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Non-Domestic Rates (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 10th October 2019.

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Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

I am sympathetic to that view, but I think that there is interest in the business community in exploring how achievable it would be to bring forward the date of the next revaluation.

The second area of concern is the tax treatment of independent schools. My colleague Liz Smith will say more about that later in the debate, but I will highlight three concerns that I have about the measure. First, there seems to be a degree of inconsistency in proposing the removal of a charitable relief from independent schools, which are constituted as charities and do not make profits—indeed many of them are in a precarious financial position—and, on the other hand, granting a new relief to private nurseries, which do make profits. There is a clear inconsistency, in that charities that are running a nursery as part of an independent school will have their relief removed, while other profit-making charities will have a new relief granted to them.

Secondly, the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator has made very clear its strong opposition to what is being proposed. It stated in evidence to the committee that it has

“a long held general concern that treating any group of charities in a differentiated way for tax or other purposes, as proposed by the Barclay Review and now the Bill, introduces the potential for confusion in the minds of the public as to what it means to be a charity.”

If the Scottish Government wants to review the charitable status and tax treatment of independent schools, in my view, it should be doing so as part of a wider review of charity law, and not in the context of the bill. I know that my view is shared by OSCR.

Finally on this point, I simply cannot believe that the financial memorandum that is attached to the bill makes the assumption that there will be no additional cost to the public sector from introducing this tax grab of £7 million a year from independent schools. That money will be found only by increasing fees to parents, by cutting bursaries, or by a combination of both, which is bound to impact on the number of parents who choose to send their children to independent schools, which will put an additional burden on local authorities. That will particularly be the case in areas such as Edinburgh and Perth and Kinross, which I represent, where relatively high proportions of the pupil population are currently in the independent sector.

The last area that I will talk about is the large business supplement. The Barclay review recommended that the LBS, which is currently set at a rate that is nearly double that set south of the border, should be made competitive with the rest of the United Kingdom, to ensure that Scotland is the best place to do business. Barclay recommended that the LBS be reduced in 2020-21, or sooner if affordable.

It is disappointing that the measure is not addressed in the bill. We consistently hear from the business community that it is a major disincentive for businesses to invest in Scotland. In a parliamentary written answer that I received last week, it was revealed that there are more than 5,000 retail businesses in Scotland paying the LBS and cumulatively contributing nearly £14 million annually. It is a tax that is payable on business in Scotland and is not payable elsewhere in the UK. As David Lonsdale of the Scottish Retail Consortium stated in

The Herald two days ago, it is a levy that

“sticks out like a sore thumb.”

I hope that the issue can be addressed either in the bill or separately.

We have therefore identified those three issues as problems with the bill. More generally, business rates continue to be a major source of complaint, and it remains our view that there should be a broader look at the business rates regime and business taxation. I was encouraged by the remarks of the committee convener that perhaps we need to consider whether a tax that is based purely on property values is still appropriate when so much business is conducted in cyberspace.

We welcome the bill overall. We have some reservations about it, but we will support it at stage 1 to allow it to continue through the parliamentary process, during which we will look to see how it might be improved.