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12 May 2009 : Column 707

I understand the aspiration towards lower corporation tax, but the hon. Gentleman has to be careful about pushing the Canadian model too far. There are many jurisdictions in Canada, and those subject to federal taxation are federally incorporated and make up a tiny minority of companies, engaged in activities such as telecommunications and transport that, under the Canadian constitution from 1982 and the British North America Act 1867, are the federal preserve. Almost all business in Canada is the provincial preserve, and the huge trade barriers between provinces are an issue that bedevils that country. I understand that the hon. Gentleman aspires to that model, and it does raise some money at the federal level, but he should not push it too far.

I do not accept the concept of distortion—although I am not sure that that is the argument that has been made—because people change their behaviour. There is no natural way for people to behave that is somehow then distorted, because to say that is to buy in to the whole nonsense about perfect competition, which never exists, even on eBay. We have taxation measures to encourage certain forms of behaviour, and some of those behaviours are related to commercial matters, including for example, the lack of VAT on newspapers and books, and the company car taxation regime. So, corporation tax as part of a package of taxation measures will have an effect on behaviour and one must be very careful about that so as not to drive business out. I reject any suggestion that we have perfect competition and that we should not intervene at all.

We should have a capital allowance regime that encourages manufacturing and capital investment, as my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West said. I remember that a few years ago, when we had a 100 per cent. first year writing down allowance for investment in computers, that measure found favour on both sides of the House, although some might have said that it was a distortion. I favour capital allowances that help manufacturing and I urge Labour Members to reject the amendment tonight.

Mr. Hoban: The hon. Gentleman referred to the 100 per cent. first year writing down allowance for computers. Did he object to its withdrawal?

Rob Marris: Yes. It was cut by this Government and I do not think that it should have been. It should have been kept for longer—that is the simple answer—because computers are used across British industry, including in manufacturing.

Mr. Hoban: The hon. Gentleman is characteristically honest, but does he not recognise that decisions are taken to reduce allowances because they have perhaps distorted behaviour or outlived themselves and changes need to be made? We need to get people to act in a way that is consistent with their economic and commercial drivers rather than simply distorting behaviour for a short-term objective.

Rob Marris: I will not be tempted too far down that line, Sir Alan. However, I think that there is a role for writing down allowances and tax and capital allowances to encourage certain behaviour in the economy, even though it might be seen by some—and perhaps by the hon. Gentleman—as a distortion. That is why I think
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that the computer writing down allowance should have continued for a bit longer, until we had even more computers in the economy. That allowance was very helpful. I urge my hon. Friends to reject the amendment, because it is part of an overall package that would hit manufacturing and would be bad for British industry and bad for jobs in the west midlands.

Mr. Jeremy Browne: The measure proposed by those on the Conservative Front Bench is actually rather simple and modest. One would think from the attempt to draw dividing lines, as is fashionable in politics at the moment, and from the length of the speech made by the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) that a huge point of principle was being proposed that distinguished the Conservative party from the Government. If the sentiments expressed by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) had been the substance of the amendment, that would have been true. He made a serious ideological point that distinguished between what he thought was the best way forward for the British economy and the Government’s proposed way forward for the British economy. The distinction made by the amendment is not nearly as substantial and as impressive.

The right hon. Member for Wokingham said that there was great value in cutting headline rates. I think there is some truth in that, although it is not always as straightforward as he might think, as shown by the Prime Minister’s experience in his last Budget as Chancellor of the Exchequer. He cut the headline basic rate of income tax to 20p, thinking that that would be extremely popular and would incentivise a lot of people on low to middle incomes to do more work. It appeared not to have that effect when people realised that it was revenue-neutral and that some would be disadvantaged as they would have to pay additional taxes to make up the shortfall arising from the money that was lost by cutting the headline rate. Cutting headline rates is not always as popular as politicians and legislators might think.

I was also interested in the point made by the right hon. Member for Wokingham about the Laffer curve, although he appeared to suggest that the Laffer curve’s principal benefit is attracting investment from other countries into the jurisdiction where that applies. I would have been more interested if he had gone on to advance the view that it would generate more money from companies within the existing area of jurisdiction. He appeared to dwell less on that point, although I suspect that that is also his view.

By way of contrast, the amendment attempts to create an impression that, at this time of recession, the Conservative party would like to give British companies preferable tax treatment. However, having heard the explanation from the hon. Member for Fareham, one understands that that is not the case and that the proposal is revenue-neutral with regard to the total tax take. For that reason, his speech could have lasted two minutes rather 50—he could simply have said, “This amendment seeks to redistribute but not reduce the tax burden on British businesses.” Given that our budget deficit will be £175 billion this year and £173 billion next year, and that we do not have huge amounts of surplus revenue sloshing around to use to reduce taxes, I and my party are minded to support the amendment precisely because of its modesty.

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Three principles are worth observing— [ Interruption. ] I hear mutterings from off stage, but my point is that, although the ideas of the right hon. Member for Wokingham are more interesting and ideologically adventurous, they would create a real distinction—something that the Conservative party wants only to give an impression of doing. In a way, there is nothing very interesting about the amendment.

Mr. Redwood: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Browne: I will in a moment. We are considering not how much business is taxed, but whether the burden on different aspects of business should be redistributed in a way that renders the total tax take more reasonable. By and large, I think there is scope for collecting the same amount of tax revenue in a more simple way, and I shall set out my three principles for doing so. Before I do, however, I shall give way to the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Redwood: Do I understand the hon. Gentleman correctly? Does he think—unfairly—that, because the proposal from my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) is potty, it is now good Liberal Democrat policy?

Mr. Browne: That would have been funnier if the timing had been better. As it was, it was a typical Back-Bench attempt to be conservatively amusing.

The Conservative party believes it is here to argue the case for British business. That is reasonable, but it is trying to create the impression that it wants to cut the tax burden on British business. In reality, though, it does not want to do anything of the sort, and that is why I said that the amendment could have been dealt with rather more quickly. Had the Opposition proposed from the Front Bench the measures articulated by the right hon. Member for Wokingham, that would have been worth debating all of today and tomorrow because it would have represented a massive change in economic and tax policy. However, that is not what the Conservatives are trying to do: they are trying to give that impression, but they are not really trying to achieve that.

Even so, for the reasons that I am about to outline, I think the amendment is probably a step in the right direction. The first principle that I think ought to govern these matters is stability. Stability is beneficial: the Government have kept the rate unchanged, and that is a reasonable step in the right direction. It would help if they gave an indication of how long the rate will be kept at that level. I realise that future Finance Bills and general elections make it harder for them to give a firm commitment, but it would be helpful if business could have a feel for where corporation tax rates are going.

The second principle is simplicity, and it is in that regard that I think the amendment is most worthy of support. Removing lots of rates and reliefs and concentrating on a lower headline rate makes the system easier to understand for companies. It is harder for people to dodge tax, and complying with tax obligations is less of an administrative burden.

The third principle is transparency. I caution Conservative Members against creating the impression that they wish to cut business taxes when the reality is that they want nothing of the sort. They are in harmony with the
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Labour Government in thinking that the overall tax burden on business is exactly right, but this modest amendment at least advances the cause of simplicity and, on that basis, I see no reason to oppose it.

5.15 pm

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): I declare an interest as the chairman of an SME that employs about 140 people and that pays well below the corporate tax rate affected by the present discussion, although we hope that, one day, we will get there. We do, however, service a number of companies that are in the relevant tax bracket, and therein lies my interest, because supply chains are a vital component of the whole structure.

I shall talk about how people think about tax as much as about how accountants evaluate tax. Business men tend in the main to be more creative than accountants and they tend to dwell less on detail. It is that degree of creativity that makes the amendment interesting and it is why I commend it so strongly. What the amendment proposes would create a feeling of the worth of being involved and of using money to gain more money and to grow on behalf of the nation, as well as on behalf of the people we employ. It reflects an attitude of mind —one that is often not understood by Government Members.

Many in business get the impression that Labour Members think that business men are there to make profit and that that undertaking is in some way dubious—or even, some of the worst sort of that thinking suggests, crooked. In fact, many business men are there to create, to build and to grow, and that very objective is the driving force that creates jobs in this country. Therein lies the importance of the amendment: it would encourage creativity, which in turn encourages jobs. That is a vital part of the process in which we need to be engaged right now if we are take advantage of the green shoots that will appear, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) and my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) have said. When those green shoots appear, we need to be in a position to exploit them to the advantage of our nation. High taxation in any form does not help us to do that.

Another point touched on by my right hon. Friend is the need to attract to this country businesses and big companies from other nations. I am amazed by the arguments advanced by some Government Members, who seem to think that our real opponents are Germany and France—that those countries should be our comparators and that, as long as we are lined up relatively sensibly with them, the world is okay. Let me tell Ministers that the world is changing dramatically and the G7 may not always be in pole position. In fact, I believe that the present elements of the G7 will not be in pole position for very much longer, because I perceive a massive, dynamic change in the world, which the present recession will only enhance. The Government need to understand that, but I see no understanding among them of that trend.

Let me explain part of the reason I think that. I have just returned from a Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform trip to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, and I went to Dubai. Some might say that Dubai is having a pretty bad time, and indeed it is,
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because it is not a major oil-producing part of the world, but it is a hub for a massive region. People there said to me time and again, “We used to look to the west; we now look to the east.” Business man after business man in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates told me that. Of course, many of them were not nationals of those countries. They were European business men who decided to settle their businesses in that part of the world because of the potential that it provided. That is what we are competing against. It is against that background that this debate is so important. It is about ensuring the recharging of Britain’s natural entrepreneurial spirit. That creativity is vital, and lower tax rates inspire that creativity. I beg the Government to recognise the connection in the amendment, even at this late stage.

I was rather surprised at the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson), whom I admire enormously. He is one of the few members of the Labour party with real business experience. I was particularly surprised that, although he recognised that we created the lowest corporate rates of taxation in the G7, he did not seem to think that that was too important. That was a very confusing argument. I recognise the points made about the overall tax basis, but he did not see the creative, imaginative elements of the proposal, as I would expect a business man to do. That surprised me in a business man of his stature.

Mr. Redwood: Drawing on his business experience, does my hon. Friend find, as I do, that business people in big companies will go to enormous lengths—within the law, we trust—to try to avoid paying higher taxes? That is important when they do business across the world.

Mr. Binley: Of course my right hon. Friend is correct. Many of the greatest business supporters of the current Government were the proponents of such exercises. The hon. Member for Coventry, North-West—I repeat that I hold him in great esteem—said that the argument was about timing. That was the essence of why he did not want to support a cut to 25 per cent. at this moment. I would argue that it is precisely because of the timing that we need to make the change. I was one of those people who saw, from ’79 onwards, a great rebirth of entrepreneurial spirit in this nation. I saw what that did for people like me, who wanted to go out and be their own boss, to build and create, and to drive forward the jobs that were so successfully created in the next years.

At the time, one of the major motivations for me, and for many other people like me, was the fact that the Government wanted to get off the back of business, free business up, and encourage business to build. Therein lies the import of the cut to 25 per cent. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham, I want further cuts as time progresses, but timing is vital if we are to grab the green shoots that will surely appear. That is why it is important that we make the change now, and that we tell people we want to support business and entrepreneurism. We want to grow jobs and businesses and we want to attract businesses so that my children and grandchildren do not see that movement to the east as the end of their hopes and aspirations.

Stewart Hosie: I do not have a problem with lower business taxes, and I am very supportive of lower corporation tax. I have said so many times that, as part
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of an overall competitive framework for business, that is a prerequisite for solid economic growth. When we look back over the medium term, we can see that many countries that, when they reduced their business tax burden, in fact experienced a business tax increase year on year as the rates came down.

None of those comments will come as a surprise to those on the Conservative Front Bench, as I have made them on many occasions. It is the case, however, as we have discussed before, that concerns arose when business taxes were kept high. Even when allowances and reliefs for investment were extended, there were concerns that that regime failed to support the good businesses that were simply getting on and running their companies, and supported only the companies or firms that invested in particular areas. I shall return to that in a moment.

The hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) suggested that the proposed tax cuts would fundamentally be paid for by reducing or removing allowances or reliefs, by simplifying the allowance or relief system. Although I agree with the need for a simpler tax allowance and relief system in general, I have a couple of questions about his amendment. What assessment has he made of the value of lost investments—investments that might be cancelled or delayed as a result of the proposals—if those allowances or reliefs have already been budgeted into the costs? Why has he proceeded at this point with the cut, rather than proposing a longer time scale for changes to the tax and allowance regime, which would allow the economy to benefit from the announcement effect, as we have seen elsewhere, whereby businesses come and set up in preparation for lower taxes, while mitigating the risk of investment projects being cancelled or postponed?

I am very supportive of a lower corporation tax rate—our aspiration is to reduce it to 20 per cent.—and I am in favour of a simpler tax system, which is a good thing, as it reduces costs and burdens, and is easier for business people, their offices and their staff, to understand. However, I question the timing of the proposal. Why not say that it would take place in future, to benefit from the announcement effect, and why not tie that into a longer lead time for the abolition or simplification of allowances? Importantly, what assessment has the hon. Gentleman made of the risk of investment projects being cancelled? I want to support the proposal, but it would be useful to hear his thinking.

Mr. Redwood: From the point of view of the hon. Gentleman’s party, what would be a competitive corporation tax rate for the United Kingdom?

Stewart Hosie: We suggested a reduction to 20 per cent. That was our favoured route, and we thought it would be the optimal position. We must not have a race to the bottom, but we cannot compete with the lowest-cost economies: there must be a competitive package—that is the key. At the same time, we made it clear that that would not be done on day one. There must be a lead time, and where that has happened—and there is empirical evidence of this—the announcement effect on businesses coming here in preparation increased the tax yield even before the rates went down. If the hon. Member for Fareham responded to those points, I would be extremely grateful.

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Mr. Syms: First, I should like to draw hon. Members’ attention to my interest in the Register of Members’ Interests as a director of a family building business.

We have had an interesting debate, and when we talk about first principles—tax, tax rates and competition—we often have such a debate. At the beginning of debate on the Finance Bill, we had almost a Cook’s tour of Canada, Bahrain, Dubai, China and Dundee, East. That shows that we live in a competitive world environment that is not getting any easier year by year, but is becoming far more competitive. One of the examples that I used was Ireland, and a key message that has come across is that low taxes generate more revenue and jobs, attracting people to locate there. Ireland is one of our competitors and, notwithstanding its short-term difficulties, which are similar to ours as a result of asset price deflation and everything else, we must accept that this is a competitive world.

We should not look at the question on a year-by-year basis; we need to look at the medium term. Our economic problems relate not to one year alone, but to half a dozen years. We have to keep business in the UK and attract it to the UK. Setting a rate, a direction of travel, of 25 per cent. will make things a little easier than if we set a rate of 28 per cent.

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