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Surplus Target: Corporation Tax

Volume 773: debated on Monday 4 July 2016


My Lords, I shall now repeat as a Statement the Answer to an Urgent Question made by the Chancellor in the other place.

“Mr Speaker, I have always sought to level with the British people about the economic challenges we now face, but to mix that realism with reassurance that we can rise to those challenges. The financial contingency plans that the Governor of the Bank of England and I put in place have proved effective to date. Financial markets have adjusted, but I can report today that they have shown no signs of disorder.

The next task is to be ready to respond to the developments in the real economy. This will require a supreme national effort. Here are the five steps we should now take. First, we need to look to support demand and make sure credit flows freely in our economy. The governor said on Friday that,

“some monetary policy easing will likely be required over the summer”.

Thanks to the reforms that I have introduced, the independent Bank has the tools it needs to act against the cycle and support lending in the economy. The Financial Policy Committee will publish its decisions tomorrow, and we stand ready in the Treasury to act in concert with the Bank should more need to be done to support funding for lending.

The second part of our national effort must be to maintain Britain’s fiscal credibility. Eight years ago, people questioned Britain’s ability to pay its way in the world. Eight years later, British gilts are seen as a safe haven and funding costs have fallen to record lows. We should maintain the fiscal consolidation measures we have announced, but our rules were always explicit that in the face of what the charter calls a “significant negative shock”, we should allow the automatic stabilisers to operate. With the consensus of economic forecasters now lowering the forecast growth for the UK next year from close to 2% to 0.4%, that we will do. We have to be realistic that the target for a surplus is unlikely to be achieved in 2019-20. The OBR will conduct a formal assessment when it produces a new independent forecast in the autumn, and then we will have a clear idea of what additional measures are required to maintain fiscal credibility.

Thirdly, we should broadcast loud and clear the message that Britain remains the best place in the world to do business. Over the past six years, I have reduced Britain’s corporation tax from 28% to 20% today and 17% in the future. I did that at the same time as taking difficult decisions elsewhere to balance the books. In my view, the strongest signal we could send to the world that Britain, after this referendum, is open to the world and ready to do business would be to cut corporation tax still further. We should aim for a rate of 15%, and preferably lower, because if you are pro-business, you are pro-jobs, pro-living standards and pro-working people.

Fourthly, the referendum result revealed a deep-seated feeling of disfranchisement in too many of our communities, especially in the Midlands and the north of England. As I said in Manchester on Friday, devolving power and building a northern powerhouse is the right response, and we need to double down on those efforts. We will have new elected mayors, and new transport and science investments, and projects such as HS2 and HS3 are more necessary than ever. Once both parties have determined who their new leaders will be, we should take the decision quickly on where to build a new runway in the south-east. Britain cannot be open to the world if we cannot fly there.

Fifthly and finally, while we must seek the best possible terms of trade in goods and services, including financial services, with our European neighbours, now is the time also to redouble our efforts to promote trade with the rest of the world. I have already spoken to my US counterparts. Later this month I will travel to China to build on our important new partnership.

This is a blueprint to meet our economic challenge. Nothing positive will come from looking back in anger. We must lift our eyes to the horizon ahead and make the best of what is to come”.

My Lords, I will make four quick points. Does this announcement not show a woeful lack of contingency planning? How could any reasonable man who threatened a £30 billion punishment Budget a few weeks ago turn round today and say that what is needed is a corporation tax giveaway? Why was this announcement not made to Parliament and accompanied by a proper OBR appraisal? Given last week’s abandonment of the 2020 surplus, of which we approve, how can the Chancellor claim to be maintaining the UK’s financial credibility? Has a single target he has set since 2010 been met? Why has the Chancellor started a negotiation with the EU by declaring a tax dumping war? As the former World Trade Organization chief Pascal Lamy said,

“if you want a proper balanced, win-win relationship in the future, starting with tax competition is not the right way psychologically to prepare this negotiation”.

My Lords, in the interests of time, I shall try to be brief. In the framework that has existed over the past six years there has been a well-identified escape clause in the event that GDP is foreseen to go below 1% for four consecutive quarters. That is the circumstance in which our decision within the country last week has left us, hence the Chancellor’s Statement. On corporation tax, it is intended and recommended that that is an appropriate response to show to the world at large that Britain remains open for business.

My Lords, I will pursue the response the noble Lord just gave. First, the week before the referendum result the Chancellor talked about an emergency Budget; now he is talking about a tax giveaway. Are any fiscal rules still in place? Secondly, the aim is to reduce corporation tax to at least 15%. Current government plans are to reduce it to 17% by 2020. By what year does the Chancellor intend that a 15% rate might be introduced? Finally, does the Minister accept that there will now be immediate problems for many small and medium-sized businesses, which will see many of their purchasers’ decisions put on hold while we have this tremendous uncertainty in the economy? Will he therefore ask the Chancellor to provide a line of funding to the British Business Bank to provide lending, overdraft facilities and other support to small and medium-sized businesses, particularly innovative companies, which, frankly, simply will not be around to receive any corporation tax benefits in years to come unless they are given support now?

My Lords, in repeating the Chancellor’s Statement I clearly said that tomorrow the Financial Policy Committee will report on its recommendations and the Treasury remains in a position to act on whatever advice is given with respect to support for whatever area of business—small, large or otherwise—that may or may not require additional help. On corporation tax, as I also said, that is a recommendation of an appropriate policy response in the event of the decision we have made to send a message to the world that Britain remains open for business. I imagine that a specific policy will be put in place in line with the Autumn Statement plan as envisaged previously, once we have a new Prime Minister in place.

My Lords, it is fortunate that the Chancellor has remained in post, since it would have created enormous trauma in financial markets if not only the Prime Minister but the Chancellor had decided that he would not continue to deal with the immense problems we face. Can I ask two simple questions? First, as far as the corporation tax cut is concerned, will my noble friend tell us—I am sure he ought to do so—whether the Treasury estimates that this will increase or decrease revenue in the immediate future? Secondly, as far as the abandonment—I think that is the right word—of the target on the deficit reduction is concerned, that is clearly necessary to have greater flexibility in fiscal policy, but does he agree that it is essential that none the less the long-term objective of reducing the deficit is maintained?

My Lords, in response to my noble friend’s question, let me repeat that the fiscal charter, including all its rules, allowed specifically that if an external shock—in this case one that we essentially brought upon ourselves—would result in a four-quarter basis GDP forecast of less than 1% the framework could be adjusted. That is the environment in which the Chancellor made his comments in the other place, and that is what I am repeating here. With respect to the comments on corporation tax that are receiving so much attention, the Treasury will—as it always does—indicate what any cost or benefits revenue-wise or otherwise might be as and when a specific policy proposal is brought to Parliament.

May I correct the noble Lord? Brexit was not an external shock. It was an internal shock. It was a policy shock. Does the noble Lord think it is serious that we have lost our AAA credit rating? What is his estimate of the increase in borrowing costs we will face as a result of that?

My Lords, I notice to my right some noble Lords with strong views on and experience of these kinds of events. Let me just reflect on my own judgments, including some from my past life. Let me also quickly state that in the last week our long-term borrowing costs have gone down. It is the job in terms of policy to focus on doing what is right in the circumstances. I do not believe that we should react to or be excessively focused on what a rating agency may say one way or another. It is important that we do the right thing.

My Lords, can my noble friend help those people in the country who might be a bit puzzled as to why the Chancellor said a few days before the referendum that if we voted to leave the European Union interest rates and taxes would have to go up? Now we are faced with the proposition that taxes should be cut and interest rates might go down. Why did that strange transformation take place over such a short time in the Treasury?

My Lords, forecasts are forecasts and I have spent a considerable part of my life having that dubious challenge. We are dealing with an outcome as opposed to a forecast. From what I remember of the specifics, I do not remember a statement that interest rates “will” rise, I thought it was more that they “could” rise. Importantly, while the Chancellor has responded with the appropriate flexibility for the new circumstances we may find ourselves in, based on what the OBR comes up with in its new forecasts for the Autumn Statement, it may well be that there are still difficult choices to be made.

My Lords, is it not clear that the Government are not going to meet their borrowing targets? The Chancellor has said that. Is it not ludicrous against that background to be announcing today that there is going to be a cut in corporation tax costing £4 billion to the Exchequer? Can the Minister tell us what the position is going to be in the autumn? We will have a new Prime Minister, a new Chancellor of the Exchequer and a new OBR forecast. Can he guarantee that this announcement today will ever be carried out?

My Lords, I could give a very brief answer and say, “No, I can’t tell you what is going to happen in the autumn”. It is pretty hard these days to tell people what is going to happen next week.

Or tomorrow even. The process by which the Government’s fiscal position is influenced by the forecasts of the independent OBR is one of the few things that do not appear to have changed in the past week or so. That will set out the circumstances in which fiscal policy choices will be made by a new Prime Minister and the team under them.

My Lords, the Chancellor mentioned in his Answer disenfranchised people in the north and elsewhere. Will he give some thought to the idea that now is not the time to cut taxes, which may lead to loss of revenue, but to increase expenditure inasmuch as the fiscal charter allows us to break rules as long as we break them in the right way?

My Lords, I was very pleased to hear the Chancellor refer to that. We will indeed endeavour to put even more effort into rebalancing the economy of this country, including in the north, in the Midlands and possibly in other parts of the country as well.