Finance Bill

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Mr. Burnett: I exhort the Economic Secretary to think again on this. The businesses that will be penalised by excluding leasing, hire purchase and all those arrangements are small businesses with a low cash flow. They could be significantly assisted if the Treasury took on board the various points that we have made. The established, well-heeled companies will not be prejudiced by the arrangements. They will be helped to some extent, but let us help the smaller man and the new businesses.

Question put and agreed to.

Schedule 17 agreed to.

Clause 66 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 18

Capital allowances: fixtures provided in connection with energy management services

Question proposed, That this schedule be the Eighteenth schedule to the Bill.

5.45 pm

Mr. Letwin: I declare an interest. For once I may have a genuine interest here although I shall argue against it. I listened attentively to my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde and to the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon talking about leasing, which is in part the subject of the schedule. New section 180A(e)(i) does all the damage. I hope that the Committee will bear with me. That is really to say that I hope that you, Mr O'Hara, and the Minister will bear with me—others can gently go to sleep—as I try to explain what I think the problem is.

Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): On a point of order, Mr. O'Hara. The hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) referred in general terms to an interest. He has not given any details to the Committee.

Mr. Letwin: That is easily answered, Mr. O'Hara, if you will allow me. It is the declaration in the Register of Members' Interests. I am a director of a merchant bank. It does not engage in leasing and I am about to make an argument against the interests of the banking sector as a whole.

I shall try to explain to the Economic Secretary what has caused the problem and why it is a problem, from the point of view of the Government rather than the Opposition. I do not expect the Economic Secretary to answer now, but I hope that the Government will later have the opportunity to think about it and decide whether they would like to make a change.

I understand why the exception for leasing that I mentioned is in the Bill. The Government were aware of how tax-based leasing operates. A commercial bank with profits shields those profits by buying a piece of machinery, against which it can count writing down and answers. It then leases that machinery on to a company which, as my right hon. Friend rightly said, has not got profits and does not buy the machinery on balance sheet but sets up, for example, a project finance vehicle to take on the item in question. Under those circumstances the gain of the writing down allowances is split 50:50 between the bank or leasing finance company that has bought the machinery and which directly obtains the writing down allowances to set off against its profits from the Inland Revenue and the project company that has originated the transaction.

If the new and generous 100 per cent. allowance for energy intensive machinery were introduced and if it were allowed for leasing companies, in other words if proposed new section 180A (e)(i), were removed, half the benefit would go to the companies that the Economic Secretary is trying to induce to engage in energy-intensive machinery acquisition. The other half would go to the banks and finance leasing companies, which she does not want to benefit. I can understand that. There is no reason why the Government should arrange matters so that there is a large uncovenanted bonus for commercial banks and finance leasing companies. I think that that is why the item is included in the Bill.

As my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon rightly exposed, however, the result of the manoeuvre is, in the Economic Secretary's ironic phrase, to target the 100 per cent. allowance at the wrong target. For the reasons that I have given, if she pursues the current version of the legislation, large rich companies with high profits will use the allowance, because they can buy the machinery on the balance sheet and set the allowance off against their profits.

However, small nascent companies, which have to engage in project financing, will be unable to do that. The point about a project finance vehicle is that it is a single machinery vehicle set up to buy a specific piece of plant. When it buys the plant, it has no revenues, but receives them later, after it has started operating the plant. It has no profits, so it cannot use the 100 per cent. allowance. It must roll it over and use it later. The current value of doing that is very much reduced. In many circumstances, it would probably still make sense for such a company to use ordinary writing-down allowances and lease the machinery as before.

As I have said, I understand the Economic Secretary's reasons, but the policy has been so designed that it will, mistakenly, induce large rich companies, which probably do not need the incentive, to engage in energy-saving investment, while not inducing smaller poorer companies to do so. I should have thought that the Government's admirable aim was to do the reverse.

If the drafting and the cause of the problem are as I have described, the remedy is straightforward, so I hope that the Government will go away and think about it. The drafting should ensure that the part of the advantage of the 100 per cent. allowance that accrues not to the company engaging in the investment, but to the finance company or bank providing the leasing, does not accrue. There should be no additional advantage to that company or bank over and above the advantage that it would have with normal writing-down allowances. It cannot be beyond the wit of man to redraft the provision to have that effect. I do not say that that will be simple. In fact, I can gesture mentally towards its being quite complicated—but at least the effect would be rational as opposed to irrational.

That said, this is a relieving measure, so the fact that it will not do much good in its current form, and would do rather more good in another, does not lead me to jump up and down on my pogo stick. I pray that the Economic Secretary will not take all that as a great attack on the Government. I am merely making a genuinely helpful suggestion about how the legislation could be improved so as to achieve what I think the Committee agrees would be a good effect. It is pretty clear that the current drafting does not achieve that.

Miss Johnson: I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman, but he is rather premature in making a number of assumptions. Were people to follow them, they might reach the same conclusion, but the question is whether all his assumptions are correct. That raises the question of experience, which we will gain as things roll forward. I still feel confident that we have got the provision right, but we will continue to consider matters and see how they progress in time. If the hon. Gentleman is proved right, we will consider whether there is an appropriate response. Currently, however, I am confident that what we are doing is along the right lines.

Question put and agreed to.

Schedule 18 agreed to.

Clause 67 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 19

Capital allowances: conversion of parts of business premises into flats

Question proposed, That this schedule be the Nineteenth schedule to the Bill.

Mr. Ottaway: I should be grateful if the Paymaster General would assist the Committee on a few points. The schedule relates to the conversion of parts of business premises into flats. Obviously, there will be debate about what sort of business premises and what sort of flats. It would help me if the Paymaster General would answer one or two questions.

First, in chapter 3, ``Qualifying buildings and qualifying flats'', the schedule states:

    ``the building must have more than 4 storeys above the ground floor''.

Obviously, the figure must be fixed somewhere, but why at four storeys, not six or eight? Why does it specify high rise? There is obviously a strategic objective, which is laudable, to try to get more accommodation. Secondly, the building must have been constructed before 1 January 1980. Why do we need such a limit?

On qualifying flats, proposed new section 393D(1)(c) states:

    ``the flat must be held for the purpose of short-term letting.''

As I understand it, short-term letting means a lease of fewer than five years—[Interruption.] The Paymaster General says seven years. What happens at the end of the seven years? Must the tenants be changed? The Minister has that at her fingertips, I am glad to say, and I look forward to hearing from her. I have only two further points to make, which she may want to take as a job lot at the end.

I now come to the difficult question of high-value flats. In deciding what is a high-value flat, notional rent is based on a furnished flat. We know that there is growing use of unfurnished flats. What happens if flats are unfurnished? Why do we have to distinguish between the two? Why not include unfurnished flats as well?

My penultimate point is that the valuation does not include other payments. Has the Paymaster General dealt with the question of service charges? In some flats, service charges are a high component of their value; in some they are minimal. None the less, that is an important question. Finally, the notional rent limits table is moderately crude. The Paymaster General represents a Bristol constituency where flats have a certain value; equivalent flats in less salubrious parts of Great Britain attract a lower value. I know that the table distinguishes between flats in Greater London and elsewhere. Would not it be more subtle also to include a regional variation?

6 pm

Mr. Jack: In the Budget press releases the measures in the schedule are triumphantly described as

    ``100 per cent. capital allowances to cover the costs of providing flats over commercial premises for letting to help bring life back in to Britain's high-streets.''

Those are three lines of total clarity, yet what we have in the schedule is pages of nit-picking detail. Will the Paymaster General explain a bit about the thinking that that went into that?

My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South made an important point about the number of storeys in buildings. In some older buildings, it is not always easy to identify what constitutes the ground floor. Many older buildings contain a floor, part of which is below ground and part above it, so how shall we determine what the ground floor is? Will a code of guidance be issued, so that those who embark on the labyrinthine reading of the schedule to discover whether they are properly qualified will know in greater detail what the provision is all about?

My eye was then taken by new section 393D, which gives insight into the detail. It states:

    ``the flat must not have more than 4 rooms''.

That is intriguing because the schedule provides no definition of a room. The census, which the Economic Secretary was responsible for getting to at least some of us on time, contains a definition of what constitutes a room. Moreover, what does not count as a room. Does the Bill work on the census definition or another one? That is the sort of detail that should—or, perhaps more critically, should not—be defined.

We all want this laudable attempt to bring life back to the high streets of Britain to succeed. What an indictment that life has been snuffed out in the high streets of so many Labour-controlled authorities, but I shall not detain the Committee with a long discourse on my experiences in Newcastle upon Tyne.

Why, in all seriousness, must a flat be restricted to no more than four rooms? New section 393D(f) further stipulates:

    ``the flat must not be a high value flat''.

At least we have some definition in that respect, but if someone is trying to regenerate the inner cities of our country, what is the value of specifying the number of rooms and the worth of the flat? It is unnecessary.

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