Clause 71 - Review of DST

Part of Finance Bill – in the House of Commons at 2:48 pm on 1st July 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Bridget Phillipson Bridget Phillipson Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury 2:48 pm, 1st July 2020

We welcome all measures and will support any proposals to tackle tax avoidance, whether it is in terms of tech giants or more broadly, but we still face a big gap in this country, and we are urging the Government to do much more. I am sure the hon. Member would agree that it is vital that we see greater action, because we have seen this unfairness, particularly during the pandemic. He, like me, will have many wonderful local businesses in his constituency that pay their taxes and are trying to come through this crisis, and they want to ensure that there is a level playing field between the bricks-and-mortar businesses and online businesses. I am sure that we all want to get behind that endeavour.

For too long, companies have moved and hidden the money we pay them. Research by TaxWatch UK estimates that we are losing £1.3 billion in corporation tax from five of the biggest firms each year. In comparison, the Government’s own estimate is that the digital services tax is only set to produce £280 million this financial year. The modest nature of this measure becomes clear when we consider what some of the tech giants might actually have to pay under the tax. I will highlight again for the benefit of the House, as I did in Committee, research by TaxWatch UK which predicts that Facebook would face an increased tax bill of £39 million, despite estimated UK revenues of almost £2.3 billion. Google would pay slightly more—around £168 million—based on estimated UK tax revenues of £9.3 billion. Many businesses, such as Amazon, that blend their activities will be unaffected by the measure.

The Government will be aware of our concerns that streaming services are not included at all, which we discussed in Committee. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury said then that

“it would not be appropriate to implement a temporary tax on a broader basis.”––[Official Report, Finance Public Bill Committee, 11 June 2020;
c. 126.]

He will doubtless be aware that taxes introduced on a temporary basis have ended up becoming permanent fixtures, including income tax, introduced to fund war with Napoleon. With little evidence that the Government are working to secure international agreement on a replacement for this tax, temporary could end up being for a very long time. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs employs many extremely capable people, and I am sure that it is not beyond their wit to develop a way of taxing streaming services too.

New clause 33, which was tabled by my right hon. Friend Dame Margaret Hodge and has many cross-party supporters, would require those liable for the digital services tax to publish a country-by-country tax report. My right hon. Friend has campaigned tirelessly and incredibly effectively on this issue, and I wish it were possible for us to hear from her directly today. Sadly, the way in which we now conduct our proceedings makes it impossible for her to contribute, which is a real shame, given the expertise and insight she brings, but I am aware that the cross-party support of the new clause will allow other speakers to raise the points that she might have sought to make.

For years, the Opposition have urged the Government to commit to country-by-country reporting on a public basis. Their reticence to do so, and the way in which they have held up progress at an international level, has been a source of deep frustration to those of us who want to see far greater transparency around the taxation of multinational companies. This new clause would not only be of practical use, so that we can see whether those liable to the digital services tax are paying an appropriate amount. It would also help to address the concerns I have outlined that the measure as it stands does little to address the tax avoidance practices by digital multinational companies. It would end the secrecy around such practices and pave the way for public country-by-country reporting at a wider level. The Government have been fond in recent months of saying that they wish to be a world leader—well, here is the opportunity to become a world leader in tax transparency, and I urge the Minister to listen to the arguments being made and take urgent action to address them.

The pressure on our public finances and vital frontline services means that we should be doing far more to ensure that those tech companies that have benefited from the lockdown are contributing more. We need a level playing field between our high streets and the tech giants. We need to build a society where everyone—individuals and businesses alike—pays their fair share. A digital services tax must be part of that, but the Government simply are not going far enough. A bolder approach on a digital services tax would not only help to address this unfairness; it would help to deliver a sustainable recovery from the economic crisis we are facing.

Labour has called for a back-to-work Budget—one that focuses on retaining jobs, sustaining jobs and creating jobs; a full Budget that invests in our young people, who are facing the worst employment prospects for a generation, and helps to secure a future that they can look to with hope. An effective digital services tax would go some way to supporting that goal. As I have indicated, this measure is expected to generate a fairly limited amount when compared with the extent of the tax avoidance practices we have seen from some of these companies in recent years and the profits they have made in recent months. Therein lies the principal reason for our amendments: we need to understand as soon as possible how effectively the measure is working and what more can be done to ensure that such companies are paying an appropriate amount of tax.

The Government’s unwillingness to conduct a review earlier than 2025 means that the opportunity for Parliament to properly scrutinise the measure will be hugely limited. I know that the Minister hopes that a multilateral approach will be in place by then; we on the Opposition Benches hope that that will be the case, too. A comprehensive multilateral agreement, based on a lasting international settlement, is the only long-term solution, but until that happens, the Opposition will continue to push for a more ambitious approach, to which our European neighbours are looking as well. The times that we are living through demand such an approach.

We need to ensure that those with the broadest shoulders help to bear the cost of the recovery that the Government need to secure for our country. It is more important than ever to make sure that the big players that have benefited greatly from this crisis are taxed properly, reasonably and fairly and do not simply continue to shift around their sizeable profits. That is why we have tabled our amendments so that we can be sure that this is the right approach to digital taxation in these times of crisis and so that we can continue to consider what more can be done, not just in five years, but next year and every year.