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‘(4) The Chancellor of the Exchequer shall instruct the Office for Tax Simplification to publish by 31 March 2014 a report setting out proposals for a new, simplified Corporation Tax code, specifically addressing the potential for a simpler tax code to reduce tax avoidance, and the Chancellor shall place a copy of the report in the House of Commons Library.’.
It is a pleasure to open proceedings today. After Tuesday’s short debate on income tax, we can probably fill today with a short debate on corporation tax and the measures that the Government have taken on that. Those have been critical to the growth figures announced this morning, which produced in those of us on the Government side a sigh of relief—[ Interruption. ]. We can strongly applaud the Government for the action they have taken, beginning with the measures taken on the corporation tax rate in this clause.
Sadly, I do not do Twitter so I did not see the hon. Lady’s tweets, or the Chancellor’s, but a pass is better than a fail in any situation. This is a significant Government measure: at a time when there is a lack of fiscal room, to prioritise tax cuts for business to try to get growth rather than tax cuts for voters shows their motivations. The cost of all the corporation tax cuts set out in the Red Book is about £5.6 billion for each year; I can think of more vote-inducing ways of making use of that amount of money, but that is clearly the right course as what we need is jobs and growth in the economy.
I sense, Mr Amess, that you would call me out of order if I tried to extend the debate into all economic measures. Perhaps the hon. Lady will try that later on.
When we get to clause 6, we will see that the rate will be cut to 20% from next year. I suspect that that will be the end of corporation tax cuts, as that will bring it to the same level as the basic rate of income tax, and I sense that if corporation tax went below that, we might well see lots of great tax planning opportunities there. Therefore, the corporation tax rate reform, which is part of the road map to a better business tax system, will probably end in a year’s time. I looked at the Government’s corporation tax road map, which was published at the start of the Parliament. April 2014 was the end point and the rate was meant to be 24% by then, so we can see how much further the Government will have gone.
My amendment would give the Government some ideas on where their corporation tax road map could go after April 2014 and what further measures could be taken to stimulate business growth through the tax system to make our business tax system truly one of the most attractive in the world, now that we have one of the most attractive rates.
I apologise. It is an exciting topic and I would hate for the hon. Gentleman to miss out on these words of wisdom.
We now have the joint lowest corporate tax rate in the G20, or at least we will have next year. We have seen the KPMG survey which shows that the UK business tax system is now one of the more competitive. I think we would all agree that we have not got our tax system where we want it; there is general agreement that our tax code is far too long and the rules are far too complex. The Office of Tax Simplification did some work a year or so ago and worked out that, at that time, there were 17,795 pages of tax legislation in Tolley’s guide. However, to be fair, only 6,102 of those are actually substantive legislation that taxpayers have to comply with.
Sadly, that was probably before last year’s, and this year’s, Finance Bill. We know that last year’s was one of the longest on record, and this year’s is not far behind. We probably have well over 18,000 pages of tax legislation now. There is clearly a need for us to do some tax simplification to reduce the length of that code and the complexity of those rules. It is reasonably agreed that one of the things that creates the opportunity for tax avoidance is the incredible complexity of our code; no one can fully understand all the implications and loopholes that accidentally end up being created.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess. On a confessional point, you were my mentor in the last general election and in no short part do I hold my presence in this Committee and in this august chamber down to your guidance. I am for ever in your debt.
On the specific point that my hon. Friend was making about the simplification of tax, does he welcome, as I do, the fact that reducing corporation tax to 20% will actually make corporation tax much more consistent? We currently have a top rate of tax for large companies, and for small companies there is an intermediate and marginal rate. The fact that we are reducing it to 20% in one swoop is, in essence, making the corporation tax system as a whole much simpler.
I think I agree with him, although there is clearly some complexity in calculating a marginal rate for a company that is between small and large. I can see arguments for having a lower rate for smaller businesses than for larger ones, but as I said, 20% is about as low as we can realistically take corporation tax rates.
To quote the views of the Federation of Small Businesses on the harm an overly complex tax system can do:
“The tax system in the UK is overly complex. As a result, it is less competitive compared to other countries and complicated tax codes mean businesses must spend more time fulfilling tax obligations instead of running their business. Our research shows that 60 per cent of small firms believe the tax system has a negative impact on their ability to invest and create jobs.”
They are clearly saying what they want to see.
I am listening very intently to what the hon. Member says. I am particularly interested in the views of the Federation of Small Businesses. When the hon. Gentleman had discussions with them, did they give any view as to whether a cut in corporation tax would actually help the majority of their members?
From recollection, they warmly welcomed the reductions in corporation tax, but that is not something I was specifically looking at for the sake of my amendment.
In looking at this amendment, one question that could be asked is why we should do corporation tax first. Is that the priority for tax simplification? At a time when we want growth and jobs to be created by business, corporation tax is probably the place to start. Trying to reform income tax in the current climate would be a bit of a challenge. Corporation tax is one which is paid by people who have the chance of getting some decent advice to help them through the changes, and it is where we can make the most immediate impact in delivering growth.
The other thing that has motivated me is that the data in the Red Book show that corporation tax yields are declining. Looking back at the 2010 Red Book, we forecast for 2015-16 corporation tax receipts of £59.7 billion. This year the Red Book shows those receipts at £36.6 billion. Part of that is down to the fact that we have reduced rates quite a lot since those forecasts, but that yield is not what we thought it was going to be. The percentage of the total tax yield from corporation tax was forecast to be 7.8% in 2011-12, and to be down to 5.8% by 2016. It is a tax for which revenue is lower than we expected, and it forms a lowish layer of our tax receipt. It seems a bit incongruous to pile extra complexity into a system that generates a lower return. The tax requires extra resource from taxpayers to comply with it, and extra resource from HMRC to administer it. We should try to get to a simpler system that is easier to comply with, and one that makes it easier for HMRC to check that taxpayers are complying with it. My simple amendment is for the Government to ask the Office of Tax Simplification to do some work on whether there is scope for a new corporation tax code to tackle over-complexity, and also help reduce tax avoidance.
Yes, I agree that we should look at that. It is not the most simple document to read, being almost as thick as the tax code. But yes, the commission came up with some very sensible ways to improve our tax system. Our tax system and our tax code have grown up over many decades, and were not designed for the current way that businesses and individuals work. They are not based on real current worth. This creates some problems when we tinker with them to try to make them fit what businesses or individuals are doing. We end up being unable to achieve the objectives we want without adding some huge complexity. The Prime Minister has made noble efforts to get some international agreement on where large corporates place their tax. That is quite hard to fit into the corporation tax code as we now have it, because of the way we go about assessing businesses. If we started again with a simpler corporation tax code that was much more closely focused on what accounting profit is and had less complicated adjustments, we might find it far easier to deal with.
So there is real scope to simplify the corporation tax code, and it would bring real advantage. I have tried tabling amendments on discrete aspects of this before. A couple of years ago, I suggested that we look at replacing capital allowances with an easier system of relief for capital investment. This is a time when we want businesses to start spending the hundreds of billions they have on their own balance sheets on capital assets. Looking at how our tax system gives relief for that, I accept that we are introducing a welcome measure, which we will probably debate later, to increase the annual investment allowance for smaller businesses, but larger businesses get relief for their capital investment of up to 18% per year on a reducing balance. I think that most businesses want to get relief for their capital expenditure over the useful life of what they spend that money on. I suspect that an 18% reducing balance basis is not quite consistent with that. We recognise that, and those rules are different depending on whether it is a short life asset or a long life asset, or a car or an environmentally friendly asset. In fact, we now say that a short life asset is one with a life of less than eight years. This is not a very sensible, clear system, where we say to a business that this is how they get relief for an investment when we actually want them to spend.
We do not even give relief for the cost of building new factories. I suspect that most of us would love a business to come along and build a grand sparkling new factory in our constituency and make that investment, but it would get no tax relief for doing so. I am not sure that that is a very sensible way of going about things.
We are looking to encourage infrastructure investment, but we have some of the least generous rules for tax relief on infrastructure investment of any country in Europe, making it harder for us to attract international finance. If we went through and simplified the code, making it clear and easy to understand and sorted out some of these issues, that may well help to get the growth that we need.
The only things Sandra and I have in common, Mr Amess, is that we are both Scottish and we are both short. Sandra has much more of a West Coast accent than I do, although I have already been accused today by somebody of not being Scottish. The hon. Gentleman thinks that it is appropriate for adjustments to be made for people who are investing or trying to set up a business. Exactly those sort of provisions have to be incorporated into a tax code, and therefore make it complicated; so is there not a contradiction in what he says?
I cannot forget who the hon. Lady is; we seem to spend a lot of time serving on the same Committees. What I am saying is that perhaps with a simpler code, so that the amount of profit on which a business pays tax equates to the profit in its account, we would not need complex adjustments to incentivise or stop certain things. We could just give relief for the real business costs that the business incurs. It would be a far better way of running the corporation tax system. I do not agree with the suggestion that it would just add new and different complexity.
We also have an incredibly complex way of asking for tax returns from our large and medium-sized businesses. We expect a tax return from every individual company; it is not possible to file a tax return that covers a whole group, as is allowed under many overseas regimes. That builds in a lot of complexity to how businesses obtain the reliefs that Parliament says they can have—offsetting losses in one company against profits in another, or losses in one year against profits in a different year.
We build in that complexity and end up with businesses aggregating tax planning to try to avail themselves of the relief that we intended them to have in the first place. That is not a healthy situation. It builds in burdens. Quite a lot of complex tax planning exploits the fact that different companies in groups can adopt slightly different treatments or timings of things. If we allowed a single group file, much of that could disappear as well. Quite a lot of easy wins could be achieved.
For those who think that what I am talking about cannot be done—that we have tried simplification before and we just end up with a rewrite of the code that takes 10 years—there are examples of how a simple and easy-to-understand corporation tax code can be arrived at. The EU—that bastion of simplicity and help for business—produced a corporation tax code for its common consolidated tax base proposals. Those proposals are a crazy idea that would be desperately bad for us and probably very advantageous for Germany, but the tax code is only about 48 pages long, which we might compare with ours of several thousand pages. What if we could have a new code, condensed into a few dozen pages? I do not say that we could get that far, but how much easier it would be for all the businesses in our constituencies to understand how to comply if they had to read only 48 or so pages. I suspect that it would be a huge boon to them, and a huge saving for HMRC.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the burden falls particularly hard on those larger small businesses and smaller medium-sized enterprises that, by their nature, must create a more complicated corporate structure—normally because they are selling different products in different markets—and employ tax planning of the kind he describes? That is not such a cost for a large multinational, but for a company turning over £50 million or £100 million a year it is really significant.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich was asking whether the rules were particularly hard for larger small businesses to deal with, because the very large ones have the in-house expertise to deal with the issues that arise. I agree that it is hard for people to try to run their businesses if they do not have that expertise around to handle all the claims and complexities as they struggle through the labyrinthine provisions. The motivation for this simple and gentle amendment is to ask the Office of Tax Simplification to produce a report with some proposals of how we could have a new simpler tax code, with the specific request that it looks at how to tackle tax avoidance as well. I hope the Government do not find that an objectionable request. I accept that perhaps the precise people I have asked for the report or the precise timings will not meet with favour, but if we are going to keep saying that our rules are too long and complex and that they need to be simplified, we will, at some point, have to bite the bullet and come up with some way of radically simplifying the system. We cannot continue bolting on new provisions and making this cumbersome Bill even more cumbersome and wondering why we do not get the outcome from it that we expect. At some stage, there is a real risk that this whole thing will fall over. There must come a point at which we say that we need to simplify things, and that we will start to do that tax by tax and have a radical look at how we can get to a tax code that is fit for purpose for the 21st century—the current one is not fit for purpose even for the 19th century. Corporation tax would be the sensible place to start. It would help to achieve the economic objectives that we want to achieve. Therefore, I commend the amendment to the Committee.
Thank you, Mr Amess. In relation to the intervention earlier from my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East, it is worth saying that she and my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne), who was also mentioned earlier, share a passion for ensuring that their constituents have the best possible representation in this place and for trying to ensure that the welfare system in particular provides opportunities for people on low incomes. I do not want to stray off the subject for debate any further. I just want to acknowledge that and to acknowledge that there can be confusion, and there already has been, between my hon. Friend and myself, but I am the one with the west coast of Scotland accent. I say that just to ensure that there is no further confusion.
At the outset, when the hon. Member for Amber Valley was moving his amendment, there was a collective sigh of relief from those on the Government Benches in relation to the latest figures on the economy, which came out this morning. However, I was a bit disappointed because I do not think that there is a great sigh of relief in the business world or the business community. Are we really at the stage of saying that a sigh of relief is about as good as it gets in terms of economic growth? I do not think that that is any basis on which to take forward an economic policy. It is lacklustre; it is disappointing. Of course, no one would have wanted us to go into that triple-dip recession. As one of my hon. Friends suggested earlier, these results may just have scraped a pass, but it certainly was not in any sense a triple A pass. Indeed, I suspect that they have not even crawled over the line for a C. The grade may well be a C-minus or veering towards a D in terms of performance.
We now have the opportunity to talk not only about the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Amber Valley, but about the clause more broadly. It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman proposes what I think he described as a simple and gentle amendment. That is absolutely in accordance with what I described as my mild-mannered amendments at earlier stages. I was asking for reports—for the Government to go away and look at information and to bring forward further facts and figures or assessments on a range of issues. At that time, the Government seemed to suggest that that would be a waste of time—that there was no need to do any of that because they had it all done, they had already consulted and so on. It is interesting to look back at the number of times that they asked for very similar reports while they were in opposition. They asked the Government of the day to go away and look at some of the very issues that this Finance Bill Committee will look at, so I look forward, in the spirit of co-operation, in the spirit of working together in the national interest—
Thank you, Mr Amess. As I was saying, I looked back at the history and found that in 2008 a number of such reports were called for by the then shadow Minister—who is now the Minister. The proposals were in his name and those of the current Secretary of State for Defence, the Secretary of State for International Development and others, so I think that it is perfectly reasonable to be looking at these reports. The hon. Member for Amber Valley is also doing so. We need to treat them all with that kind of respect.
I wonder whether my hon. Friend has looked at how, when the Government were in opposition, and the Opposition were in government, the Government, who were then the Opposition, responded to the reaction of the now Opposition? I am sure my hon. Friend follows that.
Mr Amess, we should probably move on—[ Laughter. ] I am sure we will return to the issue. Those who are watching or listening to our proceedings could not have imagined that there was so much fun to be had on a Finance Bill. Perhaps the view that we will prorogue at some point in the not-too-distant future is giving things a bit of an end-of-term feeling.
Let me move on to some of the substance of the clause. I have some questions for the Minister about corporation tax. We are discussing not only the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Amber Valley, but the wider issues of corporation tax and clause 4, which sets the main rate of corporation tax at 21% for 2014-15. Separately, it sets the rate for ring-fenced profits from oil and gas activity at 30%, and I will say something about that later.
Let me set out some questions for the Minister so that he has the opportunity to think about this issue and to get some inspiration—from whatever quarters he needs to get it from—so that he can respond when the time comes. It could be argued that there is a case for rebalancing corporation tax rates. The Minister may not remember the previous Conservative Government, but the rate when they left office was 33%. I think the Labour Government then reduced it to 28%, although I am sure I will be corrected if I am wrong. When we are looking at adjusting these rates, it is important that we do so relative to personal taxation and in a careful and evidence-based way. The request for reports and further information is intended to help us build up a body of evidence.
As far as I can see, the Treasury has not produced an analysis, or the report the hon. Member for Amber Valley would like to see, showing how further cuts in corporation tax would feed into economic growth. On a day when we have seen that the economy is once again flatlining and we are not seeing the economic growth that Government Members would have indeed wished to see, it is important that we look at every intervention that could help, but we also need some confidence that the measures that are put in place will help.
We genuinely hope that the proposals will be beneficial; we are not looking for the economic situation to get worse. However, the Chancellor seems to be relying on an instinctive approach, rather than looking at tangible evidence. The question I would like the Minister to answer relates to business confidence. Will the reduction in the rate of corporation tax lead to businesses investing, expanding and taking on additional staff, which will promote economic growth, or will it lead merely to the stockpiling of corporate surpluses because businesses do not have confidence in the wider economy? That is an important question, and I want to hear the Minister’s response. We need tangible evidence that inward investment and business growth will flow from cuts in corporation tax. During last year’s debate on the Finance Bill, on which members of this Committee served, the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) devoted a great deal of time to similar issues, and I do not want to repeat all of that. I simply want to put on record that we still have some of the same concerns.
Of course, a reduction in corporation tax will benefit a company only if that company is profitable. We are concerned that hardly anything in the Bill will help businesses that are struggling. As we have seen this morning, the measures that have been implemented so far have not led to the growth that the Government and the business community hoped for. Will the Minister explain why the provision of help via national insurance has been delayed until 2014 rather than being introduced now?
International comparisons show that the corporation tax rate is 33% in France and 29% in Germany, and it will be 21% in Britain. Where is the evidence to indicate that the reduction in corporation tax will result in additional employment in the UK? The Government have frequently talked up the additional numbers of people who are in employment. The problem, however, is that in our constituencies, local businesses are not taking on as many additional staff as we would have hoped; the work force do not feel a sense of additional employment, because many cannot get the hours that they want; and more people are, sadly, being employed on zero-hours contracts, with the uncertainty from week to week of not knowing how many hours they will work or what their pay will be.
The case that my hon. Friend sets out is a true reflection of what is happening in the wider economy. In my constituency, we have a very welcome £150 million development, funded entirely by Tesco, which involves a new store and other commercial and retail activity. Tesco has advertised 80 new jobs, but all of them consist of no more than 22 hours a week. Even so, more than 2,000 people have applied for those 80 jobs. That is a reflection of how desperate people are to get into the world of employment in places such as the north-east of England.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I refer to my entry in the register of interests as a member of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. I know how important jobs in the retail sector are and I would never say that they are not a vital part of a local economy, but people in the sector have real problems getting enough hours to provide a decent standard of living. When the changes were made to working tax credits, many people in the retail sector tried desperately to get enough additional hours to allow them to continue to receive that support, and in many cases they were not able to.
Yesterday the hon. Member for East Lothian made some interesting remarks about her experience of working on a zero-hours contract, which she said was useful for her at that moment. Will the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun take that into account when she talks about zero-hours contracts?
I understand the issues that my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian raised, but if more and more people are going to have uncertain zero-hours contracts, I do not think it is necessarily a way forward for growing our economy and ensuring that people are able to take up jobs.
Just to be clear, what I said is that, as the second wage earner in my household, I was looking for flexibility, so it suited me, but for someone relying on a weekly or monthly income to put food on the table, it is not satisfactory.
My hon. Friend makes her point very well. I know that, from her own experience, she also promotes the idea of people having family-friendly hours and flexibility, where required. But the reality for many people at the moment is that they are not having that flexibility because they want it; they are having that flexibility thrust upon them because employers want it.
There is also the factor of self-employment, which is sometimes bogus self-employment in which work forces are given very little option but to be transferred to self-employed status. Of course, that is roughly equivalent to zero-hours contracts, but it is not something anyone invites in such circumstances.
Again, my hon. Friend makes an important point. I do not want to stray inappropriately into the issue of self-employment and bogus self-employment, and we have had some Westminster Hall debates and other debates and discussions on that. Importantly, there are people who choose to be self-employed—indeed, in my family I am probably the only person who has not been self-employed or worked in a small business or micro-business at some stage in my career—but people should not feel forced to do that without adequate support, training or back-up simply so that companies can maximise profits at the expense of a decent standard of living for the work force.
I am sure those issues will be raised again, but I want to return to corporation tax, on which I have some questions for the Minister. What is the Minister’s assessment of the length of time it will take to get back the revenue that has been surrendered through the cut in the corporation tax rate? On what basis does the Minister expect growth to occur and revenue to come into the economy? The OBR’s table 4.6, on current receipts, shows total revenue from corporation tax falling year after year until 2016-17, when it might begin to rise again. Will the Minister explain on what basis he thinks that prediction has been made? Is it about the cut in the corporation tax rate? Is it likely to be a result of reduced profitability and a weak economy? As we could argue that our corporation tax rate already seems to be competitive, how long will it take to make up that revenue?
I have a couple of other points before moving on to the oil and gas sector. The Chancellor claims that a cut would send the message that Britain is open for business, but the concern is that that is contradicted by the fact that, although UK companies continue to increase their net investment overseas—looking back to 2011, it was some £68.2 billion, which was the highest value since 2008—inward investment flowing into the UK continued to fall during 2011, decreasing to £31.9 billion, which was the smallest inflow since 2004. I am not making a party political point, but do not those figures suggest that our attractiveness, relative to the rest of the world, has indeed been struggling in the past three years, partly because of that non-existent growth? We have seen revenues falling and borrowing soaring. Of course, the Government have admitted that they cannot balance the books by 2015, and there is also concern among some in the business community about the Government’s commitment to an EU referendum by 2017.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way once again. She is being very generous with her time. The scenario that she highlights, with more British investment going abroad than foreign investment coming in, is happening at a time when British business are cash rich but struggling to find reasons to invest because of the lack of demand in the economy. British business is currently sitting on a mountain of cash—approximately £0.75 trillion.
Once again my hon. Friend makes an important point. The issue for many businesses is really about the confidence in the wider economy. Many businesses have been put off making those investments because they want to see what is happening in the wider economy. Of course the Government can take steps to ensure that businesses are incentivised and supported, but I would like to see more done to ensure that that leads to people being taken on in those sectors where there is the opportunity for growth. I know that my hon. Friend and many hon. Members are concerned about boosting the manufacturing sector as well as the service and retail sectors; that must be part of the process.
The Government said that they wanted to rebalance the UK economy, but the latest trend figures show that our trade deficit increased by £1 billion between January and February with a balance of payments deficit for our country at £36 billion. Despite the depreciation of sterling, exports have shrunk and despite the problems in the eurozone, our exports to other non-eurozone countries have also got worse; sales to the US, for example, are down by some £330 million. If we go back to what the Chancellor said two years ago, he promised that he would deliver
“A Britain carried aloft by the march of the makers”.
Returning to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead about ensuring that we have growth, a strong manufacturing sector, a work force who are supported and the employers able to take on more staff, I ask the Minister whether the corporation tax rate cut serves to give an easier ride to the banks and bankers. He seems to be claiming that the corporation tax cut would be factored into the bank levy, and we are supposed to see those two corporate tax approaches for the banks as somehow going hand in hand. The Prime Minister has repeatedly claimed that the Government’s bank levy would raise £2.5 billion a year, but the OBR figures, published alongside the Budget, estimate that in 2012-13 the bank levy raised just £1.6 billion. We also have HMRC figures that suggest that the banks will pay £200 million less as a result of the Government’s cut in the rate of corporation tax, raising a net £1.4 billion, or £1.1 billion less than Ministers initially suggested would happen.
Again, my hon. Friend makes a valuable point, and her views on shares for rights are well known. I am sure that she shares my opinion that that option will not support the growth agenda that the country desperately needs.
If we look at 2011-12 figures, the bank levy raised just £1.8 billion and corporation tax cut was worth £100 million to the banks, raising a net £1.7 billion on £800 million less than Ministers predicted at that time said. Between April 2011 and April 2013, the banks have paid £1.9 billion less than Ministers promised as a result of the Government’s corporation tax cuts and low yields from the bank levy. It is of concern to us—and we have debated it elsewhere so I will not go through the arguments again—that our calls for the repeal of tax and banks bonuses has not been heeded by the Government. It is worth particular note that, as a result of the millionaires tax cut, this Bill is handing an estimated 643 bank employees a tax cut of £54,000 a year, while more than 5 million working age people are struggling with a 1% cap on the in-work benefits they receive to help to support them.
We cannot look at corporation tax rates in isolation, and I hope the Minister will come back on some of these points. As we know, since the 2010 spending review, the UK economy has been flatlining, and the 5.3% growth that was forecast then has never materialised; as we know, only three G20 countries have had slower economic growth than the UK in that time. In addition, no matter how much the Government like to make claims about employment levels, unemployment is rising again: the latest figures, from 17 April, show an increase of 70,000 to 2.56 million, with rises among young people and those out of work for more than a year. Traditionally, it is more difficult for those groups to get back into the employment market, and I would have liked to see the Government doing more on that issue.
As I have mentioned, there are concerns that productivity has not improved. Output per hour worked fell by 2.3% in the final quarter of 2012 compared with a year earlier. The figure was down 0.5% compared with the previous quarter, which was the sixth successive—if I can get my tongue round that—quarterly fall, according to the Office for National Statistics. Over the whole of 2012, output per hour worked was down 1.8% compared with the previous year.
The Chancellor sets the tone for the economy. The Opposition have raised concerns about this Chancellor being a part-time Chancellor. He was described in an article today as “the submarine”, because he dives down to the depths and emerges only at certain points before diving back down once more; yet he sets that tone. In the world’s fastest growing economies, such as Brazil, China and India, there is enormous investment in research and development. Multinational companies are primarily drawn to R and D clusters rather than to ever-decreasing levels of corporation tax. Cuts to that tax are not the only thing that will encourage companies to invest in particular countries or areas. The attractiveness of UK plc will not simply revolve around the rate of corporation tax, and I hope that the Minister is alert to that fact.
I turn now to the issue of the ring fence for oil and gas companies; again, I have some questions for the Minister. This part of the Bill makes changes to the oil and gas fiscal regime, which applies to companies producing oil and gas on the UK continental shelf—we will no doubt debate some of the other measures on that later in our consideration of the Bill. The clause, importantly, relates to petroleum revenue tax, ring-fenced corporation tax and the supplementary charge. I appreciate that we will now be moving on to some of the technical details of the Bill, but it is important to question the Minister on the record on this matter.
The ring fence prevents the taxing of profits from oil and gas extraction in Britain from being reduced by losses from other activities or by excessive interest payments. Ring-fenced activities refer in particular to UK continental shelf exploration and production. The ring fence, then, covers searching for or extracting oil in the UK or UK continental shelf, transporting oil to the UK mainland and initial treatment and storage of oil; the likes of BP and Chevron, which hold licences in the North sea, will have ring-fenced activities. Non-ring-fenced activities include overseas production, oil refining activity and oil marketing activity.
Ring-fenced activities are treated as a separate trade and are chargeable to corporation tax at 30% rather than at the main rate. Apart from that higher rate, there are other different rules for ring-fenced activities. There are therefore a number of issues here, and I want to ask the Minister about the relative yields from each aspect of those activities. There have been concerns that the North sea oil and gas boom stalled in the first quarter of 2013, with both drilling and corporate activity falling back; nine new wells were drilled during that period, compared with 11 in the first quarter of last year and 19 in the final three months of last year. Studies show that oil production is falling: in 2012 production was 29% below 2010 levels and over that same period gas production fell by 32%. I will not go into the issues that relate to the Scottish context of that, but focus simply on those that relate to corporation tax.
When we look at that, we see the net contribution to the UK economy from oil and gas is falling: it was 1.8% in 2010, 1.5% in 2011 and the latest figures show that it was 1.3% in 2012. That trend is a concern and I hope that the Minister will address some of those issues.
To conclude, I turn to some of the issues raised by the hon. Member for Amber Valley in his amendment. We have some sympathy with the notion that a report on the corporation tax code would be useful. I am sure that the Minister will think back to the times when he requested reports when he was in opposition and perhaps saw the Government as unsympathetic to his requests, but I am sure that he would not want to be seen in that context; he will want to be seen as the Minister who listens, the one who makes his name by commissioning reports and bringing those forward not just for this Committee’s benefit, but for the one that will consider the Finance Bill in 2014.
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Amess. May I belatedly congratulate your mother on her 100th birthday? I wish to speak in this debate because my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun gave an excellent critique of the reasons for the lack of growth. The Opposition will welcome any measures that the Government bring forward that result in growth, but there is a misunderstanding among Government Members about why we are not seeing growth and why so many companies are sitting on reserves and not taking advantage of Government incentives to invest in new plant, machinery, or to take on new members of staff. That is fundamentally because of the lack of confidence in the business community. We need to peel that back to see why there is a lack of confidence; the reason is a lack of demand.
In my area, East Lothian, as a result of the Government’s changes to welfare, more than £20 million has been taken out of our local economy. That is having a huge impact on businesses and services that were already struggling before the Government began their welfare reform programme.
I speak to local SMEs in East Lothian—we do not have large employers, as a rule—many of which are very successful, and we also have many one-man or one-woman SMEs who are not making the jump to taking on their first member of staff that could make a huge difference to unemployment in the area. When I ask them what would encourage demand and make the biggest difference to them, they say a reduction in VAT. That does not come from people who I think are necessarily my political supporters, but those who are keen to work with Government, to be able to invest and to take on staff.
My contribution is short today, but I want to put on record that the Government are not just about what is happening at the Treasury. The Department for Work and Pensions and HMRC are taking money out of local economies and undermining business confidence.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess. I will address clause 4, which sets the main corporation tax rate and charge for the financial year beginning 1 April 2014. I can say that this is a clause 4 that is pro-business and pro-enterprise, which has not always been the case with other clause 4s down the years.
As announced in the autumn statement in 2012, the corporation tax rate will be reduced to 21%. That means that the rate will be seven percentage points lower in 2014 than the 2010 rate of 28%. A rate of 21% will be the fourth lowest in the G20, and lower than the rates of key competitors, including the Netherlands, France, Germany and the United States. There is, of course, more, but I do not want to spoil the debate on clause 6 that we will be coming to shortly; clause 6 will take us down to the lowest level. However, as a whole, the policy of reducing corporation tax supports our objective to deliver a more competitive corporate tax system to provide the right conditions for business investment and growth.
In a moment or so, I will answer the questions put by the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun, but perhaps by way of giving some background, it might be helpful if I set out a little more about our thinking in this area. A central element of the Government’s strategy to achieve strong, sustainable and balanced growth is our commitment to improve the UK’s tax competitiveness. Since 2010, the Government have introduced a package of measures to deliver on that commitment. As I say, there has been the reduction in the corporation tax rate from 28% to 23%.
It is perhaps worth reminding the Committee that that competitive element is, of course, one where we have to consider our relative position. The hon. Lady made the point that under the last Labour Government the corporation tax rate fell from 33% to 28%, but the reality is that our headline rate during that period of time fell behind that of our competitors within “the EU 27”, if you like. In 1997, we had the 10th lowest rate, but by 2010 we had the 20th lowest rate. So it is important that we take steps to address that issue.
On top of our reforms of the corporation tax rate, we have reformed the controlled foreign companies regime, and introduced the patent box and the above-the-line research and development tax credits. The measures that we are discussing today build on the progress made so far, and support our ambition to have the most competitive tax system in the G20. Of course, in doing that we also want to ensure that we have a tax system whereby businesses pay the tax that is due under the law. That is why we are driving forward work with the G20 to ask the OECD to undertake improvements to the international tax rules, to prevent base erosion and profit shifting.
Let me say why I believe we should cut corporation tax. We all know that the private sector is critical to the economic recovery and in tackling the deficit. Further reducing the main rate of corporation tax will support UK businesses to invest in growth. It will also encourage investment from overseas, as well as encouraging businesses that have left Britain to return, sending a clear message that the UK is “open for business”.
As a matter of record, can the Minister say what the thinking is behind the speed of the reduction, and what the point is at which the reduction should stop? I ask because clearly there are people in the Government—certainly among the Conservatives, and perhaps one or two Lib Dems—who would like to see corporation tax cut even further, perhaps to a rate of 15%. I just wanted to establish, for the record, what the Treasury thinking is behind the corporation tax reduction.
There is a debate as to the future for the corporation tax rate. As a Government, we set out a road map in 2010, which set out a plan to reduce the rate to 24%. We have subsequently over-achieved on that, and got the rate to 20%. My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley briefly touched on the fact that there are certain advantages for having 20% as a rate; it is consistent with the small profits rate. That is certainly true. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend will advocate further reductions in the corporation tax rate.
Setting out cuts in corporation tax in advance is helpful; it provides certainty and stability. When choosing to invest, businesses are not necessarily worried about what the corporation tax rate is today, but they are interested to know what it will be at some time in the future, when profits are likely to be made and corporation tax would be paid.
Will the Minister explain something, for my constituents? There is a strong feeling in the business community in Cumbria, which tends to comprise small and medium-sized enterprises, that there has been too much focus on corporation tax rates, as the headline rate. The instinct there, at least—perhaps we are missing part of the picture —is that that has come down far enough and they would much rather people focused on employers’ national insurance, for example.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. It is vital that, as a Government achieving pro-business tax policies, we consider both large, small, and indeed medium-sized, companies. When we came to office we inherited a small profits rate of 21%, which was increasing to 22%, and we reversed that to 20%. In 2010, we also dealt with the worst effects of the jobs tax, including the increase in employers’ national insurance contributions, which we inherited. He will be aware that in the previous Budget we introduced the employment allowance for national insurance contributions, which will particularly benefit smaller businesses.
Taking up the point raised by the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun in that regard, she did not fall into the trap that the hon. Member for Nottingham East fell into during the Committee of the whole House— or was it on Second Reading?—by asking why national insurance contributions are not mentioned in the Finance Bill. The hon. Lady will be aware that national insurance contributions are not a tax for these purposes and therefore cannot be included in the Finance Bill. Those will be contained in a separate national insurance contributions Bill in the next session. First, there is a legislative matter to deal with before we can introduce it in 2014—I have given Opposition Committee members a sneak preview of one element of the Queen’s Speech—and, secondly, a number of practical points need to be made to implement it, in terms of updating payroll software, so 2014 is the earliest date at which we could introduce it. That gets to the heart of the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border makes, which is that we are pursuing policies that benefit both larger businesses, which have an important contribution to make towards growth, and smaller businesses. Across the board we have a good record in this area.
Following on from the Minister’s point, a low or high rate of corporation tax is not good in itself or good as a relative position. Presumably some end product is desired, in terms of relocation, increased employment, or whatever. How does the Treasury benchmark its success for this tax policy? What evidence would it accept that it had done the right thing, rather than the wrong thing, in raising—or, indeed, highering—corporation tax.
My hon. Friend is right. It is not a low rate that is the end in itself, but a more competitive economy that is in a stronger position to encourage growth and jobs. That is why we have introduced various measures on corporation tax.
There is strong economic evidence from, for example, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and others, to suggest that corporation tax is one of the most inefficient and growth-damaging taxes. Therefore it is right that we cut the headline rate and, indeed, the effective rate of tax, to support growth. It is a broad-based measure that increases the return on investment across all sectors of the economy. The OBR has acknowledged that the reductions in corporation tax that we have pursued over a number of Budgets will have a positive effect on output and on business investment.
Of course, returning to a question raised by the hon. Lady and one asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Southport, there are difficulties, for example, in terms of corporation tax receipts, because those are influenced by various factors, including the fact that we have a regime for losses, as all countries do; it is an economically sensible part of a corporation tax regime. That means, however, that if a company has had several years of losses, it will not pay corporation tax in the same way even when it returns to profitability. That feeds into corporation tax receipts, so it is difficult to give precise criteria, but we believe that corporation tax plays an important role in competitiveness.
The Minister is talking about competitiveness, and in March, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) said:
“Without radical steps to restore competitiveness, we risk facing a decade, or decades, in the doldrums.”
Does the Minister think that the measure will satiate his colleague, or are the Government still doing other things wrong?
I think that question is for my right hon. Friend rather than for me. I believe that the Government are taking firm action to restore our competitiveness. As the Chancellor pointed out in his Budget speech, we have gone further than any previous Parliament in reducing the burden of corporation tax. Taken as a whole, given the current economic circumstances, that demonstrates our commitment to ensuring that we get growth and jobs in the economy and that we restore competitiveness.
The measure is not a populist one—this is not something that is raised on many doorsteps—but it makes a valuable contribution to our economy, which is why we are pursuing it. It will lower the tax bills of approximately 40,000 incorporated businesses that have profits of more than £1.5 million and pay the main rate of corporation tax, and it will lower those of a further 41,000 businesses that have profits of between £300,000 and £1.5 million and pay the main rate of corporation tax but receive marginal relief. Such businesses are vital to job creation and growth in the UK. Shareholders, employees and consumers ultimately bear the burden of corporation tax, and they will benefit from its reduction.
“a report setting out proposals for a new, simplified Corporation Tax code, specifically addressing the potential for a simpler tax code to reduce tax avoidance.”
The OTS has an important role to play in simplifying the tax landscape, which is reflected in its significant work programme for the year, during which it will review ways of simplifying taxation of employee benefits and expenses and partnership tax. The Government have already acted on a range of OTS recommendations, including the removal of 41 tax reliefs and the improvement of the administration of IR35. The Bill takes forward recommendations from the OTS reviews of tax-advantaged share schemes and small business tax. As a result of the latter, for example, the Government have introduced a simpler income tax for small, unincorporated businesses. We are also introducing a new relief for companies to make it easier for business owners to move their business to a sole trader or partnership.
Order. I say again that members of the public are not allowed on to the floor of the Committee. I ask the hon. Member responsible to have a word privately outside the room.
My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley has raised some interesting points in the amendment, and as a Government we rightly keep the simplification of corporation tax under active review. He has previously suggested ways of reforming corporation tax, which he and I have debated, including the use of accounting principles related to depreciation, as well as group consolidation. They are important points, although he will be aware that there are pros and cons. Some might find these things less generous than they currently might be. Indeed, if we were looking at consolidation, there might be a substantial cost, as that would mean that companies were able to make greater use of loss relief.
There are some complexities, but my hon. Friend was right to take that opportunity. I am sure that the OTS will read his speech with great care and attention. However, I do not think that it would be right for us, especially in the Bill, to mandate or order the OTS to engage in particular reviews. It has a very full work programme, and those areas are important ones that it does to be looking at.
The hon. Lady raised the issue of banks and whether banks are benefiting from this provision. The reality is that we have made it very clear that the bank levy is adjusted to take into account the corporation tax changes, so the benefits have not been passed on to the banks. Our willingness to come back to the bank levy and readjust it demonstrates our commitment to that. I am struck by the fact that she maintains that her party would raise £2.5 billion from a bankers bonus tax. My right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury pointed out that the total bonus pool this year was only £1.6 billion, so it would be somewhat difficult to raise quite that sum of money from that route.
I do not believe that that will have a substantial impact on Exchequer receipts.
May I quickly turn to the issue of oil and gas? There are many reasons why the oil and gas tax receipts might rise or fall. I suggest to the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun that the relatively lower ring-fenced receipts may be reflective of companies taking up the generous reliefs offered by the Government to invest in infrastructure, linked to greater future activity and profits within the UK, which we believe will be to our advantage.
I was trying to be gentle with the hon. Lady by using more tentative language than one might. Clearly, the generous regime that we have for investment is one that I hope she would welcome and that would encourage investment, but that can also have an impact on immediate tax receipts. Having made those points, I urge my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley to withdraw the amendment, but I do believe that clause 4 plays a valuable part in ensuring that the UK economy is competitive.
I am obviously disappointed that the Government have not chosen to accept this review. The fact that the Minister did not rule out the possibility of taking the rate below 20% further strengthens the argument about a reducing yield and therefore an even greater need for simplification, but I accept that the Government will keep the matter under review and therefore I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.