Jesse Norman, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, responds to MPs’ questions on topics including covid-19 support for the self-employed, the reduced rate of VAT for the tourism and hospitality sectors and small businesses’ customs paperwork to export to the EU.
Covid-19: Support for Self-employed People
What fiscal steps he is taking to support self-employed people as covid-19 restrictions are lifted. (914819)
What fiscal steps he is taking to support self-employed people as covid-19 restrictions are lifted. (914832)
The Government announced at Budget 2021 that the self-employment income support scheme, or SEISS, will continue until September, with the fourth and then the final fifth grant. This provides certainty to business as the economy reopens, and it means that the SEISS will continue to be one of the most generous schemes for the self-employed in the world, and one of the few where support is committed until September.
Is it not the case that under this Chancellor the Tories have gone from being seen as freelancer-friendly to the party of sleaze with their selective texts and promises of favours for their pals? If not, can they fix— their expression—the situation for up to 3 million people who have been excluded from all the grants the Minister mentioned, and from universal credit, and have been forced into bankruptcy, debt and worse, with 19 self-employed suicides in the past year? What are they doing about it?
The hon. Lady will know that the SEISS is one of the most generous schemes of its kind. The range of overall measures that the Government have taken is one of the most comprehensive of its kind in the world. I think she also knows that I personally and my officials have leant in as hard as we can to understand and to work with those groups to see whether we could extend the schemes. It has not been possible, because of features of the design of the tax system, but we have absolutely spent every effort possible to try to make it so.
More than 900,000 people who were self-employed at the start of the crisis, including many in the creative industries sector, now say that they are having to leave the sector as the crisis comes to an end. Does the Minister agree that the lack of support for the self-employed, who are not covered by the existing schemes, risks damaging the recovery we so desperately need?
A very large majority of the self-employed are, of course, covered by the schemes, and therefore I think that the hon. Gentleman’s concern is misplaced. Of course there will always be change in employments of different kinds, and in a dynamic economy such as ours, that is to be expected. If we can get through this desperate crisis—the worst for 300 years—with anything like any of the projected outcomes, that is something we can all, self-employed or not, be profoundly grateful for.
In a recent letter to me, the Financial Secretary admitted that 710,000 freelancers who receive a portion of their income from dividends have missed out on covid support schemes. He recognised that most people are honest in their dealings with HMRC, but said that concerns over fraud meant
“it has not been possible to support everyone in the way they might want”.
The Government have had a year to put in place a process with adequate safeguards. Why have they given up?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Of course, there was no admission of any kind. He asked me a question, and I responded comprehensively and fully to the question he put. The fact of the matter is that many of the people we are talking about have other forms of income. They may have pension income. They may have dividend income. They may have property income. What we have tried to do is use all the sources of information that we have that are properly assessed and certified in order to get schemes up and running—as fast as anywhere in the world, and that is an astonishing achievement. We continue to use those schemes, and we continue to work with groups to see whether others can be included.
VAT Reduction: Tourism and Hospitality
What assessment his Department has made of the effect of the temporary reduction in VAT for businesses on the recovery of the (a) tourism and (b) hospitality sectors from the covid-19 outbreak. (914822)
The temporary reduced rate of VAT aims to support the cash flow and viability of around 150,000 businesses and to protect more than 2.4 million jobs. As was announced at the Budget, the Government extended the temporary reduced rate of VAT to 31 March 2022, with a phased return to the standard rate. This relief alone is estimated to be worth more than £7 billion to the tourism and hospitality sectors. Applying it permanently would come at a very significant cost to the Exchequer, and that would have to be balanced by increased taxes elsewhere or reductions in Government spending.
The past year has clearly illustrated just how important the hospitality and tourism sectors are not only to our economy, with the jobs and businesses they support in the supply chain, but to our overall wellbeing and the contribution they make to social mobility. As the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for hospitality and tourism, I know just how important this cut in VAT has been in supporting those businesses, but will the Treasury take another look at the merits of making this reduction permanent to further support the sector and the growth in jobs that it can create?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that this has been an incredibly challenging period for the tourism and hospitality sectors, and it is also right to recognise that many organisations within these sectors have benefited from the measures that I have described, including the extensions to the employment schemes, business rates holidays and the VAT reduction, as well as the very important wider restart grants and the additional restrictions grant. As these restrictions are lifted and demand for goods and services in these sectors resumes, temporary reliefs are being phased out and in time will be removed. Bridging that transition to a standard rate by applying a temporary 12.5% rate will help businesses to manage the change. We should want them to get back to normal trading and the support that they offer through that to their communities and the economy.
Small Businesses: Customs Paperwork
What assessment he has made of the effect on small businesses of the requirement to complete customs paperwork for export to the EU. (914825)
The Government have put in place a number of measures to facilitate trade with the EU, including publishing comprehensive guidance on the new arrangements. HMRC has produced step-by-step guides, videos and webinars for small businesses that may be new to customs processes. The Government have also provided a £20 million Brexit support fund to assist small and medium-sized businesses in adjusting to new customs procedures, questions of rules of origin and VAT rules when trading with the EU.
Just over a month ago, the Paymaster General told me that she would follow up on my invite to Bedfordshire chamber of commerce to hear the widespread concerns of businesses that are really struggling to overcome the new and complex operational challenges around her Government’s Brexit deal. I have heard nothing. Will the Minister attend a meeting with the chamber of commerce to hear about how customs paperwork is impacting viability, or would the Treasury also prefer to ignore the problem?
The Paymaster General is always happy to take inquiries from businesses, as am I, so if the hon. Member wishes to write to me, I am perfectly happy to respond to his questions.
Loan Charge: Prosecutions
How many promoters and operators of schemes subject to the loan charge have been prosecuted for promoting and operating those schemes. (914837)
Promotion or enablement of a tax avoidance scheme is not, in and of itself, a criminal offence, as we have regularly debated in this House. However, there have been numerous cases in which Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has made arrests or prosecuted people in relation to fraud, and particularly in relation to disguised remuneration loan-busting schemes.
My understanding is that very few promoters of these schemes have been prosecuted. Is it not rather shocking that so many people who were mis-sold the schemes on the basis that they were perfectly legitimate are being pursued so relentlessly, while the promoters are in some cases being allowed to continue their work unhindered?
The suggestion that promoters are being allowed to do just anything is quite wrong. If my right hon. Friend had looked closely at the current Finance Bill, he would have seen a range of measures in that Bill alone aimed at preventing the promotion of tax avoidance schemes and at the disclosure of tax avoidance schemes, as well as other measures. HMRC takes such issues extremely seriously, and that is why the avoidance tax gap fell from £3.7 billion in 2005-06 to £1.7 billion in 2018-19—a fall of more than 50%.
One of my constituents who is self-employed has received no Government support in the past year. Unlike others, she did not have the Chancellor’s number to raise issues with him, so I wrote to him on her behalf. In the response I received this month, the Department acknowledged that there are people who have missed out on support because of what they call “practical reasons”. What urgent steps is the Chancellor taking to fix a system that is leaving many self-employed people facing destitution? (914885)
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. As he will know, we have covered this quite extensively in this debate so far. The self-employed scheme is very wide ranging and comprehensive. We have worked very closely with groups representing those who believe they have been excluded from the schemes—I have personally met many of them—and we have tried everything we can to incorporate them. We continue to engage with them, and we take the issue very seriously.
The borough of Gedling has received more than £105,000 in welcome back funding to help its high streets reopen safely and successfully as restrictions lift, and I will be out visiting businesses in Gedling on Friday to encourage them to apply for restart grants. Would my right hon. Friend join me in not only welcoming those lifelines for businesses but in encouraging businesses to apply for all the help available so that they can get back on their feet as we start to get back to normal? (914883)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I salute the people of Carlton and I rejoice in the businesses of Mapperley. I encourage businesses across the constituency of Gedling to take advantage of the Government’s unprecedented package of support, including the £5 billion-worth of grant support that the Chancellor announced at Budget, which is providing a lifeline for businesses as they relaunch their trading safely.