VAT refunds to public authorities

Finance (No. 2) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:15 pm ar 16 Ionawr 2018.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 1—Review of retrospective VAT refunds for the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and the Scottish Police Authority—

‘(1) Within one month of this Act receiving Royal Assent, the Chancellor of the Exchequer shall commission a review of the potential consequences of allowing the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and the Scottish Police Authority to claim VAT refunds under section 33 of VATA 1994 retrospective to the date of their establishment.

(2) The review shall consider—

(a) the administrative consequences of allowing retrospective claims, and

(b) the impact on revenue of allowing retrospective claims.

(3) The Chancellor of the Exchequer shall lay the report of this review before the House of Commons within six months of this Act receiving Royal Assent.’

This new clause would require the Chancellor of the Exchequer to commission a review into what the potential consequences of allowing the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and the Scottish Police Authority to make retrospective claims for VAT refunds would be.

Photo of Mel Stride Mel Stride Financial Secretary to the Treasury and Paymaster General

The clause makes a number of changes to section 33 of the VAT Act 1994, which allows certain bodies to recover normally irrecoverable VAT. First and foremost, the clause fulfils the commitment made in autumn Budget 2017 to legislate to provide VAT refunds to Police Scotland and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service.

The Committee will be aware that in 2012, the Scottish Government chose to restructure Scottish police and fire services to create national bodies. At the time, the Scottish Government understood that those bodies would not be entitled to VAT refunds as they were no longer locally funded. They none the less continued with the change on the basis that VAT costs would be outweighed by potential savings.

A number of representations have been made to the Government on the issue and the Government have listened carefully to the concerns expressed. I am pleased that the provisions in clause 39 will enable the Scottish services to fully recover VAT, in effect providing £40 million additional financial support each year.

The clause also makes minor changes to the legislative basis by which combined authorities and English and Welsh fire authorities receive VAT refunds. Those bodies are currently eligible for VAT refunds but each authority is added to section 33 individually by statutory instrument, which takes up parliamentary time. The clause removes the need for statutory instruments and ensures that English and Welsh fire authorities are automatically entitled to VAT refunds. It does not substantially affect the VAT treatment of combined authorities or English and Welsh fire authorities. It simply removes an unnecessary administrative barrier, freeing up parliamentary time by allowing authorities to access refunds automatically.

Finally, I will touch on the VAT treatment of police services in Northern Ireland. Northern Irish police services have always had the right to reclaim VAT refunds and it is absolutely right that that is the case. However, it is a complex area of VAT law and the Government have decided to clarify the legislation to put the matter beyond doubt. The clause therefore makes explicit the right of the Northern Irish policing bodies to receive VAT refunds.

The clause makes a number of changes to the treatment of public bodies in the VAT Act, as well as making procedural amendments. It delivers on the Chancellor’s Budget announcement on Scottish police and fire services, providing VAT refunds worth around £40 million a year to support the delivery of frontline services. I therefore commend the clause to the Committee.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cities), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

We support the U-turn by the UK Government to allow VAT to be reclaimed by Police Scotland and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service. I should declare that I was a councillor on the board of Strathclyde fire and rescue when this was being discussed; I know the matter well and know the issues that the Minister referred to. There was a great deal of correspondence at that time from Scottish Government Ministers to the UK Government, requesting that the change be made, so it is with some incredulity that we hear, “Oh wait; all of a sudden we have just realised, yes, we are going to fix it now”—now, rather than several years earlier.

It seems logical that if the argument stands today and it stood in the Budget, then it stood all along, so the Government should do right by the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and Police Scotland and refund the VAT that we are due. Given that those services’ funding was pushed on to the Scottish Government via the UK Government’s austerity agenda, they very much need that money.

Photo of Luke Graham Luke Graham Ceidwadwyr, Ochil and South Perthshire

The hon. Lady is making a fair point, but the simple fact is that the Scottish Government knew that the changes were going to incur VAT charges. Does she accept not only that the Government have changed their policy position, benefiting police and fire services in Scotland, but that they have increased in real terms the block grant to Scotland? It is not austerity: Scotland is getting more funding under this Conservative Administration, not less.


Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cities), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

The hon. Gentleman knows that we have been arguing this case in this House since we got here. I was in this very room—in this very spot—when my colleague Roger Mullin made this argument in July 2015. We tabled amendments to the Finance Bill 2015 and to each subsequent Finance Bill, and we have made this argument on numerous occasions here and in the Chamber. We are glad about the change, but we think it is only good, right and fair that it is backdated to reflect the fact that the argument has stood all along.

It is interesting that the Scottish Conservatives have tried to claim that this is some great victory, but the Government’s Red Book, at the top of page 39, speaks of combined authorities in England and Wales being eligible for VAT refund, so I would contend that the Government were almost caught out by this. They had to make the change for Scotland because they were going to make the change for England and Wales, whereupon the argument became utterly compelling and there was no other way for them to get themselves out of the hole. I am very glad indeed that they are doing it.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Ceidwadwyr, Stirling

I interrupt the hon. Lady in her flow only to congratulate her on the convolutions of her argument. Frankly, it could be easily argued the other way round.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cities), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

The arguments are as compelling today as they were in 2015, in 2012, or at any other point. The coincidence of it having to be done for certain fire services in certain combined authorities in England and Wales makes the case that this should have been done all along.

We welcome this measure. We tabled our new clause, which we will press to a vote at the appropriate stage, because we would like to see some more detail about the administrative consequences and the impact on revenue of allowing retrospective claims. We know that the Government will do things in retrospect—other parts of the Bill enable them to enforce regulations relating to tax avoidance and claim money back in retrospect—so there is no argument that moneys cannot be claimed back if people should have known about them before. The Government are willing to make allowances and make changes if there are things that people might or might not have reasonably known. They have made such changes in other parts of the Finance Bill. We have received lots of correspondence from people who feel as though they have been hard done by a measure the Government are introducing now, which they see as retrospective and unfair. If the Government are allowing retrospective measures elsewhere, why will they not allow it here so that the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and Police Scotland get the money they have been due all along?

Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

I rise to speak to new clause 1, tabled by the hon. Member for Glasgow Central. The Opposition welcome the Government’s decision to allow the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and the Scottish Police Authority to claim retrospective VAT funds. The measures in the clause follow the Scottish Government’s decision in 2012 to establish a nationwide fire and rescue service for Scotland. The Treasury Minister at the time, now the Justice Secretary, wrote:

“Based on the information currently available it seems that, following the Scottish government's planned reforms, neither the new police authority nor the fire and rescue service will be eligible for VAT refunds under Section 33 of the VAT Act 1994.”

That Government decision meant that the Scottish police and fire services lost out on VAT refunds worth more than £30 million, of which Scottish police forces lost out on about £26 million. As a former chair of a fire and rescue service, long before the cuts to those services, I have to say that this amount of money would have been a strain even in those days. It is even more stressful now, so I can understand the anxieties and concerns of the Scottish Government.

To some extent, one could argue that it is a sign of recklessness that, in a time of austerity, the Government would effectively leave Scottish firefighters and police officers to fend for themselves. The Opposition therefore welcome the Government’s decision to reconsider their position, and to allow the Scottish police forces and fire services to retroactively reclaim the VAT—particularly given that the Minister’s reasoning at the time for denying Scottish police and fire services access to the funds was insubstantial at best. At times, it seemed to me and to other onlookers potentially malicious. I think that was the perception that people had at the time.

The then chief constable of Scotland, Sir Stephen House, when he testified to the Justice Committee of the Scottish Parliament last year, said that he was bewildered by the fact that the Scottish police force was the only police force charged VAT, as none of the 43 police forces pay VAT, and neither does the Police Service of Northern Ireland or the National Crime Agency, both of which are centralised agencies.

The Government’s decision to allow the Scottish police and fire services to claim retrospectively should not be controversial, even if it has taken a little time to get here. The Government have acted a number of times in the past to ensure that public authorities do not pay VAT, which is laudable. A number of Governments have done that, in fact. In 2001, the last Labour Government introduced a scheme to allow eligible museums and galleries to claim back VAT paid on most goods and services purchased, in order to grant free rights of admission to their collections. In 2011, the coalition Government introduced provisions as part of the Finance Act 2011 to ensure that academies, which supply free education but are not under local authority control—the phrase “under local authority control” is a misnomer if ever there was one, but it is important to use the language that people use, so we all know what we are talking about—were allowed to recover their VAT costs in the same way as local authorities. Similarly, in the March 2015 Budget, the coalition Government announced that from 1 April 2015, hospice charities, search and rescue charities and blood bike charities would be entitled to recover VAT incurred on their business activities, so there is a fairly well-trodden path regarding this issue.

Although we welcome the Government’s change of heart, allowing the Scottish fire and police forces to reclaim VAT retroactively is a drop in the ocean compared with the levels of gross underfunding and cuts to police and fire services across the country, including services in Scotland. New figures obtained by the Fire Brigades Union show that almost one in five frontline fire service posts—some 11,000 jobs—have been lost since 2010, which is a post-war record of job losses in that crucial service. That is all the more reason why this money should come back to those services. Since 2010, almost 8,000 full-time firefighter jobs have been loss. Fire safety inspections have fallen by 28% since the Government came to power, which is all the more reason why this retrospective or retroactive decision should be put into effect. The general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union said that

“Continued cuts to frontline firefighters and emergency fire control operators…are a serious threat to public safety.”

That is worrying.

The VAT refunds, although welcome, will not stop the deeper cuts to the fire service that are currently taking place, resulting in significantly fewer firefighters across the whole country. It is increasingly clear that VAT refunds will not prevent cuts in the service. As far as I can gather, the Prime Minister oversaw that when she was the Home Secretary. This may be the hand of the Prime Minister seeking some sort of retribution—on herself, perhaps—or rather, putting paid to past decisions.

To sum up, we welcome the proposals, but it would be helpful if the Minister could offer some examples where the grant could be claimed and what the criteria would be for things such as rescue charities hoping to access the grant as well. It is regrettable the Government have chosen to spend the last four years playing politics with the Scottish police and fire services. I hope the measure will ensure that VAT on every penny the police and fire services in Scotland spend will be refunded and that the Minister, at the same time, will ask his Government colleagues to look at the state of police and fire services right across the country.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Economy), SNP Deputy Leader, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Economy) 2:30, 16 Ionawr 2018

I thank the Labour Front-Bench spokesman for his support for the retrospective refund. If it is right to allow the VAT refund to be reclaimed now, it was right to do it four years ago when the changes were first made to fire services and the police in Scotland. Now that Scotland’s budget for frontline services has been reduced by £200 million, it is time for the Government to agree to give us back the money that our services have paid.

Photo of Mel Stride Mel Stride Financial Secretary to the Treasury and Paymaster General

The hon. Member for Glasgow Central asked: why now? Why has this not been done before? I guess, as with all policy decisions taken in politics, there was a balance to be struck between resources available, the lobbying that occurred and the input of competing interests. Without going too far into this point, I think it is fair to say that since 2015, the lobbying became fairly intense. That is not to deny in any way that there was fairly intensive lobbying prior to 2015. The decision was taken in the round at the time of the Budget, when all the competing uses for the UK Exchequer’s funds were balanced up. The question, “Why now, rather than at any particular time in the past?” could be applied to almost any tax change. It is a fairly generic point, in that sense.

The hon. Member for Bootle was firm, as was the hon. Member for Aberdeen North, on the perceived unfairness of the original decision. I remind Members that the original decision was taken by the Scottish Government in the knowledge that restructuring their services in this way would have a particular impact on the ability to claim relief for VAT.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cities), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

Will the Minister acknowledge that the original decision by the UK Government not to allow VAT relief was also part of that process?

Photo of Mel Stride Mel Stride Financial Secretary to the Treasury and Paymaster General

I was not party to the discussions that occurred at that time. The simple fact is that when the Scottish Government took the decision to restructure, they knew what the consequences would be; that is the critical point. There was no question of the UK Government having been vague or imprecise on that point; we made the consequences very clear to them at that point.

The hon. Member for Glasgow Central suggested that the measures in the clause relating to VAT exemptions for other authorities in England and Wales were somehow linked to this, and forced our hand on the decision about VAT relief for the Scottish fire and rescue service. There is no link; that can be seen from what the two different elements of the clause do. Unlike the provisions on Scotland, the measures on English and Welsh authorities do not extend VAT relief where it is not otherwise available; they are simply to do with the mechanics of how authorities benefit from that relief, and absolve Parliament from having to take the time to agree each and every instance through a statutory instrument.

As a matter of principle, the Treasury would not normally look at bringing in taxes retrospectively. We should be thankful that we have now resolved this issue. I hope that as the years roll by, this will fade into the background, and we will reach a point when we can all feel that we are in a good position regarding VAT and Scottish fire and rescue.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 39 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 42