I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I presented the Bill on 5 September 2017, and it is with a wry smile that I rise to speak to it today, with some four hours ahead of us—perhaps not all of that time will be needed to consider it. I put it down on the Order Paper for consideration very late in the Session because I anticipated that it would be a topical matter on the eve of our departure from the European Union. We are now just seven weeks away from the UK’s independence day, on 29 March, when UK citizens will end their enslavement by the European Union.
There has been a lot of discussion about trade, but leaving the EU is about much more than that; it includes control over our own taxes. Reducing VAT, as the Bill proposes, will reduce the cost of living for consumers and the burdens on business, and it will reduce significantly the cost of living for people living in fuel poverty, which is also topical, bearing in mind yesterday’s announcement that what we all thought would be a cap on fuel prices has turned out to be more like an opera hat—it can go up very significantly at short notice. The Bill is therefore particularly relevance at this time.
When the Prime Minister made her Lancaster House speech some two years ago, she talked about the UK being able to develop an alternative economic model in the event that the European Union tried to impose what are effectively punishment terms as part of the withdrawal agreement. I think that we are now in that situation. The deal that the European Union is offering is not satisfactory. We are moving towards leaving without a deal, but in circumstances in which it will be open to the Government to take back control over important parts of the economy, and VAT is an important part of that.
The history of VAT goes back to 1 January 1973, when the United Kingdom joined the European Economic Community and, as a consequence, purchase tax had to be replaced by value added tax, which came in on 1 April that year. The then Conservative Chancellor, Lord Barber, set a single VAT rate of 10% on most goods and services. That standard rate is now 20%, which indicates the increasing burden of taxation upon ordinary people up and down the country.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the Bill. It is certainly very timely, but the increase in the tax rate and in taxes generally is due to the increase in our outgoings on the national health service, the state pension and so on. Although I welcome the principle, I am concerned that to fund any significant changes in VAT will be expensive to the Treasury at a time when we face increasing costs in the health service and so on.
I disagree with my hon. Friend; he is taking a conservative view rather than looking at the dynamic effect on the economy of making tax reductions. My hon. Friend is not yet a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Treasury and that is why he is able to participate in this debate, but I know that he would very much like to be a Treasury Minister in due course. When we were in opposition and I was a shadow Minister, my hon. Friend was an important adviser in that Ministry. I know that he has a keen interest in the Bill. One of my concerns is that the Treasury is not always on the side of the dear British consumer, and I am putting the case on behalf of the consumer today.
Let us remind ourselves of the history of VAT. When the Labour Government came into office in 1974, they attempted to introduce extra rates of VAT. One way and another, things were changed around, but eventually Denis Healey reduced the higher rate to 12.5% in April 1976. Geoffrey Howe organised an increase in VAT when he was the Conservative Chancellor. He raised the standard rate from 8% to 15% in June 1979, but in so doing abolished the higher rate.
After that, the rate stayed the same until 1991, but was then raised from 15% to 17.5% by Norman Lamont, now Lord Lamont, when he was Chancellor. At the 1992 general election, the Conservatives were elected—unfortunately, I was not among them; I was defeated in that election—on a promise not to extend the scope of VAT. In March 1993, Norman Lamont announced that domestic fuel and power, which had previously been zero-rated, would have VAT levied at 8% from April 1994. My Bill would take us back to the time before 1994 when there was no VAT on domestic fuel and power. That is one the most important parts of my Bill.
This issue is close to my heart, not least because I was present during the by-election campaign in Christchurch in July 1993, when the biggest issue on the doorsteps was the Government’s imposing VAT on fuel, reneging on their manifesto commitments. That by-election saw the largest ever swing against the Conservatives, and a Conservative majority of more than 20,000 was converted into a Liberal Democrat majority of more than 17,000. That was my inheritance when I became the prospective parliamentary candidate. I know that my constituents feel strongly about VAT on domestic fuel and power, and I hope that the Government regret the decision that was taken then, over which they were subsequently not able to have any control. Although the Labour Government eventually reduced the rate to 5%, under European Union rules it is not possible for this sovereign Parliament to reduce VAT below 5% when it has already been set in train. That opportunity will be available to us as soon as we leave the EU.
Another criticism of VAT is that it is regressive because it is paid by all consumers whether they be rich or poor, young or old. The poorest spend a larger proportion of their disposable income on VAT than those who are financially much better off. The Office for National Statistics report has shown that in 2009-10 the poorest 20% spent 8.7% of their gross income on VAT while the richest 20% spent only 4%. That is another reason why reducing or eliminating VAT on various goods and services would be an effective way of creating a dynamic effect in the economy, and would be fair and equitable at the same time.
I have outlined some of the general issues relating to the Bill. It paves the way for sharing and securing for consumers and businesses one of the key benefits of leaving the EU on 29 March, taking back control over indirect tax policy on goods and services.
The first key element of the Bill is to enable the Government to raise the maximum turnover thresholds for exemption from the requirement to register for VAT. That is set out in clause 1. We in the United Kingdom have a registration threshold of £85,000, the highest in the EU. In my submission, it is not high enough. That is why I have put in clause 1 a suggestion that there be a modest initial increase in the threshold to £104,000 and that the threshold for deregistration should be £100,000. The consequence would be that many small businesses would be taken out of VAT and consumers would be saved the cost of VAT on the services provided by them.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury is on the Front Bench to answer this debate. I have been perplexed about Government policy on VAT thresholds. Currently the threshold is £85,000 and that was due to be the situation until March 2020, but under EU law it is open to the Government to increase the thresholds every year in real terms. That has traditionally been what has happened. However, the present Government, for reasons that I hope my hon. Friend will be able to explain, have decided to freeze the threshold until the end of March 2022. The consequence, apart from giving some extra money to the Treasury through what is effectively a stealth tax, is that many more small businesses will be caught up in VAT registration.
The current threshold means that 3.5 million businesses do not have to account for VAT, which is half of all businesses in the United Kingdom. We know how important small business is. It provides half of all the private sector jobs and accounts for more than a third of our national income. Why would it not be sensible for the Government’s policy to be to increase the VAT threshold to the maximum that is allowable under EU law rather than freeze the threshold, thereby making it difficult to increase it in the future by a significant amount?
The Government issued a consultation paper on the VAT threshold and called for evidence following a paper the Chancellor commissioned from the Office of Tax Simplification, and that consultation made it clear that the threshold cost the Exchequer £2.1 billion in 2017-18—the cost has not risen since because the threshold has not been increasing as it was before that date.
Following the OTS paper, the Government consulted on whether to increase or reduce the threshold. A table annexed to the call for evidence showed that the £81,000 threshold in 2014-15 had deterred 50% of sole proprietor and partnership businesses from increasing their economic activity for fear of passing the threshold. What a ridiculous artificial constraint on enterprise! Surely, we should be encouraging businesses to expand, not introducing measures that deter that activity.
The consultation concentrated on the large number of businesses just below the threshold and on what could be done to reduce the cliff edge and smooth the transition for businesses registering for VAT. Following the consultation, the Government concluded that nothing had been decided—in that respect, it was not an unusual process of public consultation. Paragraph 4.35 of the paper that summarised the responses reads:
“Many responses committed to the view that an increase to the threshold would make it much easier for newly-registered businesses to cope with the administrative and financial implications of registration. For example, if the threshold were to be raised to £100,000, businesses would likely be able to afford the cost of professional advice to cope with the administrative burden, while also being more able to absorb the cost of VAT. One representative body felt that the administrative burden would only be taken out of the equation if the threshold was much higher. The UK is currently unable to increase the level of its VAT registration threshold in real terms, under EU law, but there may be scope to review this in the future.”
It will come as no surprise to the Minister to learn that I took the figure of £100,000 in my Bill from that paragraph. I have not gone as far as the OTS suggested in its original paper, but I could see the merit, if the Bill ever gets into Committee, of raising the threshold to something like £500,000. Then we would be talking only about really substantial businesses having to pay VAT, which would significantly reduce the burden on business and encourage entrepreneurial activity in our enterprise society.
The estimate made is not mine but comes from the OTS paper:
“Raising the threshold significantly, for example to £500,000, would potentially impact around 800,000 businesses. Of those, between 400,000 and 600,000 businesses might choose to deregister, while 200,000–400,000 might choose to remain…registered. This would simplify the tax obligations for businesses that chose to deregister, reduce VAT-related competitive distortions between registered and unregistered small businesses, and reduce the administrative burden on those businesses. However, raising the threshold to such a high level would cut the funds available for public services by between £3bn and £6bn a year.”
My hon. Friend will be conscious, however, that those figures are much lower than the £39 billion figure that is on the lips of most members of the public, if not Members of this House, as we prepare to leave the EU on 29 March, when we will have the opportunity to save ourselves £39 billion.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the Bill to discuss this important issue and this potentially big simplification, but am I right that the £6 billion price tag is roughly equivalent to half the budget for the entire police force of England? This is a substantial sum. Beyond the £39 billion, does he have an suggestions for how to raise enough money to make good the hole?
I do. It is a mistake to look at these issues without considering the dynamic behavioural effects flowing from changes in the regulatory environment. We are all agreed—certainly the Treasury and the Chancellor have expressed concern about it—that the country is suffering from a crisis in productivity, and it is clear from the OTS reports and the consultation that people in the engine room of our economy find VAT to be very burdensome and that it adversely affects their productivity. The problem of productivity centres around this bunching issue. Why are we inhibiting businesses from expanding and becoming more economically productive by imposing an artificial threshold? To an extent, it has been imposed on us by the EU, but we can break free on 29 March. I hope my hon. Friend will take a dynamic perspective and not just look at the straight line figures produced by the Treasury.
I want to highlight the point my hon. Friend is making. When the income tax rate went up to 50%, I had small businessmen come to me saying, “I’m not going to work any harder if I have to hand over 50%. I’ll work four days a week and play golf on Fridays. I’m not going to invest my capital in a business if the Treasury doesn’t understand the pressures of running a small business,” and they stepped away from increasing their productivity—indeed, went backwards—until we started to reduce the rate. Too often, we fail to understand the consequences of tax policy on behavioural patterns.
My hon. Friend makes a brilliant point. This used to be at the heart of Conservative thinking and policy making on the Treasury Bench. It was that dynamic thinking that was behind past decisions to significantly reduce the top rates of tax. I hope we can rediscover that much more dynamic approach to the behavioural consequences of high taxes and artificial thresholds.
I thank my hon. Friend for being so generous in giving way again. I think he is wrong to say that it is not the approach of our Front Benchers to think in dynamic terms: the Treasury has produced a wonderful paper showing that a third of the cuts in corporation tax are made up for by dynamic gains. Active work is being done on this; it is a Conservative belief. However, I would only ask my hon. Friend what proportion of the £4 billion or £6 billion loss to the Exchequer that he is talking about does he think might be made up for by dynamic effects? I agree that there are dynamic effects and I agree that this is a wonderful simplification; I just caution him that another Conservative principle is sound money and not running a huge £150 billion a year deficit like Labour did.
Obviously, we are all united in wanting to be fiscally and financially prudent, and, going back to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), having looked at the evidence that came forward on this issue, I was horrified to see that, for example, if some cafés in tourist resorts think they are going to exceed the VAT threshold in a particular quarter they will close down for a week or two. What contribution does that make to the UK economy? How ridiculous is that, with the consequence that people are not being employed in those cafés and so on? I agree it is desirable that more work be done on this, and that in a sense is the purpose of today’s debate: to try to get people to think about the radical ways in which we could change VAT now that we are going to have the freedom to do it. VAT is the third largest tax in this country; it generates £120 billion or thereabouts. Surely we should now be looking at our ability to examine the best way in which that tax on goods and services can be applied so that it delivers the best productivity results and does not lead to the distortions we have been speaking about.
There is a problem with the Treasury approach to a lot of this. It produces a document setting out the cost of reliefs. It says that not having VAT on food—having zero rating on food—costs the Exchequer some £18 billion a year. We should look at that not in the context of saying, “We can’t afford to lose £18 billion,” but in the context of saying, “Why should we be charging people who want to go off and buy some food £18 billion?” The mere fact that the Treasury continues to draw up estimated costs of principal tax reliefs shows that it is looking at this from the wrong end of the telescope. The Treasury also says the reduced rate for domestic fuel and power is costing the Exchequer £4.85 billion. What an extraordinary approach that is, as it implies that the Treasury might be minded to put domestic fuel and power VAT back up to 20%. This gives me the feeling that the mindset in the Treasury needs a lot of alteration and that at the moment it is far too negative and unimaginative on a lot of these issues.
Our inability to increase the threshold or meaningfully alter the design of VAT without the unanimous agreement of all other member states is a big problem. It has not stopped the EU Commission of course publishing proposals to cap the thresholds at €85,000 from July 2022 and establishing a new EU-wide threshold of €100,000. That is another example of the statist expansionist agenda of the European Union about which the British people spoke so strongly in the referendum just over two years ago.
The EU Commission is proposing changes that will affect tourism, construction, accommodation, food, traders, professional and scientific and IT service providers and so on, and we could still be faced with an €85,000 VAT threshold if we do not leave the EU on 29 March. If we stay in the EU under some transitional arrangements without knowing what the final outcome will be, throughout that period we will be subject to EU laws relating to VAT. Bearing in mind that the VAT thresholds across the rest of the EU are often only about €20,000 rather than €85,000, we could find the law being changed against us because we would not have a veto. We would be outside the EU so we would not be able to veto this, but we could find that our VAT law was made even more restrictive than at present, although many of our constituents will have thought that we had actually left the EU and got rid of this gross interference in our lives.
I mentioned earlier the compliance costs for VAT. One survey cited by the Treasury found that for UK small and medium-sized enterprises over 40% of all financial costs of tax compliance and 50% of time costs are due to VAT, and that statistic has been confirmed by the Federation of Small Businesses. VAT is particularly unattractive to businesses providing business-to-consumer activities, because they tend to be more labour-intensive, and labour of course is not subject to VAT. We must also think about the impact of VAT on consumers and the cost of living.
I hope I have been able to make a strong case in relation to clause 1, and I shall now turn to clause 2. It sets out the second element of the Bill, which is to make provision for the exemption of certain goods and services from liability to VAT and for connected purposes. The goods and services that are subject to VAT are set out in the Value Added Tax Act 1994 and clause 2 would ensure that domestic fuel or power in group 17, fitness items in group 18, goods subject to excise duties in group 19, insulating materials for home improvement in group 20, repairs and improvements to historic buildings in group 21 and women’s sanitary products in group 22 would all be exempt from VAT, rather than being subject to VAT as they are at present.
I hate to sound like a stuck record but want to repeat a point. My hon. Friend gave a basic estimate of the cost of raising the threshold, but it seems to me that this would bring a separate cost to the Exchequer; has he a cost for these exemptions in terms of potential lost revenue?
Yes, of course I do. I have an estimate—not quite done on the back of an envelope, but on a rough piece of paper. The Government’s figures say that the reduced rate—5% instead of 20%—for domestic fuel and power, which is by far the largest item here, currently costs the Exchequer £4.8 billion. That implies, based on my maths, a yield of some £1.6 billion from having the rate at 5%. Therefore, of all the measures in clause 2, that is by far the largest cost. However, I would have thought that that cost was more than justified by the social and economic benefit of introducing such a policy.
The Government told domestic consumers of electricity and gas that they were on their side and that they wanted to cap their costs, so they introduced, with the sounding of trumpets, a cap on energy costs. We then found out yesterday that the cap is being increased by some 10%, the consequence of which will be an increase of £100 on an average household bill of about £1,200 a year. If we add VAT, that is another additional cost. If we removed VAT from a £1,200 bill, that would be a saving of about £60 per household on average. I would have thought that that would be worth while, and it would be one way of mitigating the effects of rising energy prices across the world and rising prices of the raw materials. Why not go for that? If we look at all this like an accountant—although I am not an accountant, I did once work for a large firm of accountants, so I know the mindset that can be associated with such activity—why are we not considering the political benefits that will flow from eliminating VAT on domestic fuel and power?
Many households in my constituency, including my own, use heating oil, and I am sure that people would be very grateful. However, it is not an accountancy view to ask about the impact on the Treasury given the cost of vital public services, such as health and education, which we all want to see better funded. That is my angle, and it not about accountancy.
If we look at things in a dynamic way, what is the extent of the burden on the health service and social services of having people who are unnecessarily cold in their own homes because they cannot afford the cost of heating? I give that as an example of why we need to consider the wider picture, rather than just focusing on the accountants and the numbers. I do not know whether my hon. Friend is an accountant, but if he is, I had not intended any criticism of him specifically. As the public’s representatives, we should be examining such things on the basis of what is in their interest. If there ever was a demonstration of how hostile people are to the idea of being taxed on domestic fuel or power, it was apparent during the Christchurch by-election to which I referred earlier.
I presume that the only reason why my hon. Friend would be in favour of some of the items in clause 2(2) is that there would hardly be any significant cost associated with them. However, if one thinks about repairs and improvements to historic buildings, for example, is it not important that there should be an incentive? There certainly should not be a disincentive for people to repair and improve historic buildings—the heritage of our great nation. As for insulating materials for home improvement, surely it is sensible that if people are to improve the energy efficiency of their homes, they should not be subject to a disincentive tax.
I shall now turn to clause 2(2)(b). Fitness is something of which we speak frequently in in this House, and it is directly linked with the health service, the obesity agenda and so on. Why are we charging VAT on a whole range of fitness services? How can that be consistent with the public policy objective of encouraging people to get fit and thereby not only improve their quality of life, but relieve the burden on the health service?
As always, my hon. Friend is giving a detailed explanation of his proposals. On the topic of fitness, how would he deal with the fact that while a computer console can run fitness games that allow for physical movement, people may just buy one to sit in front of TV and play games? How would that be defined under this Bill?
I am glad that my hon. Friend made that intervention, because if he looks at clause 4, he will see that I am saying that the Treasury may by regulations define “fitness equipment”. If and when the Bill gets on the statute book, he should engage in discussions with the Treasury about what he believes to be the best definition of fitness equipment, so that the measure achieves the objective that I just articulated and does not enable people to avoid paying VAT.
Yes, but the problem is that all that was subject to decisions by the European Court of Justice. Can my hon. Friend think of anything more ridiculous? If the matter had been under the control of our domestic laws set by Parliament, we would have been able to amend a finance Bill to redefine something, and the situation could have been changed overnight. However, because this all comes under the complex regime in the European Union, all of which is subject to the European Court of Justice, lawyers who specialise in this area can have a field day. The volume of law on VAT is vast, and surely there is a case for keeping it much simpler and well defined.
It would also be useful to have more transparency over what is subject to VAT. Supermarkets do not currently provide VAT receipts, so people do not know whether the digestive biscuits or the Jaffa Cakes that they just bought were or were not subject to VAT. However, there are various blogs that enable people to discover the best value items to purchase that are not subject to VAT but are quite similar to other products that are subject to VAT.
Speaking of transparency, clause 2(2)(c) would exempt from VAT goods that are already subject to excise duties, because I strongly believe that we should not have double taxation. Why should somebody who is paying duty on petrol then also have to pay VAT on that duty?
But would it not be much more transparent if excise duty was raised and petrol was not then subject to VAT, which is a hidden tax? When my hon. Friend campaigns so actively to ensure that fuel duty is frozen, I hope he will extend his campaign to ensure that fuel duty is not subject to VAT. Clause 2(2)(c) would achieve exactly that objective.
Nothing. It need not be anything. To be transparent, whether on cigarettes, fuel or any other item subject to excise duty, it should just be excise duty, which could be set at whatever level the Chancellor or Parliament chooses. It should not be distorted and disguised by adding extra VAT. When the Chancellor increases the excise duty on a bottle of whisky, he never says, “By the way, it is also going to be subject to 20% VAT.” He puts VAT on the increase in excise duty. Why do we not make it simpler and more transparent? That is what clause 2 would achieve. I am glad that my hon. Friend has been softened up, and I hope he sees the benefits.
Clause 2(3) properly defines domestic fuel or power in some detail, which I hope will meet with the approval of interested colleagues. As I said earlier, items under groups 18 to 22 are less well defined in the Bill, although the items in group 22 are specifically defined.
We were told by the EU that women’s sanitary products would be, or could be, exempted from VAT. We were told there would be an EU consultation. That was all the talk when the former Prime Minister David Cameron was trying to negotiate a better deal for the United Kingdom in the European Union. Women’s sanitary products being subject to VAT is a controversial issue, but nobody seemed to be prepared to stand up and defend such a policy. In the end, the European Union promised that it would consult and look at it with a view to amending the policy, but it never did. That has resulted in the Government having to continue charging VAT, and they have used the revenue generated therefrom for other purposes. What a ridiculous distortion. What a waste of energy. Why cannot we just change the law and do what we think suits us best as an individual Parliament, and not be subject to the ghastly laws of the European Union?
I have explained some of the Bill’s content, but it only touches the surface—a starter for 10—because I see the opportunities opening up beyond 29 March. We will have the opportunity to change our laws on VAT much more imaginatively than we could with this Bill, and I will give just one example.
To protect and encourage British manufacturing after 29 March, why could we not remove VAT on all cars, or any other product, manufactured 100% in the United Kingdom? Obviously, we cannot do that at the moment because of the VAT rules and the European Union state aid rules. If we want to generate a dynamic offshore economy in which taxes are low but with strong incentives for manufacturing, why not do something like that? It might be a step too far for this Bill, but I put it down as a marker. It will be interesting to see whether my hon. Friend the Minister has a briefing on such a proposal. When the Prime Minister said that no deal is better than a bad deal, she said that no deal would be really good because it could enable us, as a United Kingdom, to develop a dynamic alternative economic model.
There is a lot of food for thought in this Bill, and I remind my hon. Friends that it is not within its scope to increase VAT or to remove any exemptions. Before they get on their hobby horses and say that we need more money from VAT and from consumers, I remind them that that is outside the Bill’s scope.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope), although I would highlight that I am a chartered account—and proud to be so. My training perhaps gives me a different perspective on politics, and I often from myself thinking in a different way from Members who are lawyers—not in a good or a bad way, but simply in a different way. Such training offers a breadth of policy, planning and thinking that we need to bring together. I am thrilled to speak on my hon. Friend’s important Value Added Tax Bill, and about how we might start to make significant improvements to this regressive and most punitive of taxes on the poorest, and on small businesses’ growth and productivity, after we leave the EU—very shortly, I hope—and are free to make such improvements once again.
I will address three areas of policy change proposed by the Bill, although there is much more I could discuss: VAT thresholds for small businesses; the flexibility of VAT rates on energy; and the big, thorny question of the sanitary products challenge that we have to solve. The first area on which this Bill offers an excellent improvement to our present VAT rules is the threshold for paying VAT. A small business whose main activity is one of human endeavour—the “services” part of goods and services—must monitor its monthly sales on a rolling 12-month basis these days, and must register to pay VAT as soon as the cumulative total reaches £85,000. Most small businesses that have many VAT-charged goods, such as plumbing businesses, are more likely to be VAT registered from the beginning, so such monitoring does not have to happen—those businesses are already in the VAT system because they want to reclaim the VAT on goods they have to use.
The threshold means that, overnight, a business suddenly goes from not being VAT registered to being VAT registered and having to charge an extra 20% on its bills. Imagine going in for a monthly haircut that used to cost £20 and suddenly finding that it costs £24. That business will then find that a smaller, non-VAT registered business down the road is more competitive, and it will immediately risk losing customers, so what does it do? Does it hold down prices by employing another staff member, at great speed, to increase business and grow the volume of sales, or does it stop accepting custom in order not to hit the threshold in the first place? My hon. Friend gave the example of cafés, but in Northumberland, there are tourism businesses that see the threshold coming and therefore slow down or close their doors early not to make further sales. This arrangement is simply anti-competitive and surely it is not the sort of business driver that any Conservative Government would mean to be encouraging.
A real-life example that highlights the problem is that of a young businesswoman with exactly this dilemma in my constituency. This young woman owns a small hairdressing business in a small town, and employs two stylists full time and one part time. Her turnover is about £100,000—above the £85,000 threshold—and she is therefore VAT registered. Her VAT payments to the Treasury are in the region of £16,000, leaving her with net sales of £84,000. A number of competitors have set up business in the area and purposely kept their audited income below the £85,000 threshold to avoid paying VAT, while still charging prices comparable to VAT-registered retailers. Of course, the clients do not know whether a business is VAT-registered in that small business environment, but there is a 20% advantage in favour of that non-VAT-registered business—20% more for doing less work. This young woman does not make any profit worth mentioning, but she pays herself a wage and keeps three trainees employed, and she enjoys her work. Her father, who is also a constituent, has advised her to close the business and save all the hassle that goes along with self-employment and running a business. Is it not a tragedy that a father feels he has to say that to his energetic and business-focused daughter?
Let us look at this woman’s options and the consequences. She could follow her father’s advice and close her business, putting four people out of work. That would involve vacating the premises and creating an empty shop on one of the small high streets in my constituency. She could lay off a member of staff to reduce the income to below the threshold and de-register for VAT, although perhaps still charge the VAT-hiked prices and see whether clients will pay. This is a simple but brutal example of the anti-business growth of our present VAT rules. I have been frustrated by this for a long time—as an accountant and in politics—because we have been trapped in this position. We have no control over it because we are operating under the EU VAT directive.
I would go further than my hon. Friend has proposed in his Bill so far. It is wonderful to have a Treasury Minister in the Chamber, because I have written a number of times to a number of Chancellors on this subject, and I have the opportunity to make my argument again verbally today. Where other thresholds exist, such as for income tax, national insurance and stamp duty, there is an exemption on charges for amounts up to the threshold, with payments made only against the remaining amount over the threshold limit. If, in the case of any small business, we made VAT payable only on income above the threshold, we would offer a sliding scale of price increases or sales volume that would support the business and encourage the employment of more staff, unlike with the disincentive of the dramatic cliff edge at £85,000. Whether we are talking about £100,000 or £20,000, the effect is the same: there is a cliff edge from paying no VAT to entering the VAT world, with all the commensurate costs, stress and extra time spent dealing with it. It seems odd that there is no threshold step for VAT, just a cliff edge.
In the context of small business as a whole, the threshold is very low, despite the fact that it is one of the higher ones in the EU. It is an excellent start to see the Bill’s proposal of, in the first instance, raising the threshold to £104,000. Should this excellent Bill gain Government support and make progress, however, I would propose to go further and call on the Treasury to make all income below the threshold exempt from VAT, with further turnover up to a certain point—for example, £150,000—having VAT charged only on that marginal trading activity. Businesses could then carry the sales tax burden across all sales without having to force it on the customer in the hard way that happens now. This is important for the small business cohort; we are not talking about businesses whose turnover has reached £1 million and are employing 10, 15, 20 or more people. We are talking about the small business that suddenly falls under the complex and heavy burden of VAT, which is genuinely having an anti-competitive effect on them. We are doing ourselves and our businesses no favours at all.
The approach I am setting out would give small businesses a window of growth and investment opportunity, and the chance to take on more staff, before being hit with a 20% surcharge on all sales. Such a fairer, graduated system would level the playing field between small below-the-threshold firms and those growing businesses. It would stimulate growth in the small independent retail sector and might even be a policy that could help to revitalise our empty high street shops.
The Bill offers much more besides increasing the threshold for VAT for small businesses, as it takes up the long-overdue opportunity to exempt some critical goods from VAT altogether once we have left the EU and the limitations that the EU’s VAT directive forced upon us in 2006. The directive aimed to harmonise VAT across the European Union. Although it makes cross-border sales activity easier and has some merit for the simplification of sales taxes, it has limited any individual country’s ability to determine whether or not to exempt goods from VAT. VAT on fuel has been a matter of contention for years. To his credit—everyone take note, because I am not going to say that very often—the then Chancellor, Gordon Brown, brought that tax levy down to 5%, which was a very creditable decision, but under the EU directive, he had no independent authority to scrap it completely.
Let us consider the position for my poorest constituents in rural Northumberland—“deepest, darkest rural Northumberland”, as my mother refers to some of my more wonderful and hard-to-reach communities. In these areas, the choice in heating solutions is limited to wood, coal, expensive electric heating, which often does not work when the weather is really bad, or oil tanks, assuming the snow does not prevent the tanker from getting to a farm in the first place. There is no mains gas, so people do not have the opportunity of consumers in more urban areas of choosing a supplier from a competitive range of offers. The 5% VAT levy adds to their already higher than average heating cost burden, because all those other products are just more expensive. It would be a wise Government, after Brexit, who at last agreed that rural poverty—it has been ignored for far too long by Whitehall, in my humble opinion—could be alleviated in the first instance by removing this tax. As my hon. Friend identified, there might be an initial cost to the Exchequer of up to £1.6 billion, but the policy would have a broad range of principled and practical social and health benefits. The Government’s commitment to those is clear by their words, but such a change would make that clear by their actions, too.
If my rural constituents are disadvantaged by VAT on fuel supplies to keep their families warm, how much worse is it that our own Government could not unilaterally determine—nor indeed manage to persuade the EU while we have still been within its laws—that a 5% tax on sanitary products is a direct discriminatory charge against all women of menstruating age? A friend said to me on learning that I was going to speaking in support of my hon. Friend’s Bill today that
“women really ought to have tax deductions for being female—what with tampons and tights that ladder, being expected to wear makeup and have changes of wardrobe, you all should get a discount from the Government”
I concur wholeheartedly, as I am sure you do, Madam Deputy Speaker, although that might be a step too far for the Treasury. A small and immediately helpful step in that direction would be to scrap VAT on all sanitary products, and indeed on incontinence products, which are also listed in the Bill. This outrageous tax puts these things into the “luxury items” category of products and reminds me that we have far to go to make sure that policy making has common sense at its heart.
It is wonderful that, as in the battles for women’s voting rights 100 years ago, there are men like my hon. Friend leading the charge to change the law in support of women’s rights and fairness. There have been excellent campaigns from across this House in recent years to push the Government to effect change, and the Bill is the next step to get this VAT discrimination sorted out. By scrapping VAT on sanitary products and making them exempt, as is the case for food and children’s clothes, this Government would be sending a clear message that they understand that the tax system can be an incentiviser or a punisher. For too long, I have been shocked that the EU has chosen to continue to ignore this call for fairness, allowing—no, forcing—women to have to pay more for sanitary products, which are an indispensable part of our daily lives, to boost Treasury coffers across Europe. I look forward to hearing from the Treasury in the Budget that follows our departure from the EU that it has understood and will immediately remedy this discriminatory tax.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that if we do not leave on 29 March without a deal, people will have had their expectations raised that we will have left the EU, but will be frustrated by knowing that such issues cannot be resolved by this Parliament?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Personally, I would rather leave with a deal that ensures that the bucket of issues that have to be sorted out are dealt with as we move forward from our legacy relationship into a new relationship, because that would make things easier for everybody, but the approach has to be right. The reality is that until we have left the EU, we have to follow the VAT directive, which means that we are not able to control that part of our tax law. I am grateful that we are leaving and that we will not move into the whole area of tax that the EU is looking to take control of across the board, which is a terrifying issue of taxation without representation. I am very glad that the British people have decided to step off the EU train before we move into that part of its policy making.
It would be a shocking failure not to remedy the discriminatory tax on sanitary products, so I hope that, in the most visible and practical of senses, the Government appreciate that constituents feel we have lost the ability to make good choices. We must take the opportunity, as soon as possible, to set the train in the right direction on this issue.
The VAT directive may not sound sexy or dramatic, but it has long been one of my most hated of all the directives under which we have had to work as members of the EU, as it emasculates Chancellors of whatever political colour in critical policy areas and disenfranchises us from being able to support small business, our poorest and, indeed, the female 52% of our population. It has meant that in a major area of tax policy, we have had to suffer taxation without representation for far too long. We will be able to send the clear message to the senior people in the EU Commission who determine, without oversight, what EU laws should be, that as in so many policy areas, the UK will lead the way in improving our citizens’ lives. I commend the Bill to the House and wish it every success in reaching deep into the Treasury’s conscience, which I know is there, so that we can make these proposals a reality after 29 March.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) on getting one of his many private Members’ Bills to Second Reading. I thank him for giving such a comprehensive history of VAT in the early part of his speech and for his forensic analysis of each part of the Bill.
At first, I thought that the subject of the Bill seemed rather dry, but the more I looked into it, the more interesting it became. Prior to my entering this place, I ran my own marketing business, which was registered for VAT. I did not see being registered for VAT as a hindrance; I saw it as a sign of success, as it meant that my turnover was growing and quite substantial. Some business owners I spoke to were concerned that splitting VAT on a quarterly basis was quite onerous. I always found that the quarterly returns helped me to focus on the financial side of my business and provided an opportunity for a regular review. They helped me to review my business costs and the charging structure for my marketing services. In effect, I was carrying out a quarterly audit that helped me to keep my business on the straight and narrow over the 19 years for which I ran it. Some businesses may have criticised me for carrying out such a check only every three months, but it worked for me.
We are debating whether the £85,000 VAT threshold is the right one and if we should make provisions to exempt certain goods and services from VAT liability. In November 2017, the Office of Tax Simplification produced an excellent report. I must declare that I could be slightly biased, because the chair of the office is Angela Knight CBE. For those Members who are not fully aware of the political history of the Erewash constituency, Angela Knight was its Member of Parliament from 1992 to 1997. One of her claims to fame—among many, of course—was that she was the Treasury Minister responsible for the introduction of the £2 coin. She has had a varied and at times much-publicised career since leaving this place, and she was the perfect person to be appointed chair of the Office of Tax Simplification.
The views of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch on the EU are well known, and he has expressed them today. His Bill is timely, because Conservative Members want to take back control on 29 March. We need to make sure that the VAT threshold will encourage businesses to grow while at the same time maintaining the tax take for Government, because that pays for our vital public services. Members from all parties want to make sure that we have the right investment for our wonderful public services. The current £85,000 threshold is the highest general threshold in the OECD, so some may argue that we should consider lowering the threshold rather than looking to increase it.
Some anomalies have already been mentioned. The Bill proposes exemptions, including for domestic fuel and power and for repairs to historic buildings. We have also already discussed fitness equipment and the difference between cakes and biscuits. The prime example of the latter is Jaffa Cakes: if it is a cake, it is zero rateable, but if it is a biscuit, it is taxable. It has been deemed to be a cake, so it is zero rated. Closer to my heart are the gingerbread men made by Stacey’s bakery in my Erewash constituency. In my opinion, they are the best gingerbread men a person could buy in the whole country. If the gingerbread men have chocolate trousers, they are subject to VAT. If they just have chocolate eyes but no chocolate trousers, there is no VAT. In the interests of equality, why do we not have gingerbread ladies? If we did and they had chocolate dresses, would they be subject to VAT? I am sure that we could all highlight many more anomalies, but the ones I have mentioned help to illustrate just how important it is to ensure that any changes to VAT legislation are well thought through and appropriate.
I could spend a lot more time talking about whether higher or lower threshold levels encourage more or less entrepreneurship, or about the optimal threshold to maximise the tax take without stifling business, but I am sure all that will be thrashed out in Committee. VAT is the third largest source of tax revenue collected by HMRC, after income tax and national insurance contributions, so I am sure it is above my pay grade to recommend a new threshold to the Treasury. It is clear to me that we should not jeopardise the £120 billion collected in 2016-17—I am not sure of the figures for the following year—which represented 22.5% of all taxes. I fear that the removal of one tax would only result in the increase of another tax to balance the nation’s books.
In her zeal to leave the European Union, surely my hon. Friend has not forgotten that we will be able to keep a big dividend in the form of the £10 billion to £20 billion a year that we currently pay to the European Union. Why can we not spend that on our own priorities?
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup). She has highlighted how the VAT rules do somewhat take the biscuit when it comes to gingerbread men. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) has shown that, on Europe, we really cannot have our cake and tax it.
I wanted to clarify one point that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch made earlier in reference to me. He very kindly referred to me as a former senior Treasury adviser. In fact, I did serve a brief apprenticeship after leaving university at the Policy Research Unit when it was founded, but I then started my own business. I was never at the Treasury—although it can feel like that when running a business.
Interestingly, when I was a mortgage broker, I found that mortgages were exempt—mortgage commissions are exempt from VAT. We were very much of the belief that mortgages would one day be done online—this was back in 2004—and, of course, many of them now are. When we invested for the first time in a new souped-up piece of IT kit, we received a very expensive bill with VAT on it, which we could not offset, and that created many problems for us. Since then, we have diversified. Most of our income is VATable: we run a big home show at the QE2 and a property portal for shared ownership properties. It is a good business. The great frustration that I have with VAT is that it is very unpredictable in those quarterly comings and goings, particularly as we have a home show every six months. As my hon. Friend said, we should run our businesses as if we are reviewing them quarterly to make sure that we can fund them.
The key point that I wanted to touch on with this Bill is the issue of unfunded tax commitments—a central point on which, in effect, my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and I debated through interventions. We were joined by my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O'Brien) who was here earlier. That is not to say that any of the measures in this Bill would not be desirable. As I said earlier, I represent a rural constituency. Most of my constituents are on heating oil, so why would I object to cutting the VAT on heating oil? Of course I would not do so on principle. The same is true for sanitary products. My hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan) made a very good case for reducing the VAT on those to zero, which I am sure the Treasury will do once it has the power. The question is not necessarily about desirability, but, of course, about affordability.
My hon. Friend and I both have rural constituencies and constituents who do not keep their houses as warm as they should because the cost is too high. The question is one of breaking the silos of government to assess the differential in loss to the Treasury compared with the saving to the NHS for those health and lung issues that would not end up in the health service at all. The challenge, if we need to prove it before we make a change in policy, is how we do that across departmental boundaries.
Of course. Although that is a very good point, it does assume a competitive marketplace where that tax change would be passed on in full to the consumer, and it remains to be seen whether that would be the case.
The point that I was trying to make is that when the Labour party makes unfunded commitments, we talk about the magic money tree. I have to say that I was trying to keep a tally as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch was speaking, and he seems to have opened up something that we might call a wondrous wonga arboretum of revenues. At one point, we were looking at £7.6 billion, once we added in the heating exemptions and the potential increase in the threshold to half a million pounds. These are not inconsiderable sums of money. The key thing that we have to remember is that, yes, there are those who argue about dynamic effect on behaviour, which means that these things are revenue-neutral. Perhaps I am a small c conservative, like a former great Chancellor, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), whom I admire greatly. He was talking about this very Budget. He used to take the view that we should never rely on forecasts; everything has to be paid for. If we make a commitment, we have to find a corresponding item to fund it. I take that view as well. That is how one should run a business. It is cautious—one always assumes that there is a downside and an upside. Unfortunately, we now live in an era in which we cannot talk about downsides, because there is this “Project Fear” thing, but that is the sensible way of politics and prudence.
I rather doubt that the hon. Gentleman spent a great deal of his life at Labour party conferences back in the ’60s and ’70s. Had he done so, he would have recalled Barbara Castle’s blackboard—it is probably called a chalkboard now—on which she entered every single spending commitment ever agreed by the Labour party conference with two totals. Every time we made a spending commitment, we had to vire something in the other direction. Does he pay tribute, as many of us do, to the late Barbara Castle?
The hon. Gentleman is correct: I do not spend a lot of time at Labour party conferences. I am sure that, because he is there, it is huge fun. I know that he has a great sense of humour and so on. I never met Barbara Castle, but I am sure that it would have been a great honour to meet her. I do agree with that basic set of housekeeping accounts, which, by the way, the great Margaret Thatcher also used to believe in.
As my hon. Friend mentioned Barbara Castle, I want to put it on the record that she had the same education as I did. We went to the same school—Bradford Girls’ Grammar School. On both sides of the House, we can make sure that we chalk up our balances on the chalkboard—or the whiteboard as it would be now.
That is an excellent point. What worries me is that if we make unfunded commitments that do not result in the so-called dynamic behaviour that has been predicted and the Treasury loses revenue, the people who pay will not be us in this Chamber or anyone outside, but people who have not yet been born. We will stick the balance on the national credit card and, ultimately, the national debt. That is what happens if we do not take control of public finances.
I also want to talk about the transition period and leaving without a deal. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch seemed to suggest that we would benefit from not having a transition, because we would be able to vary VAT. He will remember that in his speech in the recent no-confidence debate—he spoke eloquently, although it took me some time to work out whether he had confidence in the Government or not—he advocated a WTO-terms exit. I intervened on him to ask what he would do about the 40% tariff on sheep meat, and he said to me that that was “Project Fear”.
In fact, if we leave without a deal, we will have to have the default WTO schedule, because there is nothing else. That schedule includes some very onerous tariffs indeed, not least for our farmers and exporters. In a debate about the cost to consumers of VAT, it is quite something to advocate allowing certain household items that we take for granted—such as dry pasta and tinned tomatoes—to be tariffed at 15% or 20% in a few weeks’ time. This is most significant for our exporters. In my constituency, I have household name companies—by that, I mean that they are very well known in the constituency—that have written to me about no deal. The matter is critical for them; in one case, the default tariff exceeds the margin that the company makes. That is serious stuff, which we need to be prepared for.
My hon. Friend is making an important point about tariffs on agricultural products. Does he agree that it is very difficult for farmers, who are dealing with living animals, to plan their sales in the most helpful way? I meet a farmer regularly—indeed, whenever I drop my children off at the school bus—who tells me that he is selling sheep at the moment, much earlier than he would have liked, because he is worried about the effect of no deal.
That is a good point. I was simply trying to make the point that we are talking about the impact of VAT on the consumer, yet if the no-deal scenario that some Members wish for happens, consumers will face onerous costs. By the way, even if we decided that we wanted to cut tariffs unilaterally, we could not; we are not taking back control of France, Germany and the rest. We cannot cut tariffs on our exports, and we would have far less leverage in trade deals. That is an extremely serious prospect, and we need to think about it.
I have a large number of lamb farmers in my constituency—the finest lamb comes from Northumberland, of course—and the challenge for them is: what are the Government preparing to do in the case of no deal? I certainly would not prefer that outcome; it would be much more constructive to have a deal. Should we leave without one, however, I hope very much that my Government will be prepared, and that there will be plans—contingency plans, if we want to call them that—in place to support the farming industry.
One of the great challenges has been the lack of communication from the Treasury and DEFRA. That is quite understandable, because we are still making our best endeavours to reach a deal, but there is a real difficulty in suggesting that it is therefore better to say we cannot have a no-deal scenario because of the risk. That leaves the business community at the greatest risk of facing challenges without knowing the answers.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. It will be the last intervention that I take, because I am a strong supporter of the Bill promoted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), and I want her to be able to speak to it shortly.
I want to finish with a point about productivity and investment, which has been made by several people. Going back to what I said earlier about IT and so on, the key to productivity is investment, and as a country we under-invest, relatively speaking. For most of the larger companies that want to invest, the ability to offset VAT is fundamental. If I had a wondrous wonga arboretum and I was told that I could cut some money for business tomorrow, I would go for business rates. I would do so because business rates are an on-cost that directly hits investment in small businesses, and I am convinced that they are what is holding back productivity in the SME sector. I will stop there, because I think the next Bill is an excellent one. I hope that if the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch makes progress, we will find a prudent and responsible way of implementing it.
I am delighted to be here today to discuss this fascinating subject—what a lovely way to spend a Friday morning!
Unlike most other taxes, VAT is paid by us all, and we all have an interest in ensuring that it is applied in the fairest and most effective way possible. As Members know, 16.8% of tax collected in 2018-19 is forecast to come from VAT, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility. With that in mind, we must weigh our words carefully. As we have rehearsed, we have to consider both the rate and the tax base of VAT, as VAT revenue goes towards the public services that most of us rely on. The significance of VAT to the Exchequer has fluctuated over the years. The total amount raised from VAT has grown over time from £57 billion in 1999 to 2000 to £122 billion in 2012-13, with the only sustained dip being in the years of the financial crisis, when VAT revenue dropped from £81 billion in 2007-08 to £74 billion in 2009-10. However, as we know, as a proportion of GDP it has increased only slightly, from 5.5% in 1999-2000 to 6.1% in 2016-17.
As we have discussed today—I think that almost every speaker has alluded to it—VAT does not affect our constituents equally. The most recent data from the Office for National Statistics shows that the poorest fifth of households paid 13% of their disposable income in VAT compared with 7% paid by the richest fifth of households. To quote the ONS,
“indirect taxes increase inequality of income.”
As we all know, different Governments have taken different approaches. Members with long memories—I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) is behind me, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) will be included in this group—may remember that it was a Conservative Government who first introduced VAT in 1973, another Conservative Government who raised it to 15%, and yet another Conservative Government who raised it to 17.5%. It was therefore a bit of a surprise when, ahead of the 2010 election, the Conservative party spokespeople said that they had
“absolutely no plans to increase VAT”
to 20%. I think I hardly need remind the House of what happened next, or of the fact that the headline rate of the VAT has remained at 20% since the coalition Government put it there. I always like to remember the Liberal Democrats at this point. They are not here today.
They are not anywhere today.
After considering these matters of history, let me touch on the question of which goods and services VAT is applied to. The choice of which goods and services we apply reduced rates to is political, not just technical. It is an example of the priorities we have as a society. We see that in some of the items that are exempt from VAT, such as sports activities because we want to encourage physical and mental health, and admission charges to museums, art exhibitions and education services because we think that that sort of thing is good for the education and mental health of our nation. There has been much discussion—I thank hon. Members in all parts of the House for this—about the imposition of VAT on sanitary products. When the rate was reduced by the last Labour Government, it was the lowest rate permissible under European legislation. On the other hand, my party unveiled plans ahead of the 2017 general election to charge VAT on private school fees. The money we raised could have been used to pay for free school meals for all primary school children—a policy that has already been implemented at local level by some really insightful Labour councils, including my own in Newham.
The current Chancellor was reportedly considering copying the idea—if newspapers are ever to be believed.
I hear that.
We are told that the Chancellor was forced into ditching the policy only because Conservative Members were up in arms. It seems quite clear, therefore, that there are political rather than technical reasons for what we choose to exempt and not to exempt from VAT.
We should also understand that fraud continues to be a serious issue for the Exchequer in relation to the collection of VAT. On Government estimates, VAT fraud currently costs the UK about half a billion pounds a year, with an extra £1.5 billion of uncollected debts and around £100 million of avoidance. VAT fraud was discussed at length during the Committee stage of the Finance Bill in October 2017, when the Government introduced a new clause to place new obligations on fulfilment houses to help tackle VAT fraud, which has worsened with the rise of online sellers who obtain goods through third-party vendors based abroad.
The Opposition believe that small businesses need more support in getting to grips with the tax if we are ever to close the VAT gap. The situation has been worsened by the Government’s disaster-struck attempts to transition to making tax digital, which have thankfully been delayed until next year to give businesses the chance to adapt.
Many of us spend a large proportion of our lives online, so it is unsurprising that more UK consumers than ever buy a larger proportion of their goods through online marketplaces such as Amazon, eBay and others. In 2016, 14.5% of UK retail sites were online—up from 2% in 2006. Just over 50% of these sales were through online marketplaces, rather than directly from the seller.
The Campaign Against VAT Fraud on eBay & Amazon in the UK—a snappy title, which was possibly created by accountants—estimated that online VAT fraud
“equates to £27 billion in lost sales revenue”
“additional taxes to UK businesses and the public purse in the last 3 years.”
Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has stated that it does not have data on online fraud and other losses before 2015-16.
Sadly, the slowness of HMRC in responding to growing fraud online has been criticised by the Public Accounts Committee, which first raised concerns in April 2013. It found that HMRC had only recently begun to tackle the problem seriously, despite the fact that such fraud leads to significant loss of revenue to the Exchequer. It found that HMRC, rather than trying to use its existing powers, waited until the introduction of new measures under the Finance Act 2016 before even attempting to hold online marketplaces responsible for the VAT fraudulently evaded by traders. HMRC has been too cautious in using these powers, and the Government have refused to name and shame complacent traders. To my knowledge, they have not prosecuted a single one for committing online VAT fraud.
As the UK leaves the protection of the EU VAT area, the possibility of VAT fraud will, arguably, rise. It is therefore logical that any new legislation on VAT should consider additional measures to tackle online VAT fraud. I understand from the Treasury Committee that HMRC believes there is a £3.5 billion VAT gap resulting from mistakes made by businesses when they submit their VAT returns. The overall VAT gap in 2016-17 was £11.7 billion. I am sure we can all agree that that is a high number and therefore probably requires some fairly urgent, radical action.
The Chartered Institute of Taxation has six recommendations to help address this gap. I want to focus on just one of them today, in the interests of time and sanity, which is
“resisting the temptation to introduce widespread changes that are disruptive to the majority of compliant businesses”.
Possibly, this connects to a concern about the clause we are addressing.
I am aware that there is something of a live debate on registration thresholds. There were several briefings ahead of last year’s Budget that moves were afoot to reduce the threshold and force more small businesses to register for VAT. There are, I honestly believe, arguments both in favour and against such an approach. I have actually debated this over my breakfast table with my husband, who just happens to be a small business owner. A concern about the threshold is not an argument for a particular threshold, because I think the only way to address such a concern would be to reduce the threshold to zero, which is something we certainly do not support. Conservative Members may claim that by setting the threshold too low we are disincentivising businesses. There are some who claim that the existence of health and safety legislation or, indeed, employment law is a disincentive to business—I know that to be true because I have done many Friday mornings—so we should be very careful where that argument takes us.
There is much in this Bill that I am sure the hon. Member for Christchurch would agree needs further consultation. First, I am not sure how the shift in threshold for registering taxable supplies in this Bill, from £85,000 to £104,000, has been worked out. It would be great if the hon. Gentleman, in his summing up, could let me know. It would also be useful to know how much consultation has gone into the exemptions for the use of coal, oil and gas as domestic fuel or power, because it is not clear to me that, as we seek to reduce fossil fuel emissions, the use of such fuels should be subsidised. I am sure he would agree that, again, this needs a broader consultation and consideration of how such a measure sits alongside other measures being taken, including by this Government—
Let me finish my sentence. Such consultation should include how such a measure sits comfortably alongside other measures being taken by the Government—for example, through the Climate Change Act 2008. If I finish the next bit, just to wrap it all up, the hon. Gentleman may find that easier. I wonder how workable or sensible it is to propose exempting VAT from items already subject to excise duty, such as alcohol and tobacco, and whether this could be counterproductive as it could amount to two policy measures pulling in different directions, with excise duty increases to try to discourage consumption and a VAT exemption in effect reducing the price.
Does the hon. Lady recall—perhaps she does not—the 1993 Christchurch by-election, after the Government had introduced VAT on fuel? In that by-election, the Government’s argument for introducing VAT on fuel was that it would promote fuel efficiency, and the electorate in Christchurch gave the Government’s argument a big raspberry.
Can I say that I am not at all surprised—not at all—by that? No, I do not remember the 1993 Christchurch by-election. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that, after I have driven to my friends’ this evening, I will ask them to look it up for me so that as soon as I get my gin and tonic, I will have an opportunity to refresh my memory of the politics of that by-election.
I am genuinely delighted—I mean this sincerely, which is why I wanted to say this at the end—that the hon. Gentleman wants to exempt women’s sanitary products through this Bill. There has been ongoing work, driven by some of my Labour colleagues and, to be fair, by some Conservative Members as well, to allow lower VAT rates or even a zero rating for sanitary products. I wholeheartedly agree, and I genuinely believe that we should be striving massively to do it. There is real poverty in some sections of our communities and poverty in relation to sanitary products really should not be exacerbated by having VAT on them. In January last year, the European Commission came back to us with revised proposals to allow countries in the EU to introduce lower rates for sanitary products, and in part that was in response to campaigns from this Chamber. As we know, the proposals still have to be agreed at EU level, and of course the UK has yet to finalise its relationship with the EU.
This has been a genuinely interesting debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Christchurch for entertaining me so thoroughly on a Friday morning. He will be unsurprised to hear that should the Bill be pressed to a vote, sadly I will not be able to support him in the Lobby.
From the heart-warming and uplifting bravery of Finn and his fellow service dogs, to VAT—such is the unique ability of the Treasury to change the mood in the Chamber. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) for promoting this Bill and raising these issues, and all hon. Members across the House who have had the chance to contribute today. In my experience, my hon. Friend’s rather dim view of the bean-counting accountants at the Treasury is unfair to the excellent civil servants who work there. My office has a portrait of Nigel Lawson on the wall. He was one of the great Chancellors who understood the dynamic effect of simpler and lower taxes.
Part of the time.
I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), and for Erewash (Maggie Throup)—not “ear wash” as it was pronounced in the previous debate by my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge), who is the voice of small c conservatism in this place. The hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) made a fleeting cameo appearance in the debate to recommend Barbara Castle, who I agree was one of the great politicians of the 20th century. Modern politics might have been different if she had been able to take forward the reforms that she set about in the late 1960s. Briefly—he is no longer in his place—my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien) set out the twin pillars that any Conservative Chancellor must balance: sound money and respect for the public finances so that we do not leave the next generation worse off than we found it, and the liberating dynamic effect of lower taxes. Every Chancellor has the opportunity to balance the two responsibly and drive the economy forward, and that is very much the context for this debate.
The Government champion small business people and entrepreneurs, who are the backbone of our economy. A simple tax system helps those individuals and the businesses they create to operate in a productive and profitable manner, as we heard from numerous colleagues across the House. We want to find opportunities wherever we can to help them move their businesses forward.
Under UK VAT rules, UK businesses must register for VAT once their total taxable turnover crosses the threshold, which is currently set at £85,000. Businesses can de-register if their turnover falls below £83,000. The Government recognise that accounting for VAT can be burdensome on small businesses, but it should not be over-estimated—our research shows that the cost to a small business of meeting its VAT responsibilities is generally around £300 a year. That is not inconsiderable, but it is perhaps not as much as some might suggest.
We want to maintain a VAT threshold that supports small businesses, and we do. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash, the United Kingdom’s VAT threshold is the highest in the European Union and the OECD. To put that in context, the EU average is €33,000, and $44,000 in the OECD. The German threshold is only £15,600, and ours is £85,000. We compare extremely favourably with our competitors around the world. That benefits 3.5 million UK businesses that are not required to account for or pay VAT—not half of all small businesses, but 60%. It is also worth noting the large and growing number of enterprises in the sharing economy, such as individuals taking up Airbnb businesses, generally below the VAT threshold, providing the kinds of services that might, in an era before the technology was available, be provided by VAT-registered businesses such as hotels and B&Bs.
Views on the right level at which to set the threshold are divided, despite the fact that it is, by international comparisons, very generous. Two years ago, the Chancellor asked the Office of Tax Simplification to examine the impact of making the threshold higher or lower. We did not prejudice that research; we asked the OTS to come forward with its views. Its report, published in November 2017—colleagues have quoted it today—found that the relatively high level of the threshold in the UK has a distortionary effect on business growth.
One reason for that, as we have already heard, is the “bunching” phenomenon, whereby small businesses limit their turnover to remain below the threshold. In the same way that welfare reform improves the ability of individuals to work extra hours or take a promotion, we do not want to discourage entrepreneurs from taking on an extra client, expanding their business or growing their sales. The bunching effect is significant, and raising the threshold somewhat, for example to £100,000, would not eliminate it; it would just move the problem further up the chain.
As a result of that report, the Chancellor committed to explore whether the design of the threshold could better incentivise growth. He launched a call for evidence in March last year, to understand the effects of the threshold on small businesses and ways of easing the burden once they become VAT-registered. During the call for evidence, businesses raised concerns, not dissimilar to those we have heard today, about the administrative and financial implications of registration, but there was no clear consensus on reform. That was not obfuscation of the kind alluded to by my hon. Friend; there was simply no clear answer on how to proceed. Numerous businesses wanted the threshold to be increased, and numerous wanted it to be decreased. The Chancellor therefore announced that the Government would maintain the threshold at its current level of £85,000 until March 2022, taking a balanced approach, with the UK continuing to lead the EU and the OECD in support for small businesses in this manner.
That suggestion, which my hon. Friend set out so eloquently in her speech, has been discussed on many occasions. It is an interesting proposal, but it would have significant fiscal implications, and it would mean that any business would be able to take advantage of that; large multinational corporations would benefit, not just small and medium-sized businesses. However, it is something we might consider in future.
The Minister says that the consultation outcome was inconclusive, but paragraph 4.34 states:
“Above all, the most consistent response regarding the level of the VAT threshold was that a reduction in the threshold would be damaging for UK business and the economy.”
Paragraph 4.35 states:
“Many responses committed to the view that an increase to the threshold would make it much easier for newly-registered businesses”
and so on. Was not the balance actually in favour of raising the threshold?
As one might expect, many people wanted it to be increased, but a very large number of those who took part in the survey came to the conclusion that the bunching effect that my hon. Friend described, which is the fundamental issue here, would simply be kicked further down the road if we increased the threshold to £100,000. Of course, if one increased it to a very large figure such as £500,000 or £1 million, that might be of less concern because it would take out a swathe of small and medium-sized businesses, but the fiscal cost would be even higher. While I am the first person to seek a dynamic approach to taxation and lower taxes, we have to balance those two considerations and ensure that we do not live beyond our means as a country. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk said, taken together the proposals in the Bill carry a significant fiscal cost of several billion pounds, which I will mention briefly later.
The Bill proposes a threshold of £104,000. We already have the highest in the EU and OECD, so we lead the international business community in that respect. There is no evidence to suggest that the policies that the Government have adopted are leading to a diminution in the number of small businesses created in this country. There is a new start-up every 75 seconds. We are the start-up capital of Europe. We are the most dynamic and supportive economy in the world for entrepreneurs. If the UK economy has any challenge in this respect, it is how to help a business to scale up into a much more substantial business, far beyond the VAT threshold. We have been trying to tackle that issue in a number of ways that I do not have time to discuss today.
The measure is expensive, as we have heard. Its estimated cost to the Exchequer would be about £2.1 billion per year. I take my hon. Friend’s point that it might have a dynamic effect and that we need to take such things into consideration. It can be a criticism of the Treasury and the OBR that the processes that we have created in the past 15 years make it much harder to take the kind of attitude that a Chancellor such as Nigel Lawson would have taken in the 1980s. None the less, there is a substantial fiscal cost to the measure. The loss in revenue has to be balanced by reduced public spending, increased borrowing or increased taxation elsewhere, all of which we want to avoid. While we support the desire to improve business growth, concerns remain that increasing the threshold would simply shift the problem higher up the level.
I want to mention some of the issues that my hon. Friend and others spoke about. I know that many right hon. and hon. Members care strongly about VAT on women’s sanitary products, as do I, and wish to see change as soon as possible. The Government have taken action to address the issue, but we have been unable to succeed as a result of our continued membership of the EU. There will be opportunities for reform in the future, but not until the UK leaves the EU or after the end of the implementation period, should there be a deal, which we hope there will be. At that point, we will have the opportunity to address some of the issues.
It is worth saying that since the referendum on leaving the EU, the Government have received in excess of £40 billion of requests for reliefs from VAT using the additional flexibilities that we may have when we leave the EU. In addition, numerous other requests have been made to us, whether on excise duties or air passenger duty. In aggregate, these produce a substantial cost to the Exchequer, which would harm our ability to fund public services. We have to be realistic about our ability to act and to reform these taxes once we leave the EU.
It is not a secret. These matters are frequently discussed in the House. If my hon. Friend comes to Treasury questions, he will hear debates from colleagues who have regional airports, who would like us to reduce air passenger duty. He will hear colleagues from Northern Ireland asking us to reduce the aggregates tax so that they can increase their competitive position with the Republic of Ireland. There are numerous requests for us to use the freedoms that we will have when we leave the EU. We may be able to meet some of them, but we will have to do so judiciously. If we did all of them, as I think he might wish, we would end up with tens, if not hundreds, of billions of pounds less revenue with which to fund our public services, but he is absolutely right to want a good public debate in the years ahead about how we do this.
The Government agree that women’s sanitary products should not be subject to VAT and, in the Finance Act 2016, introduced measures to enable the zero rating of VAT for women’s sanitary products to take effect as soon as legally possible. In the meantime, at 5%, the UK applies the lowest VAT rate currently possible under EU law.
Until we are legally able to remove this tax, the Government will continue to award £15 million a year to women’s charities—equivalent to the amount of VAT raised for the Exchequer from the sale of women’s sanitary products. To date, over 70 charities have received grants from the tampon tax fund and £62 million has been allocated since autumn statement 2015. This is a ridiculous and unfair tax that we want to remove as soon as we have ability. Rest assured, this Chancellor and this Government will do so.
In summary, I thank my hon. Friend for raising these issues and for the good debate we have had today. I would not always say this, but he is ahead of his time in raising these issues. The flexibilities he wants are not available today but might be in the years ahead. This prompts an important national debate about how we can continue to champion small businesses and have a tax system that supports enterprise and entrepreneurship long into the future. Unfortunately, at the present time, under EU law, we cannot act on many, if not all the measures, he has set out and so cannot support the Bill.
I thank everyone who has participated in the debate. We have raised a lot of issues that, once we have left the EU on 29 March, we can develop into important legislative proposals.
I am grateful to the Minister for reminding me of the time I spent in the Treasury as a PPS to the noble Lord Lawson, who did indeed understand the dynamic effect of tax reductions and who—incidentally—has since been a consistent critic of the ridiculous waste of public expenditure consequent on the Climate Change Act 2008 in his work for the Global Warming Policy Foundation, for which we should all pay him great tribute.
The Minister mentioned women’s sanitary products. He called the tampon tax ridiculous and unfair, saying we must abolish it as soon as possible, but he manifestly failed to say when. Does that not sum up the problem with the EU? It is always delaying and delaying while lacking the will to do anything. It duped us during the Cameron negotiations into thinking we could get our own way on this ridiculous tax, yet it has failed to deliver since 2016, and my hon. Friend still does not know when it will deliver—we will, I hope, have left the EU before it happens.
I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) and for Erewash (Maggie Throup) for their contributions. I hope that they will participate in the ongoing debate that I hope will develop across the country as people realise that VAT is no longer in a closed category and can be debated openly. Perhaps we will get to see the £40 billion shopping list of costings, too, because the public should be debating these things. We are bringing back control to this House partly to have more control over this great area of taxation, so why not have a much more rational and transparent debate?
I am grateful to the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), who identified important issues around online VAT fraud. My hon. Friend the Minister was not able to respond on those issues in his remarks, but we should not allow that to pass unremarked, because if there is an £11.7 billion gap, we should be putting a lot of resource into seeing what we might be able to do about it.
I could not agree with the hon. Member for West Ham about VAT on school fees, but I do agree that we in this country should have the right to decide such issues for ourselves. If there were a Labour Government—God forbid—who imposed VAT on school fees, would it not be ridiculous if an incoming Conservative Government were then not able to remove VAT on school fees completely because, under existing EU law, they would have to leave VAT on school fees at the level of 5%? How ridiculous and undemocratic is that?
I have two options: withdraw the Bill, or put it to a vote of the House. I am confident that were I to put it to a vote, it would get a Second Reading, but I do not think there would be sufficient time in Committee and on Report to do it justice in this Session, and as my hon. Friend the Minister said, there is still the problem that we have not yet got to 29 March, so there are some things up in the air. It is easy for the Government to defend themselves against policy changes by saying that there is uncertainty, but I hope that that uncertainty will be resolved on 29 March. To remove the uncertainty relating to this Bill, however, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion, by leave, withdrawn.