Intangible fixed assets: exceptions to degrouping charges etc

Finance (No. 3) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 29th November 2018.

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

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

The clause amends the corporate intangible fixed assets regime, which I will refer to as the IFA regime, to align the degrouping adjustment rules more closely with the equivalent rules in the chargeable gains code. The clause responds to concerns expressed during the Government’s consultation on the IFA regime, and in previous consultations, that the IFA degrouping adjustment is distorting how genuine commercial transactions are structured. The main criticism is that there are two different tax treatments for intangible assets, depending on whether the chargeable gains code or the IFA regime operates in respect of such assets.

The IFA regime provides corporation tax relief to companies on the cost of their intangible assets, such as patents or trademarks. The IFA regime, like the chargeable gains regime, allows groups to transfer assets between companies within the same group on a tax-neutral basis. That prevents gains or losses arising on transactions between companies within the same corporate group and reflects the fact that the group can constitute a single economic entity. Instead of recognising the market value of the asset on transfer, the company acquiring the asset inherits the tax history and costs of the transferor.

The rules contain an anti-avoidance provision which applies when an asset leaves the group. That is often referred to as a degrouping adjustment or charge. The degrouping adjustment effectively removes the benefit of a previous tax-neutral transfer to ensure the full economic gain or loss made by the group is taxed.

The chargeable gains tax code includes a similar set of rules, which were, however, amended in 2011 to refine the degrouping anti-avoidance rules where the sale of the shares in the degrouping company is exempt from a tax charge under the substantial shareholding exemption rules.

The clause seeks to address concerns commonly expressed by stakeholders during the recent IFA regime consultation and those raised during the 2016 review of the substantial shareholding exemption. Part 8 of the corporation tax code is amended so that the degrouping adjustment will not apply when a company leaves a group as a result of a share disposal that qualifies for the substantial shareholding exemption. That exemption applies only to disposals of trading companies, or parent companies of trading groups. In doing so, it aligns the clause with the treatment in the chargeable gains regime.

In summary, the clause makes a sensible change to the degrouping rules in the IFA regime to align them with the treatment elsewhere in the tax system. The clause responds to legitimate business concerns that existing legislation is distorting how genuine commercial transactions are structured. I therefore commend the clause to the Committee.

Photo of Jonathan Reynolds Jonathan Reynolds Shadow Economic Secretary (Treasury)

It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, and to follow the many valuable contributions of other members of the Committee.

The clause that the Financial Secretary has just introduced forms part of a rather technical but important pack of items in the miscellaneous corporation tax section of the Bill. The provisions mark the latest change in a long history of reforms to the intangible fixed asset tax regime, which I will also refer to as the IFA, which began in 2002. Intangible fixed assets refer to items such as patents, copyright, brand recognition, goodwill and other items of intellectual property. It is clear that those types of assets, as opposed to tangible assets, have become increasingly important to modern businesses and are likely to continue to do so, especially for the tech industry.

Typically, such assets could be moved within companies that all belonged to the same UK group without incurring any new tax liability, by simply taking their existing tax history with them. If one of the companies that received the assets was subsequently sold within six years, that incurred the so-called degrouping charge. The clause will stop that charge being triggered if the company leaves as a result of a share disposal that would qualify for the substantial shareholding exemption.

In principle, the Opposition have no objection to the measure, which clarifies the intent of the legislation and prevents assets from being drawn into the regime unintentionally. The changes remove an artificial barrier in the tax system that could have been acting as a deterrent to merger and acquisition activity, given the disparity in treatment between chargeable gains assets and those within the IFA regime, as the Minister explained.

However, we would like to raise some wider concerns about the intangible fixed asset regime and how the new provisions will operate. Intangible assets will only grow in importance, so it is vital we get the system right. We must also consider the potential impact on foreign direct investment, especially at a time when our international competitiveness is under pressure as a result of us leaving the EU.

My questions to the Minister relate to what the impact of the changes might be on foreign direct investment and on merger and acquisition activity. I also want to ask about the impact on the UK intellectual property market, for two reasons. First, although we all want to see the best in Britain’s companies, we know that, unfortunately, certain operators seek to game the system, including by artificially shifting assets internally among subsidiaries, which is a time-worn tactic for unscrupulous actors seeking to avoid their true obligations. The long history of transfer pricing shows us that, as do the pitifully low corporation tax returns of some of the most profitable multinationals operating in the UK. By its very nature, transfer pricing—when companies make charges within a group for goods, services or indeed intangible assets—can be more easily exploited for that purpose, as can be seen from the role of brand loyalties in the transfer pricing arrangements of some famous tax minimisation schemes.

Tax rules have fallen short, and still fall short, of always recognising such arrangements for what they really are. We know that we suffer from a significant—and, some argue, underestimated—tax gap in the UK. As we often refer to in debates with the Government Front Bench, the tax gap has consistently fallen under Labour, coalition and now Conservative Governments, but we all know that the assessment does not truly cover such practices. Therefore, it is imperative that we do not put any loopholes into the statute book that could be exploited. Can the Minister explain what action the Government have taken to ensure that the measures cannot be undermined by tax avoidance?

Secondly, the measure is important in relation to the consultation published alongside this year’s Budget to look again at so-called goodwill taxation. Goodwill is the sum paid for a business over and above its paper value, which often has a strong connection to intangible assets such as brand value, reputation and other items of intellectual property. Stakeholders have expressed concern about the treatment of goodwill, which we ask the Government to consider as part of the overall IFA tax regime.

Although we supported the restriction of that relief for anti-avoidance purposes in 2015, it has been reported to us that some people believe that some aspects of the changes have had a dampening effect on commercial transactions and the overall attractiveness of the UK as a business location. Therefore, some further context around the proposal in the 2018 Budget to reverse part of those restrictions would be welcome.

I seek some reassurance from the Minister as to his future plans for the treatment of goodwill and how precisely this relief will be used as a tool to attract further business activity to the UK. Is an estimate available of the costs to the Exchequer at this stage? How has this been assessed, in terms of wider value for money, against perhaps extending other types of relief available? How will the connection between intellectual property and goodwill be properly established? In particular, how will the valuation of intangibles be achieved for tax purposes? What action is being undertaken with regard to anti-avoidance measures?

Continuing to attract business to the UK, as well as strong inward investment, is critical as we contemplate our departure from the EU. Therefore, we would appreciate some clarity from the Government on these provisions. We must assess their cost against the value of incubating the type of intellectual property-rich businesses that we would all like to see more of in the UK. Equally, we must do everything that we can to protect the statute book from any loopholes that may be exploited by unscrupulous companies seeking to avoid paying their fair share.

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

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. He asked specifically what impact these measures may have on foreign direct investment. I would argue that they are relieving, in that they are facilitating the ability of companies in these circumstances to gain value from the transfer of their losses where they genuinely fall under the substantial share exemption, so the answer to that question is that this is a positive move in that respect.

The hon. Gentleman asked, more specifically, a series of questions relating to how we would ensure that avoidance was not entered into in a number of scenarios. I think that he referred specifically to transfer pricing, for example, and one thinks of intangible asset elements such as royalty payments. He will be aware that we have already clamped down on the making of royalty payments through to low and no-tax jurisdictions. There is a lot of activity in that space, albeit that in the context of what this clause, that is probably out of the scope of the measure that we are considering.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether we were introducing a loophole, as he termed it. I think I can reassure him that we are not. We are simply, as I think he said when he summarised the clause at the start of his remarks, ensuring that intangible assets are treated in the right way when it comes to their transfer within and outside corporate groups.

The hon. Gentleman made several points surrounding our intentions in respect of goodwill and its treatment. To support UK investment in intangibles, the Government are introducing a targeted relief for goodwill in acquisitions of businesses with eligible intellectual property. We will legislate for that change through an amendment on Report, to allow for a further brief consultation on the detailed design of the policy. The consultation will seek to ensure that the proposed policy design achieves the Government’s objective to provide targeted relief for goodwill in the acquisition of IP-intensive businesses, and mitigates any unintended consequences.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 25 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 26