Reduction of relief in cases where losses relieved sideways etc

Finance (No. 2) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:25 am on 16 January 2018.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Clause 31 stand part.

New clause 13—Review of effectiveness of limit to double taxation relief—

“(1) No later than 31 March 2019, the Chancellor of the Exchequer must review the effects of the limit to double taxation relief made by section 30.

(2) The review under this section must consider—

(a) the effects of the change on annual revenue, and—

(b) the size and type of companies benefiting from the relief and the impact of the changes on them.

(3) The Chancellor of the Exchequer must lay before the House of Commons the report of the review under this section as soon as practicable after its completion.”

This new clause provides for a review of the new limit for double taxation relief available to companies for foreign tax paid on income of a foreign permanent establishment.

Photo of Mel Stride Mel Stride Financial Secretary to the Treasury and Paymaster General

Good morning, Sir Roger. As ever, it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

Clauses 30 and 31 will ensure that companies operating overseas cannot benefit from tax relief twice for the same loss. Many UK companies operate overseas through branches. To prevent double taxation on the profits of those branches—tax payable both in the UK and overseas—rules exist that provide relief in the UK for foreign tax paid. However, we are aware that some companies with foreign branches set losses incurred by those branches against the profits of other overseas group companies, rather than against the future profits of the branch. As a result, foreign tax is paid on future branch profits without taking into account past losses. That foreign tax is then used to claim double tax relief against UK tax on the branch profits.

Relieving foreign losses in that way creates an unfair outcome for the UK Exchequer. UK companies effectively get tax relief twice in the UK—once as a deduction from their taxable UK profits for the loss, and again by way of double tax relief. Clause 30 will address that by restricting double tax relief when the losses of an overseas branch have been used to relieve foreign tax paid by other overseas group companies. The clause will stop companies exploiting the UK’s double tax relief system to disadvantage unfairly the UK Exchequer. The measure will apply only to future claims for double tax relief. However, to be effective and protect significant revenues, it will apply where losses have already been relieved against the profits of other group companies.

The Opposition’s new clause 13 calls for a statutory review of the impact of that restriction of double tax relief. I think it would be useful, in response, to review the processes and track record of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in this area. First, the costings of the measure were prepared by HMRC’s central analytical team, which specialises in quantifying the impact of changes to tax legislation. Secondly, HMRC has significant experience in amending tax legislation to restrict opportunities for companies unfairly to reduce the tax they pay. For example, an amendment to the double taxation relief for loan relationships income in the 2014 Finance Act successfully protected tax revenue. Thirdly, HMRC regularly carries out reviews of tax legislation to ensure that it continues to meet its objectives, and the assessment of tax receipts is an important part of those reviews. The Opposition’s proposed review would not add to that analysis, and it is therefore unnecessary.

Clause 31 will amend the targeted anti-avoidance rule, which protects against certain ways of artificially creating or increasing a double tax relief claim. At present, the obligation to apply the TAAR lies with HMRC, not with the taxpayer. That puts HMRC at a disadvantage. In some cases, HMRC does not have sufficient information to identify, within the relevant statutory time limit, whether the TAAR is applicable. To address that, we are updating the double taxation relief TAAR to align it with more recent TAARs. The clause will remove the requirement for HMRC to give notice that the TAAR is being applied. Instead, the onus will be on the taxpayer to consider, during their self-assessment, whether the TAAR is applicable. We are also slightly extending the scope of the TAAR to ensure that it applies to double taxation relief schemes that involve transactions across a group.

Clauses 30 and 31 will ensure that companies pay a fair amount of tax in the UK and will protect significant tax revenue. I therefore urge the Committee to support them.

Photo of Anneliese Dodds Anneliese Dodds Shadow Minister (Treasury)

It is good to be here under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I appreciate the Minister’s explanation of clauses 30 and 31, but the Opposition request a review of their effectiveness in deterring the inappropriate use of double taxation relief, particularly as they relate both to funds received by the Exchequer and to the companies potentially affected by them.

Colleagues will be aware that, as the Minister said, double taxation arrangements have been under discussion for an extremely long time—effectively since the beginning of globalisation, if we take that term as referring to the proliferation of multinational companies. The international finance conference in Brussels in 1920 raised the need to consider the impact of double taxation on firms, and from 1923 to 1927 some of the first agreements to avoid double taxation came into force. Such agreements have been under continual discussion in more recent years within the OECD, as have been provisions to prevent the contrary: double non-taxation, which we are discussing today.

The extent of double non-taxation is believed by many commentators to be extremely significant, which is part of the reason why the Opposition are not convinced by claims that the tax gap has recently reduced; that tax gap does not include international profit shifting, such as that obtained by manipulating double taxation rules. That is why Labour’s tax transparency and enforcement programme offers a series of measures to deal with profit shifting.

The measures under discussion follow on from attempts made in the 2009 Finance Bill to clarify measures in the Finance Act 2005 that examine double taxation relief specifically for banks. That Act limited credit for foreign tax paid on trade receipts of a bank to no more than the corporation tax arising on the relevant part of the trade profits. Changes were made after the Act to prevent income being artificially diverted to non-banking companies in bank groups. That loophole, which was being exploited, was shut down by ensuring that the restriction applied to all relevant receipts going across a group. Such profit shifting was therefore prevented. The clauses under discussion will offer a similar tightening for non-bank companies, as well as other alterations and restrictions on the use of double taxation relief.

The Opposition are asking for a review for a variety of reasons. First, it would be helpful to understand from the banking sector’s experience whether the new rules are likely to have a positive effect, and what the magnitude of that effect is anticipated to be. Secondly, alternative approaches are available, and it would be helpful to assess the Government’s approach against those. In particular, I understand that the US has adopted a different approach to limiting the benefits of relief from double taxation. The UK’s approach, which I accept is in common with the OECD’s, is to focus the dissuasion from using an appropriate double taxation relief on the transaction and its nature. By contrast, the US approach relates to those entities that can benefit from favourable tax treatment; it focuses on the entity, rather than the transaction. As I discovered when looking at the debates on the 2003 agreement between the UK and the US on double taxation and non-taxation, the two approaches have to come together when we have a treaty with the US on tax matters. It would be helpful to know whether the Government have considered the apparently more restrictive approach adopted by the US.

It would also be helpful to know more about the removal of the counteraction notice specified in the clauses. Colleagues may remember—though they probably have more important things to think about—that in the discussion on hybrid mismatches, I asked whether a counteraction notice was still required. I do not recall receiving a totally clear answer, although the Minister offered many other helpful clarifications. Clause 31 removes the requirement to give a notice to trigger the double taxation relief targeted anti-avoidance rule, as the Minister mentioned. That seems to follow an approach of amending provisions to remove such notices when the measures concerned are otherwise under review, as part of a wholesale approach to reviewing the measures. The explanatory notes state that the approach follows that adopted under new TAARs, but it is not clear that there has been a more holistic investigation by the Government of this issue. It would be interesting for us to know whether the Government plan to review the existing use of any remaining requirements for counteraction notices in the area of international profit shifting.

The Minister can correct me if I am wrong, but the principle seems to have been accepted that such counteraction notices are no longer necessary before HMRC is able to act, at least in relation to this kind of international artificial profit shifting. He gave us quite a strong rationale for that when he indicated the problems with having to issue a notice when time limits can be relatively tight: it could impact on HMRC’s ability to take appropriate action against those engaging in international profit shifting.

It would be useful to know whether there is a broader review of the use of counteraction notices in this regard, but as I said, we are also calling for a review of the effectiveness or otherwise of the measures in deterring the manipulation of double taxation relief, and of whether the measures will deal with the international profit shifting that existing practices seem to be promoting.

Photo of Mel Stride Mel Stride Financial Secretary to the Treasury and Paymaster General

I thank the hon. Lady for her characteristically thorough dissection of the clause. She gave us something of a history lesson about double taxation agreements going back to the 1920s, before we came into the era of the OECD and more recent activities.

This is not directly relevant to the clause, but the hon. Lady mentioned the tax gap and the veracity or otherwise of the figure for it. The figure is produced by HMRC on an annual basis and audited by the National Audit Office. It is a statistic described by the International Monetary Fund as one of the most robust of its kind in the world. We are very proud of the fact that we have, at 6%, one of the lowest tax gaps in our history.

Interestingly, the hon. Lady introduced the subject of the movement of losses out of branches overseas by way of a discussion of the profits under the banking arrangements, and the shifting from banking to non-banking entities as an approach to avoiding tax. That approach, which certain corporations have taken to avoid tax, is long-established and lies at the heart of the measures that we, the OECD and others have been pursuing to clamp down on avoidance.

This measure is very important. As I described, overseas entities with branches are able to move losses into other overseas entities and claim a tax benefit there, but equally gain a double tax benefit with the UK authorities by way of double tax relief and the impact of the losses on profits that would otherwise fall to corporation tax. We do not believe that the review that new clause 13 calls for is necessary, largely for the reasons I gave in my opening remarks, and in particular because we keep all these measures under review. Indeed, the measures are a product of a review of earlier approaches to clamping down on avoidance, evasion and non-compliance.

The hon. Lady raised several questions that I will attempt to address. The first was whether we had considered the US model and focusing more on entities, which is an interesting point. I would be interested to take any representation from her, and to look at that in more detail with my officials. I do not have a comprehensive answer to her point at the moment, but my door is open for us to look at that in greater detail.

The hon. Lady also mentioned the operation of counteraction notices. As she recognised, the main thrust of the changes to the TAAR is to ensure we do not end up in a situation in which one might reasonably expect HMRC not to understand that something untoward was going on, and in which, by the time it came to the activity, it was out of time. That is the critical point. Once again, if there are further issues of a more detailed or granular nature that the hon. Lady would like to raise with me, I would be very happy indeed to have a look at those. On that basis, I hope we can accept the clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 30 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 31 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 32