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1 Apr 2009 : Column 1005
6.23 pm

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole) (Lab): I, too, will be brief, given the hour and the amount of time left in the debate. I want to concentrate on one aspect of the issue. I was profoundly depressed not only by today’s debate, but by the amount of time that we have spent going round the same track again and again. The matter was first raised with me last year by Peter Aarinson, who runs Danbrit Shipping in Goole, in my constituency. I rang my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government in his constituency the very same day, which is when this all began.

We are all told things by constituents from time to time, and we know that not everything is as it appears when we are first told it. When I was first told about the situation, my reaction was that either there was more to the matter than I was being told, or the situation was so obviously wrong that something would be done to correct it. It did not enter my naive little head last year that months later, it would all be confirmed, and not enough would be done to resolve the situation.

I want to make a point about double taxation, because however we wrap it up, that is at the nub of the argument. The people concerned have been paying business rates to their port operators, and the letter that I intervened about earlier in the debate showed that clearly. One cannot go back to a company later and say, “You’ve got to pay again, because we’ve given the money back to the people from whom we took it in the first place.”

One or two of us had a meeting this morning with some Treasury officials to discuss the order, which I said is like lobbing a grenade into a whole area of business, running away and waiting to see what happens. Businesses cannot be left in that position. I have met ABP, which is the port operator for my area. It has no intention of giving back any of the money. It says that although it is true that in Goole, my constituency, they have received a lot of money back, the liability of ABP across the country has gone up, so it does not see that it has gained. That may be true in certain ports, such as the one in my constituency, but the money is not going to flow back.

If the Minister and officials think the way to resolve the matter is to say, “It’s a private matter which companies will have to sort out themselves”, that is not good enough. They should be doing something to bring the parties together and thrash it out. To me, it would be much simpler for the Government to say that the liability will start in 2010, in which case everybody would know where they are. Businesses could take that into account in their business plans and then move on to have successful and progressive businesses for the future.

In his remarks to the House my right hon. Friend the Minister made great play of the fact that he is offering assistance, which we appreciate. He went on to say that that is unprecedented, which we appreciate as well. He then said that there is no other way to deal with taxation. Well, if we are going to do something unprecedented, we might as well do the correct bit of unprecedented work. That means taking away the liability for now, accepting that those businesses have paid and setting their liability for future business years.

I shall finish on this point, as others wish to speak. Just before I came in for the debate, I was in a meeting with other Ministers about another issue. We were
1 Apr 2009 : Column 1006
discussing copyright term extension, which is an issue for another day—the subject is complex and the legalities are difficult. At the end of that meeting, a Minister said to me, “You know, Ian, it’s not just about legality. It’s about morality.” That could be applied to the present debate. Those businesses have been let down terribly by the system. It is a great source of despair to me that it is my Government who have done that, but they have, and now they are obliged to put it right.

6.27 pm

John Howell (Henley) (Con): I shall make three brief points. First, I find it almost unbelievable that the attitude of the Government to the entire issue is that something in which they have had no part has been done to them and that they have no control over the Valuation Office Agency. That cuts no ice with companies in ports. As a spokesman for one of them, Peel Ports, told the Liverpool Daily Post:

My second point is on the impact assessment. I heard what the Minister said about why there was no impact assessment, but under pressure from the Opposition, he has, as the information that he gave us in the course of the debate revealed, brought out some of the points that we would expect to see in an impact assessment. The trouble is that bringing them out in this way does not provide the context to enable us to judge them, so I am still left with questions. How many companies does he estimate will go insolvent as a result of the measure? Does he have an estimate of how many are likely to move out of the UK, which is a real possibility? As the Humber Dock Rating Group spokesman said, making a terrible pun:

Thirdly, the impact on unemployment is relevant. Returning to the intervention that the Minister was kind enough to let me make, I still find it difficult to believe that there is a threefold difference in the estimate of the liabilities between one part of the evidence base and the other. I understand what the Minister has said about what subsequently happened, but at the time the evidence was put together, there was still that wide gap. It was put down to assumptions. Those should have been, and probably were, known, and we should have been told. That all smacks of the Health Committee’s criticism that the Government simply rush into these things without proper ideas of success criteria, without any design of policy and without any assessment of the impact.

6.30 pm

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab): It is with sadness and regret that I rise to speak in this debate. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey), for many months I have been devoting an enormous amount of time to trying to find a solution to this issue. We have had a great many meetings with the Minister for Local Government and other Ministers. This morning, we had an eleventh-hour meeting with the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury. We put our views to her
1 Apr 2009 : Column 1007
frankly and bluntly, and she said that she would consult colleagues about the ongoing issue to see whether something further could be done after the passing of this motion tonight.

Nobody is denying that allowing the rates to be spread over an eight-year period will help some people. However, that is not the entire solution. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government will also agree to meet colleagues to see whether anything further can be done. In virtually every meeting that we have had with Ministers, and with the Prime Minister, everybody seems to say that it is another Department’s responsibility. When we meet Treasury Ministers, they say, “Sorry—it is the responsibility of the Department for Communities and Local Government,”; when we go to Ministers from that Department, they tell us that we have to go back to the Treasury. I would like all Ministers with responsibility for the issue to get into one room and meet all Members whose constituents are affected.

The crux of the matter is the double payment and the double taxation. Yes, we have heard all about how we got here and about the Valuation Office Agency and, yes, we have this motion tonight. However, nobody has yet come up with a good way forward in respect of the double taxation. The Minister has kept saying that companies in the ports had been paying and that it would not be fair on the companies that had been paying if others were treated differently, but the fact is that the others were paying—they were paying through the money that they were giving the operators. Associated British Ports is the operator at the port of Immingham in my constituency. The companies there firmly believe that they have paid their business rates directly to ABP throughout the entire period. We have seen the letters demonstrating that the money that they paid ABP included business rates.

The contract may not have been beautifully legally put together, but let us face it, we are dealing with dockers, not the be-wigged and be-gowned folk down in Lincoln’s Inn. Yes, the agreements can be somewhat rough around the edges, but the companies had the verbal agreements and the letters show that when they were paying that money to ABP, business rates were included. The companies have already paid, and that is why they feel that it is so unfair that they are being asked to pay again.

Why are we fighting in the Chamber tonight? It is because the outcome of this matter will be job losses. I am already seeing them in the port of Immingham and in other companies as well. As has been mentioned tonight, DFDS Tor Line has issued redundancy notices. More will come. I have discussed the issue with many companies; they say that the only way in which they can reduce overheads is to lay people off and put people out of work.

The type of areas that we represent—around Goole, Immingham and Grimsby, for example—are isolated, discrete communities. Any job losses have a disproportionate impact on them, because people do not have a hinterland that enables them to travel to find any other work. This will have a devastating effect on our communities, and for that reason I hope that my right hon. Friend on the Front Bench will see whether something else can be done. It has been suggested tonight—I am in agreement
1 Apr 2009 : Column 1008
with this—that we should start again in 2010. Yes, that will require primary legislation, but what the hell are we here for if not to legislate?

The Opposition parties have said that they will give any legislation on this subject that is brought forward a fair wind, so I hope that for the sake of jobs in our communities my right hon. Friend the Minister will reconsider this issue.

6.35 pm

Robert Neill: I shall be brief, to give the Minister a little time. This has been a lively and well-informed debate, albeit a short one, and I congratulate all hon. Members who have taken part.

I earnestly hope that the Minister will listen to the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac). The whole purpose of this debate is to give the Government time to think again. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) has not tempted us to press the button for the nuclear option—I understand, rhetorically, why he suggested it, but if I were a business caught up in the middle of the nuclear explosion I would not necessarily want that to be the outcome.

There is an opportunity, which I shall restate for the final time for the Minister. We will do everything that we can to assist any primary legislation that can put right this wrong. If Parliament is not here to legislate, what is it here for? If Parliament is not here to right an injustice, what is it here for?

The Prime Minister, we are informed, knows about this. It will seem remarkably selective if, rather than saving the ports in this country, the Prime Minister decides that he is too busy saving some other global expedition. I do not mean that churlishly. I hope that the Prime Minister really does know about this matter. If he takes on board the points that have been made, he will go to the people who are the real blockage in the Treasury and will ensure that leeway is given so that the Minister can come back with a sensible solution. If that is done, we will do everything to assist. If it is not done, the buck has to stop at the very top.

6.37 pm

John Healey: With the leave of the House, I want to respond in brief to some points. I fear that by being blunt I might also disappoint.

May I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) that it is not the case that Ministers have somehow passed responsibility from post to post. At each stage, I have accepted responsibility for the position that we are in. I have accepted responsibility for the measures that we have proposed to take. I have not ducked the arguments—whether that was in meetings with businesses in Hull, when I gave evidence to the Select Committee on the Treasury, in meetings with my hon. Friend or in debates in this House. I have had more discussions on this matter than on any other subject in recent months.

Let me tell my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) that we have acted, and have done so in an unprecedented way. We are prepared to defer the backdated liabilities for an unprecedented period of eight years to allow payments to be spread. If my hon. Friend feels that we are going around the same course
1 Apr 2009 : Column 1009
and we are hearing the same arguments, that is the case. We are doing that because, to put it bluntly, we have heard the arguments and listened carefully to them, but we have not accepted them. We have not accepted that the port businesses are in a unique position—he is obviously as concerned about their position as we are—or that they are a unique case. We have accepted that they have problems and that they are under pressure, particularly when the economic downturn is putting pressure on all businesses. That is why we have been prepared to give this help in order to help them manage their way through.

The impact of the ports review, as I have said, has not been universal. Despite the individual cases that Members cited, a third of the backdated liabilities in tax have already been paid in full. One in four of the businesses affected in the same way have settled their bills. A significant number of the remainder are taking advantage of the payment scheme that we have put in place, which the Conservative motion would remove at a stroke. That scheme gives a flexibility to pay. It defers the liability and does not remove it. It is entirely consistent with what we have been prepared to do on other business taxes because, as we have said, we are prepared to take action where we can to help businesses manage their way through this difficult recession. That includes the businesses in the ports hit by these significant and unexpected backdated business rate tax bills.

Question put.

The House proceeded to a Division.

Mr. Speaker: I ask the Serjeant at Arms to investigate the delay in the No lobby.

The House having divided: Ayes 3, Noes 289.
Division No. 95]
[6.40 pm


Field, rh Mr. Frank
McIsaac, Shona
Spink, Bob
Tellers for the Ayes:

Mr. Austin Mitchell and
Mr. Ian Cawsey

Ainger, Nick
Ainsworth, rh Mr. Bob
Alexander, Danny
Alexander, rh Mr. Douglas
Allen, Mr. Graham
Anderson, Mr. David
Armstrong, rh Hilary
Austin, Mr. Ian
Bailey, Mr. Adrian
Baird, Vera
Baker, Norman
Banks, Gordon
Barlow, Ms Celia
Barrett, John
Battle, rh John
Bayley, Hugh
Beckett, rh Margaret
Begg, Miss Anne
Benn, rh Hilary
Benton, Mr. Joe
Blackman-Woods, Dr. Roberta
Blears, rh Hazel
Blizzard, Mr. Bob
Borrow, Mr. David S.
Brooke, Annette
Brown, rh Mr. Nicholas
Brown, Mr. Russell
Browne, rh Des
Browne, Mr. Jeremy
Bruce, rh Malcolm
Bryant, Chris
Buck, Ms Karen
Burden, Richard
Burstow, Mr. Paul
Burt, Lorely
Butler, Ms Dawn
Byrne, rh Mr. Liam
Cable, Dr. Vincent
Cairns, David
Campbell, Mr. Alan
Campbell, rh Sir Menzies
Carmichael, Mr. Alistair
Caton, Mr. Martin
Challen, Colin
Chapman, Ben
Chaytor, Mr. David
Clapham, Mr. Michael
Clark, Ms Katy
Clarke, rh Mr. Charles
Clarke, rh Mr. Tom

Clegg, rh Mr. Nick
Clelland, Mr. David
Clwyd, rh Ann
Coaker, Mr. Vernon
Coffey, Ann
Connarty, Michael
Cooper, Rosie
Cooper, rh Yvette
Corbyn, Jeremy
Cousins, Jim
Crausby, Mr. David
Creagh, Mary
Cruddas, Jon
Cryer, Mrs. Ann
Cunningham, Mr. Jim
Cunningham, Tony
David, Mr. Wayne
Davidson, Mr. Ian
Dean, Mrs. Janet
Denham, rh Mr. John
Devine, Mr. Jim
Dhanda, Mr. Parmjit
Dobson, rh Frank
Doran, Mr. Frank
Drew, Mr. David
Eagle, Angela
Eagle, Maria
Efford, Clive
Ellman, Mrs. Louise
Engel, Natascha
Farron, Tim
Fisher, Mark
Fitzpatrick, Jim
Flello, Mr. Robert
Flynn, Paul
Follett, Barbara
Foster, Mr. Don
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings and Rye)
Francis, Dr. Hywel
Gapes, Mike
Gardiner, Barry
George, Andrew
Gerrard, Mr. Neil
Gibson, Dr. Ian
Gilroy, Linda
Goggins, Paul
Goldsworthy, Julia
Griffith, Nia
Griffiths, Nigel
Gwynne, Andrew
Hall, Patrick
Hamilton, Mr. David
Hanson, rh Mr. David
Harris, Dr. Evan
Harris, Mr. Tom
Harvey, Nick
Healey, rh John
Hemming, John
Hendrick, Mr. Mark
Hepburn, Mr. Stephen
Hewitt, rh Ms Patricia
Heyes, David
Holmes, Paul
Hoon, rh Mr. Geoffrey
Hopkins, Kelvin
Horwood, Martin
Howarth, David
Howarth, rh Mr. George
Howells, rh Dr. Kim
Hoyle, Mr. Lindsay
Hughes, rh Beverley
Huhne, Chris
Humble, Mrs. Joan
Iddon, Dr. Brian
Illsley, Mr. Eric
Ingram, rh Mr. Adam
Irranca-Davies, Huw
James, Mrs. Siân C.
Jenkins, Mr. Brian
Johnson, Ms Diana R.
Jones, Helen
Jones, Mr. Kevan
Jones, Lynne
Jones, Mr. Martyn
Joyce, Mr. Eric
Kaufman, rh Sir Gerald
Keeble, Ms Sally
Keeley, Barbara
Keen, Ann
Kemp, Mr. Fraser
Khan, Mr. Sadiq
Kidney, Mr. David
Kilfoyle, Mr. Peter
Knight, rh Jim
Kumar, Dr. Ashok
Ladyman, Dr. Stephen
Lamb, Norman
Lammy, rh Mr. David
Laws, Mr. David
Laxton, Mr. Bob
Lazarowicz, Mark
Leech, Mr. John
Lepper, David
Levitt, Tom
Linton, Martin
Lloyd, Tony
Love, Mr. Andrew
Lucas, Ian
Mactaggart, Fiona
Malik, Mr. Shahid
Mallaber, Judy
Marris, Rob
Marsden, Mr. Gordon
Martlew, Mr. Eric
Mason, John
McAvoy, rh Mr. Thomas
McCarthy, Kerry
McCarthy-Fry, Sarah
McCartney, rh Mr. Ian
McDonagh, Siobhain
McDonnell, John
McFadden, rh Mr. Pat
McFall, rh John
McGovern, Mr. Jim
McGuire, rh Mrs. Anne
McKechin, Ann
McKenna, Rosemary
McNulty, rh Mr. Tony
Merron, Gillian
Michael, rh Alun
Miller, Andrew
Moffatt, Laura
Mole, Chris
Moon, Mrs. Madeleine
Moore, Mr. Michael
Moran, Margaret
Morgan, Julie
Mullin, Mr. Chris
Munn, Meg
Murphy, rh Mr. Jim
Murphy, rh Mr. Paul
Norris, Dan
O'Brien, Mr. Mike

Olner, Mr. Bill
Öpik, Lembit
Osborne, Sandra
Owen, Albert
Palmer, Dr. Nick
Pelling, Mr. Andrew
Plaskitt, Mr. James
Pound, Stephen
Prentice, Bridget
Prentice, Mr. Gordon
Prescott, rh Mr. John
Primarolo, rh Dawn
Prosser, Gwyn
Pugh, Dr. John
Purchase, Mr. Ken
Purnell, rh James
Raynsford, rh Mr. Nick
Reed, Mr. Andy
Reed, Mr. Jamie
Reid, Mr. Alan
Reid, rh John
Rennie, Willie
Riordan, Mrs. Linda
Robertson, John
Robinson, Mr. Geoffrey
Rooney, Mr. Terry
Roy, Mr. Frank
Ruane, Chris
Ruddock, Joan
Russell, Christine
Salter, Martin
Seabeck, Alison
Sharma, Mr. Virendra
Shaw, Jonathan
Sheerman, Mr. Barry
Sheridan, Jim
Simon, Mr. Siôn
Simpson, Alan
Singh, Mr. Marsha
Skinner, Mr. Dennis
Slaughter, Mr. Andy
Smith, rh Mr. Andrew
Smith, Ms Angela C. (Sheffield, Hillsborough)
Smith, Angela E. (Basildon)
Smith, rh Jacqui
Smith, John
Smith, Sir Robert
Snelgrove, Anne
Soulsby, Sir Peter
Spellar, rh Mr. John
Starkey, Dr. Phyllis
Stewart, Ian
Strang, rh Dr. Gavin
Stringer, Graham
Stuart, Ms Gisela
Stunell, Andrew
Swinson, Jo
Taylor, David
Thomas, Mr. Gareth
Thornberry, Emily
Thurso, John
Timms, rh Mr. Stephen
Tipping, Paddy
Todd, Mr. Mark
Touhig, rh Mr. Don
Trickett, Jon
Turner, Dr. Desmond
Turner, Mr. Neil
Twigg, Derek
Ussher, Kitty
Walley, Joan
Waltho, Lynda
Ward, Claire
Wareing, Mr. Robert N.
Watts, Mr. Dave
Webb, Steve
Whitehead, Dr. Alan
Wicks, rh Malcolm
Williams, rh Mr. Alan
Williams, Mark
Williams, Mr. Roger
Williams, Stephen
Willis, Mr. Phil
Willott, Jenny
Wills, rh Mr. Michael
Wilson, Phil
Wilson, Sammy
Winnick, Mr. David
Winterton, rh Ms Rosie
Wood, Mike
Woodward, rh Mr. Shaun
Woolas, Mr. Phil
Wright, David
Wright, Mr. Iain
Wright, Dr. Tony
Tellers for the Noes:

Helen Goodman and
Mark Tami
Question accordingly negatived.
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