Call-off stock arrangements

Finance Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:45 am on 16th June 2020.

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

Photo of Andrew Rosindell Andrew Rosindell Conservative, Romford

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 13—Call-off stock arrangements: sectoral review of impact—

‘(1) The Chancellor of the Exchequer must make an assessment of the impact of section 78 on the sectors listed in (2) below and lay a report of that assessment before the House of Commons within six months of the passing of this Act.

(2) The sectors to be assessed under (1) are—

(a) leisure,

(b) retail,

(c) hospitality,

(d) tourism,

(e) financial services,

(f) business services,

(g) health/life/medical services,

(h) haulage/logistics,

(i) aviation,

(j) transport,

(k) professional sport,

(l) oil and gas,

(m) universities, and

(n) fairs.”

This new clause would require the Government to report on the effect of Clause 78 on a number of business sectors.—(Alison Thewliss.)

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

Clause 78 simplifies the rules for accounting for VAT on goods moving from the UK to member states of the EU or vice versa in advance of goods being “called off”, as it is known, for delivery. This is known as “call-off stock”. These changes represent a simplification for businesses that use call-off stock arrangements and provide common rules across the EU. They apply to goods removed from or to the UK from 1 January 2020, and will apply for the remainder of the UK’s transition period with the EU. We expect the changes to have a negligible effect on businesses that adopt them.

The clause transcribes EU call-off stock law—new article 17A to the principal VAT directive—into UK legislation. It sets out the conditions for the rules to apply and provides sellers with statutory obligations to adhere to strict record keeping and reporting requirements. These changes are an administrative easement; the primary benefit is to UK businesses that will no longer have to register and account for VAT in the customer’s country, and vice versa. However, the quid pro quo is additional reporting requirements as well as EU regulations, which have direct effect, that set out new record keeping requirements, as I have indicated.

There is no obligation on a business to restructure transactions so as to meet the conditions and fall within the new rules. We expect that they would use the simplification only because they might derive a benefit for their business. Businesses that do not meet the conditions and so do not fall within the new rules should continue with the current VAT accounting mechanisms for EU cross-border transactions.

The Government published the draft legislation and guidance on the operation of the rules in December. The legislation was laid before the House in the Finance Bill at Budget earlier this year. A resolution under the Provisional Collection of Taxes Act 1968 means that the legislation currently has effect.

Call-off stock are goods that are bulk-shipped by a supplier across a border to a warehouse from where they will be supplied, or called off, as the customer requires. Different EU member states previously had different VAT accounting rules for call-off stock. Some required the seller of the goods to register and account for VAT in the country where the goods were to be called off. The UK avoided the need for the overseas supplier to register for VAT here. We allowed the customer to account for the VAT when the goods first arrived and in advance of being called off. The measure implements the changes adopted by ECOFIN on 4 December 2018, which were designed to simplify the rules and make them more consistent within the single market.

In normal circumstances the new rules, like the existing UK rules, do not require the seller to register and account for VAT in the country where the goods are called off. The new rules delay accounting for VAT until the goods are called off. To avoid VAT fraud, suppliers are required to report the initial movement of the goods to their tax authority, and both the supplier and the customer are required to keep additional records of the stock. When the goods are called off, normal VAT accounting and reporting procedures will apply and the customer will account for the acquisition of VAT. The Government had some concerns over the potential burden on business of keeping the new records required under the new rules and pushed for the right of business to continue using the existing rules if they so wished. A business is not required to arrange its affairs such that the new rules must be used. A supplier and their customer can agree to continue to use the existing UK rules for goods called off in the UK.

HMRC has produced guidance reflecting the introduction of the changes, and the measure is expected to be revenue neutral. It constitutes a simplification for UK businesses. The measure updates UK law to take account of the approach in the EU. It simplifies the VAT rules for call-off stock transactions and avoids the requirement for the supplier to register in the destination state.

New clause 13 would require the Government to conduct a review on the impact of the new call-off stock rules on a variety of different sectors within six months of the Bill receiving Royal Assent. The new legislation provides a simplification for businesses that choose to meet the conditions for it to apply. With that in mind, we expect it would have a negligible impact on businesses. I can inform the Committee that recent figures show that fewer than 200 UK businesses have reported that they are using the new rules, and we are not aware of any being in the sectors mentioned in the amendment. I therefore ask the Committee to reject the amendment and commend the clause to the Committee.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury) 10:00 am, 16th June 2020

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Rosindell. I take what the Minister says about the measure affecting relatively few businesses at the moment, but as this develops, that might not remain the case. There is a certain irony in the EU providing mechanisms for simplifying and harmonising these rules and trading across the EU—people moving their goods around the place—when the UK stands to come out of the EU and lose some of those benefits for businesses in all our constituencies.

There is an irony as well that the Government have decided to adopt these new rules. I am sure the Brexiteers in the room are no less keen on being rule takers, but that seems to be what the Government are doing in this case. We want to see as much harmonisation and simplification for businesses, because that is to their benefit. That is why we think it is important to stay in the EU in the first place.

Figures from the Scottish Government suggest that Scottish GDP could be 1.1% lower after two years, on the current cumulative loss of economic activity from leaving the EU, and up to £3 billion over those two years, on top of the devastating effects of the coronavirus outbreak. There will be an impact without having a free trade deal or an extension, at least for Scotland’s agriculture, fisheries and manufacturing sectors.

We want to see a comprehensive assessment of how all the sectors listed in the amendment will be affected—leisure, retail, hospitality, tourism, financial services, business services, health, life and medical services, logistics, aviation, transport, professional sport, oil and gas, universities—because they could all be affected by this clause. It would be wise for the Government to look at the impact of what they are proposing. It is always wise for the Government to look at the impact of their proposals on anything, I suppose, and we encourage them to do that.

Because the measure is retrospective, will the Minister say what notifications have gone out to business that may be affected and what guidance has been given? He said that companies can opt to use these rules or not. How does that work, and how does the guidance ensure that people know what they have to carry out, whether they decide to use the rules or not? It sounds quite confusing from what the Minister said. Finally, because he did not make it clear, will he say what happens to these measures after the transition period?

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

Let me begin by picking up on a point made by the Member for Glasgow Central about the provenance of clause 78. As we heard from the Financial Secretary, the clause transposes into UK law an EU directive that provides for simplified VAT treatment of call-off stock.

To begin, it is tempting to make the same point, and I know that repetition is not a novelty. Let me put it this way: it is very welcome to hear from the Treasury that divergence from EU rules and regulations is not considered by the Government to be an end in and of itself. I was curious last night, as I walked past the Annunciator in the Tea Room, to see the right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) making a lengthy speech on a fairly straightforward statutory instrument on electricity. I reviewed his speech this morning in Hansard, because it piqued my curiosity, and I received in passing from my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) a precis of the thrust of the right hon. Gentleman’s argument. It seems that a number of Conservative Members consider divergence from EU rules and regulations to be an aim in and of itself. Regardless of the merits of the case and the merits of continued co-operation, it is clear that, for a section of the House, there is a virtue in divergence.

I am glad that the Treasury does not share that view, although of course the Treasury looks at the numbers. We may not have had an impassioned exposition from the Financial Secretary of the arguments in favour of this particular alignment with EU rules and regulations, but what we did hear was a very clear argument from Her Majesty’s Treasury that, even having left the European Union, there are still benefits to be found for UK businesses from continued alignment, co-operation, simplification, axing bureaucracy and making things simpler.

I hope that that common-sense approach to our future relationship with the European Union prevails. As much as those of us who campaigned in a different direction in the referendum accept the result and the outcome, and accept that this is a settled political question, it is in all our interests and in our national interest that we maintain a future relationship with the European Union that is based on co-operation, where that is in the interest of our own country.

I turn to the specifics of clause 78. The Financial Secretary’s speech seemed to me to address some of the concerns expressed by businesses and chartered tax advisers, but I will raise them for the sake of clarity. Writing in Taxation, Angela Lang-Horgan, a German and British chartered tax adviser and lawyer, said:

“If businesses have continued to operate under the old simplification rule after 31 December 2019, VAT returns must be corrected once the new legislation is in place. This will add additional confusion to the situation. So far, HMRC has not indicated whether it would apply a soft-landing period. There is no transition period either because under EU law the UK was obliged to introduce the changes from the beginning of this year.”

Could I get some clarity from the Financial Secretary on those points? Will HMRC provide a soft landing period for the implementation of the new rules, or is a soft landing period not even necessary? If I understood him correctly—I may have misunderstood, in which case he will clarify—it seems that there is a degree of flexibility and choice on the part of businesses over whether to adopt this approach. Some clarity in direct response to the concern expressed by Angela Lang-Horgan would be welcome.

What efforts have the UK Government made to communicate with affected businesses in anticipation of the rules, which are effectively already in place? It is worth saying, although it is a mild digression from clause 78, that concern has been expressed—particularly by colleagues in the shadow Business team—that the Government are not communicating with businesses in a timely way with respect to changes in Government policy and their impact on businesses. I think that for some time there has been a cultural problem in government of not giving businesses long enough to anticipate and adjust to new rules; I wonder whether in this case that communication has been a bit more proactive.

The explanatory notes state that

“businesses could structure transactions to remain outside the scope of the new rules if businesses found them onerous.”

What proportion of businesses are expected to exercise that discretionary power?

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

I am grateful to hon. Members for their comments. The hon. Member for Glasgow Central regards it as an irony that the Government are bringing forward this rule. I would not describe it as an irony; it is a simplification for those companies that wish to use it, and it is optional. Some companies will prefer the current arrangements as more settled and simpler, while others may not—I do not think that there is anything more to it than that. So far, 200 companies have already taken it up; of course, we cannot say in advance how many may have chosen to do so by the end of the transition period, but it is a relatively small number of companies, as I have indicated.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

Can the Financial Secretary tell us how many companies are using the previous rules?

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

I certainly do not know the number of companies operating under the previous rules, but I would be happy to drop the hon. Lady a letter with any number that HMRC may have that can be publicly disclosed. The point is that there is a relatively small number of companies; they have seen this coming and it is an optional advantage for them. In reply to the point raised by the hon. Member for Ilford North, it applies only during the transition period, which will end at the end of this year.

We will be leaving the transition period on 1 January, which is not only stated by Government but is commonly understood. That goes to the question of divergence, which was raised by the hon. Member for Ilford North. We are bound by EU law while we are in the transition period. The Government certainly do not have any interest in divergence for the sake of divergence; the Government have an interest in the ability to set our own law, including our own tax law, as we as a sovereign nation see fit. That might or might not involve divergence, but this measure will not apply after the transition period.

The hon. Member for Ilford North also raises an important question about whether there is enough time for business to accommodate rules. I cannot comment on behalf of other Departments, but it certainly is a concern that has been raised in relation to the creation of tax law. Wherever possible, the Government try to abide by rules that we introduced after 2010 in order to have a more effective tax process. As he knows, it involves several stages and periods of consultation. We are coming up to an L day for legislation to be considered for the 2020 Budget, for the autumn Budget—if there is one—and for a Finance Bill next year. There is an orderly process, but I take his point about the importance of ensuring that it is as orderly and well structured as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 78 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.