I welcome this opportunity for the Committee of the whole House to examine clause 4 of the Finance Bill. Since December, I have had the chance to debate in the House the issues at the heart of the clause, to deal with a range of written and oral parliamentary questions, to give evidence to the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, to discuss the concerns of the all-party Scotch whisky group and to meet individually hon. Members from all parties. I recognise the level of interest from all quarters of the Chamber and, in particular, from hon. Members from Scotland. I welcome the Scottish Affairs Committee report published yesterday, which makes a number of useful points to which we shall give further consideration.
This Committee is an important opportunity to debate in full the problems of spirits fraud and our plans to tackle them, set out principally in clause 4 and the accompanying schedule. Clause 4 is unusual. It is not just a provision that puts an announcement from the Budget or the pre-Budget report into law; it follows almost three years of detailed discussion and examination of alternatives by the Government and with the alcohol industry. Let me be clear: if there were a serious alternative to duty stamps that could deliver a similar impact on fraud, we would take it. The simple fact is that during those three years of detailed work with the industry, no one has come up with such an alternative. In the absence of effective alternatives, duty stamps for spirits are necessary to counter spirits fraud, which is a major criminal industry, deceiving consumers, undermining legitimate producers and traders and defrauding the Exchequer of several hundred million pounds each year.
I am emphasising one point now, and I shall come to another, related point later. The point that I emphasise now is that three years' exhaustive work by the Government and with the industry has failed to produce a set of alternative measures that would have a similar impact on fraud. I therefore do not want to encourage my hon. Friend to hold out hope that somehow, a magic solution might be found in the coming months.
If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I will discuss how duty stamps will assist in our efforts to increase the risks and decrease the profits associated with fraud by putting up extra barriers. Law enforcement agencies in every sector face continually and rapidly changing responses from fraudsters and smugglers. It is beholden on such agencies to attempt to get one step ahead, as the proposals in the clause seek in part to do. A number of measures, on which I shall touch, will significantly reduce the risk of counterfeiting, and of fraudsters successfully overcoming the proposed duty stamps.
Duty stamps will strike at the heart of the problem by putting an end to taxed and illegally untaxed spirits sitting side by side in warehouses, on lorries and on shops' shelves, with traders and consumers having no means of telling one from the other, and the authorities having no clear means of detecting—let alone proving—knowing complicity in fraud. Duty stamps will provide a clear identifier that duty has been paid, and although I make no claim that they will eradicate fraud entirely, they will radically restrict both the opportunities for, and the profitability of, spirits fraud.
I introduce the clause in the full knowledge that—as is already clear—some Opposition Members might oppose it.
May I first finish this point? Those Members will doubtless argue that they are not complacent, and will assert their determination to drive fraud from the spirits market. They will doubtless dispute the fact that the scale of fraud justifies duty stamps, and dispute their likely impact on fraud and their fairness in respect of the legitimate trade. They will doubtless argue the case for the industry's alternative proposals, or urge further delay so that more discussions can take place. I propose to deal with each of those issues in turn. I now give way to Pete Wishart.
I do not expect the industry to like our proposal; I am arguing that we must accept that there is no alternative, and work to put this regime in place. The interests of the industry and of the hon. Gentleman's constituents are now best served by working with the Government, through the industry associations, to ensure that we can put in place a proper duty stamps regime that will bear down on fraud, while imposing the lightest possible cost on the companies that need to comply.
The hon. Gentleman is being very careful to describe the stamps as duty stamps rather than strip stamps. One problem is that the stamps have to be placed over the bottles, and the necessary equipment is expensive. Is he hinting that he has an alternative in mind, or is he determined to go ahead with such stamps, which have been described to us as a 19th century solution to a 21st century problem?
Having read the Scottish Affairs Committee's report, I am aware of the description that the hon. Gentleman cites. I have chosen to use the phrase "duty stamps", and I am aware that the Committee is interested in the idea of incorporating what is essentially a duty stamp into the labels on bottles. We are prepared to consider it, but I should caution Members that there are a number of fundamental flaws with such an approach. I do not want to raise hopes unnecessarily, but equally, I certainly would not rule it out. It is one of the useful ideas in the Select Committee's report, and we will give further consideration to it.
A number of Members have serious doubts about the viability of strip stamps; indeed, countries throughout Europe and in the far east have moved away from them because of their experiences. What does the Treasury know that those countries do not?
I urge my hon. Friend to be patient. As I explained, this is the first opportunity for the House to consider in detail the proposals in clause 4 and the problem that we are attempting to solve. Countries that use spirits stamps in some form have introduced them for a range of reasons, and their experiences are varied. For every country in which they have failed or have been withdrawn, it is possible to cite others in which they have worked and are regarded as an important part of the duty assurance system.
Before turning to the central issues that Members and the Select Committee are concerned about, I should point out that this Government stand by our record of tough decisions on public finances and the measures that we have implemented to tackle fraud throughout the tax system. The National Audit Office recognises that our strategies on tobacco, road fuel and VAT lead the field in Europe, and have already secured billions of pounds in revenue for the taxpayer. On tobacco, we have not only stopped but reversed the growth in smuggling, reducing the illicit market to 18 per cent. in 2002–03, compared with the forecast figure of 34 per cent. We are also tackling illegal diesel use: the illicit market share declined from 8 per cent. in 2000 to 5 per cent. in 2002. Our moves against VAT fraudsters already appear to be causing a significant drop in levels of missing trader VAT fraud.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He will be aware that the gap analysis that his Department uses in estimating £600 million-worth of fraud is of mixed heritage. Indeed, the wine and beer markets have described it as not reliable enough to estimate fraud in their sector. Why is it suddenly reliable enough to estimate fraud in the spirits sector?
The Select Committee raised that issue at the evidence session that I attended—the hon. Gentleman was unable to be there—and as I explained, the gap analysis to which he refers becomes difficult to apply and unreliable when the scale of the fraud under consideration is small or negligible. However, that is not the case with spirits fraud. The approach that we have developed—and published—since 2001 is based on the belief that there is a serious spirits fraud problem in this country, and that in this case only really tough action will work. Unhappily but inevitably, we need to consider and to introduce duty stamps in order to tackle it.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. He uses tobacco as an analogy in describing the problems in the spirits industry, just as customs representatives did several times during Scottish Affairs Committee hearings. However, there is one question to which we never got an answer. If simply printing a duty mark on tobacco packets, which have to be printed anyway, is so successful, why cannot the same idea be used for whisky bottles? Why do we have to place paper strips over the top of the bottles, given that—in the light of the cost to the industry of the necessary machinery—that strip is the real problem?
If the hon. Gentleman casts his mind back to a couple of minutes ago, he will remember that I said that we are prepared to consider such an approach, although I did encourage him not to hold out too much hope. At the hearing, it was the Committee itself—rather than me—that drew a close analogy between tobacco and alcohol. We are dealing here with a very different dynamic in the market and with a different type of fraud, which requires this solution.
This is a problem that we cannot ignore, particularly given that in respect of VAT, tobacco and the illegal use of road fuels, we are reversing the rise in fraud. We cannot ignore it when we have dealt over the last couple of years with cross-channel smuggling of alcohol and tobacco. Spirits diversion fraud is the one remaining area of excise duty where we have a significant problem. It is increasingly at odds with the strategies that we have in place elsewhere and with the successes that we are beginning to achieve.
Duty stamps are only one element—albeit an important one—of the strategy that we are putting in place to deal with alcohol fraud, particularly involving spirits. The pre-Budget report set out a package of regulatory proposals that will help to tighten the supply chain to prevent fraud on all alcohol, not just spirits. We will set a tough outcome target for reducing spirits fraud in the spending review, just as we have for other excise regimes.
The Economic Secretary is generous with his time. The Treasury first became aware of the scale of the fraud in the mid-1990s, when the amount of money coming into the Treasury from alcohol duty fell quite dramatically. Has that position recovered, and what is the trend in respect of money coming into the Treasury from spirits duty?
The revenue figures are set out, as usual, in the Red Book. I would encourage the hon. Gentleman to concentrate on the nature and scale of the fraud, rather than on Government revenues. The measure is not principally about raising Government revenues, but about driving down levels of fraud—and then consequentially dealing with revenue losses to the Treasury and the taxpayer.
In the documentation—and, indeed, in the Government's presentation—it is claimed that £160 million would be recouped from lost tax revenue. Can the Economic Secretary confirm that the recoupment of tax revenue is based on the Government's argument that fraud is indeed at £600 million? That has been questioned by the National Audit Office and by other Committees of the House. If it is based on that level of fraud, what confidence can we have that £160 million is indeed what the Government expect to recoup?
As the hon. Gentleman, who studies these matters, well knows, that is an estimate. All such projections for Government revenues are estimates. It is based on the level of fraud that our best estimates and modelling calculate—£600 million a year. For comparative purposes, as I shall explain in greater detail shortly, we have scrupulously estimated the impact and cost of the trade's alternative package of proposals on the same basis.
That is a crucial point. It identifies the gap between what the industry is talking about and what the Government are talking about. As I understand it, the Government believe that the gap is between £70 million and £160 million, but several measures included in the £160 million could negate the gap. Will the Economic Secretary confirm how narrow the gap is? Will he confirm that, given the significant compliance costs for the industry, when the whole package advocated by the Treasury is added up, it does not make overall economic sense?
I do not accept that it does not make economic sense or that it is not a proportionate measure. Let me be clear that the £160 million is based on our best estimate of the £600 million that we believe is lost to the Treasury each year. That is a cautious estimate, based entirely on the introduction of tax stamps, with no allied measures built into the calculation. It also does not take into account the likely increase in VAT recovery on duty-paid rather than duty-unpaid products, or the likely increase in interception by customs at the frontier.
I want to make some progress. Other Members will have the opportunity to contribute later and I will certainly do my best to respond to every point that is raised in the debate. Before moving on to specific issues, I want to make a more general statement.
The Government clearly recognise that the UK spirits industry plays a strong and historic role in this country's social and economic life. It accounts directly for tens of thousands of jobs and indirectly for thousands more, especially in Scotland, where it is a key employer. I fully recognise its importance, particularly in rural areas, some of which are represented by hon. Members who are in their places on both sides of the Chamber today.
It is crucial that the spirits market is able to flourish in the UK. By freezing the duty on spirits for the longest period since the 1950s, the Labour Government have, since coming to power, played their part. Now the Chancellor has gone further with an extended freeze for the rest of this Parliament. To support the healthy market, we must put an end to the criminal activity that is an outrageous abuse—I choose my words carefully and I mean it—of the duty system. Let me explain how the fraud works, as it remains inadequately understood even by some in the industry itself.
European law enshrines the principle of free movement of goods across the Union and provides for alcoholic goods to be moved around free of excise duty. Alcohol can be moved and sold an unlimited number of times and over an unlimited period without any duty being paid. The papers that travel with a load of alcohol are intended to secure the integrity of the supply chain. Only when the goods are released from duty suspension on to the market does the duty have to be accounted for.
That system guarantees the laudable right of the free movement of goods within the European Union and, by ensuring that duty has to be accounted for only very near to the time of consumption, provides a valuable benefit to the alcohol trade. In practice, however, it is wide open to abuse.
Successful fraud involves five steps. First, the fraudster sets himself up as a legitimate trader—sometimes by hiring or blackmailing somebody else to front up for him. Secondly, he hoodwinks a spirits producer or distributor into selling him a lorry load of duty-unpaid spirits. Experience shows that cash-in-hand to the lorry driver will ensure that he ignores the official delivery instructions and takes the load to a lock- up instead. Thirdly, he forges a receipt or bribes the recipient warehouse to stamp it for him anyway, and returns it to the dispatcher who will then have so-called proof of legitimate delivery and a legitimate transaction. Fourthly, either through a complicit retailer or by hoodwinking, he delivers the spirits on to the market at duty-paid prices. Pocketing the £5-a-bottle profit, he does not pay the duty, and except in a rare cases where enough evidence is available, he does not go to jail, because once the bottles are on the shelves, no one can tell which ones are duty paid and which are not. Fifthly, he repeats that process—lorry after lorry after lorry.
In short, that is a high-reward, relatively low-risk activity. The distribution system, set out and constrained in European legislation, provides ample opportunity, and the honest trader and drinker form an easy target.
Are there not procedures for tracking down whether the lorries take the right routes and cover the right distances for the delivery? If the paperwork says that it started in A and was delivered to B, the tachograph on the lorry is capable of confirming whether the mileage covered is consistent with making the requisite delivery.
But if the hon. Gentleman thinks about it further, if the paperwork all appears to be in order and the receiving warehouse apparently confirms delivery—whether it be in Portugal, Portsmouth, some other part of the UK or somewhere else in the EU—how does he believe that anyone is going to be alerted to potential fraud, let alone carry out a detailed investigation? I remind him that the duty suspension system allows the sale and resale time and again of duty-unpaid goods and the movement of such goods time and again in and out of the UK without the duty ever being paid. If the accompanying documentation appears to demonstrate that all is in order, it is difficult to know where the evidence will come from to alert the enforcement authorities—or the honest traders who get hooked up unwittingly in these supply chains—that a problem may exist.
A moment ago, the Economic Secretary mentioned complicit retailers. When retailers are found to be passing on to the public illicit alcohol on which duty has not been paid, as happened in London recently, why are the strongest possible sanctions not levied against them immediately? That would send the clear message that the distribution of illicit alcohol is not acceptable. For example, it would be very easy to ensure that such traders automatically lost their liquor licences for six months or a year.
The hon. Gentleman refers to a recent organised operation undertaken by Customs, trading standards officers and the police. Some of the evidence gathered will contribute to the decision about awarding new licences to some of the traders involved.
Other hon. Members have said that prosecution is the toughest sanction available. They have asked why, in many cases in this exercise, the corner shops were not prosecuted. The problem is that that requires evidence that demonstrates guilty knowledge. Under the current system, that is very difficult to get. In this operation, we have levied sanctions and taken actions that, although they do not amount to prosecution, are nevertheless tough and deterrent. In many cases, the goods in question were confiscated and the vehicles and other means of transport seized. There is therefore a severe financial penalty for the businesses involved, and their continuing operation under licence is also threatened.
The Economic Secretary is outlining the challenges that fraud poses. He is right to do so, and I am sure that hon. Members of all parties support a crackdown on fraud. However, I hope that he will have looked at the experience of other countries that use strip stamps. The grave danger is that fraud will move from what is in the bottle to what is on it. Will the Minister outline the Treasury assessment of the likely parameters of fraud on strip stamps, if they are to be introduced?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It is possible that the introduction of duty stamps, and their printing, distribution and retention, could cause additional security risks. We have recognised that implementing the system could be a cost to the industry, and we have undertaken to consider with it the operation of the duty stamp system that we plan to introduce. We shall also look at the scale of the risk, and at any appropriate measures to help meet the costs.
The hon. Gentleman says, from a sedentary position, that we do not know the scale of the risk. The honest response is to say that, at this stage, it is not possible to make a full and quantified assessment of the potential risk. As we develop the plans, the degree of risk will become clearer. As I said, we will also recognise the compliance costs for the industry that may be incurred.
The Economic Secretary has been generous about giving way, and I am grateful. However, this is a very important matter. This morning, another fraud was identified: in St. Petersburg, 2 million strip stamps were lost to fraudsters. I am told that the value amounts to about £10 million. The industry has produced 17 schemes, and the Government have their own proposals, but is the Economic Secretary really saying that no assessment of this danger has been made?
We are two years away from the introduction of a duty stamp system. Until we know how the scheme will work on implementation, it is not possible to make the quantified risk assessment that some hon. Members are urging. However, we have acknowledged that fraud could be a problem. We will discuss the matter with the industry and develop appropriate plans accordingly.
It is important that the House clearly understands what the Minister is saying. Is he confirming that the Government are introducing an expensive scheme without having made an assessment of the potential for fraud in connection with strip stamps?
This afternoon, we are introducing legislation to prepare for the scheme. We shall introduce the scheme in two years' time. As part of the work on planning with the industry, we shall deal with the important concerns being raised this afternoon.
I turn now to the scale of the spirits fraud problem, a matter at the heart of the concerns expressed by the Treasury Committee and by some hon. Members this afternoon. To tackle any fraud effectively, we need to assess its scale. Since 2001, the Government have published annual estimates of the scale of spirits fraud losses. Our most recent estimate appeared in December's pre-Budget report, and it showed that around £600 million in revenue was lost through spirits fraud in 2001–02. That equates to a fraud level of around 16 per cent., up from an estimated 14 per cent. the previous year.It was against that background that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor decided that duty stamps were now necessary, unless a similarly effective alternative could be found.
In January, the Scotch Whisky Association put forward an alternative estimate, showing fraud at a level of £100 million and £150 million a year. The National Audit Office's examination of the differences between those estimates recognised the inherent difficulty of measuring illegal activity. It confirmed that the estimate by Customs was reasonable, but suggested that it should be expressed as a range between £330 million and £l,080 million. The report also concluded that the estimate put forward by the SWA should be expressed as a range between £10 million and £260 million, and that it was also reasonable. I make no bones about the fact that the report stated that
"great care is needed in determining what reliance is to be placed on the results at present available."
We accept that, where there is fraud, there will always be uncertainty about its scale, but we do not accept that that uncertainty is an argument for inaction. Everyone accepts that there is significant fraud, and we must take tough action to combat it, even if in some quarters that is unpopular.
I turn now to the alternative measures put forward by the industry. The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford called it a package of 17 proposals. Our published regulatory impact assessment gives our detailed view of the trade's package, so I will be brief.
I welcome and appreciate the work done over the past year and more by the industry, through the joint alcohol and tobacco consultation group, to develop its package of alternative proposals. The package contained a few potentially useful new ideas, with some limited scope for additional impact on fraud. It proposed variations on ideas already being pursued by Customs, although we have already established that those ideas do not amount to "the answer" on fraud.
However, most of the measures in the industry package are either simply a restatement of established policy, or new suggestions that would have low or no apparent impact on fraud. Those suggestions would take significant time to develop, and some could be illegal under current EU legislation.
As a whole, the package contains a number of inherent weaknesses: First, it would leave the door open to displacement to other types of fraud, most notably inward diversion. Secondly, it could be undermined at any point by a complicit party, in the shape of an unscrupulous trader. Thirdly, and most importantly, the package does not address the issue of identification—the ability for consumers, retailers and Customs officers to distinguish readily between licit and illicit product. As a consequence, the estimated anti-fraud impact of the package fell significantly short of that estimated for duty stamps. Customs cautiously estimates that duty stamps will produce a minimum of additional revenue of £160 million in 2006–07. On a similar basis, as set out in the regulatory impact assessment, Customs confirms that the industry's package of alternatives would be unlikely to have an impact of more than £70 million a year once they were fully operational, and the figure would probably be lower.
It may help the Committee if I draw a more direct comparison between the approach to tackling the fraud problem with the trade's package and the duty stamps. In essence, the trade's measures seek to tackle fraud by tightening weak points in the supply chain, increasing the vigilance of the legitimate trade and Customs, and thereby stemming the supply of fraudulent product to retail shelves. Consumers' and traders' ability to tell whether duty has been paid does not come into play.
By contrast, duty stamps straitjacket the fraudsters on both the demand and supply sides. On the demand side, they ensure that consumers and traders have a clear and immediate visual means of identifying whether a bottle is licit or illicit. Even if some people are none the less prepared knowingly to buy dodgy goods, most will not be. The rules of the game will fundamentally change: people certainly will not be prepared knowingly to pay the full prices they unknowingly pay now for many fraudulent, illicit bottles on which duty has not been paid.
On the supply side, it will be impossible for a would-be fraudster to convince an honest alcohol trader that he is dealing in duty-paid goods if there is no stamp on them. It will be much easier for Customs to finger those caught in the act of diversion fraud. The difference, bluntly put, is between tightening the boundaries of the playing field for fraudsters and closing the ground. It would be misleading to suggest that the decision to proceed with duty stamps rather than the trade's alternative package was a marginal one.
The worrying thing about what the Minister is saying in assessing the alternative is that the Treasury has found what it sees as all the weaknesses, costs and likely drawbacks of the industry's proposals but has not balanced that with any assessment of the weaknesses, drawbacks and likely consequences of its own strip stamp proposal. He says that someone will know what they are dealing with, but will every customer be trained to see which stamps are fraudulent and which genuine? How is the Committee expected to make a decision now on something that will happen in two years' time when the risks of the Government's proposal have not been assessed, even though they have managed to assess the risks of the alternative?
The hon. Gentleman has completely made up my mind that I really must proceed with my speech. I was about to move to a section entitled "Problems with Tax Stamps". Let me anticipate the areas of concern that hon. Members will raise and that the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs covered in its inquiry. I hope that that will ensure that those issues need not entirely dominate our debate this afternoon.
First, there is a concern that duty stamps will quickly be counterfeited. I say bluntly that I cannot guarantee that UK duty stamps will never be counterfeited, but we have held detailed discussions with anti-counterfeiting specialists and several leading members of the security printing industry. Anti-counterfeiting technology has improved considerably in recent years and continues to do so. We will consider all the technologies available in coming to a decision on the final stamp design, and there are a number of ways in which security features can help to remove the chance of counterfeiting.
The second, related, concern is the experience of other countries. The fact that several countries have abolished duty stamps in recent years has been repeatedly held up as an argument against implementation in the UK. I have three things to say about that. First, some of the examples given of stamps becoming the source of fraud have occurred in countries in which there is, frankly, a general level of corruption, legal non-compliance and maladministration that is alien to, and simply not comparable with, the situation in the United Kingdom. Secondly, there are examples that serve both sides of the debate: for every notable country that has abandoned the system, a Denmark, a Spain, an Italy or a Portugal can be cited in which duty stamps continue to work well. Thirdly, the reasons why countries have stamps, or why they got rid of them, vary. For example, in Latvia and the Philippines, duty stamps were introduced not to tackle fraud but primarily as a means of revenue collection. Greece was forced to abandon duty stamps because its system discriminated in favour of domestically produced ouzo, which was not required to be stamped.
Those who declare themselves determined to tackle fraud but who continue to oppose our plans have a duty to propose an alternative with an equal impact on the problem.
Will the Minister comment on the fact that many consider the United Kingdom to be a unique market among the EU countries that apply strip stamps? We have a very large spirits industry and a high level of taxation. The combination of those two things makes the UK unique and particularly susceptible to problems of fraud and criminal gangs trying to undermine the system. What measures will the Government take to prevent that?
We do indeed have a particularly strong spirits industry. We do indeed have relatively high duty rates on alcohol, although we have relatively low tax rates in many other areas. It is not the case, however, that diversion fraud is unique to the United Kingdom. Other EU member states suffer similar fraud, as my hon. Friend will know as a member of the Treasury Committee. We happen to be the only country that has made a systematic attempt to estimate the scale of the problem. At the heart of the difficulty lies the EU-wide duty suspension movement system, and that means that the problem is not peculiar, particular or unique to the UK.
Those who oppose our plans have a duty to propose an alternative with an equal impact on the problem. I must warn that the combined efforts and detailed work of the Government and the industry have failed to do so. After three years, we have reached the end of the road on alternatives. The task now is to design and introduce a system of duty stamps that will have maximum impact on the fraudsters and minimum impact on legitimate firms. The best interests of the spirits industry and of the people who work in it are best served by contributing to the Government's detailed design and implementation work and by influencing the decisions we take to reduce the costs for companies.
I take it from the way in which the Minister's comments are proceeding that he has finished his remarks on the problems with duty stamps. There may be one or two Members who think that he has not referred to one or two such problems. May I point out one of them? There is a risk that genuine strip stamps will be used to disguise breaks in seals for bottles that have been refilled and that genuine stamps, issued by Customs and Excise, will therefore add authenticity to fake product, stealing sales from legitimate traders and revenue from the Government? Will he address that point?
That concern is one of the drawbacks, which I mentioned earlier, in the proposal to incorporate the duty stamp on the label of the bottle rather than as a strip over the top of the bottle. The fear that legitimate strip stamps will somehow be used to disguise essentially counterfeit product is, in our judgment, unlikely to be realised. What drives the counterfeiter and fraudster are the profit margin and the low degree of risk. If they have to source legitimate duty stamps to put them on counterfeit product, the cost of doing so is likely to make the incentive to perpetrate such a fraud distinctly lower.
The best interests of the spirits industry are best served by its working with the Government to influence the decisions that we take to reduce the costs for companies and to get right the detailed design and implementation work for the duty stamps regime. The industry is now committed to taking that approach, working with Customs in two formal sub-groups of the joint alcohol and tobacco consultation group—one looking at financial security and payment options and the other looking at the scope and design of duty stamps.
We recognise that duty stamps carry a significant compliance burden, and have accepted the trade's estimates of set-up costs of about £23 million and ongoing costs of £54 million, which in turn translate into an ongoing per-bottle price increase of about 13p. We acknowledge the particularly vulnerable position of small companies, in potential finance costs and the possible risk to competition, so we will help to offset and mitigate, as far as we can, overall compliance costs, and in doing so we will respond especially to those pressure points.
The scale of the compensation will depend on the discussions that we have now begun with the industry and the decisions that we take about the pressure points.
First, we will attempt to implement duty stamps without requiring up-front payment for the stamps. That would prevent increased cash-flow costs, which alone would account for more than 40 per cent. of the industry's estimated ongoing costs from duty stamps. We will have to discuss that further with the industry and ensure that such an approach does not undermine the anti-fraud benefits of duty stamps, but if it becomes apparent that it would be impractical, we will examine other means to keep cash-flow costs down.
Will the Economic Secretary confirm that when he considers, in consultation with the industry, how much he might be able to offset the initial costs, European Union state aid rules would allow him to contribute £12 million every three years?
I can confirm that we have considered the EU state aid rules, and that relates to the second point that I was about to outline. We have set aside a £3 million fund for 2005–06 to assist firms with capital investment. Although 80 per cent. of capital costs will fall on the big nine producers—those that handle more than 1 million cases a year—we accept that the burden of compliance costs will be proportionately greater for smaller firms. Therefore, we want to target support on them. Officials are having further discussions with the trade on the details, and we want the trade to take the lead in deciding the principles that we should adopt in allocating the money.
Will the Economic Secretary bear in mind the particular needs of micro-producers? My constituent, who happens also to be my wife, purchases retail whisky, infuses it with herbs and spices, rebottles it and sells it. Her business is only 500 bottles a year and she is not alone. Such businesses will suffer immensely under the new system. Will the Treasury consider seriously the plight of those small, but none the less important—certainly to me—businesses?
I do not know whether that is a declarable interest, but it is certainly a handy one to have in the family. The short answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is yes.
On the question of capital start-up costs, will the Economic Secretary clarify the cost to individuals in the industry of the necessary machinery? My understanding is that the maximum compensation available will be €100,000 or some £67,000, but the cost of the machines and the disruption to the bottling line will be far in excess of that.
The hon. Gentleman is getting his compliance costs mixed up. He started by asking me about capital costs, and I have explained that 80 per cent. of the capital cost, according to the industry's figures, which we have accepted, will be borne by the big nine companies. The impact on the running speed of production lines—and, therefore, the potential loss of productivity and output—is clearly costed as part of the £53 million of ongoing costs. If the hon. Gentleman studies the regulatory impact assessment, he will see that that is clearly identified and that we acknowledge that factor because the industry has helped us to analyse it.
Thirdly, the industry was concerned that it would have to bear the production and distribution costs associated with duty stamps, estimated at 1p per bottle. That figure was part of the compliance costs that the industry produced, which were based on no support or offsets. Instead, the cost of printing and distributing the duty stamps, which we put at between £5 million and £10 million a year, will be absorbed by Customs.
Finally, and to help to address specifically the issue of pass-on into average prices, which some in the industry have raised with me, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has decided to freeze spirits duty for the remainder of this Parliament. The freeze will cost the Exchequer £40 million in 2004–05 and £70 million in 2005–06. It means that, by 2005–06, the tax on a standard bottle of spirits will be 36p lower in real terms than now, which is twice—nay, nearly three times—the estimated average cost of full compliance costs, and £1.33 lower in real terms than if duty had risen in line with expected inflation since 1997.
The hon. Gentleman will get a chance to make his own contribution and I would ask him to make the points that he wishes to make then, so that other hon. Members will get a chance to make a contribution. I will respond to him when I wind up the debate.
I draw hon. Members' attention to the overall approach that we have taken, which is to seek to specify at this stage the broad parameters of the duty stamp scheme and to leave some of the crucial but secondary detail to later legislation. We have done that explicitly in response to representations from the industry that it wished to retain flexibility over issues such as strengths of product to be covered, design of the stamp and how and where it should be affixed, and security. I know that the Scottish Affairs Committee is concerned about those issues, which have also been raised by hon. Members. They were included in the Scottish Affairs Committee report, and are for resolution in further consultation.
Unusually, draft Finance Bill proposals and the draft regulatory impact assessment were exposed to the trade for comment before publication of the Bill. Indeed, I ensured that the leading members of the trade had copies a week before we proposed to publish the Bill and the RIA. Draft regulations detailing the mechanics of the scheme will be available by the end of the year, and discussions between the industry and Customs are already under way on framing them.
There is a balance to be struck between maintaining flexibility and providing certainty, and I believe we have struck the right one at this stage. However, I have decided to emphasise that, for changes to the scope of the legislation, orders will be laid before the House subject to the affirmative procedure, so that Members will have a full opportunity to debate those provisions in due course.
As well as establishing the overall framework of the scheme, the legislation will introduce criminal offences for dealing in unstamped spirits. It will also create civil penalties for a range of offences involving interference with or misuse of stamps. Finally, when a person is convicted of "suffering" premises to be used for the sale of unstamped spirits, it will give the courts the power to ban the sale of alcohol from those premises for up to six months. Taken as a whole, those offences and sanctions reflect the tough approach that the Government intend to take to enforcement, in pursuit of our objectives to reduce spirits fraud significantly.
In conclusion, duty stamps for spirits are a necessary, proportionate and effective response to a fraud that, according to anyone's estimate, is cheating the Exchequer and the taxpayer of hundreds of millions of pounds a year. I commend the clause to the Committee.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mrs. Heal, and I thank the Economic Secretary for his patient remarks. They were defensive, and not without good reason, but, as always, he was patient and thoughtful.
The whisky and spirits industry is vital to the United Kingdom economy. For example, nine out of 10 Scotch whisky sales are exported and the value of those is now more than £2 billion. In many parts of the United Kingdom, the jobs that the whisky and spirits industry provides are crucial, particularly to small local communities.
The Government have told us that they wish to impose tax stamps on spirits because they believe that such stamps are the only way to prevent fraud in the UK spirits markets. No one in the House, or beyond, doubts that there is fraud. However, as both the National Audit Office and Ministers have accepted, there remain serious questions about the level and trend of this fraud. What is clear, however, is that if Government policies are to work, they must be based on sound evidence.
The Secretary of State for Scotland told the House:
"It is estimated that about 16 per cent. of the spirits market has been subject to fraud, amounting to about £600 million".—[Hansard, 13 January 2004; Vol. 416, c. 651.]
What is the basis of that assertion? After all, a 16 per cent. fraud rate is neither recognised nor accepted by any of the leading figures in the industry. Both the Scotch Whisky Association and the Gin and Vodka Association believe that the figures given by the Secretary of State are wrong and that they represent a serious overestimate. If one stopped to think about it and consider the figures, one would realise that if the Government figure were correct, it would mean that about 200,000 bottles of spirits were going missing every day.
According to the evidence considered in the National Audit Office report, the problem is that the figures that the Government are basing their estimate on are unclear and run counter to other evidence. Both surveys from the Office for National Statistics—the family expenditure survey and the national food survey—are based on a very complex methodology that does not, for example, reflect the true amount of Customs clearances. Since the report, I gather that mistakes have been admitted by the Office for National Statistics. Therefore, as we have seen from the opening contribution to the debate, the result is a rising sense of confusion.
The Government's briefing to Members issued by the Economic Secretary on
"Last week's report from the National Audit Office recognises that measuring illegal activity is inherently difficult."
He referred to that in his speech. The briefing went on that the report
"confirmed that that Customs' estimate is reasonable but suggests that given the high degree of uncertainty attaching to such estimates, it should be expressed as a range from £330m to £1080m".
As Members will recognise, that is a pretty wide range upon which to base Government policy. However, the briefing continued:
"The NAO report also concluded that a fraud estimate put forward by the Scotch Whisky Association showing fraud at a level of £100m to £150m should be expressed as a range from £10m to £260m and is also reasonable."
That means that, depending on how one measures the fraud, it might be as low as £10 million but could be as high as £1,080 million. In truth, no one knows for certain. The Government do not know, the industry is not sure and Customs cannot be certain.
Conservative Members accept that there is a problem. However, the very uncertainty—that wide range of values expressed surrounding the scale and the trend of the problem—means that it is even more important that the Government work closely with the industry.
I know that the hon. Gentleman will accept that there is no monopoly of concern for the whisky industry on either side of the House. In that spirit, may I put to him what appears to be the unanimous view of the all-party Select Committee? It said:
"The industry has been aware of the growing concern of HM Customs and Excise for some time, and it would have been helpful if the industry had responded quicker . . . Evidence from the Scotch Whisky Association did, we believe, illustrate a certain lack of urgency on the industry's part".
Does he think that any Government of whom he could be a member could accept that situation and do absolutely nothing?
I think the right hon. Gentleman realises that, as I said earlier, we accept there is a problem and recognise that action must be taken. However, if that action is to work and to be sustainable, it has to be carried out in partnership. The action that the Government propose is not a partnership. Indeed, that is a reason why we firmly believe that they should think again and that it is wrong to impose the plans outlined in clause 4. A partnership, and not a diktat, should be sought. If the provision is to work—Conservative Members want to ensure that we tackle the missing trade of fraud—it must be carried out in partnership. That is where the Government are making a mistake.
Does my hon. Friend accept that the partnership that is necessary must be between Government and all elements in the whisky industry, from distillery to retail? The proposal will impose a burden that will fall almost exclusively on the smallest distilleries, and disproportionately so in constituencies all over Scotland. However, the problem lies further downstream, and that is the further inequity of the situation.
As usual, my hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and I hope that the Economic Secretary will respond to it specifically. As I have said, we are keen to make sure that the end result is as improved as it can be. That is certainly our purpose today.
The proposal is not only based on uncertain evidence, but has been proven to be a rather crude and ineffective measure that could damage the industry and could yet fail to cut fraud. In April 2002, the Chancellor himself dismissed tax stamps as a viable option. In a Budget press release, he said:
"The Government also decided against the introduction of tax stamps on bottles of spirits, which would have significantly increased industry costs, and instead announced plans to work with the industry to tackle the problems of fraud."
If stamps were wrong then, why are they right now?
There are a number of other practical problems here. We know, for example, that tax stamps can be easily forged and the debate has already highlighted this problem. With UK duty at £5.48 a bottle, the incentive for forgery is strong. Indeed, as several Members have pointed out, forged stamps could add authenticity to illegal products while confusing the customer.
The industry has highlighted other practical problems, and I am grateful to the Gin and Vodka Association and the Scotch Whisky Association for keeping me up to date. They point out that
"the nature, design, shape and size of stamp remain to be confirmed".
This raises important issues for individual members of the industry. They also point out that
"no decisions have yet been made on the range of products that will be covered, where this will be decided on the basis of alcoholic strength or type of product."
A whole range of other issues to do with duty deferment, assistance with security costs and the costs of audit and administration has yet to be determined.
As my hon. Friend knows, the headquarters of the Gin and Vodka Association is in Salisbury in my constituency. I would be the last person to wish to vote against any measure that would prevent fraud. However, there is one element that we have not heard much about in the debate—the ultimate consumer of the product. Does he agree that it seems inevitable that if the measure goes through as planned, the consumer of cheaper brands, which are often loss leaders or special sales, will lose out? Those products will become uneconomic.
Indeed. My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. We have not yet considered how this will impact on the consumer. It is right that we concern ourselves with the industry, especially the small firms, but the consumer will be hit as well. I thought I saw the Economic Secretary agreeing with my hon. Friend.
There are a number of issues concerning costs and practicalities. The Scotch Whisky Association estimates that the initial cost will be about £23 million and the increased annual overheads about £54 million, and I gather that the Minister has accepted those figures. I accept that the Government have made offers of help, but they remain incomplete and inadequate. Alcohols Ltd., which is based in Bishops Stortford in my constituency, uses a family firm to bottle its gin. I suspect that this is not dissimilar to the example given by John Thurso a moment ago. The bottling firm will have to spend £160,000 on new strip stamp machines, but may get only about £17,000 out of the Government scheme; clearly that is wholly inadequate.
Mr. Bill Oddy, the managing director of another small firm, The Drinks Company, said:
"Our costs will rocket and the Chancellor's offer of £3m to aid small firms, with capital investment, is totally out of proportion to the impact strip stamps will have in our sector. It potentially creates barriers to entry, restricts competition, pushes up prices and reduces ranges."
He goes on to make an important economic point that is worth bearing in mind:
"The irony is that" the scheme
"favours the large, established multinationals, whose high profile consumer brands are most easily traded in the black economy."
There is an acute problem for small firms.
The Minister referred to the fact that some countries have accepted, and many have rejected, this scheme. I gather that Ecuador, Greece and the USA have abolished tax stamps; Belgium, Germany and Norway have now backed away from their implementation; and Poland, where, it is believed, 80 per cent. of the Scotch whisky sold is contraband, has tax stamps.
We have heard from the Government that action must be taken; indeed, we agree. That is why over the last year we have talked to the industry and welcomed its ideas. Since the Chancellor's request for ideas, the spirits and whisky industry has come up with 17 anti-fraud packages—I heard no reference to that in the Minister's speech. The industry's approach is based on something that the Government usually applaud, a risk-based strategy. Focusing on higher risk movements would give us a better chance of securing lost revenue, without unfairly burdening legitimate traders. Sadly, the Government's response to those ideas has been deeply negative.
It is unclear what analysis the Government have made of other countries' schemes. The United States, for example, has a three-tier system of distribution, which links the producer, the wholesaler and the retailer. Yet when one looks through the Government's regulatory impact assessment, the only reference to that system by Customs is solely concerned with how it could use it to implement the strip stamp scheme. Is it the Economic Secretary's opinion that the system would not work on its own? If so, how come it works in the United States?
We come now to the numbers. The most peculiar aspect of this affair is the comparison of tax yields and costs, and what the Government plan and the industry proposes. In the Economic Secretary's briefing to Members he states that Customs' own estimate is that the industry's measure would deliver approximately £70 million per annum in previously lost tax revenue. That compares with the £160 million best estimate for the strip stamp scheme. However, the hon. Gentleman alluded to the fact that that scheme involves a number of other costs to the Treasury, including a £3 million capital fund, between £5 million and £10 million in printing and distribution costs and, as he just told us, £110 million in lost tax revenue over the next three years as a result of freezing spirits duty. What then, when all the aspects of the two schemes are considered, is the net financial difference between them? Based on those figures, either the Government are seriously underplaying the cost of the tax fraud that they expect to recoup or someone at the Treasury has got their figures wrong.
The regulatory impact assessment states:
"The introduction of tax stamps will have a revenue impact of £160 million in the first year of implementation."
How does the hon. Gentleman think the Government have been able to come up with such an accurate figure if they are unable to give even the roughest estimate of the risk of fraud following the introduction of strip stamps?
That is a very good point. We know that the £160 million must be based on the assumption of £600 million of fraud, but we know also that the National Audit Office has said that the assumption is questionable. The amount could reasonably be said to be between £330 million and £1.08 billion, but it certainly could not be said definitely to be £600 million, so the assumption of a £160 million saving is based on evidence that is yet to be proven.
The whisky and spirits industry is, as the Minister said, vital to the country's economy. The Conservative party strongly supports that industry, and of course we also support targeted, effective anti-fraud measures. That is why we urge the Government not to burden the industry with a scheme that clearly has a chequered history. The practicalities of implementing the scheme are becoming clearer to Customs, and not before time. What is clear to Conservative Members, however, is that the Government cannot tackle this fraud without a true partnership with industry, and that means co-operation.
In preparing for the debate I have consulted closely with the industry, including the Scotch Whisky Association, the Gin and Vodka Association and the Wine and Spirit Association. It is their opinion that the Government must think again. They wish to work with the Government, but they feel that the Treasury is becoming deaf to reason, and that is also the view of thousands of people whose livelihoods depend on this vital trade. I therefore say to Ministers, "Think again. It is not too late to delay this measure and give yourselves time to get it right." I say to Labour Members, "Help us to delay the clause because, if it proceeds, it will be bad for the industry but it could be even worse for the Government." This is an ill-considered, hasty measure, and it does not deserve the support of the House.
The Scottish Affairs Committee decided to look at this issue, not just in financial terms, some months ago when it became apparent that the Government might consider putting strip stamps on spirits. When the National Audit Office issued its report, we sent a letter to the Treasury asking it to be very cautious in proceeding with the idea. The figures provided by the industry and the Government were so diverse that we thought that it was not a good idea to proceed unless a more realistic figure became available.
During our investigations, however, the Government decided that strip stamps would be the solution to the problem. I say at the outset that the Committee, the industry and the Government all recognise that there is a very serious problem, and we all applaud attempts to do something about it. The Committee wanted to consider the impact of the proposal on the industry, so we visited a number of distilleries and bottling plants in Scotland and Northern Ireland. We are particularly concerned about the fragile communities that depend on the industry, on whisky in particular in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Those fragile communities are not necessarily those surrounding small island distilleries; they could be based around a bottling plant, such as that in Springburn in Glasgow, a very deprived area that would be seriously affected by this proposal. Morrisons of Bowmore, which owns that plant, does not know if it will be able to keep it going unless the Government get the measure right. The big danger is that firms will start to outsource. Many of the communities in Scotland that depend on the bottling plants would suffer greatly if that process was outsourced. For the purposes of the stamp, the product can be taken anywhere to be bottled. It has only to be produced in Scotland to make it Scotch whisky; it does not have to be bottled in Scotland. I hope the Government will take account of that danger.
I agree entirely with the hon. Lady and draw her attention to a letter I received from the general manager of a distillery in a community that she has just described. The general manager of that distillery writes:
"An important market for us is the UK which represents some 30 per cent. of cased goods turnover. However, we are considering turning our back on the UK market entirely and by 2006 secure other markets for our products, rather than suffer the new tax regime."
He goes on to list the number of jobs that will be lost. Does that concern the hon. Lady as much as it concerns me?
That prospect would concern anyone. The last thing we want to do is lose jobs. I was struck by Mr. Prisk appealing to us for partnership and support. I did not hear that appeal when my constituency was losing 30,000 jobs over the years I have sat in the House. We can all agree that we are extremely concerned about job losses, and no doubt the Government will take the matter seriously.
Some of the other fragile communities that I hope the Government will consider are in places such as Islay and a very small distillery that we visited, which has reopened in the past few years, at Bruichladdich. Only a handful of people are employed there, but one must understand the nature of the community to realise the impact of the reopened distillery on it. A small bottling line has been set up, employing 12 people. That may not mean much in a huge constituency, but in a place such as Islay, it means everything. The firm has used the new deal for disability to employ four seriously disabled people on the bottling line. Those people could never have hoped to get a job anywhere else, yet there they were, in full-time employment with the assistance of the Government. If not for the Government's policies and the new deal, that could never have happened. There is great concern that if the measure goes ahead, the bottling line will have to be closed down. Again, I hope the Government will take particular account of such fragile communities.
In Northern Ireland at Bushmills, where there is a village of 1,000 people, 10 per cent. of them work directly in the local distillery—not outside it, but in the distillery. The whole village is entirely dependent on producing whiskey and, more importantly, on bottling whiskey. The big jobs are in bottling, not in production. Three or four people can produce a malt whiskey, but it takes many more than that to bottle it.
The company has three bottling plants and is a sister company of Jamieson in Dublin. The bottling plants are in Dublin, Bushmills and Cork. The company is considering closing the one in Cork. However, the Dublin distillery and bottling plant has the facility to put strip stamps on bottles, and Bushmills bottling plant does not, so the danger is that the company will move all bottling to Dublin where there is the facility and the capacity. That would shut down not just the Bushmills distillery, but the Bushmills village. When the Government consider the matter, I urge them to look not at the big boys—they will take care of themselves—but at the very small distilleries and, more important, bottling facilities.
The Select Committee recognised that there would be problems with counterfeiting. One of my hon. Friends will have a lot to say about that. A further issue was the theft of strip stamps—£50,000 worth of strip stamps is the size of a paperback novel. One can put that amount of stamps in one's pocket; one does not have to steal £50,000 worth of bottles of whisky to get the value of that. One can walk out the door with a paperback novel-size package of strip stamps in one's pocket, and one has £50,000. It is even smaller to carry than the equivalent amount of cash. Security will be a great problem for the bottling plants when they hold such huge sums. The stamps do not have to be counterfeit—the genuine product will be a great attraction to thieves. To carry that off will be a much easier task than carrying off £50,000 worth of bottles of whisky.
I strongly urge the Government to keep talking to the industry. The industry is not entirely innocent. Three years ago when the Government said they would not continue with strip stamps, the industry sat back and heaved a huge sigh of relief. Instead of looking for the solutions that were needed to combat the fraud, the industry came up with a few voluntary solutions that would never be an adequate answer. It did not at any time seek regulation, and I believe it should have done so, because the voluntary codes were clearly not working.
There was a case in which Customs warned a producer that one of its distributors was not a bona fide company and was diverting some of the product. The answer from the producer was, "Well, as far as we're concerned, they are bona fide and we'll keep using them." That is not good enough for the industry. The problem must be sorted out and there must be regulation. The industry has to be prepared to accept regulation. It must meet the Government half way in overcoming the problems.
We urge that the Government keep talking to the industry. Ultimately, both are victims of the fraud and are not the people who should be injured by the solutions. It is the perpetrators of the fraud whom we all seek to injure by the solutions. I appeal to the Government not to make the solution worse than the problem, to keep talking to the industry, and not to be absolutely sure that the solution is a stamp across the bottle. The industry is happy for the stamp to go round the bottle or on the label, or to have a hologram elsewhere. The difficulty in putting a stamp across the top of the bottle is a grave problem indeed. Owing to the way some of the bottling lines operate—the bottles go directly into boxes, and the boxes are closed and cased—it will mean reopening all the cases to apply the stamp. On such a line, the output is 600 bottles a minute, so it is not a question of adding just a few minutes to the operation. It would mean starting again.
There is a host of issues that the Government must work with the industry to resolve. If the Government are determined that a stamp is the only answer, will they please be sure that they get the stamp absolutely right and that they do not make the solution worse than the problem?
I am glad to be able to follow Mrs. Adams in the debate. Her Committee, a cross-party Committee, prepared an excellent report, which informs our debate. I hope the fact that the report was unanimous will give the Government pause for thought, and will cause them to reflect on the many serious concerns about their proposals and on whether those proposals are likely to deliver the desired results. I hope the Government will recognise the difficulties and risks involved, given that after the 2002 Budget they said they did not believe that the balance of risk and reward justified the proposals going ahead at that time. One wonders whether, in the intervening couple of years, the problems that the Government accepted then have been addressed.
My party has had a close interest in and strong commitment to the fortunes of the Scottish whisky industry for many decades, going well back before my hon. Friend Malcolm Bruce became Treasury spokesman for the Liberal Democrats and added to the commitment to get the tax regime for the Scottish whisky industry right. Many of my hon. Friends who have whisky distilleries in their constituencies have been lobbying very hard, and have been lobbied very hard, about the consequences of the measures. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid), for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) and for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) for the work that they have done to draw attention to some of the deficiencies in what is proposed and to the potential cost to the industry.
I think that the Government understand that hon. Members in all parts of the House are concerned about the huge fraud that has been present in the alcohol and tobacco industries for many years. Of course, we welcome the fact that the Government have sought to reduce the scale of that fraud in recent years. However, the issue is the size of the fraud, whether the Government's estimates are realistic, and whether the response is proportionate. In addition, will the measures that the Government are proposing work? Will they deliver the benefits that the Government envisage, or will they be undercut, as many people fear, by fraud and other problems?
Furthermore, what will be the cost that will certainly fall to the industry as a consequence? How will smaller firms in particular cope with those additional costs? If there is one thing on which I suspect the Economic Secretary and I would agree in this debate, it is that the extra costs that will fall to the industry are relatively certain. What is uncertain is what the benefits will be. The combination of certain large costs and uncertain large benefits is not a happy one for the Government.
It is worth setting out at the outset the industry's precise concerns about the Bill. Essentially, it has expressed five concerns about the effect of the measures on productivity, investment and profitability. The first concern is that the measures will increase production costs, owing to the cost of new machinery and labour costs. The second concern is that they will increase the costs of downstream suppliers or importers, who will have to arrange for the repackaging and stamping of imported products. The third concern is that they will impose an earlier excise duty point for many small businesses, with an adverse impact on cash flow—something that the Economic Secretary mentioned.
The two other concerns expressed by the industry are that the measures will restrict the trading opportunities of brokers and intermediary suppliers where they have mixed UK and non-UK customers and that they will curtail the opportunities for the storage of spirits, duty suspended, in excise warehouses until the point of consumption. All those concerns add up to a very significant additional cost burden on an industry that is relatively small scale, and in which, as a number of hon. Members have indicated, there are many small producers who will be particularly hard hit.
We hope that the Government will work with the industry to try to formulate proposals that will address those concerns, especially as they have been expressed not only by the Scotch whisky industry, as one might expect, but by the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, whose report has been mentioned. Concerns have also been expressed by the Confederation of British Industry, which picked out the clause and schedule 1 in this year's briefing on the Finance Bill. It states:
"We are . . . very disappointed to see this measure included in the Finance Bill, since the additional compliance cost to business is likely to be significant, despite 'concessions' in the form of up-front help with cash flow and a freeze on excise duty."
As I mentioned, the Government are very much aware of those concerns. Indeed, they decided in the 2002 Budget not to proceed with this measure on the stamping of spirits, and the details were given in a press notice.
May I add to my hon. Friend's list another concern that was put to me by the general manager of the Invergordon distillery, which I visited two weeks ago: the burden of extra security that will arise because of having to store strip stamps, which will become a highly saleable and marketable black market commodity? The general manager was extremely concerned about the quotations for extra security and insurance costs, and about other burdens that have not so far been highlighted.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. The Select Committee report picks up on the same issue, to which I shall return in my closing comments.
I was referring to the Government's doubts about the proposal, which were expressed clearly only two years ago in the press notice that was issued after the Chancellor decided not to proceed with such measures. Mr. Prisk referred to the same issue earlier. In the press notice, the Government said:
"It was clear from this consultation process that the introduction of tax stamps would have a severe impact on the productivity and compliance costs of the spirits industry, which— if passed on in full—could have had a significant impact on retail prices for spirits. The Government does not currently consider those costs proportionate to the benefits of tax stamps."
One wonders what has changed in the intervening period. While I accept that, as the Economic Secretary indicated, one of the things that may have changed in his mind is that he has been unable to satisfy himself that there are alternative proposals that will deal with the problems, the fact remains that the Treasury had such doubts about the proposals only a couple of years ago when it questioned whether the benefits would outweigh the productivity and compliance costs. If those problems were an overriding concern in 2002, the same must surely remain the case today.
A number of hon. Members have discussed how large the fraud is. I suppose that it is not particularly surprising that there have been significant disagreements between the Government and the industry on just how extensive it is. The Government will no doubt prefer their own figures, and they will be sceptical of those produced by the industry. As the Scottish Affairs Committee made clear in the conclusion of the section dealing with this matter in its report, however, even the National Audit Office was not satisfied with the figures produced by the Government and the industry. The NAO stated that, in the meantime—in other words, before the issue can be reconciled—
"neither survey can be accepted as unequivocally reliable and great care is needed in determining what reliance is to be placed on the results at present available."
"Until definitive figures are available, no estimate, whether from Customs or from the industry, can be accepted as accurate. For any Government to introduce important measures that could have major implications for industry and employment, based on what could be inaccurate figures, might be considered precipitate to the point of being reckless."
That is a very strong conclusion, as I am sure the Economic Secretary will agree, from a Committee that represents all political parties and has a predominance of Labour members. The Government accept the lower figure of £70 million cited by the industry in relation to costs. As one is talking about a gap of £110 million in the estimates of how much could be saved, as well as the fact that that gap is based on the Government's own estimate, which is many multiples of the industry's estimate and is extremely uncertain, as the National Audit Office accepted, one wonders whether they have a strong case for proceeding, even before one comes to issues about the potential for fraud in relation to duty stamps. As the Economic Secretary accepted implicitly if not explicitly, the Government still have to do a great deal of thinking about that.
I remind the Economic Secretary of the Committee's conclusions as to whether the Government's measures were likely to lead to the savings that he hopes for. After debating the issue, consulting the industry extensively and travelling to other countries to examine their experiences, the Scottish Affairs Committee concluded:
"We are convinced that there has to be a better alternative to strip stamps".
It was not convinced that the measures, which it described as
"a nineteenth century solution to a twenty-first century problem", are likely to be effective.
The Government must also answer questions about the costs to the industry and the extent to which it will be compensated. The ongoing costs will be £54 million a year, which is a significant burden, particularly for the many small businesses in the industry. The Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Economic Secretary gave the impression that the industry will be compensated as a consequence of the Chancellor's decision, which he announced with a flourish, to freeze duty on spirits for the rest of this Parliament—most commentators expect this Parliament to run for about a year, so one doubts the generosity of that gesture.
We obviously welcome the freeze on duty on spirits, which the Red Book states will cost some £70 million over the next few years. It is tempting to think of that £70 million as compensation for the industry to set against the ongoing cost of the measures, which is about £54 million per year, and the one-off capital cost of £23 million. I am sure that the Economic Secretary accepts that, although freezing duty on spirits will clearly affect the extent to which the price of the industry's products is forced upwards by additional costs, it will not necessarily impact directly on the industry's profitability and will not necessarily offset the significant ongoing costs.
On offsetting costs, it would be interesting to hear whether the Economic Secretary has a principle in mind if he decides to go ahead with the measures in the Finance Bill. In other words, because the measures deal with a problem that was not caused directly by the industry, do the Government accept their responsibility to offset all costs to the industry, or are they working to another principle?
I apologise if this information is already publicly available, but will the Economic Secretary tell us the additional compliance costs to the industry if it proceeds with its proposals to save £70 million on duty fraud? The £70 million figure must be relevant when we compare the Government's package with the industry's package.
I want to catch up with some of the concrete concerns set out by the Scotch Whisky Association in its briefing paper, which it sent to hon. Members before this debate. The SWA is concerned about the Government's direction, and it hopes that they will not proceed with the measures, or at the very least, that they will delay them to think them out properly.
In its briefing paper, the SWA suggests four ways—I am sure that the Government are aware of them—to mitigate the cost of the tax stamps. First, it argues that the freeze on spirits duty will not bear directly on profits, and it would be useful to hear more from the Economic Secretary about whether his overall package will offset all the extra costs on the industry. The other three areas are duty deferment, security, printing and distribution costs, which my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross referred to earlier, and capital costs, which other hon. Members referred to.
On capital costs, it has been suggested that the costs to the industry will be mitigated by the £3 million fund for assistance, which will be targeted at small firms. The SWA points out that the £3 million would be spread thinly across the industry in the light of the overall £23 million estimate for capital costs, and there is a particular concern that the extra costs will fall most heavily on smaller businesses, which are least able to afford additional equipment.
The SWA asks the Government to clarify their definition of smaller businesses on which the capital assistance will be focused, and points out that EU state aid rules will apply, which means that it will not be possible to provide assistance of more than €100,000 per firm. A single stamp application machine may cost more than €350,000, and there is concern whether the Government can, under EU law, compensate companies for all the costs, even if they want to do so. If would be useful if the Economic Secretary were to clarify that particular point in his summing-up speech.
The Government have made it clear that they will examine duty deferment arrangements in order to prevent increased cash-flow costs falling on the industry. The SWA briefing note states:
"Depending on the scheme, distillers and importers could face serious cash flow problems as a result of having to finance the purchase of tax stamps upfront . . . It is therefore crucial that the government implement the scheme without requiring any up front payment for stamps. There are concerns, however, that there is little detail of how this will be achieved, nor the damage to industry of not delivering such a measure."
It would be helpful to hear from the Economic Secretary whether the Government can deliver on their commitment, or aspiration, to avoid the up-front cash-flow costs, and if so, when information detailing how the measures will work in practice will be made available to the industry.
My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross referred to security, printing and distribution costs. The Government have repeatedly told the industry that they will bear in full the production and distribution costs associated with tax stamps, although those costs are a fraction of the overall bill. Will the Economic Secretary confirm that point today and say more about how the system will work in practice, because the industry remains uncertain on that point?
It is clear not only from the industry's representations, but from those from the CBI and the Scottish Affairs Committee, which has members of all parties, that there is significant scepticism about whether the Government have the evidence to proceed with the measure. The scale of fraud is uncertain—according to the National Audit Office, there is no agreement on that point—whether the Government scheme will deliver benefits and solve the problems of fraud is uncertain, and the costs, and the extent to which they will fall on the industry, are also uncertain. Given that the Government are introducing measures with large, certain costs and uncertain benefits, I hope that the Economic Secretary will take the time to think again, even if he only delays the measures to allow time to consider their effect on the industry.
I have no constituency interest in the matter, but I have a union interest—over many years, my trade union has been involved in the whisky industry and other spirit industries. I also represent the taxpayers of Newcastle upon Tyne, and I want to examine their interests and those of the industry.
If the public had known about the extent of the fraud in the whisky industry three years ago, they would have said to the Government, "Get on with it. Why should we waste taxpayers' money? That money should come back to the taxpayer." We have an obligation to ensure that the public's interests are looked after. I recognise that one cannot ignore the industry and the people who work in it, and I would not wish to do so, but there needs to be a very tough approach to such fraud.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we should all keep the taxpayer in mind. In view of that, does he not agree that it is imperative for the Government to outline the scope of potential fraud before introducing strip stamps, which may be a significant disbenefit to taxpayers' interests?
I do not see how that can be done until the Government have set out their objectives in Parliament, but instead of saying, "We're going to take on this fraud and this is how we're going to do it", it is much better, as the Economic Secretary said, to have discussions with the industry. The industrialists and trade unionists whom I know would want to have detailed discussions on such a matter, and that makes sense.
I am a Scot, although I do not represent a Scottish constituency, and I sometimes treat myself to reading The Herald, The Scotsman, and, for football purposes, the Daily Record. When I do so, I often see the Scottish National party making assertions implying that the nasty English Government and nasty English fraudsters are ripping off a Scottish industry. SNP Members have been well behaved in the debate so far, and I expect that to continue, but they should bear it in mind that this issue affects the whole of the UK, including Scotland. I do not see how people can be criminals involved in fraud in the Scottish whisky industry unless they have at least bunged the lad on the door of the whisky distillery before they remove the produce.
If my hon. Friend refers to a debate that took place in the Scottish Parliament a couple of weeks ago, he will see that the SNP tried to claim exclusivity in defending the Scottish whisky industry in relation to fraud and tax. In the all-party group on Scotch whisky, Members of all parties—including, for the past 17 years, myself—have been involved in defending the interests of the industry.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting that important point. For many years, Members on both sides of the House have been tough in arguing for the Scottish whisky industry. I am not suggesting that the Scottish nationalists have not said their bit or that they should not be entitled to say their bit, but the suggestion that they are the leaders in this campaign must be rejected.
I want to make one observation and ask two questions. My observation is this: I would have thought that the Government would be sympathetic to the idea of acting in a partnership with the industry by adopting its counter-proposals—of which there are 17—if they thought that there was any prospect that that would deal with the problem, because it would avoid all the industry opposition to strip tops on bottles that the Government knew would arise.
The report by the Scottish Affairs Committee contains 17 recommendations. I want to draw the Committee's attention to three. Proposal five is:
"Customs and trade to consider the introduction of a secure, approved device for processing movement documents".
Proposal six is:
"Greater control of transporters involved in duty-suspended movements by Customs introducing a registration process . . . and . . . warehousekeepers providing relevant information to Customs about transporters".
Proposal nine is:
"Warehousekeepers to co-operate with Customs to provide details about booked arrivals of excise goods and to advise them of non-arrivals".
Will my hon. Friend make it clear that he is talking about the industry's proposals, not those of the Scottish Affairs Committee?
If I gave the impression that these are the Select Committee's proposals, I apologise, but I think that I said that they are the industry's proposals, which are helpfully set out in the Committee's report.
The hon. Gentleman mocks the industry's proposals, but does he not realise that its evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee made it clear that the difficulty lies not with the distillers, but further down the chain with the warehousemen, distributors and retailers? The Government's proposals are the wrong way round, because they attack the distillery industry instead of the other links in the chain.
I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's point. However, if it was possible to deal with the problem further down the line, I am sure that it would be done. If we are to know which bottle is licit and which is illicit, some kind of marking must be put on it before it leaves the bottling plant. It could be over the top of the bottle or around the side—I am not familiar with all the various technologies. If there is a newer technology—
I have given way generously, and I want to finish this point. If there are other technologies that can deal with the problem, I am not resistant to them, and I should hope that the Government would not be. There has to be something that identifies the bottle that everyone accepts and will be absolutely clear in any future legal challenge.
The hon. Gentleman is making the case for marking bottles clearly. He said that he may not be au fait with all the ins and outs of the industry, so let me tell him that every single bottle of Scotch whisky that is produced is already clearly marked with a lot number that makes identifiable the bottle, the distillery, and the time of bottling. Is that not good enough?
No, it is not, because it does not say whether the duty has been paid. That is the key issue to be tackled, because it is the basis of the fraud.
I think that I have made enough of my observation. I did not intend to spend so much time on it, but I have been generous in giving way.
I want to put a couple of questions to the Minister. Is the £3 million fund for capital investment assistance an annual figure? Is it set in stone, or might the Government be persuaded to adjust it depending on what they find out from the industry about its needs? I understand that the technology will incur disproportionate costs among small producers, so assistance has to be geared towards them. If the industry says that there is a need for additional support within the European Union rules, will the Government consider that?
My second question in linked to that issue. Have discussions taken place with the Department of Trade and Industry on the extent to which any regional assistance might be made available to the various bottlers in industry, obviously not just in Scotland but throughout the whole of the United Kingdom? Is that a possible other source that could be tapped to try to deal with the issue?
What has been the effect of the tax freeze on the price of a bottle of whisky over the years that it has been frozen? I think that the Economic Secretary said that it was 36p a bottle, which compares to a cost of approximately 13p a bottle without additional state aid on the introduction of the Government's proposals. There are many arguments about whether this is an effective system or not, but it cannot be argued that the introduction of this measure without modification would cause a major loss of jobs as a result of Government action, because the Government have actually boosted jobs by freezing that tax.
I will not give way.
I know that the trade unionists in the industry in Scotland will welcome that rebate, as it is an important factor in protecting their jobs. Having said that, I know that they will also want to see the maximum support being given to the industry to implement the proposals, and I hope that the Government will do that.
It is important to reflect on exactly what is at stake in these proposals. In Scotland, one job in 50 depends on the success and development of the Scotch whisky industry, and that industry is among the UK's top five export earners. Those are not numbers that we can dismiss flippantly; they are significant. Indeed, with the Government proposing to become indebted to the tune of some £130 billion over the coming years, one would have thought that their first objective would have been to ensure the successful continuance of one of their key industries. One would have thought that they would have wanted to preserve such a successful industry.
Labour Back Benchers have every right to feel let down. My hon. Friend Mr. Prisk reflected on the fact that they had been strangely silent in recent months in regard to backing this proposal as it has unfolded before our eyes. We are seeing a very destructive measure being forced through against the wishes of almost every informed commentator or impassioned observer. Every industry group is opposed to it. The Economic Secretary, for whom I have a lot of respect, did not do himself much justice when he failed to come up with a single industry group or observer who believed that the proposals were the right way to proceed. This is an embarrassing U-turn for the Government to have undertaken over the past three years, although embarrassing U-turns seem to have become the watchword of this phase for the Government.
Rural communities and urban work forces will be significantly and detrimentally affected by these proposals. Mrs. Adams reflected on the work force in Springburn, and she was quite right to do so. Both rural and urban communities are being let down by a Labour Government who have failed to see the impact of what they are doing. That this proposal is to be forced through by a Scottish Chancellor of the Exchequer, aided and abetted by a Scottish Secretary of State, who has once again failed to stand up for our vital Scottish national interests, says much about how the Government now go about their business.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford reflected on the fact that 80 per cent. of the burden of implementing these proposals will fall on the top 9 per cent. of companies in the sector. It is important to understand exactly what that means for the smallest businesses in the sector. My constituency contains Scotland's southernmost distillery. In my opinion, it produces Scotland's finest whisky, but I probably would say that, wouldn't I? I suspect that we shall hear about some other contenders for that award later. Bladnoch distillery has recently restarted, after a period in mothballs, under the stewardship of Raymond Armstrong. It is in the very early days of re-formation, and it will bring vital diversity to the Scotch whisky industry. The Economic Secretary needs to reflect on the important fact that the Scotch whisky industry is not just about the major names. Its very essence is its diversity. It is about the Scotch whisky shops that we can all go into. The tourists love them, but so do the locals and some Members of Parliament. In those shops, we can see the huge diversity of this vital industry.
Mr. Armstrong informs me that the burden on his newly restarted enterprise in Bladnoch—a very small business indeed—will be in excess of £220,000. He expects to receive very little in contributions towards that, although he has not been able to ascertain much detail from the Government. That will represent a significant burden for his business to overcome. I am happy to accept that the number of jobs involved is not huge, but those jobs are highly significant in a very small community. The local town of Wigtown depends heavily on the tourism sector, and the Bladnoch distillery now plays a key part in that sector. The Government have so far failed to recognise that this measure will affect small, vulnerable rural communities, but they need to do so very quickly before they make a significant mistake.
Critically, Mr. Armstrong made his decision to invest in the restarting of Bladnoch distillery some two or three years ago, at a time when the Government were happily assuring him that they were not willing to contemplate strip stamps. At that time, they were not seen as an effective use of resources to counteract fraud. Now that he is half-way down the road towards restarting and developing an effective and successful business, he is faced with a substantial burden on his cash flow. I am particularly concerned about the increased barrier to entry for new businesses entering the Scotch whisky industry. This measure is another element that will make it more difficult for new businesses to enter an industry that depends on diversity and on small businesses continually coming into the sector.
Mr. Armstrong has also reflected on the security implications of tax stamps. His distillery is in a rural community in the middle of a very disparately populated area. What are the security consequences of having to store a significant number of tax stamps on the premises? The Chairman of the Select Committee rightly said that a pack of stamps the size of a paperback book was worth £50,000. The security implications for that business are not trivial, and should not be dismissed lightly.
In an intervention on the Economic Secretary, I mentioned the Customs and Excise operation in London, which we have discussed on previous occasions. In that operation, some 300 premises were surveyed and visited by Customs and Excise staff, who reported that more than 140 were selling illicit spirits. That is a troubling figure. No one on either side of the House, and no one in the Select Committee who heard that evidence, has not been troubled by it.
But where is the action resulting from that statistic? Is each of those 140-odd retailers now facing an automatic discharge of their liquor licence? Are Customs and Excise lawyers queueing up to take immediate and effective action against people who are obviously knowingly dealing in illicit alcohol? No, there is a complete absence of enforcement action. The strip stamps proposal would have more credibility if it had been embarked on after a period of strong and effective enforcement of the existing system. There is no evidence, however, that that strong and effective action has either been resourced—resources may well be an issue within Customs and Excise—or has taken place. The fact is that fraud is happening—I shall refer later to the debate about its size—downstream from the distilleries. The distilleries, however, must pay the price, and as a result, Mr. Armstrong faces a huge bill to his new business.
Angus Robertson, in an intervention a short while ago, said clearly that each bottle of whisky has a lot number on it. As a member of the Scottish Affairs Committee, I have still never been given a satisfactory answer as to why, in the 21st century, when bar codes are commonplace, computer technology is routine and men are sent to the moon regularly, we cannot track a bottle of whisky and its lot number from the place where it is retailed back to a distillery. I accept that it is difficult, and that there may be some complicated transactions, but I do not understand why it is not possible.
Given the Home Secretary's desire to track every member of this country through a centralised computer system with our biometric details, could not the Treasury at least embrace the idea of trying to track the whisky that is in the bottles?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. If he is advocating biometric testing for whisky, I look forward to seeing his proposals in due course.
The issue of counterfeiting has come up on several occasions during the debate, and it is worth spending a couple of minutes on it. There are two aspects: first, counterfeiting of the tax stamps; and secondly, the counterfeiting of whisky as a product. Counterfeiting of stamps has been wildly underestimated by the Treasury. I found the Economic Secretary's opening remarks, in which he admitted that no assessment had been completed of the likely level of counterfeiting in relation to his proposal, unbelievable. If that is the case—I would welcome clarification in his winding-up speech—it is a serious omission and undermines significantly the Treasury's case.
The incentives for counterfeiting are massive. Part of the reason that we have a problem is that we have a high-tax product, and a higher-tax product than many other markets. The risks are small, and the reality is that in Taiwan and across the far east printers will be waiting for the nod from the Economic Secretary, at which they will start work on a very sophisticated product. If the Economic Secretary thinks that he can be one step ahead of the counterfeiters, I can assure him that they will be half a step behind him. They will devise counterfeit tax stamps that will undermine the system. The losers will be the distilleries, which will have paid the price for the tax stamp, but will still suffer from fraud.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Has he seen the correspondence from Gavin Watson, who is one of Scotland's leading printers of secure stamps and the like? He wrote to the SWA and, I believe, to the Treasury, and said:
"It is known that there at least 25 Holographic Machinery Manufacturers in China alone, who currently have no reservations in supplying the Equipment to anyone worldwide who wishes to buy, and without the need to display evidence of being a Licensed Security or Brand Protection Supplier."
Does that concern him as much as it concerns me?
Absolutely, because it undermines fundamentally the Government's case. The pursuance of counterfeit tax stamps will simply replace the diversion fraud that we are seeing. Counterfeiting tax stamps will be easier and arguably lower risk than many of the frauds that we are seeing now.
I also referred to counterfeit product, which is my other concern. Scotch whisky is a delicate product, for which branding is important. It depends on quality and brand. There is a significant risk that tax stamps will be used to give credibility to below-standard, counterfeit product in a way that the Government have failed to appreciate to date.
No one, on either side of the House, is in doubt that fraud exists in the spirit sector, and that needs to be addressed, but when the Government decide that gap analysis is too unreliable a methodology to assess fraud in wine and beer markets, it strikes me that to use that same analysis to quantify fraud in the spirits market, and on that basis to inflict a significantly expensive and burdensome procedure on vulnerable distilleries and business in Scotland, is more than should be tolerated by the House.
The reality is that the Government are playing fast and loose with a vital industry in Scotland. Scotland expects better from this Government. U-turns are no longer taboo under this Government, and it is not too late simply to say that more can be done to find an alternative. The Scottish Affairs Committee concluded:
"we are convinced neither that strip stamps would be the best way to tackle such fraud, nor that the Government has exhausted all possible alternatives."
That sums it up for me. That is exactly why I shall vote against clause 4, as this is a burden too far for the Scotch whisky industry.
A number of colleagues have referred to the fact that the Scottish Affairs Committee took considerable time to examine the question of strip stamps. Properly, a number of people have quoted the Committee's conclusion in its report. I want to put it on record that we fully support the Government's and the industry's attempt to tackle spirit fraud. All of us are united in that objective. No one in the House wants to avoid that issue, although there may be differences on how to tackle it.
I, for one, was not against strip stamps at the outset of the investigation. I was quite prepared to listen to the evidence. On hearing the evidence, however, I for one do not think that it is the best way forward. There are other ways of doing it, and I would be more interested in the industry and the Treasury sitting down and agreeing on full traceability from A to Z, which could conclude the matter.
When considering a proposal from the Treasury or any other organisation, we need to ask whether it is viable, and more importantly, whether it is secure. I do not think that strip stamps across the top of the bottle will be a secure system, and I would reject it on those grounds alone. It will be a fragile way of trying to deter fraud throughout the UK and abroad. A number of Members have mentioned the cost of a stamp—£5.48—which indicates the attraction of fraud and counterfeiting. According to the industry, the strip stamp will cost 1p or 2p to produce, but the £5.48 cost makes forgery attractive in the first place.
Earlier in the debate, a number of Members referred to the fact that other countries had already experienced strip stamps, and I will repeat some points and perhaps add some new material. In Ukraine, in January 2004, within three weeks of their introduction, more than 60,000 bottles were found with a forged hologram strip stamp, which were seized in that country. In Hungary, 15 to 20 per cent. of the market remains illicit. In Bulgaria, 60 per cent. of the spirits trade pays no excise duty. There are major problems in some of those countries.
As was mentioned, some countries have already abolished tax stamps, such as Ecuador, Greece and the USA. Some countries have thought about it and pulled back, such as Belgium, Germany and Norway. A number of people have referred to the fact that if we have strip stamps, the spirit in the bottle might as well be replaced with some poor-quality spirit, as the strip stamp may deliver international acceptance. That is a real danger.
Research shows that a large proportion of the Scotch whisky sold in Poland, which uses strip stamps, is counterfeit.
I think that the same will apply in many other countries in future. The whole industry could be undermined if a poor-quality spirit became linked to the name of Scotch whisky, or anything else for that matter.
China was mentioned earlier in connection with counterfeiting. I raised it when the Treasury gave evidence to the Select Committee. A letter from Drew Samuel, managing director of Gavin Watson, one of the leading makers of security products, warns that the whisky industry faces financial disaster because of crime gangs' access to sophisticated technology. Mr. Samuel says that in China alone 25 manufacturers are supplying sophisticated hologram-making machines on a "no questions asked" basis, and are prepared to use them in that country or sell them abroad for purposes of tax fraud. There is clearly a market out there: people are prepared to do this.
Mr. Samuel says:
"The skill of the counterfeiters has been grossly underestimated. Apart from the ease of apparently authentic numbering, holograms have been globally downgraded as a protection."
More and more people are going to find it easier to counterfeit whatever strip stamp we design. Mr. Samuel adds:
"There appears to be . . . a 'headlong rush' towards a so-called 'solution', which in its projected format could only create more problems than those it would solve."
That was, I think, the conclusion of the Committee, whose Chairman has already mentioned the issue.
The Treasury should take account of evidence from other international quarters. It is not just the Scotch Whisky Association that is saying that. We met trade unionists in distilleries all over the place who confirmed their opposition to strip stamps, and the Scottish Parliament decided that they were not the best answer. As I have said before, any decision that could unite the Scottish Parliament must have something going for it. A reasonable case has been made by the Committee and by Members, and I urge the Treasury to act on it, even at this late stage. The industry has made it clear that it wants to be receptive to any further approach, and I think that we should use this opportunity to come up with an alternative to strip stamps.
I am not a betting person—they sit elsewhere in the House—but I would give short odds on someone trying to counterfeit a strip stamp very soon if it goes over the top of the bottle. That will happen as sure as night follows day unless the industry and the Treasury reach an agreement that would prevent all the pain.
Like many other Members who are present, I am an active member of the all-party Scotch whisky industry group. I declare a further interest, in that more than 50 per cent. of Scotland's malt whisky distilleries are based in my constituency.
Despite my implacable opposition to the introduction of strip stamps, I want to begin with a word of genuine commendation for the Minister. He has been extraordinarily generous in debates, and also with his time: he has met me, and other members of the all-party group, to try to persuade us of the Government's case—although he does not seem to have persuaded anyone. Let me add that I agreed with most of what was said by both Mrs. Adams, who chairs the Select Committee, and Mr. Lyons.
Last week we learned that the previous year's Scotch whisky export figures had been excellent. According to the SWA, the export value of Scotch in 2003 was £2.37 billion, the second highest amount ever. The export value of malts bottled in Scotland has exceeded £300 million for the first time. Blends bottled in Scotland are up by 3.5 per cent. The industry feels buoyant in the belief that there are great opportunities for new markets offering exciting prospects abroad. The United Kingdom figures, however, show a decline, just when the Government are planning to introduce strip stamps—a move which, according to Members in all parts of the House, will make the industry less competitive at a time when it is having to fight for its market share in the UK.
According to the SWA figures, Scotch sales were down in volume in the UK during 2003 by 113 million bottles. The tremendous export figures are a triumph for the industry and for workers all over Scotland—not just in rural communities like Moray, where much of the whisky is distilled, but throughout central Scotland, where much of it is bottled and many of the labels are printed. Many of the tourist attractions are there as well—for instance, the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre on the Royal Mile. This is a truly national industry which employs people throughout the country, and all who work in it should be tremendously proud of the success that they managed to produce in last year's export markets. I am sure all Members hope that the sales will go from strength to strength in the coming years.
We should, however, also take account of the depressed domestic market figures, which should serve as a salutary warning to the Government and to all of us who must decide whether strip stamps will help or harm the industry. Will they make the industry more or less competitive? Will they damage jobs? We have an opportunity to make that decision today, and I hope that we shall do so in a decisive manner.
A number of Members have referred to the regulatory impact assessment produced by Her Majesty's Customs and Excise. It is a very important document, which outlines the Government's case and weighs no action to oppose strip stamps against alternatives suggested by the industry. What worries me is the paragraph just after the short one on counterfeiting that consists of only three sentences. It concerns the revenue benefits to the Government of the introduction of strip stamps. It states with certainty that
"The introduction of tax stamps will have a revenue impact of £160 million in the first year of implementation."
That is a significant and very exact figure. I do not know how it is possible to come up with it when it is not possible to quantify the level of strip stamp fraud.
As sure as night follows day, if the value to criminals moves from what is in the bottle to what is on it, counterfeiting will take place as it has in other countries. We would all condemn that, just as we condemn the diversion that currently takes place. Given the resources available to the Treasury and to Customs and Excise—which, interestingly, lists at the back of the annexe to its report an impressive range of countries that have been consulted, from Albania to Vietnam—was it not possible for those who drew up the report to ask how serious the problem was? If they did not do so, why was that? If they had, surely there would be projections from all those countries.
Many Members have seen figures from countries that have introduced strip stamps. Tens of thousands of bottles for sale in Poland bear legal strip stamps, but contain counterfeit alcohol. Alternatively, the spirit is genuine but the strip stamps have been fraudulently copied. We know of examples of the percentage of the market that is accounted for by fraudulent activities where there are strip stamps. I am certain that someone in the Treasury would want to know what the figures are. After all, the Treasury and all of us, I hope, are looking at taxpayers' interests. How is it possible for the Government to give an exact figure about how much benefit there is to be to the Treasury when they cannot give us the slightest indication of how much of the market will be impacted by fraudulent strip stamp production and use?
I do not want to upset the hon. Gentleman's flow because he is setting out a powerful case. However, does he share my concern that the Government have said that their scheme will generate £160 million and that the industry will generate £70 million, but the Government are willing to give £110 million in tax back by not increasing excise duty? Is not that peculiar mathematics?
To me it is voodoo economics from start to finish. I do not see how the figures add up. I still find it extraordinarily difficult to work out why we are here in the first place. After all, only three years ago, the United Kingdom Government wrote to the Norwegian Government in detail explaining why strip stamps were not a good idea. Everyone agrees that fraud is a bad thing but if the application of strip stamps was discouraged in Norway by a UK Government three years ago, why are strip stamps suddenly so acceptable?
The professional work of Gavin Watson, one of Scotland's leading printing companies, has been raised a couple of times, but neither I nor the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden have alluded to the logic of what that firm has said. Is not it extraordinary that a company that could be producing strip stamps and making money after their introduction is warning us all that it is not the best way forward? Even companies with a potential commercial interest in producing the strip stamps think that they are a daft idea.
For many people in the industry, including trade unionists, the RIA is long on promises. It says that that the Government will mitigate industry costs if they go ahead with the scheme, yet at this stage there is no detail of the offset package that the Government are set to bring forward. Indeed, the offset issue merits just one and a half pages of an 83-page document. The £3 million contribution towards capital costs in such a significant industry is a drop in the ocean compared to the £23 million estimated capital cost in the first year.
As someone said earlier, the pot will be spread thinly across the wider industry. Given that it is meant to be targeted at smaller firms, it may apply only to a few companies. As there is no definition of a smaller firm—it is not clear what that means in the Treasury's estimation—even small players in the industry may not qualify, depending on claims from other sectors. The Government need to consider how to assist firms in meeting the security costs.
Without being specific about the distilleries involved, those who know Speyside will know that, when one drives from Aberlour and looks to one's left, one sees some of the largest warehousing anywhere in the European Union. For those hon. Members who are keen on arithmetic and understand how much spirit is being produced, it does not take long to work out that one is talking about billions of pounds worth of product. At the start, I said that the export market was worth £2.37 billion. In one distillery alone in my constituency, there is vastly in excess of that figure maturing, producing a nice angel share, keeping people locally employed.
The security ramifications of the introduction of strip stamps are not a technicality. It is incredibly important, particularly in a region with more than 44 working distilleries and a significant number of bonded warehouses, too. It is important not just for the whisky-producing areas but for areas of the country, predominantly in the central belt, where the whisky is bottled.
If the Government are to go ahead with the scheme, and I genuinely hope that they do not, it remains crucial that they honour their promise to implement the scheme without requiring any up-front payment for stamps. Concerns remain that Customs and Excise has not thought through how that will be achieved and that subsequently it will be put into the "too difficult" category, with the industry left to face crippling cash-flow problems. The Government have said that they will meet printing distribution costs. Many people are concerned, however, that the Bill leaves open the threat that the industry may have to bear the cost at some time in the future. From reports that emerged from meetings with Customs and Excise, it appears that there is little idea about how the system will operate, or the scope, design and nature of the stamps. That is worrying given that the clock is ticking and distilleries will need to start planning for April 2006.
Earlier, I said that the Economic Secretary had been very generous with his time. He was very generous when a leading small to medium company from my constituency, Gordon and MacPhail, came to explain the nature of its business, which sees it stocking more than 800 products. Those products in large part are special bottlings that do not necessarily go on sale at the standard 40 per cent. by volume domestically, or 43 per cent. by volume for export. They bottle at cask strength and everything in between. That means that the strip stamps that are set to go on the bottle have to be specially made for that strength of whisky. How quickly will that firm and similar firms get those strip stamps? What happens if they get special orders for products that they are expected to dispatch within a day or two? How long will it take Customs and Excise to provide those special labels that will go on bottles? We have not heard an answer to that yet.
We are at a stage in the issue where we are fully informed. We have received information from the National Audit Office, Customs and Excise and the Scottish Affairs Committee in its excellent detailed report. Many hon. Members have travelled around Scotland, Ireland and the States learning about the pros and cons of strip stamps. People who know about the industry and about the issue know that the time has come to make a decision. Someone on the Government side used the word "exclusivity". There is no exclusivity of concern about strip stamps but the time is coming to make a decision. The Scottish Affairs Committee reported that it was
"convinced that there has to be a better alternative" to strip stamps. The Chair of the Committee said earlier in the debate that there is a danger that this solution could be worse than the problem. The chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association, Gavin Hewitt, said yesterday:
"MPs will have a further chance to debate tax stamps"
"We urge members in all parties to reject tax stamps".
We are being asked to vote against tax stamps. Nearly one month ago, Scotland's Parliament voted overwhelmingly, by 111 votes to four, on the issue of strip stamps. Labour, Liberal Democrat, Conservative, Scottish National party and others—the others were the Trots, who are not in favour of business—voted for a motion that noted
"with disappointment the announcement by Her Majesty's Government in the 2004 Budget of the introduction of tax stamps on whisky and other spirits; recognises that the compliance associated with the measure will introduce a heavy burden on the Scotch whisky industry; and therefore calls on HM Treasury to engage in further discussion with the industry on the impact of these measures with a view to reaching a satisfactory outcome which deals with tax fraud and would lead to the decision being reversed."
We have the opportunity to reverse that today. I note that at about the same time the First Minister, Jack McConnell, rightly, told the Scottish Parliament that he was "disappointed" about the introduction of strip stamps. While the leader of the Scottish Labour party said he was disappointed about that, the chairman of the all-party group on Scotch whisky made a powerful speech in replying to the Budget, in which he said that he was dismayed that the Government had made a decision to go forward with strip stamps.
I think that now is the time—now is the hour—to ditch strip stamps. The case for them is flawed and discredited. It has been discredited and opposed by cross-party Westminster Committees and all-party groups. It has been voted against overwhelmingly in the Scottish Parliament, by 111 votes to four. First Minister McConnell says that he is disappointed. The Chairman of the Treasury Committee, who is also the chairman of the all-party Scotch whisky group, has said that he is dismayed.
If democracy is to mean anything, this daft measure has to be withdrawn or voted down. The Scotch Whisky Association and workers in the industry have called for that, and the SWA reiterated that call yesterday. That is what we as Members of Parliament need to do today. MPs either vote for this industry and its important jobs, or they do not because we vote to introduce strip stamps. There is no room for ambiguity. We must all take our responsibilities seriously and stand up for the whisky industry and the workers of this key national employer. Voters would find it inexplicable if MPs broke the general and political consensus that this is a bad deal, and it would be inexplicable to speak against it and then vote for it. Strip stamps are bad for competitiveness and bad for jobs, and they will lead to a new domestic criminal growth industry: the fraudulent counterfeiting of tax stamps. All of us, in all parties in the House, should vote against them.
I am delighted to be able to participate in this debate. Angus Robertson said that I was dismayed. I am dismayed, but there is one thing that dismays me even more: the obtuse tactics of Scottish National party Members. The opportunity to put right, and into context, their comments is extremely important.
I commend the Government for their actions on the Scotch whisky industry; the Labour Government have been a good friend of the industry. The freeze on duties, the longest since the 1950s, allied to duties for the next two years, adds up to a cumulative total of £1.33 off the duty on a bottle of whisky. With that £1.33 off, this Government have been good to the Scotch whisky industry over the years.
I also commend the report of the Scottish Affairs Committee. I have consistently told the Government that I am dismayed at the introduction of the tax stamps, and I commend the Committee report for several of its points, such as that in paragraph 9. However, we must all recognise that, at heart, the Government's proposals are aimed at tackling fraud in the spirits industry, and unless we have meaningful alternatives for tackling that fraud, this exercise is meaningless. It is important that the industry and the Government find ways of tackling fraud.
I commend the Committee report for its comments on the National Audit Office report, in paragraph 11. The Committee seems to be saying that the Government are making a decision that is illogical in terms of its implementation because of flawed figures. It is important that that issue is tied up.
The hon. Gentleman refers to paragraphs 11 and 12 of the Select Committee report, which are on the NAO report. Paragraph 11, referring to the Customs and Excise estimate of £600 million in lost duty, says that the range
"should properly be expressed as . . . £330m to £1,080m", and also refers to the Scotch Whisky Association's estimated range of "£10m to £260m".
Paragraph 12 goes on to say that
"it is difficult to accept that both methods are reliable when they result in such widely different estimates of consumption. It is therefore clear that further work needs to be done by the Office for National Statistics, with Customs and the Scotch Whisky Association".
Does not the hon. Gentleman think that the Government should at least postpone their proposals until the proper statistical evidence can be gathered, so that we know the real loss in revenue with greater accuracy?
Those points have already been made most eloquently by my hon. Friend Mrs. Adams; if Mr. Clifton-Brown had been in his seat, he would have observed that we have severe reservations on that matter. We acknowledge that point.
Paragraph 20 of the Scottish Affairs Committee's report mentions flaws in the "physical nature" of the stamps. The Economic Secretary was good enough to accept an invitation from me to visit Scotland, and he visited the Allied Distillers plant at Dumbarton in my constituency. He saw for himself the thin, sticky labels becoming snagged in the machinery, being constantly ripped up and not adhering to the bottles properly. He then saw that they had to be manually recorded and stuck on to a list on a clipboard so that the distillery could claim the refund from them. That is a laborious process, and I ask the Economic Secretary to look at it again. It is important to put on record that whereas for the large firms in the industry—Diageo or Allied in my constituency—that strip-stamp process is a nuisance, for small companies it could mean existence or non-existence. The Economic Secretary must bear that in mind when he replies on this issue.
I agree that the industry has been slow. The Committee was right to refer to that and say that it would have been helpful if the industry had responded more quickly. The evidence in paragraph 28 on diversion, and the fact that nothing had been done about it, suggests that there must be some form of regulation.
I state again today that strip stamps are not the best way to tackle fraud. The hon. Member for Moray mentioned Gavin Hewitt, but I have news for the hon. Gentleman. I have here a letter from Gavin Hewitt dated
The hon. Gentleman has had his turn. I shall read out exactly what Gavin Hewitt has written to me:
"We and many independent observers remain convinced that tax stamps are a mistake".
I think that we can find an echo of support for that on both sides of the Committee. However, he goes on to say,
"but we recognise the reality of the Budget announcement. The industry will work with Customs to deliver a workable scheme, at the same time ensuring—in line with ministerial commitments—that costs to industry are mitigated."
In that letter, the Scotch Whisky Association—the trade body for Scotch whisky—is saying that it will work with us. I want my colleagues and I to work with the Treasury and the industry, on the industry's behalf, to ensure that we get a sound outcome, because the industry has accepted the reality of the situation.
I agree that Members on both sides of the House should work with the Treasury in the interests of the industry. Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the SWA still opposes strip stamps, and is he saying that its chief executive did not issue a press release yesterday in which he urged Members—from all parties—to reject tax stamps in today's debate?
Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the chief executive of the SWA told Members of this House to vote against the Budget today? If so, I shall take the matter up with the chief executive, because I have a letter from him declaring that he will work with us. The hon. Gentleman might have done better to have a personal chat with the SWA, instead of reading from a press release. In fact, I shall follow the example of my hon. Friend Mr. Henderson and place this letter in the House of Commons Library, so that everyone can read it.
Let my colleagues be in no doubt that the Scotch whisky industry is saying that the Budget announcement is a reality, and that it will work with it. I am taking my line from the SWA.
As Chairman of the Treasury Committee, the hon. Gentleman is very thorough in his approach to this issue. My discussions with the SWA made it clear that a year's delay was considered to be the most practical solution, and we tabled an amendment to that effect. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with that view?
The issue is meaningful negotiation. I shall deal with that issue later, and in doing so I shall take on board what the hon. Gentleman says. I agree that these are crucial and important matters, but the question is: can they be resolved through discussion?
In its letter to me, the SWA said:
"The industry held a most disappointing meeting with officials on
I ask the Economic Secretary to provide the industry with greater clarity on a number of issues, including offsets. The SWA states that
"Ministers have consistently and publicly said that the government will mitigate costs through offsets. This is stressed"— as the Economic Secretary himself said—
"throughout the Regulatory Impact Assessment; but at our recent meeting"
"had nothing concrete to offer on offsets; all the emphasis was on getting the money as early as possible".
Will the Economic Secretary comment on that? The SWA further states that officials
"were unable to comment on industry suggestions, for example, for an extension of the duty deferment period; and . . . appeared, in contradiction to all previous pronouncements, to suggest that they were not convinced that there would be significant costs to the industry to offset."
The industry is also concerned about guarantees. The SWA states:
"No other tax (VAT, corporation tax etc) requires companies to provide guarantees for payment of tax up front. Those companies with duty deferment accounts already have guarantees in place. We therefore see no justification for introducing further additional guarantees to cover tax stamps."
On capital assistance, which has already been mentioned, the SWA says that
"the government has promised to make available £3m towards the industry's first year capital costs of £23m. This is required to be directed at 'smaller firms'."
We would all agree with that. The SWA continues, however, by stating that
"it is not fair to put on industry the burden of deciding how to carve up this capital assistance among the companies concerned—as many as 160. Clear guidelines are needed. Without this, planning cannot take place."
On products, the SWA states:
"Perhaps even more surprising is the lack of clarity on which products will require stamps and which will not."
My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley, North asked a question, to which the Economic Secretary responded, about where on whisky bottles the stamp will be placed. That is a very important issue. The SWA states that
"it has been suggested that stamps should apply only to those categories where fraud is a problem; but this raises serious competition issues and possible distortion of the market. For example, why should liqueurs be exempt if special bottles of rare malt whisky are included?"
The Minister will see that there is a great opportunity for detailed discussions between the industry and the Government.
Flexibility is another issue. The letter states:
"The companies, the market and product range are hugely diverse. One scheme for all may not be the right answer. Companies with an unblemished record on compliance and payment should not be treated the same as a newcomer to the market without a track record. As far as possible, we should be aiming for a level playing field for large and small companies to avoid competition distortion."
The industry has told me very clearly that it wants to play a
"constructive and collaborative role", but finds it
"depressing that the policy of tax stamps has got this far, when officials are only now grappling with the complexity of the practicalities."
I should like the Economic Secretary to give the industry some reassurance on its concerns. The industry will work with Customs and Excise, but needs
"the certainty of Ministerial guidance to officials to ensure that their undertakings to the industry are turned into action and reality."
In view of Gavin Hewitt's letter to me and his clear statement that the Budget is a done deal, where do we go from here? How can Members adopt a constructive and positive agenda working alongside the industry? Do we stand aside and be negative, providing no answers to the problem? Do we turn a blind eye to £600 million-worth of fraud, when we are here to work for the best interests of the taxpayer? The industry recognises that, and I suggest that we work, as the industry says, with the Government to secure a good solution to the problem.
If I were saying that all on my own, I might be subject to charges of cynicism, but the chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association is telling me that. Let me make it absolutely clear to the Committee that the chief executive would never say in any discussions that Members of Parliament should vote against the Budget. He would tell me that the Scotch Whisky Association is a non-political body, which is best served by all parties collectively working here for its advantage.
It is saying very clearly that it does not want to participate in the political debate. It is non-political. It is clear from the letter that the SWA gives us its support to work with the Government to secure a manageable solution to the problem. As parliamentarians we have to work for the benefit of the industry. The all-party group—I see its secretary in his place—will do all it can to work for the industry on behalf of all parliamentarians here. In the next few days I will meet the Scotch Whisky Association again to discuss the way forward.
As chairman of the all-party group I have had constant contact with the industry, and as Chairman of the Treasury Committee I have questioned the Chancellor on these proposals. Today, I am taking the opportunity to speak in the debate and question the Economic Secretary. MPs have done all they can to get these proposals dropped, but we must work with the industry, and the contact between Ministers, the industry and parliamentarians has to be meaningful. The dialogue should be intense. I hope to hear that the Economic Secretary will work with the industry and us and that he will communicate what we are saying to the Chancellor. No one in the Treasury, including the Chancellor, need be deaf to reason on this matter.
The whisky industry is one of the most successful in our manufacturing sector. As I have said to my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary and others, we cannot afford to jeopardise its competitiveness and reduce its productivity. It accounts for more than £2 billion in trade. It is therefore essential that we maintain its competitiveness and productivity.
I speak for the all-party group and the SWA when I say that we will work with the Treasury to ensure that the costs to the industry are mitigated. However, that dialogue must be constant if we are to ensure a good deal for everyone.
The Chancellor announced in his pre-Budget report that he planned to introduce the tax stamp scheme. Since then, the scheme has been investigated by the National Audit Office and the Scottish Affairs Committee. The NAO investigation cast doubts on the accuracy of the fraud estimates used by the Chancellor to justify the introduction of the stamps. Just yesterday, the Scottish Affairs Committee concluded unanimously that tax stamps were a bad idea and should not be introduced.
The view that tax stamps would be ineffective is shared by the US Government, who abandoned their own scheme 20 years ago because it was ineffective. Several other countries, most notably Norway, Belgium and Germany, looked at the idea but decided not to go ahead with it. The Department of Trade and Industry wrote to the Norwegian Government advising them not to introduce the scheme. Given all that evidence, I do not know why the British Government should be so hell bent on introducing the scheme. Many other countries that have introduced the tax scheme, among them Poland, Hungary and Ukraine, appear to be fighting a losing battle against fraud and forgery. The Scottish Parliament, including all the Labour Ministers and Labour MSPs, also voted overwhelmingly against the scheme. I am therefore very disappointed that the Government should be going ahead with the plan, despite all the evidence that I have mentioned.
We all agree that there is a problem with fraud. Where it exists, it must be tackled. However, we must ensure that anti-fraud measures are introduced only when we are satisfied that the benefits will outweigh the costs. All the evidence shows that tax stamps fail that test.
The industry will face great costs and risks. Mrs. Adams spoke about the Select Committee's visit to Islay, where members spoke to the management of the distillery and bottling hall at Bruichladdich. The venture had been closed for many years, but was reopened a year or two ago when a group of local business people decided that the market conditions were right. At the time, they thought that Government policy was to oppose tax stamps. Their small bottling hall will face tremendous extra costs if it is forced to put tax stamps on bottles. The restrictions on European state aid were referred to earlier, and they make it unlikely that the Government's compensation scheme will be able to pay the full costs that that small bottling hall will encounter in buying the machinery needed to apply the tax stamps.
Bruichladdich is a small village on the Rhinns of Islay, where alternative employment is very hard to find. As the hon. Lady said, a very high proportion of jobs could be at threat in that remote community, even though the actual number of jobs involved is relatively small. There are no other job vacancies on the island for people who lose their jobs in the bottling plant. It is therefore important that the Government realise that any threat to the Scotch whisky industry risks devastating the employment prospects in, and the economies of, small and remote communities such as Bruichladdich. That is true of other areas on Islay, and of Jura, where the distillery is by far the biggest employer.
The SWA put forward alternative proposals, which the Government estimated would deliver a saving in duty fraud of £70 million. I point out that that could be achieved without all the risks involved in the Government's tax stamp scheme. Surely we should implement the risk-free measures first and evaluate their success before we proceed to more risky measures?
Tax stamps fail the cost-benefit test for three reasons. First, the Government's estimates of fraud are clearly dubious. In addition, the danger that the stamps will be counterfeited means that they are likely to be ineffective. Thirdly, tax stamps will impose a serious financial burden on the industry.
The Government's estimates of duty fraud are arrived at by means of what is known as gap analysis—that is, using consumer surveys to measure consumption, then subtracting recorded legitimate sales to arrive at the level of duty fraud. That method depends heavily on the consumer surveys, which means that it depends on consumers accurately recalling how much alcohol they have consumed. I will leave the Committee to judge how accurate that type of survey is likely to be.
The Government plan to introduce an expensive scheme on the basis of the results of such surveys. Common sense tells us that that is not a sensible method on which to proceed, but we can look at the results of the surveys. The Customs and Excise annual report for 2002–03 noted that its gap analysis method for beer found that duty fraud on beer was negative. What rational conclusion can we draw? The analysis for beer says that duty fraud is negative, and the analysis for whisky suggests that duty fraud is high. The only sensible conclusion is that beer drinkers recollect, after their drinking bouts, that they have drunk a lot less than they actually did, while whisky drinkers think they have drunk a lot more. We cannot draw any sensible conclusion about duty fraud. No wonder the National Audit Office has concluded:
"Great care is needed in determining what reliance is to be placed on the results at present available."
That conclusion that great care is needed is a warning that the Government should heed. It is important to remember that if the Government have seriously overestimated duty fraud, the reduction in fraud that tax stamps bring will be proportionately reduced.
How effective are tax stamps likely to be? I spoke earlier about the failure of tax stamps in other countries, and even our Government seem to have doubts about how effective they will be. They estimate that the stamps will reduce duty fraud by only about a quarter, which does not indicate much confidence in the scheme's effectiveness and which seems to reflect the problems that other countries have had. We all know from the evidence given by other Members that forgeries will be so good that it will take a very experienced Customs officer to spot them. Shopkeepers and customers will still be taken in by the forgeries. Raids by Customs and Excise officers on shops and car boot sales will still be needed to spot the forgeries. I do not see what the benefit will be of having very good forgeries stuck on bottles. The whole idea of tax stamps is that somebody will be able to tell at first glance that if there is no tax stamp on the bottle, there is a fraud. We all know, though, that good forgeries will quickly appear, which will completely rule that out.
The Government estimate that the package of measures proposed by the industry would reduce fraud by about £70 million a year, which compares with their estimated reduction from tax stamps of £160 million a year. Their estimate of the extra savings from the tax stamps is therefore only £90 million a year. Yet their estimate of the annual ongoing costs is £54 million, and never mind the start-up costs. The saving appears, therefore, to be only £36 million a year, assuming all the Government's optimistic estimates are correct. I think the risk is too great for a saving of just £36 million a year, and that is without taking into account start-up costs and security costs.
Security costs worry the industry tremendously. Each stamp is a small piece of paper worth £5.48. Many bottling plants are in out-of-town industrial estates, and those plants will have millions of pounds worth of what is effectively cash sitting in their premises, for the tax stamps are as good as cash to any thief who breaks in and manages to steal them. What sane company would store millions of pounds worth of £5 notes in an out-of-town industrial estate? The police advise companies not to keep cash on their premises and to get it into the bank straight away. If tax stamps are introduced, bottling plants will have to store more cash equivalent on their premises than the local bank has cash. Thieves will no longer want to rob banks: it will be their ambition to rob the bottling hall. Bottling plants will be a magnet for thieves and, therefore, the insurance industry will be very worried. We all know that the insurance industry does not like to insure cash, so insurance premiums will have to rise considerably.
We have also heard about the problems for the production line that will be caused by the complicated process of applying tax stamps to the bottles. If marks have to be introduced, it would be much more sensible if they were in the form of modern laser marks or stamps on the labels. They would be much easier to fix on the bottles than the complicated process of applying tax stamps.
We do not know the scale of the problem that we are trying to solve, we do not know how effective the proposed solution will be and we do not know the full cost. However, we do know that the scheme is a great risk for a relatively small return. If the Scotch whisky industry has to cut back its production because of falling sales caused by increased prices, the outcome will be devastating for small communities, such as those that have been mentioned on Islay and Jura. I appeal to the Government not to proceed with tax stamps but to adopt the Scotch whisky industry's alternative package.
I apologise for not being in my place at the beginning of the debate. I wish to put forward the views of the Gin and Vodka Association on the issue, and I must declare the interest in my constituency, which includes the distillery for Beefeater gin, the only true London gin, and a small organic gin distillery, which also bottles in the constituency. I would like my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to give me some more comfort on the prospects for very small producers, because the extra costs imposed by the scheme will mean that some will go under.
I also wish to raise the question about Bushmills in the excellent report by the Scottish Affairs Committee on the whisky industry. As I come from Northern Ireland, I feel especially strongly about that. Bushmills is one of the great tourist attractions in Northern Ireland, and I wonder whether my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary can really give us an assurance that the people of the local community will not be affected if the industry moves south to the Republic of Ireland. That would almost certainly have a bad impact.
I also question the whole basis of the scheme. I have tried to understand the logic behind it, but it is difficult to fathom—other than as a way to raise money. I appreciate that my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary shakes his head at that, but the Treasury does want to raise money and is also committed to tackling fraud. However, no argument has been made that proves to me, or to the Gin and Vodka Association, that the scheme is the best way to achieve those aims. It is unbelievable that we propose to go ahead with the scheme without the proof that it will work. What is the point of a substantial number of companies going out of business if we then discover, two or three years later, that the scheme has made no difference to levels of fraud?
If the case has not been proven and if the scheme would damage businesses in Northern Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales—which now has a Welsh whisky company—is it not now imperative for all of us to vote against it?
I still have not decided whether to abstain or vote against the proposal. I want to see whether my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary can give any more assurances that will satisfy both the small company in my constituency and Allied Domecq, which is responsible for Beefeater gin. I want some assurance that the measure can be, at the very least, delayed. I do not understand the desire to rush it through. It does not seem that it will tackle fraud; it is merely a knee-jerk response that says that fraud will be tackled. I do not think that it will work, so at this very late stage I ask the Economic Secretary to think again and, at the very least, to accept that it should be delayed for one year, if not longer, until we have the facts about the real effect that it will have on fraud.
It is always a pleasure to follow Kate Hoey. I have had great affection for her ever since I stood against her for Parliament. However, the combined efforts of many months of putting out thousands of newspapers saying that I was zooming to victory in the race for the Vauxhall constituency merely increased her majority from 10,000 to about 18,000. Nevertheless, I remember the contest with great affection.
I am glad that Mr. McFall is now back in his place, because I want to congratulate him on what I can only describe as the magnificent mental gymnastics in his speech. He said that he was dismayed by the Government's decision to introduce tax stamps, and I should have thought that the obvious corollary to being so dismayed would be to vote against the Government on this issue. At times his gymnastics were so magnificent that I lost his flow—so fast did he pirouette—but I think I understood him to say that he would support the Government tonight.
Let me be clear. I spoke because I received a letter from the Scotch Whisky Association saying that this was a done deal in the Budget. It wants to reach the best outcome for the industry and it asked me, as the Member of Parliament for Dumbarton and as the chairman of the all-party whisky group, to help the association. I said that I would help it by negotiating with the Government. That was very clear and it is acceptable to me and to the association. I hope that it will be acceptable to everyone with whisky interests and who considers the industry as a whole and not in a partisan, narrow and bigoted way.
I commend to the hon. Gentleman an article by Daniel Finkelstein that appeared in The Times this morning. It said that when any politician begins a sentence with the words "Let me be clear" we should start worrying.
I commend Angus Robertson on his powerful speech. It seems to me that four central points have emerged in the debate. The first is that the scheme will impose very high costs on legitimate players; the second is that it will be very damaging to small businesses; the third is that it almost certainly will not work; and the fourth is that it will encourage a whole new area of organised crime.
The Government are not new to fostering organised crime. The Roques report entitled "The Collection of Excise Duties in HM Customs and Excise" came out in July 2001, and Mr. John Roques studied the issue in great detail. He pointed out that Customs and Excise had often encouraged the scale of the fraud because, after identifying diversion fraud, it let loads run rather than knocking them. Paragraph 7.5.3 on page 149 is headed "Decisions to allow loads to run" and it states:
"Of the seven cases where substantial investigations took place before the knock,"— in other words, before the intervention occurred—
"it was typically the case that large amounts of revenue were lost after the diversion of alcohol was identified."
The report adds that
"in one case I reviewed, it continued for over a year and in another for over two years. This resulted in a large amount of revenue being lost as a result of loads being allowed to run."
I know that things have improved since, and I am sure that that is what the Economic Secretary will say when he winds up. He will be right; things have improved since. However, we must remember that background.
The Government boast—the Economic Secretary did so in his opening speech—that they are one of the few Governments, if not the only one, to have made a reliable estimate of the amount of fraud that is going on, so it is extraordinary that they have not estimated the amount of fraud that is likely to occur from the introduction of tax stamps. There is consistency in their approach. Perhaps we are being a little unfair on them. The idea that one does not do a proper estimate, that one does not carry out a thorough survey or assessment and does not obtain a thorough understanding of the issues—in the case of tax credits, they knew that something would not work but they introduced it—has been common practice in Government IT projects for many years. The policy is now being extended to other areas.
My hon. Friend Mr. Prisk mentioned the statement that the Chancellor made in April 2002, when he appeared to be against tax stamps. Since then there have been U-turns on everything from student tuition fees to the EU referendum, so it is no surprise that there should be a U-turn on this matter. I hope that the Economic Secretary will consider making another U-turn, and I have a suggestion, which I will put to him later, as to how he might accomplish that manoeuvre slightly more elegantly.
Mrs. Adams made a very powerful speech. I was shocked to hear that 50,000 tax strips can be contained in something the size of a paperback book. If that is not enough incentive for a whole new area of organised crime to develop, I am not sure what is. I do not think that the Treasury has given anything like enough thought to that. We have seen in the case of SIM cards for mobile phones a whole new area of fraud—VAT carousel fraud, for example—because the cards are so small, so portable and so valuable. Exactly the same will happen with tax stamps; instead of stamping out a problem, they are much more likely to make it worse.
Solving the problem of diversion fraud involves a simple issue: full traceability. As the hon. Member for Moray said in his very good speech, there is full traceability now, in the sense that one can identify the precise time at which a bottle of whisky was created in the distillery and track it at every other point in the process. If we can have full traceability for beef and other products, we ought to be able to achieve it for whisky as well. The answer is to head down that route rather than having tax stamps.
The Economic Secretary mentioned the National Audit Office a number of times; indeed, it is fair to say that he prayed it in aid. I do not sit on the Scottish Affairs Committee, but I do sit on the Public Accounts Committee, and when the Committee considered the Customs and Excise standard report on
The Economic Secretary, who was quite fair in quoting the NAO report, said that there are substantial uncertainties inherent in any estimate of spirits fraud. He neglected to say, although I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford may have mentioned this, that there are differences between the two models even when estimates are presented as a range of possibilities. However, the NAO was careful to say in its conclusion that further work was needed by the Office for National Statistics, by Customs and Excise and by the industry, in the form of the Scotch Whisky Association. That point was made briefly in an intervention by my hon. Friend Mr. Clifton-Brown.
There is a way forward for the Economic Secretary. I know that he is a fair man, so I do not think that he could honestly say that he has carried the House with him on this. The Government have quite a reputation for rushing ahead with proposals that are not fully thought out, although the Prime Minister has issued a memo saying that that may be a bad idea. I suggest that rather than doing a humiliating climb-down on this clause now, the Economic Secretary should step back a little. Why, instead of doing a U-turn, does he not do two L-turns? In responding to the debate he should say that the House has clearly not been persuaded, that there are some serious concerns and that we are about to spawn a whole new area of organised crime, so we should work harder with the industry. As the NAO said, further work is needed.
In a few months, the hon. Gentleman should come back to the House, having done all that work, and say, "We have decided that tax stamps are not the way forward," thereby completing the second L-turn. I promise, at least on my own behalf, that if and when he does that, Conservative Members will not crow; we will welcome it as a sensible policy from a Government who, just once, have listened to the debate rather than storming ahead with something that plainly will not work.
I echo the remarks of Mr. Bacon on the importance of recognising that, if the Government came to understand the concerns expressed in the debate, saw that the proposal in clause 4 will not be effective, and decided to take another road, we would constructively welcome that. The purpose of the debate is, after all, to engage with the Government, challenge their proposals and persuade them to come up with better alternatives. There would be no loss of face if the Government decided, at this 11th hour, to make that decision.
In a press release on Monday, the Scotch Whisky Association said:
"We urge members of all parties to reject tax stamps".
That is the advice on the way to go. Of course, we are here to make our own judgment on the issues before us, and the concerns expressed by the Scotch Whisky Association help to inform our decision. We do not have to take its advice, but it should be considered carefully. On the merits of the case made by the Government, the arguments put so far and the issues raised by Members in all parts of the House, it would be sensible for clause 4 not to go forward.
Despite the title of the report from the Scottish Affairs Committee, it is important to recognise that the proposal is for a spirit tax stamp, not a whisky tax stamp. It applies to all spirits throughout the country, not just in Scotland. It is a UK matter. I remember that on Second Reading my hon. Friend Mr. Heath was worried that cider brandy from his constituency would be affected. Kate Hoey highlighted the fact that it would apply to gin, too. Although gin is a London product, much of it comes from Scotland. Spirits bottling is a major industry in Scotland. As whisky must come from Scotland, other spirits have migrated there because of the economies of scale and the production processes.
As a member of the Scottish Affairs Committee in the previous Parliament, I welcome the fact that the Committee has carried on our inquiry into the drinks industry in Scotland. We recognised how important the industry was to Scotland. I welcome the work of the Committee under the chairmanship of Mrs. Adams in producing such a useful document, bringing together the evidence to inform our decision. It would be a recognition of the power of the Committee system in the House if we acknowledged that, on the basis of that extra information, it would be appropriate for clause 4 not to go forward, without the Government losing face.
The Economic Secretary opened the debate with wide-ranging remarks on clause 4, but as several hon. Members pointed out, he did not address the balance of the Treasury's analysis of the reliability of the strip stamp proposal, set against other proposals. The Treasury seems much more able to see the flaws in other proposals than the flaws that must exist in its own proposal. It would make a more convincing case if the Treasury had offered an assessment of the flaws, how those were taken into account, and the net benefit of its proposal. Instead, it seems to be saying, "We'll find out what the flaws are once we've introduced it and tested the ability of the criminal fraternity to work round it." It is more important for legislation to second-guess the criminal fraternity and avoid creating another trap that will only make more legislation necessary in future.
The Economic Secretary dismissed my remark about tachographs. My point was that the key part of the diversion fraud was the lorry not going to the proper destination. The proposals from the Scotch Whisky Association highlighted in proposals 5 and 6 in the Scottish Affairs Committee report focus on the key way of tackling the problem, if the Treasury were truly minded to do so. An audit trail showing the point at which diversion occurs would be the most effective way of preventing it. If the stamps were forged, diversion would still occur—the forged stamps would be put on at the diversion warehouse and the criminals would be back in business.
What I find most disappointing, notwithstanding the extra burdens being imposed on industry, is the potential failure to achieve a solution to a problem identified by the Government and recognised across the House. A voice that seems to be absent from the debate yet again is that of the Department of Trade and Industry. The chamber of commerce recently expressed concern about the Government's failure to deal with the extra burdens of red tape introduced by successive regulations under the present Government. The DTI was somewhat dismissive of those concerns. The DTI was able to convince the Norwegians not to introduce a tax stamp, but does not seem to have succeeded in convincing the Treasury not to do so in this country. That once again calls into question the role of the DTI in making sure the voice of business is heard.
The proposal will affect business at all levels. When we focus on small business, there is a danger that we will not recognise that any extra burden on big business is an economic burden on the economy that should be avoided if at all possible.
During the previous Scottish Affairs Committee inquiry on the drinks industry, we visited bottling plants. When one sees the processes involved in handling the bottles, one recognises that sticking in an extra piece of machinery or function creates a burden that will always be there, and which will slow down the plant and add to costs.
My hon. Friend Mr. Laws made the important point that, if the Government forgo a rise in duty, it does not automatically mean that the money goes back into the industry to cover costs. Price competition means that the duty cut will also go to the consumer. That might increase sales, which would increase turnover and help with profits, but there is no straight correlation between duty forgone and the cost of introducing the stamp.
As many hon. Members have said, small businesses face particular challenges. Smaller bottling plants involve a major capital investment. I hope that the Economic Secretary will outline exactly what the Government mean when they talk about helping small businesses and what level of business they are referring to. My hon. Friend John Thurso spoke about his wife's microbusiness in his constituency. I wanted to address a problem that a small business has raised with me. Let us consider a business in which two bottling production runs occur every year—one every six months—and the product is stored in cases and sold by mail order as and when orders come in. The orders might come from the United Kingdom or from somewhere else; perhaps that would be Scandinavia in the case of the business in question. Somebody who is running a small business that has just been started up and has been going for only a few years will not have made a full assessment of the market.
Under the current system, the spirit will sit in the case waiting to go to market. If it goes to the UK market, the duty will be paid in this country. If it goes abroad, the duty will be paid in the other country. Under the Government's proposals, the stamps can be put on—the duty will be paid up front, even if there is some deferment; in this case, the deferral could last some time—but if the cases go to Sweden, the business must reopen them, rip off the stamps and somehow get a refund for those damaged stamps. Conversely, if there are no stamps on the bottles, the business will have to open the cases and put stamps on the bottles that are going for UK consumption. If such a business were larger, we could argue that it should have a feel for the market, take a few risks and have some cases without stamps and others with them. The whole point of trying to reduce the burden on businesses, however, is to allow them to flourish as effectively as possible in their market. With an unnecessary burden of having to try to assess which cases need stamps and which do not, the growth of the business in question will be undermined.
In the light of all the contributions that have been made, I urge the Government to recognise at this late stage that they have not made the case for the clause. They have certainly focused the mind of the industry on concrete alternatives; perhaps they made clear just how concerned they were about the problem. There may have been a breakdown in dialogue with the industry, but that dialogue is clearly under way again, and the industry is constructively engaged. The Government have certainly brought the issue back on to the agenda. They should not proceed with the clause, and they should re-engage with the industry on all the constructive alternatives, deal with the heart of the problem of diversion fraud, recognise hon. Members' concerns and not impose this extra burden on a very important part of the Scottish economy and the UK drinks industry.
We have had a very full and thorough debate. A number of points have been made, and a number of them have been made several times.
I welcome the affirmation of Mr. Prisk of his party's determination to tackle fraud. I hope that we will see a similar determination in later deliberations on the Bill, when we discuss other types of fraud and tax avoidance. He shares my view that we need to work closely with the industry. We have done just that, and we will do so in future. He described such work as partnership. That partnership is already under way, and it involves not only the spirits producers; the joint alcohol and tobacco consultation group, which I mentioned earlier, includes not only producers, but retailers, hauliers, warehouse keepers, ferry operators and airline companies.
We are ready to work with those who want to work with us to obtain the maximum impact from the system of duty stamps, the minimum impact on legitimate firms, and the best measures to help to deal with the costs for the industry. I give way to the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford, but if members of the Committee will forgive me, I shall then make progress and respond to the points raised in this thorough debate, rather than encouraging further contributions.
We learned in the debate that the potential for fraud involving the strip stamps themselves has not been properly assessed. Given that strip stamps will not reach the streets until 2006–07, will the Economic Secretary commission an assessment of potential fraud involving strip stamps, and publish it for the House to consider before we rise in July?
I am wary of getting into the same pattern as occurred during my opening speech. I am dealing with the points raised in the debate, and if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall deal with his precise question when I get to it.
The hon. Gentleman asked, "Why now?" and Mr. Laws asked, "What has changed since 2002, when the Government last examined the possibility of a tax stamps regime?" Three things have changed. First, estimated spirits fraud has increased. Secondly, our action on other excise regimes has decreased fraud on tobacco, fuel and VAT—spirits is the one area in which fraud is not decreasing. Thirdly, we have worked within Government and with the industry for two years to come up with alternatives to tax stamps that have an equal impact on fraud. Last year, we held a formal consultation on a package of measures that the Government felt might do the job, but the simple fact is that, throughout three years of detailed work, no one has come up with an alternative. If there were a serious alternative to duty stamps that would have a similar impact on fraud, we would take it.
The work that has gone on over the past two or three years can hardly be described as "hasty", as the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford argued. My hon. Friend Mr. Lyons described the measure as a "headlong rush"; my hon. Friend Kate Hoey talked about "rushing proposals through"; and Mr. Bacon accused us of "rushing ahead". Given the detailed work within Government and with the industry over more than two years to find alternatives that measure up to the nature and scale of the fraud, those descriptions are simply wrong.
The hon. Members for Hertford and Stortford and for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) mentioned the position in the United States, as did several other hon. Members in interventions. The US system that governs the sale and movement of excise goods is far less liberal than the systems in the European Union and the United Kingdom. In the US, duty is paid early in the process—essentially, at the factory gate.
Last year's formal and public consultation considered measures radically to tighten up duty suspension arrangements in the UK. The measures would limit, first, duty-suspended movements, thereby reducing opportunities to divert alcohol, and, secondly, how many times alcohol products can be sold while they are in a warehouse, to prevent fraudsters hiding their connection with goods in complex and artificially long supply chains. The industry unanimously rejected both options on proportionality, cost and fair-trading grounds, and because the options' impact on fraud would have been limited. When we examined the industry's representations, carefully reviewed the anti-fraud impact of the proposals, and considered the information that we received during the consultation, we agreed that European Union rules mean that we cannot stop duty free product entering the UK duty free at the port of import. We cannot tighten the system sufficiently to deal with inward diversion fraud to create a system of regulation comparable to that in the United States.
I pay tribute to the balanced comments that my hon. Friend Mrs. Adams made about the Government and the industry. She expressed a strong and moving concern for what she described as the fragile communities in Northern Ireland and in Scotland. That was a feature of the report by the Scottish Affairs Committee, which she so ably chairs. We are paying attention to small bottling plants as well as to small distillers, and we will use her Committee's report as a contribution to that work. She urged us to keep talking to the industry, as we will, and urged the industry to meet the Government halfway, as I hope that it will.
My hon. Friend urged me to keep an open mind on the design of the duty stamps. We are indeed doing so at this stage, as the Bill leaves open the scope for the design of the stamp. We are prepared to consider the options. I have to tell her, however, that incorporating a duty stamp or mark on to the label has several potential flaws. Unlike a strip stamp, it would not be tamper-proof. Moreover, it would raise fresh security and counterfeiting risks, because we would have to entrust the design to all printers of spirits bottle labels. The spirits industry may have differing interests in this respect. For example, the Scotch whisky industry, which exports around 90 per cent. of what it produces, occupies a position in the UK domestic market that is rather different from that of other types of spirit producer.
The hon. Member for Yeovil expressed concern about the potential costs to industry, especially to small producers. We are giving particular attention to that, assisted by formal working groups under the joint alcohol and tobacco consultation group. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall read in full the regulatory impact assessment, which covers many of their concerns. I undertake to keep them, and other hon. Members who have expressed an interest, informed about the development of our plans to deal with compliance costs.
My hon. Friend Mr. Henderson rightly reminded us that the public interest is important and that the public would expect us as a Government to act when they as taxpayers are being cheated. The Public Accounts Committee might also have something to say about that, as it regularly does when it feels that we are not acting strongly enough or soon enough to deal with the collection and protection of duty. Although my hon. Friend did not say so, when he was a full-time official in the GMB he had responsibility for the spirits industry, so he speaks with experience in saying that trade unionists welcome the duty freeze because of the benefits that it brings in terms of costs and jobs in the industry. I share his interest in ensuring that trade union concerns are taken into account as we go forward. The best interests of those who work in the industry must be served by putting in place the most effective scheme with the least possible impact on legitimate firms.
My hon. Friend asked about the fund for capital costs. That is intended to help with start-up costs in the initial period, but we are also concerned about the possibility of recurring annual costs.
I was particularly interested in the doubts that my hon. Friend cast on the approach of the Scottish National party. It seems to me that its interests were made clear in the motion about tax stamps that it tabled in last month's debate in the Scottish Parliament, which stated that
"the Scottish Parliament should be responsible for the setting of all national taxation within Scotland."
It is now clear that the SNP is hijacking the interests of the Scottish spirits industry by turning legitimate concerns into a nationalist campaign on tax independence.
No, I will not.
The Scottish National party is acting in contrast to my hon. Friends, to the Scottish whisky industry and to the Scottish Executive, who recognise that we have looked hard at all the alternatives over three years with the industry—which recognises that we must, and will, act to deal with fraud—and that the best interests of the industry will now be best served by detailed work between the Government and the industry on implementing the new system in the most effective way.
I would say to Mr. Duncan that we do indeed have support for these plans from the retail sector, whose legitimate traders are threatened by spirits fraud. Let me also make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that I have not been looking for interest groups to come up with support for duty stamps. I have been looking for them to come up with serious alternatives, which they have not been able to do.
I understand the hon. Gentleman's argument about the essence of the Scotch whisky industry residing in small producers such as Mr. Armstrong in his constituency. If he would like to give me the details of the circumstances of Mr. Armstrong's firm, I will ensure that they are included in the consideration we give to the position of small firms as we examine the appropriate measures to deal with compliance costs.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned security, as did the hon. Members for Yeovil and for South Norfolk, and my hon. Friends the Members for Newcastle upon Tyne, North and for Paisley, North. As we have said, the contract that we shall award for the printing and distribution of duty stamps will incorporate a requirement for secure, timely delivery. We have also said that we shall look at ways of helping the industry with any costs associated with the secure storage of duty stamps. We shall be discussing precisely those issues and developing options with industry representatives in the coming weeks and months.
My hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden asked about the traceability of barcodes and lot numbers. I should like to explain to him and to the hon. Member for South Norfolk why we do not have fully traceability, and why those codes and numbers do not at present promise to be the alternative to duty stamps that they seek. The industry's proposal to use barcoding technology was considered as an alternative to tax stamps but, as the industry and the Select Committee recognised, it is not yet sufficiently advanced, in terms of its use in the spirits industry or of the barcodes including sufficient information, to be beneficial in the anti-fraud effort. Any potential benefits, including improved tracking and tracing, are unlikely to be widely realised until well beyond 2006.
Let us be clear that a lot number on a bottle of spirit will allow a UK distiller or bottler to identify the production run from whence it came. In reality, however, the lot number will identify only a series of customers, and it is often impossible to identify with any confidence a single customer from a long production run. Even if a customer can be identified, they are likely to be only the first step in a long supply chain. So a customer, especially a large concern, will find it even more difficult to identify with any certainty the subsequent customer, and so on.
Furthermore, the lot number is not required to be carried on the accompanying administrative documentation, the specifications for which are set not by the UK Government but by the European Commission in the European Union. Once the deliveries are moved and split beyond the first customer, therefore, it becomes very difficult if not almost impossible to track them simply by using the lot number. That is the problem with the audit trail in the current arrangements and with the trade's alternatives that Sir Robert Smith asked about.
I shall turn to the serious threat posed by counterfeiting that my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden outlined so eloquently. The issue was also raised by the hon. Members for Moray (Angus Robertson), for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale, for Argyll and Bute and for South Norfolk. I say very bluntly that the simple fact is that we cannot make robust and reliable estimates of the potential for counterfeiting while many of the detailed design features remain open. Were we to choose the approach adopted by Ukraine, which we will not, clearly, the risk and level of potential counterfeiting would be different from what would occur were we to choose the approach adopted by Hungary. The detailed design features remain open because tax stamps are still two years away, and we intend to make the maximum use of the time available to get the design right. They also remain open because the spirits industry specifically asked us, if tax stamps went ahead, not to be too prescriptive at this stage. If, at this point, we had imposed the Government's prescription, if we had one, Opposition Members would rightly be criticising us for it.
I thank the hon. Member for Moray for his generous opening comments, although I realised when he made them that they were too good to last. He and the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine spoke about the advice given by the British Government to Norway. The hon. Member for Moray referred to that advice being given three years ago, but that advice was given seven years ago, in March 1997, and while I stand accountable for many facets and features of the duty stamp system, I will not be held responsible for the views of the previous Government.
The hon. Member for Moray also spoke about the First Minister. He said rightly and understandably that he was "disappointed" with the decision announced by the Chancellor in the Budget to press ahead with duty stamps. What he did not say was that the First Minister made it clear in the Scottish Parliament that
"The job of the industry and the British Government now is to ensure that the proposals are implemented in a way that is most effective and that will have the least impact on productivity and competitiveness."—[Scottish Parliament Official Report,
That is what we are doing, what the industry is doing, and what Labour Members, who have the best interests of the Scottish whisky and spirits industry at heart, are doing.
The hon. Member for Moray made it clear that he plans to vote against duty stamps. I say to him, as I said earlier, that those who oppose tax stamps have a duty to propose an alternative that will have an equal impact on the fraud. He has not done so, the industry has not done so, and the time has passed when we can put off serious action any longer.
My hon. Friend Mr. McFall has taken an active interest in these plans, both as chairman of the all-party Scotch whisky group and as Chairman of the Treasury Committee. To his credit, he has proved a formidable advocate for the Scotch Whisky Association, and skilled in dealing with many of the industry's interests, as he demonstrated in relation to what I might call the recent pure malt problem. I assure him that I take his concerns seriously. I was interested in the letter that he read out from the chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association, Gavin Hewitt. I understand that he says that he is convinced that the proposal is a mistake, but it is highly significant that he said "I recognise the reality of the Chancellor's decision and affirm the commitment of the industry to work with the Government." That is the lead taken by the industry and by my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Treasury Committee, and it is the lead that I urge my hon. Friends to follow, not that of the hon. Member for Moray or the Scottish National party.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton also mentioned the criticism that Customs and Excise had given no clear details to the industry about the offsets and deferment arrangements. That was raised several times by Members who are keen to see more detail of the plans. Customs and Excise provided a series of discussion papers to the industry on
My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall sought reassurances on the provision we shall make to support the industry. I did not see her in the Chamber when I made my opening statement, but I dealt with many of the issues she raised. I should welcome details of the small organic spirits producer in her constituency, and the problems it envisages with the potential compliance costs. If my hon. Friend wishes to contact me, I invite her to do so.
Duty stamps are necessary and proportionate, and will constitute an effective response to what are high levels of spirit fraud—levels which, according to anyone's estimate, are cheating the Exchequer and the taxpayer of hundreds of millions of pounds a year. I believe that we have made the case for clause 4 and schedule 1, and I hope the Committee will now give us the support that we need.