|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
That this House supports the Governments stance against international corruption; welcomes the action it is taking to tackle it; and recognises that the decision to discontinue the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) investigation into BAE Systems plc and Saudi Arabia was taken by the Director of the SFO alone for reasons of national and international security.
That this House notes with concern the growing gap in wealth and income inequality since 1997; calls for the publication of Office of National Statistics wealth inequality data since 2003; regrets that the complexities of the tax system allow wealthy individuals to utilise tax loopholes; notes with alarm the increasing number of wealthy individuals who are non-domiciled for tax purposes; recognises the increasing burden that this places on middle-income families who are disproportionately affected by, in particular, stamp duty and inheritance tax thresholds, given that these thresholds have not been recently re-assessed to reflect large increases in house prices; and proposes the tax system be amended to ensure that the wealthiest individuals pay their fair share.
I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce a debate on this subject on behalf of my Liberal Democrat colleagues. I am also grateful to House of Commons staff who, after much deliberation, admitted the word fair, which I believe was quite controversial.
There are usually two broad approaches to debates on taxation. One is the argument about the level of taxation in the economy. Indeed, arguments have raged backwards and forwards between the parties as to whether as a country we are over-taxed or under-taxed. This debate is not about that subject. As I understand it, although the Conservatives approach the problem from the opposite direction, they broadly accept the current share of taxation in the economy, at least as an initial starting point, and are arguing about whether tax should be applied in a more sensible and equitable way. We believe that within the current level of taxation it would be possible to have a system that is fairer, simpler and greener. I want to focus on the first of thosethe concept of fairness, by which I mean paying greater attention to the distribution of income and wealth.
To introduce some precision to the concept of fairness, it would probably help at the outset to monitor some of the recent trends in income and wealth distribution. It is fairly clear that since the Government came to power in 1997, income distribution as measured by the standard Gini coefficient initially deteriorated. It was rather odd that the Government were talking about fairness and equality after a long period of Conservative Government, yet for a considerable time income inequality widened. Subsequently, it has levelled off and is now roughly back to where it was in 1997. I guess that one of the major contributory factors was tax credits. Although Members on these Benches and on the Opposition Benches generally have been very critical of the tax credit system because of its administrative failings, there is little doubt that many people have benefited from it and it has contributed to the stabilisation, at least, of the income inequality measure.
The distribution of wealth, however, has become significantly worse. If we track the share of marketable
assets held by the top 1 per cent., 5 per cent. or 10 per cent. of the population, we find that their share increased from 1997 to 2003 while the share of the bottom 50 per cent. shrank. Unfortunately, we cannot track what happened since 2003 because the Government no longer publish the data. They say that there are methodological problems with that. It is a tricky thing to measure, so I will be generous and acknowledge that that could be the reason, but it could also be rather embarrassing and so they do not wish to publish such data. None the less, we do not have data beyond that date. Such as we have suggest that the distribution of wealth was deteriorating during the Governments first six years in office.
The context in which we can assess the trends in income and wealth is difficult because of broader global trends. However progressive any Government wish to be, it is difficult to maintain an approach to income and wealth equality of the kind that was possible in more closed economies. We now have virtual freedom of movement of capital, and capital migrates to areas with the highest rates of returnthat is the way the market works. That is true also of many people with high levels of skill and entrepreneurial ability; they pursue the best returns. It is probably also true that, because of the large-scale entry of China and, to some extent, India to the world economy, real wages have come under pressure everywhere. It is difficult for any Government in any circumstances to maintain very close levels of equality in an open economy. I start out by recognising that.
For that reason, it is probably best to look at comparative measures of how other rich countries perform. I recently dug out some data on the distribution of wealth. There is not a great deal of it around and it is difficult to compile. One set produced by the Central Intelligence Agencyperhaps an original sourcewhich was put together by the Economic and Social Research Council, shows that although Britain has a more equal distribution than the United States, it has a substantially less equal distribution of family wealth than almost every other developed country. It is much worse than Scandinavia, France, Germany and most eastern and southern European countries. The same relative conclusion is reached in a parallel study carried out by an organisation called WIDERthe World Institute for Development Economics Researchwhich I believe is linked to the United Nations university.
Although it is understandable that because of the mobility of capital and skilled labour and the pressure of labour competition through trade, equality of income and wealth are under pressure, Britain seems to have become a relatively unequal country. One can reasonably ask that the Government do not pursue policies that make those disparities worse. I would like to concentrate on several of those policies, related specifically to taxation as it applies to wealth. We do not have a wealth tax in this countryit is probably no longer a practical concept, though the Swedes and French have tried itbut we have proxy taxes for wealth. We have taxes on capital gains, and taxes on stamp duty and inheritance, so I want to consider how those systems work and particularly some of the exemptions for non-domiciled investorsone of the main concessional areas of tax policy. There are, of
course, much wider aspects of tax policy relating to income tax, tax credits and council tax, which colleagues and others might wish to refer to, but I will narrow my remarks to the areas that I have defined.
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman explain how it would be fairer to impose a poll tax or rubbish tax on people on low incomes in addition to their local income tax, which he proposes? Why would it be fairer to charge small businesses extra business rates if there happens to be an improvement in their neighbourhood that they could not control and that does not benefit them? Under the hon. Gentlemans supplementary business rate proposals, that would mean a big leap in their business taxes.
Dr. Cable: I am not quite sure where the right hon. Gentleman has got the idea that we are proposing a poll tax on people on low incomes. He has wholly misunderstood that. The only taxation relating to individuals that we propose is the complete elimination of the council tax system and its replacement by local taxation based on ability to pay.
Mr. Redwood: The hon. Gentleman should read section 4.0.12 of his document, Reducing the Burden, which states that Liberal Democrats support giving authorities the powers to introduce rubbish taxes.
Dr. Cable: If the right hon. Gentleman read the document more carefully, he would discover thatif he is talking about the collection system, which has been controversial in the Communities and Local Government Committeewe are in favour of giving local authorities discretion. Surely the right hon. Gentleman, who I know is a highly economically literate man, would accept that where there are pollution and externalities, they have to be properly charged for. That applies to waste disposal as to other things.
The first of the major exemptions given by the Government is in relation to capital gains tax. In 1997, the system inherited from the noble Lord Lawson had the merit of simplicity, as capital gains were taxed at the same rate as income. The system worked reasonably well and was accepted by businesses as providing reasonable incentives. I recallthe right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) is probably the only other Member present who was part of the discussionsthat a radical change in the capital gains tax regime was introduced by the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson).
The key new concept was taper relief, whereby individuals and businesses should be granted relief depending on the length of time that they held on to their assets. That was severely criticised at the time, certainly by the Liberal Democrats, and, I believe, by the Conservatives too. The argument was advanced that the concession would prove to be very expensive, that businesses would find ways of collecting the relief without changing their behaviour, and that trying to use taxation in that way would eventually prove
counter-productive. In retrospect, we know that businesses have taken enormous advantage of the taper relief rules in ways that are quite unconnected with the original intentions to encourage ventures and to encourage individuals to hold their assets for long periods, to reduce what was called the churning of investment.
The issue has surfaced in the context of so-called private equity companies. I shall not use this debate as an opportunity to speak for or against that form of corporate governancethere are arguments for and against itas it is not the right context. Some of those companies, however, have availed themselves of generous tax relief, and have created the situation in which they hold on to assets as a result of carried interest for several yearstwo years if they are classified as a businessand pay as little as 10 per cent. in tax. That gave rise to the popular story about private equity companies paying tax at 10p in the pound, and their cleaners paying tax at 20p in the pound.
Criticism has come from outside the industry, some of which is well informed and some less so, but it is worth quoting one of the leading advocates of that method of corporate governance, Jon Moulton, of Alchemy Partners, who has been doing that kind of business for many years. He said in relation to his own business:
in this country, the exchequer loses out. The chancellor should be thinking again about the tax revenue he loses
One could argue that that problem could be dealt with selectively. There was a memorandum of understanding under which that form of carried interest was allowed tax relief, and that could simply be closed and dealt with on a selective basis. That would probably be unfair to the private equity industry, however, as such companies are only one of several types of company taking advantage of such a generous loophole.
The reason why I sold the shares is terribly simple. The benefit of business asset taper relief when you are still the employee of a company is colossal, the difference of 10 per cent. tax to 40 per cent. Selling them now means I save £20 million in tax. Tell me one person who wouldnt want to save themselves £20 million?
He was not claiming in any sense that he had contributed to entrepreneurial endeavour; he had simply found a way of managing his property portfolio in a way that saved himself enormous amounts of tax as a result of the Governments taper relief concession. We would argue that that tax relief has been grossly, excessively generous, with very little positive economic outcome. It is a strange form of tax, as the total tax yield to the Government£4 billionis considerably less than the Governments own estimate of the value of the relief, which is £6 billion. We would argue for going back to the much simpler system that the Government inherited in 1997.
The second group of tax measures that I want to discuss is those relating to non-domiciled investors.
The concept has been around for roughly two centuriessince income tax was introduced. From its inception, it was understood that it would be fair and an encouragement to the City of London, which was then in its embryonic form, for people to be taxed on their income in Britain but not on the income that they accrue overseas if they have good claims to be non-domiciled and not to have strong, traditional connections with this country. That developed in an ad hoc way, and was formalised first after the first world war, and secondly after the second world war.
It is clear that that system has caused some dissatisfaction, probably expressed most cogently and aggressively by the current Prime Minister when he was the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. In 1994, he undertook to close the loophole under which
those who are non-domiciled are able to live in the UK free of tax.
It is generally accepted as fair that those with a long-term connection
owe a special obligation to support the social structures of the state.
the current rules determining residence and domicile have developed over the past 200 years, are complex and poorly understood, and do not reflect the reality of todays more integrated world.
The spirit of the age was also expressed by Mr. Peter Mandelson, as we can now call him, who described the new Government as intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich, as long as they paid taxes. He was anxious that the Government should close down the loopholes.
Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): My hon. Friend mentions the comment about being relaxed about the wealthy getting even wealthier. Does he recall the then Prime Minister being interviewed on Newsnight, being pressed repeatedly on whether it was a bad thing that the gap between the rich and poor was growing, and serially evading the question? Given that our debate is about fairness in the tax system, is my hon. Friend as relaxed as Mr. Mandelson about that gap, or does he think that there comes a point beyond which gross inequalities are damaging to society?
I am not relaxed about that matter, as it is a subject of legitimate concern. There are two issues: one is whether one is relaxed about inequality; the other, about which Mr. Mandelson was quite right, is that one can be more relaxed, providing that the very wealthy pay their share of tax. In many non-domicile cases, it seems that tax is not being paid that should have been paid, at least if the spirit of the system was being observed. Let me describe one or two different
ways in which the system now operates so that capital gain that accrues in the UK does not carry taxation.
We need only consider the evidence given by tax advisers, who are often quite public and free with their advice. Mr. Andrew Tailby-Faulkes, a tax partner at Ernst and Young, described some of the mechanisms currently employed.
For... residents who remain foreign domiciles it is possible to set up dual contracts for work in the UK and overseas, again with the overseas portion not taxable unless remitted to the UK.
That is a common practice among people who are in the City for several years. Another tax adviser, Lee Hadnum, author of Non Resident and Offshore Tax Planning, describes preferential tax treatment as
a fantastic tax break because it means that your investments can grow (offshore) tax-free for many years and potentially indefinitely.
One of the technical aspects is the opportunity, which is increasingly being sought, for non-domiciles to accrue capital gains in the United Kingdom on which they do not pay tax. One of the reasons is that the tax avoidance principles do not apply to non-domiciles in relation to capital gains tax, and it is therefore relatively easy to shift capital gains tax into overseas trusts.
A third example, although tricky and technical, illustrates the opportunities that are now becoming available. It has generally been assumed that while it is possible for non-domiciles to find a way of not paying income tax and capital gains tax, inheritance tax is payable and is paid. One tax adviser, however, has described the mechanisms that are developing to prevent its being paid.
Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge) (Con): The hon. Gentleman speaks of taxes that it is difficult or impossible for non-domiciles to evade. Will he confirm that the one tax that they cannot avoid paying is the council tax that he proposes to abolish?
Dr. Cable: We are talking about people who are extraordinarily rich. The amount paid in capital gains tax is so trivial that it hardly makes a difference to the sums we are describing. If one is Mr. Mittal and one has just bought a £50 million house, paying £1,500 to the local council hardly constitutes a major contribution to British revenue.
Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): The Conservatives introduced a council tax system under which £150 million a year was used to subsidise second homes for the wealthy when many thousands of people in constituencies like mine did not have a first home. Does my hon. Friend agree that, in contrast to the Conservatives, we need to think of ways of introducing a fair system to ensure that where scarce housing must be rationed, it is given to those who need it rather than to the wealthy who simply take advantage of second homes for investment purposes?
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|