Jesse Norman responds to debates on the remaining stages of the Finance Bill and moves the Third Reading of the Bill.
I am grateful to all Members who have taken part in this debate. Let me pick up on several issues that have been raised, starting with the super deduction. You will be aware, Madam Deputy Speaker, as I think some Opposition Members are not, that it has been described by the CBI as
“a real catalyst for firms”,
while the British Chambers of Commerce said:
“We particularly welcome the massive ‘super deduction’ investment incentive.”
They are absolutely right. It is a terrible shame that the Labour party has decided to try to tarnish the super deduction, a measure from which many capital-intensive businesses around this country will benefit, especially in the north, the north-west, the north-east and the midlands. As my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) rightly picked up, it is a measure that benefits local businesses up and down the UK. He picked Wadworth, a well-known brewer, and rightly so, but there are many, many other businesses for which that is also true. He was absolutely right to highlight that.
Let me come on to questions of wider taxation, if I may. There seems to be an astonishing level of ignorance among Members on the Opposition Benches. They seemed to be unaware that the tax gap—the difference between the amount of tax actually collected and the amount of tax that could potentially be collected—is at its lowest rate in our recorded history, at 4.7%. It may be of some interest if I point out to them—they can reflect on this—that in 2005-06 under the Labour Government it was 7.5%, so it has fallen dramatically, I am pleased to say. Tax that was not being collected by the Labour Government at that time is now being collected by the Conservative Government of the present day, and a very good thing that is too. That is a record on which they should spend some time pondering. The fact of the matter is that this Government have always made it plain that they will be very tough—as tough as they can be—in order to collect the tax that is due and to make sure that corporations and individuals pay it wherever they are due to.
Let me come on to the question of the G7, which was raised by the hon. Member for Ealing North (James Murray) and others. We have always made it plain, and we have stated in public, in this Chamber and in public communications, that this Government support both parts of the OECD proposals—the proposals for pillar 1 and pillar 2—and it is important to be clear about that.
Opposition Members quoted the recent Financial Times article. I remind them that it says that
“the US proposals have now opened up room for a compromise...This is a good start.
I also pick up the point mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne), who said that we do not always discuss everything we want to when negotiations are under way, which they presently are. As the FT says, this
“is a good start. It is essential now to reach a satisfactory agreement.”
When the hon. Member for Ealing North speaks, he might care to tell us whether, if a deal is agreed with the US according to the proposals that have been put forward and that are being shared and discussed at the moment, the Labour party will welcome what could be one of the landmark moments in global corporate taxation.
That is what we are doing, and in doing it we are merely following a tradition and a pattern of leadership that this Government have exercised over many years, so let me just pick up some examples. We have seen leadership on base erosion and profit shifting; leadership in the G20 on a comprehensive global solution based on the two pillars we have described; leadership, now, in our presidency of the G7; before that, the diverted profits tax, the corporate interest tax restrictions and the requirements for large businesses to publish their tax strategy; even last year, the digital services tax; and, in the present Bill, a plastic packaging tax. We are constantly innovating to seek to improve the quality and payment of taxation and to ensure that tax is paid in the due amounts by those who are due to do so. That is what this Bill does, and that is why I commend these measures to the House.
I thank all Members who have commented or spoken in this debate on freeports. As the House will know, freeports are a very important part of the Government’s policy to level up the British economy and to bring investment, trade and jobs to parts of the country that in many cases have not had the economic vibrancy that we as a nation would have wished. They symbolise and reinforce the opportunities provided by this country’s status as an outward-looking trading nation, open to the world.
As colleagues have already made clear, the excitement about freeports is tangible. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) was absolutely right to highlight the excitement and energy that the process of competition has developed. That is itself an important sign of the Government’s intent in areas that have been, I am afraid, in far too many cases ignored and patronised by the Labour party. My hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Jacob Young) was also absolutely right. What was the headline—Labour needs to listen? He said that now would be a good time to start, and how right he was.
If I may, I shall go on briefly to talk about the Finance Bill in relation to freeports. The Bill will enable the creation of freeport tax sites in the early stages of the measure, where businesses can benefit from tax reliefs including a stamp duty land tax relief, an enhanced structures and buildings allowance, and an enhanced capital allowance for plant and machinery. But it is important to see that these measures are, in turn, being combined with simpler import procedures, duty benefits in customs sites to help businesses to trade, planning changes to accelerate much-needed development, additional spending on infrastructure and a freeport regulatory engagement network to try to bring the regulators and firms together to test new technology safely and effectively. That makes up a comprehensive package designed to boost trade, to attract inward investment and to drive productive activity, and thereby to level up communities. As the House will know, the Government have engaged extensively with ports, local authorities and industry experts, including through a consultation on the wider programme, to ensure that the whole policy is maximally effective.
It is astonishing that the Labour party should oppose this policy. I cannot believe that Opposition Members really want to deprive successful freeports such as those that have been announced at East Midlands Airport, Felixstowe and Harwich, Humber, Liverpool city region, Plymouth, Solent, Thames and Teesside of having tax sites. That could ultimately harm their ability to attract inward investment and create jobs. How are they going to explain to the voters of Teesside, Liverpool city region and the Humber, let alone the voters of those other places, that that is the decision they have taken? But then I reflect on Labour’s attitude towards the super deduction, which is a deduction specifically focused on capital-intensive businesses. Many of those that will benefit are in the north and the midlands. That is a crucial part, in and of itself, of levelling up, and I think those two joint failures on the part of the Labour party should be linked together to understand their full import.
Of course, the Government have sought to build in protections wherever possible, including transparency in decision making and in how the sustainable economic growth and regeneration that we are seeking are being prioritised, as well as a robust bid assessment process and the like. It is important to say that, before funding is allocated and tax sites are designated, each freeport will need to pass a specific business case process that includes assessing how effectively those tax sites can be monitored for compliance with the tax rules. Legislation will contain mechanisms to prevent or combat illegitimate claims for those reliefs, so those protections are in place.
Let me say one other thing, which is that the Government remain committed to establishing freeports in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as soon as possible. I was sorry to hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis) said about the experience highlighted the other day. We of course want to work as quickly as possible with the devolved Administrations—I say the same thing to the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson)—to accelerate the policy and bring freeports to all parts of the country. As the House will know, we are working with the Northern Ireland Executive to ensure that a Northern Irish freeport will both meet our international obligations and be attractive to businesses wishing to invest in Northern Ireland.
I am confident that Opposition Members do not want to delay the investment associated with the relevant clauses. The implementation of that investment will help to unlock employment and stimulate growth in areas that have too often been left behind, so I urge the House to reject amendments 24 to 26 and new clause 25.
I am grateful to all of those who have spoken in this debate. As the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) has just said, this has been something of a wash-up debate. It is fair to say that it is a bit of an omnibus group of measures pulled together, with many different clauses and issues on which colleagues have wanted to speak. That has made it wide-ranging, but if I may, I am going to focus on some of the key themes from across the various discussions we have had.
Let me start with the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) and the question of the non-resident surcharge, which was also highlighted by the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier). They may or may not be aware that in 2019 the Government carried out a public consultation on whether there should be a 1% non-resident surcharge, and decided on the basis of that consultation that the surcharge should be levied at 2%. That is twice as high as was originally contemplated in the consultation. That also should be seen in the context of the additional tax that people pay on second and third properties, many of which will fall into the scope of this measure. That is an important factor to bear in mind.
The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) revisited some of her key themes as regards the climate and environmental policy. I think that there is a misunderstanding at some very deep level of what the Government are doing, which includes: the Environment Bill; the 10-point plan that the Prime Minister has laid out; the net zero work that the hon. Lady highlighted, which was commissioned within and by the Treasury from a very eminent independent economist; and our work through the new UK Infrastructure Bank, which focuses on green policies and levelling up and for which I was pleased to visit new potential office sites in Leeds only on Thursday. It all amounts to a tremendous emphasis, particularly in the net zero review, on the long-term future of creating a sustainable and productive green economy in this country. It is very important to focus on that.
The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) talked about health inequalities. I remind her that the Government have made an enormous investment in the NHS, over and above the extraordinary interventions supporting the fabric of our society over the past 12 months. We will also have in place a new office for health promotion, designed to support better health and wellbeing across the country.
The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) called for greater transparency in relation to reliefs. I have a great deal of personal sympathy with his position; he is absolutely right about the importance of focusing on reliefs. To take a particular example that I know is of great interest to him, he will be aware that we have under way a review of R&D tax reliefs, an important part of policy.
The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) highlighted the situation in Belarus, which is not directly a matter for the Treasury or the Bill, but is obviously a topic of great importance and interest for all Members of this House, as today’s urgent question highlighted.
All those points are important to put on the record. I also want to pick up on the important speeches made by my right hon. Friends the Members for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) and for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith).
My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden focused on the prevalence of umbrella companies. It is important to say that there are legitimate reasons why an agency or an individual might wish to use an umbrella company. To contemplate a series of measures that might include a ban on umbrella companies would be a tremendous burden on the legitimate umbrella companies; my right hon. Friend mentioned that that was not his preferred option. It is important to point out that such companies can perform useful payroll functions for agencies, provide choice for individuals and have multiple engagements. Notably, the Low Incomes Tax Reform Group pointed out recently:
“For freelance contractors who cannot work for their clients on a sole trader or limited company basis…the option to be able to work through an umbrella can be very valuable.”
There is value to umbrella companies, but that is not to say that there is not also abuse. The Government are very focused on that: my right hon. Friend mentioned some of the measures that HMRC is taking to combat umbrella companies that are disobeying the rules or trading fraudulently, and we are committed to extending the remit of the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate to support best practice in the area.
I think the Financial Secretary ought to face up to the reality, which is that many of the people under these companies are not what we would describe in any normal parlance as contractors: they are people working on Test and Trace in their thousands, for example, who should be employed directly either by Serco or by the agency that they work for. There are also great numbers of people in the health service under these companies; they should be employed either by an agency or by the health service. That is where the scandal is, and that is what he really ought to be dealing with—and very promptly.
It is a very dynamic marketplace, as the right hon. Gentleman will be aware. There are many different aspects to it with which the Government are seeking to engage. One thing that is quite important that I do not think he or others have noticed is that the changes to IR35 that the Government have made have in some quarters been widely welcomed. Let me give an example—it may not be the widest possible welcome, but it is quite noticeable—from the off-payroll advisory firm Qdos, which said:
“In recent months the tide has turned, with thousands of businesses now aware of the fact that IR35 reform is manageable”,
as it was manageable in the public sector some years before. It is important to recognise that that is also the case.
I have to challenge the Minister on IR35. He is speaking as though it is somehow all fine. It has decimated sections of the tech and IT industry in my constituency, where groups of people came together to deliver short contracts and were actually paying as much tax as the Exchequer was getting from them. I can provide figures if he would like to take this up further, but let us not pretend that it is all fine.
There is no suggestion on my part that it is all fine. One cannot make meaningful change to a market that is not performing as one would like and expect everything to be perfectly fine within weeks of the implementation of the measure. The point that I am making is that there are important players in the industry that recognise that—in the quote that I have given—“thousands of businesses” are
“now aware… that IR35 reform is manageable”,
and so it is.
As the hon. Lady will well know, under the previous arrangements there were people who were performing like employees—often working side by side with them—but not paying that tax, and it was important that they did so. If she doubts that, she might want to reflect on the question of what the tax revenue raised from those organisations is used for. The answer is that it is used to support the NHS, our public services and all the other things that the Government are trying to do to get this country through a difficult moment in our history.
The Minister accepts that there are now some significant abuses in the way that many—not all—umbrella companies operate. Do we need action by the Treasury to deal with this issue, or is he content that it will just resolve itself as things stand?
No, the Government have been clear that there needs to be an extension of the employment agency standards inspectorate in this area, and there may well be operational measures that HMRC needs to continue to undertake. My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Bill contains very considerable additional measures designed elsewhere in the tax system to curb the promotion of tax avoidance schemes, to improve the disclosure of those schemes and to combat organisations that would attempt to derive an unfair advantage of the kind that he has described, so we are absolutely not unaware of the importance of ensuring that people across the board pay appropriate levels of tax.
It is also worth saying that none of this really falls within the context of a Finance Bill, let alone the one that we have laid out in front of us. It is also worth saying that HMRC has used real time information in ways that were contemplated and discussed earlier in the debate in order to try to be more forward-leaning in this area. We recognise the concern and HMRC is highly active in it, but in many cases these umbrella companies do have a legitimate function, and it is important to recognise that.
I think that is it—thank you very much.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I thank right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed to the robust but, I would say, good-natured debate throughout this Finance Bill’s passage over the past two months. It has been a speedy but thoroughly effective process. Before I get into the bulk of my speech, I know that the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) wants to put a question to me, so let me recognise him.
I thank the Minister for giving way. I tried to catch his eye earlier on; I do not think that he is deliberately avoiding me, but I did not get the chance to talk to him. New schedule 1 refers to VAT on distance selling. It covers 55 pages and was introduced tonight without much chance of consideration. It will affect businesses with a threshold of sales of £8,818, which will require them to register and to do special accounting. What assessment has been made of the likely impact of that on small businesses in Northern Ireland that sell goods into the EU?
I rather regret it, having invited the intervention. No, of course, to engage with this, I would not have recognised the right hon. Gentleman if I had not wanted to take the intervention and I certainly was not avoiding him earlier in the debate. He is right to point out that these provisions have been put into the Bill for the first time. I am pleased to say that they have been given proper consideration in the detail that has been put up, which he alluded to. There is a new measure relating to the distance selling threshold, which will affect a small number of businesses in Northern Ireland. By and large, this put into law, in relation to Northern Ireland, a set of measures that has already been adopted elsewhere in the United Kingdom, in recognition of commitments that we made to the EU as part of the process of striking our new trade arrangements. That is that, but if he wishes to have further conversation on that, I would of course be delighted to do so.
This Finance Bill comes at a crucial juncture for our economy and our public finances as the UK recovers from what is—we must never forget this—the greatest economic and social crisis since world war two and the greatest economic recession in 300 years. It delivers on the measures announced in the Chancellor’s Budget to protect jobs and livelihoods and to provide additional support to help people and businesses through the pandemic; to begin the process of fixing the public finances; and to lay the foundations of a resilient future economy. This Bill delivers on all those commitments, and I commend it to the House.