With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Government new clause 5—Restrictions on buying capital allowances.
New clause 12—Anti-abuse measures—
‘(1) Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs shall review the possibility of bringing forward measures as part of the GAAR to work in conjunction with other G8 countries to require multi-national companies to publish a single easily comparable statement of the amount of corporation tax they pay in the UK.
(2) The Chancellor of the Exchequer shall review the effect of incorporating a global standard for public registration of ownership of companies and trusts via a convention on tax transparency, including a requirement on companies to publish a single easily comparable statement of the amount of corporation tax they pay in the UK, on Treasury tax receipts.
(3) The Chancellor of the Exchequer shall consider, when counteracting tax advantages arising from tax arrangements that are abusive, what steps HM Government could take, working alongside developing country governments, to assess how UK companies could report their use of tax schemes that have an impact on developing countries, and how the UK could assist in the recovery of that tax.
(4) Within six months of the passage of Royal Assent, the Chancellor of the Exchequer shall place copies of the review in the House of Commons Library, and consult with G8 countries on their effectiveness.’.
Government new schedule 1—Transfer of deductions.
Government new schedule 2—Restrictions on buying capital allowances.
This Government are determined to crack down on tax avoidance by the small minority of individuals and companies who are unwilling to pay their fair share of tax. This Bill includes some important anti-avoidance provisions, including the general anti-abuse rule—the GAAR—a major new development in UK tax law and a key part of this Government’s drive to tackle tax avoidance, and, in particular, abusive tax avoidance schemes. The Government have also made it clear that we will continue to legislate to close down specific loopholes if there is a clear case for doing so.
Before addressing the GAAR and the Opposition’s new clause 12, let me discuss new clauses 4 and 5, and new schedules 1 and 2. At this year’s Budget, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that the Government proposed to introduce legislation in the Finance Bill 2013 to prevent companies from entering into arrangements to access, as part of a business transfer, various forms of unrealised corporation tax losses from unconnected third parties—a practice that, for the sake of brevity, I will refer to for the rest of the evening as latent loss buying. Legislation on that matter was not included in the Finance Bill published in March, in order to allow more time for consultation with interested parties. Technical detail on the circumstances and manner in which the proposed legislation would operate was published on
Let me set out a little background to these new clauses and schedules. The UK’s loss relief system provides a measure of parity between taxing profits and relieving losses over the life cycle of a business, ensuring that businesses with different patterns of profit and loss pay a broadly similar amount of tax. Relief is based on long-standing underlying principles that: brought-forward trade losses should only be relievable against future profits from the same trade, carried on by the same legal entity; tax losses should not be transferable against profits of unconnected parties; and the movement of losses between companies should only be allowed where they are under common economic ownership for the accounting period when the losses arise. Within those principles, companies can gain relief for losses through being set off against profits in a number of ways. However, loss relief and business reorganisation rules are designed to prevent companies from passing the benefit of a loss to an unconnected third party. Those tax rules are designed to prevent companies from “selling” losses to some unconnected company that has taxable profits.
However, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is now seeing a marked increase in companies entering into different arrangements to access deductions not caught by those existing rules. Indeed, we are expecting the new rules to bring in revenue of close to £1 billion over the next five years. A particular pressure point arises where it is possible to dictate or predict the amount and timing of reliefs, allowances and deductions. Where those are sizeable, they can encourage tax-motivated reorganisations through which unconnected entities may get access to what are, in effect, unrealised losses.
Where the amount and timing can be dictated or predicted, ownership or part- ownership changes can take place in advance of the crystallisation of the amount, enabling the current loss-buying rules to be bypassed. Such arrangements may take the form of selling all or some of the shares in a company or the assets of a company, where either there are allowances that could have been claimed but were not by the previous owner or where it is known that a debit will be created in a future accounting period. Arrangements can, however, be more complex and contrived, and may also involve moving profits into a company to use up relevant deductions.
These new clauses and schedules therefore deliver on what the Chancellor announced at the Budget. They bring the tax treatment of unrealised amounts, involved in a transfer between unconnected parties, more closely into line with the long-standing treatment of realised losses. The proposed changes introduce three separate rules to combat latent loss buying. The first rule expands the application of current rules in chapter 16A of part 2 of the Capital Allowances Act 2001—I am sure you have fond memories of that Act, Madam Deputy Speaker. The other two rules are targeted anti-avoidance rules—TAARs—to be included in a new part of the Corporation Tax Act 2010. One seeks to counter tax-motivated reorganisations between unconnected parties involving other forms of relevant deductions, and the other seeks to counter arrangements that aim to transfer profits to companies so that the relevant deductions can be used.
A draft of the legislation was published for technical consultation on
Let me turn to what I suspect will take up most of the time for our debate this evening—that is, new clause 12. As I have said already, the GAAR is an important new tool, but it is not a panacea. New clause 12 focuses on much broader issues to do with the taxation of multinational companies, which have already been extensively debated during the course of the Bill and fall beyond the scope of the GAAR. Let me once again explain why that is the case.
New clause 12 first asks for a review of ways to require companies to publish a clear statement of their UK tax payments. That is not a matter for the GAAR. I am aware that the GAAR does not do what people want it to do by tackling a wider range of tax issues, particularly those involving multinational companies. We have never pretended otherwise.
The GAAR can of course apply to multinational companies if they engage in abusive schemes, but the broader issues concerning where and how their profits are taxed are grounded in how the international tax system operates. That is why we are driving forward the OECD’s work on improving international tax standards through the G8 and G20. Both the Chancellor and the Prime Minister have set out clearly that international tax problems need international solutions.
We accept that tax rules have not kept up with the age of electronic business, but the answer is not for the UK to take unilateral action. That approach would do the UK no favours as a location for business investment. It would risk setting in train a disparate approach among our trading partners, with serious consequences for international trade and growth and hence for jobs in the UK.
The OECD report on base erosion and profit shifting, which was endorsed by the G20 in February this year, shows that to tackle the issue effectively requires collective action to strengthen international tax standards. The Government have been at the forefront in taking forward work on the issue through the OECD.
The Minister has made some rather bold statements. Will he reiterate what he just said? He suggested that the proposal made by new clause 12, which asks the Chancellor to review proposals for the Government to require the production of a single corporate tax figure, as well as the other amendments, would result in lost jobs in the UK. Will he confirm whether that was what he said and on what evidence the statement was based?
That is not quite what I said. I said that it would not be sensible for the UK to take unilateral action to change the tax law that applies internationally and that the best approach to dealing with international tax issues is to work multilaterally with other economies to update the tax system. I shall turn to some of the specific elements of new clause 12 in a moment, but I am setting out the framework. It is sensible for us to work with other countries to ensure that the international tax system does what it needs to, rather than going off on our own and making changes that could damage the UK’s competitiveness. I am sure that no one in this House would want us to do that.
I congratulate the Government on their work, particularly in the G8 meeting, in trying to co-ordinate efforts to prevent abuse by multinational companies. Such companies are extremely portable and, does he not agree that the big problem is that if we do not act on a multi-jurisdictional basis, they can move anywhere? If we take unilateral action and they move, that risks jobs in this country—that is why we must never act unilaterally in dealing with such situations.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Elements of a business are highly portable. In 2007-08, for example, the UK’s position on headquartered companies was very uncompetitive because of our controlled foreign companies regime and a number of businesses moved their headquarters out of the UK and went elsewhere, which had an impact not just through lost corporation tax revenue but more widely, as it meant that individuals paying income tax and decision making were moved out of the UK. That was not in the UK’s long-term interest, so we reversed the situation. Now we have a much more competitive position, which means that companies are moving back to the UK and that new businesses are moving here, too.
My hon. Friend Mr Newmark is absolutely right that elements of a multinationals’ business are very mobile and that we need a tax system that reflects that. An important part of making our tax system fit for purpose is that it should reflect that, which is why we should work multilaterally.
Not that I like to pick on individual countries, but does my hon. Friend agree that the evidence from France, with a relatively newly elected left-wing Government, suggests that businesses and wealthy individuals are moving across the channel in their droves to set up business in the UK?
I would say—I think that this is the most tactful way of putting it—that the Government are determined to send the signal that the UK is open for business. That is how we can win the global race. Other Governments might wish to take other approaches, and that is for them to decide. For the UK, we believe in open markets and a competitive tax system—but a tax system, none the less, in which businesses pay the tax they should and in which economic activity is properly taxed.
We have made a commitment to act and have backed that up with extra resources for the OECD. The UK has been actively participating in the development of the OECD’s comprehensive action plan for tackling such issues, which will be presented to the G20 later this month. It might interest hon. Members to know that at the recent Lough Erne summit the G8 called on the OECD to draw up a common template for multinationals to report to tax authorities where they make their profits and pay taxes around the world. That will give tax authorities a new tool against tax avoidance to help them efficiently identify and assess risks, but requiring publication of that information would put the UK at a competitive disadvantage to other countries that did not require publication. It would also impose costly administrative burdens on business and Government.
The new clause proposed by the Opposition would require all multinational companies to report all their UK corporation tax payments—not just tax related to the GAAR, but the whole of their UK corporation tax. That goes way beyond the clear policy that we have set for the GAAR and would risk giving an impression that the GAAR has an impact on all corporation receipts, creating the sense of uncertainty about the impact of the GAAR that we have gone to some lengths to avoid.
I am interested by the Minister’s comments. The Minister has concerns about publishing such data, but in other cases the Prime Minister extols sunlight as the best disinfectant. Is it not important, if the public are to be confident in our tax system, for them to have such information? Why does he feel that tax receipts should be exempt from that disinfectant process?
There is a long-standing and widespread approach that tax is a matter of confidentiality between taxpayers and the tax authorities. I say that the approach is long standing; it is the approach we have had in the UK for time immemorial.
It is also the position that applies in pretty well all major economies, and if we were to change that approach, it would be sensible to do so multilaterally. If we introduced a requirement that multinationals based in the UK had to publish information in a way that would not apply if they were based elsewhere, that would raise questions about the attractiveness of the UK as a place in which to do business.
On how to move forward in this area, I would make the wider point that we work multilaterally. That approach was endorsed by Tony Blair, who, in a recent interview, said that if countries move unilaterally, others will eat your lunch, to put it bluntly. I think that was the phrase he used. It is right that we work with other countries to ensure that we have an effective tax system, but I would not favour measures that left the UK isolated in such a way.
I am genuinely confused. The Minister said that the measure would go wider than the GAAR as intended, because it covered all a business’s corporation tax, but part 5 of volume II of the Bill states at clause 203(3):
“The general anti-abuse rule applies to… corporation tax, including any amount chargeable as if it were corporation tax or treated as if it were corporation tax”.
The idea that the proposal would widen the measure beyond the scope of the Bill does not appear to be correct.
I hope I can clear up the hon. Gentleman’s confusion. The GAAR applies to corporation tax—I am not arguing for a moment that it does not—but the point is that lumping in the new clause, which is based on the GAAR, and moving from the GAAR being quite carefully targeted at abusive tax avoidance to essentially saying that everything needs to be published under the GAAR as part of a general anti-avoidance or anti-abuse rule would rather confuse things. It is a pity to muddle the two. There is an argument for greater transparency and for publishing things, and there is an argument for a GAAR, but to bring the two together as the Opposition have done—perhaps that is partly due to parliamentary constraints and so on—sends out an unfortunate message. The two should be kept apart. I hope that has made things clearer for the hon. Gentleman.
Well, not particularly, because the other argument that the Minister used is that the proposal might put us at a competitive disadvantage. However, the Bill is clear: one of the priority rules is the double taxation agreements that are already in place, so nothing could be done that impacted on the amount of tax a corporation paid in relation to its tax in the UK and elsewhere, because the double taxation agreements would have priority in any event. The Minister is trying hard to explain why he does not like the proposal, but he is not really succeeding.
The double taxation agreements are part of the international structure, but that is not the only element that determines whether or not the UK tax system is competitive. The point I am arguing is that our engagement and the leadership shown by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor represent the right way to go about changing how multinationals are taxed. I would consider, for example, what came out of the Lough Erne summit and, more broadly, measures to ensure that people pay the right amount of tax, as well as the dramatic progress that has been made including, on tax evasion, the exchange of information between Crown dependencies and overseas territories, and indeed the creation of a new international norm based on the American Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, or FATCA. That is a big step forward, and we continue to take steps, leading the way in this multinational effort to give tax authorities new tools to deal with tax avoidance by providing more information about beneficial ownership. All those are steps that can help us to deal with tax avoidance and tax evasion. I hope they will be welcomed by all Members of the House.
May I say how pleased I am to hear that the Minister is a converted Blairite these days? In extolling the virtues of what he has done with the overseas territories, he has ignored the fact that none of us, including Treasury officials, knows who owns what company and what company structures are there, and therefore what moneys are around. That includes some of the big banks and state-owned banks.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who brings me on neatly to the next issue, which is registration of ownership. New clause 12(2) asks for a review of the effects of
“a global standard for public registration of ownership of companies and trusts via a convention on tax transparency”.
At the recent Lough Erne summit, the G8 leaders all committed to work internationally to ensure that tax collectors and law enforcers can easily obtain information about who really owns companies. That represents real progress in the UK’s aim to secure a substantial change in international tax transparency. That is an important point and something that we have been pressing. We have agreement from the overseas territories to develop their plans to ensure that there is access to information on beneficial ownership.
I thank the Minister for generously giving way. We do not even know in this country about thousands of companies based here because inadequate returns are made to Companies House, which has neither the wherewithal nor, it would appear, the desire to do anything about that. How on earth is anyone meant to get on top of structures abroad when we are not even on top of corporate structures in this country?
The hon. Gentleman tempts me into an area that I am very much looking forward to debating with him on Thursday afternoon. He has secured a debate on that very subject, so perhaps I shall keep some of my powder dry for that occasion. The point that I am making is that the Government are making substantial progress in this area and we also have an international agenda, ensuring that other countries move as well, so that there is much more information about beneficial ownership. That is not to say that the job is done and that there are not challenges that we face, but we have made a great deal of progress, particularly at the recent Lough Erne summit. That should be acknowledged.
Returning to new clause 12, the final element takes us back to an issue that we have debated previously, which is a requirement on the Government to assess how UK companies could report avoidance of tax in developing countries and how assistance could be offered in the recovery of that tax.
Under the disclosure of tax avoidance schemes—DOTAS—regime, UK companies are already obliged to report to HMRC their use of tax avoidance schemes carrying certain hallmarks. That applies to avoidance schemes that have an impact on developing countries, but only where UK taxes are affected.
The Opposition’s new clause 12 effectively suggests that Her Majesty’s Government should require UK companies to report their use of tax schemes, so that developing countries’ tax authorities can be notified of tax avoidance schemes, and that the Government should assist them in recovering any tax lost. It is unlikely that HMRC will have sufficient understanding of the details of developing countries’ tax systems to enable it to do that.
I appreciate that we debated the issue at some length in Committee, but I should like to pick up on the Minister’s language: he stated that it was “unlikely” that HMRC would have sufficient information on developing countries’ taxation regimes. Will he clarify whether HMRC and the Treasury have undertaken an assessment? That is what the new clause is asking for. It is not asking whether they can do these things, but whether they will undertake an assessment of what they can do, and how they could do it.
I have certainly sought advice, in preparation for this and other debates, on how practicable it would be for HMRC to provide such a service. HMRC makes the point that it is not something that it is well set up to do; its expertise is on how the UK tax system works. It is also worth pointing out that DOTAS is based on hallmarks set by UK tax law. Trying to extend it in the way suggested would be very difficult. That would require a major change to a successful tool—the hon. Lady and I have debated this point before—for tackling tax avoidance, and would risk disrupting the effectiveness with which HMRC does its job. My answer to her is one that I have given in the past: I do not believe that this is something that HMRC could do effectively. It is not a good priority for us. All sides want to do more to help developing countries to develop their tax system, but it is better to focus on building capacity by providing training and support than for HMRC to try to judge, police and assess the tax system in developing countries.
The Minister perhaps betrayed the true answer at the end of his comments. His previous response sounded a bit “computer says no”; he said it was all very difficult and he did not believe it would be possible. However, he just said that it would not be a good use of HMRC resources. Does he not agree that a bit of transparency on the possibility of putting the clause into action would be of benefit, not only to Parliament, but to the public, so that it could understand the reasoning and how the conclusion was arrived at?
The reasoning remains what it always was. HMRC has a large number of specialists on the UK tax system, and the UK tax system does not apply in other countries. Assessing whether a particular arrangement constituted tax avoidance in Tanzania, to pluck a country at random, would require a detailed understanding of the Tanzanian tax system. If the hon. Lady is asking whether we could train up somebody to learn an awful lot about the Tanzanian tax system, in theory that could be done, but it would be a better use of HMRC resources to help train the Tanzanian tax authority, so that it was in a better position to collect the taxes that are due. Indeed, that is exactly what we do; we provide a lot of support to the Tanzanian tax authority.
The Minister will recall our debates on this issue in Committee. I am afraid that I still do not buy the arguments that he makes, just as I did not buy them then. Does he not understand the disappointment felt by the many campaigners on this issue? The “Enough Food for Everyone If” campaign said that Treasury Ministers’ refusal to consider the amendments put forward in Committee, which are very similar to new clause 12, was shocking. There is a real contrast between the Prime Minister’s big words at the G8 and what is happening in practice. This is a reasonable new clause, and campaigners just do not buy the arguments.
It is not just me saying this, and there is no desire to be unhelpful. Indeed, the Government’s record on building up tax capacity in developing countries is very good, with regard to providing them with technical assistance so that they gain a better understanding of the tax that they could collect. Indeed, we are providing support to help developing countries to make greater use of the new information exchange positions.
I will again quote Richard Murphy, whose views on these matters tend to differ profoundly from mine. He works closely with the non-governmental organisations, and he has said:
“I admit, I have never seen how extending DOTAS internationally could work. I can’t see how HMRC could know if they got accurate data, or none at all and as such can see no way such a scheme could be enforced in which case I admit I can’t see how it could ever be workable.”
I do not often pray in aid Richard Murphy, but he makes that point not from any desire to limit the help that we provide to developing countries but as a matter of sheer practicality. He makes a reasonable point.
The Minister certainly does not often pray in aid Richard Murphy. Indeed, I think this is the only thing that Richard Murphy has said that he agrees with, and he is using it to advance his argument. Will he acknowledge that all the elements of new clause 12 relate to information sharing and transparency? We are asking the Government to consider how they can improve information sharing and transparency and use DOTAS to that end, and it would be helpful if the Minister could focus his comments on that. I think that members of the public will struggle to understand why the Government are refusing even to consider that proposal.
It is important that our debates on these matters should not simply be about the expression of warm words. They should also be about working out what we can do at a practical level, and what will and will not work. I take the view that extending DOTAS will not be effective, but our response to the hon. Lady’s proposals should not be, “Oh, they are all terrible.” It should be to ask ourselves what would be effective. There is a lot that we can do that is effective. This is about capacity building. It is about ensuring that developing countries have the right information, and about bringing them into the existing web of treaties so that they can have access to more information. It is also about ensuring that multinationals provide information that is useful to tax authorities in order to ensure that the right amount of tax is collected and the tax authorities’ efforts can be focused in the right place. That is the agenda that we have been pursuing, with some success.
I am sympathetic to what new clause 12 is getting at, and I do not in any way doubt the motives behind it, but I do not believe that it is necessary. We are already leading international action on tax transparency and on the taxation of multinational companies, and I do not believe that the GARR, as drafted, is the right vehicle for tackling these issues. For those reasons, I urge Opposition Members not to press the new clause to a vote.
It is a pleasure to speak here today on these important issues. I shall focus particularly on those covered by amendment 56 and by new clause 12. First, however, I shall touch on new clauses 4 and 5, and on new schedules 1 and 2, which relate to measures announced in Budget 2013. Together, they introduce three separate rules to combat what the Minister describes as loss buying. That activity goes against the accepted concept that losses brought forward on or after a change in company ownership should be allowable for corporation tax relief to the company and to the trade in which they occurred.
The Government’s new clauses seek to strengthen the loss-buying rules, first by expanding the application of chapter 16A of part 2 of the Capital Allowances Act 2001 so that it applies to “qualifying activities” and not just trades, as is currently the case. The other two rules introduced by the clauses are targeted anti-avoidance rules and will be included in a new part of the Corporation Tax Act 2010. As a consequence of the new clauses, companies will be prevented from entering into arrangements to access, as part of a business transfer, various forms of unrealised corporation tax losses from unconnected third parties. The Opposition support the introduction of these anti-avoidance measures, but it would be helpful if the Minister outlined, in response to this submission, what additional annual yield the Exchequer is expected to receive as a result of their introduction.
Before speaking specifically to the Opposition’s new clause 12, I would like to refer more generally to the Government’s general anti-abuse rule, which will be introduced by clauses 203 to 212, and take the opportunity to probe the Minister on its implementation, because it was last discussed in Committee of the whole House back in April. The Government have made much of the GAAR, their flagship policy for tackling tax avoidance, but, as the Minister knows, several serious concerns were raised about its likely impact, or lack thereof, during our debate in April.
We have been advised that the GAAR will target only “egregious”, “very aggressive” or “highly abusive” avoidance schemes, which the Bill defined as those that use “contrived or abnormal steps” to obtain a tax advantage. Yet the GAAR guidance’s definition of what those entirely subjective terms mean is inadequate. It states merely that they will be interpreted and applied in their “normal” sense. I do not know how Government Members would apply those terms in their normal sense, but I am interested to know whether Opposition Members would know how to apply those terms in their normal sense, given that we will be voting on that tomorrow when the Bill is considered on Third Reading.
I wonder whether my hon. Friend, like me, is concerned that the subjectivity and lack of clarity on this subject is a little like the concept of pornography; we all know it when we see it, but defining it is very difficult unless there is clarity. With tax avoidance schemes, clarity is absolutely crucial.
I fear that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, might accuse me of straying into rather unexplored territory if I were to compare tax avoidance to pornography, so I simply acknowledge the point my hon. Friend makes, which is that they are very subjective terms. That point has been made not only by me, but by many experts who are very concerned about the wording in the legislation. That is why it would be useful if the Minister responded to some of the concerns that have been raised during the Bill’s consideration.
The GAAR is projected by the Government to result in an additional yield of only £85 million a year by 2017-18. That is a notable sum of money, but it does not even come close to putting a serious dent in the £5 billion tax gap estimated to arise each year as a result of avoidance activity, and it is a mere drop in the ocean compared with the overall annual tax gap of £32 billion estimated by HMRC, which we know is a conservative projection. We also know that concerns remain about the so-called “double reasonableness” test and the GAAR advisory panel that will judge whether arrangements can
“reasonably be regarded as a reasonable course of action.”
As I have highlighted previously, what one person—let us say, a tax expert who has spent his or her entire career advising companies on how they might reduce their tax liability—regards as reasonable could be very different from what a member of the public or, indeed, a Member of this House might consider to be reasonable.
Will the Minister update the House on the likely membership of the GAAR panel? I know from a recent written answer that there have been 60 applications for it. Up to eight members are expected to be announced at some point this month by HMRC and the panel’s chair, Patrick Mears, who is currently a tax partner at Allen and Overy. Is the Minister aware of the backgrounds of the people from whom the applications have been received? It would be useful for the House to have that information at this stage. It is clearly vital that a proper balance is struck on the make-up of the panel given that it has such a fundamental role in how the GAAR will work and how effective it will be. If it is going to work, it must be credible and have public confidence.
Another concern expressed about the GAAR is that it is too narrow and cannot really be described as “general” at all. Indeed, the Government’s new clauses seem to demonstrate that. The GAAR applies to corporation tax, yet the Government are still having to introduce targeted anti-abuse rules to deal with loss buying undertaken to avoid or reduce corporation tax liability. It would be helpful if the Minister outlined how the GAAR is intended to operate. What corporation tax activity would be sufficiently egregious or abusive for it to be covered by the GAAR without the Government having to introduce separate targeted anti-abuse rules to deal with it? Does this mean that they need to introduce a targeted rule to deal with every specific loophole that is not covered by the GAAR because otherwise they run the risk of tacitly legitimising any activity that is not covered?
The hon. Lady is asking whether the GAAR is too narrow. It is designed to squeeze out tax advantage through abusive means. The advantages include
“relief or increased relief from tax…repayment or increased repayment of tax…avoidance or reduction of a charge to tax or an assessment…avoidance of a possible assessment…deferral of a payment of tax or advancement of a repayment” and
“avoidance of an obligation to deduct or account for tax.”
What else could she add to widen that if she thinks it is too narrow?
The hon. Gentleman makes a helpful point. One would question to what extent the Government can rely on their general anti-abuse rule when they still have to invoke targeted anti-abuse rules, many of which we debated in Committee. Yet the GAAR is supposed to provide reassurance in relation to these matters. Will the Minister clarify exactly how it will work? As the hon. Gentleman says, there is much debate about whether it is too general or too narrow—too general to be effective or too focused on what could be deemed by a reasonable person to be egregious behaviour, and therefore arguably too narrow. I would be interested to hear the Minister explain exactly how the GAAR will work in reality.
The Minister will be aware of the concerns raised in Committee about how the GAAR’s effectiveness will be reviewed. Our amendment calling for an evaluation to be held two years post-implementation was dismissed on the grounds that it would be impractical. At what stage does the Minister think it would be practical to conduct a post-implementation review, given that this is one of the Government’s main tools to tackle tax avoidance? At what point does he think it would be appropriate to consider whether the GAAR needs to be strengthened by, for example, a penalty regime? He has said that it will be kept under review, so it would be extremely helpful if he could provide details of the time scales involved.
One of the most widely held concerns about the GAAR is that it simply does not deal with many of the issues about which members of the public in particular are understandably angry with regard to corporation tax avoidance. The Minister has said that the Government have never sought to give the impression that they will deal with these issues, but many people feel that when they raise concerns about corporate tax avoidance the Government give the impression that their general anti-abuse rule will somehow deal with them.
We believe that the Government could and should use this Finance Bill to go much further on tax avoidance and on increasing tax transparency in particular. We have presented the Government with many opportunities to put their money where their mouth is and to take action now.
I was pleasantly surprised to read in The Guardian on Friday that the Minister voiced his intention to take firm action on this issue—the Minister is looking at me blankly; I am not sure whether he reads The Guardian—during last week’s Back-Bench business debate on multinational companies and UK corporation tax avoidance. I usually pay attention to everything the Minister says, but I confess that Friday’s revelation passed me by. Given his reported new-found enthusiasm for tackling the issue head on, the Opposition would like to take this final opportunity, through new clause 12, to persuade the Minister and Government Members to use this year’s Finance Bill to demonstrate a commitment to increasing tax transparency and to cracking down on tax avoidance both here and abroad. It is unfortunate that the Liberal Democrat Benches are devoid of Liberal Democrat Members, because this is their opportunity finally to walk the walk on this issue, given that they have been very good at talking the talk on it for so many years.
The nub of the issue is this: there has been a monumental breakdown in public confidence in the corporation taxation system and it is clear that the era of tax secrecy should end. At a time of austerity around the world, when people have lost or are losing their jobs and are seeing their services cut and the cost of living rising while the value of their wages does not, they are rightly angry when they see the complex and extraordinary lengths to which multinational companies may go in order to avoid paying their fair share of tax in the countries where their profits are actually being generated. People, including more than 1 million supporters of the IF campaign, are equally furious that aggressive tax avoidance activity is reducing the ability of developing countries to tackle the issue effectively and contributing to their failure to combat hunger and invest in the vital infrastructure that we take for granted. As the OECD estimates, these countries lose three times more through tax avoidance than they receive in aid every year.
The Opposition believe that rather than simply calling on the OECD
“to develop a common template for country-by-country reporting”,
which the G8 has said it will do, we should actively work with our G8 partners to ensure that all multinationals, regardless of sector, are required to publish a single, easily comparable statement on the amount of tax that they pay in each country in which they operate. That needs to be introduced as a matter of urgency.
My hon. Friend is doing a good job of spelling out the sheer ludicrousness of countries losing more by profits being put into tax havens than they are given in aid. I am sure that she is aware of the recent ActionAid report, which mentions a single transaction made through UK-linked tax havens that would have provided the Indian Government with $2.2 billion in tax if it had not taken place offshore. Surely that is something that the Government ought to rectify.
My hon. Friend gives a powerful example of how ludicrous the failure to act on this issue is.
At a stroke, statements would give people, whether they are experts or not, the information they need to assess the amount of tax that multinationals pay. That would give British consumers the power to take such matters into consideration when they decide who to buy from. It would also give developing countries a vital boost to their resources so that they could tackle hunger and invest in the infrastructure that they so desperately need.
As the Minister is all too well aware, the Opposition have backed the calls of the IF campaign for a convention on tax transparency. We saw the UK’s presidency of the G8 as a prime opportunity to take international leadership on the issue by launching a convention at the G8 summit to establish a global standard of public registration for the ownership of companies and trusts. As the House knows, the G8 nations took a step in that direction; we have acknowledged that steps have been made in the right direction.
The G8 stated in “Common principles on misuse of companies and legal arrangements”:
“Beneficial ownership information on companies should be accessible onshore to law enforcement, tax administrations and other relevant authorities including, as appropriate, financial intelligence units. This could be achieved through central registries of company beneficial ownership and basic information at national or state level. Countries should consider measures to facilitate access to company beneficial ownership information by financial institutions and other regulated businesses.”
At the end of the day, there was a statement about what could or should be achieved or considered by G8 nations, and the UK promised to establish a register at Companies House on beneficial ownership of companies in the UK, but to make it available only to HMRC, not the public. That was a step in the right direction, but the Opposition feel that it did not go far enough. We believe that we need proper transparency about who is holding their wealth behind shell companies and trusts in tax havens, not just secret lists at Companies House.
“Those with knowledge of the Companies House reality would take a great deal of convincing that it is about to become a tough enforcer able to scare global or even home-grown tax evaders—any more than it has ever deterred conmen the world over.
Companies House is merely a receiver and filer of documents. It is not set up to be reactive, never mind proactive. ‘We do not have the statutory power or capability to verify the accuracy of the information that companies send to us,’ a Companies House official candidly admitted to the Mail on Sunday last month when the newspaper wanted to know if a foreign currency investment company director actually existed. Hardly surprising when it is considered that there are 3 million ‘live’ companies on the UK register.”
Aware of the Government’s steadfast opposition to our proposals on country-by-country reporting and a global standard of public registration of company ownership, we have tabled new clause 12 to ask HMRC and the Government to at least review the possible effect of those measures. It is eminently reasonable and perfectly sensible for Government Members to support it. Crucially, on the subject of abusive tax arrangements, it calls on the Government to consider what steps they could take when working alongside the Governments of developing countries—not should, but could—to assess how UK companies could report their use of tax schemes that might have an impact on those countries, and how the UK could then assist in the recovery of that tax.
The Exchequer Secretary has already responded to us on these issues, and it is disappointing that the Government take such a negative approach. They need to acknowledge that rather than saying what they cannot do, they should say what they could do. We are not asking for any commitment other than a commitment to review what might be possible, using the resources of HMRC, to achieve the aims to which the Government state they are fully committed.
With the exception of a relatively small pot of money for capacity-building work, to which the Exchequer Secretary has referred, the measures in the Bill to combat tax avoidance will do absolutely nothing to assist poorer countries. We know from the IF campaign that dealing with developing countries’ corporation tax gap alone could raise enough public money to save the lives of 230 children under the age of five every day. That is a powerful statistic that no Member should take lightly. We have heard from the Exchequer Secretary on several occasions throughout our consideration of the Bill, including today, how difficult and impractical—indeed, how impossible—it would be for the Government even to consider how they could assist in that regard. In the light of that statistic, however, I sincerely urge him to rethink his position. I ask him not to put the matter into the “too difficult” pile but to concede that there may be something that the Government can do to improve the situation.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case about the importance of the measures in question for developing countries. Does she agree that the Exchequer Secretary, having spoken about the importance of acting multilaterally and understanding how international companies operate, should be able to see the benefits of transparency to the UK tax system? Surely one thing that we are concerned about right now is UK companies using overseas territories to avoid paying tax in the UK. If we had the transparency that we suggest and HMRC worked with countries such as Tanzania, there would be benefits for both UK taxpayers and developing nations. It would be a win-win situation for all concerned.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The Government have trumpeted their commitment to 0.7% of GDP being spent on international aid, but they stand by and say that they can do little to assist in ensuring that that is not swallowed up by the three times more that is lost in tax avoidance every year. If they could assist, that would be a win-win situation for developing countries and the UK.
In new clause 12, we call for additional transparency in what the Exchequer Secretary admitted are four fairly reasonable requests. Those requests are well considered and are made in all sincerity. We want to be able to bring in additional tax receipts for the UK Treasury, but we also want to use our powers and information, and the additional intelligence that we would gain from transparency, not only to benefit the lives of UK citizens, for whom public resources could be funded through the tax receipts, but to support developing countries.
My hon. Friend makes the point that it is a win-win situation, and we very much agree. That is why we urge hon. Members to support our new clause. As I have said, it is completely reasonable and I cannot see why Government Members would oppose it, particularly Liberal Democrat Members—I am pleased that Gordon Birtwistle is in the Chamber to hear this debate on an issue that I know the Liberal Democrats feel strongly about. Indeed, at their recent party conference they held a debate in support of some of the measures we are proposing. I therefore see no reason why Liberal Democrat Members will not vote with the Opposition in the Lobby this evening.
My hon. Friend has been making strong points. Does she agree that in a way this debate exemplifies the difference between settling for charity and seeking justice on some of these issues? I would not say that the Government are not charitable. They continue to give aid; we continue to give aid—that is charity and people on both sides of the House do charitable work. However, when it comes to achieving justice on these issues, and getting a grip of the problems and understanding why they are there in the first place, we often find the Government wanting.
My hon. Friend makes the important point that we are talking about justice. We talk about justice and fairness in relation to developing countries when considering how a disclosure of a tax avoidance scheme, and the information we receive from it, might be used to support developing countries and international justice on that level. However, it is also about justice for UK taxpayers. We must ensure that companies that engage in the sort of tax avoidance activities that so rile members of the public, and should concern every Member of the House, do not have a competitive advantage over companies that do not engage in such activities, which may mean that their business ends up suffering.
That is what we are discussing and the amendments should not be just a step in the right direction. The announcements that came out of Lough Erne and the G8 agreement contained warm words and welcome sentiments, but there is an opportunity for the Government to start walking the walk, not just talking the talk. They must make not only warm statements but legislative changes that will move the issue forward and show the leadership that the UK should be showing. That would give us greater leverage when debating such matters on an international scale.
The Prime Minister rightly put tackling tax avoidance and evasion at the top of the G8 agenda, and Government Members now have the opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to delivering in that area. What came out of the G8 does not have to remain a statement of intent; it could become a reality for the UK today. We believe that our amendments would help the UK to take genuine action towards securing tax transparency and the fairness the world needs in the 21st century. I therefore urge all Members on both sides of the House to back our suggestions for how the Government can put their money where their mouth is on this issue.
It is a pleasure to be here to discuss issues that we have already discussed once or twice this year already. The Government’s new clauses have rightly been introduced to tackle loss buying and capital allowance avoidance planning. Those are examples of what we can, following the logic of Stella Creasy, call hard-core tax abuse. The rules have been allowed to get out of date and have been exploited for years, so it is right that they are tackled.
The new clauses demonstrate, however, that the system is far too complex. There are far too many different types of loss and of relief, which create the scope for transactions to try to exploit them. I am not entirely sure why we need trading losses, schedule A losses, D3 losses, non-trade debits and capital losses—and probably a few more I cannot remember off the top of my head. If we moved to a simpler corporation tax system that had only revenue losses and capital losses, we could perhaps tackle avoidance more easily, rather than having to introduce separate anti-avoidance rules for each different kind of loss to try and ensure that they all work. I encourage the Minister for the umpteenth time to try to simplify our corporation tax system, because it would help in tackling these problems.
There is an interesting question on the interaction of legislation with the general anti-abuse rule—if each time we see some aggressive abuse that we think the general anti-abuse rule should stop, we end up producing a specific anti-abuse rule, what does that say about how strong we believe the general anti-abuse rule is? I would personally prefer specific, clear legislation that all taxpayers can read, understand and abide by, rather than relying on some general statement of principle, but there has to come a point when we say, “We think that is abusive and falls foul of the general anti-abuse rule, and that is enough for us to tackle it. We do not need to introduce some more complexity to our tax code: instead, we will rely on the rule.” It will be interesting to see, as the years pass, how confident the Government are in that position. For us to be able to evaluate how successful the general anti-abuse rule is, we will probably need to see if the Treasury—or, at least, HMRC—can win some court cases relying on that rule. It may be a few years before we have some returns filed and challenged on that basis.
Does the hon. Gentleman share the concerns of some people that we will never see those court cases, because the panel, depending on how it is selected, may deem most tax behaviour to be so eminently reasonable that it prevents such cases from ever getting to court?
I doubt that. The general anti-abuse rule came out of some proposals by Graham Aaronson, a leading tax counsel, so it is not fair to suggest that the whole industry is so wedded to egregious tax abuse that they will find any arrangement acceptable. That would make a complete mockery of the whole thing. I do not share that concern, but we have to be careful in how we draft the general anti-abuse rule. Effectively, it comes back to saying, “Although Parliament may have passed legislation in these terms, what we really meant was something slightly different.” Perhaps we did not envisage a complex scheme that works its way into what we actually said, rather than what we really meant.
If we tried to define a general anti-abuse rule too closely, we would be straight back on the horns of the dilemma of what Parliament meant when it passed a certain piece of legislation. I suspect that most people would say that we actually mean what we write in the many hundreds of pages of taxes that we pass each year. We have to allow the courts room to interpret where arrangements are clearly not what we intended when we passed them. The clue is in the word “general” in “general anti-abuse rule”. If we make it too focused, it will not work. We will see in a few years what happens.
Another measure we could use is whether the tax gap comes down. Do we see fewer of these abusive arrangements being entered into? Is that because of the threat of a general anti-abuse rule? Perhaps we could also measure it by the weight of the Finance Bill next year. If we do not need all these anti-avoidance clauses, the Bill will be an inch thinner and the Government will be happy that the general anti-abuse rule is working. I expect I will serve on the Committee next year and I am not optimistic about it being much shorter.
I cannot support new clause 12. I can see why it was drafted, and I might have drafted some amendments in Committee that were equally creative as a way to force an issue into a debate where it does not really fit. I generally agree with the idea that we should require more transparency from our largest corporate taxpayers about how much tax they are paying, but also crucially why they are paying that amount of tax.
We have seen large companies being dragged over the coals about their tax arrangements, but in some cases, there are valid reasons why they do not pay much corporation tax. For example, they might not be making a profit, or might not be making a profit for tax purposes due to losses brought forward or other reliefs that they are perfectly entitled to claim. That is why I favour requiring large companies to publish their corporation tax returns.
We have heard Companies House much maligned, but a simple change to the financial statements that have to be filed to add to corporation tax returns, and perhaps some supporting computations, would not be too hard to achieve in law. We would then all be able to see how much tax the large companies have declared that they owe, and see how they got from their reported profit down to their taxable profits. Those who are not paying any corporation tax perfectly innocently because of the return of losses or other valid reliefs would not get the sort of bad publicity that Google, Starbucks and Amazon have had. There are some rather strange entries relating to how the commercial profit is put down on the tax form, so it would be valuable if we could scrutinise these matters and see what is going on.
What the hon. Gentleman says about the requirements he proposes for Companies House would go some way towards addressing the issue of transparency, but a recent report by ActionAid noted that one in 10 of this country’s top companies were not complying with existing Companies House rules on declaring how many subsidiaries and associate companies they had overseas. As I understand it, his suggestions relate only to accounts that would be filed in respect of their UK operations. We would not be able to tell from that whether such companies were channelling their profits through other companies and making use of tax havens, which is what people are really concerned about.
I agree with the hon. Lady’s sentiment, but I was confining my remarks to the content of new clause 12, which refers to
“a single easily comparable statement of the amount of corporation tax they pay in the UK.”
My thought was that the most single easily comparable statement would be the corporation tax return, which obviously has a consistent format, as everyone has to file it. She is right about the use of tax havens. Where tax havens are used underneath a UK corporate, HMRC has the power to get a group structure and to use the controlled foreign company rules to look at what is happening in the tax havens. It is clearly much harder for HMRC when those havens are sat above the UK, making it much harder to get the information because there is no shareholder ownership that obliges disclosure. That is why we need global work to get a clear and full corporate structure published. It will be interesting to see how much progress is made on that. It needs to be global, not just for the G20, because if one nation somewhere in the world will not agree to publish its share, that might be the one that blocks the attempt to disclose the havens.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generosity in giving way. Is it not the case that about one in five of the tax havens used by companies are UK-owned tax havens in UK overseas territories? To ensure some compliance, we should be able at least to start working with them to get them to share information.
I am not sure that we should use the term “UK-owned” as I am not sure that our friends in Jersey or Guernsey would appreciate that kind of description, although perhaps it is true in respect of the Crown. The hon. Lady is right that we should set an example of leadership, however, and try to ensure that the territories over which we have some influence have rules that comply with global standards. We heard some encouraging noises from the UK’s overseas territories when they agreed some issues with the Prime Minister before the G8 summit. Quite a few have taken pretty good steps in the direction of transparency by signing information exchange agreements, so we should not impugn them all with the same accusations, as some are clearly more a matter of concern than others.
Let me return to the proposal to require the publication of corporation tax returns. The requirements applying to UK company accounts include a requirement to publish a tax note that reconciles accounting profit with the tax charge and lists the key factors involved. It was intended to provide a summary of the tax return in some respects. If the tax charge is materially different from, say, 24% of the accounting profit, the reasons should be set out so that the user of the accounts can understand what is happening.
I have probably read more sets of accounts than most Members of Parliament. I am not sure that the tax note takes the user any further, because it is so brief, because there are so many ways of merging entries, and because of the impact of deferred tax. The note was designed to deal with the absence of complete transparency in regard to corporate tax affairs, but I think we could achieve that much more effectively by requiring the publication of actual tax returns. That would not reveal too many commercially sensitive data; indeed, I think that far more information is required in a set of statutory accounts than would ever be required in a corporation tax return.
We would probably not be acting unilaterally, given the disclosures that are required by many other stock exchanges around the world. The disclosures required by, for example, the Securities and Exchange Commission for its listed corporations are well in excess of those required in the UK. I do not think that this simple step would put us out of line with the rest of the world. Given requirements to disclose the tax amounts, taxable profits, how they were arrived at, and the details of overseas transactions with related parties, including amounts and charges, I do not consider it particularly onerous for a company to be required to declare “We have paid royalties of £5 million to our US parent.” In fact, many sets of accounts include such declarations. There are measures that we could take as a UK regime that would not harm our standing in the world.
I think that if there is one action that will damage prospects for UK investment, it is allowing a series of large multinational investors to be dragged through the newspapers, hauled over the coals and accused of engaging in abusive tax practices, especially when they are innocent. We do not want a regime that allows information relating to selected people to be leaked. Let us enable that information to be clearly, generally and widely published so that everyone can see who is responsible for bad behaviour, rather than trying to attack those who are innocently taking advantage of reliefs that we have sensibly introduced.
Although I agree with the intention behind most of new clause 12, I do not think that it will work. I have proposed a way of ensuring that the information we need is in the public domain year after year without imposing an unacceptable burden on UK corporate taxpayers. Perhaps the Opposition will back that proposal, which I shall continue to advance whenever we debate an issue that we have probably already debated half a dozen times this year.
It is always a pleasure to follow Nigel Mills. I trust that Opposition Front Benchers were taking detailed notes, because the hon. Gentleman speaks common sense. It is no surprise that Ministers repeatedly ignore that common sense.
Like the hon. Gentleman, I am not volunteering to sit annually on the Finance Bill Committee. I was sadly not afforded the honour of participating this year, but the opportunity to participate in a debate on the Floor of the House could not be missed. I shall confine myself to expressing avid support for the excellent new clause 12 rather than straying into matters that would be better dealt with in the Backbench Business Committee’s debate on Thursday, in which I urge all Members to take part. I want to allow some of the adjuncts of matters raised in this debate—not least the issues of the role of Companies House, company structure and formation, and company records—to be discussed in appropriate detail, so that future Governments can be informed of what they should do, and the current coalition can be informed of what it has failed to do.
We know why the rhetoric from Government Front Benchers is as it is. They all now wish to become a bunch of pasty eaters and to be recognised in society and by the electorate for the way in which they are battling for the little man against the big multinationals. However, when it comes to the detail, the natural instincts of those on the Conservative Treasury Bench overwhelm the common sense of people such as the hon. Member for Amber Valley and other Back Benchers, who have pragmatic, practical, positive ideas that could be considered immediately. Some could be put into action.
What those Ministers fall back on is the perceived vested interest of the multinational. We have a charade, led by the Prime Minister and his sidekick the Chancellor —the Liberals are counted out of this; they are not important enough when it comes to economic matters—where the Government try to portray themselves as wishing to grab additional taxation. They have put up taxation such as VAT on the motorist, the consumer and the rest of society, so Conservative Front Benchers are a bunch of tax grabbers. Through the minimal changes that they are proposing and through the Prime Minister’s proposals to the G8, they wish to portray themselves as being the ones who are going to roll back against the multinationals.
My hon. Friend is, as ever, making a powerful case. We see the mismatch between the rhetoric and the action of the Government on other issues such as climate change; they claim to be the greenest Government ever, yet they do not implement measures such as the decarbonisation targets. Is he aware that, after the Prime Minister spoke at the G8 saying that he would tackle the tax issue, the Finance Bill
Committee refused to consider amendments on the issue? Enough Food IF said:
“It seems like Treasury ministers haven’t got the memo. The government is saying one thing while doing another.”
Is that not exactly what is happening?
I do so wish I had been offered the chance to sit on the Finance Bill Committee in order, day after day, to be able to get into the details and hold the Government more to account, although sadly next year ends with a 4 and I am unable in any year that ends with a 4 to sit on a Finance Bill Committee.
Following the G8 summit, the Prime Minister said that the provisions of the summit would raise about £1 billion for the Exchequer, which leaves about £29 billion unaccounted for, according to HMRC. Has the hon. Gentleman’s Front-Bench team informed him how much new clause 12 would raise for the Exchequer?
I thought I would take this opportunity to say that we have thoroughly missed my hon. Friend on the Finance Bill Committee this year. In response to the intervention by Jonathan Edwards, I point out that the new clause asks for a review of how these aims can be achieved. The cost of HMRC undertaking the review would be the issue to consider.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. In this matter, as in many matters, my approach is to beef up my own Front Bench, as well as expose the fallacies, weakness and hypocrisy of the Conservative Front Bench and the absence of anything from the Liberal Front Bench. Therefore, the stronger the Opposition Front Bench is in the practical detail, and in saying to the British public that it is unfair and unjust that these large companies pay so little tax that a company such as Starbucks pays less than a café in the centre of Worksop, the better. How can that in any way be just?
This is not just about justice, however. Those of us on the Opposition Benches must articulate the fact that this is about economic efficiency. Let us consider the small entrepreneur or the new company, the company looking to grow, or the company that has reached its place in society, such as a small family café that is providing an excellent service to the community and that pays its taxes and is being undercut by multinationals. How can they compete with large multinationals avoiding their taxes?
This is about far more than injustice; it is about economic efficiency, and the competitiveness of this country in world markets. We need to be using that language to this Government. It was as if the Treasury spokesman feared there was a by-election in the offing when he was asked from the Opposition Front Bench whether he read The Guardian on a Friday. If he were to read the Worksop Guardianhis apoplexy would be even greater, but he would be informed of practical suggestions as to how to make his policies even more robust, and
I recommend it to those on my own Front Bench, too. They will find practical proposals on how to deal with these issues, warmly welcomed by the people of Bassetlaw who see economic inefficiency and a lack of competition in the markets. These small businesses and these innovators and entrepreneurs are in the vanguard of demanding Government action, rather than this excuse for action that is put forward in new clause 4.
I should start by saying that I have been remiss in respect of reading the Worksop Guardian, but I will wager that it is full of comments from people who are concerned about value for money in our taxation system and those who are desperately concerned about the impact of cuts on local services. Those cuts have been driven by the fact that we do not get the tax-take in this country that we seek. This new clause and new clause 12 seek to help the Government to be better at collecting tax. Does my hon. Friend think that that would go down well with the readers of the Worksop Guardian?
I think the readers of the Worksop Guardian will hear my hon. Friend’s comments. Those such as your good self, Mr Speaker, who are expert at using the internet can read those pearls of wisdom without having to go all the way to Worksop or order a copy at this difficult time for the parliamentary budget. I recommend it to all.
Although I failed to be selected to serve on the Finance Bill Committee, I am prepared to volunteer for a new task, if it is not too late to do so. This relates directly to new clause 4 and the Minister’s speech, and I should make it abundantly clear that I am prepared to accept the task for no additional salary, directly or indirectly. It is to do with the advisory panel on the GAAR. If its members have not yet been selected, surely the Minister would love the opportunity to select an Opposition Member who is prepared to ask some questions that the public would perhaps want asked? I would be prepared to sit on this body without additional remuneration, should the Minister, the Government and the House wish that to happen. The Minister is not intervening, so perhaps I will have to put in a written application as well.
The question of the overseas territories is very important. Hansard will record precisely what the Minister said some minutes ago, but I shall paraphrase his comments as I did not have the opportunity to take down his exact words verbatim. In essence he said that we are the leaders in the world in dealing with tax avoiders, we are showing the way, and we are going to ensure that this all happens, yet we should not do more than anybody else. But the UK Crown dependencies and overseas territories are not German, French or American, and they rely on the British armed services to protect them in times of crisis or against the threat of invasion or assault. They rely on the British legal system and on the British royal family as part of their very essence, as democracies. Therefore, our relationship with these territories is a symbiotic one, in which we should expect absolute transparency in all matters relating to taxation and to companies and individuals from here.
The banks are the worst examples of complex structures that they themselves do not understand. They allow money laundering from Mexican gangsters—the worst kind—as proven by many successful US court proceedings. Big banks at the top are happy to tell us that they do not understand their own structures because they are so complex, but the structures are established in order to maximise profit—in other words, to minimise taxation—in territories that rely on our armed services, on our legal system and our democracy to underpin and oversee them. That is a cost to us that we rightly bear, yet corporates and individuals can hide things behind the opaqueness of structures there, so that these days my constituents cannot even discover who owns their own football club and what moneys are there. This applies to even the most simple of examples, never mind the biggest and most complex of banks, financial institutions and other multinationals.
I wish to give one example. The Cayman Islands have a population of about 57,000, yet 92,000 companies are based there and it is estimated by the Bank for International Settlements that $1.4 trillion of bank assets and liabilities are there. My hon. Friend has raised an important question: how on earth can a country that is so small govern what Professor Jeffrey Sachs describes as a financial “time bomb” in its own territory?
Somebody is making money, because my own football club would appear to have been part-based in the Cayman Islands, in a structure that then took it into the British Virgin Islands and into Monaco and who knows where else. There are intricate webs criss-crossing these so-called “tax-efficient countries”—these tax havens for tax dodgers, corporate and individual. This Bill follows the biggest financial crisis since the 1930s, with working people losing real income year by year, unemployment rising, a worldwide recession, and people less well-off than they were five years ago. The Bill, however, contains no constructive, detailed, productive proposals on how we are going to deal with these territories. We spend taxpayers’ money providing the armed services to guarantee them and then we turn around and claim that we are the world leaders. I say poppycock to us being the world leaders. This is an excuse of a policy. This is an excuse of an attempt in a Finance Bill. This is an embarrassment to the coalition partners, who would love, if they could come up with some ideas, a robustness to put behind it.
The big dividing point in British politics at the moment is this unwillingness to deal with the tax dodgers. These little clauses—new clause 4 and new clause 12—in their own small way encompass the problem in front of us and in front of the British people.
I felt that the hon. Gentleman might need to refuel a little, as he was running out of breath. I am curious—given that many of the unions and pension funds invest in funds that invest in offshore places such as the Cayman Islands, making a lot of money for ex-union members and pensioners, will he suggest that the Labour party recommends that those unions and pension funds no longer use fund managers who invest in those offshore entities?
Order. I have known John Mann for 27 years and I can think of a long list of adjectives that could, in various scenarios, be applied to him, but breathless is not one of them.
But on this occasion, Mr Speaker—one scratches one’s head at some interventions, which are so inaccurate, so irrelevant and so unconnected to the clause. I will not rise to the bait, Mr Speaker, and risk your ire by explaining to Mr Newmark exactly how the unions invest their money, interesting though that subject would be. I fear your wrath, Mr Speaker, if I did so. Instead, I shall return to the key core theme of the clauses, which is morality—
The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. In his shy, retiring and meek way he is making some interesting points. I sometimes wish he would come out of his shell a bit more and tell us what he actually thinks. He weakens his case, does he not, when he tries to say that this is a party political matter? Last week, my hon. Friend Charlie Elphicke highlighted how little money water companies and utilities were paying in tax in this country. My hon. Friend Stephen McPartland has a website with a record of what corporate taxes are being paid by major corporates in this country. I am a member of the Public Accounts Committee, and across the parties on the Committee there has been a big push in this area. Is it not better for us to work together to try to sort it out?
I thank Chris Heaton-Harris—the fruit and veg man, a successful small business man—and I commend him. He is another on the Tory Back Benches like the hon. Member for Amber Valley, whom I specifically itemised in precise praise, as I did in last year’s Bill Committee, encouraging him to press to a vote his sensible and modest proposals to simplify the tax system. He would have had my support in that. In this House, there are times when we need to work across the parties to deal with an incompetent Treasury Front Bench. I would welcome further discussions beyond this Chamber with the hon. Gentlemen and others on the Conservative Benches about how best those of us who fully understand—be it a café in Worksop, or the fruit and veg man in Daventry or the accountant in Amber Valley—the economic inefficiency of this Prime Minister, this Chancellor and this immoral Treasury Front Bench’s failure to deal with tax dodgers, tax avoiders, corporate structures and the opaqueness of the overseas territories.
As a country, through this Government, we are unwilling to give the international lead that our position in providing defence and other support to the Cayman Islands and many others requires. That economic efficiency, that justice and that morality would liberate good British companies who are prepared to do the decent thing and to pay modest, small amounts of taxation rather than avoiding their appropriate duty to do so. That is what competition in the market is about and what those of us on the Opposition Benches are about. It is also what some—I am happy to give them plaudits—on the Conservative and Liberal Back Benches are about, but it is absent from the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and Treasury Front-Benchers, who are devoid of it. They do not get the real world, have not come from it and will never understand it. They do not get what the public and small businesses are saying. I would suggest that they do not really care about that, because they are interested in their paymasters and in ensuring that the status quo remains. They are failing to challenge vested interests.
I am sorry to stop my hon. Friend mid-flow because he is making a powerful case not only for the readership of the Worksop Guardian, but for being on a Bill Committee with him, especially when it comes to finance measures. That would clearly be a unique experience. Does he agree that new clause 12 would be beneficial because it offers an opportunity to gather the evidence on the tax take that would show whether the Prime Minister’s warm words about tackling tax avoidance were being put into practice? I agree with Chris Heaton-Harris, who talked about Members on both sides of the House being interested in the matter, but one thing we all need is the information. The new clause offers precisely that opportunity.
The new clause is so modest and so moderate. How could any reasonable and rational Member of the House possibly not vote for it? I would go much further and give more robustness, including a great wealth of powers to ensure that those overseas territories and Crown dependencies were forced to give economic efficiency, justice and morality in return for the defence and everything else that they get from this country, but I recognise that one needs a majority in the House to do such things. Therefore, I appeal to those decent, sensible, smiling Back Benchers to join us in an historic vote tonight—vote with the Opposition.
I understand the real passion that the hon. Gentleman brings to the debate, as he often does, but I have some concerns. It is great to see a politician put his body on the line, wanting to ensure that he serves on the GAAR board, but is this now a bid for him better to represent the British overseas territories in Parliament as well? Has he consulted the residents of Retford and of Worksop to check whether they can spare him, given all the hard work that he is doing in the constituency?
I fear that due to our expedition next year with injured British soldiers, which I expect to take place via the parliamentary mountaineering group, I will perhaps be too busy to make a big commitment of time other than to that great cause, which the hon. Gentleman and I hope to push forward with other mountaineers and injured servicemen.
The hon. Gentleman gives us a timely reminder of priorities. I give that reminder to those on the Treasury Bench. This is about priorities: their priorities in government, which are the wrong priorities, the failed priorities, letting down the small businesses and the honest taxpayers of Britain. That is who they are letting down tonight and who they have been letting down for three years. Here is a modest opportunity for those who wish to save their seats: join the Opposition, do the right thing—the modest, the moderate thing—and support new clause 12.
It is a real pleasure to follow the two previous speakers. Nigel Mills, who is just trying to escape the Chamber, gave a particularly thoughtful speech, understandably, given his background in taxation. My hon. Friend John Mann gave a rabble-rousing speech. By the end of it, I was absolutely gutted that he did not make it on to the Bill Committee. I am sure that Government Members do not share my sorrow. I fully expect him at least to ask the readers of the Worksop Guardian whether he should be on the GAAR board—a proposition put forward by David Rutley.
Turning to new clause 12, I want to talk about my visit to Gala Bingo in Plymouth last week, at which I met the chief executive officer of the Bingo Association, Miles Baron. As hon. Members would expect, those present wanted to talk about tax—mainly VAT—and the lack of a level playing field, but we moved beyond the debate that we had on that in Committee, and they talked to me about the competition in gambling and bingo from offshore, tax-avoiding, multinational companies. Gala highlighted that it pays tax in the UK, but it feels that it loses out when it comes to VAT levels, and loses out significantly to offshore multinationals, which use innovative means to avoid paying tax in the UK. It feels that it is a smaller company trying to do the right thing.
Gala is not alone, as my hon. Friend Catherine McKinnell made clear. If new clause 12 is taken forward, there could be a win-win situation for a number of companies in Britain and internationally, including in many third-world countries. British taxpayers are gambling away not only their income but our country’s tax revenues by using online offshore companies. If the UK is losing out, so too are many other countries; gambling is an international pastime, whether we like it or not.
Customers made clear their anger at corporation tax avoidance by Starbucks; I hope that they will continue to be discerning in a range of other fields, including gambling. To do that, they need a little more information about exactly who is doing the avoiding, and where and how avoidance happens. That is why new clause 12 is so important. The plea from my Front-Bench team for greater transparency is really welcome, because it empowers consumers.
At a time when we hear Members of the House, charities such as Christian Aid, non-governmental organisations involved in the third world as well as the general public express clearly the need to trade ethically, the need for more transparency, the need not to disadvantage developing and third-world countries, and the need for tax to be paid in the UK, we must ask whether the general anti-abuse rule in the Bill goes far enough. Does it have teeth? The Minister made all sorts of excuses and gave all sorts of reasons for not going any further, but he really needs to address the very sensible series of questions put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North on the GAAR’s lack of scope, and its failure to tackle the tax avoidance activity of multinationals.
The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw made about clarity of company ownership is one that virtually every MP in this House will have some sympathy with, because on a constituency level, we will have tried to track down directors of companies, and to get background information on companies, to solve relatively minor problems. Here, we are trying to ascertain exactly where they pay their tax.
To come back to bingo, a lot of people disapprove of gambling, but it is just one small part of the tax avoidance picture. It is the part of the issue that I have highlighted, simply because it is fresh in my mind following my visit. People may disapprove of gambling, but they probably disapprove more of tax avoidance. We have heard many examples of the type of companies that have been using the rules to avoid paying tax in the UK. It is worth repeating that the estimate for the tax that could be recouped by the GAAR is about £85 million, and that the current tax gap between the money that HMRC estimates could be collected and the actual amount collected is £4.5 billion. That is a significant difference.
I note that the Minister said that the GARR was not a panacea. In fact, it is barely a sticking plaster. Although first aid is always welcome, the problem probably needs more major surgery, in the form of a strong commitment from the UK Government and the wider international community. Developing countries lose an estimated £160 billion per annum through tax dodging by multinational companies. That is much more than they receive in aid. Poor countries struggle to access the information that they need to counteract tax avoidance by foreign nationals and multinational companies. Our own tax rules need to make it easier for developing countries to identify and share vital information in order to avoid those losses. If an expert on the tax regime in a particular country were required, for example, that would be an appropriate course of action to take.
Is my hon. Friend surprised, as I am, that there is not more support for this proposal from some of those Members on the Government Benches who are less committed to the aid budget. After all, if we could tackle this problem—
Order. I say to Mr Liddell-Grainger: be quiet, and if you cannot be quiet, get out. You are adding nothing, and you are subtracting a lot. It is rude, it is stupid, it is pompous and it needs to stop—whoever it was.
Indeed, but that is a whole separate debate. My hon. Friend makes a serious, sensible point.
In this recession, we really cannot afford to allow those billions to disappear. Nor should we allow those developing countries to lose out so substantially. We need to work closely with other Governments to bring consistency into the process and, in doing so, ensure that doing the right thing in taxation terms is given value. We need transparency so that the public can take more informed decisions about the products they buy and from whom they buy them. I hope that those Members on the Government Benches who have been toying with the idea of supporting new clause 12 will see the sense in getting justice into the taxation system, and that they will support the new clause.
We have had a thorough debate. I do not intend to reprise all my earlier arguments, but I want to pick up some of the points that hon. Members have raised. The issue of the yield for the loss-buying rule was raised by Catherine McKinnell. It is around £200 million a year, but there is a more precise breakdown available in the tax information and impact note.
Several hon. Members have mentioned the general anti-abuse rule—the GAAR—which is expected to raise around £235 million over the next five years. It will also protect revenue that would otherwise be lost. We believe that it will change the avoidance landscape as its impact starts to be recognised. It will act as a deterrent to those tempted to engage in abusive avoidance schemes, and where those schemes persist, the GAAR will give HMRC the means to tackle them and to secure payment of the right amount of tax.
We have accepted the proposal from Graham Aaronson that a narrowly targeted GAAR is the right approach to tackling the persistent problem of abusive avoidance schemes. This has to be viewed in the context of the fact that the previous Government did not bring in a general anti-abuse rule. We believe that a broader rule would be likely to generate considerable uncertainty, which could lessen the attractiveness of the UK as a place to do business, and generate significant cost for HMRC. We are not complacent, however, and we will continue vigorously to tackle all forms of tax avoidance. Indeed, the Bill will close 10 loopholes, and the Budget announced further reviews of tax law that is being exploited for avoidance.
Simply because a scheme is not caught by the GAAR will not mean that it is okay. The GAAR will not set the boundary for tax avoidance. It deliberately targets abusive avoidance schemes, but HMRC will continue to tackle all forms of tax avoidance using the full range of tools available. As for the argument that we will not need targeted anti-avoidance rules in future, we believe that it would be reckless to remove a central protection against avoidance without being fully confident that doing so would not create risks. Although we expect the proposed GAAR to be effective in tackling and deterring abusive tax avoidance schemes, it might take time for those who engage in persistent avoidance to accept that their schemes do not work, so there will still be a need to retain existing anti-avoidance provisions and amend other legislation that provides unintended tax planning opportunities that are not within the scope of the GAAR.
With regard to a review, as advocated by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North, it will take some time to make a proper assessment of the GAAR. It is a new and unfamiliar addition to UK tax legislation and will need a bedding-in period to allow taxpayers and advisers to get to grips with it. We have not ruled out future action to strengthen the deterrent impact of the GAAR by attaching penalties if necessary, and we will keep the matter under review. I cannot set a definitive time frame, as we shall need to monitor carefully what happens, but I am encouraged that there is increasing evidence that these abusive schemes are declining as the GAAR comes nearer into prospect. If the GAAR continues to deter such schemes, we might have to wait a little longer to review it, as my hon. Friend Nigel Mills pointed out.
Let me turn to the advisory panel and its role and personnel. It is important that panel members have the necessary experience and expertise to carry out this important task, which means that people with a tax background must be involved. I have been struck by the broad agreement across tax advisers and business that the sorts of abusive schemes the GAAR targets must be dealt with, and I have every confidence that the advisory panel will undertake its role fairly and effectively. It is worth pointing out that the interim panel had a broad range of interests and expertise from within the tax world.
With regard to the panel’s membership, a public advert was placed and there was a very encouraging response, with 60 people applying. I do not know whether John Mann was among them, but I am sure that his application, if he submitted one, would have been viewed with as much sympathy as his application to sit on the Finance Bill Committee was viewed by the Opposition Whips Office. I understand that the process in relation to the advisory panel is well advanced and that the chairman will be making his recommendations shortly. I understand that applicants came from a wide range of professional and business backgrounds, but I am not party to the details.
Finally, with regard to beneficial ownership and whether the list should be made publicly available, the Government acknowledge that there are potential benefits to making information on who owns and controls companies available to the public. There are also legitimate concerns, so we will consult on whether the register should be publicly available. With those points of information and clarification, I hope that the new clauses and schedules that stand in my name can be part of the Bill and urge the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North not to press new clause 12.
Question put and agreed to.
New clause 4 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.