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Finance Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:02 pm on 27th April 2020.

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Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman The Financial Secretary to the Treasury 5:02 pm, 27th April 2020

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

I congratulate the new shadow Chancellor and her shadow Treasury team on their appointments. Six weeks ago, on 11 March, this House assembled to hear my right hon. Friend the Chancellor deliver his Budget speech. How long ago that seems now when every day feels like a decade. A Budget statement is a central part of our democracy; indeed, it is at the very heart of a parliamentary tradition of accountability for taxation that goes back to the 13th century. It is deeply sobering to reflect that that 11 March moment might be the last great parliamentary occasion we have in this Chamber for some time to come.

Truly, we know better now. We live in a disenchanted world, a world of self-isolation, of social distancing, of shielding, of lockdown. In the Treasury and across Government as a whole we have worked around the clock since then to respond to the extraordinary challenges posed by the coronavirus to people’s lives and livelihoods. The same has been true in this Palace of Westminster. I know that I speak for all my colleagues in saying that I have the greatest respect for the work that you, Mr Speaker, and so many others, including parliamentarians across this House, have done to prevent covid-19 from becoming a threat to our democracy itself. I pay special tribute to all the Clerks and staff of this House of Commons and of the Palace of Westminster for working so quickly and creatively to adapt to this new reality and for their skill in drawing on the flexibility and resilience of our uncodified constitution to create a virtual Parliament.

When this Chamber was bombed and destroyed on the night of Saturday 10 May 1941, with the fires raging, the roof fallen in and the Lobbies and corridors gutted, it was decided that the Commons should sit immediately in Church House. Extraordinary measures were undertaken at great speed to transfer proceedings to the new location. The Commons rarely sat on Mondays, so it duly reconvened in the normal way on Tuesday 13 May, but it did so in Church House. There were oral questions to the Secretary of State for War, including on officers’ outfits and the collection of swill and vegetable waste from military units, followed by a full Order Paper of business and, at the end, a short statement from the Prime Minister in which he reported that the old Chamber was damaged beyond immediate repair and that preparations were already under way for a move to a further location, if that should be necessary. Thus the biggest and the worst raid of the blitz resulted in the loss of not one single day—indeed, not one single minute—of sitting time for Parliament. It is a moment of which this country can be intensely proud.

Why so much determination and so much speed? It was so that, as Churchill said:

“hon. Members may be reassured that the work of our Parliamentary institutions will not be interrupted by enemy action”.—[Official Report, 13 May 1941;
Vol. 371, c. 1086.]

It was so British democracy should not be thought to have been destroyed amid the burning ruins of the Commons Chamber, and so that the great thread of public scrutiny and parliamentary accountability that gives legitimacy and authority to our Government should not be broken. So it is again today, Mr Speaker. For that, we are, and we will always be, profoundly grateful. I hope that we shall soon return to the close combat of political business, whether that be the intimate interrogation of the Chamber, the camaraderie of the Lobbies or the noise and clamour of a full House packed to the rafters with MPs, press and public looking on, all fully intent on our national political business; the House of Commons as the cockpit of the nation.

Here again, history can be our guide. When the Chamber was rebuilt, special care was taken to make it, as it had been, too small for the number of Members. That was at the specific insistence of Churchill. In his words, the essence of good House of Commons speaking is the “conversational style”. This requires a

“fairly small space, and there should be on great occasions a sense of crowd and urgency…a sense that great matters are being decided, there and then, by the House”.

Not for Churchill the vast, empty hall of Deputies, the amphitheatre, or what he called “Harangues from a rostrum”. Without that collective sense of crowd and urgency and the ever-shifting energy of the House in action, we lose something vital.

Mr Speaker, I ask you this: can we not also gain from this great virtual experiment? Through new forms of questioning and calmer, more dispassionate cross-examination of Government, may we not find glimmers of new possibility amid the present gloom? I believe that we can. The significance of today’s debate lies not just in this Finance Bill, important though it is; it marks a new legislative beginning for Parliament. As we go forward together, I hope that we in this House can restore not merely our old ways, but what was best in them, and use this moment to add, to develop, to reform and to make them better still.

When my right hon. Friend the Chancellor addressed the House on 11 March, he announced a Budget focused on delivering the Government’s manifesto commitments from the general election last year. He did not only that; he also set out and carefully explained the reasons for a very ambitious and wide-ranging set of measures designed to tackle the coronavirus head-on, to buttress our frontline services and to support people, families and businesses affected by the pandemic.

Since then the Government have gone much further still. Indeed, we have announced what we believe to be the most comprehensive and far-reaching economic response to covid-19 in the developed world, and Ministers and public servants across Government have worked to deliver it. Among its many different packages, that response includes a job retention scheme, which guarantees 80% of the wages of furloughed workers, and which has been conceived, developed and launched by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in just a few weeks.

Alongside the job retention scheme is a similarly generous scheme aimed at supporting the self-employed for 80% of taxable trading profits up to £50,000. This covers some 95% of those who are mainly self-employed, including cleaners, taxi drivers, plumbers, musicians, journalists, electricians, childminders and many others. Businesses can also benefit from more than £300 billion-worth of Government-backed loans, numerous tax cuts and grants, with a business rates holiday for the worst-affected sectors of the economy. There has also been a further package of measures aimed at the charitable sector.

These are unprecedented measures for unprecedented times. The impact of the coronavirus falls not only on businesses, but directly on the well-being of some of the most vulnerable people in our society, whom the Government are determined to protect. For that reason, the Government have raised by £1,000 the universal credit standard allowance and working tax credit basic element for a year. Almost a billion pounds has been allocated so that the local housing allowance can cover at least 30% of market rent, and the Government have offered vouchers or meals at home for children who would otherwise be eligible for free school meals.

This Bill goes beyond the immediate response to covid-19 by delivering the Government’s manifesto commitment to make the tax system fairer and more proportionate. For example, care leavers who start apprenticeships will pay no income tax on bursary payments that they receive. I am delighted to say to recipients of payments under the Windrush compensation scheme and the troubles permanent disablement payment scheme that those payments will be exempt from income, inheritance and capital gains tax, and inheritance tax will not be collected on Kindertransport fund payments.

Taxes are rarely popular or straightforward, but they are necessary to support our public services. Now, more than ever, the Government have a duty to ensure that the rules are applied correctly. Last month, my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury announced that, in the light of covid-19, the Government will delay the introduction of reforms to the off-payroll working rules in order to give businesses more time to adapt. However, he was clear that the Government remain fully committed to introducing these reforms to ensure that people working like employees but through their own limited companies pay broadly the same tax as individuals who are employed directly. That has not changed, and the Government will introduce an amendment to the Bill in due course to legislate for a new commencement date of 6 April 2021. The Government will use the additional time to commission further external research into the long-term effects of the reforms in the public sector, with the intention that that research will be available before the reforms come into effect in the private sector in April 2021.

Meanwhile, this Bill implements the recommendations of Sir Amyas Morse’s independent review of the loan charge. It will mean that the loan charge no longer applies to loans entered into before 9 December 2010, which is the point at which Sir Amyas found that the law put beyond doubt the fact that disguised remuneration schemes were a form of tax avoidance. The Bill also brings forward legislation to repay taxpayers who voluntarily settled for years that are no longer in scope, while those still able to pay will be able to spread their loan balance over three tax years to suit their finances.

The Budget also included changes to help businesses to prosper for years to come. This Bill will implement the Government’s manifesto commitment to increase the research and development expenditure credit rates from 12% to 13% in order to help drive growth and productivity across the UK, and to continue to support this country’s proud history of innovation. It also raises the structures and buildings allowance rate from 2% to 3%, which should help to stimulate long-term capital investment in the United Kingdom by strengthening the business case for investment in shops, factories and agricultural buildings. Those changes apply nationwide, underlining the fact that, even in these times of uncertainty, the Government are seeking to level up investment and opportunity right across the whole United Kingdom.

The Government have made successive cuts to the rate of corporation tax since 2010 and we now have the lowest headline rate in the G20. That has helped to create a corporate tax system that supports British businesses, boosts economic growth and strengthens the UK’s pull for inward investment.

However, the extra benefits of lowering corporation tax rates still further must be balanced against other objectives, such as funding the NHS and the public services on which we all rely. That is why the Chancellor announced that the Government will not cut the corporation tax rate further this year, but instead will maintain it at 19%, in line with their manifesto commitment.

Likewise, while the Government are committed to encouraging entrepreneurial activity, the evidence indicates that entrepreneurs’ relief in its current form is neither effective in stimulating new business growth nor good value for money. By reducing the lifetime limit from £10 million to £1 million, we are returning the relief to its original purpose while continuing to promote and reward enterprise.

Finally, following an extensive period of consultation, the Bill will implement the digital services tax. Digital businesses providing search engines, social media platforms and online marketplaces derive significant value from their UK users, but current international corporate tax rules mean that that value is not reflected in the level of UK tax they pay. Setting a tax on revenues from those digital services at a rate of 2% will make the system fairer and should raise up to £2 billion over the next five years, but the Government’s ultimate goal is to secure a long-term global solution. We are working with international partners through the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to agree a way forward.

Covid-19 is the most pressing challenge for the country—and, indeed, the world—at the moment, but it is by no means the only one. Notwithstanding our intense focus on tackling the pandemic, the Government have not lost sight of longer-term public concerns, notably the need for the UK to move to a greener and more sustainable economy in the years ahead. Now that we have left the European Union and as we prepare to leave the EU emissions trading system, this Bill introduces legislation for both a charging power to create a UK emissions trading system, and a carbon emissions tax.

This twin-track approach is designed to ensure that, whatever the circumstances, the UK will have an effective carbon pricing regime in place. In the Budget, the Chancellor also revealed key elements of the plastic packaging tax, which should significantly increase the use of recycled materials in packaging. This Bill allows preparatory spending ahead of its introduction.

The Bill will also encourage the uptake of zero-emission vehicles by removing them from the vehicle excise duty expensive car supplement, which will mean that employers and employees pay no tax on zero-emission company cars in 2020-21. The United Kingdom has led the world in introducing legally binding carbon emissions reduction targets; these measures underline once again how serious the Government are about meeting those targets.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made it quite clear that we will do what it takes to support our public services and key workers as they respond to this pandemic, and to safeguard jobs and businesses so that our economy can bounce back as quickly as possible. Yet we must also look to the future. The advent of a virtual Parliament is a chance to chart new territory, and this Bill is a first step on that journey.

The Bill also redeems the manifesto promises of the last election. It points the way to a fairer tax system and a greener and more sustainable future. With the support of Members from across the House, and as we look beyond lockdown, it gives us all an opportunity to cement the United Kingdom’s place as one of the most innovative, exciting and enterprising nations in the world. For all those reasons, I commend this Bill to the House.