Stamp Duty Land Tax (Temporary Relief) Bill

(2nd reading)
(2nd reading: House of Commons)
Anthony Browne Excerpts
Monday 13th July 2020

(7 months, 4 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber

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HM Treasury
Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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13 Jul 2020, 12:05 a.m.

The Minister is absolutely right, and I will come to that.

The Conservative Government have improved the system of stamp duty significantly. It used to be a ridiculous slab tax that created distortions all the way through the market, but we made it into a slice tax—perhaps a slam tax—that gets very expensive at the higher levels and deters activity at the top end.

On the Minister’s point about where on earth we are going to get the money from, the reality is that this nation will come under huge tax pressure over the next few decades, not just the next few years. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, because of the demands of healthcare and social care, if we do not change the tax system and claim more tax, our national debt will grow to three times our GDP—it is one times our GDP today—so we cannot simply scrap taxes without introducing alternative measures.

I am going to propose a measure. I would like the threshold remain at £500,000, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) proposed. We have to find that £8.3 billion annually, so we have to look at annual property taxes. The council tax system, under which people pay pretty much the same whether they live in a castle or a cottage, cannot be right. We need to revisit it and have a proper discussion about it. It is controversial. Some people think it is right that people who own bigger houses should pay more, and other people think it is wrong. We should certainly have a conversation about that.

The think-tank Onward recently proposed that there should be a council tax revaluation, and even the Prime Minister suggested back in 2014 that we should look at it. The thing about it is that it is simple. We can scrap stamp duty completely up to £500,000, and keep it at that level. We can also adjust the bands to make it cheaper for people in lower-value homes, to help people on lower incomes, and make it more expensive for people in higher-value homes.

It is simple, but it is not easy. Simple and easy are two completely different things. As Ronald Reagan said, there are simple solutions, but there are no easy solutions. If we are to tackle some of the unfairnesses in society, we must not duck the tough issues; we must look at the things that make the system unfair in the first place. This is an excellent measure, and I will support it tonight if we enter the Lobbies.

Anthony Browne Portrait Anthony Browne (South Cambridgeshire) (Con)
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13 Jul 2020, 12:01 a.m.

I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am on the advisory council for the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which I am about to quote, and back in 2012 I co-founded the HomeOwners Alliance, Britain’s only consumer group for homeowners, because I was alarmed by the prospects of the home ownership gap—the 5 million aspiring homeowners who cannot own their own home. We have done a lot of work promoting policies to help people get on to the housing ladder.

I was concerned about the home ownership gap because, as Opposition Members said, home ownership levels have declined. What they did not say was that home ownership levels went up almost every year for the past 100 years and stopped in the year 2000—three years after the new Labour Government came in. They then started declining for a decade or so. They are now going back up again. I commend the Government’s policies for increasing home ownership levels.

Various people on both sides of the House have mentioned the deposit barrier. It is a huge barrier for first-time buyers who are trying to save up a deposit. The reason banks have increased the deposit requirement and got rid of 95% loans is that house prices are falling, as the latest data shows. Therefore, if people take out a high-value mortgage, they end up in negative equity. That is why banks are legally required to do only affordable lending. The best way to help homeowners get high loan-to-value mortgages is to have a confidently stable or rising housing market, where there is no risk of negative equity. This measure will do that.

In my time at the HomeOwners Alliance over the past decade, I have done a lot of policy work on stamp duty and written loads of reports on it, including one back in 2012 or 2013 that argued for a differential stamp duty system for second home owners and property investors. There is absolutely no reason why they should benefit from the low stamp duty rates for first-time buyers and so on. I lobbied the Treasury, No. 10 and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, and I was delighted when they finally introduced it as the stamp duty premium for additional homes. I would not have introduced it in quite the way they did, but the policy has made a big difference.

Two months ago, I called on the Government to introduce a stamp duty holiday to kick-start the housing market, so naturally I am delighted that the Government have done it.

Jesse Norman Portrait Jesse Norman
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It was only you saying it.

Anthony Browne Portrait Anthony Browne
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13 Jul 2020, 12:02 a.m.

Not at all; I am sure lots of people called for it. I am just showing that I am consistent in my views.

Stamp duty—SDLT—is one of the most unpopular taxes, and not just with homeowners and the public, but with economists. The Institute for Fiscal Studies—a very wise organisation—has called for stamp duty to be abolished outright, because it is one of the most economically inefficient taxes. It is always worth listening to the IFS. I serve on the Treasury Committee, and we took evidence last week from Nick Macpherson, the former permanent secretary at the Treasury. He said he really dislikes stamp duty because it is a transaction tax that reduces transactions, and it has a very bad impact on labour mobility and bungs up the whole labour market. He would certainly not be sad if it went.

We know that there is huge pent-up demand in the housing market. That is not just about Brexit uncertainty and all the missing transactions from the coronavirus crisis; there was pent-up demand beforehand, partly because stamp duty rates have been so high. Before the financial crisis, there were on average about 1.7 million transactions a year. In recent years, there have been about 1.2 million a year. We are about 30% below the pre-financial crisis average. A large part of that is because of stamp duty, although there are other reasons.

The housing market is very sensitive to changes in stamp duty. That is why Opposition Members said earlier, “Don’t speculate about stamp duty changes. Just get ahead and do it.” That is what the Government have done. That is why a cut in stamp duty is so effective in rapidly driving up activity in the market and releasing the animal spirit—the huge backlog of people who want to move are released to get on with it. As several of my hon. Friend have mentioned, we have already seen the number of transactions shoot up in the past few days, which is very much to be welcomed.

Several Members on both sides of the House have worried about the £3.8 billion in forgone revenue. I have a solution to that, which I will come to in a minute. However, I do not think the figure will be anywhere near £3.8 billion. That is just the forgone revenue from stamp duty that has been calculated by the Treasury. That is slightly unlikely because the whole stamp duty take last year was £4.5 billion just for primary residential homes, if we get rid of the additional premium.

We have heard about all the additional economic activity that goes along with housing transactions—the builders, the furniture makers, the removal companies, the lawyers and so on. All that is taxed at 20% VAT. On average, only about half the tax paid in a single housing transaction goes on stamp duty; the other half goes on all the associated economic activity through VAT to the Government. If we scrapped stamp duty outright but the number of transactions doubled, the revenue to the Government would be the same. It just comes not as stamp duty but as VAT.

However, that is not the proposal I was going to make to help my Treasury friends with the £3.8 billion. There is another £3.8 billion: the latest available figures show that the amount of money the Treasury made from the additional premium for second homes was also £3.8 billion, as it happens. That is made on a rate of 3% above the existing stamp duty. If we increased that 3% to 6%, there may be a slight decline in transactions, but basically we would raise another £3.8 billion. That is what I proposed a couple of months ago—that we should increase the rate for second home owners and property investors, and use that to cut stamp duty for people buying a home for what houses are for, which is to have a place to live in.

So I very much welcome this policy. I urge the Government to look at increasing the rate for second home owners, not now, when we are in the middle of the financial crisis, but when we get back a bit to normality. Let us make this a flat rate. There is no social or economic reason why people buying second homes or homes for investment should get discounted rates on lower-valued properties. This should be a flat rate, like VAT, where it is the same whatever the value of the transaction. Lastly, we should give strong consideration for this temporary cut in stamp duty to be made permanent.

Robbie Moore Portrait Robbie Moore (Keighley) (Con)
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13 Jul 2020, 12:06 a.m.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne), who speaks with great passion and knowledge on this subject.

Coronavirus has had a devastating impact on the housing market, with property transactions falling by up to 50% in May and housing prices falling for the first time in eight years. One of the most important areas for job creation is the whole housing sector, so we need mechanisms with which to stimulate, loosen the barriers, open the market and instil confidence in people to buy, sell and renovate. The Chancellor’s announcement last week introducing a temporary SDLT cut until 31 March next year by increasing the nil rate threshold to £500,000 plays a key role in doing that. It is estimated that this measure will mean that approximately 90% of people buying their main home this year will pay no SDLT, which is great news. I believe the conversation on SDLT should go even further, and I would welcome exploring its removal for buyers altogether, with perhaps the consideration for such a tax to be transferred to the seller. Alternatively, as was suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), who is no longer in his place, we could look at an ongoing annual property tax review.

Through last week’s announcements, we have seen, yet again, that the Chancellor is on the side of business and jobs. This temporary SDLT cut is yet another tangible, significant weapon in our Government’s armoury to reignite the economy through our overall plan to create jobs. House builders alone support nearly 750,000 jobs, with millions more people relying on the availability of the housing sector and housing market to find work.

One of the first visits I undertook as the proud new Member for Keighley was to Keighley College, where I was lucky enough to meet one of its level 1 students who was undertaking a construction course. I witnessed him building a wall in one of the college’s classrooms for the first time, where he started to learn the skills needed for the building trade and the ropes required to get on. With its principal, Steve Kelly, and his awesome team, who are full of enthusiasm and want the very best for their students in Keighley, I went on to see students undertaking fabrication and welding, electrical, plumbing, gas safety and engineering courses, all with students who were determined to progress, upskill and get a job.

The Chancellor’s announcements last week on SDLT, along with many other packages, are most welcome, as it is vital that we use every mechanism to kick-start the whole housing market and get its wheels in motion, so that, in turn, the construction industry, which attracts a huge number of employees, can start moving again, and so that keen and enthusiastic students such as those at Keighley College can learn a trade, with the comfort of knowing that they will be greeted with a job at the other side.

This is such an important debate, as it actively aims to create, secure and protect jobs. Many Conservatives have contributed to the debate, but only two Labour Back Benchers have done so. In summary, this Bill demonstrates that this Conservative Government are on the side of those hard-working families who want to get on the housing ladder and progress. For those first-time buyers, it loosens the market, while ensuring that those hard-working families have more money in their pocket.