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Mr. Breed: Is the crux of the matter not simplification but fairness? In an attempt to try to make things fairer for people, there are necessarily some complexities. I, for one, would much prefer to have a fairer tax system, even if that made it mildly more complex. When people look at their tax paperwork, they often compare what tax they are paying with that paid by other groups. While complexity can cause difficulties when we are looking to achieve competitiveness and so on, we should be aiming for a much fairer system, even if, at the end of the day, it is slightly more complex.
Mr. Browne: That is a particularly good point. My hon. Friend may have ruled himself out of the lavishly paid job as part-time chairman of the office of tax simplification, but given that he is not a member of the Conservative party, perhaps he would not have been considered for that role in any case. He makes the entirely reasonable point that although simplification of the tax system is desirable, in a complicated economy it is inevitable that some complexity is needed to ensure that the system is progressive and treats people fairly.
I spoke about new clause 24 in Committee on 25 June. I am pleased that the Conservatives were impressed by my contribution and felt moved to follow suit in their amendment. Is the possibility that the favourable status enjoyed by furnished holiday lettings may not be compliant with European law sufficient reason to introduce the proposed change? That issue is still hanging over the Government. It would be better if we were more certain about whether we are required to make this change, not least because the Government appear to have acknowledged that they did not consult the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and have not made any intelligent impact assessment of whether the measures would be damaging, particularly to rural and seaside communities in areas such as those in the south-west. It is safe to say that there probably would be an adverse impact, but I am not sure that the Government know precisely what it will be. Surely they should know that before they propose any such measure.
Amendment 36 would target some additional assistance, at very modest cost, at very small businesses. A form of relief is available to companies with a profit level of less than £300,000, but there are a lot of companies within the range of zero profit to £300,000 profit, and that is quite a big gap. I know that the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) takes a keen interest in these matters, but it is worth repeating a couple of statistics. According to the Federation of Small Businesses, there are 4.7 million small businesses in the United Kingdom. Ninety-seven per cent. of firms employ fewer than 20 people, and 95 per cent. of firms19 out of every 20employ fewer than five people. Cumulatively, those very small businesses are making a significant contribution to the well-being of the economy and to overall employment levels. The amendment would target
some additional assistance at companies making profits of less than £25,000very small, almost micro-businesses would benefit from some additional assistance to help them to get on their feet, to stay profitable and, in time, to grow into bigger and more profitable organisations. It asks the Treasury to consider how that could best be achieved, so it is not excessively prescriptive, although the regulations would require an affirmative resolution to be brought into effect. On that note, I look forward to hearing the Ministers contribution.
Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): I shall not detain the House long, but I wish strongly to support the new clauses tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke), particularly new clause 3, on simplification, and new clause 6, on competitiveness.
There is obviously a trade-off between simplification and complexity. These things are never easy, but the entire benefit and tax system in this country has gone much too far towards complexity. There is rough justice in a simple system, but we are now trying to tailor both those systems to take account of every eventuality and the needs of every group. Very often, we cater for the demands of special interest groups and lobbyists rather than try to achieve equality across the board. The result is a system of benefits and tax that nobody really understands and that costs an enormous amount to administer. Nobody really knows what their entitlements are or what taxes they are paying. If we ask people how much tax they pay, either at corporate or personal level, they often do not know. That is bad for democracy.
I am agnostic on whether we need an office of tax simplification. I simply ask my hon. Friend to think carefully before setting up a permanent, full-time body when there are many outside experts and bodies that would willingly give their time and advice for free, particularly if it was augmented by good special advisers.
The whole system of special advisers has been corrupted in recent years, and they are now propagandists more often than not, acting as spin doctors at public expense. At their best, however, they provide independent, expert advice. The last Government had an individual in the Treasury called Edward Troup, who came with a great deal of tax and legal experience. He was able to challenge the revenue department and give advice to officials and Ministers from a commercial perspective, which was extremely valuable. Such advice, particularly when associated with some sort of voluntary body, may mean that we do not have to set up a whole new simplification office.
I have only one point to make on the question of competitiveness, but I want to make it strongly. I reject the notion that international tax competition is bad. Indeed, it is not just the best way but probably the only effective way of countering the relentless upward pressure on tax rates. It is a realistic and effective constraint on Governments to know that if they push taxes up too far, they will lose business and revenue. My hon. Friend gave some good examples of when that has already happened. I am afraid that by international standards, we are now a rather high-tax jurisdiction, and we are paying a daily penalty in the loss of revenue and employment. However, that is an effective constraint.
Of course, the reaction of Governments is to try to form a tax cartel internationally to prevent tax competition. In 1997, when the Government first came in, they encouraged a European Union package to prevent what was called harmful tax competition. There was an EU committee, chaired by a Government Minister, to try to form a cartel to keep the EU as a high-tax, high-regulation regime and prevent what it called unfair tax competition. That was defined as meaning any competition that might affect the location of business activity, so almost any lower taxes in any part of the EU could be called unfair.
What that committee could not do was prevent the rest of the world from providing competition. The obsession with the idea that there is too much tax competition in the EU blinds us to the real challenge, which is whether the EU as a whole is competitive in the wider world. There, too, we are losing altitude. The EU is demonstrably less competitive now than it was 10 or 20 years ago, and we are paying a heavy price in employment and output. The G20 is now on to this, and it is trying to form a cartel to drive out tax competition.
I strongly support my hon. Friends aim, which is to ensure that before every Budget, there must be a careful examination of whether it will help or damage Britains position in the pitiless struggle for international competitiveness. It is much better to promote competition than to form cartels and reach agreements with other member states to prevent it. I hope that the House will divide if the new clauses are not accepted.
Mr. Timms: I think we can all agree that tax competitiveness is important, and it is a good thing that the UK consistently performs well in international comparisons of business environment. The hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) told us that we were 15th in the World Economic Forums global competitiveness report in 2003. I am not quite sure why he chose 2003, but I can tell the House that in the latest edition of that report we are 12th. We have improved our position and are 12th out of 134 countries on the WEFs measure of international business competitiveness. The World Banks study Doing Business 2009 ranked the UK sixth out of 181 countries for ease of doing business and second in the EU. It is right that we compare the position in the UK with the position elsewhere, and I am pleased to be able to tell the House that those comparisons put the UK in a strong position.
On simplification, the Government have brought forward more than 50 measures since the 2007 pre-Budget report, and again we compare favourably, with the World Bank ranking the UK best in the G7 for ease of paying taxes in its 2009 Paying Taxes report.
On consultation, we have consulted formally on more than 50 per cent. of this years Finance Bill, and informally on substantially more, such as oil taxation. Those affected by that are quite a self-contained community, so a formal consultation is not always necessary. The Government do not, of course, consult on tax rates, owing to the possible market impact and potential forestalling, but we are committed to consultation and our record underlines that.
Recent business tax reform, such as changes to the taxation of foreign profits, to which the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire referredI am grateful to him and his hon. Friends for their support for our
changesis designed to modernise the corporate tax system to meet the demands of an increasingly globalised economy and to promote more long-term investment. That package will enhance the competitiveness of the UK business environment. I am bound to say that, at 28 per cent., the rate of corporation tax in the UK is at its lowest level ever, and is the lowest in all the G7 economies. The small companies rate, at £300,000, is very competitive internationally, with the highest threshold between the small companies and the larger companies rate.
Our record on competitiveness is strong. The right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) was right to say that tax competition is healthy, but I caution him against criticising the work on harmful tax measures. It is not right to characterise that as the establishment of a cartel, as he suggested. Things have been done that encourage tax avoidance, and it is right for companies to work together on that.
New clause 3 would establish an office of tax simplification. I was intrigued by the difference between the approach of the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire and that of the Leader of the Opposition yesterday. The hon. Gentleman told us that he would explain why that particular quango is a good thing, even though his party is committed to reducing the number of quangos. I missed that part of his speech, but perhaps we will hear it on another occasion. The new clause is unnecessarily bureaucratic. By contrast, we have conducted a series of tax simplification reviews, and we set out our progress in the Budget.
Mr. Binley: Of course, it is the Financial Secretarys job to paint everything in the garden as rosy, but does he acknowledge that Tolleys Yellow Tax Handbook had 10,134 pages in 2008 and 4,998 pages in 1997, and that the page layout has been changed to get in more words? Is that a rosy situation?
New clause 6 provides that the Government should report to Parliament on the competitiveness of the UK tax system. We already provide a wide range of information in impact assessments of Budget measures, progress reports at the Budget and our annual departmental report. I am not clear that a further report would have the benefits suggested.
Amendment 36 would pose a serious risk to the fairness of small business taxation. Seventy-five per cent. of UK businesses are unincorporated, so do not pay corporation tax. In proposing benefits for only very small companies, the Liberal Democrats would disadvantage the 3.5 million unincorporated businesses relative to the small companies with which they directly compete. The amendment would also increase tax-motivated incorporation, helping few businesses and introducing additional complexity. It would also mean an unfunded tax cut.
As the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) said, he moved an identical amendment to new clause 4 in Committee. I was pleased that he did not press it to a vote then, and I hope that Conservative Members will
not press it today. We will publish draft legislation and an impact assessment at the time of the pre-Budget report, before the introduction of such a measure in next years Finance Bill. Treasury officials will be happy to consider any comments on the proposed legislation at that time. The difficulty with European law is clear. I think that we made the right judgment, and there will be an opportunity to reflect on that when the information is published. New clause 4 is unnecessary because the opportunity for which it would provide will be given at the time of the pre-Budget report.
Mr. Gauke: The Ministers view of the UKs taxation system is frankly complacent. Professional groups and business organisations have expressed genuine concerns, yet the Government appear to be distant from the real world. I would advise both the Minister and the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) to read carefully the speech by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, who set out a compelling case for bringing in outside organisations to provide technical expertise to Departments, which is exactly what the office of tax simplification would be. I note that the hon. Gentleman said that he was in favour of simplification, although it was not quite clear why he appears not to be in favour of establishing an office of tax simplification, which would be widely welcomed by many professional groups and business organisations. As a consequence, I intend to press new clause 3 to a vote.
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