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Harriett Baldwin responds to Finance Bill debate

8th September 2015

Harriett Baldwin responds on behalf of the Government to a debate on the Finance Bill which introduces further measures to reduce the deficit.

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Harriett Baldwin): In responding to the debate, I hope to touch on many of the questions that have been raised by hon. Members.

Clause 43 increases the standard rate of insurance premium tax to 9.5%. The policy will increase the revenue raised from the tax and help to close the deficit.

Before I turn to the amendment, I will cover some of the points that have been mentioned. I confirm that the insurance charge includes the gross premium that the insurer chargers, including the broker commission and any other directly related costs. It is a charge on the insurer rather than on the individual. It is due on general insurance, which accounts for approximately one fifth of insurance premiums. As we have heard, it includes motor insurance, home insurance, employers liability insurance and medical insurance.

Some 80% of the insurance market is exempt, including reinsurance, long-term insurance such as life insurance and permanent health insurance, and the permanent health insurance that is used to pay for critical illness insurance.

Travel insurance and insurance that people purchase on warranties with, for example, white goods, is already charged at the considerably higher rate of 20% to prevent VAT avoidance. That, too, is unaffected by the change. It is important to remember that there is no VAT overall on insurance.

The new rate for the taxable insurance premiums will begin to apply with effect from 1 November 2015. In the tax year 2016-17, it will raise an extra £1.4 billion, which can be used to reduce the deficit. If insurers pass on the increase, it will affect businesses and households, particularly by increasing the cost of their property and motor insurance. However, we expect that any impact on consumers will be modest. Most households and businesses have some form of general insurance and any impact of a rate rise is therefore shared by a large number of people and organisations, as we have heard. To give some idea of what that means, if insurers chose to pass on the whole increase, the average household expenditure on insurance would increase by 70p per week.

We do not anticipate that the tax increase will reduce the number of people taking out general insurance. Even if insurers choose to pass on the increase, any increased costs will be a very small proportion of the overall cost of insurance. As the insurance market is competitive, customers affected by the change can shop around to find a policy that best fits their needs.

Barbara Keeley: I hope the Minister will address the point I made about the impact of insurance costs on unemployed people. I quoted BBC research, but work done for MoneySavingExpert.com found that there is an enormous differential when people lose their jobs. In one case, insurance for an office manager to insure her vehicle went from £359 a year to £1,034. It is all right to talk about averages of £10 here or £12 there, or even £50 for young people, but insurance premiums can be disproportionately increased by unemployment. That point was made in the social media debate on the Budget, and that is one reason why I have taken it seriously. The increase is unfair, because it hits people straight away when they become unemployed. We must start to reflect on that.

Harriett Baldwin: I will come to the distributional points raised by questions from hon. Members but, with the greatest respect, the situation the hon. Lady describes would be unaffected by the changes the Government propose this afternoon.

We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp) that the increase must be seen in the context of significant Government action to reduce costs for the insurance industry and for motorists. We are taking a lot of action to reduce insurance fraud. According to the Association of British Insurers, insurance fraud alone adds an average of £50 a year to average household insurance costs. Our previous action to reduce the cost of fraudulent claims includes a ban on referral fees in personal injury cases and reform of the regulation of whiplash claims. Those actions have been welcomed by both industry and consumer groups. The insurance fraud taskforce is due to report at the end of the year with suggestions on how further to reduce the cost of insurance fraud.

In the summer Budget 2015, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced a further consultation to establish how to introduce a cap on fees charged by claims management companies, and a fundamental review of the regulation of claims management companies, which is due to report in 2016. I note with interest the point my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South made about banning outbound calls. More generally, the Financial Conduct Authority is working on how to encourage people to shop around for insurance, which will ensure that people find the best deal for their circumstances and that the market remains competitive.

The Government have been working hard with the insurance industry to develop the Flood Re scheme, which will continue to allow insurers to offer affordable home insurance. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) and I both have constituencies where there are a lot of flood-prone properties—I pay close interest to the topic. Of course, properties built after 2009 will be exempt from the scheme because we do not want to incentivise builders to build in flood-prone areas.

Diana Johnson: I fully accept that; in fact, I think it is absolutely right. The problem for me and my constituents is that 90% of the city of Hull is below sea level. Anything that is built will, by definition, be on a flood plain. A bit more thought has to be given for areas of the country. It is not just Hull; other low-lying areas will find themselves in this difficulty.

5.45 pm

Harriett Baldwin: The hon. Lady makes a very good point. She and I come across the same sorts of issues in our casework, and a lot of London is built on a flood plain. In some cases, I have had to work with specialist insurance broking to find a broker service. The British Insurance Brokers’ Association is very useful in that regard. I am sure she and I will continue to pay close heed to how the Flood Re scheme is delivering for our constituents.

A number of hon. Members raised the issue of motor insurance, particularly for young people. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) asked whether technology could help young people with the costs of their insurance. Young people can currently take the opportunity to install a telemetric device. Many insurers will reduce the cost of motor insurance in those situations.

I am able to reassure hon. Members on the impact on young drivers’ insurance premiums. Young drivers pay a much higher premium at the moment, but the overall cost impact of this change for young drivers in their 20s is estimated to be 25 pence a week and the overall impact for a driver aged 17 or 18 about £1 a week. Obviously, all tax increases are unwelcome, but this needs to be set against the fact that drivers are currently saving about £9 every time they fill up their vehicles.

Barbara Keeley: The figures I was given from the industry were that the increase in duty alone on the average premium paid by a young driver would be from £90 to £142.50. That is not 50p or 25p a week; that is £1 a week. Various points have been made about fuel duty, but this is a tax that has to be paid. This is a very serious increase for young people who are being hit in the other ways that I outlined.

Harriett Baldwin: The hon. Lady and I can duel with statistics all afternoon, but I wanted to point out that it was the 17 and 18-year-olds who pay a substantial amount more than those in their 20s. I think she is probably quoting statistics relating to 17 to 25-year-olds. Nevertheless, the changes need to be seen in the context of the amount that young drivers are saving and the opportunities they may have from using a telemetric device to measure their driving performance.

Finally, I want to say a word about implementation. We recognise that the insurance industry needs notice to effect the changes. We have tried to ensure a smooth implementation of the new rate by following the approach agreed by industry representatives and HMRC back in 1995. That sets out transitional arrangements required by the insurance industry to account for the tax at the new rate. The rate, as we said, comes into effect on 1 November, which provides a period of nearly four months from the date the measure was announced. There is a further four-month statutory concessionary period for insurers who have elected to account for the tax using a special accounting scheme. In simple terms, the concessionary period ensures that premiums for policies beginning before 1 November will be taxed at the current rate effectively until 1 March 2016.

That leads me to the Opposition’s amendment, which proposes that a report be produced on the impact of the change in the standard rate of insurance premium tax as soon as three months from the enactment of the Finance Bill. It calls for the report to be undertaken very soon at a time when the impact of the rate will have hardly begun. That is why we will not agree to the amendment this afternoon and encourage the hon. Lady to withdraw it.

The impact of any increase in the rate of insurance premium tax will depend on whether insurers change their prices to pass on the increase. As I have said, it is a tax on insurers, not customers, and we are aware of at least one insurer—we heard earlier of another example—that has pledged to absorb the cost of the increase for at least one year. We think this is partly because insurers have benefited, and will continue to benefit, from the reductions in corporation tax announced in the Budget. Any such benefit might encourage more of them not to pass on this additional cost.

We have investigated what the overall distributional impact would be if all insurers passed on the entire rate rise. If the entire rate rise of 3.5 percentage points were passed on, households in the top income decile would pay just over £1 a week more for their insurance, while the additional costs for those in the bottom income decile would be less than 40p a week. We calculate that almost two thirds of the overall distributional impact will fall in the top half of the income distribution.

Suella Fernandes (Fareham) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that this slim and modest tax rise should be viewed in the context of the falling cost of home insurance and comprehensive car insurance and our commitment not to increase VAT, national insurance or income tax? Overall, will not these policies benefit householders and families?

Harriett Baldwin: My hon. Friend is right to point out the overall context; this measure should not be seen in isolation. The cost to businesses was mentioned earlier. I am sure that Members will welcome the fact that, according to the British Insurance Brokers’ Association, the overall cost of insuring a commercial vehicle has fallen by more than 13% in the past 12 months alone.

I hope that I have answered hon. Members’ questions, particularly those about young drivers and household flood insurance. In particular, I want to support the points my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South made about personal injury claims management.

In drawing my remarks to a close, I must stress that most households will see very little impact from the increase in the standard rate of insurance premium tax. It will remain at a low rate compared with many other countries and will certainly not make the UK a less attractive place to do business. I therefore ask that clause 43 stand part of the Bill and request that amendment 1, tabled by Opposition Members, be withdrawn.

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Harriett Baldwin: What a pleasure it is to serve under your Chairmanship this evening, Ms Engel.

Clauses 16 and 17 and schedules 2 and 3 make changes to the banking tax regime. They will ensure that banks continue to make a fair contribution to the economic recovery in a way that does not harm the UK as a global financial centre or affect banks’ ability to support the economic recovery.

It might be helpful if I set out the background to the Government’s approach to taxing the banking sector. In his first Budget in 2010, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced the introduction of the bank levy, an entirely new tax on banks’ balance sheets, equity and liabilities. The levy had two objectives. First, at a time when banking profits were low, it was designed to ensure that banks made a fair contribution to the taxman to reflect the risks that they pose to the UK economy —risks that were made very clear in the extraordinary events of 2008. Secondly, the levy was designed to complement the developing regulatory regime by providing incentives for banks to reduce the size of their balance sheets and support their activities with more stable forms of funding.

Measured against those objectives, the bank levy has undoubtedly been successful. It raised more than £8 billion across the last Parliament and is forecast to raise a further £17 billion by 2021. It has played a key role in increasing the stability of the UK banking sector, with banks now holding more capital against their assets and being less reliant on short-term risky funding. It has helped to satisfy the UK’s resolution financing obligations under the EU bank recovery and resolution directive, thus supporting the more orderly resolution of banks in crisis. Despite those successes, the Chancellor has been consistent about the need for balance in ensuring that banks pay a fair contribution, while ensuring that this supports the UK as a global financial centre and banks’ ability to support the wider economy.

The Government believe that, as the sector returns to profit, a change is required to maintain that balance. The reforms in the clauses achieve that over the coming Parliament and beyond. The first change is a gradual reduction of the bank levy. Clause 16 reduces the bank levy rate to 0.18% from 1 January 2016 and sets out
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further reductions to the main rate over the following five years, resulting in a rate of 0.1% from January 2021. The Government have committed to exclude non-UK subsidiaries from the bank levy charge from January 2021, a change we are committed to legislate for in this Parliament.

Clause 17 introduces a surcharge on banking sector profit from January 2016. That is a new 8% tax on the corporation tax profits of regulated banking entities within banking groups. It will apply to profits that exceed £25 million across a group, disregarding the losses that banks have carried forward from periods before the surcharge’s introduction. The first £25 million will benefit from the reductions in the main rate of corporation tax—from 20% today to 19% and then to 18%—included elsewhere in the Bill, giving the UK the lowest rate of corporation tax in the G20. It means that the overall rate of corporation tax will be slightly lower for banks than it was in 2010.

The OBR forecasts that the surcharge will raise £6.5 billion from the sector by 2021. That revenue more than offsets the cost of reductions to the bank levy rate. It means that banks will pay an additional £2 billion in tax over the period, increasing banks’ total additional contributions beyond £23 billion.

Helen Goodman: Like many hon. Members, I am sure the Minister has had many letters from small banks and the building societies about the fact that the surcharge will be imposed on them. The Building Societies Association says that it expects it will cost them £630 million over the lifetime of the Parliament, which would be sufficient to fund at least £4 billion in new mortgage lending. That means 15,000 or 20,000 new homes. The effect of including building societies is therefore to make it more difficult for 15,000 or 20,000 families to have a new home. Will the Minister consider whether that is a good idea?

Harriett Baldwin: I hope the hon. Lady recognises that the rate paid by building societies and smaller banks will be lower than it was at any time when she and the Labour party were in government. In fact, the measure brings the corporation tax rate to a level lower than when the Conservatives took power in 2010. In addition, 90% of building societies will be exempt from the charge because the first £25 million is exempt from the surcharge.

At the same time, we believe that the changes in clauses 16 and 17 will create a fairer, more competitive and more sustainable basis for taxing the UK banking sector. By rebalancing banks’ contributions towards a tax on profits, future charges will be more aligned with profit and capital accumulation. That reduces the risk of tax affecting banks’ decisions on where to invest and helps to ensure that tax does not impact banks’ ability to lend to businesses and individuals.

By aligning banks’ contributions with their activities in the UK, the changes recognise and reduce the impact of tax on UK banks’ ability to compete in overseas markets. They help to reflect the impact of regulatory reforms, which have reduced the risk of those overseas operations to the UK economy.

I shall draw my brief remarks to a close. The Government firmly believe that banks should make a fair contribution to the economic recovery. However, that contribution must be balanced with the need to maintain the
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competitiveness of the UK and to support lending to the wider economy. The changes in the clauses provide a better balance between those two objectives, and do so while providing long-term certainty and stability to the sector, and short-term revenue to the taxman. I therefore hope that clauses 16 and 17 and schedules 2 and 3 stand part of the Bill.

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Harriett Baldwin: It has been a great pleasure to have my Opposition shadow, the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), in the Chamber today making the points that she has. I sincerely hope that next week she will continue to be my Opposition shadow, because it is clear that she takes her role very seriously. I know that she supported the hon. Member for Leicester South when it came to nominating the leader of her party, so I hope that her point of view prevails when it comes to the announcement on Saturday.

Alison McGovern: I thank the Minister for giving way. First, I supported my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall). Secondly, I thought I liked the Minister.

The Temporary Chair (Mr George Howarth): Order. Before the Minister resumes her speech, fascinating and colourful as this exchange is I hope that it will not be too extended.

Harriett Baldwin: You are quite right, Mr Howarth. What I wanted to say was that one would not believe from the remarks that the hon. Member for Wirral South made at the beginning of the debate that the banking system had fallen into massive failure, meaning that this Chancellor had to take steps in 2010 to sort out the country’s banking system and the deficit. Listening to the hon. Lady this evening, one would have thought that banks were then paying less tax than they are today but in fact, after the changes in clauses 16 and 17, the banking sector will pay the lowest rate of bank tax in the G7.

One would also not believe from the remarks we heard at the beginning of the debate that over the 13 years for which the hon. Lady’s party was in power there was no increase in competition in banking. There were more than 20 inquiries into banking competitiveness, but they were obviously unsuccessful. The hon. Lady asked a number of questions, and although I do not want to detain the House for long with this entertaining discussion I want to respond to some of the points raised in the debate.

I was asked a couple of times about building societies, and I said that 90% of building societies would be unaffected by these changes. Obviously, the vast majority of building societies do not make a profit of more than £25 million a year, so the sector will benefit from the reduction in corporation tax over the life of this Parliament down to 18% by 2020.

Alison McGovern: I asked the Minister specifically what that 90% meant— 90% by number, or by size?

Harriett Baldwin: Absolutely, and it is 90% of all building societies. Clearly, a handful of building societies are big enough to be able to pay the additional levy contained in these clauses and, even after the surcharge, they will still be paying a lower rate of corporation tax than they were paying under the previous Labour Government. With the hon. Lady’s conversion to lower taxes, she should be welcoming and celebrating the fact that the Budget announces these long-term changes.

The hon. Lady also asked whether the numbers in the Red Book take into account the corporation tax changes, and indeed they do. She asked about revenues after 2020-21 and I am delighted that she recognises that it will be the Conservative party that will be making those decisions after the next general election. She asked about the Ernst and Young forecast in today’s papers, and even she got the giggles when she raised the forecast, which is really quite laughable. It takes into account only one side of the equation in terms of the potential rise in the take from bank corporation tax.

The hon. Lady asked about competition, and I have mentioned the competition track record of her party when in power, but it is helpful to be able to talk about the range of things my party did in the last Parliament to improve bank competition. It is a strong focus of this Government. I am glad that the SNP spokesman, the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin), mentioned the ambition to have 15 new banks receive a banking licence. I understand that there are a large number in the pipeline. Indeed, one new bank has already got its licence this year.

9.15 pm

The additional steps we have taken to increase bank competition include giving the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority a strong focus on competition; creating the new Payment Systems Regulator to ensure that the challenger banks gain access to the payment systems on fair terms; and introducing a seven-day current account switching service, which is about to have its second anniversary—over 2 million people have now used that simplified switching service. Of course, the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015 requires big banks to refer to other organisations any small and medium-sized enterprises that it might have turned down for finance. We are taking a range of steps to improve banking competition.

The hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath asked whether the tax regime supports the challenger banks. Of course it does, because the rate of corporation tax will fall to 18% by the end of this Parliament, which means an extremely attractive rate on the first £25 million of profits, and the vast majority of challenger banks will fall into that category. By the end of this Parliament, and taking into account the surcharge, the combined rate for a bank that makes £200 million in profits, for example, will be 25%. That will be a very competitive rate, and it balances the need for revenues to the Exchequer with the need for capital formation in the banking system.

Alison McGovern: I know that the Minister is trying to rattle through this quickly, but I have a question. We can all trade previous Governments’ records—I could draw attention to the impact on mutuals and building societies generally in 1986—but let us talk about the future. Clearly these changes will have an impact on building societies, which offer consumers a unique proposition because of their structure. Will she commit this evening to ensuring that the changes she is making will not harm the mutual banking sector?

Harriett Baldwin: Again, I am surprised that the hon. Lady seems to want me to keep mentioning the rate of corporation tax, because it is now lower for building societies than it was when her party was in power—it seems an extraordinary line of attack. Yes, a handful of building societies are large enough to pay the surcharge, but 90% of them—by number—will not only be unaffected by the change, but will benefit. Capital formation and the ability to retain earnings within the mutuals will improve as a result of the corporation tax reductions that we are introducing, which she opposed in the manifesto she stood on at the general election.

In conclusion—I will be quick, because I know that the Committee wants to express an opinion—I commend clauses 16 and 17 and schedules 2 and 3 to the Committee, and I respectfully request that the hon. Members for Wirral South and for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath do not to press amendments 3 and 4 and new clause 1.

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