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Mr. Prisk: I do not want to upset the hon. Gentleman's flow because he is setting out a powerful case. However, does he share my concern that the Government have said that their scheme will generate £160 million and that the industry will generate £70 million, but the Government are willing to give £110 million in tax back by not increasing excise duty? Is not that peculiar mathematics?
Angus Robertson: To me it is voodoo economics from start to finish. I do not see how the figures add up. I still find it extraordinarily difficult to work out why we are here in the first place. After all, only three years ago, the United Kingdom Government wrote to the Norwegian Government in detail explaining why strip stamps were not a good idea. Everyone agrees that fraud is a bad thing but if the application of strip stamps was discouraged in Norway by a UK Government three years ago, why are strip stamps suddenly so acceptable?
The professional work of Gavin Watson, one of Scotland's leading printing companies, has been raised a couple of times, but neither I nor the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden have alluded to the logic of what that firm has said. Is not it extraordinary that a company that could be producing strip stamps and making money after their introduction is warning us all that it is not the best way forward? Even companies with a potential commercial interest in producing the strip stamps think that they are a daft idea.
For many people in the industry, including trade unionists, the RIA is long on promises. It says that that the Government will mitigate industry costs if they go ahead with the scheme, yet at this stage there is no detail of the offset package that the Government are set to bring forward. Indeed, the offset issue merits just one and a half pages of an 83-page document. The £3 million contribution towards capital costs in such a significant industry is a drop in the ocean compared to the £23 million estimated capital cost in the first year.
As someone said earlier, the pot will be spread thinly across the wider industry. Given that it is meant to be targeted at smaller firms, it may apply only to a few companies. As there is no definition of a smaller firmit is not clear what that means in the Treasury's estimationeven small players in the industry may not qualify, depending on claims from other sectors. The Government need to consider how to assist firms in meeting the security costs.
Without being specific about the distilleries involved, those who know Speyside will know that, when one drives from Aberlour and looks to one's left, one sees some of the largest warehousing anywhere in the European Union. For those hon. Members who are keen on arithmetic and understand how much spirit is
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being produced, it does not take long to work out that one is talking about billions of pounds worth of product. At the start, I said that the export market was worth £2.37 billion. In one distillery alone in my constituency, there is vastly in excess of that figure maturing, producing a nice angel share, keeping people locally employed.
The security ramifications of the introduction of strip stamps are not a technicality. It is incredibly important, particularly in a region with more than 44 working distilleries and a significant number of bonded warehouses, too. It is important not just for the whisky-producing areas but for areas of the country, predominantly in the central belt, where the whisky is bottled.
If the Government are to go ahead with the scheme, and I genuinely hope that they do not, it remains crucial that they honour their promise to implement the scheme without requiring any up-front payment for stamps. Concerns remain that Customs and Excise has not thought through how that will be achieved and that subsequently it will be put into the "too difficult" category, with the industry left to face crippling cash-flow problems. The Government have said that they will meet printing distribution costs. Many people are concerned, however, that the Bill leaves open the threat that the industry may have to bear the cost at some time in the future. From reports that emerged from meetings with Customs and Excise, it appears that there is little idea about how the system will operate, or the scope, design and nature of the stamps. That is worrying given that the clock is ticking and distilleries will need to start planning for April 2006.
Earlier, I said that the Economic Secretary had been very generous with his time. He was very generous when a leading small to medium company from my constituency, Gordon and MacPhail, came to explain the nature of its business, which sees it stocking more than 800 products. Those products in large part are special bottlings that do not necessarily go on sale at the standard 40 per cent. by volume domestically, or 43 per cent. by volume for export. They bottle at cask strength and everything in between. That means that the strip stamps that are set to go on the bottle have to be specially made for that strength of whisky. How quickly will that firm and similar firms get those strip stamps? What happens if they get special orders for products that they are expected to dispatch within a day or two? How long will it take Customs and Excise to provide those special labels that will go on bottles? We have not heard an answer to that yet.
We are at a stage in the issue where we are fully informed. We have received information from the National Audit Office, Customs and Excise and the Scottish Affairs Committee in its excellent detailed report. Many hon. Members have travelled around Scotland, Ireland and the States learning about the pros and cons of strip stamps. People who know about the industry and about the issue know that the time has come to make a decision. Someone on the Government side used the word "exclusivity". There is no exclusivity
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of concern about strip stamps but the time is coming to make a decision. The Scottish Affairs Committee reported that it was
"convinced that there has to be a better alternative"
to strip stamps. The Chair of the Committee said earlier in the debate that there is a danger that this solution could be worse than the problem. The chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association, Gavin Hewitt, said yesterday:
"MPs will have a further chance to debate tax stamps"
"We urge members in all parties to reject tax stamps".
We are being asked to vote against tax stamps. Nearly one month ago, Scotland's Parliament voted overwhelmingly, by 111 votes to four, on the issue of strip stamps. Labour, Liberal Democrat, Conservative, Scottish National party and othersthe others were the Trots, who are not in favour of businessvoted for a motion that noted
"with disappointment the announcement by Her Majesty's Government in the 2004 Budget of the introduction of tax stamps on whisky and other spirits; recognises that the compliance associated with the measure will introduce a heavy burden on the Scotch whisky industry; and therefore calls on HM Treasury to engage in further discussion with the industry on the impact of these measures with a view to reaching a satisfactory outcome which deals with tax fraud and would lead to the decision being reversed."
We have the opportunity to reverse that today. I note that at about the same time the First Minister, Jack McConnell, rightly, told the Scottish Parliament that he was "disappointed" about the introduction of strip stamps. While the leader of the Scottish Labour party said he was disappointed about that, the chairman of the all-party group on Scotch whisky made a powerful speech in replying to the Budget, in which he said that he was dismayed that the Government had made a decision to go forward with strip stamps.
I think that now is the timenow is the hourto ditch strip stamps. The case for them is flawed and discredited. It has been discredited and opposed by cross-party Westminster Committees and all-party groups. It has been voted against overwhelmingly in the Scottish Parliament, by 111 votes to four. First Minister McConnell says that he is disappointed. The Chairman of the Treasury Committee, who is also the chairman of the all-party Scotch whisky group, has said that he is dismayed.
If democracy is to mean anything, this daft measure has to be withdrawn or voted down. The Scotch Whisky Association and workers in the industry have called for that, and the SWA reiterated that call yesterday. That is what we as Members of Parliament need to do today. MPs either vote for this industry and its important jobs, or they do not because we vote to introduce strip stamps. There is no room for ambiguity. We must all take our responsibilities seriously and stand up for the whisky industry and the workers of this key national employer. Voters would find it inexplicable if MPs broke the general and political consensus that this is a bad deal, and it would be inexplicable to speak against it and then vote for it. Strip stamps are bad for competitiveness and bad for jobs, and they will lead to a new domestic criminal growth industry: the fraudulent counterfeiting of tax stamps. All of us, in all parties in the House, should vote against them.
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