I beg to move,
That this House
recognises that the cost-of-living crisis is affecting businesses as well as families;
notes that business rates have been rising and are due to increase further in April 2014, due to their link to the 3.2 per cent Retail Price Index increase in September 2013; and calls on the Government to take action to ease the burden of business rates on all sectors.
It is fitting that this debate should take place in the week leading up to small business Saturday, which has been so innovatively brought to the United Kingdom by my hon. Friend Mr Umunna, and so graciously supported by the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. It has become a truly cross-party initiative and a cross-Britain campaign. It says much about what we can achieve when the whole political and business world work together in support of Labour party ideas.
As the challengers of tired orthodoxies and the drivers of social mobility, small businesses share one nation Labour’s values completely. In fact, we could say that small businesses and one nation Labour share the same DNA. That is why my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said that one nation Labour would be the party of enterprise and small business when he became party leader back in 2010. Just as there is a lineage from owners of small businesses through to one nation Labour, the Conservative party, the party of old money and vested interests—it has an average age of 67, I am told—is inextricably linked to the defenders of the status quo. That is why Labour has led the running on the No. 1 cost of doing business issue, business rates, and why we have brought forward this debate.
Today is not the first time that Government policy has suddenly changed in the run-up to a Labour party Opposition day debate. Let us be honest—barely a day goes by when this Government’s policy does not change. The Chancellor’s pre-announcement today that business rates would go up by only 2% this year will be met with a mirthless smile by the thousands of small firms that told the Forum of Private Business, among others, that business rates is the No. 1 cost of doing business issue.
A measure of how detached the Government have become from the realities faced by businesses away from the City is that after three and a half years of small business rate relief, which is a valuable support for the very smallest, and with business rates still the No. 1 issue—13% of all firms say that the tax they pay on their business premises is greater than the rent, and many more find that it is pretty much the same—they announce that they are locking in that unfairness by capping rates at 2%. It is absolutely pathetic. Only the Government, who tried to sell an extra £70 on people’s energy bills as a cut, could think that a 2% rise in business rates is a cause for celebration—they could not be more out of touch.
Some of the Government’s policies seem to be dreamed up at a moment’s notice, but the announcement on business rates comes 71 days after my right hon. Friend announced the action that Labour will take on business rates. It is not even a rapid rebuttal. After all the speculation, it is no wonder that businesses are asking whether this is really it. We know that the Government are useless on this issue, so let us talk about the alternative—Labour’s proposal for real action.
We propose not a reduced increase, but a reduction of £410 a year on average for the 1.5 million businesses that have a rateable value of below £50,000. That will be followed by frozen rates in the year after that.
This is an important issue. I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point that for many businesses, their rates are higher than their rent. However, in Northern Ireland, we have frozen rates for the past seven years, given half of small businesses a 20% reduction in their rates and provided a 70% reduction in manufacturing rates, but still some businesses are under pressure. Rates are only one aspect of the problems that face businesses. We need a much more comprehensive approach to deal with those problems.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point. He is right that business rates are only one aspect of the problems, but they are clearly a very important aspect because businesses say that they are the No. 1 cost of doing business issue. He is right that we need to go further, but on that basis, this pitiful move by the Government is very disappointing indeed.
The hon. Gentleman has been to my constituency in west London. What would he do for businesses in London, because their business rates are high, but their rateable values are higher than the limit that he has set out?
That is an interesting point. I went to a newsagent in the hon. Lady’s constituency which certainly will not be paying business rates above the level that we have set. The vast majority of businesses will be below the £50,000 level. This policy is a significant step that will affect 1.5 million businesses. Every time we hear from Conservative Members, it is clear that the only voices in their ears are those of big business. They do not understand the reality of small businesses. That is coming across loud and clear once again today.
Even after today’s announcement, the bills this year will still go up by about £250, and that is when we are supposedly seeing action.
I will give way to my hon. Friend, but I will not take too many interventions because I am conscious that a number of Members want to speak and I want them all to have the opportunity to do so.
The British Retail Consortium has estimated that the business rate increase in April could mean that there is an increase of £240 million per annum, which could put more than 19,000 full-time jobs at risk. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that that will have a detrimental impact on retailers in our constituencies?
Absolutely. The statement by the British Retail Consortium is incredibly powerful because its members are telling it every day how important this issue is. That is why it is important that we see serious action.
I will make a little more progress, then I will let the hon. Gentleman come in.
British businesses will face a choice as we approach the next election between a Tory party that makes hollow gestures of this sort and a Labour Government who will offer them vital respite. Labour’s business rate cut is even more important than that; this is an important symbolic moment because a potential party of government is at last saying that enough is enough on business rates. That comes at a time when research by the British Council of Shopping Centres shows that Britain pays the highest rate of commercial property tax in the EU.
By contrast, we are set to have the lowest corporation tax in the G20 by 2015. Labour understands the importance of a competitive corporation tax rate. It might interest Conservative Members to learn that the biggest increase in corporation tax in the past 40 years was introduced by—I cannot hear the correct answer—Edward Heath in 1973. [Interruption.] It is true. In fact, no Labour leader has increased the main rate of corporation tax since then. For comparison, at the zenith of Thatcherism, in 1987, the main rate of corporation tax was 35%. The big cuts under the Labour Government saw it fall to 28% under my right hon. Friend Mr Darling.
Having been inspired by Margaret Thatcher to start two businesses, and having seen those businesses grow to now having almost 300 employees, but having suffered massively under a Labour Government, may I tell the hon. Gentleman that small business does understand what Labour does and knows what happens when we have a Labour Government? Things become much more difficult, and it becomes much harder to survive.
That is one viewpoint, but that of someone who has not seen an opinion poll recently, I think. Let us not hear anything from Conservative Members to suggest that Labour is the party of corporation tax rises, as history tells us that that is not the case.
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. He will remember, as I do, the Liberal Democrats’ posters and the Conservatives’ promises that there would be no VAT increases. He might well remember that the Chancellor, when he was shadow Chancellor, claimed that Labour would increase VAT and that it would be a bomb waiting to go off under the recovery. Of course, the Government then introduced the VAT rise before there was any kind of recovery, which is one reason why we have had three wasted years.
Is my hon. Friend aware that a recent business survey by the Forum of Private Business found that action on business rates was small companies’ No. 1 demand, and that John Allan, the chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, has welcomed Labour’s consistent argument and demand for a freeze on business rates?
That is an incredibly important point. When Members take interventions, we often worry that it will add to the length of our contributions, but when they include things that we were about to say, it saves us all a bit of time. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point.
I am going to make a bit more progress. A large number of Members wish to speak, which makes it clear how important the issue is.
Our proposal is not to increase corporation tax from the current rate but simply not to take forward the planned 2015 cut, instead using all the money planned for that to reduce the business rate burden.
The Government have tabled an amendment to the motion, the final line of which states that the House
That is what Government Members will be asked to vote for. First, under our proposals the rate would still be lower than it is today. More importantly, it would alter the corporation tax rate only of businesses that make more than £300,000 of profit. Government Members might well think that every single firm earns more than that, but I can tell them that 80,000 businesses would be affected out of a total of 5 million in the UK. That is just over 1.5% of all the businesses in the UK, not “all firms” as the Government’s amendment states. If they think that 1.5% of firms is “all firms”, they are either incompetent or totally out of touch. I suspect that it is both.
I am extremely grateful for that nice introduction.
I draw the House’s attention to my registered interests. I am a director of a small technology business and of a manufacturing business. The Government are still dealing with the deficit that the hon. Gentleman’s party’s Government left, and money is therefore scarce. For every element of taxation that he wants to reduce, the money would have to be found from elsewhere. How would Labour’s proposal help technology and manufacturing businesses, which are surely what we need to secure growth in the economy, rather than retail?
It is interesting the hon. Gentleman says that because the point is that our business rate proposal was announced at the same time as we said how it would be paid for. It is the principle of ensuring that we do not make commitments unless it is clear how we will pay for it—in this case, the corporation tax cut is not being taken forward, and that will pay for the business rates. The Chancellor has just announced that he will not increase business rates, but I would be interested to hear from Government Members whether he will make it clear how that will be paid for. We have had numerous policies so far from this Government that seem to be just sticking it on the deficit.
My hon. Friend has made an important point because as well as small businesses, local authorities are under real pressure. Can he assure the House that his proposals will not reduce by one penny the money going to local councils?
I absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. It is entirely costed and there will need to be a reworking of the Budget to ensure that local authorities do not miss out. The other important point is that, as my hon. Friend will be aware, the Government amendment refers to the fact that local authorities can reduce business rates if they want. The idea that we can give local authorities huge cuts and say, “Well, if you want to reduce business rates, you can”, bears no relationship to the reality of local authority finances in many areas.
Because he has been so persistent I will give the hon. Gentleman the chance to intervene and then I will crack on. I have a feeling we will now hear an intervention of considerable importance.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s introduction, but he might like to ask his constituents whether or not my intervention is important. He complains that councils do not have the money to offer rebate—which, incidentally, is subsidised up to 50% by councils for offering a discount—but his own council in Chesterfield has failed to collect £4 million in council tax. If it made a bit of effort, perhaps it could get some of that back to business rates.
That is a disgraceful point given the cost of living crisis facing many of our people who are desperately struggling. The idea that it is the council’s fault if it is struggling to raise money from people in my constituency is absolutely remarkable.
I will make progress because interventions are not taking us anywhere. Our policy is clear: to reduce the business rate bill for 1.5 million small firms and ask 80,000 larger firms to pay what is still historically low corporation tax, even if it is slightly higher than the Government propose. That choice says a lot about Her Majesty’s Opposition, and the fact the Government reject it says everything that people need to know about them and the kind of economy that they want Britain to have.
The Government seem to be sending the message that they welcome firms that move their books here, but not their staff. They are discouraging those who want to build, work, base themselves or run shops here—a tax haven for the few, not a balanced economy for the many. Encouraging speculation and discouraging production: that says it all about a Chancellor and Prime Minister who have ears only for one section of the business community, not the real-life heroes in shops, workshops, factories and building sites who make up the real economy that they appear to know so little about.
One business woman who attended our recent business consultation in Plymouth put it rather well. She said:
“I don’t mind paying tax on my profits, but what I do object to is when I am struggling to get by and the Government keep putting up the bills on my premises. Let me make some profit and I’ll gladly let the Government share a little of the wealth.”
I could not have put it better myself. That is the reality of what businesses out in the community are saying.
It is kind of the hon. Gentleman to give way and I support his motion, especially since vibrant and independent businesses in Brighton always tell me what a big challenge business rates are. Does he agree that since some of the smallest businesses are suffering the most, one thing the Chancellor could do tomorrow is increase the threshold for tapered relief to be funded—for example, from £12,000 to at least £15,000—so that more small businesses could be given some relief from those rates?
There are strong arguments in favour of increasing the threshold from £12,000 to £15,000 to help businesses, but the great thing about Labour’s policy is that it will benefit businesses right up to £50,000. Government Members do not think that that is relevant to businesses, but the reality of our economy is that it is very relevant indeed.
Recent studies by the Association of Convenience Stores, which has a huge army of owner-shopkeepers among its membership, underline the point and tell the full tale. Small shopkeepers are among the hardest-working people in our country. The majority work over 50 hours a week, often many more, and their shops are a vital part of towns and villages in every community across the country. Some 55% of its members say that their average earnings last year equated to less than the minimum wage, yet the average store has a rateable value of £14,000. So go and tell them that the Government are taking action—tell them that another 1% off the corporation tax rate for big business is more important than cutting their business rates nightmare.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is another way that we could help these small businesses, whether Travella, the outfitters shop on the square in Maesteg, or the Talgarth bakery? Taking action on business rates is one way—and imitation is the best form of flattery, I say, as the Government try to mimic, in a pale way, what we are doing. Another way is to freeze the energy costs, which would save those businesses around £5,000 on average.
Absolutely. My hon. Friend accurately predicts a future part of my speech, which I might none the less give Members the benefit of, as the facts on energy prices are worth repeating and this is an incredibly important point.
Not by accident, one-nation Labour is in touch with the issues that small firms are facing. We have gone out of our way to ensure that the voice of entrepreneurial
Britain is not only heard, but spoken by Labour. Around 1,000 businesses attended Labour’s business reception this summer, and from Harlow in Essex to Stockton in Teesside, we have listened to thousands of firms of all sizes.
It is incredibly important to me as a former small business owner to be Labour’s small business shadow Minister. There is a wealth of private sector experience across the shadow business, innovation and skills team, but I am excited that Labour will fight the 2015 election with many more strong business voices standing for election in our colours. From internet entrepreneur Victoria Groulef in Reading West and educational solutions entrepreneur James Frith in Bury North to business owners like Sophy Gardner in Gloucester and Emily Darlington in Milton Keynes, the face of Labour will reflect that enterprise spirit that embodies what one-nation Labour is all about.
As another former business owner, I can guarantee my hon. Friend that the Labour party really does understand that the face of business in this country has changed. That is why this debate is so important. Government Members do not seem to appreciate just how many more businesses there are these days compared with when the business rate regime was set up. [Interruption.] That is why this debate and my hon. Friend’s proposal are so important. [Interruption.] The challenges of online trading and the number of businesses mean that we have to address this crucial issue not just on the high street but for businesses as a whole.
That is a powerful point, and it is revealing that when my hon. Friend talks about the reality facing those small businesses he faces barracking from the Government Members. They do not understand the reality of businesses in our communities, and they make that clear every day.
I find it rather disheartening that Government Members seem to downplay retail. Will they also downplay village shops, which are closing probably at a faster rate than ever before? This measure from the Labour party will prove a real lifeline to them if we are elected to government.
That is a vital point. In rural communities, village shops are absolutely crucial, and as Members have just heard, research from the Association of Convenience Stores says that many of the people who serve us in those stores are literally living in poverty. That should serve to show Government Members the reality of what is happening.
There is an inconsistency at the heart of the Government’s approach. They believe that the market decides and they do not believe in the role of government. That is why they scrapped the regional development agencies, which delivered and had real scope and expertise. That is why they scrapped Business Link, which was a useful single point of contact, and left businesses in need of support to fend for themselves. I do not pretend that Business Link or the RDAs were perfect, but they needed reforming, not scrapping, and the void left in their place has been one of the causes of the three wasted years of flatlining that we have seen since 2010.
Local enterprise partnerships have spent much of those three wasted years trying to make it clear what their purpose is, and the Government’s “mentors me” website has received four times more visits from firms offering to be experts than from people who need expertise. That says absolutely everything about how effective the “mentors me” website has been.
The important question is, how many of those businesses have gone under? In every recession, large numbers of people are unable to find a job, and they go on to set up their own businesses. I set up a business under similar circumstances—desperation is a pretty decent motive for setting up a business. The reality is that we have had three years of a flatlining economy and difficult circumstances. The hon. Gentleman might not be able to understand that, but the people in my community certainly do.
Is my hon. Friend aware of the comments made by Hans Redeker from Morgan Stanley? He said:
“the UK recovery will turn out to be little more than a sugar rush unless investment picks up… The investment-to-consumption ratio is very low at 16% and falling. It is 22% in the eurozone and 23% in the US.”
Would my hon. Friend call that a copper-bottomed recovery?
I certainly would not. My hon. Friend makes an important point about the scale of the recovery, which so far has been less than a third of that predicted by the Office for Budget Responsibility in 2010. The full extent of the failure of the Government’s policy is there for all to see.
I just want to help the hon. Gentleman. Not only did the International Monetary Fund establish that we have the fastest growth of any major economy, but we have created 400,000 jobs. If we have failed so much, why is it that we have created 1.1 million net new jobs?
Once again, we hear from Conservative Members who think that it is a success if people are in work but in poverty. I had someone in my constituency surgery just two weeks ago who is doing three of the jobs that have been created and he still cannot afford to pay the mortgage—that is the reality of the recovery that they are delivering. He might sit there and tell his constituents, “Don’t worry, trust me, I’ve seen the figures and everything is getting better,” but people look in their wallets at the end of the month and know that in 40 out of the past 41 months wages have gone up by less than the costs that they face. That is the reality of the recovery that his party is delivering.
Lending to small firms has been a major problem since the banking crisis. Labour’s enterprise finance guarantee scheme made a difference, but the funding problem for small and medium-sized enterprises has become a crisis since 2010. Net lending has fallen in 24 of the past 30 months and SMEs still rank access to finance as a key business issue.
The Government are failing on the high street. They failed to give the Portas review serious backing and the local authority funding bombshell undermined the very organisations that Mary Portas envisioned would lead the small shop revolution. A cost-of-doing-business crisis is hitting British business, with 87% of firms reporting that energy costs have gone up in the past year and 83% of firms believing that the cost of doing business will be higher next year.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to set out the problems faced by small businesses. I have spoken to small businesses in my constituency across Tameside and Stockport. Many of them say that business rates are a major worry, not least because transitional relief is set to end in April next year. Does he agree that one reason why setting our proposal at £50,000 is absolutely right is that it allows small businesses to grow without getting clobbered by a massive business rates hike?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: there is a real disincentive for many small businesses to grow. His local authority has taken innovative action to ensure that procurement goes to local small businesses, and that is an example to councils everywhere.
As much as anything, the Government’s failure on living standards has hit the pound in consumers’ pockets and pushed many of our stores to the brink. Three wasted years of wages falling behind bills every month means more hardship for Britain’s firms. Confronted by a stubborn opinion poll deficit, the Chancellor is simply flailing around in the dark for Labour policies that he can ape. He is convincing no one. We led on energy prices, but under this Government, bills still go up. We led on payday lending, on which he now thinks we were right. We told him that his funding for lending scheme was overheating the southern property market and failing to get finance to small firms, and now it appears that he agrees; and on business rates, we said things had gone too far, and now he says, “Okay, but just a little bit further.” We know that he does not have the answers. In fact, he does not even understand the questions.
I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that the growth now is driven completely by a combination of mortgages and consumer debt. That sort of bank lending is at its 2008 level, whereas business lending is 32% down, and in fact the share of small business has gone from 40% to 33%. That enormous collapse in funding for business is why productivity is down and wages are so low. We would change that, would we not?
Absolutely, and that brings me nicely to my next point. It is not all doom and gloom, because we are only 18 months away from a Labour Government. There is a better way under Labour. We are not just proposing a symbolic change to the role of business rates, but confirming real help for firms that, as the British Chambers of Commerce rightly said today, still face a hike in business rates.
On energy prices, we will save the average business £5,000 a year. On access to finance, we propose real action with the introduction of a proper business bank and a network of regional banks, alongside support for challenger banks and peer-to-peer lending. On business support, we are working on a proposal that recognises the support that is needed to make the most of great British business ideas. On late payments, which take more than 2,000 firms to the wall each year, we will take robust action to expose firms that pay late and end the scourge of late payments; and we will use the huge power of Government spending to point the way towards a future in which small firms finally pick up their fair share of Government contracts.
As we head towards small business Saturday, small firms can rejoice: at last there is a party ready to form a Government who understand why small firms think that business rates are so important. We have a party that gets that we will not solve the access to finance issue by expecting the banks to do differently with the next pound we give them from what they did with the last. We have a party that realises that business support matters and knows that shops will close if the people in their communities have no money in their pockets. The party that gets it is Labour. That is why we are calling for real action on business rates; that is why we will take action on the cost of living crisis facing businesses; and that is why all Members should back our motion. I commend it to the House.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from ‘House’ to end and add:
“acknowledges that this Government is taking decisive action to back business and make Britain’s economy work for everyone;
notes that the Government has cut business rates, National Insurance and corporation tax for small firms despite the need to tackle the deficit left by the last Administration;
observes that the value of small business rate relief has trebled since the general election and small business rate relief will be considered in the Autumn Statement;
notes how the overall multiplier has been frozen in real terms;
applauds the abolition of the unfair port taxes;
welcomes the Localism Act which has made small business rate relief easier to claim and allows councils to introduce local discounts;
notes with approval the rate relief in 24 enterprise zones;
further welcomes the new empty rate relief for new build in contrast to the last Administration’s increases in empty rates;
endorses the way in which local rate retention now gives councils new incentives to support local enterprise;
and rejects the policy proposals from Her Majesty’s Opposition on rates which would involve increasing corporation tax on all firms, undermining British jobs and businesses.”
I congratulate the Opposition on securing today’s debate. It is fantastic to see that Labour finally has a policy on local government. Unfortunately, it is its only policy and it is not a very good one. It is all well and good calling for a cut in business rates, but strangely the motion does not mention that it would hike up business taxes to pay for it. As the British Chambers of Commerce has said:
“Labour must realise that you can’t rob Peter to pay Paul.”
“The main corporation tax rate is paid not only by multinational corporations and FTSE 100 companies but by medium sized companies and smaller firms... It’s a dangerous move for Labour to risk our business-friendly environment in this way.”
The CBI added:
“I just think it’s divisive to take from one part of the business community to give to another... Whether you are small, medium or large you need to invest as a business and grow as a business and higher taxes don’t do that.”
Like many people here, I want us to help businesses with business rates where we can, but not by cancelling the reduction in corporation tax, which is Labour’s policy. Does my hon. Friend agree that that would be totally counter-productive, because it is so often the larger businesses that provide the work and contracts on which smaller businesses often depend?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. All businesses can be liable for corporation tax, so it affects all businesses. Unlike the Labour party, we recognise that we have to look at the picture for business as a whole, not just bits in isolation.
With such a lukewarm response from business, the Labour party is still a long way from the heady days of its prawn cocktail offensive.
In her question to the Minister, Angie Bray effectively referred to a trickle-down form of economics, yet household savings in cash ISAs and deposits were actually down from October 2012 to 2013 by £23 billion, or £900 per household. What has happened is an absorption of capital from the bottom upwards. Those at the bottom have been used as a line of credit, not the big businesses.
Bearing in mind that manufacturing is up, I think the hon. Gentleman misses the point that putting up corporation tax potentially hits every business that is successful. If he has worked through his economics, I assume that he would want those small businesses to be paying corporation tax because they are successful enough to become the big businesses of the future, rather than being penalised by a Labour Government. Businesses are the lifeblood of our economic recovery. This Government are cutting corporation tax to help businesses to invest and expand.
Increasing corporation tax will affect all businesses, for the very reason that my hon. Friend Angie Bray has already outlined. The hon. Gentleman is kind of missing the point.
I presume that the Minister is not ruling out business rates not increasing by the retail prices index next year. If so, will he tell the House where the Government might find the money to achieve a lower increase in business rates? Will it come from local councils, the Exchequer or somewhere else?
Let us remember the context of this debate. Corporation tax was 28% under Labour; this Government are cutting it to 20%, the lowest rate in the G20. Labour’s plans for higher corporation tax would put jobs and investment at risk, but I appreciate that the Labour party has form on that.
I will make a little progress and give way in a moment.
Let us look at Labour’s record and let us take, for example, the ports tax. The Labour Government imposed retrospective business rates on ports across England—unexpected bills that threatened to sink England’s export trade and destroy the country’s car industry. In an astonishing break from Cabinet collective responsibility, the then Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, wrote to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in 2009 slamming the policy. He said, “These businesses are” being
“damaged by a government that on the one hand is looking for ways to help small businesses through the recession, whilst at the same time is imposing a completely unfair retrospective system that will destroy jobs and put these companies out of business”.
He had a point. If Geraint Davies still wants to intervene, I am sure he will want to agree.
Further to the point I made earlier, the cuts in funding to business are particularly acute among small businesses. Given that, should not the priority be not to cut corporation tax across the piece, but to focus our fire where it is most needed, among small businesses, rather than giving the cut to all the big giants, who have more strength to weather the storm?
I am not quite sure what cuts to business the hon. Gentleman is talking about, but he is absolutely right about targeting. I agree with him about that, which is why I am so proud of what this Government have done with small business rate relief, to which I shall turn in a few moments.
No impact assessment was made of the ports tax, no consultation was undertaken and no concern was shown about the effect on the wider economy.
This debate is about business rates and the ports tax was a business rate. If the hon. Gentleman has a look at his own motion, perhaps he will appreciate what he is here for. The ports tax policy also contravened the Treasury’s own guidance on retrospective taxation. However, as proposed by both coalition parties before the general election, this Government have scrapped Labour’s ports tax, cutting business rates by £175 million and reversing the smash-and-grab on small businesses.
Let me take another example: empty property rate relief. As Chancellor, Mr Brown hiked up business rates by cutting back empty property rate relief, with no offsetting reduction. When was the stealth tax rise introduced? It was introduced at the very start of the economic downturn—precisely when businesses cannot find tenants for their empty properties. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors slammed the change, saying it was
“purely a revenue raising exercise with no thought of the potential consequences”.
That is what we inherited from Labour, as well as the biggest deficit in our peacetime history. Unfortunately, we have not been able to reverse every Labour tax rise—I wish we could—but we have introduced new rate relief for empty new build property to help to kick-start development.
Let me raise another issue, which relates to my response to the hon. Member for Swansea West a few moments ago. I recognise that small business rate relief was introduced under the previous Administration, albeit funded by a higher multiplier on medium and large firms, but Labour made it as difficult as possible for small firms to claim, requiring reams of complex paperwork every year. In 2009, Labour Ministers blocked a Conservative-supported private Member’s Bill from Peter Luff that would have simplified the relief. This Government have changed that—the Localism Act 2011 made it far easier to claim—but we have gone further: with central Government funding, we have doubled business rate relief for small firms year on year, and an estimated 330 small firms are now paying no rates at all as a result.
Businesses report to me that when they appeal against business rates, it takes a long time for their appeals to be dealt with. The delays are due to the poor performance of the Valuation Office Agency, and I hope to have an opportunity to say more about that later. I realise that this is not the Minister’s direct responsibility, but will he undertake to have conversations with his colleagues in the Treasury to ensure that the agency performs as it should?
I am delighted to be able to tell the hon. Lady that we have managed to reduce those delays. I shall say more about that shortly.
The value of small business rate relief granted in England has trebled, from £330 million in the last year of the Labour Government to £900 million in the last year. I note that the extra rate relief, which is temporary, is scheduled to end next April, but the Chancellor will be reviewing all taxes as part of his autumn statement. As I said to the Chairman of the Select Committee, Mr Betts, we must wait and see what lies before us tomorrow.
We have done far more. We have capped business rate increases at the rate of inflation, with the result that there has been no real-terms increase in annual business rates. We have given councils new powers, via the Localism Act, to allow local business rate discounts to support, for example, local shops, community pubs, new business parks or vital local facilities. Under the local business rates retention scheme that was introduced in April, central Government now fund part of any discount that is granted. The discretionary discount is not just for Christmas; it can be applied at any given moment throughout the life of the current Parliament. Councils can do that now, with no complications, no pen-pushing, no bureaucracy, and no questions asked. It is real, targeted, localist tax relief that can be delivered by councils today.
Does the Minister agree that what we are saying is that councils must make choices, and should think about how they spend their money? Enfield council, for instance, should ask itself whether it should spend £100,000 on sending councillors to conferences with officials and a further £100,000 on magazines promoting its work, when that money—with Government support—could be translated into nearly £300,000 for rate relief in specialist areas?
My hon. Friend has made an excellent point. I hope that the councillors in Enfield have heard what he said, and are thinking about what they can do. Council reserves have risen to a record level. Given £2 billion of uncollected council tax and £2 billion lost through fraud and error, there is an awful lot that councils can do to ensure that they have the right funding and make decisions that will benefit their communities by producing economic growth and jobs.
Some councils are already using the powers in the Localism Act that this Government introduced, although I agree with my hon. Friend that more should be encouraged to do so. Basildon council has supported a small computer repair shop which offers home visits to its elderly and less “tech-savvy” customers. That is a very good example of localism-focused help. Stockton is supporting new businesses, from cafes to retailers, filling empty shops in the town centre and attracting new businesses. Milton Keynes has helped the famous Stables theatre to maintain the substantial recruitment that it brings to the area.
The Localism Act has ensured that no new supplementary business rate can be imposed without a backing of local firms in a referendum. The supplementary rate introduced by the Labour Government allowed extra business rates to be imposed, in some cases, without the support of local businesses. We have brought in a democratic check on any new rates, just as we have on council tax rises.
We have also introduced 24 new enterprise zones across the country. Those zones benefit from a 100% business rate discount, worth up to £275,000 over five years for a firm moving into the zone. All business rate growth within a zone will be retained and shared by the local enterprise partnership area for at least 25 years to help to support local growth and investment. Under this Government, enterprise zones have generated £500 million in private investment, and they have already created 5,000 jobs.
The United Kingdom is becoming the No. 1 destination for expanding multinational companies. That worldwide ambition is feeding flourishing local economies from Newquay right up to the Tees valley. I declare my interest as the Member of Parliament for Great Yarmouth; our New Anglia enterprise zone is encouraging vast growth in the energy industry in the east coast region. We are rewarding councils for promoting local economic growth by allowing them to keep half the funds from locally raised business rates. It has been estimated that these reforms will increase economic growth by £10 billion over the next seven years.
As Toby Perkins said, we have postponed the business rates revaluation in England until 2017, which will prevent 800,000 firms from facing double-digit hikes in their business rates bills. I know that surveyors have been quite grumpy about that. Let us remember that it those surveyors who stand to lose money from charging firms for rate appeals. For the record, the Government will not benefit by a single penny.
Independent analysis by the Valuation Office Agency has shown that the 2015 revaluation would have meant soaring bills for the likes of pubs, petrol stations and food retail. That would have pushed up the cost of living for hard-working families: a more expensive shop, a more expensive tank of fuel and a more expensive pint. Falling rents would not necessarily have translated into falling business rates bills, as the multiplier would simply have gone up to compensate for lower rateable values. The winner of a 2015 revaluation would have been office space in central London. Across England, three times as many premises would have lost out as would have gained. Small firms would have been paying for tax breaks for bankers in London.
As I explained to Bill Grimsey when I met him a couple of weeks ago, I do not accept his premise or the way in which he has carried out his calculations. He has simply not allowed for the way in which the multiplier works.
The postponement of the revaluation will provide tax stability and certainty for businesses, as there will be no real-terms increase in business rates over the next five years. Labour Members often speak, as they have today, as though business rates never existed under Labour. Well, I ask Labour critics to bear in mind that the Labour-led Welsh Government have copied us and postponed the rates revaluation in Wales. In the words of Welsh Labour Ministers, this will ensure a more “stable business environment”. The Scottish Government have done the same.
The postponement of the 2015 rates revaluation has allowed the Valuation Office Agency to allocate more resources to clearing appeals. More than 641,000 appeals have been resolved since
The Minister mentioned Wales. Is he aware that properties there that have been empty for 12 months will now get 50% rate relief, and that new-build business properties will pay no business rates for 18 months? Will he look at that in a positive light when considering regeneration?
I am sure that people in Wales looked at the powers we gave local authorities here and thought that it is something they want to do in Wales. I say again that we are talking about something that local authorities already, under this Government, have the power to do.
This Government absolutely recognise that the wrecked economy we inherited means that businesses are facing challenging times. It has been our job, where possible, to ease pressure on businesses of all sizes, and to use their skills and expertise to drive our recovery and ensure an economy that is ripe for growth. Some 1 million private sector jobs have been created and the deficit is down by a third. Those are not just happy coincidences; they are achievements of this Government’s economic plan.
Would the hon. Gentleman care to pass judgment on whether an increase in corporation tax, particularly for multinationals, from 20%, where the Government are taking it, to 21% would make us globally uncompetitive? My reading is that a 21% rate would put us very much in the top league of the internationally competitive on corporation tax rates.
Again, I simply do not agree with the hon. Gentleman that putting up taxes on businesses is a good thing for business—it simply is not.
I find it difficult hearing Ministers constantly talking about 1 million new jobs. For the record the Minister should say how many of those jobs arise from different re-categorisation and how many of them involve zero-hours contracts?
These jobs are very real; I believe that the figure is 1.4 million jobs under this Government. Places such as my Great Yarmouth constituency have some of the most deprived wards in the country, and I am delighted that its level of unemployment has fallen under this Government, having risen consecutively under the Labour Government, who deserted areas such as mine.
Hon. Members should also bear in mind that we have cut business rates, cut corporation tax and cut national insurance—those are all measures that help business grow, as is shown in the development of the 400,000 new businesses mentioned earlier.
My hon. Friend is right to mention all the many things this Government have done for business. Will he be willing to sit with me to talk about a full review of business rates, because the issue of business and taxation needs to be re-examined for this age?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. Obviously, the Treasury always keeps all taxes under review, and I am happy to meet her at any time.
Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Braintree district council on using the savings it has made to put aside £100,000 to give concessions to small businesses that want to come to the town or fill empty shops?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and I look forward to visiting Braintree this weekend for small business Saturday. He gives a good example of an area that has used its powers to do the right thing for local businesses, embracing some of the work through its Portas pilot and even going further. I congratulate Braintree district council and look forward to seeing in practice the excellent work it has done to bring down car parking charges for the benefit of local residents.
Let us be clear: Labour would have ducked the tough decisions taken to tackle the budget deficit—even within local government, Labour still has £52 billion of cuts that it has not outlined. All Labour offers is more borrowing, more spending and more debt. Its plans do not reduce; they redistribute, in a sleight of hand.
I am confused by what the hon. Gentleman is saying because it bears no relation to reality. He will be aware that our business rate proposal is entirely costed. A moment ago, he appeared to be giving the impression that business rates were not a problem. If they are not a problem, why are so many businesses saying that business rates are the No. 1 cost-to-business issue in the country at the moment?
The hon. Gentleman is kind of missing the point. Despite what the Labour Government did to this country, our Government have trebled small business rate relief to help the very small businesses that need that targeted help. We have reduced national insurance costs and corporation tax costs, and that has led to the 1.4 million extra jobs, the 400,000 new businesses and the growth in the economy that we are seeing at the moment.
Labour’s plans do not reduce; they redistribute, using a sleight of hand. By raising business tax, the Opposition are punishing those who have pulled us out of the previous Government’s economic abyss. Labour’s promise of tax cuts in the motion would breach the Trade Descriptions Act—read the small print. What the Opposition give with one hand, they take away in corporation tax with another. Only this Government are taking the bold action to get our economy working for everyone, to create more jobs and turn Britain around. I urge the House to reject the Opposition’s motion, and I commend the Government amendment to the House.
Order. As a large number of Members wish to take part in this afternoon’s debate, there will be a six-minute time limit to start with on all contributions by Back-Bench Members. We will have to review the time limit during the course of the debate. It might be necessary to reduce it further.
This is an important debate because business rates are clearly an important cost—and a rising percentage cost—for many businesses, particularly small businesses, in the country. Business rates have gone up faster than turnover during times of economic difficulty. They are important for local councils because they comprise more than 50% of their revenue. If the Minister had until the end of the debate to explain the whole system to us, he would still need more time for the details. There is the retention of rates by local authorities, the provision of resources to the Exchequer which are then redistributed to local authorities, the set aside that the Treasury can keep, and the safety nets and the levies that go on to authorities that are in different positions. It is an incredibly complicated system.
One welcome thing that the Minister mentioned is a review of the appeal system. It is completely unacceptable that it can take up to 18 months or longer for appeals to be held. First, for the businesses themselves, they do not know how they will be placed when they are waiting for their appeal to be determined. Secondly, for the local authorities, an appeal casts doubts over their income stream. One thing the Minister could do before the review is announced and then carried out is to ensure that next year the element of hold-back for local authorities is removed. Ministers could take on board any uncertainties about the valuations and how they will work out through the appeal system, rather than leaving the problem for the local authorities to bear.
My hon. Friend is raising an incredibly important point. There were 173,000 appeals this financial year still waiting to be dealt with at the Valuation Office Agency, and 170,000 at the Valuation Tribunal Service. The review should be very quick, otherwise businesses will go under.
It has to be quick, and it will need more resources being put into it as well. The Minister cannot do this at nil cost. It will be interesting to see how this develops. Hopefully, as my hon. Friend says, it will develop very quickly.
In the longer term, we need a complete review of the business rates system. We need to look at the way in which valuations are carried out. The Local Government Association has called for that review, and I thoroughly support it. It should form part of a wider review of local government finance, and the Select Committee, which I chair, will now be carrying out a review of fiscal devolution to cities on the back of the London Finance Commission, which the Mayor of London has commissioned and which Labour and Tory London boroughs and the core cities have supported. I will not come to a view about whether its proposals are right, but it is interesting that there is now a call for a wider look at the whole basis of property tax in this country and the extent to which it can be devolved down to local authorities.
Were the Chancellor to make any changes tomorrow to business rates for next year—and we hope there will not be a commitment to increase business rates by RPI, as has been the case for the past few years—any reduction must not come at the expense of local councils, which are very hard pressed at this time of austerity and restraint on their spending. Any commitment must be made clear. We need to know the impact of lower business rates not just on councils as a whole but on each individual council in the country— I ask the
Minister to put the details in the Library—once the levies and safety nets are taken into account. That must be made explicitly clear for their benefit.
Business rates are a real problem for firms up and down the country. The percentage of their turnover paid in business rates has increased, and that is putting real pressure on small businesses in particular. If the Government recognise that, and recognise the need for action, why are they so mealy-mouthed as to say, “No increase in line with RPI—we will simply reduce that increase to 2%”? If there is a problem, which the Chancellor might recognise tomorrow, why not go that bit further and at least freeze business rates or, even better, take up the suggestion of my hon. Friend Toby Perkins and cut them? If there is a problem, why not address it properly? If there is not, why go for a 2% increase? The Government have a fundamental question to answer on this issue.
The Government must also deal with the disproportionate impact of business rate increases. Firms in different parts of the country are suffering in different ways. In parts of the country where demand has not recovered, where growth has not increased and where there is poverty and deprivation, businesses are suffering more. A revaluation would have addressed precisely that.
Absolutely. The economy is not rebalanced and some areas are doing better than others. The areas that are doing less well have businesses that are struggling and that is why revaluation would have been important.
The Minister says that a revaluation would somehow affect businesses adversely. No, it would not. A revaluation should be a zero-sum game as far as businesses are concerned. The Minister said that there was no benefit to the Treasury. Every previous revaluation has had dampening put in to protect firms that are likely to see a significant increase in their rates. There has always been a net cost to the Treasury as a result of any revaluation, particularly when there are big changes—as there could well have been if a revaluation had been carried out. The cost of any revaluation would have been borne not by businesses but by the Treasury, and I suggest that that is why the Government did not go ahead with it in the end. It was another stealth saving by the Chancellor to try to ensure that they did not have to put in the costs of protecting firms from large increases. At the same time, of course, he has caused additional costs for firms that are struggling in the less prosperous parts of the country, which has been the real disadvantage of not going ahead with revaluation.
I will also be critical of the previous Labour Government, who did not go ahead with a revaluation of council tax. In the longer term, delaying valuations has had major disbenefits. There might be short-term advantages, as it does not cause problems for the Government in explaining to some people why their taxes have gone up, but in the medium and longer term it is always a disaster to put off revaluations, because when they are eventually handled they become even larger, more difficult to deal with and more difficult to explain. That is the simple reality.
If we are thinking about the retail sector, we must consider the greater benefits that the postponement of revaluation allows for out-of-town shopping centres. When we consider revaluation and the whole system in future, we must consider the fact that the value of rates for out-of-town shopping centres, compared with those for smaller shops in the high street, is not fair at all. Were we to have a revaluation now, I would suggest that we took account of the fact that an increase in empty properties on the high street would likely see the valuation of shops there go down. If the planning system works as the Government intend and we have a town and city centre-first policy, the constraint on future out-of-town developments should put a premium on the existing developments and cause a relative increase in the rateable value of such properties. Postponing the revaluation has had a disadvantage for the high street and an advantage for out-of-town centres, and we should take account of that.
There are a lot of issues for the Government to consider. We need a longer term reform of business rates and to go back and consider revaluation, as it was not fair to postpone it. If there is a problem and we are to have some change to the business rates next year, let us make it a cut not—
In 2008 and 2009, 500,000 businesses failed in the UK as a result as a result of disastrous economic policy management. One in 10 of those businesses failed in the east of England. The financial crash was particularly bad news for small businesses, because as we know small businesses are much more reliant on, and exposed to, direct bank lending as they do not have the same kind of access as large businesses to debt equity markets and other forms of sophisticated finance. They are under pressure.
In Bury St Edmunds, which over the past 10 years has been consistently rated as one of the most profitable county market towns in the east of England, there are still too many empty business premises, including in prime sites such as the corn exchange and the butter market. In Churchgate street in the historic town centre, two independent retailers of long standing, a shoe shop and a book shop, have had to move out because they can no longer bear the burden of rates. So there is a problem.
I praise the Minister, my hon. Friend Brandon Lewis, for setting out in what I thought was an extremely powerful and convincing speech exactly what the coalition Government have done over the past three years to support small business. It leads me to the conclusion that we can rightly claim to be the party of small business. The Chancellor, in particular, has done his bit. With the cut to 20p, we now have the most competitive rate of corporation tax in the whole G20. Also, let us not forget that the first £2,000 of an employer’s national insurance contributions have been wiped out. That is important because 450,000 small businesses now pay no employer NICs as a result of the Government’s action.
I want to focus on two things that I would like to see in the autumn statement that would allow us to go further and deliver more help to small businesses in the area of business rates. Let us not forget that small businesses, which I define as those with fewer than 50 employees, constitute 99% of all businesses in the UK and represent one third of private sector turnover.
I would first like to praise the extension of the small business rate relief discount in a targeted way from 50% to 100%. However, the problem is that it is due to expire next April. I will pray in aid the words of my hon. Friend the Minister, who has stated:
“Tax stability is vital to businesses looking to grow and help improve the economy.”—[Hansard, 18 October 2012; Vol. 551, c. 32WS.]
He is so right. Businesses do not want tax uncertainty. In tomorrow’s statement, I would like to see the SBRR not just extended for another year or two, but made permanent.
My second point relates to RPI uprating. Last September RPI was running at 3.2%. In Mid Suffolk, where my biggest town is Stowmarket, the full 3.2% whack would mean an increase of £216, and in Bury St Edmunds, where the local authority is St Edmundsbury borough council, the average business rate bill after reliefs is £12,865 and a full-whack increase of 3.2% would jack up business rates by £411, so we are not talking about inconsequential sums of money. If we cannot have a 0% increase, I hope that the CBI’s proposal of 2%, which has been costed at around £327 million, would go some way towards relieving the rates burden.
Time is short, so I will end my comments with one parochial example of a small retail business in Stowmarket, the second biggest town in my constituency. The business has a rateable value of £6,000. If action is not taken, the failure to extend the deadline for the SBRR, which it currently enjoys, beyond April next year or make it permanent would cost the business, with the 3.2% increase, an extra £1,430. If it is faced with the increase of a 3.2% uprating, plus no extension of the rate relief it currently enjoys, it will go under.
The Government deserve a big tick, because a lot has been done, but there is a lot more to do. I commend the measures we have taken so far. Let us hope that we see a bit more tomorrow.
Like many colleagues, I am looking forward to small business Saturday on
I would like to put on record my thanks to Redcar and Cleveland borough council, which bent over backwards in relation to the new SSI steelworks in Redcar. The council was owed to the tune of £20 million in rates and gave the company a lot of slack to make sure that we could keep steel production in Teesside—something very close to my heart. Having heard about that today, we also heard about job losses at the Lotte chemical site. In summer 2009, the former Labour Government, alongside One North East, the regional development agency, took the former company out of a position of administration and got a south Korean company called Lotte to come in and purchase it, and it got the polyethylene plant running again in April 2010. There are good examples from the past for the Government to look at, irrespective of which party was in power.
An important factor in my constituency—I raised this in a debate last week and the week before that—is female unemployment. Long-term female unemployment has risen by 144%, and that is having massive consequences on the high street. One element is weekly wages. Female average gross weekly earnings are down by £12.30 a week since the last general election, and that will have frightening effects on small businesses.
Does my hon. Friend agree that those statistics are all the more concerning when we consider that food price inflation has gone up by 18% since the crash?
I keep coming back to that point time and again. This is not just about incomes but the availability of jobs and their levels of pay. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East detailed, the number of jobs for women is limited, and that is particularly so in the north-east. In my area, the public sector, which was a large employer of females, has been haemorrhaging jobs, and 16% or 17% of workers are care workers, many of whom are women on zero-hours contracts. This has an effect on small businesses further down the supply line.
Every penny counts for smaller businesses who are constantly watching the bottom line, but when the worst comes to the worst—when a business is forced to close its doors for the last time—that leads directly to a decline in employment. Tackling soaring business rates would limit the number of shops closing, and this in turn would help to prevent unemployment rising. This Government set the business rates that so many are struggling with. At a time when the Government should be backing small business, they appear once again to be on the wrong side. Large companies will have already had about £10 billion in tax cuts by 2015. It is right that we should have a globally competitive corporation tax rate, and we have supported those tax cuts, but the next priority should be cutting business rates, supporting small and medium-sized businesses, and relieving the pressure on our high streets.
Small businesses are integral and, in many cases, long-standing institutions within our communities, but business rates keep going up and up. Our high streets and town centres need a blend of independent shops alongside bigger well-known retail stores. That mix is really important for a vibrant and thriving local economy.
I completely agree about the importance of the high street. I am proud to be vice-chair of the all-party town centre group and the all-party retail group. One of the other big threats is internet sales—for example, an internet sports store may undercut traditional independent sports stores. What would the hon. Gentleman do in the business rates system to protect those outlets?
In my area, going back to pre-1997 when the Major Government established the Teesside Development Corporation, we saw the birth of out-of-town shopping developments, which had a far more profound effect on creating new shopping habits in, for example, Stockton high street in my home town of Middlesbrough and in the market towns of east Cleveland. I take on board the hon. Gentleman’s comments: the situation is difficult. We need small businesses to absorb that new internet market, and rural broadband and other new, inventive technologies will be important for them in doing that.
This month the Forum of Private Business conducted a survey of its members on the cost of doing business, and the No. 1 demand of small firms was action to tackle the rising cost of business rates. Understandably, I am proud that my party is taking the lead where this Government are failing and that it is standing up for small business owners by announcing a cut in rates in 2015 and a freeze in 2016. That action could save small businesses such as pubs, shops and start-ups an average of nearly £450 over two years, while some firms could save £2,000.
It is worth reminding Government Members that VAT was a Tory invention and that every time a Tory Government come into power they increase it, while Labour never increases it, but decreases it. Air passenger duty is another Tory indirect tax, as is the fuel duty escalator of John Major’s Government. I repeat what I said last week: the Conservative party has an addiction to keep increasing indirect taxation on the individual and on business.
Unfortunately, 2015 will be too late for some businesses. The Government need to take action now, and tomorrow’s autumn statement seems the perfect opportunity to do so. Now more than ever small firms need our support. High streets are suffering due to pressure from high energy bills, rising business rates and a lack of bank lending. To get our economy growing at a respectable rate, we must support small businesses that have so much potential to deliver the jobs we need not only in the future, but right now in my constituency and high streets and town centres across the country.
It probably will not surprise you to know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I rise to talk about a specific type of small business, namely the pub. As chairman of the all-party beer group it is, of course, my role to promote and support the needs and aims of our brewing and pub industries. I think we all recognise that 80% of pubs in our constituencies are small businesses. On average, they employ 16 people. They are the lifeblood of our community—we meet there to socialise, have fun and hold public meetings—but they are also important drivers of the economy locally. They are important businesses in our communities.
I am glad that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Brandon Lewis is present, because he is both the pubs Minister and the Minister for the high street. I think that few in this House have done more than him to stand up for and represent our pubs and to understand the issues that affect them. He has been a fantastic advocate for the industry in other Departments. I think that this is the most pub-friendly Government for many years, but there is more to do, because our pubs, as small businesses, are struggling.
Pubs are important not just for our communities, but for our high streets, which are changing and adapting. I think the Minister could do three things to support and help these vital small businesses in our communities. Something we could all do for small business Saturday is support a small business by having a pint of British beer in our local pubs in our constituencies.
Or an orange juice, of course.
The first thing the Minister could do relates to small business rate relief, which my hon. Friend Mr Ruffley has spoken about. Small business rate relief was introduced in 2005 and is hugely important for pubs. It is a very good thing and was extended to 2013-14 by the Chancellor in the 2012 autumn statement. It offers 100% relief for small businesses and is worth £1,000 a year to pubs. For pubs that are struggling and trying to cope with changes in the economy, £1,000 a year is hugely important. Sixteen thousand pubs across the country benefit from small business rate relief and that is worth £27 million to the industry in total. The Minister could pick up the telephone to the Chancellor this evening to ensure that he listens not only to me but to all the hon. Members who have signed early-day motion 599. Let us extend small business rate relief for pubs in our constituencies to 2015, or permanently, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds has suggested.
My second point is about discretionary rate relief. As the Minister will know, local authorities can offer it in relation to assets of community value, a fantastic thing brought in by this Government. Assisted by changes that came in earlier this year, local authorities can claim 50% of the discount back through the Treasury and the Department for Communities and Local Government. Will he do all he can to ensure that local authorities across the country take advantage of the scheme by offering it to their small businesses and helping pubs in their areas? I urge all right hon. and hon. Members to talk to their local authority about implementing the scheme.
My final point is about flexibility in relation to business rates. For commercial premises, business rates are assessed on square meterage, but for pubs, they are determined on turnover. Under previous legislation, if a pub’s turnover changed materially—“materially” is the important word—a concession could be offered. I urge the Minister to consider reintroducing such a provision to offer some relief to pubs that have a big change in turnover for the worse.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point about the significance of business rates for pubs. I am sure that he knows this from his perspective, but will he give us an idea of how many pubs have a rateable value of more than £50,000? I would think that there are very few, so virtually every pub would be able to drink to Labour’s business rate cut for all businesses below that £50,000 level. Will he support that policy for the sake of British pubs?
I am always prepared to listen to anything that might support the great British pub, but as the hon. Gentleman is from the party that introduced the hated beer duty escalator and the smoking ban, he needs to think long and hard about what he can do to support British pubs.
Does my hon. Friend agree that as Labour’s policy is barely worth more than £1 a day to businesses to which it will be offered, they would have to be pretty small beer indeed to get any value out of it?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend’s point. I also agree with those made by Mr Betts and, interestingly, by Andy Sawford on the speed of appeals. That issue is important because two thirds of pubs have appealed their business rates, and half of those decisions are still outstanding. Such delays can have a massive impact on small businesses that are really on a knife edge in terms of profitability and sustainability.
As I have said, the Minister is a passionate supporter of the great British pub and wants to lead a regeneration of our high streets, so will he take on board my three small points, pick up the phone to the Chancellor and do something to support our pubs?
I could talk for a long time about the Government’s economic policy, jobs and people’s incomes, and it would not surprise Government Members to know that I am not the biggest fan of their economic policy, but rather than do that today, I want to concentrate on small businesses in my constituency. Many of those businesses have worked incredibly hard to get through the past three years, and I feel that I owe it to them to stand up in the House and say a few words of support and congratulation, as well as to pass on some of the comments about business rates that they have made to me over recent weeks.
As I have mentioned, I am not a big fan of the Government’s economic policy, and I am not very keen on being in opposition—
I promise the hon. Gentleman that I will do everything in my power to make sure that I do not have much more of it.
It would not be good enough if I just came to the House and shouted my head off, although I may do so on occasion. Some of the most rewarding work that I have done as a Member of Parliament has been with businesses in my community, not least those in Bromborough village and Heswall, and as part of the New Ferry town team.
Bromborough in my constituency is the place where I grew up. It is a lovely place. Last Saturday, we had the Christmas event that is organised by the Bromborough village community association, which is led by local traders. Back in 2010, the village was becoming like a ghost town and shops were shutting left, right and centre. Local traders decided that up with that they would not put. They came together and worked with me to reshape the local parking arrangements and to organise market and community events that would bring life back into the village. They have been incredibly successful. They pre-empted small business Saturday by having their event last week. They deserve the biggest congratulations for what they have done.
Heswall has seen a lot of change in recent years. I have spent a long time listening to businesses talk about the problems that they have had with business rates and, more specifically, with appeals. I am interested to know more about the review of the appeals system that the Minister has set out. I have made representations before about that process and about the valuation office. I will work with businesses in Heswall to ensure that their views on appeals are known by the Minister.
When I met the Heswall and District Business Association recently, one of the traders asked me to relay their views to the Government. I am doing so today. They asked me to say that businesses in Heswall are fighting for their lives. I hope that the Minister has heard that. Small businesses out there, especially those in Heswall, have not had an easy few years, not least because of business rates. Immediate attention must be given to business rates generally and to the appeals system in particular.
New Ferry, which is just south of Birkenhead, had a tough time in the recession. I have chaired a town team that has sought to bring the community back together and to support New Ferry. It has recently had the excellent success of getting its Christmas lights up again. It is holding an event this Saturday for small business Saturday in which local traders are coming together just before Christmas to offer a 10% discount to people who shop in New Ferry. I would contrast the proactive attitude of those small businesses with the lackadaisical Chancellor, who said that he wanted to rebalance the British economy but has done the exact opposite.
Small businesses in my constituency have been clear in what they have said to me. Soccerloco Ltd said:
“The business rates system needs to be fundamentally reformed…this would play a small part in reviving the local economy”.
Wirral Tachograph said:
“The business rate relief has been a big help over the past few years.”
It said that that relief needs to continue to support small businesses, as my party has suggested. Finally, the award-winning Stuart Henry Kitchens, which is based in Bromborough, said:
“A rise in business rates will only force retailers like ourselves out of already expensive shops with higher rates into business parks which will kill the high street.”
I hope that anybody who does not think that our high streets are under enough pressure will listen to Stuart Henry Kitchens, because it knows what it is talking about.
My hon. Friend spoke a moment ago about the challenges faced by businesses in her constituency. She says that businesses are fighting for their lives. What does she think those businesses will think of a Government who are saying, “We can’t do anything about your business rates because we have to reduce taxes even further for those who are making over £300,000.”?
I think that those companies will be bemused, at best. I think that they will be angry and frustrated that the Government are not listening to the voices of businesses such as those that I have just quoted. It is not enough to say, “All that matters is the headline rate of corporation tax—we’ll just cut that.” The Chancellor used to talk about flat taxes, but that disappeared as he realised that they would be ineffective. The Government do not really seem to have learned the lesson, and they do not seem to understand what is necessary to rebalance our economy, so that it is stronger at the grass roots and less dictated to by corporations, many of which do a great job for our country but a number of which do not.
If the Government really listened to the voice of small business, they would focus on business rates, as we have, and consider the pro-business step that the Labour party has suggested. One of the most important and enjoyable jobs that I have done in opposition has been to work alongside the small businesses in Wirral South, and I will endeavour to keep doing so.
I first draw the House’s attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: I am a part-owner of a very small business. I apologise in advance if I miss the winding-up speeches, because the debate is not taking place at quite the expected time and I have another engagement that I cannot get out of.
It is important to take on board what a huge burden business rates and rents are when taken together, particularly for smaller firms. That is a problem in my local shopping district, where, following on from a point made by Alison McGovern, we will have our Christmas parade on Saturday. That event has been happening for decades and is incredibly important to our community. Broadstone chamber of trade organises it entirely, and hundreds and hundreds of people flood into our district shopping precinct, which is obviously good for trade. I am pleased that our district shopping centre qualified for £10,000 of Mary Portas funding, which was helpful. The business sector is also working within the neighbourhood forum, which is in the process of setting up its neighbourhood plan.
It is important to realise that, although there is a difficult economic climate, the Government have introduced many positive measures. The cutting of corporation tax, which has been mentioned, has been significant. Under the previous Government’s plans, there was a potential increase. The increase in small business rate relief has tripled its value, which is highly significant. Like other Members who have spoken, I will listen carefully to what the Chancellor of the Exchequer has to say about that tomorrow.
My hon. Friend Gordon Birtwistle campaigned to increase capital allowances, and the Chancellor thanked him personally in the 2012 autumn statement as he increased them tenfold. That helped small firms by offering them 100% tax relief on capital spending up to £250,000 for two years. The £2,000 employment allowance has been mentioned, and it has been incredibly important in helping small businesses take on more employees—a plus-plus all round.
There have been an enormous number of initiatives to try to counteract the failure of the banking system, which we inherited, and to try to get finance to small and medium-sized firms. The business bank is one of many. We are doubling the number of small and medium-sized enterprises exporting with help from UK Trade & Investment. I recently visited a local firm that has doubled its turnover in the past three years and has 130 employees, and it commented in particular on the support that it had received from UKTI. We have the regional growth fund, which is really important. Local enterprise partnerships are beginning to come together and work very well in some areas, and there are local enterprise zones, which have been mentioned in the debate. The Government have taken a lot of positive measures, which we should not overlook.
An interesting remark was made to me yesterday by the Wessex Federation of Small Businesses. It commented that many rents are inclusive of rates—a point that I had not thought about before—and that starter units within a larger complex do not benefit from business rate relief. Perhaps that issue could be looked at.
I endorse the comments made by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Brandon Lewis), who said that the Localism Act 2011 was important and brought in local choices and flexibility. If we are to have more discretionary business rate relief, it is the local area that knows best where to make those decisions. That is important for the potential of our high streets and district shopping centres.
I appreciate the move towards business rate retention by local authorities—although perhaps not the global sums of money involved—and I think that that is the right move to incentivise local authorities to attract business to the area. In the longer run, I would like a higher proportion of business rates to be retained within the local authority area, as that is the way we should go as a truly localist Government.
I will end with a comment from the Federation of Small Businesses, which said that the second wave of city deals—including for Bournemouth and Poole—will not have the same business rate retention as the first wave. I feel that would be a rather retrospective step, and I hope it can be looked at again.
Small businesses are the driving force behind future jobs and growth, and they now account for more than half the economy and most of the new jobs. In fact, in the next 15 years or so, small businesses will create more jobs that people are not even aware of yet. A recent survey by the Forum of Private Business found that action on business rates is the No. 1 demand from small firms. Many hard-working small businesses are relocating or closing down every week, and the fact that there are more than 40,000 empty shops on our streets is proof of that.
In my constituency, Bolton’s 9,000 businesses are being crippled by the increasing burden of business rates, and business rate liabilities will add £3.2 million to Bolton business costs from next April. The World of Wicker—a reputable business in my constituency—is now having to move out of its town centre location because
“business rates are too high”.
That is not an isolated case.
The average bill has now reached £14,000, compared with council tax of around £1,400. Obviously, some business premises tend to be larger than homes and they tend to be in town centres, but the bill should not be 10 times the size. At the moment, business rates bring in some £25 billion a year, which is just too high. Last year, the Government increased business rates by the biggest rise in 20 years, and during this Parliament, it is projected that another £6.5 billion will be added to the business rates bill.
“welcomes the focus by the Labour leadership on this critical issue for small businesses. It affects thousands of our members across the UK and is one which we’ve been lobbying on for some time.”
This is not something the Labour party has dreamt up because it had nothing else to do; it is a real issue that small businesses are asking and campaigning for.
The Labour party has proposed to help small businesses and our high streets by pledging to cut business rates in 2015 and to freeze them in 2016. That will mean an average saving of nearly £450 for about 1.5 million properties. That measure has been costed, and it will happen instead of the Government’s planned corporation tax cut for multinationals in 2015. That tax cut benefits only about 2% of British businesses, yet 98% of those businesses will have an increase in business rates.
I welcome today’s announcement by the Government that there will be some changes. Government Members will have to accept, however, that the Opposition have been constantly arguing for reducing, freezing or stopping business rates. Now, eventually, something is being done, but it is not enough.
Under Labour’s plan, 1.5 million start-ups, workshops and shops would benefit from a cut and then a freeze in business rates. I do not understand why Government Members find asking for business rates to be frozen or reduced so difficult to comprehend. They are happy to cut corporation tax for companies earning over £300,000, yet they are also happy to show no concern for small businesses, which are the backbone of our communities and which need our support, and moreover they think that we are somehow in the wrong for raising their concerns. I ask the Minister to realise that small businesses need as much help and assistance as we can give them.
Let me first make it clear that I believe that the business rates system we have essentially inherited over the years is fast becoming disproportionate for local shops and, frankly, it is an unfair tax. We inherited an appalling deficit, so we have to recognise that there is no easy fix. The Chancellor will inevitably want his £27 billion raised from business rates. However, the fact is that it is a property tax on business that is rightly perceived to be disproportionate for many, delivering no value, and unfair. Also, businesses cannot negotiate it, unlike just about everything else which is in their control. Shockingly, our business rates are a more significant tax on business property than comparable taxes in other European countries. Indeed, the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that business rates receipts will exceed council tax and fuel duties receipts in financial years 2014 and 2015.
There is a strong consensus—even in this House, I suspect—that the system is no longer fit for purpose, but we are in extremely difficult times, so there is no pretending there is an easy fix. I would like to see reforms that would have economic benefits, including a boost to jobs, which I believe will ultimately drive revenues through having more profitable businesses. There are serious concerns about the level of the tax on business, and there is a serious case for a review of the entire structure. I have lobbied publicly and privately for a commitment to that review and I think the case is overwhelming. The present situation means that businesses are at the mercy of an uprating system that is flawed and, to cut through the politics, the reality is that this has been going on for a long time. This is not a problem created by the Government parties.
Incidentally, I notice that although this is an Opposition day debate, there have been consistently more Conservative Members in the Chamber discussing this issue. I think it is worth putting that on the record. [Interruption.]. I pay tribute to all who have spoken in the debate, however, because all the contributions have been useful. [Interruption.] I am sorry Opposition Members do not like what I said, but it is a fact, so they will just have to deal with it.
According to the British Chambers of Commerce, an uprating of 3.2% would drive something like another £900 million in revenue. Interestingly, Opposition Members have been quoting the British Retail Consortium in support of their arguments, but they have not mentioned that the BRC said today that if speculation of a limit to a 2% rise is true, it would welcome that, as would its members, and that it sees see that as a clear indication of a direction of travel for business rates. As we on the Government Benches know, the key for businesses is as much the direction of travel of a tax—and having a sense of certainty as to where it is going—as having immediate relief. A real-terms cut is what will matter.
Having said that, we can do more, and we can do more now. I talked about section 69 of the Localism Act 2011 in an intervention, but the idea of scrutinising the powers of local authorities to make reductions did not seem to be met with universal approval by Opposition Members. I cannot understand why Opposition Members do not believe that local authorities should be challenging their expenditure and looking to apply discretionary relief by any means, supporting any sector of their local economy that they wish to support at a level that will attract 50% support from the Government. It is ludicrous that they do not embrace that and urge their councils to do it. I would welcome an intervention from anyone on that.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention and for drawing his local council to our attention. My council has spent £100,000 on conferences and, I understand, £106,000 on magazines, no doubt to promote a good message. That £200,000 in Enfield could have been subsidised by another 50% from the Government. If £100 million in rates and business rates is collected in our borough, and £3 million of discounts applied to the retail sector, or specific areas within the retail sector, that can translate into a significant cut to businesses. The council might not use those means, because it realises that there is a business audience scrutinising councils’ spending decisions and wondering why they do not manage the money they gather from taxpayers as if it was their own. That is what drives a business. Uncollected council tax seems to run year on year with no reduction. Enfield council is averaging nearly £1.5 million each year. Why is no effort made to improve that and divert those funds to support local businesses? The answer is that councils do not treat the money like it is their own.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point about local authorities subsidising business rates for certain sectors, but does he not accept that that can be done inappropriately? In Rochdale, one café has been given 100% business rate relief, causing competition problems for other cafés in the local area.
I accept that there is the potential for spurring artificial competition. That should not be the case. Section 69 of the Localism Act is clever, because it covers non-competitive areas. It could cover shopping parades as opposed to other centres, or retail alone—it does not have to back business to business. I hope that councils judge it well.
Some 17% of authorities have chosen to apply discretionary relief and have taken advantage of £8 million of Government subsidy. That is not a high take-up rate. There is part of me that wonders about the motivation for councils not doing so: they simply do not want to do so, which I do not understand; they are unaware of it; or there has not been sufficient knowledge and lobbying in constituencies to drive it. I can think of reasons why a council might not want take such action: it might not want to hold itself up to scrutiny or make a decision that it feels carries less political weight than supporting its businesses. However, it is key that MPs take the campaign to the streets to make councils, of whatever colour or persuasion, implement a plan that can deliver savings to our businesses. That cannot be done alone.
Business rates, important as they are, will not be the only measure to help high streets, in particular, to succeed. We need a holistic approach that involves parking and encouraging a culture where people support their local shops and spend a bit of money locally where previously they might have spent it somewhere else. The one non-negotiable, however, and probably one of the most repulsive taxes on business at the moment is the fixed high charge of business rates, and local councils could do something about that now.
I do welcome his opening remarks. He was absolutely right to say that business rates are a tax that is past its sell-by date. The need for reform has been well stated by him and many business leaders in the advice we have all received for this debate and over a much longer period. My hon. Friend Toby Perkins mentioned 1973 and the Heath Government. By way of context, it is instructive to consider the changes in business in the 40 years since.
When the hon. Member for Enfield North moved on to other matters, however—[Interruption.] I might detain him some time, I think. He talked about how councils should be supporting their businesses, and at the end he made some good suggestions about parking—I will give some examples of that from my own authority in a moment—but I disagreed with his point about 50% support for councils’ use of discretionary relief. I do not know the details of Enfield council, but the reality of the financial settlement that Sefton and other authorities in the metropolitan boroughs have received means that applying that 50% rule would be almost impossible, given the scale of the cuts to those authorities. In Sefton’s case, those cuts are more than 40%, and that is not untypical of the northern metropolitan boroughs.
I am not advocating cuts in social services or education. I am saying that there are areas of expenditure in a council’s budget that are relatively small and which, with 50% support, could make a massive difference to local retail shops.
I agree that small amounts of money can make a big difference to business—I will come on to that—but demand for social care for older and disabled people in places such as Sefton and the legal requirement to fund children’s services make it impossible to provide even relatively small sums of money, certainly on an ongoing basis.
Sefton has put aside a £1 million pot for the current financial year to provide support and has used it for some very good projects, including Christmas lights across the borough, in its various town and village centres, which has contributed. It also includes, I believe, £50,000 to accommodate free parking on Thursdays and Saturdays in the run-up to Christmas. That is part of small business Saturday, which my hon. Friend Mr Umunna introduced to this country and which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield. Those sorts of initiatives, using small amounts of money, certainly work very well, but it is problematic to try to extend it across a borough with an initiative such as discretionary relief, when cuts of 40%-plus have been made.
In addition to the successes in Sefton on parking and the Christmas lights, we have a number of town teams, as I know do other Members, and they have supported some fantastic local businesses in the towns of Formby, Crosby and Maghull in my constituency alone. On Monday, I was pleased to go along to the opening of five small units in a disused shop in the centre of
Maghull that the Labour borough council and Labour members of the town council had been instrumental in setting up. We have five traders, and I understand that trade is already brisk and that the initiative has been successful just in those first few days. That is a good use of the small amounts of money that the hon. Member for Enfield North mentioned, and it is quite right that we should talk about that.
I was surprised by the comments made by some Government Members about retailers. I think one or two of them implied that retailers were not important to the economy or the recovery, but they could not have been further from the truth. Retailers are at the heart of our communities. They and other businesses, particularly small businesses, suffer from high levels of business rates. When I travel round my constituency and meet small businesses, they raise the issue of business rates more than any other. Small businesses want to see action. The hon. Member for Enfield North mentioned the 2% freeze and the fact that the BRC and other business organisations have called for it. He is right about that, but they see it only as a first step—as something that is available because they feel that this Government will do it.
Those organisations also want to see what we are offering: a full business rate cut. We are talking about only a few hundred pounds with a 2% cap, whereas my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield is talking about a £450 cut. That is quite a significant difference, when costs are so tight and when we have retailers, as we all do, who are struggling to make ends meet and take enough money out of their businesses to survive.
Was my hon. Friend as appalled as I was to hear Government Members say, “Well, you know, £410 a year is only a pound or so a day to customers. It’s small beer”? If that is what Government Members think about business rates, does it not show how out of touch they are?
That is absolutely right. We have seen a massive growth in the number of small businesses. We now have 4.9 million businesses in this country; 40 years ago the figure was only 1 million. Of those 4.9 million, only 200,000 employ 10 or more people, while the vast majority employ a small number of people or are sole traders. For those businesses, a few hundred pounds makes all the difference and is a huge contribution. We were talking earlier about the difference that a small amount of money invested by a local authority makes, and the same is true when the money goes directly into the pockets of small business owners.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the cut to national insurance contributions, which is introduced in April and is worth £2,000, is worth considerably more than this policy from the Labour party? What we are asking for in this debate is a bit of context. Labour Members—the hon. Gentleman is in danger of falling into this trap—are presenting a relatively small initiative as some panacea to help small businesses, when it will do nothing of the sort and is small when compared with other measures that the Government have put in place.
No, I do not think our policy is a panacea; I think it is an important initiative that would give support directly. Members were talking earlier about how we would pay for the measure by not introducing the 1% cut in corporation tax and how that money would feed through into small businesses, and this point is similar, because what small businesses need is direct help. Expecting that support to feed through indirectly through the economy means it will take much longer to help. The help is needed now; that is why our proposal is so important. I hope that hon. Members will support my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield and his motion tonight.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. In the excitement of being called to speak so early, I forgot to notify the House that my wife runs a business, which obviously pays business rates, that was formerly my company. I want to put that on the record and I am grateful to you for allowing me to do so.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, as I am sure the House is too. Transparency is always a good idea in the House and that will be shown in the record, so I thank him for his point of order.
I am pleased to be able to speak in the debate. There are many small businesses in St Albans, and I think that there is consensus in the House that business rates impose an onerous task on them in particular. As was pointed out by my hon. Friend Nick de Bois, they are a tax on properties, and they are indeed onerous. However, there are many other strands to the stresses and strains suffered by business, and many of my local businesses have welcomed the Government’s initiatives to cut red tape, keep fuel duty down and introduce economic stability.
It is no secret that under the last Government many people running small businesses—including a number who spoke to me—were unable to renew their loans or the terms with which they were being presented, because of the fragility of the banking sector and the economic crisis into which the country was sinking. Because of the onerous conditions that were being placed on their loans, they were being forced to lose members of staff, not to expand, or even to go under.
We must view the position in the round. Many small businesses were approaching a tipping point under the last Government because of the crises that they were being pushed into. We must deal with that now, although nothing can be fixed overnight. When the Secretary of State for Education came to St Albans, my local chamber of commerce welcomed, in particular, the fact that the Government were providing the apprenticeships and education that most small businesses had been crying out for.
Seductive though Labour’s proposals may be, I do not understand how robbing Peter to pay Paul can possibly be a good idea. I also notice the sheer lack of figures. We have been discussing which businesses would be caught or not caught, supported or not supported, by Labour’s proposals, but I can inform the House that the average rateable value of commercial property in St Albans city centre is £48,811.51, and the average in St Albans as a whole is £40,216. The city contains very few large premises; the valuations are high because we have such high property values.
Let me issue a plea to the Minister. St Albans is not inner London, and many small businesses there do not benefit from the small business rate relief for high-value areas. That problem was drawn to my attention a few weeks ago, long before the debate was scheduled, by Luisa and Oliver Zissman, who run Dixie’s Cupcakery in St Albans. I think we all agree that small businesses feel that they are being taxed and are receiving very little value in return for the business rates that they pay. That is exactly what Luisa Zissman said, but she also said that if other measures were introduced, business rates would not be so onerous. Some businesses, such as Dixie’s Cupcakery, produce a lot of packaging. Perhaps their recycled rubbish could be included in council recycling targets, because at present that is just a direct cost to their business.
I welcome the Government’s focus on markets. St Albans is the proud owner of one of the longest street markets in the country—some say in Europe—which is open on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Since 2010, with the Government’s encouragement, it has frozen council tax each year. I pay tribute to the leader of the Conservative-led council for cutting down on, for instance, the free sandwiches and coffee machines that used to be given to councillors. I urge the council to go one step further and get rid of the council election “thirds” that many of the councillors seem to like, thus saving £90,000 per election. As my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North said, if councils made such savings they might have a bit more money to put towards businesses. However, I pay tribute to my council for cutting waste and keeping the services in St Albans. If it is possible for some recycling collections for small businesses to contribute to local targets so that they can save on overheads and other costs, so much the better. Our Christmas market—the first that we have had in St Albans—adds vibrancy to the city centre. All those things help other small businesses to survive.
I think that this Monday was supposed to be “internet frenzy spending day”. The fact is, however, that if we do not use our small businesses but go online and use the big companies, and if we Google Amazon to find out where we can get our books most cheaply instead of going to our local stores in our town and city centres, we are contributing to the demise of local businesses and the problems that are besetting them.
I am delighted that this Government are tackling some of the excesses of the previous Government, and that they are pragmatic enough to realise that they cannot do it all once. I welcome the moves that they have taken. I am sure people will say that this is just the first step; well, so be it. There will be many more steps to come. I hope that the Chancellor will bear in mind when he makes his announcement tomorrow that some businesses are not in London but in expensive areas outside the capital, and that they too need some sort of transitional help to ensure that their businesses can be successful.
It is a delight to follow Mrs Main. Let me start by declaring an interest: I have recently initiated a business rates appeal in regard to Danczuk’s Deli, which opens this Saturday in Rochdale. I thought it right and proper that I should put that fact—it is not an advertisement—on record.
I have been banging on about business rates for some time now. I was doing it even when it was unfashionable. It is funny how things change. A Labour leader has been cheered to the rafters at the Labour party conference, not for proposing to nationalise the FTSE 100 companies or anything like that, but for proposing to freeze and cut business rates. Labour is the friend of small business, the Conservatives are perceived as the friends of big business, and the Liberals do not have any friends at all.
Labour is the friend of small business, but it does not stop there. Everyone is concerned about business rates, including the Confederation of British Industry, the Federation of Small Businesses, the British Independent Retailers Association, the British Retail Consortium, the British Chambers of Commerce and the Forum of Private Business—the list goes on and on. In fact, I want to ask the Minister to name a significant business person who thinks that business rates are fit for purpose. I invite him to intervene on me if he can do so. Let us be clear: there is dismay and concern about the business rates regime, not only in the business community but on the Minister’s Back Benches. I have done a little bit of research, and found out that the following Conservative MPs have all raised concerns about business rates: the hon. Members for Witham (Priti Patel), for South Suffolk (Mr Yeo), for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady), for Watford (Richard Harrington), for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod), for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams), for Enfield North (Nick de Bois), for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris), for Worcester (Mr Walker), for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) and for Crawley (Henry Smith). And we have heard from more tonight.
Even this Government’s Business Secretary raised concerns at a conference in March, saying that the business rates regime was “old fashioned”, and that there were
“all kinds of hidden distortions”.
He went on:
“Is the valuation base the right one? That is the fundamental question we should be asking.”
And never mind asking the Minister to name a significant business person who supports the current business rates regime; can he name anyone in his own party or in the Government who does so? The silence is deafening, because the reality is that nobody supports the present arrangements.
There was a simple solution that was used to address the inequalities in business rates and to retain some fairness in the system: it was the regular business rates revaluation. But what did the Government do? They postponed the revaluation, which would have re-aligned business rates with property values. People, particularly those in smaller businesses, are asking why the Government would want to postpone fairness. What is the logic behind retaining unfairness? That question needs to be answered.
“The biggest beneficiaries from a 2015 revaluation would not have been small shops, including in the north of England, but prime office space in London.”—[Hansard, 16 October 2013; Vol. 568, c. 817.]
That is simply untrue. In my constituency, people are paying more in business rates because the revaluation is not taking place. That has been proved. Cushman & Wakefield, a leading global property consultant, provides a quarterly central London index covering central London office space. It shows beyond doubt that the Valuation Office Agency had overestimated the effect on London offices of a 2015 revaluation and that, in fact, they would have paid more as a consequence of that revaluation. So I challenge what the Minister has said.
The British Property Federation’s lease events report, published last month, clearly states that
“retails outside of London and the South East saw rental income fall for all leases upon renewal or re-letting.”
One point that my hon. Friend is making is about the effect on retail. Is it not the case that tens of thousands of shops could close unless this issue is addressed, with the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs? The jobs of young people would be particularly affected, because many young people start their careers in retail.
This relates to fairness. I have frequented Rochdale on many occasions—in fact, I used to run a business on the high street there. One key thing about Rochdale is that it has a lot of empty shops. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the biggest imposition on retail on the high street was the imposition by the previous Government of rates on empty properties?
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman at all. My area has the national average for the number of empty shops, and no more. Those rates encourage and enable landlords to fill the empty shops, because there is a need for them to have somebody paying business rates.
The revaluation policy has saved London businesses vast sums in business rates. Hackett on Regent street, a high-end fashion retailer, has saved nearly half a million pounds on business rates. Smythson on Bond street, where the Prime Minister’s wife is an adviser, has saved in excess of £850,000 on business rates because of the lack of a revaluation. Even the Government’s own adviser, Mary Portas, has said that this is “bloody mad”. Rochdale is subsidising Regent street, and it is just not fair. The Minister challenged my figures earlier. I have them here, and he has not seen them before because they were generated only today. Greater Manchester local authorities—all 10 combined—are paying an extra £61 million in business rates because the Minister decided to pull the revaluation.
The other significant point I wish to make is that the Government should cut business rates and then freeze them. They have the money to do that, because by stopping the revaluation, they have saved £1 billion by not implementing the transitional scheme that would have had to be in place under the revaluation. The
Minister should explain something to us: if £300 million is being used by the Chancellor to make a cut to 2%, what is the other £700 million being used for?
I will let the Minister deal with that when he winds up. I wish to make a few final points. We have the highest property taxes in the developed world and we need radically to reform business rates. The Minister should listen to his own Back Benchers. He should take heed of what Labour has been proposing. He should take heed of The Daily Telegraphand its excellent Fix The Rates campaign. We need a radical cut to business rates and we then need to see them frozen. I am glad that if this Government will not act on business rates, a Labour Government certainly will do.
Order. I am cutting the time limit to five minutes, from now, for each Back-Bench contribution. The wind-ups for this debate will start at 7.46 pm. I hope that we will be able to fit everybody in, but we may not.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, especially for telling me that my time has been cut short.
It is a pleasure to follow Simon Danczuk, who made some telling points. I lost him somewhere along the line, but in the main he made constructive points. Sometimes it befits the elderly to give a history lesson to those who follow, and it is often a salutary exercise. We would not be where we are today if there were not a load of history behind all the stuff that we are now facing. That seems to have been forgotten by some of the younger Members on the Opposition Benches, so I will help them. I am going to elucidate and explain why we are where we are today. We had a structural deficit in the previous Government from 2002 onwards—[Interruption.] They don’t like it up ‘em. We saw the destruction of the most effective private pension scheme in Europe, and the sale of 25% of our gold reserves at the most ludicrously laughable low price. We arrived at a £160 billion—[Interruption.] The trouble is they do not like it. We arrived at a £160 billion deficit by borrowing £1 in every £4 we spent. No wonder we are in a spot of trouble. No wonder the Government are struggling to find their way to those uplands of economic well-being, and by golly they are doing it. I want to pay tribute to the Government for the way in which they have created 1,400,000 jobs, 400,000 new businesses and the fastest growing economy in the western world. Opposition Members can put their heads in their hands, but those are the facts and they need to face up to them.
Now let me talk about business rates. Sadly, the Government have not been able to do as much as they wanted to do because we were left with an appalling legacy. It would befit the Opposition to recognise that fact just a little bit more. In truth there is a problem with business rates; they do need reforming, but no political party and no Government in this country have ever wanted to face a revaluation, and that goes for that lot over there as well as our lot, and they need to remember that.
Business rates are causing hardship for businesses, and preventing others from growing. They bring in £25 billion to the Exchequer. The Federation of Small Businesses claims that 30% of small and medium-sized enterprises are paying more in business rates than they are in rents, so there is clearly a difficult problem. We need to recognise that together and the history that led up to it. If we all did that, perhaps the people out there would think that we were a little more adult.
We could see an increase in business rates of some £242 million, unless the Chancellor announces a decision tomorrow. That could mean 6,000 shops and 8,000 jobs disappearing. It is a real problem, particularly when we consider that 40,000 high street shops remain empty across the country. Local authorities need more to help them revitalise and grow the sector. I have heard some very credible schemes from Opposition Members, and I welcome them. In my constituency, we have a scheme called Northampton Alive in which 21 major projects are linked to creating 2,016 jobs for those not in education, employment or training by 2016, and to a people’s forum, so they can take ownership of how the town is changing—a new station, a new bus interchange and a new road to the west. Yes, we have got down to business in Northampton, and we have got down to ensuring that our businesses receive rate relief. We have the highest figure—£1.5 million—in the country, and I applaud Northampton council for doing that.
We all need to recognise that something needs to be done about business rates. I hope that my party does it very quickly, because the truth is that the Opposition did not do anything when they had the opportunity, and they should remember that fact.
It is a great pleasure to follow Mr Binley. Like him, I have started and owned a number of small businesses. I know that a number of Government Members have not, and some could barely run a tap based on what they have been saying.
I am a great supporter of small businesses in Swansea—people like Joe’s Ice Cream and Tomos Watkin’s. I have had them up here and I will be visiting them later this week. We should remember when we have these history lessons that the last time we saw mass bankruptcies was under the Tories, and that is happening again. Why? We have heard about growth—the fastest growth in Europe, I think they said—but when we analyse that growth, we can see that it is a combination of mortgage lending and consumer debt lending, which is now at its 2008 level. Bank lending for investment is down 32% and the share of small businesses in business lending is down from 42% to 27%. That is appalling for small business. Royal Bank of Scotland is the Government-owned bank, in essence, and its share of small business lending has fallen from 40% to 33%. It has double dealt and all the rest of it.
This is a big issue. I made some of these points last week and Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, has switched the focus of the direction of business away from mortgages. Productivity is still 5% in Britain whereas it is up 8% in the USA. That is why people are poor and cannot afford to deal with the cost of living crisis, which is why Labour is talking about energy and business rates. Labour is in touch with the reality for small businesses.
There is a clear choice. Do we want a corporation tax cut, when we have the most competitive rates in the world already and when companies need profit to pay that tax? Or do we cut costs, so that the businesses that are not making any profit can survive? My choice is small business. People talk about Peter and Paul and we are talking about small versus big, rich versus poor. We know what side the Tories are on with the millionaires’ tax cut and the rest of it.
Look at procurement. In Wales, 65% of procurement goes to small business, which generates local jobs and corporation tax paid to the Exchequer. In England, 6% goes to small business so the rest goes to big business—international businesses that do not pay corporation tax and employ people in Germany or wherever else. There is no evaluation of the overall economic impact on small business and what the country is doing.
We have talked about infrastructure again today and 80% of funding goes to London and the south-east. How much of that goes to small business? Very little. What about HS2? We are giving it away to the Chinese. What are the Government doing? They are hopeless at protecting our interests. There needs to be a big conversation among Government, big and small business and trade unions.
I am glad that there will be a cross-party debate next week about Ford, which is not funding pensioners—people who worked all their lives for Ford and were sent away because they were with Visteon. I am having my own dialogue with Amazon, a local company that I think is not paying fair tax. “Panorama” also showed that there is not fair treatment in Amazon and there is some suggestion that it might be in cahoots with the DVLA and Royal Mail on local wage setting. I will be asking the Office of Fair Trading to look into that.
I have worked for multinational companies in charge of global brands and we need fair treatment, fair tax and fair play. Incidentally, I did not vote for the EU-Colombia free trade agreement because of what is happening in Colombia to trade unionists and the like. It is important that we support initiatives such as Labour’s proposal on council tax and what we are doing in Wales. The bottom line is that on lending, procurement, infrastructure, business rates and energy costs, Labour means business—a strong business community moving forward to a future that cares, a future that works and a society that is united and strong rather than divided and weak.
I shall give up the rest of my time for future speakers, but let me just say that we must focus on small business and stop letting people such as Vodafone get off with £50 billion of income from their latest share deal while paying no corporation tax. Let’s get real, let’s get fair and let’s make Britain strong again.
The Government are focused on small businesses and have a tremendous record. In regulation, we have the red tape challenge, with 6,000 regulations scrutinised and 3,000 to be given a severe hair cut. On tax, we have cut corporation tax and the employer allowance is extraordinarily good news, well loved and well liked. On access to finance, funding for lending has been one of the best success stories, but today we are talking about business rates.
As my hon. Friend Mr Binley identified, business rates have been with us for a long time. They emanate from the Poor Laws in the 1500s and the Rating and Valuation Act 1925 was the origin of the modern tax, most recently affected by the Local Government Finance Act 1988. It started out very simple: rateable value times multiplier. It is absolutely right to say that over time it has become incredibly complicated. The issue is not only about affordability, although I certainly hope that the Chancellor can do something about that in his autumn statement, but about fairness and lack of transparency. Why is it unfair? It is unfair because rateable value is not calculated in a simple way. It can depend on whether a business is in town or out of town. It can depend on its gross internal area or net internal area, or whether it has a car park. For a large out-of-town store, for example, a car park is not included. The situation is different for pubs, because in the 1800s they were deemed to have a monopoly, so their rates were based not on rateable value or rent, but on turnover. These days, they do not have a monopoly, so that certainly needs to be addressed.
The reliefs are equally confusing. The small business rate relief is fantastic, and it is to the Government’s credit that they have doubled it in their time in office. Hopefully they will consider an extension. Charities still have 80% relief and it really does not matter what rateable value they have. There are special reliefs for some obscure businesses in rural areas. For example, pubs and petrol stations in rural areas get 50% relief, but up to a rateable value of £12,500. There are many other areas that are completely inconsistent.
We need transparency, because businesses do not understand how their rates have been calculated and cannot see what benefit they get. Redress is limited, because appeals can take months and, unfortunately, local authority discretion, which we welcomed in the Localism Act 2011, is not being used, as has been mentioned. With revaluations every five years, there can be a long time to wait.
However, there are solutions. The Government have a fantastic record, but there is more to do. In the short term, a small cap of perhaps 2%—that figure has been mentioned in the media—would be brilliant. I would welcome any extension of the small business rate relief, and I certainly agree with my hon. Friend Mr Ruffley that it should be made permanent.
In the medium term, we need to review the statutory reliefs and consider whether we could revalue every other year—from my conversations with the valuation office, I think that would be possible—which would ease the burden of appeals. If we are serious about allowing businesses to see that they get some value, because half of the money from business rates goes back into the local community, why do we not state on the back of the bills exactly what the council has done for businesses? We might also look at reviewing the use of the multiplier, which currently is used only to distinguish between the different countries that make up the United Kingdom, but it could be used to better target reliefs.
In the long term, I agree with those Members who have said that the current system is simply not fit for purpose. We need a review. We need to look at it in the context of the importance of retail, the high street and small businesses in this country. Let us review the methodology and make it simpler and fairer. Let us look at how we calculate rates for each individual business payer so that they can understand it. Let us look at how we can encourage local authorities to do more to recognise the needs of small businesses and to help them. Let us make the process easier so that the system works.
Business rates remain one of the outstanding issues that need to be addressed. That in no way detracts from the Government’s fantastic record on what they have done for small businesses, but this needs to be addressed.
It is a pleasure to follow Anne Marie Morris and to contribute to the debate on behalf of businesses in my constituency. We are obviously focusing on small businesses this evening, and this is a pertinent debate for them, but it is also pertinent for the mighty Trafford centre in my constituency. It is perhaps not surprising that the debate covers the whole range of businesses in my constituency, when we consider that the average increase in business rates in Trafford has been considerably higher than the English average.
I want to pick up, in particular, on the Minister’s welcome comment about the Government’s intention to review the Valuation Office Agency’s performance in the system of appeals, because that is an area of great concern to businesses in my constituency. The long delays before they can see appeals resolved are putting some businesses under huge cash-flow pressure and others at risk of insolvency. Although the Minister claimed that the Valuation Office Agency’s performance has improved in recent months, it is not good enough for us to be in any way complacent. At this point, in relation to the 2010 list, performance in clearing appeals is considerably worse than it was at the same point in relation to the 2005 list, so clearly there is real pressure building up in the system and we need to unblock that and identify the drivers of those pressures. It is worrying that the data that enable us to judge the VOA’s performance are apparently being suppressed. We were receiving quarterly performance data, but now we are to receive it only six-monthly, apparently on the basis that that will enhance the service to users. It is difficult to see how less frequent reporting can do that. I hope that the review will have a comprehensive and honest look at the difficulties in the system.
Let me highlight a few issues that I hope Ministers will be able to pick up when they embark on the review. First, the VOA repeatedly expresses concerns about the actions of agents in relation to the handling of appeals, and sometimes suggests that they are one of the drivers of delay. In fact, many of the processes that businesses have to go through are extremely complex, and so any opportunities to simplify the appeals process would be very welcome. I think that agents themselves would say that.
Secondly, the VOA often argues that in many cases submitted to appeal, there is no change in the assessment at the end of the appeal process. Let us remember, however, that those cases include quite a number that never complete the process because there is a protective appeal or because the business becomes insolvent before the appeal can be resolved, which is obviously not good and may be because of delays in handling it or because the case has been re-appealed. It will be important to understand what is driving these no-change decisions and to be clear that we are focusing on the real issues and not just taking a broad-brush approach.
The whole ethos of what the agency is seeking to achieve needs to be part of the scrutiny that I hope the Government will undertake. Its role is not simply to protect the list, as sometimes seems to be the case, but to ensure true and fair business rate assessments. It is very important that that purpose is put absolutely at the heart of the review.
I hope that the Minister will look at some of the recent changes to statements of practice and guidance, which seem to have led to an unwillingness on the part of the agency to enter into constructive and meaningful negotiations in order to arrive at the right level of business rates for a particular business. There are serious concerns about the agency’s ethos and approach, and I hope the review will be able to uncover that.
Of course, it will be important that the agency has the resources to carry out appeals expeditiously, efficiently and accurately. I hope that that, too, is something that Ministers will take on board.
I call Robin Walker. The next two speakers have four minutes each.
I congratulate Kate Green on her speech. She drew attention to some important issues about the Valuation Office Agency that I have spoken about before and do not intend to touch on now, so I am grateful that she covered them. Like my hon. Friends the Members for Enfield North (Nick de Bois), for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) and for Northampton South (Mr Binley), I believe that business rates need fundamental reform, and I hope we can start that process tomorrow.
The Labour party’s motion does not just propose to rob Peter to pay Paul; it goes directly against its record in government, when it charged higher rates of tax on smaller businesses than on large ones and resisted the many attempts of my hon. Friend Peter Luff, through his chairmanship of the cross-party Business, Innovation and Skills Committee and his private Member’s Bill, to extend small business rate relief to many more small businesses. One of the best things that could be done to help small businesses was done when my hon. Friend’s suggestion of making the small business rate relief automatic for thousands of businesses was accepted, not by Labour but by this coalition Government.
Another was the doubling of the threshold for small business rate relief, but I regret that that was done only on a temporary basis with a deadline to expire in 2014. I hope that that can be addressed in tomorrow’s statement. I have had representations to that effect from the excellent Wise Owl Toys in Worcester and from Greenway Landscape Architects, who say that if they were asked to pay business rates on their office they would have to close it down and work from home instead. Both businesses point out that there would be no net gain to the Treasury or to local government from allowing the relief to expire in March 2014, as they simply could not afford to pay the rates that would be due.
We should do more to help small businesses, but helping the smallest businesses should not be the limit of our ambition. We should also be seeking to help businesses as they grow and create more jobs. One of the perverse consequences of the generous system of relief that the coalition has offered is that it creates a shelf that affects businesses when they wish to move to new premises or expand. In an ideal world, we should seek a more tiered system of business rate relief that works on a banded basis so that no business would be hit with a huge increase to its business rates bill as it grows. I accept that that might be difficult to achieve in the current fiscal climate, but we should consider whether we can delay businesses having to pay higher rates when they are creating new jobs or taking on large numbers of trainees and apprentices. That would be consistent with other Government initiatives, such as the employment allowance designed to encourage job creation. We should also consider the case that has been made for targeted rate relief for pop-up shops and malls, which can act as retail incubators and support entrepreneurs.
Those steps would be a start, but they do not touch on some of the greatest problems with the current system of rates, including the valuation system, which many hon. Members have already touched on. Put simply, our system of property taxation on business was designed for the 1980s, but we are trying to apply it to a 21st century world. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the retail sector.
Rumours of the death of retail have been greatly exaggerated. The Business, Innovation and Skills Committee’s inquiry has heard evidence of a thriving sector that is creating many more jobs and opportunities, even as it undergoes radical change. However, the rise of the internet and competition from online-only retailers creates additional pressure on the high street and the so-called bricks and mortar sector. Such competitors are unburdened by business rates and there is a risk, if we leave business rates unreformed, of creating a vicious cycle whereby business rates contribute to the declining retail footprint by putting shops at a competitive disadvantage and adding to their cost base and then, in order to generate the same revenue, rates have to be steadily increased on that declining base, which could end up killing valuable businesses. I hope the Government will consider the strong case being made for a freeze or a cap on business rates and to break the cycle of inflationary increases.
Of course, we should be looking to protect the high street and not just hand a big cheque to the biggest retailer, but, as my hon. Friend Richard Fuller has pointed out, we also need to be careful in business rate reform not to remove a burden from retail and put it on other areas, such as manufacturing.
I hope that tomorrow the Chancellor will be able to announce serious steps to reduce the burden and begin reforms to move away from our antiquated system to one better suited to the 21st century. I strongly support the Government’s amendment.
Throughout this debate, the Opposition have promoted an idea that seems to suggest that big businesses live in a totally separate world from smaller businesses. When the major employers in my community, such as Saga, Dungeness power station and Eurotunnel, do well, do the small business community say, “What’s that got to do with us? It’s no concern of ours.”? They do not, because they understand that the employees of large businesses are the customers of small businesses, that large and small businesses have a customer-supplier relationship and that the strength of the whole local economy is vital. That is why we take issue with a “rob Peter to pay Paul” exercise whereby the revenue for a very small, temporary tax cut for one sector of the business community is raised from another area of the business community. That is what the Labour party proposes to do.
As I said earlier, the cut is small. A cut in business rates that is worth barely more than £1 a day will not answer business people’s concerns about the business rating system. Members across the House have made good calls for a sensible look at reform. I was pleased to hear the Minister say that the Government are about to launch a review and are looking at the appeal system. I hope that we will be able to welcome news from the Chancellor of the Exchequer of smaller increases in business rates for the years ahead. As the structure of the economy changes and more businesses become part of the digital economy, with smaller industrial footprints and a different business model from that of the past, it is of course right that we look at these systems again.
The Chairman of the Communities and Local Government Committee made the point well in his very interesting speech that we should look at the town centre economy and how we can have a system that encourages investment and businesses to go back into the town centres. They may never be what they were in the 1950s—a purely retail environment where people did all their shopping—but we can get different types of businesses back in there.
The Government’s reforms to the business rating system, which encourage local authorities to promote more business activity in their areas and give them for the first time a financial stake in the success of the local business community, must be a good thing. Asking local councils to use the powers that they already have to create what are almost micro-enterprise zones and to give more discretionary relief to businesses in town centres and encourage more activity is exactly the right thing to do. We would support any measure that seeks to extend and look at other opportunities to reform business rates in that way.
Sammy Wilson, who has great knowledge of the economy in Northern Ireland, said in an intervention that business rates are an important issue but that they must be seen in the round of the balance of other measures as well. The Government have introduced a series of measures that will help the small business community, not least the £2,000 cut in employers’ national insurance, which starts next April and is worth more than four times the Labour party’s proposed measure on business rates.
Labour Members have almost completely ignored the investment coming into regional economies through the regional growth fund. In east Kent, the £40 million regional growth fund is making a big difference to the local economy. Grants made through the county council to large and small businesses mean that they are employing people today. Grants are also helping businesses that are otherwise struggling with bank lending to get to the next stage and invest in their future growth.
Such measures, alongside targeted ones to support small businesses, are making a big difference, as is the ability to look creatively at how we can encourage more incubators for businesses, support more pop-up shops and give people starting their own small business the chance to get on to the high street and into physical premises sooner. All those initiatives are welcome, and taken in the round, they are strengthening our economy. For Labour to pick one very small measure and pretend that that makes it the party of small business is absurd.
We have had an excellent debate, and many fine speeches have been made in support of our motion calling on the Government to take action to ease the burden of business rates on all sectors.
The Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee, my hon. Friend Mr Betts, welcomed the review of appeals announced by the Minister during his speech. That measure has been welcomed by hon. Members from both sides of the House. We of course await further details on the shape of that review.
My hon. Friend Tom Blenkinsop reminded the House about small business Saturday. That brilliant initiative, which is taking place on Saturday, was first championed by my hon. Friend Mr Umunna. My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland also reminded us that businesses need help throughout the year, and that would certainly be delivered by the cut and freeze in business rates that we are calling for today.
My hon. Friend Alison McGovern spoke with passion about businesses in her constituency, and I congratulate them on their early small business Saturday. She told the House that small businesses are fighting for their lives. They need action now, which a cut and freeze in business rates would certainly deliver.
My hon. Friend Yasmin Qureshi reminded all hon. Members that the Leader of the Opposition has set the pace in this debate, just as he has on energy prices, leaving the Government to flounder and to make U-turn after U-turn.
My hon. Friend Bill Esterson spoke about the importance of retailers who, as he rightly said, are at the heart of our communities. They in particular are struggling with business rates, and they would certainly welcome our proposals to cut and freeze those rates.
My hon. Friend Simon Danczuk has been campaigning on business rates for as long as he has been in the House. I congratulate him on his campaign to raise awareness about their impact. I look forward to visiting Danczuk’s Deli very soon, if he can sort out his own business rates issue.
My hon. Friend Geraint Davies spoke eloquently on how Government is about choice. The Government are making the wrong choices for small businesses up and down our country.
My hon. Friend Kate Green welcomed the review of the appeals process. She detailed the many concerns relating to the Valuation Office Agency that are shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House.
It is clear that businesses are facing a cost-of-doing-business crisis, alongside the cost-of-living crisis that is hitting families across Britain. Unless the Government change course tomorrow, businesses will be hit by an average rise in business rates of £430 next April, at a total cost to business of £700 million because of the impact of inflation. Business rates have already gone up by an average of £1,500 under this Government. The reality is that many businesses—in fact, more than one in 10 small ones—are now paying more in business rates than in rent.
Up and down the country, including in my constituency, businesses are being put in an impossible situation: either they pass on the increase in rates to their customers, or they continue to face a squeeze until they can no longer afford to stay in business. The pressures small businesses face are stark. Unless things change, business rates will have risen by an average of nearly £2,000 by the end of this Parliament. There are 40,000 empty shops in the UK—one in seven shops are empty—which is blighting the UK’s high streets and town centres.
The British Retail Consortium has estimated that the business rate increase from April next year will mean an increase of £242 million per annum for retailers. It has also said that the increase is likely to put 19,670 full-time jobs at risk, owing to potential shop closures and reduced investment. Our economy can afford neither change.
Why does this issue matter? Small businesses are the engine of our economy. Of the 4.9 million businesses in the UK, 99% are small or medium-sized enterprises. Between them, they employ nearly half the UK work force. Nearly 90% of the people who go from being unemployed to having a private sector job work for a small business. Small businesses are therefore making a huge contribution to tackling unemployment in this country. Small businesses are the driving force behind jobs and growth. They account for more than half the economy. Most of the new jobs in the next 15 years will be created by businesses that do not yet exist. Growth and small businesses go hand in hand. We cannot deliver excellent public services without the contribution that they make to the economy.
The cost-of-doing-business crisis that has been delivered by the Government cannot go on. Our small businesses deserve better. That is why at our annual conference in September, we announced that the next Labour Government would cut business rates in 2015 and freeze them in 2016. That pledge would give businesses a much-needed boost and would mean an average saving of nearly £450 for more than 1.5 million business premises.
Some Government Members have said that that amounts to small beer. That is doing down the needs of businesses, particularly given that action on business rates is the single biggest thing that has been requested by businesses. I wonder whether the small beer phraseology will be used tomorrow if the Chancellor announces a cap of
2%, as is expected. No doubt, they will trumpet that saving of a couple of hundred pounds, even though our cut would deliver a saving of £450 on average.
Politics is about choices and priorities. It is right that the UK should have a competitive corporation tax rate, but it is also right to take decisions that help small businesses. We will cut business rates on properties with an annual rental value of below £50,000 in 2015 and freeze business rates for those properties in 2016. We will pay for that by reversing the additional cut in the main rate of corporation tax from 21% to 20% in 2015. The main rate of corporation tax is paid by companies with profits of more than £1.5 million—essentially, the larger multinational companies. Companies that have profits of less than £300,000 and that pay the lower rate of corporation tax will not be affected. By contrast, the Government have thus far failed to rise to the scale of the challenge. They have provided temporary relief for the very smallest properties up to a value of £6,000 and partial rate relief for properties up to a value of £12,000. Those measures do not go far enough.
As with energy prices, since our announcement in September, the Government have come under increasing pressure to listen and take action. We heard this morning that they have finally given in and that the Chancellor will announce tomorrow that business rate rises will be limited to 2% in England and Wales next year, rather than rising by 3.2% in line with the retail prices index. That still falls far short of what firms that are suffering from the cost-of-living crisis have been crying out for. Just as energy bills will still go up under the Government’s plans, business rates will still go up under this proposal. Firms will still see business rates rise by an average of more than £250 in April next year, and that comes on top of the £1,500 by which they have already gone up under this Government.
By contrast, under our plan, 1.5 million start-ups, workshops and shops would benefit from a cut and then a freeze in business rates. If the Government are going to change course, they should do so in a comprehensive and decisive way that would see rate bills cut. They should adopt Labour’s proposal. Nothing less than that comprehensive action will do because our small businesses deserve better than what the Government have delivered. I commend the motion to the House.
This has been an interesting debate and I welcome the opportunity to contribute to it. The Government have taken and will continue to take decisive action to drive growth and make Britain’s economy work for everyone. We have done so in spite of the need to reduce the massive deficit that was left by the last Labour Government. This debate is focused on business rates, but as Sammy Wilson, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Brandon Lewis and my hon. Friend Damian Collins pointed out, we must consider the broader context.
The Government’s ambition is for the UK to be the best place in Europe to start, finance and grow a business. We have therefore identified barriers to growth and the measures that need to be taken to overcome them. To that effect, the Government will introduce a £2,000 employment allowance for all businesses in 2014, to reduce their national insurance contributions each year. Up to 1.25 million businesses will benefit, with about 450,000 of them being taken out of paying employer national insurance contributions altogether. More than 90% of the benefit of that allowance will go to small businesses with fewer than 50 employees.
In addition, a further 1% reduction in the main rate of corporation tax from April 2015 was announced in the Budget. The rate will be reduced to 21% in April 2014, and then fall to 20% in April 2015. Based on current plans, the UK will have the joint lowest corporation tax in the G20 and by far the lowest rate in the G7 by 2015. That will increase return on investment, incentivise activity across the economy and make the UK more attractive to multinational companies and foreign investors. Those actions will help our economy continue to grow.
We have also promised that we will cut through red tape and make it easier for small businesses to claim small business rate relief. We have doubled that relief, and the amount that small businesses can claim has now trebled. Some £900 million in relief was granted in 2012-13. That is not all. We have frozen the multiplier in real terms, so it has never risen by more than inflation. We have also given local authorities powers to grant their own business rate discounts and funded some 50% of that local discount grant.
I wish to refer to some of the substantial contributions that have been made this evening. My hon. Friend Mrs Main outlined the wider business aid that the Government have provided and the excellent work of Conservative St Albans council. My hon. Friend Mr Binley challenged the credibility of the Labour party’s ability to propose options for business and called the deficit that it left “appalling”.
My hon. Friend Anne Marie Morris supported small businesses and welcomed the small business rate relief, but said that she wanted a transparent appeal process. We will shortly start a review, to which I am sure she will contribute. Kate Green also mentioned the appeal process, and I thought that she actually made a very good speech. Mr Betts mentioned appeals, too, and I look forward to hearing his contributions to the wider debate once the review is announced.
My hon. Friend Mr Ruffley spoke in support of small businesses and the tax breaks that councils have introduced. He spoke passionately about local businesses in his constituency. My hon. Friend Andrew Griffiths, who chairs the all-party beer group, rightly talked up the pub industry, which makes a massive contribution to this country and provides significant small businesses in many villages, towns and cities. He encouraged us all to make the best of small business week by going to our local pub and drinking beer. I assure him that I will be taking his advice this weekend.
There were significant contributions from the hon. Members for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop), for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), for Swansea
My hon. Friend Damian Collins made the important point that small businesses are the customers of big businesses, and he completely shot the fox of those Labour Members who do not like corporation tax cuts. Annette Brooke mentioned her support for the Mary Portas pilot in her constituency and for the Localism Act 2011. She believes, as I do, that people on the ground in the local area know best and should be listened to.
My hon. Friend Nick de Bois recognised the massive deficit that the Labour party left at the end of their time in government and that the debate was very much commanded by coalition Members, despite being an Opposition day debate. He also raised the issue of uncollected council tax, and rightly so.
This has been a helpful and interesting debate. We appreciate that at times it is tough for people out there and that budgets have been squeezed, and that is why we have taken action to help people. We have increased tax-free personal allowances to £10,000 from April 2014, saving a typical taxpayer £705. We have frozen fuel duty for three and a half years, saving nearly £7 on a typical tank of fuel. We have helped local authorities to freeze council tax and introduced tax-free child care to support working families with 20% off their child care costs.
The bottom line, however, is that we can do that in a sustainable way only by addressing the huge deficit left by the Labour Government. The economy is turning the corner and the deficit is down by a third. Some 1.4 million private sector jobs have been created in three years by the Government, and interest rates remain at a near record low, benefiting families and businesses.
We still have much to do to address the issues that Labour left us, but this evening I assure the House that the Government are listening to those concerns and will take further action as finances allow. I ask the House to support the Government amendment.
Question accordingly agreed to.
The Deputy Speaker declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to (
That this House acknowledges that this Government is taking decisive action to back business and make Britain’s economy work for everyone; notes that the Government has cut business rates, National Insurance and corporation tax for small firms despite the need to tackle the deficit left by the last Administration; observes that the value of small business rate relief has trebled since the general election and small business rate relief will be considered in the Autumn Statement; notes how the overall multiplier has been frozen in real terms; applauds the abolition of the unfair port taxes; welcomes the Localism Act which has made small business rate relief easier to claim and allows councils to introduce local discounts; notes with approval the rate relief in 24 enterprise zones; further welcomes the new empty rate relief for new build in contrast to the last Administration’s increases in empty rates; endorses the way in which local rate retention now gives councils new incentives to support local enterprise; and rejects the policy proposals from Her Majesty’s Opposition on rates which would involve increasing corporation tax on all firms, undermining British jobs and businesses.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Have you been made aware that a Minister is to come to the House and make an urgent statement, given that Sky News has been reporting all evening that tomorrow’s autumn statement will refer to a 1% cut in departmental budgets other than those that are protected? It is not an “if” or a “maybe”, but a definite. It is not the first leak of this kind, and the Chancellor must be mortified. I wonder if he will come to the House to announce a leak inquiry.
I have not seen the Sky broadcast, and I have not been notified of any such inquiry, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is right, and the Chancellor will indeed be mortified. Mr Speaker has made it absolutely clear that any Government announcement should be made to the House first. I can be of no further help this evening, but the Leader of the House is present, and I am sure that he has noted the point that has been raised.