I came to this debate solely to make a proposal on local government, but because the House is not packed I will respond to some of the previous comments. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (James Murray) on his comprehensive analysis of the Government’s Budget, which revealed its lack of substance as much as anything. The purpose of having a Finance Bill after a Budget, and especially after a spending review, is that it is meant to embody the Government’s strategy and political analysis in line with their appraisal of the economy and the political situation.
It is difficult to discern from this Bill any form of overall Government strategy, and it is difficult to understand how the Bill relates to the many real-world issues we currently face—that is what is so surprising. The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) made the critical point that, having come back from COP, we might have expected the Government to be fired up to mobilise the whole economy with the purpose of ensuring we tackle the existential threat of climate change, but there is very little in the Bill that relates to any of that major threat.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) explained the situation of many of our constituents who face deprivation, challenges, insecurity of income and issues with the delivery of public services. Not only is there nothing in this Finance Bill that will tackle those problems, but the reverse is true: benefits are being cut and austerity continues. That is quite remarkable.
On a side point, my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) always says when we have a Finance Bill before us that the Government, yet again, have not tabled an “amendment of the law” resolution. That is an arcane parliamentary point, but it is important because it limits our scrutiny of the Finance Bill.
If I were trying to identify the Government’s strategy on the basis of the Prime Minister’s words, the high-skilled, high-wage economy is meant to be based on high levels of investment. The Chancellor has referred to the ending of austerity on numerous occasion, and the Prime Minister has made reference to the importance of tackling climate change. I see none of that in the Bill.
I caution the Government. Let me put it in this context: we have had two weeks of report after report of corruption, in effect, on top of month after month of public amazement and now, increasingly, shock about what happened with the distribution of covid contracts. Confidence in not just the Prime Minister but the Government is now at an all-time low. At the weekend, I saw in one article that unless things change, the Prime Minister will be out by the summer—and that was Tory MPs speaking, not us. Lots of evidence now abounds that the Foreign Secretary’s and the Chancellor’s leadership election campaigns are up and running and that the structure is being put in place for that challenge, when it comes, but it is more serious than just the future of the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson). There is currently a loss of confidence not just in the Government but in governance overall, and more so this week: from what I heard on the news this morning, there are going to be announcements about transport investment this week that renege on the commitments to the funding of rail in the north, particularly in respect of the extension of High Speed 2. In that political context, the Bill takes on a greater significance than usual.
…. I raised in my Budget speech the lack of confidence in the Government’s commitment to levelling up overall and even to defining what it means, and I mentioned the importance of the need for a bit of levelling back because of the scale of the cuts that have been endured over the past 11 years.
I make the general point that there is currently a level of insecurity and uncertainty, and a questioning of politics overall and of whether the people can trust any politician. I thought that with a Budget and a comprehensive spending review the Government would at least be able to set out their plans and bring forward the measures in the Finance Bill so that we would at least know where they are going, which might give us some security or confidence that the Government at least have some sense of direction. I do not think it is there—it is certainly not in the Bill. We can take some humour from this situation. The Chancellor certainly led with his chin in respect of the proposals to cut the bankers’ levy and the tax on flights and champagne. No one could blame the shadow Front-Bench team coming forward and taking the rise out of what was quite obviously a bankers’ Budget.
Let me comment on a number of the key issues that have been raised in the debate so far. If the Budget was about the end of austerity, high skills, high wages and so on, the Bill flies in the face of all that. The hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) talked about how people have been treated in respect of other announcements; how can the Government argue that the Bill is about high wages when they are freezing tax bands, introducing national insurance increases and cutting universal credit? All those things hit earners.
Something fundamental at the heart of this Bill—it was at the heart of the Budget, too—is the Government’s refusal to take on the imbalance between the taxation of wealth and the taxation of earnings. We have seen it in the Government’s setting out of proposals some time ago on reforming capital gains tax but their failure, yet again, to do it in this legislation. Given that the argument over the need to ensure that we tax on capital and wealth as well as on levels of earnings has been won, the proposal that I thought would be in this Bill was to ensure that taxation on earnings and on capital gains were brought into line. The amount that that would bring in to the Government was initially recalculated at £14 billion, but I see that the TUC’s figure is £17 billion. That could have resolved the issues in social care. That would have ended austerity for large numbers of our population.
The Government argue that, in the Bill, they are doing something about the taxation of earnings from dividends, but it is negligible in comparison with what is needed and it sends out a similar message that they are willing to penalise earners, but, at the same time, allow others who earn their money from wealth to walk away.
The reason that the bank levy offends is not just that it is going back to the days of the crash and the scurrilous role that the banks played in enabling that to happen—the profiteering at all our expenses; it is because what the banks have is the best insurance policy in the world. It is an insurance policy, backed up by the UK Government, that no matter what they do, no matter how much they fail, they will never be allowed to fail because the Government will always step in and bail them out. An additional levy was placed on the banks to make sure that they paid something back from the crash, and also that they paid something in return for the guarantee that they were given. What we find now is that the amount that they have paid so far does not even pay off some of the damaging costs that fell to taxpayers as a result of their wild speculation that brought about the crash.
One matter that has been raised in the debate—the Exchequer Secretary has also mentioned it—is that of tax reliefs and the extension of the annual investment allowance. I can understand why the Government have done that, but what I cannot understand is why they have done that as well as introduce the super deductions. The Government’s argument is that 99% of the business investment that is undertaken will be covered by the annual investment allowance, but to then go on and give a super tax deduction of 130% flies in the face of that argument. If we look at the record of tax reliefs, most of which, historically, have never been reviewed by the Treasury, we see that they mount up year after year, decade after decade. Some of them go back nearly a century, but they are never reviewed, and that is often with scandalous effect. On the entrepreneurs’ allowance, even the Government had to accept that that was an abuse of an allowance. People were walking away with large amounts of benefits without in any way demonstrating their entrepreneurial skills. It is the same with the patent box.
Let me now come to the tonnage tax. I have been lobbying on that now for nearly 15 years. The tonnage tax was introduced by John Prescott—by the way, I hope that all of us will send our best wishes to him in the hope that his recovery from the severe stroke that he had is going on apace—as part of a strategy to revive British shipping. The purpose of it was to give a tax allowance to shipping companies so that they would then employ more UK seafarers, and employ them on a decent wage as well. Year after year, we argued about it with the Government—the Labour Government got into this one as well. Large amounts of money were going to these shipping companies, but the jobs were not appearing. In fact, we were losing UK seafarer jobs. Seafarers were largely being recruited from abroad, and in some instances were not even being paid the minimum wage. The tonnage tax was linked to the training of officer cadets, not ratings, and a limited number of officer cadets were recruited by the shipping companies. As a result of lobbying—I was there in a meeting with the Minister—we did get a bit of flexibility, whereby if a company was not recruiting officers, it was able voluntarily to recruit ratings and still qualify for the tax.
Let me just explain to the House the tonnage tax figures. The tonnage tax was introduced in 2000-01. Its cost—£2.165 billion. How many jobs do hon. Members think have been created, that we know of, for £2.165 billion? Does anyone want to intervene with a figure? All we know about, on the record, is 75; that is £28 million a job.
…. Those are the only figures that we have, but I thought that we should be generous and say that there were, on average, 25 jobs a year at least. We do not know, as all we have is the figure of 75. In the case that there were 25 jobs a year, we are still talking about, at best, £4 million to £5 million a job in subsidies for the British shipping companies. I do not know what other Members think, but there is an issue of productivity here, is there not? That is the sort of problem that we have when we get into relying on tax reliefs to stimulate the economy and jobs growth.
Let me make a final point on tax reliefs. As the hon. Member for Glasgow Central and my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North have said, the failure to link these tax reliefs to the achievement of net zero means that we are undermining the ability of the Government to intervene effectively in the economy in order to ensure that we are all signed up to tackling climate change.
I also thought that the Government were going to come forward with amendments in legislation to prevent companies with any record of tax avoidance from being able to qualify for tax reliefs at all, but that is not in this legislation. We are therefore in a situation where we are giving tax reliefs to companies that we know have in the past engaged in tax avoidance. Of course we all welcome the tax avoidance measures that the Government have introduced, but this legislation is an incredibly slow, incremental development. We need to go so much further, with full transparency and enforcement.
When we are trying to enforce against tax avoidance, the one thing that we must not do is open up opportunities for new forms of tax avoidance, but the Office for Budget Responsibility, the UK Trade Policy Observatory and the TUC have said that the introduction of freeports is the new opportunity for tax avoidance schemes, for the displacement of jobs from one area to another with no overall benefit, and—this is exactly what the TUC is saying—for the undermining of trade union rights; and we know what that will do for workers.
I have welcomed the Government’s investment in HMRC. I was sitting here years ago when the first major cuts to HMRC were introduced, and we saw the results. It was an undermining of the work to address tax avoidance and evasion. However, as other hon. Members have said, unfortunately the new jobs have gone into chasing compliance issues as a result of covid, and not into increasing the operation to address tax avoidance.
Those are the issues that I just wanted to comment on. I actually came here to make one specific point and put forward one proposal with regard to local government, but as there are not people rampaging to speak in the debate, I thought that I could at least comment on some wider points.
The point I wanted to make is about what is happening with regard to local authority finance. I thought that as part of the Budget, the comprehensive spending review and then this Bill, the Government would bring forward what has been promised for some time now—a fairly radical reappraisal of local government finance with the potential for reform that would provide local authorities with the resources, as well as a relatively independent source of income, that would then embody their ability to engage in genuine levelling up across our society, as raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams). But the figures show that local government funding from central Government grant is about £16 billion a year lower today than it was in 2010. Cumulatively, that is a reduction over that 11-year period of £100 billion in central Government support for local government.
That means that before we can even talk about levelling up, we need levelling back. We need to give councils the power to invest in local services in their communities again. The hon. Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew), who is not in his place, raised the importance of the Budget for local communities, and I agree. This Bill should be doing that, but apart from the occasional grant to individual communities—on, unfortunately, a sort of pork barrel basis—there does not seem to be an overall strategy to enable it to happen. As I said during the Budget debate, we have seen the impact, with the cutting of funding for nearly 900 children’s centres, 940 youth centres, 738 libraries, and 1,200 bus routes. Local government was mentioned only once by the Chancellor in the Budget speech. There was no acknowledgement of what councils have endured over the past 10 years—that includes Tory, Labour, Lib Dem and SNP councils—or the debt crisis that is now engulfing many town halls in our country. I was hoping that we would at least get the opportunity of some resolution of the debt problem of local councils within the Finance Bill, or would have the opportunity to prepare amendments to enable that to happen. Creatively, we will see whether we can bring amendments forward in that way, but that is made more difficult by the amendment to the law motion not being brought forward by the Government. Many councils across the country are in debt. In recent years, three section 114 notices have been issued, in the case of Tory as well as Labour councils, and dozens more have applied for and received emergency Government loans.
Some time ago, as part of their pushing local authorities to try to seek alternative local funding sources, but also as part of their commercialisation agenda, the Government forced councils into a position where many of them sought to compensate for the lack of Government funding by borrowing from the Public Works Loan Board to buy investments with revenue-producing potential. Some of those investments have proved to be risky misjudgments. Admittedly, this has happened across the board, with all political parties in control in different council areas, but the Government have to take some responsibility for the mess, because they have forced those local authorities into that sort of speculative behaviour, which is also beyond their levels of experience and expertise.
In addition, there has been a complete lack of oversight from both the Department for local government, under its various names over recent years, and the Public Works Loan Board, which has lent the money to those councils. The accounts of the Public Works Loan Board reveal that over £2.8 billion was lent last year and over £3 billion was generated in interest income. That is extraordinary: it is robbing Peter to pay Paul.
Councils are under huge financial pressures, and they now owe £71 billion in debt to the Public Works Loan Board. I want to see whether we can amend this legislation to reduce the interest rates to councils. The Bank of England base rate is still 0.1%, so every pound spent on interest by councils—it is the same for central Government—is £1 less spent on social care, children’s services, street cleaning, bin collections or whatever. The average interest rate charged by the Public Works Loan Board is 3.57%. That is 36 times higher than the Bank of England base rate. What we need in the longer term is stronger oversight of loan applications and for the Public Works Loan Board to charge interest at the Bank of England base rate.
In the meantime—this is why I was hoping that the Government would move somewhat in this legislation—to deal with the high interest rates and the high levels of debt, we need some form of debt jubilee for local councils. That could be a zero rating on all existing loans before we move to the Bank of England base rate on all new loans. More expansively, it could recognise the failure in recent years from central Government to oversee and the impact of Government austerity cuts, which have led to the debt crisis in local government. The Treasury arguably should fund a partial debt write-off for councils. With more than £70 billion in principal debts, plus interest rates, even a 20% write-off could free up nearly £15 billion for local councils to spend in the coming years.
That is the proposal I wanted to argue for in this debate. It would be welcomed cross-party in local government and would relieve many local councillors from the appalling decisions they will have to make in the coming months between increasing local council taxes and, more importantly for many of them, another round of cuts in public services, because of the high interest rates they are having to pay and the interest charges that are falling upon them.
The final point I will make in this Budget debate is to return to the points that a number of Members have made. This Finance Bill does not seem to relate to the Government’s strategy overall, and it certainly does not relate to the needs of our communities. I worry that after the experience of covid, people are looking increasingly to the Government to provide leadership. This Budget, the comprehensive spending review and certainly this legislation do not provide that. The Bill will increase the levels of concern and insecurity that unfortunately are impacting on our communities. I find it a disappointing piece of legislation, and I hope that by way of amendment we might be able to improve it. In that way, we might at least meet some of the challenges our communities face, tackle some of the poverty and deprivations, end austerity and maybe give a bit more hope to the communities we represent.