Clause 164 - Extension of first-year allowances for ICT expenditure by small companies
Mr Howard Flight (Arundel and South Downs, Conservative)
worth making the point that it might have been better to announce the extension well before 31 March, which might be an argument for having an earlier, fixed date for the Budget. The result of not knowing whether such a relief is to be rolled over is the inevitable congestion of trying to live within the relief while it exists.
The title of the clause states that it applies to ''small companies'', but our understanding is that it applies to small businesses. It is a minor drafting matter, but perhaps the description should be ''small businesses''. More generally, the measure is greatly welcomed by the companies that will benefit from it, but it is another minor example that raises the question whether the whole body of such incentives, which come and go, actually work and whether businesses know where they stand. Can the Paymaster General tell us what evidence there is to date of this particular 100 per cent. allowance having been successful in stimulating substantial small company ICT investment?
Mr Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon, Conservative)
I want to reiterate my hon. Friend's first point. As a result of the late Budget statement, this measure was announced after the end of the financial year. An announcement before the end of March would have benefited companies. In the event, companies tried furiously to empty their budgets before April, when they should not have been put in that position. The Paymaster General should say whether she has any feedback from companies on the impact that the announcement may have had.
Mr Michael Jack (Fylde, Conservative)
I, too, wish to emphasise and support the line taken by my two hon. Friends. I received representations about the uncertainty. It takes time for the effects of any new allowance to build up and for companies to adjust their investment plans in the light of new announcements. I note that the clause again contains a short-term reconfirmation of this measure. Companies ask, ''When we look forward and plan our information technology strategy, what is our time horizon?'' The time horizon is 31 March 2004. Again an element of uncertainty creeps into our proceedings. Why are the Government seemingly opting for the annual renewal of these measures, when companies want an element of certainty so that they know what their investment programme should be?
I said on Second Reading that it would be helpful to know the economic effect of these micro-management tax measures. Sadly, the notes on clauses do not provide me with an answer. I am not saying for one moment that for some companies this is not an important tax relief, but, as with all reliefs, it is useful to know whether it works, and most companies want to know whether there will be an element of certainty. I should be grateful if the Paymaster General could address those issues when she replies to this short debate.
Ms Dawn Primarolo (Paymaster General, HM Treasury; Bristol South, Labour)
The allowances were originally introduced at the request of businesses, which lobbied strongly for them to be extended. In considering an extension, I was mindful of the points that the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs and the right hon. Member for Fylde have made as to whether continuing the relief is the most effective way to support businesses or whether we should discuss with business whether other measures would now be more appropriate, especially if the allowance has matured to the point at which we need to move on and see what else would support business.
We could not complete or even properly air that subject before the Budget, so I considered it appropriate to extend the allowance for a year. However, hon. Members will be aware that in the Budget statement my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced a consultation document on several aspects relating to small and medium-sized businesses. One of them was the significant matter of access to equity. During the conversations and consultation we must also try to address that issue. That is why the allowance is to be extended for one year only. That will give us time for proper consideration of whether an allowance is most appropriate. Obviously, businesses are keen on the allowances and they have been successful, but before making a commitment of more than one year it is appropriate, as the right hon. Member for Fylde suggests, to consider whether that is the best way forward.
I can confirm that, as the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs suggested, the allowance applies to all small enterprises. The hon. Member for Huntingdon asked whether we had had any lobbying or complaints about the fact that the measure was announced at the time of the Budget. To my knowledge, the answer is no. Any small business that invested in ICT between 31 March and the Budget announcement nine days later will be eligible for the allowance under the clause, so we have not received any representations or complaints. Generally, the measure is popular, but businesses accept that it may well have run its course and it is right that the Government should reflect on that before taking any decisions.
I hope that that has given members of the Committee an indication of the way that the Government are considering the matter. Of course, the outcome may be that the allowances should remain, so I do not want to concern anyone. It is right to consider the matter again and ensure that it is the right way to support business—this year we believe that it is.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 164 ordered to stand part of the Bill.