Obviously, we are all united in wanting to be fiscally and financially prudent, and, going back to the intervention of my hon. Friend Anne-Marie Trevelyan, having looked at the evidence that came forward on this issue I was horrified to see that, for example, if some cafés in tourist resorts think they are going to exceed the VAT threshold in a particular quarter they will close down for a week or two. What contribution does that make to the UK economy? How ridiculous is that, with the consequence that people are not being employed in those cafés and so on? I agree it is desirable that more work be done on this, and that in a sense is the purpose of today’s debate: to try to get people to think about the radical ways in which we could change VAT now that we are going to have the freedom to do it. VAT is the third largest tax in this country; it generates £120 billion or thereabouts. Surely we should now be looking at our ability to examine the best way in which that tax on goods and services can be applied so that it delivers the best productivity results and does not lead to the distortions we have been speaking about.
There is a problem with the Treasury approach to a lot of this. It produces a document setting out the cost of reliefs. It says that not having VAT on food—having zero rating on food—costs the Exchequer some £18 billion a year. We should look at that not in the context of saying “We can’t afford to lose £18 billion,” but in the context of saying “Why should we be charging people who want to go off and buy some food £18 billion?” The mere fact that the Treasury continues to draw up estimated costs of principal tax reliefs shows that it is looking at this from the wrong end of the telescope. The Treasury also says the reduced rate for domestic fuel and power is costing the Exchequer £4.85 billion. What an extraordinary approach that is, as it implies that the Treasury might be minded to put domestic fuel and power VAT back up to 20%. This gives me the feeling that the mindset in the Treasury needs a lot of alteration and that at the moment it is far too negative and unimaginative on a lot of these issues.
Our inability to increase the threshold or meaningfully alter the design of VAT without the unanimous agreement of all other member states is a big problem. It has not stopped the EU Commission of course publishing proposals to cap the thresholds at €85,000 from July 2022 and establishing a new EU-wide threshold of €100,000. That is another example of the statist expansionist agenda of the European Union about which the British people spoke so strongly in the referendum just over two years ago.
The EU Commission is proposing changes that will affect tourism, construction, accommodation, food, traders, professional and scientific and IT service providers and so on, and we could still be faced with an €85,000 VAT threshold if we do not leave the EU on
I mentioned earlier the compliance costs for VAT. One survey cited by the Treasury found that for UK small and medium-sized enterprises over 40% of all financial costs of tax compliance and 50% of time costs are due to VAT, and that statistic has been confirmed by the Federation of Small Businesses. VAT is particularly unattractive to businesses providing business-to-consumer activities, because they tend to be more labour-intensive, and labour of course is not subject to VAT. We must also think about the impact of VAT on consumers and the cost of living.
I hope I have been able to make a strong case in relation to clause 1 and shall now turn to clause 2. It sets out the second element of the Bill which is to make provision for the exemption of certain goods and services from liability to VAT and for connected purposes. The goods and services that are subject to VAT are set out in the Value Added Tax Act 1994 and clause 2 would ensure that domestic fuel or power in group 17, fitness items in group 18, goods subject to excise duties in group 19, insulating materials for home improvement in group 20, repairs and improvements to historic buildings in group 21 and women’s sanitary products in group 22 would all be exempt from VAT, rather than being subject to VAT as they are at present.