Social investment tax relief

Finance Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 17th October 2017.

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

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 20, in schedule 1, page 103, line 37, at end insert—

“10A After section 257TE (minor definitions etc), insert—

(1) Prior to 30 June 2019, the Commissioners for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs shall complete a review of the operation of social investment tax relief.

(2) The review shall consider in particular—

(a) the effects of changes made to this Part by Schedule 1 to the Finance (No. 2) Act 2017, and

(b) the effectiveness of the anti-abuse provision.

(3) The Chancellor of the Exchequer shall lay a report of the review under this section before the House of Commons as soon as practicable after its completion.””

This amendment would require HMRC to undertake a review of the operation of social investment tax relief, including the changes to it made by Schedule 1.

That schedule 1 be the First Schedule to the Bill.

Photo of Mel Stride Mel Stride Financial Secretary to the Treasury and Paymaster General

Clause 14 and schedule 1 make changes to increase the amount of investment that newer social enterprises can raise through social investment tax relief. These changes will make social investment more attractive to a wider range of enterprises and investors. Excluding lower risk activities will ensure that the scheme is well targeted and delivers value for money.

Would it be in order, Mr Walker, to speak now to amendment 20 and schedule 1?

If the Minister sits down, the Opposition can speak to the amendment.

Photo of Anneliese Dodds Anneliese Dodds Shadow Minister (Treasury) 2:15 pm, 17th October 2017

As the Minister has indicated, amendment 20 is to the schedule, which is grouped with clause 14. We have a number of concerns about the proposed changes to social investment tax relief, which is why our amendment asks for a review of their effectiveness and impact.

As colleagues will be aware, social investment tax relief is aimed at supporting social enterprises, comprising those businesses that plough their profits—or at least a proportion of them—back into a social and/or environmental mission. With this relief, where investments by individuals are eligible, they can reduce an individual’s income for income tax purposes by almost a third. It is clearly a significant relief and one that, while having many positive impacts, has been suggested as leading to abuses, with the social or environmental impacts from investment in some anecdotal cases being cosmetic rather than actual.

There are also underlying issues about whether there is a level playing field between social enterprises and the public sector when it comes to the delivery of some public services, which could be intensified by the development of additional scope or type of tax reliefs when it comes to social enterprises. Indeed, for those reasons, some people have entirely rejected even the principle of social investment tax relief in the first place. I understand Dame Hilary Blume, director of the Charities Advisory Trust, was concerned about the creation of the relief in the first place, saying it would attract those interested in profits rather than social good to the sector.

In my experience as a constituency MP—and others may share this experience—social enterprises that operate in my constituency, such as the charity Aspire Oxford, undertake work that the Government either have never done or which they have abandoned due to a lack of resources, such as the enormous reductions in support provided through probation services. It is important that organisations such as these, which genuinely deliver additionality, are supported. Nonetheless, in that context, we have a variety of concerns about the currently proposed changes and it is for that reason that we ask for a review. I would be grateful—even if our amendment does not pass—if the Minister could provide answers to a number of these concerns, presently or by letter in the future.

The first concern we have is about the process surrounding these measures. As colleagues will know, rather confusingly, not all social enterprises qualify for social enterprise relief. Predominantly, the relief is focused on community interest companies, charities and community benefit societies. For that reason, before receiving investment, many social enterprises ask HMRC for advance assurance—this topic pops up again—that they will qualify for SITR. I am concerned to have learned from the sector that assessors seem to have been taking decisions already about whether social enterprises will qualify for SITR on the basis of the rules we have in front of us today, which have not yet been passed by Parliament, rather than on the basis of the current rules.

I know the rules would have retrospective impacts: in practice they would be for investments dating from 1 April. It seems strange, however, for assessors to be taking decisions already on the basis of the new rules and this is potentially a disadvantage for social enterprises that are negatively affected by the new rules.

I have also heard concerns about the new treatment of leasing within the new provisions. As I understand it, the Government conceive of leasing as an inherently low-risk activity and therefore not worthy of subsidy, but it is not clear to me that all the implications of this position have been thought through. An example is that of a specialist facility, such as a rundown heritage swimming pool. In fact, many of us may have those in our constituencies—as we know, many have closed. It is very difficult for local authorities to redevelop those facilities in current financial circumstances. We could imagine an example where a social enterprise might want to take on that pool, purchase it, attract investors into that project, but not run the swimming pool themselves as they do not have the expertise to do so. They might then want to have a leasing arrangement with a specialist leisure provider to deliver the services from that swimming pool. The problem with the new changes is that, in this context, even though the risk of that new approach would be reduced because the specialist provider would have more experience of running swimming pools than the social enterprise, the latter would be left in an invidious position, because it would lose the tax break if it engaged in that kind of leasing arrangement.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow

My hon. Friend is making a powerful case about the importance of trying to make these kind of rules work for the reality of how social investment often happens in our local communities. Does she agree with me that there is also a concern that by excluding asset-leasing, things like community pubs and community land trusts might also be excluded by the Government, probably unintentionally? Many of us know of small community groups that may want to take over pubs in our communities that would be excluded by this measure and unintentionally actioned against. Surely we should be acting on that.

Photo of Anneliese Dodds Anneliese Dodds Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point, and I agree that this could apply to a range of different facilities. In many circumstances, this kind of arrangement is the only way to keep those facilities going. We could see them entirely disappear—we all know about the sad disappearance of community pubs in our areas—so I am grateful to her for making that point.

In addition to those potential issues, we are also concerned about the differential treatment of social enterprises by age, with the £1.5 million cap being lifted for social enterprises under seven years old. Will the Minister explain why there is precisely this seven-year limit? It may in practice be that local authorities are relying on well-established, well-run and highly experienced social enterprises to help to provide essential services and facilities in conditions of extreme budget cuts, but it is those older enterprises that are potentially disadvantaged by this scheme. I hope that we are going to learn the exact decision-making process on this seven-year cut-off point. If it is specifically to advantage younger social enterprises, why is that the point? Is it the case that youth is being viewed as a proxy for the ability to take on risky activities? If so, where is the evidence basis for that?

I point again to the example of Aspire in my constituency that operates a range of programmes, including one that supports offenders going into work—people who would not normally necessarily be taken on by different employers. Surely that is a highly risky activity, but it is one at which they—as an established social enterprise—excel. Age does not necessarily appear to be a good proxy for the ability to take on riskier activities. If this seven-year cut-off is not there to encourage younger social enterprises, then why has it been instituted? We need more information on this.

Finally, we feel that additional evidence on the effectiveness of the anti-avoidance clauses within the new provisions is required. Social enterprises in the voluntary sector have a long history in areas such as hospice care, specialist domestic violence and mental health services where they have often genuinely driven innovation. Other social enterprises, such as those I mentioned earlier, have merely donated some of their profits to charity, rather than having a genuinely social or environmental mission. May we have more clarification on how abuse will be identified and dealt with?

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Economy), SNP Deputy Leader

I do not want to speak for long, but I wanted to say that the hon. Member for Oxford East made a comprehensive, passionate and well-informed case on the amendment. If the Labour party seeks to press the amendment to a vote, we will support it. If the Minister responds to any of the comments by letter, I would be keen to see some of his answers, so I would appreciate being copied into that response.

Photo of Mel Stride Mel Stride Financial Secretary to the Treasury and Paymaster General

Compared with typical companies, social enterprises face greater difficulties in accessing the funding they need to grow and develop. Social investment tax relief provides a number of generous tax reliefs to encourage individuals to invest in social enterprises that deliver social or community benefits. The current limit to the amount of investment that a social enterprise can receive through SITR is around £300,000 over three years. We announced in 2014 that we would look to expand the scheme, and we are now doing so.

The changes made by schedule 1 will increase the investment limit to £1.5 million over the lifetime of all social enterprises using SITR. In order to target the relief more effectively at the social enterprises that most struggle to attract investment, those under seven years old will no longer be bound by the three-year rolling investment limit of £300,000. I think this addresses the issues raised by the hon. Member for Oxford East about why the period is seven years. There is a greater vulnerability when social enterprises start up and they are fresh and young. They have yet to have a track record on which they can build, in order to grow. For those we are removing the roaming £300,000 over three years requirement. Social enterprises older than seven years can still use SITR for investment up to the three-year rolling investment limit of £300,000, subject to the lifetime limit of £1.5 million.

Schedule 1 makes a number of other changes to ensure that the scheme is well targeted at activities that will genuinely achieve socially beneficial aims, and provides value for money. That includes targeting SITR at social enterprises with fewer than 250 employees. Some activities have always been excluded from the relief so that it is not used as a tax-advantage route for low-risk investment. The excluded activities list will be updated to exclude a number of low-risk activities, including leasing assets and raising finance to lend on to others.

I agreed wholeheartedly with the hon. Member for Oxford East’s assertion about the importance of these social enterprises. She mentioned Aspire, for example, in her own constituency and many of us can think of similar organisations in our constituencies. On the more detailed process points that she was interested in, particularly around HMRC and advanced assurances, I am happy to write to her.

On the specific issue of leasing, allowing those activities to benefit from SITR would risk diverting finance away from higher risk social enterprises. We must not lose sight of the fact that the whole purpose of this scheme is to encourage those kinds of organisations and all the good works that they do, which might not otherwise come forward for the reason of being high risk. Of course, those organisations struggle the most to raise finance. Leasing assets typically provides a reliable income stream, which makes it a lower risk activity. Allowing social enterprises to raise money to lend on to other enterprises would be complex to administer and would leave the scheme open to misuse.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow

As a Co-op, as well as Labour, MP, I am rather passionate about the idea of social investment. The Minister seems to be a little short-sighted about the idea of assets—after all, there are many people looking at running community pubs, for instance, which is a great example of a community asset that we might want to support. I would not see that as an example of a low-risk venture. Surely, if he accepts our amendment, we can look at some of those issues and make sure that he is not missing out on some of the things he would like to see investment in because of a concept of risk that is rather narrow, rather than recognising some of the boundaries of co-operative and social investment.

Photo of Mel Stride Mel Stride Financial Secretary to the Treasury and Paymaster General

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I guess there is a trade-off between getting very detailed and more precise in where we target these kinds of reliefs and, on the other hand, sometimes having complexity and confusion. It can be difficult to winkle out the precise anomalies that she may be alluding to. However, I can reassure her that, under the EIS scheme, many pubs, including community pubs, can qualify. They may be excluded under certain circumstances within the SITR scheme, but under EIS she will find that there are at least possibilities.

On the general issue of anti-avoidance, we are seeking to avoid situations where these schemes—whether they are EIS, SITR or VCTs—are simply being used as places to preserve capital at very little risk and to give a tax return as a consequence of the scheme. It is important that we have tight, sensible and effective avoidance measures in place.

Finally, further provisions to align the rules more closely with the enterprise investment scheme, including anti- abuse provisions, will also be introduced. Amendment 20 would require a review of the effects of the scheme, including the effectiveness of the anti-abuse provision and other changes being made by schedule 1. The Government have already committed to a full review of SITR within two years of its expansion. An early review would make it impossible to adequately gauge the effectiveness of the provisions that we are introducing now. Further, these anti-abuse provisions were introduced in direct response to HMRC becoming aware of the creation of aggressive tax-planning structures designed to exploit this relief. We estimate that around 800 social enterprises will benefit from the relief over the next five years. By 2021-22, SITR is forecast to cost £65 million per year, £30 million more than if the scheme was not enlarged.

We have had an interesting debate on the scheme. As we have already committed to a full review, I ask the hon. Member for Oxford East to withdraw amendment 20. Schedule 1 will increase the amount of investment that social enterprises can raise through SITR making it attractive to a wider range of enterprises and investors. Other changes will ensure that the scheme is well targeted and delivers value for money.

Photo of Anneliese Dodds Anneliese Dodds Shadow Minister (Treasury) 2:30 pm, 17th October 2017

I am grateful to the Minister for his clarification, which has been enormously helpful. However, he referred to winkling out particular anomalies and we feel that that is exactly what we need a little more of. On the issue of the seven years of activity as a social enterprise before qualifying for the three-year £1.5 million cap, I am concerned, despite the Minister’s helpful comments, that we are not focusing on the exact loci of risk. We seem to be assuming that risk is inherent in the age of the social enterprise concerned and not on the activity that it is engaged in. It is perfectly possible—I mentioned an example earlier—for an older social enterprise to try to attract funding in order to undertake a very risky activity. Dealing with some of those risky activities is what we need social enterprise to be engaged in, particularly as we have many areas where local authority funding is no longer available and there are also market failures. We really need to have community facilities and different services preserved. I therefore wish to press the amendment.

Photo of Mel Stride Mel Stride Financial Secretary to the Treasury and Paymaster General

I think we are in total agreement with the hon. Lady on the issue of focusing these funds and incentives on riskier social enterprises, in other words, the ones that would not naturally happen without this kind of intervention. However, while those that are less than seven years old will be subject to the £1.5 million cap, which is a considerable increase in what we have had before and will not be restricted by the £300,000 maximum investment in any three-year period, those social enterprises that have been trading for longer than seven years, can still have access to £1.5 million in total, albeit in any three-year period they are restricted to £300,000 maximum to be raised. It is not as if there is a terrible cliff edge between the two. We will still be providing a lot of support for older social enterprise.

Photo of Anneliese Dodds Anneliese Dodds Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I thank the Minister, but I am still concerned about why exactly seven years has been chosen as the cut-off. Listening to his helpful remarks, I imagine that we could see some gaming around this, because there is a significant tax advantage from having a younger social enterprise. Would we see social enterprises being created out of previous ones just to qualify for the different tax treatment when actually they would be focused on the same activity? It seems peculiar to me and I do not understand why the seven-year figure has been chosen. My dad was an accountant; he always said to me, “You’ve got to keep your bank statements for seven years”, so I can understand seven years from that perspective. Why is there no gradation? Why seven and not another figure—three, five, 15 or 20 years? Perhaps some clarification can be provided.

Photo of Mel Stride Mel Stride Financial Secretary to the Treasury and Paymaster General

I suppose we are saying that whatever number of years we chose, the hon. Lady’s argument would always be relevant, in the sense that it is an arbitrary figure. It happens to be seven years in this case. In terms of anti-avoidance and gaming at the margins, to which she referred, there are some strong anti-avoidance measures in the Bill that, for example, seek to address directly the specific issues she raised of perhaps one social enterprise taking over another that has a different age profile and in some way gaming the system as a consequence. Those elements are addressed in the anti-avoidance measures.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 14 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 1