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Individual Savings Accounts: AIM Shares

Volume 734: debated on Tuesday 31 January 2012


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will reconsider their decision not to allow shares traded on the Alternative Investment Market to be eligible for Individual Savings Accounts.

My Lords, individual savings accounts, or ISAs, are the Government’s main tax incentive for non-pensions savings, and they offer a simple, straightforward and trusted brand. The Government believe it is important that ISAs continue to hold these characteristics. AIM shares tend to present a higher level of risk, and can be less liquid. For those reasons, the Government do not intend to make them an eligible investment for the ISA wrapper.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer, which once again is disappointing. I thought that the policy of the coalition Government was to encourage personal choice and, indeed, investment in our smaller and growing companies. The arguments for including AIM stocks in ISAs are very strong. They are supported by the Stock Exchange and the Quoted Companies Alliance, as they were by noble Lords on all sides of the House when the question was raised a year ago. Their eligibility would widen the shareholder base, improve liquidity and facilitate fund-raising. What is the logic of AIM stocks being included in SIPPs but not in ISAs?

My Lords, this is a Question that we come back to on a regular basis and my answers are going to sound boringly repetitive. I see the noble Lord, Lord Myners, in his place. He answered this Question in the dying days of the previous Government. The simple fact is that the ISA is a trusted brand in which more than 23 million adults—45 per cent of the adult population—hold shares, and we need to protect that trusted brand and the suite of products within it. On the other hand, the Government have taken a range of measures to support small businesses. In relation to SIPPs, the liquidity requirements of an ISA with a 30-day withdrawal period, in particular, are very different from what might be the case when locking up shares for the long term in a pension savings product.

My Lords, I think that I understand the noble Lord’s answer but surely the main criterion that ought to be applied to ISAs is: do we have a system that maximises people’s propensity to save using ISAs? If it can be demonstrated that the Alternative Investment Market will do that, even if it is more risky—and, incidentally, people ought to know that all investments are risky—surely it still makes sense for the Government to widen the range of assets, assuming that that encourages people to save.

My Lords, I am very happy to confirm that ISAs have indeed been a very successful product. As I said, 45 per cent of the population over the age of 16 hold them. On the latest numbers that I have seen, the total value of ISAs is £350 billion. It was a successful initiative of the previous Government. It is the main savings product of a large part of the population and we should not do anything to undermine the value of that brand.

Can my noble friend name any organisation, any professional body or any serious investment commentator that supports the Government’s policy?

My Lords, it depends what question they are asked and what the considerations are. I can see that lots of people have an interest in wanting AIM shares to be eligible for ISAs. However, I suspect that if they were also asked whether they wished to see AIM shares lose some of the tax benefits that they have in the way of eligibility for enterprise investment schemes and venture capital trusts and particularly the inheritance tax advantage that comes with their status as business property relief, they might not be so keen on this change.

My Lords, would the Minister care to remind the House of the scale of the collapse of companies on the AIM market? Perhaps I may say that I support the Government’s position.

My Lords, the AIM market has been very successful, and I do not want to say anything to suggest that it is not. However, it is true that the number of shares on that market has come down from a peak of about 1,700 to the current figure of about 1,140, and of course there has been a similar decline in the value of the market. Therefore, it is a successful market but one that has a range of much smaller shares within it.

My Lords, I should declare my interest as a director of an AIM-listed company. Is not the cost the real reason that my noble friend is not prepared to agree to this proposal? How is that consistent with the Government’s declared policy of wanting to encourage investment in small businesses and start-up companies in order to get the growth in our economy which is desperately needed?

My Lords, first, I explained the reasons why the Government decided—as the previous Government rightly did—not to make AIM shares eligible. On the other hand, I am happy to summarise some of the measures to support small businesses that the Government are taking—for instance, credit easing, with up to £20 billion of lower-cost lending; £1 billion through the business finance partnership for mid-sized companies through non-bank lending channels; greater tax relief for EIS and VCT schemes; more than £500 million going into venture capital funds, including through business angel co-investment funds; and the extension of the enterprise finance guarantee. I could go on.

My Lords, the noble Lord referred to the problem of devaluing the brand by including riskier assets. To what degree was the brand devalued when ISAs were extended from cash ISAs to share ISAs?

My Lords, it is entirely appropriate, because ISAs are the main savings vehicle for people in this country, that a range of products, both cash and equity and debt products, should be eligible for an ISA. As I explained, there is an appropriate line to be drawn, and it is where the previous Government and this Government drew it. This Government are fully continuing on AIM with the previous Government's policy.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a holder of ISAs who has no desire to invest in AIM. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, made a major point to which the Minister did not reply. It is totally inadequate to keep saying that the Government are not going to do it. Will the Minister not at least reconsider it?

My Lords, there are no plans to reconsider it. My noble friend Lord Forsyth put up another possible reason why the Government might not want to make the change. I said that the Government were not making the change for the reasons that I first gave.