Relief from CGT for loans to traders

Finance Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 9th June 2020.

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

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

This is a very small and technical measure that widens the scope of capital gains tax relief in respect of loans to traders, so that from 24 January 2019 it applies to loans made to traders located anywhere in the world and not just in the United Kingdom.

Relief for loans to traders is available where a loan is made to a UK company, sole trader or partnership, for the purposes of a continuing trade, profession or vocation, or for the setting up of trade, but then the loan subsequently becomes irrecoverable. The relief allows a person to write off the loss against chargeable gains.

The UK has now left the EU and has agreed to follow its rules for the duration of the transition period. On 24 January 2019, the European Commission issued a reasoned opinion, arguing that the existing legislation for relief of loans to traders contravened the free movement of capital principle. The Government accepted that the legislation, as drafted, was too narrow, and agreed to introduce legislation to expand the rules and to comply with that principle.

The change made by clause 26 widens the relief, so that it applies to qualifying loans made to businesses worldwide and not just in the UK. The proposed changes are not expected to have any significant impact on the Exchequer, due to the small number of people making these loans. Loans of the type covered by this relief are often risky, making them unattractive to many investors. Widening the geographical scope of the relief will not make such loans less risky, but it will give UK-based investors a remedy should an overseas investment be lost. Draft legislation setting out this change was published during the summer and no comments were received.

The Government consider that this legislation is appropriate for supporting overseas investment opportunities for UK-based investors and for meeting our residual obligations to the European Union. I therefore commend the clause to the Committee.

Photo of Wes Streeting Wes Streeting Shadow Exchequer Secretary (Treasury)

Earlier, the Financial Secretary described our proceedings as “a grind for some”. How could it possibly be a grind when we were treated to such a fascinating history lesson as the one he gave at the end of the debate on the last group? However, I am not sure that invoking the economic lessons of Adam Smith will be enough to persuade the hon. Member for Aberdeen South of the case for the Union. Indeed, I am not sure that it would persuade me of the case for the Union. I will return to reading the books by our esteemed former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and I will leave it to my hon. Friend Ian Murray to lead the charge in making the case for the Union. That might be more persuasive to the people of Scotland than the history lesson given to us by the Financial Secretary.

We are all learning new things this morning. In fact, the hon. Member for Aberdeen South has learned that, in this place, the words “and finally” are generally a statement of intent rather than a binding commitment. I am sure that on many occasions I have used the words “and finally” more often than once.

The Financial Secretary described clause 26 as very small and technical, and I suppose that is true to an extent. As we have heard, relief for loans to traders is a capital gains tax relief; it gives relief where a loan is made to a UK company, sole trader or partnership for the purposes of an ongoing trade, profession or vocation or the setting up of trade, and the loan subsequently becomes irrecoverable. To qualify for the relief, the loan must be to a borrower who is resident in the UK and who uses the money wholly for the purposes of a trade, profession or vocation or to set up trade, as long as they start trading. Relief is due only if there is no reasonable prospect of the loan ever being repaid.

Who can argue with any of that? The clause is technical and straightforward, and the Financial Secretary has made the case for it. Only towards the end of his speech did we hear that the purpose of the clause—please shut your ears, Mr Rosindell—is to extend the relief to borrowers outside the UK, which will ensure that the relief complies with article 63 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union, and with the rules on the free movement of capital.

I thought we might have a bit of fun dwelling on that for a moment, because we are locked in negotiations on our exit from the European Union. I am sure it was not meant to be sneaky—Ministers would never be sneaky—but at the end of the Financial Secretary’s speech on the clause, he briefly mentioned that it was about bringing ourselves into alignment with European Union law. It is curious that we are trying to negotiate our exit from the European Union at the same time that we are passing domestic law to bring ourselves into alignment. The Government have begun their fourth round of trade negotiations with the European Union; the process is far from complete. With the Government’s self-imposed December deadline looming, it appears there is nothing that the Government are not willing to sacrifice for their ambition to get Brexit done.

In the light of that, I am curious about whether the Government intend for the alignment to be permanent, or whether it will be a measure from which they wish to diverge in the future. I wonder what other rules we are planning to align with at the same time as we are planning divergence, and I wonder how the Government are weighing up the case for alignment and the case for divergence. The clause is designed to align the UK with EU trade regulations and EU laws, which reveals an uncomfortable reality at the heart of the Government’s strategy: no matter how much they might claim that Brexit means Brexit and that we can shirk our obligations, we know that the continuing harmonisation of laws and rules will continue within the European Union, and that, over the course of our future relationship with the European Union and with any future trade agreement with any third party, there will always be compromise, choices, trade-offs, harmonisation, agreement to abide by the same rules, and a mechanism for dispute regulation.

I certainly do not wish to re-fight the battles of the past. As I have already said, we accept that this question is settled. We have left the European Union. The only question now is about our future relationship. However, in the same way that the Government have recognised, through the clause, that we have obligations to meet, and that doing so is in the interests of businesses here in the UK—as a principle, it does not apply only to businesses, but in this case we are talking about the capital gains tax relief that will benefit different types of businesses—it is important that we acknowledge that, in our future relationship, there may well be instances in which it is in our national interest to align with the European Union, or to persuade the European Union to align with us.

Going back to my previous remarks, it seems to me that there has been far too much dogma in the debate, and far too much emphasis on demonstrating, in a robust and visible way, that we have left, almost as though divergence is a point of principle and a good in and of itself. There may be opportunities and occasions on which my Opposition colleagues and I might see divergence from a particular approach taken by the European Union as an opportunity presented by Brexit, and there may be occasions, particularly in the context of debating our domestic tax affairs and economic policies, in which opportunities might present themselves, and we might propose courses of action that otherwise might not have been possible as members of the European Union. However, there will be occasions when alignment with the European Union and its approach is in our national interest, and the Government should be brave enough to say so.

I think that most people in this country, whether they voted leave or remain, would accept that there are lots of occasions when a deep partnership with the European Union would be in our interest. Indeed, reflecting on the conversations that we had during the referendum and since, it seems to me that one of the least concerns that people had about the European Union was the notion that we had an economic partnership. My constituency split pretty much down the middle on Brexit, so I have the opportunity to speak to people who voted leave and remain all the time, which I find insightful, instructive and enriching. I find that, when people reflect back on our membership of the European Union, one of their least concerns was about the economic relationship and the notion that it was a free-trade bloc and a trading partnership. In fact, one complaint that I got from lots of leave voters who were voting leave because of concerns about sovereignty is that it had become too much of a political project and not so much an economic one.

I hope that, as the Government scope out their policies, and as the Treasury seeks to influence other Departments and to restore some sense of reality and grounding in some of the economic considerations of our future relationship, people right across Government bear that in mind, and that we do not end up cutting off our nose to spite our face. This country already had a number of underlying structural problems with our economy that we needed to address—slow growth over the last decade, weak productivity and the extent to which our country is divided, not only in the economic gap between the wealthiest and poorest but in the regional, place-based economic inequalities across our country.

There are lots of issues for us to deal with, but I fear that our job is being made even harder by the covid-19 crisis and its obvious impact, and I fear that the job of tackling those problems will be made harder still if we make unwise decisions about our future relationship based on political and ideological dogma, rather than on the economic considerations. I hope that message will be taken back to the Treasury.

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

I am keenly aware of the 11 o’clock minute’s silence, and I wish to respect that, so I will keep my remarks short. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that my consideration of the EU in my speech was probably 40% to 45%, rather than a concluding thought. I am glad he recognises that opportunities will emerge after we have left the EU, and I am sure he is right that there will be cases in which we should wish to align with it on a sovereign basis.

Photo of Andrew Rosindell Andrew Rosindell Conservative, Romford

Order. At 11 o’clock, I will suspend the sitting for a minute’s silence. The bell will ring at that point. I propose we do not proceed with any further discussions until after the minute’s silence. Please be upstanding.

The Committee observed a minute’s silence.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 26, accordingly, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(David Rutley.)

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.