Finance Bill Debate

On the overtaxing of small businesses

Mr. Redwood: I am a company director and a shareholder in companies, as I have declared in the register, but not, I think, of a company that will be paying this particular tax in the current year.

I rise to support the idea that the tax should be 20 and not 21 per cent. and that it should not go up to 22 per cent. subsequently, and I ask the Government to think again about their extraordinary U-turn in their policy towards lower tax rates for people on lower income and for smaller and start-up companies that earn less profit than more mature companies that have gone on to grow for longer and perhaps more successfully.

The Government produced an attractive package when they decided to encourage incorporation by having a zero tax rate on small profits for companies that had recently incorporated, and when they decided to have a 10p capital gains tax charge on people who set up companies, who took founder shareholdings in companies or who decided to buy into companies that were small and growing and could take advantage of that privileged capital gains tax regime.
We saw a response to that favourable tax regime in the improvement in the rate of new company formation. A lot of people in the small business groups around the country were saying to Opposition representatives, as well as to Government representatives, that the Government had got something right and that that part of the tax regime was favourable. It was an encouragement that those people very much welcomed, so it is strange and extremely disappointing that the Government should have backtracked on both elements of that attractive regime and that they have not learned the lesson from a country such as Ireland, which has persevered with a much more favourable tax regime for business across the board—businesses large and small—and has had the phenomenal success that we see in the Irish growth rate, the development of Irish business within the Republic and the collection of so much more tax revenue in general by the Irish Treasury.

As more people have got better jobs and taken more income out of smaller and larger companies, and as more smaller and larger companies have grown, been successful and produced capital gains, dividends, income and good jobs for people, so the economy as a whole has benefited from that process, and so the Irish Treasury has benefited, having more money to spend per head on public services as a result of that growth than has been available from the British Treasury’s attempts to find ever more stealth taxes to sustain more rapid growth in spending per head on public services here.

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): I appreciate my right hon. Friend’s comments about the Laffer curve, which I have gone on and on about in the three years that I have been a Member of Parliament. However, what bothers many small businesses—with which, like me, my right hon. Friend has been involved—is the timing of the tax increase. At a time when we should be supporting small businesses, it appears that we are attempting to undermine what they are trying to achieve in extremely difficult times by increasing taxes while, across the pond, the United States is doing everything it can to lower them.

Mr. Redwood: My hon. Friend is right. Ministers must know from their conversations, as he and I know from our conversations with the British Chambers of Commerce and the bodies representing small businesses in Britain, that it is becoming much more difficult to be a successful competitor from a British base. Smaller companies are feeling the increase in taxation and the growing weight of regulatory cost even more than the larger ones, but that population of small businesses must be allowed to grow more rapidly so that we can experience success in the future.

All the studies show that if there is to be sustained rapid growth in employment in private-sector activities, a lively and growing small business sector is essential. New jobs are much more likely to come from that sector than from the larger companies that have the money to automate, to mechanise and to take their labour-intensive activities offshore. They do not generate the same pace of business growth and job growth as small companies.
As the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) observed, although we unfortunately often hear of very large casualties in the corporate world—factories closing, or large numbers of people being made redundant by the larger companies—we never hear of redundancies of the same scale in the smaller companies. They do not employ as many people to start with and, when conditions are reasonably benign, they do not sack people. As a whole, they are a growing sector, adding jobs as they find better ways of doing things and creating new activities that the public wish to buy into. The danger is that the Government will take small businesses to tipping point with too much tax and regulation, so that, largely unseen, many jobs will be removed or new jobs will not be created and we will have a worse problem with unemployment.
Mr. Jeremy Browne: It should also be borne in mind that nearly every large business that employs vast numbers of people started off as a small business. We are not only potentially compromising the small business sector of the economy, but running the risk that tomorrow’s big businesses will never be able to get off the ground.

Mr. Redwood: The hon. Gentleman is right, and it can be deduced from his argument that we need to lower tax and regulation on all populations of business if we want a really successful economy like the Irish economy. That is especially important in the incubator world of small business. Among the mighty population of small businesses in a vibrant economy will be a limited number that will go on to become the mega-corporations of the future. As Silicon valley demonstrates, businesses can grow from very small to very big in the space of a decade, with stunning implications for the success of the economy and the success of tax-raising on those populations of businesses, and job generation.

Mr. Newmark: We might quip that the way in which to create a small business under new Labour is to start with a big business. However, on a more serious note, let me say that my right hon. Friend has not touched on another important issue. One of the hallmarks of new Labour has been the chopping and changing, but what businesses like is consistency. Only through consistency of policy, particularly tax policy, can they thrive.
Mr. Redwood: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, although the number of interruptions makes developing the argument as quickly as he would like a little more difficult. He is giving me friendly help and assistance to make sure that I do not forget the important arguments. I am genuinely grateful to him and he is absolutely right that consistency is important. Being able to forecast the tax rate to be paid not just this year but next year and the year after is extremely important when it comes to drawing up a business plan. Any small business that wishes to grow relatively quickly will need access to outside finance; a bank loan, other investors, business angels or another way of raising capital. Any of those would immediately want a business plan, not just for one year but for, say, three.

An important element of that business plan would be to know what the net profitability would be after three years, after the start-up costs and losses. The net profitability obviously requires an assumption about the Government’s tax rate. If the tax rate is changing every year—or goes up every year—it makes forecasting accurately more difficult. It also means that net profits will be less at the three-year stage, or at the five-year stage in a five-year business plan. That makes it more difficult to raise external capital; the banks and others living through the credit squeeze may say that they are unable to help because the net returns are not sufficiently good. Altruistic as many financiers are, they are not normally interested in how much money a business generates to pay the tax man; they are interested in how much money a business generates to pay the shareholders and other private stakeholders, which is why the tax rate is so important.

I am delighted that my Conservative Front-Bench colleagues are strongly in favour of simplicity and lower taxes and they are right to want a 20p tax ceiling on small businesses. I hope that they will also want—I am sure they will—to bring down the rate of corporation tax on larger companies closer to the 20p band. That is very important to the enhanced competitiveness of Britain that we will wish to see after the damage being done to it by higher taxes and more regulation.

I trust also that Governments will start to look at the idea, revolutionary for current political times, that we can perhaps save some of the waste and unnecessary expenditure in Governments so that we do not always have to pay for these tax reductions by finding other ways of increasing taxes. It was exactly that route of tax reform that got the Government into such difficulty on the 10p band.

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way to me a second time. Does he share my unease that the Conservative party is committed to taxing at exactly the same overall rate as the Labour party at the next general election? The total amount of Government spending as a percentage of GDP will be identical, if the Conservative party wins the election, to the level it would be were Labour to win. That sounds like mimicking the Government, rather than providing an alternative to them. Does he think that that is a wise approach for his party?

Mr. Redwood: The hon. Gentleman must have forgotten that I am a Conservative MP, so I do not share his unease at all, nor do I accept his premise. I am quite sure that the shadow Chancellor and his senior colleagues are serious when they say that they wish to have a lower-tax Britain than we would have under Labour. I am quite sure that we would have a lower-tax Britain than we would have under a Lib-Lab pact, because we know that Liberals are very liberal with other people’s money. Normally in the House they do not make the wonderful case for lower taxes as the hon. Gentleman seemed to be doing this afternoon. Normally they make the case for spending all sorts of sums of public money on things that may not even be desirable and are very often quite wasteful.

There is only one party that seriously believes in lower taxation for the whole of the UK and has a chance of winning a national general election in this country and that is the Conservative party. The Scottish National party now seems to believe in lower business taxation, but it is not in a position to do very much about it because most of the powers on these matters rest in the UK Parliament.

I say to my hon. Friends on the Front Bench that it is a privilege to be able to support this very sensible proposal for a 20p tax on business. It would be to the benefit of the small business community, and the Government’s relations with it if the Government listened, in the way that we hear the Prime Minister is now listening on the 10p tax band. It is another example of how dangerous the Government’s tax reform can be, particularly now they are destroying the only good tax ideas that they ever had. I was with them on the 10p income tax band and on zero tax on smaller businesses and they are throwing it all away.

Speaking about the payment of redundancy money tax free to a former Mayor of London.:

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): I do not wish to use this opportunity to refer to the present Mayor and to try to have last-minute influence over an election in which many of our colleagues are probably participating on the streets as we speak. I wish to raise the issue of principle. We face a public expenditure crisis in this country; the Government have overspent, and they are borrowing too much, taxing too much and spending too much money on purposes with which the public do not agree. The proposal before us today is another small example; it is an extension of payment in tax relief to former Mayors should they lose office, one way or another. It legislates not only for one Mayor or one particular payment, but for all future Mayors of London.

I do see the mayoralty of London as a mayoralty; it is the mayoralty of by far and away the biggest city in the United Kingdom. However, the Mayor of London is only one of many mayors of London, because there is a mayor of the City of London and a mayor of the city of Westminster, and there are many borough mayors. Most important local government in London is still carried out by the boroughs, rather than by the rather grand Mayor that was created more recently. It is difficult to see how one can sustain the argument that if it is fair to have severance payment for the grand Mayor of London, no severance payment is offered to the mayors of the individual cities in London, who are, in many ways, responsible for bigger budgets and more important services; they are responsible for education and social services, unlike the overall Mayor of London. As my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) has said from the Front Bench, it would be difficult to say that the mayor of Manchester or the mayor of Birmingham should not be given something similar.
I have a challenge for the Government: why do they think that, in the middle of this crisis of over-taxing, overspending and over-borrowing, this is a worthy clause on which to spend more public money? Why do they think that they can hold the line at saying yes to the Mayor of London, but no to the other mayors in London and to the mayors of other great UK cities? They will find it extremely difficult to hold that line.

Let us examine the question of justice and the contrast with the arrangements for Members of Parliament. We live in world in which people often come into the House of Commons at a much earlier age than they would expect to become an elected mayor, and they might be a Member of Parliament for 20 or 30 years. If they suddenly and abruptly lose their seat—perhaps in circumstances outwith the control of individual Back Benchers, because of the performance of their party or Government—one can see how that could prove a dreadful disruption to their lives. They may not be especially well known or have alternative skills, because they have put everything into their life as politicians. That is why that rule, which is unpopular with the public, was introduced, and people stood for election knowing that it was the rule.

It is very different with the Mayor of London. Again, I do not wish to personalise the debate, but I point out that anyone who stood last time round knew that that was not the rule. Why is it fair to change the rules after the election? If such a rule were thought necessary, it should have been introduced at the time that the mayoralty was established and before we had any idea of who would be the first or subsequent Mayor of London.

The other difference is that the mayoralty of London has turned into a celebrity activity, certainly as conducted by the first Mayor. We have already heard from the current Mayor that were he to lose, he thinks that he could have a good life appearing on chat shows and writing articles. I do not think that anyone who has an exciting enough personality to become Mayor of London would be short of a penny or two, should the electorate terminate their contract. They would become famous—

Mr. Jeremy Browne: Is not the right hon. Gentleman focusing too narrowly on the Labour and Conservative candidates, who I acknowledge are driven entirely by a love of being on television and the celebrity culture, and overlooking the Liberal Democrat candidate, who has a powerful and persuasive record of reducing crime and tackling the serious threat of criminal behaviour in our capital city?

Mr. Redwood: I do not think that we need to have such petty political debate when I am trying to discuss the principles of the matter. However, if I may be slightly partisan for a minute, I would say that in the totally unreal world in which there could be a Liberal Democrat Mayor—that is not what the polls and the public are saying—he too would become a celebrity and would, in due course, be in exactly the same position as the existing Mayor. Should the electorate tire of such a Mayor, he would be able to command good fees on the speaking circuit.

Given that the length of time that someone is Mayor is likely to be rather different from the length of time for which people may have the privilege of being a Member of Parliament, and because an ex-Mayor would be far better known and have more earning power when the job leaves them or they leave the job, I do not think that the same case can be made as is made even for Members of Parliament. The proposal also has to be set in the context that any payment to any politician is questionable and unpopular. We should not extend such privileges, but seek to cut them back.

On the issue of carbon zero homes:

Mr. Redwood: I rise to support my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening). Her amendment makes a lot of sense, and I hope that the Minister will simply concede that. I am sure that the Government intend the tax exemption to be available only on the first sale-and-purchase transaction. The drafting in my hon. Friend’s amendment would ensure that rather more accurately than the drafting in the Bill, so it would make sense to accept it.

Like the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), I wish to concentrate more on amendment No. 20 and what constitutes a zero-carbon home. I approach the issue from the proposition that it is better to try to change people’s conduct using tax incentives than through tax impositions or compulsion. The principle in the amendment is therefore welcome. It is right that the Government should try to address emissions related to the home environment as well as transport emissions. We well know why that is important: many more of the typical family’s emissions come from the family home. The problem is a difficult one, but it can be addressed using a series of incentives and proposals, of which this would be just one.

I understand my hon. Friend the Member for Putney’s worry that the measure will have a small impact. Part of the reason it will have a small impact is to do with the definition, which lacks clarity about what is a zero-carbon home. There might be a feeling out there in the marketplace that zero-carbon homes are unachievable, and that we should move our targets to what might better be called low-carbon homes as technology develops and the marketplace responds. That is what we do with motor vehicle manufacturing, the regulation of which is tightened progressively over the years, so that each generation of cars is successively better. As a result, exhausts have been cleaned up, and there have been changes regarding the production of fuel to give a certain level of performance. We could have a similar trajectory with housing and the improved performance of our homes, preferably through an incentive scheme.

The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West rightly said that the zero-carbon home of the Government’s imaginings is not truly zero-carbon because the construction process will entail a certain level of carbon dioxide emission. He could add to his list the emissions of vehicles used on a site to dig the ground and move the earth, as well as any pile-driving and concrete mixing required to provide the foundations and a stable platform on which to build.

Another aspect of all building processes that causes, perhaps, even more carbon emissions is the manufacture of building materials. Most of the building materials going into a typical British house have been produced using energy-intensive processes. The cement industry is a big energy user, as is the brick industry. That consideration needs to be fashioned into a policy. Although it will be good news for those who wish to cut carbon emissions if homes can be constructed that emit few or no carbon emissions, it will not be such good news if the building materials used to achieve that degree of insulation and that carbon-free standard were produced using energy-intensive methods or if they had to be transported quite far. Such homes would take many years to break even on the carbon account.

These issues are difficult. Carbon accounting is a rudimentary science at the moment, and all too many people considering it think that there are silver bullets and easy answers. They think, for example, that stopping people driving would make the problem go away, but it would not. The issue is more complicated than that. All sorts of processes and circumstances involve carbon dioxide emissions, and a sophisticated carbon account is needed before sensible policy conclusions can be reached. I hope that the Minister will produce rather more sophisticated research—perhaps not today but in the months ahead, as this policy develops—so that we can have a better idea of what the true carbon account would be on a so-called zero-carbon home. I hope that the Minister will be able to provide a little more definition today, as my hon. Friend the Member for Putney requested. If the policy is to have any chance of working, the wider world, interested in building new homes, needs a clearer idea of what is required, and we need a clearer idea of whether it is achievable.

I would regard as a failure a policy under which only 10 homes qualified in more than half a year, and, if I were a Minister, I would regard it as my important duty to tweak and change it until I had a decent number of homes coming forward, so that I could claim that the policy was some kind of success. I put it to the Minister either that it is a problem of persuading the market that what she has in mind can be done—the Government are meant to be good at putting out messages through the media—or that perhaps more work needs to be done on the sort of home that is envisaged, working in conjunction with the industry, so that we can roll out a policy for the hundreds and thousands rather than the one and twos as we seem to have at the moment.
I think that a stamp duty tax break is a very attractive tax break, as stamp duty is very high on the more expensive houses and still a lot of money on the relatively cheap houses because house prices have increased so much. We would expect to have something for the expenditure of tax revenue forgone; we do not seem to be getting it at the moment, so I hope that the Minister will use amendment No. 20 as an opportunity to clarify and improve the definition so that it delivers on the carbon front, taking into account the production of carbon in building the house as well as in subsequently living in it, as well as delivering the number of homes needed to fulfil the targets.

Speaking about the increase in vehicle excise duty on old vehicles:

Mr. Redwood: I am glad that my party tabled the amendment. It is important to see whether there would be a reduction in carbon emissions from the rather large further increase in taxation on motorists. I cannot see how such a proposal can change behaviour when it applies to cars that people have already bought, because by definition they cannot change their behaviour—they have already bought their cars—unless it is the Government’s intention to have all those cars scrapped prematurely, in which case one needs to do proper carbon accounting to see how much carbon would be emitted in the manufacture of the replacement vehicles, which should be taken into account. That would have to be amortised over their shortened life, if one is to continue the practice of ratcheting up the vehicle excise duty on vehicles already purchased and out there in the vehicle park.

If the main aim of the Government’s policy is to reduce emissions from vehicles, surely tax should be placed on use of vehicle and on fuel, which the Government are doing in huge measure anyway. They recently increased that greatly by stealth as a result of the increase in petrol and diesel prices at the pumps, rather than putting the tax on ownership of the vehicle. There is nothing environmentally unfriendly about owning a vehicle once it has been made and purchased, whereas using the vehicle can be environmentally unfriendly.

I hope the Government will think again and will understand that this is another rather difficult equation where we need better carbon accounting in order to know what the true impact of the policy is. We should not let the debate go by without somebody saying that motorists have been clobbered time and again by the Government, who do not seem to understand that many people need working vehicles, and that many people have to go by car because there is no public transport alternative. The provision is just another sign that the Government regard the motorist as a source of massive revenue and are hitting them for owning a car, buying a car and using a car—

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is another group of poorly paid workers who are hit doubly? I am referring to community nurses, for example, in large rural areas such as mine. The HMRC tax-free allowance on mileages has not risen in line. When I pursued the matter with Treasury Ministers, the answer came back that they were trying to change people’s behaviour and encourage them to get out of their cars. Try selling that to the district nurse in Tisbury.

Mr. Redwood: My hon. Friend is right. There are other low-paid workers who work antisocial hours and clearly need their car to get to and from work. People often have to take their children to school by car because there is no alternative. I hope that Ministers will think again about the overall magnitude of tax. After all, Ministers must have some spare money to play with, because we know that far more will be collected from diesel and petrol than was in the original Budget forecast. I tabled a question elsewhere to try to get at that figure. Why cannot some of that money be used to abate some of the severity of the proposal?

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  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

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