Jesse Norman responds, on behalf of the Government, to the Second Reading debate.
I thank all hon. and right hon. Members for what has been a very interesting debate, across the Chamber. I also thank the Labour Members for their support on this measure, because it is wise on their part but also indicates that they share at least this aspect of the Government’s vision for the economy.
This pandemic represents, as the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) said, not merely a public health crisis but a profound shock to our economy. That is why, last Wednesday, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor unveiled the Government’s plan for jobs. The purpose of that plan, as he articulated, was to protect, to support and to create jobs across this country.
As we have heard in this debate, the property market has been particularly hard hit, with almost 90% fewer mortgage approvals in May than in February, before the lockdown at began. Not only is this a source of terrible frustration and uncertainty for buyers and sellers who must put their lives on hold in that respect as in so many others, but the reverberations have been felt across the economy. More than 24,000 people are directly employed by house builders, with hundreds of thousands more in the supply chain, and there is a knock-on effect for removal companies, furniture stores, painters and decorators, and many other businesses large or small that benefit when people move—a point nicely made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood) when he talked about his role as chair of the APPG on the furniture industry, and rightly so.
There are, however, signs that the market is beginning to recover, with some 16% more transactions in May than in April. It is in the interests of both homebuyers and the wider economy that that trend should gather momentum and speed over the coming months. That is why the plan for jobs included a commitment to increase temporarily the nil rate band of residential stamp duty tax from £125,000 to £500,000. Alongside the green homes grant, the aim was to inject momentum back into the housing market so that the economy can start to move forward once again. The Bill today puts that commitment into action and will ensure that the new band can take effect from 8 July—last Wednesday—until 30 March 2021.
Turning to the points raised in the debate, the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East asked whether this policy was designed in some way to benefit second home owners. I can reassure him that it is quite untrue to suggest that the measure will disproportionately benefit second home owners. Although those buying second homes or buy-to-let properties will benefit, and make a very important economic contribution in so doing, they will continue to pay an additional 3% on top of the standard stamp duty land tax rates. Let us not forget that it was this Government who introduced the phasing out of finance costs relief, as well as the higher rates of stamp duty land tax for the purchase of additional property—all steps towards a more balanced tax treatment between homeowners and landlords.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden), in his opening speech, talked about the limited scale of this package of measures. All I can say to him is that his memory is a lot shorter than many others, as £30 billion used to be considered a rather large amount of money. Certainly, it was no slouch of a budget statement to announce that much. It is a measure of how much our times have changed that that should be seen to be the case.
The right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East raised the question of whether the Government were reacting in some sense to a leak which, nevertheless, would have itself encouraged forestalling. I can tell him that I have dozens of officials across the Treasury thinking about tax strategy who have the concept of avoiding forestalling ingrained, tattooed on their eyebrows and embedded in their heart like the word “Calais” on the heart of Queen Mary in the 16th century. The idea that they would ever have contemplated that is risible. They did not.
Let me turn to some of the other comments that were made in the debate. The hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) shared with us his concerns about growing wealth inequalities. I understand that. Would he, or maybe the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton, like to clarify his position on a wealth tax? Would he be in favour of that? What is the Labour party’s position? He is welcome to intervene on me if he has a view on that, as is the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton, who perhaps could do so in Committee. It is causing us a certain amount of uncertainty and it must be causing voters even more.
The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), in a very thoughtful speech, invited the Government to build more. I can direct her, if I may, to an article in The Guardian on 14 November last year, which points out that house building in England is at a 30-year high. As colleagues have mentioned, we have a £12.2 billion affordable homes programme in place at the moment, so she can take it as read, I hope, that both sides of the housing market are very well attended to at the moment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer) raised whether we should scrap stamp duty all together. I was perhaps slightly harsh, but I always take it as an additional measure of credibility when colleagues can come forward, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) did—and my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne)—with a specific suggestion for how the gap could be filled. What was charming about my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire was that although he believes the abolition of this tax will fire up the market, temporarily at least, he did not seem to think that doubling the additional tax would have any effect on the market. I thought that was an interesting economic contribution and I invite him to raise that possibility with his friends at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, since he is a board member or senior advisor there.
Let me wind up by saying that this is an important measure, which comes at a time when the pandemic has tested our economy to the limit. Through our collective effort, we will bring this virus under control. We have done so and we will continue to do so, and we will support our economy as it reopens in a way that is safe. For those reasons, I commend this Bill to the House.