New Clause 2 — Rate of VAT

Finance (No. 2) Bill – in the House of Commons at 1:42 pm on 18th April 2013.

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‘(1) In section 2(1) of the Value Added Tax Act 1994 (Rate of VAT) for “20 per cent” substitute “17.5 per cent”.

(2) Subsection (1) shall have effect from Royal Assent and shall expire at such time as the Government presents to Parliament a report stating that the UK economy has returned to strong growth.’.—(Cathy Jamieson.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Labour, Lanark and Hamilton East

I call Catherine Jamieson to move the motion.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Thank you, Mr Hood, for using my full name. My mother will be most impressed, as she is the only other person on the planet who addresses me as “Catherine”, rather than Cathy. She will be delighted.

I am sure that many Government Members are interested in the rate of VAT and perhaps rather relieved that they are not in the same frenzy over it that they were when we debated the Finance Bill this time last year. I see some hon. Members agreeing, because I think that we all learned far more than we ever wanted to about ambient temperatures, pasties and the impact of the VAT proposals on not only hot food, but caravans, churches, sports nutrition products and so on. Perhaps Government Members will be more relieved to talk about our VAT proposals.

We have tabled new clause 2 because, as has been said in earlier debates, we have concerns about the rising cost of living and its impact on ordinary people. In the last debate we heard many passionate speeches from Opposition Members, particularly on how the rising cost of living is impacting on their constituents, and I was struck by the number of Members who referred to constituents having to rely more and more on food banks. Having moved on from the debate on hot food, it is sad that we are now talking about more people having to rely on food handouts. Those handouts, of course, show the generosity of many people in our local communities, and I applaud them for the work they are doing, but surely in this day and age people should not have to rely on such initiatives.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham 1:45 pm, 18th April 2013

Can the hon. Lady tell me her definition of the “strong growth” that her new clause says would trigger VAT being put up again?

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Given that I have not really got under way with all the details of the new clause, I will come to those points later. However, I will say that one thing we know is that the Office for Budget Responsibility has halved the growth forecast for this year and downgraded it again for next year, so we are not in a situation of strong growth. The Government really have to take responsibility for that, because since the Chancellor’s spending review in 2010 the UK economy has grown by just 0.7%, compared with the 5.3% forecast at the time. I do not think that anyone could suggest that that was particularly successful. Last year, of course, the UK went through a double-dip recession and the economy shrank by 0.3% in the last quarter.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

The hon. Lady is quite right that growth has been very disappointing and that the forecasts have been revised downwards, but we are debating her policy, which is that VAT should go up again when the UK economy returns to “strong growth.” It is a very simple question: can she tell us what strong growth would trigger an increase in VAT?

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Shadow Minister (Treasury)

As I have indicated to the right hon. Gentleman, whose views I listen to and who always raises pertinent questions, I will come to that, but the Government must also take responsibility for, as we heard in the previous debate, trying to give all sorts of reasons why the economy has not recovered. As my hon. Friend Catherine McKinnell suggested, we were surprised to hear that the latest reason given seems to be the issue of the 50p tax rate, rather than looking at the situation in the round. I want to talk a little more about some of the issues that the economy currently faces and why we think our proposal is one way of stimulating the economy and looking to the future in order to help local businesses.

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie SNP Chief Whip, SNP Deputy Leader, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

I am broadly sympathetic to the proposal, which could stimulate the economy significantly, but VAT brings in about £100 billion a year, so the question Mr Redwood asks is valid. Does “strong growth” mean consistently positive growth and, if so, at what level and for how long, or would it require a return to trend growth of about 2.5% and, if so, for how long, or would it require above-trend growth and, if so, for how long? To have an open-ended commitment to lose potentially £10 million a year for some years would be quite a serious and significant thing, irrespective of the positive impact it might have.

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Labour, Lanark and Hamilton East

Order. I say to the hon. Gentleman, in case he is going to make any further interventions, that he should make them a bit shorter and get straight to the point.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I am interested to hear that the hon. Gentleman has some sympathy with our proposal—I suspect that we might not have the same agreement over some of the other issues up for debate today. He raises important issues. That is why, through new clause 2, we want to ensure that a report would be produced. We are calling on the Government to do that now, rather than put it off into the future. The Government could put in place monitoring measures now; that would allow for a temporary VAT cut, which would help stimulate the economy.

Borrowing to pay for the cost of economic failure has risen—it is now forecast to be £245 billion more than planned at the time of the spending review. That, of course, excludes the one-off transfers of the Royal Mail pension fund and asset purchase facilities. The Government are not going to balance the books by 2015 as the Prime Minister promised. National debt as a percentage of GDP is not now forecast to start falling until 2017-18. It is important to remember that, as it breaks one of the Government’s own fiscal rules.

As this week’s labour market statistics show, halfway through a Parliament, Britain is still being scarred by rising unemployment, an issue raised in earlier debates by many hon. Members, who brought attention to what was happening in their constituencies in the real world.

Not only are more people unemployed than at the election, but the number is rising. Earlier, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North referred to the rising numbers: 70,000 more people are on the dole now than last month; long-term unemployment has risen yet again; and, most damagingly of all, the next generation is paying the brutal price, with youth unemployment up yet again, by 20,000.

People are no longer giving the Chancellor the benefit of the doubt. I think I said that about this time during last year’s debate; I felt that at that stage the public were beginning to lose confidence in the Chancellor’s economic strategy. This week, we have to take note of what the International Monetary Fund’s chief economist said:

“In the face of very weak private demand, it may be time to consider adjusting the original fiscal consolidation plan”.

Photo of Stewart Jackson Stewart Jackson Conservative, Peterborough

I am following the hon. Lady’s speech with interest and read the new clause with greater interest. She really has not addressed the issue raised by Stewart Hosie. The new clause represents a spending commitment. Given that she is not able to specify what “strong growth” means, how will she fill the fiscal gap? Will she increase another tax, and if so which one? Alternatively, which departmental budget would be cut to pay for the measure?

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. We argue that the new clause would be part of a package of measures. We have heard about other initiatives that could be brought forward, and it is important to recognise that others in industry and business are also saying that one way to stimulate the economy would be to introduce at least a temporary cut in VAT. There are serious questions to be asked about the other issues, but if we could get unanimity about this issue, it might be possible for the Government to consider it and bring forward further proposals.

In the Budget, the Government had the opportunity to change course, make the necessary changes and kick-start the economy. Sadly, however, more and more commentators are reflecting that all we got was more of the same from the downgraded Chancellor. As a result, the cost of living for people up and down the country is rising day by day. The economy is flatlining, inflation remains high and food bills are rising. Energy bills are soaring, thanks to the Government’s failure to break the stranglehold of the big six energy companies. The Office for Budget Responsibility’s most recent figures show that people will be worse off in 2015 than when the Government came to office.

The reality for people is that real wages are now £17,000 a year smaller than they were in 2010. To add to that hardship, any benefit that hard-working people might have received from the Government’s much trumpeted rise in the personal allowance has been uniformly swept aside by the raft of tax and benefit changes that the Government have made since 2010. Those changes mean that families will be an average of £891 worse off in the new financial year, according to the analysis of figures made by the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies—even more money out of the pockets of hard-working people up and down the country.

The truth is that even if those tax and benefit changes had never happened, any benefit from the rise of the personal allowance would have been wiped out by the Government’s 2011 VAT rise from 17.5% to 20% alone. Research from the TUC confirms that by the time of the next election, families of all incomes will lose more from the VAT rise than they will gain from the increase in the personal allowance and the changes to national insurance, with low paid workers losing up to four times more per year from the Government’s increase in VAT than they will gain from the raising of the personal tax allowance to £10,000.

Photo of Neil Parish Neil Parish Conservative, Tiverton and Honiton

I understand that times are tough, partly because we have to try to bring the economy together after the last Labour Government. The hon. Lady said that individuals are £17,000 worse off than they were. I cannot understand that. Has she added on too many noughts, or what?

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I intended to say £1,700; if I said £17,000, I apologise. Obviously, Mr Hood, I need to put my spectacles on when I read the numbers. I am glad that Neil Parish is accepting my apology.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I want to make a bit more progress. I come back to the point raised by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton about times being hard and the idea that somehow the problem is to clear up the mess left behind, as the hon. Gentleman described it. People out there in the real world are getting tired of hearing that same old mantra. The Government have responsibility for what is happening now. They have to take responsibility for policy decisions taken in Budgets that impact on the lives of ordinary people.

I go back to the research from the TUC. Some Government Members may look sceptical about it, but I assure them that many ordinary people in my constituency and those of my hon. Friends recognise the value of the work that the TUC and trade unions are doing in standing up for those finding that their individual and collective incomes are being affected.

The TUC research considers the impact of direct and indirect tax changes over the Parliament. It shows that a household with an average weekly income of £195.92, the lowest income band for working people, will gain £1.09 a week—that figure is underlined, so I have not made an error—from the above-inflation rise in the personal allowance by 2015. However, and importantly, the same family will lose £4.26 a week through the increase in VAT, which went up in January 2011, leaving them with a total annual loss of £164.84 as a result of the Government’s tax policy.

Many on the Government Benches may say, “Well, that is not a huge amount.” I repeat what I have said in previous debates: it may not be a huge amount for someone with a decent job and income—I include all of us here in that—but it is a huge amount for those trying to have a reasonable standard of living and ensure that their families have food on the table and that their kids have clothes.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I give way first to the hon. Gentleman and then to my hon. Friend.

Photo of Stewart Jackson Stewart Jackson Conservative, Peterborough

The hon. Lady is being most generous in giving way. Surely it is churlish of her not to concede that most independent specialists, such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies, have said that as a result of the fiscal changes since 2010 the biggest impact has been felt among the richest 10% of earners in the country. Is it not fair to put that on the record, too?

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I hope I am not being churlish in hoping that the hon. Gentleman will understand that most of those independent commentators also point to what is happening to those on the lowest incomes.

Opposition Members feel strongly that those people are taking a disproportionate share. It is not a case of, “We’re all in it together.” When ordinary people see millionaires and those on the highest incomes getting a tax break or a tax cut, it seems unfair to them that their wages or incomes are hit hard by the Government’s policies.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I will take my hon. Friend’s intervention before I forget about him.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Health)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to call for an assessment of the cost of living. Does she accept, though, that it should not be restricted to the impact of the fiscal changes announced in the Budget but should look more widely at the effect on families of expenses such as increasing fuel prices, increasing transport costs, and interest payments on payday loans?

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Shadow Minister (Treasury) 2:00 pm, 18th April 2013

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. So that I cannot be accused of being churlish, let me say that we did welcome the action taken on fuel duty, but if VAT were reduced, as we are suggesting, that would provide a further reduction in fuel costs, which would make a difference to families.

My hon. Friend mentioned payday loans. Many people will be hard hit, with not only those out of work but those in work now finding it much more difficult to manage from month to month. The worry is that many more might feel the need to try to get such loans, believing that they will help but finding themselves further caught in a downward spiral. This is a very serious problem. In my constituency in the past couple of weeks, I have heard about people in that situation, which will be very familiar to other hon. Members. Perhaps equally worryingly, I have heard people say that they fear the impact of the bedroom tax will mean that, for the very first time, they might have to rely on food banks. The saddest aspect is that many of them will not be able to do that over an extended period because food banks are supposed to deal with the crisis points rather than sustaining people, and perhaps folk have not yet fully understood that. They are clutching at any hope to try to maintain their standard of living. James Plunkett, the director of policy at the Resolution Foundation, has stated:

“The squeeze will look worse over the next few years than previously feared”.

With all that going on, it is no wonder that working people feel that their lives are going backwards, because they are.

All this has had an undeniable and damaging knock-on impact on our economy and on our high streets and businesses up and down the country. That is why, for over a year and a half, Labour has been calling on the Government temporarily to reverse VAT back down to 17.5%. That would put about £450 back into the pockets of a couple with children, help to ease the squeeze on our constituents, and give our economy a much-needed stimulus. That is why we are calling for it again today. When consumers have less cash in their pockets, our high streets, local businesses and economy suffer. These are tough times for businesses.

Photo of Iain McKenzie Iain McKenzie Labour, Inverclyde

My hon. Friend has noted a number of ways in which people are suffering up and down the country. Does she agree that society suffers the most when the gap widens between rich and poor, that we are now seeing it stretched to the absolute limit, and that the Government either do not recognise that or choose not to do so?

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Shadow Minister (Treasury)

My hon. Friend is a powerful advocate for the people in his constituency who are bearing the brunt of the Government’s policies, and he is absolutely right. It is important that there is no further widening of that gap. This is not just about the money in people’s pockets, important though that is, but the fabric of society and the relationships that people build in their local communities.

It is important to consider the impact on our high streets. For generations, local businesses have offered jobs and the convenience of shopping in the local high street, and have been involved in providing services there. They are now under pressure from the flatlining economy. Consumer spending has been constrained by high inflation and stagnant wages, leading to a 6% fall in real disposable income in 2008, with a devastating impact on our local high streets. Shops are lying empty, with a threefold increase in that trend since 2008. Household names such as HMV, JJB Sports, Blockbusters and Comet have been forced to close a large number of stores or to shut up shop completely. It is estimated that last year 1,800 shops were forced to close—a staggering tenfold increase on the year before. We have heard about the impact on the pub industry, and there has been a call for the VAT rate to be considered in that context.

Not only is retail suffering, but businesses of all kinds up and down the country are feeling the impact of the Government’s failed economic policies and the flatlining economy. That has led, and is still leading, to a lack of confidence, particularly in the construction sector, with many arguing that more must be done to get people back to work and to get projects under way. Sadly, Project Merlin did not deliver the new era of loans that it was supposed to. We learned this week that lending to UK businesses fell by £2 billion in December alone, and it is down by £18.6 billion over the past year, while businesses continue to suffer. The Business Secretary seems perhaps finally to be recognising this failure. He boasted at his party conference that he would set up a Government-backed bank to get billions of pounds to businesses that need it, but we are still awaiting the fine detail of what that bank will do and when and how businesses will be helped. They may well have to wait some time for it to be up and running.

I shall draw my remarks to a conclusion because I want to give other hon. Members the opportunity to raise issues on behalf of their constituents and put the case to the Government. There are things we can do to help businesses and individuals through these tough times. We could reform the funding for lending scheme so that banks can access the lowest rates of funding only if they increase lending to businesses as well as overall lending, and extend it beyond the end of 2013, as currently envisaged by the Government, to the end of 2014. Let us do what every other G8 economy has done and set up a state-backed investment institution to provide credit to small businesses where others will not by establishing a proper British investment bank. As we have argued, that could be done through a new network of regional banks like the German Sparkassen. That would also help to return SMEs to a local relationship with banking, with managers who know what is needed on the ground and have the discretion to make local lending decisions. Regional banks are committed to their regions and in touch with local business. We have called for, and will continue to call for, the Government to bring forward these measures to help boost our businesses and get our economy moving again.

Even if the Government accepted all those proposals and they were acted on today, the benefits would take some time to come to the fore and to be felt. However, the one step we could take now that would immediately make a difference would be for the Government to agree to reduce VAT to 17.5% to put money back into the pockets of hard-working people and give a stimulus to local economies. That would put something back into the pot to help the local businesses we have talked about, whether by reducing fuel costs or stimulating the economy such that people feel that they are able to spend again. We need to get consumers back out there spending their money, supporting our high streets and businesses, and helping our economy to grow again. It is for the Government to explain to the people of the UK why they will not listen to the arguments that have been advanced and are not prepared to take this action as a stimulus to the economy and to help to get things moving again.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

The proposed new clause is designed to stimulate strong growth, which I suspect everyone in this House would welcome. I trust that the Government are in the market for ideas that would stimulate strong growth, but my sad conclusion is that a sudden cut in VAT of undefined duration is neither a sufficient condition for stimulating strong growth in the economy nor even a necessary precondition of such stimulation.

We have to ask what the alternative is to the Opposition’s recommendation, which we all agree is well-intended because they wish to see strong growth. I submit that the prime thing the Government need to do to raise the growth rate and get over this period of extremely disappointing performance is mend the banks. It is surprising that the official forecasters at the Office for Budget Responsibility thought there would be strong growth over the past three years, because they knew that the official policy on the Royal Bank of Scotland, which is largely state owned, was to push the bank through the most enormous slim-down, a continuation of the policy begun in 2008 when it was largely acquired by the state under the previous Government.

So far, £900 billion of assets and liabilities have been removed from RBS’s £2.2 trillion balance sheet since the state foolishly took them on. How can we expect the British economy to grow rapidly when its leading bank is going through a forced slimming programme of £900 billion? This is big money, even for a £1.5 trillion economy. We spend most of our time in this place discussing the odd £5 billion or £10 billion—we are now billionaires in our discussions rather than millionaires— but these figures have very little overall impact on a £1.5 trillion economy, whereas £900 billion is eye-poppingly large. We have to deal in trillions now if we want to see the things that really make a difference to the economy. I submit that the main reason why our economy is not growing rapidly is that the banks, led by RBS and abetted by HBOS, have been on a very sharp slimming programme. It is true that some of those assets were foreign and a lot of them were derivatives and so on, but overall, this massive slimming programme has clearly placed enormous pressure on the UK economy.

In addition, this place, as part of the political debate, has discovered that bankers are even more unpopular than politicians, so it has taken great delight in trying to do as much damage as possible to the banking industry. I understand that the banking industry did not do well for itself—I am enough of a politician to realise the politics of all this—but if we target one of our biggest and most successful industries of the previous decade and force it into slimming down measures and tax it more, we should expect a drop in output, and that is what has happened. One of the reasons why we do not have much growth in this country is that our lead sector of the previous decade has taken such a big hit and is now so politically unpopular that pressures remain to prevent it from growing and recovering as some of us would like.

A third area that has caused considerable problems is oil and gas. We cannot legislate to change the age profile of our reservoirs, many of which have aged a lot recently in terms of the amount of oil and gas left to exploit. There are arguments about other tax policies we could pursue to stimulate more finds and exploitation, but some of the big, successful reservoirs of previous years are now ageing, so whoever was running the country was going to experience a reduction in output from another of our high-value-added sectors—oil and gas—and that was bound to hit the growth rate.

What more can we do to overcome those difficulties in two of our lead sectors? Tax measures proposed by other clauses that we will discuss later could be helpful. Broadly speaking, the lower the tax rate, the better from the point of view of stimulating growth, and there have been some measures in the right direction.

The problem with the proposed new clause’s VAT measure is that it is so expensive and I do not think we would get a big enough return for the colossal loss of revenue that it would cause. We have already heard an estimate of about £10 billion, but the Labour Opposition have given us no figures whatsoever. They have not told us how much it would cost, how long it would be a concessionary rate and on what conditions they would return to the new rate. That weakens their case, because if they wish to make this a serious policy, they need to cost it and explain by how much the deficit would rise in the early stages and at what point the growth would accelerate enough to start to generate serious revenues from increased activity.

The evidence seems to be that, whereas it is possible to do serious damage to the revenues generated by income tax and capital gains tax if the rates are put up too much—I fear that that is what has happened under the Labour and coalition Governments in recent years—it is more difficult to depress the revenues of VAT. Indeed, the increase from 17.5% to 20% actually produced some increase in revenue, despite the poor performance of the economy, so the argument that cutting the rate generates more revenue—economists call it the Laffer curve argument—does not apply in the same way as it does to taxes geared towards gains and income, whereby more realistic rates would do two good things, namely generate more growth and, therefore, more tax revenue. I fear that the problem with the VAT proposal is that this short-term measure would definitely increase the deficit and that the stimulus from VAT would not be sufficient to replace the lost revenue in any serious period of time over which this experiment might be tried.

Meanwhile, the banks would still underperform, unless we changed regulatory policy towards them, and we would still be under-banked, because I do not believe there is enough banking capacity to fuel a proper domestic recovery and we do not have enough competition in the banking sector so we do not have choice or good value offers. People still tell me that if they try to get certain kinds of lending for business or for property, the answer is either no, or yes, but at an incredibly high cost with all sorts of restrictions and difficulties that make it unattractive.

If we tried to promote growth against the background of some of our primary export markets on the continent collapsing as a result of the foolish euro policy and the extreme austerity policies that are doing so much damage to the continent, we would need to be extremely clever in offsetting the additional headwind caused by that collapse. If we tried to promote growth against the background of major difficulties in our banking sector, we would need to ask ourselves how we can mend that sector, first to finance a better recovery and secondly because one of the main reasons why the output figures are so poor is that the banking sector itself—one of our best performing sectors—is now doing so badly.

I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench to turn their attention to the central issue that the Opposition have rightly highlighted. I know that the Government are doing that, but I want them to look at splitting up RBS and creating banking competition in the market so that we can finance a better recovery and get some growth in output from the banking sector at the same time. They need to focus on tax rate cuts that would produce more revenue rather than those that would produce less. Although we would like lower taxes, we cannot afford less revenue and the Opposition have hit upon the one tax reduction that would produce less revenue, as I think all forecasts would rightly show. I trust that the Opposition’s good intentions will be welcomed, but that their proposal will be dismissed, because I simply do not think that it would trigger the fast growth that they want and that they have not even bothered to define.

Photo of Albert Owen Albert Owen Labour, Ynys Môn 2:15 pm, 18th April 2013

I always listen with interest to what Mr Redwood has to say in these debates and he has been very consistent about low taxation over a number of years. I agree with him that external factors such as banking and energy costs are suppressing growth in our country, but I also think that the domestic economy needs a boost and he did not offer any solutions. Small businesses on our high streets are all asking for help from the Government and I believe that the proposed new clause would help them. Money is being taken out of the economy at a time when we need to be putting money back into it.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair criticism of my remarks, but to stay in order I did not mention the changes to energy policy necessary to have cheaper energy or the changes to other taxes that I would like implemented to boost to the economy.

Photo of Albert Owen Albert Owen Labour, Ynys Môn

As a member of the Energy and Climate Change Committee, I understand the difficulties. I realise that one of the major problems—the price of crude oil and gas—is external and that we could have a wider debate about that, but I am talking specifically about the need to boost the domestic economy.

Small businesses tell me that high street names are folding, first, because they have tight margins, and secondly because, although footfall might be steady, people are spending less money. The 2.5% increase in VAT is making a real difference and taking money out of people’s pockets. I support raising personal income tax thresholds as a way of helping the low-paid, but it can have no impact if cancelled out by a VAT increase. That is what business tells us. A small business leader in my area makes a little joke about the Chancellor: every time that that business leader goes out with his wife, daughter and son-in-law, he has to take the Chancellor with him, because one-fifth of the bill is shared with him. That is not a good state of affairs. If business people are starting to think like that, it means that confidence has been eroded. One way of providing the necessary boost to confidence in the domestic market would be to reduce VAT temporarily.

Those are not just my words; they were also the words of the Prime Minister before the general election, when he said that VAT was a regressive tax, which it is. I am in full agreement with him. The Deputy Prime Minister—there are not many Liberal Democrats here today—said that putting up VAT during a recession would be a bombshell for the economy, yet that is exactly what the Government have done. I have argued consistently for keeping VAT, which is a regressive tax, as low as possible in order to stimulate the economy.

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker Conservative, Worcester

I admire the hon. Gentleman’s consistency, but does he accept that this was a matter of debate during the general election because the then Labour Chancellor was clearly preparing to raise VAT to 20%, as he has subsequently admitted? It is wrong to imply that his party has been as consistent as him.

Photo of Albert Owen Albert Owen Labour, Ynys Môn

That argument is completely wrong. It might be Conservative central office’s take on it. The previous Chancellor suggested a VAT rise, but was outvoted by the Cabinet. He was just one individual. The current Prime Minister, however, was clear that he would not put it up, but then did. The hon. Gentleman cannot accuse the previous Chancellor of making an argument and then blame the last Government for not listening to him. It was the leader of the Conservative party, now the Prime Minister, who turned circles on this issue.

This regressive taxation hits the most vulnerable in our society. According to the Office for National Statistics, 9.7% of the money the poorest 20% spend goes on VAT, and they spend more on VATable goods than the richest 20%, for whom that figure is 5.8%. It is an unfair tax, as well as one that takes money out of the economy.

The Conservatives have been consistent in shifting from direct to indirect personal taxation. It was Anthony Barber who introduced VAT, at 10% I think, and a later Chancellor, in 1979, who raised it from 8% to 15%, which had a negative effect for many years. In 1984, it went up to 17.5%. As I said, in opposition, the Conservatives said that they would not do this, yet it was one of the first things they did. They are not getting the revenue yield they expected, because the economy is in such dire straits—it is stagnating, in many ways. My hon. Friend Cathy Jamieson talked about wage freezes and other impacts of Government policy. With a policy of reducing VAT, the Government could actually do something, instead of blaming the previous Government, the European Union or other external factors. Here is an opportunity for them to use one of the levers of power at their disposal.

I hope that the Liberal Democrats will support us. They have made such a big issue of it in the past. There is only one Liberal Democrat here today, Mike Thornton, but I would be happy to take an intervention from him, if he feels as strongly as his party did—not him personally—before the general election. It is a big issue. I talk to small businesses, and they tell me that the rate of VAT is having a negative impact on their businesses. Everyone in the House wants to stimulate the economy, and here is a way of doing it relatively quickly.

There is evidence that along with other measures—it cannot be seen in isolation—the previous Government’s VAT reduction from 17.5% to 15% actually helped the economy at a difficult time. The car scrappage and other short-term schemes were also introduced to boost the economy. The Government should be considering those sorts of things, rather than just blaming others. The economy is at a difficult juncture. Unemployment is rising again, after temporarily falling: 2.54 million people are on the dole—that is mass unemployment—and are not spending. Helping them, with their small incomes, by reducing VAT would have a big impact on the economy. The way forward is to create more jobs and get them back to work.

The Government have said—I am sure that the Minister will clarify this matter—that it is not possible to reduce VAT, but that is not the case. I have heard them mention on numerous occasions a mechanism by which Europe can prevent them from reducing VAT, but it could be done as a temporary measure. There are also many variations, zero-rating exemptions and concessions that could be applied to VAT.

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke The Exchequer Secretary

I want to help the hon. Gentleman on this point. There is flexibility when it comes to reducing the rate, but the difficulty is that if one plucks a particular item, such as petrol, and reduces VAT on that alone, as his party advocated, it would need to be consistent with the VAT directives and that would require a derogation, which would take some years. The concerns we raised related to the ill-thought-out specific proposal that those on his party’s Front Bench put forward a year or so ago.

Photo of Albert Owen Albert Owen Labour, Ynys Môn

I am grateful for that clarification. I recall that Labour Front Benchers said at the time that the proposal was specific to one thing, but this is a flexible measure. We can exempt certain goods from it. Yes, there are the European directives, but we could do this immediately and in doing so send out a positive message to the country and the business community and increase footfall in our shops and high streets.

The argument about reducing tax and increasing yields is perfectly legitimate. Some say that reducing corporation tax automatically boosts business, but it also results in a drop-off in the money that the Treasury takes. Nevertheless, it seems to be a favourite of the Conservatives, and I, too, support it. I support having a low-tax economy and reducing many of these taxes, but we should be consistent and do the same with VAT. The increase in it was supposed to raise several billions of pounds, but it has failed to do so because spending has fallen.

I support the proposal to reduce VAT. Action is need and needed now. The Chancellor could do it, and if he wanted to, he could do it straightaway. I accept that the poorest in the country, on the lowest wages, will benefit from the change to income tax thresholds, but they will lose out overall. The TUC is not alone in making this point. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that the combined tax increases, of which there have been several, both direct and indirect, will make the average family £900 worse off. If families are worse off in this country, spending is reduced and the economy is bound to contract. That is basic economics. We need to stimulate the economy, and one way of doing it correctly is to reduce VAT temporarily from 20% to 17.5%. Let us get the economy moving. The Chancellor has the power to do it, and he should support the new clause.

Photo of Stewart Jackson Stewart Jackson Conservative, Peterborough

It is always a pleasure to follow Albert Owen. I am not sure that it is necessarily a pleasure for the Whips, because the Committee will know that in the last Budget I was not exactly that supportive of my party on VAT, having opposed VAT on caravans and, by virtue of my being the Member of Parliament for Peterborough, on ecclesiastical buildings.

I would like to develop some of the points made by my right hon. Friend Mr Redwood, although I am hesitant to do so, given his expertise. We are debating an Opposition amendment, which I had hoped would be a coherent alternative to the Government’s Budget and this Finance Bill. However, we do not see that clear and coherent alternative, not least because those on the Opposition Front Bench have not really taken into account the externalities that my right hon. Friend touched on. He has forgotten more than I will ever know about the banking crisis, but he touched briefly on the effect on business confidence of the disastrous market conditions in the European Union. Hon. Members will know that I have consistently taken a robust line on the euro and the ongoing bail-out efforts for southern European countries such as Greece and Portugal. Business confidence is suffering, not least because, in the name of German economic policy, we are inflicting destitution and poverty on thousands of working people across southern Europe. That is an issue.

My right hon. Friend also talked about the availability and adequacy of capital. That, too, is an issue that will not necessarily be addressed or ameliorated by changes in VAT.

Photo of Sheila Gilmore Sheila Gilmore Labour, Edinburgh East 2:30 pm, 18th April 2013

Would the hon. Gentleman like to comment on the numerous observations and reports suggesting that, in fact, capital is available? Many businesses have capital available; the reason it is not being used to invest is because there is low demand in our economy.

Photo of Stewart Jackson Stewart Jackson Conservative, Peterborough

The hon. Lady anticipates my next point. By any respectable indicators over the past few years, the cash reserves that British business has for investment are enormous. The issue is business confidence. To develop that point, parts of the economy are doing significantly better than others and have not been affected by this cyclical change, which has lasted since the onset of the Northern Rock crisis of 2007-08 and the wider banking crisis.

I am a Conservative, so of course I am in favour of tax cuts. Would that we were in a position to have a tax cut by virtue of the Opposition’s new clause 2, but let us make no bones about it: it is an unfunded tax cut—if it walks like a duck and swims like a duck, it is a duck. I always thought that Labour’s credo in recent times was not to support unfunded tax cuts. With all due respect to Cathy Jamieson, who is a very competent, proficient performer at the Dispatch Box, she failed to answer the points raised by me and Stewart Hosie and say where the money would come from. We are talking about £100 billion of indicative funding, which has to be found from somewhere. It is all very well saying, “We’re going to have a progress report at the end of this Parliament to see how things are going,” but once we put in place that tax cut, we would cut off that income stream. We would then have to find other ways to fund core expenditure.

Photo of Albert Owen Albert Owen Labour, Ynys Môn

I hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but he referred to a figure of £100 billion, which is the total VAT take. We will not lose all of it: there will be a 2.5% reduction.

Photo of Albert Owen Albert Owen Labour, Ynys Môn

Yes, a 10% reduction. The hon. Gentleman is talking about losing that, but unemployment is going up—these are the factors—and we will be paying more out of the Treasury for those things. We are talking about stimulating the economy, which I understand is difficult to quantify, but it would be positive.

Photo of Stewart Jackson Stewart Jackson Conservative, Peterborough

The hon. Gentleman might say that, but it is incumbent on Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition to specify the amounts and where the cuts would be made in other ways. It is not acceptable to dodge the issue, and that goes even for the simple question of what is “strong growth”. At what stage would that be measured? How would we quantify “strong growth”? It is rather mealy-mouthed.

Let us look at the wider context. Interest rates are historically low. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is not old enough—or maybe he is—to know that in 1975 they were 27%, under a Labour Government. Inflation was substantially higher through most of the ’70s and ’80s. We now have big cash balances, lower interest rates, relatively low inflation, lots of money in the economy and quantitative easing, which has been in place for many years. Even if we accept the traditional Keynesian view—that just pumping money into the economy will deliver growth, jobs and prosperity, which seemed to inform the argument that the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun made—we should accept that it has not worked so far through quantitative easing, with the balances that are available. The issue is business confidence.

In the wider context—wider even than that—between 2000 and 2010, public expenditure rose from roughly £450 billion to more than £700 billion. That is the context in which we should look at these fiscal changes. It is not as if we have starved the economy of money in the public sector. The difficulty for the hon. Member for Ynys Môn in arguing in defence of the Government at that time is that the economy was so unbalanced. It was focused disproportionately on the housing market, public expenditure and financial services. Part of our challenge as a Government is to try to rebalance the economy, so that it can make people prosperous and create jobs across wider economic activities, which is happening organically on its own.

Those on the Opposition Front Bench also fail to take into account the other, bigger policies that the Government have embarked on. I will not pretend that things such as the national insurance holidays or the regional growth fund have been an enormous success. I serve on the Public Accounts Committee and we have been critical of things that the Government have pursued in some areas. Nevertheless—the hon. Gentleman alluded to this—the Government are looking at tariffs for utility bills, the beer duty escalator and the fuel duty escalator. We are looking at substantial changes that will have a fiscal impact on welfare, through the universal credit and so on making work pay, rather than paying for idleness and allowing people’s talents to be wasted. We are also putting money into the mortgage market and assisting new house building. Some 42,000 of my constituents had a tax cut last week as a result of the massive fiscal changes that this Government have made, with 2,000 of my constituents paying no tax at all and 24 million people affected. It seems rather unfair not to take that on board.

I also alluded earlier to the progressive nature of our tax changes. Whatever we say about them, it cannot be argued that we have not looked at the top 5% or 10% of income earners in this country to ensure that they are paying a significantly higher share than others. They are the people who will specifically be more worse off than anyone else, whether the hon. Gentleman likes it or not.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

It is unfair to say that VAT is a very regressive tax. If it were applied across everything, it would be, but because it does not apply to food and some other items that figure much more highly in low-income budgets, it is not nearly as regressive as has been suggested.

Photo of Stewart Jackson Stewart Jackson Conservative, Peterborough

Exactly. We could argue at length about the progressiveness of various taxes—no doubt others would want to—but my right hon. Friend makes an astute point.

The final example is council tax. That depends on the local authority, but in general, most councils have frozen council tax. Therefore, the suite or portfolio of the Government’s fiscal changes that have helped working people is quite significant.

Let me say in finishing that we expect more from an Opposition two and a half years into a Parliament. We expect them to come up with policies that are credible. We expect them to move on from policies that just tick the box of opposition. No doubt the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun, who is well connected in the Labour party, will have read the comments of Tony Blair, a three-time election winner, in the 100th anniversary edition of the New Statesman. He cautions the Labour party not to fall back into the comfort zone, not to be a repository of anger, but to be an outward-looking, forward-looking progressive party. I am sure that the Labour Whip on the Front Bench, Phil Wilson, would agree with his predecessor and say that that is sage and intelligent advice. It is so because we expect proper, costed policies. What we have had today is an unfunded tax cut that does not help the people I believe the Labour party genuinely wants to assist to have a better life. I would caution the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun to come back with more coherent, more intelligent and more credible policies. That is why I will not support new clause 2.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Labour, Stockton North

Some Members have chosen to talk about billions of pounds. I will speak about the odd pound and the odd penny, because that is what makes the difference to many of the people I represent.

The cost of living is one of the defining issues of this Parliament not only because of what the Government are doing but because of what they are not doing. Following the announcement yesterday of a huge increase in unemployment—12,000 in the north-east of England—in the last hour, we have learnt that another 160 jobs are going at SABIC, a pharmaceuticals company on Teesside. That is not good news.

The Chancellor’s VAT hike has been shown to be a mistake and it is hitting the vulnerable and those on the lower end of the income scale the hardest. Yes, one of the millionaires who uses his £100,000 tax cut under this Government will pay more VAT than the vast majority of other people when he buys himself a luxury car, but that will not make the difference to whether or not he can buy an extra loaf of bread or a pound of mince for his family’s evening meal. A cut in VAT of 2.5% may just buy some extra peanuts when the banker buys his champagne to celebrate his latest million-pound bonus, but it is the people earning peanuts for working hard to support their families who can put the extra pound or two from a cut to good use.

The previous Labour Government showed that that works when they temporarily reduced VAT to 15%. The reduced tax on sales provided an effective stimulus to the economy. Likewise, a VAT hike was always going to suppress consumption, and hit ordinary families in places such as my Stockton North constituency hard.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Labour, Stockton North

That is a very difficult question to answer but easy enough to ask. I regret that that happened.

The Chancellor once spoke of the liberal credentials of his public school, so he could change and understand a bit more about the people out there. At the time, The Guardian quoted him talking about St Paul’s. He suggested that everyone was treated the same and said:

“It didn't matter who your parents were. Your mother could be the head of a giant corporation—or a solicitor in Kew”.

I have news for the Chancellor. Contrary to his blinkered view, solicitors and captains of industry do not encompass the full imaginable spectrum of socio-economic status. Not everyone out there can absorb VAT increases and not notice the difference. One has to add teachers, police, social workers, canteen cleaners, domestic staff, joiners, bricklayers, call centre staff, health care assistants and so many more to one’s list of acquaintances if one is really to understand the impact of his policies on people.

The statistics speak for themselves. The impact of the VAT increase will cost the lowest-paid workers four times more than any gain from the £10,000 personal allowance, when it is introduced in 2014. Like other Labour Members, I approve of the allowance being at that level. It is good that hard-working families can get extra money, but when the Government take it away with the other hand and people end up paying more, that is not a good thing.

Food prices are also up. I know it has probably been a long time since the Chancellor has nipped around the supermarket to do his weekly shop, if he ever has done so, but if he did so regularly he would see that food and other grocery shop prices are somewhat higher than he imagined and, for many items, way ahead of what his inflation figures are suggesting. Whether it is the price of caulies or a budget chicken, my constituents tell me they are having to pay more, or sadly just do without. Families at the bottom of the income scale—on average, on £53.81 a week—will suffer a 6.3% drop in their overall income following the VAT rise, personal allowance increase and other minor tax changes.

I am unsure why the Government would oppose reducing this regressive burden, and I very much support my Front-Bench colleagues in arguing for a temporary cut, which would put extra pounds and pennies in people’s pockets, which they would spend in our economy. However, it is not just VAT that is making life more expensive for those without well paid jobs, investment portfolios, or savings to support them, like the Chancellor’s solicitor friends in Kew.

The National Housing Federation estimates that, across Stockton borough, there are 2,806 losers from the imposition of the bedroom tax. There is a shortage of one-bedroom properties for tenants to move to, so they have nowhere to go. Why are the Government penalising my constituents for choosing not to move to properties that do not exist? How can that be fair? Any reduction in VAT, if not used to put a better meal on the table, could at least contribute a little to that extra rent burden.

Again, I say that it is not only VAT and the bedroom tax. Changes to council tax benefit are adding yet more to the cost of living in areas such as my own. Hundreds of my constituents will see their council tax rise by around £3 per week, or £156 a year—money taken away by the Government.

One man who suffers from a degenerative condition came to my advice surgery to tell me that he had a choice: either he paid the council tax contribution, or he bought his prescription certificate, which provided best value for money for his medication. As he buys medicine, food and little else, I know that any cut in VAT would put only a few extra pence in his pocket, but he is simply desperate. Ministers—I nearly said monsters—will be delighted that he blamed the local council for that new expense, but rest assured that he is now in no doubt about who is responsible for taking the very medicine out of his mouth, and I am looking across the Chamber at them.

We are also feeling the impact of the 1% increase in annual benefit rates, which as hon. Members will know is a real-terms cut. There are 7,900 people in my constituency claiming working tax credit, and 15,000 across Stockton borough as a whole. Each of those people will see a real-terms cut thanks to higher inflation, which has been caused, in part, by the VAT rise.

The same goes for the minimum wage. Although the Government have talked about an increase, this is a real cut in the value of the wage of some of the hardest working and poorest paid in our society. Cutting VAT would allow us to increase the spending power of those on the minimum wage, although I for one would rather see the wage index-linked at least as we move towards a real living wage.

In my constituency, people on very low incomes will be asked to pay sums of money they simply cannot afford. Like the VAT rise, these policies impact on those least able to bear the burden of their weight, and combine to place near unbearable pressure on them. I support the new clause because I recognise the immense strain that the sky-rocketing cost of living is imposing on people across the country.

A lower VAT rate would not just ease the strain on families and individuals buckling under the weight of the cost of living; it would also help to lower the cost of those things that contribute to that weight. I know VAT is at a lower rate on domestic fuel bills, but I return yet again to the fact that a cut in VAT for everything else, including petrol and diesel, would make life easier for energy customers who have never needed it more than they do now. Everyone is aware of the rocketing cost of energy. Electricity and gas bills have risen by 145% over the past decade, and at £1,653 a year they account for almost one fifth of household costs and represent the second biggest share of household expenses, having overtaken council tax. Yet even this week, we read in The Observer that the big six energy companies are making more profit per household than ever before.

A recent survey by uSwitch found that 14% of households were in debt to their energy supplier, with the average amount owed standing at 4% higher than last year at £131. This is pushing people into fuel poverty. Department of Energy and Climate Change projections for 2012 show that the number of people in fuel poverty across the country is likely to rise to 3.9 million, a situation that is fuelled by increases in energy prices.

In Stockton borough, my local council has pioneered a unique external cladding and insulation project that has focused on private sector homes and helped to bring energy bills down. Unfortunately, the Government’s failure to take any meaningful action on soaring energy bills has not only cancelled out the council’s good work but reversed any progress that has been made.

The same goes for vehicle fuel. The Chancellor has repeatedly made great play in his Budgets of freezing fuel duty, but he has increased the cost with the increase in VAT. A temporary cut would put money in the pockets of motorists and help to stimulate our economy, making it easier for people in rural areas and commuter towns to get to and from work. More than that, it would reduce costs for haulage companies who would charge less for transporting the goods that we need in our shops, again helping to cut prices.

I urge all Members to support the amendment to reduce VAT, which would put more cash into the pockets of the people most likely to spend it on the essentials in life. Such a measure would make life easier for everyone in this country, stimulate much-needed economic growth, reduce unavoidable costs such as fuel costs and provide much-needed respite for my constituents and for people across the country.

Photo of Iain McKenzie Iain McKenzie Labour, Inverclyde 2:45 pm, 18th April 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger.

It is blatantly obvious that families up and down the country are paying the price of the Government’s failure to come to terms with the economy and to create growth and prosperity for all. The cost of living has never been higher. I speak as someone who brought up a family in the 1980s, and I thought that times were hard then. I am now seeing those circumstances repeated in my constituency. My constituents, especially the working families, are finding it extremely hard.

One of the indicators is the rise in unemployment, yet again, across the country. That illustrates that times are doubly hard for those who can least afford it and who are struggling to get employment. In my constituency, we have been fortunate in keeping unemployment down. Before Government Members jump to their feet saying, “We did it for Inverclyde”, however, let me advise them that they did not. The reason that we have been so successful in reducing youth unemployment is that my Labour-led council has put its money where its mouth is and continued with the future jobs fund for the past two years, to ensure that our young people have a future. It has ensured that they have employment not just for a few weeks or months, and it has gone back to the employers and the young people to ensure that their employment is sustainable for years. Now, 80% of those given employment places have remained in them for more than a year, and we are glad that that success is doing something to alleviate unemployment among young people in Inverclyde.

Unfortunately, however, there has been little impact on those who have been unemployed for more than two years, and the Government have offered them no assistance other than shipping them off to a private firm to be placed in employment somewhere for a week or two. It is clear that only Labour can guarantee those people a job with a living wage.

Prices are rising faster than wages. The Office for Budget Responsibility has confirmed that, by 2015, people will be worse off than they were in 2010. That illustrates the result of this Government’s policies. Most people in my constituency feel that, while Ministers might have read economics at university, it is they who are actually living the economics, day in, day out. The cost of living has never been higher, and that is partly due to increased food prices. I encourage any Member to go round their local supermarket and do their weekly shopping, as I do. I see less and less going into the trolley, and more and more going into the till at the end of my shopping trip. Even those families who are thrifty and who shop around and buy own-brand items are seeing a dramatic increase in their food bills. They are being pushed into using food banks, which is another indicator that times are indeed hard.

In my constituency, we have the i58 project, in which one of the local churches has been running a food bank since last September. I was staggered when I visited it at Christmas. It thought that the numbers of people being referred to it had peaked at 1,000—mine is not a large constituency, after all—but the figure has continued to increase in the new year. It is deeply regrettable that we are not seeing any reduction in those numbers. Ever more families, including working families, have been referred to food banks.

Even with the steps we have taken in my area to insulate homes to try to keep energy bills as low as possible, there have been dramatic increases in households’ energy costs. That seems to happen year in, year out. There seems to be no stopping the price rises introduced by the energy companies. These ever-increasing bills spread fear, particularly among the elderly and those on low incomes. People are struggling to pay to heat their own homes. In my area of Scotland, investment in home insulation has been in place for four or five years, yet people are still struggling to pay their energy bills.

Rents have increased recently, too. Not enough homes are being built, so increasing numbers of people are unable to find social rented accommodation. They are pushed into the private sector, which has taken full advantage by pushing up rents time and again. That, too, is having a dramatic impact, particularly on those who can least afford to pay.

We have already heard about the high fuel prices. Those who are fortunate enough still to be able to afford to run a vehicle find that the price of petrol at the pump increases year after year. A number of approaches to the Government have been needed to get them to halt the increases in prices, but we continue to ask for VAT to be removed from fuel. That has one of the biggest impacts on fuel prices, as was pointed out in an earlier intervention. It was also pointed out that we can drop VAT, on an individual basis, from fuel.

There is more evidence of hard times to be seen on the high streets, with shop after shop closing, and brand name after brand name disappearing. The shops that are replacing them are loan shops, bookmakers and pawnbrokers, which shows that those on low incomes are increasingly having to make visits—perhaps on a weekly basis—to such shops in order to bridge the gap between what they are receiving and what they are having to spend on the bare essentials.

The way to deal with the increasing costs of living is through employment. All wealth comes from employment and we must make sure there are as many jobs as possible. We must create jobs by stimulating the introduction of projects throughout the country. We welcome the large projects, of course—we had great success with the Olympic games, and in Scotland I am sure we will have great success with the Commonwealth games—but the smaller projects in and around our communities need to happen as well, to stimulate local economies and get things moving. We all know of shovel-ready projects in our areas that need to go ahead, but they are not progressing.

Last year, the Government gave additional funds to the Scottish Government for shovel-ready projects. Where that money has gone remains to be discovered, as to date only £10 million has seen the light of day in projects across Scotland.

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour, Edinburgh North and Leith

What my hon. Friend says highlights one of the advantages of the proposal to cut VAT. Even with the best will in the world, investment in infrastructure can take a long time to get through all the resistance, which is why even now, after up to three years of trying, we are still not seeing the full benefits of that, whereas a cut in VAT would have an immediate effect on the high street, and on construction and many other sectors of our economy. That highlights why it is so important that the VAT cut should go ahead.

Photo of Iain McKenzie Iain McKenzie Labour, Inverclyde

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I visited some of the employers in my area in the Easter recess. Time and again they told me they needed a stimulus to the local economy from a VAT cut, to get people spending and buying things. My local construction firms in particular said they needed a reduction in VAT to get people to consider going ahead with smaller projects such as house improvements, thus creating employment locally. They felt a VAT cut would serve to stimulate that local growth and get things moving; otherwise, they could see only a bleak future, if any future at all, for the construction industry. They also brought up the continuing difficulty of being closed out of local and national Government contracts. The procurement process still seems to be far too complex and to exclude the small and medium-sized businesses that could stimulate the local economy.

The problem, as we all know, is that there is no growth in the economy. It has flatlined. There has been no demand for the products that businesses say would allow them to grow and create employment, and thereby help the economy. I support the new clause and think that it would stimulate growth in the economy.

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke The Exchequer Secretary 3:00 pm, 18th April 2013

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger.

I will deal with new clause 2 in a moment, but what has driven this debate, initiated by the Opposition, is the cost of living. That is an important matter for our constituents and the Government recognise the pressures that households face. We are taking action to support households with the cost of living, within the fiscal constraints that exist.

A key part of that has been to increase the personal allowance. Clause 3 will ensure that the benefits of that increase are shared fairly. In 2010, when the coalition was formed, individuals could earn just £6,475 before they began to pay income tax. Thanks to the actions of this Government, from April next year, the figure will be £10,000. That is an increase of £3,525, which means that the personal allowance will have risen by more than 50% in just four years, thereby helping our constituents with the cost of living. Our priority has been to help those on low and middle incomes, and we have. The changes in clause 2 mean that a typical basic rate taxpayer is already nearly £600 better off in cash terms under this Government. From next year, that figure will rise to more than £700.

That is not the only action that we are taking to help households with the cost of living. The fuel duty increase that was planned for September will be cancelled. The Finance Bill keeps fuel duty frozen at current levels, maintaining the longest freeze in fuel duty for 20 years. That is helping households and businesses with the cost of motoring. Fuel duty is 13p per litre lower than it would have been had we implemented the Labour party’s planned increases. We have also taken action to help local authorities in England to freeze their council tax for the third year in a row and to cap rail fares for commuters.

Photo of Albert Owen Albert Owen Labour, Ynys Môn

The Minister and his Front-Bench colleagues are always talking about the freeze in fuel duty, which I welcome and for which I campaigned. However, has the Treasury made any calculations on the extra 2.5p in each pound that ordinary hard-working families spend on their petrol at the pump because of their measures?

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke The Exchequer Secretary

Of course, that has been far outweighed by the steps that we have taken to reduce fuel duty. The net effect has been a substantial reduction in the amount of tax collected for every litre of petrol.

New clause 2 returns us to the big, fundamental economic argument that we have been having for some years on deficit reduction. I could deliver the standard speech that we give in such circumstances about how it is a strange way to deal with a debt crisis to try to increase borrowing. However, this is one of those rare occasions when the Opposition have put forward a policy and we have an opportunity to ask questions about it. I know that Cathy Jamieson will be keen to enlighten the House on the policy she has set out in new clause 2, and if I may, I will ask a number of questions—[Interruption.] I am sorry; there seems to be some objection from the Labour party. New clause 2 is being proposed by the Labour party. I want to ask questions about the policy behind it, so let me ask those questions.

First—this is the point raised by my right hon. Friend Mr Redwood—new clause 2 states that VAT will be reduced until “strong growth” is achieved. What is strong growth?

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I cannot believe he said that.

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke The Exchequer Secretary

That term is used in a new clause tabled by the Labour party.

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke The Exchequer Secretary

I would give way to the hon. Gentleman, but he was not here for the early part of the debate. He may not have read the new clause, but the policy depends on the definition of “strong growth” and the Labour party has not provided a definition of that.

Secondly, the cost of this measure will be £12 billion to £13 billion a year. How will that be paid for—that issue was raised by my hon. Friend Mr Jackson? Will it be through higher taxes, a reduction in spending or—as we believe—an increase in borrowing? What consideration has been given to the impact on the cost of borrowing? A 1% increase in Government bond yields would add around £8 billion to annual debt interest payments by 2017-18 and result in an increase of £12 billion in households’ mortgage interest payments—the equivalent of £1,000 for a household with an average mortgage in its first year. Has the Labour party considered the consequences of that discretionary fiscal stimulus?

What is Labour’s view on the profile of deficit reduction? We believe that over the whole deficit reduction period, 80% should be achieved through spending cuts and 20% through tax increases. The Darling plan had two thirds on spending cuts and one third on tax increases. What is the view of the Labour party, given that it has put in front of the Committee a proposal for a £12 billion or £13 billion tax cut? Does it suggest that the ratio should lean more towards public spending cuts rather than tax rises? What assessment has Labour made of the impact of different taxes on the economy? My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham mentioned the fact that VAT is, as many economists would argue, less harmful to growth than other taxes. Is that the view of the Labour party? Why has VAT been picked as a particular issue?

The Labour party does not come forward with policies often, but I am pleased that it has done so today so that Labour Members have the opportunity to tell the Committee exactly what their policy is. They can explain that policy, and if they would care to answer those questions the Committee will be able to judge whether it should support new clause 2. My advice to my right hon. and hon. Friends is that this is just more of the same from the Labour party. It is more borrowing and more debt, and it fails to get to grips with the fiscal situation and the mess in which the Labour party left this country and which we, the coalition Government, are addressing.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Shadow Minister (Treasury)

It is an interesting experience to see Ministers ask a whole range of questions without addressing why we introduced the proposal. The Minister failed to recognise work that shows how VAT hits those on lower incomes disproportionately hard. He shakes his head but we can point to research which backs that up and businesses that say—I have spoken to people personally as I am sure have other hon. Members—that a temporary cut in VAT would help to stimulate the economy and growth. The Minister asks what the definition of strong growth would be. It certainly is not what this Government have provided.

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke The Exchequer Secretary

The Opposition propose a new clause that depends on the definition of “strong growth” but do not tell us what that means. They object to questions being asked about what the new clause means. It is the hon. Lady’s new clause, so will she tell the Committee what she is getting at, why she has chosen VAT, what the fiscal implications will be, and what will happen if borrowing goes up by £12 billion or £13 billion?

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I am sure the Minister has heard what I have said. We believe that the new clause is one measure that can be introduced now to ensure that there is a stimulus in the economy.

The Government believe that consistently high rates of VAT are helpful to the economy. The Opposition disagree and believe there is an alternative. I find it interesting that the Minister constantly presses Opposition Members to define “strong growth” when it is clear that the Government’s policies are introducing something that is far from strong growth. It is important to recognise that, once again, the Opposition are standing up for the people whose incomes are being squeezed and who are being hit hard by the Government’s policies. The Minister can shake his head as much as he likes, but he knows in his heart of hearts that the Opposition are speaking out for the people who are hit hardest by the Government’s policies. That is why I intend to press new clause 2 to a Division.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Committee divided:

Ayes 193, Noes 244.

Division number 216 Finance Bill — New Clause 2 — Rate of VAT

A majority of MPs voted against reducing VAT from 20% to 17.5%

Aye: 193 MPs

No: 244 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Absent: 208 MPs

Absents: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.