The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that it is in the power of any Chancellor to orchestrate something of a pre-election boom. The VAT reduction certainly assisted in that, such that there were two or three quarters of unsustainable growth in the period from the end of 2009 to 2010, as became apparent fairly quickly.
We have seen some very significant growth. The first glimpses that came a little over a year ago in spring 2013 have turned into healthy, consistent growth that has in many ways surprised even economic experts. This has been maintained, alongside a very strong performance in employment, and barring unforeseen economic shocks it should continue for the rest of this year and beyond.
After the frenzy of Labour’s energy price freeze promise, the early new year period has allowed the Government to regain their footing and reset the important message that we are following a long-term economic plan that will benefit hard-working people. If, in the coming months, we can overlay this sober foundation with a sense of upbeat optimism and positivity about our nation, we will have a solid base from which to bat away unremittingly negative political attacks of the kind that we heard earlier. To complement consistent messaging on the deficit, we must also give the electorate a feeling of hope about life under a future Conservative Government. Nevertheless, the Treasury has been right to be wary. A giveaway Budget implemented by this Finance Bill would have sent out entirely the wrong signals. If money were found for substantial tax cuts, our opponents would question the need for further reductions in the welfare budget, and this at a time when the Institute for Fiscal Studies calculates that we are only two fifths of the way through the total planned spending cuts.
In the months ahead, the Chancellor might perhaps borrow some tricks from the Bank of England. While the notion of forward guidance has hitherto proved something of a mixed success for the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, it might prove a useful tool for the Treasury. Unlike some of my hon. Friends, I have always doubted the wisdom of promising instant and substantial tax cuts, as that puts in jeopardy our central mission of restoring order in the public finances. However, there is no doubt that reducing the tax burden should always be part of a Conservative offering, not least as we approach a general election. I hope that in a future autumn statement the Chancellor will offer his own brand of forward guidance, giving a clear signal that when progress has been made on reducing the deficit, and that progress breaks past a certain point, a series of tax cuts will kick in. In that way, the electorate will know full well that while our priority is, and must remain, stability, our ultimate aim will be a low-tax, competitive economy.
The Opposition’s messaging over the past six months, as in the course of this debate, has blended naive populism with flagrant opportunism. Their appeal has rested not on their practicality but on their exploitation of a deep sense of unease among many in the electorate that the current system does not deliver for them. The Government’s response has at times been too erratic and confusing, and has lent greater weight to policies that should rightly be dismissed as dangerous and unworkable. What voters need from us, and what this Finance Bill offers, is a sense of consistency and simplicity.
Rather than blowing us off course, the Bill implements a Budget that has been designed to cement our position as a calm and rational team slowly and patiently getting the UK economy back on track and the public finances under control. Substantial or radical reductions in tax should sensibly come only when that mission has been accomplished. Perhaps understandably, this sober message was not the headline-grabbing element of the Budget. Rightly, the proposed liberation of pensions will now be subject to extensive consultation. These ground-breaking reforms will need to be assessed to ensure that any potential unintended consequences are properly analysed before any new pensions regime is put in place.
I want to put on record some specific concerns about the tax avoidance regime that may differ from those raised by the hon. Member for Nottingham East. I addressed these last Friday in an article in The Daily Telegraph about the operation of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs’ disclosure of tax avoidance schemes—DOTAS—regime. I have been struck by the number of financial advisers and investors, large and small, from across the country who read my piece and have responded over the past few days by outlining their own cases of particular concern.
Last year, for the first time, aggregate investment in UK-based film production topped £1 billion. This has been aided by a crucial tax break that has attracted huge sums of private cash into the British film industry, which we can be proud of and which is recognised on the global stage with the success of many British films at the Oscars. In last month’s Budget, the Chancellor introduced a theatre tax break to match similar provisions for high-end TV, film, and televised animation. I warmly welcome this energy from the Government on behalf of our crucial creative industries. As well as being home to the much-maligned banking industry, my constituency is also the traditional home of many of our great, globally competitive creative sectors in Soho and Covent Garden. I campaigned for some three years to get the animation tax credit that was successfully announced in the 2012 Budget and agreed on in all parts of the House.
Last month, however, I heard a tale of woe from a group of experienced private investors who have found themselves squeezed awkwardly between the coalition’s ambitions for the creative industries and its other understandable priority—a clampdown on tax avoidance. Their experience should be a warning sign to any investor who has sought to engage in an open and transparent relationship with HMRC. It should also give Treasury Ministers pause for thought—not least the Exchequer Secretary, who is in his place, as he aggressively pursues the Government’s anti-avoidance agenda in the months ahead. Some years ago, the group who came to see me had approached HMRC with their model for private investment in the UK creative industries. After extensive discussion on its structure, they were not only given the green light but told that their vehicle was exactly the sort of thing that the Government were envisaging. On the basis of this understanding, the group proceeded to invest more than £1 billion of risk capital into the British film industry, leading to the production of more than 60 home-grown films.
Given the discussions they had had, HMRC considered these legitimate investors to be firmly “inside the tent”, but as a precautionary measure they elected to place themselves on the DOTAS register. Because tax avoidance measures are now so widely drawn, it has been common practice to err on the side of caution by signing up to HMRC initiatives of this sort. The investors thought nothing more of the DOTAS registration until a flurry of high-profile scandals, or so-called scandals, came to light whereby film investment vehicles had been used by celebrities to slash their tax bills. Rather than sifting through the egregious examples of so-called aggressive avoidance through legitimate investment vehicles, HMRC threw a blanket of suspicion on to any DOTAS-registered scheme. Keen to establish their vehicle’s legitimacy as swiftly as possible, and exhausted by HMRC’s consistent mismanagement of their case, as they see it, the investors elected to put their scheme before an independent tax tribunal.
Currently, if the UK tax authorities wish to challenge the legitimacy of a DOTAS-registered scheme in court, the taxpayer is permitted to hold on to the disputed tax while the case is being resolved. This was discussed earlier by the Chief Secretary. Because the Government believe that this incentivises scheme promoters to sit back and delay resolution, they now propose to extend the accelerated payments measures to existing DOTAS-registered schemes. This means that disputed tax will be paid up front to HMRC and returned only if a scheme is subsequently found to be legitimate. However—this is where the Government need to rethink their understandable enthusiasm for clamping down on tax avoidance—no exception is proposed in cases where taxpayers have demonstrably not sat back and delayed as long as possible. My investor constituents are desperate to get their dispute settled by an independent arbiter as a matter of urgency. In their case, it is HMRC that is stalling progress. Legitimate investors understand the need to deal quickly with the tens of thousands of outstanding mass-marketed avoidance cases currently clogging up the courts. They simply propose an exception in the case of existing DOTAS-registered schemes whose promoters have taken all reasonable measures to enable a dispute to be brought before the statutory appeals tribunal.
It strikes me as a shocking breach of faith that the Government are now attempting to impose a requirement on such individuals to pay a disputed up-front sum when it is an agent of the state—in this case, HMRC—that is deliberately and actively delaying the sitting of the tribunal. Worse still, I fear, is the general message being sent to other private investors, who stand to be deterred from any future investment in the UK film industry.
DOTAS was designed with the best will in mind—something you may well remember, Madam Deputy Speaker, as the system came into play under a previous Administration. It was designed, rightly, to promote openness and transparency in investors’ relationships with HMRC—in principle, a welcome step. However, DOTAS is now in effect helping to produce retrospective legislation, with DOTAS declarations being used as a stick with which to beat legitimate investors who never planned on having liquid assets to meet disputed liabilities. I fear that augurs ill for the Government’s broader, much vaunted anti-avoidance plans, as set out in the Bill, and their overarching plan to make Britain entirely open for business.
It is useful at this juncture to highlight some of the letters I have received in response to my article of last Friday. One constituent, a small-scale investor in the scheme, advised me:
“HMRC has previously offered us full relief on our cash contributions if we forgo relief on the loan element. We haven’t agreed to this. Now they plan to make us pay all the tax in the autumn. Many will feel pressured to settle on the basis of HMRC’s earlier offer as that will reduce the cash to be found by some 37%. This is harassment, which if conducted by a loan shark would rightly have you and your colleagues legislating. HMRC has no case and is relying on intimidation and extortion instead.”
A correspondent from further afield wrote:
“I am an ordinary, law abiding person who has never knowingly cheated anyone, least of all HMRC! But their endless delays and apparent moving of the goal posts make me feel almost like a criminal.”
“The cries of protest highlighting this radical shift in power seem to have fallen on deaf ears of government officials. I represent hundreds, if not thousands of similar professionals that are on the brink of ruin as a result of the changing of the goal posts by HMRC whose unchecked powers seem to be morphing.”
That concern was shared by many others. There is concern that the decision process lies solely in the hands of a designated officer—some relatively anonymous HMRC official, acting as judge and jury, with no independent or proper safeguards. That does not seem right, as pressures on individuals to act in the best interests of a Department that is failing to collect taxes as quickly as it would like will be immense.
I know we discussed this matter in the House in the context of retrospective legislation last year, but we need to give serious thought as to how Parliament can properly control such Executive power. There seem to be no checks or balances on a Government Department, and that does not seem the right way to address our tax policy.
In my view, if the Treasury wishes actively to encourage investment via additional tax credits, we must be assured that legitimate investors’ previously agreed, transparent vehicles are not at some point going to be subject to unplanned for, up-front tax liabilities in the event of a sudden change to the rules by HMRC. As the Exchequer Secretary will know, I have consistently pressed for Government efforts on tax evasion to go hand in glove with the creation of a comprehensive pre-clearance regime. That would allow firms and their tax advisers to road-test proposed taxation schemes with HMRC officials. Ideally, if that were to work efficiently, no new scheme would be permitted to be marketed until such time as approval had been given.
I am sorry to speak on a slightly negative note, because as I have said I support much of the Bill, but it is important to put on record some of the concerns about how the anti-avoidance process is working. Alarm bells should be ringing throughout Parliament as we preside over this unprecedented transfer of power to HMRC. This agency of the state is being empowered not only to apply the law but to a large extent to rewrite it. In summing up, will the Minister provide assurances on the steps that he is putting in place to ensure that incorrect seizures are avoided and that hardship will not follow as a consequence?
The Government’s aims to encourage investment in British industry and to clamp down on aggressive tax avoidance and evasion should not be incompatible. I trust that during the full consideration of the Bill we will further highlight some of those unprecedented powers to rewrite the laws and ensure that Parliament and, above all, the Treasury take a step back, so that we have a system that, as far as possible, promotes the sort of investment that all of us crave, not just in the creative industries but throughout the UK economy.