Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
It is a pleasure to follow Bambos Charalambous. Although I do not agree with all his views, I thought that the way he put them across was clear and impassioned, and I congratulate him on that.
I must draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, because I want to focus most of my remarks on business and I was in business for most of my life before entering Parliament, but I will begin by touching on other elements.
As the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on poverty, I particularly welcome the measures relating to the personal allowance and the increase in the national living wage. When combined, those measures mean that people who are in full employment and earning the minimum wage will be £3,955 a year better off in cash terms than they were in 2010, which will transform many lives. We simply could not continue with a situation in which the Government were supporting business through tax concessions and tax credits; it is right for business to stand on its own two feet. I hope that the national living wage will increase at some point, as it must if we are to reach a real living wage. The gap is narrowing, but our aspiration should be to ensure that, in a prosperous society, everyone prospers.
I also welcome the extra measures for universal credit, which were called for by many Conservative Members. The extra £2 billion a year will make a big difference to a system that is already working well in many ways. It is not without its faults, and we need to focus on the areas in which it is not right as well as those in which it is, but it, too, will make a huge difference. It was introduced in Ryedale, in my constituency, early in 2017. There were initial problems with some of the payments, but following measures that the Government introduced at the end of that year, most of them have been alleviated.
The 33% rate reduction for many businesses is welcome, as is the fund for investment in our high streets. However, the main issue affecting the retail environment is not the level of business rates, but the migration of consumers from shopping in retail premises to shopping online. We cannot simply cut business rates to deal with that problem. The Chancellor’s contribution is welcome, but we need other measures, too. At some point, we will need a structural review of the business rates system for retail premises. There is no doubt that online retailers pay a much smaller proportion of their turnover in business rates than retail high street premises—about four times less.
Local authorities also need to do their bit. Too often, they are giving permission for out-of-town shopping centres. Consent has been given to four in York, all of which will offer free parking. The city centre car parks run by the local authority are charging £2.50 an hour, which is massively disadvantaging businesses in the city centre. Businesses were telling the local authority that this was going to happen many years ago, and it has had a devastating effect on many high street businesses.
I am most pleased with the Government continuing their corporation tax reductions; it is absolutely the right thing to do. I am also pleased that they are continuing provisions such as entrepreneurs’ relief, the seed enterprise investment scheme and the new enterprise incentive scheme. The Opposition think, “We can simply increase corporation tax. It’s a victimless crime. We’ll collect all this extra money and then the corporations will pay.” That is not how it is. When the Opposition speak on these issues, whether about requisitioning parts of businesses or taxing companies more, they remind me of the Churchill quotation—that some people look at private enterprise as a tiger to be shot or a cow to be milked, when it is actually
“the strong horse that pulls the whole cart.”
And that is the reality.
The Opposition simply want to raise corporation tax, and they think that corporations will just pay and that will be it. Of course they will pay extra tax, but the consequence in a competitive market is that prices will go up. At the end of the day, all consumers pay all taxes. The reality is that excess returns in a competitive marketplace get competed away right down to the cost of capital. Therefore, if we put up corporation tax, the pre-tax profit has to rise to ensure the same return on a post-tax basis. All that will happen in a competitive market—most of our markets—is that prices will go up and the consumer will pay. That is the reality, so I welcome the reduction in corporation tax because it encourages inward investment in this country.
Not all our markets are competitive and not all our enterprise is in competitive markets, so I welcome the fact that we have brought forward a digital services tax for one market that is not competitive—the huge technology giants that are dominating the landscape and not paying their fair share of taxes. It cannot be right. Those companies benefit from the fact we have a well-funded education system, hospitals, welfare system, social care system and pensions system. They cannot just trade in this country, switch the profits to a foreign jurisdiction and avoid tax. It is absolutely right, historic and brave that the Chancellor has acted on this, outside an agreement with the OECD. It would clearly be better if we worked internationally, but it is right to take this first step.
There is one area where the market is not competitive and which I am heavily involved in as the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on fair business banking and finance—that is, the relationship between business and banks. Some 90% of business lending is dominated by the four biggest banks—Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds, Barclays and HSBC—but when something goes wrong, there is no way on earth a small business can compete with a bank when trying to resolve disputes. It simply cannot be right that these banks can use their financial power in order not to be held accountable when something goes wrong with their own customers. We have seen many cases and have talked about this issue before in Parliament. I know that this is not part of the Finance Bill, although I would very much have liked it to be.
The Chancellor has said that he will support the recommendations of the Financial Conduct Authority to expand the Financial Ombudsman Service from its current jurisdiction of £150,000 compensation limit to £350,000, but most cases we deal with in the all-party group are in the millions of pounds. I am delighted that the Chancellor has just walked in while I am talking about this issue. There is a very good example in an article by Jonathan Ford in today’s Financial Times. The bank sold Arthur Holgate & Son—a company turning over £2 million—an unsuitable interest rate hedging product, sending it under; it went into administration. How on earth is Arthur Holgate & Son supposed to deal with that and take Barclays to court? The company was offered £311,000 in compensation, but it eventually managed to insure the legal fees for the court action and got a settlement off Barclays of £10 million. Most companies that have gone through this process simply do not have the funds to take a bank to court. That cannot be right.