On 22 March, I took the opportunity to speak in the debate on the Budget Resolutions. The Hansard record is below (emphasis mine):
Mr Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con): I rise to support the Budget and, in particular, to welcome the Government’s supply-side reforms. This has been a dramatic Budget, and I would be failing the Government if I did not concentrate on the areas of drama. First, on the disability reforms, the challenge before the Government is clear: to deliver a policy that we can all be proud to defend in our constituencies and in front of any objective scrutiny. I do not think we would have been able to do that if the Government had not wisely made the decisions that they have over the past few days.
When I look at page 150 of the OBR’s report, on the successive forecasts for spending on disability benefits, I can see that the Government’s envelope within which to deliver this humane disability policy is very clear. When we came to power in 2010, the Government were spending £12 billion on disability benefits, which rose to £16 billion by now, which is an increase of a third. The figure is forecast, with the reversal of the PIP measures, to reach £18 billion by 2020-21. It is clear that the Government have an envelope within which to work to ensure that we have a world-class policy that any of us can defend, even in an environment of fierce and partisan political attack.
I signed the two amendments on VAT to highlight the extent to which VAT is controlled by our membership of the European Union. Neither amendment has legislative effect. I congratulate the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) on her amendment, which, as she said, makes clear our intent to zero rate tampons and other sanitary products. Of course, both amendments are pursuant to Government policy, and this is the bitter irony of our membership of the EU. We had to have a dramatic row over VAT in the context of an EU referendum in order to secure the following commitment from the European Council:
“The European Council notes that the Commission intends to publish shortly a communication on an action plan on VAT. It welcomes the intention of the Commission to include proposals for increased flexibility for Member States with respect to reduced rates of VAT, which would provide the option to Member States of VAT zero rating for sanitary products.”
That is welcome, and it is clear that the Government’s policy and the House’s wish is that sanitary products should be zero-rated. It is welcome that the Government have secured this change of EU policy but, particularly as a participant in the campaign, I do not want us to have an EU membership referendum every time we want a different policy on our second largest tax.
Mr Kenneth Clarke: Will my hon. Friend accept that British Governments have always supported the idea of having an EU framework on VAT? Otherwise, the problem is that there is pressure on Governments to compete with each other in lowering the tax on selected products when they think that their manufacturers or producers will benefit. Also, it is very difficult to operate an open trade area if everybody is going for competitively different tax rates. If we go too far down that path, the main beneficiaries are smugglers.
Mr Baker: My right hon. and learned Friend raises some interesting points and, although I am grateful for the additional minute for my speech that he has given me, I cannot touch on all of them. He illustrates the difficulty of operating a customs union among interventionist nation states. The old doctrines of liberalism did not require that one got rid of non-trade barriers, for the most part. There were no non-trade barriers because laissez-faire was the norm. I abridge an argument that could be made at much greater length, but at the heart of the exchange that we have just had is the difficulty involved in interventionist nation states attempting to engage in free trade. In a world of globalisation, air travel and the internet, we need some degree of harmonisation on a global scale, provided that that enjoys democratic consent. That is probably a subject for another debate, but I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for his intervention.
Until the VAT directive 2006/112/EC is changed, it will be technically unlawful under EU law for any amendment to be introduced in UK law, even if it is not applied and takes effect in the future. That is the situation that we face. It is similar to the situation concerning insulation products, on which a judgment in the European Court of Justice on 4 June 2015 ruled that
“The United Kingdom cannot apply, with respect to all housing, a reduced rate of VAT to the supply and installation of energy-saving materials, since that rate is reserved solely to transactions relating to social housing.”
That is the position in law while we are in the EU. Although I hear what my right hon. and learned Friend says, it is a fact that while we remain in the EU, we cannot control what is currently our second-biggest tax. I am grateful that we have had this opportunity to put this part of the EU membership debate on the public record and have it discussed in the media. I am particularly grateful that the Government will not be opposing either amendment. If there is a Division, I shall certainly vote for amendment (a) and I shall probably abstain on amendment (b).
Perhaps the most dramatic aspect of the Budget is a subject that I have talked about at every Budget. It is a subject that I mentioned in my maiden speech—the insane state of monetary policy all around the world. If the European Central Bank was printing €80 billion of new money every month in paper and shipping it around the continent in articulated lorries, it would already have destroyed faith in paper currency. Yet, because the process is one of buying Government and corporate bonds, we simply notice a recirculation of money and celebrate the coarse aggregate results. In 25 seconds, I cannot give a lecture on capital-based macro-economics—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] If Opposition Members would like to call a Back-Bench debate on the subject in their own time, I would be glad to give them the lesson. I welcome this Budget, but its dramatic consequences will be felt much later as a result of easy money.”
Video is here.