I am proud of the work the Government have done to make our tax system internationally competitive, but also to make sure that those taxes are paid. Time and again, we have taken the lead, domestically and internationally, when it comes to getting international companies to pay their fair share of tax. This is the Government who, working through the G20 and OECD, led on the base erosion and profit shifting project—BEPS—making the international tax rules fit for the 21st century. This is the Government who introduced a diverted profits tax to address the contrived movement of profit out of the country, so that profits from UK activities are taxed in the UK. And this is the Government who have invested heavily in HMRC to strengthen its compliance activity, which has allowed HMRC to secure around £100 billion in additional compliance yield over the last Parliament, including more than £38 billion from big businesses.
We have competitive taxes—that is why we have cut our rate of corporation tax so that it is the lowest in the G7—but we are also making sure those taxes are paid, reforming the international tax rules, introducing a diverted profits tax and investing in HMRC’s capacity. That is action taken by this Government that was sadly lacking in 13 years of Labour rule.
The statement made by Google at the end of last week is solid evidence that companies are changing their models and reviewing their structures because we have strengthened the rules. The statement comes at the conclusion of a lengthy inquiry by HMRC. The tax that individuals and companies pay is collected by HMRC enforcing the law, not politicians who are, rightly, not engaged in or informed of particular cases. I am therefore unable to go into the details of the inquiry’s conclusion beyond those made public at the end of last week. I would point out, however, that the National Audit Office examined the HMRC settlement process in 2012 and examined specific settlements. In all cases, the NAO concluded that HMRC obtained a reasonable settlement for the Exchequer. It also made recommendations on the process by which HMRC should operate when reaching a settlement—recommendations that have been implemented.
It might be helpful to the House if I reiterate what the law is and how the corporation tax rate works, both in the United Kingdom and around the world. The first thing to note is that corporation tax is charged on profits, not on turnover. Equally important, corporation tax is not calculated on the basis of profits attributed to sales in the United Kingdom, but to economic activity and assets located in the United Kingdom. To illustrate my point, imagine a UK company—a car manufacturer, for instance—manufactures its vehicles in the United Kingdom, but half its profits come from sales in the United States. The law as it stands in the UK, as elsewhere, would mean that those profits would be taxed in the United Kingdom, the place of activity, and not the United States, the place of sales.
Ever since 2010, we have been engaged in reforming the tax system both domestically and internationally. Government action is levelling the playing field among businesses, giving worldwide tax authorities more effective tools to tackle aggressive tax planning and helping us to better align the location of taxable profits with the location of economic activity. We are incentivising businesses to do the right thing and come to the table early. Last week’s announcement represents an important result of those actions. I can assure hon. Members that we will continue to tackle the tax risks posed by multinational companies over the coming years, giving the Exchequer more money to fund the public services we all rely on.
I thank the Minister for his statement. However, many will feel it is a display of disrespect to this House that the Chancellor of the Exchequer confirmed the deal with a tweet over the weekend, but has refused to come here today personally to make a statement.
I pay tribute to the former and current Chairs of the Public Accounts Committee, my right hon. Friend Dame Margaret Hodge and my hon. Friend Meg Hillier, as well as all the campaigners for tax justice who have forced this issue on to the agenda. The Chancellor has managed to create an unlikely alliance between myself, the Sun newspaper, the Mayor of London and, according to reports, even No. 10 this morning. All of us think this deal is not the “major success” the Chancellor claimed at the weekend.
The statement offered today has left a number of questions unanswered, which I turn to now. Does the Minister not agree that it is important in our tax system that everybody is treated equally and fairly, whether they be large multibillion-pound corporations or small businesses? In that respect, independent experts have suggested that the effective tax rate faced by Google is now about 3%, despite estimated profits of £1 billion in 2014 alone. Will the Minister confirm whether this is the effective tax rate faced by Google over the past 10 years? In the interests of openness and transparency, will he now publish details of the deal and how it was reached? Will the Minister confirm that Google is not changing the company structures that enabled this avoidance to take place over the past decade? Are the Government not concerned that the agreement creates a precedent for future deals with large technology corporations, such as Facebook and Amazon? Will the Minister assure us that this deal does not undermine international co-operation on tax avoidance, such as the OECD base erosion and profit shifting scheme that the Chancellor once supported?
I also ask the Minister, once more, to halt the programme of HMRC staffing cuts, which is undermining morale and removing the very staff with the collective experience and expertise in collecting these taxes. Finally, will he address a confusion that seems to have arisen? Does he agree with the Chancellor, who thinks the deal was a major success; with the Prime Minister’s Office, which said this morning it was only a step forward; or with the Mayor of London, who described it as derisory?
I welcome the progress the Government have made over the past six years in ensuring that large companies pay more tax. At a time when we have been cutting the rate of corporation tax, corporation tax receipts, excluding North sea oil, have remained buoyant, partly because we have been more effective than ever at collecting tax from large companies. HMRC’s operational capability in this area has been strengthened—by the way, HMRC staff numbers are going up, not down, this year.
The shadow Chancellor mentioned the 3% figure. That is the very reason I drew attention to how corporation tax is worked out. It is worked out on the basis not of sales profits in a country, but of the economic activity and assets held in a country, and there would be severe dangers to moving in the direction of basing it on sales profits. He is right that every taxpayer should be treated fairly and has to pay the rate determined by the law; there is no lower, special rate for Google or any other taxpayer in this country.
We are collecting more tax, which is evidence of the steps we have taken, in both the BEPS process and the diverted profits tax, forcing companies to change their behaviour. That should be welcomed around the House. The real threat to collecting tax revenue from big businesses would be the anti-business policies of the Labour party.
Last week, the Treasury Select Committee agreed the terms of reference for an inquiry into, among other things, problems with the corporate tax base. Does the Minister agree that Google might be a symptom but is probably not the cause of these problems; that those lie with the immense complexity of the tax system, which is rendered more problematic by the globalisation of tax liability; and that therefore fundamental reform of the corporate tax base probably now needs to be considered?
My right hon. Friend raises an important point. Our international tax system is based largely on that set up in the 1920s, but the world has moved on and the way multinational companies operate has changed significantly. That is why, some years ago, led by my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, we encouraged the OECD to establish the BEPS project. We are now seeing the first signs that that is working—that companies are changing their behaviour and the tax system is becoming better suited to the modern world.
First, the diverted profits tax, set at 25%, came into effect last April. May we have the Minister’s assurance that the Google deal does not cover any of the period when diverted profits tax should have applied? Secondly, the rules on disclosed evasion are clear: tax should be paid at 100%, plus interest, plus a 30% penalty. May we have his assurance that that was rightly not applied in this case? Finally, given the difficulty the Netherlands got into with the Starbucks deal and Luxembourg got into with the Fiat deal, when the Commission insisted they recoup between €20 million and €30 million extra, should the Google deal not be put to Commissioner Vestager to ensure that it complies with state aid rules?
The United Kingdom does not engage in special deals with any taxpayer. When accusations to that effect were made before, Sir Andrew Park, a retired High Court judge, investigated them on behalf of the National Audit Office and concluded that in every case he had investigated the settlement was reasonable and the overall effect of the arrangements was good. For the very reasons I set out, I cannot comment on the individual matter beyond what is in the public domain. I do believe that there is an important principle here—that tax should be collected on the basis of the law, and that a Department that is independent from Ministers should be able to make the assessment of the right level of tax due under the law without politicians interfering in operational matters. I hope that that has the support of Members of all parties.
Will my hon. Friend assure me that some investigation will be made into how HMRC managed to allow this to go on for such a long period of time? Given that this started under the last Government and it has taken this Government to tackle the issue and bring it to book, will my hon. Friend help me to understand what lessons should be learned?
The information is in the public domain that HMRC launched an inquiry into the tax affairs of Google in 2009. This is a complex matter, but I am pleased that that inquiry has reached a conclusion. It would be fair to say that the progress made on bringing in a diverted profits tax and the reforms involved in the base erosion and profit shifting project appear to represent a shift in the behaviour of a number of companies, which is to be welcomed.
I am sure that my other colleagues on the Public Accounts Committee will be looking forward to hearing from Google and HMRC about this deal. The inquiry into the tax situation that many of these companies seem to be applying to what they should pay in a fair way to the UK public purse was started under Labour, and yes, it continued over the last five years, but last year, in the Budget before the general election, the Chancellor said that he would not tolerate this behaviour, declaring:
“Let the message go out”—[Hansard, 18 March 2015; Vol. 594, c. 772.]
and claiming that there would be an end to this sort of play. Given the £24 billion-worth of UK revenues over this period, experts have said that Google should have paid taxes of almost £2 billion, so does £130 million really meet the test of no tolerance?
I want to address this point and engage seriously with Members on the calculations that we have seen in the press, suggesting some of these very large numbers. As far as I can see, those calculations are based on looking at the profits attributed to the sales in the United Kingdom, and there is a very important distinction between profits attributed to sales versus profits attributed to economic activity and assets. The UK is a country that is very creative. We have a very strong scientific base. As a country, much economic activity goes on here that is involved in then exporting goods and services, and the profits from those exports should, I believe, be taxed in the UK where the economic activity occurs, not in the countries where the sales may occur. If we accept that principle, it does, I have to say, rather discredit the claims of a 3% tax rate.
Although we fully appreciate in the House that the international rules are ferociously complex and that there can sometimes be variations in how they can be interpreted, will my hon. Friend please assure the House one way or the other whether Google has actually broken any laws that were in place between 2005 and 2011—or is this just an outcome of negotiations?
Again, I cannot comment on that—in large part because I am not privy to information that is not in the public domain—but I can say that an inquiry has been in place for some years and that it has now reached a conclusion. The consequence of the conclusion of that inquiry is, as Google has stated, that an additional £130 million is being paid to the Exchequer. Google has also made it clear that it has made changes in how it structures some of its arrangements, and that will obviously have an implication for future tax liabilities.
Why, on the one hand, should Italy put in a claim for £1 billion from Google while Britain, on the other hand, is prepared to settle for a paltry £130 million? It is not very good for Cameron, is it?
No one should underestimate the complex nature of trying to tax globally active corporations such as this. It is speculation to talk in terms of the numbers that have been bandied around. However, in view of the Government’s desire to get an international arrangement in place, can the Minister tell us today whether he believes this deal sets some sort of precedent, or is it just a one-off arrangement?
The important point to note is that the individual tax affairs depend on the application of the facts in the case; as I have mentioned a number of times, it depends on the economic activity and assets that are held in the UK, or indeed other jurisdictions. But I do think this signifies that companies are looking at their tax arrangements and there is a closer alignment between tax and economic activity, which I certainly welcome. That is what the BEPS—base erosion and profit shifting—process is designed to achieve, and that is what the UK Government have been advocating for some years now, and I believe we are making progress on that.
The reality is that the practice of companies organising their business over multiple jurisdictions to minimise their tax liability is not new, and even if the diverted profits tax were to apply it would barely make a dent on Google’s real tax liability. Given that this week all our constituents and small businesses will be filing their tax returns and do not have the luxury of negotiating their own sweetheart deals, what message does the Chancellor think he is sending to those individuals and businesses by saying this paltry sum of money from Google can possibly be considered, as he says, a major success? Does this now show how complacent Ministers are?
All businesses have to pay tax under the law. It is under this Government that we have seen the diverted profits tax brought in, and it is under this Government that we are seeing the BEPS process change the behaviour of companies. We did not see any of this from the last Labour Government, and all we end up with is unsubstantiated claims about sweetheart deals, insulting HMRC staff, who have worked for years to ensure that Google and other companies pay the tax due under the law.
Does the Minister agree that in the mad world of corporation tax on international companies this sum of money is at once derisory, substantial, lawful and completely unacceptable to the public, and will he therefore also agree that it is time for a complete overhaul of the corporate tax system?
The point I would make is that this is a highly complex area, but there is a need for international co-operation in it, which is why we instigated the OECD looking at this as part of the BEPS process. That process has come forward with a number of recommendations. We have already legislated for two of those recommendations. There is a third that we are specifically looking at and consulting upon in terms of interest deductibility. It is right that we bring the international tax system up to date to reflect the way multinational companies are working. This has been left for too long; we are taking action.
Does the Minister recognise that people’s anger is very legitimate and even more justifiable given that Google is effectively freeriding on publicly funded infrastructure, not least the £1.2 billion the Government have invested in superfast broadband, and may I urge him again to make sure these calculations are put in the public domain so people can see how the figures are arrived at?
We will see if the National Audit Office wishes to look at this particular area, but again I point to the fact that previously when people have made allegations about particular arrangements, it has turned out on closer inspection that that has not turned out to be true.
As the former Labour Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liam Byrne, left that well-known note stating, “I am afraid there is no money,” does my hon. Friend agree that this is evidence that not only did the former Labour Government spend too much of our money, but they did not collect appropriate taxes?
The problem is that the Conservatives have form when it comes to arranging mates’ rates for taxation. They gave a massive tax cut to big City banks, particularly in relation to profits brought in from abroad. They also gave a massive tax cut to hedge funds, £25 million of which arrived in the Conservative party’s coffers last year, and now we have this deal. City banks, hedge funds and globalised corporations—the three bodies the modern Conservative party exists to serve. So let me ask the Minister: why should my constituents in Chester, who work hard and play by the rules, subsidise these big globalised corporations?
The fact is that in the last Parliament we increased taxes on banks and on hedge funds. The hon. Gentleman’s constituents should be asking why their Member of Parliament could not ask a better question.
Order. This is very unseemly. Let us hear these important exchanges. People beyond this place might be taking an interest in them, and I think that they would like a decorous atmosphere. Let us hear what Mr Philp has to say.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Is the Financial Secretary to the Treasury familiar with the report from the Oxford University Centre for Business Taxation that was published a short time ago? It itemised 42 anti-tax-avoidance measures that the coalition Government put in place, including the general anti-avoidance provisions, the banking code of conduct and the diverted profit tax, which will raise an additional £34 billion between 2011 and 2020.
I and many other Members on this side of the House have seen representatives of small businesses queueing up at our surgeries to complain about the sweetheart deals that big businesses seem to be able to get while they themselves cannot get assistance from HMRC. I wrote to the Minister to ask him to meet me to talk about small businesses, but sadly he said no. May I take this opportunity to ask him again? Please will he meet me to talk about the impact of tax on small businesses in Wirral?
My hon. Friend has set out a laudable objective. We have to recognise that the nature of international businesses is often inherently complicated, but we also have to ensure that our legal system and our tax laws are brought up to date to reflect the way in which businesses work in the 21st century.
If any of the thousands of wonderful small businesses in this country failed to pay their taxes for 11 years, they would not be sitting negotiating with HMRC; they would be sitting down with the police. Can the Minister therefore understand the anger of small businesses and taxpayers when a quarter of calls to HMRC are not even answered? Will some of this money go into sorting that out?
First, on customer service, the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. Taxpayers are understandably exasperated when customer service is not good enough, although I am pleased to say that at the moment the service is performing better than in any January in recent years. I stress to the hon. Gentleman and the House as a whole that it is very important that we have one tax system and fairness applied to every taxpayer. We must also recognise, however, in relation to some of the accusations, that some of the calculations that are used do not reflect the reality for particular companies. It is absolutely right that HMRC pursues all companies, even over many years, to make sure that the right amount of tax is paid.
As a journalist, I had the dubious privilege for a couple of years of breaking the story of how much tax Google had paid. With that in mind, I had to look at the international arrangements that Google also makes. Is the Minister aware of any country outside of America—other than Britain—that has a deal with Google that is as good as this one?
At a time when the Government expect small businesses to do tax returns four times a year, does the Minister not understand that many of those small businesses will be outraged that a firm such as Google can get off with paying no tax for 10 years and then finish up with a paltry bill that includes fines and interest? At the same time, we have a refusal by the Government to show how that sum was raised. Surely, to avoid the feeling of cynicism among many taxpayers, we should at least have some transparency about how the figure was reached.
We are determined to ensure that all businesses pay the tax that is due. May I specifically address the hon. Gentleman’s point about quarterly returns? There will be a Westminster Hall debate on that matter in 25 minutes, and the point that I shall make is that there is no requirement for quarterly returns. Businesses should keep their information digitally and send summaries of that information on a quarterly basis. That is very, very different from quarterly returns.
Several hon. Members rose—
When it is in the public domain that one technique used by Google, Facebook and others is the so-called double Irish arrangement, by which profits in the first instance leave the UK and go to Ireland, is there not more that we can do with our European partners to use state aid rules on countries such as Ireland and Luxembourg, which undermine our tax base in that way?
The Minister says that this deal does not amount to a 3% tax rate for Google, so for the sake of public confidence will he say what the actual tax rate is?
No—[Laughter.] That is because of taxpayer confidentiality. The point that I was trying to make was that the rate cannot be calculated by looking at profits from sales in the United Kingdom. The tax rate is currently 20%, and that applies to everybody, but the effective tax rate depends on the particular circumstances of any business.
Does the Minister agree that it is worth remembering that this matter has been outstanding not for one year or five years, but since the middle of the previous Labour Government, who failed to do anything about it? It is this Government who have taken effective action to collect these tax receipts. The Opposition should check their facts; perhaps they could google them.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. He is absolutely right that it is the action that we have been taking that has meant that companies are changing their behaviour and that we are getting in revenue.
The deadline for submission of self-assessment tax returns is in six days’ time, on
Let me return to this case. There has been a lengthy inquiry by HMRC into the affairs of Google. That inquiry has now come to an end and reached a conclusion. There is nothing to suggest that anything other than the proper enforcement of the law as it stands has led the way to this particular conclusion.
The Minister has said much about bringing our tax system up to date for the 21st century and about closing the tax gap, which I welcome. None the less, we have in our business rates system, a tax regime that is hopelessly out of date, and the cross-party Business, Innovation and Skills Committee called for fundamental reform of it under the previous Government. May I urge him to be as ambitious as possible in that reform so that we can close the gap between online businesses and the bricks and mortar businesses on our high streets?
As my hon. Friend will be aware, the Government are reviewing the business rates system, and will report shortly. As far as my right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Prime Minister are concerned—and as the Chancellor has made clear—we are looking to do that in a fiscally neutral way, and we have received many representations on that point.
Does the Minister not accept that this deal with Google, which most of us believe to involve a corporation tax rate of less than 3%, simply encourages tax avoidance by companies? If the issue was the amount of economic activity and assets held by Google in the UK, why are the Government not prepared to test that in the courts if necessary, and call its bluff?
HMRC has been conducting an inquiry in this specific case for a number of years, and has reached the conclusion that it is satisfied with the position that Google has reached. As for the additional payment, it is based on the facts that HMRC has seen, and on the detailed inquiry and exhaustive work that it has undertaken over many years, not numbers drawn up on the back of an envelope.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House share the public’s anger that Google has been able to get away with paying so little tax for so long, and many of them also share the feeling that this deal is unsatisfactory, but will the Minister confirm that the £130 million that the Government have extracted from Google is precisely £130 million more than the Labour Government ever got from it?
“O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us/ To see oursels as ithers see us!”
I agree with Sammy Wilson that this will be seen by many small businesses the length and breadth of the country as unfair and not understandable. Surely, part of the problem, as a number of Members have said, is the sheer complexity of the system. Will the Government commit themselves to addressing that matter?
We always look to try to find ways to simplify the tax system. I would make the point that if a company operates in many jurisdictions, its tax affairs are inherently more complex than if it existed in just one country, but the Government are determined to ensure that where the economic activity occurs in the United Kingdom, we tax it in the United Kingdom.
Everyone wants business to pay its fair share of tax, and most people will welcome the additional £130 million of tax revenue to fund important services, but many will wonder, given that the period of the settlement covers 2005 to 2011, what other multinational tax bills are out there that have still not been settled and what, if anything, the Labour party did in government to highlight those questions?
On the latter question, it may be the case that astronomers have located the ninth planet, but I am not sure that they have found any evidence of the Labour party doing very much on tax avoidance in government.
There has been a shift in public opinion in recent years, and the pressure on companies to pay the tax that is due under the law is greater than ever before. I welcome that, and I welcome that change in public opinion, but it is the measures taken by this Government that mean that we are getting additional sums from large companies, as has been demonstrated in the past couple of days.
Will the Minister rise above the political bickering for a moment and, with Opposition Front Benchers, look at the real problem? These massive global companies are extremely clever. With great respect to the people at HMRC, who work so hard, those companies can hire the best accountants, the best tax experts and the highest paid lawyers. However we change the law, they will find a way around it. In Europe and in this country, we have to look at this in a much more sophisticated way.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s comments, but he should not be quite so defeatist. If he looks at what happened over the previous Parliament, he will see that HMRC’s large business team brought in £38 billion in additional tax as a consequence of their intervention. The UK has a reputation as somewhere with competitive tax rates but where taxes do have to be paid. That is a reputation that we should all seek to maintain.
Although £130 million might seem low for a business as large as Google, is not the reality that the Revenue cannot do as much to collect back-taxes as we would like it to, because they come from a significantly more lax era? This morning one tax expert described the situation under the previous Labour Government thus: “Everything was above board, and the board was set at floor level.” Under this Government, the diverted profits tax gives us the opportunity to change the landscape, but is there not a concern that letting Google off paying the diverted profits tax suggests that the Revenue will find this significantly more complex to implement than we would like? What more can we do to give the Revenue the support it needs to apply that evenly and to all?
Human nature and ingenuity being what they are, from the moment taxes were invented there has always been a difference between the tax that Governments expect to receive and the tax that is actually paid—that is known as the tax gap. Will the Minister explain to the House in what direction the tax gap has been going since we came to office in 2010?
As a percentage of tax liability, the tax gap has been falling. Corporation tax avoidance, or corporate avoidance, has been falling at an even faster rate.
The hon. Lady asks a very good question. We are in the process of implementing those recommendations. The BEPS process is more closely aligning economic activity with taxing rights. That is the direction in which we believe we should go. Having led the way in getting the BEPS process started, this Government want to lead the way in implementing its recommendations.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. I note in passing that over the past few minutes further Members have started bobbing. There is no problem with that, but if it delays the Minister he will know why.
When the Minister makes large businesses publish their tax strategy, will he also make them publish their tax returns so that we can all see how much tax they are declaring and how they got from their cash profit to that tax bill? That would improve transparency and confidence in the system.
The United Kingdom’s position on taxpayer confidentiality is hardly unique. Indeed, it is the mainstream approach. Knowing what a company’s tax liability might be depends on a detailed understanding of the whereabouts of its assets and activities, and not all of that information would necessarily be apparent from a straight tax return. As I have said, there is greater transparency now because companies have to set out their strategies, which has never been the case before.
The Minister is trying to have it both ways. These are companies, not individuals, so the confidentiality excuse does not wash with me. We know what the profits, assets and the liabilities are, because they are in the companies’ accounts. We also know that the corporation tax rate is 20%. On the basis of both those pieces of information, how much does Google actually owe the Exchequer?
The principle of taxpayer confidentiality is not new. It has existed for as long as we have had a tax system. If the hon. Gentleman wants to make a case for abandoning it, he ought to consider what the overall consequences would be for the attractiveness of the UK as a place in which to do business. Let me add that, without fully understanding the whereabouts of a company’s assets and activities, no one is in a position to make a judgment about how much tax it should pay. HMRC is able to do that, and HMRC is bringing in more money than ever.
I welcome the fact that the Government have raised £130 million, but does my right hon. Friend agree that it should not have had to take five years—and, no doubt, considerable public resources—to prise that money out? Do not multinationals themselves need to change their culture?
My hon. Friend has made an important point. The way in which to change the culture of multinational companies—and, indeed, we have already started to see signs of such a change—is to take the action that we have taken in implementing the BEPS recommendations and introducing a diverted profits tax. Those are the achievements of this Government.
I really cannot believe that the Government see this deal as a major success. Why are they so supportive of sweetheart deals for companies like Google, but so slow and reluctant to address the business rates burden on the steel industry?
As I have said, we are reviewing business rates, and, in fact, we have cut them by £1 billion in recent years. I should add that there is no sweetheart deal. HMRC does not undertake sweetheart deals. What it undertakes are thorough inquiries, and when companies accept their liabilities, those inquiries can be brought to a conclusion. However, we are ensuring that HMRC succeeds in delivering the revenue that is due under the law.