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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:55 pm on 29th April 2019.

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Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 4:55 pm, 29th April 2019

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Forsyth for introducing this debate, and for agreeing to reschedule it from its previous slot, which would have been at a less civilised hour. I also thank the Economic Affairs Committee, for their two detailed reports, and all noble Lords who have taken part in this exceptionally well-informed debate.

I have read both the reports and the Government’s response with particular interest, as a former Financial Secretary to the Treasury with responsibility for HMRC 25 years ago—some 15 years after the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, who was referred to in our debate. Although we have debated these two reports together, they are very different. The one on powers is wide ranging, hard hitting and contains some radical proposals—particularly those which we have just heard from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge. The one on making tax digital is more narrowly focused, more consensual and concerned with the pace of travel—as mentioned by my noble friend, Lord Tugendhat—rather than its direction. The current Financial Secretary carefully considered both documents and gave a detailed written response. Although he did not agree with all the recommendations, he was happy to accept the majority of them, in whole or in part. We are still reflecting on the report.

I take very seriously the comments made by my right honourable friend, and the comments made by my noble friends Lady Noakes and Lord Forsyth, the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, and others, about his reluctance—his refusal—to give evidence before the committee. My understanding is that the sub-committee’s inquiry was focused on the Finance Bill, which is properly the preserve of the other place, and as such, no Treasury Minister has given evidence to the sub-committee in the nearly 20 years of its existence. However, I take on board the comments and undertake to convey them to my right honourable friend, to see whether, were a further invitation to be extended to him by the committee, he might reflect again on his decision not to appear.

Before addressing the issues raised in the debate, I join others, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Davies, in paying tribute to my colleague and noble friend Lord Bates, who earlier this month stood down from his position as a DfID Minister and Treasury spokesman. No one regrets his resignation more than I do, as part of his ministerial burden falls on my shoulders. He was an exceptional, dedicated and popular Minister, covering government business on a wide range of topics, from overseas aid to the Trade Bill, from financial services onshoring to the performance of our economy —to name but a few. For each, he brought intellectual clarity and a strong defence of the Government’s record, but also a listening ear. We all wish him well as he walks from Belfast to Brussels raising funds for a cause he is passionate about.

I apologise—58 years too late—for running into the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, on my bicycle in Oxford. Had I known that in 2019 he would make a trenchant attack on a government policy I was obliged to defend, I would have navigated with much more diligence. I thought I was in enough trouble when he sat down—but then the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, got up.

I turn to the question of HMRC’s powers, which dominated our debate. I am conscious that I will not answer all the questions raised but I will write to rectify that omission. The British people expect HMRC to take decisive action to tackle tax avoidance and evasion, and Parliament has voted to grant the department a variety of powers which allow it to carry out this essential function. It is of course also essential that there are safeguards in place for taxpayers, but the purpose of the powers is to allow HMRC to collect the tax that we need to fund vital public services, a point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge.

I note what the report says in paragraph 58 about scrutiny of the loan charge but, as someone who has taken a Finance Bill through the other place and sat in Committee on the Finance Bill in Opposition, it is my experience that Members in the other place are extremely wary about giving HMRC new powers over their constituents. This legislation was taken through the parliamentary process, with scrutiny in the House of Commons, following a public consultation on the policy and on the draft legislation. As my noble friend knows, we have also set out in a report published last month the rationale for, and impact of, the charge on disguised remuneration loans.