Corporation tax treatment of the oil and gas industry

Part of Finance Bill – in the House of Commons at 7:45 pm on 5th September 2016.

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Photo of Greg Mulholland Greg Mulholland Liberal Democrat, Leeds North West 7:45 pm, 5th September 2016

I can worry Mark Field a little more by telling him that there was a “Hear, hear” from these Benches as well—[Interruption.] Members will be surprised at how loud we can be, and they will see that in the coming months and years.

It is absolutely time to have the debate about the best way to tax our businesses and to do what the Government claim they are doing—but are actually insufficiently doing through the changes to corporation tax—and support business in this country better through taxation that works but that also recognises and incentivises business.

Amendment 177 is a probing amendment that would sweep away corporation tax altogether and is intended to try to trigger that debate, which we should be having as a country. The reality is that the Government will continue to argue that a cut in corporation tax will somehow boost growth, but the evidence for a cut below 20% is simply not there. The Government are failing to ask whether corporation tax actually works. As the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster has said, it is only a matter of time before we hear the next scandal of a company managing to avoid paying corporation tax. Last week, it was Apple’s deal with Ireland, a few months before it was Google, before that it was Facebook and before that it was Amazon. Even the Labour party got into hot water for having managed to offset profits to reduce their corporation tax bill, so surely Government Members will recognise that there is an issue.

We have endless arguments about the morality of some of these large multinational corporations and how they operate. There is often outrage—sometimes faux outrage—in this place, but that is not good enough and it will not deal with the problem. We must also accept that while the Government are making unnecessary and damaging cuts to HMRC, it makes it harder to challenge these companies that are testing the limits of the law.

There is an underlying unwillingness to address corporation tax and its fitness for purpose regarding the reality of multinational corporations in the 21st century. As Martin Sorrell, the chief executive of WPP, said in 2013 during the Starbucks corporation tax scandal, for many multinational companies whether to pay corporation tax is simply a “question of judgment”, something to be decided according to PR perception and perhaps their own corporate social responsibility policies but not something decided by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs as it surely should be.

As the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster made clear, this is not and should not be seen in any way as a left or right issue. It is an issue of practicality. Last week in the Telegraph, Allister Heath published a piece entitled “The Apple fiasco shows why corporation tax is an outdated anachronism”. As the right hon. Gentleman has already said, Lord Lawson famously called for corporation tax to be a tax on revenue rather than profit. There are flaws with that but at least he was seeking to challenge the status quo, which is surely outdated. On the other side of the spectrum, The Guardian, Oxfam and the excellent Tax Justice Network have all rightly highlighted the ease with which multinationals can avoid corporation tax altogether.

There are ways in which we could better support business and could have a tax system that works. Businesses of all sizes are crying out for changes in the tax system. I know many businesses that say that the first thing they would like to see reformed is business rates and the second is VAT. There are industries that provide a huge amount to the British economy and pay a significant amount of tax that are not being listened to because they are not large corporations. For example, a change to VAT would have a much greater impact on the tourism and hospitality industries than tinkering with corporation tax in an attempt to grab headlines for being supposedly supporting business.

As the right hon. Gentleman has said, there is no obvious solution, but surely it is time to find a solution to properly, fairly and sensibly tax businesses in the 21st century. My hon. Friend Tim Farron has already appointed Sir Vince Cable, the former distinguished Business Secretary, to lead a review of corporation tax and business rates for my party. That will make a contribution to the debate. Instead of claiming that the Government are standing up for business, surely it is time to acknowledge that yet more cuts to corporation tax over the next year will not truly deliver that and will not deal with the reality, which is that we are not collecting tax efficiently from companies that are now run in a very different way.