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Taxation (Post-transition Period) Bill

Volume 685: debated on Wednesday 9 December 2020

Considered in Committee

[Dame Rosie Winterton in the Chair]

Before I ask the Clerk to read the title of the Bill, I should explain that in these exceptional circumstances, although the Chair of the Committee would normally sit in the Clerk’s chair during Committee, I will remain in the Speaker’s Chair in order to comply with social distancing requirements, although I will be carrying out the role not of Deputy Speaker but of Chairman of the Committee. Chairs of the Committee should be addressed as such, rather than as Deputy Speakers.

I must also modify the call list slightly in the light of the selection and grouping of amendments by the Chairman of Ways and Means. I will call the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) to open the debate by moving amendment 2; we will then follow the rest of the call list as published, starting with the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash). I will call the Minister at the end to respond to the debate.

Clause 1

Duty on goods removed to Northern Ireland

I beg to move amendment 2, page 2, line 43, at end insert—

“(4A) The Treasury must publish guidance setting out its proposed approach to the reliefs, repayments and remissions referred to in subsection (3)(b) within four working days of this section coming into force.”

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Clause stand part.

Amendment 3, in clause 2, page 4, line 24, at end insert—

“(5) The Treasury must publish guidance setting out its proposed approach to the reliefs, repayments and remissions referred to in subsection (4)(a) within four working days of this section coming into force.”

Clause 2 stand part.

Clauses 3 to 4 stand part.

Amendment 1, in clause 5, page 7, line 44, leave out subsection (3).

This amendment is connected with NC1, which would make all substantive regulations under the Bill subject to the affirmative procedure.

Clause 5 stand part.

Clauses 6 to 12 stand part.

New clause 1—Regulations

“Notwithstanding any other enactment, a statutory instrument containing regulations made under this Act, other than regulations made under section 11, may not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before and approved by a resolution of the House of Commons.”

This new clause would make regulations made under the Bill (other than the commencement regulations in clause 11) subject to House of Commons affirmative procedure.

New clause 2—Treasury use of powers

“(1) The Treasury must, within four working days of the day on which this Act is passed, publish a report setting out the timeframe within which it will use the powers to make regulations conferred by—

(a) section 40A(2) of TCTA 2018;

(b) section 40B(1) and (2) of TCTA 2018;

(c) section 30A(4) of TCTA 2018;

(d) section 30B(1) and (3) of TCTA 2018;

(e) section 30C(5) of TCTA 2018, and

(f) section 5(2) of this Act.

(2) The Treasury must publish an annual report setting out how it has made use of the powers referred to in subsection (1).

(3) Each report under subsection (2) must include an assessment of—

(a) what considerations the Treasury made when deciding to use its powers, and

(b) the impact of the regulations on individuals and businesses throughout the UK, and specifically in Northern Ireland.”

That schedule 1 be the First schedule to the Bill.

That schedule 2 be the Second schedule to the Bill.

That schedule 3 be the Third schedule to the Bill.

That schedule 4 be the Fourth schedule to the Bill.

As well as speaking to amendment 2, I will speak to amendment 3, which makes the same points, and say a word about new clause 2. All three have been tabled in the name of the Leader of the Opposition and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends.

Clause 1 sets out the new customs regime that will apply to goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland—specifically those that are deemed to be at risk of entering the EU single market. The Northern Ireland protocol that the Government have signed up to requires such a regime as a result of their decision to leave the single market and the customs union. It will mean a system of paying customs duties for those who move such goods.

As yet, none of us knows whether a deal will be agreed, although we know that an important dinner is taking place in Brussels tonight. However, we welcome the announcement of a trusted trader scheme today, although it comes very late in the day. That scheme will remove some of the possible tariffs on goods that move from Great Britain to Northern Ireland in the event of a no-deal Brexit, but for other goods we are clear that we do not want to see additional costs for businesses and communities in Northern Ireland.

The House should note that Northern Ireland consumers have, on average, about half the discretionary income of consumers in the rest of the United Kingdom; the long and the short of it is that they simply cannot afford such additional trade tariffs on goods. There therefore needs to be a system for at-risk goods that do not leave Northern Ireland, in line with the agreement that Northern Ireland remains part of the UK’s customs territory and that customs duties should not apply to goods that travel between Great Britain and Northern Ireland if Northern Ireland is their end destination.

The protocol and the arrangements agreed yesterday by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and his counterpart create new requirements for businesses to be set out in regulations. Clause 1 is specific about that, for example in new section 40B of the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Act 2018, which states that the Treasury

“may by regulations provide”

for which goods the new duties will apply to, and make

“provision about reliefs, repayment and remission…checks, controls or administrative processes”

and other matters.

My broad point is that that is obviously a description of new arrangements that are not in place right now; that is why they are being introduced in the Bill. As I said on Second Reading, it would be better for the Government to acknowledge that this is a new regime with new requirements, instead of the pretence that everything will carry on exactly as it is.

As I also said on Second Reading, we only have three weeks to go. Businesses in Northern Ireland and those that do a lot of trade with Northern Ireland will be asking, “What does this mean for me? What processes do I have to go through? What do I have to pay? If the goods remain in Northern Ireland, will I be entitled to a rebate if I have paid? How will I claim that rebate? How will this system work?” Those are all legitimate questions about the new regime being introduced by the Bill and the regulations enabled by it. Amendment 2 asks the Treasury to reach conclusions and to publish answers on these matters in the coming days. Frankly, it is already too late to expect businesses to absorb more than 100 pages of legislation within a few weeks. But even if it is too late, we cannot afford more delay, which is why our amendment calls for the publication of guidance on this within a few days of the Bill coming into force.

I should stress that nothing in this amendment alters the regime that the Government are trying to bring in. Everything in the amendment is fully in line with the Northern Ireland protocol and with the commitments that the Government have made as part of that. We want to provide clarity for businesses as soon as possible, rather than leaving open-ended the time for these regulations to be published.

In response to my question at the end of the Second Reading debate, the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury said with confidence that she was sure this could all be done by 1 January. I hope she is right and that any scepticism that all these arrangements will be completed in the three weeks between now and 1 January is unfounded. Let us hope that she is right. The amendment asks for the Government to outline precisely how these duties and tariffs, if they are necessary, will be rebated. Businesses will be asking that question and, quite reasonably, they will want an answer.

Will businesses be required to pay up front and then be reimbursed by HMRC, as envisaged in the Northern Ireland protocol? Is that what the Government have in mind? If so, the Minister should know that there are fears that such a rebate system could be hugely complex. Indeed, some fear that it is not fully built, but we are told that it will all be ready for 1 January. These are vital questions. As it stands, the Bill does not fully answer them, nor does it set out a timeframe in which they will be answered, which is why we have tabled amendments 2 and 3 to the Bill.

Finally, new clause 2 is an attempt to give both Parliament and the public some timetable—some road map—for the blizzard of regulations that are enabled by the Bill and to secure a report on their impact in the future. As I said, this is a new regime. The Bill legislates for something that we have not had to do before in the United Kingdom, and we should at least have the courtesy of reporting on how it is operating in the future. New clause 2 asks for both a timetable of the regulations and a report on how the new regime has operated. These are completely reasonable amendments. I hope that, in a spirit of generosity, the Government will find it within themselves to accept them, and I look forward to hearing the Financial Secretary to the Treasury wind up the debate.

I am very sorry to hear that the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) is not here, because I am sure that there is so much more that he could have added to this debate that he has not already said.

That is absolutely fine. I wish to speak to the amendments in my name and the names of my hon. Friends.

As I outlined on Second Reading, I have real concerns about the scrutiny aspects of the Bill. It is a thick and substantial Bill that gives substantial powers to the UK Government to move things through this House under the negative procedure, which gives very little opportunity for us or anybody else to scrutinise their proposals. We wish to see the proposals come under the affirmative procedure wherever possible, to allow extra scrutiny of the Government.

As I said, I am very concerned about the letter that the Minister sent to Members. It talks about a huge range of duties that the Government are creating but that, at this moment, they do not intend to use. I question why they are creating such duties if they do not intend to use them. At some stage perhaps they will use them, so we need a mechanism to scrutinise them. It is unfortunate, but perhaps not surprising, that the Government see taking back control as bringing it back from bureaucrats in Brussels to give it to bureaucrats in Whitehall, bypassing this place altogether. It should have been an opportunity for this place to get more powers to scrutinise such duties, but no; it all goes to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs or to the Treasury, and very little comes here or indeed to the Committees of this House. There should have been an opportunity to look at the new taxation structures that we are bringing in here and that we have responsibility for in this House, but the Committees of this House will not get the opportunity to scrutinise these measures either. I know that some have suggested that an additional Committee would allow that scrutiny to be made.

I very much support what the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) said and the questions he asked. We are dealing with complex supply chains when we talk about the movement of food, chemicals and manufactured goods. In my constituency and in the constituencies of some of my colleagues, for example, we have manufacturers of leather, who move raw hides from Ireland to the west of Scotland. They need to know how they will be able to move these goods through different territories, as they really should not be left hanging about for any length of time; they need to be moved quickly to where they are processed. We do not know whether they would fall under what the Government have termed “at risk goods”. It is not surprising that businesses are tearing their hair out with this shambles of a Government, because they do not know whether they will be able to continue with their business come the turn of the year.

There is also the cost and the red tape, whether it is the 265 million customs forms that will need to be filled out compared with the 54 million now, or whether it is the issue of rebates and the processing of fees and money. This is the end of the transition period, but we do not know what we are transitioning to. We certainly know what we had and what we will not have any more: free and unfettered access to a huge market in Europe. We do know that we are losing that, but we do not yet know what the Government’s plans are.

Despite the Government’s attempts to reassure us, concerns remain. Aodhán Connolly of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, while acknowledging the progress that has been made, said of the delays:

“We are just 22 days out and retailers are still unsure about the exact processes needed to move food to Northern Ireland. Therefore, the Government needs to assure them how this will be done without additional bureaucracy.”

There are real concerns about the cost and the choice of food that people of Northern Ireland will have if we do not get this right.

The point that I made earlier about customs charges and duties was reflected in an item on RTÉ at about 2.30 this afternoon. It said that customers in Ireland will be faced with VAT and customs duty from 1 January if buying goods from the UK worth over €22. That is significantly lower than the levels that were spoken about earlier. It was said that the Irish Revenue has no way of knowing whether consumers will continue to buy from the UK when additional charges apply. I ask the Minister to consider this and to do some studies on whether these additional charges will have an impact on people in this country who make good-quality goods and export them to Ireland. A total of 70% goes to Ireland, and we need to have some certainty from the Government about the long-term impact.

The scrutiny mechanisms that we suggest give us ample opportunity to do that at every stage of this process, not just today while we are considering this Bill, and then putting it in a box and leaving it, but on an ongoing basis. This Government definitely need to be held to account.

The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Dame Rosie Winterton): I believe that the Members who were numbers five to 11 on the call list spoke in the earlier debate and have withdrawn from this one, which means that we go straight to Andrew Griffith.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Dame Rosie.

I welcome this set of pragmatic measures. The Bill is a building block on the way to regaining our national self-determination in this very important area. I will oppose the amendment, although not on the principle— greater scrutiny and giving business greater certainty are things that I hope that those on both sides of the House can support. However, we should recognise that we are in a fast-moving environment. The Treasury team have been working incredibly intensively in the context of the pandemic and I think it is unfair to impose on them a specific timeframe when I know they will—perhaps the Minister will address this point—use their very best endeavours to give the very greatest amount of certainty as quickly as possible.

I follow the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), who I have to say takes something of an 18th-century approach to customs, borders, forms and tariffs. The reality is that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) said earlier, we are in an age of online forms and digital electronic surveillance. Any good that passes across any internal or external border is tracked through a multiplicity of different technologies. I made the observation to the hon. Lady that of course when one introduces any customs border—this is one reason why Government Members are so keen to keep our United Kingdom together—there is an added level of complexity, but we should not overstate the complexity or understate the ability of business to innovate and deal with that.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for allowing an intervention. Is he aware that we were told in the Treasury Committee that the UK could have adopted the French customs system, which was up and running before ours? Ours is not ready, as the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee heard yesterday. Technological solutions exist, but they do not exist in the UK, and we do not have them up and running to get this moving by the turn of the year.

I beg to differ with the hon. Lady. There will be different systems for different territories, but on the business side of things there is already sophisticated tracking of stock, sales and data, which can be used to feed into accounting systems.

What I really want to do is to celebrate—I hope that those on both sides of the House can do that—the absolute game-changer that is contained within clause 7 to crack down on the leakage of the important tax revenues that fund our valued public services, and, most importantly, to create a level playing field for the nation’s small and online retailers. That has needed to be addressed for far too long. I welcome the Minister to his place and what clause 7 will do for the enterprising small businesses of our nation.

Dame Rosie, what a delight it is to see you in the Chair, metaphorically if not actually.

It is a measure of the wide gulf between the House’s professed intentions and its actual activities that we are about to wind up within a very few minutes, and nothing like to time, the scrutiny of the Bill in Committee. I thank those who have spoken. Let me do service on my part by keeping my remarks brief, although I will say that nothing could have surprised me more than that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) will not be taking the opportunity to make a trivial two-hour speech.

The right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) said that somehow the Government were pretending there was no change. Of course, he then went on to say that nothing has changed. We are not pretending anything. We acknowledge that there is change and that is specifically why we have used the language we have of making the changes as easy and as frictionless as possible for all parties concerned.

The right hon. Gentleman raises concerns and questions about Northern Ireland. I remind him that the Trader Support Service, which was launched on 28 September, has 18,000 subscribers already. He asks us to publish guidance. I can tell him that guidance has been published already, on 26 October.

The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) saw Brexit—rather helpfully—as an opportunity to return powers to Parliament. How right she was. That is why I am a supporter of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of the Parliament that stands at its centre. My hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Andrew Griffith) rightly said that it should be for the Bill to make matters as easy as possible. I agree with that. He pointed to the absolute game-changer in clause 7. I agree with that too.

I point out to the Minister that he said guidance was published in October; he cannot be referring to the guidance referred to in clauses 1 and 2, which talks about the regulations under the Bill. However, on the basis of the whole debate, we will not press the amendment to a vote tonight, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 2 to 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Amendment proposed: 1, in clause 5, page 7, line 44, leave out subsection (3).—(Alison Thewliss.)

This amendment is connected with NC1, which would make all substantive regulations under the Bill subject to the affirmative procedure.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.

Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 6 to 12 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedules 1 to 4 agreed to.

The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Bill to be considered tomorrow (Order, this day).