John Redwood speaks about Corporation Tax in the Finance Bill debate

Speaking in yesterday’s debate on the Finance Bill, John Redwood warned that we need to look beyond the current trough of the recession and recognise the seriousness of the threat to British industry from other G20 countries. He recommended cutting Corporation Tax to 25% as a basic first step, but said further cuts to 20% were needed if we wanted to encourage businesses to stay in the UK rather than relocate to competitors with lower tax regimes.

The full text of John’s Hansard speech now follows:

Mr. Redwood: I am a director of two companies, as declared in the Register of Members’ Interests, but I wish to make some general remarks about the tax system.
My hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) has been quite right to say that a lower headline rate of tax could be very important in attracting more business to this country. I think he could have added that it will also affect the judgments of quite a lot of multinational businesses that already have some representation in Britain but have options over where they could carry out their various activities.

Quite rightly, it is not legal for a company to fiddle its transfer prices by suppressing profit in a high-tax regime in order to allow the transfer of that profit to a low-tax regime by artificial means. Under this and previous Governments, the Treasury has rightly adopted methods of preventing or stopping that practice. It is, however, an entirely legitimate business strategy for a multinational with factories, service areas and operational centres around the world to decide where, at any given time, it is best to allocate particular types of business. Obviously, if a multinational has footloose business of a high-technology, high-value-added, high-growth kind which will produce a high margin and plenty of profit, it will look very carefully at the effective and, especially, the headline tax rates around the world. All other things being equal, it may then decide to put more of its high-value, high-profit business into the parts of the world that offer the most competitive headline rates.

I am sure that, in their saner moments, Treasury Ministers agree that that is the case. They know that it happens and that it is a real possibility now, which is one of the additional reasons why I think my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham is right to press them again on whether they are certain that 28 per cent. is a sufficiently competitive rate at a time when the whole world is hungry for jobs and for higher-technology and high-value-added business, and when there is not enough business to go round and there are not enough jobs to go round.
It is true that our debate takes place against the background of a sharp devaluation of the pound. Such a devaluation has many drawbacks. It makes us all poorer, and it pushes up inflation—although it has one important advantage in that it makes our industrial and service activity much more competitive in the short term from a British base, which I trust will limit the damage in Britain compared with that in some of our competitor economies. However, we need to think beyond the one-off impact of the devaluation. We need to think beyond the present trough of the recession. We cannot be sure how long it will take, but there will be recovery, and we need to ask ourselves that fundamental question: is 28 per cent. a sufficiently competitive rate at the present time?

The hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson) rightly pointed out that the present Government had continued the previous Government’s policy of cutting the headline rate. That was very sensible, but I think that they got stuck. I do not think that they realised how rapidly the rest of the world had moved on. In the opening exchanges today, my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham was asked if he recognised that all that we needed was one of the more competitive rates in the G7, and that if we had it we would be all right. Of course we will not be all right. The world has been completely transformed. The Prime Minister accepted that in hosting and chairing the G20. The serious competitive threat to keeping manufacturing in Britain or attracting it to Britain today comes primarily from China and India. It is a serious option for most multinational companies to switch production from the United Kingdom or Germany to China or India. Most multinational companies already have several factories in those countries, as well as having manufacturer capability in Britain, Germany, the United States or some combination of all three.
The proposal that we are discussing goes to the heart of that issue. Why are we talking about the headline rate? Because it is the headline rate that people usually use in their simulations, models and forecasts when considering where to put their future investment. They also look at the underlying trend of policy. If, as in Canada, it is clearly a commitment to make the current rate the maximum and to say that in future it will be reduced, that will be a fairly influential factor when it comes to the judgment on the back of the numbers. If people see a Government who face a monumental deficit and who seem to think that it is only possible to secure more tax revenue by raising tax rates—itself a very dubious argument, in my view—they may well say to themselves that the Government could not be bothered to cut the rate below 28 per cent. although they knew that 28 per cent. was no longer particularly competitive, and that in a year’s time they, or some other Government, might be forced to put the rate up. That is not a good background against which to make an investment judgment.

I urge Treasury Ministers to think again. I urge them to understand that our prime competitors have much lower tax rates than ours, as well as having lower remuneration and other competitive advantages. I urge them to understand that the big investment players in manufacturing in this world already have capacity around the world, and the ability to switch. I also urge them to understand that we are talking about not just where the new factory goes, but where the work is allocated around the different factories of the world, and that if we allow our country to be perceived as more hostile to business—less competitive in tax and regulatory terms—we will start to be on the wrong end of business judgments. The people in the American, Japanese or Chinese multinational will start to say, “Well, we’ll leave the old, low value-added, less profitable business in Britain because of the tax rate,” and that means that Britain will lose jobs rather than create them, and that, in the end, the British plant will be the one most likely to face the closure notice because—surprise, surprise—it has the worst business and then it has the worst figures. The people in the multinationals will forget that the reason why that particular country has less good factory results is because, for tax reasons, they chose to locate a less profitable business in it. Therefore, if countries are not careful, they can find that they are on a very slippery slope indeed.
In today’s exchanges, we have already heard Labour Members voicing scepticism about whether the setting of a 10 per cent. rate in Ireland was the reason why so much business was attracted there. I can assure Labour Members that, from conversations I have had on account of my work on the policy review and for other purposes, it is clear that the low headline rate of corporation tax has probably been the number one attraction to footloose international businesses in choosing to go to the Republic of Ireland. They did not go there for the European Union grants; most of those were paid to agriculture, which was not a particularly successful sector. They did not go there to join the euro either, because they have to deal in a multi-currency world and what matters to them is the rate into the dollar, the renminbi and the rupee, so the euro is not that important. What mattered to them was that they assumed that they would run profitable businesses—and for quite a lot of years, many of them did—and it makes a huge difference to their forecast cash flows on an investment if they are keeping 90 per cent. of them rather than only 70 or 72 per cent. of them with the rest going to the Government. The Financial Secretary is a clever man, and he knows the power of compound arithmetic. The compound effects of taxing at 10 per cent. are so much more benign than the compound effects of taxing at 28 per cent.

I do have one, friendly, disagreement with my Conservative Front-Bench colleagues in that I believe that the Laffer curve works—they are sitting up and taking notice, Sir Alan. I am trying to make our lives easier, because I believe that this is one of those rare cases where we can have our cake and eat it. I believe that if a country is brave enough to set a lower tax rate, as the Irish were in spades, it can attract a huge extra amount of business, because world business is very footloose and very sensitive to the individual tax rates on offer. The Irish moved from being a lot poorer than the United Kingdom to being a lot richer. At the same time, they moved from spending less per head to being able to spend a lot more on public services because the low rates brought in so much more revenue. Such low rates can therefore have an extremely benign effect, but there is also the reverse effect: if a country allows itself to become too uncompetitive on the headline rate, it discovers that even putting it up does not solve its revenue problem, but can actually make the revenue problem worse.

Fortunately, so far, although we have had a run of companies leaving the country, such departures have been paced out and the Government have managed to suppress a lot of bad commentary on that, but I suggest to them that they should not push their luck any further. My hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) produced a partial list of those companies that have gone. There are others as well, and in certain sectors, such as insurance, it is becoming a rush to get to the exit on time. The situation could be the same for some of the higher charging investment management companies, one of which my hon. Friend mentioned. This is a serious problem for the United Kingdom. To those on the Labour Benches who say, “Well, we don’t want to keep those sorts of businesses if they’re that sensitive to the tax rate and do not want to pay their fair due”, I say that that is a very short-sighted view. Businesses are, on the whole, motivated by profit and money as well as by wishing to serve the public, but they know they have to serve the public well to generate the revenues—that is the deal—and if we are too cavalier in our approach to taxing them, we do not just lose the tax revenue they were paying in terms of corporation tax, but we lose the tax revenue they were paying in terms of the tax on their employees, the national insurance and the VAT on the money their employees would have spent in the shops. We lose a great deal of tax revenue if we become too cavalier about where businesses are to be located.

The case is very straightforward: cutting the rate from 28 per cent. to 25 per cent. would send a very strong signal to our international competitors and, more importantly, to international manufacturing investors that this country is serious about remaining tax competitive. I hope that my Front-Bench colleagues agree that a change to 25 per cent. is the minimum that we need to do and that it is not the final resting place. I would be much happier with a rate of 20 per cent., because that would make a huge statement, would catapult us back to being a place that people talked about as a desirable location for investment and would definitely illustrate the Laffer curve—one might say that one would be “Laffing” all the way to the bank if one was to do that, because so much more business would be attracted and so much more revenue would be coming in.

As a result of these straitened times, my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham says that we should be absolutely sure and pay for this proposal out of removing allowances. That is my second-best option—I would rather just cut the rate—but it makes more sense than doing nothing, because it does take the trick on the headline rate and I do not believe it does the damage that the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson), who is no longer in his place, seemed to suggest. Past corporation tax reforms have cut allowances and cut rates, and they have been helpful and benign; they have usually resulted in more flows of business as long as they establish a competitive international rate that we can work with and of which we can be proud.

I do not think that those on the Treasury Bench are communicating a strong enough sense of the danger to our economy that the current situation represents. Perhaps they are resting on the laurels of the devaluation and perhaps they do not understand how tough the situation is, particularly in the manufacturing heartlands. They are not energetic enough in making the case within government that if we are serious about rebuilding our manufacturing, we need to put in place a package of measures, and this considerably lower corporation tax headline rate would be an important first step.

I would like this country to export more and make more, as that is part of the necessary process for recovery. A lower corporation tax rate would help to do that. I do not despise financial services. I would like us to grow and improve our financial services offering in Britain and keep London as a very important financial centre. That, too, is very dependent on a very competitive corporation tax regime. The Financial Secretary knows that I am not happy with the huge sums tipped into banks, which have grossly distorted the economy’s adjustment process and have delayed the necessary adjustment in those banks. I wanted to keep them going at a much lower cost.

Of course I did not want the banks to go bankrupt, but it is a disgrace that so much money has been absorbed in them. If we had not wasted all that money in the banks, even the Financial Secretary could have afforded my 20p in the pound proposal for corporation tax, given his view that it does not generate the extra revenue that I believe it does. That option would have been a much better competitive package for Britain than losing billions in RBS and delaying the time when RBS sorts itself out and actually generates some money for British taxpayers and for the Treasury, instead of taking away all the money that we need in order to offer a more competitive package. I hope that the Treasury will also go away and think about squeezing some money out of the banks to make the rest of British business profitable, rather than squeezing the rest of British business to try to buttress the banks.

1 Comment

  1. Denis Cooper
    May 13, 2009

    If the headline rate of corporation tax is a powerful factor when multinationals decide where to locate businesses – and I agree that is the case – would it not make sense to vary that rate across the country, to more nearly equalise economic development?

    There seems to be no sense in setting a uniform rate, so that corporation tax is no longer a discriminating factor when a company is considering whether to locate in the south east or in some other part of the country, if it means that in the end central government tax revenues must be transferred from the already over-developed south east to that other part of the country, in order to compensate for the lower per capita GDP.

    (Or as the government now prefers, as usual at the behest of the EU, per capita GVA:

    “Shows economic activity as measured by GVA for English regions, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland including component totals and industry group totals.

    Data are shown using a European classification system called NUTS (Nomenclature of Units for Territorial Statistics) which provides a breakdown of UK regions and countries to give a comparable view of economic activity across the European Union.”)

    Which compensation mostly takes the form of increasing public sector employment – hence, the generalised over-reliance on the public sector in the north and west of the UK, a kind of mirror image of the over-development of the private sector in the south east.

    Yet when George Osborne was in Edinburgh some time ago, and he was asked whether he would consider varying business taxes across the UK, he immediately rejected that suggestion.

    Personally I don’t want more and more development, and people, crammed into my part of the country; nor do I want to pay more and more tax to subsidise lagging parts of the country; and nor do I want the internal stresses to become so severe that the UK breaks up.

    I’d much rather that the government adopted a proactive policy of equalising economic development across the whole country, so that all parts were as far as may be feasible standing on their own feet, and the most obvious measure in that direction would be to vary business tax rates inversely with per capita GDP.

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