Budget row hots up

Arguments over European tax harmonisation look set to cloud debate over this year’s Finance Bill, after the opposition warned during angry Commons exchanges last week that the top rate of UK stamp duty could more than triple.

Conservative accountant MP Nick Gibb raised the prospect of future EU tax ‘harmonisation’ at the 12.5% level of similar taxes in Belgium, and the 10% levied in Portugal.

He protested that, far from affecting homebuyers alone – the UK’s highest rate is currently 3.5% on transactions over £500,000 – business would be hit harder still.

Gibb was pressing an opposition amendment to the Bill that would limit the increases to domestic houses. The Budget increases the duty from 2% to 2.5% on transactions between £250,000 and £500,000, and to 3.5% over £500,000.

He challenged financial secretary Barbara Roche to deny that the intention is to move towards continental levels of taxation on transactions in the same fashion as chancellor Gordon Brown’s promised not to raise corporate taxation before the next general election.

Roche fuelled the speculation by refusing to respond – instead accusing the Tories of seeking to complicate a simple tax on transactions. She also attacked the Conservatives for failing to cost their ideas.

The Tory proposal to exclude property subject to business rates failed by 308 votes to 126.

The vote followed a warning from shadow Treasury minister John Whittingdale that stamp duty would have to be removed from share dealings if London was to avoid losing business to Frankfurt.

Members also debated the removal of widows’ bereavement allowance and the married couples’ allowance – the latter a year before the introduction of the children’s allowance to replace it, claimed to save the Treasury £2bn.

Shadow chief secretary and accountant David Heathcoat-Amory led the criticism of the scrapping of the married couples allowance – save for those over 65 on 5 April next year. He proposed the relief should continue for all pensioners.

This week deliberations on further detail of the Budget legislation moved ‘upstairs’ to a Commons committee room, with early debates scheduled on alcoholic drinks, tobacco, gambling as well as further discussion of taxes on fuel and vehicle excise duty.

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