64 Peter Aldous debates involving HM Treasury

Peter Aldous Portrait Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con)
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May I start by paying tribute to you, Madam Deputy Speaker? The best type of umpire or referee is one who is formidable but fair and greatly respected, and you tick all three boxes. I am most grateful to you for calling me to speak. I do so as I have some concerns about unintended consequences arising from clause 7, which is on the abolition of multiple dwellings relief for stamp duty land tax. My hon. Friend the Minister set out some of the reasons for abolishing it. I wish to go a little further and perhaps pry a little more response out of him to allay those concerns.

I make these observations as a former chartered surveyor, as the MP for a constituency that might be adversely affected and having received representations from the British Property Federation. I am aware that a number of pension funds, investors, builders and professional advisers have written to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer expressing their concerns.

The build-to-rent sector rose from a combination of the introduction of stamp duty land tax multiple dwellings relief in 2011 and the implementation of some of the Montague review’s recommendations in 2012. Subsequently, it has been extremely successful. Some £40 million has been invested in the build-to-rent sector, resulting in 100,300 additional homes being completed, with a further 166,000 in the planning and delivery pipeline. The sector still represents a relatively small proportion of the delivery of new homes, but it is growing rapidly. The number of completed build-to-rent homes increased by 17% year-on-year in the fourth quarter last year. Investors and developers initially focused on London, then the larger cities such as Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds. Now, their interest is rippling right out across the UK.

Build to rent acts as an anchor in large development schemes. It helps get homes of other tenures built, and multiple dwellings relief enables much-needed homes to be built outside London and the south-east in areas where there are lower property values and development otherwise would not be financially viable. My concern is that the abolition of multiple dwellings relief in the form proposed could have a variety of unintended consequences, which I will go through briefly. First, as I know from my own inbox and postbag, which I anticipate is the case for all colleagues, we need to build more homes to rent. The Bill potentially removes one of the ways of doing that. Secondly, it will have an impact on specialist sectors—student accommodation and sheltered housing—where, in response to demand, developers are increasingly looking to provide units to let.

Thirdly, the relief is most needed in areas where the property market is weaker—outside London and the south-east—and often in areas where the need for more housing is most acute. Fourthly, we have a problem in the UK of too few house builders. The small and medium-sized house builder is an increasingly endangered species. Clause 7 could undermine an alternative means of housing delivery.

Finally, I am mindful of the enormous task of urban regeneration and town centre renewal that we face right across the UK—in other words levelling up, which has been the theme of much of this Parliament. This task is enormous and incredibly expensive. It is neither practical nor possible for the state to do that heavy lifting on its own. Private finance must be leveraged in from pensions funds and investors. Multiple dwellings relief is a means of doing that. Some might say it is a small thing, but its abolition could send a negative message that there is no place for the public and private sectors to work together.

We could amend clause 7 to retain the multiple dwellings relief for transactions of six or more dwellings, on the basis that it would underpin the development proposals of large rented housing schemes, and would result in significantly more rental homes being built than if the relief were completely abolished. The threshold of six mirrors the existing rule that purchases of six or more dwellings can be treated as a commercial property transaction for stamp duty land tax purposes, and is at a level at which multiple dwellings relief is hard to abuse.

I would be grateful if my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, who has been incredibly patient listening to my various concerns about this Bill during its course, could comment a little more and seek to allay my genuinely held concerns.

Furnished Holiday Lettings: Taxation

Peter Aldous Excerpts
Wednesday 1st May 2024

(3 weeks, 5 days ago)

Westminster Hall
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Peter Aldous Portrait Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the taxation of furnished holiday lettings.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Dame Siobhain. I welcome the Minister and other colleagues to their respective places.

This debate arises because of the changes announced in the Budget to the taxation of the furnished holiday letting—FHL—regime, which have already acquired the nom de plume “the staycation tax”. As I mentioned in the Budget debate on 12 March, I am concerned that the proposal could have unintended consequences.

I acknowledge the thinking behind the change, because there are areas of the country where local people are having great difficulty renting local properties, and it is possible—I will put it no more strongly than that—that holiday lettings might be contributing to that. In other areas across the UK, however, holiday lettings are not having such a negative impact, and they are a vital component of local economies all around our four nations. That is the case in the Waveney constituency, although I acknowledge—this may be where we have difficulties—that there are significant challenges for local people looking to rent a home in nearby Southwold, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey).

Duncan Baker Portrait Duncan Baker (North Norfolk) (Con)
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I thank my hon. Friend for giving way on that point, which is a good one for North Norfolk, where there are clearly problems with housing supply. I put it to him that, in an area such as mine, which has a large number of second homes, the policy change may well lead to more homes coming on to the market to be snapped up by people who are buying them as second homes, making the situation even worse in picturesque places like North Norfolk.

Peter Aldous Portrait Peter Aldous
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My hon. Friend may have read my speech, because that is one of the issues that I will highlight, and I will mention some statistics that the Professional Association of Self-Caterers—PASC—kindly provided to me to make that point.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I congratulate the hon. Member on bringing the debate forward. I suspect that I might be about to add a controversial opinion, but we will see how it goes. As a representative of what I believe to be the most beautiful constituency in the United Kingdom, Strangford, it is my desire to attract more bed nights to the area, and the Airbnb-type scenario was one way in which we felt that could be done. Does the hon. Member agree that the removal of the tax incentive may prohibit people from doing up the old granny flat in the garden, and so prevent the local economy from benefiting from bed nights? I see the benefits of the incentive, and I think it could be to our advantage.

Peter Aldous Portrait Peter Aldous
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. In certain parts of the country, the incentive’s removal might well have benefits, but I argue that it is a rather blunt instrument, which could have unintended consequences in other areas.

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
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I understand the concerns about housing shortages, which I have in my constituency. The answer to the shortage of housing, however, is to build more houses; it is not to punish what is a very important part of the local economy, including in parts of the country like mine. The advantage of such a tax provision is that it allows for the improvement and professionalisation of the sector, which at the end of the day can only improve the visitor offering.

Peter Aldous Portrait Peter Aldous
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I agree with the right hon. Member on both counts. There are other measures being introduced, such as the register, that I believe will help bring professionalism into the sector. In fact, I know from the constituents I have spoken to and the businesses that operate this type of furnished holiday accommodation that they are incredibly professional businesses.

Simon Jupp Portrait Simon Jupp (East Devon) (Con)
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Several owners and operators in East Devon have been in touch with me about the changes, about which there is widespread concern. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister should hold a public consultation about the changes—my hon. Friend might be intending to say that—and consider a list of exemptions, for example if a property cannot be a permanent residence because it is on a working farm?

Peter Aldous Portrait Peter Aldous
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I agree with my hon. Friend wholeheartedly, and I intend to develop some of those points.

Anne Marie Morris Portrait Anne Marie Morris (Newton Abbot) (Con)
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Will my hon. Friend give way?

Peter Aldous Portrait Peter Aldous
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I will give way one more time at this stage, after which I will have to make some progress.

Anne Marie Morris Portrait Anne Marie Morris
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On the basis of the contributions that have been made, does it not seem obvious that what we need is a proper impact assessment of the reform? We need to look at the impact on the economy, the impact on housing and the impact on the tourism sector. I am sure my hon. Friend will also come to the expected impacts on gross value added and on jobs.

Peter Aldous Portrait Peter Aldous
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I agree wholeheartedly. I had planned to raise a lot of the points that have been made; let me now get on to back them up with the evidence.

Since the Budget, I have been contacted by many constituents highlighting their concerns. I am grateful to them for their feedback, as well as to PASC, the Short Term Accommodation Association and the National Farmers Union for all their briefings and advice.

In some ways, I have a sense of déjà vu, in that the proposal mirrors in many ways those put forward in the 2012 Budget to tax Cornish pasties and static caravans. In his Budget speech, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor stated that he had concerns that the current tax regime for FHLs is distorting the market and that there are not enough properties available for long-term rental by local people. Therefore, to make the tax system work better for local communities, he plans to abolish the FHL regime. In the accompanying Red Book, the proposals are described as having the advantages of tax simplification, creating a level playing field and supporting people to live in their own areas. I have concerns that the proposals will not fulfil those objectives, and I hope I can illustrate why.

The Office for Budget Responsibility has calculated that the measure, along with the abolition of the multiple dwellings relief, will raise £0.6 billion of additional receipts by 2028-29. That figure pales into insignificance compared with the potential loss of value added and local jobs, which I shall outline shortly.

Angus Brendan MacNeil Portrait Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (Ind)
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I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving way and for securing the debate. In a response that I had from the Chancellor last week on this very issue, he talked about housing and the distortion for local people, but there is no evidence that if these houses went on sale they would become affordable houses by any manner of means. To echo the point made by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), it is many years since the housing charity Shelter told me that there were more second homes in Norway than in Scotland, but there were more first homes in Norway as well. The point is, let us have more first homes, but let us not be damaging the very weak economy of many of Scotland’s islands by doing that.

Peter Aldous Portrait Peter Aldous
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point, which he made particularly well. Hopefully, it will also come out as I move forward in my speech.

In the first instance, it is necessary for me to set out what I would describe as a few home truths and to set the record straight. First, it is important to point out that the FHL regime is not a tax loophole; it was introduced in 1984 specifically to cater for the fact that a holiday let business is very different from a private rental business. Forty years on, that remains the case, and it should be pointed out that strict criteria are in place if people wish to move into the regime.

Secondly, it should be emphasised that furnished holiday lettings are a long-standing economic lifeline for many coastal and rural areas.

Christine Jardine Portrait Christine Jardine (Edinburgh West) (LD)
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The hon. Member is making a lot of very good points, specifically about these lets being a lifeline for areas. I was recently visited by representatives of the furnished holiday lets association in Scotland, who feel that they have been hit by a double whammy: this legislation and the short-term let licensing legislation in Scotland. Should there not have been a joined-up approach? Would it not have been better for the Government to speak to the devolved Administration and find a way forward for the whole industry, rather than hamper one of Scotland’s biggest and most profitable sectors?

Peter Aldous Portrait Peter Aldous
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I think the hon. Lady has hit on the way forward. The solution to this problem—if indeed there is a problem—needs to be sorted out locally, in consultation with the devolved Assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and with local authorities elsewhere in the UK.

James Davies Portrait Dr James Davies (Vale of Clwyd) (Con)
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My hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. In April last year, the Welsh Government increased to 182 days a year the occupancy threshold that allows holiday lets to qualify for business rates. They have also allowed local authorities to increase council tax premiums to up to 300% in cases where that threshold is not met. Does my hon. Friend agree that that Welsh Government policy is destroying legitimate business among holiday let operations, and damaging the local economy?

--- Later in debate ---
Peter Aldous Portrait Peter Aldous
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I do agree, and that point illustrates that this is a multifaceted problem or issue. A whole host of organisations need to sit around the table and come up with solutions that are bespoke and right for their councils or counties, or indeed for their devolved nations.

Angus Brendan MacNeil Portrait Angus Brendan MacNeil
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The hon. Gentleman is bang on. He is essentially saying that one size does not fit all and that we should find the right solution for every place, because the current provision is a very blunt instrument.

Peter Aldous Portrait Peter Aldous
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for that further observation; he is right.

As I was saying, my second point is that it should be emphasised that furnished holiday lets are a long-standing economic lifeline for many coastal and rural areas. The regime supports micro and small businesses that are the cornerstone of many visitor economies. Abolishing it would hurt those businesses—including farmers who have diversified into tourism, as well as other businesses such as pubs, which rely on the lets for trade—and PASC estimates that even a modest 20% reduction in furnished holiday lets could result in the loss of £1.9 billion GVA and 46,000 jobs. The former figure is considerably higher than the Office for Budget Responsibility’s assessment of the additional tax that will be generated.

Thirdly, furnished holiday lets are not the cause of the housing crisis, as I think colleagues have mentioned. PASC estimates that a total of 197,000 properties in the UK fall within the FHL regime. Due to planning restrictions, 39% of those holiday let properties can only be used for holiday purposes. That means that 76,000 furnished holiday lets could not be used as residential dwellings, and only 121,000 furnished holiday lets have planning permission to be used as residential dwellings. The context is important: those 121,000 dwellings without planning restrictions have been established not in the past three or four years but over many decades; however, they represent 0.4% of the 30.1 million total UK housing stock and just 40% of the annual house building target of 300,000 new homes. Although there might be anecdotal evidence to suggest that private rental landlords are moving into the short-term let sector, PASC can find no quantitative data to support that conclusion. Indeed, less than 2% of traditional short-term let businesses had previously rented their properties out as a long-term let.

Anne Marie Morris Portrait Anne Marie Morris
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Is it not also clear, following the Renters (Reform) Bill, that there has been a haemorrhaging of landlords who do not wish to be in the private rented sector? As a consequence, they used to go to holiday lets, so holiday let individuals are hardly going to be going back to the private rented sector, which they wanted to leave and are leaving in droves.

Peter Aldous Portrait Peter Aldous
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My hon. Friend makes a good point that reinforces my arguments about the unintended consequences of this proposal.

My fourth point is that there is no statistical evidence to suggest that furnished holiday lets have a disproportionate impact on house prices. As part of the consultation on the proposed introduction of the new planning use class for short-term lets in England, the Great British Holiday campaign commissioned an economic impact study by Frontier Economics on the size, growth and economic importance of traditional holiday lets in rural and coastal communities—unfortunately just in England, but I am sure that is equally relevant to Scotland and Wales. Frontier Economics found that there was no relationship between popular holiday let areas and the growth rate of real house prices between 2015 and 2022.

My final home truth is that there would be unintended consequences of a change to this taxation regime.

Angus Brendan MacNeil Portrait Angus Brendan MacNeil
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While listening to the hon. Gentleman, it occurred to me that extended family or community members who come back home to an island often use such holiday lets—I could give personal examples from the past year of people returning from New Zealand, Canada and even mainland Scotland. Such properties have a community health aspect to them, over and above the money that they are raising in the economy.

Peter Aldous Portrait Peter Aldous
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He is correct.

The unintended consequences of this taxation regime are that there would be thousands of job losses; a proliferation of empty properties, which could not be used for long-term lets for planning reasons; and a loss of billions of pounds to coastal and rural areas. According to PASC, of its members whose businesses would become non-viable and would have to be sold, 39% believed that the most likely buyer would be a second-home owner; 37% that the property would be bought by another holiday operator; and 16% that the purchaser would come from outside the area. In short, the policy would provide very limited assistance to the group that it is seeking to support: local people looking to rent a local home.

I will finish quickly and not take any more interventions to give the Minister an opportunity to respond. I have nine questions for him. First, what is the Treasury’s evidence to suggest that abolishing the holiday letting regime will encourage a significant number of businesses to convert from furnished holiday lets to the private rented sector, so as to justify the harm that it will cause to tens of thousands of small and microbusinesses? Secondly, why was there no consultation prior to the proposal, and will the Treasury now commit to a full public consultation due to the significant number of businesses that expressed concerns subsequently? Thirdly, has the Treasury considered the potential unintended consequences of abolishing the FHL regime, including the risk that it will lead to more empty second homes in rural and coastal areas? Fourthly, if the abolition of the FHL regime results in a reduction of furnished holiday lets, what evidence does the Treasury have to suggest that this vital bedstock of many rural and coastal economies will be sustained by other visitor accommodation?

Fifthly, will the Treasury consider the recommendations of the Institute for Fiscal Studies and reverse the mortgage interest relief restrictions that have stifled the supply of the homes that renters desperately need? Sixthly, why does the Treasury consider that a bespoke tailor-designed scheme for holiday lets that has operated successfully for 40 years should now be abolished if there is scant evidence to suggest that different tax regimes have resulted in private rental landlords switching to furnished holiday lets? Seventhly, will the Treasury ensure that the abolition of the FHL regime will not result in a group of people who are essentially entrepreneurs being retrospectively taxed at a rate that is 4% higher than the top rate of capital gains tax that applies to a passive investor of listed shares?

Eighthly, does the Treasury consider that the 5,000 new furnished holiday let properties in the UK that PASC guesses may have been created annually since 2016—so 40,000 properties—have had a significant impact on the current housing crisis when compared with the 30.1 million UK homes, 1.5 million empty or vacant homes and the commitment to build 300,000 new homes each year? Finally, will the Treasury align the VAT treatment of holiday lets with that of long-term lets if the policy intention is to align the tax treatment of furnished holiday lets and the private rented sector, or will actively managed FHLs now face a more punitive tax regime than a passive private rental investor?

In conclusion, the proposal does not create a level playing field. If it is to be equitable, it will be necessary to complicate the tax system, not simplify it, and it will have a very marginal impact, if any, on enabling local people to rent homes in their local area. The industry is asking that the Treasury undertakes a full public consultation of any legislation, which I personally think is being remarkably polite.

I cannot see a case for changing the current regime. There should be no future finance Bill to legislate for these changes, and like the proposed taxes on Cornish pasties and static caravans, the proposals should be shelved. Instead, a consultation should take place so that a more targeted localised approach, as opposed to this rather blunt instrument, can be worked up by Government, the devolved Assemblies and local government. That way, more focused and localised solutions can be put in place where they are needed, so as to ensure that more properties are available for long-term rent by local people.

Finance (No. 2) Bill

Peter Aldous Excerpts
2nd reading
Wednesday 17th April 2024

(1 month, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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Peter Aldous Portrait Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con)
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I am interested in clause 19, which sets out how the energy security investment mechanism will operate: the energy profits levy will cease if the six-month average prices for both oil and gas fall below certain thresholds. That provision follows on from the Chancellor’s announcement in his spring Budget that the energy profits levy would be extended to 2029, though it would be disapplied when energy prices return to normal. My interest in the issue stems from my role as a constituency MP—activity in the North sea energy sector is vital to the local economy—and from chairing the British offshore oil and gas industry all-party parliamentary group. I have no particular issue with the mechanisms in clause 19, though I am worried that the current short-term approach to fiscal policy for the oil and gas sector undermines other Government objectives—in particular, the objective of enhancing the UK’s energy security, which would bring new, well-paid jobs to coastal communities such as Lowestoft, and the objective of delivering our net-zero targets.

I acknowledge that the Chancellor has an unenviable role and faces a significant dilemma. He is, in many respects, between a rock and a hard place. He needs to balance the books, and to support those families who continue to struggle with the cost of living crisis. It is thus understandable that he looks to energy companies to pay more as oil and gas prices have risen. They have been at very high levels; however, it should be pointed out that they have now fallen back to long-term averages. There is a significant risk that in pursuing such a course, he could imperil the inward investment that is needed to create long-term, sustainable jobs in coastal communities for those very people who are struggling to make ends meet.

The North sea has been the UK’s economic saviour for nearly 60 years. Some might say that we are nearing the end of that particular story. That is not the case. The North sea is transitioning from being a source of fossil fuels to the long-term home of renewables. That transition needs to take place as quickly as possible, but in a smooth and seamless way. It requires a stable and long-term fiscal policy, which I am afraid we do not have at present. The decision to extend the levy for a further year was unexpected by industry and presents a significant further challenge to investor confidence.

Energy companies are making investment decisions on projects that quite often have timescales of the order of 40 to 50 years. The fact that in the UK there have been four fiscal changes in the past two years deters investment and deflects it elsewhere. Such businesses are globally footloose, and they will go to countries where the fiscal regime is favourable and has a large degree of certainty about it. In the past, the UK has ticked that particular box, but we are not doing so at present. It should also be emphasised that, as well as operating worldwide, those businesses have interests in a wide variety of energy technologies—not just oil and gas, but the low-carbon businesses of today and tomorrow: offshore wind, hydrogen, and carbon capture, usage and storage. If they find the fiscal regime unfavourable for oil and gas, they will invariably not invest in those renewables, which are so vital for our future.

The initial feedback following last month’s Budget is that those concerns are well founded: investment decisions are being delayed and funds could well be diverted elsewhere. Offshore Energies UK, which provides the secretariat for the British offshore oil and gas industry APPG, has identified that £200 billion of investment that was awaiting the green light may not now happen. Cornwall Insight concludes that prolonging the levy

“could weaken investor confidence, at a time when the UK is seeking record levels of investment to deliver the transition to net zero.”

We are at risk of imperilling the next chapter of the North sea—an ongoing story that can not only deliver economic regeneration, but provide over the remainder of this decade 50 GW of offshore wind, 10 GW of hydrogen, and four carbon capture, usage and storage clusters, as well as supporting the home-grown oil and gas industry and helping us to meet our decommissioning commitments. In short, it could unleash an enormous amount of economic activity that can cascade right around the UK. To be fair to the Government, clause 19 does seek to address those concerns, but I urge them to map out a long-term strategy for offshore energy, building on the success of the 2021 North sea transition deal. They are now adopting a similar course in the nuclear sector. We need to get back to doing the same in the North sea.

It is appropriate to comment on the Opposition’s alternative proposal to extend the windfall tax. There is a real worry in the energy industry that that could exacerbate the worries that I have underlined. Offshore Energies UK has highlighted that those proposals could lead to the loss of 42,000 jobs and the wiping out of £26 billion-worth of economic activity. A concern that I hope the Opposition will allay is that they are looking at removing the capital and investment allowances that are vital to securing inward investment.

We are where we are, and I fear that some damage has been done. However, there is work to do to rebuild the UK’s reputation as a prime destination for investment in the energy sector, and we need to get on with that task without delay. The industry has noted the Government’s commitment to honour the sunset clause, and I urge the two Ministers on the Front Bench—my hon. Friends the Members for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) and for Grantham and Stamford (Gareth Davies)—to provide the further reassurances that are needed to reinforce that message, both this afternoon in their responses and as the Bill progresses through Parliament.

The importance of ongoing and meaningful dialogue between the Government and industry cannot be overemphasised. In the period from 2012, after the last windfall tax, up to 2021, when the North sea transition deal was agreed, that interaction was very much taking place. It has been lost over the past three very eventful years, but it needs to be restored as quickly as possible. If it is, we can still embark on a new golden era for the North sea: an era of home-grown energy transition, not an outsourced one; of reindustrialisation, not deindustrialisation; and of enhanced energy security and economic prosperity.

Budget Resolutions

Peter Aldous Excerpts
Tuesday 12th March 2024

(2 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Peter Aldous Portrait Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con)
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My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is quite right to focus on improving the UK’s economic activity, where, as we have heard, we should be doing much better. We have a flexible labour market, and it is vital that we do not imperil it, but we also need a long-term strategy for investments in skills and infrastructure so that our economy can move into top gear, we can compete globally with the highest-performing economies, and we can bring prosperity to all corners of the United Kingdom.

There are measures in this Budget that are particularly welcome and which will help improve our economic performance. The 2p reduction in national insurance contributions and the increase in the child benefit threshold remove barriers to work. It is also vital that we secure investment for the businesses of tomorrow. The £1 billion for the renewable electricity auction allocation round 6, the £270 million combined Government and industry investment into research and development projects in the automotive and aerospace industries, and the £120 million for the green industries growth accelerator will all help to achieve this.

In almost every Budget, it is important to be wary of and to guard against unintended consequences, and there are two that I will briefly highlight from last Wednesday. First, I understand the rationale for extending the sunset clause on the energy profits levy, but there is real concern that this will deflect and deter investment for the industries of tomorrow: offshore wind, carbon capture, and hydrogen. These industries are vital to enhancing our energy security, bringing jobs to coastal communities and delivering our net zero targets, and I am concerned that, as the levy proposals stand, they could deter that vital investment. For my part, I shall be studying closely the provisions of the spring Finance Bill, and I would urge the Government to re-engage with industry at every opportunity.

Jamie Stone Portrait Jamie Stone (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD)
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The hon. Member’s point about offshore renewables is very important. Does he agree that we must ensure, as a nation, that we construct those floating wind turbines in the UK rather than overseas?

Peter Aldous Portrait Peter Aldous
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Yes. If we look at the offshore wind sector deal that was signed in 2019, we can see progress in building local supply chains, but I share the hon. Gentleman’s doubt to a degree. There is still a lot more work to do, and on the manufacturing side of things I would agree with him that that could take longer than for other aspects of those local supply chains.

Secondly, I likewise acknowledge why the decision has been made to abolish the furnished letting concession. There are areas of the country where holiday lets are badly distorting the local property market, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken), who is no longer in her place. She made that point clearly, but there are many other areas of the country where holiday lets are not distorting the local property market. They are a vital part of those local economies, which are often in rural areas where there are limited other job-creating opportunities, and restrictions and limitations on the opportunity to diversify a business. Many such properties are also subject to planning conditions that prevent them from becoming available for full-time occupation on the open market. It is therefore important to be cognisant of the full impact of this proposal before proceeding. I see that the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) is listening. We need a full impact assessment of that proposal before it advances.

To remove the stubborn productivity gap, it is vital to invest in skills and infrastructure. With such initiatives as the local skills improvement plans and lifelong learning, the Government have rightly recognised the importance of providing people of all ages with the opportunity to acquire the skills that are needed for the many new and emerging industries that are coming forward. Further education colleges and trainers currently face obstacles in recruiting staff, recovering VAT and supporting those who need to catch up on their learning following covid. It is therefore disappointing that no measures to address these challenges were announced last week.

Investment in infrastructure is vital if the east of England is to realise its full potential. It is therefore vital that funds are made available straightaway so that work on the Ely and Haughley junction rail improvement can begin without further delay. There were welcome announcements on this in the autumn statement, but there is local concern that the Government might be reverse ferreting on this issue. I hope that my concerns can be allayed.

This winter, the Norfolk and Suffolk coast has taken a battering that it has not seen for a very long time. In my constituency, in Lowestoft, Pakefield and Kessingland, this has undermined investment in the town centres, the ports and the tourism industry, including its vital leisure parks and caravan parks. Schemes have been prepared to protect these people and their property, and it is vital that they get under way as quickly as possible.

The Government are right to stick to the plan to halve inflation, to grow the economy and to reduce debt. As I have said, I believe that the Budget’s welcome initiatives will help to achieve those goals, but all around the UK, and particularly in East Anglia, we need to press ahead with strategic investment in both people and infrastructure—in flesh and blood and in concrete and steel.

Coastal Tourism and Hospitality: Fiscal Support

Peter Aldous Excerpts
Thursday 22nd February 2024

(3 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Each debate is chaired by an MP from the Panel of Chairs, rather than the Speaker or Deputy Speaker. A Government Minister will give the final speech, and no votes may be called on the debate topic.

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Peter Aldous Portrait Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mrs Cummins. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) on securing the debate and thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting it. Tourism around the British coast remains a vital component part of the UK economy. That is perhaps overlooked at times, and it is right that we are holding this debate in advance of the spring Budget statement at the beginning of March. At the end of March we have the start of the season, with the Easter weekend.

I shall start as other colleagues have, by providing an advertorial for the tourism and hospitality industry in the Lowestoft and Waveney area. Some might find that a bit of a joke or tedious, but it serves a very important purpose. We are showcasing the enormous range of leisure and tourism opportunities available on the coast of all four nations, as well as the beauty and diversity of the coastline. There is something for everyone to savour, as well as many job opportunities.

I return to Lowestoft and Waveney. In Lowestoft, to the north at Corton and to the south at Pakefield and Kessingland, there are a wide variety of beaches, including the gloriously sandy South beach in Lowestoft. We have two piers—the Claremont pier, which the Llewellyn family are restoring to its former glory, and the South pier, which is let for a peppercorn by Associated British Ports to a community interest company, which I chair. To the north and south of Lowestoft we have two of the biggest visitor attractions in East Anglia, the Pleasurewood Hills theme park and Africa Alive, which is run by the Zoological Society of East Anglia.

All along the coast are a variety of holiday parks run by family businesses and larger national companies. We are also the gateway, at Oulton broad and Beccles, to the—often overlooked by our noisy neighbours in Norfolk—Suffolk broads, which are surrounded by a stunning landscape that the Suffolk Wildlife Trust plays an increasingly important role in restoring at Carlton marshes, Oulton marshes and, as announced last week, Worlingham marshes. Finally, Hoseasons, which takes the strain for many of us out of organising and arranging our holidays, has been based in Oulton broad and Lowestoft for nearly 80 years. I hope that I have painted a picture highlighting the importance of coastal tourism in the Waveney area.

Covid hit local businesses hard, although the support that the Government provided was a lifeline for many. The pandemic, as we are hearing, unfortunately has a long, bitter tail, and for many the 2023 summer season was worse than that of 2022. Looking forward to the forthcoming season, many businesses’ confidence is low. High energy costs continue to have an impact. The response to those challenges by many businesses and operators is to cut their opening hours, delay investment and reduce staff.

One business has highlighted to me the negative impact—described by hon. Members around the Chamber —of the national minimum wage. That business does not begrudge paying the increase to its staff, but that presents challenges that cascade right through the business and ultimately leads to higher charges to customers, at a time when their wallets are under enormous strain.

A holiday park operator has brought to my attention the delays in obtaining planning permission for an upgrade and extension to its facilities, not in the Waveney area but elsewhere on the East Anglia coast. An application that should have taken eight weeks took one and a half years.

Leisure businesses in coastal areas including those of Suffolk are not asking for handouts, but they rightly seek a level playing field. To achieve that, I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister would consider the following fiscal measures—I am largely repeating others’ words, but in this place repetition plays a very important role indeed. First, as UKHospitality seeks, we must cap the increase to business rates for larger premises at 3%. Ultimately, we must have annual revaluations and drive the rate in the pound back down to the 30p to 35p level, which is what we had when business rates were introduced in the early ’90s. That said, in the short term, hospitality and leisure businesses, many of which are what I would describe as property-hungry but relatively low income-generating, should not have to pay onerously high business rates.

Secondly, to address the challenge of funding the increase in the national minimum wage, in his forthcoming Budget the Chancellor should cut to 10% the lower rate of employer national insurance contributions and increase the thresholds. The benefit of this policy, which in many ways is welcome, would thereby be shared not only with businesses, but with the Government. That is only equitable.

Thirdly, to ensure that planning applications of the type that I have mentioned are promptly dealt with and are not a brake on investment, the fair funding review of the local government funding settlement needs to be carried out as quickly as possible. That funding settlement is skewed against county and coastal councils.

I ask the Minister to act as a messenger—not Cupid, perhaps—to other Departments about other things that coastal businesses in coastal communities need not only to survive, but ultimately to thrive.

The first message is to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Along the Suffolk and Norfolk coast, we need urgent investment in coastal defences. Our glorious beaches are increasingly unsafe, and holiday park operators and other businesses will not invest in facilities if they are at increased risk of disappearing over a cliff or being washed away. There should also be national investment in the co-ordination and promotion of the King Charles III England coast path national trail.

The message to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is that VisitBritain and VisitEngland should provide parity of support for coastal and rural economies with what is given to London and other core cities.

The message to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is that we need to revive the coastal communities fund and separate the funding provided by the Crown Estate from the granting of licences for offshore wind farms. That money derives from our coastal waters. It should be used to address the many challenges that coastal communities face, rather than thinly dispersed across the whole country.

The final message goes back to DEFRA. Although progress is being made on improving the quality of bathing water around the coast, further pressure must be applied to the water companies to completely eliminate storm overflows as quickly as possible.

Coastal Britain is utterly unique. We must cherish it and ensure that the tourism and hospitality businesses operating there have every opportunity, first to survive and then to flourish and bring significant benefits to the people who live all around our coast.

Economic Growth

Peter Aldous Excerpts
Tuesday 14th November 2023

(6 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Peter Aldous Portrait Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con)
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It is imperative that we secure high, sustained economic growth right across the UK. Some welcome policies are already being implemented and there are some good initiatives in the King’s Speech, although we face enormous challenges. The focus of my comments will be on coastal communities and on East Anglia.

I suggest that to deliver enduring economic growth, we need to address six issues. First, there is the cost of living crisis. Covid has a long and vicious tail, the cost of living crisis is still very much with us and this winter is likely to be very tough for many people. The household support grant has been successful and must continue, and other measures such as an increase in the local housing allowance must be given full consideration. Welfare reform must provide a clear and supported pathway for those who are some distance from the workplace.

Secondly, we must build more houses, particularly for social rent. The vehicles of delivery are primarily the housing associations, many of which are currently facing significant challenges, and Homes England. The recent announcement of funding to redevelop the former Sanyo site in Lowestoft is particularly welcome.

Thirdly, in coastal Britain, in places such as Lowestoft, there are exciting new jobs emerging in the renewables sector. Last week’s announcement of funding for local skills improvement plans, including for Norfolk and Suffolk, was welcome, but we need to ensure that trainers and colleges such as East Coast College in Lowestoft receive realistic revenue funding settlements. Progress has been made in recent years, but further education still receives a raw deal.

Fourthly, investment in infrastructure right across the UK is vital—in Lowestoft, construction of the Gull Wing bridge is well advanced—and there now needs to be an emphasis on improving regional connectivity, whether road, rail or the digital highway. Around the UK, to encourage investment and to protect homes, coastal communities must be made secure from the more prevalent extreme weather conditions we are now experiencing. With an eye to the opportunities arising from offshore energy and sustainable fishing, there must be fiscal incentives to encourage investment in port infrastructure.

Fifthly, net zero must be seen as an opportunity to revitalise coastal communities all around the UK. I can understand, and I support, the rationale for the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill, but it must be part of a long-term strategy up to 2050 and beyond, to maximise private sector investment. Energy policy must be set in a 30-year, not a five-year, framework.

Sixthly and finally, we need to revitalise our towns, which for centuries have been hubs of economic activity all around the UK. Town deals, of which Lowestoft is a recipient, are welcome, as is the recently announced long-term plan for towns, but those initiatives can provide financial support for only a limited number of centres, and we need to put in place a growth framework for all towns that promotes their revitalisation and ensures they remain honeypots for setting up SMEs. That framework could include making it easier to set up banking hubs—at present, there is a very high bar to setting them up—and continuing the reform of business rates. We made a start in the Non-Domestic Rating Act 2023, which received Royal Assent last month, but it was only a timid move towards getting the business rates multiplier back down to between 30p and 35p in the pound. That is needed to ensure that businesses can plan with some certainty, rather than having to wait each year for the cliff edge of whether the Chancellor will extend business rates relief.

We should also consider the zero-rating of VAT for redevelopment in and around our town centres. Town centres across the UK have an awful lot of heritage that, properly realised and embraced, could help to promote them and get them back to being magnets and catalysts for economic growth.

Approved Mileage Allowance Payment Rate

Peter Aldous Excerpts
Monday 3rd July 2023

(10 months, 4 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
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Peter Aldous Portrait Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Sharma. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for leading this e-petition debate. Petition 600966 calls for a review of the approved mileage allowance payment rate—the AMAP rate—which, as we have heard, has remained at the same level since 2012. The petitioners are supported in their campaign by the Community Transport Association and by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), who has previously called for an urgent review to reflect the soaring cost of living increases.

When previous campaigns have been launched calling for a review of the AMAP rate, the Government have invariably responded by stating that the rate is not mandatory—that employers can set whatever level of mileage reimbursement they want. However, very few set a different rate, due to the tax liability implications for employers and volunteers. The rate is thus a standard to which the vast majority of businesses and charities adhere; it is regarded as best practice and avoids the complications of drivers having to pay income tax.

I acknowledge that the 5p per litre cut to petrol and diesel prices, announced in the 2022 spring statement and extended through to next year, has provided respite and support to drivers, but the current cost of living crisis has brought into clear focus the need for a review. If it is not carried out, I fear that there will be negative knock-on implications for services such as the NHS, social care and public transport, and that ultimately the Treasury will pick up the bill.

Many of my concerns revolve around community transport and the great work that is carried out in north-east Suffolk and south-east Norfolk by BACT, which provides community transport for people for whom other forms of public transport are not easily available. BACT has its own minibuses and wheelchair-accessible vehicles, but a significant proportion of its services are provided by its volunteer drivers using their own vehicles. The failure to review the AMAP rate is imperilling the crucial lifeline services provided by BACT and many other community transport providers.

I shall briefly set out what I believe is a compelling case for a review. First of all, it should be pointed out that the cost of motoring has increased significantly since 2011-12. The petition, as we have heard, highlights that inflation has increased overall prices by over 25% since 2011, and that of fuel by over 20% over the past five years. Since 2011, vehicle maintenance costs have risen by 38% and, as we have heard, the RAC Foundation’s cost of transport index has increased by 41%.

The third sector—that is, the voluntary sector—plays a vital role in local communities. We would not have gotten through covid without volunteers, and we need them even more now to get through the cost of living crisis. Many of those working for charities and organisations like BACT use their own cars, and it is only right that they are fairly recompensed for doing so. Currently they are not, and that disincentivises volunteers to offer their services. Community transport operators like BACT increasingly report challenges with driver recruitment and retention.

In many areas, including Suffolk and Norfolk, community transport operators have become a vital part of the public transport system. They are, in effect, the Heineken of the system—they go where commercial operators and the local transport authority either cannot or will not go—and heavy reliance has been placed on them to provide their services. Without their drivers, a system that I sense already operates on the brink would collapse altogether and many vulnerable people would be left isolated. Community transport operators like BACT provide a vital service to the NHS, driving people to hospital, GP surgeries, vaccination centres and dentists. The latter can be quite a trek, even assuming that an NHS dentist can be found. They also provide non-emergency transport to hospitals, and if they are not around to do that, that will be another cost that the NHS has to bear at a time when it can ill afford to do so.

A product of covid has been a dramatic increase in social isolation and loneliness. During the lockdowns, many vulnerable people were left marooned in their own homes, and it was almost always local volunteers who rallied round to ensure they were not alone and not forgotten. Post lockdown, many people have only tentatively come out of their homes, and for some their only lifeline to the outside world is provided by the volunteers who drive them for their weekly shop, without whom life would be very lonely.

It is important to acknowledge that the service provided by community transport operators like BACT is vital in rural areas, where for many people there is no alternative means of public transport. If the volunteer drivers throw in the towel because they are not being properly recompensed, another group of people will be left stranded, unable to access services that most of us take for granted.

Finally, I come to social care. The Government rightly recognise the importance and the need for an integrated and improved health and social care system that keeps people independent in their own homes. That will need a whole army of dedicated social care workers on the road, invariably in their own vehicles, to visit and support their clients. Unfortunately, they are not well paid, and the last thing they need is a mileage allowance that does not cover the cost of keeping an old vehicle roadworthy. Skimping and saving on the AMAP rate will result in recruitment becoming even more difficult in this vital sector.

The case for a fair, urgent and transparent review of the rate is compelling. I look forward to my hon. Friend the Minister’s reply, but I urge him to take the message back to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer that he should instigate the review straightaway, with a view to announcing the outcome in the spring Budget.

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Gareth Davies Portrait Gareth Davies
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That is a very reasonable question. I do not have the figures to hand, but am happy to provide them if we are able to. I also point out that employees paid expenses above the AMAP rate may be taxed on the difference, depending on their personal circumstances—if they earn in excess of the personal allowance, for example.

As my hon. Friends the Members for Carshalton and Wallington and for Waveney (Peter Aldous), as well as several others across the Chamber, have outlined, volunteers are an important part of our communities and perform incredibly important services for all of us. It is right that they be highlighted and recognised in the debate today. The Government recognise the outstanding contribution that all volunteers and the charities that employ them make to our communities, including my community of Grantham and Stamford.

I should reassure hon. Members that, unlike employees, volunteers can receive payments in excess of the AMAP rate and do not have to pay tax if they can provide evidence that they have not made a profit. If they provide the receipts and evidence of their travel, they do not have to pay tax above the AMAP rate, unlike employees. That provides volunteers and voluntary organisations with additional flexibility, given how important they are. And they are important to the Government—that is why, for example, at the spring Budget the Chancellor set out an additional £100 million support package for charities and community organisations in England. That will be targeted at voluntary, community and social enterprise organisations at most risk at this difficult time. We will be setting out more about the eligibility criteria in due course, and hon. Members may wish to monitor that carefully.

Peter Aldous Portrait Peter Aldous
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That was an interesting point, and I just need to digest what the Minister was saying. I think he was saying that volunteer drivers can claim extra tax relief provided that they can show that they are not making a profit. Does he have any figures showing how many are actually doing that? I suggest that the system is so complicated that very few take it up. It would be far simpler to increase the rate.

Gareth Davies Portrait Gareth Davies
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The point I would make is that volunteer organisations do not need to use AMAPs; all that is required are receipts and evidence of journeys. Volunteer organisations can set literally any rate as long as that evidence is shown. The AMAP is a simplified rate and applies to employees of private organisations and businesses, for example.

I want to address the review period and the regularity of reviews, because they were mentioned by a number of colleagues. They make a fair point, but I would point out that by its very nature AMAP is a tax relief, as is mileage allowance relief. It is convention that they are reviewed at fiscal events, in line with most taxes we have, but it is also important for the work that we do with the Office for Budget Responsibility, so that it can score during the Budget process. That is why the reliefs are always reviewed. I assure hon. Members that there is a review at every fiscal event, and it is right that it is done at fiscal events and not in the middle of the fiscal events cycle.

A couple of Members mentioned self-employed individuals, so let me quickly address that issue. Self-employed individuals can choose to use simplified motoring expenses, which allows them to deduct a fixed rate per mile against their self-employed profits, and those rates mirror the AMAP rates. Self-employed individuals do not have to use the rates; they can instead choose to deduct capital allowances and actual costs. However, it is not possible to switch between the two options with the same car or van once a self-employed individual has chosen to use either the simplified mileage rate or the capital allowances and expenses. I hope that clarifies the position: they do have that choice.

Some hon. Members rightly talked about the cost of living situation in which we find ourselves. I want to directly address that now, because AMAPs are one part of our system to support employees across the country, but it is important to recognise the other measures that the Government are taking to support people at this very difficult time, and that is part of the review process when we look at AMAPs. I simply reiterate the point that many hon. Members have made today: in the spring Budget, the Chancellor announced continued support for both households and businesses by extending the temporary 5p fuel duty cut and cancelling the planned inflation rise for 2023-24. That represents a saving for all drivers across the country, amounting to £5 billion, which is about £100 per household.

In addition, at the spring Budget we went further by extending energy support, because we know that inflation has been a real problem for many households across the country. We kept the energy price guarantee at £2,500 for three months from April, saving households an additional £160 and bringing total Government support for energy bills to £1,500 for a typical household since October 2022.

Alongside that, we have gone even further and helped to support households by ending the premium paid by over 4 million households using prepayment meters across the United Kingdom. We have also introduced 30 hours of free childcare per week for working parents with children aged nine months to three years in England, alongside a substantial uplift in the hourly rate paid to providers and market reforms. That is in addition to the benefits uprating and support for vulnerable households across this country that we announced at the autumn statement, which included new cost of living payments for this year and next, helping more than 8 million UK households on eligible means-tested benefits, 8 million pensioner households and 6 million people across the country on disability benefits.

Taken together, we have provided £94 billion-worth of support to help households with higher bills, or an average of £3,300 per household, across 2022-23 and 2023-24. That is one of the largest packages of support in Europe, but as the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) pointed out, high inflation is the greatest immediate economic challenge that we face. That is why the Prime Minister has set it out as one of his top priorities, and it is why we in the Treasury have set out a clear plan to reduce inflation.

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Gareth Davies Portrait Gareth Davies
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If a rate is provided that is above the AMAP rate, national insurance and income tax would be applied to that difference, depending on the personal circumstances of the individual—for example, depending on the overall amount of income tax they pay, or whether they are over the personal allowance amount. Voluntary organisations, which my hon. Friend spoke about, can offer any rate they want, as I pointed out to my hon. Friends the Members for Waveney, and for Carshalton and Wallington. So long as evidence is shown for the journeys, organisations do not have to use the AMAP rates. I hope that clarifies things.

In conclusion, it is ultimately for employers to determine the expenses paid in respect of motoring costs that employees incur with their private vehicles. The Government set AMAP and simplified expenses rates with the aim of creating administrative simplicity. Those rates will necessarily be more appropriate for some motorists than others. However, the Government have taken decisive steps to support households with the costs of living, which I have extensively set out. The Government will continue to keep AMAP and simplified expenses rates under review, as they do all taxes and allowances.

Peter Aldous Portrait Peter Aldous
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I have listened very carefully to my hon. Friend and I thank him for his response, but would he not agree that, over the past decade, there has been a societal change in the way that community transport has become a vital component of our public transport system, and in the way that health and social care is delivered? Health and care workers often go to people’s homes now, rather than those people coming to hospitals. That in itself warrants a fundamental review of the system.

Gareth Davies Portrait Gareth Davies
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My hon. Friend was just in the nick of time, but he makes a valid point. I will answer that in two parts. On care providers, the rate paid is a matter for the employer. It is entirely up to them, in the light of changes to how care is provided, to offer a rate that they deem appropriate; as I say, the NHS has offered a higher rate for those travelling fewer than 3,500 miles.

My hon. Friend made a broader point about the importance of community organisations, and mentioned community transportation. Those organisations are a vital part of our communities, particularly in constituencies like mine, in rural parts of the country. That is why this Government have got behind voluntary and community organisations. As I say, we recently announced another £100 million of support to specifically target charities and community organisations. That support will remain, just as it has for many years.

I am grateful for all the contributions and interventions from my hon. Friends, and from colleagues from across the House. This is an important debate to have, and I am pleased to have addressed the issue on behalf of the Government.

Oral Answers to Questions

Peter Aldous Excerpts
Tuesday 20th June 2023

(11 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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Peter Aldous Portrait Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con)
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16. What steps he is taking to provide financial support to people on lower incomes.

Victoria Atkins Portrait The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Victoria Atkins)
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The Government recognise the challenges facing households as a result of the elevated cost of living, and we took further action in this year’s spring Budget to provide targeted support to protect the most vulnerable. That included the new cost of living payments this year, help with the cost of essentials through a further extension of the household support fund in England, and the uprating of benefits in line with inflation in April this year.

Peter Aldous Portrait Peter Aldous
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One of the best ways of supporting those on lower incomes is to remove the barriers that prevent them from acquiring the new skills that are necessary for better-paid jobs. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Treasury is working closely with the Department for Education and the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that the Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill gets rid of those obstacles, and can she provide an update on the progress of the Barber review?

Victoria Atkins Portrait Victoria Atkins
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I know that you like Ministers to answer briefly, Mr Speaker, so, if I may, I will answer my hon. Friend’s first question now and respond in writing to his question about the Barber review.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor made employment one of the four Es in his drive for growth in the spring Budget, and we are working closely with the Department for Education to invest in exactly the way that my hon. Friend describes. That includes investment in free courses for jobs, which enable people to study high-value level 3 subjects and gain free qualifications, and employer-led skills bootcamps in high-growth areas—a phrase that I never thought I would find myself uttering—which, apparently, involve sectors such as digital, and are available to those who are either unemployed or in work and wanting to retrain.

Non-Domestic Rating Bill

Peter Aldous Excerpts
2nd reading
Monday 24th April 2023

(1 year, 1 month ago)

Commons Chamber
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Peter Aldous Portrait Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con)
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The Bill is welcome as it was a 2019 Conservative manifesto commitment to carry out a fundamental review of business rates, the final report for which was published alongside the 2021 autumn Budget.

I support the Bill generally, but I have two concerns. First, the Bill should be seen not as the endgame but as the start of the process to radically reform business rates. The ultimate objective should be to reduce the uniform business rate multiplier to something in the order of 30p in the pound; to carry out annual revaluations; to abolish the multitude of complicated reliefs; and to digitalise the Valuation Office Agency. If we do so, business rates will be reduced to an affordable level, the system will be put on a long-term and more easily understood footing and we shall be able to get on with so-called levelling up—removing barriers that impede regional growth. That will enable businesses to know where they stand and to make long-term investment decisions. The message I continually get from the Suffolk Chamber of Commerce, which carries out quarterly economic surveys, is that the No. 1 concern for businesses in Suffolk is always business rates.

My second worry is that the Bill will increase rather than ease the bureaucratic and administrative burden on businesses. I urge the Government to introduce amendments to prevent that. I shall set out my concerns in more detail later.

Before I came to this place, I was a chartered surveyor; I did not specialise in business rates, but I carried out appeals from time to time. Business rates are a tax with certain inherent advantages for the Treasury: they yield approximately £25 billion per annum, they are relatively easy to collect and they are difficult to avoid. However, if the system is not administered properly, they can have a significant negative impact on businesses generally, on specific sectors—we have heard about the challenges facing hospitality and retail—and on local economies.

Business rates are in effect a tax on existence rather than on profitability, so it is important that they be kept as low as possible. High business rates not only discourage occupation, but disincentivise investment in innovation, improvement and expansion—and if you will forgive a quick commercial interlude while I am on that subject, Madam Deputy Speaker, I must congratulate PCE Automation of Beccles, which has just received the King’s award for enterprise in recognition of excellence in innovation.

At a time of high inflation, high utility costs and stubbornly high rents, business rates are a fixed cost that occupiers cannot escape. The Chancellor made some significant and welcome announcements in his autumn statement, including the revaluation that is now coming into effect, the reform of the transitional relief scheme and the freezing of the uniform business rates multiplier. The Bill provides the necessary legislative framework for some of those changes and for others that arise from the Government’s review, as well as making some minor legislative adjustments and correcting some anomalies. I shall not go through the Bill’s provisions in detail at this stage, but I repeat that I applaud the Chancellor for the undertakings that he made in November, which are much needed in these challenging times. As I say, however, the Bill must be seen as the start, not the conclusion, of the process of radical reform.

It is also necessary to guard against some unintended consequences. As drafted, the Bill will add to the regulatory burden on businesses at a time when we should be seeking to ease and reduce it. The new duty to notify set out in clause 13, which the VOA has justified as necessary to facilitate the move to a review every three years, will result in a mountain of paperwork for ratepayers. Businesses will now have to notify the VOA of any changes to their properties within 60 days, or find themselves facing punitive fines or even imprisonment. It is not right for us to expect businesses which are already facing an extraordinarily challenging regulatory environment to put up with that.

This obligation was formerly the VOA’s, but has now been transferred to the ratepayer. The VOA has no corresponding obligation, and is able to respond to requests for information at its leisure. Ideally, the duty to notify should be removed from the Bill in its entirety, but if the Government wish to impose this new duty, they must do so with the principle of reciprocation in mind. The VOA must have a corresponding duty to respond within 60 days, giving the ratepayers rebates on their business rates bills equivalent to the penalties imposed on them if there is a failure to respond within that time.

My second concern relates to clause 14, which proposes changes in the circumstances in which rateable values may be altered outside the regular cycle of revaluations. I am concerned about the consequences of this clause, and I believe that it should be removed. Let me explain the background. A “material change in circumstances” allows ratepayers recourse to pursue relief on their business rates bills when factors outside their control have an impact on their ability to do business and to operate. To my mind, that is logical natural justice, but the VOA seems to dislike the paperwork associated with these claims, as is evidenced by its mass rejection of 400,000 covid-related appeals. It appears that to prevent the repetition of such circumstances, it is now proposed to exempt any Government legislation as qualifying grounds for a challenge. In practice, this means that the Government would be able to act with impunity and enact policies that could hamper businesses without allowing them the legal recourse to challenge them. That is fundamentally unjust.

As I have mentioned, the move to three-yearly revaluations should not be the endgame, but should be a stepping stone towards annual revaluations. The advantage of that approach is that there would no longer be a need for the current complex system of reliefs; businesses would in effect be paying a tax that moved with the market, and that would lead to greater long-term certainty which would then encourage private sector investment. At first glance, annual revaluations might seem too complicated and challenging, but, as we have heard, such a system operates in the Netherlands, and there is no reason why we should not have it here.

It is regrettable that, for many businesses, discussions and negotiations with the VOA are conducted in accordance with the philosophy of “one rule for us and another for them”. The proposed duty to notify embeds this sentiment still further. It must be removed, and the system must become more transparent. The VOA’s processes are notoriously opaque, and leave many ratepayers scratching their heads when they receive their revaluation figures. As it stands, a business’s only recourse when it comes to understanding its rateable value is to go through the VOA’s complex “check, challenge and appeal” process, which many feel is deliberately designed to discourage people from—dare I say it—peering behind the curtain.

The Bill, as currently drafted, does provide the VOA with the power to give more information to ratepayers, but only at its discretion, if it considers it “reasonable to do so”. This provision is set out in clause 10, but it is vague and undefined, and some might say that it provides the VOA with the ability to reveal information to no one while appearing to be forthcoming. If clause 13 requires businesses to provide reams of information to the VOA, it is only right that it should reciprocate. Ratepayers must be given the option to understand the process that defines the tax that they will be paying for the next three years, and to reasonably expect an answer within 60 days of submitting their request, thereby mirroring the duty to notify.

My final concern relates to another unintended consequence of the duty to notify, as currently drafted in the Bill, which is the wave of predatory, unqualified and unscrupulous rating advisers that I fear it may spawn. The ramifications of financial advice, whether good or bad, can be huge for individuals and businesses. Most financial advisers in most settings require a licence to give advice from a sanctioning body. One therefore has to ask why this does not also apply to rating advisers.

Helen Morgan Portrait Helen Morgan
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The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech. On his point about advice, financial controllers are inundated daily by people cold calling them and offering to challenge their rates bills. They have no idea who they are, yet they take a cut of any saving that might be made. This indicates two things to me: first, that the system is not fit for purpose; and secondly, that the rating values are inadequate in the first place. Does he agree with me on those points?

Peter Aldous Portrait Peter Aldous
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I agree with the hon. Lady. This is a specialist area of valuation. When I was practising as a chartered surveyor, I quite often got called in because the client, the business owner, had gone down the line of paying money upfront to someone who had sent them a circular—they may have paid them £1,000 or £2,000—and that person had suddenly disappeared. I often got called in to try to sort out that type of situation.

At the current time, with the publication of the new rating list, thousands of businesses are being flooded by solicitations from charlatan rating advisers who are taking advantage of the confusion created by the complicated rating system. There is a significant risk that many businesses, particularly SMEs, will have neither the understanding nor the capacity to meet the duty to notify. They will increasingly fall prey to such bad advice, and this could have a devastating impact. The Government should therefore consider some sort of licensing to protect businesses from the scourge of cowboys looking to take advantage of the duty to notify.

Madam Deputy Speaker, you will be pleased to hear that I have now reached my conclusion. Taking into account that we have been awaiting legislation on the reform of business rates for the whole of the 13 years that I have been an MP, this legislation is indeed welcome. For too long we have been carrying out reviews and searching for holy grail solutions that involve the abolition of business rates, but my personal view is that those do not exist. As I have said, the Chancellor should be commended for the positive announcements he made in his autumn statement, some of which are included in this Bill. The Bill should be viewed as a step in the right direction. However, as currently drafted, it contains a number of false steps that are likely to have unintended consequences. It is also vital to recognise that this is not the end of the reform of business rates, but it is the end of the beginning. I am happy to support the Bill this afternoon, but it has defects that need to be addressed as it progresses through this and the other place, and I hope that the Government will take on board the concerns that I and my colleagues across the Chamber have highlighted.

Energy

Peter Aldous Excerpts
Tuesday 7th March 2023

(1 year, 2 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Peter Aldous Portrait Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con)
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I was not planning to speak in this short debate, so I will be brief.

We have waited a long time for this statutory instrument. During that time, many very vulnerable people have been suffering. I acknowledge that, from the Government’s broad perspective, it is a challenge to get this legislation right, but my concern, which I hope my hon. Friend the Minister can allay, is that the punishment for landlords—I am thinking in particular of some rogue park home site owners—who do not pass on the money is, I sense, puny rather than punitive. They will just laugh at the punishment. I hope I am wrong, but I ask the Minister to take on board my concern.