Clause 68 - Interim operation of margin schemes for used cars etc: Northern Ireland

Finance (No. 2) Bill – in the House of Commons at 5:15 pm on 1st December 2021.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Clauses 69 to 71 stand part.

Clause 93 stand part.

That schedule 14 be the Fourteenth schedule to the Bill.

Photo of Lucy Frazer Lucy Frazer The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

VAT is our third-biggest tax. It raised £130 billion in 2019-20, making a major contribution to the public finances. It helps to pay for our schools, hospitals and police throughout the UK.

Now that we have left the EU, we are free to set our own VAT rules and are already using that freedom to create a fairer, more robust tax system. We have altered how VAT is paid on low-value consignments from overseas suppliers. We have also implemented changes to passengers’ policy and introduced a zero rate on women’s sanitary products. On top of all that, we are reviewing the UK funds regime, including the VAT treatment of fund management fees. We are establishing an industry working group to review how financial services are treated for VAT purposes. As I have illustrated, this Government are focused on using our new freedoms to create a VAT system that is ready for the future, and the measures in the Bill build on that work.

Some clauses being discussed today will be of most relevance to businesses and consumers in Northern Ireland. The UK has implemented the Northern Ireland protocol in a way that seeks to protect the UK internal market. Today’s clauses play a part in achieving that objective by allowing Northern Ireland businesses and consumers to have the same economic opportunities as those in the rest of the UK.

Finally, as Members will be aware, freeports are an important part of the Government’s levelling-up agenda. We see them as central to our goal of sparking regeneration, creating jobs and inspiring innovation throughout the country. One of the clauses that we are debating today supports the delivery of their VAT benefits.

Let me turn to the clauses themselves. The second-hand car sector in Northern Ireland relies heavily on sourcing vehicles in Great Britain for resale in Northern Ireland. Clauses 68 to 70 will together ensure that second-hand car dealers in Northern Ireland can continue to sell cars and other motor vehicles sourced in Great Britain and the Isle of Man on an equal footing with their counterparts in the rest of the UK.

Under the Northern Ireland protocol, the VAT second-hand margin scheme is not available for goods in Northern Ireland if they were purchased in Great Britain or the Isle of Man. This means that motor vehicle dealers in Northern Ireland must account for VAT in full on sales of these vehicles rather than on the profit margin. That would disrupt the UK’s internal market, potentially increase prices for consumers or costs for businesses and risk undermining the trade in motor vehicles in Northern Ireland altogether. It is only right that the Northern Ireland used car industry has the same economic opportunities as that of the rest of the country. That is why the Government are actively discussing arrangements with the EU to enable the margin scheme to continue in Northern Ireland for cars sourced from Great Britain.

Clause 68 provides the legislative basis for an interim arrangement that allows dealers in Northern Ireland to continue to use the VAT second-hand margin schemes for vehicles sourced in Great Britain once an agreement is reached with the EU. This interim arrangement will be available for motor vehicles first registered before 1 January 2021. It will end once the second-hand export refund scheme is introduced.

Clause 69 introduces a power to bring in an export refund scheme, which the Government intend to apply to second-hand motor vehicles. The aim of this permanent scheme, once introduced, is to give dealers in Northern Ireland a comparable financial outcome to the margin scheme. The clause achieves this by enabling businesses to claim a refund equivalent to VAT on the price they paid on used vehicles. The scheme will be available for used motor vehicles moving to Northern Ireland and the EU from Great Britain. Legislation to implement the scheme will be introduced once we have held further discussions with the industry.

Clause 70 simply makes some consequential changes to VAT to limit the zero rate for export or removal of goods where they are subject to the margin scheme. This is a technical measure that will ensure that businesses are not at an advantage compared with before the end of the transition period. Businesses will still be able to export goods at zero rate outside the margin scheme. This ensures consistency of treatment across the UK.

These clauses are necessary to ensure that the motor vehicle sector and consumers in Northern Ireland are not disadvantaged. Taken together, they will benefit the 500 businesses that trade in used cars in Northern Ireland.

Clause 71 makes changes to extend a VAT exemption to the importation of dental prostheses. Before the end of the transition period, such prostheses were supplied by registered dentists or dental technicians between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and were exempt from VAT because an exemption applies to domestic sales. However, following the end of the transition period, the exemption no longer applies to the movement of these goods between GB and Northern Ireland. As the VAT that is due cannot be recovered by the registered dentist, there is a risk that it might be passed on to patients. The changes made by clause 71 extend the current domestic UK VAT exemption to include dental prostheses imported into the UK, including those moving between GB and Northern Ireland, ensuring that we meet our international obligations, and that VAT treatment between GB and Northern Ireland is consistent.

Clause 93 and schedule 14 concern the treatment of goods in the customs-free zones, which are located in freeports. Freeports will help to regenerate areas across the country and bring prosperity to the regions. The Government have already legislated for a beneficial VAT regime on certain business-to-business transactions while in the free zone of a freeport. Clause 93 makes additional VAT elements to freeports by introducing an exit charge to ensure that VAT is collected on goods that have benefited from a zero rate of VAT in a free zone to prevent tax losses or unintended VAT advantage. It therefore maintains a level playing field for UK businesses.

The clause also amends existing VAT legislation to remove any conflict with the new free zone rules. Finally, the clause gives HMRC the power through regulations to adapt the exit charges provisions as necessary. This will ensure that the exit charge is correctly targeted—for instance, to prevent any abuse of the VAT zero rate. Clause 93 and schedule 14 therefore prevent tax loss by introducing an exit charge, and provide clarity to free zone rules by amending existing legislation that may conflict with them.

Our VAT measures take advantage of the opportunities following our exit from the EU to allow our businesses to prosper. I urge the Committee to ensure that clauses 68 to 71, and 93, stand part of the Bill, and that schedule 14 be the fourteenth schedule to the Bill.

Photo of James Murray James Murray Shadow Financial Secretary (Treasury)

Thank you, Mr Evans, for the opportunity to respond on behalf of the Opposition to the clauses selected for this debate on particular aspects of the operation of VAT. As the scope of these clauses is quite limited, I suspect that you will not allow me to speak in detail about our call on the Government immediately to cut VAT to zero on domestic energy bills.

Photo of James Murray James Murray Shadow Financial Secretary (Treasury)

Of course, we believe that such a change would offer immediate help now for people struggling with the cost of living over the winter ahead. I therefore urge the Chancellor to reconsider the Government’s refusal of our suggestion, even at this late stage.

Let me turn to the specific measures in the Bill. As we have heard, clauses 68 to 71 make a number of changes to the operation of VAT as it relates to Northern Ireland. Clause 68 allows motor dealers in Northern Ireland to continue to sell vehicles under the second-hand margin scheme, provided that they were sourced in Great Britain or the Isle of Man. This is a temporary measure before a more permanent scheme comes into place. It is, in effect, a technical change to reduce VAT on car dealers in Northern Ireland, and we do not oppose it. We understand that clauses 69 and 70 are necessary consequences of clause 68 to avoid the interim provisions being created for second-hand car sales in Northern Ireland leading to a distortion in the UK market, so we do not oppose them either.

Clause 71 similarly means that registered dentists or dental care professionals, or those importing on their behalf, can exempt from VAT the importation of dental prostheses—medical devices to replace broken or missing teeth. Domestic supplies of such goods are exempt from VAT when made by a registered dental professional. However, under the Northern Ireland protocol, movements of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland will technically be treated as exports and imports for VAT purposes. Applying the same VAT treatment to domestic supplies and imports will ensure the equal treatment of dental prostheses supplied within the UK. Again, we do not oppose this measure, as we do not want to see businesses or other workers in Northern Ireland at a disadvantage compared with those in other parts of the UK.

Clause 93 and schedule 14 relate to free zones—secure customs sites within a wider freeport area. Existing regulations already provide for the zero rating of certain supplies of goods and services in free zones, and the purpose of the clause is to put in place an exit charge to ensure that businesses do not gain unintended advantage from the zero rate. Again, we recognise the role this measure plays and we will not be opposing it.

The scope of these clauses is limited to the operation of VAT in very specific circumstances. However, VAT more widely has a significant impact on people’s lives, so I end by repeating our call on the Chancellor to cut VAT to zero for domestic energy bills to help people through the tough winter months of low temperatures and high prices ahead.

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Treasury - Chief Secretary) 6:00 pm, 1st December 2021

I am not planning to take up all the allotted time until 8.52 pm, although I did warn my colleagues in the SNP group that I was going to take until half-past 8 and then go to a Division, which did not make me flavour of the month.

The Minister can put a bold face on the wonderful gift the Government are giving to the people of Northern Ireland, and to car dealers in Northern Ireland in particular, under clauses 68, 69 and 70, but this is just another sticking plaster over the botched job that Brexit has been, especially in relation to Northern Ireland. That is because nothing that is delivered to businesses or customers in Northern Ireland is any better than the deal they already had before they were dragged out of the European Union against, let us not forget, the express wish of a majority of people in Northern Ireland at the referendum in 2016.

The question is: how many more of these patch-up jobs do we need? I have lost count of the number of times that I have spoken in Bill Committees or in Delegated Legislation Committees pointing out that the only reason more and more legislation is needed is to fill gaps in previous legislation that had been put there to correct mistakes in even earlier legislation, rushed through by a Government who went into Brexit with no idea of what it meant and who ever since then have been trying to prevent us from understanding, and trying to conceal from the general population, just how much of a mess it continues to be. Anyone who says that Brexit has been got done either does not understand the truth or cannot be trusted to tell the truth.

In relation to clause 93 and schedule 14, the Committee will be aware that the approach that has been taken to free zones in Scotland is very different—or at least it would be very different if the Government were not so determined to force their lack of concern for workers’ rights and for the environment on to the proposals of the Scottish Government. The Scottish Government had a proposal that should have been acceptable to the UK Government but for two problems: it demanded net zero freeports or free zones and it demanded enhanced workers’ rights. What problem can the Government have with that? Why do the Government not want the Scottish Government to undertake action on green ports or freeports that delivers our net zero commitments? What do the Government have in mind for future legislation on workers’ rights if they were not prepared to allow the Scottish Government to build that into legislation around green ports in Scotland?

The Scottish Government had a productive dialogue with the Treasury. They were ready to launch a joint applicant prospectus for green ports in March, but it never happened. In September, the Secretary of State for Scotland made it clear that Scotland’s proposal was not acceptable to the Government. I do not know whether this is technically within the scope of what we are discussing just now, so it may not be appropriate for the Minister to explain it, but I, my colleagues on the SNP Benches, a lot of colleagues in the Scottish Parliament and a lot of businesses in Scotland really want to know why the Government are refusing to allow the Scottish Government to legislate for green ports to meet the needs of Scotland and meet the demands and values of the Parliament that the Scottish people have elected.

I will not be seeking to divide the Committee on any of these clauses. Quite clearly, they are all necessary. As my colleagues mentioned earlier, there are any number of parts of the Bill that we would have liked to divide the Committee on, but we cannot because of the crazy way that this place does Budgets, where effectively most of the big decisions are taken before there is any proper debate on them. That is not a sensible way to set Budgets that will impact the lives of every single person and every single business in these islands. I hope that for once the Government will listen to these representations and come back next year with a method of setting Budgets that is more inclusive, more in tune with what happens in modern democratic Parliaments across the rest of Europe and elsewhere, and will almost certainly deliver a better Budget and a better Finance Bill than the one we have just now.

Photo of Lucy Frazer Lucy Frazer The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

I will be brief. I am pleased that these measures have cross-party support. We can tell that because both Front-Bench spokesmen took the opportunity to talk about other measures that are not in the Bill. To touch briefly on what they said, James Murray will know that we do not support reducing VAT on energy bills because it will not protect specifically those on the lowest incomes, but just give a tax break to those on high incomes. We are therefore bringing in specified measures to protect those on low pay.

Peter Grant talked about the Scottish green ports. We would like to ensure that the whole UK can benefit, and we remain committed to establishing at least one freeport in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as soon as possible. We are confident that our model embraces the highest employment and environmental standards, and they will be national hubs for trade, innovation and commerce. For all the reasons that I have set out, I commend the clauses and the schedule to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 68 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 69 to 71 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 93 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 14 agreed to.

The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.

Bill (Clauses 4, 6 to 8, schedule 1, clause 12, clauses 27 and 28, clauses 53 to 66, clauses 68 to 71, clauses 84 to 92, schedules 12 and 13, clause 93 and schedule 14, and certain new clauses and new schedules), as amended, to lie upon the Table.