Taxation (Post-transition Period) Bill

(3rd reading: House of Commons)
Wendy Chamberlain Excerpts
Tuesday 15th December 2020

(10 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber

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HM Treasury
Andrew Jones Portrait Andrew Jones (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (Con)
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We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) about the importance of the “notwithstanding” clauses and about how unelected people should not seek to overturn democratic decisions. I agree strongly that we have seen attempts to overturn democratic decisions over the past four years, and they have been a stain on the democratic history of our country. We had a vote by the British people that had to be followed through on.

I disagree with my hon. Friend about the clauses, however. Putting them back in will not be viewed as an enormously helpful measure by those negotiating a deal, especially while our Prime Minister is out trying to get a deal that we can accept. Bringing the clauses back in will not be particularly helpful for that.

The Labour party has put forward some suggestions about providing clarity for business. That is a reasonable point because, clearly, we need to provide clarity for business. I come back from a business background, and knowing the environment that one is in helps to facilitate investment decisions. However, I have to say, the Treasury knows that. I spent some time working in the Treasury, and it gets that. It does not need to be told that. It will execute the Bill in as timely a way as it can, providing all the clarity that it can. That does not need to be legislated for.

We have had delays, because people have sought to overturn—ultimately, to negate—a democratic decision. I voted to remain in the referendum, but I immediately understood that it was a vote of the British people, and that the British people are bigger than individual politicians. Only recently have some people been able to work that one out.

The measures in the Bill are about the continuity of trade across all four parts of the UK. That is something that we should all be acutely aware of, because it is bigger than any other trade deal that could possibly be discussed anywhere.

The point in the Bill about creating a more level playing field between the online and the high street worlds of retail is, again, something that I think we should all be able to support easily. Everybody, I am sure, has had representations from retailers in their constituencies about how challenging the past few years have been. Obviously the clock cannot be turned back in any way—this is about embracing the future—but we must make sure that as retailers evolve the offer of our high streets, they are able to do so with a more level playing field. That is the objective we should be seeking in our policy.

I want to see such measures enacted as soon as possible, frankly. We are in uncertain times, and I want us to get to the position in which we can offer business as much clarity as possible, as soon as possible. I will therefore be supporting not the new clauses, but the Bill as it stands.

Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain (North East Fife) (LD)
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It is a shame that the Bill has been rushed through the House so rapidly. Members have had a short amount of time in which to get to grips with a rather technical and lengthy piece of legislation. The small number of amendments tabled today speaks to the incredibly tight time limits that have been put in place. Given the impact of the legislation on businesses operating across Northern Ireland and Great Britain, that concerns me, and it should concern us all.

For me, the Bill speaks to the heart of the many contradictions of Brexit—between what was promised in 2016 and what is being delivered today. We were told that Parliament will take back control, but this Executive, peopled by the same individuals who made those promises, have arguably more contempt for the legislature than any before them. That is summed up by an incredibly depressing piece of legislation, presented a couple of weeks ago, to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, which attempts to engineer the first ever return of powers from the legislature to the Executive in our history.

However, the contradictions do not end there. A case in point is clause 6 of this Bill on the uprating of fuel duty for aviation gasoline, which, for me, is a microcosm of the whole Brexit process. The whole point of Brexit was to get our sovereignty back—was it not?—so that we could finally write our own laws rather than follow bureaucratic regulations from Brussels, the sort of stiflingly dull directives with boring names such as EU energy tax directive (Council Directive 2003/96/EC). We might have thought that directive was exactly the sort of red tape we would finally cut through in Brexit Britain, and yet the Bill proves that the reality is far removed from the rhetoric, because EU energy tax directive (Council Directive 2003/96/EC), which ensures that across the EU a minimum level of tax is applied on a whole type of aircraft fuel, is in this Bill being applied across the whole of the UK.

The explanatory notes rather patriotically inform us that,

“the UK is not bound to comply with the Directive in respect of Great Britain (GB) from 1 January 2021,”

but none the less Great Britain is complying with it anyway. Does that not say a lot about Brexit and the current trade negotiations, where effectively the Government have been toying with the idea of taking maximum tariff pain now in order to allow regulatory divergence that, in all likelihood, is not going to take place?

Turning now to the amendments, I agree with amendments 1 and 2 and new clause 3, tabled in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. Economic assessments have been conspicuously lacking over the past few months, covid notwithstanding: not only a lack of assessments of the impact of any potential deal with the EU, but the refusal of the Secretary of State for International Trade to tell us whether any of the trade deals she has struck will actually leave us any better off than our current trading relationships. The other conspicuous absentee when it comes to the economic impact of all this is the Chancellor. I find it very surprising that he has said very little about the threat of no deal, during a time when the UK finds itself in the midst of its worst economic crisis.

It is entirely right that we carry out proper economic assessments of all that, not least for Northern Ireland. I remember during the election campaign last year the Prime Minister was caught on camera telling Northern Ireland businesses that,

“Northern Ireland has got a great deal. You keep free movement, you keep access to the single market”.

In the words of the Foreign Secretary, Northern Ireland has “a cracking deal” because it has access to the EU market. Meanwhile, as we teeter on the edge of no deal, we are told by the Culture Secretary that things “will be choppy”, but that “we can survive”. I am sure those words will be a comfort to many of my constituents.

Finally, I turn to new clause 1 and new clause 2. During the debate on the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill earlier, I spoke about what a disaster the notwithstanding clauses in that legislation were for the future of the UK and elsewhere. I will not repeat myself, because exactly the same applies here; all I ask is for the Minister to give a guarantee that, if there is no deal with the EU, international lawbreaking clauses will not be introduced in this or any future business. We cannot afford to let a no-deal scenario be a proxy for further actions that are hugely damaging to our international reputation. For that to be the UK’s first action once it left the EU would be a truly regrettable matter indeed.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to be called to speak in this debate. I will speak particularly to new clause 1 and new clause 2 because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) said, this is a matter of sovereignty. I am very keen to explore where sovereignty ends and international law starts, and that is right at the heart of those new clauses, I guess.

We have made reference several times in these debates to section 38 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2020, where it says that,

“the Parliament of the United Kingdom is sovereign.”

If that is the case, and I accept that it is the case in areas of our jurisdiction, is there a need to reiterate it in every piece of legislation, or is it simply a fact that Parliament is sovereign?

My hon. Friend has rightly stated quite clearly that the UK Parliament has a general power to override treaties, but I am very keen to understand how that works in the sphere of international treaties, particularly in terms of trade agreements. As I quoted in my intervention earlier, there was a case between Mexico and the US, settled in 2009, where a US company, Cargill, took the Mexican Government to court on the basis that they had breached the general agreement on tariffs and trade regulations of 1994. The Mexican Government had applied some punitive tariffs on soft drinks coming from the US, produced by Cargill and other companies, which effectively blocked access to the Mexican market.

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John Redwood Portrait John Redwood
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I have declared my business interests in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

The Bill is a great missed opportunity. It should have been the Bill in which we started to cut and reorganise the taxes, celebrating our new freedoms as we leave the European Union. There is so much good we could do by remodelling and reducing the incidence of VAT, for example, or by having excise duties and tariffs that make sense for British business and for British importers, because we need to balance the two. Instead, it is a rather technical Bill.

I think it is a pity that this House has not been given a detailed account of what the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has agreed so far, and a detailed account of what still remains to be agreed, because I believe that there were outstanding issues. On behalf of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, we need to know the extent of this possible dual jurisdiction and how it actually works.

The Minister has kindly assured me on more than one occasion that the VAT regime in Northern Ireland will be the UK VAT regime and will be enforced by normal UK enforcement. That is very good, but cannot be the whole story, because we know that there is this overlapping jurisdiction for certain types of goods. We are still not privy to how big an issue that is. I presume it is a small proportion of trade, but we have not been given any indication of that, and we have not been told—perhaps the Joint Committee has not yet agreed it, or does not want to share it with us yet—exactly how that might work. It is a pity that we do not have more of that detail.

I am also concerned that we should not get drawn into the state aid issue, which is clearly part of the wider discussion between our Ministers and negotiators, and those in the European Union. We know that the European Union takes a very wide definition of state aids. State aids definitely include all taxation, which is the subject of this piece of legislation, and grants, subsidies, the competition framework and general industrial policy. It is very wide ranging, and there is no way we can say we have Brexit if the EU will have powers over our state aid policies, because that would be tentacles stretching into this Bill and the powers of the Treasury, Customs and Excise, and the Business Department and its competition and industrial policies, as well as into energy and practically every other major area one can imagine. I therefore hope my right hon. Friends and the UK negotiators are firm on that in their discussions.

We must have control of taxation and state aids as a fundamental part of our Brexit departure. We would have taken more confidence from the Government if they had used this Bill to show just how much better a UK-based taxation policy could be. We need a taxation policy that promotes more fishing and farming at home, promotes more industry and manufacturing at home, and promotes that green revolution they want by stripping the VAT off the green products that the EU has imposed on them—a policy that allows small businesses to flourish and does not overburden them with compliance and red tape. That is what we wanted from Brexit, and the sooner Ministers bring it forward, the better.

Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain (North East Fife) (LD)
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I echo the thanks of the Minister and the Labour and SNP Front-Bench spokespeople, the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) and the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), as well the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) and, indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), who covered the earlier stages of the Bill on behalf of my party.

I became an MP a year ago and Whip for my party in September. Despite the covid challenges, the Leader of the House was giving Members two weeks’ notice of business up until two weeks ago. This Bill was tabled less than two weeks ago. Now, we find ourselves in a situation where the business for tomorrow was announced today, and where Bills are being given very little time for legislative scrutiny before they are considered by the House. This does not feel like a sovereign Parliament to me.

Despite covid, the Government have had a lot of time to bring forward the necessary legislation ahead of the transition period, whether there is a deal or not. If they felt that the challenge of covid this year was too great, they could have averted the current covid-Brexit collision by extending the transition period. I would ask when the Government realised that the measures in this Bill and, indeed, this week’s Trade (Disclosure of Information) Bill were needed. I worry what potential measures the Government may have failed to legislate for, and the extent to which we are prepared for the end of the transition period, deal or no deal.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.