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Static Caravans (VAT)

Volume 543: debated on Thursday 26 April 2012

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Greg Hands.)

It is a pleasure to be on my feet again in the Chamber with an opportunity to talk about an issue that is so important to the people of east Yorkshire and coastal and rural communities around the land.

East Yorkshire is at the heart of the caravan industry. I have a major manufacturer, ABI, in the centre of Beverley, suppliers to the manufacturers scattered around my constituency and parks dotted down the Holderness coast. For us, static holiday homes are a big deal. The presence of so many Members, despite the fact that it is a Thursday evening, when Members are normally thinking of moving back to their constituencies, demonstrates the depth and breadth of concern about this issue, not least among Government Members.

Before I give way to my hon. Friend, I should point out that I shall be the only person making a speech before the Minister responds, but because there has been so much interest in the debate, I shall give way to as many hon. Friends on both sides of the Chamber as I possibly can as we work together to persuade the Treasury to think again.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for outlining how generous he intends to be. He mentioned the depth and breadth of concern about this issue. In Great Yarmouth, the tourism industry is worth about £500 million, and an estimated 50% of our bed space is in static caravans. Over the years, they have come to have more in common with park homes than with mobile caravans. Does my hon. Friend agree that that might be a better way for them to be assessed?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I shall address that point in my speech.

I ran a street surgery in Withernsea, a coastal town in my constituency, on Saturday. As I stood talking to people and handing out leaflets, perhaps as many as three out of 10 people said to me, “I’m not from round here, mate.” They were not staying in bed and breakfasts or hotels, because we have hardly any in the area; they were staying in static caravans. Two or three out of every 10 people going into Aldi, or into the bakery down the road, or spending money in the pubs were staying in static caravans. In addition to those directly employed in the manufacture of the caravans and in addition to the parks, however important they all are, the importance of visitors to the rural economy is immense. That is why there has been such a groundswell of feeling that this issue should be reconsidered.

I have two firms in South Derbyshire that are particularly concerned about the new tax. One is Mercia Marina, and the other is Truma, which makes fittings for static and other caravans. They both believe that 20% of their business could be wiped out overnight, should the tax come into force. Would the Treasury be kind enough to look again at the cost-benefit analysis for this measure? It will find that wider areas, including tourism and jobs, will be greatly affected.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right.

I have good news, as I am sure the Minister will confirm later, in that the Government have listened to us. Hon. Friends on both sides of the House who represent East Yorkshire constituencies came together immediately after the Budget and we met the manufacturers. What we heard from them was chilling. The industry employs thousands in the manufacturing sector and tens of thousands in the parks. The Government estimate a 30% drop in demand, and that can only mean that thousands of jobs will be lost and that an industry that is struggling to recover from the credit crunch will be knocked backwards.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He has raised the central point. The aim of the Budget was, quite rightly, to encourage growth and jobs and to pay off the deficit. Is it not the case, however, that this particular measure is likely to destroy jobs and raise less money than we currently raise? It would therefore meet none of those objectives, and the Treasury ought to retract the measure in total.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. He and I have discussed this matter with the Chancellor, who has spoken to us about it separately on a number of other occasions. We also went in a group of 11 colleagues to see the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Gauke). The reason for our only being 11 was that we did not think that there would be room for more around the table; it was not due to lack of interest. There is enormous concern about this issue.

I am delighted to say that, when we debated the matter last week, the Minister agreed to extend the consultation. The Chancellor confirmed that it was a genuine consultation and that the Government would look at the evidence from us and from those out there in the industry—everyone should get involved in that—and would be prepared to look at the matter in the light of the impact that the measure will have.

During the extended consultation, which we welcome, it has come to light that Britain is now in the throes of the worst economic slump for more than a century. Is that not a compelling reason on its own for the Minister to say, “I have reflected on this matter. I have decided that this is the wrong tax at the wrong time, and I am dropping it”?

My right hon. Friend is right. He and many other Members on the Government Benches who would not dream of opposing the Government’s general strategy, or even most of the specifics, have such profound doubts about this one policy that they are asking the Treasury to think again.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the point made to me by Pemberton Leisure Homes in my constituency that the measure will also have a profoundly damaging effect on apprenticeships? That firm employs 160 people, but it also has many apprentices. I know that the Government are keen to boost the number of apprenticeships. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this measure could be problematic for that policy objective too?

My hon. Friend referred to the Treasury’s own estimate that the measure may lead to a 30% reduction in demand. If that figure is correct, the measure will have a devastating effect on the parks in my constituency. However, I do not know whether my hon. Friend’s experience is the same as mine, but all my park owners are saying that they regard the 30% reduction as a gross underestimate. Osea leisure park, just one of those park owners, has told me that it believes that there could be a 60% reduction in demand for new homes.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course, many parks have made major investments, some of them—I hate to say it, as one hates to talk about vulnerable businesses—are highly geared, and if there is a chilling impact and eddies of demand, notwithstanding a little additional demand before 1 October, we could subsequently see more than a 30% reduction, which could result in the closure of manufacturers and park businesses that have invested for the longer term in this excellent British tourism industry.

Tourism is key to my constituency, and Dawlish Warren has a huge number of static caravans. Chilling figures given to me from Peppermint park in Dawlish Warren suggest a loss of 4,300 jobs just from the parks, with the loss of 1,500 jobs in the supply industry, 80 caravan distribution jobs and 1,400 from holiday homes manufacturers. If my maths is right, that is about 8,000 jobs lost.

Does my hon. Friend understand the sense of bemusement among more than 20 firms in Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire that were looking to the Budget for some form of stimulus but have ended up getting stifled? Will he put as much pressure as possible on the Treasury through his good offices to look at this issue again and to take the views of the House into account?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for securing this important debate. Does he agree with Mr Ballantine, who runs Ideal Caravans in Langley Moor in my constituency, that the Treasury must look at this issue again if jobs are not to be lost in an area that is already experiencing high levels of unemployment?

The hon. Lady is right, and the Treasury is looking at it again and has extended the consultation.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. Three caravan park owners saw me at my surgery on Friday. The people staying at their caravans visit Blackpool and the sort of areas that the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) talks about—areas that are struggling and need support. I ask the Minister to think again about this tax.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I know that the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), who I see on the Front Bench, has organised a meeting with his local park businesses in order to hear their concerns this coming Friday. Again, that shows how close this issue is to all of us.

This debate is fast turning into a tour of the country, so I welcome my hon. Friend to Pudsey, where the manufacturing company, Ellbee, saw the downturn coming and made the difficult decisions at the time to lay people off, going right down to the bare knuckle. With this proposal, the company will almost inevitably have to close. That will mean the loss of more jobs in an area that can ill afford to lose them.

According to the National Caravan Council, if we take Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs forecast of a 30% reduction in demand, home production will reduce to 10,689 units—the lowest production level on record—with inevitable consequences for manufacturers, suppliers and parks.

I suggest that there has been a misunderstanding in the Treasury about the proportion of people who own such homes and stay in them for long periods at a time as against regular weekly letting. Does my hon. Friend know that if people stay in a hotel for more than 28 days, VAT does not have to be paid? Some parallels could be drawn.

My hon. Friend is right. I am not sure that I am ever going to get on to the issue of the non-anomaly that this measure is tackling. We are fortunate that Roger Tym & Partners produced a report on the economic impact of UK holiday parks in January this year, showing that 85% of static units are privately owned and that the remaining 15% are rented out as part of a park’s letting fleet. The market that will be most hit is the one that drives profits on these parks and drives investment. I do not think that the Treasury factored that into its calculations properly.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for arranging this serial intervention event.

This afternoon I spoke to Lord Haskins, who is the chair of our local enterprise partnership and the business leader in Hull. He believes that the damage resulting from this measure will, at a stroke, remove all the advantages of our two enterprise zones and local enterprise partnership. Should not the voice of business take precedence in this debate?

The right hon. Gentleman is right. He may not entirely share my sentiments when I say that the coalition has a great story to tell for east Yorkshire—the Humber bridge tolls have come down, and investments have been made in the A164, the Beverley relief road and the coastal communities fund—but I agree with him that this measure could have a devastating impact.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Treasury has failed to take full account of the impact of the proposal on jobs, which will cascade all the way down from manufacturers to small and medium-sized enterprises? Moreover, it will be concentrated in particular parts of the country, such as his constituency and mine, which will not be able to take that extra impact.

There is great fragility in isolated, sparsely populated rural areas. How many other jobs are there in such areas? Indeed, what other jobs could there be? The truth is that often there are none.

The caravans that are made in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency end up in the 79 caravan parks in my part of the south-west, which contains the second largest conglomeration of holidays of that kind. More than 6,000 people in my constituency own their caravans, but 900 of the caravans are part of a letting arrangement. Does my hon. Friend agree that this measure would have a catastrophic effect on the 26,000 people who have jobs in tourism—carpenters, plumbers, electricians, gardeners and cleaners? Many of them are part-time and seasonal workers.

Holidays of this kind are provided for people with low incomes. Should we not reward them for their loyalty in holidaying in the United Kingdom? Moreover, many of them eventually move into bricks and mortar in my constituency because they have enjoyed their holidays there so much.

According to the Treasury impact assessment, 750 businesses will be affected, but we estimate that 400 holiday parks will be affected in Wales alone, which would be a devastating blow for the economy of north Wales.

That is why I am grateful to Ministers for agreeing to listen to the evidence before reaching any definitive decision. Such a definitive decision has not been made, and I hope that when it is, it will be made in the right way.

Caravan park owners in my constituency want to know why, after 39 years of VAT, there should suddenly be an anomaly, given that there is a clear distinction in law between a travelling caravan, a residential caravan and a static caravan.

I will give way to my other colleagues shortly, but let me first respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw).

The Finance Act 1972 introduced zero rating of certain caravans. The notes on clauses relating to what was then group 10 of schedule 4 referred to relief for

“houses and other domestic accommodation”,

and stated:

“The caravans in the Group are akin to houses; they are too large to be towed on the road, and are usually permanently attached to the land.”

The deliberate intention of the law, which was debated in the House—with no anomaly, no forgotten section, and no category of products that had been missed—was to treat caravans, other than those towed by cars, as “other domestic accommodation” in the same way as houses.

In my constituency, many people view static caravans as second homes. Is there not a case for the Treasury to treat them as second homes, subject to stamp duty, rather than making them subject to VAT like mobile caravans?

That would be consistent, because the qualities of a mobile caravan are completely different from those of a static caravan or a house. What are static caravans used for? They are second homes. Someone who buys a £240,000 cottage in one of the rural areas represented by my colleagues, which often means pricing out local workers, will pay tax of 1%, whereas it is proposed that someone who buys a static caravan for £24,000, a tenth of that amount, should pay 20%— 20 times as much—on a home that is used for precisely the same purposes. That is not getting rid of an anomaly, as Treasury civil servants originally suggested; it is creating an anomaly.

BCA Leisure is a large company in the Calder valley. It does not employ thousands of people, but it does employ a couple of hundred. It does not own caravan parks or manufacture caravans; it produces parts that supply the caravan trade. The chief executive officer tells me that the proposed measure will deal a huge blow to his company and to other employers in the Calder valley. Does my hon. Friend agree that it will be devastating not only to the tourism industry, but to manufacturing?

Jay-Be in my constituency is a company that took on workers when Silentnight had to close. It took them on to make beds and soft furnishings for the caravan industry. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is absurd that it now faces having to sack one fifth of its work force because of a provision contained in a Budget for growth?

My hon. Friend is right. All Government Members are committed to the aims and objectives set out in the Budget. We wanted a Budget for growth. We support lifting people out of tax; we support lowering corporation tax; we want investment; we want British industry to be supported. May of us are therefore gently but firmly—and, I hope, powerfully—saying to the Government this evening that this measure should be looked at again, and, as I have said, they have agreed to do so.

Terence Higgins, then Financial Secretary to the Treasury, said in March 1973:

“We have already distinguished between two kinds of caravan; the kind of caravan which is a home or a residence, and not normally the kind that one tows around—because even outside the West Country it would be too large to tow conveniently—and that which is not regarded as a home. Because of the general provision in legislation for relief from VAT for housing it was thought appropriate to include large caravans within the scope of relief.”—[Official Report, 20 March 1973; Vol. 853, c. 393.]

Therefore, any suggestion that that was not considered by this House is false. I hope that will be reflected on.

In June 1989, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) was Economic Secretary to the Treasury, he said that there was no question of withdrawing zero rating from the purchase of static caravans. He was right then, and we should stick with that view now.

I want to give the Minister 10 minutes in which to reply, if no other colleagues wish to intervene on me. [Interruption.] Give him eight minutes? Okay, fair enough. Finally therefore, let me pass on to the Minister some comments from a constituent of mine.

Aaron Cambridge and I live in the same town, Beverley in east Yorkshire. He works at Willerby Holiday Homes, which in the most recent industry returns at the end of last year was listed as having more than 800 employees. It is based in the constituency of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), whom I am delighted to see in his place. Even without this proposed VAT increase, Aaron has been on a reduced work schedule of three-and-a-half days a week for the past six months. He told me that he has worked in the caravan industry for 24 years and can never remember such hard times for the industry. That is the situation the industry is in now, before this possible VAT increase. There are 800 staff just at Willerby, which is a manufacturer, and we know that there tend to be many more associated jobs in supplier firms and others around a manufacturing centre.

Order. The hon. Lady rises to speak from the Opposition Dispatch Box. As that cannot be done in an Adjournment debate, may I ask her to make her intervention from the Bench behind?

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Treasury should look again at the impact assessment? It estimates that it will take in some £35 million in 2013-14 as a result of this measure, but it should look again at the impact assessment to compare that with the amount of money that will be lost in the wider economy.

The hon. Lady is right. I have many more examples, including that of Laura Goldspink, who lives in my constituency and also works at Willerby Holiday Homes. Charles Gillett, who runs a business that is 100% reliant on the caravan industry, has talked of

“an industry on a knife edge, struggling to emerge from the ravages of the recent recession.”

He, too, pointed out that it is not 750 companies affected, but well over 2,000. Peter Smith, the chairman of the Swift Group—one of the leading employers in east Yorkshire, with 800 staff and a turnover of £200 million —has said:

“A very conservative HMRC prediction is a reduction in demand of 30% which would lead to the lowest market figure for over a decade of around 11,000 units,”

as we have discussed. He continued:

“Such a reduction is likely to increase the cost of materials (due to economies of scale), make credit harder to come by and jeopardise the viability of manufacturers and suppliers.”

I have said enough. Peter Smith put his finger on it, as have all the other Members who have spoken. The Budget is all about creating jobs, but if this measure is implemented, it would have exactly the opposite effect. What we ask, from both sides of the House, but particularly the Government Benches, is for the Minister to listen to the contributions to the consultation and reconsider.

I am sorry that we did not have time in this relatively short debate to hear most of the speech that the hon. Gentleman was holding in his hands.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) on securing this debate. He has already made his case to me, leading a delegation of MPs to see me on 17 April, as he said, and I know that he has also made representations to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. He also spoke passionately about the proposal in our debate on the Finance Bill on 18 April. I am pleased to have the opportunity in the time available to respond in more detail to the concerns that he and other Members have raised.

Let me begin with some general points to put the measure in context. Removing the zero rate of VAT from static holiday caravans is one of a series of VAT measures announced in the Budget that are designed to make the VAT system fairer to all traders and easier to administer and comply with. It will help to create a level playing field by ensuring that all holiday caravans are taxed in line with the sale of other forms of holiday accommodation that have restrictions on permanent occupation, such as touring caravans, camper vans, narrowboats, timeshares and new holiday homes.

Let me address two issues that were raised in my hon. Friend’s speech and in interventions. The first relates to revenue and costings, the second to the impact on businesses. First, the conventions used in the Treasury’s policy costings were set out in the 2010 Budget policy costings document. In brief, policy costings take account of direct effects on the tax base, but do not include indirect behavioural effects—for example, on employment, wages and salaries, or general consumption. However, the indirect economic effects are not ignored; instead, they are captured in the Office for Budget Responsibility’s economic forecast, taking into account, for example, the changes on the relevant sectors.

I am listening carefully to the Minister. There are 43 people chasing every job vacancy in my constituency this month. The Treasury is not going to make any money from introducing VAT on static caravans, as it has failed to take into account the undoubted unemployment that will result from this measure.

As I have said, the Office for Budget Responsibility takes into account the second-round effects of all measures in the Budget.

Time is short, so let me turn to the demand reduction estimates and the figure of 30% that a number of hon. Members have quoted. HMRC has estimated that, as with what are described as “discretionary leisure durables”, expenditure on static holiday caravans will be impacted by the measure, with a 1.5% fall for every 1% increase in price. However, we should all be clear that this reduction in expenditure will apply only to static holiday caravans sold to the final consumer, and only to the proportion of the price of such caravans not already subject to VAT. The reduction in expenditure does not, therefore, apply to the approximately one third of caravans sold to caravan sites for rental. Their price should not change, as the caravan site will normally be able to reclaim the VAT in the usual way. That part of the static caravan market will not be affected by the measure. Neither will the measure affect the 20% of the price of a static holiday caravan that is already subject to VAT in respect of its removable contents.

Taking account of those factors, the overall fall in expenditure should be less than the 30% reduction indicated in the impact assessment. That is because the estimated 30% reduction refers only to the specific parts of the market that will be impacted by the measure: sales to private individuals who cannot reclaim the VAT.

Can my hon. Friend confirm that the Treasury did not do that much work on this? Where did it get the one third figure from? It is not one that I have heard from anybody. The Tym & Partners report, which is available and has been since January, talks about 277,760 owned statics and 49,600 rented statics. By no means is 49,000 one third of 277,000. It has been suggested that 750 companies will be affected, but the real figure is more than 2,000. The Treasury did not do its homework and Ministers are in a tough spot because they did not spot that.

That estimate was made on the basis of the evidence that the Treasury and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs had before them. The point I wish to make is that a genuine consultation is taking place and we look forward to receiving evidence that my hon. Friend has and others have, so that we can make a further assessment of those costings.

Let me now discuss the impact on caravan manufacturers. We recognise that the impact on static holiday caravan manufacturers will not be trivial. The level of the impact will, of course, depend on the variety of products produced by those manufacturers. Many hon. Members are concerned about caravan sites, but it is worth bearing in mind that caravan holiday parks have a variety of sources of revenue, most of which will not be affected by the VAT change. Such sources include: charging a siting fee; running a shop; group insurance scheme commission; commission on the resale of used holiday caravans; and commission on letting on behalf of the owners—sub-letting—and so on.

I recognise that applying VAT to the sale of new holiday caravans will not be welcome, as this has been a significant income stream for many parks. However, there is a good deal of flexibility within the range of products and services that caravan holiday parks offer to allow them to adapt their mix of business to the new VAT treatment of holiday caravans. I recognise that there are challenges involved in adapting to these changes in the tax regime, but there is scope for adaptation.

The main point I wish to make today is that we would welcome any evidence provided through the consultation, which, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, has been extended, be it evidence on the costing or on other matters.

I have only one minute left, and I just wish to complete this point. We have listened to earlier representations, and we have extended the consultation period until 18 May to allow HMRC to engage further with representative bodies in order to better understand the implementation issues and how best to define a “holiday caravan” for VAT purposes. We are particularly keen to use the consultation to ensure that the new rules are workable and simple for businesses to administer. We understand the strength of feeling on this matter and genuinely want to listen to the concerns—

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).