Considered in Committee (Order, 24 March)
[Dame Dawn Primarolo in the Chair]
VAT: refunds to certain charities
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Clause 67 stand part.
New clause 1—Report on impact of value added tax—
“(1) The Chancellor of the Exchequer shall, within three months of the passing of this Act, publish a report on the impact of the increase in the standard rate of VAT which took effect from 4 January 2011.
(2) The report must estimate the impact of the increase in the standard rate of value added tax on—
(a) living standards;
(b) small businesses;
(c) the fairness of the taxation system; and
(d) economic growth.”.
Before speaking to clauses 66 and 67 and new clause 1, may I first say what a great pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Dawn? This is the last of a great number of Finance Bills in which you have played one role or another, and I have had the privilege of serving with you on a number of those occasions. This is the last afternoon on which you will be dealing with tax matters, having done so for an unconscionably long period, so I thank you for all that you have done over many years and for your service as Deputy Speaker and wish you a very happy retirement.
Clauses 66 and 67 set out the Bill’s provisions on VAT. Clause 66 refunds VAT to charities involved in co-ordinated search and rescue operations, air ambulance charities, hospice charities and blood bike medical courier charities. Clause 67 refunds the same levels of VAT to the strategic highways company—from 1 April it will take over the functions of the Highways Agency—as are paid to the Highways Agency itself. It is largely a tidying-up matter.
It is worth pointing out that refunding VAT will benefit around 400 charities that work alongside the emergency services, provide palliative care to terminally ill patients or support the national health service. The Hospice of St Francis in Berkhamsted in my constituency is very appreciative of the measure and thinks that it will make a significant difference to the service it can provide to my constituents in South West Hertfordshire. I suspect that clauses 66 and 67 will not cause great controversy in Committee, but I will of course be happy to take any questions on them.
I am sure that we all welcome the clauses relating to VAT relief for hospices, which do such a tremendous job. Can the Financial Secretary help me by explaining how charities are selected and how VAT exemptions are secured? I have previously raised the case of a charity dealing with disabled people in Wrexham that provides transport services, which are subject to VAT under the current arrangements. The process of securing exemptions seems easier for ski lifts, for example, than for disabled people in my constituency, so I would be interested to find out how on earth one secures exemptions for worthy charities.
I have heard the hon. Gentleman make both points in the past, and if I remember correctly, I responded to an Adjournment debate on those matters. There are significant benefits in our tax system for charities, but the Government look at cases partly depending on the demands on the public finances and what is affordable. We have looked in particular at hospices. There is a particularly strong case there, and to some extent they are put at a disadvantage compared with parts of the NHS because of the irrecoverable VAT that they pay. This is a matter that any Government would keep under review. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, as a persistent Member, will raise the matter again if he has the opportunity to do so in future.
In new clause 1, the Opposition ask us to publish a report on the impact of the increase in the standard rate of VAT in 2010. No doubt, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) will set out her thinking on that, but let me make a pre-emptive strike, if the Prime Minister has not already done so. Before I turn to the details and the imposition of VAT in 2010, I shall briefly set out the context for that decision.
Let us be clear that we increased the standard rate of VAT in 2010 as a consequence of the mess that the Opposition left the public finances in and the fact that, although the previous Government had left a mess, they had not left behind a plan to clear it up. Of course, a tax impact information note was published by HM Revenue and Customs at the time of the June 2010 Budget, but let us look at the situation that we inherited. At that time, the independent Office for Budget Responsibility’s pre-Budget 2010 forecast revealed that the structural deficit—the part of the deficit that will not go away with the recovery—was higher than previously thought: around £9 billion or 0.6% of GDP higher in 2010-11. Debt repayments were forecast to reach more than £67 billion by 2014-15, more than was spent on defence or on schools in England. The UK had one of the highest deficits of any advanced economy, so this Government had to take urgent action to eliminate the bulk of the structural deficit, which is a necessary precondition for sustained economic growth.
The Minister referred to the Prime Minister’s pre-emptive strike, but he will be well aware that similar statements were made before the last election. Does not the whole VAT issue illustrate the difference between the parties? The Labour Government’s response to an economic recession was to stimulate the economy by reducing VAT. The response of the incoming Government was to deflate the economy by increasing VAT.
The previous Government brought VAT back up. We know from his memoirs that the then Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling), believed that a Labour Government after 2010 should increase VAT. A Budget document was even published showing VAT going up to, I believe, 18.5%. I know that that was published by mistake, but it clearly shows that serious consideration was given to that. The previous Labour Government recognised that taxes would have to increase. They had proposals to increase employers national insurance contributions, or the jobs tax. Given that there is such uncertainty about the Opposition’s plans for what they would do in government, the question is whether they would rule out increasing employers national insurance contributions.
Well, there we go. I am struck by the fact that the Leader of the Opposition was very reluctant to say that earlier, but I am pleased that he has been bounced into providing that clarification. [Interruption.] I noticed that he did not answer questions earlier today. [Interruption.] Indeed, he will never have the chance to answer questions at Prime Minister’s Question Time.
It has taken me five years to learn that Prime Minister’s questions is about the Leader of the Opposition and us asking questions and the Prime Minister not answering them. It is not Leader of the Opposition’s questions; it is Prime Minister’s questions. We do not answer questions; the Government are supposed to.
I notice that the hon. Lady does not answer questions. I am glad we finally got some clarification on that point, but as I say, I do not think the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) will ever have the opportunity to answer Prime Minister’s questions.
I will turn to that question in a moment, but before I do so, I shall say a little about this Government’s record.
High public debt can lead to a loss of market confidence and higher market interest rates, raising the cost of borrowing for families and businesses and discouraging investment and consumer spending. So what has our long-term economic plan delivered? Today public sector net borrowing as a percentage of GDP is forecast to have halved between 2009-10 and 2014-15. Latest data from the IMF show that this Government also reduced the structural deficit by more than half between 2010 and 2013. In fact, the UK’s structural deficit fell by 4.6% of GDP over 2010 to 2013—a larger reduction than any other country in the G7.
Since the autumn statement last year, the UK’s fiscal position has improved right across the forecast period, with higher receipts and lower debt interest. This Government have restored stability, put the public finances on a sustainable path and are about to put public sector net debt on to a declining path as a share of GDP.
Let me make a little more progress.
The previous Government failed to take decisive action to get our country moving again. Our record speaks for itself. Employment is now at its highest ever level. Economic growth is now firmly in place and at the Budget the OBR revised up its forecasts. The UK economy is forecast to grow by 2.5% in 2015, 2.3% in 2016, 2.3% in 2017, rising to 2.4% in 2019.
I suggest that the hon. Gentleman look at the analysis by the Office for Budget Responsibility of why its forecasts on deficit reduction were not met. It has been very clear that the three reasons it did not happen were the eurozone crisis; the after-effects of the financial crisis being greater than it or, indeed, other independent observers had expected; and higher commodity prices than had been expected. That made deficit reduction harder than it would otherwise have been.
The critique of Labour Members is sometimes to say that we have rigidly stuck to our plans to reduce spending, and on other occasions to say that we have failed to reduce the deficit as fast as we said we would. As regards our spending plans, the departmental and welfare spending reductions that we set out have been delivered. The automatic stabilisers came into effect; we have shown the flexibility to allow that to happen. As a consequence, we have delivered what we set out in terms of reducing spending, although we have faced more difficult circumstances. Labour Members are all over the place in this debate. Sometimes they say that we have stuck rigidly to plans that we should not have stuck to, and at other times they say that we have let the deficit rise.
We must remember that Labour Members opposed every single measure that we took to reduce the deficit. Had they been in power and had they been consistent in what they said—at least in their rhetoric—in opposition, we would have seen borrowing at a substantially higher level over the past few years, leaving our public finances in an unsustainable position, putting our recovery at risk, and damaging the economic credibility of the United Kingdom. Thankfully, they did not have the opportunity to crash the car, having done so once already.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the deficit targets were not satisfied because the growth projections went down, and that is because consumption went down, and that is because VAT went up? I appreciate what the Prime Minister said earlier, but does the hon. Gentleman accept that if VAT went up now, when we have 0% inflation, that would spiral the economy down, and that it would be better to reduce VAT than to reduce tax thresholds in order to stimulate growth to balance the books?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I will come back to that later.
Our long-term economic plan has delivered economic growth and record levels of employment, and it has put this country on a sustainable economic footing. Specifically on VAT, we have maintained the VAT registration threshold, which is now £82,000—the highest in the EU. That is of significant benefit to small businesses right across the country. While the bulk of the deficit reduction has come from spending, we chose to increase VAT from 2011. If it is necessary to raise large sums of money, as it clearly was in 2010 when we saw the structural deficit deteriorate—at least, the assessment made by the previous Government, and then by the independent OBR, showed a significant deterioration—then it is necessary to raise one of the bigger taxes.
Happily, we are no longer in that situation under the plans put forward by the Conservative party. I am afraid that Labour Members’ plans—not engaging in reducing the welfare budget and not committing themselves to controlling departmental spending in the way we would—mean that they will need to find a substantial tax increase. A Labour Government in 2010 would have put up the jobs tax—a different choice from ours. In those circumstances, it is hard to believe that we would have 1.9 million more people in work today than we had in 2010.
We have retained the confidence of the markets, and we have retained very low long-term interest rates. When we came to power, we were on a par with the likes of Spain and Italy; now, we are seen very much as a safe haven. The UK’s fiscal credibility has been maintained, and it would not have been had we stuck to Labour’s plans, even with a significant increase in the jobs tax.
Does the Minister not see that raising VAT and cutting benefits hits the most vulnerable in society? Does he think it is right that children in this country should lose weight over school summer holidays because their parents do not have enough money to feed them, that people are dependent on food banks, and that we have had people starve to death because of benefit cuts? Is that the way this country should be in this day and age?
Under this Government, child poverty has fallen, and pensioner poverty is at a lower level than it has ever been. Only today, we have seen numbers showing that there are 600,000 fewer workless households than there were in 2010. If we wish to deal with poverty, and we certainly do, the best way is to have a job-creating, growing economy, and that is precisely what the long-term economic plan is delivering.
To be fair to the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies), he says that he would cut VAT, but I am not hearing that from Labour Front Benchers. I must remind Labour Members that, with a handful of exceptions, none of them voted against the increase in VAT in 2010. I note that one of the handful of exceptions is sitting on the Opposition Benches, but Labour Members did not vote against it.
On the subject of deficit reduction, does my hon. Friend recall a report from the IFS a little while ago that said that Labour’s plans would have resulted in about £200 billion more borrowing if the Labour Government had continued, given the change in circumstances? Does that not show that there is a massive black hole at the heart of Labour Members’ current plans that would be made worse by the out-of-the-blue, panicky pledges on tax that they are suddenly making on the hoof on the news after pressure at today’s Prime Minister’s questions?
My hon. Friend makes a good point that is very relevant to the debate we are having about VAT.
The three main parties in this House have agreed that we will deliver a cyclical current budget surplus by 2017-18; that is what the charter of fiscal responsibility states. The vast majority of Labour Members trooped through the Lobby to support that measure. Independent analysis, as well as the Treasury’s analysis, confirmed that that requires some £30 billion-worth of fiscal adjustments. From my party’s point of view, that would be made up of £13 billion from departmental spending, £12 billion from welfare spending, and £5 billion from anti-tax evasion and tax avoidance measures.
The Liberal Democrats have set out how they will get their £30 billion. Their plan has a different balance and make-up from the Conservative plan, but they have set it out. The Labour party has not set out how it will reach that £30 billion. If Labour is not going to cut welfare in the way the Conservatives are, and if it is not going to cut departmental spending as we are—as far as I can see, that, after all, is the heart of Labour’s election campaign—more money must come from tax. That is why the question of who will raise taxes and what taxes will be raised is much more acute for Labour Members. They have questions to answer. There is a gap in their public finance plans, whereas we have set out plans that do not require us to put up taxes on hard-working people.
We must not forget that Labour will put up gun licences—that is also on the list.
I note that the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), announced yesterday that she will “abolish the bedroom tax” and use the savings for something else. I am not sure that I understand how there can be savings from that measure.
What I have said is consistent with what the Chancellor has said again and again. Our plans do not require us to increase taxes for hard-working people, which is why we can rule out putting up VAT—[Interruption]—or extending it. The point the hon. Gentleman must answer is that his plans require taxes or borrowing to go up. He wants to ask hard questions about filling in fiscal black holes by raising taxes. They are questions for Labour Front Benchers, not for me, because our plans clearly do not need it.
The Minister assumes that the choice is between tax and spend. Does he accept that if the tax and spend options are made in one way rather than another they will promote more growth and therefore more revenues? If more money goes to poorer people who spend all their money, as opposed to rich people who hide it in tax havens—10% of UK wealth is offshore—and if we had a Labour Government and a fairer distribution, we would surely have more growth and fewer cuts.
Thank you, Mr Hood.
When President Hollande took office, with the enthusiasm and support of the Labour party in this country, I have no doubt that he wanted growth to increase in France. The fact that our economy is growing something like seven times faster than France’s is not because of a lack of desire on the part of the French Government, but because some policies work better than others. The Labour party’s policies would not result in higher growth—it is so anti-business that it would drive investment from this country, and its tax policies seek to punish wealth creators. I question Labour’s supply-side policies.
He does. I am sure he was a very young man at the time. Under a great deal of pressure, Hugh Gaitskell ruled out all sorts of tax increases and at the same time made all sorts of promises about public spending. The British people rumbled the Labour party in 1959 and did not believe that that was a credible position. As a consequence, they returned a Conservative Government with an even bigger majority. Labour Members might want to be a bit careful about drawing parallels with 1959.
As we are talking about rumbling the Government, the election will be an opportunity to scrutinise the Chancellor’s claim about the £30 billion of savings. He has said there will be £12 billion savings from welfare reform but has indicated how only £3 billion will be found. He has said he will get £5 billion from anti-evasion and avoidance measures, but has indicated where only £3 billion of that will come from. There is still a huge credibility gap. Will the Minister help us with it?
I will tell the hon. Gentleman where the credibility gap is. Labour Members effectively voted for a £30 billion target. They then denied it. They now will not indicate what adjustments they will undertake in 2016-17 and 2017-18. They have not said how they will reduce departmental spending, or how, or whether, they will reduce welfare spending. They have not said how much they will raise from tax. If they will not give us answers to those questions, we can only assume that it is because they intend to tax and borrow more. If they will not provide clarity on that, we will make that point time and again.
For the avoidance of doubt, and for what feels like the 278th time in Treasury debates, I should tell the Minister that the bank bonus tax will pay for one policy and only one policy: the paid starter jobs—the compulsory jobs guarantee. Why do the Government not match us on that policy rather than harp on about their failed rhetoric on the bank bonus tax?
I would be delighted to do so. I campaigned against Sir Oswald Mosley in Kensington North—admittedly, I was only 11 years old, but I did a fairly good job. He did not win.
I put it to the Minister that, in 1959, the Conservative party was very different—it was a much more consensual, nay Butskellite, Conservative party. One thing the Conservatives stood on was house building. They had a proud record. Does the Minister believe that the Bill will help house building in this country?
I share the view that we need to build more houses in this country, but I am pleased that last year housing starts were at a record high for seven years or so, that planning permissions are going up, and that we have reformed planning law to enable more houses to be built. In the Budget last week, there were details of 20 housing zones that could support something like 45,000 homes. That is consistent with a desire to ensure greater opportunity for people to acquire their own home.
It is also worth pointing out that in last week’s Budget we introduced Help to Buy individual savings accounts, which will enable people to acquire deposits so that they can enter the housing market. In terms of continuity, I would not necessarily be proud of everything connected with the Conservative Government of the 1950s. I absolutely think we need to do more to get more people into the housing market, and this Government are delivering on that and we are definitely moving in the right direction.
It should be noted that the Office for Budget Responsibility does not believe that any of the measures announced last week will feed through to higher house prices. We also announced supply-side policies and 20 housing zones last week. It is right that we take steps to support supply.
The hon. Gentleman said that I was being generous with my time, but I am conscious that I am also being generous with the Committee’s time, so let me make a little progress. To return to the point made by the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright), the VAT increase in 2010 applied only to the standard rate. Everyday essentials such as food and children’s clothing, as well as newspapers and printed books, have remained zero-rated throughout this Parliament, which protects those on low and middle incomes. On fairness, we have reduced income tax for more than 27 million individuals, with basic rate taxpayers £905 better off in cash terms compared with 2010.
There is no need to publish a report on the impacts of the rise in VAT announced in 2010—a rise that, after all, the Labour party did not oppose. The Government’s economic record speaks for itself: record employment in the UK against virtually record unemployment in France. By 2017, basic rate taxpayers will be £905 better off in cash terms compared with 2010, and 3.7 million individuals with low incomes will have been taken out of income tax altogether. The European Union’s own analysis describes UK living standards as the fourth highest in the EU, above those of France, Italy, Spain, Ireland and the Netherlands.
We have delivered sustainable economic growth while across the EU economies stagnate, but we recognise that the job is not finished. This Government continue to take the difficult decisions needed to secure a responsible recovery and stay on course to prosperity. I therefore hope that the Labour party will not press new clause 1 and that clauses 66 and 67 will stand part of the Bill.
I have now to announce the result of the deferred Division on the question relating to the draft Infrastructure Planning (Radioactive Waste Geological Disposal Facilities) Order 2015. The Ayes were 277 and the Noes were 33, so the Question was agreed to.
[The Division list is published at the end of today’s debates.]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. New clause 1 stands in my name and those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) and my hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie) and for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson). It requests the Treasury to commission
“a report on the impact of the increase in the standard rate of VAT which took effect from 4 January 2011.”
The report must estimate the impact of that increase on living standards, small businesses, the fairness of the taxation system and economic growth.
The House has debated issues relating to VAT on a number of occasions, which the Minister referenced in his opening remarks, and it was, of course, a hot topic of debate at Prime Minister’s questions today. If the Prime Minister or any Conservative Member thinks that they can put the issue to bed today, let me tell them that they will not find it that easy, and I will set out the reasons for that during the course of my speech. Frankly, to believe what the Prime Minister has said today about VAT would be rather like believing what the Deputy Prime Minister said about tuition fees before the last general election. The public are simply not going to buy it, and I think the whole House is well aware of that.
Our new clause asks for a review because Oppositions are limited in what they can call for in amendments to a Finance Bill, but no Member can be in any doubt about our argument about the consequences of the political choices that are being—and that have been—made by the Conservative party and signed up to by the Liberal Democrats, even though they have been desperately trying to pretend that they had nothing to do with the fiscal assumptions given to the OBR, on the basis of which it made its assessments of what is likely to happen in the next Parliament. I welcome to the debate the lone Liberal Democrat on the Government Benches, the hon. Member for Burnley (Gordon Birtwistle). Perhaps if I give way to him he can rule out raising VAT.
I thank the shadow Minister for inviting me to give my views on the fiscal situation. My constituency has seen unemployment fall from 7.5% to 2.5% and has received more than £50 million of Government money. I remember 1959, because I was 16 and had just started work. I canvassed for a guy called Arthur Davidson, who was a Labour Member, and he said the same old things that the Labour party always says: “Vote for us and there’ll be no problems. We’ll have full employment.” Well, I remember what happened after 1959, because I lived through it. It is very cruel of the hon. Lady to suggest that some of the thing we are agreeing to now are wrong—
Will my hon. Friend give us a bit more detail about new clause 1? I would like the study to look at the impact of VAT on the poorest people in our community, who are hit disproportionately by increases in VAT. The Conservative party has form on VAT, so the poorest people will be very concerned that it will rise again after the election.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is exactly what people across the country will be concerned about. The Conservative party has form, about which I will go into in detail during my speech. History proves that what the Prime Minister said at Question Time today should not be believed, because it has all been said before and VAT has always gone up.
I will come on to what we announced yesterday, but we are not going to raise VAT. That is as clear as it gets, and the hon. Gentleman knows that.
I remind the Committee that VAT is the tax that hits everyone, with the same rate paid by the pensioner as by the millionaire. For many pensioners and those on the lowest incomes, it is the biggest tax that they pay. It is also the tax that hits people every single day, whether they are buying a cup of coffee or filling up the family car. Everybody does that every single day. The Government’s decision to raise the standard rate of VAT has, without doubt, hit the living standards of millions of people. According to the Treasury’s own figures, it has cost families an average of £1,800 over the past four years. That is no small trifling sum of money, even if it is averaged over four years.
As I heard from constituents across Birmingham when I was there with the shadow Chancellor yesterday, £1,800 has had a huge impact on their ability to make ends meet and to do the basic things in life—putting food on the table and keeping a roof over their families’ heads, desperately hoping they will not have to go to a food bank, even though they have a job, just to put food in the bellies of their children. That £1,800 is a significant sum of money and, coupled with the other facts of this Government’s record, such as wages being down by an average of £1,600 a year and the combined impact of tax and benefit changes, families are on average more than £1,000 a year worse off.
Those are significant sums of money and that is why I was proud to join the shadow Chancellor in Birmingham yesterday, when he made a crystal clear pledge to the British people that a Labour Government would not raise VAT or extend VAT to food, children’s clothes, books, newspapers and public transport fares. In their Budget, the Conservatives confirmed their intentions for extreme spending cuts in the next Parliament and we have heard about that in the debate this afternoon. We also know from the point made by my hon. Friend the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury that the Conservatives have made £10 billion-worth of unfunded tax promises. With five weeks left until the election, we are still waiting to hear how those promises on tax cuts will be paid for. I will happily give way to the Minister if he wants to shed some light on the matter, but he appears to be unwilling to intervene. That is a shame, because in his opening speech on this clause he talked with great flourish about credibility, credibility gaps and ensuring that people know what they are voting for. If people make an unfunded tax promise, their credibility will take a huge hit—and rightly so.
When the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister were in opposition, they were happy to talk up the fact that nobody believes an unfunded tax cut and they were absolutely right. Nobody believes them now. If they are going to deliver that we should at least hear how they will start paying for it. If they want to see off the charge that VAT will go up under the Tories if they win the next general election, regardless of what the Prime Minister said in questions today, they need to start answering some of the questions about the unfunded tax cuts that they have already promised.
I have a lot of time for the hon. Gentleman and we spend much time debating Finance Bills, but I must say to him as gently as I can that that was an absurd intervention. We have made a clear commitment to the British people on what will happen to VAT on our watch. It will not go up. We know that it will go up if his party wins the next general election. There are no two ways about it. It does not matter what the Prime Minister has said and it does not matter what the hon. Gentleman says now. We know that because of his party’s record and form on VAT. I shall give a lengthy exposition of that history and form very shortly.
If the hon. Gentleman gives me a few minutes, I shall get on to that point very shortly. He will understand that the past performance and form of the people who sit opposite me today, the Conservatives, is the clearest and surest indicator. Unfunded tax cuts have already been promised and spending plans have been made that require a Government to cut further and faster in the early part of the next Parliament than they have in this Parliament, and that is the clearest indication we can get. They can do nothing else but put up VAT; that is their tax of choice when it comes to raising the tax revenues they are looking for.
As I have said, the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that the Government’s Budget plans mean that spending cuts after the election will be twice as deep as anything seen in the past five years. The cuts will go deeper and be made faster in the early part of the next Parliament than we have seen during the past five years. In reality, that will translate into extreme cuts to our crucial front-line public services, such as the police, defence and social care. The cuts will be so deep that they will be almost impossible to achieve, first, without putting the NHS at risk, and secondly, without making a further rise in VAT on the Tories’ watch simply inevitable.
Not only do the choices that the Government, and the Conservatives in particular, have made about spending and deficit reduction make such a VAT rise inevitable, regardless of the Prime Minister’s bluster today they are ingrained in their collective DNA. Before the 1979 general election, the then shadow Chancellor Geoffrey Howe said:
“We have absolutely no intention of doubling VAT.”
He specifically talked about doubling it. In his first Budget, however, he raised VAT from 8% to 15%. Conservative Members may take comfort from the fact that eight times two is 16, not 15, but they should not be proud of a seven percentage points rise in VAT or show off about its not being the eight percentage points rise that it might have been, given that such a rise had been absolutely ruled out and that there was no intention to double VAT. [Interruption.] Such a point brought no comfort to people who ended up paying the 15% rate of VAT, despite what the Financial Secretary, who is chuntering from a sedentary position, seems to think.
In 1991, Chancellor Norman Lamont increased VAT from 15% to 17.5%, claiming that his approach was “consistent” with the “strategy for tax reform” first set out by Geoffrey Howe in the 1979 Budget. Chancellor Lamont was correct that the approach was consistent: it was consistent with the approach of raising VAT rather than doing anything else. It seems that that approach may have slipped his mind, because just a year later, before the 1992 general election, Norman Lamont told Parliament that he
“again made it clear that the United Kingdom has no intention of changing our VAT rate.”—[Official Report, 13 June 1991; Vol. 192, c. 627W.]
That promise was reiterated by the former Prime Minister John Major, when he promised Parliament:
“There will be no VAT increase. Unlike the Labour party, we have published our spending plans and there is no need for us to raise VAT to meet them.”—[Official Report, 28 January 1992; Vol. 202, c. 808.]
He also said that year that he had
“no plans and no need to raise extra resources from value-added tax.”
The arguments then are almost exactly same as those we are hearing now.
Will Government Members remind us what happened after the 1992 election? There are no takers, because they know the answer: the Conservatives remember their consistent approach to raising VAT. The then Chancellor introduced VAT on domestic heating and fuel in the 1993 Budget, phasing it in at 8% from 1994. When he became Chancellor in 1993, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) refused to reverse that increase saying that
“no one is going to die from VAT on heating.”
That is a very bad way of making a point, because people have in fact ended up dying from the cold. We know that people, the elderly in particular, often have to choose between heating their home and eating. Had it not been for a Labour defeat in the House of Commons, under the Conservatives we would have seen VAT on electricity and gas bills increase to 17.5% in April 1995.
Twenty years later we find ourselves listening to a familiar story. Before the last general election, the Prime Minister, the then Leader of the Opposition, said:
“We have no plans to put up VAT, it’s not part of our plans.”
I like the double emphasis: say it twice, and that might make it true. The Chancellor, the then Shadow Chancellor, said:
“The plans we set out involved around 80 per cent of the work coming from spending restraint”—
“and about 20 per cent from tax increases. The tax increases are already in place, the plans do not involve an increase in VAT.”
So such a rise was ruled out by the Prime Minister and by the Chancellor when they were in opposition. However, just weeks after taking office, like all the former Conservative Chancellors before him, the current Chancellor increased VAT to achieve his plans of 20% consolidation coming from tax increases and 80% coming from spending cuts. He said:
“To achieve that additional tightening while maintaining the right ‘four-to-one’ balance between spending and taxation means that I have to announce further tax rises today. On 4 January next year, the main rate of VAT will rise from 17.5% to 20%.”—[Official Report, 22 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 177.]
There is no doubt that such a rise has hit family budgets hard. Despite knowing that that would happen, and that there would be a huge impact on the economy as a whole, the Chancellor chose to do what every Conservative Chancellor has always chosen to do—put up VAT. That is why we can say so emphatically—I say this to Liberal Democrat Members in particular—that if the Tories are elected at the general election in just a few weeks’ time, they will do it again. It is in their collective DNA, and ruling it out but then doing it is precisely what they have form on. That is their history, and I believe that they will honour their history if they are elected.
Analysis produced by the Treasury in July 2010 showed the estimated impact of a one percentage point rise in the standard rate of VAT. That analysis means that we know, for instance, that in the past four years the Government’s VAT rise has cost a single pensioner £500, a one-parent family £900, a pensioner couple £1,100 and a couple with children £1,800.
I do not want my hon. Friend to be too charitable to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, so may I remind her that in addition to the 2010 increase in the standard rate of VAT, the Chancellor made proposals in 2012, in the middle of his disastrous economic policy, to extend VAT through the pasty tax and the caravan tax? Not only did he increase VAT in 2010, but he went back to the well in 2012 when the policy was collapsing.
I was just about to make exactly that point. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that in 2012, having already done what all Conservative Chancellors do and put up VAT, the Chancellor sought to expand it by applying it to pasties and caravans in the so-called omnishambles Budget. I have always thought that it was a bit of a shame that that term from “The Thick of It” was used, because if the sequence of events that unfolded following that Budget had been presented to the scriptwriters of “The Thick of It”, they would not have touched it. They would have said that even for “The Thick of It” it was an unbelievable series of events. Yet that is what the Chancellor delivered. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the Chancellor tried to expand the scope of VAT, yet today the Conservatives wonder why nobody will believe what the Prime Minister said at Prime Minister’s questions.
We do not have to go back over the past 20 or 30 years. We can just look at the record of the current Chancellor and Prime Minister on VAT. They like to put it up, and they sought to expand its application. I noticed that earlier the Financial Secretary appeared to rule out an expansion of VAT, but I was not entirely sure whether he had done that deliberately. Will he intervene on me to confirm that not only will VAT not go up—that is according to the Prime Minister, although I do not believe it—but it will not be expanded? I wonder why the Financial Secretary is not biting my arm off to intervene and confirm that.
So basically, both those things are definitely going to happen if the Financial Secretary’s party is elected in a few weeks’ time.
Where are we today? The same old Tories and the same old story. Whatever the Prime Minister has said today simply will not answer the justifiable charge against the Government about why they should be trusted if we look only at their record and at what they have delivered in this Parliament. They broke their promise after the last general election and they will do the same after the next one. At the end of each Parliament since 1979 in which the Tories have been in government, they have raised an average of £13.5 billion from VAT changes. The electorate know that when it comes to VAT and the Tories, actions will always speak louder than words. People know that they cannot be trusted because they break their promises again and again. They broke their promises in 1979, 1992 and 2010, and they will break them in 2015.
According to work by the Treasury, an additional 2.5% rise in VAT would cost a family with children an average of £450 a year and a pensioner couple £275 a year. From what they have shown us in government, it is not Tory party policy to ask those most able to contribute more to do so; in fact, it is their policy to give a tax cut to those earning more than £150,000 a year.
This debate seems to be based on a false premise. The Government have been clear that a rise in VAT is not necessary to balance the books because we do not have a hole in our plans for public finances. The Labour party does have a black hole and it cannot be trusted on anything it says about the jobs tax.
If the hon. Gentleman will allow me I will answer that by posing a simple question back to him, and then I will give way so that he can answer it. Where will the £12 billion of cuts to welfare come from? How will the £5 billion for tax avoidance be found? If he can answer those questions he will go further than those on his Front Bench have managed to do while making those promises. Perhaps he can shed some light on the issue for the British public.
The Government have been clear in setting out their plans in the Red Book, and they have been audited, considered and reviewed by the Office for Budget Responsibility. What are not clear are the plans of the Opposition, although it is increasingly clear that there is a black hole in those plans and that they consistently make it up as they go along. I suggest to the hon. Lady that Labour’s so-called pledge on the jobs tax cannot be believed at all.
That was not even a valiant attempt to try to answer my questions, but the hon. Gentleman is not on the Front Bench and I suppose I am being a little uncharitable in suggesting that he cannot answer a question that his own Chancellor is not prepared to answer either.
We have numbers of £12 billion, £13 billion and £5 billion from the Chancellor, yet with all the might of the Treasury behind him and lots of officials to do the numbers we have no detail on how those figures will be found. The Government spent a whole Parliament trying to talk up their record on tax avoidance and they are saying that they will get £5 billion in the next Parliament, yet there is no detail on how those amounts will be made up and no guarantee that they will be delivered. I am not surprised that the hon. Gentleman cannot answer those questions if those on the Government Front Bench will not either.
The Conservative party’s plans for what they would like to do if elected in a few weeks’ time are extreme and go much further than deficit reduction. They are trying to deliver a surplus of £7 billion. That had to be changed from the previous desire to get a surplus of £23 billion, because the Government got spooked by recognition across the country of what that would mean for the size of the state. They have now come down to £7 billion, which still means that they have to go further and faster in the early part of the next Parliament than they have in the previous five years.
Those choices have to be paid for. Given that some budgets are protected and that commitments to international development and aid spending will not change, and given the scale of what the Conservative party wants to achieve with the country’s finances, it is physically not possible to do such things without putting the NHS at risk of cuts or potentially of charging, or without raising VAT. That is the charge being made—it is not just about the history and the record. The hon. Gentleman could have resiled from the Conservative party’s record, but he chose not to do so. The combination of the Conservative party’s history on VAT and its figures for the next Parliament tells us that if it is elected a VAT rise is coming. There can be no doubt about it, given the combination of those two factors.
The hon. Gentleman attacked our plans and commitments, but for every commitment that involves raising revenue, we have highlighted where that revenue will come from and we have made the figures public. It was the Labour party that called for the OBR to conduct an independent audit of all parties’ manifesto commitments. We could have avoided this debate if we had allowed the OBR to do so. I was very happy to submit my party’s plans to an independent audit. I wonder why the Government chose not to do so. Perhaps they had something to hide. Perhaps they did not want to be robbed of the ability to have a “tax bombshell”-type poster. The needs of the Conservative party’s election marketing material should not have trumped the responsible thing to do: to allow the OBR independently to audit all parties’ manifesto commitments. I was very happy for that to happen.
The bankers bonus tax would pay for one policy and one policy alone: the compulsory youth jobs guarantee. [Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman thinks the stubbornly high rate of youth unemployment is a laughing matter, he is mistaken. The Conservatives stole a few of our policies in last week’s Budget. Rather than laughing off the idea of the bankers bonus tax, I would have been happy for them to have stolen that policy, as it would have delivered jobs for the young people in my constituency who could find themselves on the jobs scrap-heap for many years to come. The Conservatives should have adopted it; it would have made a real and practical difference.
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for her innate generosity in giving way. Does she not agree that new clause 1 would provide transparency and openness, and that the report would be immensely useful? Does she honestly think that any true democrat and believer in fiscal transparency could do anything other than support the Labour amendment?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have been debating whether VAT will go up, but new clause 1 is pretty innocuous. It calls only for a review and an assessment of the impact the rise in VAT has had on living standards. If the Minister wanted us to believe what the Prime Minister said today in Prime Minister’s questions—that he is ruling out a rise in VAT—then what is the problem? Adopt the new clause, add it to the Bill and let us have the assessment. He would be able to show how VAT has had an impact and why the Conservatives are doing such a good job, if they are elected again, in not letting it go up.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is the only conclusion we can draw from what the Minister and the Prime Minister have been saying today. If the Minister really wanted to back up the Prime Minister’s claims, and to give us a hint that he might be believed, he should have just accepted our new clause. It is straightforward, and adding it to the Bill would shine some light on the impact of VAT. We are very clear that we will not raise VAT. It may be that the Government do not want the facts out in the public domain because they plan to do so.
I am going to finish now, because I want to give time to everybody else who wishes to speak in the debate.
We all know what is coming if the Conservatives are elected at the next general election: VAT will go up. That is what their record tells us and that is what their plans require. If the Minister wants to be even a little bit believable—even 1% believable—he should at the very least accept new clause 1 and set the cat among the pigeons, but I do not think he will take that opportunity today.
It is pleasure to speak in this debate—I hope it will have been worth the wait—and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I hope that we both have the opportunity to repeat the experience after 7 May.
I rise to support this excellent improvement to the Bill proposed by my hon. Friends on the Front Bench, because I would like to better understand the impact of the VAT increase in my constituency. The Tory long-term economic plan is a marketing con and a rebranding of a five-year failed economic plan—five years of broken promises on borrowing, the deficit and VAT. I do not know if Government Members have been watching a new programme—on ITV down here, but on STV in my constituency—in which hypnosis is used to shift people’s perception of reality. I am not sure if that is what they are doing, although there does not seem to be anyone asleep in the Chamber. We all seem to be wide awake—certainly Labour Members are wide awake to the impact of the Government’s failure to deliver on their economic promises. Simply saying, “We’ll now call it a long-term economic plan, because it has not quite worked out in the short term”, is not going to fool anyone.
On the increase in VAT, I remember meeting my local chamber of commerce. In East Lothian, we do not have large-scale manufacturing or large employers, apart from in the public sector, so the private sector is largely made up of small and medium-sized enterprises. When I asked them how they were coping with the changes in the economy they said that the single-biggest factor for them was the VAT increase. It had done the most damage to their businesses. Other Members have spoken about its impact on the poorest in our communities, but in East Lothian it has also had an adverse impact on entrepreneurs and businesses—the people who should be creating the jobs that could eradicate unemployment in my constituency.
As my hon. Friend will have noted, the new clause states that the Chancellor should produce a report within three months of the passing of the Act. I suspect that the Treasury already have these figures and could probably move more quickly. If her point about businesses is right and businesses are complaining to Members, they must also be feeding this information back to the Treasury, so I suspect that it already has these figures and could publish the report any time it wanted.
My hon. Friend has been doing this job much longer than me, so I suppose he has earned the right to be more cynical. I am still flush with the newness of this change of role in my life, and I would like to think that that was not the Government’s intention, but I shall bow to his longer service in this place and more expert analysis.
It was interesting to hear the Financial Secretary speak about the role that VAT had played in the Government’s short-term failed economic plan over the last five years. He talked about the mess the previous Labour Government had left, but the economy was growing when we left office, and, as other hon. Members have said, part of the reason it reversed was the increase in VAT, which stifled confidence and the spending power of many in our communities. I would also like to hear from a Government Member whether a great deal of the deficit resulted from the decision by the then Chancellor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling), to bail out the banks. Would Government Members have bailed out the banks, or do they think we should have left them to fail? Is anyone going to jump up? Anyone? No, they are all hypnotised, it would appear, and unable to respond. Bailing out the banks was the responsible thing to do. It might have seemed unfair, but it was important to people in my constituency that when they went to the ATMs the next day they could still draw out their wages.
The Financial Secretary talked about the Government’s sustained economic growth agenda. I do not remember sustained economic growth following the increase in VAT. I seem to remember the worst recession that this country has ever had, following that intervention by the Government. That has hurt people in my communities and, I am sure, in communities right across the country.
I urge the Government to think about the proposal put forward by my Front-Bench team because it is really important to understand how VAT interacts and impacts in various situations. Is increasing VAT the best way of increasing income to the Treasury or does it have a negative impact because what happens is that people lose jobs and have less money to spend in the high streets? Many of the small communities in my East Lothian constituency have seen falls in profits, and many people with their own businesses needed tax credits, thus taking more money out of the Treasury. If their businesses had been doing better, they would have paid more into the Treasury. That is why it is so important to gain an understanding of the impact of VAT so that future Governments will be better informed.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I want to say first how much my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr Love), who is no longer in his place, has been valued in our economic debates. His contribution will be missed, and we all wish him well for the future.
The new clause is eminently reasonable, and it should not be a matter of dispute between the parties in the House that such a report would make a valuable contribution to any decision the Government take on VAT. We have had an interesting day on VAT because it was raised in Prime Minister’s questions. As hon. Members know—certainly the Minister will know—VAT is a subject in which I have an interest. Throughout this Parliament, I have pressed not just the Government Front-Bench team but the Labour Front-Bench team on the issue of VAT.
The Prime Minister is an honourable man. He has made a commitment from the Dispatch Box today that is different from the position outlined by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to the Treasury Select Committee only yesterday. I am interested to see the Treasury Minister nodding to confirm that there has, in fact, been a change in Government policy since yesterday. When I woke up this morning, I heard on the “Today” programme my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) questioning the Chancellor on the issue of VAT. I heard the Chancellor set out the same mantra that there were no plans to extend VAT or increase its rate. My understanding of what the Prime Minister said today is that he has given a cast-iron guarantee—to use a phrase that the Prime Minister has used before—not to extend or increase the rate of VAT.
So the position has changed today, and it is a change that I welcome. For that reason, I think that the information requested under the new clause would be valuable. It is always better for us all to have more information about the impact of tax changes. We know, of course, that this Government introduced this tax change in June 2010 when they said that they would eliminate the deficit by 2015. The plan—the “long-term economic plan” then—was to eliminate it by 2015, and part of the plan was to increase the rate of VAT. It would be valuable to know what happened as a result of the raising of VAT in January 2011. In my constituency, people are under real financial pressure, and VAT affects all of us.
When the Chancellor decided to increase VAT, he must have asked Treasury officials to produce projections on its likely impact on the economy at that point. It would be interesting, would it not, to compare the projections given to him by Treasury officials with an official report, which this new clause suggests should be commissioned, to see whether the two tally up?
Indeed. My hon. Friend has made a very valid point. I think that we should all be interested to know what was the impact of the last Tory-Liberal Democrat increase in VAT, which was introduced in January 2011, because it should inform future policy. It seems extraordinary to me that that should be resisted.
According to the Office for National Statistics, the median salary in my constituency, Wrexham, has fallen by 7.4% in the last year. The town centre is, unfortunately, populated—like many other town centres throughout the country—by too many empty shops, and part of the reason for the emptying of those shops over the past few years has been a decrease in consumer activity. What VAT does—and this is why I am passionate about VAT—is take money out of the pockets of consumers on the high street and send it straight to the Treasury. It has a massive impact on local businesses. Those of us who run local businesses and employ people want to ensure that we have the best and fairest type of tax system to develop local economies.
That is why I want to know the impact of the 2011 VAT increase. I think that the Minister is a reasonable man. I cannot for the life of me understand why he does not want to have that information, or, if he has that information, why he does not want to share it with the House.
We have made a lot of progress today. The Prime Minister has been dragged, kicking and screaming, to a point at which he has ruled out a VAT increase by the Conservatives in the next Parliament—if he is ever in a position to make such a decision. That is major progress. It is certainly a change, not just from the Prime Minister’s position earlier in the current Parliament, but from the position that the Chancellor outlined in his Budget statement last Wednesday, when he set out the spending and taxation plans that he expected to be implemented. Why did he not tell us that the Tories were going to rule out a VAT increase in the next Parliament? That is what amazes me. What has happened between last week and this week? What happened yesterday?
What has happened, in my view, is that because the Labour party, in opposition, made a commitment not to increase VAT in the next Parliament, Lynton has been on the blower. He has said. “We are under pressure, Dave. We are under pressure, Prime Minister. We have to match the commitment that the Labour party has made. You have to rule out a VAT increase in the next Parliament.” So that is why the Prime Minister made his statement at the Dispatch Box today—a statement that I welcomed.
History will judge whether that promise will be kept. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) about the history of Conservative commitments on VAT: about what happens before elections, and about what happens after them. When I speak to my constituents over the next six weeks, I shall remind them of that record. I shall remind them of what the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats said before 2010 and what they did afterwards, and I shall remind them of what this Chancellor tried to do in 2012 with the pasty tax and the caravan tax.
The tax of choice for the Conservative party is VAT. History tells us that. If the Conservatives want to increase taxes, they increase VAT. The country will have to judge whether the commitment that the Prime Minister has given today is one that will stand the test of time.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I was also going to say that it was a pleasure to be in the company of so many Members who had participated in Finance Bill Committees during this Parliament, but one by one they have disappeared from the Chamber—even the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), who has been one of the most assiduous Committee members—which is a shame as I was looking forward to hearing the usually very robust views they express, when we are upstairs in Committee at least. Presumably they have something else on their mind today.
The period we are in, which spans one VAT increase to possibly another, is a very interesting one. One of the things that the Government are trying to say—interestingly, some of the other parties are trying to say the same—is that there is no difference between the policies of the Government and the Opposition and that we would all have to make the same decisions. However, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has clearly stated that there is a huge difference between the forward plans of the Government and those of the Opposition. Our policies involve a different attitude towards spending cuts and tax increases in order to reduce the deficit over a period. That is what we said back in 2010; we were clear that we would be following a different pathway. We were not deficit deniers, as was sometimes suggested, but we were clear that we had a different view on how this could best be handled and that there would therefore be fairness in our measures. That remains the case because, prior to the Budget, the IFS said that, given our forward plans and taxation proposals, in contrast to the £55 billion of spending cuts the Conservatives would have to find, the Labour Opposition would be looking to make only £4 billion of spending cuts. More recently the IFS has said that in order to carry out our plans we would not need to make any further spending cuts in the forthcoming Government. So that is a very big difference in our policies. From that point of view, we are in a position to say not just that we would not increase VAT, but that we have a different and much fairer road to go down.
It is right for us to ask what the Government—whether the coalition or the Conservative party; it is not always clear—would be doing. Not only have they said that they need to find those spending cuts to carry out their deficit reduction proposals, but they have also suggested further tax reductions through the continued raising of the tax threshold. At no time since that announcement was made by the Prime Minister at the Conservative party conference has there been any clarity as to where that money would be coming from. So not only are they clearly tied to making substantial departmental spending cuts, but they have not shown us how they are going to close this financial gap. That is why people are saying, “We think it’s going to be VAT.” It is hard to tell where else it might come from. Of course, if it is coming from somewhere else, we would expect that to be said. So the Prime Minister stands up and says, “Oh no, we won’t be increasing VAT,” but the other half of that statement has not been made. We do not know how he is going to square this circle.
As we saw in 2010, what the Prime Minister says this side of an election is not necessarily the same as what then happens in future Conservative Budgets. Has my hon. Friend also pondered the quandary that they might stick to their pledge not to increase VAT this time, but they have not ruled out extending the scope of VAT to currently exempt items?
That is clearly another way the Conservatives might seek to close this gap they have opened up for themselves.
We need to know a lot more about this going forward, and so do the electorate. As hon. Members have said, VAT is a regressive tax. Even though those who have bigger spending power sometimes spend more and so may, in cash terms, spend more in VAT. It is a regressive tax, as are all these indirect taxes. Our position on this is clearly different: we do not believe it is right that people on low incomes should be taxed, in effect, to give other people tax cuts.
We have said a great deal about the 50p issue, which we will discuss later this afternoon, but one of my big concerns for some considerable time has been that low-paid workers already under the tax threshold were being offered nothing from the Government, who constantly talk about raising the tax threshold further. They have no plans to help those people any more. Those people face a real risk that if VAT is increased, they will end up paying the price of a reduction in income tax from which they will not benefit by one penny.
Does my hon. Friend agree that a rise in VAT will not only have an impact on the living standards of millions, but do something to inflation? Does she think, as I do, that inflation may well rise with a VAT rise, again inflating the costs of ordinary, basic things for ordinary people?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. Of course the position she sets out is exactly what we saw in the early part of this Parliament when VAT was increased and a number of other measures were put in place. At that point, inflation hit about 5.5%, which then allowed the Government to say, “Aren’t we wonderful? We have just put pensions up by the biggest ever amount.” But that increase would have come even under the old system—even under a system that was simply tracking pensions to inflation—because of the inflation rate. Pensioners were not getting some amazing extra increase that year; there was a simple tracking of what had happened, largely because of the VAT issue.
Not only have many of those low-paid people not got any further gain to get if the tax threshold keeps increasing, but they have actually lost out at the same time, because one thing that has helped to pay for all this has been the reductions in things such as tax credits. Many low-paid people lost more in tax credits than they gained in the rise in the tax threshold. The Government keep endlessly repeating that low-paid people are the ones who have benefited, but that has not been the case in practice for many of these people, particularly those with families and children—they have particularly suffered. For them, the Budget is a bit of non-event and it will continue to be so.
That is why the £12 billion of welfare cuts that have been pencilled in for some two years now in various statements by the Treasury, and by the Chancellor in particular, are very important. Part of that approach might be to cut away further the support given to people in work, perhaps through the tax credits system, at some future point. Tax credit is to be replaced by universal credit, but the issue remains much the same in terms of how it tapers off and where the losses might come.
We already know that in many respects universal credit will be less beneficial for a lot of people in work, as they increase the hours of work they do. So how much of this £12 billion will come from that source? Again, people may be given a little bit with one hand, through the increase in the tax threshold, but find that they lose as a result of what the other hand is taking. We just do not know because we have been given no detail; it has been deliberately withheld, although one suspects that someone, somewhere has a plan. It would be strange if they did not have a plan. If, under welfare cuts, we are taking away things such as support for people who are in work, it is extremely important.
The other area is housing benefit, because, again, that is increasingly being claimed by people who are in work, not just by people who are out of work. Those people who are in work will be hurt again if there are further attempts to reduce the housing benefit bill, by eroding the amounts that individuals get. Again, we have this lack of clarity and detail. It is understandable why some of us are extremely suspicious about the alacrity with which the Prime Minister wished to distance himself from a VAT increase. For all the talk about a long-term economic plan, we have a lack of any clear policy and detail about what the Conservatives will do if they are re-elected. I hope that they will not be in government, so perhaps they do not need to give any detail, but the people who will be voting in a few weeks’ time deserve to know such things.
We should not be in the position that we were in before the 2010 election when we were promised things, such as that there would be no VAT increase, that were undone very, very quickly. I do not think that people were told about the scale of the reductions that would be made.
My hon. Friend is making a very good speech. She has returned to the point about the scale of the cuts. Is she as concerned as I am about that? My local council has been cut by 43% since 2010. We now have 1,000 people losing their social care packages this year. Is it not very frightening that what we face in the next couple of years are cuts that are deeper than anything we have seen before? I find that prospect frightening for social care and local services, which are already crippled, and for policing—for keeping our local community safe. Does she feel that way, too? We have already seen what has happened—
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. Clearly, those are the kinds of concern that people have.
On the VAT proposals, the changes and exemptions that the Government may wish to make for some worthy cause are welcome. I am talking here about the help for organisations such as hospices. But there is scope to go further. I will say something now that, although not Front-Bench policy, is perfectly legitimate to raise in Committee. As someone who has been very involved in housing, I know that the housing world is keen to see VAT relief on improving and restoring properties.
VAT can make refurbishing properties more expensive than rebuilding. Demolition and rebuild has become a cheaper option than preserving some of our properties. Having worked with many housing associations, I know that there have been times when they have wanted to do that kind of refurbishment and preservation work, but they had to do a massive upgrade behind that to bring the homes up to the required standard. Such a VAT exemption is something for which the housing world has campaigned for a long time. As we all want to increase sustainability, I hope that that is an issue that my own Front-Bench team will reconsider when they are in government.
I understand that we are not talking to a benevolent Government here, but as my hon. Friend is listing what she would like to see VAT removed from, I would like to include sanitary products. I know that many of my constituents think that, as those are not luxury goods, they should be exempt from VAT. I just thought that I would add that to the list of things that should have VAT removed.
Thank you for your guidance, Mr Hood. I am sure that you would not want me to stray on to the whole issue of food banks, which would probably take us to midnight.
In conclusion, new clause 1 would provide us with an opportunity to look at the impact of VAT changes over this Parliament. We believe that they have been regressive and that many of our constituents have been affected, and we are concerned about the future. We need to look very carefully at what has happened before any decisions are made on further increases. We are always taken to task for proposing new clauses to Finance Bills that would set up reviews, and I understand that there are technical difficulties. I am sure that current Government Members will have the same difficulty when they come to scrutinise a Finance Bill in opposition in the next Parliament. Perhaps we will then make the alternative criticisms.
It is important that we fully understand the impact of the VAT changes, and not just through some kind of impact assessment that is done theoretically, but through an assessment of what has actually happened; they are not always the same thing. However, such proposals have been turned down in every Finance Bill I have encountered in this Parliament. The hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke)—he has still not returned to his seat—and I are obviously similar; we are either terribly keen to serve on Finance Bill Committees, or we are such a soft touch that when our Front Bench teams or Whips ask, “Wouldn’t you like to serve on the Finance Bill Committee?”, we say, “Oh, all right then.” Some of us have certainly done our stints on Finance Bill Committees, and I am sure that we all hope to be able to do so again from a governmental position.
We have had a lively debate and heard contributions from a number of Members who could be described as Finance Bill recidivists. I am delighted that so many of them were able to participate on this, the last occasion to debate tax matters in this Parliament. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) talked about VAT on sanitary products. Under EU law, we are permitted to have a reduced rate for sanitary products—indeed, it has been reduced to 5%—but they are not among the products for which we can have a zero rate under EU law. Consequently, without changes at EU level, it is not possible to reduce it further. I have a lot of sympathy with the argument that is made on that point, but it would need to be addressed at EU level.
This has been a long-standing issue. The experience of trying to bring in new zero rates has been very difficult. If an opportunity arose, any future Government would want to pursue that.
Let me make a couple of points. We need to make progress on a number of items of business this afternoon. On living standards, this Government have taken many steps to help with living standards in difficult circumstances, such as the increase in the personal allowance, the freezing of fuel duty and the freezing of council tax. With reference to the impact on small businesses, this Government have a proud record of helping small businesses in the current difficult circumstances, not least by introducing the employment allowance, which is a cut in the jobs tax, and introducing an exemption for under 21s starting in April, which is a cut in the jobs tax. The following year, there will be no jobs tax for apprentices under the age of 25. We have a record of reducing the jobs tax. That is not the position of Labour.
My party has set out how we will reduce the deficit in terms of departmental spending, welfare and tax evasion and tax avoidance. Our plans are clear. The same is not the case with the Opposition. There is a black hole in their finances. As a consequence, the risk of a big increase in tax from the Opposition is clear. Their tax of choice is employers national insurance contributions. That is the one that the British public should be frightened of. The Leader of the Opposition refused to rule it out earlier. I understand that a panicky press release was issued this afternoon, but the British public know very clearly what will happen under a Labour Government—borrowing and taxes will go up. Consequently, I urge the British people not to allow that to happen, and I urge the Committee to reject new clause 1 today.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 66 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 67 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
New Clause 1
Report on impact of value added tax
(1) The Chancellor of the Exchequer shall, within three months of the passing of this Act, publish a report on the impact of the increase in the standard rate of VAT which took effect from 4 January 2011.
(2) The report must estimate the impact of the increase in the standard rate of value added tax on—
(a) living standards;
(b) small businesses;
(c) the fairness of the taxation system; and
(d) economic growth.—(Shabana Mahmood.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.
Charge and rates for 2015-16
I beg to move amendment 1, page 2, line 1, at end insert—
“(3) The Chancellor of the Exchequer shall, within three months of the passing of this Act, publish a report on the impact of setting the additional rate of income tax at 50 per cent.
(4) The report must estimate the impact of setting the additional rate for 2015-16 at 45 per cent and at 50 per cent on the amount of income tax currently paid by someone with a taxable income of—
(a) £150,000 per year; and
(b) £1,000,000 per year.”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. Amendment 1 stands in my name and those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls), my hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie) and for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson), and the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). It calls on the Chancellor to produce within three months of the enactment of this Bill a report on the impact of setting the additional rate of income tax at 50%. The report must estimate the impact of setting the additional rate for 2015-16 at 45%—the current higher rate—and at 50% on the amount of income tax currently paid by people with a taxable income of £150,000 and £1 million a year.
As we all know, the 50p rate of tax for those earning more than £150,000 was reduced to 45p by this Government in 2012. That was hotly debated at the time and it has been hotly debated ever since. The Minister refers to a debate on the additional rate of tax as an annual event whenever we discuss a Finance Bill. Government Members may groan that the debate is rearing its head again, but I am, if nothing else, an optimistic person and I continue to hope that Government Members will be swayed by my arguments and be persuaded to accept our eminently sensible and reasonable amendment.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The measure has a static cost of £3 billion a year, and behavioural changes also have an impact. That is the hot debate in which the Minister and I have been engaged ever since I have been in the shadow Treasury team.
The hon. Lady raises an interesting point about the static and behavioural effects. She will be aware that the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury said:
“We have a choice about a tax rate that would raise £3 billion”.—[Official Report, 5 November 2014; Vol. 587, c. 849.]
Does she believe that putting the 45p rate back to 50p would raise £3 billion for the Exchequer?
The Minister is tempting me to go further than I want to at this stage, because I am going to develop exactly those arguments about the costing, what the measure is likely to raise, and the inherent uncertainty in the Government’s work and the report that they produced. The Minister will be welcome to intervene once I have reached that point in my speech.
As always when it comes to talking about the 50p tax rate, my hon. Friend is incredibly persuasive. Does she not find it strange that the Government are projecting a £7 billion tax cut but refusing to raise tax in this way, so the only conclusion the public can come to is that they must be looking to break their promise and raise VAT?
My hon. Friend is both generous and correct. Members who were here for the last debate will know that Government Members utterly failed to meet the charge levelled at them, which was that the combination of their history on VAT and what they wish to achieve in the next Parliament means that a VAT rise is inevitable if the Conservative party is elected to government in a few weeks’ time.
We know that the Government’s decision to reduce the top rate of tax for those earning more than £150,000 is as much at the heart of the current political debate today and in the next few weeks as it was in 2012. The debate is about where we raise revenue from and who we ask to shoulder the burden to help bring down the deficit further.
I know that the shadow Minister was not a key part of the previous Government, but does she believe that the right shoulders to bear the burden were those of people on minimum wage, who were paying £1,000 in tax? The highest rate of income tax was 40% for every single day but one that Labour sat on the Government Benches.
I was not a Member at that time, so I was not a part of that Government at all, but I am proud of the previous Government’s record over 13 years. The hon. Gentleman will know that we raised the top rate of tax to 50p in response to the global financial crisis, and that was the right thing to do—[Interruption.] He asked about the minimum wage and mentions it yet again from a sedentary position, but we were the Government who introduced the minimum wage in legislation. That was one of our proudest achievements, and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) told me last week that the last all-night sitting of the House of Commons was when the Labour Government introduced the national minimum wage. Labour Members were in the House at eight in the morning to vote it through and they were absolutely right to do so.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to recognise the importance of the national minimum wage to many people in this country. Of course, tax changes are one side of the equation, and the other has been the changes to tax credits, which benefited many people under the previous Government. Is it not the case that we have seen a £3 billion cut for the very richest with the cut in the 50p rate, at a time when average families are £1,100 worse off as a result of the tax and tax credit changes?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I was coming on to exactly that point. This is a question about living standards: what is happening to the poorest in our society and where the burden should ultimately rest for sorting out the nation’s finances after the global financial crisis.
At the Budget last week, the Chancellor would have had us believe that people are on average £900 better off as well as more secure as the result of his policies. I have to hand it to him—he has been highly innovative in using a new measure of living standards to try to back up his claim, but it includes income to universities and charities. I do not blame him for trying, but he knows the truth, as do Members and the public, which is that people say time and again that they are worse off. A poll of 5,000 consumers’ responses to the Budget showed that three quarters of people have seen no improvement in their living standards. A Populus poll before Christmas found that only one in seven adults said they were feeling the benefit of recent economic growth.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) has said, wages after inflation are down by £1,600, and the combined impact of tax and benefit changes has left families on average £1,127 a year worse off. That was the context in which it was decided to reduce the additional rate of tax to 45p, giving millionaires a tax cut worth an average of £100,000, which is a huge sum of money by any standards. As I have just said, wages are down by £1,600 a year, tax and benefit changes have left people £1,127 worse off, and, as we heard in the previous debate, higher VAT has left people £1,800 worse off over four years. For people at the bottom end of the income spectrum, such sums are the difference between being able to put food on the table and to put clothes on their children’s back or not, while the choices for those at the other end of the income spectrum, who are benefiting from a tax cut to the tune of £100,000, are probably about the poshness of the car on the forecourt of their home, not the basic necessities of life and of survival. That is the important point for struggling families across our country.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) always takes part in Finance Bill debates, and he always makes one point in exactly the same way. I sometimes wish that he would listen to the answer he gets when he does so. The answer is that the top rate was increased as a specific response to get down the deficit after the global financial crisis. It was the fair and right thing to do then. It was unfair and wrong to decrease the rate from 50p to 45p, which he, as a member of one of the parties of government, supported. It will be right for the next Labour Government to raise it to 50p again.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that that rate of tax should have gone up to 50p during the downturn and that it should not have been cut. She is equally right to compare the tax cut for millionaires with the poverty of ordinary people, so why did Labour Members sit on their hands when we had the one opportunity not to have a tax cut for millionaires?
One of the things about the annual debate on the 50p rate is that the usual suspects make the same points in exactly the same way. We have heard that point from several members of the hon. Gentleman’s party. I say to him what I have always said—that we have had a consistent approach to the top rate of tax. There has been no change to that, and we will put it up to 50p if we are elected in a few short weeks’ time.
We can look at the difference between people at the top and bottom end of the income spectrum—the millionaires who have had a huge tax cut and are £100,000 a year better off, and the people who are struggling and £1,100 a year worse off. How must it feel to the ordinary taxpayer, and to hundreds of thousands of people working on zero-hours contracts, to be told that while they struggle on, a tiny number of people in our country will be given a tax cut that could buy a house in many parts of the country, including my own city? That is the stark reality of the choices that the Government have made.
The Government’s last Budget has told people what is coming. The spending cuts that the Chancellor has proposed for the next three years will be deeper than those in the past five years, and things will continue to be tight for many families. They want to know that the load is being shared fairly, but that one decision tells us that it is not.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. Is not one example of how the burden is not being shared fairly the fact that, as we were reminded earlier today, there was one food bank in Scotland when Labour left office, but there are now 50? I am sure that example could be repeated throughout the entire country, and it emphasises the inequitable nature of the Government’s policies.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In fact, when I was talking about VAT in my constituency yesterday, I was struck by the number of people I met who were in work but using food banks. They are trying to do the right thing and working as hard as they possibly can, yet they still cannot put food on the table. How must it feel for them to find themselves in that situation and to know that under the current Government, a millionaire is better off to the tune of a hundred grand a year? I would say that it feels pretty rubbish, and that is what my constituents are telling me every day.
I was on the phones canvassing the other week, and a man from a neighbouring constituency said that he felt the Government should be more Thatcherite in their attitude towards taxes. I did not really know where to go with that, but I listened on. He said that it was because Margaret Thatcher had had a 60% tax rate for some years, only getting rid of it in 1988. He said that the current Government, who seem to idolise Margaret Thatcher, might take a leaf out of her book. He had been a Tory voter, but stopped being one simply because of the unfairness of the rate going down from 50p to 45p. I never thought that I would stand here urging Conservative Members to be more Thatcherite, but to represent such views fairly I think it is my duty.
My hon. Friend has acquitted herself of that duty in her usual brilliant way. We may not be able to persuade the Conservatives to be fully Thatcherite, but getting them part of the way there would be welcome. If they cannot bring themselves to support bringing back the 50p rate, which of course they will not, they should at least support our amendment. As I said, it comes down to a simple question: is the burden of deficit reduction and dealing with the fall-out from the global financial crisis being shared fairly across all parts of our society? The amendment is genuinely intended to shed some light on that.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again. She is always incredibly generous, especially in Committee debates on Finance Bills.
If the Government are correct in their assertions about tax take and behavioural change—that a 45p rate generates more than a 50p rate and is fairer—does my hon. Friend share my surprise that they object to bringing forward a report that would tell us exactly that?
That is exactly the point. If the Government have nothing to hide and nothing to fear from all the data being out there for us to interrogate, they should accept our amendment and get on with the review that we have called for. They should have got on with it when we first called for it, immediately after they made the change to the rate. Our amendment genuinely seeks to shine light on what has been happening to people’s incomes and the impact of changes to the top rate of tax. When the Government commissioned their report, the data were not extensive, and the report has been contentious from the minute it came off the printer. The reasons for that go to the thrust of what the Financial Secretary was asking me earlier, and I will come on to those points shortly.
As we have heard, the Labour Government introduced the 50p rate. It came into effect in 2010-11 and was a decision made after the financial crisis as we sought to get the deficit down. There was nothing in the coalition agreement about abolishing the 50p rate, but in 2011 HMRC was asked to look into it and the yields it produced. It did not take a genius to work out that the Chancellor was thinking about cutting the top rate of tax, and in 2012 with HMRC’s report, the Exchequer effected a 50% additional rate of income tax to back up the Chancellor cutting the rate to 45p.
My hon. Friend talks about the work done by HMRC. Is that almost the same piece of work that the Labour amendment would require the Government to do, in that it would show an analysis of how much money the 45p rate is bringing in and how much the 50p rate would bring in? It would also allow hon. Members to have a proper debate about the proportion of taxes that should go towards deficit reduction as opposed to spending cuts.
As ever, my hon. Friend is absolutely right, and it is precisely to get that additional data that we have tabled this and similar amendments ever since the change was made. Why would the Government go through the process of looking at yield and getting HMRC to produce a report in 2011? That is important, because everyone knew—both at the time and ever since—that there were not enough data to come to an accurate view about yield as the rate had not been in place long enough. To put it bluntly, the Chancellor probably felt that some people might not agree with his decision to give people earning more than £150,000 a massive tax cut, given the state of the rest of the economy and the crushing of people’s living standards on his watch. What he needed to back his decision was a report that said that the 50p rate hardly raised anything at all, which is precisely what the HMRC report said. After analysing a host of facts and figures, the report concluded that a cut that would, by the Government’s initial estimates, cost £3 billion— the so-called static cost, excluding all behavioural changes— would cost only £100 million.
The trouble with the report is that, as everyone acknowledges, there are too many uncertain variables to be anywhere near sure that the figure of £100 million is even close to reality. The report was based on only one year’s worth of data relating to 2010-11. That is a significant weakness, since we know that some incomes were taken earlier to avoid the extra tax. Further detail is now available, including for the tax years of 2011-12 and 2012-13 when the 50p rate was still in place. The writers of the 2011 report did not have those data available, so their report is therefore lacking. That could be remedied were the Government to accept our amendment.
The report attempts to quantify behavioural change. The scale of behavioural change is primarily based on an assessment of taxable income elasticity—basically the extent to which taxable income changes when the tax rate changes. The IFS says that there is a margin of error within calculations for the 2011 report, and that staying within that margin of error one could easily say, depending on taxable income elasticity, that cutting the rate of tax could cost the Exchequer £700 million or could raise £600 million. That gives an idea of the range of figures we are talking about and of how uncertain such projections are.
I return to my central point: more data are now available and could help to calculate a truer picture of the yield of a 50p tax rate as opposed to a rate of 45p. If Conservative Members are so certain that their position on the abolition of the 50p rate is true, why will they not agree to the scrutiny that the amendment suggests?
I come back again to what the hon. Lady’s colleague, the shadow Chief Secretary, said from the Opposition Dispatch Box, when he referred to the 50p rate as
“a tax rate that would raise £3 billion”.—[Official Report, 5 November 2014; Vol. 587, c. 849.]
Does she stand behind the statement that the 50p rate would raise £3 billion?
I was here for that debate and my hon. Friend the shadow Chief Secretary was recognising that the first thing we start with is the static costing. That is the only certain figure we have and that starts us off at £3 billion. We have, of course, to make an allowance for behavioural change and that will impact on the yield, but the calculation for how we get to understanding the behavioural change is the bone of contention between the Financial Secretary and me.
The hon. Lady is making a perfectly sensible point now, but it is a very different point to that made by the shadow Chief Secretary. He did not say, “The static cost is this, but then there is the behavioural cost” and so on. He said that it was
“a tax rate that would raise £3 billion”—[Official Report, 5 November 2014; Vol. 587, c. 849.]
It sounds to me that the hon. Lady does not agree with that. She is not claiming that it would raise £3 billion. Is my interpretation of what she is saying correct?
My interpretation of what the Minister is saying is that he is making a valiant attempt at trying to create something out of nothing. As I said, I was here for that debate and I remember that exchange very well. The Financial Secretary and my hon. Friend the shadow Chief Secretary had a bit of to-ing and fro-ing over the static costing, but the rest of the debate and everything my hon. Friend said was absolutely clear. It has always been our position that we start with the static costing and that is not in doubt: it is £3 billion. The question then is: what happens when we allow for the impact of behavioural change? My contention—it has always been our contention; it is exactly what the shadow Chief Secretary said in his remarks in that debate on that day—is that the extent of behavioural change, as envisaged in the 2011 report, was based on an uncertain set of figures and that we have much more data now to be able to get to a certain point.
I am not going to give way again, because I have very little time. The Minister can pick the point up again in debate and I am sure he will do so.
It is not sufficient for Government Members simply to point at the increased yield following the rate cut to 45p and deem that their point has been proved. Just as people brought forward their incomes before the rate was introduced, so people held off taking income until the rate was lowered. We know the increase in yield at 45p was due primarily to record bonuses, which were up 80% in the year after the rate was reduced. If the truth is what is sought, then rigorous analysis is what is required. The blunt truth, however, is that the truth is not what is being sought here by the Government. The decision was taken for ideological reasons. There is no other justification. The abolition of the 50p rate was nothing other than a huge tax cut for the very richest, while ordinary families continued to struggle, and struggle for longer.
There is growth in the economy and that is welcome, but it has been a long time coming. It is ordinary families who have ended up paying the price. That is why we have continued to press home the point about the top rate of tax. While ordinary families are paying the price, we have let the very wealthiest in our country have a huge tax cut. That cannot be right. A top rate of tax at 50p will play an important role towards fair deficit reduction under the next Labour Government. If the Government have absolutely nothing to hide or fear in the facts and figures behind the cut from 50p to 45p, they should accept our amendment to clause 1.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger.
First, I shall say a word about the clauses in this group. Clause 1 provides the charge and sets the rates for income tax for 2015-16; clause 2 relates to limits and allowances; clause 3 sets the personal allowance for 2015-16 at £10,600; clause 4 relates to the basic rate limits; and clause 5 sets the personal allowance for 2016-17 at £10,800 and for 2017-18 at £11,000. That is a dramatic increase on the rate we inherited in 2010, when it was below £6,500, and makes good progress towards the target that my party and the Liberal Democrats have set of £12,500 by the end of the next Parliament.
Income tax is the Government’s biggest revenue source, and the annual charge, legislated for in the Finance Bill, is essential for its continued collection. In 2015-16, there will be about 30 million income tax payers, and clause 1 states that they will pay income tax this year at the same rates as in 2014-15. The basic and higher rates remain at 20% and 40%, and the additional rate is 45%. On Monday, Labour voted against the Budget resolution renewing income tax, but thankfully it was defeated. It would have put a £150 billion hole in the public finances—reckless even for Labour. I can only hope it was a symbolic vote that they had no desire to win. It was perhaps more a protest vote than anything else.
None the less, under this Chancellor and this Government, we will stick to the long-term economic plan and avoid populist giveaways that could damage the public finances.
I could spend some time on these clauses—they are a significant achievement for the Government and I am delighted we are making further progress on increasing the personal allowance—but I shall deal with amendment 1, tabled by the Opposition. It is the annual debate we have on these matters; it is familiar to me and, I suspect, to you, Sir Roger. It proposes that the Government publish a report reviewing the impact of setting the additional rate at 50% within three months of passing the Bill. In addition, it asks for an assessment of
“the impact of setting the additional rate for 2015-16 at 45 per cent and 50 per cent on the amount of income tax currently paid by someone with a taxable income of…£150,000…and…£1,000,000 per year.”
To be credible, such an analysis would need to take behavioural impacts into account, like the HMRC report on the additional rate published at Budget 2012. Simply looking at theoretical income tax liabilities when increasing taxes is not enough. For perhaps the first time in a long time in these debates, we might have made a bit of progress in trying to understand Labour’s position. The HMRC report concluded that the underlying yield from the introduction of the 50p rate was much lower than originally forecast owing to large behavioural effects. It would be fair to say that when the 50p rate was introduced by the previous Government, they made allowances for behavioural effects. The question is whether it was sufficient.
When HMRC looked at this again, it was clear that the behavioural effect was greater than anticipated by the previous Government. Indeed, it is quite possible that it cost the Exchequer money. So let me take this opportunity to assure hon. Members once more that the Government already consider the impacts of any policy decisions taken, and they take the behavioural effects into account. The simple point is that the 50p rate was failing to raise the money anticipated.
People find some of these behavioural effects hard to imagine. One of them, of course, was that under the previous Government somebody paying tax at that kind of rate could put £250,000 into a pension fund and save all the tax—£125,000. The maximum that can be saved now is £18,000.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. There are a number of behavioural effects. Sometimes when we have this debate, there is a tendency for Opposition Members to say, “Ah, behavioural effects. You are just talking about tax avoidance.” Tax avoidance can be an element, but it can also be behaviour that is clearly compliant both with the letter and the spirit of the tax system yet will reduce yield. Increasing contributions to pension schemes, for example, could result in a reduction in revenue. It could be that somebody decides to relocate out of the United Kingdom. It could be—an important point that gets to the heart of why we reduced the tax— that international businesses in deciding where to locate staff might conclude that the costs of doing so in the UK are greater than elsewhere, and that there are better climates and environments in which to locate highly paid staff.
Those are some of the behavioural impacts that are a consequence of having an uncompetitive rate of income tax. That is one of the challenges that Governments have to face. To be fair, the previous Labour Government, for the vast majority of their time in office—this point has already been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ian Swales)—did not increase the 40p income tax rate. Tony Blair was very clear that in his view increasing the rate above 40p would be a mistake. We have taken the view that it was right to reduce the rate down to 45p, but the important question remains of what is the purpose of having a high rate of income tax. Is it to raise revenue or is it simply about sending a signal? If it is to raise revenue, we have to ask ourselves how much it will raise.
This is why I return to the comments—I cited them accurately and in context earlier—made by the shadow Chief Secretary on 5 November:
“We have a choice about a tax rate”—
he is clearly talking about the 50p rate—
“that would raise £3 billion, and it is important that we take that opportunity to tackle our deficit, rather than giving that money away to those people who are already in an extremely privileged position.”—[Official Report, 5 November 2014; Vol. 587, c. 849.]
He is talking about raising £3 billion. I pressed the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) on two or three occasions because she was making a different argument. She was saying that the static cost is £3 billion, and then it is a question of working out what the dynamic and behavioural effect will be so that we have a true and accurate position on how much this tax will raise. That is a perfectly reasonable point—it is not possible to disagree with the fact that there is a static number, but that is not terribly helpful in guiding us towards a sensible policy, because we have to know the behavioural effects. Let me be clear. The hon. Lady is clearly stepping away from the suggestion that this will raise £3 billion—
If the Minister was listening to my speech, he would know that I am asking for a report to give us a better idea of what this measure will raise—including all the data to hand from the additional years in which the rate was in place but not included in the 2011 HMRC report. All I can say to him on the figures is that the only certain figure we have is the £3 billion static cost. I accept that behavioural change will bring that down and decrease the yield, but neither he nor I can say, with hands on our holy books, that we know the exact number. That explains what I have asked for in the amendment. I believe this could be a revenue-raising measure to get the deficit down in a fairer way. The extent to which we can do that is the thrust of my amendment.
We are making further progress. The hon. Lady has now explicitly said that the 50p rate will not raise £3 billion. [Interruption.] She has explicitly said that, because she has accepted that there will be a behavioural effect that will bring the amount down. I do not know why she is complaining and chuntering, because she has just made the unarguable point that the amount raised will be less than the static cost. That is not the point that the shadow Chief Secretary was trying to make.
Labour politicians are generally very good at saying, “It is a £3 billion giveaway”, in an attempt to give the impression that it will be a £3 billion increase in revenue. I accept that the shadow Chief Secretary probably misspoke, and that when he said that the 50p rate would raise £3 billion, he was getting a little carried away. Labour politicians usually avoid saying, “It will raise £3 billion”, for the very good reason that that is a completely unsupportable position. To be fair to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood, she is not making that case today. However, I wish to point out that even the Labour party does not believe that the 50p rate will raise £3 billion, which it clearly will not.
I appreciate that we are five and a half weeks from a general election, so we can exchange party-political knockabout. Having said that, I would politely say to the Minister that the point he is making—very eloquently, I must say, if I am being fair to him—is precisely the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood). There is a degree of uncertainty. Is that not exactly why he should support the amendment?
I thank the Minister for giving way again. He is being very generous with his time.
As assessment has been made by an independent group, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which came up with a figure of about £100 million. Labour Members have used the word “exact”. Does the Minister reject the idea that the amount can ever be estimated exactly, partly because of the behavioural factors to which he referred a few minutes ago?
That is a very good point, which leads me to the two quotations that I was about to give. Paul Johnson, the head of the IFS, said in a paper that was published on 27 January 2014:
“The best available estimate of what reversing the cut would raise is therefore about £100 million too.”
He also said that
“the best evidence we have still suggests that raising the top rate of tax would raise little revenue and make, at best, a marginal contribution to reducing the budget deficit an incoming government would face after the next election.”
We have a record of increasing the personal allowance. This is a very good time to make that point, as we are debating, among other things, clauses 1 to 5, under which the personal allowance will move up to £11,000 during the next few years. We have a record of being able to deliver big increases in the allowance, and that is what we will do.
Let me now press on. The economic recovery is well under way, and last year Britain grew faster than any other major advanced economy in the world. The Government will not consider any action that would put the United Kingdom’s recovery at risk. While the additional rate has been reduced to ensure that the UK remains internationally competitive, the Government’s policy is to repeatedly increase the tax contribution of the wealthy. The share of income tax paid by the top 1% of taxpayers is projected to rise from 25.1% in 2010-11 to 27.3% in 2014-15, which means that they are expected to pay a greater share of income tax in 2014-15 than in any year under the last Government.
I should add that the 50p rate was one of the most uncompetitive income tax rates in the G20 and it is about time the Opposition simply accepted that it did not work. The Government need to spend their resources effectively and efficiently, and the Treasury and HMRC have no plans to introduce rolling annual reports on the impact of changes in tax rates. Nevertheless the Government always keep tax rates under review and monitor receipts, and on this basis I do not believe the amendment is necessary, and I ask the hon. Lady to withdraw it.
Clause 1 allows the Government to collect income tax, something I am sure both sides will agree is essential, notwithstanding the votes on the Budget resolutions. Let me stress again that the impact of reducing the additional rate of income tax has been examined in great detail. The 50p rate was both ineffective at raising revenue and meant risking the recovery everyone in this country is working hard for. As a result the report proposed by the Opposition in amendment 1 is entirely unnecessary, and I move that clause 1 stand part of the Bill without the amendment.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 2 to 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Charge for financial year 2016
I beg to move amendment 2, page 3, line 39, at end insert—
“(3) The Chancellor of the Exchequer shall undertake a review, within six months of the passing of this Act, of the impact of a cut of one per cent to the main rate of Corporation Tax for financial year 2016, with particular reference to—
(a) the impact on businesses with fewer than 50 employees;
(b) the impact on investment by businesses with fewer than 50 employees; and
(c) alternative tax measures, including non-domestic rates, which would have a greater benefit for businesses with fewer than 50 employees.
(4) The Chancellor of the Exchequer must publish the report of the review and lay the report before the House.”.
The review proposed in amendment 2 would give us a better understanding of the factors that are helping small businesses to grow and those that are limiting their expansion. Most small and medium-sized businesses with a smaller number of employees tend to be run from premises that have a rateable value of below £50,000. I should say at the outset—the Minister and I have had this debate before—that Labour does not oppose the recent changes to the rate of corporation tax that have so far come into effect. That is in keeping with our party’s policy over the past 15 years. When Labour left office, Britain had the most competitive rate of corporation tax in the G7. The rate has been cut several times over the past few years. The small business rate for companies whose profits are less than £300,000 now stands at 20%, and the rate for companies earning more than that will be 21% from April—in just a few days.
Is not a theme developing today: the extent to which tax cuts and spending cuts should contribute towards deficit reduction and, with regard to tax cuts, who should benefit? As with the debates on VAT and the 50p tax rate, we are arguing for greater consideration to be given to small businesses, because larger businesses have already benefited from corporation tax cuts.
My hon. Friend is right. This comes back to the impact of the choices being made—who is being prioritised and who is not, who is bearing the greater share of the burden and who is not. That is the material point.
We know that the Government’s impact assessment prepared for the 2014 Budget estimates that the cost to the Exchequer of the corporation tax cut would be some £400 million in 2015-16, £785 million in 2016-17 and £865 million the following year. In the 2015 Budget Red Book the estimates are revised upwards: for 2015-16 £550 million, for 2016-17 £1.045 billion, and for 2017-18 £1.1 billion. Those are not insignificant sums for a policy that affects a relatively small number of businesses. That is exactly my hon. Friend’s point.
The Government estimate that some 40,000 businesses pay the main rate of corporation tax and a further 41,000 businesses pay at the marginal relief rate. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills estimates that the UK has some 5.2 million private sector businesses, the majority of which—3.9 million—are sole proprietorships, and 1 million have fewer than 10 employees. Clearly, if about 81,000 businesses benefit from the corporation tax cut, the opposite is also true—5.1 million businesses do not benefit in any way from that rate change.
The Government believe that a further cut in the corporation tax rate makes UK plc a more attractive place to invest and a more attractive destination for business to locate. The Minister and I have often debated the importance of the headline rate of corporation tax when that judgment call is made by businesses. It is important—a point that I have made on several occasions—but it is worth noting that on the former point it is far from clear that this is the case. We know that business investment fell from 8.2% of GDP in 2010 to 7.8% in 2013. That should not come as a big surprise.
Businesses tell us that they face a range of issues and that their decisions about where to locate and where to remain and invest are not based only on the headline rate of corporation tax. They take many other factors into account, such as infrastructure and the skills available in the labour market. Businesses often say that these factors are very important to their decision making, but they worry that under this Government those areas of policy have not gone in the right direction.
This might be the one time during a Finance Bill debate when the hon. Gentleman and I have been in complete agreement. The uncertainty caused by the Conservative party’s positioning over Europe and the Prime Minister giving in to the needs of his party, rather than the national interest, have caused a huge amount of uncertainty. In every conversation that I have had with businesses ever since the Prime Minister made his announcement, that has been the No. 1 issue that they have raised when talking about their future in our country, their future ability to invest in our country, and their future ability to employ more people in our country. It has caused a huge amount of consternation and uncertainty, and the Conservative part of the coalition has been wrong to put its party interest ahead of the national interest.
Our amendment seeks to put flesh on the bones of what is happening to corporation tax by assessing the impact on and the benefit to smaller companies with 50 or fewer employees, which make up the vast majority of private companies in our country. At a time when there are still difficult financial choices to make and a relatively limited number of ways to raise revenue and help support businesses to grow, the evidence suggests that now is the time to give much more support to smaller businesses, and to prioritise smaller businesses for some change in their circumstances, ahead of larger businesses, which have, with the support of all parts of the House, fared pretty well when it comes to cuts to the headline rate of corporation tax.
There is general agreement that small and medium-sized enterprises are the engine of growth in our country, employing more than half the private sector work force and contributing to 50% of UK GDP, but times remain tough and they face wide-ranging challenges. They struggle with high energy costs that do not seem to be getting much better despite wholesale price cuts of 20% in the past year, and with late payments and charges. According to the Government’s own figures, 44% of SMEs had a problem with late payments last year, with the average small business owed over £30,000—an astonishingly high figure.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that we assess what the larger corporations do with their extra income as compared with small businesses? Small businesses in my constituency are more likely to create jobs, while larger companies are more likely to give the money to their shareholders.
My hon. Friend makes an important and interesting point. This is not only about how we how we make choices that prioritise help for those who particularly need it—my case is that SMEs need particular help with business rates—but the impact of the choices we are making and whether they are leading to the change that we hope to see. My case—I know she will agree—is that additional support for SMEs will yield greater gains for UK plc.
This is not about pitting one type of business against another. Government Members have tried to argue that the rise in corporation tax from 20% to 21% that we advocate is an anti-business move, but every single penny of the money from that change will be spent on SMEs, and I defy them to try to imply that they are not true businesses.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend; I was enjoying her contribution so much that I was going to desist. Does she agree that in the Consumer Rights Bill the Government missed an opportunity to give small businesses consumer rights, and that is often leaving them open to abuses by larger organisations?
My hon. Friend is right. I am glad that she has put on record the interplay between the Consumer Rights Bill and small businesses. That was a missed opportunity. The Government should have taken the opportunities available to them during the passage of that Bill to offer a further boost to these struggling businesses—all 5.1 million of them. The vast majority of businesses in our country could have been supported.
Small businesses struggle not only with high energy costs, late payments and charges, but with access to finance. Every time we discuss these issues, the problem of access to finance comes up. I am afraid that the Government have failed to get a grip on this. Since 2010, lending has fallen by a colossal £56 billion. Even in the most recent quarter, net lending to small business fell by a further £1 billion. Research has shown that some 85% of small businesses are locked into the big five banks alone. It has also shown that most SMEs will approach only the larger banks when looking for finance, and that even then the rejection rate is about 50%.
Then there is the pressing issue of business rates. Business rates are levied on the estimated market rental cost of most non-residential properties, and currently based on 2008 rental values. In 2012-13, they raised £26.1 billion. Relief on business rates exists for low-value properties—those with a rateable value of below £6,000—which are subject to a 100% discount. Since April 2013, local authorities in England have been able to retain between a quarter and a half of the rates raised from new developments.
For many small businesses, business rates are a significant overhead that they need to factor in. More than one in 10 small businesses say that they spend more on business rates than on their rent. The only choice for many of those shops, workshops, start-ups and others that pay business rates is to pass the costs of the rates on to their customers.
I come from a tradition of small business. My first job—I have to say that it was unpaid—was helping my parents to serve customers in the corner shop that was also our home. After school, at the weekend and in the holidays, I did the stocktake with my dad, went to the cash and carry and sorted out the VAT. I have a clear idea of the stresses and strains that people who run small businesses go through on a day-to-day basis, and what their families and young children go through as they help to try to keep things afloat.
My constituency covers Birmingham city centre, so hon. Members can imagine the number of retailers—both big and small—I hear from regularly. Many constituents often express the fear that the exponential growth of business rates might put them out of business. It is a concern for the people I meet. I sometimes hear those stories from people who set up businesses in the ’60s and ’70s. They have successfully survived the economic ups and downs since that time, only now to believe that they might finally be done in by the growth of the burden of business rates on small and medium-sized businesses.
We should remember that the 2008 revaluation rate reflected an entirely different time of property prices. Small businesses are stuck paying rates at 2008 levels, which do not reflect the lower property values caused by the financial crisis. Research suggests that, in my west midlands region, the rateable value for retail units is 13% too high, for offices it is 19% too high, and for industrial units it is 16% too high. The latest research shows that the average business rate increase since 2010 has been £1,500.
We have had a lot of debate this afternoon about the relative value of such sums of money to different people and businesses, but I can say with complete confidence that that is a lot of money for a small business. It is easy to see why the word “critical” has been used in relation to the current business rates regime. When people are struggling to make ends meet in their business, when they are struggling to ensure that all their bills are paid, and when their status as a going concern is in doubt, £1,500 is a significant sum of money. It is a big overhead. It has made a huge difference to the ability of small and medium-sized businesses in our country to continue to grow, employ more people and succeed.
Business rates are central to the success of small businesses. That leads us to ask the Chancellor to assess and review alternative tax measures such as a change to
“non-domestic rates, which would have a greater benefit for businesses with fewer than 50 employees”.
Specifically, we believe that a cut in businesses rates for 1.5 million small businesses and then a freeze the following year would be enormously helpful, and would make a difference to the ability of businesses of that size to keep their heads above water and keep their businesses moving forward. The measure would be worth an average of £450 over two years to 1.5 million businesses, including shops, pubs and small start-ups. Some firms would benefit by up to £2,000.
As I have said, an initial cut and then a freeze in business rates in the first two years of the next Parliament would be paid for—it is another fully funded proposal for the Labour party manifesto on which we will seek election from the British people in a few weeks’ time. It will be paid for by not going ahead with the Government’s cut in corporation tax—it will happen in April; it is just a few days away—from 21% to 20% for the 80,000 largest firms in our country. We would spend all the money raised from not going ahead with that additional 1% cut in corporation tax on those 1.5 million small firms instead.
As I said in response to an earlier intervention, Government Members have mischaracterised our corporation tax proposals as anti-business. The Minister and I sometimes agree to a score draw when we debate, but his mischaracterisation of our proposal is just plain wrong. It is also unlike him to be uncharitable and unwilling to engage with the issue at hand. I hope he will pick up on that when he responds.
During a media appearance on “Daily Politics”, I put it to the Conservative party chairman that his party’s contention that our corporation tax proposals are anti-business only holds true if the Conservatives believe that 1.5 million small firms are not really businesses. He evaded that point and no Conservative Member has ever stood up to justify their characterisation of our corporation tax proposals as anti-business by saying that they believe that 1.5 million small businesses are not actually businesses. The Minister does not look like he is about to jump up and say, “Oh no, you’ve got us wrong.” That tells me pretty much all I need to know, which is that the Conservatives are happy to whip up anti-business fervour, but it is misguided and incorrect.
If we are elected in a few weeks’ time, every single penny of the money we raise by not going ahead with a corporation tax cut from 21% to 20% will be spent on small and medium-sized businesses. They need that help and they should be prioritised to receive it. That is the choice we will make to help small and medium-sized businesses.
We already have the lowest rate of corporation tax in Europe, but we also have the most expensive property tax. That is why it makes no sense for the Government to make it a priority to cut a tax that is already among the most competitive, but not help smaller firms with very large costs.
Does my hon. Friend agree that supporting small businesses, developing skills and apprenticeships and cutting tuition fees, which is what a Labour Government would do, would also benefit large corporations? We need broader measures that work in the interests of the whole economy.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and her point takes us back to our earlier debate about the value of the headline rate of corporation tax and the policy environment that supports it.
Clearly, more needs to be done on the business rates regime. We back the announcement of a review of business rates. There are problems in the system. For example, a factory investing in a new piece of equipment will find that its bill will go up next year because property is now worth more, which could be a disincentive to invest. Although our corporate property tax system needs to be fundamentally rethought, small businesses need urgent and immediate relief. Our proposal for a cut in business rates in the first year of the next Parliament, followed by a freeze in the second year, will make a genuine difference. I hope that Government Members will today take the opportunity that they have failed to take previously, support our amendment and thereby show their support for small and medium-sized businesses.
This might be my last contribution in this place, so I would like to say what a great privilege it has been to represent the people of Redcar for the past five years. I thank colleagues for making my time here such a vivid experience. I would struggle to apply the word “vivid” to the many Finance Bill Committees and finance debates I have taken part in, but overall I have had a terrific time.
I support the lower rate of corporation tax. When opponents of such things talk about lower tax rates, retaining profit is often described as some kind of evil, but what happens to that money? The characterisation is that it will probably end up in high pay for the people at the top, but companies with money have lots of choices and do lots of different things. They might pay more money to their shareholders, the vast majority of which are institutions such as public sector pension funds. They might invest the money or employ more people. They might spend the money on innovation or on building skills, and they might spend more money with SMEs, because all big companies have supply chains that involve small companies.
It is an honour to intervene in what might be the hon. Gentleman’s last speech in this place. Has he considered the impact on the rural economy, which suffered particularly harshly during the recession? The recovery there is very fragile and corporation tax cuts will not help rural communities. Does he not think that this could be the wrong cause?
The economy of the country is an ecosystem. No company exists in isolation and each relates to other companies. One measure that we are not talking about this afternoon is the cut in fuel duty, which is enormously helpful to rural citizens and rural companies, so the Government have taken some steps, although that is probably not relevant to this debate.
Of course, we expect people to pay their share of corporation tax and to do it properly. I remember the head of the CBI saying towards the end of 2013 that he was confused about what Parliament wanted because there was so much noise about tax avoidance. It is not very confusing at all: we want businesses to account for their operations in the UK properly and to pay tax on the money they make in the UK. I do not think that that is complicated, but some businesses appear to think that it is.
I welcome the successive measures that the Government have taken on tax avoidance. They are not just about individual avoidance but about corporate avoidance, too. The Bill contains many provisions, but I shall mention just three: it stops contrived arrangements on carried forward tax reliefs; it restructures bank loss relief; and it puts limits on research and development tax credits to deal with certain items. Once again, the Government are looking in great detail at how companies sort out their tax and picking up anything that looks anomalous. I welcome that.
We can go a step further. Both the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said last week that we are now consulting on new criminal measures to deal with companies that advise on or enable tax evasion. I am choosing my words carefully. Aggressive tax avoidance, which we often hear about, is more of a grey term, but tax evasion is very clear. If a company advises people on how to evade tax or enables that through the provision of accounts or processes, it is not just the person evading the tax who is criminal. We want those who help—I think aid and abet is the legal term—to be in the dock, too. That will further help to change the climate and the number of prosecutions necessary will be much less than the amount of activity that the provision prevents just by existing.
I welcome the consultation that has started, which is yet another step that would be helpful. We are talking about corporation tax and it is relevant to mention the diverted profits tax. As we know, a lot of corporations divert their profits or do not account properly for their operations in the UK. The diverted profits tax is a good step forward. It is quite limited in scope, but it will help to put the initial stakes in the ground for how we want to deal with things in the future.
There is more to do. I was pleased to hear the Minister talk in his opening remarks about the need to look further at internet companies, because we all know that they can position themselves anywhere. It is quite wrong to assume that the address of the server is where the business is. It is really where the customer is. In fact, the HMRC small print already says that, but it is quite difficult to implement. There is a lot more to be done for internet companies, not least because they are competing against bricks-and-mortar companies, particularly the small businesses that the shadow Minister has been very vocal on and quick to talk about. That is another step that needs to be taken.
The shadow Minister was absolutely right that, when we ask businesses about their issues, they more often talk about business rates than about corporation tax. That applies not just to small and medium-sized businesses; the steel works in my constituency pays £10 million a year in business rates, which is five times the amount it would pay if it was based in the Netherlands. How do we know that? Because the same company ran a steel works in my constituency and one in the Netherlands for a long time, so they know the figures.
A huge, root-and-branch reform is required for business rates, partly to help bricks-and-mortar companies to compete against internet companies and partly to recognise the change in property values. The business rates of some shops on my local high street in Redcar are five times the amount that the landlord is seeking, so the whole decision about whether to take such premises is about business rates, not about rent.
Another thing that the Government have done is to move towards localising business rates again. Certainly my part of the world, which had huge industrial sites such as the one I have mentioned, was pretty nonplussed when all that money was collected by a Government in the 1980s, taken to the centre and then doled out in different proportions. We need to move towards more localisation, not least to incentivise councils to drive economic development. I would argue that that has not been happening sufficiently in some parts of the country, and I live in one of them.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, and there is also the issue about where people live, where they work and what services they use. The south-west has a particular issue when its population doubles every summer, because people may not make a contribution through taxes paid directly in the south-west, but they are using services there. There is another whole argument to be had about the location of rates versus how they are collected.
I will not detain the Committee long. The Government are on the right track with corporation tax. Let us put it this way: there is plenty of work for the next Parliament to do, and I shall watch with interest from afar.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales), because we have served together on a number of Finance Bill Committees during the past five years. The debates on the details of a Finance Bill in Public Bill Committee are often better than those on the parts of the Bill taken on the Floor of the House. The theory is that the debates on the more important and bigger parts of the Bill are taken in the Chamber and then the Bill goes upstairs, but the Public Bill Committee often allows us to have quite fruitful debates on many of the issues.
One thing that has been very clear during this Government—perhaps this has always been the case, but it seems to be growing—is that all the political parties are falling over themselves to talk about the importance of small and medium-sized businesses, and we are all the friends of small business. Small businesses are probably very pleased to hear politicians talk so much about them, but then the issue becomes one of whether it is talk or action. It is very easy to praise small businesses, but such businesses, especially new ones, sometimes feel that the system is set against them.
One new business in my constituency involved two young women who set up a fitness studio. They went into premises on what was effectively a redevelopment area after our old hospital had been relocated. Largely because of the financial crash and the recession, the whole redevelopment took longer than expected, so the population to support new businesses had not arrived at the expected rate. Although they got a rent holiday for the first 18 months from the developer who was renting them their premises, which was welcome, they were struggling with business rates. Oddly, even though my local council said that it wanted to encourage economic development and had particularly encouraged the redevelopment of that site, it was not particularly forthcoming with help for a new business.
Those young women were not in the region of having to worry about corporation tax—that was not where their business was. They had to worry about the rates. It was touch and go, but I was pleased to see recently that they are still there and have managed to overcome their initial difficulties. Some of the other redevelopment is beginning to happen, so I hope that they will continue to be successful. However, we do not always join the dots either locally or nationally. Things such as rates are essential for a lot of small businesses, and we have to support such businesses to the greatest extent that we can.
I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman in his points about business rates being retained locally. We have to work through the conflict between that and redistribution to ensure that different areas of the country are assisted in developing. When I was on the council in Edinburgh, we often raised the issue. It was and still is an expanding city, and it generates a lot of business. We have big events that generate worldwide attention, and a lot of businesses feel that they bear the cost of all that without necessarily seeing the rates coming back to the city. It is all very well to say that we get rates in because we have events such as the festival and big tourist attractions, but sometimes it feels that the rates are not coming back. I understand the tension between that and looking at the region or country as a whole and trying to build wealth. It is not easy, but we have to incentivise businesses as far as possible to feel that keeping on growing is to their advantage as well as to wider advantage.
Politicians and political parties must not just pay lip service to the importance of small business. We must do specific things to assist, and that is what amendment 2, moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood), is intended to do.
The hon. Member for Redcar probably has a different view of economics from mine, but he appeared to be of the view that if a company is making a profit, it will be ploughing it back in the right directions. I do not think that is necessarily always the case. Big businesses in particular should make a good contribution to our society, and we have to ensure that they do. I urge the House to support the amendment.
It is a pleasure to see you back in the Chair, Mr Hood.
I wish to talk particularly about the rural economy and the opportunities that the Government might be missing, given the importance of small and medium-sized enterprises to rural economies. Given that this may be my last contribution in this Parliament, I also want to reflect briefly on the political situation in Scotland.
We have had more than one eclipse in Scotland in recent weeks. It seems to be a daily occurrence that Alex Salmond’s moon blocks out Nicola Sturgeon’s sun. At one time, the current leader of the Scottish National party—people might easily be confused as to who that is these days, but I remind them that it is Nicola Sturgeon—did a U-turn on the SNP’s proposal in its White Paper “Scotland’s Future” to reduce corporation tax by 3%. I welcome that, because I do not think it would have been a progressive move or have provided the right environment for the stability, job creation, employment rights and pay and conditions that we want in a fair, modern and successful Scotland. The Minister may wish to reflect on that and the debate that went on around the referendum, because the measure was not popular with working people or businesses—certainly not with SMEs that would not have seen any benefit.
The Financial Secretary said that he does not want to do anything to risk the recovery, but I urge him to think about what more his Government can do to aid recovery in rural areas. Most of the conversation and discourse I have heard from Government Members—for example in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill Committee—was about employment rights. The Minister seemed to think that the way to help small businesses was to erode workers’ rights, but I think that has the opposite effect because it can be more difficult for them to recruit staff.
Much as I admire the beautiful city of Edinburgh, our capital, I am concerned that so many people from my rural constituency commute there for work. At a time when the population of East Lothian is set to grow at the fastest rate of anywhere in Scotland, with 10,000 more homes, we need jobs in our own communities. We must look at the impact that the Budget will have on SMEs with 50 or more employees, and we are asking the Government to pause and reflect on what that impact might be.
We are losing many skills in local, rural and remote economies, especially in the construction industry—that relates to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) about difficulties with lending. Small construction firms are finding it very difficult to access lending, which means that they are disadvantaged when it comes to procurement contracts. If they take on small housing developments in the community, the people working on the construction sites will often be local young men and women who are benefiting from an apprenticeship and learning skills, and they will be spending money in that local community. The healthy cycle of the rural economy is thus given new impetus and energy. Will the Minister at least reflect on that?
When small businesses fail, it does not make the headlines in the same way as when a large manufacturing company announces job losses. The news about Longannet, which is across the water from my constituency and where many of my constituents are employed, is deeply concerning. When a small business fails, it does not make the headlines in the same way, but for the rural economy and community it can be devastating. The village where I live in East Lothian, Pencaitland, has two village shops and a pub, and the thought that any of those could fold at any time would have a devastating impact on our community. At that point, community cohesion goes and the place becomes just a dormitory, somewhere people go to lay down their head at night, rather than the vibrant community we want.
We have heard much about devolution during this Parliament. When it comes to how we support and drive growth in the SME sector, we need to trust people at local authority and community level to make decisions about how businesses are supported, how they grow and create jobs and wealth, and how they provide sustainability. We must trust the people who know the area and the skill requirements to make those decisions. Talking about who gets to vote on what Bill does not have the same impact; it does not empower. It may take power away from individual MPs, but it does not empower communities, which is what devolution should be about.
I ask the Financial Secretary to consider the intervention I made on my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood who spoke from the Opposition Front Bench. What evidence do the Government have that cutting corporation tax will create more jobs than supporting SMEs, particularly in the rural context?
I am very grateful to Members who have been sitting patiently and silently for allowing me to make this pitch on behalf of the rural economy. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. It is also a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Fiona O'Donnell), who I am almost certain will be back in the next Parliament to pursue these cases vigorously with the next Labour Government. I was tempted to speak by the Minister’s generosity in likening me to a future statesman. I appreciate that I have some way to go, although I have not handed him the Red Book across the Table, as I did to his Liberal Democrat counterpart on Thursday.
The debates we have had today really come down to one issue: balance and priorities. It is about the share we expect to take from tax or the share we expect to take from spending cuts to deal with deficit reduction in the next Parliament. As I said in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood), the issues are the same whether it is the VAT debate, the 50p debate or the debate we are now having on business rates and corporation tax.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that goes to the nub of the issue today. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood eloquently set out from the Opposition Front Bench, the numbers are clear. In respect of corporation tax, we are talking about a very small number of large businesses operating across the country. The benefits of that tax cut will not necessarily be felt throughout the wider economy. I would argue—I know my hon. Friend makes the same argument—that targeting the same amount of money on a business rate cut for the first year and a freeze for the second year is much smarter, because it would affect 5.1 million small and medium-sized businesses and others. That is the right thing to do for the struggling high street.
I therefore urge the Minister to consider very seriously what the Labour Front-Bench team is asking for. We are not asking him to implement Labour party policy, as much as I would like him to, and we are not asking him to freeze business rates or to cut them. We are asking him to conduct a review so that we can have a proper debate on whether his approach of cutting corporation tax is the right one, or whether, as we argue and believe, cutting and then freezing business rates is a much smarter way of using the same amount of money, as it would create a bigger boost for the economies of towns, villages and cities across the country.
I want to add one note of caution. I am very supportive of the devolution agenda in England. As a Greater Manchester MP, Members would expect me to say that I very much support the efforts by the Greater Manchester combined authority and the 10 local authorities—eight are Labour, one is Conservative and one is Liberal Democrat controlled—and recognise the benefits of the conurbation working together. The Government’s announcement included the retention of additional business rates from growth, but I urge caution. I support the proposal, but we have to approach it on a conurbation, city region and county region basis. Growth areas in cities and counties are often located in particular geographical areas, whereas needs are spread across whole areas. With that, I urge the Minister to accept Labour’s amendment, which requires nothing more than a report that I think would back our plans 100%.
First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ian Swales), who spoke in this debate as he has done in so many Finance Bill debates over the past five years. He has always provided a voice of calmness and sanity. I have not agreed with everything he has said, but he has mostly made helpful contributions, and thoughtfulness is a consistent characteristic of those contributions.
The corporation tax rate is set in legislation a year in advance on an annual basis. Clause 6 sets the corporation tax rate and charge for the financial year beginning on 1 April 2016. The House will be aware that in 2013 legislation was passed cutting the main rate of corporation tax from 21% to 20% for the 2015 financial year. The cut will take effect in seven days and give the UK by far the lowest rate in the G7 and the joint lowest rate in the G20. The clause confirms that the rate will remain at 20% in 2016.
The Government have made it clear that we want a business tax regime that is competitive and fair, and since 2010 we have made clear strides towards that goal. The main rate of corporation tax was 28%. We have cut it by almost a third to make the UK more competitive and to support growth and investment. At the same time, we have taken significant measures to clamp down on tax avoidance, and on Second Reading we debated the diverted profits tax introduced by the Bill.
Low corporation taxes enable businesses to increase investment, take on new staff, increase wages or reduce prices. Overall, the corporation tax cuts we have delivered since 2010 will save businesses £10 billion a year from 2016. To give Members a sense of scale, that is the equivalent of giving businesses enough money to hire 270,000 new employees. Oxford university’s centre for business taxation estimates that our reduction in the corporate tax burden will increase business investment by £11 billion; and as well as supporting businesses already operating in the UK, lower rates of corporation tax make the UK more attractive to international businesses. Last year, UK Trade & Investment reported a record number of inward investment projects that led to the creation of 66,000 new jobs and safeguarded 45,000 more.
The corporation tax cuts and other reforms, such as the introduction of the patent box, have completely changed perceptions of the UK tax regime. Five years ago, businesses were leaving the UK because of our tax regime. That regime has now become an asset that attracts firms to the UK. In surveys, the UK is now regularly cited as one of the most competitive regimes in the world. The clause embeds the message that the UK is open for business by affirming that the UK rate will remain at the record low of 20% in 2016.
The Opposition amendment proposes a review of the impact of a 1% cut to the main rate of corporation tax for the financial year 2016. A great deal is already known about the impact of corporation tax policy. We know that lower rates encourage growth and investment, and that stable and simple taxes give businesses confidence to invest and expand. The clause refers only to a single rate because we have already legislated to unify the main rate and small profits rate of corporation tax and to scrap the complex marginal relief system for all companies, except those with ring-fenced profits.
These changes will take effect next week and give the UK for the first time a single headline rate of corporation tax and provide administrative savings for a huge number of businesses, particularly the nearly 50,000 companies that pay the marginal rate of corporation tax each year. The move was recommended by the Office of Tax Simplification, and I would like to take the opportunity to pay tribute to Michael Jack, John Whiting and the team for all the work they have done since we introduced the OTS at the start of this Parliament. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has also been supportive of our reforms. In a recent report, it said:
“The simplification of moving to a single rate of corporation tax…is a real achievement of the coalition government’s tax policy, and it is one that should not be reversed.”
The evidence on corporation tax is clear: low rates and a simple system support business and support growth. In our view, the proposed review would provide little benefit, so we are not minded to accept the amendment.
As far as business rates are concerned, the Government recognise that they represent a fixed cost for businesses. That is why during this Parliament we have continued to double the small business rate relief schemes, supporting 575,000 businesses, of which 385,000 pay no rates at all. We have capped the inflation-linked increase in the business rates multiplier at 2% for two years, and we have provided a £1,000 retail discount this year, rising to £1,500 next year for small shops, pubs, cafés and restaurants, supporting the high street.
Labour said it would cut business rates by 1% for lower-value properties in 2015-16. Under its plan, the smallest single properties would pay more. A property with a rateable value of £5,000 saves £1,165 under this Government compared with the Opposition’s proposals. The high street would also lose out. A shop with a rateable value of £30,000 saves £1,080 under this Government when compared with the original proposals. We have published terms of reference for a wide-ranging ambitious review of Budget business rates to report back to the Government. That is, of course, on top of what we have done on fuel duty, which helps small businesses, and the employment allowance, which does the same.
In conclusion, cutting corporation tax has been a central part of our economic strategy—a strategy that is working. In 2014, growth in the UK outstripped that of every other G7 country. Employment is at record levels, business investment is growing rapidly, and this clause ensures that the rate of corporation tax for 2016-17 will remain at 20%—an extremely competitive rate and a foundation of tax system designed to support growth and investment. Reversing the progress we have made would be a big mistake and send a terrible signal to businesses around the world. That is why I believe the clause should stand part of the Bill.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
On a point of order, Mr Hood. Can we look again at the way in which the business of this House is organised, because it brings our procedures into real disrepute when we have not had the chance even to look at a set of important amendments, much less to debate them. [Interruption.]
I was simply making the case that our procedures are brought into disrepute when we have not had the chance even to debate a huge number of amendments, much less to put them to the vote, including an important amendment that would have closed a tax-dodging loophole for private equity firms. Can we look again at the way in which the business of this House is organised, Mr Hood?
Six hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on the Finance (No. 2) Bill, the proceedings were interrupted (Order, 24 March).
The Chair put forthwith the Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83D and Order, 24 March).
Clauses 6 to 65 and 68 to 127 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedules 1 to 21 agreed to.
The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.
Bill reported, without amendment.
Question put forthwith (Order, 24 March), That the Bill be now read the Third time.
Bill read the Third time and passed.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. It has just come to my attention that the Government have tabled a motion for debate on the final day of this Parliament, with no notice whatever to myself as shadow Leader of the House. The motion proposes changes to the way in which the Speaker is elected—procedural matters in the House—with no consultation with Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition and no consultation with the Chair of the Procedure Committee, for debate in only one hour tomorrow. Is this in order? Do you believe that the procedures of this House should be bandied around by the Government in this way, and that we should have surprises delivered to us in this manner on the last day of the first ever fixed-term Parliament? The motion attempts to influence the results of the first thing that will happen in the next Parliament, with no chance for large numbers of Members who had no knowledge that this was happening to participate.