Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): I apologise for the fact that I cannot stay for the end of the debate, because I am needed elsewhere at about 6 or 6.30 pm. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.
I am broadly supportive of the propositions. A lot of the points that I wanted to make have already been made, but I do not apologise for making them again, because I know that the Financial Secretary is in listening mode. I am particularly pleased to see that the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise is in the Chamber, because we know that she is very committed to small businesses.
When I had a proper job, as I often say to people, I had my own small business. We use the term “small business” quite loosely in this place. I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) talk about small businesses that made a profit of £70,000 a year, and I must admit that I wish that mine had made that sort of money. I want to focus on the microbusinesses—those very small companies. My business employed only four or five people. The hon. Gentleman, whose predecessor I remember well—he was a great friend of mine—made some good points. As he said, as a small business grows, its burdens are not alleviated but increased. Someone who employs five people has to worry about not one mortgage but five, and about five people’s futures.
I am concerned, as are some of my constituents, that the proposals may place further administrative burdens on small business owners. Some people think that a small business owner sits there in a big, expensive coat, smoking cigars and counting the money that comes in, but I and many Members who have outlined their experiences know that that is not the case. The small business owner or microbusiness owner has to be the salesman one day and the buyer another day. They are the credit controller in the morning, the HR manager in the afternoon and also the accountant. They have to do all those jobs at once.
I am pleased to hear the reassurance that we are not talking about making tax returns every three months. I hope that the Financial Secretary will give us more reassurances, because we need to get those out to our small business community. The quarterly update is fine, if that is where it stays, but I worry about regulation creep. I am slightly nervous that this is the thin end of the wedge and that, if we are not careful, the process will become one of quarterly tax returns. The implementation will be the key, and I would hate for the Sir Humphreys to pick this up by the scruff of the neck and turn it into something that we do not want.
I have heard that the proposal promotes savings to business, but I am slightly nervous about that. From my time running our business, I know that if there is a saving to be had, a small business owner will grab it by the scruff of the neck pretty sharpish. My business used to distribute engineering equipment. If I was selling an item of machinery, the market would dictate what I could sell it for, and my profit was dependent on how much I could buy it for and how much it would cost me to distribute it. If there are savings to be had, most small businesses that I know will already have grabbed them with both hands, so I am slightly nervous about that suggestion.
I flag up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) about businesses that are not online or computer literate. This proposal will put them online, so will they be forced to buy such things as computers, and will their overheads and administrative burden increase? I leave that question hanging for the Minister to deal with.
My High Peak constituency is rural. Although the Government have put a lot of money into broadband coverage and the situation is getting better quickly, it is still a problem, particularly in some of the most remote areas. We have not talked a great deal about the farming community, but we must remember that farmers are small business owners by virtue of what they do. In High Peak—the clue is in the name; it is high, and there are peaks and hills, with very remote farms—farmers are struggling with their broadband, as are those in a lot of areas in my constituency. Only 64% have superfast broadband, which is another problem.
I was recently approached by three businesses, all on the same trading estate. Bells Shoes sells hundreds and hundreds of pairs of shoes on the internet. Interestingly, the company has always had a retail outlet in Buxton—I think I bought my first pair of work shoes there many years ago—but its business is now very much online. What used to be a retail outlet is now more of an online outlet, with the retail supplementing it, but the business struggles because its broadband is not fast enough.
Many in the Chamber will not have heard of Otter Controls, but I promise them that they will have used a product produced by Otter Controls, which makes thermostats. Every time we switch on a kettle and it trips off at boiling point, we can bet our bottom dollar that there is an Otter Controls thermostat inside. I could talk at great length about the history of the company, because it is fascinating. Again, it employs a lot of people, but the nature of its broadband is getting in its way. I realise that this is not a debate about broadband, but I think that it is a key aspect of what we are talking about and how we move things forward.
I understand and agree that we have to move things online. We have to progress because we need to remain competitive. However, I worry that bringing in this change so quickly might be a bit previous and that we could be a little ahead of the game. I am nervous about it, as our some of our small businesses. I speak regularly at the Glossop Business Network, and I am sure that the next time I visit the network, the matter will be raised with me.
The proposal sounds simple, as it should be, but I worry that it might get overcomplicated and that the process will not be as straightforward as it should be. If that happens, who will pick up the tab for the cost? It will not be us here or the good people at HMRC; it will be the business owners, the employers and the wealth creators of the economy. I cannot remember what my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Oliver Dowden) called small businesses, but I call them the engine room of the economy. I worry that if we are not careful, we might seize that engine up.
I apologise again for the fact that I probably will not be here for the Minister’s closing remarks, but I promise to read them avidly in Hansard in the morning. If my small business owners do not sell, they do not eat. If they do not make a profit, they put in jeopardy not only their own future, but that of their staff. All I ask of the Minister is that he assures them that the proposal will not be a big stick that HMRC will wield over them and smack them over the head with when they are already working incredibly hard to make a living for themselves, their employees and my constituents.