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Amendment of the Law

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:27 pm on 24th March 2011.

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Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills 2:27 pm, 24th March 2011

We are sticking very firmly with plan A, because plan A is right. The hon. Gentleman will know that flexibility is built into economic management, primarily through monetary policy, and that is the mix that we will continue.

The shadow Chancellor is right. There is of course concern about a squeeze on people’s living standards, and we are concerned about that no less than he is. The Chancellor has tried to alleviate the problem through action on fuel duty and by lifting the income tax threshold. I would like to spend a few moments looking at the two proposals that the shadow Chancellor has made—he has repeated them today—to deal with the problem. The first proposal turned out to be illegal under European Union law. Like me, he is a good European—we would both like to observe European Union law—and to change that law would have taken roughly five years, which will not provide much relief.

After the fiasco of the shadow Chancellor’s “VAT relief on petrol” idea, his other big idea, which he elaborated on today, was to finance jobs through the tax on bank bonuses. I remind him that he and I have some form on this issue. When the last Government were in power, I was critical of the idea of taxing bank bonuses as I did not think it would work. It is to the credit of the former Chancellor that, through his ingenuity, he made it work. In the year in which the measure operated, he raised £2.5 billion—not the £3.5 billion that is often cited, because that takes no account of the offset in corporation tax. Because of his skill in making the bonus tax work, we have to listen to his advice when he says:

“I think it will be a one-off thing because, frankly, the very people you are after here are very good at getting out of these things and…find all sorts of imaginative ways of avoiding it in…future”.

He has counselled very strongly against a repeat of the bonus tax. He was—to use the word—wise.

There is another reason why I am surprised that the shadow Chancellor has returned to the bonus tax issue. He may remember that back in 2006, when he was the City Minister, a big debate opened in the Labour party when Bob Diamond was having one of his early years of extremely generous bonuses. The deputy leader of the Labour party declared “war” on “fat City bonuses”. She was promptly slapped down by the then City Minister, who reminded us that such pay-outs were good for tax revenues and for job creation. In that particular Labour party debate, I was very much on the side of the deputy leader.

If the previous Government are serious about taxing banks, why did they allow a situation to arise in which only two of the 15 major banks had in place an agreement to stop large-scale tax avoidance? We have now stopped it. Every single bank is now covered by the HMRC code on tax avoidance. Additionally, we have put in place the levy on banks’ balance sheets, raising £10 billion, which is four times as much as the one-off bonus tax would have raised.