Meaning of “the responsible member”

Finance Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 11th June 2020.

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

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Clauses 52 to 55 stand part.

That schedule 7 be the Seventh schedule to the Bill.

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

Clauses 51 to 55 come under the broad heading of a duty to submit returns in relation to the digital services tax. Having established that a group has DST revenues above the thresholds, it is appropriate for a group member, the responsible member, to provide Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs with the necessary information to assess the tax. That is a sensible way of requiring groups to administer the tax. They need to submit a return to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs only when there is a potential liability, and they can stop doing so when it is clear that there will not be a future liability.

The group will be required to continue to submit a single return for each accounting period until an officer of HMRC provides a direction for the group to stop. The direction to stop will be given only when it appears that the threshold conditions will not be met. Put simply, the responsible member will be the point of contact between HMRC and the rest of the group. The effect is to make administering the new tax easier for the groups that will be liable for DST and for HMRC. It means that only a single return for HMRC will need to be produced when a group assesses its DST liability.

Clause 51 sets out which members of the group can be the responsible member and what can prevent a company from being a responsible member. Those are sensible precautions to reduce the burden of the tax as much as possible, recognising that it is intended to be a temporary tax. As we have already noted in Committee, groups are dynamic with members joining and leaving all the time. The best choice as the responsible member for a group at one stage may no longer be the best choice later. It is therefore necessary for groups to have the ability to change the responsible member, but where that happens, it is important that nothing is lost by the change of company, which is achieved by clause 52.

Clause 53 sets out the duty for a group to notify HMRC when it has met the DST threshold conditions set out in clause 45. Groups will have 90 days from the end of the accounting period in which they meet the threshold conditions to make the notification. It is important to say that we have listened to businesses in requiring notification after the period to which the notification relates, which gives groups the opportunity to collect the fullest information possible before making contact with HMRC to notify it of any liability.

As I have mentioned, groups are organic and details will change. Clause 54 sets out the duty for a group to notify HMRC when there is a change to the details registered under clause 53. Finally, clause 55 sets out the obligation of the responsible member to submit a return of information to HMRC.

The clause also introduces schedule 7, which provides further details about the obligations of the group and HMRC in relation to the return and ensures by that means that the figures and the return are complete and accurate. As the tax is new, a new set of rules is required to ensure that HMRC has the powers necessary to ensure that the correct amount of tax is paid by those from whom it is due. The new rules borrow and draw from existing concepts that will be familiar to many tax practitioners. The schedule does not grant HMRC any further powers in relation to the tax that do not already apply to other existing taxes. It grants companies the protections from those powers that they would expect from a fair and balanced tax administration. With that in mind, I commend the clauses and the schedule to the Committee.

Photo of Bridget Phillipson Bridget Phillipson Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

We have no real issue with the clauses, as they are understandable in the context of the overall measures proposed.

I will draw the Minister’s attention to some technical concerns raised by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, which I hope he can address. In September 2019, it wrote:

“Given the complexities which a business could encounter in identifying and quantifying DST revenues, we are concerned that notification within 90 days of the accounting period is unhelpful. It would make sense to tie this notification into the deadline for filing accounts—6 months for a plc or 9 months otherwise”.

The institute also states that there should not be a need to notify HMRC in advance of the payment deadline, as

“businesses will require more time to review their accounting records, analyse and quantify revenues to decide whether they are” required to pay under the tax. It recognises that such obligations would not pose a problem for larger digital companies, but would be more problematic for marginal cases requiring “advice and review”, so

“the notification deadline should be aligned with the payment date.”

Regardless of whether we believe that the measures go far enough, or whether the tax is set at an appropriate rate, we believe that its implementation and administration should be fair, to give businesses—in particular those that fall on the margins of the scope of the measure—adequate time to provide accurate calculations of what they should be paying. I invite the Minister to respond to those points to provide some clarification.

Photo of Robin Millar Robin Millar Conservative, Aberconwy

As much as we have heard excellent contributions on matters of delivery and on technical matters, which are far beyond my knowledge of accounting and such, it strikes me that, as we are talking about the introduction of a new tax, this is the moment at which we should reflect on its meaning and on the purposes behind it.

The phrase that caught my eye is in clauses 53 and 54 —“Duty to”. My sense is that tax should not be, or should not only be, a catch-up exercise—chasing after developments in industry and the disruption brought to different sectors. Nor should it be about how much money we gather, although that is clearly of keen and close interest to us. It is also about the privilege of membership of a community and of participation in the UK economy. I find it interesting that it falls to a Conservative Government to introduce a tax such as this, which I consider to be progressive in its nature and intent.

In support of that, I pray in aid consideration of the principle of permanent residence, for example. Permanent residence was traditionally attached to the ability to trade in a nation, and tax therefore followed. If not trading in—that is, without that permanent residence—someone would be trading with, so coming under a different regime. Now, we have disruption in the digital economy, which means that we are trading in even though there is no permanent residence.

I also point to the development in the understanding of value over the years. At one point, value was measured in amounts of gold, so the question was one of setting a price, or offering gold in return for something; that was in essence a measurement of weight. The free trade argument slugged that one out with the mercantilist over many years, but the free trade argument won because it made the case effectively that the value of gold could be expressed in terms of the labour required to extract it. Discussions of value therefore moved from a physical object to the notion of labour.

As the Financial Secretary to the Treasury mentioned earlier, we are now talking about user-generated value. The notion of value itself has changed, and there are many debates about what value is and how it is best measured and captured. I suggest that they are extremely relevant to a discussion of tax, especially the introduction of a new one.

To look at tax solely in terms of being punitive, a “fair share” or a certain quantum, is to miss the point. Returning to the issue of leadership that was mentioned this morning, tax properly administered is surely more than a statement of how much money we can collect. It is more a statement of what we are trying to become—tax used as an instrument of government. What kind of society do we wish to become? It is not even, as might be suggested, a statement of how well we can co-ordinate with other nations. For this Government—I am interested in whether the Minister agrees with me—it is a statement of leadership, of what we are trying to become as a nation and, in particular, how we are trying to capture value through the proper encouragement of those industries as they participate in our economy.

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

Let me start with the interesting remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy. I think he is absolutely right to notice and bring to public attention the question of the basis of tax. He is absolutely correct to call upon an idea of tax as a privilege and obligation associated with membership of a community, and to highlight that that notion of tax, which in some sense has always been implicit in the idea of tax, is being drawn upon in this wider sense of a UK user contribution. He is absolutely right about that.

All government derives from the consent of the governed, as the cliché goes; but in order to give that consent, the governed must feel not merely that the tax is fair and equitable in its own right, but that it springs from a conception of government that fundamentally puts the wellbeing of society at its heart. In that sense, it is about not just an economic or fiscal change, nor necessarily who we want to become, but, as my hon. Friend said, who we are. It will come to no surprise to members of the Committee that I think Edmund Burke—one of my great heroes—put this well when he spoke about a nation as a moral idea. That is why the nation has historically been the basis of taxation: the nation provides the consent and, therefore, the guarantee of future taxation, which can underlie effective long-term public spending.

Going slightly beyond that point, it is notable that when crisis hits a country, that country and its Government must draw on that moral capital in pulling the alarm cable and using the power of taxation to secure future borrowing or future public spending that may be required to address the crisis. There is a very deep way in which my hon. Friend is getting to the centre of a very important fact about human life in democratic society, so I thank him for that.

On the more mundane and practical, but none the less vital points that the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South made about notification periods, I will simply say this: these are businesses that keep this data in real time. Of course, it is by no means only UK companies that are caught by this tax. The whole point of a UK user contribution is to capture companies’ revenue sources that might be derived from UK users and from that sense of community my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy mentioned, but without being resident as such in a formal tax sense in this country.

The data is immediate. The tax does not merely apply to UK companies. It does apply from the end of an accounting period—90 days after the end of an accounting period. We think that is a proportionate, appropriate and internationally recognised way of levying this tax.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 51 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 52 to 55 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 7 agreed to.