Clause 2 - Freeport conditions

National Insurance Contributions Bill – in the House of Commons at 5:40 pm on 1st March 2022.

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Votes in this debate

  • Division number 202
    A majority of MPs voted not to require Freeport governance bodies to maintain a public register of the beneficial owners of companies operating within the site as a condition of a reduced rate of employer's National Insurance applying within the area.

5.51 pm

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

I beg to move, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 2.

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:

Lords amendment 4, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendments 1, 3 and 5 to 12.

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

I welcome this small but important Bill on its return to this House and I am pleased to speak to it for the first time. I pay tribute to my ministerial colleague, Viscount Younger of Leckie, for his work on it in the other place, and to my right hon. Friend Jesse Norman, who so capably led it when it was first before the House.

There are 12 Lords amendments for our consideration today and I will first address Lords amendments 2 and 4, which, as Madam Deputy Speaker has highlighted, engage the financial privilege of this House. The Government ask the House to reject them for the reasons that I will set out. Lords amendment 2 is the first of two amendments on which the other place voted to make changes to the Bill. It adds an additional condition whereby freeport national insurance contribution relief would be available only if the freeport governance body maintained a public record of beneficial ownership of businesses operating in the freeport tax site.

The Government believe that the Lords amendment, which was made by the other place, is unnecessary and should not be accepted. Throughout the bidding prospectus and subsequent business case processes, prospective freeports were required to set out how they will manage the risk of illicit activity. Those plans were scrutinised by officials in the Border Force, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the National Crime Agency and others.

Additionally, the freeports bidding prospectus set out that each freeport must agree a governance structure with the Government. While each port can design its own governance structure to meet the local needs of the port, it must meet the criteria set out by the Government in the freeports bidding guidance. That means that the Government already require each freeport governance body to undertake reasonable efforts to verify the beneficial ownership of businesses operating within the freeport tax site and to make that information available to HMRC, law enforcement agencies and other relevant public bodies. It is therefore a condition of being granted freeport status that there is an appropriate level of oversight.

That is a proportionate approach, which means that the local area and law enforcement can take effective measures to ensure the security and propriety of operations within the freeport. The difference between the amendment and the existing requirement on freeport governance bodies is simply a requirement for the freeport governance body to make its record of beneficial ownership available to the general public, as well as to law enforcement.

Given the nature of the information, we do not think it would be appropriate for the freeport governance body to release this information publicly. This is because the freeport governance board is a third party, and therefore does not have the locus to release such information about a business to the public. The second reason is that such a requirement would also partially duplicate the People with Significant Control register at Companies House where there is already an onus on the company itself to provide information.

However, hon. Members will also be aware that, as a Government, we are bringing in a number of measures to ensure that we have transparency. Last week, the Prime Minister announced the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Bill to further crack down on dirty money and maintain the UK’s position as a world leader in corporate transparency, and we have heard much of that in this House today. That Bill will introduce a register of overseas entities beneficial ownership of UK property to crack down on foreign criminals using UK property to launder money. It will reform our unexplained wealth orders regime to help target more corrupt elites and it will strengthen the Treasury’s ability to take action against sanction breaches.

We will also publish details of the planned fundamental reform of Companies House, which is designed to clamp down on money laundering and illicit finance. Once the register of overseas entities is implemented, it will be the first of its kind in the world. That is good news for the UK, enhancing our strong reputation as an honest and trusted place in which to do business. I hope that, with these assurances, this House will reject Lords amendment 2.

Lords amendment 4 is the second amendment on which the other place voted to make changes to the Bill. It provides the Treasury with the power to amend the eligibility period attached to zero-rate relief for armed forces veterans. The Government believe that this amendment made by the other place is not necessary and should not be accepted. I will explain to this House why that is the case. The Government have considered this measure in detail and consulted extensively on the relief. It included a policy consultation that ran from July to October 2020 and a technical consultation that ran from January to March 2021. A significant number of respondents agreed that the relief is a positive step forward towards supporting the recruitment of veterans and could help break down the barriers and negative perceptions surrounding veterans.

After considering the responses, we felt that a 12-month qualifying period struck the right balance between supporting veterans as they transitioned to civilian life and wider taxpayers’ interests. Members should also be aware that employer representatives, such as the Federation of Small Businesses, welcomed the 12-month relief when it was announced. This policy provides employers in the 2021-22 tax year with up to £5,500 of relief. It is also one part of the Government’s broader strategy to support veterans.

The Government recently published the veterans’ strategy action plan for 2022 to2024. That contains more than 60 policy commitments worth more than £70 million in a diverse range of areas, reflecting the varied streams of Government support on offer.

Furthermore, at the 2021 Budget and spending review, £10 million was provided to support mental health via charities provisions and £5 million to the health innovation fund, providing cutting-edge treatment for veterans. In August 2021, £2.7 million was provided to strengthen veteran health support further, including facilitating the expansion of Op Courage, and a further £5 million was provided in September 2021 for those struggling after the Afghanistan withdrawal. The Bill already contains other levers to increase the generosity of this relief, if needed, such as increasing the threshold that employers of veterans start paying NICs and extending the overall period of the relief. These proposed additional powers are therefore not necessary. With these reassurances, I hope that the House will reject Lords amendment 4.

The remaining 10 Lords amendments were tabled by the Government and I hope that this House will support them. Lords amendments 1, 3 and 5 to 9 legislate for the threshold at which employers that qualify for these reliefs start to pay NICs. The amendments set the threshold for the 2022-23 tax year for freeport employers and for the 2021-22 and 2022-23 tax year for the employers of veterans. These thresholds have been set at £25,000 per annum for freeport employers and £50,270 for employers of veterans. Both those figures have been publicly communicated during the Bill’s passage. These thresholds are normally set through regulations, but due to the timing of this Bill they are being set in primary legislation.

Lords amendments 10, 11 and 12 relate to changes the Government are proposing in response to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee’s report on the Bill. These Government amendments, tabled in the other place, provide for additional parliamentary scrutiny over certain powers in the Bill. Our approach here demonstrates the seriousness we place on those recommendations and the Government’s commitment to act upon them. Lords amendment 10 ensures that regulations to specify future self-isolation support schemes that would be exempt from self-employment NICs under clause 10 must be subject to the negative procedure. Originally, these regulations were subject to no procedure. Lords amendments 11 and 12 provide for regulations under clause 3(1) and 6(6) to be subject to the draft affirmative procedure. Regulations may be made under these powers to extend the end date of the freeport and veterans’ relief. These powers were previously subject to the negative procedure. So I hope that hon. Members will agree with the position I have set out today.

Photo of James Murray James Murray Shadow Financial Secretary (Treasury) 6:00 pm, 1st March 2022

I thank the Minister for setting out the reasoning behind the Government’s amendments in the other place. Although we support many of the measures in this Bill, we cannot ignore the fact that we are discussing the Government’s plans for specific relief from NICs just one month before they raise national insurance for workers and businesses across the board. That is the crucial context for the Lords amendments we are being asked to consider.

Five weeks from today, a typical full-time worker will see their annual tax bill rise by £274. That will be the direct result of the Government’s decision to raise NI. It is the worst possible tax rise, at the worst possible time. We argued it was wrong last September, when the Government pushed this tax rise through Parliament. Since then, energy bills have begun to soar, making our case even stronger. Now, as we stand alongside the Ukrainian people, we know that that conflict will impact people here, with further price rises for petrol, energy and food. The Conservatives must think again. The impact of their NI hike is getting worse and worse. The Chancellor should finally do the right thing and scrap April’s tax rise on businesses and working people.

As we said when this Bill was being debated in the Commons last year, we support the intention behind many of its measures. However, throughout its passage, we and our colleagues in the other place have raised important questions with Ministers about some of the approaches the Government have decided to take. With that in mind, I turn to Lords amendments 2 and 4, which were successful in the other place and which we will be supporting here today. Lords amendment 2 seeks to add one further condition to those that already exist in the Bill for freeports. When it was introduced, this Bill included the conditions under which employers in a freeport could benefit from a zero rate of secondary class 1 NICs. This amendment adds one further condition to freeport employers’ relief. It would make sure this relief is available only if the freeport maintains a public record of the beneficial ownership of businesses operating within it. We, alongside right hon. and hon. Members from across the House, have long argued for transparency over the ownership of UK assets. In recent days, that has come to a head, with the Government finally admitting and accepting the urgent importance of establishing a public register of the overseas owners of UK property. Yesterday, when the Business Secretary made a statement to the House on “Corporate Transparency and Economic Crime”, no one could deny the damage caused by the Government’s failing to prioritise transparency of the overseas ownership of UK interests. As my hon. Friend Seema Malhotra told the House yesterday, although we clearly support the Government’s introducing a register of overseas owners of UK property, we are clear that:

The UK would have been in a much stronger position to act with speed and our national security would have been better protected if the register had already been up and running.”—[Official Report, 28 February 2022; Vol. 709, c. 736.]

As my hon. Friend went on to say yesterday, we hope lessons will be learned for the future. The Government have a chance today to prove that they have learned those lessons. Let us avoid their pressing ahead today without that transparency condition, only to return to the matter in a rush at a later date when the opportunity for greatest impact may already have been missed. That is why we will support Lords amendment 2, and I urge Government Ministers and hon. Members on all sides to do likewise.

I turn now to Lords amendment 4, which was also successful in the other place and which we will support today. The Government’s Bill introduces a zero rate of national insurance contributions for employers of armed forces veterans for the period of one year beginning with the earner’s first day of civilian employment after leaving the armed forces. We believe it is crucial to ensure that all veterans get the support they need as they seek civilian employment.

Lords amendment 4 enables the Treasury to change the period of support offered if it is found to support employment. We believe it is a simple measure, giving the Government flexibility to adjust the operation of the relief if doing so might improve veterans’ ability to find long-term employment.

As the Financial Secretary may know, when the Bill was debated in the Commons last year we raised questions about the time period for which the relief would be available. When I discussed this Bill with her predecessor, Jesse Norman, I asked him to explain in greater detail why the Government had chosen a period of one year for veterans’ employers. In response, he said that one year was appropriate because,

“the goal is to support a very specific process of transition”.

When we pressed him further on the importance of helping to maintain long-term employment, he acknowledged:

“If it were the case that veterans still had a serious problem of finding secure and stable employment, of course that would be a matter that the Government would wish to reflect on and consider.”

He assured me and several of my hon. Friends that he would,

“continue to reflect on this policy”, and that those at the Treasury,

“already have in place processes of evaluation and assessment.”––[Official Report, National Insurance Contributions Public Bill Committee, 22 June 2021; c. 18-20.]

I am sure Lucy Frazer will want to honour those commitments made by her predecessor.

Through Lords amendment 4, we seek simply to give the Government the power to change the period of relief, should their ongoing analysis conclude it is in the best interests of veterans to do so. On that basis, I urge the Financial Secretary and her colleagues to reconsider the Government’s position. I hope that Ministers and hon. Members on the Government Benches will see the value that Lords amendments 2 and 4 add to this Bill and that, even at this late stage, they might reconsider their position on them.

I end by urging Ministers to ensure that next time we are in this Chamber with national insurance on the Order Paper, it will be to agree to cancel the tax rise coming next month. The Chancellor has five weeks to do the right thing—five weeks to change his mind and avoid hitting working people and businesses with the worst possible tax rise at the worst possible time.

Photo of Richard Thomson Richard Thomson Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Treasury - Financial Secretary), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

I rise to support Lords amendments 2 and 4, but I will deal first with amendment 4.

As I said at earlier stages of this Bill, those who have experience of serving within the armed forces bring tremendous qualities to the workforce through both the skills they have learned while in uniform and their breadth of life experience. Despite our awareness of that and the best efforts of Governments and the third sector, for too many of our ex-servicemen who are leaving the services, the transition to civvy street is far more difficult than it often needs to be.

Having this exemption for national insurance contributions is therefore a very positive step as far as we are concerned, making it even more attractive to employers to hire those ex-service personnel and to bring their skills and experience into the workforce, helping to bring to fruition all the many economic and social benefits that can come from that. In that regard, we are attracted to Lords amendment 4 simply because it gives the Treasury that power to extend the eligibility period attached to the zero rate relief for armed forces personnel and veterans, should that be deemed desirable. That seems to us to be a perfectly reasonable addition to make to the Bill, giving the Treasury a degree of flexibility on how to implement the measure that would otherwise be lacking in the Bill as drafted.

On amendment 2, let me first place on record my satisfaction at the agreement that has eventually been reached by the Scottish Government and the UK Government over freeports, or green ports, of which two will now be established in Scotland, with the bidding process opening in spring this year and the first sites opening, hopefully, in spring 2023. I will go a little bit off piste here to say that that outcome was not always guaranteed, and at times, in at least some of the public discussions, there has been a bit more war-war than jaw-jaw, certainly on the part of individual Conservative politicians rather than between Ministers in Edinburgh and London. For example, the Scottish Business Minister, Ivan McKee, had to write six times to the UK Government to even try to get green port discussions under way in order to get them over the line. He said that the silence was deafening. That is a pretty damning account that rather sits at odds with the impression that we are often given from those on the Treasury Bench as to how they would like to work constructively with the Scottish Government.

The reason for holding out on the variation on the freeports option was quite simple. We felt very strongly that given the scale of the financial support that was on offer, it was vital to ensure that wider policy objectives such as environmental obligations, the commitment to net zero and fair play for those employed within freeport sites, were met. While it is up to the UK Government to decide how those objectives can be met in England, applicants for green port status in Scotland will be required to set out robust plans at the outset on how they plan to contribute to Scotland’s just transition to a net zero economy and how they will benefit the wider supply chain alongside embedding fair working practices such as at least paying the real living wage.

Freeports, it is fair to say, have had a somewhat mixed reception abroad, particularly as regards the relationship that they are perceived to have with criminality and tax evasion. While hardly the “Grand Theft Auto”-style dystopia that they have sometimes been portrayed as, the potential for criminality and non-compliance with taxation, employment rights, health and safety or environmental regulations and obligations is clear, as is the potential for broader economic displacement.

That brings me to the nub of amendment 2. In recent weeks, we have seen significantly increased demand from this House for scrutiny and visibility of financial transactions that take place in this country. We need to have that increased scrutiny over those who spend and invest in the UK, and also over where their money originates. It is very important when setting up freeports that we are able to answer the age-old question, “cui bono?” That is absolutely paramount. A requirement that the freeport deliverance body should be able to make reasonable efforts to verify who the beneficial owners of the business are and to ensure that that information is accessible not just to the relevant enforcement agencies but to the general public is the minimum amount of due diligence that we should expect in exchange for the status and the exemptions on offer.

I listened carefully to the Minister’s arguments about the beneficial register that will be in place and her view that as a third party under the local governance arrangements it would be inappropriate to release that information. Respectfully, I disagree with that. We all know how labyrinthine and byzantine corporate structures can be. Irrespective of any requirement in future legislation that may be coming into force, certainly on freeports, my party firmly believes that we should have transparency and accountability baked into the corporate structure and public reporting at the outset. On that basis, both Lords amendments have our support and we shall be voting accordingly.

Photo of Sarah Olney Sarah Olney Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport)

I spoke on Second Reading and at other stages before the Bill went to the Lords, but it is fair to say that I now stand in a very different environment. Since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine last week, so many aspects of our economy, our international relations and our defence strategy have been cast in a new light.

In that spirit, I rise to support Lords amendment 2, which was introduced by my good friend and Richmond Park predecessor, Baroness Kramer. In the past week, we have had cause to look again not just at our defence spending and at the importance of our international relationships, but most importantly at how the UK— London in particular—has become a haven for Russian money, at what it has done to us as a nation and at how it has undermined our efforts to stand with the brave people of Ukraine.

I very much welcome the Government’s plans to introduce their economic crime Bill. I look forward to its progress through the House in the coming weeks and welcome what it represents about the Government’s attitude to addressing what has been a known issue for many years; I am glad that we are now addressing it, even if it is in response to the most tragic of circumstances in Ukraine. However, it seems to me that if we are sincere about the change in attitude that is now required, we should think again about our new legislation’s provisions on money laundering. As has been pointed out, not least by me and other hon. Members at earlier stages of the Bill, one of the principal issues with freeports is the risk of money laundering.

It seems remiss not to use this opportunity to strengthen the Bill’s provisions to provide greater transparency, which is key. We can pass legislation to regulate freeports—I listened carefully to what the Minister said she thought would be sufficient controls to guard against money laundering—but what will above all help our nation to deal with the dirty money washing through our industries, our banking sector and all the other parts of our economy is transparency.

I am afraid I do not think that the measures that the Minister outlined are good enough. It is not enough for Companies House to maintain a record; what is clearly required is transparency. We need a publicly available register of the companies making use of freeports. What is the source of their wealth? What are they trading in? Who are the beneficial owners? Without that information, it will be impossible to know who is operating in the freeports and for what purpose.

Now is the time. Now is the opportunity to put provisions in place not just to prevent money laundering in freeports, but to send a clear message that as a nation we are cleaning up our act. That would show that we have looked at the issue, have acknowledged it as a problem and are not just clearing up the current mess, but guarding against future abuses of our financial system and against the use of our economy, our businesses and our financial system for money laundering. That is why it is so important to support Lords amendment 2 and oppose the Government’s motion to disagree.

Photo of Lucy Frazer Lucy Frazer The Financial Secretary to the Treasury 6:15 pm, 1st March 2022

With the leave of the House, I will make a few comments in response to hon. Members.

James Murray mentioned tax rises and national insurance contributions. The Government recognise the impact that they will have on those to whom they are applied, but it is vital that we tackle social care—we cannot avoid taking it on. He will know, because we have debated them many times, the measures that the Government are taking to ensure that those on the lowest incomes get the protection that they need. For example, we are increasing the national living wage and cutting tax for low-income families in relation to universal credit.

This, however, is a debate about some other measures, and one of the important measures that have been raised relates to transparency. The hon. Member for Ealing North suggested that we had been slow to act, while Sarah Olney rightly said that we should pause and look again. Let me emphasise that we have not been slow to act, in the sense that we were the first country in the G20 to create a free, fully public beneficial ownership register, and on that register we have 5.6 million names and more than 4.4 million UK companies. We have not been slow to act, and we have looked again, because we are introducing a register of beneficial owners of overseas entities, we are introducing further powers in relation to unexplained wealth orders, and we are introducing further powers to sanction for the Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation.

Moreover, today the Government are publishing a detailed White Paper that will upgrade the powers in relation to Companies House. For example, anyone setting up, running, owning or controlling a company in the UK will need to verify their identity with Companies House. Companies House will be given the power to challenge information that appears dubious, and will be empowered to inform security agencies of potential wrongdoing. Company agents from overseas will no longer be able to create companies in the UK. So we are taking measures now, and we have reflected before taking those steps.

Richard Thomson raised the issue of veterans, and I too am proud that we are introducing measures to make it easier to employ them. We have set out our reasons for keeping the measure in relation to the 12-month period, and I highlighted them in my opening speech, but, as Members will know, we will review that policy in 2023. I am also pleased that, as the hon. Member for Gordon said, the UK and Scottish Governments announced the establishment of two freeports earlier this month.

For those reasons, I hope that the House will agree with the points that I have made.

Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 2.

Division number 202 National Insurance Contributions Bill — Clause 2 — Freeport Conditions — Register of Beneficial Owners — Reduced Employer's National Insurance

A majority of MPs voted not to require Freeport governance bodies to maintain a public register of the beneficial owners of companies operating within the site as a condition of a reduced rate of employer's National Insurance applying within the area.

Aye: 295 MPs

No: 197 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Absent: 153 MPs

Absents: A-Z by last name

The House divided: Ayes 295, Noes 198.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Lords amendment 2 disagreed to.