April 16, 2012
Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster, Conservative) I want to make a brief contribution to this important debate. The phrase that comes to mind is “something will turn up”. It is one of the classic stratagems of last resort in politics and perhaps life in general. I suspect that the Treasury’s handling of the UK’s economy owes rather more than it might be willing to admit to the Mr Micawber principle. After all, time often alleviates and sometimes even eliminates what seem like intractably difficult problems. In stark contrast to the first Thatcher Government, who front-loaded much of the economic pain, the modern-day Treasury, while espousing a tough austerity message, has adopted a more pragmatic, steady-as-she-goes path.
Despite the protestations of Rachel Reeves, we must get one thing straight: there is zero veracity in Labour’s contention that the Government are cutting too far, too fast. In the past 12 months, the UK Government’s current spending has totalled some £613.5 billion—the highest figure in history. The Government are still borrowing, even this year, £1 in every £5 that they spend. However, more than half the deficit reduction was predicated on annual compound growth through the Parliament of 2.7% to 2.9%, and it is clear that, for the first half of the Parliament, we shall struggle to achieve growth of even one third of that figure.
Rather than respond to that deteriorating situation by imposing more savings, we have taken the path of ever more debt, courtesy of the Bank of England’s quantitative easing programme. In my view, the real purpose and impact of the UK’s central bank intervention has not been to ease the path of investment borrowing for small business, which is perhaps what it should be. Instead, it has mopped up the substantial proportion of gilts that are being issued. That is where the Mr Micawber principle particularly comes into play. The Bank of England’s actions will not be sustainable in the longer term without a very real risk of inflation. I suspect that global conditions in the years ahead may make it much more difficult to finance our current levels of deficit. That is one reason why we need to get the deficit down as quickly as we can.
Before the Budget, I firmly believed that our focus should rest on some radical supply-side reform to ensure that we get the growth that we need. That would apply partly to the tax system, but also to employment legislation, with forensic attention paid to the impact of high marginal rates of income tax and the disincentives that have crept into the system as a result of both the poverty trap for the low paid and the removal of reliefs for higher rate payers.
I was pleased that a small part of my desire was realised: some progress has obviously been made on taking people out of tax entirely through the increase in the threshold for the basic rate of income tax and the reduction in the top rate tax from 50% to 45%, which is particularly important for entrepreneurs.
I was also personally delighted that, after three years of campaigning alongside the local animation industry in my constituency, the Chancellor announced the Government’s intention to introduce a tax credit for televised animation and video games. I congratulate him and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport on securing a bright future in the UK for Peppa Pig, Olive the Ostrich and their animated brethren. Finally, we have the level playing field that our creative industries deserve, and the tax credit will help raise the quality of children’s television and retain valuable intellectual property in this country. That is the key reason why I agreed to lead the parliamentary charge on the matter. It is also fantastic news for the vibrant sector in my central London constituency and beyond.
However, rather less progress has been made on arguably the more urgent and important supply-side reform: legislation on employment rights. Once more, the glad, confident morning of June 2010’s Budget has given way to starker reality. It is worth recalling that, at that point, the increasingly discredited Office for Budget Responsibility predicted that unemployment would peak in 2010-11. We now know that it is likely to rise further in the next two years and remain stubbornly high for the foreseeable future. Yet the UK continues to gold-plate continental employment legislation and grant ever more generous paternity and maternity rights. Little wonder that employers are so reluctant to take on more staff.
I disagree with the analysis of the hon. Member for Leeds West about the position in the US. It is instructive to witness how the US has shown signs of turning the economic corner. In simple terms, it is easier to hire, but also to fire staff there. That allows flexibility and supports a rapid readjustment economically.
Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon, Conservative) Does my hon. Friend agree that that does not just apply to the US? Recently, Italy and Germany have exempted their small and medium-sized firms from many of the burdens of employment law.
Mark Field: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, particularly in respect of the German model for the micro-sized businesses that are in the growth phase. There is no doubt in my mind that our recovery phase will commence only when we are able to have that sort of readjustment.
Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran, Labour) We heard those arguments in the 1980s and they have been looked at many times. Does the hon. Gentleman not know that there is no connection whatever between economic growth, and the economic competence of a country, and employment protection?
Mark Field: I am making a comparison over the limited phase of the past two or three years. Why have we seen the recovery in the USA, to which I referred, and recovery and economic stability in Germany? Given the fiscal stimulus, there is not all that much between the countries, but those employment rights measures have the impact of allowing recovery among small and medium-sized enterprises.
Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran, Labour) Is the hon. Gentleman not aware that the USA has pursued different economic policies from the UK? It has not pursued the policies of austerity that the Government and other countries in Europe have pursued. There is no connection between attempts to restrict trade union and employment rights and growth.
Mark Field: The important thing that the hon. Lady needs to recognise is that there is a distinction, as I said in the early part of my speech, between the rhetoric and the reality of austerity. We have not really had much in the way of fiscal tightening in this country. We are still borrowing and living miles beyond our means—this is a lesson, I am afraid, for the entire political class—and we will face a huge problem. We continue to pass that burden on to our children and grandchildren, not in any meaningful way for investment, but for today’s consumption, which is not sustainable.
Edward Balls (Morley and Outwood, Labour) I think I agree with hon. Gentleman on that point. As I understand it, he is saying that he agrees with the point made earlier in the year by—I believe—Standard & Poor’s, which said that austerity by itself does not work and can become self-defeating if it leads to higher unemployment, slower growth, and therefore to higher spending, fewer taxes, and therefore higher deficits. Is that his point?
Mark Field: My point was along the lines of that one. One difficulty occurs if all our trading nations are going through austerity; austerity can be done only by one country in such a group. We need to focus attention on growth. Indeed, the last words of a speech I made in the House almost two years ago, after the June 2010 Budget, were that we have talked about and made the right case for austerity, but we needed attention on growth—I fear that there has been too little.
I agree with the hon. Member for Leeds West in her analysis and on trying to assist small and medium-sized enterprises by allowing them to take on extra employees over the next two tax years without paying further national insurance. Better still, we could extend a national insurance holiday to all employees under the age of 25. That opportunity was missed both in the Budget and in the Bill.
I wish to touch on three specific concerns that I strongly hope will be dealt with in Committee in the weeks ahead. I confess that I am a little uneasy at the prospect of the general anti-avoidance provisions and powers that are heralded in the Bill and to which the Chief Secretary referred. Senior coalition Ministers interchange the terms “avoidance” and “evasion” in a rather casual way, which should be of concern to more than merely the tax advisory community. Individuals and businesses in a free society are, and should be, entitled to organise their affairs in such a way as to minimise their tax liability. I have no problem with that.
Although I sympathise with the Treasury, which is forced virtually continuously to update its rules and regulations, any general powers on avoidance should keep retrospection to an absolute minimum, and should be used only in extreme cases of what is regarded as so-called aggressive anti-avoidance. Moreover, it is surely incumbent on the Treasury, if it moves in that direction, to ensure a comprehensive pre-clearance regime to allow companies and their advisers to road-test their proposed taxation schemes with senior HMRC officials.
I appreciate that banks have few friends—I represent the City of London and am perhaps one of the few left—but the treatment meted out by the Treasury to Barclays bank in February set a very unfortunate precedent, not least because in recent weeks the Treasury has sought to lecture the Indian Government on the undesirability of retrospective tax. Barclays bank had sought and obtained clearance for its £500 million tax minimisation scheme. It was overturned in a blaze of publicity. If we are to raise the substantial levels of taxation that UK Governments of all stripes need, given the electorate’s addiction to public spending, we should be wary of anti-business rhetoric, which will give further encouragement to globally mobile institutions wishing to leave these shores. Being open for business depends on certainty in commercial practice, not simply verbal assurances.
Julian Smith: Will my hon. Friend update the House on what contribution the financial sector makes to the tax take of UK plc?
Mark Field: I am not sure I can, to be honest, but suffice it to say it is a significant amount. I can appreciate, though, that in these difficult times it is hard to make the case for the huge bonuses in the banking sector, other than to say that it is a globally competitive industry.
Financial services will be a big industry going forward. Growth in Asia is adding 20 million or 25 million people a year to the ranks of the global middle class in India, China and South Korea. These will be the customers and consumers, not least because of the cultural reasons for saving, of the financial services industry in the future. That is one reason, in the midst of trying to rebalance our economy, as the Chief Secretary mentioned, we should not lose sight of our global competitive advantage. In the financial services industry, in particular, our global advantage is looked upon jealously in France, Germany and other European countries. They often feel that some of the anti-banking rhetoric coming through will be entirely self-defeating.
Anne McGuire (Stirling, Labour) Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mark Field: If the right hon. Lady will forgive me, I would like to make some progress because others want to get in.
The provisions in clause 8 on the high-income child benefit change to income tax will doubtless be the subject of extensive controversy. In spite of the misgivings I have expressed since the scheme was proposed in October 2010—in particular, that it seems to act as a penalty on aspiration and families in which one parent stays at home to rear children—I accept the overriding need to reduce the vast fiscal deficit. However, the tapering of the change to income tax for those earning between £50,000 and £60,000 a year will result in marginal tax rates of 65% for families with three or more children. Conservatives such as me believe in promoting incentives, but it is difficult to reconcile the proposition that those earning more than £150,000 are deemed to require a highest marginal rate of 45%—a proposition that, I hasten to add, I fully support—with the proposal that earners with several children at the level affected by clause 8 must apparently settle for paying marginal rates of up to 20 percentage points higher. I fear that the controversy in middle Britain about these child benefit changes will continue to resonate strongly in the months ahead.
Christopher Chope (Christchurch, Conservative): I think that my hon. Friend and I share similar views on this. Does he accept that if, for example, we were to take all people earning more than £60,000, regardless of whether they have children, and charge them £1,000 a year, the yield would be £2 billion in 2013-14—far more than the yield from this complicated tax targeted at those with children rather than those without them?
Mark Field: I worry that too much of this tinkering will be counter-productive in any event and that the tapering of the child benefit system will be hugely expensive. Many people do not know whether they will earn between £50,000 and £60,000. They might work on a consultancy basis or spend a few months a year unemployed or travelling. Trying to unravel all that will be incredibly difficult.
I wish to make a few provisional passing comments on clauses 211 to 213 and 224 relating to the Chancellor’s decision to impose a 15% stamp duty land tax on acquisitions of £2 million and residential properties by
non-natural persons—in other words, companies. Although I support the essence of the proposal, it might have the unintended consequence of stalling development, particularly in central London. I appreciate that high-end property developers might not necessarily be seen as deserving of particular Government acknowledgement, but there is no doubt that the property development industry in and around central London generates significant tax revenues and creates jobs. Not only are the profits taxable here but significant amounts of irrecoverable VAT are often incurred on redevelopment projects. Developers will generate SDLT revenue by buying and reselling redeveloped properties.
In the Budget press release, it was noted that the 15% SDLT charge would not apply to developers because they tended to use companies for limited liability rather than tax avoidance reasons, but when the draft legislation was published, the relief for developers was limited to bona fide developers who had been carrying on a residential property development business for at least two years. The two-year requirement may seem eminently sensible as a means of ensuring that short-life development companies are not established by individuals who ultimately wish simply to use the property in question. Nevertheless, I fear that the qualifying period will discriminate against new property development businesses, which cannot show the requisite track record. Indeed, all new entrants into the market are likely to be priced out because their acquisition costs have suddenly become 8% higher than those of their competitors. We therefore risk creating an uneven market—indeed, a market against newcomers.
The 15% charge is also likely to be an issue for experienced developers. The scarcity of bank finance for development properties at the moment means that much of the finance for high-end residential property development is coming from equity investors, who are bridging the significant funding gap that now exists. The requirements of equity investors will often mean that stand-alone special purpose vehicles are established for individual projects, so once again, the statutory test will not be met. If HMRC wants to consider an alternative policing arrangement and seeks to avoid creating a dual market, it might consider imposing a second charge—either another 7% or the balance of the 15%—if the property is used before being sold on by a developer with SDLT. Alternatively, there could be a time-based charge, so that if the property has not been sold after, say, three years, the second charge comes into play.
It is perhaps understandable that this afternoon I have dwelt on some of my concerns about the Bill. Nevertheless, I appreciate the acutely troubled state of the public finances. The Chief Secretary was absolutely right when he said that it was important that we should not pass on the costs of this generation’s excessive consumption to our children and grandchildren. I therefore reiterate my support for the deficit reduction plan that the coalition set out almost two years ago. I trust that the Bill will progress swiftly and smoothly to the statute book.