Treasury Questions

David Gauke answers MPs’ questions on subjects including the employee ownership scheme, reducing the cost of living and tax evasion and avoidance.

Employee Ownership

Pauline Latham (Mid Derbyshire) (Con): What assessment he has made of the fiscal implications of the Government’s proposed employee-owner scheme. [126521]

Jesse Norman (Hereford and South Herefordshire) (Con): What recent representations he has received from businesses on the fiscal implications of employee ownership. [126523]

The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Mr David Gauke): The Government expect that the scheme will cost up to £100 million in 2017-18. The initial estimate will be refined following the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills consultation on the implementation of the new employee-owner status, which involves engagement with business and others and will close on 8 November. The annual breakdown of the estimated Exchequer cost of the policy will then be published at the autumn statement once it has been certified by the Office for Budget Responsibility.

Pauline Latham: Will the Minister update the House on the response he has had from businesses and business organisations about the new employee organisation ownership scheme?

Mr Gauke: I am pleased to tell the House that the likes of the Federation of Small Businesses, the British Chambers of Commerce and the Institute of Directors have warmly welcomed the proposal, which will help entrepreneurs and start-up businesses.

Jesse Norman: Studies have shown that employee-owned companies grow as fast as limited companies, are more resilient and better at creating and keeping jobs, and have higher levels of staff well-being and fairer pay, which means that they are proven to create social value. As well as removing current tax incentives, will the Government consider a new capital gains tax relief for businesses sold into employee ownership?

Mr Gauke: My hon. Friend will be aware of the Nuttall review, which reported last week. The Treasury is also considering its role in helping employee ownership to support growth as well as options to remove barriers, including tax barriers. That work is being considered in the run-up to the autumn statement.

Lindsay Roy (Glenrothes) (Lab): Does the Minister agree with the chief executive of Sainsbury’s, who said that “trading employment rights” for company shares is

“not what we should be doing”?

Mr Gauke: What Sainsbury’s does is a matter for Sainsbury’s, but I also point out the comments made by the likes of the leaders of the Federation of Small Businesses, the British Chambers of Commerce and the Institute of Directors, who have said that this measure will help entrepreneurs, start-up businesses and the fast-growing companies that we need. Surely the whole House should welcome that.

Mr Michael Meacher (Oldham West and Royton) (Lab): Given that the Government have been keeping extremely mum about the tax avoidance implications of the scheme and that it looks like a wide-open tax loophole for the better off, what capital gains tax avoidance does he estimate it will create?

Mr Gauke: In the design of the scheme we will take steps to deal with tax avoidance opportunities to ensure that we do not create any loopholes, but this is a scheme that will encourage entrepreneurs and start-ups to provide businesses with an opportunity to expand rapidly, and it is exactly the sort of flexible approach that this country needs in the current economic climate.

Sir Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): Will the Minister clarify the status of the idea of trading employee rights for share ownership? It has been described as a voluntary scheme, but does the Minister accept that it will swiftly become a de facto compulsory scheme? What level of employee shareholding is anticipated? The media have speculated that it could range from 2,000 from 50,000. It might be acceptable at 50,000, but it would be very different at 2,000.

Mr Gauke: There will be a range of options—the minimum is 2,000, and the maximum is 50,000—but this is not going to be a matter that is compulsory. It will not be the right answer for every business, but there are some businesses that need flexibility to find employee status somewhere between a full employee and someone who is self-employed such as a partner, as many hundreds of thousands of people are. I think that it is a sensible, pragmatic response.

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Cost of Living

Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): What fiscal steps he has taken to reduce the cost of living. [126532]

The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Mr David Gauke): The Government have taken wide-ranging action to support households. We cut fuel duty last year and have kept it frozen since then. We have also helped those in work by raising the personal allowance by £1,100 in April 2013—the largest tax cut for the median earner in more than a decade. The Government recently announced another year of a council tax freeze and a reduction of the rail fare cap for two further years.

Glyn Davies: A major factor in the costs facing families across the United Kingdom is the rapidly increasing cost of energy. Does my hon. Friend agree that Governments have a responsibility to limit such increases as far as possible, including the costs to energy users of paying for the unsustainably large subsidies paid to onshore wind farm developers?

Mr Gauke: My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue of energy prices. The Government are doing what they can on that front. We are supporting Ofgem’s work in ensuring that there is competition in the energy markets, and of course we are determined to do what we can to get people on lower tariffs.

Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): Does the Minister accept that the Government’s increase in VAT has led to 5p on a pint of beer and 3p on a litre of fuel?

Mr Gauke: We have to take action to try to deal with the deficit that we inherited, and let us not forget that. The hon. Gentleman mentions fuel. Because of the steps that we have taken on fuel duty, petrol pump prices could be as much as 10p lower per litre than they would have been had we stuck with the fuel duty escalator that we inherited.

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Tax Evasion and Avoidance

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): What recent steps he has taken to tackle tax evasion and reduce tax avoidance. [126536]

The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Mr David Gauke): The Government are investing over £900 million is strengthening Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs’ response to evasion and avoidance and are on course to bring in around £7 billion in additional tax each year by 2014-15. HMRC is increasing the number of staff working on compliance and using innovative approaches to improve how it identifies and tackles evasion. The Government will soon introduce the UK’s first general anti-abuse rule while also strengthening avoidance disclosure rules and publicity.

Bob Blackman: I am a strong supporter of lowering direct tax rates on individuals and companies, but hard-working families in my constituency want to know that companies and high-worth individuals are paying their fair share of tax. What is my hon. Friend doing to ensure that individuals and companies pay their fair share of tax rather than avoiding it?

Mr Gauke: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why we are taking action to strengthen HMRC’s compliance capability, why we are introducing a general anti-abuse rule, why we want to ensure that everyone pays their fair share of tax, and why the Chancellor made it clear yesterday in Mexico that we are working at an international level to ensure that the system that applies to multinational companies does just that.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): The Minister talks—it might be wishful thinking—about bringing in an extra £7 billion a year, but the tax gap is at least £120 billion a year, and some people think it is more. Is it not time that the Government took chasing billionaire tax dodgers more seriously and stopped cutting public spending and squeezing the poor?

Mr Gauke: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the figure of £120 billion does not have much support from anyone who knows much about statistics. The actual figure is £32 billion. That is the number we inherited from the previous Government and we are determined to bring it down.

Stephen Williams (Bristol West) (LD): The Minister will be well aware of the anger of many of our constituents about the activities of companies such as Starbucks and Amazon to minimise their tax rates through aggressive tax avoidance. Is not part of the answer more international co-operation, perhaps among OECD countries, to restrict the ability of those multinationals to siphon off profitable activities into low tax havens?

Mr Gauke: My hon. Friend is right to point out that we need to be vigilant about aggressive tax avoidance and the diversion of profits from where genuine economic activity occurs. That is why the Chancellor of the Exchequer is leading the way on that, working with the German Finance Minister, and why we had the announcement from Mexico yesterday that the G20 is focusing on that and encouraging the OECD to progress its work so that we can deal with this as soon as possible.

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Unearned Wealth

Mr Adrian Sanders (Torbay) (LD): What his policy is on taxation on unearned wealth; and if he will make a statement. [126539]

The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Mr David Gauke): The Government are committed to a fair tax system in which those with the most contribute the most. The UK’s tax system is a progressive one, and wealthy individuals make a substantial contribution to the Exchequer. The Government have increased that contribution in a number of ways since the election.

Mr Sanders: Social mobility for younger people in Torbay is often curtailed by inequality not of income but of wealth, meaning that far too many will never be able to buy their own homes. Will he redress that imbalance by taxing unearned income as much as we tax the wages of the vast majority of my constituents?

Mr Gauke: The Government have increased stamp duty land tax on the most valuable properties. We have also increased the rate of capital gains tax. It is a question of balancing that with practicalities; we think that some of the proposals in this area may have a number of practical difficulties. But we have taken action on some of the taxes that have increased the burden on the wealthiest.

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Topical Questions

Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): Instead of insulting hard-working parents and calling them “fiscal nimbys”, will the Minister explain how it is fair that a couple earning up to £100,000 a year will keep all their child benefit, while a one-earner family on £50,000 will see theirs cut?

The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Mr David Gauke): We looked at introducing this measure on the basis of household income, but it would mean bringing 8 million households into the tax credit system and impose a much greater administrative burden on many people. At least Labour Members are consistent: they have opposed every measure to try to reduce the welfare budget, whether it be the welfare cut or child benefit for higher earners. It is time for us all to look at public spending in that area and bring it under control, but the Labour party will simply not do that.

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Mr Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): What is the Minister going to do about all those multinational companies that are paying little or no tax? Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs claims that it is powerless because those companies are gaming the system. Instead of pious statements issued from Mexico about what we might or might not do, may we have some action from the Minister? He could start by increasing from 65 the number of tax experts that actually deal with this problem.

Mr Gauke: Anyone would think that there was a completely different arrangement in 2010, but I am afraid that is not the case. The Government are working at an international level to ensure that multinationals pay the tax that is due, and that profits on their economic activity is paid where it occurs. We are also strengthening HMRC’s capacity in that area and giving it greater skills to tackle the issue. I would have thought the Labour party would welcome the progress we are making when compared with the lack of progress under the previous Government.

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Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con): The Government have seen the benefits that transparency can bring. Would it be good to require large corporates to publish their tax returns so that we can all see how they achieve the low rates of tax they pay?

Mr Gauke: It is right that large corporates engage in this debate, and there is a lot of public interest in the matter. One must ask whether tax returns in themselves will provide the full information—my hon. Friend has great expertise in this area—and whether that is the right way to address the issue. We have a tradition of taxpayer confidentiality in this country, as does every major economy.

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Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): Will those on the Treasury Bench tell us the expected cost to HMRC in, for example, extra staffing and IT support of dealing with the massive number of extra self-assessment returns—it is estimated at around 500,000—that will result from child benefit changes?

Mr Gauke: The cost of implementation of the child benefit policy will be £100 million over five years, but it will bring in £1.7 billion in the first year. I should also point out that the likelihood is that the number of people in self-assessment next year will be no higher than the number in self-assessment last year.

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David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con): Will my hon. Friend tell the House what steps he is taking better to support small and medium-sized enterprises through the tax system?

Mr Gauke: We have taken a number of measures, including reducing the small profits rate from 22%, which it would have been, to 20%. We have also introduced measures such as seed enterprise investment schemes and small business rate relief. We have taken such measures because we recognise that small businesses will be an engine for growth for our economy and in employment.

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