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Tax Avoidance and Evasion

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:39 pm on 25th February 2020.

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Photo of Nigel Mills Nigel Mills Conservative, Amber Valley 2:39 pm, 25th February 2020

Let me start by congratulating my hon. Friends the Members for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards) and for Stourbridge (Suzanne Webb) on their excellent maiden speeches. They certainly brought a crowd to a tax debate, which we perhaps do not always see.

It is a pity that we have such a divisive, political motion today. There is a lot of cross-party agreement on this issue, but as there is clearly no way any Conservative Member will be voting for the motion, we have lost a chance to show that agreement. A fairer summary of the current situation would have been that for 15 years or so, successive Governments have been trying incredibly hard to tackle this and have made significant progress, yet there is still a hell of a lot more to do. It is fair to say that we have been running as fast as we can and largely stood still. As the Minister said, we have introduced 100 or so measures in the past 10 years, and yet the tax gap is at a similar percentage to what it was at the start of that period.

At some point, we will have to accept that we are papering over the cracks. We will have to reimagine our tax system to work out what we are going to tax and how we are going to collect that money. The longer we try to perpetuate a system that was effectively based on taxing people, property and profits, the longer we will keep finding that all those things are under real pressure. Adding in the fact that, with regard to all the sins that we tax quite extensively, people are stopping sinning in those ways, we are going to find a large budget gap. The solution to this in the long term is to rethink what we tax rather than just keep adding another 500 pages of Finance Bill every year and wondering why the single biggest part of our tax gap is in legal interpretation or error. That is partly because we cannot follow the rules, do not understand them and cannot comply, or because they are so complex that we end up creating conflicting bits and loopholes that people can then exploit. There must be a better way of doing this if we really want to get the tax gap down to the sort of level we want.

It is important to stress that £1.8 billion, or 5%, of the tax gap is now down to avoidance. There is no way we can legislate our way out of avoidance and get the tax gap down. The majority of the tax gap is now on different taxes. VAT is the largest tax where there is a gap. The largest group of taxpayers who are not paying all the tax they owe comprises small businesses. We need a whole different approach to this.

As I said to the Minister at the beginning, we could start by setting a target for what we think we can get the tax gap down to, so that we can then measure how effective we are being. A relatively gentle target would be to get it down to 5% in the next five years. That would raise about £4 billion a year—a significant amount of money going towards the public services. That is not an impossible target. Looking at the history of our performance, we see that we are bumping along at somewhere between 5.5% and 6% each year, depending on the calculation.

What else can we do? Lots of people have talked about the need for more transparency through the various measures on the public registers and country-by-country reporting. There is no reason why we cannot turn on country-by-country reporting now. It is it is generally accepted that large corporations around the world have to disclose so much in their accounts to the public anyway that there is no harm to them in disclosing the extent of their turnover, assets, employees and profit in each of the territories they operate in. That is not sensitive commercial data that will harm their commercial interests. We can do that as soon as we want to.

Seven or eight years ago, I proposed an amendment to a Finance Bill to require company tax returns to be made public—to be added to the company’s accounts and kept at Companies House. I see no reason why we cannot do that. It would dramatically increase confidence that the vast majority of these companies are paying the amount of tax in their tax return that their accounts suggest they should be. It would also expose those that are not, and we could see where the differences are. Again, I do not regard that as sensitive private data. I think there would be cross-party agreement that we could move in that direction.

We have had the general anti-abuse rule since 2013. There was a plan to review how it was working after five years to see whether we needed to keep doing the individual measures each year that are cluttering up our tax system and to see where we could extend it. I do not quite know where that five-year review has gone. Perhaps now would be the time to have a proper look at the general anti-abuse rule to see whether we need to strengthen it and what else we could do.

We have a very big issue—perhaps the Minister will be grateful to me for raising this—with how we define employment for tax purposes and what is the right amount of tax to collect in that situation. As a Parliament, we are strongly saying today that we want to tackle tax avoidance. However, there has been a lot of noise in recent months about the loan charge and IR35, and it has almost felt as though Parliament has moved away from addressing those things and is perhaps thinking that we should allow them to continue because they are the right sort of tax avoidance. We need to have, pretty quickly, a full review of what we mean by employment and how we should tax it, because it is not right that two people sitting at adjacent desks doing the same job are paying dramatically different amounts of tax. That cannot be allowed to continue. Yes, we need to get the measures right and not too blunt, but we should not be backing down in those areas.

My final suggestion is on advisers. When advisers are so incompetent that their clients are filing incorrect tax information, or are engaging in such unacceptable activity around tax planning that they should not be allowed to continue, HMRC should refuse to deal with them. It should refuse to let them file tax returns and refuse to engage in correspondence with them. In that way, we could drive them out of the market and let their clients know that there are responsible tax advisers who will get the calculations right, and they should use them instead.