length about waste and recycling during our discussion of the plastic packaging tax. I repeat only the point that the Government should invest the revenue from these taxes into recycling facilities and technology. Finally, clauses 105 and 106 make a number of changes to the climate change levy over the coming years, including raising the gas levy and adjusting the climate change agreement rates. Could the Minister set out whether the Government intend to keep the climate change agreement scheme beyond its current period, and if not, what they will replace it with?
As we come to the end of the group of environmental clauses, I will make a few points about tax and our net zero commitment. In February, the National Audit Office published a report into environmental tax measures. The NAO criticised the Treasury and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for failing to properly consider and evaluate the impact of these taxes on the Government’s environmental targets.
Does the Minister agree that we need information on the environmental impact of all taxes and reliefs? Will she commit to working with HMRC and other bodies to publish this information regularly? Currently, UK taxes with a positive environmental impact account for only 7% of tax revenue, and those with an explicit environmental purpose, such as the climate change levy or landfill tax, account for only 0.5%. So far, and particularly in the last Budget, we have seen a lack of vision from the Chancellor on the environment. We await the Treasury net zero review, but will the Minister set out what steps the Government will take in the short, medium and long term to ensure that our tax system plays a role in meeting our net zero commitment?
On environmental impact, it is important for the hon. Gentleman to realise that where there are multivariable reasons why things occur, measurement will never be 100% accurate. We give the impact that we can measure; others may dispute it, but the Government have taken a view.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the landfill tax in an intervention that I responded to in my speech, but it is a tax that is devolved in Scotland. He did not tell us what the Scottish Government are doing differently from the UK Government—while he was criticising the UK Government’s landfill tax policy, I think he probably forgot that it was a devolved matter.
No, I will not give way.
The overall impact on the environment has been positive, with the landfill tax contributing to a reduction. The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead asked about recycling. The fact is that all these things are having an impact. We bring these taxes into play and they change behaviour; we cannot then say that it has nothing to do with the tax that the behaviour has changed. All these things are directly linked.
The hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead asked a specific question about climate change agreements. For my part within the Treasury, that is being dealt with by the net zero review, but those agreements are a BEIS lead. She also asked about linking the UK emissions trading scheme to the EU emissions trading scheme. We are open to linking the UK ETS internationally in principle and we are considering a range of options, but no decisions on preferred linking partners have been made. We are looking to innovate and create a scheme suited to the UK and to our climate commitments.
We started—as the hon. Lady will know, given our debates on the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Trading Scheme Auctioning Regulations 2021—by reducing the cap on emissions by 5%, compared with what it would have been within the EU. We will set up further plans ahead of COP26, but we are going further and faster than EU representatives on this matter.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 105 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 106 to 108 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(David Rutley.)
Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.
It is a pleasure to serve on this Committee with you in the Chair, Dame Angela.
I am pleased to begin by discussing clause 112, which, as we heard, introduces two new schedules. The first, schedule 23, sets out a new points-based penalty system for the failure to make, or the late submission of, various returns. The second, schedule 24, makes minor changes to the penalty for deliberately withholding information from HMRC by failing to submit returns.
We welcome the stated aim of the Government: to encourage compliance without wanting to punish taxpayers who make occasional mistakes. It is right to give people in the regular course of events an opportunity to clear penalty points without incurring a penalty charge, while making sure a stronger deterrent is provided in cases where behaviour is shown to be deliberate. The explanatory notes for the clause point out that the regime has been developed through three separate consultations. However, as the Low Incomes Tax Reform Group—LITRG—makes clear, while HMRC has taken on board comments on the structure of a new penalty regime, it considers legislation in the Bill to be far more complex than originally envisaged.
LITRG points out that taxpayers come under Making Tax Digital for VAT for the first time in April 2022, and Making Tax Digital for income tax self-assessment for the first time in April 2023, so they face a complex and unfamiliar penalty regime at the same time as having to get to grips with their obligations under Making Tax Digital. For people with a single source of income, Making Tax Digital for income tax self-assessment appears to have six separate filing obligations over the course of a year, for which penalties could be incurred: four periodic updates, one end-of-period statement, and one final declaration.
I welcome the fact that the Minister set out his view of the suggestion by LITRG that the introduction of the new penalty regime should be delayed to allow those taxpayers time to familiarise themselves with the new obligations before they begin to accrue penalty points for non-compliance. I would also welcome the Minister’s thoughts on the suggestion by LITRG that the legislation should include an obligation on HMRC to keep taxpayers regularly informed of their penalty points total.
Clause 113 introduces schedule 25, which includes a new two-penalty model for businesses and individuals that fail to pay their tax liability on time. The first penalty is 2% of the amount of tax unpaid 15 days after the due date, plus 2% of the amount of tax unpaid 30 days after the due date. The second penalty is a penalty interest rate of 4% per annum that applies from the 31st day of the tax being unpaid. Again, the Low Incomes Tax Reform Group has expressed a number of concerns about the operation of this new regime, including concern about the interaction of time-to-pay arrangements with the new late-payment penalty regime. We would welcome the Minister’s views on that point.
Clause 114 introduces schedule 26, which, as we heard, is consequential to previous clauses and schedules that have been introduced. We tabled amendment 26, which suggests leaving out schedule 26, paragraph 36. We do not intend to press the amendment, but we welcome the Minister’s clarification on the point we sought to raise by tabling it. Our understanding was that schedule 26, paragraph 36 amended section 1303 of the Corporation Tax Act 2009. We were concerned that the amendment appeared to remove a prohibition on any surcharge in VAT, a penalty for missed payment, late payment or non-payment of VAT being written off as a loss in the company’s taxes. We therefore welcome the Minister’s clarification regarding the intention behind that amendment, particularly the message that it sends.
I thank both colleagues for their contributions. I reassure the hon. Member for Glenrothes that the Government take seriously all such interventions and all our serious interactions with other political parties and hon. Members across the House.
The hon. Members for Ealing North and for Glenrothes both mentioned complexity. When introducing any new regime, let alone one in an area as complex as tax, there is inevitably an impression of complexity and a worry about the initial uptake. However, these concerns can be addressed and are being addressed in the legislation.
I remind the Committee that the reforms have been widely welcomed. The Chartered Institute of Taxation says that it
“welcomes the harmonisation of interest rules…and that HMRC will apply a light-touch…This will allow otherwise compliant taxpayers enough time to adjust to the new rules.”
The Low Incomes Tax Reform Group, which both hon. Members mentioned, says:
“HMRC have consulted on many aspects of the penalty regime in recent years, particularly with a view to ensuring that it is fit for purpose for Making Tax Digital. This is welcome, as is the fact that a number of LITRG concerns have been taken on board.”
It is good to see that; I am glad that the group recognises it, because this has been a carefully considered piece of legislation. An organisation called Buzzacott, which describes itself as a UK top 20 accountancy firm, says:
“This is a big change…but the system ought to be fairer because it takes account of the number of filings a business has to make, and it’s also less likely to excessively penalise a trader…The light touch in the first year is welcome”.
That ought to give colleagues a degree of comfort on the issue of complexity, but of course it is important to raise it, and Ministers and HMRC are aware of it.
The hon. Member for Glenrothes raised the two-year period; I think that he was trying to score a political point about HMRC staffing. I remind him that the SNP was expressing concerns about alleged staffing issues at HMRC before the extraordinary events of the past 12 months, in which HMRC has proven its outstanding ability to deal with the covid schemes and has been through everything that one could imagine in the pandemic.
I do not think there is any serious suggestion that the tax agenda, which antedates any concerns that the SNP has expressed with respect to the two-year period, is seriously being put at risk. The fact is that some people have very complex tax affairs and sometimes, in a small minority of cases, HMRC requires some time to reflect on them before it makes a judgment. As a matter of justice, as well as of combating tax avoidance, the two-year period should allow it a proper process of reflection.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the idea of removing the first penalty, but as I pointed out the effect would be to remove a great deal of the early energy that incentivises people to comply with their tax obligations, and which is actually rather important. The SNP’s recommendation might have the effect of diminishing the number of people who comply with their tax obligations, because it would remove that initial first penalty, which is a little nudge.
No. The hon. Gentleman has tabled a series of amendments and I have given clear reasons why the Committee should reject them. In one case, it would remove an incentive to comply early with the tax system—I will come to the light-touch issue in a second—and in the second case, it would make the system less able to deal with more complex cases with a potential issue about justice or, indeed, combating avoidance. So I do not accept the point that he makes.
I think the hon. Gentleman dragoons into the conversation a point about Scottish limited partnerships. Of course, those are handled not by the Treasury but by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and he will know that that Department set out in December 2018 the Government’s plans for reforms of limited partnerships. It is a complex area. They include tightening registration requirements, greater transparency in relation to UK connections, and powers for the registrar to strike limited partnerships from the register in certain circumstances. They have to reflect on limited partnerships that are dissolved, that are no longer conducting business or where a court orders that their activity is not in the public interest. The reforms require primary legislation, and that is what the Government will be doing when parliamentary time allows.
The hon. Gentleman is, of course, right to raise the issue about communications. HMRC does communicate very regularly with taxpayers. It has made a commitment to informing taxpayers, at regular intervals, about points or penalties that they may have incurred. The legislation requires HMRC to notify the taxpayer when a point or penalty is levied; and of course, for the vast majority of taxpayers, that will be quickly and automatically, close to the date of any obligation. For those wishing to check their digital tax accounts, the points totals will be displayed there, but all taxpayers will also receive a written letter notifying them of their points total.
I should add, in conclusion, that although there is complexity, it is important to recognise that the two-stage payment approach is designed to give the proper and, indeed, fairer incentives to nudge people towards a final decision. HMRC has said that it will take a light-touch approach. It is also worth pointing out that the reforms will not take effect until 22 April for VAT businesses and until the 2023-24 tax year for income tax self-assessment taxpayers. There will therefore be plenty of time for those affected to adjust themselves to the new circumstances.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 112 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedules 23 and 24 agreed to.
Clause 113 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedule 25 agreed to.
Clause 114 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedule 26 agreed to.
Late payment interest and repayment interest: VAT
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Clause 123 amends schedule 36 of the Finance Act 2008 to give HMRC a new power to issue an information notice for the purposes of collecting a tax debt. We would like to raise with the Minister a point articulated by the Chartered Institute of Taxation in connection with the amended schedule 36. It is concerned that the new notice for collection of tax debts can be used for the purposes of collecting a tax debt, whenever arising. That means that the use of these notices is not restricted to cases involving tax years after the measure becomes law, which raises a concern that this is a very wide-ranging power. What reassurance can the Minister offer that HMRC will use the new power granted by this clause proportionately and with appropriate oversight?
I thank both hon. Members for their questions. In a way, the clause is poorly named, because this is a change to allow information notices to be used to obtain documents; it is not, in and of itself, a measure that collects tax debt. The notice is an information power.
Tax authorities sometimes need to verify what they are told by taxpayers. A request that routinely arises is to look for details about transactions or movements of money in cases in which there is reason to believe that assets may have been concealed. A request may be an invitation to look for information to find out whether a bank account exists or has recently been closed. At its simplest, a request may be to find out the balance on an account.
It is important to say that the Government take very seriously all the input from our stakeholders, and the Chartered Institute of Taxation is an important stakeholder among many others. It has been striking how, over the past year or two, stakeholders have been very positive in flagging the degree of engagement that HMRC has had with them. There is a wide, close and professionally engaged relationship between the parties, and stakeholders’ concerns are carefully evaluated as part of the policy process.
It is also true that HMRC is bending over backwards to maintain its activities as a tax authority, while recognising—as the hon. Member for Glenrothes mentioned—the extremely difficult circumstances in which many companies have been placed by the pandemic and its effects. That is why there is a deferred payment scheme for VAT and Time To Pay arrangements that have been allowed to grow as they have done, and why in due course the Government are bringing in breathing space for people with debt.
A wide range of measures have been designed and put in place to protect people who may currently be vulnerable. In this case, the effect of expanding information notices is to implement a recommendation from the OECD’s global forum. Again, there was criticism from the forum that the UK was unable to use its information powers to enforce tax debts and unable to assist with information requests from other jurisdictions. Clause 123 will allow us to improve the already excellent levels of HMRC co-operation, which is only to the good in supporting international co-operation and exchange of information and the collection of tax debts that may be due.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 123 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Miscellaneous amendments of Schedule 36 to FA 2008
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 131 and 132 simply set out the Bill’s legal interpretation and short title in the usual manner for such legislation.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 131 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 132 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
New Clause 1
Review of capital allowances and business reliefs
“(1) The Chancellor of the Exchequer must review the impact on investment in parts of the United Kingdom and regions of England of the changes made by sections 15 to 20 and lay a report of that review before the House of Commons within six months of the passing of this Act.
(2) A review under this section must compare estimated GDP in each of the next five years under the follow scenarios—
(a) these provisons are enacted,
(b) these provisions are not enacted, and
(c) the UK fiscal stimulus package, as a percentage of GDP, mirrors that of the united States.
(3) In this section— “parts of the United Kingdom” means—
(c) Wales, and
(d) Northern Ireland; and “regions of England” has the same meaning as that used by the Office for National Statistics.”.—(Peter Grant.)
This new clause would require a report on the impact of the capital allowance provisions on GDP, comparing them with the impact of copying the level of fiscal intervention in the US.
Brought up, and read the First time.
I thank the hon. Member for Glenrothes. I must say that the Scottish National party does not have an international reputation for the bipartisan way in which it treats partisan party politics. I am delighted to hear that the hon. Gentleman is offering the cross-party approach he advocated in his remarks.
The hon. Gentleman says that there is a better way. He should know that the Government are very much committed to improving the tax process wherever we can. We operate within a set of existing arrangements and political procedures that have proven their worth over many decades, but we are constantly seeking to improve. The classic example was our tax policies and consultation day, which we had in March this year. That was an attempt to create more transparency and to give more prominence to measures that might otherwise have been lost in the Budget process, in order to allow the widest possible public scrutiny and debate.
To pick up the point the hon. Gentleman made about international comparisons, I can understand why it appears interesting to him, but a few seconds of reflection would yield the thought that it really is not for the Government to be publishing analyses of other countries’ tax policies or fiscal arrangements. It really is not for us to be choosing one country, even if we were committed on that route, rather than another, because where would that end? Of course, there are many other institutions around the world that will provide precisely that kind of global comparison service. I am afraid that I do not share the hon. Gentleman’s view about the efficacy of that approach.
I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman is not pressing new clause 7, on the correct grounds that we have discussed much of it already, but, in general, the Government do publish an awful lot of detailed information on the Exchequer, macroeconomic business and equalities impacts of not only these clauses but all clauses that are debated in Finance Bills. Those assessments are comprehensive and wide-ranging, and therefore we do not think that a detailed review would be useful. With that, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his contribution.
On a point of order, Dame Angela. I would like to thank you and Sir Gary, Hansard, the Whips, parliamentary private secretaries and officials. I am sure that I speak for those on both sides of the Committee when I thank those who have supported us through the Committee stage. I would particularly like to call out the names of Edwin Ferguson and Sarah Hunt and of our Bill team at the Treasury, Bill manager, Mikael Shirazi, Helena Forrest, Barney Gibb and Sam Shirley. I thank colleagues across this Committee for their commitment to scrutinising and debating the legislation. I am keenly aware, as they will be, that we do so under the picture of William Gladstone and his Cabinet at the time—a very forbidding chancellorial figure. With that in mind, I thank everyone for their contributions, and thank you, Dame Angela, for presiding so ably.
Further to that point of order, Dame Angela. I would like to put on record my thanks to you for being a very patient Chair on my first time in a Public Bill Committee, following Sir Gary Streeter last week. I also thank the Clerks for helping us to draft amendments, and the wider House authorities for making it possible to hold a Public Bill Committee in these strange circumstances. I would also like to thank all members of the Committee. On behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead, I particularly thank our Whip—my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington—and my hon. Friends the Members for Vauxhall and for Luton North for giving up their time to sit on this Committee.
As we pass the midnight hour, we turn to the subject of money laundering. I am grateful to the Minister for his remarks and note that, alongside this statutory instrument, we had the statement earlier—I was going to say today, but it is now yesterday—by the Foreign Secretary, announcing sanctions against a number of named individuals. In that statement, the Foreign Secretary said that
“Our status as a global financial centre”
had made us both an attraction for investment and also a
“a honey pot—a lightning rod—for corrupt actors who seek to launder their…money through British banks or…businesses.”
It is precisely because we are a global financial centre that there is a special responsibility on the United Kingdom to ensure that each part of that sector always operates to the highest standards. We cannot build a future as a laundromat for dirty money, we cannot turn the other way when wrongdoing takes place and we cannot take part in the denigration of institutions. Of course, we also need the highest possible standards in our own public life if we are going to talk to other countries about corruption. That means allegations being properly investigated; it means a duty of propriety with public money; it means procurement based on open criteria, not on inside connections; and it means that those at the very top of our Government should tell the truth.
We support this instrument, which updates the list of third countries where extra due diligence is required in relation to money laundering and terrorist financing. We understand that these matters lie at the heart of national security and financial security, and we want systems as robust as possible in place to guard against money laundering and terrorist financing. Our defences against money laundering are not just a matter of law and regulation, vital though those things are; they are also a matter of enforcement, so I have a couple of questions for the Minister. Why does he think that in the recent FinCEN reports the UK was considered to be a higher-risk jurisdiction? Why does he think that so many shell companies are based in the UK? What are the authorities doing about that?
Both the Royal United Services Institute and Spotlight on Corruption have identified Companies House reform as an urgent issue in the tackling of corruption and money laundering. What are the Government doing to drive this? Where are we with the draft Register of Overseas Entities Bill? There was nothing about it in the most recent Queen’s Speech. Will there be anything about it in the next Queen’s Speech? A foreign property register was supposed to be established this year. Will the Government meet that deadline? Finally, where are the Government on implementing the findings of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia report, which used the phrase “the London laundromat” in the first place?
Effective action against money laundering, terrorism and fraud is about a lot more than maintaining a list of countries; it requires action on all fronts if we are to fight these problems effectively. That is what we need to see.
I thank the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) and the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) for the points they raised. I shall try to address some of them. As I outlined earlier, the Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing (Amendment) (High-Risk Countries) Regulations introduce a new autonomous high-risk third countries list, which will ensure that UK legislation to protect the financial system from money laundering and terrorist financing remains up to date.
The right hon. Gentleman raised a number of points. He first mentioned the FinCEN files, which are largely historic, but I will write to him about anything further I can on that. I met Spotlight on Corruption recently to be challenged on a number of aspects. He mentioned Companies House reform, on which work is ongoing, and there will be further announcements in due course.
The regulations represent the UK’s new approach to high-risk third countries. It will allow the UK to take its own view on which countries are high risk without referencing EU legislation and to remain in line with international standards in the fight against money laundering and terrorist financing. The UK is internationally recognised as having some of the strongest controls worldwide for tackling money laundering and terrorist financing.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), with whom I work very closely on this issue; it demonstrates the best of Parliament that we are able to do so across the House.
I rise to speak in support of amendment 77, which stands in my name and that of members of the all-party group on anti-corruption and responsible tax. Our proposals command support across the House, and I know the Minister will therefore address this issue thoroughly and seriously, not just in his response today but in the work that I know he is doing to bear down on those who enable and support tax avoidance and financial crime. I simply say this to the Minister: he may have reservations about the technicalities of our proposals, but he should at the very least accept the principle that underpins them and say so today.
Big corporations and high net-worth individuals who engage in tax avoidance schemes and financial crime do not dream up these schemes on their own; they are invented and developed by the huge army of tax professionals—accountants, lawyers, banks and advisers—who spend their working life trying to identify loopholes and wheezes. The schemes they devise do not just help but actively encourage people not to pay their rightful contribution through tax to the common purse for the common good.
At present, HMRC may slowly and belatedly catch up, and may deem such schemes unlawful. If it does so, the individuals have to pay up and sometimes face enormous tax demands, but the enablers of tax avoidance mostly get away scot-free; at worst they may lose the fees they earned from setting up the scheme for their clients. Our amendment would hold these enablers to proper account. If advisers and promoters involved in a scheme know that the scheme does not work, they are committing the criminal offence—mentioned by the Minister—of cheating the public revenue. They are breaking the law, so they should be pursued, charged and convicted with a criminal charge.
That does not happen now, and our amendment seeks to make it easier for the enforcement agencies to pursue criminal prosecutions. Not only would they hold the advisers to account, but I am completely convinced that the threat of a criminal prosecution would act as the most effective deterrent and bring to a halt many of the activities of these rogue advisers. It would be the most efficient way of tackling tax avoidance at source. It is a common-sense approach to the problem, and it would be welcomed by all taxpayers, who are so frustrated by paying their tax unquestioningly while seeing others avoid tax or break the law. It would restore confidence in the tax system. It is a good idea, and I hope that when the Minister responds he will say that he shares our view that we need to amend our legislation to make it easier to pursue and prosecute advisers who deliberately promote egregious schemes that are unlawful.
I know from my time chairing the Public Accounts Committee how embedded the culture of avoidance, evasion and financial crime has become in our financial services sector. We saw it plainly with the revelations from HSBC, with the Falciani leaks from its Swiss branch. It was there in the PricewaterhouseCoopers leaks keenly exposing that firm’s activities in Luxembourg. The Panama papers uncovered the shenanigans involving the law firm Mossack Fonseca, while the Paradise papers disclosed the nefarious activities of another law firm, Appleby. While it may no longer be seen as cool to be involved in tax avoidance, the latest leak of documents contained in the FinCEN papers spells out the complicity of major global banks in facilitating and enabling financial crime, from tax avoidance through to fraud and money laundering.
Normal working people, however, often suffer the most. The film tax relief that was exploited ruthlessly by the company Ingenious Media left many facing huge tax demands, though the chief executive, Patrick McKenna, is still lauded through public appointments in the creative sector. The loan charge scheme was promoted vigorously by enablers. They walked away scot-free, but left devastation in their wake. I understand from the all-party parliamentary loan charge group that seven suicides have been reported to the group—people driven to suicide because they were conned by enablers into participating in a scheme that later unravelled. That is truly shocking.
I welcome the consultation that the Government have launched on tackling the promoters of tax avoidance. The all-party parliamentary group will be preparing a response to that consultation. Most advisers, of course, work in an honest and straightforward way, and we do not want to pursue with criminal charges those who make an honest mistake, but there are still individuals, companies and organisations who deliberately and wilfully promote egregious schemes that they know do not work. Such enablers move quickly, they are well resourced and they are well capable of outmanoeuvring HMRC. As soon as one wheeze is uncovered, they move on to the next. Worst of all, they act with impunity, safe in the knowledge that they will escape any real punishment if they are ever caught.
Why do these rogue advisers not get prosecuted? The answer lies in what the Minister said: HMRC has to demonstrate dishonesty to proceed against them and it is virtually impossible to do so. The advisers can always claim that they honestly believed that the scheme would work. We therefore want a new test, which makes criminal prosecutions feasible and practical.
We suggest adopting the test that is in place for the work of the GAAR—the bar for prosecution for those ne’er-do-wells should be just as stringent. It would simply make it possible and practical to take action. HMRC would have to demonstrate not simply that the avoidance scheme was not reasonable; it would have to demonstrate that it was not reasonable for anybody to think that the avoidance was reasonable. Sorry for the complication, but that is a double reasonableness threshold. I assure the Minister that that double reasonableness test is in effect the same as the “beyond reasonable doubt” test that he mentioned in his opening remarks. Of course, it would be easy for enablers to avoid prosecution —they just need to stop promoting or recommending tax avoidance that is so aggressive that they know it will fail.
Our amendment tackles a gross injustice in the system. People are completely fed up with reading endless stories about scurrilous tax avoidance schemes promoted by those working in the financial services sector. The perceived difference in the way that hard-working taxpayers and rich individuals are treated breeds mistrust. We suggest a practical change in the law that would make it possible to pursue the enablers, not because we want to see the courts clogged up with prosecutions against bankers, accountants, lawyers and advisers, but because we think that that is the best way of making those advisers think twice before they promote unlawful schemes. It would deter most of them from trying to cheat the public revenue. I urge the Minister, please, to be bold on the issue, to state today that he will tighten up the law and to give us the assurance that, if he does not like our particular solution, he will come forward in a timely manner with his own proposal.
I wish to speak to clauses 92 to 95 relating to VAT. This last year has been exceptionally tough on our hospitality industries and I welcome all measures to support our valuable tourism and hospitality businesses as they tentatively begin to open up after the pandemic. Like many others, I was delighted to be able to visit pubs, restaurants and cafés in my constituency last week. I had a particularly enjoyable Friday night drink at the Black Horse on Kingston Hill and a fantastic Sunday lunch at the Glasshouse in New Malden. I am very much looking forward to getting round to all the other excellent venues in my constituency over the next few weeks and months.
However, it is important to remember that tourism and hospitality will not recover overnight. While there is undoubtedly a great deal of pent-up demand for eating out and visiting the wonderful sights and attractions of our great nation, it will not be possible for all businesses to open immediately and in full. And we do not know whether the Government’s road map will be able to progress as planned. Despite the wonderful success of the vaccine roll-out, we are still at risk from new variants and there may still be a need in future to restrict people’s ability to socialise indoors. So, although we welcome the cut to the VAT rate on hospitality and tourism sales to 5% until September 2021, the Liberal Democrats argue that the cut should be extended for the whole of the financial year, instead of moving to 12.5% from September to March.
Household incomes also need time to recover, and encouragement to spend on luxuries and leisure such as meals out should be continued for much, much longer. Indeed, the Government could and should have gone a great deal further to support these businesses and to safeguard the jobs that they create. Many businesses are able to partially reopen this month. There are estimates that up to 60% will not be able to reopen because they do not have outside space. But they will all be faced eventually with large VAT bills, deferred over the last 12 months.
A much better way to support businesses would have been to provide relief on the deferred VAT owed. That would have relieved businesses of an immediate cash burden and freed up that cash flow to invest in stock, staff and making their premises covid-safe. Instead, the Government propose to start imposing penalties from June this year on those businesses that have not yet started repaying this VAT. That will fall on businesses that have had extremely limited opportunities to earn any revenue in the last 12 months. The measures to allow businesses to pay this in 11 instalments is welcome, but will not help those businesses that cannot yet reopen and will not have any cash coming in to pay any of those instalments.
Businesses will also be carrying a great deal of debt and it is very disappointing to see a lack of measures in the Budget to address that. In particular, many businesses will be indebted to their landlords and it is disappointing that the Government have done nothing at all to help businesses with those costs. The Liberal Democrats would have introduced a revenue compensation scheme to help businesses with fixed costs such as rent. The burden of repaying those will fall very heavily on businesses that cannot yet reopen fully.
I am probably unique in the House in having direct experience of implementing Making Tax Digital for VAT reporting in my former role as an accountant for a large organisation. While the overall objectives of the programme are sound, I can tell the Minister from personal experience that they are not always straightforward to implement. I am puzzled as to why the Government think it should be a priority for struggling small businesses to deal with the additional administrative burden of implementing Making Tax Digital, at a time when they are having to deal with the huge burden of reopening in a highly uncertain time, and at the risk of further fines if they do not comply. Surely this could have waited another 12 months. The imperative to close the tax gap surely pales into insignificance when compared with the imperative to support precarious businesses at this time. How can additional red tape and administrative burden be the right response to the current crisis?
In short, this is not a Government who understand the needs or priorities of small businesses; it is a Government who choose to impose punitive costs and paperwork rather than provide effective support.
It is kind of you, Madam Deputy Speaker, to call me in this important debate. I will try to reward that by sticking to the topic we are discussing. This is an excellent Finance Bill for a much-needed recovery. The UK is already a great place to start, grow and run a business, but to increase the rate of economic growth in the UK we need to restate and foster the pro-enterprise philosophy and measures that have served us so well in the past.
To govern is to choose and the Chancellor was absolutely right to choose fiscal discipline. The Bill begins to fix the public finances with a fair and honest plan about how to do so. Nothing is more devastating to enterprise and investment than high and volatile costs of borrowing, which wipes out small businesses like a pyroclastic flow clearing forested slopes. Thousands of otherwise successful businesses were crushed in the recession of the early ’90s caused by the error of the UK's membership of the exchange rate mechanism.
A centrepiece of the Bill is the super deduction. I have spoken to lots of businesses in my constituency, and it is already mobilising significant investment. The Bill also contains two excellent initiatives under the Help to Grow banner. I believe that the Government are really on to something here and that we could see the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy start to deliver a string of practical interventions to give small businesses a hand up. When the opportunity allows, I encourage them to go further. Only 10% of small and medium-sized British businesses currently export, leaving 90% of enterprises as potential exporters. That is a vast untapped opportunity to grow the scale and productivity of UK plc. Global Britain brings huge scope to increase the number of firms involved in international trade, but for many firms, where time is the scarcest resource, it is a big and uncertain step to take. Alongside the other elements of Help to Grow in this Bill, I suggest we make available grants to support exporting. It would be a natural extension of the support that the Government provide today under the useful, but relatively modest tradeshow access programme.
Like most, I welcome the extension of the lower rate of stamp duty in this Bill. On a future occasion, I encourage the Government to bring forward an exemption to stamp duty for downsizers. In many parts of the country, the real housing crisis is one of under-occupancy. With an ageing population, too many homeowners rattle around in accommodation that would be more suitable for growing families. Stamp duty is a real brake on downsizing. The Treasury will understandably be cautious about leakage, but it should be perfectly possible to define a downsizing transaction based upon the ratio of values and the limited time interval between the two housing transactions.
This is not an academic issue. Right now my constituents are blighted by development proposals on unsustainable greenfield sites in Ashington, Adversane, Buck Barn, Kirdford and Mayfield, all based on the fallacy that, despite the UK already having more than 600,000 empty homes and the highest rate of housebuilding since 2007, the only answer is to pile up even more supply.
For a similar reason, although I fully understand the context in which the decision was made, I regret the freeze on the lifetime allowance on pensions. The UK used to have one of the best systems of providing for retirement in the western world. Freezing the lifetime allowance is another Jenga brick whipped away from that once strong pillar. NHS consultants, headteachers and airline pilots are hardly plutocrats, but they now face a tax on thrift. Money that would have gone into well-regulated, well-diversified pension funds and been allocated to grow UK businesses has instead fuelled a boom in buy-to-let property, putting home ownership for millions further out of reach.
In the year in which the UK hosts the UN climate summit, let me conclude by welcoming two measures in the Bill that help us move towards a low carbon future. The first is part 2, which introduces a plastic packaging tax from next April. We should tax things we wish to have less of, and on that basis this is an excellent piece of legislation that will provide a clear economic incentive to use recycled material in the manufacture of plastic packaging. It is estimated that as a result, the use of recycled plastic could increase by around 40%, equal to carbon savings of nearly 200,000 tonnes a year and saving a lot of plastic from ending up in landfill and incineration. We only have one planet, so as soon as this useful measure is on the statute book, I encourage my Treasury colleagues to look at increasing the rate and lowering the exemption threshold.
Similarly, I welcome the removal of red diesel from many sectors, although I am glad there is a continued exemption for agriculture, which makes a significant contribution to the landscape in my constituency of Arundel and South Downs. Red diesel accounts for about 15% of diesel used in the UK and is responsible for the release of 14 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. This change will help the adoption of cleaner and greener alternatives, such as hydrotreated vegetable oil, and is yet another meaningful step by this Government, who are absolutely leading the world on climate action.
I appreciate that this is a Finance Bill and technically it can go to any hour, so the House could be sitting until 11 o’clock or midnight, but I ought to say something to Members who are not in the Chamber but who I hope might be listening. It sometimes seems that Members who are at home and participating virtually do not pay attention to the rest of the debate. If they are listening, let me say to them that there is something a little bit distasteful about those who are sitting at home making very long speeches and keeping the entire operation of the House of Commons going till well into the evening. Everybody has the right to speak on the Finance Bill and it is very important that they do so, but it is generally recognised, and I particularly recognise it today, that that which can be said in 10 minutes can usually be said more effectively in five.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak on behalf of the Opposition on these regulations. As we have heard, this statutory instrument relates to the Euro 2020 football championships, which were delayed by covid-19 into 2021. Although I am speaking as a shadow Minister, this subject is literally close to home for people in my constituency; from many places near where I live, including the top of Horsenden Hill, people get a full view of Wembley’s arch, under which several of the games are set to be played, including the semi-finals and the final.
As we have heard from the Minister, the purpose of these regulations is to create an exemption from income tax for income earned in the UK by certain non-resident individuals in connection with football matches held in the UK as part of the tournament. The Opposition recognise that this income tax exemption was a condition of the bidding process for all countries wishing to host matches in the UEFA Euro 2020 finals tournament. We also recognise that the formal requirement to grant an income tax exemption in hosting the Euro 2020 finals is consistent with the approach taken in comparable events hosted in the UK in the past, such as the World Athletics championships 2017, the UEFA Champions League final 2017 and the London anniversary games in 2016. We will therefore not oppose this statutory instrument, and we look forward to enjoying the matches this summer.
I am grateful for the opportunity to respond on behalf of the Opposition to these two statutory instruments. Our priority, as the Opposition, is to ensure that the UK economy functions as smoothly as possible and that the Northern Ireland protocol operates effectively following the end EU exit transition period. We will therefore not oppose the Government on these two statutory instruments.
As we have heard, the first of these sets of regulations includes changes to replicate in domestic law the measures that currently exist in EU law. They make provision in UK law for a VAT zero rate for the handling of qualifying aircraft at non-customs and excise airports, as businesses can no longer rely on EU law to provide that measure. Other measures in this set of regulations make more substantive changes. The introduction of a VAT zero rate for the handling of international trains is new, although in practice it is similar to the relief for aircraft. The removal of a VAT exemption for suppliers of pension fund management services for funds established in the EU is also substantive, although it was predicted when the VAT exemption for pension fund management services was introduced in UK law last year.
As those two points represent substantial changes, will the Minister say what assessment the Treasury has made of the impact on the tax base of these regulations? On the one hand, there will presumably be a loss of revenue as a result of the zero rating for handling of international trains, while on the other, the removal of the exemption for EU-established pension fund management services will presumably generate income for the Exchequer. Will he therefore set out what impact, separately and net, these changes are expected to have on the tax base?
The second set of regulations makes changes to the Value Added Tax Act 1994 needed following the end of the EU exit transition period in the context of the Northern Ireland protocol. As we have heard, the measures in this instrument will ensure that VAT can be recovered by DIY house builders in Northern Ireland on goods used in construction purchased in the EU. It will also remove VAT relief for goods moved from Northern Ireland to Great Britain for avoidance purposes and ensure that recovery is possible if VAT is incurred when a business moves its own goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
As I made clear, the Opposition want to see the Northern Ireland protocol operating effectively and we want people in Northern Ireland to be protected from disruption to their lives and their businesses. While these changes are therefore welcome, it is vital that businesses are supported in understanding and being able to follow the new arrangements they face. The Minister will know that my Opposition colleagues have been calling on the Government to support a major and effective information campaign for British businesses about the new rules on trade with Northern Ireland and to increase capacity at the Trader Support Service to help businesses to complete new customs declarations. In the light of the disruption we have seen since the end of the transition period, will the Minister set out what extra support the Government have decided to put in place since the beginning of this year? Can he confirm specifically whether, since 1 January, there have been any substantive changes to the Government’s communication strategy for British businesses about the new rules on trade with Northern Ireland or increases in capacity at the Trader Support Service? These are important questions to ensure that the protocol operates effectively, and I would welcome the Minister’s addressing them directly.
I have declared my business interests in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
As the Minister has told us, these are two important statutory instruments for the facilitation of trade generally and for the facilitation of trade within Northern Ireland and between GB and Northern Ireland, and to the extent that they make things easier and allow zero rating of important services and goods, I welcome them wholeheartedly. But, of course, as others have said in this debate, we meet today against the background of clear difficulties and problems in the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol, where it appears that a number of important impediments to GB-Northern Ireland trade have been inserted, and it is crucial that the talks go well and we get rid of them as quickly as possible.
So when we look at the administration of VAT, which is an important part of the trade process, I would like an assurance from the Minister that these regulations, and all the other VAT and excise rules applying in Northern Ireland and throughout the United Kingdom, will be solely administered and enforced by United Kingdom authorities, because I have much more confidence in them. Will he also assure me that the aim of these statutory instruments, and the wider VAT legislation that they add to and amend, is to ensure that the movement of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, or the other way, will be as smooth and easy as the movement from London to Surrey or from Manchester to north Wales, because that is what I thought we had agreed and signed up to—that Northern Ireland was a fully integrated part of the United Kingdom single market, under our single market and taxation rules? I would like the reassurance through these statutory instruments that we are intending for that to be true.
Will the Minister also confirm that there has for many years during our period in the European Union been an important VAT border between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, but that it has always worked very smoothly and was not enforced at the physical border, in accordance with the spirit of agreements and not wanting barriers at the land border? It was an electronic border and adjustments were made by computer or by correspondence so that these things could be sorted out in a sensible and decent manner without having to have people queuing at borders to make complex calculations and submissions. If that is the case, does the Minister agree that it is in that spirit that we need to find the answer to the current impositions and difficulties affecting our trade across those borders? It seems very odd that we cannot replicate that success of our past trading, where electronic manifests, trusted trader schemes and so forth, and proper electronic VAT registration worked very well. Surely the UK authorities, if we are the proper and sole enforcement authority in Northern Ireland, can work with trusted traders, VAT-registered hauliers and ferry companies and so forth, and we can accept their certification or word that the goods on their load are entirely GB-Northern Ireland or Northern Ireland-GB. We can then accept, therefore, that there are no other considerations and the loads can then move as smoothly as from London to Guildford or Manchester to north Wales. It would be very helpful to hear the Minister’s views on how that can be achieved and how quickly we can get to that point.
It is absolutely crucial to the people of Northern Ireland, as we have heard from their representatives, that they can trade smoothly with the rest of the United Kingdom. That was fundamental to the spirit of the agreements that the United Kingdom entered into with the European Union over the issue of trade with and between Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. I hope the Minister will have good news for us and that these things can be sorted out quickly.
It is a pleasure to see you in the chair, Ms Rees. I appreciate that we are slightly pushed for time. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) for securing such an important debate on a timely issue. For nine long months now, many workers have had no support whatsoever from the Government due to glaring gaps in the Government’s various schemes and wider provisions—inadequacies that the Opposition have highlighted time and again. Many of these problems could be fixed with political will, but the Government so far have chosen to do nothing. Those problems have festered and worsened, and today they are endangering our economic recovery.
I pay tribute to the Members we have heard from, whose contributions showed the impact that being shut out of support has had on many of their constituents right across the United Kingdom, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck), for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin), for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) and for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith), who made such passionate cases on their constituents’ behalf. Like many Members, I have also heard from constituents who find themselves in this position. One constituent, newly self-employed after starting his own business, told me:
“I am from a working class background. I’ve worked and paid taxes since leaving school, funded my own retraining. I’ve not claimed any benefits at all during this time. I’ve worked hard to earn everything that I have achieved. I admit to feeling disappointed and let down, that due to a quirk of timing and dates, I won’t be afforded the same level of Government support.”
I have also heard from many of the unions representing working people in this country: Community, Equity, the Musicians’ Union, the Writers’ Guild, Prospect and the GMB about how many of their members are in similar situations. I have also heard from the Federation of Small Businesses. Across professions, the same issues come up time and again: the exclusion of the newly self-employed, the 50% threshold, and people who are not eligible for universal credit despite a huge drop in income. We also know that, despite some recent welcome changes, there is ongoing discrimination against women who have taken maternity leave.
I have said before, and will say again, that the Opposition accept that it was difficult to get everything right when the Government set up these income support schemes back in March—but we are months into this pandemic now. We know where the gaps are. We have pointed them out repeatedly and Members have made the case here today. I ask the Minister, again, what is being done to sort out these issues? No doubt he will list the schemes the Government have already made available, but surely he must understand that this will be cold comfort for those still unable to access support. Does he have anything new to say today?
The Government’s failure to address these issues is also storing up problems down the line. There are many self-employed people who have put money aside into savings accounts to pay for end-of-year tax bills. In many cases, these savings trigger an end to their universal credit eligibility or they can only claim at a reduced rate. This means that not only are they going without support for longer, but that they will face even greater financial difficulties when required to pay their end-of-year tax bill. As we have heard today, Government inaction risks the very economic recovery we all desperately need and want.
Entrepreneurship is the backbone of our economy. A dynamic economy needs people who are willing to take risks, become self-employed and start their own businesses. After all, after the 2008 financial crash, it was SMEs that spearheaded economic recovery and gave people hope and work. Now, however, when so many self-employed people are in need, the Government are not there to help.
Self-employed people have seen how the Government have treated them, and I worry that they will be wary of taking steps that could help to drive our recovery. As we have heard today, many people who are already self-employed are considering giving up on their careers and their businesses. That is of particular concern among women, those from low-income backgrounds, and black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.
We should do everything we can to ensure that an economic recovery benefits everyone in our country, and we should give the self-employed the confidence to keep going, not leave them to sink or swim. If we do not, we will face a much slower and less inclusive recovery. That is in the Minister’s hands. It is not too late to listen; it is not too late to act.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) on securing the debate, and I thank the 14 Back-Bench Members for their contributions—I listened very carefully to each—which spoke powerfully to the many cases of hardship that I recognise exist throughout the country.
I acknowledge the article written by the hon. Member for Twickenham for The House magazine today, and the briefing by ExcludedUK, which was made available yesterday for the debate. I have looked at that carefully and shall take back the three-stage approach, and we will continue to see if we can move forward. I recognise that there is a sensitivity about Ministers standing up and listing all the measures that have been put in place so far, so I will go through some of that only briefly, but I will then move on to the context and rationale behind some of our decisions, and address some of the points that have been raised.
Clearly, the pandemic has profoundly affected the lives of countless people. As a Government, we have a moral obligation to protect jobs, livelihoods and our country’s economic capacity, a point that has been made and acknowledged by many Members during the debate. We have spent £280 billion on what has been one of the most comprehensive responses, including the job retention scheme, which protected 9.6 million jobs; the self-employment income support scheme, which provided grants to 2.7 million people; affordable loans for businesses, which we have adapted over time; extra help through the welfare system; bespoke interventions for different industries, such as the £1.57 billion for the creative industries; as well as other support, such as income tax time-to-pay arrangements, payments to those asked to self-isolate and grants for businesses required to close.
We have striven, as a Government, to provide support for as many individuals and businesses as we can, as rapidly as possible. That has meant taking some difficult decisions, however. I will set out the rationale for some of those decisions, particularly in relation to the self-employed, before moving on to how we have adapted our support schemes so far.
To give some context, when we designed those schemes, we had to keep some guiding principles in mind. First, the help must be targeted at those most in need. To achieve that, we obviously had to set clear rules. That is why we have said that those eligible to claim from the self-employment income support scheme must have made profits of no more than £50,000 from self-employed activity. I recognise that for those on the upper side of the £50,000 cut-off, that must feel unfair, but we did have to draw a line somewhere, and wherever we had drawn it, we would have had the same challenge.
According to HMRC data, those in that category had an average income of between £100,000 and £200,000. We have also said that support from that scheme must go to people whose main income is from their self-employed trade. That is why we also said that to claim, workers should make at least half of their income from self-employed activity. HMRC analysis shows that typically for those who make less than 50% of their income from self-employed sources, their profits are on average between £1,800 and £3,500 per year. That strongly suggests that self-employment is not their primary income source.
I now come to the second principle that we have used, which is the need to balance the Government’s duty to support individuals with our responsibility to protect taxpayers. Colleagues will be aware of the wide concern about fraud that continues to be, rightly, something that is raised in Select Committees and by those commentating on what we have done. To verify claims through the self-employment income support scheme, we needed to use data from an individual’s tax returns, and that means using returns from the year 2018-19. That has meant that people who became self-employed in 2019-20 have been unable to access the scheme, because HMRC does not yet hold complete tax return data to check their details.
We are listening closely to individuals who pay themselves through dividends, but that presents another challenge, which is that there is no practicable way of distinguishing between dividends derived from an individual’s own company and those from other sources.
I know that the past months have been very difficult for many people in the groups that I have mentioned, but I want to stress that we have not taken a dogmatic opposition position to any particular group and we continue—
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Of course, one of the challenges that we had to come to terms with was the need to deliver a scheme as quickly as possible, and to as many people as possible, within the context of a finite number of individuals who could verify that data. Short of introducing a scheme whereby people would need to manually go through and verify those different data sources—
The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but that, practically, was the challenge that we, working with officials, had to overcome. We had to make a judgment as to how to reconcile those two realities.
I want to reiterate that we are not adopting dogmatic opposition to any particular group, or contribution or idea that could move this forward. We need to protect the taxpayer, but that has not overridden our determination to provide support and we will continue to think about how we can improve the way the schemes that I have mentioned are targeted.
We have adapted already. We extended the cut-off point by which workers needed to be on their company’s payroll to be eligible to be furloughed, allowing more workers to receive those payments, and that potentially includes freelancers paid through PAYE. Some workers may be able to benefit from the recent changes that allow employers to re-furlough workers who left their jobs between 23 September and 30 October. And since July, employers have been able to bring back previously furloughed workers while still claiming from the Government for any hours not worked. We have adapted the self-employment income support scheme to help new parents who have taken time out of work, along with self-employed armed forces reservists, who were previously not covered.
I would like to add that people who are ineligible for one scheme may still be able to get support from one of the many other sources that I mentioned earlier, and that was not an exhaustive list.
I recognise that many people in the groups that we have talked about today fully intend to continue in their current jobs. However, we are investing to help those who decide to seek new opportunities. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer recently announced a £2.9 billion restart programme, which will provide intensive and tailored support to help people to find work.
I listened to the range of contributions from constituents across the country. It is very, very challenging for us to provide support for every single group that is struggling at this time, but I reiterate our willingness to continue to work with groups, including IPSE, the relevant APPG, the FSB and others, that bring forward proposals. My right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury is engaged in many of those conversations. As we move through into the new year, we will continue to look at the new schemes.
Our overriding goal has been to provide as much support as we can to people and businesses, and as rapidly as possible. We acknowledge that we have not been able to help everyone in the way that we would ideally want to, but that has not been a wilful disregard for their situation; it is based on the challenges of verifying. It is not attributing any blame to them either. We have succeeded in supporting millions of people and businesses through this intensely difficult time, and we will continue to do our very best until we have beaten coronavirus.
First, I refer to the answer I gave earlier about the universal nature of the package. Another such area that my hon. Friend did not mention is the fishing sector, which was particularly impacted not only through its supply of the restaurant trade but through its exports, which were also hit. We have listened to concerns there and put in some additional support. But the best way we will support businesses, whether in the wedding sector or elsewhere, is by getting the virus down. That is why we have taken the comprehensive measures that we have for the next four weeks. That is the best way to be able to open up these sectors and get the people who have been furloughed or supported through the self-employed scheme on to the job support scheme, where they will then qualify for the furlough bonus, which will be further support that is available.
I am somewhat surprised that the hon. Gentleman talks of actions when, as a result of our ability to operate UK-wide, we have been able to support nearly 1 million jobs in Scotland. Some 65,000 businesses in Scotland have benefited from the UK Government loan schemes and, as of 31 August, 242,600 employments were furloughed, at a take-up rate of 10%. Significant support has been offered to businesses in Scotland, as indeed it has been to businesses throughout the UK. It is odd that the hon. Gentleman talks about actions and ignores the nearly 1 million jobs that have been supported as a result of the actions that the UK Government have taken.
I thank the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) for his generosity in giving me those 33 seconds.
It is becoming clear that this will be the first Budget of this financial year. I do not mean that as any criticism of those on the Treasury Bench, but it is clear that events are moving fast. The Government will want to introduce emergency legislation and may seek emergency powers, and it is clear that even the Budget announced last week has already been overtaken by events. However, let me make couple of remarks about it.
First, we will have a wider debate about the loan charge on Thursday, but I was disappointed that there were no more concessions for those caught up in that scandal. It amazes me that people who were caught up in it, rather than those directly responsible for it, are being chased for money. I hope the Government will also be a bit more specific about the measures they want to introduce to tackle the promotion of tax avoidance. I am not the only Member who is concerned about the reduction in staff at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs over the past 10 years.
Secondly, the Government committed during the election campaign to maintaining the free TV licence. Given that we are in a period where the main source of information for many people, particularly the elderly and those who live on their own, is television, the Government need to move quickly to take back control of that power from the BBC and give it back to the Department for Work and Pensions and maintain the free TV licence. Over the next few weeks and months, elderly people will need that box in the corner of their living room to get vital information on tackling coronavirus.
Yes, I agree. My hon. Friend’s point is well made.
There are a number of challenges that the Government now face. I am not the only Member over the past few days who has had constituents contact them to say they have already seen their hours reduced and shifts cancelled. They are being advised by employers that there will be no work for them, as people are being discouraged from going into nightclubs, bars and restaurants. The work in this sector is traditionally low paid and precarious. I hope the Government will now look at the models introduced by Denmark and Norway to address those issues, and sit down with trade unions and business to come up with a financial model that ensures wages are maintained for those who are low paid and in precarious work, including those on zero-hour contracts. In particular, I hope the Government are considering, as Norway has done, issues relating to the self-employed and carers.
On statutory sick pay, I have been contacted by constituents who are alarmed that some employers, including some large multinational employers, do not pay company sick pay from day one. Some pay it on day four and some pay it on day seven, leaving the state to pick up the tab. Because of the different schemes by different employers, some individuals will find themselves receiving only statutory sick pay from day one, which is not topped up by employers and their particular sick schemes. That will lead to a situation where some people—I am sure I am not the only Member to hear this—feel they will have to make a choice between public health and poverty, and their wages. We really need to look at the rate of statutory sick pay. If there was a European league table, the UK would be either in the relegation zone or not too far away from it. The statutory sick pay of other European countries far outstrips what is on offer in the United Kingdom.
On universal credit, we need to move away from an arrears-based system. The five-week wait, which other hon. Members have mentioned, needs to go now. The first payment should be the first payment. The DWP receives £50 million a month in advances returned from claimants. How much does that cost the Department to administrate and how much time are DWP staff taking on that when they could be processing online journals and other claims? I agree with hon. Members that there should be no evictions for rent arrears during this period and that there should be no sanctions.
I want to end by saying that the Treasury will now need to consider, over the next few days and weeks, whether there should be a people’s bailout. The amount of money the state had to spend on the bankers’ bailout will probably be similar to what it may have to spend to alleviate poverty and to get through the current crisis in the weeks ahead.
As a point of principle, HMRC always seeks to collect the tax that it is due. One of the areas of innovation—I will come on to such areas as Making Tax Digital—is about making that easier for HMRC, but I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman is making a point more about fraud than error. The underlying principle is that HMRC always looks to collect the tax that it is due, but if he has a specific point on a constituency basis, I know that my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury will always be keen to discuss it with him, because he has a zeal for cracking down on any such practice.
The Government have done much to squeeze the tax gap: by ensuring that companies increasingly pay their way; by cracking down on offshore avoidance and evasion; by tackling tax avoidance schemes; by helping people to get their taxes right first time; and by investing in HMRC’s toolbox. If one looks at the actions being taken in terms of large businesses, they will see that there is an exceptional level of scrutiny. At any one time, HMRC is engaged with half the UK’s largest businesses and we have introduced specific measures to shape behaviours. For example, the diverted profits tax was introduced in 2015 to ensure that multinational companies pay UK tax in line with their UK activities. Under our rules, those companies either declare the correct amount of profits in the UK and pay the full amount of corporation tax on them, or they risk being charged a higher amount of diverted profits tax at a rate of 25%. It raises tax directly through encouraging changes in groups’ behaviour that, in turn, leads to increased tax receipts.
It is always good, 10 days into the job, to get specific challenging questions on the detail, but to answer that question—and I do not want to tempt hon. Members who usually come with in detailed questions such as that—the tax has raised £5 billion in additional revenue. On this occasion, I can satisfy the House, but I do not want to tempt fate with too many colleagues on this outing.
It is interesting that attitudes in large companies are changing. I am sure that there will be Members who will want them to change further, but since 2013 the proportion of large businesses agreeing that tax avoidance is acceptable has more than halved, moving from 45% to 21%. There is clearly more to do, but that shows a change in attitude within many large companies.
I welcome the debate this afternoon so early in the new Parliament, but the importance of tackling aggressive tax avoidance, tax evasion, economic crime and money laundering cannot be overstated, and this debate will not go away until the Government are seen to have taken far more action, not just uttering warm words of support in principle but demonstrating firm action in practice.
There is a lot of money at stake, and that is not just reflected in the tax gap, as others have suggested. The tax gap does not measure the money that we should be collecting in tax from, for example, the profits from the activities that big digital companies undertake here. Looking simply at the tax gap, as currently defined by HMRC, is not enough if we are serious about tackling tax avoidance, tax evasion and economic crime.
As I said, a lot of money is at stake, which is important when we have a new Government who have pledged to restore some of the cuts that they have implemented over the past decade and to invest in services and who want to level up living standards across the country. Fairness is at the heart of this debate, as has already been said. It is not about castigating the rich or anything like that; it is about ensuring that everybody pays their fair share of tax. Everybody should contribute to the common pot for the common good from the wealth they own or the income they receive. It is about ensuring that everybody is treated equally before the law. Until everybody in the nation, particularly the 85% who pay their tax automatically through the PAYE system, can be sure that there is fairness in who pays tax and how much they pay, we will not be able to raise the necessary revenue to fund the services that this country so desperately demands.
I urge the Government and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to listen carefully to what is being said in today’s debate. There is a cross-party consensus on many of the issues, and the Government need to heed that. They will be unable to ignore the voice of Parliament, despite their increased majority, because to do so would be morally wrong and totally unprincipled.
Let me give a figure that has not been mentioned so far. The National Crime Agency estimates—the figure has not changed and, if anything, has gone up—that about £100 billion of illicit money flows through Britain each year. We have become the jurisdiction of choice for too many kleptocrats, too many criminals and too many people who want to launder their money. We will never build a global Britain on the back of dirty money. Post-Brexit Britain will not prosper by, at best, ignoring the extent of the problems of avoidance and economic crime or, at worst, facilitating it.
I ask the Government to respond to four current concerns. In 2018, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), who is in America talking to elected representatives about how to tackle evasion and avoidance, and I led a successful cross-party campaign to place on the statute book an obligation on overseas territories to provide public registers of beneficial ownership. In 2019, the Crown dependencies, recognising that the will of Parliament was to include them in the legislation, voluntarily agreed to come along with that. We accepted a concession that registers should be implemented by 2023—too late, but it was better to have the scheme accepted by all parties. I remind Members of why the change is so important. We have already heard today that half the entities named in the Panama papers were registered in just one of our overseas territories: the British Virgin Islands. Secrecy enables wrongdoing, and we must understand that.
Our Crown dependencies are as complicit as the overseas territories, and I have two examples: Silvio Berlusconi was accused of bribing two judges, and the payments were allegedly made through a secret offshore branch of the Berlusconi empire, with funds sent to the judges’ bank accounts in Switzerland through a Jersey-based company; and Bono used a company in Guernsey to hide the profits he made in Lithuania.
We need public registers of beneficial ownership in both the Crown dependencies and the overseas territories. Transparency is a key tool in tackling evasion and economic crime. Global Witness has shown a thirst for open access to company data. Since 2015, when the paywall came down on UK company data searches, there have been, on average, 2 billion searches a year, compared with just 6 million a year before the pay wall came down. It has been used by individuals, investigative journalists, campaigning organisations and the voluntary sector, and it has been used by businesses to try to ensure other businesses are treated fairly.
What support have the Government now put in place to help the overseas territories and Crown dependencies implement public registers? Will the Minister confirm the 2023 date this afternoon? Has he taken any steps to bring that date forward? That would be perfectly possible.
Research from Tax Watch shows that, between them, the big five global digital companies—Google, Cisco, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple—paid £240 million in corporation tax in 2018. They should have paid £1.3 billion according to Tax Watch’s calculation of the activity they undertook here, the profits they made here and, therefore, the corporation tax bill that was liable here.
The Government’s proposed digital services tax is the beginning of an answer, but, by 2023, it will raise only around £400 million, which is a tiny start to ensuring that these large global corporations pay a proper amount of tax on digital services. It makes me so angry, because these companies are as dependent as anybody else on the services our tax provides. They need a well-educated workforce, which is provided from taxpayers’ money; they need a healthy workforce, which is provided from taxpayers’ money; and they need infrastructure—whether roads, the internet or whatever else—which is often also provided from taxpayers’ money.
I am unaware of that specific allegation, but I will come on to facilitators, advisers and enablers who get away with far too much.
The only way we will start ensuring that digital companies pay the right amount of tax is by implementing country-by-country reporting. I asked the Chief Secretary and he did not reply, so I hope the Financial Secretary will reply to the question in his winding-up speech. When will this Government implement the country-by-country reporting that will allow us to see what activity takes place here, what profits are made here and, therefore, what fair tax should be paid here?
I reiterate to the Financial Secretary an issue that I raised with him in an Adjournment debate a couple of weeks ago, and to which he failed to reply at the time. Netflix has so far avoided public scrutiny, but it exports its profits by ensuring that subscribers pay into a server located in Holland. We reckon Netflix earned about £1 billion last year and paid no corporation tax, but in over two years it has benefited to the tune of £1 million from the high-end television tax relief. Not only was Netflix not paying tax, but it was benefiting from what is, in effect, a grant to encourage the production of content here in the UK.
I welcome such reliefs, but it seems utterly unacceptable that companies should benefit from grants offered through tax reliefs here in the UK yet behave in such an appalling way and refuse to pay their tax here. Now that we are Brexiting from Europe, surely it is not beyond the realms of possibility to introduce legislation so that companies will be eligible for such tax reliefs only if they show responsibility in how they behave and in paying their fair share of tax.
The other thing that really gets me with many of these American-headquartered companies is that the Americans, under Donald Trump, extract tax from profits earned through activity undertaken here in the UK. They extract tax at a lower rate but, nevertheless, they are getting more tax than we are, which is unacceptable. Americans are profiting from tax on profits and intellectual property created here in the UK.
I again ask the Minister what I asked him in the Adjournment debate and to which he refused to respond: will he extend the digital services tax to include streaming services? Will he stop those who deliberately avoid tax having access to grants and tax reliefs?
The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) talked about creating a register of beneficial ownership of property, which David Cameron first promised us five years ago. Why is it important? The last figures I could get show that getting on towards 90,000 properties across the UK are owned by companies incorporated in tax havens.
The purchase and ownership of properties has become a key way in which money is laundered into the UK. Transparency International has established that one in 10 properties in just one London borough—Westminster —is owned by a company registered in an offshore secrecy jurisdiction. Private Eye claims that one in six properties sold in Kensington and Chelsea was bought by a company located in an offshore tax haven. This is a key way in which people launder money here.
The electoral register of Kensington and Chelsea is interesting. There has been a 10% decline in the register over the past decade or so, whereas registers have increased everywhere else in London. Why? Because people buy the properties and leave them empty. They simply use the purchase as a way of laundering money, and we know lots of that money comes out of Russia—about £70 billion has flowed out of Russia into the UK in the past 10 years.
When are we going to see that legislation? When will it be put before the House? When will we see the promise made a long time ago by a Conservative Prime Minister fulfilled by this Conservative Government?
Finally, the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) mentioned the role of advisers. It is the advisers who create these schemes. Whether they are banks, accountants, lawyers or just advisers on their own, they found schemes that are later deemed to be unlawful. Film tax credit and, most recently, the loan charge are good examples of schemes that have caused terrible hardship to people. I feel ambivalent about it because, of course, there is never something for nothing, and people should have been much more careful before they entered into such schemes. Nevertheless, they have led to suicides—they have been terrible schemes. Advisers always get away scot-free, whoever they are, and none of them is held properly to account. The law in this policy area is just too weak. In criminal law, we have to prove dishonesty to pursue a criminal prosecution, which is very difficult. In civil law, the penalties are ridiculously low and are limited to the amount of fee that the adviser would have gained. There is also what is known as a double reasonableness test: it cannot be regarded just as an unreasonable course of action; it also has to be demonstrated that it was unreasonable to think it was reasonable—I hope that makes sense to Members.
The calling to account of advisers, enablers and promoters would be a powerful tool. At a stroke we would kill off many of the schemes that are currently exploited, which lead to such tax loss in this country. I urge the Minister to bring forward legislation to toughen up the regime and to make it easier to hold the advisers, enablers and promoters to account.
In conclusion, it is vital to battle against tax evasion—it is vital to demonstrate fairness in our system, to ensure the proper funding of our public services, and to the building of a global Britain that is respected around the world for its values and integrity and that is seen as a good place to do business. The Government will pay a heavy price if they fail to respond properly to the issues that have been raised in this debate. They must not just give us warm words; they have to give us tough action. I hope that in my short contribution I have given the Minister some good ideas that he could easily implement and that would make the world of difference. I urge him to have regard to them.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana). I share some of her concerns about ensuring that those with the broadest shoulders pay the most, following the lead of the shadow Chancellor, but it is useful to look at the facts. An interesting survey was carried out by PricewaterhouseCoopers and the BBC on the nations that have the highest proportion of tax on high earners, looking at people earning a quarter of a million pounds a year. The UK is the third highest taxing country in the world—only Italy and India are higher. The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) shakes his head, but he can google that. We should clamp down on tax avoidance and tax evasion, but we cannot raise the taxes we want without the negative consequences of people shifting that wealth and income elsewhere.
It related to income tax. [Interruption.] The point I was making was about income tax. The shadow Chancellor talked about raising taxes from the people who earn the most, and I was simply responding to that point. I have said in the Chamber many times that we should clamp down on tax avoidance and tax evasion.
The shadow Chancellor strikes me as the failed football manager turned TV pundit—having lost all his games by a wide margin, he suddenly complains when the incumbent manager is only winning his games 1-0. This Government have done far more to collect avoided and evaded taxes than the previous Administration—that is a fact. We can choose our opinions, but we cannot choose our facts. We need to go further. This is not just about the money; it is about creating a fair and level playing field and building confidence in the system, so that SMEs, which are the lifeblood of our economy and business, feel that they are not playing in a rigged game. It cannot be like that.
It is utterly wrong that we should countenance tax avoidance, because it undermines the level playing field for SMEs, and that has a tangible effect. For example, the Johnston Press, which owns The Yorkshire Post and many other titles around the country, was turning over £177 million in advertising revenue in 2008, and today, that figure is £22 million. There has been a transfer of revenue from areas such as regional press to online advertising, and particularly Google. Johnston Press will have paid its fair share of taxes, as most companies of that size do. Internationally, Google turns over about £100 billion. We know that around 10% of its turnover is in the UK—that is a stated fact—which is £10 billion. Its international profit margin is 22%, which means that it makes £2.2 billion. It should be paying £418 million in corporation tax at 19%, but it pays £67 million. That is simply iniquitous. It cannot be right, and it cannot be sustainable.
I am delighted that the Economic Secretary to the Treasury is on the Front Bench, because I want to give another example of where we are not maintaining a fair and level playing field. It relates to some of our banks and Cerberus. UK lenders who pay UK tax have sold their loan books to inactive lenders who work offshore and do not pay corporation tax or operate on the same regulatory playing field. Cerberus, which has bought loan books off Northern Rock and UK Asset Resolution, plays by a completely different set of rules. Its costs are therefore lower, which means that it can afford to pay more for those loan books. It does not properly look after its customers, nor does it have the responsibility to look after them and treat them fairly. We have to make an extra effort to ensure that everybody operates on a fair and level playing field. Cerberus paid £15,000 in corporation tax on six subsidiaries in 2015, despite working on a 20% profit margin.
In terms of my own business experience, our business grew to a point where we were making a reasonable profit. Our adviser—a normal accountant, not one of the big four—said, “How about trying this scheme to avoid tax?” It was perfectly legal, but we refused to take that option, because we did not think that it was right. We need to work harder with advisers and promoters to ensure that everybody pays their fair share of tax. The Government use the big four in many ways and take their advice, and it seems wrong that those very companies then go to large multinational companies and others and show them how to avoid tax.
One of the solutions is country-by-country reporting. We have a precedent for that, with the bookmakers’ point of consumption tax. The Labour party came up with a ruse that involved charging businesses in terms of where their economic activity, people and premises are, and there is very much a basis for that. We need to ensure that what the Government have done through the digital services tax and diverted profits tax narrows the gap for companies such as Google and Facebook.
We need to implement some other key measures, including on transparency about overseas entities and ownership of property, which is a way to avoid tax and move money around the world illegally and unfairly. We need to see measures on beneficial ownership in overseas territories brought forward to 2023. Finally, a corporate offence of failure to prevent economic crime and money laundering would reduce the amount of money that is illegally shifted out of the UK into foreign jurisdictions and increase the amount of tax that is paid.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me in this Opposition day debate, which, judging by the Benches opposite, Opposition Members did not know about at all.
There has been a lot of discussion, Madam Deputy Speaker, about large corporate entities and taxation so I will talk a little bit about taxation from a personal point of view, because it is often the case that lots of smaller transactions from a large number of individuals can also make a significant difference. In my previous life as a financial planner, I very much did things along the lines of capital belonging in the hands of the people to give them the power to shape and determine their own futures. Our taxation system is something of a Frankenstein’s monster. The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) was right earlier when she said that we tinker around the edges. I agree that we tinker around the edges in many ways. The wholesale, scrapping and rewriting of the entire system would be absolutely preferable, but it is a massive undertaking that no Government would ever do, so unfortunately we will always be restricted to tinkering around the edges.
That tinkering inevitably leads to the wonderful law of unintended consequences, loopholes and other things that appear, but despite all that, as a financial planner I always used to say to people that paying tax was a privilege. In many countries around the world there are people who would be delighted to be able to have their own businesses and to thrive, grow and pay tax, as we do. So it is a privilege, but everyone should pay their fair share, and that word “fair” is thrown around very easily these days. It is a very esoteric concept. It is a little bit in the mind of the beholder.
There has to be a point—a sweet spot—where there is no incentive to avoid taxation, and we saw it perfectly when we reduced the highest rate of tax from 50% down to 45%. The amount of revenue generated actually increased and there has to be a point where the incentive is gone. Fairness is not a concept that is available only to the Opposition Benches. What about the concept of fairness to the individual who went to university, stayed on for a master’s degree, started off at the bottom of an organisation, works 80 to 100 hours a week, sacrificing time with their families and lots of other social benefits so as to carve out a successful career, climbed the ladder and got to high levels of income and found that the taxation system was punitive and a punishment on success? It is not hard to see why the highest earners take steps to mitigate their tax levels.
As a financial planner, I always ensured that all the legitimate tax breaks were used—the simple things such as the ISA allowance, pensions allowances or capital gains tax allowances. Then, for people who have particular approaches to risk, there are vehicles such as enterprise investment schemes and venture capital trusts. That word “allowance” crops up all over the place in our tax code. There are legitimate ways to mitigate tax. We encourage it. Governments of all colours and descriptions have encouraged legitimate tax mitigation for decades, and it is important that we realise that the vast majority of the public engage in legitimate tax avoidance every day through pensions and ISA investments. We need to change the language we use a little bit to ensure that avoidance and evasion are treated and understood very, very differently.
Let us be clear that every £1 of evaded tax is £1 less for our vital public services. Everybody across this House and, more important, in the country, recognises that clearly. This Government are tackling the issues, and for Opposition parties to decry those efforts is just disingenuous. During the shadow Chancellor’s opening remarks, Opposition Members yelled, “Ten years, 10 years”, when we talked about our measures to fix the economy. Damn right it took 10 years. How long was it supposed to take? What would be reasonable from where we were in 2010? The tax gap was 7.3% previously, now it is 5.6%. There was an annual deficit of £153 billion; it is now an absolute shadow of that.
The Labour party complaining about 10 years is like people going around setting fires and then complaining that the fire service do not put them out quickly enough. It is nonsense, especially when, in the past two years, Labour Members have voted against various measures that would have helped tackle tax avoidance, evasion and non-compliance. If you will pardon the pun, Madam Deputy Speaker, the hypocrisy is a bit rich.
Clearly, there is a lot of cross-party support on this topic. Benjamin Franklin once said:
“in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
In this country, there is no doubt about it; we have one of the best tax collection systems in the world. It has been said a lot already, but the tax gap is now less than 6%. What we have not said enough is that it is falling every time it is measured. Our manifesto promised a strengthened anti-tax-evasion unit in HMRC, and that is welcomed. I guarantee that every time we knock on a constituent’s door and talk to them about paying their fair share of tax, that is what they want to see. We will continue to clamp down on fraud. Through digital measures that have come in over the past few years, we continue to do that. I just wish to mention two schemes that I came across when I was in business. Over the past few years, HMRC has brought in real-time information and Making Tax Digital, both new, electronic ways and means of submitting one’s information to ensure that there is less data manipulation and so the right amount of tax is paid on time by companies and employees. Far from doing nothing about tax avoidance and evasion, this Government are doing quite the opposite.
Before I became an MP, I was in the real world. I was in a business in Norfolk. I recall once opening the post and to my horror seeing that I had a VAT and PAYE inspection all in the space of the same month or so. When my jaw hit the ground, the first thing I thought was, “What have I done wrong to deserve this?” Out came two tax inspectors. They had 50 years of experience in HMRC. They were fantastic people who spent the next week or so giving me a thoroughly good going over; they checked everything from maternity pay calculations to VAT rates on hedgehog food, grass seed and olive trees. I became an expert on zero-rated products—for those who are not aware, I should say that grass seed and hedgehog food are zero-rated. I am still none the wiser about olive trees being standard rated. The real excitement during that process came with the added knowledge that gingerbread men are biscuits and are zero rated. If we dab a bit of chocolate on their eyes, they remain zero-rated, but do not give them any more chocolate buttons, as they then become standard rated. I joke, and people may wonder why I am talking about this, but I do so because it highlights the real facts. This is a real situation going on up and down the country every day, where businesses and individuals are checked to ensure that they are paying their fair rate of tax—and it works. The staff are diligent and hard-working. This was a normal business, with a turnover of roughly £25 million, and over the four years HMRC went back we had to pay around about £800 of additional tax that was required. So if the Chancellor is listening, I can tell him he got his fair share. The point is that people have said today, “Well, it’s only the big businesses. It doesn’t go across the board”, but that is not true. It is black and white: you pay your fair share. The research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that the highest 1% of income tax payers account for 27% of all income tax. We can hardly sit here and say that the wealthiest are not paying their tax, can we? When those in the public eye commit wrongdoing or try to dodge their tax, there can be few news stories that attract more disdain and are more frowned upon. We have massively cracked down on tax avoidance and evasion in the past few years, and the new evasion law will go even further to clamp down on the worst fraud offenders by doubling the maximum prison term to 14 years. We have already secured over £200 billion in additional tax revenues since 2010, and at the 2018 Budget we announced an ambitious package of 21 measures that it is estimated will raise a further £2.1 billion.
I agree with what has been said all around the House about how global companies that do not pay their fair share of tax in this country absolutely should do so. The digital services tax that we will see coming in will start to put some of those things right. As my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Rob Roberts) said, there are differences between tax evasion and tax avoidance. Companies are not evading tax; they are avoiding it. That is where the legislation needs to be corrected, which is what this Government are doing.
The last point I want to make—I have stressed it before when I have stood up here—is that we have to have a balance: yes, clamp down on tax evaders, but we should not be persecuting the wealth generators in this country, the entrepreneurs and those who create jobs up and down this country.
I am delighted to wind up the debate for the Government. It has been a fascinating debate. There has, of course, been extensive discussion of the issues of tax avoidance and evasion, but we have also heard about lemon meringue pie and West Bromwich Albion, and we have heard two sparkling maiden speeches, for which I thank my new hon. Friends. It has been a cornucopia of joy for everyone interested in these issues.
Before I deal with the debate itself, may I dwell for a second on the Tax Justice Network report, which is central to the motion? We are repeatedly enjoined to trust it as an authoritative assessment of the UK’s position, but I suggest that nothing could be further from the truth. Those who look closely at the report will see that it generates absurd outcomes. In its list of 133 jurisdictions, we supposedly come 12th in terms of offensiveness, yet near the bottom we see Brunei, Vanuatu and Liberia. Is anyone seriously suggesting that this country is a less robust and effectively transparent tax jurisdiction than those?
The reason for that mistake is the fact that the findings are based on an entirely flawed methodology which accepts the proposition that the UK is one of the least secret jurisdictions in the world. I believe it is the eighth least secret, according to the report. Because its authors have some fudge factor, or financial multiplier, they have somehow able to deduce this extraordinary further conclusion. In fact, it is bogus. As was pointed out by a partner at Clifford Chance, the excellent Mr Dan Neidle— [Hon. Members: “That is not an answer.”] He is a tax partner at Clifford Chance who was offering his view, but that was a nice try from the Opposition Front Bench. He is quoted as saying that
“Britain still scored badly despite making significant strides ahead of its global peers on fostering greater”
This, he said, was because the report calculates its final secrecy score based on the volume of financial activity conducted by non-residents.”
That is, of course, further to the issue of the core secrecy of the regime, and, as I have said, ours is one of the most transparent.
The report is bogus. It is based on a flawed methodology, and one that is itself secret to the point of being hard to scrutinise. However, I will say one more thing about it: although bogus in many respects, it does accurately place much of the blame for the current situation on the very soft-touch regulatory regime initiated under the Labour Government of 1997. That much, at least, is accurate.
Let me now deal with the main topic of the debate. Of course it is right to focus on the size of the tax gap —the gap between tax owed and tax paid—and I am delighted that it has fallen to a near record low of 5.6%. In his excellent speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) asked whether we could introduce a target. It is, of course a retrospective measure. HMRC’s attempt to get close to this point involves the concept of compliance yield, amounting to £34.5 billion this year, which is itself a stretching target. However, the good news is that the 5.6% target is some 0.7% below the average of the last five years of the Labour Administration. That is about £4 billion of tax which we, I am pleased to say, are collecting, and which, had they stayed in office, they would not have collected. It has also rightly been pointed out that at the last Budget the Government announced 21 new measures to tackle avoidance, but of course they were voted down by the Opposition. Last year, these compliance activities brought in some additional £34 billion, and since 2010 compliance activities have secured and protected more than £200 billion of tax revenue. That is a record of which we can all be proud.
It is an interesting fact that, when he came to consider the loan charge, Sir Amyas Morse focused on the earliest date on which he believed the charge could be properly validated in law. That date was December 2010. In other words, we supposedly had 10 years of loan charge non-compliance under the Labour party, which received no legal justification or support. I do not actually believe that that is true. HMRC was correct in chasing those people as it did, and that will be proved, but the fact is that Sir Amyas himself has pointed to the slapdash manner in which the last Government addressed this whole issue.
Let me pick on some of the important comments that have been made in the debate. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) was absolutely right to highlight the importance of the quality of data in our system. He was also right to focus on the diverted profits tax and the digital services tax as examples of activities that we are undertaking in order to improve compliance. The right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) raised a series of important points, and I want to spend time on those. We have discussed them in an Adjournment debate, and it is interesting that she has come back to them today. She is absolutely right to say that the centrality of the tax system should be one of fairness. It should not be one of penalising any particular section of the public—rich or poor, wherever they live, whatever they might be doing.
The right hon. Lady asked about public registers of beneficial ownership. It is important for me to say that the law enforcement agencies need to have access to the information they need to tackle money laundering. That is what really matters at the core of this. The Government have ensured that the recently established register of trusts is specifically designed to capture overseas trusts for that reason. She is right to focus, as did the hon. Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds), on the progress that has been made on public registers of beneficial information. The right hon. Member for Barking raised the question of beneficial owners of overseas entities. She will know that that register will be the first of its type in the world, and we will go further to increase transparency in the UK property market. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is the lead Department on this, and it has published a draft Bill that has undergone pre-legislative scrutiny.
The right hon. Lady also raised the question of creative sector tax relief. She will understand that in order to qualify for film and high-end tax reliefs, businesses have to incur a proportion of their production costs in the UK and pass a test for cultural content administered by the British Film Institute. I cannot comment on the specific circumstances of individual companies, but she ought to be aware that HMRC carries out a detailed check of each claim for creative sector tax relief, and that large businesses are subjected to an exceptional level of scrutiny. The point is that large businesses, like all other taxpayers, should pay the taxes due under UK law and implement compliance checks where necessary.
The right hon. Lady talked about country-by-country registration. Private country-by-country registration is of course in place. The problem lies in securing the international agreement required to roll out the public registration. It demands a measure of international agreement, and that is something that we continue to focus on. That is a Conservative act of leadership that we are still in the process of taking forward. She is right to pick on some other areas. I would just point out that the disclosure of tax avoidance schemes, the promoters of tax avoidance scheme rules—which can lead to significant penalties—and the enabler penalties that we put in place are all important, and I anticipate that will be strengthening them further over time. Let me pick up a couple of other quick points—
I am afraid that there is no time at all to do that, but I will pick up a couple of further points. Colleagues quite rightly had concerns about HMRC resourcing, and they are welcome to write to me if they want to discuss specific topics.
I mentioned the important point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley, and I am pleased that he offered his qualified support for IR35. He is right that it is an important measure, and it will collect something like £1 billion of tax a year by the end of the period. As he will be aware, the Government are preparing to legislate to clarify the status of employment from a business standpoint, which is proper and correct.
I am surprised that the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) was told that he could not be told anything. Of course, HMRC cannot discuss specific issues, but I hope that he will have a more interesting conversation than that.
I thanked my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Rob Roberts) for his constructive attitude, and he was right to focus on the privilege of paying tax. There is an element of truth in that, and we should properly defend it. With that in mind, let me sit down.
I had a good meeting yesterday with my hon. Friend and fellow Stoke and north Staffordshire MPs. The Government are supporting small firms across England through the network of 38 growth hubs, one of which is based on Stoke-on-Trent. In our manifesto, we announced our intention to create a national skills fund, which will help to transform the lives of people who have not got on the work ladder and lack qualifications, as well as people looking to return to work or to upskill.
It is rather rich for the hon. Gentleman to criticise me for quoting from the MAC report and then to quote from the MAC report himself. If it is good enough for him to quote from that report, it is good enough for me to quote from it.
I have a final quote from the MAC report, which said:
“We also don’t want to institutionalise some parts of the UK as ‘lower wage’; regional inequalities should be addressed through equalising wages.”
The Government share that view and are committed to the levelling-up agenda, and I would like to believe that that view is shared in all parts of the House.
I wish to say something on the role of the Scottish Government, who commissioned the report we are discussing.
I am extremely sorry to hear that an experienced SNP Member, backed up from a sedentary position by the Chair of the Scottish Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart)—[Interruption.] Will he allow me to continue? The hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) does not think that the MAC reports are in any way relevant to Scotland because there is no one Scottish on the committee. The MAC consults widely with Scotland. That report is clearly worthy of quoting, as it has been quoted twice now by the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East. The MAC’s membership is made up of experts who consult and engage with Scotland before they commission any report. We should thank them for their efforts rather than criticising them for not being Scottish enough. It is a particularly separatist argument that we get from the SNP time and again.
No, I do not. The Migration Advisory Committee—the clue is in the name—provides advice to the Government. I am very pleased that we live in a country where decisions are taken by Ministers who are accountable to this House. I look forward to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary setting out the Government’s plans once they have been approved by the Cabinet.
I have never quite understood one point. It was touched on by the hon. Member for Streatham, who speaks for the Opposition. It is the issue about pay and skills shortages. I suppose it is because people on the left broadly do not believe in a market economy, but my view is that, if there are sectors of the economy where employers are having trouble recruiting people, that rather suggests that they should increase the pay in those sectors, or improve the training that they provide for people—the economic value to those constituents. We should not simply acquiesce in allowing businesses to import an unlimited number of people to keep down the wages of the people working in the sector. Sometimes, as a Conservative, that is an uncomfortable message to deliver, because we are the party of business and economic growth: that is certainly the view of business. Sometimes we should say to business, “You should not be able to employ an unlimited number of people from overseas and keep wages down; you should actually increase the salaries you pay to your staff or increase the training opportunities to improve their productivity.” The Government having that level of creative tension with business would be more healthy than simply allowing it to import cheap labour.
Opposition Members always find this tiresome—although it tends to be ones from the official Opposition—but the hon. Gentleman will know that when the Conservative Government came into office in 2010, we faced a significant deficit in the public finances—[Interruption.] SNP Members immediately start jeering, but it is true. That needed dealing with, and Government Members had to take some very difficult decisions to get the public finances in order; I commend Liberal Democrat Members, who took part in the coalition Government. I am surprised that Scottish nationalist Members of Parliament do not understand big deficits in the public finances, because Scotland has in its public finances a significant deficit of around 7%, which is significantly higher than the rest of the United Kingdom.
From the midst of the choppy waters, I have some life rafts. When the “Migration: Helping Scotland Prosper” report was published by the Scottish Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) stated that, as a result of the work of the Scottish Affairs Committee, it was clear that the immigration needs of Scotland would be best met on a sectoral, rather than geographical, basis. The Scottish Affairs Committee was told that the UK can vary visas for different areas and sectors under existing laws. I therefore urge the Government to use these powers in consultation with the Scottish Government.
Agriculture is a key sector in my constituency of North East Fife that relies on a migrant workforce throughout the year, particularly at peak harvest times. The National Farmers Union estimates that 80,000 people are required to harvest crops across the UK each year, and a good proportion of this workforce is mobile, moving from location to location throughout the season. Borders within the UK can create barriers to work for such individuals. Our departure from the EU is already impacting on farmers’ ability to recruit staff, so we should be doing all we can to mitigate these difficulties rather than potentially exacerbating them. The need for visas for non-EEA nationals to crew fishing boats is acute in Cornwall, as it is in East Neuk and elsewhere in Scotland.
The Scottish Government’s migration report states:
“The current UK immigration system is complex and consists of a number of different routes and visas for work and study in an unclear system of tiers alongside a restrictive approach to family migration.”
I agree. That is why we proposed an amendment to the motion that focuses on the failings of the current system and the creation of the hostile environment that impacts on people across the UK, and the need to develop a system that treats everyone with dignity and respect.
Yesterday, I was approached by one of my constituents who had previously sought the support of my predecessor, Stephen Gethins. I thank Stephen for the support he gave to the family concerned. Valentyna Yakoleva is Ukrainian national who lives in my constituency with her son-in-law Andriya, her daughter, and their two children. She moved to the UK in 2010 at the age of 60 and has lived with her family in my constituency since then. After her travel visa expired, she should have been eligible for a family reunification visa, for she had no surviving spouse. She applied for the visa through a law firm based in Dundee, with the family making the assumption that it would be granted. She has spent this last decade raising her two granddaughters. Andriya, her son-in-law, told me that he would not have been able to work if his mother-in-law had not been looking after their daughters. Andriya sadly lost his job in 2015 but is now close to qualifying as a student teacher, thanks to Valentyna’s help.
But following errors in her initial application, and a failed appeal, Valentyna faces deportation back to Ukraine. She was held in the detention centre at Dungavel in South Lanarkshire following her arrest by the police in Fife, and was then held, away from her family, for two weeks before being released on bail following a judicial review. She has been given two options: to leave the UK now, voluntarily, with the prospect of returning for visits only after a period of a year; or to be forcibly evicted from the UK and unable to return for five years.
I find this utterly appalling. Valentyna is nearly 70—the same age as my own mother, who likewise supported me with care for my children in their early years, and indeed still does. Valentyna has lived in this country for a decade. She has helped to raise her grandchildren, allowing her son-in-law to contribute to society and the economy, and to pay taxes. She now faces being sent to a country where she has no family, no property, and no prospect of employment. In addition, she has a number of health issues that she needs support with. Her son-in-law has said that Ukraine
“is no place to be sending her back to. She has no family there and her pension was frozen around seven years ago with no prospect of her ever having access to it. Valentyna is our family, she has brought up our children and has been part of this community for almost a decade. Sending her back will be an absolute breach of her human rights and devastating for all of us.”
I agree. This is a total breach of Valentyna’s human rights, causing untold anxiety and distress.
Cases like these are a black mark against our society. I ask the Minister to intervene in this case. Clearly, it is totally unacceptable to deport Valentyna, sending her somewhere where she has no family, has not lived for a decade, has no prospect of finding a job, and has her health put at risk. We should aim to be judged on how we treat the most vulnerable people in our society. We are failing Valentyna and many others like her.
As a newly elected MP, it is incredibly worrying to see the clockwork regularity of constituents contacting my office because they or their family face deportation because their visas have not been processed or their settled status has not been granted. Other Members have referred to that today. You do not have to be a Member of Parliament for long for it to be clear, if it was not already, that our immigration system is not working. It is not fair—
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of US tariffs on the Scotch whisky industry.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. I am delighted that the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), is responding to the debate, because he is the Member of Parliament with the most whisky distilleries in his constituency. He has been a powerful advocate for the industry since he was first elected.
For some years, the Scotch whisky industry has enjoyed a renaissance. There is a romance about Scotch, a heritage that is unmatched, and a global reach that is unrivalled. As an economic reality, Scotch whisky provides jobs and investment in rural communities, underpins a supply chain that extends across the UK, and has become central to Scotland’s tourism offer, attracting visitors to our shores from all over the world. As Secretary of State for Scotland, I spoke often of the whisky industry’s stand-out success. By the end of my tenure, I could recite the numbers in my sleep: £4.7 billion in exports to 180 countries globally, 40,000 jobs supported across the UK, 20% of UK food and drink exports, 41 bottles exported every second.
Global Britain, which is being debated in the main Chamber right now, is surely about reinvesting in the UK on the world stage; championing rules-based trade; and demonstrating that the UK is open for business, outward-looking and confident in its trading prospects. The Scotch whisky industry has led the way on that in its 150 years of exporting. Distillers large and small bestride the world and the brands have become some of the most recognised globally, as I saw for myself when promoting the industry in countries as diverse as Argentina, Mozambique and Japan, always with positive support from the Scotch Whisky Association and its members.
This great Scottish and British export has been put under considerable pressure since the imposition by the United States last October of a 25% tariff on the import of all single malt Scotch whisky and Scotch whisky liqueurs. I asked an urgent question in Parliament ahead of the tariff’s imposition and during the debate that followed, along with other Scottish Members, I set out the industry’s concerns about its potential impact. The Prime Minister spoke to President Trump, as I requested in those exchanges, and many MPs lobbied US Ambassador Woody Johnson.
Regrettably, the tariff imposition went ahead. I should be clear, however, that the US is legally entitled to impose the tariff because of the World Trade Organisation’s ruling on the long-running dispute between the EU and the US about aircraft manufacture. To cut a long story short, the WTO found that both Europe and America had given illegal subsidies to Airbus and Boeing. The WTO said that until the subsidies were repaid and their impact eliminated, each side was entitled to impose retaliatory tariffs on the other’s exports to encourage compliance. That may be legal, but it is a bitter blow to the Scotch whisky industry.
The US is Scotch whisky’s most valuable global market; more than £1 billion of Scotch whisky was exported there in 2018. The disconnect between the source of the dispute and the UK products affected by the tariffs is particularly galling. The US chose not to impose tariffs on imports from UK aircraft manufacturers, so Scotch whisky is bearing almost two thirds of the total tariff liabilities imposed on UK exports to the United States.
Our cashmere and shortbread industries are feeling the pain every bit as much. As the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) have highlighted, those industries have also been targeted and their imports to the US subject to a 25% tariff. Given the importance of cashmere to the Borders, my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk raised his concerns directly with the EU Trade Commissioner. Depressingly, they have not even replied, which suggests that the EU does not recognise the economic impact of those taxes on businesses in rural Scotland.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his helpful intervention. I will come on to the initial feedback in relation to the impact of the tariffs. If we cannot resolve the issue in the short term, however, his suggestion has much to commend it.
As the hon. Gentleman alluded to, it is the small businesses, the new distilleries, that will be worst-hit as a consequence of a dispute in an industry with which they have no connection. Large spirits companies have portfolios of products that make them less vulnerable to market changes, but as Diageo chief executive Ivan Menezes recognised today, it is “devastating” for the industry as a whole. He said:
“It’s not a big impact on Diageo on the single malts into the US, however for the industry in Scotland, it’s devastating. It impacts small distillers, farmers and employees there. Thousands of jobs. That’s our focus. We hope sense will prevail between the US and the UK and the EU to get these tariffs down.”
It could get worse. Following a WTO ruling last December that the UK, among other European countries, was still in breach of WTO rules in its support for Airbus, the US Government proposed to increase existing tariffs and expand the coverage to include more products. As early as next week, we will know whether the tariffs on Scotch malt whisky or other Scottish products will rise or widen in their scope. Most troublingly, they could include blended Scotch whisky.
Meanwhile, since June 2018, the EU has imposed a 25% tariff on US whiskies in response to US tariffs on steel and aluminium. That is another long-standing dispute and another unrelated sector bearing the painful consequences of Governments’ failure to resolve disputes. It is a far cry from the mid-1990s, when the US and the EU, together with Canada and Japan, agreed to remove all tariffs on imported brown spirits. That unleashed an increase of 270% in total Scotch exports to the US. That is impressive, but it is put in the shade by the 400% increase in US whisky exports to the UK over the same 25-year period. Friendly competition has been good for both industries, for tax revenues and for consumers.
It could not be clearer that the UK Government need to resolve the outstanding issues on UK subsidies to Airbus to ensure that the UK is fully compliant with international law in the WTO’s view. That is evidently key to ensuring the return to tariff-free trade in whisky across the Atlantic.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck, and to make my second speech in a parliamentary debate. I want to illustrate the impact on the US tariffs on whisky in my constituency. North East Fife is not only the home of golf but the spiritual home of whisky. The earliest written reference to Scotch whisky appears in the exchequer roll in 1494, which says that Brother John Cor, a Lindores monk, was commissioned by King James IV to turn eight bolls of malt into aqua vitae. Today, North East Fife is the proud home of four distilleries: Daftmill, Eden Mill, Kingsbarns and the recently revived Lindores.
Lindores is a fantastic example of the variety of positive benefits that the industry can bring. In addition to its distilling—its first single malt is currently in the vaults—it is a hospitality venue, playing host to weddings, other private events and visitor tours. Eden Mill and Kingsbarns have visitor centres, and as I said in my maiden speech, produce gins, further adding to the diversity of drinks production. Daftmill is a small distiller, located on a working farm, where production is dictated by the seasons. Its output may be small, but it is in high demand. The annual Fife whisky festival, centred in Cupar, is now a well-established event, attracting distillers large and small from across Scotland and beyond to North East Fife. This debate is not just about distillers; the supply chain is affected too. Take Crafty Maltsters—farmers based in Auchtermuchty, who have diversified into malting their own barley. Scotch whisky production in North East Fife brings many economic benefits in many ways.
In North East Fife, we feel the impact of larger whisky operations in neighbouring constituencies. I should declare an interest: prior to my election to Parliament, I worked at Diageo for four years. It has a large packaging plant in Leven, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant), and some of my constituents are among its employees. During my time there, I saw how larger businesses in industry can, through corporate social responsibility programmes, deliver real benefits. Diageo’s “Learning for Life” programme supports unemployed people into careers in hospitality through four weeks of training and a work placement with a local employer, with courses running throughout the UK. One of the most satisfying aspects of my time with Diageo was volunteering for that programme and seeing the difference in attendees over the six-week period.
Producers across Scotland work hard to support the communities in which they operate, so I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) for securing this debate. US tariffs on whisky have had and threaten to have a very damaging effect on the industry and the wider supply chain. As hon. Members have already heard, the US is the largest market for single malt, so it seems unfair that that success story should be put at risk because of a dispute that was not of the industry’s making.
As we move further into the 21st century, Britain should be at the forefront of taking down artificial barriers, whether economic, social or geographic. I worry on behalf of my constituents that we are seeing the opposite: the US President Donald Trump’s cavalier approach to trade, the barriers that the UK will impose on itself tomorrow night when we leave the EU, or the potential border that the SNP want in Britain with Scotland leaving the UK. As the Government seek a trade deal with the US, they must do all that they can to help the whisky industry by making removing tariffs an immediate priority and, in the meantime, by alleviating financial burdens on distilleries in the Budget. As other hon. Members have said, the Government must make sure that this Scottish success story continues to mature.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Buck.
I congratulate all Members on such sensible and thoughtful contributions. In particular, I thank the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) for securing the debate and for his broad-ranging and sensible introduction to it. I also congratulate the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) on what might have been her first contribution in Westminster Hall, which is a less aggressive place than our other Chamber. I was struck by her comments about Diageo and the European Union. I also thank some of my colleagues in the shadow International Trade team for helping me to prepare for this debate, which is just as much about trade as it is about food and drink.
The Scotch whisky industry is thriving and, as we have heard, incredibly important to the United Kingdom as our ninth most valuable export, contributing £5.5 billion to the UK economy last year and supporting 42,000 jobs across the nation. It is particularly important for Scotland’s economy, accounting for the vast majority of Scotland’s exports of food and drink, and providing 10,500 jobs, in particular in rural communities involved in the distillation, production and maturation processes.
Having the Scottish whisky industry embroiled in the increasingly tit-for-tat trade disputes that have been festering between the US and the EU over the past 15 years is a cause for profound regret. We can all agree that something is wrong when a trade dispute that originated in alleged subsidies for aircraft has escalated primarily to affect a whisky industry that has been doing nothing but mind its own business and thrive, without tariffs, for decades. With the 25% tariffs that have been slapped on American imports of single malt Scotch whiskies and Scotch whisky liqueurs from the UK, Scotch whisky now pays for more than 60% of the UK’s tariff bill arising from the Airbus case. That absolutely cannot be right. As hon. Members have outlined, we are now seeing real impacts of the row on people.
The EU as a bloc remains our largest export market for Scotch whisky, but as an individual country the US is our largest market, and clearly our largest export market for single malt Scotch whisky. The tariffs imposed on those products in October have therefore had considerable impact already, as we have heard, with the value of Scotch whisky exports to the US down 33% in November 2019 compared with November 2018.
Those hit hardest by the tariffs, as we have heard, are disproportionately the small and medium-sized distilleries across Scotland, which only produce single malt and have the US as a key market. The Scotch Whisky Association estimates that the industry could lose as much as 20% of its sales to the US over the next year if the tariffs remain. That would be worth £1 billion. As we are all aware, a decline in the value of our exports to the US of such magnitude will inevitably have knock-on effects on investment, productivity and jobs.
Scotch whisky has not been alone in being hit by the American tariffs, and it is worth repeating that the 25% tariffs also hit a range of our agricultural exports, including pork and cheese. The British Meat Processors Association tells us that they face some real difficulties, and we have already seen the value of UK pork exports to the US fall by 42% between November 2018 and November 2019.
The main subject today, however, is the impact on Scotch whisky. Following the US Trade Representative’s announcement of a further review of its tariffs in December, we now face the real possibility of the tariffs on single malt whisky being increased, or their coverage expanded to include the blended Scotch that is currently excluded. That would make an already challenging situation much more difficult.
Such bullying tactics by President Trump are sadly reflective of an approach to international trade that I fear we will only see more of as we leave the European Union. President Trump has made his desire to put America first explicit, and is playing fast and loose with the global rules-based system governing international trade. So far, he has unfairly attacked foreign industries with tariffs, blocked the appointment of judges to the World Trade Organisation’s appellate body and, recently, threatened to pull the US out of the World Trade Organisation altogether. We urgently need an end to that tit for tat, and the removal of tariffs on both sides, on both Scotch and American whiskies. The Scotch whisky and American whiskey industries are in clear agreement on that.
The Prime Minister’s promise to remove EU tariffs on American whiskey as soon as we leave the EU is welcome, and it is clear that he believes this will go some way to encouraging President Trump to remove tariffs on our Scotch whisky. What is less welcome, and remarkably counter-intuitive, are recent reports that the Prime Minister is threatening both the US and the EU with high tariffs in some bid to speed up post-Brexit trade deals. We are familiar with the Prime Minister preparing completely different positions to cover all eventualities, but will the Minister make it crystal clear that tariffs on American whiskey will be excluded from this threat? If he will not, how can the Government possibly guarantee that pursuing such an aggressive trade stance will not embroil the Scotch whisky industry yet further in a burgeoning trade war?
In the meantime, the Scotch Whisky Association has been waiting nearly three months for a response from the Government on their plans for short-term support for the industry while it is subject to the tariffs. I hope that the Government will confirm today what their intentions are in that regard.
The sad reality is that this entire episode demonstrates just how difficult our upcoming trade negotiations will be once we leave the EU. One of the main economic advantages of being in the EU was the fact that in trade negotiations the UK was part of a trading bloc of 28 countries. Now we are on our own. In a future trade deal with the US, therefore, we will have to face up to the full force of its demands to export to us hormone- treated beef and chlorine-washed chicken. We will also have to ensure that the geographical indicators for our produce—such as Scotch whisky and Cornish pasties—are not lost once we leave the EU’s protective framework. The signs to date of the Government’s commitment to protecting the good name and value of our regional goods are, frankly, not promising.
Our highly prized Scotch whisky industry is a high-profile casualty in this grim world of retaliatory trade wars between men with big egos, little sense of the damage they cause and even less regard for the wider consequences. We urgently need a return to a rules-based order to give stability and security. The jobs and livelihoods of people not just in the UK but in nations across the world depend upon it.
Yes, I am happy for there to be attractive reasons why people should go to the parts of the economy that have been less heavily invested in and that are less pressurised. However, with cars the issue is demand; there is not enough demand for the very good cars that the industry currently makes. The Government want to change the kind of cars that people buy, but it will take time for Britain, or anywhere else for that matter, to be able to produce the millions of electric cars that the Government want us to buy, at a price and to a specification that people like.
So, this is a top-down revolution and the public are not yet fully engaged in it in the way that the Government would like them to be. When polled, the public say that electric cars are a very good idea. However, when they are then asked, “Well, when are you buying your electric car?”, the answer is, “Well, not yet. Not me. I want a better subsidy on the car, I want a lower price, I want a higher range”—whatever it is.
There are still issues about engaging the public, which is why we are getting this industrial dislocation. China has experienced exactly the same thing and one would have thought that China would have continuous growth in cars, because it is coming from a much lower level of car ownership and individual income. However, even in China car volume is down, because of the regulatory changes and the dislocation involved in going from traditional product to electric product.
In addition, the Minister and his colleagues should look at the issue of property. Property is a very important part of the UK economy. It is often an asset base for people to borrow against in order to develop their business, and it is often the main way in which individuals hold their personal wealth. By buying a house on a mortgage and gradually paying the mortgage off, property often becomes people’s principal asset, which gives them some wealth and financial stability.
However, we have a property market in the UK that has been damaged by the very high stamp duties that were introduced under the previous Government, and the Government should look at that issue very carefully. I do not think that the Government are even maximising the revenues from stamp duties, and it might not be a bad idea for them to ask, “What are the rates that would maximise the revenues?” At the higher price levels in property, transactions have been very badly affected; indeed, they have been massively reduced by the very high rates at the top end of the market. So, the Treasury constantly has to revise down its forecasts of how much revenue it collects from stamp duty.
A more free-flowing property market would be a very good thing, because it would create all sorts of other work for people who are in the refurbishment and removals business, and above all it would allow people to fit their property needs more closely to the property that they have. A lot of potential switching in the market is being frustrated: some people have houses too big for them but they do not fancy paying the stamp duty on the trade-down property, and other people would like a bigger property, but the stamp duty would be just such a big addition to the higher price that they would have to pay for that property.
Most people buy a house because they want somewhere to live that is theirs, and that they can then do up and change in the way they see fit, subject to planning. But yes, of course, it is also a way of holding wealth, and I repeat what I said: for many people it becomes their largest single asset. I do not think that is a bad thing. I do not think that people are treating their main property as a trading counter; it is where they wish to live, and they will only move when they want a different house, mainly for living purposes. People would only be able to buy property speculatively if the property was their second or third house, and not many people are in the fortunate position of having such wealth.
There is no absolute protection against house prices going down; they do from time to time, as the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) pointed out. However, if someone’s aim is to live in a house long term, and if they have taken out an affordable mortgage, temporary fluctuations in house prices are not life-threatening or wealth-threatening to any worrying extent, and they will just live through the period when house prices dip because there has been a recession, or whatever.
Fortunately, we do not seem to be looking at such a situation in the immediate future, and it is very important that we have a growth strategy, so that the slowdown in the economy that we have experienced in recent months is turned around quickly and does not become something worse, which could have negative consequences in the way that the hon. Gentleman talked about.
So my No.1 message to the Government is not to underestimate the damage that clumsy taxes can do, and they may even end up costing the Treasury, as stamp duty has done, because it is not collecting as much as it should. That is probably the case with vehicle excise duty as well, because of the volume impact on new cars, which relates to a whole series of factors; it does not just relate to the vehicle excise duty, but that was another complication in the situation.
As the Minister has this particular responsibility, I urge him to look again at IR35. We want a very flexible economy in which people can choose flexible employment, rather than have it forced on them. We have had a relatively flexible small business sector, but it is being damaged by the top-down imposition of the IR35 rules. I hear all sorts of stories from across the country of people having to stop their contracting business or losing contracts because the big companies that might employ them are worried they might get dragged into a retrospective tax increase in employer and employee national insurance. That is damaging the small contracting sector, and I urge the Government not to carry on doing that when we want to encourage more self-employment and allow self-employed people to go on to build bigger businesses.
One of the Office for National Statistics figures I saw recently, which I found fascinating, was that in London there are more than 1,500 businesses per 10,000 people, whereas in the lower income parts of the country there are half that number. There is a huge gap between the volume of enterprise in London, which is the richest part of the country in terms of average incomes, and much of the rest of the country, where incomes could be higher. It is not easy to break into why there are so many more businesses in London. In part, it is because people are better off and have more spending money—demand is important in setting up a business—but it is also to do with the general business environment and the concentration of people, talent, enterprise and spending power that we see in the capital. We need to do something similar in other parts of the country. Building more businesses is crucial, and IR35 is getting in the way of doing that.
Some 4.5 million people in the country who work for themselves do not have any employees, and they are afraid of taking on an extra employee because of the implications, whether for regulation, tax or otherwise, or because they think it will be too difficult to manage. We need to look at that step up in building a business, when someone goes from just working for themselves to having an employee or two. It is important that we make that step as easy as possible, because if another million self-employed people decided that they wanted a single employee, that would be transformational. That would obviously create a lot of extra demand in the labour market.
We need to look at taxes on employment and the complications of employment. Anything that the Government can do to reduce the tax on employment is a very good idea. We cannot collect tax revenue just by taxing things we do not like, but where we have a choice, it is better to tax things we do not like rather than things we do like. All parties in the House like the ideas of well-paid jobs and of more work, so we need to work away in Government to see how we can reduce the burden of taxes on work such as the apprentice levy, the national insurance levy on both the employee and the employer and other concealed taxes on work.
We also need to look at taxes on entrepreneurship. A larger population of people who have great ideas, who can change markets and who can persuade others that they have something people might want to buy is vital to the process of creating a more prosperous United Kingdom. We need to ensure that the offer on capital gains tax in particular is a fair one. People who have built a business over the years should not feel that they will be taxed again on it all, because they have been taxed on the activity in the business. Capital gains has to be a fair regime, and I urge the Government to keep the enterprise allowance arrangements so that entrepreneurs can keep a lot of the benefits from building their business.
It is said that our productivity performance in recent years has been disappointing and that that is a puzzle. I do not quite understand why it is a puzzle; it is exactly what we would expect. We have had a major reduction in North sea oil output. The way the figures are calculated means that it is one of the most productive sectors, because labour productivity is based on the amount of revenue or value-added generated by an individual, and an individual in the oil industry produces a huge amount of revenue due to the windfall element in the oil price. We had a very big squeeze on many of the activities in the City that were apparently profitable before 2008. Those activities flattered the productivity figures, but some of the profits turned out not to be genuine, and a lot of them have been squeezed out. Again, a high-earning, apparently highly productive part of the economy has gone through a big change, and we have lost that.
We have been a successful economy—this is a strength—in creating lots of new jobs, but a lot of them are relatively low paid so they do not score very well under productivity scoring. If we compare our productivity with that for continental countries with unemployment rates two or three times as high as ours, their productivity is higher, because people we are employing on low pay here would be unemployed there, and the unemployed do not count in the productivity figures—they are just ignored as if they do not exist.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate; I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) on introducing it.
I will start with a modern-day parable from a book called “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. A man is walking through a wood and comes across a lumberjack who is trying to saw down a tree and not getting very far. He walks up to the lumberjack, taps him on the shoulder and says, “Excuse me. Your saw is blunt. You’d be better off stopping and sharpening it.” The lumberjack says, “No, no—don’t bother me. I’m sawing down the tree.” He tries again: “Excuse me. Just sharpen your saw and you’ll cut that tree down much more quickly.” The lumberjack says, “I haven’t got time to sharpen the saw.”
That parable has stood me in good stead in my business. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as I am still in business today. The most expensive and the most vital resource of any business is the people who work in it. It is important always to ensure that they are not working with worn-out tools, and that they are effective and as productive as possible.
The key to the UK growth strategy has to be productivity. I do not disagree with my right hon. Friend: it is a simple issue to solve. However, it will require significant investment, both from the public sector and, crucially, from the private sector. Public sector investment alone will simply not do it.
The reality is that across the north and the midlands we have been working with worn-out tools for too long. According to Andy Haldane, the chief economist at the Bank of England, of the six factors that drive prosperity and productivity the No. 1 factor is connectivity. Large swathes of the country, particularly the north and the midlands, but virtually all regions outside London and the south-east, are very poorly connected. That is because we have underspent in those areas for too long. I know that our excellent Minister will say that the Government are now investing equal amounts in the north as in other parts of the country. That is true to some extent, in terms of central investment. However, other regions, particularly London and the south-east, are very good at aggregating different forms of investment, including private sector and local authority spending. If we add all that up, for every £1 that is spent on infrastructure per capita in the north, about £3 is spent in London and the south-east. That is why those regions are phenomenally productive and therefore phenomenally prosperous. When I talk about more public sector investment, it is not about a grievance that we in the north or the midlands have not had our fair share; it is about sound economics.
I will quote a few leading economists, beginning with Lord O’Neill, a former cities Minister who was also the chief economist at Goldman Sachs at one point. He was an ardent remainer, but said that being in or out of the EU was
“not the most important thing”;
the most important thing was
“our productivity performance and our geographic inequality”.
Andy Haldane highlighted in a recent speech exactly the same figures as my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Amanda Solloway): the gap in average incomes between the richest and poorest regions is now larger than it has been at any time since the early 20th century. Amazingly, as my hon. Friend said, the prosperity gap in average incomes between the richest and poorest regions is about 2.5 times, and that figure is almost identical to the gross value added per person, which is the productivity measure. If we drive productivity, we drive prosperity around the country. That would not only help UK plc’s tax receipts, which pay for all our public services, but would level up throughout the UK. I love the phrase “level up”; it is what we should have been doing for decades. The fact that we have not been investing right across the country is not a failure of this Government, but a failure of Governments of all persuasions over decades.
However, the economist David Smith recently made a very interesting point in The Sunday Times regarding the Government’s grand plans to invest more across the country. In his words,
“public investment works only when it operates in harmony with private investment.”
That mirrors an article written by Mark Littlewood of the Institute of Economic Affairs. Members will be aware of some of his articles; he is not really a big spender, and when he was discussing the Government’s planned investment in infrastructure around the UK, he was quite scathing. He asked why, if this is such a wonderful idea and it is going to produce such a good return, MPs do not invest their pensions in it. One of the examples he gives of why this might not be the right thing to do, which I disagree with, is Doncaster. He writes that Doncaster is one of the best connected towns in the country, yet it is not very prosperous, so connectivity alone will not do the job. Public sector investment alone will not do the job.
However, I totally support what I think the Government are planning, which is to invest about £100 billion to £120 billion in the economy over the next few decades. I very much hope that they will support Transport for the North’s £120 billion 30-year plan to deliver projects such as Northern Powerhouse Rail, all the way from the east coast to the west coast, as well as lots of smaller projects such as the dualling of the A64 in my constituency, which are equally vital.
We need to incentivise private sector investment; this cannot just be about taxpayers’ money. If we look at what was done in eastern Germany during the reunification of that country, a huge amount of public sector money was put into East Germany, but the German Government also created incentives for businesses to relocate or start up in eastern Germany. It was a very simple measure, but over time, it was phenomenally successful. I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North about free ports and enterprise zones, and tax incentives for businesses to move to those regions.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham said rightly that the number of businesses set up per capita in London is way higher than in the north. I would like to see a SME revolution across the north; many more small businesses need to be set up, and the No. 1 factor in businesses setting up is access to finance. A troubling story in The Times today stated that the reduction in lending to SMEs in the north is five times greater than in London. That trend is going the wrong way at the moment, and we need to make sure that SMEs right across the country have access to finance.
As many hon. Members know, I am very concerned about the concentration of business lending among four big banks in the UK. That is completely the opposite of what has happened in places such as Germany, where there are 1,500 mutual banks across the SME sector. We should certainly consider encouraging regional mutual banks, in order to make sure that SMEs have access to capital, and should also consider whether public sector procurement should favour more local SMEs. Preston City Council has done an excellent exercise, spending more money with SMEs and less with some larger companies, because that council knows that SMEs spend much more of their money in the local community. It is a virtuous circle.
We should also decentralise agencies’ jobs and spread some of those public sector jobs around the country. I do not know whether the House of Lords will come to York—I think probably not—but decentralising jobs away from our wonderful capital and right across the country has to be the right thing to do. Finally, we should devolve powers and money so that we can get excellent local mayors, such as Ben Houchen in the Tees Valley. We want more people like him, including a York city region mayor and a Leeds city region mayor, so that we can devolve powers and money back to people who really understand the local communities and are willing to undertake a revolution in how we structure our economy, making sure that we get not only more public sector investment, but more private sector investment.
It has been a pleasure to listen to this interesting debate. I was encouraged by some of the comments of the right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood), whose position is perhaps more similar to that of the Labour party than he might be delighted to hear, but I disagreed with his conclusions in some areas.
When preparing for the debate, I anticipated that the right hon. Member’s take would follow his comments before Christmas, when he welcomed what he described as the “turning around” of the mood in relation to the economy by the Prime Minister, which will
“take some cash…and now is the time to spend a bit of that…That will show that the country has made wise decisions up to this point, and that Brexit will not be damaging to our economy”.—[Official Report, 19 December 2019; Vol. 669, c. 65.]
Of course, that is a bit of a change from some of the advice that we have heard he gave to investors not to continue to invest in the UK.
It is a delight to be able to speak for the Government in this first Westminster Hall debate of the new decade, as well as of the new parliamentary term. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) for initiating this debate and for his very wide-ranging and thoughtful speech. I am sure he will be as pleased as I am and as I know Members across the House will be that today’s economic news reinforces a picture of an economy that is growing. The International Monetary Fund predicts that the UK is about to grow faster over the next few years than its major rivals in the eurozone and many of the G7—Germany, France, Italy and also Japan. PwC’s chief executive survey now rates UK attractiveness highly once again—I think we are the fourth most attractive global destination for location for businesses. That is very far from the narrative of isolation that we are hearing from the SNP and indicates the continuing international connectivity and scope for investment in our economy.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Amanda Solloway) pointed out—I rejoice to see her back in this House—we are in the extraordinary position of having had 10 years of continuous annual economic growth. That is a remarkable achievement, and I am sure she will be as pleased as I am to see that the latest information is that the jobs market is strengthening, even from its already very strong current position. That economic growth is an amazing fact. If someone had said in the lee of the 2008 financial crisis that, beginning with the Conservative Government of 2010, there would be a full decade of uninterrupted annual economic growth, I do not think there is a person in this country, let alone this Chamber, who would not have bitten their arm off. That is something that we should all delight in, but that we should acknowledge has limitations that we need to try to overcome.
One of the things that was most interesting about my right hon. Friend’s speech was the way in which he highlighted the change in economic policy. He focused on the fiscal change and on the transition from the Budget restraint of the last two Governments to the more expansionary fiscal policy that this Government have indicated in the spending round and that we may see in the Budget. I would suggest there is something slightly deeper going on. There is a change in the Government’s conception of economic policy. We are not thinking of economic policy in what might be called a more purely general equilibrium way, by which investment flows automatically to investable propositions and finds returns. We are determined as a Government to build more energy into that and to adopt a focus that is more specifically targeted on regional needs and identities, and it is that sense of economic policy that marks a distinct intellectual step forward. If anyone is interested, I tried to explain this in a piece in the Financial Times yesterday that highlights this transition.
I will say a bit about the interesting speeches that were made by my right hon. Friend and other Members. He is right to say that lower taxes can be part of a fiscally expansionary policy. He possibly ignores some of the differences between ourselves and the USA. Obviously, the US had a massive fiscal boost, which is something it could do partly because of the dollar’s extreme strength as the global reserve currency. Of course, that was accompanied by a significant—in this country, it would be politically contentious—deregulation in energy. There are important differences between the US economy and our own.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the constraints under which the motor industry operates, but he did not mention dieselgate, which was an absolutely disastrous blow to the credibility of the global diesel manufacturers. Nor did he mention the fact that current diesels are still very heavy emitters—even Euro 6, compared with current environmental standards. The Government have frozen fuel duty and grown VED only in real terms. It is about trying to strike a balance between a shift towards a greener economy, particularly a green transport economy—at a time when we have not quite got to the point in the S-curve where the supply of electric vehicles is coming through at enough scale to warrant people using them—while moderating and mitigating the impact on households.
My right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds) touched on what he described as the top-down imposition of IR35 rules. As he knows, IR35 rules have not changed. All that has changed is the way IR35 is being assessed, and we have called for a review in order to ensure that its implementation can be as smooth as possible. He touched on the issue of public sector productivity—again, rightly—and there might well be scope for using things such as telemedicine to improve the productivity of the public sector, but an intrinsic difficulty is one of the economic laws that we bump up against: Baumol’s cost disease. The cost of services relative to manufacturing continues to escalate, and it is not possible in the public sector to have industrial-type improvements in productivity. We do not want teachers to have too many pupils in the class, and we do not want nurses to have too many people to examine and support, so productivity is intrinsically more limited. The Government must therefore be cleverer about how we use technology, which is the purpose of the new GovTech fund that we have announced.
I will pick up on some of the other themes of the debate before turning to another point. I agree with the comments made by the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) about the importance of spreading wage growth across the UK, which was a point also made by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) in his very thoughtful speech. I also share the view of the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) that it is a mistake to see property as a speculative asset, and there is no doubt that the crash of 2008 was caused by a massive over-leveraging in the banking sector. As he will recall—Labour does not like it when I point this out—UK bank borrowing across the sector as a whole was 20 times equity for 40 years, encompassing 1960, 1970, 1980 and 1990. In 2000 it started to go up, and by 2017 it was 50 times equity. That was what fuelled the enormous speculative boom.
I will not, because I am very short of time.
I share the concern expressed by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) about the toxic atmosphere in SW1.
I will mention another issue that is more specific and personal to me, and I hope colleagues will indulge me. In my constituency in Herefordshire, we have been trying to create a new model of higher education through what we call a new model institute in technology and engineering. It has attracted a great deal of attention across Government because it creates the possibility of significant regional economic growth that is closely tied to the creation of university campuses in cathedral cities such as Canterbury, York and Lincoln. I flag it now because, from a national perspective, it represents a portable model by which higher education of the most value-added kind, and that therefore has benefits for entrepreneurship and business formation, can be moved to all parts of the country, having been tested and developed in Herefordshire. One would think that this was something that Government at all levels would support. Her Majesty’s Government, in the form of the Department for Education, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government, have been extremely supportive of it.
One might also think that the local enterprise partnership, the Marches LEP, would support it. I am sorry to tell colleagues that the Marches LEP—I say this having had at least a year of wrestling with it on this topic—has been absolutely diabolical in the way it has treated this very innovative project. It has received £23 million from Government and all the support one could imagine. It has received private sector investment, and investment from matched funds. The LEP, which by charter is supposed to support economic growth in the Marches, has done nothing but prevaricate and delay. Even now, it is seeking to impose a £5 million indemnity on Government investment, although the Government made it clear in letters from the Secretary of State and from senior civil servants as early as January 2019 that no such indemnity was required. The specific people involved—the then chairman of the LEP, Graham Wynn, and the chief executive, Gill Hamer—should be subjected to significant criticism in the House. I put it on record that this important opportunity for a portable model of regional growth in higher education, which was developed through a pioneering model of tech and engineering at university and which offers possibilities and creativity, has been ignored and is being actively undermined.
Having said that, let me congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham again on introducing this very wide-ranging and important debate, which has examined not merely specific policy change but the very basis of economics itself. I thank him for securing the debate.
I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend and will come to that topic in just a moment.
The foundation of our new economic plan is fiscal responsibility. It has taken a decade of hard work by the British people to turn our public finances around. The deficit has fallen from 10% of GDP in 2010 to just 1.8% today. We are not going to throw that away. We were elected on a platform to manage the public finances responsibly, so it is a matter of trust, as well as economic credibility, that we deliver on that promise to the British people. We will be bound by a credible new fiscal framework that will keep our borrowing and debt under control while allowing for new investment in levelling up and spreading opportunity throughout the country. At the Budget, I will publish a new charter for budget responsibility that will give effect to those rules, and the Office for Budget Responsibility will scrutinise our performance against them.
Thanks to the hard work of the British people, we have got that deficit down, and debt is under control. We can now afford to invest more in levelling up and spreading opportunity right across our country. The first step will be our national infrastructure strategy. Better infrastructure can boost people’s earning power by making it easier to find work. It can help businesses access new markets. It can help us thrive and grow. It can boost communities and places and improve standards of living. It is simply not good enough that we have fallen behind so many other countries on infrastructure, and the Government are going to fix that.
The good news for our citizens, whether in Scotland, England, Northern Ireland or Wales, is that our infrastructure revolution and the funds we intend to use to build new infrastructure will benefit every part of the United Kingdom. When we set out our plans and provide more detail in the forthcoming Budget, there will no doubt be a lot more investment in Scotland.
Before I call the next speaker, I am going to do something very unusual. Many colleagues today have been incredibly brief in their speeches. Our problem from the Chair is usually that people take much longer than they are meant to—a wonderful bunch of speakers this afternoon have taken a considerably shorter time than they were entitled to. I am therefore going to increase the time limit to nine minutes.