Clause 123 - Collection of tax debts

Finance (No. 2) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 27th April 2021.

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

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

Clause 123 makes changes to allow information notices to be used to obtain documents and information for the purpose of collecting a tax debt. I remind the Committee that the UK helped to develop and remains committed to—this is a bipartisan matter—OECD international standards for exchange of information. It is crucial that this country can co-operate with other tax authorities to tackle international tax evasion and avoidance. We rely on other countries to help us, and they rely on us. However, the UK is currently unable to assist with exchange of information requests from other jurisdictions where formal powers need to be used to obtain debt collection information. That means that the UK does not fully meet its commitments to the OECD standards. The UK must demonstrate compliance with those standards when peer reviewed to maintain co-operation with other countries. Therefore, following consultation, the Government decided to make this change.

The changes made by clause 123 will allow information notices to be issued by HMRC to obtain information for the purpose of collecting tax debts. That will allow HMRC to assist with international exchange of information requests relating to debt, and will support HMRC’s domestic activity to collect tax debts. Assisting with international exchange of information requests is an important part of international efforts to tackle tax avoidance and evasion. By those means we can meet our commitments as a country to the OECD standards.

Photo of James Murray James Murray Shadow Financial Secretary (Treasury)

Clause 123 amends schedule 36 of the Finance Act 2008 to give HMRC a new power to issue an information notice for the purposes of collecting a tax debt. We would like to raise with the Minister a point articulated by the Chartered Institute of Taxation in connection with the amended schedule 36. It is concerned that the new notice for collection of tax debts can be used for the purposes of collecting a tax debt, whenever arising. That means that the use of these notices is not restricted to cases involving tax years after the measure becomes law, which raises a concern that this is a very wide-ranging power. What reassurance can the Minister offer that HMRC will use the new power granted by this clause proportionately and with appropriate oversight?

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Treasury - Chief Secretary)

I do not have any issue with the changes proposed in clause 123 but, like the hon. Member for Ealing North, I think it is important to make clear that, in passing the legislation, Parliament has to give what may appear to be draconian powers to HMRC or other Government agencies to use when they have to. We then have to rely on Ministers to set policy, and sometimes on HMRC or Government Departments, in terms of their operational management decisions, not to use those draconian powers except when they absolutely must.

As we have begun to come out of the covid recession, a lot of individuals and businesses have found that their cash-flow position is as bad as it has ever been—and hopefully as bad as it ever will be. If HMRC manages itself only in terms of its own performance statistics on how quickly it can get the money in, there is a danger that it will do damage to the wider economy; in the longer term, it will do damage to the public finances. If a business is struggling to pay its tax, it is struggling to pay all its bills too. If we move in too quickly to get the tax out of that business, the chances are that it will go down and will no longer have any chance of paying its suppliers, so the suppliers go down as well. We will end up with a domino effect, with several businesses, and possibly three or four times as many jobs, being lost.

It is not a question of saying that there are circumstances where HMRC should say to somebody, “You don’t need to pay your debts,” but there will be times when it will be better for it to say, “We aren’t going to chase you for your debts now, but it’s up to you to get your circumstances sorted out, and then we will expect you to pay your dues.” I say that because I have known instances in constituency casework, as I suspect many Members have, where HMRC did not seem to take that approach. It appeared to have been chasing businesses to the point of liquidation, and individuals to the point of bankruptcy, for amounts of money that, in the grander scheme of things, were completely irrelevant to it, but highly relevant to those individuals and businesses.

I hope that we will get an assurance from the Financial Secretary today that the draconian powers in the Bill and in existing legislation will be used with an even softer touch over the next few years than they were supposed to be used with in the past. Otherwise, we will find that the difficulties that businesses are facing will get worse over the next few years, rather than better.

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

I thank both hon. Members for their questions. In a way, the clause is poorly named, because this is a change to allow information notices to be used to obtain documents; it is not, in and of itself, a measure that collects tax debt. The notice is an information power.

Tax authorities sometimes need to verify what they are told by taxpayers. A request that routinely arises is to look for details about transactions or movements of money in cases in which there is reason to believe that assets may have been concealed. A request may be an invitation to look for information to find out whether a bank account exists or has recently been closed. At its simplest, a request may be to find out the balance on an account.

It is important to say that the Government take very seriously all the input from our stakeholders, and the Chartered Institute of Taxation is an important stakeholder among many others. It has been striking how, over the past year or two, stakeholders have been very positive in flagging the degree of engagement that HMRC has had with them. There is a wide, close and professionally engaged relationship between the parties, and stakeholders’ concerns are carefully evaluated as part of the policy process.

It is also true that HMRC is bending over backwards to maintain its activities as a tax authority, while recognising—as the hon. Member for Glenrothes mentioned—the extremely difficult circumstances in which many companies have been placed by the pandemic and its effects. That is why there is a deferred payment scheme for VAT and Time To Pay arrangements that have been allowed to grow as they have done, and why in due course the Government are bringing in breathing space for people with debt.

A wide range of measures have been designed and put in place to protect people who may currently be vulnerable. In this case, the effect of expanding information notices is to implement a recommendation from the OECD’s global forum. Again, there was criticism from the forum that the UK was unable to use its information powers to enforce tax debts and unable to assist with information requests from other jurisdictions. Clause 123 will allow us to improve the already excellent levels of HMRC co-operation, which is only to the good in supporting international co-operation and exchange of information and the collection of tax debts that may be due.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 123 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.