Anti-avoidance

Finance Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:15 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:

Clause 65 stand part.

That schedule 8 be the Eighth schedule to the Bill.

Clauses 66 to 69 stand part.

That schedule 9 be the Ninth schedule to the Bill.

Clause 71 stand part.

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

These clauses and schedules, again technical in nature, are also essential to the effective working of the digital services tax. Clause 64 sets out anti-avoidance provisions for the tax, and I make clear that the digital services tax has not been introduced to counteract avoidance of other taxes by digital groups. It is not about targeting particular businesses; it is a temporary measure designed to address failings in international tax rules. This clause provides HMRC with the power to counteract arrangements that may be designed or used to reduce the amount of DST that a group may have to pay. There are also safeguards within the clause that ensure the counteraction provisions do not apply when the tax advantage obtained was within the spirit of the rules.

Clause 65 sets out the process by which HMRC can collect unpaid DST liabilities from other members of the same group. This is particularly relevant to DST, as the companies liable to the tax may not be resident in the UK. Therefore, to assist HMRC in collecting unpaid debts, it will be possible for it to issue a notice to other members within a group it intends to collect the debt from.

Schedule 8 is introduced by clause 65, and provides further detail about how the notices operate. The combined effect of clause 65 and schedule 8 is to ensure that unpaid debts are collected wherever possible.

Clauses 66 and 67 set out at which rate, and when, interest will be due or required on DST payments that are made early or late, as the case may be. This will mirror the rates and timings found in corporation tax, and will therefore be familiar to many practitioners.

Clause 68 sets out that any DST liability is recoverable as a debt due to the Crown, the effect of which is to ensure that HMRC can collect any amount of DST that goes unpaid.

Clause 69 simply introduces schedule 9, which sets out provisions for minor consequential amendments in other enactments that are required as a result of the introduction of the DST. Primarily, these relate to interest rates, penalties and other tax administration processes.

Clause 71 sets out the meaning of various key terms used in the Bill relating to DST, and I commend the clauses and schedules to the Committee.

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

We have no substantial issue with these clauses, and obviously we welcome the inclusion of an anti-avoidance provision. As has been evident throughout the course of the discussions in Committee on this section of the Bill, it is a complex area, and we know that many large digital companies use intricate methods with considerable skill in order to reduce their tax liability. I mentioned earlier that some stakeholders have referred to the need for extra capacity at HMRC to make sure that this tax is properly administered and its impact properly accounted for. How confident is the Minister that anti-avoidance strategies will be adequately detected when the overall difficulties in administering the tax are taken into consideration?

Moreover, the Government’s website states that HMRC must counteract such arrangements by making such adjustments as are just and reasonable. The Minister touched on this in some of our earlier discussions, but I would be grateful if he could elaborate on exactly what a just and reasonable adjustment for tax avoidance arrangements entails. As I have already set out earlier today and in other debates we have had, the scale of tax avoidance practices by digital multinational enterprises is large and the methods that they adopt are intricate. The Government’s record so far in this area does not inspire a great deal of confidence on the Opposition Benches, and I would be grateful if the Minister could allay some of our concerns in this area.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising those questions.

The first question she raised was about extra capacity. I think we touched on this already, but it is worth just saying that HMRC already has a digital services team in place. The tax requires, in the first instance, companies to come forward with a process of self-assessment, which HMRC can then assess and view. From that point of view, this is a tax that is designed to minimise administrative burdens, not merely on the groups being taxed but on HMRC itself.

It is also worth saying that one of the extraordinary aspects of the past few months has been that HMRC has been able to show itself remarkably flexible in the way it has operated, and this might be a moment to pay due tribute in respect of that. Although it is an enormous organisation, it has been very flexible in several different areas. The first was in reconfiguring its business to be able to deal with staff absence in the face of coronavirus, which has been extremely effective. The second has been in being able to configure its services in order to match the evolving demand. A classic example would be that many services that were being handled by telephone interactions are increasingly being handled by text interactions or chats. Many services that were being handled through office phone interactions are being handled through phone interactions at home.

HMRC has been very flexible in that regard. Almost the most salient aspect is that it has been able to bring a succession of schemes into play, such as the furlough scheme, the self-employment scheme and the statutory sickness pay scheme. That flexibility of organisation has allowed it to move incredibly quickly to put those schemes in place and thereby support the lives and livelihoods of millions of people. If someone had asked me at the beginning of year whether I would be publicly accountable for an organisation that would end up supporting the lives and livelihoods of some 10 million to 11 million people, I would have been very surprised indeed, but that is what has happened. I pay great tribute to the officials and staff at HMRC, and of course the Treasury, for their public spirit and service.

The hon. Lady asked how confident I am about anti-avoidance. Of course, anti-avoidance is an ever shifting and evolving pattern, and it is right to raise that question. If the past is any guide to the future, there will prove to be aspects of avoidance that are not contemplated at the moment and against which we may have to take future care, but the Bill provides a very broad capacity for HMRC to counteract arrangements that are designed to reduce the amount of tax that the group may have to pay through the digital services tax.

This can apply to any type of arrangement that appears to have, or in fact has, a main purpose of achieving a tax advantage. An example might be that a group could attempt to reduce its DST liability by arranging with willing customers to provide valuable digital services for free and instead charge very high fees for an item of trivial value that the customer does not need. The effect of that would be, pretty plainly, only to reduce the amount of DST to be paid, and of course the group might argue that that revenue was unconnected to the digital service. The clause prevents such behaviour. Were such an arrangement to exist, the taxable revenue figure would be adjusted accordingly, to ensure that no tax was avoided. There are also safeguards, as we have discussed.

The tax, in general, is hard to avoid because it is based on a group’s revenues and on the location of the user, so although one cannot predict the future in any great capacity, the breadth of the legislation allows it to head off a lot of putative tax avoidance in advance.

There is a “just and reasonable” rule. Where it can be argued that an arrangement does not have the main purpose of avoiding the DST, it gives scope for HMRC to recognise that, and therefore not to catch it within enforcement proceedings. That is a fair and equitable adjustment process that respects the natural justice that we would always associate with a well-levied tax.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 64 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 65 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 8 agreed to.

Clauses 66 to 69 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 9 agreed to.