Finance Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:18 pm on 27th April 2020.

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Photo of Anneliese Dodds Anneliese Dodds Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer 5:18 pm, 27th April 2020

Thank you, Mr Speaker. May I echo the Financial Secretary’s comments about the hard work that you and the parliamentary authorities have gone to, to ensure that these proceedings could go ahead? Of course, as the Opposition we are well aware of the need for Government to have a legal basis to continue levying taxes, and we approach this Bill very much in that spirit.

Many of the clauses in this Finance Bill were written many months ago, with a large number of them involving relatively minor fixes to existing tax legislation—not exactly the vegetable waste and pig swill that the Financial Secretary referred to in his colourful and wide-ranging perorations, but none the less in large part delivering technical aspects of already announced policies. In fact, overall, this Bill presents a picture of continuing the business as usual of the last 10 years.

However, it is unthinkable that we will go many months before additional fiscal measures will need to be brought in by this Government. There will be an urgent need to stimulate the economy as and when we move out of the lockdown, and when boosting consumption will not threaten to damage disease containment. Other measures may well be needed to help alleviate some of the numerous supply-side problems caused by the current dislocation.

Finally, of course, we will need to deal with the considerable burden created by the costs necessarily incurred in fighting coronavirus. Subsequent Finance Bills will need to be very different from this one, and I want to use the time I have available to spell out why. We will need new approaches to taxation generally, the social contract with business, funding public services, the climate crisis and tax reliefs. I will deal with each area briefly in turn.

First, we of course need a different and fairer approach to tax. The Bill largely continues the previous framework, with its reductions in the tax paid by the very best-off people, while support for the worst-off has been reduced. The Financial Secretary will, I am sure, be aware of the Institute for Fiscal Studies analysis of the distributional consequences of successive Budgets since 2010. As of 2019, for example, due to changes in tax and social security, the poorest 10% of households have seen losses of 11% of their income, on average, as a direct result of reforms. Among those with children, the losses amount to 20%: that is £1 out of every £5 being removed from low-income families with kids. Large numbers of frontline careworkers fall into that category. We know from recent research by the Resolution Foundation that half of careworkers are not paid the real living wage, and tens of thousands appear to be paid even below the national minimum wage. They deserve better. In contrast, the best off 10% of people have seen losses of only 2% in their incomes due to tax and social security changes since 2010.

As all in this House will remember, George Osborne maintained that, in his recovery, 80% of the reduction in debt should come from cuts to spending and only 20% from tax changes, yet the latter went alongside cuts in income tax, inheritance tax and capital gains tax for the very best-off people.

There is already a lively debate about how we should deal with the costs incurred by the coronavirus. The academic consensus is that decisions taken to load the cost of debt on to spending cuts in the 2010s made our recovery slower than it would have been otherwise, so it was the slowest not only in a generation but in eight generations, and slower than in many other countries. I am not saying that to castigate the Government; I am saying it because we will need to adopt a radically different approach to future Finance Bills from that seen over the last 10 years.

We are currently feeling the impact of that decade’s fiscal approach very keenly, especially when it comes to UK households’ resilience. A quarter of UK families entered this crisis with less than £100 in savings—making it impossible for them, for example, to buy a new cooker or get their car fixed—and almost 2 million households did not even have a cooker in their home in the first place. As and when we return to what will be a very different normality, we must have building up financial resilience at the core of future Finance Bills. That will mean instituting a more progressive tax system, with those with the broadest shoulders contributing to services that benefit us all.

Secondly, we will need a new social contract with business. As discussed at length during the statement, huge numbers of businesses are currently struggling like never before. We have already discussed the Government’s economic package today, and I must emphasise again that there is a very strong expectation from the public that public support must translate into protecting jobs, not the extraction of value into already deep private pockets.

We have called for the Government to consider the examples of other nations, such as France and Denmark, as well as that of the Labour Government in Wales, when approaching the bail-out of different large firms. Jobs must be retained, workforces must be supported, and we should expect and require good corporate behaviour going forward. That means a ban on public funds being passed into tax havens or doled out immediately in dividends, no share buy-backs on bailed out companies, and a commitment to improvements in environmental performance in future.

We also need a renewed focus on dealing with the enablers of tax avoidance and evasion. I regret that we still do not see that when it comes to those who facilitated disguised remuneration loan arrangements, while those who received such arrangements continue to be affected by the loan charge.

The Bill rightly rows back on the Government’s previous ill-advised commitment to cut corporation tax further to 17%, by maintaining it at 19%. The OBR estimated that a cut to the latter rate would reduce receipts by £5.4 billion a year in three years. Recent reductions in corporation tax have not boosted investment in the UK. It was clear that such a reduction simply could not be afforded in current circumstances, and we therefore welcome that element of the Bill. When we talk to businesses, as I am sure Government Members do regularly, rates of corporation tax are not the headline reason for locating in the UK. Other factors are far more important, such as workforce development and training, logistical factors such as transport, and—critically—business rates, which are a key issue for many companies in our nation.

There is, of course, an imbalance in the taxation of those businesses based in fiscal property compared with internet-based businesses—the division between bricks and clicks. The Bill details the digital services tax—a new 2% tax on the revenues of search engines, social media platforms and online marketplaces that derive value from UK users. We welcome that tax to the extent that it recognises the comparative under-taxation of many digitally provided services, but we are concerned about the restricted scope of the measure. It means, for example, that Amazon will continue to pay a lower rate of tax in relation to revenue than many high street bookstores and other retailers. In addition, it fails to fill the gulf in unpaid corporation tax from many of the largest technology firms. TaxWatch UK has suggested that the UK is losing £1.3 billion in corporation tax from just five of those firms, and the digital services tax would make up less than half of that.

The current crisis suggests that digitally based businesses will amount to an even larger part of our economy in the years to come, so we need to get this right. Above all, our Government need to be more explicit about their discussions with international partners about the move to a formula-based corporation tax system. Given the ability of those firms to shift profits between countries, we must work with other countries to apportion taxing rights better.

The OECD’s anti-base erosion and profit shifting project was a good start, but it failed sufficiently to inform countries in the global south. I hope Ministers will be more forthcoming in future about what they are doing to seek that international consensus, not least given current hostility from the US towards multilateral approaches in a number of areas. This topic is controversial, and we need to hear more than just that our nation is engaged in those discussions.

I hope Ministers will be more forthcoming in their approach when it comes to local government finance, which is crucial in providing public services—from social care, to helping the homeless, to providing areas for leisure and play. Local authorities will be crucial in helping to rebuild the economy after this period, through their work on economic development.

My third point concerns the need for the Government to commit to a proper, deep and wide review of local government finance that takes account of the full impact of the crisis in terms of extra expenditure and forgone income, and which considers business rates and council tax in the round. We still only have a commitment to yet another restricted review of business rates. Surely we can be more ambitious in that area, as the need for a deeper review is now very strong. The goal must be to provide certainty and stability about the provision of local public services.

An additional area where action is needed is tackling the climate crisis. Survey evidence, albeit tentative at this stage, suggests a renewed appetite from the public to grasp the challenges posed by the need to decarbonise. The Bill makes small moves in the right direction. It incrementally increases vehicle excise duty, using emissions as a benchmark—the Chief Secretary to the Treasury mentioned that—and it introduces the world- wide harmonised light-duty vehicles test procedure, a UN-established vehicle testing procedure, in an attempt to prevent the gaming of emissions standards by vehicle manufacturers. We encourage the Government to adopt a steady replacement of all testing procedures within that framework. More broadly, we need a far stronger shift in taxation to disincentivise carbon production. The previous Finance Bill continued implicitly to support fossil fuels in a number of areas, and this one only sets the scene for some elements of the promised new plastics tax and the new emissions controls that will be necessary. Given that we have declared a national climate emergency in this very House, we need far stronger action in subsequent Finance Bills.

Finally, we fail to see in the Bill any substantive change in the Government’s approach to tax reliefs. This is essential. Public funding will be under pressure, so we must choose very carefully what we subsidise through these reliefs.

The incidence of tax reliefs has increased over recent years, yet there is little thorough oversight of their impact. Labour has called repeatedly for a thorough review of tax reliefs, but this Bill does not deliver one. As public finances come under substantial pressure, that position is no longer sustainable.

The National Audit Office’s recent report on tax expenditure showed that the Government are not reporting costs of over two thirds of reliefs; that must change. Alterations are made in this legislation to entrepreneurs relief—that was right to state—but the Institute for Fiscal Studies has suggested that the £1 million limit is still too generous. Furthermore, it does not achieve its principal aim of boosting investment, with the IFS stating:

“If one of the aims of reduced capital gains tax rates on business assets is to incentivise individuals to invest more in their businesses, this evidence suggests they are not working.”

We must ensure that corporate tax reliefs are focused on employment retention and promotion, and the provision of public goods. That is as essential for entrepreneurs relief as for the hundreds of others that continue to receive little public scrutiny.

There are many measures in the Bill that are sensible, that tidy up anomalies and that make life easier for taxpayers and HMRC, and we welcome them. But, as I have said, in many ways this feels like a Finance Bill for a different age. Subsequent Budgets and Bills will need to recognise the need for a much more resilient household financial situation and much more resilient public services, and will need to move away from the demand-sapping, confidence-stripping approach that has characterised the response to the last crisis. We stand ready to work with the Government where we can to achieve that new approach.