Making Tax Digital for VAT (Economic Affairs Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:43 pm on 29th April 2019.

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Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury) 4:43 pm, 29th April 2019

The answer is categorically yes. In fact, I was going to develop that argument briefly but I do not need to now: in his opening speech, the noble Lord made the main charge against the Government and their response to the report thus far quite clear. I utterly endorse that position. I am very grateful for the speech he made today and the way in which he obviously led the committee to produce these high-quality reports.

One of the things which stands out in the reports is that the Government found a whole series of the recommendations quite unacceptable. Of the recommendations in the digital taxation for VAT report, eight were accepted, seven were accepted in part and only six were rejected outright. However, the majority of the recommendations in the other report were rejected. The Government ought to have a pretty strong case when responding on this matter to a significant body such as a House of Lords committee led by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, but it seems fairly obvious that the Minister has somehow been shielded behind the perspective that only the House of Commons has any authority with regard to the economy. We all know the law—we all know why the House of Commons produces its Finance Act and we in the House of Lords defer to it as presented—but that is a little different from a committee examining the conduct of a government department. From what I can see, on the whole, Ministers have not been prepared to attend the committee and have been rather dismissive of many of its hugely significant recommendations.

Expressions have been made during the debate with which I have the greatest sympathy. I am not talking about the speeches from the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, who were both quite definitive in what they had to say—I of course agreed with the judgments they reached—but there were other comments that strengthened my support for the committee. The noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat, indicated the difference between how this part of taxation is dealt with and how welfare support is often dealt with. This is a tragedy that has gone on for a number of years, but so has welfare legislation and the great problems with universal credit, in which people who are devoid of resources are being asked to wait for weeks to get the money to which they are entitled. I was very grateful to him for bringing our attention to that.

The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, criticised the use of the word “customer”. I too found it difficult when the railway companies started to refer to us as customers—they were not very confident that we would become “passengers” and go anywhere, but we were “customers” because we had paid for the ticket. There is a lot that we ought to seek to correct, through gentle persuasion, about the terms in which big organisations and businesses address us.

Two issues about the Government’s estimation come out strongly in the report. We can see that the Revenue and the Government are motivated by the fact that there could be considerable increases in resources through Making Tax Digital. The Opposition understand the argument for Making Tax Digital and endorse it, but it has to be introduced and developed in a better way, as the reports have identified. Those in this unfortunate position with the loan charge have earned salaries and tax is payable on them. There obviously has to be care about how people are challenged to make these payments, because many have limited resources, but there is no doubt that HMRC’s objective was to ensure that tax was legitimately paid on payments allocated to workers. The 2017 court case made this absolutely clear. Therefore we are not in any way, shape or form castigating HMRC for pursuing the issue in principle; we are concerned about the practice.

It has been quite clear from this debate that the committee has identified the department’s position with great force and accuracy. We expect Ministers to take note. We all have faith. I greatly regret the loss of the noble Lord, Lord Bates, the immediate predecessor to the noble Lord, Lord Young. Although I clashed with the noble Lord, Lord Bates, on very many occasions, I never had the slightest doubt about his genuine attempt to present his case accurately, effectively and with the greatest concern for the rights of the House. I am not so sure that Financial Secretaries in the other place have shown much respect for this body, but I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Young, will seek to answer the very real questions asked in this debate, and treat the committee and its excellent reports with the respect due to it.