My contribution to Monday’s debate on the EU Referendum Leaflet:
John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): The Government document is a disgrace. It is morally wrong, it is financially wrong and I think that it will backfire on them politically, which is the only good news in this otherwise rather sad debate. We should not need to do this. Any British democratic Government should understand that we want to have fair elections and referendums, and that we have a long tradition of not taking taxpayers’ money to spend in promotion of party political purposes or other political purposes during an election or referendum. In my experience, no Government have ever taken taxpayers’ money close to an election to propagandise for party policies. Nor should this Government be taking money from the many taxpayers who wish to leave the European Union in order to spend it on propaganda to try to thwart their wishes.
I was proud to stand in the general election on a platform of offering people a free choice and a free vote, after all these years when we have had no right to such a thing, and it is a great pity that it is being sullied by taking money from taxpayers and spending it in the distorting way that others have already mentioned.
I know that many other colleagues wish to speak, so I will concentrate on just two matters. This leaflet is extremely misleading and part of a very misleading campaign that is based on fear and misinformation about our relationship with the EU and what the EU is doing to us. The two claims in the leaflet that I wish to highlight go together in some ways. The leaflet says that we now have “a special status” and that often we can get our own way as a result of that special status. So I thought I would look at three crucial areas and ask, “Do we have a special status and are we getting our way?” Those areas are our right to choose our own taxes; our right to control our own borders; and our right to decide what benefits to give to which people who live in our community. All previous Governments who have negotiated treaties have always solemnly promised Parliament that we still had complete control over what taxes we raised, complete control over what benefits we chose to spend our money on and complete control over our borders. I am afraid, however, that none of those things is true.
Let us take part of the negotiation—this special status. We were told that, as a result of the negotiation, changes would be made to the VAT system. It is clearly the settled will of this Parliament that the tampon tax should be abolished, and it is clearly illegal under European law to do so. It is also clear that last summer our European Union Commission took our Government to court and successfully prosecuted them for daring to set the VAT rate on green products—insulation, all sorts of boiler controls and other things that promote the green agenda—at 5% instead of at the full VAT rate, and of course the Commission successfully won that court case. So our Government are now under a legal requirement of the European Court of Justice to put our VAT up to 20%, although of course they have not done so before the referendum because it would be embarrassing and tedious for them to do so.
We were then told that this new special status means that that is going to change, so that we will not have to put up our VAT on green products and we will be able to get rid of the VAT on tampons. So I looked at the document that the EU has now issued following the negotiation to see whether that is indeed the case.
The first thing to note is that the consultation that the EU is holding on VAT reform is mainly about centralising and taking more powers to Brussels over VAT, not giving more powers to member states. The second thing to note is that the document makes absolutely no reference whatever to the EU-UK agreement, or to the special status that we asked for and we were told we had got on VAT. The third thing is that, in the talismanic last couple of paragraphs about whether it might be possible to offer more freedom to member states to choose their own rates of VAT, no mention is made of the rates that we wish to remove or keep low and no guarantee is offered that there will be any legislation forthcoming. Again, the document says that it is terribly important not to have tax competition within the single market and very important to have a central policy that has political support.
One has to read that document to understand that there is absolutely no agreement on special status and no agreement at all that the UK can choose its own VAT rates. That is a broken promise. Also, we are told by the Treasury that we will lose a series of court cases on corporation tax again in this Parliament. We lost many such cases in the last Parliament and it cost £7 billion of revenue, which the British Parliament wished to raise on corporations but had to give back, and the Treasury forecast is that we will lose another £7 billion in this Parliament in losing court cases in the ECJ.
The Treasury has never suggested that this new special status will prevent that. Therefore, it is quite obvious that we cannot raise taxes from companies where we want to and we cannot cut taxes on consumers where we want to, and that we have no “special status”.
If one then asks, “Is there a special status on borders?”, the answer is, “No, of course, there isn’t.” We are governed by the freedom-of-movement provisions and that means we have to allow in anyone who can get a job or who is seeking work under the provisions of the freedom-of-movement clauses. The Government, who made a solemn promise to the electors to reduce the number of migrants coming into the country—so that we can catch up with the need for more school places, more GP surgeries, more hospital capacity, more roads and more houses for people—are unable to fulfil that pledge in any way, and the Treasury has now admitted that that pledge is for the birds over the five years of this Parliament and all the way out to 2030. Goodness knows why the Treasury thought it could forecast to 2030, because it cannot even forecast for this year, let alone to 2030.
Mrs Anne Main (St Albans) (Con): My right hon. Friend has just made a fantastic point about the lack of transparency. Does he share my concern? An independent report states that 3.5 million people are expected to come in by that time—it will probably be considerably more than that—but there is no indication to the British people where they are going to go, and it is calculated that a quarter of a million acres of extra developed land will be required to provide the housing for those people coming in.
John Redwood: My hon. Friend is right—there is absolutely no proper provision for the very large number of people that the Treasury now admits are likely to come in. That is one of the few Treasury forecasts that I might believe. It is quite obvious that it could not forecast its own public spending, its own interest rates or anything in the recent Office for Budget Responsibility and Treasury documents. It had to make another revision again in the March Budget—it revised the forecast made in November—because it had found it difficult to grasp how the world might change between November and March. So there is this inability to forecast the economic numbers, but for once I think the Treasury may be honest in forecasting a substantial increase in migration. I suspect that the Treasury’s estimate is an underestimate because it has been constantly underestimating these figures in recent years, and it proves that we have no control over our borders and no “special status” whatsoever.
The third area is benefits. The Prime Minister made a great deal about benefits in the renegotiation; it was one of the few areas where he really pushed quite hard to get reform in the way that Britain wanted. I think both major parties campaigning in the last election wanted, for example, to no longer have to pay child benefit to children who are not resident in our country, but apparently that is something that we cannot negotiate. There is no “special status” to allow us to decide that child benefit should go to children living in our country rather than to children living elsewhere. There is some kind of fudge whereby we could pay the benefit at the level that applies in that country, which means in some cases that we will have to pay a higher level of benefit, although in other cases it means we will pay a lower level of benefit. So there is absolutely no control there.
Again, both major parties wanted amendments so that people coming here to work under the freedom-of-movement provisions would not automatically get the full range of benefits until they had been here for a bit and made some kind of contribution. We were not able to get a guarantee on that, either. There is some sort of four-year clause as a temporary expedient, but the benefits have to be phased in over the four years and the negotiating aim was not met.
On the big three things, therefore, which all independent democratic countries control through their Parliaments and Governments, Britain is unable to exert control: we cannot decide what taxes to impose; we cannot decide what benefits to spend our money on; and we cannot control our own borders. So I have to submit that the Government are completely misrepresenting the position when they say that they have negotiated a “special status”. They are completely wrong when they say that shows we can get our own way. They could not even get their own way on a very limited number of negotiating objectives at a point when they were threatening withdrawal and a referendum, so how will they ever get their way at all once the referendum is out of the way if, by any chance, the British people have not seen
through this and voted to stay?
Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): Does the right hon. Gentleman find it strange that, although the Government claim to have special status on some issues—and he has proved they have not gained such status—they refer time and again to things that we have opted out of? They make a case for joining Europe, but they boast that through our special status, “We opt out of this, we opt out of the euro, we opt out of border controls—we opt out of a whole range of things”. The Government are actually making a case for staying clear of the European project.
John Redwood: I agree. I always liken it to someone joining a football club and then announcing truculently that they have no wish to play football or watch football, getting cross when they go to club functions and people talk about football, and wanting to reduce the club subscription because, as they do not join in the football, they think they are overpaying. That is what the Government are doing to Europe.
They do not want to join the single currency or Schengen, or the quota system for refugees. They do not like political union being talked about, although that is the EU’s main purpose, and they think that the club subscription is too large. They are right about one thing: the club subscription is far too large for us because we do not believe in practically any of the club’s purposes. Most of us would draw the conclusion, however, that the simplest thing to do would be to leave the club and spend the subscription on things we do like.