Digital services tax: introduction

Part of Finance Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:30 am on 11th June 2020.

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Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman The Financial Secretary to the Treasury 11:30 am, 11th June 2020

Thank you, Mr Rosindell. I am grateful to all members of the Committee for joining us this morning; I am also grateful it is not too hot outside. It is a rare moment in Parliament when one gets to introduce a new tax—the digital services tax—on to the statute book. With the clauses grouped together, it is appropriate to spend some time in my opening remarks outlining the overall architecture of the tax and how it is designed to work; then we can pick up specific details in the clauses as we come to them.

Clauses 38 to 44 introduce legislation to enact the digital services tax, and they set the scope of this legislation. DST will levy a 2% charge on the revenues that groups receive from providing specific digital services to UK users. The specific services in scope of the charge are search engines, social media, and online marketplaces. I will explain later why those three services are in scope of the new tax. DST will apply only to groups with annual global revenues from services of more than £500 million. It will then be charged on the revenues only where they are attributable to UK users, and only on amounts above £25 million.

An exemption will exclude online financial services marketplaces from the definition of an online marketplace. Businesses making low profit margins on their in-scope activity will be able to pay the tax at a reduced rate, while loss makers will pay nothing; that will minimise the distortions that a tax on revenues can create. To further reduce those distortions, a relief for certain cross-border transactions is also included. It will reduce by half the revenues subject to DST where those revenues are derived from an online marketplace transaction between a UK user and a user from a jurisdiction that also levies a DST. As this is a new tax, there are also extensive provisions to ensure the framework of the tax works as intended. These draw on many existing tax concepts to reduce the burden of implementing the new tax for what we hope will be a limited time.

The digital services tax was announced at Budget 2018 as a response to changes brought about by the rapid development of our digital economy. That economy brings many benefits, but it has posed a significant challenge for international corporate tax rules. Under current rules, digital businesses can derive significant value from UK users, but in many cases they pay little UK tax because international corporate tax rules do not recognise the user-generated value when allocating the right to tax profits between jurisdictions, so undermining the fairness and sustainability of our tax system. It is therefore now widely accepted that the rules require updating.

The Government remain at the forefront of international efforts to secure a comprehensive long-term solution to the issue, and we are fully engaged in discussions with OECD and G20 partners. Although we welcome recent progress towards a global solution, there remain important and difficult issues to resolve, so the Government are acting now to address those widely held concerns in a fair and proportionate manner. DST is a temporary measure, until appropriate global reform is in place.

As a temporary measure, DST is targeted at those business models that rely most significantly on user-generated value and that place the greatest strain on current corporate tax rules. It is the Government’s judgement that these services are search engines, social media platforms and online marketplaces. Of course I recognise that a broad range of digital services could be said to derive value from their users, and I am aware that some hon. Members have called for the scope of DST to be extended to include services such as media streaming. However, the services in scope of this tax are those that rely most significantly on user participation in the creation of value: for example, while media streaming platforms may utilise user contributions in the form of reviews or recommendations, users of a social media platform often create the content that is shared across the platform, and users of an online marketplace provide the market liquidity required for the marketplace to function. Also, while we are engaged in OECD discussions about finding a long-term global solution and exploring the case for broader reform, we judge that it would not be appropriate to implement a temporary tax on a broader basis.

DST follows the recommendations of the OECD’s 2018 interim report. Targeting DST at those services that derive the greatest value from their users minimises the distortive consequences of a tax on revenues and minimises the risks of introducing a temporary measure before global reform is agreed. That will ensure that DST is proportionate, while still raising up to £2 billion over the next five years. That in addition to the UK taxes that digital businesses already pay and, as I have said, reflects the value they derive from UK users.

I will now summarise the clauses that form this part of the Bill—clauses 39 to 44. Clause 39 sets out that DST will apply to all revenues that arise in connection with in-scope digital service activity. That is deliberately a very broad test; it ensures that however these businesses make money from their in-scope activity, that revenue will be subject to the tax. The clause also sets out that revenues should be apportioned on a just and reasonable basis when they are not wholly in connection with an in-scope activity.

Once a group’s digital services revenues have been established, the next step is to determine how much of those revenues is attributable to UK users. Clauses 40 and 41 set out the five cases where revenues are attributable to UK users. The first three cases deal with the specific types of revenue that online marketplaces may receive. The first case concerns the revenues that a marketplace earns from facilitating transactions between users; this will include a marketplace’s commission, for example. These revenues are attributable to UK users whenever a UK user is a party to the transaction. It does not matter whether the UK user is the buyer or the seller, or which user paid the revenue; where there is a cross-border transaction between a UK user and a non-UK user, all of the marketplace’s revenue from that transaction is regarded as attributable to UK users, although this may be subject to cross-border relief.

The second case concerns revenues that arise in connection with accommodation and land in the UK—for example when a user books a holiday let on a marketplace. These revenues are attributable to UK users when the property is in the UK. Where the property is overseas, the revenue will only be UK digital services revenue when the purchaser is a UK user. Some marketplaces charge users to list individual items for sale; under the third case, those revenues will be treated as attributable to UK users whenever the user listing the item is a UK user.

The last two cases apply to social media services and internet search engines, as well as to online marketplaces. The fourth case deals with online advertising revenues. These revenues are attributable to UK users when the advertising was viewed by a UK user; the focus is on the viewer of the advertising, not on who paid for it. The fifth and final case is a catch-all, to include revenue that is not trapped by any of the other rules but that is received in connection with UK users. This will cover any other type of revenue earned by social media services and search engines—for example, subscription fees.

Clause 42 defines each of the services in scope of DST. The tax will be charged on the revenues that businesses earn from providing a social media platform, search engine or online marketplace to UK users. The definitions are designed to be targeted and as clear as possible. They have been carefully drafted after extensive consultation periods with business to ensure that they apply as intended. Alongside the three named services, some businesses facilitate online advertising on other websites. The clause ensures that revenues from that source would also be subject to DST when the advertising service derives a significant benefit from operating one of the three named services.

Clause 43 clarifies the meaning of “user” and “UK user” for the purposes of DST legislation. Clause 44 sets out the exclusion of online financial marketplaces from the definition of online marketplaces. The highly regulated nature of financial services limits their ability to engage with users in the ways that other marketplaces do. As such, the clause ensures that they are not subject to DST.

Together, clauses 38 to 44 set out the scope of DST. The digital services tax is a clear signal of the Government’s commitment to ensuring that tax rules reflect the development of our modern economy. Ultimately, as I have said, our strong preference is for a global solution, which will be the most comprehensive and enduring way to address concerns about the current corporate tax rules. Until such a solution is in place, however, DST will ensure that digital businesses pay UK tax that reflects the value they derive from UK users. I therefore commend the clauses to the Committee.