National Insurance Contributions (Rate Ceilings) Bill

Oral Answers to Questions — Business, Innovation and Skills – in the House of Commons at 1:25 pm on 15th September 2015.

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Second Reading

Photo of Harriett Baldwin Harriett Baldwin The Economic Secretary to the Treasury 1:38 pm, 15th September 2015

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

This Bill implements our manifesto commitment not to increase national insurance contributions for employers and employees. It will be interesting to discover whether it will be opposed by Her Majesty’s Opposition now that their new leader favours a 7% increase in national insurance for higher earners.

Hon. Members will be aware of the Government’s strong record of significantly reducing the burden of national insurance. At Budget 2011, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced a £21 a week above-inflation increase to the employers’ national insurance threshold. In 2014 we introduced the employment allowance to support businesses and charities across the UK by saving them up to £2,000 every year, and that has already benefited well over 1 million employers. The Government are now going further, and hon. Members will recall that the Chancellor announced in the summer Budget that that saving would be increased to £3,000 from next April. That means that a business will be able to employ four people full time on the national living wage and pay no national insurance at all.

From April 2015, the vast majority of employers employing under-21-year-olds were lifted out of employers’ national insurance as well. The exemption will be extended to cover apprentices under 25, helping young people to stand on their own two feet and fulfil their aspirations.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Independent, North Down

I am sorry to intervene so early in the Minister’s speech, but for the sake of clarity will she explain the long title to the Bill, which appears to apply only to class 1 national insurance contributions? I presume that the other classes will be covered in due course.

Photo of Harriett Baldwin Harriett Baldwin The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

My remarks will be so short that hon. Members will need to intervene quickly with their points of clarification on this five-clause Bill. The hon. Lady will be aware that in the summer Budget the Chancellor announced that we are asking the Office of Tax Simplification to look at class 2 and class 4 contributions. We are expecting that consultation, which opened on 21 July, to inform the Budget next year. She asks a sensible question and I welcome her curiosity.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth

Can the Minister clarify what assessment she has made of the number of self-employed people who may apply for an exemption from paying class 2 contributions, especially as at least half of the increase in employment is self-employed people and, on average, self-employment incomes have fallen to less than £10,000?

Photo of Harriett Baldwin Harriett Baldwin The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

We are very pleased that we are backing those who want to take a chance, start their own business and become self-employed. In fact, we have taken measures in previous Budgets to simplify the process so that self-employed people can consider making those contributions alongside their self-assessment.

Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham Labour, Coventry South

Has the Minister done an impact assessment on public services—for example, the impact that the Bill will have on the national health service and benefits?

Photo of Harriett Baldwin Harriett Baldwin The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

I am delighted to hear the first bid from the Opposition not to freeze national insurance for employers and employees. As the hon. Gentleman will know, national insurance contributes a substantial sum to the Exchequer and we have committed as a Government to continue to increase the amount of money that goes into the NHS.

Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham Labour, Coventry South

The Minister should not twist my words. I asked her about the impact of the Bill.

Photo of Harriett Baldwin Harriett Baldwin The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

Of course, the impact of freezing national insurance for employers and employees is that throughout the life of this Parliament they can have the confidence that their national insurance rates will not change—a confidence they would not have if the hon. Gentleman had any say in it.

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Shadow Minister (Treasury)

The Minister’s team might helpfully do something about the fact that if one searches online for the impact of this Bill, one gets a 404 error message. It would be useful to have some view on the Bill’s impact.

Photo of Harriett Baldwin Harriett Baldwin The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

I thank the hon. Lady for her sensible suggestion. I know that those who put together the impact assessment online will have taken her wise words to heart and will make a change. Clearly, when one brings in legislation to freeze national insurance rates, the impact is that there is no change in national insurance and therefore no impact to report.

Photo of Rehman Chishti Rehman Chishti Conservative, Gillingham and Rainham

I have businesses in my constituency that work hard and do the right thing. They do not want to be clobbered with more taxes. The impact of the Bill is that if people do the right thing and work hard, the Government will support them to succeed in life.

Photo of Harriett Baldwin Harriett Baldwin The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

I thank my hon. Friend for making that excellent point. The Government want to back small businesses, entrepreneurs and those who want the certainty over the next five years that if they employ four people on the new national living wage, they will not have to pay any national insurance because of the employment allowance.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth

May I press the Minister on the point I made in my earlier intervention, which she did not actually answer? What assessment has she made of the number of self-employed people who earn so little that they could apply for an exemption from class 2 national insurance contributions?

Photo of Harriett Baldwin Harriett Baldwin The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

When one starts out in business, it is often the case that one earns a small amount, but it is those fantastic people who start businesses, often at their kitchen table, whom the Government are trying to back with the measures in the Bill, which will give them a certainty that they would not have if Labour were in charge.

Photo of Andrew Stephenson Andrew Stephenson Conservative, Pendle

Freezing NI is important for my constituents, many of whom are low wage earners and have benefited tremendously over the last few years from the dramatic rise we have seen in the personal allowance. Does my hon. Friend agree that hard-working people already pay enough in tax?

Photo of Harriett Baldwin Harriett Baldwin The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

I certainly agree that the Government are keen to take steps to back an economy that continues to grow and to create jobs so that everyone can have the dignity of taking home a pay cheque or starting their own business. We have taken other steps in the Finance Bill to raise the amount that people can make before having to pay income tax, and that is what this Government stand for.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Health)

Surely the Minister has not forgotten that in the lifetime of the previous Parliament—from 2010 to 2015—no fewer than 24 tax increases were put on working people by her Government. The latest Budget also includes the tax increase on insurance premiums.

Photo of Harriett Baldwin Harriett Baldwin The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

That is an extraordinary line of attack. The Government have nearly doubled the personal allowance—the amount that people can make before they pay income tax—from the £6,475 that the hon. Gentleman thought was appropriate at the end of the 2010 Parliament. That is what this Government stand for.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer Conservative, Sherwood

Will the Minister comment on how successful the previous Government were in getting people into work? This policy is in addition to that record and will increase the number of people in employment, taking home a wage packet and providing for themselves.

Photo of Harriett Baldwin Harriett Baldwin The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

That gives me a welcome opportunity to state that every Labour Government in history has left office with more people out of work than when they came into office. This is the party of working people and we created many jobs during the last Parliament, which no one expected, and we continue to back businesses and their growth through this Bill.

Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Conservative, North Dorset

My hon. Friend may be ruing her invitation to Members to intervene. In a constituency such as mine, where the main focus of economic activity is on micro and small businesses, one of the first questions that a potential employer asks is how much it will cost to take on an additional person. That is the engine that will grow the economy, and the Bill is extremely welcome.

Photo of Harriett Baldwin Harriett Baldwin The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

My hon. Friend’s point is well made, because in North Dorset and around the country it is the small and micro businesses that are the engines of job creation. That is why the employment allowance is so important—it will mean that a small business taking on its first employee will not have to pay employers’ national insurance at all under this Government. Indeed, if every small business took on just one extra employee, we would have full employment. That is why the Government back small businesses.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Conservative, Torbay

One of the problems with national insurance contributions for employers is that they are a direct tax on employment, making it more expensive to employ someone in both the private and the public sector. It may be worth while Opposition Members noting that putting up national insurance contributions for employers would hit local councils severely, giving them an extra bill to pay. The Bill backs business, but it will also help public services by keeping their bills low.

Photo of Harriett Baldwin Harriett Baldwin The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

My hon. Friend is right. The Bill’s measures strongly back business and other employers, many of whom will benefit from the employment allowance too.

The Bill legislates our commitment to provide certainty on national insurance rates for the duration of the Parliament. Hon. Members will be aware that our other commitments in the manifesto to lock taxes were that we would not increase the main rates of income tax and value added tax, as well as not increasing national insurance. The Finance Bill will deliver those commitments and this Bill delivers the commitment on national insurance.

Photo of Rehman Chishti Rehman Chishti Conservative, Gillingham and Rainham

The Bill is very much welcome and goes hand-in-hand with what the Government are doing in other areas, such as the local growth fund. The Government have set aside £12 billion, £7 billion of which has already been spent on building homes and supporting businesses. The wider picture is that the Government are supporting businesses on the front line, creating homes, jobs and opportunities. That is the right way forward.

Photo of Harriett Baldwin Harriett Baldwin The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is part of a package of measures the Chancellor announced in the July Budget.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Conservative, South West Wiltshire

The Office of Tax Simplification has been asked to look at proposals to merge income tax and national insurance. Will the Minister say where we are with that? In particular, what assessment has been made of its possible impact on pensioners?

Photo of Harriett Baldwin Harriett Baldwin The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

My hon. Friend is correct. In the summer Budget, the Chancellor announced a consultation on behalf of the Office of Tax Simplification. It is currently undertaking its work. I expect my right hon. Friend to take its recommendations into account in due course.

Turning to the detail of this five-clause Bill, it provides that the rate of class 1 national insurance contributions paid by employees and employers must not exceed existing rates.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Conservative, South Suffolk

On a point of clarification—this may be a bit cheeky—I take it that we could reduce national insurance if we wanted to. The Bill would not stop us doing that.

Photo of Harriett Baldwin Harriett Baldwin The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

That is not a cheeky question; that is a very sensible question. It is indeed the case that we will still be able to reduce levels of national insurance. This is only a ceiling, as is noted in the Bill’s title.

It has been the convention that the level of the upper earnings limit for national insurance is aligned with the level of the higher rate threshold for income tax. The Bill formally limits increases to the upper earnings limit, so that its annual equivalent amount cannot exceed the level of the higher rate threshold for income tax. Both the restriction on national insurance rate rises and changes to the upper earnings limit come into force on Royal Assent and apply until the start of the tax year following the date of the first parliamentary general election to take place after Royal Assent.

The Bill provides certainty for employers and for employees that the national insurance rates that affect millions of employees and employers across the UK will not rise for the duration of this Parliament, and that the upper earnings limit will not exceed the higher rate threshold. The Bill demonstrates the Government’s commitment to provide certainty on tax rates for the duration of this Parliament. I commend it to the House.

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Shadow Minister (Treasury) 1:53 pm, 15th September 2015

As the Minister described, the Bill provides for the Government’s commitment, as set out in their manifesto, to a tax lock: a commitment to not increase the rates of VAT, income tax or national insurance in the next Parliament. The Bill provides for the national insurance element of that pledge. Such a measure has to remain separate from the Finance Bill currently going through Parliament, because statutory provisions regarding national insurance contributions cannot be included in the annual Finance Bill.

As we have heard, the Bill prevents any increase in the current rates of class 1 national insurance contributions paid by employees and employers for the duration of the 2015-20 Parliament. It also provides that the upper earnings limit cannot exceed the higher rate threshold, which is to say that the upper earnings limit cannot exceed the sum of the personal allowance and the basic rate limit.

Responding to the tax lock announcement during the election campaign, many people wondered why such a commitment etched into the statute book would even be necessary. If Ministers—indeed, the Prime Minister—commit to not raising income tax, national insurance contributions or VAT in the run-up to an election, surely such a commitment should be taken at face value? Apparently not in the case of Conservatives, who perhaps felt that the low levels of trust in their pledges were such that they would have to go much further. No wonder, when we consider that the Prime Minister made a similar commitment in 2010 not to raise VAT, only then to raise it to 20% after entering Downing Street.

Photo of Harriett Baldwin Harriett Baldwin The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

Will the hon. Lady confirm that in her party’s manifesto, on which she just stood, there was a similar commitment not to increase national insurance rates, yet the new leader of her party has stated publicly that he would like to increase them by 7% for higher earners?

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I will come on to my party’s manifesto commitments in a very short while. I do not think it is helpful, and I am not going to respond, to any interventions or points made by Government Members that refer to things the current Leader of the Opposition said before he was Leader of the Opposition.

[

Interruption.

]

That is a different situation. What I have just said is that when the Prime Minister was elected in 2010, he raised VAT when he had said that he would not do so.

Beyond the broken pledge on VAT, which is a serious matter—[Interruption.] Government Members can sit giggling, but these are very serious matters that hit the country hard. It is worth remembering that the Prime Minister appeared to rule out cuts to tax credits when appearing in front of a special “Question Time” audience during the recent election campaign. Yet, we are due to vote later today on that measure, and the Government’s cuts to tax credits will leave some 8 million families on average over £1,000 a year worse off. That is a shocking broken pledge.

Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Conservative, North Dorset

Unlike the hon. Lady, not all Government Members are obsessed with the new leader of the Labour party. Surely she has to accept that on broken promises, the greatest albatross around her party’s neck is the previous Prime Minister, Mr Brown, who promised the end of boom and bust? That was signally incorrect and is the biggest albatross from which the Labour party can never be freed.

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Shadow Minister (Treasury)

Government Members should stop going back in time. I have just referred to the fact that the Prime Minister promised before the 2010 election not to raise VAT. [Interruption.] Look at your record. You’re in government. You’re defending your Bills.

Photo of Natascha Engel Natascha Engel Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. The hon. Lady is using the term “you” which refers to the occupant of the Chair, not Government Members.

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Shadow Minister (Treasury)

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that is really helpful. It is sometimes easy to forget.

I have made the point and I am prepared to come back to it again and again. In five years, there have been two serious broken pledges that have cost the British public dearly.

Let us get back to the Bill. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I did not make the diversion. Let me be clear, Labour in opposition wholeheartedly supports the principle of not raising taxes for working people. The Minister has just questioned me on this. During the election campaign, it was the Labour party that first pledged not to increase national insurance contributions. In fact, we did it before the election campaign, because the pledge was made on 25 March. As such, we will not be opposing the Bill today. Regardless of that, however, there is no doubt that this tax lock has become the height of gimmickry. It was said to be such during the election campaign and it remains so today.

Let me give you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and hon. Members present, some quotes relating to the tax lock. On 29 April, the Financial Times, lamenting what it saw as the level of gimmickry coming all too often from the Conservative campaign, put in its leader:

“What is more of a shock is the stream of gimmicks and poor policies coming from the Conservatives…arguably the silliest idea yet came this week when David Cameron proposed an act of parliament that would make it illegal for a future Tory government to raise various taxes to close the deficit: VAT, income tax, and national insurance…the UK fiscal deficit is still high. Removing the option of tapping revenue streams that in aggregate raise more than £350bn for the exchequer would make the challenge needlessly harder.”

Photo of Andrew Stephenson Andrew Stephenson Conservative, Pendle

I hear what the hon. Lady is saying—she believes the Bill is purely a gimmick—but would she not agree that this so-called gimmick will save money for millions of hard-working families? It is not a gimmick to the hard-working people we represent.

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Shadow Minister (Treasury)

In a minute, I will record how other commentators also think it is a gimmick. I have said we are not going to oppose the Bill because we do not want working people to pay more, but we have just seen in this Parliament a tax-raising Budget. I will talk more about that in a moment.

One of the main concerns about this policy gimmick is the serious constraints it will place on the Treasury and the Government’s ability to raise taxes or maintain the flexibility to raise revenue in response to economic events. As Alex Henderson, tax partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, said:

“Arguably the lock means the Government has less flexibility on where tax revenues could come from, with the burden more thinly spread.”

He also pointed out that it would not constrain Ministers’ ability to raise revenue from the same taxes in other ways—for example, by delaying the uprating of thresholds and removing reliefs. So it is not true that people are not going to pay more; there are other ways. We know the Chancellor used such measures, otherwise known as fiscal drag, to great effect in the last Parliament, because, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, they have raised taxes of roughly £64 billion a year by doing so. The headlines people read do not indicate tax rises, but the measures used do.

Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said:

“While IoD members are opposed to increases in the rates of VAT, Income Tax and National Insurance, we consider it imperative that the Government’s commitments do not prevent bold tax reforms to both simplify taxation and reduce the burden upon businesses and individuals.”

As Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, pointed out, the tax lock could rule out sensible tax reforms, such as the treatment of national insurance contributions for the self-employed, which has already been referred to.

Photo of Lucy Frazer Lucy Frazer Conservative, South East Cambridgeshire

I am a little confused. The hon. Lady has said that she supports the policy but is now quoting a load of people who do not support it. Surely, she supports it because it gives hard-working people the chance to keep more of their income and gives businesses certainty about the number of people they can employ.

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Shadow Minister (Treasury)

The hon. Lady confuses our not opposing a pledge that we made first on 25 March—it is our pledge, if you like—with a Bill that I am denouncing as a gimmick. It is not just me who is denouncing it as such; a range of commentators have done so as well.

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Shadow Minister (Treasury)

No.

Paul Johnson believes that the tax lock could rule out sensible tax reforms. That is the answer to the question from Lucy Frazer. The commentators and others who work day in, day out on these issues think it ties the Government’s hands too much. Paul Johnson said it was

“extreme to tie your hands for such a long period with the main rates of the three largest taxes”.

It is worth reminding Members of The Guardian’s view of the tax lock—Members may not have read it—as set out in its editorial on 29 April.

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that Opposition Members do. It read:

“No one can see into the future. So a responsible chancellor ought to be duty-bound to keep options open, to be able to respond to events and adapt to unexpected changes in the economy, not close them off. Instead, the Conservatives are now committed to tying their hands behind their back, placing the taxes that provide roughly two-thirds of all government income – income tax, national insurance and VAT – wholly off-limits, come what may, for five years. This is madness.”

Photo of Harriett Baldwin Harriett Baldwin The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

So it is not a gimmick then, but welcome certainty for families and business.

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Shadow Minister (Treasury)

The hon. Lady is not listening.

The Financial Times leader, to which I referred earlier, said:

“It is unwise for the Conservatives to bind their hands, legally or otherwise, against using tax rises to close the deficit. Much of public expenditure is unavoidable or politically protected”— that is the important thing; these days certain budgets are politically protected—

“so that ever more savings need to be found from the shrinking funds for welfare, social care, justice and defence. It makes sense to leave oneself the option to turn to tax in times of adversity to smooth the path of consolidation.”

Nothing better reflects the gimmickry of this measure than the fact that the recent summer Budget included some significant revenue-raising measures that amounted to significant tax rises for millions of people. As the Office for Budget Responsibility set out, the tax-raising measures announced in the summer Budget amounted to nearly £16 billion of tax rises by 2020-21—we touched on this point last week—£3 billion of which will come from changes to vehicle taxation, as well as increases in the insurance premium tax, which will raise £8 billion by 2020-21.

Last week, we debated the increase in insurance premium tax, and as I pointed out then, some of the UK’s biggest insurers, including Aviva and RSA, have confirmed that they plan to pass on the cost of that tax increase to customers. Experts say that many people will now see their household insurance bills rise by between £50 and £100 a year, if they have more than one car and they insure their buildings and contents. I highlighted the fact, and still think it a serious point, that young drivers would be hardest hit, and many might wrongly take the risk of driving uninsured. In the last week, therefore, we have seen a £50 to £100 tax bombshell for millions of families, and this tax-lock Bill does nothing to guard against that.

What is more, the Government are yet to offer any assurances that they will not raise insurance premium tax further in subsequent Budgets. Given that a Conservative peer, Lord Northbrook, has called insurance premium tax an “easy target”, I invite the two Treasury Ministers present to say whether they will be increasing insurance premium tax any further. Would either like to say what their intentions are?

Photo of Harriett Baldwin Harriett Baldwin The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

Madam Deputy Speaker, may I seek your guidance about whether we ought to be discussing something that Parliament settled last week or the Second Reading of this Bill?

Photo of Natascha Engel Natascha Engel Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

The hon. Lady is experienced enough to know that if she wishes to raise a point of order, she can do so by way of a point of order. However, the point she raises is a matter for discussion, so I invite the shadow Minister to respond, if she wishes.

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I think that the whole range of the tax regime and national insurance is under discussion today.

Given that we hear no assurances that there will not be further increases to insurance premium tax in this Parliament, I want to make it clear again that we support the principle of not raising taxes for working people. That is why we do not oppose the Bill. As I mentioned earlier, before the election campaign started properly, we pledged not to raise national insurance contributions, so this could rightly be described as our idea.

Photo of Christopher Pincher Christopher Pincher Conservative, Tamworth

The hon. Lady says that the Opposition will not oppose this welcome measure. Does that mean they will vote for it, or simply abstain?

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Shadow Minister (Treasury)

As I understand it, there will not be a vote because it will not be opposed, but I cannot speak for other parties in the House.

The Government’s tax lock, of which the Bill forms a part, is nothing more than a gimmick of epic proportions, as I have outlined and demonstrated with many comments from people outside the House. It speaks volumes about the lack of belief that Conservatives have in their own policy commitments. We vote annually on tax legislation, and the Government regularly introduce Bills on NICs alongside Finance Bills—we have already heard about suggested changes to NICs—and, as such, primary legislation, debate and Division are already required in the House.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer Conservative, Sherwood

The hon. Lady keeps referring to the measure as a gimmick. It would be helpful if she could explain why, when the Labour party commits to it, it is not a gimmick, but when the Government commit to it, it is.

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is listening. I know that Conservative Members often sit there with their Whip’s brief and try to find a way of working in some point that the Whips have given them to say. [Interruption.] I do not know what the hon. Gentleman is looking at. The point is, as I said earlier, this is a gimmick because we do not need legislation.

A commitment was given on this. All that is required is that the Government and the Prime Minister stick to that commitment. It is a question of delivering on what was pledged. We do not need a Bill for every single element of what a party has pledged in the run-up to an election campaign. I am questioning—and people outside the House are questioning—why we need a Bill for the Government to bind themselves not to increase the rates, which they have already set out. It is very strange indeed.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Conservative, South West Wiltshire

I can understand why the shadow Minister does not want to comment on her new leader’s position, but will she comment on the shadow Chancellor’s position? John McDonnell recently said that he would commit his Administration to a 7% rise in national insurance and to a 2.5% increase in corporation tax. What she is saying now seems to suggest a change in position. Will she confirm that that is the case?

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Shadow Minister (Treasury)

We are not signalling any change of position. It is amusing to hear this from Conservative Members, after a tax-raising Budget that is taking £8 billion from British people through the insurance premium tax, and after they put VAT up to 20%—when they promised not to do it. The absolute gall of Conservative Members in raising these points is amazing.

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Shadow Minister (Treasury)

No, I will not.

The tax lock restricts the Government’s ability to respond to unexpected economic events. That is why this Bill is seen, both outside and inside this place, as a gimmick. If we have learned anything in the last decade, it is that such flexibility is absolutely essential. Indeed, it was this flexibility at the time the Labour Government left office in 2010 that meant we had an economy recovering and growing once again. Above all, this tax lock provides no protection to millions of hard-working families, who, if the statutory instrument on tax credits is voted through by Conservative Members later today—

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Health)

Is it not indicative of the level of trust in politics and politicians generally, but specifically in this Government and their record on tax, that they need to come to the House of Commons to legislate not to increase a specific tax, rather than allow people to accept their pledges at elections at face value?

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Shadow Minister (Treasury)

Indeed. I agree with my hon. Friend and I thank him for raising that point. I think that Ministers have got to think about what they are doing to public trust if they have to introduce gimmicks such as this Bill—it is a gimmick, and was seen as a gimmick by a host of commentators outside this place.

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Shadow Minister (Treasury)

No, I have nearly finished.

As I have argued, the Bill provides no protection for millions of hard-working families, and if the statutory instrument on tax credits is voted through by Conservative Members, those families will be £1,000 a year worse off on average. That will be a direct result of the Chancellor’s fiscal decisions, and I believe many Conservative Members will come to regret it. Ministers should not be wasting their time on legislative gimmicks such as this so-called tax lock.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Independent, North Down

I am most grateful to the hon. Lady for allowing me to intervene. She will know that the Bill extends to Northern Ireland. I have listened very patiently to what she has said here today, but I think the people of Northern Ireland and of the United Kingdom generally are entitled to know the policy of the Labour party, the main Opposition party, after a change in the leadership and with a new shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. What exactly is their policy on national insurance contributions? Is Labour not going to increase them? Does Labour agree with the Government that they should not be increased for five years? Is that the clear policy of the Opposition?

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Shadow Minister (Treasury)

Yes, it is. I am the shadow Treasury spokesperson responsible for the Bill today. [Interruption.] Well, I am standing here today. We made the pledge first. I am very pleased that the hon. Lady raised the question in the manner she did. As I say, we made the pledge first: it is our pledge. Let us get back to that point.

Rather than wasting their time with gimmicks such as this so-called tax lock, Ministers should perhaps direct their focus on supporting low and middle-income families. [Interruption.] Ministers should really bear in mind that every time they sit there laughing on a day when they are going to take £1,000 off 8 million hard-working families, they simply provide grist to the mill of people who contribute to news letters up and down the country. The Government’s fiscal policies are too serious for Ministers to sit there laughing. I really advise them to stop it. They should direct their focus at supporting low and middle-income families who will be worst hit by the summer Budget of this Conservative Government—with or without a tax lock.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Conservative, North West Hampshire 2:15 pm, 15th September 2015

It is often forgotten that companies do not actually pay tax. All they do is collect their tax on behalf of the Government from their customers and pass it on. If we go into the Tea Room and buy a Mars bar or whatever, we pay the cost not only of the ingredients, the machines and the capital deployed by the company, but of the corporation tax, the duty, the VAT and indeed national insurance as part of the price. Over the last 30 years that I have been in business, it has certainly been the case that the moving parts in running a business have become ever more complex, and tax in the general sense has occupied ever more time of the business person, particularly those who run small businesses. Anything that injects an element of certainty into the tax horizon for business is therefore extremely welcome, particularly at a time when lots of other things are changing for small businesses. The introduction of reforms in pensions, particularly auto-enrolment, changes to the living wage and other employment regulations create an atmosphere in which running a business feels very much like a game of 3-D chess.

We can look around the world at tax regimes for business where stability and lack of change has been a constant for some time and see success, irrespective of the rates. If we look at the United States, corporation taxes are actually quite high in comparison with this country—pleasingly—but also with the rest of the world. The US economy does extremely well, largely because tax rates have not changed for decades. The US has elected for stability and a lack of change to the relative level of the rate because it knows that one of the things most valued by businesses is certainty. Whenever people are starting or running a business, they spend their entire lives forecasting what the world is going to look like over the next two or three years. When people do that, they know that the day after the forecast, it will be wrong because of the many different moving parts, as I said. One area that business should be able to rely on for some certainty and stability is government. So the introduction of the Bill, which provides a four-and-a-half or five-year time horizon on national insurance, is extremely welcome.

There are people who might say that this is a gimmick, but much of what we do in the House is about signals. Economics is all about psychology and the individual choices that people make.

Photo of Roger Mullin Roger Mullin Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

The hon. Gentleman talks about the need for certainty and explains why he believes that the Bill will give certainty to small and medium-sized enterprises. If certainty is so important, why have this Government removed the climate change levy exemption for many SMEs?

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Conservative, North West Hampshire

The hon. Gentleman will have to ask my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer that question next time he appears. I hope that the hon. Gentleman would support me in urging those on the Treasury Bench generally to provide a level of certainty and in many ways to be slower about their decisions.

Photo of Christopher Pincher Christopher Pincher Conservative, Tamworth

My hon. Friend is generous in giving way. The question of certainty has been raised and eloquently explained by him. Does he agree that, when Members question certainty, they should ask themselves why they ask for referendums on whether they should be part of the United Kingdom, which surely breeds uncertainty?

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Conservative, North West Hampshire

My hon. Friend has made a strong point. During the debate on the referendum concerning our possible divorce as nations, businesses piped up very loudly about what was likely to be a very uncertain horizon for them on the far side of the debate. The majority opted for the status quo, because a bird in the hand was worth God knows what in the bush.

Photo of Angus MacNeil Angus MacNeil Chair, Energy and Climate Change Committee

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that it was certainly worth two Lords in the Lords.

In fact, the uncertainty has arisen as a result of our lack of independence. Scotland lost powers under the Energy Act 2013. The Government made a lot of promises on that. Now we are to lose the renewable energy obligation in Scotland because of the uncertainty caused by our losing the referendum. I wanted to put that on record, and to give the hon. Gentleman a bit of clarity.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Conservative, North West Hampshire

These things always involve a balance. A point that I have often made in another elected chamber—this is one of the things that dismay me a little—is that under the last Government we became used to having, effectively, two Budgets a year. There were two points during the year at which businesses, and indeed everyone else, had to hold their breath because there might be some change in the fiscal environment. Pleasingly, however, over the last four or five years, that change has been generally beneficial. The direction of travel of the United Kingdom has been towards a lower-tax environment for business, and we have seen the benefit of that in the jobs market and the growth of the economy over the last few years.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer Conservative, Sherwood

Does my hon. Friend agree that taking on staff constitutes a large responsibility for employers? They know that they are responsible not only for their employees’ health and safety, but for their future financial security, because the employees’ mortgages depend on their careers in the business. Anything that the Government can do to remove a barrier from the ability to employ someone has to be welcomed.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Conservative, North West Hampshire

That is exactly the point that I am making. Businesses are much more likely to employ people if they have some certainty about the overall cost of employment—not just wages, but on-costs such as expenses. Within that, national insurance is a very significant cost, and providing an element of certainty over the next four or five years is therefore extremely important.

Let me now return to a point that I was making earlier about signals. When I was Deputy Mayor for business and enterprise at City Hall, a position that I occupied for three and a half years, I was in charge of foreign direct investment. My job was to go around the world encouraging people to come and invest in London and the south-east. One of the things I learnt from that experience was that signals from City Hall about what we were willing to do, and how welcoming we were likely to be to particular companies, individuals or investors, was critical to whether they wanted to come. In that context, an element of certainty and predictability, not just political and legal—we are seen to have that around the world—but fiscal, was absolutely vital

Photo of Rehman Chishti Rehman Chishti Conservative, Gillingham and Rainham

Of course I agree with what my hon. Friend says about certainty and clarity. Does he not think that the shadow Minister’s argument—that when a promise has been made, there is no need to legislate for it—is quite contradictory? The Blair Government passed more legislation than any other Government: they passed 26,849 pieces of legislation. Labour cannot have one rule in government and another in opposition. Clarity is the way forward.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Conservative, North West Hampshire

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It must be said that the Brown years injected an enormous sense of uncertainty into business. Although, for some of that period, we were benefiting from what could be described as a global boom, businesses existed in an environment, and on a battlefield, that was for ever changing. Anything that calms down such situations, and makes decision making much more predictable, is key.

That is particularly important when it comes to foreign direct investment. When businesses want to locate large manufacturing plants that are both capital and labour-intensive, employment taxation and employment law are the two biggest drivers of whether they decide to come to the UK. The Bill will make employment taxation much more predictable, and seen to be predictable, for the next five years, and not just on the say of a “here today, gone tomorrow politician”—was it John Nott who objected to being so described? The facts will be there on paper, in black and white, and the fact that they can be relied on will make a big difference to foreign direct investment decisions.

Photo of Andrew Stephenson Andrew Stephenson Conservative, Pendle

I applaud what my hon. Friend has said about stability and certainty in the business community, especially in relation to foreign direct investment. During Business questions this morning, I mentioned the aerospace growth partnership. The aerospace sector has longer product cycles than other sectors. It is important for us to support such sectors, and for firms investing in aerospace to have a long period of certainty. The UK’s aerospace sector is the second largest sector in the world, and we are keen to support it.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Conservative, North West Hampshire

My hon. Friend has made a powerful point. Some of the sectors that are the most critical to the UK’s future success—aerospace, technology and life science, in which I have a particular interest—are international businesses which make huge bets on countries on a regular but long-term basis. Some predictability is therefore absolutely key.

My final point is about inflation. We are living in a financial atmosphere in which inflation will be of concern over the next five to 10 years, and we need to be careful to ensure that it does not get out of hand. We have been extremely successful in doing that so far. As I have said, national insurance forms a large part of prices. The Government—any Government—must bear in mind that if taxes rise, so do prices, over time. By injecting an element of freeze into the national insurance bill, we are also doing our bit to relieve whatever inflationary pressures may be generated in the economy.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

The hon. Gentleman talks about inflation as if it were the danger, but the real danger at the moment is deflation. Japan has been struggling with deflation for a decade and more. There is a serious problem across the world caused by prices rising below the threshold deemed appropriate by central banks, especially in Britain, and in America, the threat of rising interest rates is terrifying the world that we may be plunged into another economic crisis. It is deflation that is the problem; inflation is not even on the horizon.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Conservative, North West Hampshire

The hon. Gentleman may have a point at the current time, but some of us are of an age to remember the destruction that was wreaked on the last generation by inflation. My grandparents’ pensions were destroyed by it. I hope he will forgive me for having an atavistic fear of it, a fear that it may, at any point, appear over the horizon. Anything that we can do to defray that fear, either now or in the future, will be welcome.

I support the Bill. I think that it is a good idea. I will vote for it first because of the certainty that it will bring for business, secondly because of the international signal that it will send, and thirdly because I think that anything we can do to bear down on any inflation, either now or in the future, will be extremely welcome.

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie SNP Deputy Leader, Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Economy), Deputy Leader, Scottish National Party 2:28 pm, 15th September 2015

As the Minister said, the Bill will prevent any increase in the current rates of class 1, class 1A and class 1B national insurance contributions paid by employees and employers for the duration of the current Parliament. It will also provide that, for each year, the annual upper earnings limit cannot exceed the higher-rate threshold, which is the sum of the personal allowance and the income tax basic rate. All that is very sensible. There is nothing wrong, in principle, with any Government’s providing certainty in the tax code for the duration of their term in office. However, we clearly do not need legislation to do that.

As has already been said—so I shall say it only once—the Bill is a gimmick. It also demonstrates, in many ways, a lack of confidence. I shall say more about that shortly, but the key point is that placing such an arbitrary and unnecessary restriction on the Government’s ability to respond to unforeseen events may yet come back to haunt them.

The Bill results from the Finance Bill, which was published in July, and which provides for the tax lock on national insurance contributions, income tax and VAT. As was said earlier, it is intended to apply to a tax year that comes after the date of the Bill’s Royal Assent and before the first general election after that date. The time scope is therefore rather limited. There is also a technical issue. This is a separate Bill; the measures are not in the Finance Bill because statutory provisions for NI cannot be included in it.

However, none of this should be any surprise to us. The Conservative manifesto said that in government the Tories would not increase the rate of VAT, income tax or NICs in this Parliament. That should have been enough; the legislation is not required. In a speech ahead of the general election the Prime Minister confirmed that the tax lock also meant there would be no extension to the scope of VAT or any increase in the ceiling set for the main rate of NICs for employees.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

The hon. Gentleman mentioned VAT and the lock that the Government propose. Does he agree it would have been more impressive if they had had that lock before they raised VAT from 15% to 20% rather than after?

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie SNP Deputy Leader, Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Economy), Deputy Leader, Scottish National Party

That is the kind of thing any Opposition politician should say about any set of Tory policy decisions that ends up with the kind of outcomes the hon. Gentleman describes.

The Government also committed to legislate within 100 days of the election to rule out increases in the rates, which is what we are seeing today, but of course serious unintended consequences for spending and for other taxes may flow from this measure. Let me explain. The Government laid out in the summer Budget discretionary consolidation—that is, cuts and tax rises to you and me—amounting to £97 billion in this Parliament.

Of that, new draconian cuts to welfare amounted to a full third—£33 billion—but the entire spending plan was predicated on, among other things, NICs bringing in £115 billion this year, £126 billion next year, rising to almost £152 billion in 2021. That is a forecast rise in revenue yield from NICs of 9.6% this year to next, 4.3% the year after, 4.7% in 2017-18 to 20118-19, and a rise of over one third—£37 billion—between last year and the end of the forecast period.

One of the questions the Minister has to answer today is this: given the arbitrary freeze on NICs and some other rates, should the forecast yield be significantly less than expected, will other taxes rise and if so, which ones; and will the Chancellor take the axe to yet further spending, perhaps on pensions, or will borrowing rise and deficit reduction forecasts simply be abandoned, delivering exactly the same failure on debt and deficit we saw in the last Parliament?

Photo of Angus MacNeil Angus MacNeil Chair, Energy and Climate Change Committee

Of the options my hon. Friend has given, may I go for option three, which means the Government will borrow? As every schoolboy in Scotland who has been paying attention knows, the UK has not paid its way since 2001; it has borrowed each and every year since then. I would go for option 3 for the UK: in debt, with a black hole.

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie SNP Deputy Leader, Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Economy), Deputy Leader, Scottish National Party

My hon. Friend is right. Harking back to 2009 and the Fiscal Responsibility Bill, the then Chancellor made great play of legislation to bring down the debt and deficit, and what was the sanction should he fail? “We would just change the targets,” he said. I suspect the current situation is rather similar, and I may come to what the current Chancellor said about that particular legislation shortly.

Photo of Stewart Jackson Stewart Jackson Conservative, Peterborough

The hon. Gentleman must be vying for the 2015 Caledonian brass neck award. On the arc of prosperity of Iceland, Ireland and Scotland, if we are talking about black holes, would he care to enlighten the House as to £8 billion black hole predicated on the dwindling price of oil, which means that if the Scottish people had made a different decision the country and the constituency he represents would be bankrupt?

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie SNP Deputy Leader, Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Economy), Deputy Leader, Scottish National Party

The £1.5 trillion black hole which is the UK national debt is of rather more significance than any cyclical deficit any country may have, but then I suspect the hon. Gentleman probably knew that already.

Returning to the scope of the Bill, it is important that the Minister says what will happen should the yield forecasts be less than planned. That is important for his Government, too, because their rationale, as stated in their manifesto, was focused on

“reducing wasteful spending, making savings in welfare and continuing to crack down on tax evasion and aggressive avoidance.”

That allowed them to commit to no increases in VAT, income tax or NICs. They argued:

“Tax rises on working people would harm our economy, reduce living standards and cost jobs.”

I have no problem with tackling genuinely wasteful spending, such as Trident, or clamping down on tax evasion, but it is this Government’s attack on welfare which is harming the economy, reducing standards of living and threatening the growth needed to ensure the forecast yield from NICs is maintained in the way the Red Book forecasts suggest.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I have a great deal of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman has been saying. He mentioned the tax rises that have taken place which have brought the Government considerable increases in revenue, but does he agree that those taxes tend to be regressive and the one thing the Government are protecting is the progressive tax, which is much fairer, called income tax, which they have sought to reduce for high income earners?

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie SNP Deputy Leader, Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Economy), Deputy Leader, Scottish National Party

It is certainly the case that during the downturn the decision to remove the 50p rate of tax was wrong. We would certainly argue that in the current climate that 50p rate should have been maintained. In that respect at least, I agree with the hon. Gentleman.

I wish to raise at this point the Conservatives’ future plans to replace national insurance because that is pertinent to the measure under discussion. In July, the Financial Secretary commissioned the Office of Tax Simplification to review the interplay between income tax and NICs. He said:

“I would like the Office of Tax Simplification to look at what the impacts, costs and benefits of closer alignment would be and to set out what the necessary steps would be to achieve closer alignment. We believe greater integration of the two systems has the potential to remove economic distortions, reduce burdens on business, and improve fairness across individual earners.”

These are all sensible objectives, and I assume this is still a longer-term Government objective, so let me ask the Minister how this Bill assists in the delivery of that aim.

I said earlier in my contribution, and also in a debate on the financial statement in July, that the Chancellor promised a tax lock but that legislation to stop tax rises was

“just a gimmick and no one is going to buy it”—[Hansard, 8 July 2015; Vol. 598, c. 348.]

Indeed my hon. Friend Tommy Sheppard made the same point:

“If these provisions are included in what” is now this Bill today

“it will only take a clause” in future legislation

“to overturn them. They are therefore literally not worth the paper on which they are written.”—[Hansard, 21 July 2015; Vol. 598, c. 1441.]

He was right, of course, and that ties in with what I said earlier about a lack of confidence.

Of the Bill that became the Labour Government’s Fiscal Responsibility Act 2010, where levels of debt and deficit were planned but there was no sanction if they were broken, the current Chancellor said that it would achieve

“a constitutional first of imposing no legal sanction on the person who is likely to break it. No other Chancellor in the long history of the office has felt the need to pass a law in order to convince people that he has the political will to implement his own Budget”—[Hansard, 26 November 2009; Vol. 501, c. 708.]— until now.

Let me reprise that for this Bill. This is a constitutional second. Only one other Chancellor has felt it necessary to bring legislation before this House in order to convince people that he has the confidence to implement his own

Budget. We saw Gordon Brown go from Joseph Stalin to Mr Bean; I fear the First Secretary may be reverting to a rather rusty clunking fist.

As has been said, a large number of stakeholders have contributed to this debate, and key from our point of view are the words of Howard Archer, chief European and UK economist at IHS Economics, who said that such a move would restrict the Chancellor’s ability to achieve his targets:

“In particular, if the public finances fall markedly short of their targets, the chancellor would have to face making even more spending cuts and/or raising other taxes. Or just accepting the missed targets. There really still needs to be a lot more clarity on the whole Conservative fiscal policy”.

That is absolutely right.

It is also worth noting the comments of Jonathan Portes from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. He said the pledge not to increase the main taxes

“considerably reduces our flexibility if things turn out different from expected. This is why I have absolutely no doubt that Treasury and Bank of England officials were tearing their hair out at this.”

What discussions, if any, have the Minister, the Chancellor or the Treasury had with the central bank about these proposals and the inherent lack of flexibility that they generate?

Let me turn now to some of my final questions. I ask Members to bear with me as I describe some of the complexity of the current NICs regime. Employees pay NICs on their earnings if they exceed the lower earnings limit, which is set at £112 a week. A zero rate of NICs is charged on earnings between the lower earnings limit and the primary threshold of £155 a week. Earnings above the primary threshold are charged NICs at a rate of 12%, subject to a cap on the upper earnings limit, which is set at £815 a week. Earnings above that are set at 2%.

Employers pay NICs on employee earnings at a rate of 13.8% on earnings above the secondary threshold, which, at £156 a week, is a difference of £1 from the primary threshold for employers. There is no ceiling on secondary class 1 NICs.

As everyone in the Chamber knows, self-employed people pay a weekly flat rate class 2 NIC. They may apply for an exemption from paying class 2 contributions if there are no profits, or if their profits are less than, or expected to be less than, £5,965 for the year. This replaced a small earnings exemption from April this year. In addition, they may be liable for separate class 4 earnings, and on it goes.

Tax simplification is a great idea, and we can see precisely why. Will the Minister explain how these proposals will make the NICs regime more straightforward? In addition to those categories, individuals may be entitled to make voluntary class 3 contributions to avoid or fill gaps in their NI record to ensure that they qualify for basic retirement pension and bereavement benefits. Does the Minister expect more or fewer people to make additional voluntary contributions as a result of the tax lock to the NICs described in the Bill, and will there be any encouragement for them to do so?

The majority of NICs receipts are paid into the national insurance fund, which is separate from all other revenue raised by taxation. The fund is used exclusively to pay for contributory benefits. If the revenue yield from national insurance does not rise in the planned heroic way that I described earlier, can we expect to see cuts directed at the contributory benefits that people have already paid for? There is often unintended consequence from any legislative change—and sometimes perfectly foreseeable behavioural change that may affect yield forecasts. That is an argument that Treasury Ministers have, from time immemorial, fallen back on when they are implementing bad decisions. What assessment have the Government undertaken to predict if any negative behavioural change is likely from these measures, particularly given the differential in rates and thresholds between employee, employer and self-employed national insurance contributions?

Finally—this is really my most important question and at the heart of our disquiet over a legislative attempt to provide certainty over this Parliament—as the majority of NICs receipts are paid into the national insurance fund and that fund is used exclusively to pay for contributory benefits, may we have a cast-iron guarantee from the Minister today that this legislation is not and will not be the start of an attack on, or an erosion of, the contributory principle that applies to national insurance contributions?

Photo of Lucy Frazer Lucy Frazer Conservative, South East Cambridgeshire 2:44 pm, 15th September 2015

The Bill is about low taxation. Low taxation is critical to encouraging our businesses and our economy to grow. Low taxation encourages entrepreneurship, and it means that work pays. The commitment not to increase national insurance contributions is a key part of the Government’s triple lock to ensure that we have low taxation for our working nation. As it is paid by both employer and employee on wages, it is an important part of our jobs tax.

Many sectors rely on their people knowledge. I have many such sectors in my constituency. Only a few weeks ago, I visited Cambridge Online, which deals in computer software. Its chief executive officer said to me, “We are nothing, Lucy, other than our people.”

Last week, I was at Marshall, which employs 3,000 people and is one of the biggest employers in my constituency. It spends a huge amount investing in apprenticeships and in training up the next generation who will be its workforce. Also in my constituency is the science park, which is a key place for biotech industries. Innovation and enterprise are fundamental, and individual experience and individual knowledge of people are key. Cambridge university is on our border, and the academics and their great research are fundamental to our economy. At the source of all that is people. Keeping national insurance contributions at the same level is critical to encourage employers to employ, to encourage the growth of businesses and productivity, and to ensure that businesses can recruit and expand. However, this legislation is about not just low tax, but certainty. As businesses expand, it is good for them to have foresight in respect of their expenditure, and that is what we are providing. We are providing them with certainty. As has been mentioned, that is particularly important for foreign investment. My constituency has biotech industries. We are competing not with Birmingham or Leeds, but with silicon valley. What we need is certainty that foreign investors will invest in our community and our businesses.

It has been said that this measure is a gimmick. It is not. It may be that the Bill is not required, but that does not mean that it is not welcome. It provides the certainty that we need. This Bill is about low taxation, certainty and transparency, as it tells people what this Government are doing, and it will help with jobs, and therefore our economy, in the future.

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 2:47 pm, 15th September 2015

I am pleased to take part in this debate, even though it is on a gimmick, and we are not so used to debating gimmicks in the Chamber. The Chancellor is a paradox. He constantly wants legislation that prevents him from doing things—measures in the Finance Bill to avoid taking further decisions on income tax or VAT, today’s legislation on not making any changes to NICs, and legislation at some point in the future on the fiscal stance and his proposals to have a permanent budget surplus.

I am afraid that this piece of legislation is completely unnecessary. As Stewart Hosie said, the truth of the matter is that if there were a crisis and the Chancellor suddenly needed to raise more money, he could repeal this Bill. It does not give us the stability and certainty that the Government claim.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Conservative, South Suffolk

If we reach that point and the provisions have to be repealed, that will be a public act. This is an open and transparent Government. If we make this promise and then legislate, it is extremely difficult to repeal it on the sly. The Labour Government broke promises on the sly, hoping that we would not notice. It is impossible to do that with this type of approach.

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I am afraid that I do not accept that. This is purely weak willed on the part of the Chancellor. I thought that the Economic Secretary to the Treasury did not give us nearly as good a defence of the Bill as Kit Malthouse. He managed to situate it within the needs of the business community and give some rationale for it. The more the Minister spoke, the clearer it became that this is indeed a gimmick. I find that odd, because I thought that the Chancellor of the Exchequer wanted to be the Chancellor of the Exchequer and to take decisions, but clearly he does not. He just wants to tie his hands behind his back at every verse end.

I think it would be a good idea to vote against the Bill, and I am slightly disappointed that we are not opposing it. [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] It is not for me to say what the official Front-Bench position is, unfortunately. I want to point out to Conservative Members that we live in a world where the Chancellor has a desire to bring the deficit down very quickly. That is a difficult thing to do, as we saw when he failed comprehensively to achieve his target during the last Parliament. He is now having to go through some very choppy waters to get this done. He made a promise to introduce this legislation to fix VAT, income tax and national insurance because he thought that that would make him a low-tax

Chancellor in the eyes of the British public. The fact is, however, that since then he has increased VAT to 20%, increased vehicle excise duty and increased the insurance premium tax, as my hon. Friend Barbara Keeley pointed out. He is not a low-tax Chancellor.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Health)

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is another reason to believe that this is purely a gimmick from the Government? The Chancellor can give the impression that he will not increase national insurance rate ceilings, but fiscal drag could still have an impact, through the back door, on the amount of national insurance that people pay.

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

My hon. Friend makes an astute point. That is one of the things that is going on here.

The Chancellor is also shifting more and more from direct taxation on income to indirect taxation on spending. In doing so, he is pushing the burden of tax from those on middle incomes to those on lower incomes. They are the true target of this Government, as we shall see in the debate on tax credits later this afternoon.

Lucy Frazer claimed that this measure was about low tax, but I would ask her to reconsider that. For whom is it about low tax? For all the reasons given by the hon. Member for North West Hampshire, including the fact that not raising the basic rate of national insurance is a good thing to do, it is clear that this is a tax on labour. At a time when we want more people to have more good jobs, that seems rather perverse.

The most perverse thing about national insurance is the upper earnings limit, and including that in the legislation is a highly political act. We shall have a debate on tax credits in a little while. Let us look at the marginal rate that the Chancellor is giving to people, taking account of the tax and benefits system. After the Budget, the effective marginal tax rate faced by second earners in couples on very low incomes with two children will be 75%. However, for those earning more than £150,000 a year, the normal marginal tax rate of less than 50% will apply. Even when universal credit is introduced, the marginal rate for people earning around £10,000 a year will be 65%, but the withdrawal rate for people earning more than £150,000 will be 48p in the pound. That is not about low tax or certainty. It is clearly about protecting the Tory party’s rich friends and rich donors.

Photo of Lucy Frazer Lucy Frazer Conservative, South East Cambridgeshire

I heard the shadow Minister say that this was Labour party policy. What does Helen Goodman say to that?

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

As I have said, I would not have made a commitment on the upper earnings limit. That is just not my view. Fortunately, in the House of Commons we are free to speak as we find things. We are having this debate and I am making my contribution. I am telling the House that that is not a terribly sensible commitment to make.

The hon. Member for North West Hampshire made some good points about the certainty that small and micro-businesses need, but I ask hon. Members to consider for themselves how many small and micro-businesses are employing people on £150,000 a year. I suggest that not many are doing so. I know that Hampshire is better off than County Durham, but it is not so much better off that every farmer and small shopkeeper is paying themselves and their staff £150,000 a year.

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

May I seek some clarity? The hon. Lady said that she would not make a commitment on the upper earnings limit. Is she therefore suggesting that the 12% rate of national insurance contributions should also apply to higher rate income tax payers?

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I am saying that it would be perfectly reasonable to consider that, rather than pre-committing in the way that the Bill is doing. That seems to be common sense.

It is surprising that the Treasury thinks that it can simply continue to switch off policy levers and that that is an intelligent way of carrying on. As my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South has said, commentators including the Financial Times and PricewaterhouseCoopers have pointed out that this measure will force the Government into a more difficult and tricky situation. The position will become more constrained, and it will be more difficult to take sensible decisions on raising money. The legislation will put more pressure on the Government to cut public spending.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Conservative, North West Hampshire

I think I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her support earlier. That was kind of her. Would she accept that one of the strengths of having these measures embedded in legislation is that if a future Chancellor were to decide that he or she wanted to raise national insurance rates, an element of delay would be injected into the proceedings by dint of the repeal process? That would give businesses some months—and possibly a year or even longer, if the House were so to decide—in which to adjust to what would otherwise have been a sudden decision.

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

Well, it might or it might not, depending on the circumstances.

This quest for certainty is quite reasonable in regard to small businesses—

Photo of Angus MacNeil Angus MacNeil Chair, Energy and Climate Change Committee

In any debate about taxes, it is instructive to look at what the OECD tells us about global tax-to-GDP ratios, which is what I have just done. Denmark has a tax-to-GDP ratio of 47.2%. Mexico, at the other extreme, has a tax-to-GDP ratio of 19.7%. The Conservatives’ mantra is “lower taxes, lower taxes, lower taxes”, but that would appear to be sending us in the direction of Mexico. That is not the sort of society I want; I want a society that is high on the UN human development index such as Denmark. The figure for the UK is 33%. How far do the Government want to go? Do they want to give us a society like that of Mexico, or do they want us to be like Denmark?

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

The hon. Gentleman knows the way to my heart; he knows that I am half Danish and that I would much prefer the Danish model to the Mexican model.

Hon. Members have been talking about certainty, but the Bill will provide certainty only for the very well off. The Government are not worried about certainty for people on very low incomes, as we shall see in an hour’s time when we discuss the cuts to tax credits.

Photo of Christopher Pincher Christopher Pincher Conservative, Tamworth

The hon. Lady is a doughty individualist. I recall her calling me up a few months ago, when she was seeking the chairmanship of the Public Accounts Committee—regrettably, she was unsuccessful in that enterprise—and asking me what the PAC Chair should do. One thing she said was, “We must make Parliament more accountable.” Surely by passing this legislation, which would have to be repealed if the Chancellor wanted to make changes, we are making this House and the Chancellor more accountable.

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

That is rather a silly remark. If the Chancellor makes decisions on tax, we can question him about them. This Bill is more a non-decision about a non-tax. It does not do what the hon. Gentleman suggests. Conservative Members have reiterated some of their well-known mantras, but have added nothing of substance to the debate. There is no positive agenda in this Bill addressing the needs of the British economy. It is, I am sorry to say, a gimmick.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Conservative, Bexhill and Battle 3:00 pm, 15th September 2015

I warmly support the provisions in the Bill to enshrine the level of contributions for national insurance. This measure, together with the commitment made earlier this year not to raise income tax, was an essential part of my party’s general election manifesto, and I am pleased to see the legislative effect being enacted.

I am passionate about my Government’s pledge to give people the opportunity of work. In the last term, the Government put business at the heart of their programme, creating more than 700,000 new businesses. That climate has helped to allow 2 million new jobs to be created in this country. In the term to come, the desire is to create a further 2 million jobs, to increase that success. In order for private enterprise to deliver these new jobs, it is essential to give business an environment of certainty, to allow it to plan over the next five years. That is what creates jobs.

Photo of Callum McCaig Callum McCaig Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Energy and Climate Change)

I am disagreeing. Certainty is being provided in one narrow aspect of business taxation. As my party’s energy spokesperson, I know that the oil and gas industry would love legislation ruling out increases in its taxation. Does ruling out an increase in one narrow aspect not increase the uncertainty in the whole range of other business taxation?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Conservative, Bexhill and Battle

Not at all. Perhaps I can come on to deal with that by considering the macro levers the Government will have over this term, which will give a real boost to the economy, and other matters where it might be right to leave things open.

I was talking about the need to create jobs, which is what is essential here. Jobs change lives, creating hope, aspiration and well-being for all of our constituents. Any move to create more jobs should be welcomed by all parties, not just the Conservative party, and should not be branded as a “stunt” or a “gimmick”.

Photo of Kwasi Kwarteng Kwasi Kwarteng Conservative, Spelthorne

Does my hon. Friend feel that this legislation chimes in well with what we saw from the last Government, who created about 1 million new jobs in the private sector? Does he agree that this is exactly the kind of direction the country needs to pursue?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Conservative, Bexhill and Battle

I absolutely agree with that. I recall that five years ago there were howls of derision when the Government announced that they would seek to create one new job in the private sector for every one public sector job lost. At the end of the five-year period I believe that the actual figure was five for every one. We had great success, and it shows that we are the Government who can manage the economy and turn it around, despite what we were faced with in 2010.

The content of this Bill was at the heart of this Government’s manifesto commitment. Today is all about honouring promises—it is not about gimmicks or stunts. What has this House become if, when we stand proudly and enact our manifesto in legislation, it is branded as a gimmick? What does that say about the manifestos of other parties, given that it is only four months since the previous election? I was reassured to hear from the Cabinet Office that a unit is in place to ensure that every Department is making good on this Government’s manifesto pledges, as opposed to the Labour party which, as mentioned, is tearing up its pledges after only four months and a leadership change.

With the commitment not to increase national insurance, which is, after all, a tax on job creation, Conservative Members are making good on our commitment to support business and create a platform for jobs.

Photo of Rehman Chishti Rehman Chishti Conservative, Gillingham and Rainham

Our commitment to creating more jobs and bringing more jobs to our country goes hand in hand with what we are doing on corporation tax, where we have one of the lowest rates in the western world. As a result, Deloitte is saying, “These measures will bring more businesses into this country.” This lower taxation measure is therefore in line with the other measures put forward by the Chancellor to create more jobs and opportunity by having one of the lowest levels of corporation tax in the developed world.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Conservative, Bexhill and Battle

I fully agree with that point and I think I can link it to the one made previously by the SNP. This Government have a commitment ultimately to reduce the deficit and run a surplus by 2020, and that requires some changes and some levelling in taxes. The key thing is to look at which taxes we use: which taxes will have to increase to pay back some of the debt and which ones can be cut, because every £1 cut creates more in the private sector and more spend. Let me touch on two things. The annual investment allowance is a tax measure that was due to revert to £25,000 per annum at the end of this year, but after the July Budget it will now increase to £200,000 per annum. That is a good example of a tax change that will boost the UK supply chain and cause private industry to purchase more plant, causing more pounds to be created as a result. Alternatively, let us consider the insurance premium tax, which will rise but which will be way below levels in the European Union, particularly in Germany. I envisage that it is unlikely to have a negative effect. This is all about this Government understanding how the economy is managed and how these macro levers can be manoeuvred to favour private investment.

[Interruption.]

There may be chuntering from Opposition Members, but our record in government over the past five years—we have created jobs and started to balance the budget—cannot be denied, despite what is said by Opposition Members.

I come back to my personal commitment in Bexhill and Battle. The number of my constituents on jobseeker’s allowance stands at 613, which is a decrease on the 2010 figure of 1,400, of whom 135 are aged 18 to 24—that compares with a figure of 385 in 2010. Our focus on reducing youth unemployment makes me incredibly proud of what this Government have done. These figures show that some of the 2 million new jobs created in the UK over the past five years have been delivered in my constituency. But my local task is to attract new employers to Bexhill and Battle.

I was listening to my hon. and learned Friend Lucy Frazer talking about the science park and the developments there. I was fortunate enough to visit her constituency and Milton Keynes last weekend, when I was struck by the differences between those areas and East Sussex, which is home to my constituency and where I reside. We have a real need for regeneration and we do not have those new jobs being created. The challenge for us is incredibly difficult. We do not have the motorways, the dual carriageways or the rails—as yet; I am delighted by the commitment from the Government in this Budget to try to fix that. Our regeneration is a hard quest and moves such as those in the Bill, which provide certainty, make the job much easier. Thanks to this Government, a new link road is being built from Bexhill to Hastings, which will deliver thousands of houses, a 42-acre business park and a country park, all of which should attract thousands of high-skilled jobs and boost our economic regeneration and productivity.

Creating this infrastructure is one thing, but turning it into a jobs factory requires a persuasive case to be made to business to take risks. Being able to tell businesses that they can expand and grow without the danger of taxes rising is a key ingredient for them to take that risk involved in financing expansion.

Photo of Rehman Chishti Rehman Chishti Conservative, Gillingham and Rainham

My hon. Friend talks about taxes rising. The Bill provides certainty, whereas rising taxes cause uncertainty. In his manifesto, the Leader of the Opposition said that he wanted to increase corporation tax from 20% to 20.5%. That would create uncertainty and hinder jobs and investment coming into this country.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Conservative, Bexhill and Battle

I agree completely. The cut in corporation tax allowed this Government to justify the increase in the living wage, as it offsets that. Such a change would put all that at risk, although I very much hope that we will never see that day.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Conservative, Bexhill and Battle

Perhaps I can make a little progress, but then I will of course give way.

The Government continue to reduce levels of taxation and I welcome that move. In a recent report, Bexhill and Battle constituency, which I represent, was in the top 10 constituencies for the fastest rise in wages for the past 10 years. As I am from a constituency that has lagged behind the national average for far too long, I am incredibly excited about this change in fortune.

I fully support the commitment in the Bill and hope that the benefits will be felt across the country as well as in my constituency.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North 3:11 pm, 15th September 2015

I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker, for having to leave the debate for a short while, but I managed to catch the major part of the speech by my hon. Friend Helen Goodman. It was an excellent speech and I agree with every word of it, but I did not know that she was half Danish. I want to say something about Denmark, a very sensible country with a more appropriate taxation system than we have. As Mr MacNeil said, would Members prefer to live in Denmark or Mexico? I know which I would choose; Denmark is clearly a more sensible country.

I have been to Denmark on a couple of occasions and it does two very sensible things. First, the Danes have retained their own currency, which is sensible, but they also seek to manage its value, which we do not, and that is also sensible. One result of the Danes’ sensible taxation system is that they can sustain students without fees but with grants until the age of 25. A few years ago, I understand, the average class size in schools in Denmark was 15. No wonder they have advantages that we do not; they are prepared to pay for them—[Interruption.] I shall talk about national insurance, but I wanted to mention the sensible country of Denmark, which I so admire, before I started.

The lock on the taxation system is a gimmick, as my hon. Friend Barbara Keeley has said from the Front Bench. Surely a promise from the Chancellor of the Exchequer would be appreciated, understood and believed by the business sector. A Conservative Chancellor making a promise is enough. This Bill is like saying, “I promise not to rob the bank any more, but do put the handcuffs on me.” He is clearly not a bank robber, but does he need to have those handcuffs on him just to do what he believes to be the right thing? He has given away flexibility in any case, and I certainly would not do that, because we cannot foresee what will happen.

There is a real possibility, for example, of another financial crisis coming down the road. I mentioned in my speech on the Budget forecasts that there will be another serious economic crisis in the not too distant future. Precisely when that will happen, we do not know, but we ought to retain flexibility with all the economic levers at our disposal to ensure that Britain is protected if that happens.

In the previous crisis, the British Government, led by Gordon Brown, persuaded the world to recapitalise the banks. If we had not done that, the whole financial system might have collapsed and we would have been in a much worse situation. I am not saying that I agree with everything that my former right hon. Friend did, as I was often a critic of our policies. Nevertheless, that had to be done, even though in a sense it rewarded the gamblers who had gambled away our future and made our lives so much more difficult. Those difficulties continue today, but it was the bankers gambling on the free financial markets who caused the problem. It was nothing to do with the Labour Government, and, indeed, all sorts of economists say that Labour did the right thing when the crisis happened.

Photo of Kwasi Kwarteng Kwasi Kwarteng Conservative, Spelthorne

We are wandering rather further from the topic of the debate than I would like, but how would the hon. Gentleman explain the consistent deficits we ran from 2001, as Mr MacNeil suggested? We were in deficit every single year for the last nine years of the Labour Government.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I can only refer the hon. Gentleman to the excellent article by the economist Ben Chu, which goes into detail showing why Labour was not to blame and was not responsible. The crisis caused the deficits, but if we had not recapitalised the banks, where would we be now?

Let me go back to the instability mentioned by Kit Malthouse, who is no longer in his place. He talked about businesses wanting stability. Instability arises because of the globalisation of financial markets. Before 1979, we managed financial markets with exchange controls. The breakdown of the Bretton Woods agreement is what caused the problems.

Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Shadow PC Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Intervention)

The hon. Gentleman is completely right to say that this is purely a gimmick by the Government. There is no need for a legislative vehicle to enact this policy; the announcement could be made in a Budget statement or an autumn statement, as appropriate. Does he agree that, if the Government were serious about helping working people, and people on low incomes in particular, they would increase the threshold at which national insurance contributions kick in to the level of personal allowances for income tax, rather than implementing the pure gimmick of this Bill?

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

That would certainly be one way of dealing with it, but I think that not cutting tax credits, which are coming up for debate this afternoon, would be a much more important way of helping people on low incomes. We should certainly do that.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

The hon. Gentleman, as ever, is gracious in giving way. He suggests that the Labour Government were not responsible. Surely, bankers are driven by the incentives in the global markets he described to make money and the job of Government is to regulate those markets so that they benefit the public and do not poison the public well. On that fundamental duty, including the dismantling of the previous Bank of England supervision regime, the Labour Government failed.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I have to agree with the hon. Gentleman, but the great deregulation occurred in 1979 with the abandonment of exchange controls. During the period of the New Labour Government, I was one of those who called constantly for reregulation rather than deregulation. I was out of step with my colleagues at the time, but I think we have now learnt a lesson and believe in more regulation. I certainly look forward to a more regulated economic world in the future, and if we have another crisis I believe that regulation will come back.

I ought to get on to the question of national insurance contributions, as those comments were by way of a preamble to my speech. The suggestion has come from the Conservative Benches that we should abandon national insurance contributions and merge them with the tax system. That has been discussed over some time and I have flirted with the idea myself, but I have come down against it. I believe that although there should be a threshold so that people on very low incomes do not pay national insurance contributions, they reinforce the sense of all of us paying into a system and having a sense of entitlement to what the system can do for us when we are in need.

Tying us all into a system on a relatively equal basis for at least part of the income revenues is important. We pay national insurance contributions and we therefore have a right to pensions, the health service and so on. There is clearly not enough and much more has to be paid out of other forms of taxation. I prefer the more progressive forms of taxation, income tax being the most important, and I regret that income tax rates at the higher end have been cut pretty savagely since 1979. I remember the 1988 Budget, when Nigel Lawson cut the top rate from 60% to 40%. I had lunch in the City shortly afterwards with a number of City people, and they were amazed by it. They had watched the Budget on television and asked, “Why has he done this? We don’t need the money.” That is what people in the City were saying about the cut in the top rate of tax. I have no doubt that there are some people in the world who are so greedy that they want even more money, despite having millions already, but most people think that having a high rate of tax for the very highest earners is a good and progressive thing.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

The hon. Gentleman must have seen the figures. Every time the higher rate of tax was cut, the amount paid by the richest, in both absolute and relative terms, went up. The truth is that Governments receive more money when they impose fair taxation and less when they follow the policy that he is advocating.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but the fact is that successive Governments have failed to ensure that the rich pay their taxes properly. We have a tax gap of £120 billion a year. The fact that fewer people might fiddle their finances is not an argument for reducing the top rate of tax. We ought to have a proper regime for enforcing tax payment by those who get away with it: the corporates and the billionaires who manage to avoid and evade tax on a massive scale. If we collected only a third of what is fiddled every year, we would have another £40 billion a year to spend. I think that we have failed on that because all Governments have opted for a light touch on the rich. That is the truth.

Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Conservative, North Dorset

The hon. Gentleman obviously has the inside track on the voice of the City—he has referenced lunches he has had in the square mile—so could he illume the House on what the City’s view is on the new policies of his right hon. Friends who now occupy the Opposition Front Bench?

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I must say that I have not had lunch in the City recently. Indeed, my contacts with City people have not been of the highest order since 1998. I once had lunch with the Governor of the Bank of England, shortly after being elected, and very enjoyable it was too. That was when “steady Eddie” was in charge—he was a splendid Governor and I am sorry that he is no longer with us.

I believe that there are ways of ensuring that we collect the taxes that are due from the rich. Personally, I believe that I should pay more income tax, along with everyone else on my kind of salary—I earn £74,000 a year. Indeed, the majority of the population have said that they would be happy to pay a little more tax in order to help our health service, which is still seriously underfunded.

I believe that national insurance contributions set at a modest level are an important part of our tax and revenue-colleting system. It gives us all a sense of collectivity, which I think is right. We call that the contributory principle. It means that we have a sense of duty in paying taxes as well as a sense of entitlement in receiving what they pay for. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland, who is no longer in her place, on the upper earnings limits.

VAT is a regressive tax. It was noticeable that Gordon Brown, when Prime Minister, cut VAT from 17.5% to 15%, which boosted demand at the moment that was needed and, together with a substantial depreciation of sterling, helped to keep the economy relatively stronger than some other economies. We have since survived, but I think that we are now making a mistake in allowing sterling to appreciate. It has moderated a bit in recent weeks, but it is still far too high, and manufacturing is suffering as a result.

I understand that the Opposition are going to acquiesce in what the Government are proposing today, but I agree entirely with the view put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland. I look forward to my party coming into government next time around with our new leader committed to ensuring that the rich, the corporates and those who have been getting away with it for years pay their taxes so that we can build a decent society on the revenues that they should provide.

Photo of Kwasi Kwarteng Kwasi Kwarteng Conservative, Spelthorne 3:24 pm, 15th September 2015

I am pleased to follow Kelvin Hopkins, although I felt as though I was entering a time warp when listening to his speech; it is a long time since I have heard anyone defend exchange controls. I believe that the limit on the amount of money that someone could take out of the country was £50, and they had to declare everything else. Given the current political climate, it is very interesting to hear a Labour Member advocate such a policy.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

It was a temporary limit imposed on holidaymakers by Harold Wilson, but most had no problem spending money abroad. What we did was ensure that the bankers and international speculators did not have free rein.

Photo of Kwasi Kwarteng Kwasi Kwarteng Conservative, Spelthorne

I am glad to hear that everything was all right because it was Harold Wilson who imposed the limit, which I think was £40.

Of course this is a sensible Bill. Of course it makes sense to limit national insurances contributions, because they are, after all, as has been pointed out, a tax on jobs. My hon. Friend Kit Malthouse, who is no longer in his place, made an excellent point about the things we do here being a signal to people outside, such as investors, potential entrepreneurs and people who want to set up businesses. If the Government get the Bill through, I am confident that it will send a very good signal to people who want to invest in the British economy and in our constituencies and who want to set up small businesses.

My constituency of Spelthorne is very near Heathrow airport and lies on the Thames, and it is a case in point. It is an area where small business and private enterprise is at the core of people’s way of life. It is the basis on which people go to work, save and plan for their retirement. Essentially, they are people who are driven and motivated by small business. Therefore, a Bill that caps national insurance tax is an excellent development that will be warmly appreciated across my constituency.

We have heard a number of arguments this afternoon that simply do not make sense. On the one hand, we have heard from Labour Members that the Bill is a gimmick and that it is wrong. On the other hand, they have said that they will support it. Indeed, we have also heard that they were apparently the first people to come up with that gimmick. It seems very odd. I am still utterly confused about their position.

Stewart Hosie made a very good point, but I recall that before the general election his party was the biggest deficit denier—it was even worse than the Labour party in denying the deficit and ranting against austerity. It is a very confused picture. I would be very interested to see what the SNP will do if the House divides on the Bill.

Photo of Iain Stewart Iain Stewart Conservative, Milton Keynes South 3:27 pm, 15th September 2015

It is a pleasure to make a short contribution on this important Bill, which I very much welcome. The Bill has been criticised as being a gimmick, and it has been suggested that it is not necessary. Let me take Opposition Members back a few years to the 2001 general election, when the victorious Labour party pledged—on pledge cards and bill boards all over the country—that there would be no increases in income tax. The country voted the Labour party in by a very large margin. Within a matter of months, however, the then Chancellor, Mr Brown, decided to increase spending on the NHS, funded by an increase in national insurance contributions. Technically he was correct—he did not put up income tax rates—but most people regard national insurance as a tax on income, so if the letter of the pledge was not broken, the spirit certainly was.

This Bill is important because, as many colleagues have said, it gives certainty to employers to plan ahead. If my hon. Friend Huw Merriman wants to make a return visit to Milton Keynes, he will be very welcome to come to the job show that is taking place there this weekend; I have the great pleasure of opening it on Friday. Milton Keynes has seen an enormous increase in the number of new jobs and business start-ups in recent years, and we very much want that to continue. Giving employers this certainty on their national insurance contributions will be a key part of instilling the confidence they need to start up businesses and expand existing ones.

Another important measure in sustaining long-term jobs growth and investment is addressing the skills gap we have in this country. That requires more apprentices to be taken on by companies. We must bear in mind that this Bill is part of a package from the Chancellor, who announced an apprenticeships levy to help to fund the growth in the number of high-quality, long-term apprenticeships. That policy is in place in many countries, although it is not without controversy. Alongside that is the pledge to cut corporation tax for large and small companies and to give them benefits in not increasing their national insurance contributions. I very much support the Bill as part of this broader package, which is essential for the long-term health of job creation in this country.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Conservative, Northampton North 3:30 pm, 15th September 2015

This Bill is short but very important. It is a commitment not to increase national insurance, which will be very reassuring for the people in small and medium-sized enterprises who represent the lifeblood of this economy.

Labour Members have been saying all afternoon, “Why legislate? This is nothing more than a gimmick”—indeed, “a gimmick of epic proportions”, according to Barbara Keeley. Yet they then go on to say that they are going to support this measure, somewhat idiosyncratically; some might use a different word. In effect, they have said that they are so confident in our Chancellor of the Exchequer that legislation is not needed—his words should be enough. That is very reassuring. It is how I and other Conservative Members feel, but it is interesting to hear Labour Members argue in that way.

Labour Members say the Bill is a gimmick, but in fact it is a manifesto commitment. This may be a concept alien to them, but we are sticking to our manifesto promises. We undertook to do this within 100 days, and we are doing it. We stick to our promises, unlike Labour. Unlike Labour, Conservatives understand the markets. We understand the need of individuals to have some certainty in their lives, especially entrepreneurs and those operating small and medium-sized businesses. Labour Members do not understand the markets or business; they find them alien concepts. That is not particularly surprising given that their shadow Chancellor wishes to overthrow the capitalist regime.

It is ironic that Labour Members refer to unnecessary legislation when under the 13 years of the Labour Government there was such legislative incontinence that dozens of Bills were passed, many of which have been completely useless and otiose; I think of criminal justice legislation, for a start. Conservative Members welcome low taxes. The new far-left Labour leadership wants to tax people into oblivion, but we recognise that taxes should be kept as low as possible. Labour Members refuse to learn from their mistakes. They fail to recognise that in the 1970s when tax rates were extremely high—up to 80% and 90%—less money was coming into the Treasury coffers than when tax rates were at 40% under the late noble Baroness Thatcher.

With its super-high tax rates, the ultra-leftist Labour party of today does not recognise the mistakes of the former Labour party and other socialists around the world. It will not learn from its mistakes. This Conservative Government understand what it means to have a thriving economy, understand the importance of low taxes, and understand the importance of keeping to our manifesto promises. That is why this Bill is before the House today.

Photo of Christopher Pincher Christopher Pincher Conservative, Tamworth 3:34 pm, 15th September 2015

I should like briefly to add my voice in support of this welcome Bill. Having listened to Barbara Keeley, I am pleased that the Opposition do not propose to oppose the Bill. It appears that she has bravely come to the House to abstain in person.

The hon. Lady asked why the Bill is necessary. Were she present, she might like to reflect on this reason: the decision by the new Leader of the Opposition to appoint as his shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, a self-confessed Marxist who wants to nationalise the banks, print money and soak almost everybody in the great cause of the proletariat. That sends shivers down the backs of many small and medium-sized enterprises in our country and of international investors. This Bill goes some say to guarding against that uncertainty.

As we have heard, businesses like certainty, even if that certainty generates bad news. It was bad news to hear from the Opposition in the last Parliament that they proposed to freeze energy prices. That increased the cost of capital for investors in our energy infrastructure and made them put off investment decisions.

This Bill, however, is good news. It gives business folk in all our constituencies the certainty that we will not increase taxes. That means that they will make investment decisions and grow their businesses. In my constituency, where unemployment has fallen faster in the past three years than anywhere else in the country, Jaguar Land Rover, BMW, Tamworth Steel Stockholders and Percy Lane Products will create new jobs and more wealth for our country. Business folk in my constituency say that this Bill is a no-brainer, which is one reason why it should commend itself to the Opposition. Let’s do it.

Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Conservative, North Dorset 3:36 pm, 15th September 2015

I am delighted to speak in support of the Bill. A number of colleagues have spoken of the need for certainty, and my hon. Friend Kit Malthouse has spoken about the need for signals. This Bill is not a gimmick, but a very good piece of proposed legislation. It sends a very clear signal to the country, employees, employers and the investment world that such is the Government’s confidence in their wider economic policies that they will not have to increase national insurance contributions or other taxes.

The Bill also sends a very clear message to both the employer and a potential employee. In rural constituencies such as mine in North Dorset, which is predominantly made up of agricultural micro and small businesses, the decision to recruit is often made on a knife edge. It is drilled down to almost the last shilling to work out whether or not it is financially viable.

The certainty provided by the Bill sends two clarion calls from this Government. The first is that the sensible employer can have the confidence to invest in their business and grow it. Secondly, it tells the new employee that returning to work or entering it for the first time pays. Those things are mother’s milk to Conservative Members, but they are an utterly alien substance to the Labour party.

I felt sorry for the shadow Minister, Barbara Keeley. She tried to defend abstention while desperately trying to show that, when the great purge comes in some Labour reshuffle or other, she will be able to say, “I decided to oppose it and please the purists on my side.”

We will get on with taking the difficult and sensible decisions of governing the country, to make sure that the economy continues to grow.

Photo of Paul Maynard Paul Maynard Conservative, Blackpool North and Cleveleys 3:39 pm, 15th September 2015

A brief Bill deserves a brief speech. I am pleased to see the shadow Minister back in her place. She checked her phone several times, perhaps concerned that she had been reshuffled by text message for disloyalty. I am glad that she has survived until at least 4 o’clock.

I rise to speak in favour of the entrepreneurs in my constituency. Like my hon. Friend Huw Merriman, I have a town that needs regeneration. I have met many of those who have taken advantage of the new enterprise allowance to set up businesses around the kitchen table. The Economic Secretary referred to that in her speech. Whether they are lady funeral directors, stained glass window repairers or supermarket ready meal manufacturers, they all want to grow their businesses from the very smallest roots. To do so, they need three things: confidence, security and certainty. The Bill will give them confidence, security and certainty. My town needs such jobs. We need the Bill. Please get on with it.

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Shadow Minister (Treasury) 3:40 pm, 15th September 2015

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank the House for giving me leave to speak again.

We have had a very lively debate on this somewhat peculiar measure. As I said earlier, many people will wonder why we are debating it at all—we have spent a considerable time on it—and many commentators have called it a gimmick. If the Prime Minister commits not to raise income tax, national insurance contributions or VAT in the run-up to an election, surely such a commitment should be taken at face value. The essence of this debate is that what the Prime Minister commits to should not be questioned, but taken at face value.

However, other pledges made by the Prime Minister and his party have been broken. The commitment made in 2010 not to raise VAT was followed by an increase in VAT to 20% soon after the Conservatives entered government. I have found several other broken pledges that I would like to refer to Government Members. Before the 2010 general election, David Cameron[Interruption.] Sorry, the Prime Minister told Andrew Marr that he had no plans to cut front-line services. Interestingly, for a Leader of the Opposition preparing for government, he said that if

“any cabinet minister if I win the election…comes to me and says, ‘Here are my plans’ and they involve frontline reductions, they’ll be sent straight back to their department to go away and think again.”

Since then, we have seen cuts in the number of NHS nurses, hospital beds, firefighters and front-line police officers.

As I said earlier, the Prime Minister said he had absolutely no plans to raise VAT. On child benefit, he said at a Cameron Direct event:

“I would not means test it.”

The coalition Government in effect abolished the benefit for higher earners and then froze it for three years. On the NHS, he said, “No more top-down reorganisations”, which is perhaps the most infamous broken pledge. It was made both by the Prime Minister and by the person who became Heath Secretary. On education maintenance allowances, the Prime Minister said in January 2010, again at a Cameron Direct event:

“We don’t have any plans to get rid of them.”

On Sure Start, he said:

“Yes, we back Sure Start.”

Over 550 Sure Start centres have closed, while more than half those still open no longer provide on-site childcare. I could go on and on, mentioning the future jobs fund and what the Chancellor said about bankers’ bonuses and many other pledges.

As I said earlier, following our discussion on the Bill, the next item of business will be a debate on the Government’s cuts to tax credits, which will leave some 8 million families over £1,000 a year worse off, on average. Let me say again that the matter we are voting on—or not voting on, because we support it—was a Labour pledge. [Interruption.] Presumably Government Members do not want a vote and would prefer the Bill to be supported. I have said that we will support it, so why raise such matters? There is no question about it.

We first pledged not to increase national insurance contributions, and, as I said earlier, we will not oppose the Bill. I have not heard any Member say that they oppose it. I say to Treasury Ministers—I hope that they will take this serious point away from the debate—that breaking pledges and using gimmicks, such as the so-called tax lock, further undermines people’s already reduced belief in government and politics. As I said earlier, one of the concerns that many people have in this policy gimmick is that it will place a serious constraint on the Treasury and, indeed, on the Government’s ability to raise taxes or to maintain the flexibility needed to raise revenue in response to economic events. That is the other serious point that I was making. The Government, as I and my hon. Friends have said, will have to resort to measures such as delaying the uprating of thresholds and removing reliefs, as they did in the last Parliament.

The suspicion remains that future Budgets will mean further increases to taxes like the insurance premium tax, which seemed to be regarded in the last Budget as an easy target. I am disappointed that Ministers declined my offer for them to use this debate to pledge that no further increases would be made to the insurance premium tax in this Parliament. The insurance premium tax, which we debated at length, will bring in £8 billion for the Government by 2021, but will hit many millions of hard-working families. It may lead, as I mentioned last week, to the negative consequence of even more uninsured drivers. The rate of uninsured drivers is already nearly 3% or 1 million vehicles on the road. We have to think about the negative consequences of the tax increases that we saw in the summer Budget.

As I have said on a number of occasions, we will not oppose the Bill. It implements our pledge and we stick by it.

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke The Financial Secretary to the Treasury 3:45 pm, 15th September 2015

It is a great pleasure to respond to a lively debate. I thank all those who have contributed, not least Barbara Keeley, who contributed twice. She carries a heavy burden on behalf of her party and I hope that it is noted by the powers that be. I welcome the shadow Chancellor to the Chamber. No doubt he will have noticed the effort that she has put in.

I thank Government Back Benchers for their contributions. My hon. Friend Kit Malthouse began his speech with the sensible point that, ultimately, it is not companies that pay tax. It is always families and individuals who bear the tax bill, regardless of who writes the cheque. Like a number of hon. Friends, he went on to speak about the importance of providing stability and certainty in the tax system both for individuals and for companies. The tax lock will provide much greater certainty and stability.

That point was also well made by my hon. and learned Friend Lucy Frazer, who highlighted the importance of low taxes to businesses in her constituency and to employees. She made the point that a number of those businesses compete with businesses in silicon valley, and that they need the certainty that the Bill and the Government’s other policies provide.

My hon. Friend Huw Merriman made a similar point about the need for economic policy to support business. It is through the success of our businesses that we will see the economy grow and tax receipts come in, which will enable us to pay for high-quality public services. We must not forget the importance of an enterprising economy. It may well be that that point becomes more important in the debate in this country over the next few years, as the consensus appears to be breaking down.

My hon. Friend Kwasi Kwarteng rightly criticised the characterisation of the Bill as a gimmick. I will turn to that in a moment, but he was right to say that this is an important measure.

My hon. Friend Iain Stewart highlighted the fact that in 2001, a Labour Government were elected with a promise that they would not put up income tax, but shortly afterwards they put up national insurance contributions. We must not forget that national insurance contributions are paid by people in much the same way as a tax. It should not be open to Governments to use national insurance contributions as a stealth tax. That is why, as well as introducing legislation to provide a tax lock for income tax, it is important to have legislation on national insurance contributions. Given that national insurance contributions cannot be dealt with in a Finance Bill, such a measure is contained in this Bill.

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I am astonished that the Minister can talk about things that happened in the past and not reflect on the more recent pledge made and broken by his Government not to raise VAT. How can he stand there and talk about any issue when that is the recent memory? How hard did that hit many millions of families in this country? I think he would be better leaving that topic alone.

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

For those of us who were debating such matters at the time, the state of the public finances, and the deterioration identified by the Office for Budget Responsibility in the summer Budget of 2010, revealed that we needed to take steps to put the public finances back on track. We took those measures, and I remind the hon. Lady that the Labour party abstained on the increase in VAT. Labour Members did not oppose it at the time, presumably because they recognised that it was necessary. That was, I suppose, a time when the Labour party was flirting with fiscal responsibility. I am sure it would never repeat that now.

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Shadow Minister (Treasury)

My points are about the way the public feel about broken pledges. This gimmick of a tax lock means nothing if, whatever the circumstances, the Government are prepared to change their mind on things. I read the Minister a long list of pledges that his Prime Minister and Government have broken, and every time such things happen, the public get sick of it.

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

We are underlining our commitment not to increase the rate of class 1 NICs by introducing this Bill. The hon. Lady asks why we are legislating rather than making a pledge. She could apply exactly the same argument to the legislative commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on overseas aid, yet that was actively supported by the Labour party. If she feels that this Bill is a meaningless gimmick, why does she not oppose it today?

Let me finish thanking my hon. Friends. My hon. Friend Michael Ellis described this as a short but important Bill, and may I say that he delivered a short but important speech? My hon. Friend Christopher Pincher highlighted the need for greater certainty in the tax system and welcomed the Bill, as did my hon. Friend Simon Hoare, who also highlighted the importance of stability in the tax system. My hon. Friend Paul Maynard supported that argument and suggested that the Bill would provide greater confidence to businesses in his constituency.

Stewart Hosie raised a number of questions and asked about the potential for integration between income tax and national insurance contributions, and the work being undertaken by the Office of Tax Simplification. As he said, it was announced in the summer Budget that the OTS will undertake a review of the closer alignment of income tax and national insurance. The overall aim of the project is to build on earlier work undertaken in that area, and to understand the steps needed to achieve closer alignment of the taxes, as well as the costs, benefits and impact of each step. The terms of reference were published on 21 July, and the OTS will publish a final report ahead of the 2016 Budget.

On the one hand we heard from the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South that this measure is a gimmick and unnecessary. On the other hand, I was also struck by the contribution from Helen Goodman, who made the argument that we—I do not know whether she was talking about the Government or the Labour party—should consider abolishing the upper earnings limit. In other words, the 12% rate of national insurance contributions should apply also to higher rate taxpayers. That policy was supported by Kelvin Hopkins.

Let us be clear about what is being proposed. It would mean an increase in the tax rate for higher rate taxpayers of 10%, from a combined rate of 42% to a combined rate of 52%. That is not the policy of the Opposition, as the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South made clear, but three days into the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn the Labour Front Bench appears to be being attacked from the left, something that I had not anticipated. I do not know whether the hon. Members for Bishop Auckland and for Luton North are making a late bid for inclusion in the shadow Cabinet, although I was surprised that neither was there in the first place. I am sure that the shadow Chancellor, who is in his place, will have listened carefully to that proposal, which would clobber a large chunk of middle earners.

The hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South upbraided hon. Members for quoting remarks made by the right hon. Member for Islington North before he became leader of the party and said that she would not respond. That is a novel approach, although I have some sympathy with her and really cannot blame her.

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Shadow Minister (Treasury)

The Minister seems to forget that I read out to him a list of various pledges on policy that the Prime Minister made before he became Prime Minister. Will he now defend every one of those? Will he defend what the Prime Minister said about Sure Start, EMA and other things that have been changed or abolished? It appears that the Minister thinks it is all right for the Prime Minister to say what he said when he was Leader of the Opposition. The Minister cannot have his cake and eat it, but that is what he appears to be trying to do.

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

I can understand why the shadow Minister does not want to defend the position of the current leader of the Labour party, but let me make this point clear. The Prime Minister came into office in 2010 with a mission to turn around the UK economy. He succeeded and was re-elected with a majority in 2015.

The hon. Member for Luton North always makes entertaining and thoughtful speeches. I noted that he praised the tax system of Denmark, but I would point out that its VAT rate is 25% and it does not have any lower rates. I can assure him that we will not follow Denmark’s example and put VAT up to 25%.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I would be happy if the Danes lowered their VAT rate, but can the Minister tell us what Danish income tax rates are?

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

I do not have all the numbers in front of me, but I take it from the hon. Gentleman’s remarks that he would like to put income tax rates up, not down—[Interruption.] Well, I know he is very close to the Labour leadership and I suspect that he may prove to be an influential figure in deciding policy.

I am delighted that we do not appear to be divided on this measure, even though we heard some doubts about it from Labour Back Benchers. I am grateful to hon. Members for their contributions. This is an important part of the Government’s long-term economic plan, providing certainty and stability to the taxpayers of this country. I am pleased that we are making progress on providing that certainty and stability, as well as protecting the British people from tax increases, at least for the course of this Parliament and—we hope—future years as well.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.