National Insurance Contributions Bill

Published date : 01 March, 2022
I rise to support Lords amendments 2 and 4, but I will deal first with amendment 4.

As I said at earlier stages of this Bill, those who have experience of serving within the armed forces bring tremendous qualities to the workforce through both the skills they have learned while in uniform and their breadth of life experience. Despite our awareness of that and the best efforts of Governments and the third sector, for too many of our ex-servicemen who are leaving the services, the transition to civvy street is far more difficult than it often needs to be.

Having this exemption for national insurance contributions is therefore a very positive step as far as we are concerned, making it even more attractive to employers to hire those ex-service personnel and to bring their skills and experience into the workforce, helping to bring to fruition all the many economic and social benefits that can come from that. In that regard, we are attracted to Lords amendment 4 simply because it gives the Treasury that power to extend the eligibility period attached to the zero rate relief for armed forces personnel and veterans, should that be deemed desirable. That seems to us to be a perfectly reasonable addition to make to the Bill, giving the Treasury a degree of flexibility on how to implement the measure that would otherwise be lacking in the Bill as drafted.

On amendment 2, let me first place on record my satisfaction at the agreement that has eventually been reached by the Scottish Government and the UK Government over freeports, or green ports, of which two will now be established in Scotland, with the bidding process opening in spring this year and the first sites opening, hopefully, in spring 2023. I will go a little bit off piste here to say that that outcome was not always guaranteed, and at times, in at least some of the public discussions, there has been a bit more war-war than jaw-jaw, certainly on the part of individual Conservative politicians rather than between Ministers in Edinburgh and London. For example, the Scottish Business Minister, Ivan McKee, had to write six times to the UK Government to even try to get green port discussions under way in order to get them over the line. He said that the silence was deafening. That is a pretty damning account that rather sits at odds with the impression that we are often given from those on the Treasury Bench as to how they would like to work constructively with the Scottish Government.

The reason for holding out on the variation on the freeports option was quite simple. We felt very strongly that given the scale of the financial support that was on offer, it was vital to ensure that wider policy objectives such as environmental obligations, the commitment to net zero and fair play for those employed within freeport sites, were met. While it is up to the UK Government to decide how those objectives can be met in England, applicants for green port status in Scotland will be required to set out robust plans at the outset on how they plan to contribute to Scotland’s just transition to a net zero economy and how they will benefit the wider supply chain alongside embedding fair working practices such as at least paying the real living wage.

Freeports, it is fair to say, have had a somewhat mixed reception abroad, particularly as regards the relationship that they are perceived to have with criminality and tax evasion. While hardly the “Grand Theft Auto”-style dystopia that they have sometimes been portrayed as, the potential for criminality and non-compliance with taxation, employment rights, health and safety or environmental regulations and obligations is clear, as is the potential for broader economic displacement.

That brings me to the nub of amendment 2. In recent weeks, we have seen significantly increased demand from this House for scrutiny and visibility of financial transactions that take place in this country. We need to have that increased scrutiny over those who spend and invest in the UK, and also over where their money originates. It is very important when setting up freeports that we are able to answer the age-old question, “cui bono?” That is absolutely paramount. A requirement that the freeport deliverance body should be able to make reasonable efforts to verify who the beneficial owners of the business are and to ensure that that information is accessible not just to the relevant enforcement agencies but to the general public is the minimum amount of due diligence that we should expect in exchange for the status and the exemptions on offer.

I listened carefully to the Minister’s arguments about the beneficial register that will be in place and her view that as a third party under the local governance arrangements it would be inappropriate to release that information. Respectfully, I disagree with that. We all know how labyrinthine and byzantine corporate structures can be. Irrespective of any requirement in future legislation that may be coming into force, certainly on freeports, my party firmly believes that we should have transparency and accountability baked into the corporate structure and public reporting at the outset. On that basis, both Lords amendments have our support and we shall be voting accordingly.

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