John McDonnell MP
I am glad you are sitting down, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I do not want to shock you. I want to see if we can try something different tonight. Let us try and undertake some rational policy making. Let us try and base policy on evidence, shall we?
I have tabled a number of amendments—Nos. 24, 25 and 26—as a humble seeker after truth, basically, because I do not think the Government have made the case for freeports. I also think that the risks of this policy are huge. It could accelerate tax avoidance in this country on a massive scale and cause economic damage to the neighbouring areas of freeports. We are shovelling huge tax giveaways to corporations and developers for, as far as I can see, literally no return to society.
In its analysis of the Chancellor’s Budget, the Office for Budget Responsibility said of freeports:
“Further details have been announced in the Budget but came too late to be incorporated into our forecast.”
The OBR have therefore not made a comment—we await it. Freeports were not assessed by the OBR. However, it is not just the OBR that does not know the answer about the effects of freeports; neither do the Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds) asked the Treasury on 16 March what estimates it had made of the total annual cost of tax reliefs granted to the freeports. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury replied on 22 March to say—rarely have I seen this from a ministerial response—that
“it is not appropriate to comment on estimates at this stage.”
This is in the middle of policy making! He continued:
“they will therefore be scored at a future fiscal event.”
Therefore, what we are being asked to do tonight is sign off a blank cheque that will be filled in at a later date.
This is just irrational. Shoddy policy making on this scale is becoming all too familiar with this Government, but this is a bit of a shocker. It is just not good enough, so it would be really useful if tonight the Minister took us through the answers to a few simple questions. What are the annual costs of the proposed tax reliefs when the freeports are set up? What is the estimate of increased economic growth that will come from them? What is the estimate of increased job creation stimulated by the freeports? What is the estimate of increased tax revenues to the Exchequer as a result of this policy? And, to reinforce that, where is the evidence? If there are answers to those questions, where have they come from? Have they been independently assessed?
We are asking questions about the future, but we should look back, because this is not a new policy. Those of us who have been in the House a while—and that does not take long—can recognise this as a rebranding of the enterprise zones policy that the Conservative party wheeled out in the 1980s under Michael Heseltine and also in the last decade, when George Osborne fronted it up. Let me remind the House what the Public Accounts Committee said in May 2014. Its report was pretty damning about George Osborne’s enterprise zones, describing them as “particularly underwhelming”. The Committee criticised the Government for over-optimistic claims about job creation. The job numbers did not materialise—it is as simple as that. The Centre for Cities think-tank found that the jobs that were created were “overwhelmingly low skilled” and therefore low paid.
Enterprise zones were not just a disaster; they raised people’s hopes and shattered them in many areas around the country, and in many ways led to some of the disillusionment with politics and Government overall. Tax breaks for corporations in underinvested areas just does not make an industrial strategy. My view is that the Government should be investing, but in a planned upgrading of the infrastructure of this country, not making areas fight for scraps in this form of pork barrel politics.
The Conservatives’ strategy of tax breaks for developers and big business as a way of stimulating growth failed in the 1980s and again in the 2010s, and it risks failing again in the 2020s. The Government are asking us all to take a leap in the dark, and having twice before witnessed that leap in the dark, I think the result will be the same—it will be failure. I know that a number of Members, including some Ministers, have said it will be different because of Brexit and claim that being outside the EU gives greater freedoms than were available to enterprise zones, but if that is the case, why can they not quantify them and put that evidence in front of the House, in some form of rational policy making? The UK Trade Policy Observatory, based at the University of Sussex, has pointed out that as UK import tariffs are already low, any further tariff reduction would “have next to no benefits”.
I am pleased that Labour’s Front-Bench team is behind new clause 25, which my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) moved eloquently, as it is welcome. If passed, it would at least have the effect of creating a robust framework for the House to assess the success or failure of freeports policy, but surely no Members of this House who consider themselves to be serious, rational policy makers can vote for something like this proposal, which is so lacking in any evidential base.
I have to say that my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) has eloquently put forward the case for these proposals, both those from the Opposition Front Bench, which I fully support, and her own, but I think she has been too kind to the Government. Like her, I have sat for over two decades listening to the sophistry from Conservative Ministers explaining the various complications of doing anything to tackle tax avoidance, and they have been dragged kicking and screaming to take what little action there has been. I have also sat here year on year while they argued that cuts in corporation tax were the way to increase investment. Now, at least, they have admitted that they were wrong on that.
However, instead of cutting corporations’ taxes by cutting corporation tax, they are now simply doing it through the super deductions. These are super tax deductions to super tax avoiders. We can name them: Amazon, Vodafone, Virgin, Starbucks and many others. I sat in the Chamber when the global crash happened over a decade ago, and we discovered the intricate corporate structures that the banks used to avoid their taxes—the shell companies based in tax havens from the Channel Islands to the Caribbean. Barclays bank had more than 100 subsidiary companies located in the Cayman Islands alone. As these corporations became increasingly financialised, they became increasingly unprincipled about paying their dues to society.
I have tabled a simple amendment saying that super deductions should not go to companies that are failing to fulfil their duty as taxpayers in our country and that are using tax havens. The reason is simple: these corporations benefit from the workers they employ, and the taxes are needed to pay for their education and training. It is ironic that we are also often using our tax system to subsidise the low pay that these corporations pay their employees. They also benefit from the infrastructure. That is why they should be paying their way within our country itself.
In this struggle over the last 20 years or so, it is worth paying tribute to those who have campaigned so hard: my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking and all those activists, academics and journalists. I pay tribute to groups in the UK such as: Tax Justice Network; UK Uncut, which took direct action; Tax Justice UK; and those journalists and researchers who helped to expose the Panama papers and the Paradise papers. One of those journalists was the Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. She was assassinated in 2017 for the work she did to expose tax avoidance and money laundering.
My new clause 22 is very straightforward: no company should be eligible for the tax reliefs in the Bill if they are located, or have subsidiary companies located, in tax haven jurisdictions. The most authoritative list of tax havens or secrecy jurisdictions is the European Union’s blacklist of non-co-operative jurisdictions for tax purposes. That should be the basis of our approach. We are outside the EU now, so we must go further. Subsection (2) gives the Secretary of State powers to list additional jurisdictions that do not co-operate in disclosing information to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. In this way at least we can ensure that we are not, in effect, acting as subsidisers for tax avoiders or laundering tax reliefs into their coffers. It is a simple amendment.
I support the Labour Front Bench amendments and the other amendments that would have a similar effect, but I have had enough. I am sick to death of sitting here listening to excuses from Ministers about failing to act when so much needs to be paid through a fair taxation system. So many of our constituents are having to endure continuing austerity because of the lack of tax revenues. They are living in poverty, unfortunately, as a result of the failure to have a fair taxation system that redistributes wealth in our country.
Tax Threshold Freeze
We are at a stage in the Bill’s progress that is almost like a wash-up. We are trying to make last-minute appeals to the Government for action on a number of key issues, and all the appeals to the Government so far by the right hon. Members for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) and for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), the hon. Members for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) and for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) and others are on worthy causes that should be addressed, as are the amendments from the Labour Front Benchers.
We must remember the context of the Government’s surcharge policy. It was to spike the approach that the Labour party was making about a levy on overseas ownership, on exactly the grounds laid out by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch about the desperate need for housing and to prevent housing from being used continuously as an investment asset for profit, rather than to put roofs over the heads of our families. I wholeheartedly support and welcome all those appeals, but even if with my Catholic upbringing I believe in the powers of conversion, I somehow doubt we have been able to convert the Minister to a sufficient level for him to accept the amendments. I hope to be surprised, but I doubt it.
I tabled amendment 23 not in the hope of converting the Conservative Government, but to enable me to express justifiable anger about the Government’s approach. The Government are attempting to legislate for a real-terms pay cut that will affect millions of low-paid workers through the freeze in the tax threshold. Those include many of my constituents who have had to make ends meet on 80% of their wages for much of last year. Yesterday—this has already been referred to—it was galling to see the other side of the coin. The Sunday Times rich list showed that during the pandemic more billionaires have been created in the UK than at any time in the past 33 years. The levelling-up policy that appeared last year was the levelling up of millionaires into billionaires.
The Chancellor should have used the occasion of the Budget and this Bill to level up capital gains tax to income tax rates, for example. It cannot be right that we tax work more than we tax income from wealth. Ahead of the Budget it was rumoured that the Chancellor was considering equalising capital gains tax and income tax. That would have been a much fairer way of raising revenue than increasing taxes for people on low and average wages, which the Government’s proposals on tax thresholds will do.
Child poverty has been mentioned, and in my constituency 42% of children are growing up in poverty—a figure that has sadly increased each year since 2015. Child poverty is often a consequence of low pay. The majority of children living in poverty in my constituency live in working households. We should be doing everything we can not just to protect but to boost the incomes of the low paid, not drag them into taxation or increase the taxes on them. The Bill will cut the income of someone working full time on the minimum wage. We know that 2 million workers rely on universal credit to top up their low pay, yet in a few months, the Government are going to cut universal credit by £20 a week.
Poverty has been rising in this country, and whether it is the £20 cut to universal credit, the stealth tax in the Bill, or this year’s paltry increase in the minimum wage, the Government’s actions will increase poverty still further, and increase suffering as a result. My amendment would ensure that the tax thresholds for the personal allowance and the higher rate were kept in line with inflation, as per the Income Tax Act 2007. I tabled it because I wanted to draw attention not to Labour party policy but to Conservative party policy, because in the last general election the Conservative manifesto pledged:
“We promise not to raise the rates of income tax”.
The manifesto continued:
“This is a tax guarantee that will protect the incomes of hard-working families across the next Parliament.”
I just hope that Conservative Members will have the good grace at least to acknowledge that clause 5 of the Bill breaches that pledge, and that incomes are not protected. More of people’s incomes will be hit by income tax, and that is especially harsh on the millions of public sector workers who now face from this Government a pay freeze, a 5% rise in council tax and now this stealth tax rise on their income tax.
We know that low earners are struggling to make ends meet as it is. They are heavily indebted, some have been furloughed, losing 20% of their income for a year, and now they are being hit by what by any fair reading is a stealth tax on their income that they thought had been ruled out by the Conservatives’ manifesto in the last election. My worry is that low pay is endemic in our society now. I just want to remind Conservative Members of another pledge that many of them stood on in 2015 when the then Chancellor, George Osborne, promised a £9 minimum wage by 2020. It is now 2021, and the minimum wage is still below that level.
What infuriates me, particularly given the experience of the past year, is that half of all care workers earn less than the real living wage and that the majority of children in poverty are living in working households. The last thing any Government should be doing now is raising taxes on low-paid workers, especially when the Government have broken their promises on raising wages. With many low-paid workers not getting a pay rise and facing household debts they have amassed during lockdown, we should not be taking more out of their income. With high street retail needing an urgent stimulus, there cannot be a worse policy at a worse time than removing demand from the economy. So at this late stage, I, like others, am appealing to the Government to change clause 5. I doubt that they will change their mind, but let me at least place on record my disgust at the Government and at the way this Bill is forcing more very low-paid people already living in poverty into further poverty and suffering.