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Lord Marlesford: My Lords, I welcome the way in which certain aspects of the British system have been followed. I said a little earlier that some countries will have to continue to learn from the British experience in economic management. Privatisation is another obvious example.
I believe that this VAT threshold is most important. It encourages people who decide to make a go of a business. It gives them a direct advantage in being able to provide their services free of VAT, often on a small scale, and gives them independence. They are the small entrepreneurs so crucial to the country. It is not just large businesses which are important, but small businesses also. Italy, Belgium, Sweden and the Netherlands have no exemption threshold. That may, of course, have something to do with the disinclination to conform to taxation rules in those countries.
A few months ago I spoke to a senior director of the Ministry of Finance in France. He was complaining to me. He said, "You know, there are now 20,000 Frenchmen living in Kent. We have to get them back. It's your tax system which does it. We must have a level playing field". I am extremely anxious that Her Majesty's Government do not yield to pressure for a level playing field if it would mean losing the extremely favourable tax regime we now have in this country.
Nowadays, one does not hear of entrepreneurs, scientists or academics going abroad because they would be better paid. Such people are coming to this country. This country is becoming a place where the successful, the enterprising, the skilled and the talented can flourish.
I have one final point. I do not think I meet the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, on this point but perhaps philosophically I have some sympathy with her. I believe that a quid pro quo for a low taxation, for leaving money in the hands of the people who have it, is charitable giving. I do not believe that the charitable giving in this country is anything like as generous as it should be. This week the Sunday Times published its list of the rich. It also had a list of the charitable contributions made by certain wealthy families, and in many cases they were remarkably generous. The lack of comparable giving by other wealthy families suggests there is much more scope in this country for charitable giving.
I have one more figure, thanks to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh. The 137,000 best-off taxpayers, each of whom has a taxable income greater than £100,000, among them have a gross taxable income in excess of £17 billion. That is around 2 per cent. of GDP. That is a lot of money and even if they were to give
Lord Higgins: My Lords, I welcome, as does my noble friend Lord Skidelsky, the opportunity to have this debate, rather unusually in your Lordships' House, on public expenditure and taxation. I wish basically to follow the theme set out by my noble friend Lady Hogg with regard to the presentation of matters of taxation and public expenditure. I believe, as she implied, that standards in this respect have been falling. That ought to give us cause for concern. In an age of spin doctors there is far too much, as the Americans would say, "smoke and mirrors" in relation to presentation. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, almost gave the game away when he said that the Treasury has one view of taxation and official statisticians another. There has been some divergence of opinion in that respect.
My noble friend's Motion covers public expenditure and tax. They are now embodied in what is called a unified budget; the two sides have been brought together. However, I must express a disappointment. When we were told that there was to be a unified budget, one's reaction was to say that it would be possible to balance the effect of an increase in public expenditure and the implications of that for taxation, a point made a moment ago by the noble Baroness. But despite having brought the two sides of the equation together, it is still the case in the other place that only the executive can really take a decision about the balance. The House of Commons can vote for reducing public expenditure or taxation, but it is still unable, despite the fact that we have a unified budget, to say it would like to spend more, for example, on education or health, and as a result of that put up taxes. So in that respect it is not a truly unified budget where the two sides can be balanced. All that we and the other place can do is comment on the decisions which the Government have made with regard to the balance between the two when in reality it might be the case that the House of Commons would prefer to deal with it in a different manner.
My noble friend's Motion relates to both public expenditure and taxation. I want to concentrate on taxation. I make only one point on public expenditure, which was very much at the heart of the Government's proposals ahead of the election. They said that they would cut expenditure on social security in order to divert resources into expenditure on health and education. In that respect they have clearly failed. The increase in the social security budget has been very great and will be so over the next three years. The reallocation of resources which they said they were going to carry out has not taken place. The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp
I turn to taxation. I take up only one point made by my noble friend Lord Marlesford with regard to the VAT threshold. It has always been a difficult issue. One has to balance the advantage to those below the threshold in relation to the competition of those just above the threshold, and it is a fine balance. I reflect for a moment--it is a long while ago--that when I was considering where the dividing line should come and subsequently legislating on it, the threshold was £7,000. I am therefore slightly horrified to discover where it has now got to as a result of the various economic developments in the intervening time. I should perhaps add that at that time VAT was only at the standard rate of 10 per cent. and there were major items of zero rating, including complete zero rating in relation to fuel.
I want to turn to the issue of whether the presentation of the Government has been adequate in relation to these matters, in particular the question of whether or not there has been a cut in taxation. That was a major item of dispute at the time of the Budget debates and indeed subsequently. I notice with interest a piece by Mr. Anatole Kaletsky who seems recently to have been producing articles of outstanding merit and often of considerable complexity. He had carried out research into the immediate reaction to the Government's Budget. At one point he said,
The other documents on which we rely increasingly in addition to the Red Book are the series of press releases which are issued at the same time. Those again were an innovation of the early 1970s. I believe that they were a good innovation and that people outside rely heavily on them for factual information. For those in business who need to react rapidly to what the Chancellor has said, the press releases are extremely valuable. But it is important that they should be impartial, and I do not believe that that is now the case.
I give one example of a Treasury press release dated 9th March with regard to income tax. There was a paragraph on the new 10p rate of income tax which was widely welcomed, and a second paragraph referring to the cut in the basic rate of income tax to 22p. But there was no mention at all of the 20p band of income tax having been abolished. One would have thought at the very least that that was worth mentioning. It is a specific item which I believe to be important. Similarly, if one is going to put forward a comprehensive and balanced picture, it is true that there are cash flow savings for the small employer covered by Inland Revenue Notice 22 with regard to specific changes. But there is no mention of the effect which the introduction of the working families' tax credit would be likely to have on the cash flow of small companies. Indeed, the Government, on a Second Reading earlier this week, made it absolutely clear that they did not propose to give way on that particular matter. So there are real problems here in that respect.
I turn now to a rather more specific point and one which I believe to be important; namely, the exchanges which took place yesterday during Question Time with regard to the Government's press releases. Noble Lords will recall that the noble Lord, Lord Rix, asked what had happened with regard to the Government's press release which stated that pensioners who suffered as a result of the abolition of the bereavement allowance, which is due to happen in April 2000, would be more than compensated as a result of the proposed new bereavement payment. As the Minister recognised yesterday, the statement made in the press release was untrue. It is not the case that that change will more than compensate pensioners. One must acknowledge that the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, apologised most clearly yesterday for what was a mistake. Indeed, I would be in the forefront of those who accept the apology which was made. However, it does not bring us to the end of the matter.
As I pointed out when quoting from reports in the popular press a few moments ago, we were all under the impression that everyone would gain. However, as a result of the change, we now find that that is not the case. Although the noble Baroness has apologised, the question remains as to whether those affected who were misled at the time feel that this is adequate. At all events, I believe that we are entitled to know who was responsible for the mistake and what action has been taken as a result. More particularly, we need to know whether the Government propose to do anything to help those who will be adversely affected by the change. I have in mind especially widows aged 60 to 64 who do not get the higher tax allowances and who are, therefore, more adversely affected. It is most important that such matters should be checked and that the presentation which is put forward should be such that we can rely on the statements which the Government and the Chancellor of the Exchequer make. I believe that there are important issues involved as regards presentation which need to be considered further.
Baroness Platt of Writtle: My Lords, I, too, am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Skidelsky for initiating this important debate, although I am no tax expert and will concentrate on two points in particular. I believe in the vital importance of trade and commerce to the future prosperity of this country. The taxation system has a profound effect, often in unexpected ways, on the success of our industry and commerce. In this connection, I would also place great emphasis on the importance of manufacturing industry. That seems, in my view wrongly, to be unfashionable these days. I should declare an interest here as a non-executive director of our small family business and also--I shall return to this point later--I should say that my husband has a diesel car.
Today everyone emphasises the importance of the service sector in international trade and commerce. As a liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Engineers in the City of London, I would not wish in any way to gainsay that. May our financial services continue to take a leading place in the world and flourish root and branch forever! However, a healthy services sector depends to an important extent on a healthy national manufacturing sector who comprise, in the first place, initial customers and therefore payers for those services.
Manufacturing today depends on being ahead of the world in high technology, high added value industry--although we must not forget to encourage our bread and butter industries--may be low added value. Often one has to import simple household articles which could perfectly well be made here because shops only seem to buy from abroad, whether it be kettles, hammers, deep freezers or toasters. I would wish to see them better made in Britain, thereby providing employment and reducing our national trade deficit.
However, high technology manufacture depends on high technology well-qualified staff; and there should always be investment in good training and continued professional development, as other noble Lords have
If I were Chancellor of the Exchequer--which, fortunately, is not likely to happen--I would impose a statutory duty on the Treasury not only to balance the annual budget but also to look ahead for our commercial prosperity to the next five to 10 years and to plan those fiscal incentives for our industry and commerce in close consultation with industry and commerce so that the proposals are down-to-earth and practical. Civil servants are not experts in running business, especially small business, and they must take advice in formulating proposals. If plans are well laid, industry and commerce will prosper and the Inland Revenue will rake in increased taxes in a few years' time. New ideas take time to reach markets, so returns will take time to arrive. But if our industry and commerce prospers, employment will rise and everyone will benefit, including the Treasury.
I should like to make another detailed but very important point about the last Budget, which hiked up substantially the tax on diesel fuel to the predictable fury of the road haulage industry, which depends vitally on diesel fuel. My noble friend Lord Marlesford said that not many industries were thinking of going abroad, but the latter is. I believe in the importance of the environment, sustainable development and the reduction of NOx, SO 2 and CO 2 in reducing global warming. I therefore use public transport whenever possible and take the very good advice given by the DETR in its new leaflet on fuel economy issued in January this year. I can tell noble Lords that it is well worth reading. However, if one looks down the list of vehicles and their fuel consumption, where are the best figures? They are to be found in relation to cars with diesel engines. Lower fuel consumption reduces CO 2 production immediately, so surely we want to encourage people to buy diesel cars. Putting up the tax does not do that.
The report of our Select Committee on Science and Technology in 1995 was full of good, long-term strategies for reducing global warming from road transport in a variety of ways-- gas-powered vehicles, fuel cells, and bi-powered vehicles using different fuels for urban and long distance travel. All these longer term improvements, which will have to be developed through ingenious and innovative research and development by the motor industry and its expert, well qualified engineers, need careful fiscal planning if we in this country are to be ahead of the international field in reducing global warming and selling our expertise to other countries throughout the world. Again, the Treasury needs to get together with industry in planning future fiscal strategy so that we achieve these longer term aims both for the environment and our own prosperity.
All the goods we need and buy in the shops have to be delivered by lorry transport. Therefore a tax on diesel is a tax on every person in this country as prices of goods will inevitably rise to pay for that tax. That is a "stealth" tax, if ever there was one. Road haulage is the major life blood for industry and commerce travelling our national road arteries. By all means let us plan lorry deliveries efficiently to fill lorries and for goods to arrive just in time in the shops for our families. That requires less tax on fuel and vehicles to enable our road haulage companies and shops to prosper to provide employment for their staff and not to go abroad, and to keep down the cost of living for everyone. Her Majesty's Government must act now to achieve that aim with regard to the taxation system as soon as possible.
"taxing more, and spending more, than the Conservatives would have done".
In this I have a particular axe to grind; namely, excise duty, specifically on tobacco product. We had a reasonable run at this subject during Question Time earlier today but I make no apology for returning to it. I should perhaps also point out for those of your Lordships who are not aware of it that I am a wholly unreconstructed smoker. Excise duty is not per se one of the kaleidoscope of "stealth" taxes that the Chancellor has initiated in his Budgets to date. No, it seems to me that it is increasingly being used as the Treasury's blunt instrument, a fiscal cudgel to pummel what are perceived to be wayward social attitudes into submission. In this context it would be churlish not to admit that there are good health grounds for imposing sensible, but proportionate, duty on tobacco product.
I hope your Lordships will forgive me if I mention a few facts and figures, which I hope the Minister can confirm. The UK's tobacco industry currently contributes some £10.3 billion a year to the Exchequer of which some £8.3 billion is tobacco excise duty specifically, the highest in real terms of any country in the world. In his Budget the Chancellor raised cigarette tax by 17.5p for a packet of 20, an increase of 6.3 per cent. Since coming into office, this Government have raised cigarette tax by 57.5p. As a result, an equivalent packet of 20 cigarettes costing £2.05 in Belgium now costs £3.88 in the UK. What are the consequences of this obsessional interest of the Treasury--and, it has to be said, the health lobby--in attempting to tax tobacco product into perdition?
As we all know, smuggling of excise product--both tobacco and alcohol--is now rife because of the hugely wide differential in price that now exists between the UK and our immediate continental neighbours. In effect, this Government's policy--and that of the party of these Benches when it was in office, I make no distinction--is to incite criminal activity. This carries with it profound implications for law and order policies in general. It is not only the fact that smuggling has the potential to be such a profitable enterprise. That, of itself, explains why it is that so much of the evidence indicates that it is an enterprise that is proving increasingly attractive to highly organised criminal gangs, not least those actively involved in drug trafficking. It is also the fact that the existing resources of Customs and Excise and the operation of our criminal justice system mean that the chances of being caught and convicted are negligible and that the penalties available to the courts are not and cannot be an effective deterrent.
Here, with all due respect to the Minister--bearing in mind our exchange at Question Time--I can assure him that there was a report on Meridian TV last week which revealed plans for 1,000 Customs jobs to be cut in the south of England. The report included, not surprisingly, an expression of concern from a senior Customs officer that such an action will have a severely deleterious effect on Customs and Excise's ability to combat the menace of smuggling.
What of the health argument? I have already suggested that some level of duty on tobacco product is justifiable. I have no difficulty with that. However, the available statistics suggest that, while the regulated market has shrunk by 8 per cent., the "unregulated" market of smuggled product is on the increase. Illegal sales currently account for 80 per cent. of handrolling tobacco sold in the UK; here an association with the drug culture is manifest. The black market is estimated at 8 per cent. of the total cigarette market and is increasing at the rate of 5 per cent. per annum. The statistics suggest that the crucial group of under-age smokers, by definition an unregulated market and those for whom a propensity to smoke is most perilous, is on the increase. However else children may be obtaining their packets of cigarettes, they certainly are not doing
Finally, what are the revenue implications of the persistent hike in tobacco duty? The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, in a recent Question on this matter, suggested to his noble friend the Minister that the law of diminishing returns was beginning to operate in this area. The Minister denied this categorically, stating:
Lord Dahrendorf: My Lords, may I crave indulgence for a small philosophical comment on a subject of which many noble Lords, as the debate has shown, know a great deal more than I do? Taxation is a classical subject of parliamentary debate, yet something odd has happened. The Official Opposition keep on saying that the Government are raising taxes by stealth, the implication being that lower taxes are intrinsically a good thing. The Government keep on saying that they have not raised taxes and that the level of taxation is in fact 0.4 per cent. or 0.5 per cent. lower than it was on 1st May 1997. The implication is the same: that there is something intrinsically bad about taxation.
I want to argue that the level of taxation defines the boundary between what is properly in the public realm and what is not. One can take decisions about that. And different groups in given countries, and indeed different
First of all, many speakers have quoted the differences in levels of taxation between different countries, including different countries in Europe. My good friend the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, to whom we owe this debate, referred to the fact that the total level of taxation in this country is under 40 per cent. of GDP, and on average in the rest of the European Union it is 50 per cent. or above. That is true, but I would argue that it simply indicates different attitudes to what is properly in the public realm and what is not. What is more, I would argue that these different attitudes are all viable. It is wrong to presume that those who are over 50 per cent. will have to come down to 40 per cent. just as it is wrong to presume that those who are under 40 per cent. will have to go up to 50 per cent.
There are fundamentally different attitudes, and these different attitudes have their own justification. In other words, I am genuinely and deeply against harmonisation of taxation in the countries of Europe because of the different political and economic cultures in those countries. It is a general philosophical point, which could be illustrated in a number of ways, which I shall not do at this point.
It leads me to a second and equally important issue. At the same time as seeing these differences, there are of course changes: countries redefining the limits of the public realm. It is true that in a number of continental countries there is now a tendency--I think a welcome tendency--to let the pendulum swing a little more in the private business zone direction. Equally, I believe that there is a good case for saying that in this country the pendulum should swing a little more in the public direction and that there has been a neglect in the public realm of the public space in the widest sense.
My noble friend Lady Sharp of Guildford pointed very plausibly to the various objectives of taxation and public expenditure. She talked about the public good, about redistribution and about health and education. The noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, I believe, started with Ibn Khaldun and with the statement that excessive government spending can undermine an economy. It all depends on what you call excessive, of course, but may I suggest that if you neglect the public realm it can also undermine the economy.
One of the great subjects of European developments is locational competition of business. Countries should be able to try to attract businesses by using the instruments at their disposal. While I accept the sometimes rather vague notion of level playing fields, I think it is at least as important that differences are there and are allowed. But a sensible public realm is part of an attractive environment for business. To mention obvious examples, if the infrastructure of a country deteriorates--and I am afraid it has deteriorated in this country--and if it deteriorates beyond a certain point then it is literally impossible to attract business from other countries, together with investment, because that is one element.
If vocational training does not work and if therefore skilled labour is not available, because that is part and parcel of an attractive location for business, it is therefore part and parcel of what needs to be done in the public realm. It may be argued that vocational training is sufficiently in the interests of business to be capable of private finance. I believe that is a mistaken argument. In another context I would be happy to make the case for publicly supported vocational training. However, it is not just vocational training. It is general education as well, starting at the nursery end and going on through the educational system. So an attractive public realm is part and parcel of a society which creates sustainable wealth over a long period and tries to attract investment from within and without.
My third point is that of course one has to think carefully about the kinds of taxation that are used. This subject has arisen by reference to a number of specific issues. They are clearly important, but it is an important question of whether we go down the route to hypothecation, for example, or whether we stick to general taxation. To me, it is a very important issue because it is so closely related to the future of representative government and, as a traditionalist in these matters, I am strongly in favour of general, rather than hypothecated, taxation. I rather regret that the popular view seems to be that taxation is acceptable only if those who pay the taxes know exactly what the money is to be spent on. I hope that in parliamentary debate we can hold against this. There is also the important question of whether we increasingly abandon direct taxation in favour of indirect taxation, or stick to a principle which is very closely related to citizenship and civic participation. Income tax is an important element of a civic society.
I should like to sum up such points, such reflections, which are more general than much of what has been said here, by making one plea: that we lift the taboo over the subject of taxation; that we discuss more seriously whether there are not issues where it is in the specific and general interests of a civilised and advanced society to be open for increases in taxation where there are clear objectives and purposes; and to discuss the pros and cons of more or fewer taxes. A more rational tax debate would be a great step forward for the political culture of this country.
Lord Selsdon: My Lords, it has been a long time since I have dared to speak in one of these economic debates. I used to feel that it was a Wednesday debate and I was reminded of Wednesday's child being full of woe. It was always bad news: there was a balance of payments deficit, interest rates were too high, taxation was too high, there were budget deficits and so on. Now, for the first time, we have a structured economy that seems perfectly reasonable and I wonder what the future will be. My noble friend has chosen well the phraseology of this debate which applies a certain use of French words--subterfuge and camouflage, possibly to be followed by that awful word "sabotage". There is nothing wrong with the economy at the moment.
I am interested in people's perception rather than their expectation. Here I will go back to my friend Professor Laffer. I have always liked the Laffer curve and the general concept that if one had nil taxation, one would have a breakdown of law and order; and if one had 100 per cent taxation, one would have no revenue. Somewhere between the two was the correct point, which was not an exact point but what was perceived to be fair. That might be two for the state, one for me, or three for the state, one for me. But if it was too many for the state, productivity fell.
In order to correct that imbalance, one had to reduce effective taxation quite dramatically, which we have done if we take the figure down to 40 per cent. as compared to 50 per cent. in the EU. This has contributed fairly strongly to the revitalisation of our economy. But I am concerned about what the base of that economy now is.
One of the saddest moments of my life was standing in this place when the nationalisation of the shipbuilding industry was taking place. My family have been keen on ships--I like ships and my grandfather was the last Member of Parliament for Maryhill in Glasgow. The Clyde was a place I loved and I set out to try to help save some of those shipbuilding firms. Nationalisation way back then--despite the Geddes Report and the creation of British Shipbuilders and the problems with Upper Clyde Shipbuilders--wiped out that industry.
I should like to remind your Lordships that we have successfully--either because we have been in a post-imperial society or a post-industrial society--wiped out our greatest industries. A hundred years ago, 85 per cent. of the ships of the world were built in the United Kingdom; at the start of the First World War, 50 per cent. of all the ships floating on the surface of the earth were built on the Clyde; and 74 per cent. of all steam locomotives were built on the Clyde. Now, of course, 50 per cent. of all personal computers in Europe are built in Scotland. Here we are--I am a Scot--wanting to get rid of one of the main bases of our industrial economy. Then, suddenly, today or yesterday, we have the collapse of Kvaener Govan and the destruction of the last shipbuilding enterprise in Scotland, give or take a few smaller ones.
It is interesting that after the First World War 40 per cent. of the ships of the world were built in the United Kingdom; that fell to 30 per cent.; two years ago that fell to 1 per cent.; and now it is down to nothing. We have of course Harland and Wolff. But the industry has not necessarily collapsed worldwide. We were leaders in the mining and mining equipment industry; we were leaders in long-wall mining and other mining activities. That has steadily disappeared. So, too, has the textile industry and its great machinery.
All of those industries often had very good trade associations, but their decline is not related to the United Kingdom economy alone but to the role of the United Kingdom in the world economy. We exported equipment, bought back the end products, and were in partnership with our colonies or imperial Britain. Now we could equally well be in partnership with much of
We are the most favoured place in the world for a foreigner to live and work. It is pretty galling for some people to realise that when they go out and buy a meal in a restaurant they are paying far more than the foreigner who pays tax only on his UK earnings. But that has contributed to a large extent to encouraging senior management worldwide to want to come to live in England. People will say, "The Japanese want to play golf and it is cheaper to live here"--that may be one reason--but we have attracted the greatest amount of foreign investment of all the countries of the European Union. That attitude and the wish to come here continue.
But there are cracks in the paving, or should I say in the terrazzo tiles. In a short period of time we went from having a great motor car manufacturing industry, which was based entirely on the motor car or transport, to losing and wiping out that sector. Very quickly, over a period of about seven years, we returned to being a net exporter of motor cars. We were competitive, we had the modern technology, and the cars became good again. Foreigners wanted to buy them and they bought them in great numbers. All the problems of electronics and so on were ironed out and we produced good products. Now the cracks are there. There is again intervention by the state in an industry that may, for whatever reason, be declining--there is a decline in the demand for automotives--and money is going in in terms of public expenditure.
I hate the idea of declining industries and I hate the idea of them being supported falsely by governments. The base of our economy as it is today bothers me; who will pay tax in the future. I was involved in the report of a committee on manufacturing chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Aldington, some 25 years ago. We pointed out that we were concerned about what would happen to manufacturing industry when oil ran out. As my noble friend said, if we did not manufacture things, what would we service--other people's manufactures? That report--which was rubbished by my party and by everybody else--was correct, although there is no pleasure in being right after the event. We saw manufacturing industry as a percentage of GDP fall from 32 or 33 per cent.--I was discussing this with the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, before the debate--to 20 per cent., according to the Library.
In the meantime there are two sectors which have started to emerge and overtake. One is financial intermediation. Instead of manufacturing accounting for something like 30 per cent. of the economy, financial intermediation is up to nearly 30 per cent. The other sector is wholesaling and retailing. These are businesses where, although added value is created, it is not the same value as the added value created in other sectors. I am not objecting to those industries charging large hourly or daily rates, or to retailers and wholesalers doubling the entry price of their products before they hit the markets, but these kinds of factors are making us uncompetitive.
We must add to that some of the taxation now being applied--whether it be on alcohol, on cigarettes or in particular on diesel fuel, which is outrageous. For a period of time we had no diesel cars because they were more expensive. But they are far better. As my noble friend pointed out, the emission is far lower and the mileage is less. Yet, suddenly, as though somebody feels that they want to force lorries off the road, the price of diesel is increased. I do not understand, when energy costs worldwide have come down in real terms to below 1974 prices, why we have this strange differential when we are an energy nation.
In the United States, five litres of fuel can be bought for the equivalent of one litre in Europe. I do not understand that. Why should we have a high-cost energy policy? It is because the Government need to tax fuel in order to have more money. Why should it be cheaper to buy a bottle of whisky in a supermarket in France than at a duty-free shop in London when these are our own products? Looking at the subject on another level, why do we suddenly find that over the past six to nine months the word has spread across the Continent of Europe that the United Kingdom is too expensive to visit and to set up projects here. Yet our labour rates are not high. It is these kinds of taxes in the economy that come through, not as stealth tax, but as adding a greater proportion of tax to the economy as a whole.
I am not particularly worried about all this. I do not think that noble Lords opposite are worried; otherwise, more of them might well have spoken. The Government have inherited, for whatever reason, a strong economy and there is a good opportunity. It has to be said that my own party made some pretty disastrous mistakes by raising interest rates so rapidly that we created a form of deflation for a while.
There is a small perception by Professor Laffer that I should like to see introduced. It is to have a generally friendly Inland Revenue. The cheapest way to get rid of your Lordships would be to bankrupt us all! It would mean that we could no longer sit in this House. The Inland Revenue in this country has always been fairer than any other revenue in Europe. Yet on the Continent of Europe there is one thing that Professor Laffer likes. In general, people in Europe think of their income as a net income, not a gross income. The British are so proud of their gross income of so many hundreds, or tens, of thousands a year that they show off; they feel socially insecure. We could perhaps shift that direction and ask: what do we actually receive? How many noble Lords know what their net income is each year? Most noble Lords probably know their gross income. I am a man for more net!
Viscount Torrington: My Lords, I wish to add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, for introducing this debate and for his excellent tour of the development of taxation in this country. Like my noble friend Lady Platt, I am no economist. I shall stick to areas that have already been touched upon but which demand further exploration.
Some 36 years ago the Oxford Union held a debate on the redistribution of wealth. In the course of that debate, I inadvertently drew the fury of the Left upon myself by declaring that, because I drove a large old American car, I paid more tax each time I filled it up than most of my contemporaries paid in a year.
It was a cheap jibe, but it is uncomfortably close to the truth today: we Brits have just about the highest road fuel taxes in Europe. As my noble friend Lady Platt mentioned, our haulage firms are now hit by excessively high diesel fuel costs. But they are also now beset by the highest licensing charges in Europe. Many are apparently considering re-registering their vehicle fleets outside the United Kingdom. We may yet see the redoubtable Eddie Stobart setting up house next to the almost unpronounceable Mr. Norbert Dentressangle. No doubt all will be fitting their lorries with tanks that are sufficiently large that they never have to fill them up with diesel fuel in the United Kingdom when they do business here.
I agree to some extent with the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, that any thinking person accepts that taxation, both direct and indirect, is a package deal, and different countries have evolved different balances and mixes of taxes to fill the public purse. But whether we like it or not, we are now engaged in the Europe-wide debate on tax harmonisation. As a Euro-fence-sitting Tory, I should nevertheless reckon myself firmly against any attempt by Brussels bureaucrats to enforce harmonisation across the board. But I do believe that the natural laws of competition demand, and should make for, a certain degree of harmonisation, particularly in matters such as excise duties. It really is not reasonable to expect a man travelling home by car to resist filling up his boot with cheap beer and wine at a continental port in order to save his business for his local wine merchant in England, who is forced to sell the same goods at much higher prices.
The inevitable consequence of that is that British retailers in the south are missing out on a massive amount of business. I appreciate that it is illegal to buy liquor in commercial quantities, duty paid, in Europe and bring it back to Britain for resale. That is the reason for the Customs initiative described earlier in response to a Starred Question. However, it seems to me that that flies in the face of the objectives of a Europe without frontiers and shows that we still have a long way to go to achieve a common market. HM Customs and Excise would say that it is losing a fair amount of revenue--I believe the figure given by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, was £220 million--thanks to both the legal and not so legal parts of the cross-frontier booze and baccy trade. By contrast, I would argue, like the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, that Customs and Excise is not so much losing revenue as harbouring an unrealistic and unreasonable expectation of ever having such revenue in the first place given the imbalance of duties on either side of a mere 20 mile wide waterway in what most people now believe, perhaps erroneously, to be a customs union. The system itself has something wrong with it if moving goods from one part of a customs union--for customs purposes one country--to another part is a criminal offence.
To return to the road haulage industry in the context of harmonisation, I recently heard an excellent argument put forward to the effect that continental lorries entering Britain should be made to pay a toll or temporary road tax to cover the cost of the use of our motorway system. The Government, in defending themselves over their decision in the Budget to make Britain's truckers pay the highest licence charges in Europe, claim that although continental lorry licences are cheaper than those in the UK, European truckers have to pay heavy road tolls in many countries. Unfortunately, expensively registered British trucks have to pay those same tolls when engaged in international transport.
Her Majesty's Government should therefore seriously consider reducing the recent increases in licensing charges for British trucks and instituting a simple foreign commercial vehicle charge. The Swiss do that, even for private cars, as I know to my cost. Woe betide any foreign-registered vehicle, be it a car or a truck, found on a Swiss motorway without its tax sticker.
Such a charge could be payable through the purchase of a windscreen sticker which, like the Swiss version, would tear apart if removed. The stickers could be available at the port of entry and at truck stops, and be valid for a range of periods and for a range of vehicle weights. We could even offer reciprocity: allowing trucks from countries that levy no motorway tolls or road use charges on British-registered trucks to be exempt from the charge.
Returning finally to excise duties, I note that such bodies as the Brewers and Licensed Victualers Association have been uncharacteristically silent since the Budget, presumably because, for once, drink was not seriously clobbered. But could this be the beginning of harmonisation--of recognition by the Government that in a free market you simply cannot expect people to pay high prices in your shop when the guy next door is offering the same goods at a massive discount? Perhaps, as my noble friend Lord Northesk hoped, realisation is dawning, and excise duties will have to change.
Lord Saatchi: My Lords, I am very sorry to have missed the opening remarks from the two Front Benches and some of the earlier speeches in this debate. I apologise, and look forward to reading them in Hansard tomorrow.
Perhaps I may also congratulate my noble friend Lord Skidelsky on the timing of this debate, to coincide precisely with the 200th anniversary of the introduction of income tax into Britain. I hope that some noble Lords may have seen the excellent Inland Revenue exhibition to mark that anniversary, which showed the many fascinating twists and turns in the evolution of taxation in our country.
I also declare a special interest in this debate as the co-author of a pamphlet on taxation and public expenditure policy to be published by the Centre for Policy Studies next Tuesday, which the CPS is following with a debate on the subject in May.
Next Tuesday will be the 20th anniversary of when my noble friend Lady Thatcher became Prime Minister. Nobody could have wished for a more forceful and determined advocate of tax reduction; yet even my noble friend, with all her unique power, was not able to achieve that goal. According to some estimates--probably depending on which side of your Lordships' House one sits--the tax burden is heading for a record 38 per cent. in the next two years.
Judging from the plans set out in their Red Book, the new Labour Government have decided to raise tax, just as the previous Conservative Government did. These habitual responses to economic difficulty illustrate the problem. Faced with the legitimate need to maintain sound public finances, successive British governments, both Labour and Conservative, have chosen to raise the overall burden of taxation. That has been going on for 40 years.
Most British governments since the Second World War have been elected on a promise to keep taxes down; yet most left office with taxes higher than when they came to power. The tax burden has gone up, whichever party has been in government. It is not as though this steady increase has achieved a noble purpose. There has been a remorseless increase, in communities all over Britain, of the linked problems which are now commonly described as social exclusion: poor housing, poor public health, low standards of education and high rates of crime. The tax and benefits system is supposed to make things better, through the redistribution of income and wealth. Instead, it makes things worse by reinforcing the very conditions that lead to social exclusion. At the same time, we are paying more tax than at any point in our peacetime history, which in itself inhibits the economic growth and job creation which could form part of the solution to the problems of social exclusion.
At the end of the day, the terrible problem at the heart of the present system never goes away. We have all grown painfully familiar with it. Taxes always seem to be going up, yet there never seems to be enough money to spend on health and education. We saw that again in the latest NHS crisis last winter.
International economic comparisons help to explain this phenomenon. They suggest that a higher tax burden is associated with weaker economic performance and less money to spend on public services in the long run. These comparisons are indicative of a negative relationship between government size and full employment and between high tax rates and full employment.
The dynamic effect of a low tax burden on an economy is illustrated by the position in the United States. The US government taxes only 28 per cent. of national income; but, instead of finding this insufficient to meet its spending needs, the independent US
Calls for modernisation of the tax and benefit system are not new. The question that arises is: why has it never happened? There is one simple explanation. It is not because our political leaders are oblivious to the need. On the contrary, there is almost universal agreement about what the problems are and the urgency of tackling them. Rather, a national culture has emerged which stops political leaders taking the required action.
British politicians have become paralysed by fear of public reaction to fundamental reform of our system of tax and benefits. Every action that is proposed is always analysed in terms of winners and losers, short-term effects and precise calculations of personal financial advantage and thereby political advantage.
Unless we change our political culture, we shall never change the dependency culture which has been inadvertently created. Agreement is needed that we are on the wrong path and that we must change to a different one. Yet there is little sign of such an agreement on the horizon. On the contrary, the political position is exactly as it has been for many years. My noble friend Lord Skidelsky touched on that in his opening remarks.
The Right always said that one should cut tax, and the only way that it could think of to do that was by cutting public spending. The Left always said that tax served a moral purpose and that it would be cruel and uncaring to cut public spending. So that was it: stalemate. The tax burden went up, whoever was in office. That is why it is no longer sufficient to change politicians; we need to change to a new path. We need a bold and radical approach.
The true battleground for reform at the start of the 21st century is not the National Health Service or the education system but the tax and welfare payments system. Until the UK embraces a fundamental reform of that system, it will stagger under the weight of an ever-increasing tax burden and will struggle to make adequate resources available to public health or education. If opinion polls are any guide, there is enormous public support for the reallocation of government expenditure towards front-line healthcare and primary and secondary education. Yet this transformation has proved elusive, even for a Government with a massive parliamentary majority.
Incremental reform of the existing tax, national insurance and benefit systems over the past 30 years has created a highly complex and contradictory framework of transfer payments between government and individuals. All attempts to unravel the wasteful and unintended features of the transfer system, such as the unemployment and poverty traps, have been half-hearted and piecemeal. In 1999 the problems loom as large as ever and the human and financial costs of large-scale benefit dependency are still escalating.
The current system of taxation and transfer payments is a horse designed by a committee which has been in standing session for 200 years. The outcome is an ungainly beast of burden. The time is ripe for fundamental reform.
Lord Taverne: My Lords, I look forward to reading the pamphlet co-authored by the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, which is to be published next week. On the basis of what he said today, some of the arguments might be familiar, but I am sure that they will be more persuasively presented than ever before.
I found the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, refreshing. It was non-partisan and philosophical in its approach. Indeed, the debate has been more illuminating than I had expected, partly because some of the most fundamental questions of politics have been raised, perhaps as a result of the tone set in the noble Lord's speech.
I too should like to approach the matter in a non-partisan fashion. Some of my remarks may not be altogether approved of by my Liberal Democrat colleagues. I wish to start with the general and look at the link between tax rates and growth. As the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, said, there has been much argument that high public spending and high taxes lead to lower rates of growth, although he favoured the view that it is when public spending is going down and when expectations are for lower tax that one sees the most favourable growth effect, which is an interesting thesis.
I have always been fascinated by the academic work on tax and incentives and have found it inconclusive and not totally persuasive. The academic literature suggests that there is no particular effect either way. Tax acts as a disincentive to work in one way because people prefer leisure. On the other hand, if people wish to reach a particular level of income, it acts as an incentive to work because they have to work more to achieve that income.
I found the work inconclusive and not always persuasive, partly as a gut reaction which is widely shared. I would not argue that, when I was at the Treasury in the period to which the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, referred, when we had a budget surplus and a rate of growth of over 4 per cent. per year, our tax system was ideal. We had a top rate of 83 per cent. and a 15 per cent. unearned income rate on top of that. I agree that one of the most important things that the Conservative government did was to reduce those rates. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, and the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, when Chancellor, reduced those rates, although I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, went too far. I have never felt it necessary for the top rate of tax to be below 50 per cent. Undoubtedly the rates had been too high. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, and the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, that very high tax rates seem to have a distorting effect.
I have doubts as to whether expectations of future rates determine growth. The noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, referred to the fact that the United States has very low taxes as a proportion of GDP and has recently had a high growth rate. But the comparison between
There are now particular difficulties about considering countries with high levels of public spending. The three most successful countries in Europe in terms of growth are Ireland, the Netherlands and Denmark. Denmark and the Netherlands have very high rates of tax and public spending. Perhaps there has been a recent change because of globalisation. It may well be that in the present climate there must be a reduction of taxation levels in Europe; and certainly it appears that capital taxes have an effect.
I am struck by the huge difference between the number of employees of venture capital companies represented on the American NASDAQ market (9 million) and those employed by the very few companies represented on the equivalent European market, EASDAQ (9,000). That is a new market, but it appears that the creation of jobs will depend to a considerable extent in future on venture capital. This is a field in which the euro should help to create a much deeper and more liquid capital market on the Continent. That raises the question whether capital gains tax is too high. I suspect that here I lose some of my colleagues.
I was always struck by the fact that during President Carter's administration, despite his own wishes, United States capital gains tax was reduced and there followed an explosion in small and medium-sized technological companies, particularly around the Boston hemicycle. I believe that the connection between venture capital and its enormously important role in future and the level of capital gains tax is more important than income tax.
I turn to some particular points that have been made relating to the Budget. On the whole, I much admire the general approach of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He has made a number of important mistakes. He made a mistake in his early Budgets in taxing companies rather than consumption, particularly his taxation of pension funds. Referring to the speeches made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hogg, and the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, I believe that the charge of obfuscation in the Red Book is made out. The energy tax is mistaken, although unlike other noble Lords who have spoken I believe that the Chancellor would have been much better advised to go for a carbon tax. That would have been much more effective in its impact on the environment and, if recycled, would have done a great deal to increase the number of jobs.
However, I am impressed by the Chancellor's overall strategy. He has not repeated the mistakes of former Labour Chancellors--for example, the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, in 1964 and the noble Lord, Lord Healey, in 1974--when public expenditure was expanded to a degree that could not be contained and in subsequent years the Labour government struggled to control excessive public expenditure. Gordon Brown has not made that mistake. What is more, the Chancellor has
But while it was politically adroit, I cannot say that it was a justified measure. The Chancellor has reduced the amount of money available for public services. If one looks at the proposed measures, as shown by the speeches of my noble friends Lord Dahrendorf and Lady Sharp, nowadays it is the Liberal Democrats who are the champions of public services. If one considers the needs of education, a higher level of spending on that service is required not just for the quality of society but for economic reasons. Although the economies of Germany and France are not greatly flourishing, their exports and manufacturing industries are much more successful than ours. Why? The reason is that the standard of education in those countries is much higher than ours. The proportion of unskilled labour in Germany is about 16 per cent. whereas in the United Kingdom it is 61 per cent.
One must also consider the very great needs of the National Health Service. One should not criticise the record of the Government too much. They have provided for a rise in spending on the NHS in real terms in this Parliament of 3.8 per cent., which compares with 3.1 per cent. under the previous Conservative government, which is not a bad record on the face of it. I believe that we should look at the percentages and not the billions that are trotted out, often several times, as new announcements.
One must face the fact that the standard of the National Health Service is very poor in European terms. Rationing is prevalent and will increase. The inexorable rise in cost will not be met by the present provision for National Health Service spending. I believe that in time more radical measures will have to be taken and that in the end we shall face the choice of continuing rationing, which is totally unacceptable, restricting the NHS to a basic service and recourse to reinsurance and private provision, which I also regard as wholly unacceptable, or, if we want to keep the NHS as a universal and comprehensive service, the need for charges. That is a form of hypothecation that I believe is acceptable.
The case for charges was powerfully made out in a book on the health service by Mr. John Wilman of the Financial Times. We must face the fact that we cannot pursue the aim of lower taxation and good quality public services. The quality of our public services is essential to the quality of our society and is much more important than a 1 per cent. cut for political reasons in the standard rate of income tax.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I join with other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, on initiating this debate, which has been of very high quality. My noble friend Lord Haskel made a
This debate could have been on three alternative subjects. The noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, described it as our version of a Budget debate, but it has not been very much that. To a considerable extent it has been a rational debate about taxation, as the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, described it. It could have been a theological debate about definitions of taxation, tax credits and all those things that occupied the mind of the Treasury Select Committee of another place in its recent report. I prepared an elaborate defence of the Treasury against those criticisms and against Mr. Ruffley and the House of Commons Library. Your Lordships will be pleased to know that I do not have to use any of it because none of those criticisms has surfaced in the debate this afternoon.
What has surfaced, quite understandably, is a complaint about the presentation of the Budget figures. I do not think that we can be blamed for the way in which the Sun or the Mirror interpret the Budget, unless we have positively misled them, which I do not believe. Nevertheless, I accept the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hogg, that as Budgets have become more complex, and as we have moved to a Budget which covers income as well as expenditure, the Red Book is hard going. It is true that some of the important material is towards the end of the Red Book rather than in a more prominent place. For those who do not read to the end--and I wonder how many do--I can see that there could be difficulties.
The Treasury Select Committee commented on that at considerable length. I wish to make only two points about its conclusions. First, its general conclusion was that it got there in the end: that the figures in Table B9 on page 120 are comprehensive, and set out the various options for interpretation of what is meant by the tax burden.
"This material should have been financed out of party funds. To be specific, the Conservative Party should have paid for it for those quotations all come from a leaflet issued by the Treasury following Kenneth Clarke's last Budget in November 1996". I rest my case. I think that we can now move on to rational taxation debate and to a Budget debate.
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