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Mr. Newmark: I begin by drawing attention to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests. Although I have never invested in a venture capital trust, I have, over the past 15 years, been both a venture capitalist and an angel investor. I hope that I can bring some of my practical experience to bear on this debate, especially in the context of amendments Nos. 6, 7 and 8. I will not address amendments Nos. 9 and 13, because my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) thoroughly covered those issues.
Yesterday, we established that one of the themes of this year's Finance Bill is the Government's ongoing attempt to fix things that are not broken and to fudge those that are. The Bill's treatment of venture capital trusts is no exception to that trend. VCTs have clearly demonstrated that they are performing well in the market and seem to vindicate the Government's attempt to address the "equity gap" through targeted market intervention.
We need look only as far as the figures given on the website of Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs for the total investment in VCTs. After a peak in 200001 of £450 million, investment plummeted to only £70 million in each of the years 200203 and 200304. That was the situation facing VCTs at the time that the Finance Act 2004 implemented the new income tax relief scheme. In the following year, investment reached £520 million and has surpassed £700 million in the last financial year.
The Government should be congratulated on that; it is beyond dispute. However, I do dispute that the reduction in the gross asset value of companies eligible for VCT investment is the appropriate way to refocus tax incentives on the equity gap.
Not only are the Government moving in the wrong direction on this issue, but they are moving in two directions at once. Part 1 of schedule 14 will alter the level of risk that VCT investors are exposed to by targeting VCT investment in smaller companies. That is the Government's stated aim. However, part 2 of schedule 14 cuts the incentives that investors will receive. The two parts must be considered together because if any of part 1 remains in the Bill, it will have a knock-on effect on the need for the incentives offered in part 2 of the schedule.
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Three years later, the Treasury is determined to pursue contradictory objectives by increasing risks and cutting incentives at the same time. The position is simply not sustainable. Instead of fundamentally altering the balance between risk and return, the Government should be ensuring greater investor protection. Bearing in mind that there are already a healthy number of business angels available to provide seed capital for high-risk start-ups, I question whether it is appropriate to encourage individual investors into higher beta investments in companies with a gross asset value under the proposed new limit.
This concern is growing in currency. In November, the chief executive of the Financial Services Authority told the Treasury Committee that, despite having issued warnings to investors and VCT providers, the FSA
Nevertheless, I recognise that there has been some justified concern that VCTs are not operating in the way that was intended when they were set up 10 years ago. Foremost among those concerns is the one about the practice of parallel investment, in which two or more VCTs under the same management act together to invest beyond the £1 million investment limit imposed
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on each separate VCT. As Lucius Cary, the founder of Oxford Technology VCTs, has said, although that behaviour
Clearly, VCTs clubbing together to take part in larger management buy-outs is a problem, but it is a problem that was foreseen. The Treasury's report into the equity gap, which dated from before the changes included in the Finance Act 2004, examined the issue of regulating concert parties in order to assist early-stage investment. The report suggested that
If the Government remain concerned by parallel investment, Ministers should confront the issue head-on and not seek to address it by the roundabout route of restricting the gross asset value of eligible companies.
I want to return to my substantive objections to the changes proposed in part 1 of schedule 14 and to my reasons for arguing that they should not stand part of the Bill. Based on my experience as a practitioner, I believe that restricting the gross asset value of eligible companies to £7 million before investment and £8 million immediately afterwards does not focus on the real equity gap. If anything, the limits have been moved in the wrong direction and the probing amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham are modest in seeking to preserve them at the current level.
There are an abundance of business angels who are capable of providing seed capitalthat is generally provided for companies with gross asset values of £1 million to £3 millionto kick-start small businesses. The real difficulty that businesses continue to face is in accessing second-round financing. That is the issue. Many individuals who came to me when I was in the business before I came into the House would complain that there was a lack of access to capital once companies got above roughly £5 million. We should address that gap between £5 million and £25 million.
Further restriction of the gross asset value of eligible companies would be retrograde. I appreciate that this is not part of the amendment, but we should be looking to raise the limit to £25 million instead of slashing it. Recently, in another place, Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market said of the existing gross asset value limit:
"There is clear evidence that it is companies above that level which need the venture capital investment. The limit has not . . . been indexed, and it needs to be looked at again."[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 March 2006; Vol. 679, c. 141011.]
The Government have indeed looked at the matter again, and drawn the wrong conclusions again. That is a judgment based on my experience in the industry. The change in gross asset value in schedule 14 is too sudden and significant to be undertaken without greater industry consultation and I urge the Government to reconsider their decision.
Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD):
The Liberal Democrats and the House as a whole have to recognise that the private equity market in the City has been one of the great successes in recent years. It now provides more than 50 per cent. of all private equity in Europe; perhaps it is second only to the US in the
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provision of that capital. The Government have played a part in that by providing the legislative and taxation framework and a business-friendly environment in which that could happen.
It therefore seems rather strange that we should be restraining that very success with the proposals in the schedule. I suspect that tax breaks have been the driving force. The hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) successfully pointed out that, only a few years ago when things were going into a decline, the change was made and more money was put in. Perhaps it is the very successnow building up to more than £700 million or £800 millionthat is causing the Treasury to become rather frightened at the prospect of the amount of tax relief that it is going to allow.
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