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Clause 1 — Main rate of corporation tax for financial year 2011

Part of Finance Bill – in the House of Commons at 5:15 pm on 12th July 2010.

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Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham 5:15 pm, 12th July 2010

Let me start by saying a few words about my new hon. Friend Karl McCartney. I am sure that the House will join me in praising him for his speech and in wishing him every success now that he has joined us here. It is good to hear someone with a radio face with a passionate voice for his constituency. If he continues that, I am sure that his constituents will be well served. It was great to be reminded of the hugely important Lincoln cathedral, which many of us have visited and admired, and of the fact that Parliaments were once more peripatetic. In those days, there was probably less security and fewer people in the baggage train, so it was probably cheaper to take Parliament around the country than it would be today. I fear that he might have quite a long wait before the next Parliament at Lincoln.

We are here to debate tax avoidance and evasion. I listened carefully to John McDonnell, but I think that the House is pursuing a will-o'-the-wisp if it seriously believes that there is £120 billion of tax evasion and avoidance generally, and that there is substantial tax evasion and avoidance in particular on corporation tax, which we are debating, that we can tackle and get the money in from. Every hon. Member would like to think that there is an easy way out of the financial crisis. If there were a great pot of money representing tax dodging that we could identify and bring into the Treasury, it would have been done by now. It is not a matter of party dispute. If there are tax evaders out there whom we know about, they need to be brought to book-we all agree with that. Labour spent 13 years trying to do it, but the hon. Gentleman does not think that it did it well enough, and is now urging the coalition Government to do it. The coalition Government will pursue it in similar ways, with similar intensity, to the outgoing Labour Government. I fear that they will be no more successful than the previous Government at finding that £120 billion pot of gold because, in all honesty, I do not think that it exists in the form that hon. Members wish that it did.

Let us take evasion-the more serious case. I am sure that everyone in the House agrees that if someone is deliberately evading tax, it is a criminal offence. The House has said that it is a serious offence, and made it a criminal offence, or series of criminal offences, and we wish to see those people pursued and prosecuted. In the case of corporation tax, for example, if a company deliberately misreports its income, and says that it receives less income than it earned-one way of misleading the tax authorities over corporation tax-the book should be straightened, the record corrected, and they should be prosecuted. If the company deliberately overstates its costs to try to suppress its profits-the other way in which people could evade corporation tax, if they were seeking to do so-that, too, should be something that the authorities can identify on investigation, leading to a correction of the accounts. False accounting would be involved, as well as the criminal offence of tax evasion, and there are methods of tackling it. The state has a range of powers, introduced by Governments of all persuasions, to allow company investigation, including second-guessing the audit, and going in if it is thought that crooked directors are misrepresenting their costs or revenues, and the auditors have missed it. I wish my right hon. and hon. Friends the Ministers in the Treasury every success in trying to capture genuine crooks, because we do not need them in our community, and we need to flush them out.

There is another kind of failure to pay the amount of tax that the corporation tax authorities think is correct which, in some people's language, could be evasion. A company may report honestly its revenues and costs, but comes to a different conclusion from the Revenue about what the taxable profit should be, given its income stream and costs. It attempts to understand the complexity of the law-it may well have its own tax advisers and auditors in support, because any medium or large company does not do this in isolation; the directors want the comfort of knowing that they have serious tax experts behind them, because of the complications of the law-and it makes its case to the Revenue, which disagrees with them. I do not think that that should be treated as a severe criminal offence leading to the imprisonment of the directors. What should usually happen-and what tends to happen-is a fierce of exchange of views between the Revenue, which is trying for one view of the tax, and the company and its tax advisers with a different view. Eventually, agreement is reached. If it is thought to be a bad case, the Revenue has the power to impose financial penalties as well as to secure the tax that it thinks that it is owed.

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