Finance (No. 2) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:30 am on 18th May 2023.
Clause 314 makes changes to the Value Added Tax Act 1994. Those changes will enable further secondary legislation designed to ensure that businesses only account for VAT on the price actually paid for bottles or drinks containers covered by deposit return schemes. Such schemes are being introduced across the UK to encourage the recycling of containers, and under existing law VAT is due on the full price paid for a drink, including any deposit.
Existing rules do not permit VAT adjustments for deposit scheme refunds. That means that under the current law VAT would be collected on drink deposits, even though they have been refunded. We do not want that to happen, because we want to support the environmental aspirations of such measures. The changes made by clause 314 will address that, by removing the need to account for VAT on the deposit amount when it is charged. The new rules will require VAT to be accounted for only on unreturned deposits.
To avoid complexity for both consumers and businesses, only the business that makes the first sale of the drink with a deposit will be required to account for VAT on unreturned deposits. What that means in practice is that producers and importers will be the ones liable to account for it on their VAT returns. We have tried to protect both consumers and small shops—corner shops, newsagents and the like—from having to deal with any VAT complexity from the measure. When drinks containers are returned, they will be scanned, and the consumers will receive a refund of the deposit. It will not touch them; they will get the money back that they put forward. Information on numbers of returned products will be collected and passed to the business that made the first sale of the product on which a deposit was charged.
The clause provides the commissioners of His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs with a power to designate which deposit schemes are covered by the clause, to ensure that the special VAT accounting rules apply only to official Government deposit schemes, including those under discussion at the moment in Scotland. Consumers will not be affected by the VAT accounting, as they will pay a fixed deposit. If they return a container, they will receive the same amount back. I urge that the clause stand part of the Bill.
As we have heard, the clause introduces rules for VAT accounting for deposit return schemes. As the Minister set out, it means that when making sales within the scope of the relevant deposit scheme, no VAT will be charged in relation to the deposit amount. However, VAT on unreturned deposit amounts will be paid by the first seller of a deposit scheme product.
We recognise that, under existing legislation, deposit return schemes may be introduced across the UK, and we recognise that the clause helps to facilitate the operation of such schemes by introducing VAT accounting rules. The clause ensures that no VAT will be charged at any point in the supply chain in relation to the deposit element of the price for a deposit scheme product. There will only be a requirement to account for VAT where suppliers make the first sale of standard-rated deposit scheme products that include a deposit amount.
More widely, we have been disappointed by the delays in the introduction of a deposit return scheme. It was only after multiple consultations that the Government finally announced in January 2023 that they would introduce a deposit return scheme for plastic and cans, but not for glass, in England, Wales and Northern Ireland from 2025. We will not oppose the clause. Indeed, we want to see a deposit return scheme introduced as soon as possible, so I would be grateful if the Minister could use this opportunity to confirm whether the Government are still committed to introducing one in England, Wales and Northern Ireland by 2025.
Obviously, the VAT rules account for some of the most complex parts of the duties and excise that the Minister has to wrestle with on a day-to-day basis. When one talks to businesses of all sizes, often one of the biggest complaints is about the complexity of the VAT rules. Given how much revenue VAT brings in and how all-encompassing it is, perhaps that is not surprising, but I wonder whether the Minister is happy with increased complexity that the changes bring. Perhaps she could give us a flavour of her thoughts and considerations in dealing with the issue of deposit schemes and the complexity of the VAT rules.
Given that VAT will be levied only on the first seller, the Minister has clearly tried to make the rules as simple as possible. But how much complexity does she think the clause will introduce, given that it will be applicable to plastic and cans—presumably aluminium—both of which are easily recyclable, but not to glass? I assume that she is not introducing glass straight away because of the sheer number of glass bottles and the size of the task. Again, perhaps she could give us a flavour of the thinking behind excluding glass, and tell us whether the intention is to include it at a later stage. How complex does she think doing that might be?
I am old enough, as I am sure—I am going to put this politely—you are, Mr Stringer, to remember when we had deposit return schemes for glass, long before anyone thought about digitally scanning anything or any of the computer-based structures that I assume will facilitate the VAT inspectors’ task. Perhaps the Minister could give us some indication of that. Again, how much revenue does she think will have to be forgone?
What assumptions have His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the tax inspectors made about the actual cost of schemes such as this in revenue forgone? Clearly, the idea—to incentivise good behaviour that will assist in increasing recycling—is one we would all support. We all want that to work, but if it is not done properly, it could be an enormous fiddling thing that does not really have much effect at all. All of us would applaud the decision not to impact the customer and, clearly, we want to see the containers for recycling brought back.
Can the Minister say a little about whether she has considered how the scheme might interact with the packaging regulations? Again, they are a moveable feast, given that we have left the EU and they have had to be changed as well, but there is clearly a direct connection between the two. We must make certain that the way the packaging regulations work increases, if possible, the incentive for the recycling to work.
There is also the landfill tax, which might have an impact on behaviour. I am sure that the Minister has had a towel on her head thinking all that through to try to make certain that it works as intended. It is currently due to come into effect in 2025. Given the complexity, is she confident that that will happen, given that there have already been delays and the scheme itself is now smaller than most people want it to be, because it excludes glass?
Given the complexity of VAT—when it must be done, when the returns must be made and how difficult that can be for businesses—does the Minister think that moving on without a set timescale, and the uncertainty created by that, give the best background for a successful introduction? The delivery of the scheme in Scotland seems to have run into trouble. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife has insights that he can share with us—it is almost as late as a TransPennine Express train.
I am interested in what the Minister has to say about some of my questions. The scheme might seem to be a fiddling little thing, but it fiddles with a very complex tax and interacts with many other things. A bit more insight into the Minister’s thinking and her confidence about whether the scheme can be delivered on time would be really welcome.
I will take the towel off my head before I reply. There have been difficulties in Scotland with the implementation of the deposit return scheme. In general, I am reading that this is a simplification, and it maybe brings a bit of clarity to what is possible in a DMS scheme. The important point is that, as pointed out by the previous speakers, it would be fantastic if we could operate across the whole UK. It is not often I say that, but there are opportunities with such a big environmental project that we could all share in.
Although this is not for debate as part of the Finance Bill, I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to listen to some of the comments made and see whether we can work with other Departments—and Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland—to see what combinations can be brought to bear. I notice that the Nordic Council, for example, had a discussion session not so long ago where it talked about operating almost a Scandi food waste policy, which would cover all the various countries in the Nordic Council. I do not see why we cannot be working in a positive way like that across the whole UK, albeit that we in the SNP have other ambitions to take our country in a slightly different direction.
Clearly, this is a complex piece of work that has taken a great deal of time, but I get the sense that the Government may be kicking the proverbial recyclable can down the road. Taking it piecemeal without a comprehensive view across the whole UK does not seem to be the best approach. Could the Minister speak to that?
On the last point, I gently redirect the hon. Member’s observation about a piecemeal approach. That is probably more for the Scottish Government to answer because we would very much like to be acting in tandem. By the way, I am responsible for only the VAT elements, so questions about the wider design of the scheme, including whether glass is included, must be directed to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
I have been holding that wet towel over my head at night thinking about this. For example, what happens if somebody buys their bottle of drink just north of the border, pops over to visit Newcastle for the day and wants to get rid of that bottle? There are practical considerations. With some of this—and the Scottish Government are in this position as well—we will have to see how consumers behave. I hope that the scheme will be an enormous success and that the producers will pay the VAT on returned bottles, but it will take us a bit of time to get used to it.
Would it not be a good idea to have a consistent approach that the UK Government could get behind? We have had to push on with our DRS to actually achieve some of our net zero targets and a better environment for our citizens, so the Government could back us up on that and bring in their own scheme.
Again, I am trying to be terribly tactful about how I put this. There has been so much discussion between officials behind the scenes. Scotland has wanted to run ahead with its scheme. Frankly, there were some significant intellectual debates about how VAT is dealt with in this scenario. If the hon. Member—I am not pressing him because I know this is not his portfolio—or others in the Scottish Government want a little breathing space to check that we are all going in the right direction, that is of course a matter for them.
We are committed to implementing the scheme in 2025, but it will need a lot of publicising as to the impacts for consumers. We will all want to encourage our constituents to either use their own drinking vessels wherever possible or to return their bottles and cans when they can, but we have tried to simplify the VAT so that the larger producers will be the target of that first stage of VAT accounting.
On the complications, as I say, we have tried to simplify the scheme. One can imagine the scenario where if we were accounting for VAT at every single stage of the transaction process, that would be a nightmare for the tiny retail shops that we all care so much about. That is a good example of two of the three objectives that I set His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Treasury to ensure taxes are fair and simple so that there is a little tension between them, but we have tried to ensure it is as simple as possible for consumers and smaller businesses.
Just to make it clear, we are not making any money from this scheme. Indeed, we hope that tiny amounts of VAT will be paid to us, because that would mean that the overwhelming majority of people were returning their bottles. I hope we make as little money out of this as possible, which is perhaps unusual for me to say.
We will deal with the plastic packaging tax later in the Bill. The latest figure is just over £200 per tonne. As with the landfill tax, it will sit alongside this scheme and the whole point is to, first, cut down on plastic and secondly, make sure that less of it goes to landfill. I very much hope that people will see this as a holy trinity of environmental measures to try and achieve the ends that we are all so keen to achieve. Unless there are any further takers, I will sit down.