Taxation: Tax Havens — Question
3:14 pm

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Lord Dubs (Labour)

To ask Her Majesty's Government what further discussions they have had with European Union member states and other countries about the issue of tax havens.

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Lord Newby (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, the Government are fully committed to tackling tax avoidance and evasion wherever it occurs. This is an issue of international concern on which we work closely with European Union member states and other countries, in particular through the G20. The G20 focus has been on increasing international tax transparency and identifying gaps in the international tax standard to help better address profit shifting and erosion of the corporate tax base at the global level.

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Lord Dubs (Labour)

My Lords, I have a terrible suspicion that the Minister is saying, in effect, that nothing is happening. Perhaps I may ask him this. If the Government fail to get international agreement quickly, could we as a country at least move forward by doing two things? First, could we take action in those territories where we have power or influence? Secondly, could we change the basis of taxation of those companies that do not claim any profits in this country by basing the tax on turnover rather than on bogus low-profit figures?

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Lord Newby (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, the accounting rules are internationally based and it makes sense to change them on an international basis. That is why we, France and Germany, between us, have given €450,000 over recent months to the OECD to come forward with proposals to deal with this issue. Those proposals will come forward and there will be a progress report in February. There is a strong head of steam in this country and in France, Germany and the US to tackle this issue.

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Lord Forsyth of Drumlean (Conservative)

My Lords, could my noble friend just remind us what action was taken by the last Labour Government between 1997 and 2010-over those 13 years-on tax havens? Is it not extraordinary that we now have such enthusiasm from the Benches opposite to do something, when they had that opportunity and, I believe, did nothing?

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Lord Newby (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, the Government greatly welcome the enthusiasm from the Benches opposite for the initiatives which we are now taking.

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Lord Barnett (Labour)

My Lords, global agreement is clearly important and I am glad that the noble Lord and the Government are seeking it. However, that will take a very long time. Would it not be better to do as I think my noble friend Lord Dubs was saying-to seek agreement among some of the smaller areas where countries are doing these things, such as the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man? Are we doing anything there?

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Lord Newby (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, there has been a lot of activity to increase transparency in relation to the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man so that we can now request information about an individual's tax affairs. A major change is that we are moving towards what is called an enhanced automatic tax information exchange, the first of which was signed with the Isle of Man. This means that every year we will automatically get details of the tax affairs of UK-based individuals with accounts in those countries. We will find out what payments have been made into bank accounts in those countries so that we can make sure that those people are paying adequate amounts of tax. That deals with individuals, however, whereas the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, deals more with corporates.

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Baroness Kramer (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, perhaps I may pick up on the Minister's comment. On 1 January the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, commonly known as FATCA, came into force in the United States. This Act requires all foreign financial institutions-banks, credit unions, pension managers and insurance companies-to find out which of their clients are liable for US tax and to send details of their account balances and transactions to the US authorities. When can we have our own FATCA-and I do not mind if we call it FATCAT-in the UK?

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Lord Newby (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, we signed the first agreement based on the FATCA principles with the Isle of Man in December. What is very significant about that Act is that places like the Cayman Islands will be required to provide automatic information directly to the US about US citizens. We are now in negotiations with all Crown dependencies and overseas territories to see whether we can put in place equivalent provisions with them. If we do, it will revolutionise the amount of information that we get about the affairs of British citizens who are due to pay tax here and who have bank accounts in those territories.

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Lord Phillips of Sudbury (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the root of the problem, beyond discussion and consensus, is a grotesque disparity between the tax authorities and the taxpayers in this country? It is not David and Goliath but David without a sling and Goliath. Unless we do something about that disparity between the numbers and quality of advisers available to unscrupulous taxpayers, on the one hand, and those available to HMRC, on the other, we can forget about the rest.

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Lord Newby (Liberal Democrat)

Absolutely, my Lords. That is why the Government agreed to put another £900 million during the lifetime of this Parliament into this kind of activity and why we announced in the Autumn Statement that we would add to that another £77 million, which we reckon will bring in £2 billion. The other important thing, in addition to this equalisation of technical expertise, if you like, is that consumers should continue to shine a spotlight on companies that may not be paying the amount of tax that most people would think is reasonable.

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Lord Davies of Oldham (Labour)

My Lords, although I welcome the progress made with the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, perhaps I may ask the noble Lord on what basis Crown dependencies and overseas territories could refuse information to the Government on this crucial issue.

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Lord Newby (Liberal Democrat)

As the noble Lord knows, my Lords, any arrangement with any overseas territory or Crown dependency has to be a formal arrangement and agreement. We are not a dictator going into these countries. We are negotiating agreements with them on the FATCA principles and I hope very much that we will conclude those agreements relatively soon.

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Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe (Labour)

My Lords, although the additional £900 million being allocated to HMRC for tax investigations is to be welcomed, will the Minister confirm that the department is also being required to effect very substantial savings which will in fact lead to several thousand staff leaving over the next three years and that this, in turn, could interfere with its means of operating? Is not the root of the issue really about transparency? We should not simply call on consumer groups to seek to get transparency on tax issues-the Government themselves should give a lead to the whole of society in moving towards greater transparency on tax issues. Although my party may not have done that when it was in power, one hopes that some of us may be able to persuade it to do so in future if the present Government will not.

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Lord Newby (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, on the latter point, we are doing a lot to try to improve the way in which the system operates. As I said, however, much of the required change in law has to be based on international agreement. As for the resources available to HMRC, it is true that there is a reduction in staff at HMRC. One of the principal drivers for this has been that the way in which HMRC does its business has changed fundamentally given electronic communications-for example, large numbers of people now submit tax returns electronically. The resource needed to deal with that, in terms of numbers, is very significantly less. We are trying to make sure that we beef up those parts of HMRC that collect tax and go after those who have been seeking to avoid it. I think that we are achieving considerable success in that.