I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Bill before us consists of two parts. The first part introduces a 1% increase in the rate of national insurance contributions from April next year, as announced by the previous Government, although let me assure my right hon. and hon. Friends that we will reverse the impact of this jobs tax through an increase in the employer national insurance threshold. We have already announced the increase in the income tax personal allowance.
Compared with the plans that we inherited, the impact of the increase in threshold will be such that employers will pay £3 billion less in employer’s national insurance contributions. The overall reduction of the burden on employment will be £6 billion as a consequence of the overall package.
Will the Minister confirm, however, that about £1.4 billion is not being compensated for by the threshold? I want us to be clear. He says that he has offset the threshold, but he has offset only about £3 billion, not the whole amount of the rise.
The fact is that the Labour party would have raised the full amount. We are offsetting £3 billion, which will be most helpful for employers whose employees earn under £20,000. The package is good for employment and, given the fiscal mess that we inherited, I am very proud that this Government are able to reform national insurance contributions exactly as we set out in our manifesto at the general election, and in the coalition agreement.
As far as we can deduce it, the Labour party’s position is that it wants to do more to reduce the deficit by raising taxation and it does not believe in increasing VAT, which will bring in £13 billion a year. We can assume only that it would favour greater increases in national insurance contributions than it had already set out.
We are not going to take any lectures; this Government have managed to reverse a very painful and damaging policy that would have meant employers’ contributions rising for every single employee paying national insurance—and in a way that would have damaged jobs in this country.
Is the Minister aware that the proposals in the Bill discriminate against many areas—in London, in particular—with above-average unemployment? Will he explain to people in my constituency, where according to the Library there is already 6.6% unemployment, why on earth the national insurance contribution holiday does not apply to them?
That is extremely generous of the Minister. All I can say is that if he was surprised, imagine how I felt.
The Minister just gave the figure for receipts following on from the increase in VAT. Are his figures based on current patterns of consumption or on an anticipated level of consumption? Most economists would say that the VAT increase will depress demand and reduce consumption.
The sums are based on the assessment made by the independent Office for Budget Responsibility at the time of the Budget. I hope that that provides some clarification to the hon. Gentleman.
Part 1 of the Bill provides for changes, which the previous Government announced in two instalments, to national insurance contributions from next April. Initially, a 0.5% increase in rates was announced in the 2008 pre-Budget report. That was then changed to a 1% increase in the pre-Budget report of the following year.
I am sure that Members will remember that reversing the most significant impacts of those rate rises was a key issue at the general election. The Federation of Small Businesses said that the policy would cost 57,000 jobs. Thirty business leaders supported our campaign to reverse the policy. When the letter from those 30 business leaders—many other business leaders followed shortly—was published, Tony Blair apparently considered that for Labour the game was up. Thankfully, he was right, and we now have in place a Government who are determined to bring down the deficit but also to put in place conditions favourable to private sector-led growth.
In June, we announced our plan to reverse the most damaging aspects of Labour’s jobs tax. There was a choice how best to do this—for example, we could have cancelled the rate and threshold rises—but we have chosen the option that best protects low earners. In the emergency Budget, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor confirmed that national insurance contribution rates would rise by 1%, that the personal allowance would increase by £1,000 from next April, and that the employer national insurance contribution threshold would rise by £21 a week plus indexation. The reform of employer national insurance contributions is exactly as set out in the 2010 Conservative party manifesto.
The Bill sets out how these rises will apply to the main rates of class 1 national insurance contributions. The employer rate will rise from 12.8% to 13.8% and the employee main rate will rise from 11% to 12%. The 1% increase will also apply to class 1A and 1B contributions that are paid on benefits in kind and pay-as-you-earn settlement agreements. The same 1% rise will apply to class 4 contributions paid by the self-employed, which will rise from 8% to 9%. Taking into account the increase in the personal allowances and employer threshold, the net effect of these changes will reverse the damaging £6 billion-a-year net increase in the cost of labour planned by Labour Members. Our package of measures entirely reverses this increase.
Compared with the plans that this Government inherited, no changes are being made to the rates. More than £3 billion a year is being returned to employers through the threshold increase, and even more to individuals through the increase in the personal allowance. Our actions will mean that some 880,000 low earners in the UK will be taken out of income tax altogether.
The hon. Gentleman mentions low earners. Of course, the thing that the Conservatives did not put in their manifesto was that they would raise VAT. They talked about national insurance being a tax on jobs, but is it not correct to say that the rise in VAT will destroy more jobs than the national insurance increase would have done?
No. We agree with the view of Tony Blair and, apparently, the previous Chancellor of the Exchequer that VAT is the right tax to raise if one wants to get a substantial sum of money. The hon. Gentleman will find that most economists take the view that in terms of the impact on jobs, increasing employers’ national insurance contributions is far more damaging than any increase in VAT.
As a result of the package of measures that we are putting in place, employees earning under £35,000 a year will pay less in income tax and national insurance contributions overall, and employers will pay less national insurance on employees earning under £20,000 a year. As well as the 880,000 low earners taken out of income tax, almost 1 million low earners will no longer pay national insurance contributions, while the number of low earners for whom employers pay no national insurance contributions will rise by about 650,000. It is also worth mentioning that people who will now be exempt from paying national insurance will retain the same entitlement to contributory benefits. However, tackling the deficit remains the priority, and the benefits to low earners could be achieved only through the increase in national insurance contribution rates included in the Bill. This decision is fair and progressive, and it will help to support the poorest and most vulnerable in society.
Let me turn to part 2 of the Bill. In the June Budget, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced an employer national insurance contribution holiday for new businesses in countries and regions with a high dependency on the public sector. This holiday will apply across Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and many regions of England—the north-east, the north-west, Yorkshire and the Humber, the west midlands and east midlands, and the south-west. Those areas have a higher proportion of jobs in the public sector than the rest of the country, and as we take the much-needed steps to rebalance our economy, it is vital that they benefit from additional support.
There is no doubt that one welcomes this package of measures, which will help the lower paid in particular. However, will my hon. Friend revisit the Government’s decision to exclude businesses in the south-east from the national insurance holiday? Otherwise, it could be seen to discriminate against local entrepreneurs there and hit the areas that need higher employment.
I understand my hon. Friend’s point, but the fact is that we have limited resources and have inherited a legacy in which the private sector is relatively strong in some areas, such as his constituency and mine, but much weaker in others. At a time when we cannot rely on massive public spending, and when the public sector will have to find economies, it is perfectly reasonable that we have adopted the approach of focusing on areas where there is high dependence on the public sector.
I am very supportive of the proposal in general terms, but when the Government came to their decision on it, did they consider extending it to existing businesses with very small work forces of one or two people as opposed to simply new starts, and did they consider what the cost of that might have been?
The focus of the policy has always been on start-up businesses. It is an attempt to encourage new businesses to be set up, given where we are in the economic cycle and the need to encourage private sector growth. That is why the Conservative party’s policy before the general election was focused on start-ups. After the election we considered how best to introduce the policy, and came to the view that we should include the regions where the private sector was at its weakest.
If the scheme cannot be extended to an entire region, does the Exchequer Secretary accept that there will be pockets of that region, such as my constituency, that would benefit massively from it? The area has historically had very low new business start-up rates and would benefit from what I think is an excellent scheme. When I asked his Department about the costs of administering the scheme in such areas, it said that they would be prohibitive, but I cannot understand why that would be. Can he elaborate on that?
If we were to choose precisely where the policy applied on a much more closely defined geographical basis, we would have difficulties such as distortive behaviour, problems in enforcing the policy, the bureaucracy that may be involved, the need to establish where a company’s principal place of business was, and the difficulty of policing the scheme. Also, labour markets tend to be somewhat larger than constituency or even local authority areas. My hon. Friend is right to highlight the circumstances in Portsmouth, but there are neighbouring seats with a very low level of public sector employment and quite a high level of private sector employment. Such labour market flexibility can exist.
I take my hon. Friend’s points about the limited resources, the risk of bureaucracy and the difficulty of policing the scheme, but Robert Chote, while he was still at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, described the regional relief scheme as
“complicated…prone to avoidance and oddly targeted.”
I have had a number of representations to that effect. What assurance can my hon. Friend give that the scheme will not be accompanied by an enormous amount of extra regulation and a much higher compliance burden?
My hon. Friend raises a fair point. We are determined that in administering the scheme, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs will adopt a light touch as much as possible. The problems of bureaucracy and avoidance would be much greater if we tried to drill down to constituency or local authority level as opposed to regional level. I assure him that our assessment is that gains for participating businesses will greatly outweigh any administrative costs that they may face.
It occurs to me that this is a particularly prescribed aspect of the Bill with three particular areas identified. Will the Minister consider taking powers to himself that allowed him not just to exclude areas, but to keep a register of those he felt could be excluded, therefore allowing some flexibility? Should labour markets deteriorate markedly in certain areas, he could then revisit his decision and decide to support certain areas.
What we must bear in mind is that we have limited resources. If we were to extend this measure to every part of the country, the cost would increase by around 70%—in other words, £660 million over the course of three years. For the reasons that I set out, it would be difficult to drill this down to very precise areas.
I must make some more progress.
If we are to move to a model of economic growth founded on private sector enterprise and investment, it is important that we encourage the formation of new business. For that reason, the holiday applies only to businesses that have been set up since 22 June, the date of the Budget. To ensure affordability, the holiday is limited to the first 10 employees taken on in the first 12 months of business. For each of those workers, the holiday will last for a single year, unless the closing date for the scheme—5 September 2013—is reached before the 12 months is up.
I have listened very carefully to the Minister. Some 40% of the people in employment in my constituency work in the public sector. I represent some of the most deprived wards in London, which means some of the most deprived in the country, yet my constituency will be excluded from the holiday, whereas certain leafier parts, outside London and the south-east, will be included.
I welcome this measure. It is just the thing to spur on the private sector. In evidence to the Treasury Committee, Alan Clarke said that it was a “particularly encouraging measure”. Mr Whiting, of the Chartered Institute of Taxation, said that it was a
“worthwhile experiment for the small, new business with new employees.”
This is just the sort of measure to encourage the private sector that the House should be passing.
I am grateful for that intervention. We have to build this private sector recovery. This measure is a useful contribution, particularly to those regions where the private sector is not as strong as elsewhere. It is a transitional measure, scheduled to end in three years. We are committed to monitoring and evaluating its effectiveness over that period to ensure its success.
It is not our intention for this policy disproportionately to benefit businesses that employ highly paid staff. For that reason, the maximum amount that an employer can profit from any single employee is limited to £5,000. That cap ensures that the policy will not distort European Union markets and that it complies with state aid legislation. We do not expect any significant competitive disadvantage to arise either for existing businesses or for new businesses in regions where the holiday does not apply. The Bill also makes provision for the administration of this measure. Businesses benefiting from the holiday can withhold the employer contributions from the monthly payments they make to HMRC. If the payment cannot be withheld, the businesses can apply to HMRC for a refund. That will help to minimise employers’ costs as well as the costs of delivery.
The Government expect that hundreds of thousands of businesses will benefit from the measure over the next three years. In the Budget, we estimated that new businesses would save hundreds of millions of pounds worth of national insurance contributions during the lifetime of the scheme, giving them the ability to hire more staff, expand their business or invest in the recovery.
The Government correctly emphasise the importance of the voluntary sector, and it is likely that there will be a surge in the number of charities that are set up. I declare an interest as a trustee of Stafford Works, which is a new charity. Will the Minister confirm whether charitable trusts and companies are included in the scope of part 2 of the Bill?
A charitable entity that is located in one of the relevant regions and that carries on a trade, vocation or business will benefit. That is likely to apply to, for example, shops that are run by charities. Such entities must meet that criterion to benefit, but not all charities will necessarily do so.
At this early stage, we have had around 1,000 applications, but we expect more as awareness of the policy becomes greater and as businesses contact their professional advisers. We are keen to publicise the policy, and I encourage hon. Members for any of the relevant regions to notify businesses in their areas. The Government and our policy aim to help businesses and those who want to start a business and get it going. In contrast, the previous Government increased such taxes. Start-up and existing businesses throughout the country faced rising taxes and employers’ national insurance contributions, which was a particularly deeply damaging tax.
The Bill is an important part of the Government’s plan to reduce Labour’s taxation, help those on the lowest incomes, and support private enterprise and employment in the parts of the country that need them most. It is a simple and important Bill, and I commend it to the House.
I am grateful to the Minister for his exposition of the Bill. We will test aspects of it in Committee and at other stages in its passage. As he said, it divides effectively into two parts. The first part is the increase in national insurance contributions by 1%, which we will support because we want to ensure that we protect services and support our economy. The second part introduces a three-year regional national insurance holiday for new employers. As the Minister said, many businesses will qualify for their first 10 employees in their first year of business; I shall return later in detail to the question of the regions and areas that will not qualify.
Let us first consider the national insurance contributions. The Minister rightly said that this policy was set out both in the Labour manifesto and elsewhere in the period before the general election in May. My right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling), the then Chancellor, announced in the pre-Budget statement on 9 December 2009 that the previous Government would increase national insurance contributions by 1% to protect public services. We had a choice, and we were straight about it both before and during the election. Raising national insurance contributions was a tough decision, but we ensured that we would protect those earning less than £20,000 a year.
The Conservatives condemned that national insurance rise throughout the election, but—surprise, surprise!—they have now decided to go ahead with it. In the Conservative manifesto, which I have come to recognise is not worth the paper it was written on, the party committed itself to raising the thresholds for national insurance by £24 a week, the upper earnings limit by £29 a week, and the secondary threshold at which employers start paying national insurance by £21 a week. I look forward to seeing the details in the secondary legislation.
My intervention on the Exchequer Secretary showed that although the Government are raising the thresholds, there is still a shortfall of about £1.4 billion in employer national insurance contributions. The Labour party was open about that in the run-up to, and during, the general election, but the Conservative party was not. In my view, this is all smoke and mirrors.
Page 8 of our manifesto stated that we would
“raise the secondary threshold at which employers start paying National Insurance by £21 a week.”
The secondary legislation will increase the secondary threshold at which employers start paying national insurance by £21 a week, so we are doing exactly what we said in the manifesto.
But there were no caveats about a shortfall in the Budget proposals of about £1.4 billion. I think it is smoke and mirrors—and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr Love) said, it is coupled with the increase in VAT from next year. The VAT rise will impact more than three times as much as the increase to national insurance contributions would have done, and will affect 250,000 jobs.
The right hon. Gentleman is right that the national insurance holiday will not apply in my constituency—a matter that I regret. Nevertheless, I welcome the fact that 1,400 of the least well-off people in my constituency will be taken out of tax altogether. It seems that he opposes the increase in the personal allowance and would rather cut national insurance, which we originally planned to do. Instead, we are helping the least well-off. Surely he would welcome that.
I look forward to the hon. Gentleman going back to Dover to explain why he is supporting not only a Bill that does not give a national insurance holiday to his constituents, but the VAT rise elsewhere in the Budget proposals—we need to look at that in the round—which will impact on pensioners, the low paid and everybody in his community. This is not a topic for today, but the debate on the national insurance rise was open and honest on our side. During and after the election, the Conservative party argued against the rise, but it is now implementing it. On top of that, it is not meeting the objectives in its manifesto and has increased VAT. I think that a VAT rise is a regressive tax policy that will hit the poorest hardest, but that is the choice that the Conservative party has made.
I want to focus most of my remarks on the second part of the Bill. The decision to introduce a regional employer national insurance holiday is welcome, but it specifically excludes new businesses in Greater London, the south-east and the eastern region. We tabled a reasoned amendment that has not been selected, but which would have declined to give a Second Reading to the Bill because of those exclusions. I sense that the hon. Members for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) and for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), who spoke earlier, will have expressed their concerns about how the choices on the national insurance holiday were made. [Interruption.] The Economic Secretary to the Treasury says that we would have increased national insurance contributions across the board.
Order. We cannot have comments shouted across the Floor from a sedentary position. It makes it very difficult for Hansard to record our proceedings, particularly when the comments are then referred to without having been recorded. Will the hon. Lady make her point from the Dispatch Box, so that the right hon. Gentleman can answer it?
My point was that the Labour party would have increased NICs for absolutely everybody.
The hon. Lady knows that that was a clear and honest policy that we put to the electorate. The Government have now introduced proposals for a national insurance holiday for new businesses in certain regions. I will explore shortly why we think that that choice is unfair in the context of the resources the Government are trying to save.
I have said what I have said. We were open and honest during the election campaign, and we will support the rise proposed in the Bill, because we expected to do that. During the election campaign, the Economic Secretary and the Exchequer Secretary attacked the NIC rise without proposing the alternative that they have seen through in practice.
Let us put that aside, because the key issue before the House is the payment holiday. We do not believe that it is being proposed fairly, honestly or openly, and we do not believe that it will help the poorest and most deprived areas of the UK, which in great part are excluded from the scheme. Of the top 12 most deprived local authorities on the economic deprivation index, no fewer than seven will be excluded from the payment holiday. The seven boroughs of Hackney, Newham, Tower Hamlets, Islington, Barking and Dagenham, Haringey and Lambeth are excluded from the scheme.
In his written statement on 6 September, the Exchequer Secretary said:
“The Government are determined that all parts of the UK benefit from sustainable economic growth”.—[Official Report, 6 September 2010; Vol. 515, c. 1WS.]
If we are having a holiday from national insurance contributions, I do not understand how excluding those areas from the payment holiday will do that.
I want to challenge the Government’s logic. They claim that the reasoning behind the policy is that areas outside London, the south-east and the east are more reliant on public sector employment. Will the Exchequer Secretary confirm that that is his logic?
The Minister has confirmed that. Tomorrow’s business leaders who want to start businesses in the constituencies of Oxford East, of Luton North, of Lewisham East, of Canterbury, of Southampton, Test, of Eltham, of West Ham, of North Thanet, of Hackney North and Stoke Newington, of Tooting, of Islington North, of Dulwich and West Norwood, and of Brighton, Kemptown will miss out. I mention those constituencies specifically because they are in the top 10% in the country with the highest percentage of public sector employment.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, there are 650 constituencies. His policy is supposed to help compensate for possible loss of employment in the public sector. Those concerns have been reflected today, and I pay tribute to the hon. Members for Portsmouth North, for Meon Valley and for Basildon and Billericay, who have defended their constituencies and raised their concerns about how the policy will be applied.
If there is to be a holiday, it can be applied in different ways. It could be applied regionally, as the Minister has done, or on the basis of unemployment levels or regional levels of public sector employment per constituency, instead of the blanket regional approach that the Minister has chosen.
The shadow Minister has heard that rolling the scheme out across the entire country would cost an additional £660 million. Will he explain whether he would propose to raise that by increasing our deficit, by cutting expenditure—in which case what expenditure would he cut—or by raising taxes, in which case what taxes would he raise?
That is a fair and valid point. Yesterday, in reply to a parliamentary question, the Minister emphasised the cost of the scheme for the regions covered. My purpose today is to challenge the Minister’s logic for allocating the resources for the payment holiday to the regions that he has selected, because that distribution does not necessarily reflect the level of deprivation or public sector employment. The cake that the Minister has allocated may be sliced in several ways, but he has sliced it to exclude the constituencies represented by my hon. Friends in London and those who represent seats in the south.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that Tottenham, which has the eighth highest number of jobseeker’s allowance claimants in the country, will not benefit, although Tatton, which has the 509th highest number of JSA claimants, will receive the NI break? Is that fair?
My hon. Friend makes a very valid point. I do not begrudge the people of Tatton anything, and I will tell him why. I was once a Labour councillor in the Tatton constituency. I represented the ward of Rudheath and Whatcroft, and I was the leader of the Labour council that covered half the constituency at that time. I have absolute faith in those areas, but there is deprivation in Tatton. In fact, Neil Hamilton, a former Member of this House for that area, was my pair when I first came here. Such is life! But that is another story.
Tatton has one of the lowest levels of unemployment in the country. That constituency, which is represented by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, will get the benefit of the national insurance holiday to start 10 employees, but Portsmouth North will not. Neither will Brent North, Edmonton or Lewisham. The constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer) will not get that benefit either—
Indeed, and neither will the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for West Ham (Lyn Brown) and for Ilford South (Mike Gapes). We are talking about encouraging growth and promoting job opportunities, and how we split the cake is very important, as the hon. Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) has pointed out. My hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) mentioned the different figures for jobseeker’s allowance across the country. We need to address those significant differences.
For the record, unemployment in my constituency is about the 50th highest in the country, and my constituents want to know why they will not be getting the benefit of these measures in the Bill. The fallacy behind the Government’s argument is that the affluent part of the region will raise employment in my constituency, but all the evidence shows that there are hard-core pockets of unemployment, and that even during the economic good times over the past 13 years, unemployment there did not come down. The only way to address that fallacy is to apply the provisions of the Bill to all the regions of the country, as my hon. Friend suggests.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The question that the Minister needs to reflect on, here or in Committee, is how we should split the national insurance holiday cake. There are many ways of doing that, but his way is unfair to the areas of greatest need, to the areas with the highest public sector employment, and to areas that contain seas of prosperity as well as deprivation.
The Minister has mentioned areas of high public sector employment, but I have already shown him the fallacy behind his argument as it affects many of our constituents throughout the country. Figures for jobseeker’s allowance show that the rate of unemployment is currently higher in London than in the south-west, part of which is represented by the hon. Member for Central Devon, in North Wales, where my constituency is, or in Scotland, where it is 3.8%. Unemployment is also higher in London than in the east midlands or the north-west—[Interruption.] The Economic Secretary to the Treasury did not take your strictures to heart, Madam Deputy Speaker. She is continuing to heckle from a sedentary position. I would be happy to give way to her if she wants to intervene.
However we measure unemployment, the levels of jobseeker’s allowance claims in London are higher than in the south-west, Wales, Scotland, the east midlands and the north-west. Indeed, they are above the UK average. That is a key point when we are thinking about how to divide the cake up.
I must say that the enthusiasm being shown by the right hon. Gentleman, and by so many Opposition Members for this fantastic Conservative policy, or coalition policy, on national insurance holidays is absolutely heart-warming.
The hon. Gentleman will know that North West Leicestershire will benefit from the scheme, but I hope that he will look slightly beyond the confines of Leicestershire and talk to the hon. Members for Portsmouth North, for Meon Valley and for Basildon and Billericay, who have all expressed concern about the proposals.
I spoke on the subject of regionalisation in the Finance Bill, and we have to take the rough with the smooth. Does the right hon. Gentleman welcome the fact that in places such as Delyn, 500 new jobs have been created in the past six months? In Dover 500 new jobs have also been created in the past six months. Across the country as a whole, about 300,000 new private sector jobs have been created in the past six months. Does he not welcome that?
I think I know Delyn better than the hon. Gentleman. If he would like to come to me to talk to the 320 people who lost their jobs yesterday at Headland Foods in Flint, I should be happy to discuss the issue. That happened only yesterday in my constituency, so I will not take any lessons from him about what happens on my patch in north Wales.
I will tell the hon. Gentleman straight away, however, that West Ham has 6.8% unemployment, Tottenham 7.4% and Camberwell 6%. That is more than three times the level of unemployment in Tatton, in Richmond (Yorks), represented by the Foreign Secretary, and in Derbyshire Dales, represented by the Government Chief Whip. Indeed, it is four times the level in Sheffield Hallam, represented by the Deputy Prime Minister. All those areas will benefit from the scheme, while areas of severe deprivation in London will not.
Let us look at the constituencies of coalition Cabinet members. Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk has 2.8% unemployment, North East Somerset has 1.6%, Tatton has 2.1%—
In a moment. [Interruption.] Not North East Somerset. The hon. Gentleman knows that I meant the Defence Secretary’s constituency. I am sure that the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) will eventually make the Cabinet, however, because he is an assiduous attender of the Chamber.
Richmond (Yorks) has 1.8% unemployment, Derbyshire Dales has 1.6%, Rushcliffe has 2%, Sheffield Hallam has 1.8%, Sutton Coldfield has 2.6%, North Shropshire has 2.7%, and Inverness has 2.3%. All the Cabinet members representing those constituencies will benefit from the payment holiday, while colleagues representing seats in Walthamstow, Islington, Mitcham, Luton North, Luton South, Tottenham, Tooting, Dulwich, Streatham, Hampstead, Vauxhall, Hammersmith and the two in Hackney will not.
If we are to make the scheme fair, taking the point that the hon. Member for Central Devon made, we should divvy up the benefits that the Government are bringing forward in a way that tackles the central issues of deprivation and unemployment.
We as a party welcome the initiative, and I am sure the Government will be happy to hear that. It is an important countervailing measure, and we need further such measures. Have the Opposition assessed how much it would cost to roll out the scheme as they suggest in their amendment, and how that would be funded?
If the scheme were applied to Greater London, the east and the south-east, and taken up at the level that the Minister expects, it would—according to figures that he gave me only last night—cost about £660 million. He says that there are about 1,000 interested companies to date, but I do not know what the take-up would be.
The cost could be offset by new employment and new taxes, because let us remember that the scheme under discussion is for new businesses, so the holiday period offset will be a cost to the Treasury, but it could be offset by increased growth, increased taxation paid by individuals who are employed and by the increased growth of businesses. The cost of the scheme downstream, at the end of the three years, is debatable, but, equally, there are ways in which we could divvy up the money that the Minister has allocated to the regions of Wales—one of which the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) represents—and all others. We could think about whether to divvy them up differently, so as to tackle areas of high unemployment in London or—if the Minister’s criterion is high public sector employment—areas with high public sector employment, such as those that I mentioned. They are in the 10% of areas with the highest such employment, and include seats that the current scheme will not cover.
The hon. Gentleman knows that the Opposition have a growth strategy. We had one prior to the election.
The measure under discussion has been proposed to give new businesses a national insurance holiday to help them with their costs for three years. The Minister estimates the costs for the three regions as £650 million to £660 million, based on the scheme’s anticipated roll-out in those regions. My simple point is that these are new employment jobs and new businesses, so they will presumably entail new employment areas and new people employed to fill them, who will pay new taxes. All that is part of the growth strategy, which will be hit hard by VAT increases and public spending cuts. That is a separate issue.
If we are thinking about a payment holiday, the question for me is whether it will achieve its objectives by being available in the areas of the highest public sector employment, or whether it will go to areas such as Tatton, Richmond or other wealthy areas of the north and midlands. In those areas jobs will be created, but the people who most need them will not be able to get them. That is the crucial issue for debate.
Without making a party political point of it, I would argue that Government Members have participated constructively both in previous debates on this subject and in today’s debate. John Walker, the chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses has said:
“With small firms in the South East most likely to be working below capacity, this shows how wrong the Government is to not include this vital region, as well as the East and London, in its proposals for a National Insurance holiday for start-up businesses.”
I have already said that we are not going to vote against the Bill—although if the reasoned amendment had been selected we would have voted for that. However, it is important both to consider the issue in the round and for the Minister to reflect on the concerns expressed, by his hon. Friends as well as by Labour Members, about the application of the national insurance holiday.
At the same time as implementing this Bill, the Minister is scrapping completely the regional growth strategy for different departments, and scrapping the regional development agencies and replacing them with local enterprise partnerships, which in my view will not help with regional development to the extent that we would want. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff) has said that that sends out the wrong message about the work that has been done.
We need to look towards a better application of this policy, and the Minister needs to reflect further on the concerns expressed in our debate. Although we will disagree politically, I am most interested in ensuring that any national insurance holiday is of benefit to the people who most need it. Sadly, the Bill misses the mark in that respect, and fails to address those key issues.
I repeat that we will give the Bill a fair passage and not vote against it this evening. We welcome the rise in national insurance, which we too would have implemented. We welcome the holiday provisions as far as they go, but they need further reflection, so we will take every opportunity in Committee to try to persuade the Minister to look at more imaginative schemes, which might use the same amount of money in different ways, or extend the holiday to areas where it would be a valued resource and help reduce unemployment in the constituencies in the south-east, London and the east that most need that.
I hope that what I have said is helpful to the Minister. I look forward to spending the next few weeks in Committee with him, just as I have spent the last few weeks in Committee with him and his colleagues on various other Bills. To make a wholly non-partisan point, the Treasury appears to be one of the busiest Departments at the moment, and we are all having fun. I am sure that our discussions will shortly continue elsewhere.
I am not alone in finding that a rather disappointing response—an untypically disappointing response. Part 2 of the Bill introduces something that the Labour Government never introduced in their 13 years in power, yet the minute we introduce it, they say: “Well, it doesn’t really go far enough”. We have heard 25 minutes of “We want a better Bill, but we never backed it”. Labour has still not proposed to make this provision part of its own policy, yet it wants it extended to other parts of the country.
Unlike the Labour party I welcome part 2, comprising clauses 4 to 11, just as I welcome any reduction in the burden of taxation on small businesses, even if it is described—rather unfortunately, I think—as a “holiday”. Only in the weird and wonderful world of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs could the process of allowing a business to keep more of its own income and turnover be described as some sort of holiday. I rather regret that this phrase has now crept into the legislation. Small businesses pay too much tax, so anything we can do to reduce that burden has to be helpful. Why? Because the bulk of private sector job creation has come, and will continue to come, from small companies. Sadly, it is large companies that continue to reduce their costs, to strip out unnecessary manpower and to outsource various functions, while it is small businesses that have been, and will be, the engine of job creation.
Is not the main engine for job growth among small and medium-sized enterprises the expansion of existing SMEs rather than the creation of new ones, although of course that is an important engine as well? Does the hon. Gentleman favour the extension of the measure to new employees of existing SMEs? As he may know, and as I know from personal experience, starting a business involves a number of risks, and obviously this is one of the factors. An established SME could probably do much more with the “holiday”.
I was about to suggest that the measure might well be extended. It is true that job creation comes from existing small businesses, although it also comes from new ones. I think that we can find some common ground in that regard.
I have three main reasons for supporting the Bill. First, I believe that it is the right way to help small businesses. It is not the only way, but I do not think that the other ways that have been tried in the past—grants, loans, business link services, and a great deal of bureaucracy—are nearly as effective as allowing small businesses to keep more of their own money, and to employ more people more cheaply. Given that a Government cannot create jobs, this is the easiest, simplest and most effective way of encouraging businesses to take on more people.
My second reason for supporting the Bill, which is directly relevant to the intervention from the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies), is that it is clearly future-proof. I note that the Opposition do not oppose it, either in principle or in detail; indeed, they want to extend its provisions throughout the country. If it turned out to be spectacularly successful—and none of us in the House knows yet whether it will—its provisions could be extended. At present, the scheme applies only for the first year of a new business, it is open for only three years, it applies only to the first 10 employees, and it applies only to the regions that we have been discussing.
If we discovered that the Bill really did encourage the creation of more jobs and did not divert employment from existing businesses, it would be perfectly possible—once the economy had recovered, we had closed off the deficit that we inherited, and more money was available—to extend the scheme in different ways. It would be possible, for example, to apply it to the first two years of a business. It can take longer than a year for a very small business to establish itself. It would be possible to keep the scheme open for the whole of the current Parliament, matching the reductions that are sadly necessary in public sector employment to encourage private sector employment alongside it. It would also be possible to apply it not simply to the first 10 employees but to, say, the first 20 or 30. I see nothing particularly magical about the step change involved in employing that 11th person. And yes, if the scheme really was working, it might well prove desirable and cost-effective to start extending it to some of the other regions. I note that the three excluded regions contain the south-east—my own region—East Anglia and London, which currently contain half the number of all our small businesses. If small businesses had already been successful in those regions, perhaps, if costs allowed, it might be possible to extend the scheme in four or five years’ time if it worked particularly well.
The hon. Gentleman said that there was no step change between the 10th and 11th employees, and he was right. However, there is a huge step change for a sole trader taking on his or her first employee. Does the hon. Gentleman think that, if the scheme were rolled out in the way that he suggests, it should be rolled out to existing sole traders taking on their first employee, which involves a huge commitment?
I am not sure whether someone would remain a sole trader in those circumstances, but it is true that becoming responsible for someone else’s payroll is often the most difficult step for those who are self-employed or trading on their own account. I certainly think that we should explore that possibility further.
The third, and final, reason why I support the Bill is an entirely different one. The Bill is quite rare in that it recognises the rights of non-workers. I have never forgotten an encounter I had when I was representing a north-east constituency. It occurred at the height of the engineering recession of the early 1980s, when the jobcentre manager in Darlington said to me, “There’s plenty of work about, Mr Fallon, but very few jobs.” What he meant by that was, of course, that the labour market had fossilised. So many restrictions and costs were involved in hiring extra labour that it was too expensive and too risky for firms to take on more staff. Of course, the previous Conservative Government addressed that through a range of liberalisations that tackled areas such as employee rights, access to tribunals and restrictive practices, and I think that a Government need to do that every few years. They need to look again at the balance between those who are fortunate enough to be in the labour market and enjoying the various job protections that this House has given them successively over the years and those who are excluded from the labour market, because those who are excluded have rights too. If we make it increasingly difficult for companies to fire people, then we inevitably make it increasingly difficult for companies to hire people. If we build in unlimited awards for various types of discrimination—sexual discrimination, for example—we discourage firms from employing more women. There is a balance to be struck therefore, and I think that needs to be reassessed every few years.
Small businesses in my constituency tell me that at present they will do almost anything they can to avoid taking on new people, partly because of the difficulty of getting rid of them if they turn out to be unsuitable or unreliable or if they are not prepared to work hard enough, and partly because of the administrative costs piled on them by the last Labour Government through, for instance, needing to check student loan repayments, child care reliefs and immigration status. When we consider measures such as those in this Bill, we need to be thinking all the time about how we can make it easier for businesses to employ people.
This is a short Bill, and it would be wrong to overstate its effects. It must be considered in the context of the other measures to help small businesses, such as the reduction in their corporation tax rate, which I welcome, and the extension of the guarantee scheme. I suspect that the Bill will prove to be successful however, and, if so, I hope that it will be the start of a much wider and deeper process of removing the barriers to growth, such as the thicket of regulation our small businesses have to struggle through and the heavy burden of taxation that still inhibits too many of them. I welcome the Bill.
I wish to concentrate on the situation facing my constituents and many others in London. The House of Commons Library has published a note that is of great help to all who take an interest in the subject of today’s debate, and it says that, on the basis of International Labour Organisation measures of unemployment, the highest rates are in London, the north-east and Yorkshire and the Humber, where the figure is 9%. However, although the north-east and Yorkshire and the Humber are to benefit from the measures in question, London is entirely excluded.
As has already been made clear, a number of boroughs and constituencies in London have very high levels of deprivation and unemployment. My borough, the London borough of Redbridge, does not feature as one of the most deprived boroughs overall, but there are wards within it, including three in my constituency, that are in the lowest decile for deprivation and need. Therefore, the impact of any changes that discriminate against Londoners, against small businesses in London and against ethnic minority businesses in London—the population distribution in this country means that London has a much greater concentration of people from all ethnic minorities—has to be borne in mind. These proposals are inherently discriminatory; they are discriminatory in their own terms and they therefore need to be seriously questioned.
The Federation of Small Businesses has sent me some information about this matter. It points out how more than half the firms in London, 64% of small businesses in the south-east and 58% of firms in the east of England are likely to operating under capacity. It states that the regional discrimination involved in these proposals is based on
“a crude assessment as it does not account for areas within these regions that would really benefit from policies that would help bolster employment.”
If the FSB opposes the proposals, why on earth are the Government not listening to it, given that they claim always to be listening to small businesses? As I speak, the Essex FSB is having a meeting, which I am obviously not able to attend, and one of the issues it will discuss is precisely this discrimination against the east of England, the south of England and, in particular, London.
The point needs to be made that the Minister has explained that a significant extra cost would be involved in making this a national programme. As the Member of Parliament for Watford, an area that faces significant unemployment problems, I would say that it would be very nice to have this programme, but the Minister has explained that the cost involved would be more £660 million. I am pleased to see this principle being used, because I believe that selective regional policy can be used in the future. I hope that the Government’s localisation agenda will mean that holidays and similar tax benefits for rates will be extended to specific areas. But for the moment, because of the mess that the Labour Government left us with—
I suggest that the hon. Gentleman should perhaps make his own speech, rather than intervene on mine.
The FSB makes clear its concern about not only the regional variation, but the fact that the proposals do not deal with existing firms. My right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) also made that point from the Front Bench. The FSB says that
“surveys have found that 57% of small businesses without employees would like to employ in the future, which could create…800,000 new jobs”.
It also points out that many small businesses do not survive for more than two or three years, so by discriminating against existing small businesses that have just been established the proposals are another difficulty for that sector. The FSB claims that, on average, its 213,000 members each employ seven members of staff and that most employ five or fewer. It points out that if they were able to get the support that is being made available only to certain businesses in certain regions, there would be the potential for much greater assistance. Therefore, the essence of the proposals is that if the Government are going down this route, they are doing so in a way that discriminates against certain regions and certain communities in the country, and that discriminates between different businesses.
The essence of the proposal, we are told, is that we are all in this together but, sadly, it is yet another example of where we are not. We are all in it together, but we are not all getting the assistance to deal with the problems that the Government will create when they slash the public sector.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate and I offer my wholehearted support to the Government for this excellent Bill.
On part 1 and the increases in rates, a point that has not been made but that is worthy of comment concerns the timing. Opposition Members had considered the increase when we were at a flaky stage in the recovery of the economy and when there was concern that there might be a double-dip recession. To move the timing from June of this year to April of next year is to be commended and it is absolutely the right and responsible thing to do.
My speech will focus principally on part 2 and the so-called “holiday” for new businesses, a provision that I wholeheartedly support. It is absolutely right that new businesses should be given a helping hand, particularly now. I am fortunate that my constituency of Newton Abbot is in Devon and therefore in the south-west, which means that my new businesses will benefit from these new measures. The Government estimate the benefit across the country at £940 million. That is well worth having and I am delighted to see Opposition Members supporting it. The cost in the grand scheme of things is relatively small and the administration costs of £12 million can be set against the overall administrative costs for this tax, which stand at £1.54 billion. The estimated benefit for individual businesses will be £2,000 per business with a rough administration cost of £166. That strikes me as very good value for money.
I want to take up a point that has been made by a number of Members on both sides of the House. In my view and, clearly, that of others, micro-businesses desperately need help. In the south-west, 91% of businesses employ only five people—small businesses that are a large part of the business community. In my part of the world, issues will arise because of the changes to the public sector, so helping micro-businesses will be very important because it is more likely than not that, because of their sheer number, they will take on those who are made redundant and the NEETs, as we call them—those not in employment, education or training—who clearly need a helping hand.
I thank the shadow Minister, but that is precisely my point. I would like to ask the Treasury and the Treasury team to extend the provision to those businesses in the fullness of time.
In particular, we should clarify what we mean by a micro-business. The European Union defines it as a business with 10 employees and a turnover of less than £2 million. For my money, that is a very big business. In my part of the world, micro-businesses are really very small. The hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie), who is no longer with us, suggested that we might think about a small business of two employees that was considering adding one extra employee. The point was that it is a big step for a sole trader or husband and wife team to take on that extra member of staff, and it is there that we need the help.
I suggest that the Treasury urgently considers extending the provision to micro-businesses, not in this Bill but in a future Budget. I cannot see why micro-businesses should not be covered across the country rather than in regions. My plea is that micro-businesses, which are different to small businesses, should be properly represented and that we should consider what we in this Parliament mean by a micro-business rather than necessarily taking the European definition. We should also consider what help we can give them.
As for the point made by the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), it is not just about tax assistance, but about regulatory assistance. Some very small businesses are drowning in legislation, much of which is simply not appropriate for them.
My hon. Friend is making some excellent points, which, as someone who used to own a small business, I recognise. Micro-businesses also have the opportunity to take on apprentices, and we should encourage small businesses to take advantage of that.
I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution and I absolutely agree.
I ask the Treasury team and the Minister, after the successful outcome of this measure, urgently to consider extending it in the next Budget to micro-businesses and to introduce a proper definition of a micro-business. I think that they need particular help and support.
I want to make only a brief speech and, like some other speakers, plan to limit my remarks to part 2 of the Bill, which deals with the national insurance holiday for businesses that start up outside London, the east and the south-east.
A national insurance holiday for some new businesses but not others is misguided. I have two main reasons for believing that. First, there is the basic issue of fairness. Under the Government’s proposals, a new business setting up in Leamington Spa, for example, could benefit from savings of up to £50,000 in its first year of operation, but the very same business starting up in my constituency of Lewisham East would get nothing. The businesses might be exactly the same and they might employ exactly the same number of people and have exactly the same turnover and profit margins, but one stands to get a kick-start of thousands of pounds in its first year and the other does not. I cannot help but think that that is blatantly unfair.
New businesses in Lewisham struggle to survive at the best of times: only 59% are still operating after their first three years as opposed to a UK average of 65%. If we add into the mix the state of the economy in Lewisham, we see that the policy seems even more misguided. The claimant count in my constituency has risen by 2% in the last year, whereas in Leamington Spa it has fallen by 25%.
The shadow Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), has already spoken about what the policy is meant to do. The stated aim of the payment holiday is to encourage the creation of private sector jobs in regions that rely on public sector employment. Presumably, that is an attempt to do something to offset the huge job losses that the Government are choosing to inflict on councils, police forces and primary care trusts up and down the country. So, one might be forgiven for thinking that the policy would apply to those areas that have the highest proportions of their work force employed in the public sector. One might think that the holiday would apply to the same areas as those that are eligible to bid for the Government’s new regional growth fund, but, no, that would be a logical step. Instead, the Government have decided to exclude London from their national insurance holiday and thereby exclude many communities that are highly dependent on public sector jobs—the very communities that are grappling with the uncertainty that the Government’s approach to public services has created.
Let us take as an example the area I represent in south-east London. The public sector accounts for 38% of all jobs in Lewisham, a figure that is 11% higher than the national average. If we take the boroughs of Lewisham, Southwark, Lambeth and Croydon together, we realise that the public sector work force amounts to 185,000 people, significantly more than the public sector work force of the whole of Tyne and Wear.
Lewisham also has more people chasing local jobs than almost anywhere else in the country. In October, there were more than 587 vacancies in Lewisham compared with 9,475 jobseeker’s allowance claimants. Let me again compare the situation with that in north Warwickshire, where there were 1,507 vacancies in October and 1,018 people looking for work. I accept that the labour market works very differently in London from elsewhere, and I am all for people getting on their bike, the bus or the train to get a job. Indeed, that is what most of my working constituents do every day. However, the fact that Lewisham has more people chasing local jobs than virtually anywhere else in the country says something very important about people’s experience when they go to the jobcentre in my constituency. For every job in Lewisham there are 16 people claiming JSA. Every week, without fail, I have someone asking me to help them in their search for work. These are not workshy individuals, but people who desperately want to get a job to provide for their family. The jobs are not there at the moment.
By not providing the same concessions to businesses in Lewisham as to new businesses elsewhere in the country, the Government are effectively limiting the prospects for my constituents who want to find work. Let us not forget that even in London it is necessary to stimulate employment in the sub-regional economy. Public sector jobs are often local to where people live, so mums and dads who face being made redundant by local councils will be keen to find local work that will fit around their caring responsibilities. Why are the Government intent on making it harder for them to find work in new private sector enterprises by excluding London start-ups from the national insurance concession?
Lewisham is part of London but its streets are not paved with gold. This is where the Government have gone wrong. Not all London is like Notting Hill. Yes, London has the City and is home to Canary Wharf, but it also has some of the most desperate examples of poverty in the UK. One in five Londoners earns less than a living wage and in inner London 20% of the population has 60% of the total income. The worst-off of the richest 10% of Londoners have wealth 273 times greater than that held by the best-off of the poorest 10%. The fact that London is home to the country’s major financial centres should not mean that my constituents are disadvantaged or that if they want to set up a business, they are treated as second-class entrepreneurs. It should not mean that hundreds of people who are fearful of losing their job in the public sector should have a lesser chance of getting a job in a new business start-up because of where they live.
In London, we know that an axe has been taken to the London Development Agency and that councils across the capital have lost local authority business growth incentives scheme money, which many ploughed back into supporting local businesses. We also know that the VAT increase will hit many small businesses very hard. Now, to add injury to insult, the Government want to support new businesses only in other parts of the country. That is not fair, it is misguided and I urge the Government to think again.
I am delighted to contribute to this important debate. It is essential to assist economic recovery by incentivising entrepreneurship and private sector-led growth and I make no apologies for supporting the coalition Government’s focus on encouraging our small and medium-sized businesses, which this Bill does in abundance. The Bill’s benefits are threefold. First, it will contribute to the Government’s wider economic recovery programme through a small increase in national insurance contributions. Secondly, it will promote and support small businesses and entrepreneurship. Thirdly, it will fulfil the coalition’s pledge to raise the threshold of income tax personal allowance.
Like other hon. Members, I shall focus my contribution mainly on the second of those benefits—the so-called national insurance holiday for small businesses. First, however, it might be useful to take stock of the history of NICs. This form of taxation was introduced in 1911 before being expanded in 1940 to help fund the national health service. The scheme has always consisted of benefits financed by contributions from earners, employers and others. NICs have always been flexible and responsive to the wider economic situation and thus linked to the ever-changing needs of society. Given the wider economic outlook and the appalling financial legacy that we have inherited, it is absolutely right that we now consider increasing these rates. However, as a low-tax Conservative, I hope that the actions we take to repair our broken economy today will be replaced with lower taxation policies across the board in future.
Turning to the scheme’s main benefits, I am absolutely delighted that the Government have already taken measures to make Britain a more business-friendly country once again. The Bill adds to the welcome return to promoting and encouraging entrepreneurship rather than suffocating businesses with endless regulation and red tape, as sadly occurred too frequently in the previous decade. By raising NICs, we will encourage the creation of private sector jobs in regions that are too reliant on public sector employment by reducing the cost of employing staff in new businesses.
NICs will be abolished for the first 10 jobs created in new start-up enterprises during the first 12 months of the business. As we have heard, the exemption will be available for new businesses within a three-year qualification period. Such measures will save businesses vital cash, thereby encouraging further growth and new employment opportunities, which are vital at this time. Early forecasts suggest that about 400,000 employers will claim the holiday, covering 800,000 employees. The average benefit per business will be about £2,000, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) has mentioned. The total cost to the Treasury is estimated at about £940 million.
The hon. Gentleman will know that the October 2010 claimant level for JSA in his constituency was 901, but the figure for my constituency was about two and a half times that. Why does he think that his constituency and his benefit claimants should benefit from the holiday period while mine should not?
I think that the hon. Gentleman is talking about the regional aspect of the measures, which is important and has already been raised by some Members. I shall address that issue and if he wants to intervene on me again, I shall be more than happy to take his intervention.
As we appreciate the cost of the scheme to the public purse, it is only right to drill down into the specific details. There are many concerns about the holiday provision not applying to three English regions—Greater London, the south-east region and the eastern region. I accept that this limitation might seem unfair, particularly to those right hon. and hon. Members who represent such areas, but we live in extremely difficult economic times and the woeful financial legacy will limit our ability to extend the holiday relief to every part of the country. That is regrettable, but it is a fair compromise. It is well-known that the gap between the northern and southern economies is widening and has been for the past 13 years, so it is essential that the coalition focus on closing the gap by encouraging new private sector-led growth in the north.
An unhealthy dependence on the public sector has blighted many northern towns and cities for too long. Alongside the creation of local enterprise partnerships and the regional growth fund, it is essential that private enterprise be given a boost in northern cities—such as mine, York, I confess. Economic recovery will take place only if the private sector leads the way. Only private sector expansion in the areas that are most dependent on the public sector will ensure that the recovery leads to sustainable, long-term stability in local economies. Sustainability is key.
I am sure the holiday aspect of the Bill will be welcomed by many small businesses throughout the country. It has already won the backing of the Federation of Small Businesses. I know that Opposition Members say that that is not the case, but I believe it is, although the federation raises concerns about the length of the relief and the number of firms to which it will extend. Although my support for the Bill remains unequivocal, I must confess that I share some of those concerns, while understanding the financial constraints placed on the Government.
I fear that we might be slightly short-sighted in limiting access to expansion to new firms alone, and in allowing new firms to claim it only during the first year of their business operations. I admire the way in which the coalition has governed thus far with a long-term prospect. I ask the Front-Bench team to review through the same visionary lens the time scales and business exemptions from the contributions holiday over the course of the next year or when the financial position allows. My hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot raised that point, referring to micro-businesses, and I agree wholeheartedly with her comments.
In conclusion, I strongly believe that the Bill sends out exactly the right message from the Government to budding entrepreneurships. This is positive Government-led action that our small and medium-sized businesses will welcome. More broadly, this action must be supplemented by Britain’s banks. Put bluntly, too few small and medium-sized businesses are receiving flexible finance. Members in all parts of the House should unite in urging the banks to free up vital cash flow. The new emphasis on bank lending, alongside the measures contained in the Bill, will ensure that our private entrepreneurs receive practical assistance in a true time of need.
The Bill will play a vital role in our economic recovery and future growth, and I will strongly support it.
The Exchequer Secretary commended the first part of the Bill by saying that it was fair, that it was progressive and that it supported the poorest in society. In so commending the first part of the Bill, he damned the second part, because he could not say that the second part of the Bill was fair, progressive and supported the poorest in society. That is the essence of the Opposition’s argument this evening.
The second part of the Bill is incoherent in principle and in practice and, worse than that, it is ineffective in practice. Let us look at the fundamentals. Who is it that leads us out of recession? I am happy to make common cause with Members on the Government Benches and say that it will be the private sector, in particular small and medium-sized enterprises, that will lead us into the growth that this country badly needs. Why is it, then, that the holiday provision is given precisely in those areas where private sector growth has been proven year after year not to take place?
We know, and it has been a cause of problems to us, that it has been in London and the south-east that small businesses set up and grow. That has been the engine of the private sector in our economy, yet instead of seeking to use that to advantage, the second part of the Bill is incoherent in principle because it denies that region the holiday and because it denies those potential businesses the benefits that will be made available in parts of the country that have been proven not to be able to utilise them, and therefore not to be able to bring us out of the recession and be the engine of growth that we all want.
The hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon) made the point that to extend the holiday to London and the south-east would cost £660 million. Of course, there will be a cost to the scheme, wherever it is put in place, but presumably that cost is seen as an investment to achieve the growth and dynamism in the economy that will return that investment multiplied to the Exchequer. Yet £660 million is not being invested in the very parts of our country where we know from experience that the private sector is most likely to give the maximum returns to the public purse. That is incoherent.
Now let us look at whether the measure is incoherent in practice. The Budget documentation quoted in the explanatory notes to the Bill states:
“The Government’s strategy to support private sector enterprise in all parts of the UK aims…to encourage the creation of private sector jobs in regions reliant on public sector employment, through reducing the cost to new business of employing staff”.
Yet we have heard this evening that that is not the case. There are parts of London and the south-east that are far more reliant on public sector employment than parts of the country that will receive the benefit from the holiday. That is incoherent and wrong.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) made the pertinent point that the Bill was unfair in another respect, and one can only marvel at that unfairness coming from the Conservatives. The unfairness is that the Bill is anti-competitive. My hon. Friend presented the straightforward example of two companies alike in all that they do, except that one will get a £50,000 benefit in its first year of operation which is not available to the other—and that from the party which believes in free markets and in abolishing anti-competitive practices? How can those on the Treasury Bench put that forward as a coherent philosophy?
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the purpose of the holiday, as we are calling it, is to try to compensate for a reduction in the size of the public sector in certain parts of the country, rather than targeting it specifically, as he and other Opposition Members seem to be suggesting, at areas of higher unemployment?
The hon. Gentleman suggests that what the Government are seeking to do is compensate in some way for the decimation that they believe they will cause to employment in those areas. We share a belief that the Government’s cuts will have that decimating effect on employment in those areas. Where we differ is that the hon. Gentleman believes that the measures will in some way compensate for that, whereas I am pointing out that in other parts of the country, precisely in those areas where they are not to apply, they would have a greater effect in boosting the economy.
The hon. Gentleman may say that the measures will have a marginal effect in mitigating the increases in unemployment which he knows will come from his Government’s policies. I do not believe, and I am confident that he does not believe, that they will totally compensate for those. But the most important thing is to get our economy moving again; after all, that is why we are making those public sector cuts in the first place. If we are focused on economic regeneration, we must seek to make that investment where we know it will achieve the maximum return.
I try to keep debate in this Chamber at a rational and reasonable level. I try not to play silly party politics or create a straw man simply so that I can knock it down. If the hon. Lady wishes to play those games, let her intervene on somebody else. It is really puerile to start talking in those terms; she knows that that is absolutely not my purpose at all.
The hon. Lady should consider her policies—not only these, but those that relate to VAT—and the effects that the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has said they will have. John Philpott, the chief economic adviser to the CIPD, said just a few days ago that:
“we are looking at something like 900,000 job cuts in the private sector as a result of both spending cuts and the VAT hike.”
That will be the effect of the hon. Lady’s policies. Of course I want that effect to be mitigated as far as possible, and for her to intervene on me in that ridiculous way, asking whether I am suggesting we should not try to mitigate the effect of her own policies—the loss of 900,000 jobs —is ludicrous.
In contrast to the hon. Lady, the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) was extremely reasoned in responding to my intervention on him. He accepted that there was unfairness in the Bill and that that unfairness was “regrettable”. My point is that although it is regrettable, it is not inevitable. We do not have to cut the cake or make the investments in this way.
In a rather partisan speech, the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon) derided my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson). He said that my right hon. Friend was suggesting that the Government were not going far enough. It is not a matter of not going far enough with the holiday; it is a matter of the Government’s being fair, equitable and effective. The Government cannot and should not take these decisions in an arbitrary fashion; they should take them on the basis of equity and effectiveness. The Bill does not enable that.
The hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) referred to the regrettable consequences of Government policy in terms of unemployment. I believe that, in large part, the entire Bill is regrettable because it introduces rises in national insurance for employers and employees, on businesses, at a time when we look to them for growth, as the hon. Gentleman rightly points out. But the reason for that is the policies pursued by the previous Government. Because of the hour, I do not intend to rehearse those this evening, save to point out that we have ended up in a situation where the interest alone on the money that we owe is £43 billion a year—more than we spend on education and defence. That is a national disgrace.
I welcomed my right hon. Friend the Chancellor’s Budget of 22 June, particularly the balance that he struck between seeking reductions in expenditure and accepting that we have to raise certain taxes. He weighted it far more towards the former than the latter, which has to be the right policy. The hon. Member for Brent North is right: the Office for Budget Responsibility itself has said that 500,000 jobs will be shed as a consequence of the fiscal consolidation in the public sector, and PricewaterhouseCoopers has suggested that perhaps another half a million private sector jobs will go as a consequence of that. We need to create jobs in the private sector.
According to the Treasury, in the past six months 300,000 jobs have been created in the private sector, so the capacity is there. It was as inevitable as it was regrettable that national insurance would go up. Labour first started talking about increases in national insurance as far back as the latter part of 2008. Of the three major taxation streams going into the Treasury, national insurance is the second most significant. In fact, in 2009-10 £150 billion was raised from income tax, £96 billion from national insurance and £70 billion from VAT. National insurance is efficient to collect, and in 2011-12 we will raise £9 billion as a consequence of the increases. In my opinion and that of many economists, the rise was totally unavoidable.
I wholly welcome one aspect of the Bill—well, not so much the Bill but the secondary legislation that will be enacted later—and that is the increase in the threshold for employers’ national insurance to £21 per week above indexation. I welcome that because it will take some of the pressure off our employers.
National insurance, however, is not a good tax; as we know, it punishes those who employ people rather than taxing the earnings from straightforward investment, which does not employ people. I urge the Government’s Front Benchers to make sure that, when the recovery gathers pace and we start to get the deficit down, national insurance for employers and employees should be right at the top of the list of taxes that we seek to reduce.
I welcome the national insurance holiday, about which much has been said in this debate, and particularly its targeting of new businesses. It should reach about 400,000 new businesses and about 800,000 new employees. I say that as somebody who set up his own small business, starting from scratch 20-odd years ago, and built a company both here and in the United States. One of the most important and fragile moments of a company’s growth is that very starting point; that is when a company is most vulnerable. The help will be hugely welcome.
To my horror, I have found myself being slightly persuaded by the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), as he started to open up the discussion about whether the holiday should apply across the entire country or whether, as I think he was suggesting, it might be applied in a different way, to pick up areas in the south-east, Greater London or the eastern region that might value the help more than other parts of the country. I would like to think that Government Front Benchers might think about that aspect a little further, although I suspect that when we start to try to cherry-pick small parts of the country, we will end up with a highly complex and potentially very expensive scheme. However, I would like to think that we might consider the matter in Committee.
I also welcome the fact that this is retrospective legislation that applies to companies set up since the emergency Budget in June, and that it is not prescriptive in the sense of requiring a certain type of employment in order for companies to qualify. There was a scheme in the 1990s to get the long-term unemployed back into work that was not nearly as successful as it might have been had it not been so prescriptive.
I am pleased that the Government, in recognising the importance of business, also set out in the Budget reductions in corporation tax in steps from 28% down to 24% over the period of the comprehensive spending review, with the small business rate falling to 20%. That will give us one of the lowest levels of corporation tax in the G20, and the fifth lowest in the G7.
I have some concerns about the national insurance holiday. We must ensure that we avoid so-called recycling whereby, for example, companies set themselves up as apparently a new business although they have been operating before, or come into the market as a new business and then close down and rebrand themselves. I note that clause 5 deals with that issue. My plea is that we do not make the whole operation unduly onerous and complicated for businesses that wish to take advantage of the scheme. My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr Tyrie) spoke in particular about the importance of keeping complexity down. The tax code in this country now runs to 11,000 pages. We have enough complexity—we do not need more.
The Bill also deals with EU regional funding constraints. Under articles 107 and 108 of the treaty on the functioning of the EU, companies are not permitted to receive more than €200,000 in state aid over a three-year period, given the regionality of the way the scheme works. Clause 8 seeks to handle that. Again, it is imperative that whatever information HMRC requires from those companies is kept to the minimum so that the system is not bogged down in red tape.
Has the hon. Gentleman had an opportunity to look at the regulatory impact assessment describing the steps necessary to implement the NI holiday, which is estimated on the Treasury’s own figures to cost £22 million? A lot of companies will have to use manual processes instead of the software that they had used to pay their national insurance, and it will require 240 extra staff at HMRC to administer the scheme.
The hon. Gentleman adds to my point. Indeed, I believe that the cost to HMRC will be £12 million, and the cost imposed on business is estimated at £75 million. I accept that that is a large amount of money in the context of a scheme that is effectively injecting £940 million. It is therefore most important that we keep complexity and red tape to an absolute minimum.
It is important to ensure that this incentive is well advertised, given that it is permissive in allowing companies to apply for it but is not necessarily automatically granted. The HMRC material refers to advertising it on Business Link websites, and so on. If we are to get up to 400,000 businesses involved—1,000 are involved at the moment—we will have to advertise this nationally with a push to ensure that it is taken up. In particular, we need to ensure that we lower the proportion of so-called dead-weight businesses that are taking it up—in other words, those that would have employed additional people even in the absence of the scheme. It is really important that we give this a wholehearted push.
I welcome the national insurance holiday provisions in the Bill. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) that it is important to consider other aspects such as encouraging lending and getting the Bank of England issuing credit condition surveys in which it talks about the banks lending again. We also need to cut back on red tape. This is a big opportunity to get back to a culture that is positive about new business. I should like us to have the kind of culture that we had in the 1980s, when we were open for business and companies were being set up. That is when I went out there and set up my business and created wealth and employment for people. That is the aspect of the Bill that I wholeheartedly welcome.
I have always been a very practical person. I ran my own successful business for some 25 years before handing the work over to my son. I am the first to acknowledge that in order to spend money one must have money coming in as well, because if one does not have that, one does not have a business. I live in the real world in the area that I represent, with unemployment and bills, and with families struggling and businesses barely surviving. I fully grasp the very tenuous financial position that we find ourselves in as we try to claw our way out of the deficit. I accept that Government, the coalition, and all of us together have to be involved in that and make a contribution towards it.
I welcome the range of packages that the coalition has brought forward through the Bill, which will directly help the lower paid. That is positive, and I am glad to see it. The national insurance contribution holiday is also a positive move. However, I feel that I have to comment on behalf of people who may not always see the benefit of these measures—those to whom I have spoken over the past week in anticipation of this debate, who have concerns and have asked me to convey them in the House tonight. I understand that this further tax hike is a blow to some of the people I represent—the middle classes and the self-employed. They see it as such, and I have to say so. The rise in national insurance for employers and employees will dissuade some employers from offering additional hours.
A perhaps forgotten and ignored issue is the impact on the morale of people in such businesses who do not see the benefit in the proposals before us. There is no better way of illustrating a case than taking an example from my own constituency. Just in the past few days, I had the opportunity to speak to a young married couple who have two children. They are both working. They are not entitled to housing benefit, so some years ago they bought their own house, and they have a fairly large mortgage. For them, the cost of living has increased dramatically. The husband is self-employed, and he cannot raise his prices in line with the prices coming in, because then he would not have any business. Indirect taxation has risen, and risen again. His business has suffered because people simply do not have the money to decorate their homes, which is what he does. The wife received a rise, with the additional pressure and workload that came with it, yet they find that being on the borderline of the new tax threshold means that they are scarcely better off. They are just on the wrong side of that tax threshold. The frustration they expressed to me demonstrated the sobering reality of how some people see the future of their business.
People such as my hon. Friend’s constituents are looking forward to the increase in personal allowances to which the Government are now committed, which is a good thing. However, given the increase in national insurance contributions, the anomaly is that such people will find it even more difficult to move out of recession.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments, which are very positive. I think that if everyone sat down for a moment and looked at their own constituency, we could all replicate this situation everywhere across the whole United Kingdom.
The couple who came to see me did not have any help when their boiler broke, their car broke down, or the heating bills came in: they had to manage all that themselves. That puts things into perspective. They did not ask for a handout, or believe that they were entitled to one. They simply asked me whether I could do something, as the Member for Strangford, to represent their viewpoint in this Chamber, and that is what I intend to do. This is an example of the low morale of a hard-working family who feel that they are swimming against the current. I would always caution that we should ensure at all times that people feel that it is better to work, and these people have that work ethic, which is good news.
I know that Government Members will say that this is “only” a 1% increase in national insurance contributions, and that is true. Let us remember, though, that it is to be coupled with an increase in university fees. It must also be coupled with an increase in tax on oil, which results in higher petrol and diesel costs across the whole United Kingdom, particularly in Northern Ireland. We have the highest price for diesel and petrol in the whole UK, and the VAT increase in January will add to the price hikes and the pressure on families.
As a balanced individual who can see the good element in the Bill, I point out that the fact that new businesses will get help with their first 10 employees’ contributions is good news. However, I have to ask: what about the small and medium-sized businesses that are currently struggling, such as the one run by the couple I mentioned? To them, a £2,000 bonus would be the incentive to keep pouring their energy into their business. Many other businesses in my area would love to have that opportunity as well. I ask the Economic Secretary whether there is any scope for businesses that have opened in the past few years to avail themselves of help that could save businesses and jobs, and subsequently ensure that their revenue continues to go into the contributions pot.
The hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) hit upon an issue that other Members have also mentioned, and I agree with her comments. I believe that small and medium-sized businesses need help. I do not believe that that can be done through the Bill, but I would like them to receive some contribution and help as a next stage. Perhaps the Economic Secretary will indicate whether and how that can be done, and on what time scale. It is imperative that we in this House have a full grasp of what is intended in the next period, so that we can go back to our constituents and let them know.
It is not in my nature to oppose anything simply for the sake of it. That is not how I work. However, I honestly believe that many people are on the brink, and I have to say so. Consideration must be given to small and medium-sized businesses and those with a small number of workers. I know that money has to be raised and that someone has to provide it. That is the purpose of the debate. What I do not know is why it has to be the same people who provide it all the time. That is what has happened. The self-employed, the middle class, and small and medium-sized enterprises that exist today must all be part of the equation. On behalf of the people of Northern Ireland, and of my constituency in particular, I ask the Economic Secretary to consider those matters fully.
A common theme running through the debate—almost the golden thread of it—has been that of not seeking to oppose for the sake of opposition. Of course, I entirely subscribe to that emotion. However, although I rejoice in seeing a sinner repentant, and the Conservative party being converted once more to the policy of Keynesian fiscal incentives, I feel that the Bill is in many ways a disincentive and, even more seriously, a crude, clumsy and extremely complicated one.
Much has been made of geography and the fact that large parts of the country are excluded from the glorious sunshine of this Bill’s benefits, which will cause flowers to bloom and businesses to leap, as from the brow of Jove, into the marketplace fully formed. The excluded areas are not just the leafy shires where the only concern is getting one’s second au pair, or third Range Rover. They are also places such as Milton Keynes, Medway—Medway!—Portsmouth, Reading, Slough, Southampton, Luton, Peterborough and Thurrock. It is true that the Bill also excludes parts of the south-west London-Surrey border where people are so wealthy that they can afford the luxury of electing Liberal Democrats, but in excluding such a large area the Government are assuming that within the eastern region, the home counties and London there exists a seething tide of entrepreneurial energy, ready to burst forth at any minute, that needs no assistance.
The hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) said that there was a message coming from the House tonight. Well, the message is, “London, the home counties, East Anglia: get lost. You can manage on your own, you don’t need any help.” That is desperately crude. In times of tight margins, small incentives make a huge difference. The geography of this country is so tight and small that whereas Hampshire is excluded from the benefits of the Bill, Dorset and Wiltshire are not. One does not have to read one’s Blackmore to know that the boundaries and borders in those areas are very close and tight. Is the coalition Government’s aim to empty out as much of London, the home counties and East Anglia as possible and send everybody flooding to Somerset, Wiltshire and Dorset?
We have had some very successful imports from there in the House, particularly from North East Somerset. None the less, I am not entirely convinced that it should be the policy of Her Majesty’s Government of the United Kingdom to act in that crude way.
Talking of crudeness, advancing the idea that we can somehow assume that people will not move into a low-tax zone, like one of those Chinese economic zones, is simply not being serious about the realities of modern business. There are no Liberal Democrats in the House tonight—a happenstance that will doubtless be replicated on a longer-term basis after 2015. One thing that they tried, in one of their strange, clouded pipe dreams during the election campaign, was the suggestion that we could have geographically specific immigration—presumably with border posts on the M1, so that certain parts of the country could benefit from immigration while other parts could not. A quick glance at the map of this country shows that that simply is not possible. We will immediately have the difficulty of disincentivisation occurring in the south-east, while the benefits are transferred to the rest of the country.
The Bill is also ferociously complicated. Everybody thinks they know what a new business is, but nobody can define it. We heard in an intervention by the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) that apprentices are not covered.
I turn, as ever I do, to the explanatory notes, which have been written in the most extraordinary way. We read about Roy the carpenter; Sam the noble publican wishing to hand his business on to Tom; and Rosie and Jim the plumbers—none of whom is included in the Bill’s provisions. We read of an extraordinary ménage in what I had previously thought was the rather dull world of accountancy, in which Alan, Ben, Charles and David decide to link up with Ellen and Frances. In doing so, they also bring in a mutual friend, George. That is experience beyond that of most Members.
My particular favourite example is almost a Mills and Boon novel: John and Paul the dentists, who have been partners for many years but fall out. One imagines John and Paul, their eyes meeting over the face masks as they attend to a cavity together, their latex-covered digits brushing against each other. Then, one day, they fall out and set up alternative dental practices. John and Paul, once so close, are close no more. The explanatory notes should be published by Mills and Boon, not by the House of Commons.
After all those examples, what do we find? We find that the complicated reality of new businesses is such that the coda to that great, glorious, rather romantic tale is, to quote paragraph 46:
“The intended effect of this provision is that a person will be prevented from enjoying a holiday if, before beginning to carry on a business, the person enters into arrangements that mean that at some point after the person’s business has started he may undertake activities carried on by another business and, had the person been undertaking those activities at the time the business was started, a holiday would not have been allowed.”
That is reductio ad absurdum. How can we possibly even begin to take seriously a Bill that, leaving aside the romantic dentists and Rosie and Jim the entrepreneurial plumbers, creates such an incredibly complicated mechanism? That is not what we should be doing.
The Economic Secretary, as ever, cuts to the heart of the matter. I have great admiration for her. She is no stranger to the streets of Acton, where first we met. She had a reputation then for striking through all the persiflage that normally infests this place like wisteria—if that is not a painful subject for the Conservatives. She asked earlier, “Would it be better for this holiday to be extended across the whole country, or is it better for it to go to two thirds of the country?” I have to say that it should be all or nothing. The minute we try to set up those complicated differentials, there are immense problems. Why could the measure not be applied sectorally? Why could we not choose a particular sector and incentivise it? I am talking about those that employ large numbers and have a proven track record of entrepreneurial success. Why could we not continue with the enlightened work of the previous Labour Administration and provide start-up support for capital equipment and allow deferred VAT payments?
There are so many things that we could have done. What we have before us is probably—I say probably—rooted in decency and good, honest Keynesian politics. However, it has become so complicated that I fear that there will be very few businesses leaping to life in Liverpool, Manchester, Rotherham or wherever. There are some entrepreneurs in London who may say, “Without that additional advantage, why not relocate not only outside London but outside the UK?”
The hon. Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) said that he was as comfortable operating a company in this country as he was in the United States. People will look at this measure in the context of a global economy. What we have here is crude, complicated and unfocused. I am not entirely sure that it will be the agency that will kill unemployment and bring us all into some glorious new future. I appreciate that hundreds of new civil servants will be employed to make this system work, and I welcome that; we need more work. How tragic is it that this Bill—the Bill to encourage the private sector outside the home counties—will end up employing more civil servants in London and, almost certainly, not providing that great entrepreneurial spark in the rest of the nation?
As a new Member of this House, I am learning an awful lot of lessons, including the one that says never attempt to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) at the end of a long debate, so I will keep my remarks characteristically short.
Like many Members, I was surprised to find myself as one of the MPs for the greater south-east—a new region of which we are all delighted to be a part, particularly those of us in the east of England. Joking aside, this Bill will have a serious impact on my constituents in Luton South. Luton is my home town; it is a jewel in the east of England and businesses like it.
A 2010 survey showed that access to a strategic road network, rail networks and Luton airport and its proximity to London are all great for business. None the less, we have problems, too. Even as a jewel in the east, we suffer from unemployment. Jobseekers’ allowance claimants form 7.5% of the population—it has risen over the past couple of years—compared with an average of 4% in the wider east. Median earnings are £350 a week in Luton compared with £410 a week in the rest of the east.
The east is a vastly disparate area. I am reminded of that when it takes me two and a half hours to drive to Norwich and two hours to Cardiff. It is a vast area as well, but it gets the same blanket national insurance conditions under this Bill, which is surely unfair.
Being at the margins of the east is also a problem. Those same road and rail networks that make Luton an attractive place for business can help its creative work force to leave—and to receive a £50,000 golden hello for setting up a business elsewhere. If the purpose is to encourage jobs in the non-excluded areas rather than in the greater south-east, then areas at the margins will be disproportionately affected. For places such as Luton it is a double whammy because there will be public-sector job losses over the coming years and a less competitive environment in which to establish a new business. Indeed, it is a triple whammy because Luton’s great road and rail networks will encourage people to move 15 or 20 minutes away to establish their business, and the area will lose valuable new jobs at a time of rising public sector unemployment. That is why I sponsored early-day motion 537, which said:
“That this House notes that the Government’s decision to introduce a Class 1 Employer National Insurance exemption for new businesses in regions other than the East, South East and London will have a negative effect on growth in those areas collectively termed the Greater South East; further notes that in areas which border, or have good rail and road links with non-Greater South Eastern town and cities, the strategy positively encourages entrepreneurs to start new businesses away from their own communities, breaking community ties and vastly increasing unemployment; and further notes that the same strategy fails to recognise the vast disparity within the Greater South East region, where some towns and cities experience levels of unemployment and deprivation that are equal to or worse than the parts of the country that will benefit from this scheme.”
The disparity within regions is the key point. Luton’s businesses will be hit hard as will others across the south-east. Potential new businesses will be affected. Some 82% of Luton’s businesses employ fewer than 10 members of staff, which are exactly the sort of operations that this policy is meant to help in other parts of the country. Again, more than four-fifths of local businesses do not have sites elsewhere in Luton. These are Luton-based businesses run by Luton people, and they will be hit before they even have the chance to get started.
The Government argue that anything other than the binary distinction between south-east and the “other” would be too difficult a distinction for the boffins at the Treasury to work out. In response to the hon. Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage), the Exchequer Secretary said that the measure
“is targeted on countries and regions within the UK where reliance on public sector employment is at its highest. For practical reasons the Government have no plans to introduce national insurance contribution exemptions for smaller geographical units.”—[Official Report, 10 November 2010; Vol. 518, c. 359W.]
I hope that in Committee, the Government will be open to considering different models or different, more graduated distributions of the national insurance holiday schemes. Changing the ratio is the stated ambition of the Bill. The data for it exist for local authority areas, which are explicitly listed by name in the Bill. Will the Government choose to look at that as an option for applying the changes? My constituents in the Luton local authority would be extremely grateful if they did so.
In summary, the Government have chosen to favour some people, some businesses and some communities over others. Although I understand that there are pros and cons to such an approach, to apply that choice as a blanket holiday over vast swathes of the country, meaning a £50,000 golden hello for some businesses just 15 or 20 minutes away from the borders of my constituency, will have a negative effect on Luton South. Such an approach does not fulfil the other part of the Government’s stated bargain, which is that if a business loses out by having higher national insurance rates on new start-ups, that will be offset by living in an area that is already doing better when it comes to higher public sector employment. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins), his constituency is in the top 10 seats for public sector employment rates, so his constituents will be affected.
In short, if the Government scheme is to favour some areas over others, and it does not work, it will be a waste of money and parliamentary time. If it does work, it will hit my constituents hard and unfairly—judged by the Government’s own criteria. A reasoned amendment will not be moved tonight, and Opposition Members will not oppose the business as it goes forward. We accept that responsible national insurance increases will be required to address the deficit. None the less, I hope that the Government will have the courage to look at the distribution of this holiday so that the hard-pressed and creative people of Luton are not the victims of a Tory triple whammy.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Gavin Shuker) on his comments. In a nutshell, he has summed up many of the problems and inconsistencies in the Bill. It seems that it has something of a split personality, which has been caused by the Government trying to face in two different directions simultaneously. At the election, many people thought that the Conservatives were promising to reverse entirely the national insurance rise. We consistently heard from the Prime Minister and the Chancellor on that issue. Unfortunately, the public did not see the small print that existed at the time.
The Government are merely chipping away at those national insurance changes, and only for employers. That may not actually be a broken promise, but they have rowed back from the impression that they gave to the public. They let everyone think that they were against the change to national insurance, but they never actually intended to reverse it. It is fascinating to see them attempt to cover up that particular shortcoming with the partial increase in the employer national insurance threshold coupled with what most hon. Members, including most Government Members, have described as a complex and insubstantial national insurance tweak that applies to some entrepreneurs in some parts of the country, welcome though it will be to many of them. Political acrobatics have resulted in a contorted Bill, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) argued when highlighting the incoherence of the Bill.
It is true that the previous Labour Administration were prepared to take tough decisions on tax and national insurance, because the banking bail-out required us to raise funds to compensate. The hallmark of political parties is the choices that they make on taxation and expenditure. This Government have chosen to cut severely investment in public services and to raise VAT to 20%. A Labour Government would have chosen a steadier and more sustainable approach to deficit reduction, but national insurance changes would have been part of that.
We chose the national insurance route rather than the VAT route for very good reasons. Slightly contrary to the point made by the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris), the national insurance changes were not going to be made in June; they were always going to come in from next April, by which time we had hoped that the recovery would be well under way. Unfortunately, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have chosen to go for the VAT increase. That will hit slightly earlier, albeit by only a few months, but the economy will feel it like a punch in the stomach. Their VAT jobs tax could have a greater impact on employment, which it will hit significantly, than the national insurance changes. The CIPD, to which many hon. Members referred, predicts that around 250,000 private sector jobs will be affected, and possibly lost, by the VAT increase, which is just around the corner.
Will my hon. Friend none the less acknowledge that the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) made a pertinent suggestion? She identified the phase of business development that could give maximum benefit to the Treasury—when very small businesses are growing into small to medium-sized businesses, rather than when businesses are growing from zero to micro.
Perhaps I got the wrong end of the stick from the hon. Member for Newton Abbot when she made that pertinent point about micro-businesses. The Bill perhaps does not capture the benefit to the economy that small businesses have in that phase of their development. I hope that she will be a member of the Public Bill Committee that considers the Bill, although interestingly, as has been pointed out, perhaps some of the questioning from Government Members might prevent them—mysteriously—from being selected for membership of that Committee. We shall see.
The Prime Minister said before the general election that VAT is
“very regressive, it hits the poorest the hardest, it does, I absolutely promise you”.
The Government have chosen a path that will hit employment, jobs and businesses very hard indeed. That should be borne in mind when we consider the Bill. It is odd that this Bill is separate from either of the Finance Bills. I have not quite figured out the Government’s tactics, and perhaps they had not quite worked out what they were going to do. In that wider context, it is necessary to compare their choices in VAT against the national insurance changes.
Hon. Members mostly spoke about part 2 of the Bill, which includes the concept of a national insurance holiday. Such a holiday is, of course, superficially attractive, but there are reasons to be concerned about the poor design of the measure, which applies only to new businesses and not to existing firms. That is important. Many businesses could be under the misapprehension that they will qualify, and a lot of effort and time will go into contacting Business Link and the Treasury to find out whether the measure applies to them, and many will be disappointed.
The proposal is complex because of the limited time and extent of the scheme. It applies only to a small number of employees and there is a convoluted application process. Government Members pointed out that efforts need to made to ensure that the measure is as simple as possible. The Bill will require HMRC to take on 240 extra staff—I am not sure that they will be additional staff, especially given that HMRC is cutting numbers—and we will press the Minister on that extra complement in Committee. Businesses could apply for the national insurance holiday but not get it because they have to swim for hours through treacle to get someone in the Treasury to pick up the phone. That could be a significant problem.
The Minister gave a vague figure when asked how many people had applied since the scheme started in September. Very few people are aware that the scheme exists, and it has hardly been advertised—[Interruption.] I am glad that Liberal Democrat Members have joined us in the Chamber, even if they are just passing through, because they have been conspicuous by their absence. Perhaps that is related to their embarrassment over the VAT comparator.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), who highlighted the discriminatory nature of the national insurance holiday proposal—it affects some parts of the country but not others—and my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) and for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) pointed out the unfairness of a crude system that will exclude the east of England, London and the greater south-east, as my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South called it. That will cause significant disquiet, and many new entrepreneurs in those parts of the country will complain. Legitimately, they will not understand why they are excluded while reasonably affluent areas of the country outside the greater south-east—Chester, Worcester, Harrogate, York Outer, Tatton and Richmond, to name areas at random—will be eligible for the benefits. My hon. Friend put things perfectly when he said that the boffins at the Treasury ought to be capable of understanding the distinction between the greater south-east and other parts of the country. Of course they are capable of that, and we will seek to make amendments to deal with that problem in Committee.
Unfortunately, this small and partial measure—a national insurance holiday for some businesses in some parts of the country—reveals first of all the Government’s complete failure to develop a regional growth strategy, especially for the English regions. They have taken the knife not only to regional development agencies, but more importantly to the budgets at their disposal to help to build SMEs and provide the infrastructure necessary for businesses to survive. We know that for every £1 spent through the auspices of RDAs, £4.50 of benefits accrued to the regional economies. The Government disregarded evidence from the National Audit Office. They have damaged the prospects for growth in our economy, but particularly in those parts of it that have not benefited from the historic engine of growth that has surrounded London and the south-east. The Government’s alternative —these local enterprise partnerships, which are unfunded, and only partially covering the country—is a poor substitute for a proper regional economic strategy. Nearly 21 million people and 780,000 businesses will not be covered by the LEPs, the Business Secretary has described them as “chaotic”, and Richard Lambert of the CBI has called the process a “bit of a shambles”.
That sums up the Government’s lack of a growth strategy. We know that they have pulled the rug from under the growth White Paper that was meant to be forthcoming. They did that because they have no clear idea of how to drive growth: they are fixated on austerity alone and have no solutions for the long-term course of our economy. That is a great pity. The regional growth fund has been hacked down to a pathetic size, with few opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises to apply for support under it. In many ways, therefore, small firms have been cast to one side, with perhaps a few crumbs from the table made available for them as a result of this Marie-Antoinette strategy of the Ministers—“Let them eat cake” seems to be the approach they are willing to take.
The hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) rightly pointed out that the Government should be trying to make the banks lend more and give more support to SMEs, making inroads into that desert of loan and credit available to them. We know from the Chancellor’s statement at Treasury questions last week and from Ministers’ comments that they have gone soft on the banks in a number of ways, particularly on the coalition commitment to restart net lending targets for the banks in which they have a shareholding. They have decided now to row back from their commitment to institute those net lending targets, and I urge hon. Members, particularly Government Members, to ask serious questions of Ministers about why they are not prepared to ensure that the banks play their full part in repairing the economy.
I would not like to think that we cannot trust the Chancellor to fulfil some of the pledges to lessen the impact of these national insurance increases. As we know, the Government have already reneged on the commitment on employee national insurance changes, even though the press reported before the election that the Conservative party would do so. It is true that in many ways the personal allowance changes deal with some of these elements, but only in part—there was a commitment on national insurance as well, but it folded and absorbed it into that change. Again, it raised people’s hopes before the general election, but has not fulfilled them.
In particular, the Government are not fully offsetting these changes for employers, which will be a surprise to many people. Before the election, the Conservative party gave the impression that it was fully against the 1% increase and that it would repeal it entirely. [Interruption.] Ministers seem to think that they were going to repeal it entirely. As I see the measures, the impression they gave—[Interruption.] There was small print, it is true, but that was not the impression given. The £4.5 billion change is offset by the £3.1 billion increase in the threshold for employers on national insurance, so there is a deficit of £1.4 billion in the compensation that the Government will not be giving to employers. This is a question not necessarily of a broken promise, but of an impression that many people had that the Government were going to end the jobs tax, as the Prime Minister and Chancellor characterised it. As ever with this Government, however, when we look at the small print, we see that those changes will not be forthcoming.
We have not seen the secondary legislation yet. I would like to know when the Minister will introduce it. Presumably on Monday—traditionally the time of what was the pre-Budget report—we will hear from the Chancellor about the threshold changes and the indexation elements of these changes. Ministers have said they are going to add £21 to the employer threshold, but what will be the indexation? Will they follow the long-standing traditions of the Rooker-Wise amendment when it comes to allowance and threshold changes and follow the retail prices index option, or will they row back again and go for the cheaper consumer prices index option? In other words, will they be giving with one hand, through the threshold change, but taking with the other, by only opting for CPI?
This debate has revealed significant concerns among Government Members about the crude discrimination shown against London, the south-east and the east of England. The Bill reveals a lack of a proper strategy for growth, especially in the English regions, and the Government have revealed their preference for regressive taxation, particularly VAT, which will harm businesses and raise unemployment. We will certainly need to see serious improvements in these measures in Committee.
We have had an interesting debate and I am grateful for hon. Members’ contributions, especially that of the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), who provided the most entertaining canter through an explanatory memorandum I have listened to in years.
At the beginning of the debate, my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary explained that the Bill contains two important measures: an increase in national insurance contributions and a regional employer national insurance contributions holiday for new businesses. Both are part of the Government’s plan to reduce the burden of labour taxation, reducing obstacles for those who want to recruit and retain staff. It is worth stressing that the clauses are part of a much wider package of reforms to help businesses and ensure that Britain is again open for business. The reforms are designed to reverse the most damaging aspects of Labour’s ill-conceived jobs tax. I listened with care to the contributions from Labour Members, but members of the public listening will have found it easy to forget that the Labour party left office with unemployment higher than when it entered.
Nevertheless, I am pleased that the debate has led to so many Opposition Members—and, indeed, Government Members—recognising that the best way to kick-start new business, as the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) put it, is to ensure that businesses are not over-taxed. In fact, the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) was extolling the virtues of low tax on businesses. That is why the Bill is so important. Were the coalition Government not in power, rather than corporation tax on businesses going down, it would have gone up, and rather than the national insurance burden, particularly on small businesses, being held down, it would have risen remorselessly.
The hon. Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie) talked about a split personality, but it is probably fairer to level that charge at the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), who, on the one hand, wanted to raise national insurance for all employers, but, on the other hand, complained that the tax break we wanted to introduce to reduce national insurance was not fair because it did not apply to all regions. He cannot have it both ways.
A lot of people would debate who those jobs were taken by. In reality, unemployment was higher—every Labour Government leaves office with unemployment higher than when they entered.
I want to talk about some of the most important aspects of the Bill. Employers will be £150 better off each year for each employee earning above the threshold. There will be an increase of 650,000 in the number of employees in respect of whom employers pay no national insurance contributions. Compared to this year, employers will pay less national insurance contribution in respect of those employees earning under £20,000. In fact, low-earning employees will also be better off, because the point at which they start to pay national insurance contributions is also going up—by about £23 per week. By reversing the planned employer national insurance increases, this package will help to maintain the UK’s attraction as a place to do business. In doing so, it will support the Government’s aim of creating a fairer and more competitive tax system. The national insurance holiday will help with the transition to a more sustainable model of economic growth, encourage private sector enterprise and investment where it is most needed, create jobs in some of our poorest regions, and encourage people to become business people, entrepreneurs and wealth creators—the very people who will lead the recovery.
Those points were made eloquently by my hon. Friend Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon) and later by my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy), who also talked about the burden of red tape, which is another matter that the Government are keen to reduce for businesses. My hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) talked about the need to support business, and to create new jobs and the positive culture that we need to engender throughout the country. That is absolutely what the Government want to do.
The Bill should be seen in the context of wider measures. The Government have taken several steps to support business. In the emergency budget we announced measures to reduce corporation tax, not raise it on large companies year on year. We announced measures to reduce the small companies rate of corporation tax. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about what we can do to help small companies and new companies. He was right, and that is precisely why, instead of increasing corporation tax on those companies, we preferred to try to ensure that they can enjoy a rate decrease.
We have gone further. The regional growth fund will benefit all communities in our country. The capital infrastructure plan was announced as part of the spending review, and more capital will go into supporting our country’s infrastructure than would have happened under the previous Government. We have published the local growth White Paper.
Clearly, that must be seen in the context of our desperate need to tackle the fiscal deficit that the Labour party left us. It is one reason why our overall plan is not just to support business—that is clearly how we will grow our economy back to the healthy state that it needs to get to—but, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, to make our numbers add up across the board. We must get rid of the structural deficit that his party handed over to us.
We believe that the package of measures is right, the OECD has said that it is moving in the right direction, and it has been welcomed throughout Europe. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that we should not increase VAT, that prompts a question. His right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling) was interviewed recently and said that the Labour party would have increased VAT, so we cannot accept the hon. Gentleman’s comments that his party would not have increased it. There is a blank piece of paper, and at the top are the words, “Labour economic strategy”. It is time for the Labour party to start to become credible by trying at least to pull together and to plan for our economy. Most people will put the contributions about jobs and the complaints about reductions in national insurance not going far enough in the context of a party that has absolutely no alternative plan for managing our economy. They will realise that its arguments are not credible.
The regional aspect of national insurance policy must be seen in the context of the broader package to support business. The level of VAT registrations in different parts of our country and the number of jobs created in different parts of our country show that we need to ensure that we can stimulate growth, particularly in the communities that can benefit most from it. The policy should be looked at not in isolation, but in the context of the broader tax reductions on business and the rise in the personal allowance for employees. Nearly 900,000 of the lowest-income workers in our country will be taken out of income tax altogether. The vast majority of people will benefit from our proposals, and under the Bill many of them will be small businesses with a handful of employees.
I do not think I heard a single speech from either side of the Chamber that suggested in any way that those benefits should not flow to certain businesses. The question that was repeatedly asked and that the Economic Secretary and her colleagues failed to answer is why those businesses are favoured, not only when they are specifically not the ones in the areas that will produce the economic growth that she indicates is required from the policy, but because of the manifest unfairness that will result from their distribution.
I realise that the hon. Gentleman takes a different view about how to target the policy. I happen to believe that he is wrong. We recognise that there needs to be some targeting, but the way in which he would have done that would have been unwieldy and unaffordable. In the context of our broader measures to reduce corporation tax instead of allowing rises, which would have happened under the Labour party, and the measures to take the lowest-income employees in our country—nearly 900,000—out of income tax altogether, we are trying to strike a balance, and I believe that we have struck the right balance.
I have no doubt that we will continue the debate in Committee, but we must be pragmatic. I draw attention to the hon. Gentleman’s attempts to target policies when the Opposition were in government. They faced difficulties with their changes during their final years in office. Under the deprived area fund, and the neighbourhood renewal fund, which became the working neighbourhood fund, some communities that had previously received funding were cut off. We want an overall package that supports business across the board, while retaining an element of support targeted at the regions that we think need to benefit most from the next economic upturn. That is what the Bill is doing.
The package of reforms of which the measures in the Bill are part will benefit individuals and employers throughout the country, and help us to achieve the twin objectives of creating a fair and competitive UK tax system. The burden of labour taxation will be reduced by more than £6 billion a year in a way that will help the lowest earners in Britain and protect lower-paid jobs.
The national insurance holiday provides targeted support to new enterprises, and encourages people to set up their own businesses and to employ new staff. It is an important part of our economic strategy to help the parts of the country that are most reliant on the public sector, and to ensure that we make the transition to a more sustainable model of growth and employment as smooth as possible. The Bill will ensure that as the recovery takes hold, all parts of the country will benefit. It will enable a reduction in taxation on labour nationally, and provide extra support in targeted areas. It will be good for growth, and for jobs. I commend this Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
National Insurance Contributions Bill (Programme)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7),
That the following provisions shall apply to the National Insurance Contributions Bill:
1. The Bill shall be committed to a Public Bill Committee.
Proceedings in Public Bill Committee
2. Proceedings in the Public Bill Committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion on Thursday 9 December 2010.
3. The Public Bill Committee shall have leave to sit twice on the first day on which it meets.
Consideration and Third Reading
4. Proceedings on Consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which those proceedings are commenced.
5. Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.
6. Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings on consideration and Third Reading.
7. Any other proceedings on the Bill (including any proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments or on any further messages from the Lords) may be programmed.—(Norman Lamb.)
Question agreed to.