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Labour support 20% VAT

Yesterday's finance bill.

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): I have found it odd recently that some private health insurers will pay those whom they insure to use the NHS. If that is the habit of private health insurance, where does the hon. Gentleman think the saving to the taxpayer is in allowing this tax relief?

Michael Connarty: I did not want to cite that example, although it is a good example of what happens when people use private health care and take resources away

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John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): I have found it odd recently that some private health insurers will pay those whom they insure to use the NHS. If that is the habit of private health insurance, where does the hon. Gentleman think the saving to the taxpayer is in allowing this tax relief?

Jonathan Edwards: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that I am in a different party from those on the shadow Front Bench and we do not normally negotiate on the clauses we table. I can only assume that my staff are more effective.

Richard Banks, the chief executive of UK Asset Resolution, said that the UK economy faced a tsunami of repossessions once interest rates rise. Increases will come sooner rather than later, partly as a result of the VAT increase. The increase in inflation has come about for a variety of international reasons, including the slow devaluation of the pound and increases in basic food and oil prices, but we have a 2.1% increase in prices across the board and I am sure that many businesses have racked up their prices by greater amounts. The increase in VAT is adding to the inflationary pressures on the economy and it therefore seems strange that the Treasury is using a fiscal measure that is playing its part in increasing inflation and will inevitably at some stage lead to a tightening of monetary policy, creating a further major headwind for the economy. It is the economic equivalent of shooting oneself in the foot.

John Hemming: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on being more efficient than the official Opposition. However, he is proposing to reduce VAT in this financial year, which would mean an increase in the deficit and therefore an increase in the borrowing. Where would we borrow the money from and how much interest would we pay?

Jonathan Edwards: As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, I am proposing a temporary cut and I am endeavouring to convey that the priority of the Treasury should be securing sustained economic growth. In my view, the increase in VAT is hindering that. That is my key point.

Older people and pensioners who thought that they had enough to live comfortably for the rest of their lives now find themselves with very little interest but high inflationary costs in their everyday life. The Government’s attempts to save money by changing indexation from the retail prices index to the consumer prices index means that any benefits people receive are lower than the real world cost, rather than keeping up with it.

Families who are stretched by the costs of their daily living are dealing with wage freezes but finding that the cost of living is rising dramatically. Young families find it hard to save to buy a house, and others live in worry about the base rate increasing and being unable to cover their mortgage. The VAT change last year is reported to have taken £450 from each family with children across the UK.

11.15 pm

The UK economy is not growing and people’s standards of living are being compromised. Confidence amongst individuals and families is falling—that is key when we are looking at future economic growth prospects. Economic growth forecasts are being downgraded by all around except the Government and the unanimous response to today’s revised figures is that we are in for a period of subdued growth at best. As I say, the situation now is different from that of nearly three years ago when the VAT cut was first used as a part of fiscal policy. Back then, we were preventing the situation from getting worse and the recession from deepening; now we are looking at how we can generate growth. Part of the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ reason for backing policies such as a temporary VAT cut is that there is a time frame—people can see an end and know that they must spend to take advantage of it, as advocated by my new clause 9.

John Hemming: On the point about hitting the poorest hardest, does the right hon. Gentleman not accept that the poorest people, those on means-tested benefits, receive an up-rating for the cost of living, which is in fact in excess of the extra VAT, and so benefit by 1% in excess of the extra cost of VAT?

Mr Hanson: When the Conservative party, supported by Liberals who at the general election opposed VAT increases, imposes VAT increases, it does so on businesses and on jobs and hardest on the poorest people in our society. I will now give way to the Minister so that he can explain that.

John Hemming: I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ian Swales), who is an accountant, that on the basis of expenditure deciles, VAT is a mildly progressive tax. I ask the right hon. Gentleman, whose name appears above unselected new clause 16 which would put VAT up to 20% once things improve, why the Labour party, having opposed VAT at 20%, now believes that it should be at 20% in the long term.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. We are not going to get bogged down in the VAT figures. We need to talk about the new clauses in the group. We are drifting into parts where we should not be.

Mr Hanson: I remind the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) that new clause 10 calls for a review of the impact of value added tax on businesses and families over the next three months. Labour Members voted last week for a temporary reduction in VAT. Labour policy is to have a temporary reduction to tackle the real issues that we all face in our constituencies in relation to jobs, living standards and the future of our businesses.


John Hemming: My right hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Vince Cable) was quite clear when he said that the party did not rule out an increase in VAT, when he was asked that specific question—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] The then Chancellor supported an increase in VAT to 19%, and the present Opposition now support a long-term VAT rate of 20%. The reason why they will not support new clause 9 is that the change it proposes is not temporary but permanent. Labour Members cannot criticise us for accepting a long-term VAT rate of 20% if they want the same long-term rate themselves. There is an argument about whether the stimulus that would, admittedly, result from a temporary cut in VAT would be in the long-term interests of the country, but it is a complex one. However, it is clear that we need to keep the deficit under control.

We have heard criticism from the Opposition today that the Office for Budget Responsibility has indicated that we might be borrowing more money than was originally forecast. The Opposition criticise us for the fact that the OBR forecasts higher borrowing. The Opposition’s solution, however, is even higher borrowing. They identify a problem and then put forward a policy proposal to make that problem worse. It is an absurd situation.

The real problem that economies face, as we see with the situation in Greece, is that as the deficit goes up, the people lending the country money to keep it going become increasingly concerned and the interest rate goes up, so it is not just the amount of interest on the amount of deficit in each year that goes up, as the rate of interest goes up, too. That is why people end up in the state that Greece has ended up in.

Ian Lucas: The hon. Gentleman ought to have listened to the debate earlier, particularly to the very good speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle
upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), who explained that for every pound that is spent in the construction sector, £3 is injected into the economy. That would lead to three times as much being put into the economy for every pound spent in the construction sector. That means we should encourage that sector, not decimate it as the Conservatives are doing as we speak.

John Hemming: We should remember that VAT does not apply. I declare an interest, as a VAT-registered person. People who understand how VAT works will know that people who charge VAT can reclaim it on their inputs. We have to look at the details. On the hon. Gentleman’s further point, yes, there is an economic multiplier that has an effect. As demand is increased, there is a multiplier effect. At the same time, we have to look at the long-term effect on the deficit, the debt and the interest paid. As interest rates go up, wider damage is done to the whole of society.

It is true that in an ideal world we would not have higher rates of VAT. In an ideal world everything would be nice, and there would no problems and no difficult decisions to take. We have to get a balance. It is very pleasing to see that the official Opposition now accept that VAT should be 20% in the long term.

Clive Efford: There used to be a time when the hon. Gentleman was fond of quoting the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which called the VAT cut “an effective stimulus”. As for the construction industry, does he not recognise the figures showing a 19% increase in the number of business failures in the construction industry in the first three months of this year—since the increase was imposed?

John Hemming: There is no VAT on new build. The hon. Gentleman’s party believes that the VAT rate should be 20% in the long term; I thank him for agreeing with us about that.

The Government, essentially, have to bring the deficit under control to keep interest rates under control—and that is what we are doing.

Several hon. Members rose —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Is the hon. Member giving way, or has he finished?

John Hemming: I thought I had finished.

Mr Deputy Speaker: That is good enough for me.

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