I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
This Government are committed to ensuring that the tax system is fit for the 21st century, that it is designed around the needs of the taxpayer and that we minimise as far as possible the administrative burden for businesses paying their taxes. The Government are also clear that this system should reflect and take full advantage of modern technology, and use that to make the process as simple and efficient as possible for taxpayers.
This very narrow Bill will support those aims in the context of the administration of business rates. This extremely short and simple measure will simply allow us to start exploring future digital reform of the business rates system. The same clauses appeared in the 2017 Local Government Finance Bill and passed through Committee without Division. Jim McMahon was present during those debates, and I hope the clauses will receive the House’s support again today.
The measure is even narrower than that; it is simply a paving measure, which I will come on to, that enables that exploratory work to start so that future Ministers will be able to come to this House with firmer proposals, with costs attached, depending on the eventual design of the system that is ultimately decided to be appropriate after extensive consultation with the sector. If my right hon. Friend bears with me, I hope his question will be answered later. If not, I will be happy to have him intervene again.
In the lead-up to the 2016 Budget, the Government undertook a wide-ranging review of the business rates system, in response to public calls to reform. As well as seeking views on the business rates tax itself, the review invited specific feedback on the administration of the rates system, including how business rates are collected.
Responding to the review, business groups called for a number of changes to the way the system is run, including switching the annual indexation of the business rates multiplier to the consumer prices index, rather than the retail prices index; implementing more frequent valuations; and modernising the billing and collection of business rates. I am pleased to say that the Government have already begun reforming the system to implement those changes.
Ratepayers are already benefiting from the change to the annual indexation of business rates from RPI to CPI, which was brought forward by two years, to April 2018. That measure alone is worth almost £6 billion to businesses over the next five years. The Government have also committed to increase the frequency of business rate revaluations from every five years to every three. To ensure that businesses benefit from that change at the earliest point, the Government have further announced that the next revaluation will be brought forward from 2022 to 2021. That will ensure that, as requested, business rates bills more accurately reflect properties’ up-to-date rental value and any relative changes in rents.
The Bill will enable us to begin exploring how to modernise the billing and collection of rates. Businesses in this country are of course already banking, paying bills and making sales online. Our tax system needs to keep pace.
It is important to remember that the Bill is much narrower in scope than the design of the business rates system and how individual businesses pay the bills they are given. My hon. Friend Jake Berry, the high streets Minister, is looking forward to winding up the debate, and he will be able to give the House chapter and verse on every single initiative the Government have undertaken to support businesses on the high street. In sum, there has been £13 billion of relief since the 2016 Budget, and a third of all businesses no longer pay any rates at all.
I thank the Minister for giving way—he is being very generous. On that point, however valuable and commendable many of the proposals he mentions may be, does he not feel that this is somewhat like fiddling while Rome burns, or indeed many of our town centres burn? There have been calls for a reduction of around 25% in high street business rates, and that could be funded by making sure that the tech giants pay their fair share of corporation tax.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I am loth to get drawn on to topics that are much broader than the very narrow scope of this Bill. However, I am happy to reiterate that I do not think the £675 million high street fund my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the high streets Minister introduced earlier this year is a case of fiddling while Rome burns. The Government are committed to the vibrancy of our high streets through various initiatives that will be outlined in my hon. Friend’s winding-up speech.
Indeed, the Bill is also an important measure; it is a measure that businesses have called for. Given the statutory nature of HMRC, it is impossible to move forward without this short piece of legislation. The reason for that is that businesses today receive separate business rates bills for each non-domestic property they occupy. Large businesses with property in different areas may receive bills from a number of local authorities responsible for issuing bills and collecting payment. It is worth bearing in mind that there are over 300 different billing authorities today, each with its own system of billing for business rates. While I pay tribute to the good work carried out by local authorities in administering business rates locally, the Government’s clear view is that reforming the system to more closely link with the wider management of business taxes led by HMRC could unlock long-term improvements to the current system.
Members will appreciate that implementing any reform of this scale takes significant time and that it is critical that the Government engage with businesses and local government in developing and designing any new digital system; indeed, the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton brought that up in Committee during consideration of the previous Bill. I am pleased to tell him that the measure before us today will take many years to come to full fruition. The current intention announced by the Treasury is that any new design of the system will not come into force until after the next revaluation, in 2024. What we are doing today is therefore just a very small first step on a journey that requires an enormous amount of engagement and consultation.
The main measure in the Bill allows HMRC to expend resources on beginning to explore designs for a new digital service for business rates. That is necessary because HMRC’s current statutory functions do not include activity in connection with the administration of business rates. To be clear, the legislation we are considering simply permits HMRC to begin the necessary design and engagement work for a potential new digital service. It does not implement any reforms to the current system of business rates administration.
That is important because, as I have noted, the Government are clear on the need to engage with businesses and local government to seek views on any specific options for reform. For example, the local government sector will want to ensure that any changes are fully compatible with the local retention of business rates and with plans to increase rates retention in the future. Equally, business organisations such as the Federation of Small Businesses, the British Independent Retailers Association and the CBI will be keen to engage in future design work to ensure any reforms deliver benefits to businesses and minimise any burdens. Members should also be aware that any practical reforms to the system are likely to require further changes to legislation and, as such, there will be opportunity for full scrutiny of any proposals once the design work has concluded.
The Government’s efforts to improve digital tax services are already helping businesses seize the opportunities that digital technology offers. They are giving businesses more control over their finances, allowing them to spend their time focusing on innovation, growth and the creation of jobs. The Bill will support this by enabling HMRC simply to begin exploring potential options to link business rates with the administration of the wider tax system. It will also enable HMRC to undertake the necessary engagement with stakeholders to ensure any reforms work for business and for local government. While the Bill is just a small paving measure, it supports some potentially significant long-term improvements to the current system. I commend it to the House.
I will not put the House through a rendition of “Happy birthday”—[Hon. Members: “Shame!”] But many happy returns.
Perhaps this is a missed opportunity. It is a shame, really, that the Bill is so narrow, because we have a good five hours where we could have talked about the real threats our businesses face, the dangers to our high streets and the many representations made on this issue. Nevertheless, this Bill is progress. Following the falling of the Local Government Finance Bill when the general election was called, we encouraged the Government to come forward with non-controversial elements of that Bill. Clause 14 was not controversial, so I am glad to see it in this Bill.
Local councils are on the frontline of government, delivering services that people rely on and which both support and enrich our communities on a day-to-day basis. Labour welcomes the modernisation of tax collection and the move to online payment and account facilities. However, the proposal to develop an online payment system led by HMRC, as set out in the Bill, does raise some questions.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I refer you to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a vice-president of the Local Government Association, the body that represents councils, which are the billing authorities responsible for the collection of business rates. It, like me, wants confirmation that the move to develop an online payment collection facility will not change the fundamental and historical role of local councils as billing authorities with the legal responsibility for the collection of business rates. In the design of this new bridging system, to what extent have the Government sought input and representation from local government? Local government has significant experience in designing systems and processes, and it is important to draw on that to make the best of this proposal.
As the Government are investing in digital services, do they intend to streamline this online facility with the check, challenge and appeal process already in place? That would make it easier for businesses to have an end-to-end business rate system in place, marrying in one system the payment mechanism with the ability to check and appeal business rates. What payment mechanism will be in place to transfer funds to local authorities, especially in rate retention pilots? Who will be responsible for the collection of rates, and who will underwrite funds lost through non-collection?
The most critical issue is the wider sustainability of business rates and their role in funding local public services and encouraging local economies to thrive. Local government has already seen severe cuts after nine years of brutal and devastating Tory austerity.
One of the reasons that there is a reaction from businesses regarding the level of business rates is that while central Government should have been responsible for funding certain services, they have shoved that on to local authorities, which have had to put that through business rates, just like the police and fire authorities’ precepts.
It is a matter of fact that the Government are moving towards the self-financing of local government. That is fine if a local authority can generate money through business rates and council tax in its local economy, but if, for whatever reason—usually for historical reasons—it is not able to do that, the Government do not care if councils sink or swim. That is no way to fund adult social care or children’s safeguarding services, or to make sure the homeless get the support they need either. Quite frankly, it shows a callous disregard for the role of central Government in making sure that every area gets its fair share of funding. That is a critical point.
Anybody who has any experience of local government—my hon. Friend does, as do I and many others in here—knows that three or four years down the road, though they hint at looking again at business rates, Ministers will come along and tell everybody in local government, “You’re profligate, you’re spending too much, so we’ll cap you.” As I am sure he will remember, we have had all this before.
The hallmark of local government across parties—this is not a party point—is that people roll up their sleeves and get on with it. They do not complain; instead, they find solutions to the difficult challenges facing the community, but that is made much harder when central Government are disconnected.
Successive Secretaries of State have failed to champion local government, which is why I welcome our shadow Secretary of State having that local government background and experience and really believing in it. I hope he will be Secretary of State in the future, leading on this from the Government Benches. It is critical that the Secretary of State should not batter local government all the time. It needs a champion to celebrate what goes on in every community and, regardless of party affiliation, to fly the flag for what has been proven to be the most efficient arm of government—they are our champions, and we should thank them for all the work they do.
By 2025, there will be a funding gap in local government of £8 billion, and by 2020 local authorities will have faced core funding cuts at the hand of central Government of nearly £16 billion since 2010. That means that councils will have lost 60p for every £1 the Government previously provided to cover local public services. Next year, 168 councils will receive no funding whatever from central Government to meet the cost of rising demand for local public services.
What impact will that have? We can talk about the big numbers, and £16 billion is a huge number and has had a huge impact, but this is really about people and communities—the streets where people live, the communities that bind people together and make places decent places to live. The cuts have had a dramatic impact on government services. Youth centres have closed; libraries have reduced their hours, and hundreds have closed altogether; and meanwhile, social care is on the verge of collapse. Warning after warning has been issued, but the Government, particularly the Treasury, have not come to the table. As a result, our councils are having to make difficult and unwelcome decisions about where to make efficiency savings, and that is hampering their ability to prioritise social good above all else.
Moving to an online payment system administered by HMRC, but with links through to local billing authorities, raises a more fundamental point about taxation on business overall. Currently, many believe it operates in a silo and that the approach to business taxation is very disjointed. While our town centres and high streets are going to the wall, the online giants are making record profits and ensuring that as much as possible is sent offshore. The Government should use this opportunity not just to introduce a digital payment system, but to undertake a more fundamental review of business taxation overall to ensure that tax is generated where the wealth is created and that our town centres and communities are properly supported. We look forward to scrutinising the Bill properly and to hearing answers to the questions posed.
I have declared my business interests in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, but I am not speaking for them of course; I wish to speak on behalf of the retail businesses in my constituency, as others have already done.
While I am sure it is well intended and necessary to develop a digital payment system for this tax, can the Minister reassure us that it will not be used as a device by the Treasury and others to accelerate payments and to damage further the cash flow of the shops and other businesses that have to pay it. There is the temptation to use the power of digital technology to have real-time information and then to knock the money off for the tax rather more quickly, when the timing of tax payments may be an important part of cash-flow planning, particularly of retail businesses.
I hope that Ministers are sensitive to the current position in many high streets up and down the country. Large chains and other sizeable independent shops are struggling because their cost base is very high, and they are competing with online retailers who have nothing like the same cost base in terms of property and staff numbers. They are finding it difficult to manage, and another hit on their cash flow from the Government would not be welcome.
Rents are now falling in shops generally in England and Wales, the area covered by the Bill. Some retailers are talking about reductions of 25% or 30% as and when the rents on various shop properties become due for review. That relief is welcome to some extent, but it takes time, because many of the leases are for several years and have to mature before renegotiation is possible. Some retailers must go through the agony of a voluntary administration to secure a change in their rents. Another problem is the fact that rents can go down through market processes, but rates never go down, except in the case of very small shops that benefit from one of the exemptions. So the total property cost does not fall at anything like the percentage that the market is suggesting that it should, because the Government element is very fixed. I hope that Ministers will be sensitive to that.
I realise that this is not the occasion—much as many of us would like it to be—for a proper debate on the balance of business rate taxation and its impact on the retail sector. However, in Wokingham, a lot of money has just been spent on refurbishment and the provision of new and more attractive space in the town centre. Securing the first lettings is an important part of promoting a more active town, but over-avaricious taxation, speedier payments and other changes in how the business rate is handled could offset what will otherwise, we hope, be a good-news story.
That is my prime concern, to which I hope the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Jake Berry, will respond. I am delighted that he will be winding up the debate, because I know that he is very conscious of and sensitive to the need to do more to help retailers, and I am sure that he will mention that.
I should like to follow up my earlier intervention on the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend
The Government have a duty to taxpayers to ensure that money is well spent. It would be useful to have any more information that the Minister can give about the kind of sums that the Bill might authorise, and what the purpose is. What more can they learn that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs does not already know from running perfectly good systems for a range of taxes on people and businesses? A fair amount of them are now handled electronically, so presumably there is quite a lot of in-house experience and expertise that could be drawn on. We always want to make the best possible use of the talent that the Government already have and the information that they have already gleaned both through their own researches and by buying it in through consultancies. I hope that Ministers will have some ability to discipline that work and to ensure that it is timely and provides value for money.
This is probably the easiest summing-up that I have experienced so far in the Chamber. I thank John Redwood, my hon. Friend Mr Cunningham and Tim Farron—first, for turning up and, secondly, for making incisive comments about this short Bill.
As we know, this is paving legislation to enable the Government to deliver on their commitment to link the local authority business rate system to HMRC digital tax accounts so that businesses can manage their rates bill in one place alongside other taxes. As I think should be clear from what was said by my hon. Friend Jim McMahon, we fully understand the Government’s wish to modernise the administration of business rates for the 21st century, and we fully understand that linking the local authority business rates system to HMRC digital accounts will make it easier, simpler and less burdensome for businesses to understand and pay their business rates. Nevertheless, as I am sure the Minister would acknowledge, there is some way to go before that aspiration can be achieved and little of the detail of the new system is yet known.
The Bill provides HMRC with the ability to undertake the planning, consultation and testing that is needed to truly inform the design of the new service, and in their factsheet the Government say they will engage locally with local government and the business sector in developing detailed proposals and seeking views. It would therefore have been really useful today for the Government to have provided more detail on how they intend to go about this; we have simply no idea about the detail of how they will take this forward. There is a money resolution but absolutely no idea of the costs of digitising, and it would be helpful to hear something from the Minister about the costs that will be incurred.
The Minister made it clear that the measures in this Bill are to be compatible with the 100% business rate retention system the Government are aiming for, but we need to stop for a moment and explore this further, because there is a real risk under the 100% business rate system of dividing the country further between the haves and have-nots, the wealthiest areas and deprived areas, the south and the north. So can the Minister confirm that councils, particularly those affected by austerity, will not lose out under this system?
As my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton said, since 2010 there has been a massive £16 billion-worth of cuts—a reduction of 60p in every pound for some councils—and the Centre for Cities found in January that the poorest areas have borne the brunt of council spending cuts. As a result of these cuts, councils have had to make £7 billion pounds of savings to adult social care, with less being spent on early intervention, libraries, youth services and so forth. In fact, these services have almost disappeared in some local authorities. So it might have been helpful for the Government to set out at the same time as this Bill how they see the whole of the local government finance system progressing in the future—for example, by having more information about the fair funding review and whether the Government will agree to independent scrutiny of the system and its implementation to test whether it actually is fair.
We know, too, that the current business rate system is broken, and we need firm proposals from the Government to ensure business rates are not an impediment to tackling regional inequalities in the way they are at the moment.
The hon. Lady says we should talk about that to enable us to have a full discussion here today. This might be slightly beyond the scope of today’s debate, but perhaps she will set out from the Dispatch Box Labour’s position for business rate reform in some detail because we have time to do that, and then I will comment on that in the context of today’s debate.
Order. The hon. Lady has explained that very well and I understand why the Minister made his point, but of course matters that are not in this Bill are not subject to discussion this afternoon. As I said, the hon. Lady has explained the context very well and I am sure the debate will not be widened—and actually it is not difficult for me to keep this as a narrow debate.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will do my best to keep to what is in the Bill. However, the Government cannot continue to rely on a system of ever-increasing council tax bills and supplements to make up for the lack of Government funding for our essential public services such as policing, youth services, housing and social care. That is why we are interested in the wider picture, as well as the matters we are discussing today, but I will keep my points as narrow as possible.
The Local Government Information Unit has been pressing for a clear vision for the future shape of the council funding system, and it is worried that councils could continue to fail if no such a vision is put forward in the near future. We also need to know something about the redistribution mechanisms that could be attached to 100% business rate retention, and it would be extremely helpful if the Minister said something about that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton set out a series of questions for the Minister to address this afternoon. We need to know how the lessons from the retention pilots will become known and when they will be rolled out and whether there will be any additional costs for ratepayers. We need to know who will be responsible for collection rates and who will underwrite funds lost through non-collection. We also need to know how the system will be appealed and challenged, and who will administer the non-payment collection and the applications for discounts and exemptions. How will local government be involved, not only in the design of the new system but in bringing in the arrangements? I hope that the Minister will address all those detailed questions this afternoon. We understand the need for the Bill, and we will not seek to divide the House on it; instead, we look forward to improving it in Committee.
What a privilege it is to have this opportunity to close the debate today. I wish that it had been better attended, but it is great to have had a contribution from my right hon. Friend John Redwood and some contributions from Labour Members. There was no one here from Change UK or TIG or whatever it is called; it obviously does not care about business rates.
In our debate today, it is important for us to stick rigidly to the scope of the Bill, which sets out how we will empower HMRC to look at digitisation and at how it can modernise and simplify the business rates system. Before the 2016 Budget, the Government held an extensive consultation and set out a commitment to enter on this process. It is a commitment that, following the passage of this Bill, HMRC will then, and only then, be able to progress the necessary design work.
Today’s Bill is an important step towards those reforms, and it will allow HMRC to start to explore some of the digital infrastructure that will link local authority business rates to digital tax accounts. This has been called for by businesses, and it is also being welcomed by them. Today’s Bill is simple the first important step, and it rightly paves the way for further discussions on how the process will proceed. All those discussions will require legislation, which will pass through the House and be subject to the usual scrutiny of the Opposition parties.
Turning to the impact of business rates on businesses, we have heard clarion calls in the press this morning and from the Opposition during this debate for looking into a more wholesale reform of business rates rather than simply digitising them, and it is impossible to have a debate about digitisation without giving cognisance to that point. Let us not forget, however, that we have committed to £13 billion-worth of savings to business over the next five years through the reforms that we have already made to business rates. We have switched the annual indexation from RPI to CPI, which will, over the lifetime of that commitment, save ratepayers and businesses up and down the country some £6 billion. That is £6 billion that will remain in all our local communities and economies for the constituents that we represent. We have also reformed small business rate relief, doubling it to £12,000 and making it automatic, meaning that 650,000 businesses now pay no business rates at all. We have responded to calls from businesses for more frequent revaluations, which will now happen every three years from 2020-21.
Turning to the points raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham about business rates and revaluation, it is of course the case, thinking about cash flow and the impact that business rates may have on a business, that it is possible for business rates to go down if rent has gone down and other factors have reduced during the period since the previous revaluation. The last revaluation actually led to a majority of businesses seeing no change or a reduction in their business rates. Over time, that should happen more often with more frequent revaluations from 2021.
I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention. From speaking to business groups—I regularly consult with the Government’s Future High Streets Forum, and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has the Retail Sector Council—it is clear that they seek more frequent revaluations because that stops bill shocks. I am sure that my hon. Friend knows about bills shocks from people who have visited his advice surgery, and he also runs his own business—[Interruption.] Although I do not think that farms have a big business rates bill, because they do not pay any business rates.
I am sure that those at the Moody Cow will be delighted not just with more frequent revaluations, but with when they can move on to the digitalisation of business rates, which we are discussing today.
People who make the clarion calls for the abolition, reduction or some other change to business rates will accept that they are already a key source of funding for local authorities, funding essential services, such as adult social care and children’s services. I note that Dr Blackman-Woods did not take the opportunity in wider the context of this debate on business rates to elucidate the Labour party’s policies, but those who seek to reform business rates have an obligation to say how the revenue would be made up.
Many people who talk about business rates reform have at their heart concerns about the health of our high streets, which was mentioned by the Opposition Front-Bench spokespeople and which should worry us all. The Government need to find a way of ensuring that high streets continue to thrive as shopping patterns and behaviours change. I cannot remember a period of more rapid change in how we choose to shop. High streets must clearly transition from bricks-led retail to a bricks-and-clicks online and offline model, with experiential leisure at its heart. High street retailers will be delighted that business rates were slashed by a third in the most recent Budget for retailers with a rateable value of under £51,000, and that formed part of our wider high street package.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I do not know whether you are a fan of “Sex and the City”, but Sarah Jessica Parker recently bemused her Instagram followers on a recent visit to London, when she praised Timpson not just for its key-cutting service, but for its extensive selection of umbrellas, labelling the branch in High Street Kensington tube station as her new favourite shop. Timpson is of course a fine retailer, which is why I was delighted that Sir John Timpson worked so closely with the Government on his report into the future of the high street, business rates and retail. Leading directly from his report, the Government created the £675 million future high streets fund to support high streets and enable them to pay their business rates. Although all those reforms have been welcomed, people will continue to call for a more fundamental review of business rates, and the Government will, of course, continue to keep that under review.
Jim McMahon raised a lot of specific questions about how the digitalisation of business rates will work. I am sorry to disappoint him, but I am unable to answer any of those questions today because the purpose of the Bill is to give HMRC the statutory power, which it currently does not have, to go away and work up that system. How the system will work cannot become clear until we have empowered HMRC, both on Second Reading and in Committee, to start work on it. That is why it is so important that we agree Second Reading this evening, and it is why it is so welcome that the Opposition Front-Bench team support the Bill.
This important Bill is just the start of our cross-party work to ensure that we create a business rates system fit for the future. Many people who run businesses will now be used to making the majority of their transactions online, whether it be paying their VAT bill, paying their utility bills or making sales and buying stock. If we truly want to create a modern tax system that is supportive and friendly to business, we must all work to create an online taxation system, including for business rates, that small businesses and large businesses alike will find workable and useful in driving productivity and efficiency in their business. That is why I have the pleasure of commending the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.