My Lords, we are here to debate the annual Finance Bill, introduced in the other place following the Budget on 3 March. My right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer outlined a Budget with three key objectives: first, to protect jobs and livelihoods and provide additional support to get the British people and British businesses through the pandemic; secondly, to be clear about the need to fix the public finances once we are on the way to recovery and to start that work; thirdly, as we emerge from the pandemic, to lay the groundwork for a robust and resilient future economy. This Finance Bill enacts changes to taxation that support all those objectives.
The House will of course be aware of the severe public health and economic shock caused by the pandemic; at its peak, the economy shrank by 10%, the largest fall in more than 300 years. The Government have responded with an extraordinary package of support for the economy which, taking into account measures introduced in the 2020 Budget, is now estimated at £407 billion for this year and last year. This has been essential. Thanks to it and the rapid rollout of vaccinations, the Office for Budget Responsibility and other independent authorities now expect a swifter recovery than had previously been forecast. Indeed, the OBR expects the UK economy to recover to pre-crisis levels six months earlier than it did previously—in the second, rather than the fourth, quarter of 2022.
Our first objective is protecting jobs and livelihoods. There are positive signals that we are now on the right path, but it is crucial that we continue to support the economy over the coming months and deliver on the Budget’s first aim of protecting jobs and livelihoods. That is why the tax measures outlined in the Bill go further to support the economy. We are extending the 5% reduced VAT rate until 30 September to protect almost 150,000 hard-hit hospitality and tourism businesses which employ over 2.4 million people. To help those businesses manage the transition back to the standard rate, VAT will then increase to an interim rate of 12.5% from October until the end of March.
The Bill ensures that any business that took advantage of the original VAT deferral new payment scheme will be able to pay that deferred VAT in up to 11 equal payments from March 2021, rather than by one larger payment due by 31 March 2021. For those businesses that have been pushed into losses, the trading loss carry-back rule is being extended from the existing one year to three years for losses of up to £2 million. This will deliver a significant cash-flow benefit for eligible businesses.
The Bill also puts into legislation the temporary cut in stamp duty land tax, with a residential stamp duty nil rate band remaining at £500,000 in England and Northern Ireland until the end of June. This will be followed by a phased transition back to the normal rate. From 1 July 2021, it will fall to £250,000 until the end of September, before returning to £125,000 on 1 October. This extension helps buyers and supports jobs which rely on the property industry.
As well as protecting jobs and livelihoods, the Bill takes important steps to deliver on the second of the Budget’s key objectives: to strengthen public finances as we emerge from the pandemic. The coronavirus response, as we all know, created unprecedented challenges for the Exchequer. The first outturn estimates from the Office for National Statistics show borrowing for last year is estimated to have totalled £300 billion, or 14.3% of GDP. As we continue our response to this crisis, borrowing is forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility to be £234 billion this year, which is 10.3% of GDP. This means we are forecast to borrow more this year than during the financial crisis, an amount so large it has only one rival in recent history—last year. The Government need to balance this enormous support provided to the economy in the short term with the need to start to fix the public finances in the longer term. The Bill takes forward a number of measures to do this responsibly.
First, the income tax personal allowance will rise with the consumer prices index, as planned, to £12,570 from this month. This level will then be maintained until April 2026. The higher rate threshold also rises to £50,270 from this month and will then be maintained at this level until April 2026. These changes are a fair and progressive way to meet the fiscal challenge presented by the pandemic. For example, it is worth noting that the 20% highest-income households will contribute 15 times that of the 20% lowest-income households.
Secondly, the inheritance tax thresholds, the pensions lifetime allowance and the annual exempt amount in capital gains tax will be maintained at their 2020-21 levels until April 2026. Maintaining the pensions lifetime allowance at current levels affects only those with the largest pensions—those worth more than £1 million.
Thirdly, the Bill legislates for the rate of corporation tax paid on company profits to increase to 25% from 2023. Businesses have been provided with over £100 billion of support to get through this pandemic, so it is only fair to ask them to contribute to the overall recovery. Of course, since corporation tax is charged only on company profits, businesses that may be struggling will, by definition, be unaffected. The increase will not take effect until two years’ time, well after the point when the OBR expects the economy to have recovered. This measure protects small businesses with profits of £50,000 or less by including a small profits rate, maintained at the current rate of 19%. The effect of this is that 70% of companies, or 1.4 million businesses, will not see an increase in their tax rate.
The third goal of the Budget was to lay the foundations of our future economy as we emerge from the pandemic. This requires that the Government encourage business investment now, to help spur growth and drive productivity in the coming years. That is why the Bill contains the innovative new super-deduction measure. In most cases, this measure will allow companies to reduce their taxable profits by 130% of the cost of investment they make, equivalent to a tax cut of up to 25p for every pound they invest. It is expected to lift the net present value of the UK’s plant and machinery allowances from 30th among the countries of the OECD to first. This will bring forward investment; the OBR has said that, at its peak in the financial year 2022-23, the super-deduction will incentivise an additional £20 billion of business investment.
The Bill also contains clauses that will enable the creation of free-port tax sites. In these sites, businesses will be able to benefit from a number of tax reliefs, including a stamp duty land tax relief, an enhanced structures and buildings allowance and an enhanced capital allowance for plant and machinery. This tax offer will be combined with simpler import procedures and duty benefits in customs sites to help businesses trade, along with planning changes to give a green light to much-needed development and spending to invest in infrastructure. This comprehensive package will allow free ports to play a significant role in boosting trade, attracting inward investment and driving productive activity.
I have talked about how this legislation delivers on the core objectives of the Chancellor’s Budget. However, as might be expected in the annual Finance Bill, it also takes forward a number of other measures to progress the Government’s long-term aims to ensure a flexible, resilient and fair tax system. As part of the United Kingdom’s commitment to be a global leader on tax transparency, the Bill allows for the implementation of OECD reporting rules for digital platforms. This will help taxpayers in the sharing and gig economies get their tax right and help HMRC detect and tackle non-compliance. It will enable the extension of Making Tax Digital requirements to smaller VAT businesses from April next year, building on the successful introduction of Making Tax Digital for VAT businesses.
It implements reforms to the penalty regime for VAT and income tax self-assessment to make it fairer and more consistent, and harmonises interest for VAT and income tax. It tackles promoters of tax avoidance through strengthening existing anti-avoidance regimes and tightening rules. Importantly, it introduces an exemption from income tax for financial support payments for potential victims of modern slavery and human trafficking made by the UK Government and devolved Administrations.
I turn to how the Bill helps us deliver the important commitments the Government have made on the environment and carbon reduction. The new plastic packaging tax will encourage the use of recycled plastic instead of new plastic in packaging. For plastic packaging that contains less than 30% recycled plastic content, the rate of the tax will be £200 per tonne. This will transform the economics of sustainable packaging. To help tackle climate change and improve the UK’s air quality, the Bill reforms the entitlement to use red diesel from April next year. This will help ensure that the tax system incentivises users of polluting fuels such as diesel to invest in cleaner vehicles and machinery, or just to use less fuel.
To conclude, the coronavirus pandemic has presented an immense challenge to this country and delivered a dramatic shock to our economy. The Government have met that shock with a determined and sustained response, but the work is not yet done. This Finance Bill continues to support the lives and livelihoods of families and businesses. As we emerge from the pandemic, it will set the ground for an investment-led recovery and for strong public finances in the coming years. The Bill delivers a number of measures for a fairer and more sustainable tax system in support of the work needed to tackle climate change. For these reasons, I commend it to the House.
My Lords, I remind all in the Chamber that we are expected to be masked when seated.
My Lords, I have the honour of chairing the Finance Bill Sub-Committee and I start by thanking all its members, a number of whom I see here today; I look forward to hearing their remarks. I especially thank our excellent clerk and superb special advisers for all their hard work, energy and commitment.
Last December we published a report which scrutinised a range of new powers sought by HMRC and called it New Powers for HMRC: Fair and Proportionate?, with a question mark—an all-important question mark. To answer that question, we identified a number of principles that we believe should apply to any new power given to HMRC. The power must have a clear policy objective and justification, and it must be simple, targeted, proportionate and have appropriate safeguards and sanctions. With those principles in mind, let me focus my remarks on the powers we examined included in this Finance Bill.
The first is the power to tackle promoters and enablers of tax avoidance, under Clauses 121 to 123. These clauses need to be seen against the backdrop of the loan charge, which has ensnared thousands of people—many on low incomes—who entered disguised remuneration schemes, often at the behest of their employers, only to find themselves clobbered years later with enormous tax bills that many now find difficult to pay. Now is not the time for me to go into the loan charge in detail, although our committee remains very focused on it.
Regarding these clauses, of course we support action to clamp down on the hard core of promoters of tax avoidance schemes. But the committee was unconvinced that these plans would be sufficient to tackle that hard core of promoters who continue to promote these schemes, and so the effectiveness of existing measures must be kept under review and all the weapons in HMRC’s arsenal should be brought to bear on them. For example, we reiterated our view, first expressed way back in 2018, that alerting taxpayers to these schemes via HMRC’s spotlights on GOV.UK is not enough. That is especially so given that promoters have been targeting medical professionals returning to the NHS during the pandemic. Given that, we recommended that HMRC focus its attention on employers, employment intermediaries and the umbrella companies using these schemes. Specifically, we said that a first step should be that no public sector bodies should contract with an employment intermediary that operates disguised remuneration schemes.
In light of all this, I have some questions for my noble friend the Minister. If he cannot answer when he winds up, perhaps he could answer in writing. First, could he tell us how many of these hardcore promoters still exist? Secondly, in 2019-20, HMRC doubled its resources in this area. What will be spent on this agenda in future—in this financial year? Thirdly, a new communications campaign targeted at contractors was launched in November 2020. How is that progressing and how is success being measured?
Finally, on umbrella companies, a recent “File on 4” BBC investigation revealed that around 48,000 mini umbrella companies have been formed in the last five years, fronted by 40,000 people in the Philippines to exploit the employment allowance scheme. Meanwhile, the implementation of IR35 and the impact of the pandemic has reportedly led to a surge in the use of such companies by contractors. One survey found that 71% of workers deemed inside IR35 were moved under an umbrella company ahead of the off-payroll working rules extension into the private sector in April. Given all that, can the Minister tell us whether there are any plans to regulate umbrella companies?
Let me move on to the second topic the committee focused on, which related to the civil information powers in Clause 126. These will allow HMRC to obtain information about taxpayers from financial institutions to charge the right amount of tax and enforce payment. There are two safeguards in HMRC’s current power: the need for tax tribunal approval before information can be required and a right of appeal for financial institutions where provision of information is unduly onerous. These have been discarded on the basis that the process takes too long which, according to the Government and HMRC, means delays in meeting information requests from other countries.
Our committee expressed concerns about the Government’s approach when it was first proposed back in 2018. In this recent inquiry, we concluded that the removal of safeguards was unjustified as cases involving international information requests were only a very small minority—less than 15% of the total—and the tribunal referral does not significantly add to the timescale. I will not ask my noble friend the Minister any questions on this, but simply note that the committee recommended that the safeguards be restored as their removal is wrong in principle and not supported by the evidence in practice.
The third topic our committee looked at was the
“New tax checks on licence renewal applications”
in Clause 125. This measure will make the renewal of licenses for running taxi and private hire services and for scrap metal traders conditional on being tax compliant. It therefore introduces a new concept of conditionality into our system. Our committee questioned how effective this proposal was likely to be, since those non-compliant for tax might also be non-compliant for licensing and tax checks might drive more to be non-compliant for licensing. The result could be mainly to impose additional burdens on the already compliant rather than to tackle non-compliance. The Government have failed to produce evidence to support applying conditionality in these instances. Furthermore, the condition is to apply to all applications for licenses, not just those applying for the first time as was proposed in the original consultation.
Taking a step back, these three measures are at best, in my mind, a mixed bag. One can draw from them some general lessons, which our report highlighted. Existing powers should be used properly before new ones are requested. Focus should be put on non-legislative action. The tax policy consultation framework should be observed. There should be clear evidence to support the need for a new power. Powers must be proportionate and targeted, with adequate safeguards. Those are all principles that should always be abided by.
That brings me to an issue that our committee has not yet focused on: Clause 129, which covers reporting rules for digital platforms. What I am about to say is my view and not that of the committee. I am sure we would all agree that our tax system, rooted in the analogue age, needs a reboot to meet the challenges of the digital era. Digital platforms must pay the taxes they owe in the countries where they operate. Likewise, sellers of goods and services on those platforms should also pay the taxes they owe. Clause 129 will give HMRC the power to require certain UK digital platforms to report information to HMRC about the income of sellers of services on those platforms. The platforms in questions are taxi and private hire services, food delivery services, freelance work—a very broad term—and the letting of short-term accommodation. We may all agree with the objective of ensuring that businesses pay the tax they owe on services they sell online, but I draw your Lordships’ attention to this, because Parliament is going to give the Treasury power to make these regulations, despite the fact there has been no consultation at all. It has yet to begin, despite the fact that, according to the Government, this power could affect up to 5 million businesses which provide their services via digital platforms. We are giving this power, despite the fact that the cost of the regulations is unknown. Although the impact for each seller is expected to be small, the Government states that it
“is expected to have a significant combined impact.”
Here is why:
“Data, including bank account information if the platform holds that information, will be collected and provided to HMRC, and exchanged with other tax authorities when appropriate. This information will be used to identify and risk assess the individual or company.”
The policy paper also states:
“This measure is likely to significantly increase customer costs for some of the businesses affected.”
Note this: it says that sellers of goods
“may be affected at a later stage, subject to consultation.”
Digitising our tax system is laudable. It is a necessity, but this is no way to proceed. It is the way mistakes are made, and the Government would do well, I suggest, to heed the words of the playwright Sheridan, who wrote over 200 years ago:
“First there comes the act imposing the tax; next comes an act to amend the act for imposing the tax; then comes an act to explain the act that amended the act, and next an act to remedy the defects of the act for explaining the act that amended the act.”
This is a horrible, familiar process that we are all too well aware of in this House. I would just gently say to my noble friend the Minister that he needs to justify why HMRC is being given this power without proper consultation. How can he justify taking a power, the cost and impact of which is unknown? Once again, HMRC’s remit appears to be growing, without consultation, without evidence, without real scrutiny. Is it fair? Is it proportionate? We do not know.
It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, who chaired our sub-committee with great competence, and I shall have a word to say about that later. I start in the general area about which he was speaking. As we debate the Finance Bill today, I warmly welcome last week’s agreement by G7 Finance Ministers to work together, to ensure that all countries get their fair share of revenue from multinational corporations. I congratulate the Chancellor of the Exchequer on presiding over this achievement. However, while I do not want to rain on his parade, I cannot agree with him that this shows what the UK can do post Brexit, as he claimed.
To my mind, it shows two different things. The first, somewhat contrary to what the Chancellor claimed, is that international problems, such as the taxation of multinational corporations, can be addressed only by countries working together and by pooling part of their sovereignty. They cannot be solved by individual countries acting independently. The second lesson of the G7 Ministers’ agreement is that nothing happens until the United States decides that it should. This first step could not have been achieved without the United States giving a lead.
I turn now to the report of the Finance Bill Sub-Committee on the new powers of HMRC in the Finance Bill that we are debating today. I comment first on a quirk of our curious constitutional procedures. I joined this sub-committee at a late stage of its work. It seems to me that the report is a useful commentary on the powers in the Finance Bill, but our constitutional procedures prevent your Lordships’ House turning the committee’s conclusion into amendments to the Bill. There really is no reason of Commons financial privilege why the Lords should not be able to pass amendments relating to the fairness and proportionality of HMRC’s administration of the tax system. The only reason is that they happen to be contained in the Finance Bill. As a result, this sub-committee’s report turns into a mere commentary, which may influence the House of Commons if anyone there bothers to read it, but otherwise it is simply the basis of a conversation between the committee and the Government. That can be quite a useful conversation, since the main means by which your Lordships’ House can influence events is by persuading the Government. The committee has persuaded the Government on some of the issues in the report, but it is frustrating that, having debated this report, your Lordships’ House has no option other than to nod the Finance Bill through in the form in which it has reached us.
It was a privilege to serve on this sub-committee, which was superbly chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, and benefited from the participation of the chairman of the main Economic Affairs Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth. As the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, has said, the committee was very well served by the excellence of its clerks. We also had good co-operation from the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Jesse Norman MP, senior members of HMRC, and representatives of professional associations affected by the Bill’s provisions.
On rereading the report, I feel that it perhaps comes across entirely as an indictment of HMRC. That may be inevitable, because the report concentrates on those powers in the Finance Bill that seem to the sub-committee excessive or not fully thought through. Speaking for myself—I speak with a Treasury background—I have considerable sympathy with HMRC, particularly in its task of dealing with schemes of tax avoidance and evasion, which are like a many-headed Hydra—as soon as HMRC hits one of the heads another pops up. Yet it is not difficult to feel that HMRC has been more zealous and effective in pursuing often innocent taxpayers, rather than those who have made a fortune from promoting avoidance schemes.
There have also been ongoing deficiencies in HMRC’s dealings with taxpayers, some of which HMRC acknowledges. The sub-committee received distressing evidence from victims of the loan charge to which the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, referred, not least about delays or failures in getting a response from HMRC when taxpayers have sought to achieve a settlement of their affairs.
A compelling account of the distress caused by HMRC’s handling of the loan charge was given in the BBC Radio 4 programme “File on 4”, to which the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, referred, and which I commend on its investigations into these issues. A recent edition of the programme dealt with a further scheme with some similarities to the loan charge, to which the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, also referred: the recruitment of staff through umbrella companies, which offer to save employers overheads in the form of national insurance contributions, holiday pay and employment regulations by offering recruitment in penny numbers, each too small to incur those overheads.
I know that IR35 has recently come into effect as a means of distinguishing between general and useful recruitment agencies and those set up for avoidance, but I echo the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, in asking the Minister whether there are signs that it is preventing the offering of services for avoidance purposes by umbrella companies with overseas directors who are difficult to pursue. It would be a tragedy if another version of the loan charge were to become established, which could cause distress for its victims for many years to come.
I end by commending HMRC and the Government on the detailed response the sub-committee received to the report we are debating. The Government’s response is that out of 24 main recommendations in the report, nine were accepted, six were partially accepted and nine were rejected—you might call it a score draw. A sceptic might say that it was the recommendations of general principle that tended to be accepted by the Government and the specific recommendations that were rejected. Nevertheless, there is evidence that the report served a useful purpose in challenging HMRC, and it was an honour to take part in preparing it.
My Lords, I begin by expressing complete agreement with everything the noble Lord, Lord Butler, has just said, in particular what he said about the officials who supported the sub-committee and about the chairman, my noble friend Lord Bridges. When I asked him to take on the chairmanship of the sub-committee so that I did not have to chair both, I thought it was something of a hospital pass—but he did it absolutely brilliantly and with great distinction in what is a very complex area. We were very grateful to him for the leadership he gave in his indefatigable way. As the noble Lord, Lord Butler, said, we should be grateful that some of the recommendations have been accepted. I am probably the cynic: they were the ones of general principle, rather than the specifics.
I want to focus on this doorstep of a Bill. The papers I am holding are the Finance Bill and the papers that enable us to understand what is in it. I cannot help but ask my friend on the Front Bench: whatever happened to tax simplification? Whatever became of the Government’s declared policy of lower, flatter, fairer, simpler taxes? That policy was grounded in the belief that individuals, families and companies will make better investment decisions than Governments and that wealth creation is essential to the support of key public services such as health, education and social care. We wait with bated breath for the Government’s response to the Economic Affairs Committee on social care and on higher and further education.
We face the biggest financial crisis of our lifetimes—even our lifetimes in this House. It is an enormous challenge facing the Government, but the Covid measures continue to destroy our productive economy. Like a scorpion, the virus leaves behind its sting in the huge backlog of patients requiring serious procedures; the damage done to our young people’s education and career prospects; the impending crisis in housing caused by rent arrears; and the unemployment currently disguised by the furlough scheme continuing. Major industries have haemorrhaged cash on an enormous scale. Substantial debt provided by the Treasury has been taken on and, frankly, will never be repaid. Are we seriously going to take £20 a week from some of the poorest people in the land, just as electricity and food costs are rising? That decision alone is some £6 billion.
What is the Government’s strategy for facing this challenge? Tax and spend is not the answer. Nor can we continue selling IOUs to ourselves, which is given the name “quantitative easing”—a subject the main committee is about to report on. Inflation is already coming down the track, with the costs of raw materials soaring and pressure on wages rising because of labour shortages at a time when the Government are maintaining employment for many people through the taxpayer.
The Bank of England’s reassuring messages that there is nothing to see here and nothing to worry about, and that it will delay interest rates as soon as there is inflation—which will be a short-term effect—worry me. I remember, when I was a young man first engaging in politics, how quickly inflation got out of control, as people started pricing for anticipated rates of inflation. It ended in inflation of over 20%, interest rates of 15% and a lot of pain faced by the Conservative Party in government and the country as a whole. Inflation may be convenient for Governments with big debts but, as Jim Callaghan put it, inflation is the father and mother of unemployment.
The only way we can get through this crisis is by getting our economy growing again. That means recognising that the current long-term growth projections of just under 2% from the Government’s own statisticians are wholly inadequate and not acceptable. We need to change our strategy.
Increasing corporation tax—here I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Butler—is the opposite of what is needed if we want to see more investment, growth and employment. Entering a cartel to set a minimum level of corporation tax may be good news for the United States, with revenues from its increasingly overmighty tech companies, but what happened to that vision of global Britain—the place to invest and create jobs and prosperity? The thinking embodied in the Chancellor’s welcome vision for free ports needs to be applied to the nation as a whole. If we believe in competition as the way to secure innovation and prosperity, why are we suddenly abandoning competition in taxation? “Take back control” was as much about setting our own taxes and laws as about regulation. It should be for the other place to decide tax matters and tax policy, not the President of the United States, and not by international treaty. It is the other place’s duty to vote means of supply, and it is wrong for the Executive to circumvent that in this way.
I fear that, as the President of the United States now appears to want to opine on the Northern Ireland protocol, it may be time for Boris Johnson to have his “Love Actually” moment and not just make the speech but unleash the talents of the British people. That means supporting the self-employed and encouraging outsourcing. While it is commendable that HMRC tackles tax dodgers and abusers, this should not be at the expense of struggling self-employed businesses by imposing additional costs. The self-employed are not the same as those on PAYE. There is no statutory sick pay for them and no holiday entitlement, and the next penny depends on identifying the next job. IR35 is having a severe impact and will discourage others to set up on their own. I talked to someone in exactly that position just over the weekend. These small and medium-sized businesses are the seed corn of our future growth, and the Government should honour their long-standing promise to bring forward a new status for self-employment following the Taylor report, as my noble friend Lord Bridges indicated in his excellent speech a few minutes ago. This was also a manifesto commitment; I cannot remember how many manifestos ago it was, but it was certainly a clear commitment from this Government.
It now seems every Finance Bill brings forward new powers for HMRC, even before the review of the use of existing powers is completed. This Bill is no exception, taking away the right of appeal to a tribunal for financial institutions to provide specific information about a taxpayer. The disgraceful and effectively retrospective treatment of loan charge victims, such as local authority and health service workers placed in schemes by their employers without full understanding of what they meant, has not been matched with the same zeal in pursuing those responsible for marketing those schemes, now languishing on their superyachts with their ill-gotten gains. I am disappointed that the Government have refused to apply measures retrospectively to these promoters, as recommended by the Finance Bill Sub-Committee, but I welcome the proposals for tougher action that are currently subject to consultation. It is beyond belief that these schemes are still being promoted, and some are targeting workers returning to the NHS. HMRC itself has been using firms that use these schemes.
To conclude, we need a clear vision from the Prime Minister and the Chancellor and a strategy to get our economy going again if we are to meet our duty to secure a safety net for those most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our country. Higher taxes, more bureaucracy and continuing uncertainty are anathema to achieving that, for, as the Book of Proverbs reminds us,
“Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
My Lords, we understand the difficult job the Chancellor has had of bringing forward this year’s Budget in the unprecedented circumstances in which this nation finds itself. The immediate priority, looking at the economy, must be ensuring that we come out of this pandemic with as many safeguarded jobs and livelihoods as possible. The economic packages, especially the furlough scheme and the help for the self-employed, have been incredible interventions, which have helped stave off the worst ravages of economic depression that may otherwise have occurred. I congratulate the Government, as we all do, on the incredible investment in the vaccine rollout, which has produced stupendous results.
Once again, the benefits of being part of one of the biggest economies in the world has been illustrated for all our citizens through all parts of the United Kingdom. I have to say that I have been reassured somewhat in recent weeks by the feedback from people normally critical of the United Kingdom—even of being part of the United Kingdom—about the way in which this country has responded, with the vaccine rollout in particular but also throughout this pandemic with the economic interventions.
The Chancellor is having to balance the need for immediate actions to counter imminent economic shocks against long-term economic recovery and mounting levels of eye-watering debt. So far, I believe that, generally speaking, the Government’s approach has been the correct one. Some of the measures, which normally no one would ever contemplate, have been necessary to avoid far worse problems. That is not to say that there are not issues that need to be addressed and addressed quickly, and I want to refer to a number of general points before making a specific reference to a particular, discrete issue affecting electricity generation in Northern Ireland.
The hospitality and tourism industries, which the Minister referred to in terms of the VAT relief, have been decimated by the pandemic and the lockdowns. I welcome what the Government have announced in relation to VAT for these sectors—the extension of rate cuts until September and tapering measures until March next year—but it is vital that these sectors are allowed to get back to full working capacity as quickly as possible. They can survive only by full reopening and full working, and I hope that that will happen as quickly as possible—if not on 21 June then as quickly as possible thereafter, conscious of the need to take all necessary health precautions.
I also want to mention the issue of air passenger duty. We have some of the highest rates anywhere in the world. Peripheral parts of the United Kingdom are very dependent on air connectivity. Rail options do not exist for places such as Northern Ireland to reach other places in the United Kingdom. I ask the Government to keep under review measures that will alleviate the burden on businesses and families of air passenger duty on internal United Kingdom flights.
It would be impossible to participate in a debate like this and not make reference to the burdens that are being placed on the Northern Ireland economy and Northern Ireland businesses, and our communities more generally, by the Northern Ireland protocol. I am disappointed that there is little, apart from provisions in relation to the steel industry, that will alleviate those burdens, particularly in relation to customs requirements.
However, I do look forward to the Government introducing two new measures—in the near future, I hope—that will address the underlying problems of the protocol and do away with the incredible situation whereby, if the grace periods that are currently in force are not extended or a permanent solution not found, as many if not more checks will be done on foodstuffs and other materials coming from Great Britain to Northern Ireland as are done on those entering the entirety of the European Union from the rest of the world. That is an amazing, incredible and scandalous situation which must be remedied by the Government. I hope that those measures will be comprehensive and far-reaching.
I want to turn to the aspect of the Bill I mentioned and explore it in more detail. I believe it is something that perhaps is an unintended consequence of what is otherwise a reasonable provision: it is do with the prohibition on power plants putting rebated fuel—red diesel—through electricity generators after 1 April 2022. I fully understand, and electricity generators also appreciate, the policy objective of helping meet climate change and air quality targets by removing the tax advantage of red diesel, thus encouraging end-users to use more expensive white diesel, which is taxed at a rate that reflects the impact of the emissions that they produce.
However, the Bill will have a particular, unique and unintended detrimental consequence for electricity generators in Northern Ireland. Kilroot and Ballylumford power stations in Northern Ireland have a historical licence obligation to maintain stocks of red diesel as part of the Northern Ireland Fuel Security Code obligations. The licensing obligation for Northern Ireland electricity generators requires back-up fuel—red diesel—to be held for security of power supply purposes in the event of gas supply interruption. The Bill requires the disposal of all existing red diesel stocks before 1 April 2022. There is in fact major uncertainty about whether that timetable could be met. There will be significant additional costs of doing this to both Ballylumford and Kilroot, estimated at £14 million for one and £1.6 million for the other. That includes all the logistical problems as well as the replacement of the fuel itself.
There is, however, a major competitive commercial disadvantage for Northern Ireland power generators vis-à-vis others within the competitive integrated single market and vis-à-vis the Great Britain market. There is no equivalent requirement to hold reserves of what the Irish equivalent of red diesel is in the Irish Republic, and the requirement to hold back-up fuel is applicable only to Northern Ireland power generators and does not apply to gas-fired power generators in Great Britain. One of the perverse impacts of the requirement of the provision in the legislation, if it is not remedied, is that it will lead to additional and higher CO2 emissions in Northern Ireland that would otherwise be avoided: having to use up the fuel in generating electricity will cause much greater emissions. It will be costly for the consumer; the extra cost is estimated at £60 million based on commodity prices, as of 1 May 2021. Then there is the risk of security of supply for Northern Ireland in the period between getting rid of one fuel and replacing it.
I welcome discussions which have taken place between power generators, Ministers and officials in Her Majesty’s Treasury. It is vital that the Bill’s unintended consequences are addressed. I understand that progress has been made, but I would like the Minister, in responding to the debate, to put on the record how he understands the way forward. Will he confirm that HM Treasury is looking at fixing this problem, that guidance will be issued relating to the Bill or that there will be secondary legislation to address the issue? Could he confirm that there will not be a requirement placed on Northern Ireland power generators to rid themselves of existing stocks of reserved fuels by the prescribed date, with all the detrimental impacts that I have outlined? I hope the Minister will be in a position to respond positively, because this would be good news for the plants themselves, for consumers and for the environment.
My Lords, I join the congratulations to my noble friend Lord Bridges—under the excellent mentoring of my noble friend Lord Forsyth—and his committee on the report, which is most welcome. Of course, I first refer your Lordships to my register of interests.
This is an important debate, as the Finance Bill and the powers of HMRC affect us all. I am therefore somewhat surprised to see how few Peers have put their name down for this debate. While I am delighted to see so many here physically—I think all but one are speaking in the Chamber—I am perplexed by why so few are speaking on this matter today. Of course, we do not have the power to amend the Bill, but this sort of Second Reading is exactly the place where we can interrogate government and, I hope, come up with some ideas which would be of assistance based on our expertise and experience. It also does not help those who argue for a smaller House if we cannot attract a strong number for such an important debate, and it means that people with knowledge and awareness of finance, tax and business should be recruited into the House. The Government do listen to these debates and to Peers’ comments on taxation, as I will elaborate later.
I start my comments on the Bill by congratulating my noble friend the Minister and his colleagues on the 132 clauses originally tabled, as physically displayed by my noble friend Lord Forsyth. They address so much that affects our daily life, from the rates of tax payable to capital incentives—which I believe will encourage greater investment in industrial plants and machinery—some nudging behaviour away from plastic packaging, and even encouraging cycling to work, with cycle equipment being written off. There really is much in here to be commended. I thought I would focus most of my remarks on what is not in the Bill, sometimes with good reason, and some matters which might be considered for future Budgets.
The first, which is not in the Bill, is an increase in the capital gains tax rate. Before the Budget there was a somewhat rogue report from the aforementioned Office of Tax Simplification. It is normally a sensible office producing sensible ideas, but on this occasion it proposed that it would be simpler to equalise income tax and capital gains tax—a somewhat unsophisticated thought, as it does not allow for the essential difference between income or salary and capital gain, which is a return on risk taken. Fortunately, after somewhat of a campaign—in which I confess I played a part—the Chancellor agreed that CGT rates should stay as they are. This Finance Bill does not change them, which is an eminently sensible and pragmatic decision.
My first question to my noble friend is, given all this wasted noise, effort and focus against raising CGT and that the Chancellor has clearly researched the subject and reached a conclusion, can we avoid all this palaver at every future Budget of this Government by announcing that the rate will stay fixed, as has been done for other taxes in the Conservative Party manifesto? This will provide much greater certainty to entrepreneurs, investors and businesspeople for the next few years. The cynic might argue that the Chancellor likes the uncertainty as it encourages people to realise assets when they would not otherwise do so, and thus send money to the Exchequer ahead of the anticipated date. However, we all know on this side of the House that the Chancellor is not that type of politician and is instead focused on making life easier and more predictable for taxpayers. By the way, the retention of the current rates proves my earlier point that the Government listen to people in this House and elsewhere and consider their arguments carefully.
In the debate on the Motion to Take Note of the Budget Statement in this Chamber, I asked my noble friend the following:
“I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us to what extent this Budget complies with pillar 1, and in particular pillar 2. What steps will HM Treasury be taking to ensure that we fully comply with pillar 2?”—[Official Report, 12/3/21; col. 1919.]
There were many speakers on that occasion, so I assumed that I did not get an answer because of other priorities. It turns out that the reason I did not get an answer was because the Government were busy hatching a plan with world leaders to do just that. This is another matter not in the Finance Bill, but I hope the Minister will allow me to comment on the historic announcement as it will fundamentally affect corporate taxation and is thus very germane to this Bill.
The Red Book estimates that only £40 billion will come from corporation tax this year but that the new rates proposed in the Bill will increase that by £2.3 billion in 2022-23, £11.9 billion the following year and £16 billion the year after that—those are just the increases—so a lot is riding on corporation tax yield increasing as the rates move up. Accordingly, it is very important that corporations pay their fair share. I have tracked the OECD proposals on base erosion and profit shifting for some time. Indeed, it was the subject of my maiden speech in 2013. I hope the Minister will allow this as an acceptable forum to raise this related issue, not least as no other forum other than today’s PNQ has been offered to Peers to discuss the OECD announcements —although, of course, he may want to answer some of my questions in writing at a later date. The UK really needs a deal on pillar 1, as much as we are seeing progress on pillar 2. At the moment, the details are somewhat vague. It is all very well for profits which are diverted into tax havens to be transferred into the HQ country, but the minimum rate of tax—be it 15% or 21%—does not of itself affect the amount of tax the FAANG or others will pay in the UK.
DST—digital services tax, which I will come on to again in a minute—was put in place to ensure that profits generated from UK customers were taxed here. Clearly, future tax should be based on user bases rather than sales made—not just customers, but user bases. As we know, sales to UK customers are currently often based in places such as Ireland, but the goods are delivered here. DST seeks to achieve proper taxation on this, but we need to know how pillar 1 will do so likewise, as the expectation is that DST will be dropped at some point. Perhaps the Minister can assure us on that point.
Meanwhile, the pillar 2 proposals are encouraging, but I urge some caution. The IPPR issued a report estimating that with a global minimum rate of 21%, our take could be £14.7 billion. That would be nice, but at a global rate of 15% now being suggested, our share would be much lower. Let us not forget that we already have controlled foreign corporation legislation in place—I think it may have been introduced by my noble and learned friend Lord Clarke, but it may have been before his time—and that this legislation seeks to equalise UK-headquartered corporations’ tax take. I am indebted to Glyn Fullelove, formerly president of the Chartered Institute of Taxation, for sharing with me his calculations, which suggest that a figure nearer to £2 billion or £3 billion could be the amount raised by the pillar 1 and 2 proposals. Perhaps HM Treasury could share its estimates with us at some point.
We introduced the digital services tax so that companies such as Amazon would pay their fair share. Unfortunately, it is not working as well as it should. First, Amazon, which clearly has monopoly-type power, has simply told its suppliers to pay. Secondly, it applies only to marketplace fees, not to direct sales. This is a very important difference. It is another area I was disappointed not to see mentioned in the Finance Bill, as we now have the situation where DST has made it harder for SME retailers to compete with Amazon.
The current DST legislation is defective in not taxing the user-created value arising from sales made by marketplace providers on their own account. Additionally, the application of DST to marketplace fees and commissions charged to third parties, without a corresponding charge arising on the value created when the provider uses the platform to make sales on its own account, is a distortion to competition. I and a number of others have proposed that the scope of DST be extended, so that when a marketplace provider uses the marketplace for its own sales—or uses a similar platform alongside the marketplace—an amount of digital services revenue, which can be taxed, arises.
As the Minister might be aware, I have discussed these ideas with the Financial Secretary, who is resistant to changing DST at this point. As a result, there is nothing in the Bill on this issue. I hope, however, that the Government will reconsider this matter, as we are quite a way from a final deal on a pillar 1 and 2 agreement and, in the interim, we are losing a very large amount of revenue.
Finally, on the enterprise initiative scheme, or EIS, Brexit gives us a chance to look again at restrictions placed on HM Treasury to avoid accusations of state aid. EU laws restrict the ability of the SEIS and EIS to provide entrepreneurs’ start-up capital quite dramatically. Will my noble friend the Minister agree to revisit this area?
Before our UK Budget of 3 March, in February, I attended a virtual meeting with the senior civil servant in India in charge of the budget there, along with the director-general of the Confederation of Indian Industry, the sister organisation of the CBI, of which I am president. They both said categorically that India’s budget did not increase any taxes for two reasons. First, businesses had suffered so much already and, secondly, they did not want to stifle the recovery after the pandemic. After that, I implored our Indian-origin Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, to follow India’s lead and not increase any taxes in our Budget on 3 March. He listened and, on the whole, taxes were not increased. However, he announced that corporation tax would increase from 19% to 25% in 2023. Our businesses drew a huge gasp of breath at taxes going up by almost one-third in one go. With Ireland next door to us with a rate of 12.5%, this was a concern. Of course, in November 2019, we had heard Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, announce at the CBI annual conference that a reduction in corporation tax in the UK, to 17% from 19%, would no longer go ahead. Inward investment is really important, so this is a worry: will it affect inward investment?
Fortunately, the Government seem to have resisted the suggestion by the Office of Tax Simplification to equate capital gains tax with income taxes. To do this would be suicide. It would deter investment, entrepreneurship and risk-taking. We need to encourage wealth creation. The UK is the second or third-largest recipient of inward investment in the world. We have a Minister responsible for inward investment at the DIT—our colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone. We need to be a magnet for inward investment, as we have been. We have left the EU but, of course, as I always say, we will never leave Europe. When we were in the EU, we were seen as a gateway for investment into the EU. Today we should be seen as a gateway to Europe for investment. So we must resist equating CGT with income tax. That will deter inward investment and domestic investment, there would be capital flight, and it would deter entrepreneurship and risk-taking, as I said earlier. It would be hugely damaging to listen to the OTS regarding CGT. Does the Minister agree?
The Chancellor listened and has not done this so far. Entrepreneurs’ relief has been cut by the Government, which was not a good step if it was meant to encourage entrepreneurship. On the other hand, the super deduction was a masterstroke by the Chancellor and the Treasury: to encourage investment by giving relief of 130% instead of 18%, to have 25% off your tax bill, and to encourage investment—wow! The Government are doing the right thing, but they have announced that this will be taken away in two years’ time, just at the time when corporation tax will go up. Should not the Government consider continuing with the super deduction? Will the Minister give us his opinion?
At the CBI, of which I am president, we welcome measures such as the super deduction, supporting business investment, the extended loss reliefs and supporting business cash flow. We hope that the current cap on carried-forward losses can be temporarily lifted to allow the many viable and vibrant businesses in the UK even greater flexibility in how they use their exceptional Covid-related losses, along with other policy measures already in place. This will help to support businesses of all sizes to recover and grow after the pandemic.
The CBI is also calling for a tax road map. We were disappointed, as was the Treasury Committee, that the Government have not yet consulted on producing this. We believe that the relative success of, for example, the corporation tax road map, demonstrates the value to businesses and people alike of laying out the direction of travel of the tax system and how the Government will use taxes to achieve their manifesto policy goals.
On green taxes, there is very little in the Budget about net zero and tax. We would like to see much more leadership on this from the Government, particularly leading up to COP 26. The CBI has produced a paper on greening the tax system that aims to start a discussion between the Government and business about how tax can best support net zero. This is a once-in-a-generation platform to boost climate-progressive industries, associated skills and innovation, to show that the UK can lead the world in the technologies of the future and accelerate our response to climate change. Devising suitable regulatory frameworks will be key, given the pressures on public finances, but fiscal measures, including environmental taxes and tax incentives, will also be an important lever in driving change. Does the Minister agree?
The £400 billion invested by the Government in supporting our economy and our businesses has been phenomenal. Whether in absolute terms or in per capita terms, it is one of the highest sums in the world. I was privileged to chair the B7 last month, which fed into the G7 this week. Dr Gita Gopinath, chief economist of the IMF, spoke to us, saying that in the global economy there will be a two-track recovery. Some economies, such as ours, have been fantastic with their vaccination programmes. Full credit goes to Nadhim Zahawi, our Vaccinations Minister, who has achieved a vaccination rate of 75%, with double doses at 50%. This is tremendous. Likewise, America is doing very well. With our huge £400 billion of support, we will be able to bounce back very quickly. Andy Haldane, chief economist of the Bank of England, has likened our economy to a coiled spring. On the other hand, sadly, many economies in the world have hardly vaccinated their citizens and have hardly been able to provide any support to them.
How will we pay for this £400 billion? How will we pay for the nearly 10% drop in our GDP, the worst performance in 300 years? I get asked this question a lot, and I believe that the way we pay for it is by generating growth and with the support the Government have given—for example, the furlough scheme, which has saved millions of jobs and businesses, and the 100% guaranteed loans. The British Business Bank, which had a loan book of £8 billion in February last year, today has a loan book of £80 billion. Hats off to it for giving these loans, which have saved so many businesses.
What about unemployment? In February last year, it was at 3.5%, one of its lowest levels; it is now at 4.8% because of all the measures that have been taken. We have to prevent unemployment, and youth unemployment in particular. Young people have suffered so much during this crisis. Some 50% of jobs lost, sadly, were among young people. If this coiled spring is to work, the supply side measures which encourage economic growth must be there. It means creating jobs. This will be the best way to pay for the £400 billion. It means not increasing taxes. We need to encourage inward investment as well as domestic investment. We need to create growth. This will create jobs which, in turn, will create the PAYE and the NI that make up the biggest proportion of taxes. The people who get those jobs will spend and that will generate VAT—which will be far more than the relatively small proportion generated by corporation tax. I give full credit to the Chancellor for leading the agreement by the G7 for the 15% minimum global tax rate. We have always said that, if there is to be a minimum tax rate, it must be agreed globally. Let us see what happens at the G20. However, we still need to encourage businesses to locate in the UK. We need to get the Amazons and the Googles to come here to create the thousands of jobs that will create the taxes.
At the CBI, we have a new director-general, Tony Danker. Six months into his role, we published Seize the Moment, our economic strategy for the United Kingdom during the next decade to 2030. It contains six pillars: a decarbonised and an innovative economy; science and technology; research, development and innovation; universities and businesses working together, and a globalised economy with the UK as a trading powerhouse. It encourages levelling up around the country in clusters such as between Cambridge University and AstraZeneca. We have also launched An Inclusive Economy to change the race ratio and promote ethnic minority diversity and inclusion across all businesses. McKinsey has shown that companies which embrace diversity and inclusion are more profitable; Deloitte has shown that they are more innovative.
Finally, we are promoting a healthier nation, including mental health and well-being, within an action plan that includes a long-term tax road map for the United Kingdom. To enable all this and for Andy Haldane’s coiled spring to happen, we need the supply side to be there. The United Kingdom needs a competitive tax system that will encourage investment and job creation—one which is globally competitive and super-effective.
My Lords, I draw attention to my entry in the register of interests. I am an unpaid adviser to Tax Justice Network. Tax justice is the theme of my remarks today.
A key requirement for building a just and sustainable society is for people to have good purchasing power with which to buy goods and services and to stimulate the economy. This simple truth is neglected not just in this Finance Bill but in many previous Bills. The Bill depresses people’s purchasing power. The current tax-free personal allowance of £12,570 has been frozen until 2026, as have income tax thresholds. The net effect is that one in 10 adults will pay a higher rate of income tax, with the poorest ending up paying a higher proportion of their income in tax. This measure alone removes some £19 billion of spending power from households. It will condemn many to a great deal of insecurity and difficulty.
Regressive taxation has been normalised in each year’s Finance Bill. The TaxPayers’ Alliance estimates that the poorest 10% of UK households now pay 47.6% of their income in direct and indirect taxes. This compares with 33.5% by the richest 10% of households. Because of wage and benefit freezes, zero hours contracts and job insecurity, this gap is now much bigger than in 2010. The Government need to examine why their policies continue to hurt the poorest in our society. They increased VAT to 20%; this is a regressive tax which hits the poorest hardest. There is no proposal for reform in the Finance Bill.
Council tax is regressive. This year, it has increased in the range 3% to 5%. Virtually the same council tax is paid on a property worth £3 million as on one worth £350,000, without any regard for any ability to pay. The poorest tenth of our population pays 80% of their income in council tax, while the next 50% pay 4% to 5% and the richest 40% only pay 2% to 3%.
There is no reform of national insurance contributions —another regressive tax. Employees generally pay 12% of their monthly incomes between £797 and £4,189 in contributions. Above that, the rate is an additional 2%. Inevitably, the rich pay a lower proportion of their total income in national insurance, compared to the poor.
Unlike the noble Lords, Lord Leigh of Hurley and Lord Bilimoria, I cannot support the capital gains tax regime. Why on earth do the rich need a special tax regime? Capital gains are taxed at marginal rates of between 10% and 28%, whereas earned income is taxed at marginal rates of between 20% and 45%. Both increase somebody’s welfare and purchasing power. I can see no rationale whatever for taxing capital gains at a lower rate than earned income.
The Government’s policies on capital gains are also a bonanza for the tax avoidance industry. Armies of accountants and lawyers are busy converting income to capital gains so that their clients end up paying lower taxes. By taxing capital gains in the same way as earned income, the Government could raise around £14 billion a year. This could help the less well off by making the £20 a week universal credit permanent; the Government could also easily double it by this one simple reform.
There is tax relief of around £40 billion a year on contributions to pension schemes. Just 10% of high earners receive 50% of tax relief. There are 1.3 million individuals who pay into pension schemes but receive no tax relief and zero government support. This is because their income is less than the tax-free personal allowance. Again, the poor are being punished, for putting a little away for their retirement income.
I hope the Minister will explain why the Government insist on hurting the poorest with regressive tax policies. Just in case he is tempted to defend government policies by claiming that, in recent years, they have increased tax-free personal allowances, I remind the House that this has not changed the burden of tax on the poorest. Increasing the personal allowance has done nothing for 18.4 million individuals whose annual income is less than the personal allowance. We need a rethink if we want a just society.
The report, New Powers for HMRC: Fair and Proportionate? is very impressive, but I cannot help wondering whether the committee has not been hoodwinked by the Government and the tax avoidance industry. On page 3, the report states:
“On the proposals for tackling promoters of mass-marketed tax avoidance schemes, we welcome the Government’s intention to take further tough action against the known ‘hard core’ of promoters, but urge it to redouble its efforts in this respect, and to take further measures to combat the continued proliferation of new schemes.”
Where exactly is the evidence for tough action? There is an enormous difference between the law on the books and the law in practice. The Government have been soft on the tax avoidance industry. Big accounting firms have long raided the public purse through complex tax avoidance schemes. Occasionally HMRC goes to court, but the Government do not take any action against the firms.
Let me give some examples. The UK Supreme Court heard the case of HMRC v Pendragon plc and others. The case related to a VAT avoidance scheme marketed by KPMG, which would have enabled car retailing companies to recover VAT input tax paid while avoiding the payment of output tax. The court declared the scheme to be unlawful and the judge said:
“In my opinion the KPMG scheme was an abuse of law.”
That is a very strong conclusion. To this day, no action has been taken by any regulator or accountancy trade association against KPMG.
The court judgment in Development Securities plc and others v HMRC threw out a complex PwC scheme designed to shift apparent management control of some UK entities to Jersey to gain tax advantages by claiming that the entities were not liable to the UK taxes. The scheme was declared to be unlawful by the courts, but no action was taken against PwC.
An Ernst & Young scheme involved loans between companies in the same group, and the ultimate aim was to enable a company making the interest payment to claim tax relief on the expense while enabling the company receiving the interest to avoid tax. That scheme was sold to Greene King. After a prolonged legal battle, the scheme was declared to be unlawful. No action was taken against Ernst & Young.
Deloitte promoted a scheme to enable companies to generate deductible tax losses through complex financial transactions. The scheme was sold to Ladbrokes, but it gambled incorrectly and the court said that the scheme was unlawful. No action of any kind whatever was taken against Deloitte.
Big accounting firms have been peddling unlawful tax avoidance schemes and are not investigated, fined or disciplined but are given government contracts and seats on HMRC’s boards. The advisory panel on the general anti-abuse rule, GARR, is also dominated by the same people. Amazingly, none of the GARR panel’s rulings relate to any of its clients.
In sum, I question the claim that tough action against accounting firms for selling tax avoidance schemes has been taken. I invite the Minister to explain why big accounting firms peddling unlawful tax avoidance schemes have not so far been investigated, fined disciplined or prosecuted.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Forsyth referred to simplification. A 417-page Bill and 349 pages of Explanatory Notes to explain it—I know that most noble Lords will have read both from cover to cover—illustrates that we are not moving in the direction of simplification.
We now have a situation in this country where, because of our devolved settlements, significant economic barriers are being exercised in the devolved areas—particularly in Scotland, where taxation powers are broader than in the other devolved Administrations. But there is one thing that we are not doing: we are not explaining to the people in those regions where the money that the devolved Administrations spend comes from.
I have said before in this House that the devolved Administrations are a bit like giant ATM machines; when the cash stops coming out of the machine, those in the devolved areas simply say, “Well, Westminster didn’t give us enough”. We do not explain the arithmetic to the people in the devolved regions. That would not be a difficult exercise; all it would require would be for the Treasury, perhaps on an annual basis, to produce a short leaflet, or put it online, to show people where the money actually comes from. Local authorities often send out leaflets telling people how their taxes are spent but that does not happen nationally. There is a total absence of accountability to this Parliament for the funds given to the devolved Administrations. Vast sums of money are given over but there is absolutely no feedback or requirement to account for it. That is a perverse principle.
We talk about the pandemic and the rollout of the vaccines bringing our nation together, which I support and which is an excellent selling point. But when the biggest single element that affects the devolved Administrations is the money that they receive from the Treasury through block grants and Barnett consequentials, why do we not tell citizens in the devolved areas what the arithmetic is? It would not be a huge undertaking and it could be done on an annual basis. I suggest to my noble friend the Minister that the Chancellor might look at this. It is a simple exercise, but it would put in context what is actually going on in this country.
I want to refer to a matter that the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, raised on Clause 102, which deals with restrictions on the use of rebated diesel and biofuels. I mentioned the Explanatory Notes, at least some of which I have looked at. The background note at paragraph 33 states:
“This measure introduces changes that will remove the entitlement to use red diesel and rebated biodiesel from most sectors from April 2022 as part of the government’s strategy to meet the UK’s target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.”
That is a laudable aim but, as the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, mentioned, there is a perverse effect relating to our power suppliers in Northern Ireland. They are legally and contractually required to have distillate back-up in the event of a crash of the gas supply, because there is a single source of supply, called SNIP, which comes from Scotland to Larne, in County Antrim. If anything were to go wrong with that pipeline—which, thankfully, has not happened in all the years it has been operating—it is perfectly legitimate to require the people who generate our electricity to have that back-up. It is the only power supplier in these islands that has that legal requirement placed on it.
Distillate means red diesel, so the effect of the measure in the Bill would be that 12,000 tonnes of red diesel which does not need to be burned would have to be burned by April 2022 and replaced with another 12,000 tonnes of white diesel, simply because one has dye in it and the other has not. There is no technical difference between the two fuels—they are just the same, but one has red dye in it and one does not. The systems would have to be purged and because the number of tankers allowed to bring fuel in per day is limited to eight for environmental reasons, it would take between three and four months to purge and then replace. I am no climate expert, but we will produce an additional 23,000 tonnes of carbon that could be left sitting there because that fuel supply is only for an emergency and, fortunately, has not had to be used.
I appeal to the Minister to take this matter back to his colleagues. I have no doubt that the legal obligation for our power suppliers to have this back-up is one of those things that people had not realised—both the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, and I were Energy Ministers in Northern Ireland, and I do not know whether I enforced it or if it is his fault—but it was the right thing to do. It might even have been the Deputy Speaker’s fault, because he was there before I was.
So I think it is just one of those things that had not been picked up, but its effects would be negative and perverse. It would mean extra costs for the consumer and have significant implications for our power suppliers because we are in an all-island market now; there is no similar requirement for power suppliers in the Republic of Ireland to have such a back-up, so they will automatically be more competitive when they are bidding to generate electricity to go into the grid. I appeal to the Minister to be kind enough to take this matter back to his colleagues and explain the difficulties. I am sure they can be dealt with and overcome.
I support the general principle, although there is no question that red diesel is abused. I also make the point that paramilitaries have been smuggling such products for 20 years—reasonably successfully so far, from their point of view—so to penalise the electricity consumer through no fault of their own would be perverse in the extreme.
By the way, it would be interesting to know—the Minister may not know this or he may not have the information at his disposal today, but he can let me know—if in fact he received any representations from the relevant department in the Northern Ireland Executive and, if so, when.
On a broader, general point, very few people in any of our lifetimes have seen anything like the last 18 months. There is no doubt that the Chancellor has been very vigorous in his attempts to ensure that our industries do not collapse, but I have to say to him that one industry that is in severe trouble, as the Minister will know, is the aviation and aerospace sector. I am a member of the APPG on Aerospace, and we had a well-attended meeting with the Minister, Robert Courts, just before I came into the Chamber. The sector is in despair because of the chopping and changing.
Aerospace is one of the key providers of high-quality jobs in the UK—over 100,000 of them, highly skilled and highly paid. It also provides apprenticeships, which are vital for the future. The uncertainties and the on/off process that is unfolding before us make it very difficult. Orders for aircraft have, naturally, gone down dramatically. We need more investment in reducing fuels, developing alternative means of propulsion and so on, but at present that whole supply chain is in dire straits. It is propped up by the furlough scheme, but that will not last for ever.
I appeal to the Government to get their house in order with regard to the aviation sector, and that means deciding when people can move around. I know these issues are difficult, but I have to say that a lot of the very good work that has been done is at serious risk of leading to high job losses. It is an area where this country in particular already has great leadership potential. In aerospace we are number two in the world, and there are not too many sectors of our economy about which we can say that. I appeal to the Minister to ensure that we protect this sector, which is so vital to the UK’s economy.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the perceptive remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Empey. I thank my noble friend Lord Agnew for his crisp summary of the financial situation and of the Finance Bill. I have also benefited from reading the explanation given at Second Reading by the Financial Secretary, Mr Jesse Norman, who has already been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Butler.
So we are well informed, but, unfortunately, the picture painted is a grim one. Pleased though we all are by our success on vaccination, I do not believe that the country has yet taken on board the full gravity of the financial situation that we face. The level of the national debt and the deficits that we continue to add to it are of a staggering dimension. It will be the work of many years to right the ship.
In case there are some who might want to claim that reducing the debt from its present size is unnecessary or can be put off to the Greek calends, I point out that the only reason why our financial response to Covid—with vast government grants and loans, furlough and all the rest of it—was feasible was because we had reduced debt as a proportion of GDP greatly since World War Two. The markets would not have accepted the levels of unfinanced expenditure that we have adopted in the last 15 months or so to deal with Covid if we had started with our present level of national debt. Everything that I say today is subject to the overriding necessity of improving the national finances. I am not sure that we, or indeed most other countries, are focusing enough on this issue.
That said, I thank the Treasury, where I served as a Minister, for the speed and creativity with which it provided support for the Covid crisis. I particularly commend the furlough scheme, although I think the rate was set too high, which will cause difficulties as it is phased out. However, the idea of using the PAYE system backwards is an excellent example of simplicity, a theme that I want to emphasise today. The aid to business, especially the simple suspension of VAT and the rates, has also shown bravery and flexibility. I hope that such imagination will now be applied to the long overdue review of rates.
The Treasury and HMRC have done well during Covid as they have been allowed to take risks and innovate. That reminds me of the wartime example of rationing. I know about this from my mother, who served on the Board of Trade in the rationing team in World War Two. In the dark days of 1941, with shipping disrupted, they were asked to extend rationing to textiles. Luckily, my mother’s boss was a clever academic from Cambridge. His idea was not to start again but to make the back pages of the food ration book into clothing coupons. Rationing came in overnight. This was an example of speed and simplicity similar to the furlough scheme.
I am extremely grateful to my noble friend Lord Bridges of Headley and his committee for a clear and compelling report on the Finance Bill, and for his new point about powers in relation to digital platforms, which might impose new burdens or costs on millions of businesses without proper scrutiny. I think that is in paragraph 125 in our fat book of Explanatory Notes.
I particularly agree with the concern that the committee expressed about the new tax checks linked to licence renewal applications for taxi drivers. This could even have the perverse effect of reducing compliance by taxi drivers nervous of the taxman. Like my noble friend, I also dislike the proposed removal of the important taxpayer safeguards in pursuing information requests. I believe the Government should think again on both points.
Ministers and civil servants do not understand how frightened people and businesses are of HMRC, how its powers to fine summarily are resented and how the complex web it spins confuses people. The lack of simple advice at the end of a phone is a real problem to the honest citizen and to the smaller enterprises that are the lifeblood of our economy. We are constantly told that stakeholders are involved in compiling the rules. Over the years, I have found this assurance less and less comforting, as most of the bodies being consulted are too similar in their thinking to that of the Treasury and HMRC.
Moreover, I was concerned to see the briefing from the Chartered Institute of Taxation, which suggested problems with the penalty provisions—see the notes on Clauses 112 and 113. These include a risk of disproportionately high penalties—so more reasons for people to be fearful. My noble friend Lord Forsyth of Drumlean is right to argue for a look at the Bill and, perhaps more importantly, the whole tax code in the spirit of simplification and, I suggest, with an eye to encouraging enterprise and SMEs.
There is a wider point that is relevant here. A book that I have been reading from our wonderful Lords Library, by Eric L Jones, suggests that the rate of economic growth back to the Middle Ages reflects, in part, the removal of institutional and environmental barriers. Examples would be the ending of tithes and the lifting of rationing. The very process of opening up fuels growth and productivity, which generates a greater tax base in turn. So I say no to licences, where they can be avoided, and to new cross-compliance, as proposed in this Bill. I add a no to the continuation of needless or new EU-based rules. On the same principles, I say yes to free ports, to the two-year super-deduction for plant and machinery investment proposed in the Bill and to the right kind of planning reform.
Probably the biggest example of new burdens on business in the Bill is the new tax on plastic packaging. I am as keen on reducing plastic packaging as anyone in this House, as my contributions in many debates have shown. However, I wonder whether all this is worth the candle, given the detail and scale of intervention involved. I doubt whether it is the best way to reduce use and encourage recycling. I recommend massive simplification. Plastics are oil-based and there may instead be a case for a simple duty like that on petrol or alcohol, albeit at a much lower level.
As my final contribution to this debate, I will mention skills, especially technical and vocational skills, which are essential for improved productivity and levelling up. We are at last making some progress in technical education, and youngsters can see that practical skills are vital and that university is not always a wise aspiration. However, from day one, the apprenticeship levy scheme has been complex and unimaginative. I know from direct experience that some businesses and organisations are not even spending their levy pot, because of these complexities.
I am glad to see the attention that the Chancellor gives to vocational skills, with well-publicised visits to talk to apprentices and online seminars. Could my noble friend, who I know is expert and sympathetic to this issue of skills, explain how the Government will improve outcomes in this vital area?
My Lords, I rise with the unusual luxury of 10 minutes’ speaking time, given because we have only a dozen Back-Bench speeches on this crucial taxation issue. I hope that some Peers in your Lordships’ House who specialise on issues of poverty and inequality—indeed, on any issues at all—will join these debates in future. Taxation, or the lack of it, shapes our societies. As the richly informative and powerful speech of the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, outlined, decades of decisions about taxation have helped to give us our deeply unequal, poverty-stricken society. We have been taxing the poor and allowing large companies and rich individuals to get away without paying.
The noble Lord, Lord Leigh, suggested that your Lordships’ House may need more experts in tax, finance and business, but this is a far broader issue that needs a far broader input. I quote the American historian Albert Bushnell Hart:
“Taxation is the price which civilized communities pay for the opportunity of remaining civilized.”
It is clear now, on the streets of London, that there are strong and rich debates about how the people who benefit from the investments of this and previous generations—in roads, public buildings, electricity supplies, and the services that we all pay for such as schools, hospitals and policing—make a fair contribution to the maintenance and restoration of our degraded physical and social infrastructure, and the impacts of austerity that we see in potholed roads, closed libraries and inadequate social care provision. These are not technical issues, but are at the very foundation of our society.
Noble Lords might worry about where they get sources of information. I thank Tax Justice UK for an excellent briefing and for drawing attention to the work of the Women’s Budget Group, which has identified how women, people on low incomes and BAME communities will benefit least from the tax breaks in the Bill and bear the chief brunt of the scheduled spending cuts.
It is interesting that, in the debates so far, the failures of regulation and of culture in our financial sector have come up again and again. Noble Lords who took part on the then Financial Services Bill might reflect on this. The noble Lord, Lord Bridges of Headley, talked about umbrella companies, which is an area where the UK is world-leading in entirely the wrong direction. The noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, talked about the “many-headed Hydra” of tax-dodging schemes, as did the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, in great detail. The fact is that we have too large a financial sector, which is milking not just the UK but the entire world and particularly the global south. The centre of global corruption is on our doorstep.
It has been suggested that we all live in social media bubbles these days, but in your Lordships’ House I feel like I am in the vigorous Atlantic surf of strong disagreement on economic issues. I particularly disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, and the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, about their entire economic commentary. The ways and means mechanism and its implementation have existed for many years and show how the rules of the game have changed and that the old economic approaches failed disastrously and gave us the global financial crash. We are finally looking differently at how the economy works and what it is for. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, and many others said that we need to get the economy going again and focusing on growth. I remind your Lordships’ House, in the country that is the chair of COP 26, that we cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet. That is not politics; it is physics.
The noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, recommended some reading to us. I have some alternative reading to suggest, a book I reviewed this week in the House magazine by Professor Tim Jackson. He is quite a mainstream economist and his book Post Growth is well worth a read. I also pick up on the points of the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, which focused on the importance, as he sees it, of giant multinational companies. I stress that 61% of employment in the UK is in small and medium enterprises. The Government talk of levelling up, but I would rather talk about spreading out prosperity. The foundation of prosperity for every community in this land needs to be built on strong local economies of small independent enterprises and co-operatives—a different and stable kind of economic model.
Having set the scene, I turn to some details in the Bill. I take the point made by several noble Lords about the thickness of the paperwork but, when you look at the measures, you see that it is actually a modest Bill. It talks about tidying up some Northern Ireland and VAT Brexit issues—another reminder that Brexit is by no means done. There are some modest measures that noble Lords have referred to about plastics, red diesel and cycling—very modest again for the chair of COP 26, when you think about the need to act on the climate emergency. We also have an increase in stamp duty land tax for overseas purchases of residential property in England and Northern Ireland which, should your Lordships take an imaginary scan of the boroughs around where we sit today, might be best described as shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.
The headline measure is a super deduction for the largest companies, many of which have done very well out of the great tragedy and suffering of the global pandemic. This is estimated to be going to cost the Treasury £25 billion. That would be a lot of social care or a large injection that our education sector so desperately needs. The Office for Budget Responsibility said that £5 billion of the spending that would be covered by this will be spent on previously planned investments. The Times reported that tax advisers specialising in capital allowances have pointed out that jacuzzies are listed as one investment that could receive a 130% rebate.
Perhaps we also need to think about what is not in this Bill. It is interesting that, despite widespread debate in society now, both in the Bill and in the debate around it in the other place, no amendment was put down about a wealth tax. There was no real discussion of it in the other place despite that now being a major topic of discussion among even some quite mainstream economists and certainly among the public.
Of course, there is a lot of discussion about the levels of corporate taxation, led not by the UK but by Joe Biden’s America. When I asked the Minister on 14 April about the US President’s plans, he effectively gave me a “no comment” response when I asked what the UK stance would be. I am pleased to see that we have now signed up to the US initiative. The noble Lord in his answer to my supplementary question then said something very interesting. He said the Government had always been one that wanted to reduce taxation wherever possible. Perhaps he might like to consider the words of the Chancellor in deciding to end the race to the bottom in corporation tax by increasing the headline rate to 25% in 2023 after Her Majesty’s Treasury found that the cut in the headline rate since 2010 did not drive inward investment. To quote the Chancellor, it
“might not be the most effective way to drive capital investment up”.
I also refer to the comments from the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, about those statistics. He referred to inward investment. I would say that that inward investment very often has been the selling off of the family silver, whether that is our water companies, publicly held land or, indeed, the family beds when it comes to selling off our care homes to the hedge fund industry.
If we did have, let us say, a wealth tax, where might it go? Despite the Government’s talk of an end to austerity, a £15 billion cut in annual government departmental spending is planned. These budgets are already cut to the bone and, of course, are being hit by the huge and continuing impacts of the pandemic.
There is some very useful information about who is paying and who is not. I have referred noble Lords to a report from the CAGE institute at the University of Warwick. In 2015-16, a quarter of people who had more than £1 million in taxable income paid less than 30% tax, while one in 10 paid just 11%—the same as a person earning £15,000 a year. This is a key issue.
I come back to the inequality and the poverty in our society, issues so well covered by the noble Lord, Lord Sikka. We are talking about capital gains tax and inequality in the way income is taxed. These issues are all missing from this Bill. They will need to be confronted soon.
My Lords, I pick up the point made earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Leigh, that there has been a relatively small number of speakers in this debate but my goodness they have been powerful speeches, and across a very wide range of issues. I hope the Government will take notice of the quality of this debate and the range of points made.
I start with a couple of general comments. I want to pick up the point made just now by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, that this Finance Bill is a very modest Bill. I think that we all know that, but it leads into the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, and others that we are in a very precarious economic period. I suspect that perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, or the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, in fact many people, including the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, would not agree on the same solutions to the problem, but we can at least agree that there really is a problem and bottom out the extent of it and look for the Government to come forward with a strategy. Can I impress upon the Minister the importance of a government strategy that is realistic and faces up to the grim realities—to use the phrase from the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe? We have to have that to be able to go forward effectively and successfully. I do not think that we should pretend that that role is picked up in this Bill. Please can the Minister make sure that it is picked up—and soon, quite frankly?
I want also to pick up the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Butler, on the G7 and the global tax and to echo something that the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, said. I am glad to see that the G7 is coming together to tackle this issue. To me, it is a real illustration of the might of the United States and the flexing of its muscles. Almost every country will take some benefit from the changes in the way that a global corporate tax will be raised as a consequence but, in fact, it will be quite modest for most countries. The United States Treasury is the very big winner, and it is a reminder that when you delve into the world of economics and power politics you have to recognise size and power. I continue to be worried that for the UK this means being essentially a stone that is grated between big regional economies and power bases. If ever it needed to be illustrated, I think it has been the quick acceptance of the US proposals by the British Government because, frankly, they absolutely had no choice.
We have discussed a lot of the Bill in various Budget speeches so I am not going to labour those points, but I have some real pleas to put before the Minister. I am very concerned that the VAT relief rate should not rise to 12.5% in September. When we look at the hospitality industry and the pressures that it is facing, we now recognise that there may even be delays to full opening on 21 June. We know that new variants can come through. Keeping this at 5% to the end of the fiscal year surely would be sensible and would reassure the industry at this moment in time.
The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, raised the issue of individuals facing rent arrears, which will now come tumbling in on them. So many of our small business, again probably especially in the hospitality industry, are facing in excess of £3 billion in unsettled rent levies. I think the Government are going to have to step in on this and I hope they will look at providing some support specifically on rent issues. Small businesses and self-employed people are very far from being out of the woods. Again, that argues for flexibility on the furlough scheme. The noble Lord, Lord Empey, talked about it in the context of aerospace but, really, so many industries are going to need some ongoing support, or they will end up in a dire crisis. Looking at continuing furlough into the future, for at least some period, may be essential.
According to the Federation of Small Businesses, about 40% of small businesses are finding their debt levels completely unmanageable. We do not have a mechanism at the moment to convert that into a capital base. We need to be able to enable them and support them in converting debt. I think the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, has talked in previous speeches about a sort of variation on 3i, but there has to be some mechanism or else many of our small businesses are never going to be in a position to begin to grow; they will be overwhelmed by a debt burden that continues to drain them for a series of years to come.
I make one final plea again on behalf of the 3 million excluded, mainly contractors and freelancers. The Government could, at this very last minute, step in to support that group, and I ask them once again to do so. The noble Lords, Lord Bridges and Lord Forsyth, talked about wrapping this in with following through on the recommendations of the Taylor report. The environment for those businesses—and they are our future—has to be shaped by recognising the risks they face, looking at the rights and the benefits that they do without, and helping to structure the tax environment that they sit in within that overall context. The Taylor report should not be left on the shelf any longer.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, that we have a problem with freezes on income tax thresholds. It really is a mechanism to raise income tax, which is slightly ironic when the Government have basically decided not to raise capital gains tax. Some of the poorest people will now be stepping in to fill that gap. It is also ironic given that the increases in corporation tax are delayed to 2023, so income tax rises will, in effect, hit first.
While I tend not to spend a lot of my time thinking about the best paid, can I get some assurance from the Minister on the freezing of the pensions lifetime allowance? Last time, this created a real crisis for us in the NHS, with consultants realising that one hour of additional work meant that they would get a tax bill that was larger than the associated income. In fact, they could not even ask not to be paid and do the work voluntarily because of the way the system works. A large number of our senior military just got up and left because they were caught in the same conundrum—people who did additional hours on the battlefield were whacked then by the tax system. Can the Minister give me assurances that the way this is designed now will not repeat that particular set of problems? Again, with the super-deduction, I have never understood why it is analogue and not digital. Surely we want people to be investing in the technologies of the future and not just in plant and machinery. That one is completely beyond me.
I was privileged to be a member of the Finance Bill Sub-Committee, chaired brilliantly by the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, and with the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, also there. I am quite humble when I speak about this report, because it was driven by people of extraordinary capability—it was a very powerful sub-committee. I just want to make some quick remarks, and I will try not to be repetitive, on the three key sections that the report addressed.
I am very worried that powers are being extended before a proper evaluation of how HMRC uses its existing powers. The noble Lord, Lord Bridges, made most of the comments that are relevant in this area, but it struck me—and I am making a personal comment here—that when we heard the Treasury, whether it was officials or the Minister, talk about the review of powers, it seemed more about identifying where powers could be increased and not about looking at how existing powers could be used far more effectively. We seem to have complete miscommunication around that issue.
As I remember it, that recommendation was embedded in real concerns about the loan charge and IR35—others have mentioned this—particularly because of the focus on the little people who got caught up in all kinds of schemes that they were completely unaware of and suffered very significantly as a consequence. Like others, I am delighted if HMRC is now determined to use powers, and extended powers are fine, to deal with promoters. But I am very frustrated that the retro-effective philosophy which is being used against individuals caught up in the loan charge, going back as far as 2010, is not being applied to the promoters who have accumulated huge profits in giving advice which, frankly, was from day one exceedingly questionable.
I join others in being worried about HMRC’s increasing instinct to outsource its compliance responsibilities. We are not talking about IR35 today, but the extension of the use of private companies to make the call on whether contractors they hire are caught by IR35 or not struck me as an overreach. We know that those companies, anxious not to have a fight with the tax authorities, are using quasi blanket determinations. Although an individual company can challenge a determination, it knows that at that point it gets labelled as a troublemaker and probably blacklisted for any future business. These are real problems we have with outsourcing, and they carry on into the issue of licensing taxi drivers and scrap metal dealers. At the moment, it is just an information exchange, but we can all be concerned that it is potentially the thin end of the wedge.
I join the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, in being very afraid—I think the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, said the same thing—that individuals will simply disappear from the system altogether. That could mean unsafe vehicles on the road because we have lost people from the licensing system, or real abuse of scrap metal arrangements, which can descend into the criminal underworld. I do not want to put a bad label on scrap metal merchants, who are decent, honourable people, but we can see where the pressures will come. I am desperately concerned about the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, on the use of digital platforms as essentially HMRC’s information-gathering mechanism, because it takes us even further into that area, which is one we absolutely must examine.
I shall make just one last remark—I realise the time is going fast and I should stop, but this is something we should draw to the attention of the House. The third area of concern that the report raises is the oversight and scrutiny of HMRC and the powers to circumvent the safeguards of the tax tribunal. The noble Lord, Lord Bridges, discussed that in some detail. The House may not recognise how necessary it is always to have such outside scrutiny.
Many of us received a copy of an email that the Loan Charge Action Group accessed through a freedom of information request. It dates to 31 January 2019, and is from Jim Harra, who is chief executive of HMRC, to a staff member. It follows a witness evidence session to a Treasury Select Committee, and refers to those to the House of Lords. It is about the loan charge. One must understand that the treatment of loan contractors depends entirely on a case brought before the tax tribunal called the Rangers case, which concerns Rangers Football Club. A decision came in 2017 which, I think, everybody who read it thought would be the weapon to use to go after companies that hire contractors and use disguised remuneration, but nobody was under the impression this could be used as the legal basis to go after individual contractors. The chief executive of HMRC wrote:
“In recent months I have repeatedly tried to obtain legal analysis to understand the strength of our claim”—
that is, the claim that there is a legal basis for going after individual contractors—“with very little success.”
I challenge anyone to show me where, in any of its evidence given to the Treasury Select Committee or the Finance Bill Sub-Committee, HMRC reflected that level of uncertainty. It demonstrates that the temptation to be parsimonious with the truth, to press on to achieve the target of maximum revenue-gathering, means that HMRC, like every other organisation, needs outside scrutiny. The importance of tax tribunals is paramount, and we must stop the constant whittling away of that power.
It is nice to rise to a few cheers. I am almost the penultimate speaker and there must be a sense of relief.
Let me begin by thanking the sub-committee of the Economic Affairs Committee on its report on new powers for HMRC. I must say that there was little surprise when the committee identified a number of shortcomings in how the Government had gone about their work in recent years. The report raises concerns that will sound familiar to many: the questionable timing of announcements, somewhat odd prioritisation of workloads and the often relaxed attitude towards best practice and evidenced-based policy-making. Given both the economic and moral case for cracking down on tax avoidance and other forms of non-compliance, the findings of the report are of concern.
We have taken note of the Government’s response and acknowledge that some of the recommendations expressed in the report are being or have been enacted. However, it is clear that there is more for both HMRC and Ministers to do if we are to close the loopholes and promote better behaviour. As always, we are confident that officials are doing everything they can to meet the targets set for them from above. It is a case of ensuring that departments are properly resourced and appropriately directed. When the Financial Secretary introduced the Bill in the House of Commons, he paid tribute to the work of officials in the Treasury and HMRC throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. He was right to praise them for the dedication and creativity that they have shown by turning new concepts into reality and putting money into people’s pockets in record time.
As the Opposition, we have not shied away from challenging the shortcomings of the various coronavirus support schemes or the Government’s wider handling of different aspects of the pandemic. However, as with the report on the powers of HMRC, any shortcomings rest ultimately with the politicians in charge. With a certain amount of bullying from within and without, some of the issues of Covid-19 support were addressed, but sadly some problems have still not been acknowledged and the patchwork of support has left many people in similar situations facing very different financial circumstances.
As we progress along the Covid road map, the Government will need to think carefully about when and how support is withdrawn from businesses and workers. It is also vital that lessons are learned to start closing the gaping holes that have been exposed in this country’s social security safety net.
The Financial Secretary referred to what he identified as three objectives underlying the Budget in March, all of which focused on defeating Covid-19 and rebuilding after it. We disagree fundamentally with his claim that his Bill will enact changes in taxation that will support all those objectives. Neither the Budget nor this Bill is sufficient to address the long-standing challenges to the British economy and to put us on a path to sustainable growth that would benefit all communities across the UK. Such challenges contributed to the UK having the worst downturn of any major economy at the height of the pandemic.
Despite our recent return to growth, which we welcome, and the continuing hard work of the British people, I worry that the Government’s lack of ambition on economic reform will hold us back vis-à-vis our international friends and competitors. The Chancellor’s last-minute decision to sign up to President Biden’s corporate tax proposals through the G7 communiqué is a clear example of his lack of ambition. The UK initially resisted the proposal, the only G7 member to do so, and while we witnessed a U-turn over the weekend, experts in the field have already identified potential loopholes.
Returning to the Budget and the Finance Bill, it is a shame that, rather than supporting front-line workers, the Government have essentially snubbed their heroic efforts in the past year and a half. We are all familiar with the paltry pay rise for NHS nurses, but other public sector workers have received poor pay settlements too. Rather than embracing opportunities around corporate tax, such as levelling the playing field for online and so-called bricks and mortar businesses, this Finance Bill enables a corporate super-deduction while freezing the income tax allowance. The latter will hit low-paid households that have been lifted out of income tax only in recent years. Rather than present proposals for welfare reform to put more money into government to ensure adequate funding for pupils to catch up with the education they lost during the multiple lockdowns, the Budget instead laid out plans to cut certain welfare benefits and slash departmental budgets. In sum, rather than delivering on warm words and promises on job creation, addressing the climate crisis or levelling up, the Finance Bill is merely a continuation of the political decision-making that has left so many feeling that the Government are not on their side.
The past year and a half has been tough for us all. We have had to make sacrifices and do things differently but Covid-19 has also exposed the very best of many: NHS staff, other key workers and those who played an active role in their local communities. However, there is also a need to help the unemployed back into work, address the ever-growing debt burden faced by many businesses and provide meaningful investments to put our economy and public services on a surer footing. This Bill and the Government’s broader economic policy do not meet those tests.
In the House of Commons, the Labour Party proposed several sensible amendments to make the legislation fairer. Rather than engage, the Government opposed measures to ensure that large multinationals pay their fair share, to increase transparency around the actual economic impacts of free ports, and to review the effectiveness of plans to prevent overseas entities funnelling dirty money through UK property. Think tanks and commentators of all political persuasions have been unimpressed by the lack of urgency on important issues such as these.
All that said, any noble Lord who has had the pleasure of participating in debates on Treasury statutory instruments will know that I am no fan of constitutional crises. It is not for the House of Lords to oppose the Finance Bill, and we have no intention of breaking that convention today. However, I was seized by the debate that broke out earlier about what we cover and the extent to which the Finance Bill creates cover for issues that arguably should be properly debated in legislation.
It is very interesting to sit back and see what the House of Lords does best. I think that the House of Lords, in a sense, divides its attention between the political and better legislation. I have been involved, over the past 11 years, with every bit of finance legislation that has gone through this House, usually at the junior level with stars helping me. What has emerged from that is the improvement that legislation has enjoyed in this House. It has been a really powerful step forward. It happens because thoughtful people bring up poor areas of legislation and, combined with the fact that the Opposition takes a political interest in it, focus is brought to bear on those areas and small changes and nuances are achieved. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, was in a sense referring to that, that the noble Lord, Lord Butler, was particularly referring to it, and that the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, indicated some sympathy with it. I hope he and his committee might consider the extent to which the Government are starting to smuggle legislation that really should come to this House through the political process by hiding it in money Bills.
I also thought there were some interesting concerns about HMRC and the level of scrutiny. I headed a pretty large organisation; one of the problems with large organisations is the attractiveness of using your power to do things to people who are less powerful. Of course, you do it because it is good for you, but we need processes that test whether it really is. One of the worst problems in any complex society is that large organisations emerge because they are efficient but, because they are large, they have unreasonable power. We need proper, better processes—there was reasonable consensus on this during the Financial Services Bill we have just done—in the FCA, for political scrutiny, and better processes in the PRA.
On a more political point, I also felt that the concept from the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, of the need for a more strategic approach from the Government was important. There have been lots of initiatives from this Government; we have disagreed with some and have supported others, but at no time have they seemed strategic. Two particular areas interested me. First, there is the failure to pick out sectoral initiatives; there are areas—I think the noble Lord, Lord Leigh, brought this out—in aerospace, for instance, where if we lose where we are now, no amount of money will get us back to the same place. There should be a stronger strategy for looking at where the weaknesses are. Secondly, there is this whole problem of debt; if debt is to be repaid—will it be?—it could become a millstone on the companies that should be bounding ahead. We need the best minds thinking about whether there is some way of turning that into equity, and so on.
There is much more to ponder. I hope that processes can be found for that pondering to be done in this House, and that we can be part of the legislative process. If anything makes the Government think, it is the fear of a vote going against them. I do not know whether anyone records this, but we do not actually like winning votes; we like persuading the Government to do good things because they are frightened of us winning votes. That is what happens—but anyway, I have something else to say.
It seems the Economic Affairs Committee’s conclusion that Ministers must do better applies more broadly than to tax avoidance policy. This Bill is yet another missed opportunity to grapple with the challenges our economy faces. Sadly, as is so often the case under this Administration, working families will pay the price for the Government’s lack of ambition.
My Lords, this has been an excellent debate, and I thank noble Lords for their contributions. I will round up by addressing some of the issues raised by your Lordships, starting with comments on the Economic Affairs Committee and HMRC’s powers.
I take this opportunity to thank noble Lords for their contributions on the new report from the Economic Affairs Committee, which focused on HMRC powers to combat tax avoidance and promote compliance. The Government have carefully examined the issues raised by the committee and given it a comprehensive response. I am pleased to say that nine of the committee’s recommendations were accepted and six were partially accepted.
Since the publication of the committee’s report, HMRC has published its evaluation of the implementation of powers, obligations and safeguards introduced since 2012. Working closely with representatives of taxpayers and agents, the evaluation has highlighted a number of new opportunities for HMRC to improve public trust in the tax system. It is crucial that HMRC has the powers necessary to identify the minority of people and businesses who seek to avoid or evade tax, while ensuring an appropriate balance of safeguards for taxpayers.
My noble friends Lord Bridges and Lady Neville-Rolfe raised the loss of safeguards, but this new measure does have important safeguards. For example, the notice may be issued only where the information is “reasonably required” to check a known person’s tax position or in connection with the recovery of a tax debt. An authorised officer must approve all notices and must pass a test every three years to retain their status. The financial institution can appeal against any penalties charged for failure to comply with the notice, and HMRC is required to make an annual report to Parliament on the use of the financial institution notice.
My noble friend Lord Bridges asked about umbrella companies and mini umbrella companies. The Government agree on the importance of regulating umbrella companies properly and have already committed to regulating them by extending the remit of the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate to include these. An employment Bill will be brought forward as parliamentary time allows. The mini umbrella company model is fraudulent and presents an organised crime threat to the UK Exchequer. HMRC works closely with trade bodies and other government departments to raise awareness of the mini umbrella company fraud.
My noble friends Lady Neville-Rolfe and Lord Bridges asked about Clause 125 on licensing authorities. The check has been designed to be minimal in scope and will only test compliance with the most basic obligation to be appropriately registered for tax. It does not create new tax obligations but simply ensures that these existing rules are complied with, promoting fairness for everyone in the sector. For most users it will take minutes to do and is needed only when licences are renewed—typically every three years.
My noble friend Lord Forsyth asked about corporation tax rates. At 25%, the rate is still highly competitive relative to our international peers, with the lowest headline rate in the G7. Alongside this tax increase, the Chancellor announced in the Budget a super-deduction, as we referred to earlier, from April of this year until April 2023. My noble friend is particularly concerned about the loan charge. I am sure that there is nothing I can say today that will completely allay his concerns, but I want to try because I appreciate his passion on this subject.
Promoters of tax avoidance schemes are already subject to significant penalties if they fail to meet their obligations. Since its formation in 2016, HMRC’s fraud investigation service has regularly secured convictions relating to arrangements that have been promoted and marketed as tax avoidance. Most of these people were involved in promoting tax avoidance schemes. However, we know that more can be done, and we are committed to ensuring that they face significant financial consequences for promoting these schemes.
My noble friend Lord Forsyth asked about the impact of IR35 on the self-employed. It is important to note that the reform does not apply to those who are self-employed according to the existing employment status tests. A worker’s employment status for tax purposes is not a matter of choice but is determined by the terms and conditions under which they work. This is determined by a number of factors which are set out in case law, such as whether they can send a substitute to do the work on their behalf, and the control that the client has over the work that that person does.
In terms of reforms to employment status, as laid out in our manifesto, the Government will bring forward measures to establish an employment framework which is fit for purpose and keeps pace with the needs of modern workplaces. These include measures that will encourage flexible working, protect vulnerable workers, take a smarter approach to enforcement of employment law, and build on the strengths of our flexible labour market to support jobs. The Government recognise concerns about employment status and are considering options to improve clarity in the system, making it easier for individuals and businesses to understand which rights and obligations apply to them.
The noble Lords, Lord Dodds and Lord Empey, are concerned about the red diesel issue for power generation in Northern Ireland. In response to concerns raised by red diesel users in this context during last year’s consultation about their ability to run down fuel stocks, the Government have decided to give HMRC officers the ability to disapply the liability to seizure where the user can provide evidence to satisfy officers that they have not built up their stocks or taken red diesel into the fuel system after the rules change. The Government recognise that for some users, such as those who need red diesel for back-up power generation in case of emergencies but may use it only for a few hours a year, their last purchase of red diesel may be some time before the tax change.
The noble Lord, Lord Dodds, asked about air passenger duty. We are currently consulting on the Government’s initial policy position, but the effective rate of air passenger duty on domestic flights should be reduced to support the union and regional connectivity. The consultation closes in a few days, on 15 June.
My noble friend Lord Leigh asked about capital gains tax reform. The Government are committed to a fair and simple CGT system which strikes the right balance between raising revenue and supporting the UK’s economic recovery and long-term growth. Last year, the Chancellor commissioned the Office of Tax Simplification to examine areas where the present rules on CGT can distort behaviour or do not meet their policy intent. The OTS provides independent advice. It is the role of the Government to make tax policy decisions. The Government keep all taxes under review and will respond to the OTS in due course.
My noble friend also asked about the digital services tax and pillar 1. The UK digital services tax is an interim solution to the widely held concerns with international corporate tax, and the Government’s strong preference is to secure a comprehensive global solution on digital tax and remove the DST once this is in place. We are pleased at the progress that has been made in recent days towards securing that solution but recognise that there is still work to do in reaching wider agreement among the OECD key 20 countries ahead of July. The Government’s efforts will be focused on that objective.
It is premature to set out revenue estimates—the final design details and parameters of the rules will need to be worked though—but a key condition for the UK is that pillar 1 appropriately addresses our concern and ensures that the amount of tax that multinational groups pay in the UK is commensurate with their economic activities here. My noble friend also asked whether we are no longer committed to a competitive tax regime. We are absolutely committed to one, and as I mentioned, our headline corporate tax rate of 25% is competitive among our international peers.
The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, made important points. I passionately agree with his point about leading the recovery from this crisis through job creation. Employment gives people dignity and a sense of purpose. We are pleased with the results so far. The OBR now expects unemployment to peak at 6.5% in the fourth quarter of this year, as the CJRS is scheduled to end, falling gradually to 4.4% by the end of 2025. The estimated unemployment rate is 1% lower than its November forecast. This is equivalent to 340,000 fewer people in unemployment, partly thanks to the extension of the furlough scheme. The noble Lord will, be aware of other initiatives, such as our dramatic increase in the number of jobcentres.
The noble Lord, Lord Sikka, asks about tax avoidance, particularly of the large accountancy firms. Rigorous anti-avoidance activity by HMRC has seen a significant proportion of those promoting schemes, including the large accountancy firms, being driven out of this market. It is now only a hard core of unscrupulous promoters, largely based offshore, who continue to promote tax avoidance schemes. The Government recognise that more could be done to raise standards more widely across the market for tax advice and ran a call for evidence on this last summer. The summary of responses and next steps was published in November. As part of this, the Government are consulting on introducing a potential requirement for tax advisers to hold professional indemnity insurance.
The noble Lord, Lord Sikka, and the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, asked about the IT and PA threshold, the freeze depressing people’s purchasing power. This policy will not come into effect until April 2022, when the economy will be on a stronger footing. We are asking people to make only a relatively modest contribution, to help fund good public services and to rebuild public finances. This is a universal and progressive policy, with those more able to pay contributing more. An average basic taxpayer will be only about £40 per year worse off in 2022-23. These are responsible decisions that will help to ensure the post-crisis task of putting the public finances back on a sustainable path.
My noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe asked about Clauses 112 and 113 on the penalty systems that are being introduced. The current penalties and interest levied on taxpayers when they miss a submission deadline or pay their tax late are inconsistent across different taxes. The changes in this Bill bring consistency. The new approach to late submissions means that an automatic financial penalty will no longer be applied. Instead, the taxpayer will accrue points, much like driving licence points, with a financial penalty being applied only after repeated non-compliance. This means that taxpayers will incur penalties proportionate to the amount of tax they owe and how long payment is outstanding.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, is concerned that we cannot aim for continuous growth because of its damage to the environment. I would respectfully disagree with her and refer her to a book called More from Less by Andrew McAfee. A couple of simple statistics on the US Geological Survey, which has been running for over 100 years, has tracked 72 resources from A, aluminium, to Z, zinc, and only six are not yet past their peak. Energy use in the UK in 2017 was 2% below what it was in 2008, even though GDP had increased by 15%. An aluminium can built in 1959 weighed 85 grams, whereas one built in 2011 only weighs 13 grams. It is extraordinary the innovation that is occurring in our society.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, asked about a pre-emptive rise in VAT rates. The Government appreciate that the expiry of any temporary cut will need to be carefully timed so that it does not impede progress as the economy recovers. That is why we are announcing this six-month extension followed by six months of the 12.5% rate, which will help businesses to manage the return to a standard rate. As the Chancellor made clear in his Budget speech, it is important for the Government to be honest about the need to keep the public finances on a sustainable footing. The Government will of course keep the situation under review. The reduced rate is expensive and is expected to cost over £7 billion in tax forgone. Applying a permanently reduced rate would further increase the cost to taxpayers.
The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, asked about the G7 agreement on tax reform. We are delighted that the G7 has come together to back these proposals. It represents a major reform to the international tax framework. The UK has been at the forefront of OECD discussions to address tax challenges of digitisation. The Chancellor has made it a priority of the UK’s G7 presidency to support progress towards an agreement. Our consistent position has been that it matters where tax is paid, as well as the rate at which it is paid. So we are delighted that we have G7 backing for both pillars of the OECD proposals on reallocating taxing rights as well as the global minimum taxation.
On the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, about multinationals, the Government have taken significant steps, both domestically and internationally, to ensure that companies pay the right amount. The corporate interest restriction rules prevent multinationals from avoiding tax using funding arrangements. This has raised £1 billion a year since its introduction in 2017. The diverted profit tax has led to £5 billion in additional revenue by countering aggressive tax planning techniques used by multinationals to divert profits away from the UK. The tax charge on offshore receipts, in respect of intangible property, is forecast to raise £1.1 billion from companies that put valuable intangible assets in low-tax jurisdictions. The UK has also been at the forefront of the OECD discussions on this, and the Chancellor has made it a priority of the G7 presidency to support progress towards an agreement.
The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, asked about freeports and economic transparency. We have a firm commitment to ensure that the transparency extends to the freeports programme. That is why we published a decision-making note that clearly sets out how sustainable economic growth and regeneration were prioritised in the assessment process. This built on a robust bid assessment, where the eight successful English freeports demonstrated a strong economic rationale for their proposed tax sites. The Government have already taken action to address the concerns that any additional reporting requirements are seeking to resolve. We will be publishing costings of the freeports programme at the next fiscal event, in line with conventional practice.
Let me wind up by saying that I hope I have succeeded in addressing noble Lords’ questions. I will of course review the record of this debate and follow up in the usual way, and write where I have not been able to provide detailed answers.
Bill read a second time. Committee negatived. Standing Order 44 having been dispensed with, the Bill was read a third time and passed.