Finance Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:57 pm on 27th April 2020.

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Photo of John Penrose John Penrose Conservative, Weston-Super-Mare 5:57 pm, 27th April 2020

We have already heard how the coronavirus crisis has fundamentally changed our economy and is in the process of changing our society too. We have also heard how the Bill makes changes to important items such as entrepreneurs’ relief. As someone who co-founded and ran two software start-ups before being elected to Parliament, I am a huge advocate of encouraging wealth creators, particularly the ones who are at the technological leading edge and may be creating the fourth industrial revolution jobs in Britain in companies and industries that have hardly been invented yet.

But we have to be fair in the process, and the coronavirus lockdown has revealed an uncomfortable truth. It has turned Britain into a two-nation society, where better-paid, white-collar professionals work from home, while often less well-off key workers keep travelling to work, often on crowded public transport, in riskier jobs where they have to wear PPE. Of course, the lockdown is temporary, but it has shone a spotlight on a more long-term structural problem. Those less well-off key workers are paying a much higher overall tax rate—the marginal effective tax rate, or METR—than the safer, better-off white-collar professionals, because tax rates on investment income are lower than on wages and salaries, and because benefits withdrawal rates only apply to low-income households. The combined effect often means that low-income key workers pay an effective marginal tax rate of up to 75%, while better-off people pay dramatically lower rates. The haves are being subsidised by the have-nots. If we are all in this together, and if we are to go down in history as acting in the Conservative party’s best and finest traditions, how can we ignore that? How can we not act? It cannot be right.

The changes to entrepreneurs’ relief are a small but extremely welcome step in the right direction, but I hope the Chancellor will use the clarity and the challenge of the coronavirus process to make it the first step in a much longer journey. We need to encourage wealth creators, but they should not pay lower tax rates than the people who clean their offices or drive the trucks that deliver their goods. If we believe—as I and many others do very strongly—that rates of tax much above 40% will undermine an incentive to work for high earners, why is the same thing not also true for someone on the national living wage? The last time Britain taxed earned income and investment income equally was under a Conservative Government, when Nigel Lawson was Chancellor.

If we can go back to taxing all income the same, whether from benefits, work or wealth, it will be transformational. It will show that we are serious about helping the people who voted Conservative in their tens and hundreds of thousands, some for the first time ever, in the general election last year. It will create clear and stronger work incentives for everybody, not just the rich. It will make our economy work better by allowing investment to flow to wherever it can be used best without distortions in the tax system, and it will make taxes simpler and harder to dodge. It will reduce in-work poverty, because less well-off families will keep more of any extra money they earn, and, as we come out of the coronavirus crisis, it will prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Conservatives really mean it when we say we are all in this together.

Changing entrepreneurs’ relief is a good sensible Conservative idea, but it is only a start. The Chancellor has taken the first step. I hope we will all go with him on a much longer and more important journey.