Joint and several liability of company directors etc

Finance Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:15 pm on 16th 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, That schedule 12 be the Twelfth schedule to the Bill.

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

Clause 97 and schedule 12 introduce a new power to allow HMRC to tackle the behaviour of tax avoiders and evaders who seek to reduce their tax bill unfairly through the misuse of company insolvency. This measure tackles the small minority of people who use insolvency intentionally to sidestep tax liabilities. It does so by allowing HMRC to issue notices that make directors and other persons connected to the company jointly and severally liable for the company’s avoidance, evasion or phoenixism debts, as they are described, if insolvency is threatened. It is not linked to clauses 95 and 96, which make HMRC a secondary preferential creditor for certain tax debts.

The Government announced our intention to consult on tax abuse and insolvency at Budget 2017. The consultation ran from April to June in 2018, and the Government published a response document in November 2018. The Government also published draft finance Bill legislation for technical consultation in July 2019.

As I made clear when I discussed earlier clauses, it is the Government’s aim to support companies and help them to avoid insolvency, particularly at this very difficult and challenging time, and the measures recently announced to restructure the UK’s insolvency framework support this aim. This legislation will not impede those restructuring plans, and the measure focuses firmly on those who misuse insolvency in connection with tax avoidance or evasion, or who run up repeated liabilities that they then step away from.

In ordinary times, insolvency is a highly unfortunate but necessary part of commercial life. However, a small minority of people misuse insolvency for their own ends. They hide behind a company to engage in tax avoidance or evasion, or repeatedly build up tax debts, and then strip out the assets, liquidate the company and leave nothing to meet outstanding tax liabilities. Not only does this deprive the Exchequer of funds for important public services, but it undermines the insolvency process and adversely affects creditors and other businesses, and it casts the whole reputation of insolvency into disrepute. It is only right that we should act to discourage such misuse, and that is what this measure is designed to do.

Clause 97 introduces schedule 12, which contains details of the new regime and sets out conditions that must be met before the legislation will apply. First, paragraph 2 sets out the conditions that must apply before HMRC can issue a notice to an individual connected to a company that has engaged in tax avoidance or evasion. The conditions are: that the company has begun an insolvency procedure, or there is a serious risk that it will; and that the person was responsible for, facilitated or knowingly benefited from the avoidance or evasion.

Paragraph 3 sets out the conditions that must apply before HMRC can issue a notice to an individual who is connected to companies that repeatedly go insolvent with significant outstanding debts. Such companies are often referred to as phoenix companies, and it is widely agreed across the House that they are a blight on commercial life. The conditions are: that the person must have had a connection in the previous five years to at least two companies that began insolvency; that the person has a connection to a new company that carries out the same trade as the old ones; and that the amounts due to HMRC from the old companies total at least £10,000 and at least 50% of the amount due to unsecured creditors overall. That is an important safeguard to ensure that the measure focuses on catching those who play fast and loose with their tax. Paragraph 4 allows the amounts to be varied by a statutory instrument.

Turnaround specialists try to rescue companies that are in financial difficulty. Obviously, they cannot always be successful, so HMRC will not issue notices to those whose connection to a company is part of a genuine attempt to save the business. The third area that the legislation tackles is set out in paragraph 5, which deals with cases where companies have been issued with penalties for facilitating tax avoidance or evasion, and it sets out the conditions that must apply. Paragraph 9 ensures that a person is not exposed to a double liability for penalties transferred from a company, and paragraph 10 ensures that a notice must be withdrawn if it is no longer needed: for example, because the threat of insolvency has passed.

Paragraphs 11 to 16 deal with rights of appeal against notices and the right to join or take over a company’s appeal. Those are powerful safeguards intended to ensure that all taxpayers continue to be treated fairly by the tax system, and the new powers apply only in strictly narrow circumstances. Paragraphs 6, 7, 8 and 19 provide some definitions. Paragraph 17 ensures the measure continues to work where companies have ceased to exist, and paragraph 18 brings in limited liability partnerships.

The insolvency process is an important part of our commercial life and an important part of the process of encouraging investment in British business. A small but persistent minority take advantage of the rules to sidestep their tax responsibilities, seeking to keep the benefits of their avoidance or evasion while denying funds needed for public services. That is bad for the Exchequer, bad for business, bad for consumers and bad for other creditors. It is bad for society. Limited liability is an important part of our legal system, but that protection, intended to benefit honest businesses, should not extend to those who misuse the system to avoid their tax obligations. The Government are clear that everyone must pay the tax that is legally due, no matter who they are. It is therefore only right that we tackle such misuse. For that reason, I commend the clause and schedule to the Committee.

Photo of Wes Streeting Wes Streeting Shadow Exchequer Secretary (Treasury) 3:30 pm, 16th June 2020

It is always the case that when a new measure is introduced, criticism can be made of it simply because it had not existed previously. In this case, it really is a reflection of the Treasury’s failure to clamp down effectively on the abuse of the system and the people trying to avoid and evade their taxes. Despite the Government’s previous efforts to impose greater accountability for tax avoidance and evasion, there are still too many holes in the system, but I welcome the fact that clause 97 and the schedule will go some way to addressing that.

What is the threshold of responsibility for the conduct? When will HMRC consider the serious possibility that the tax liability might not be paid? At what stage will HMRC conclude that there is likely to be a tax liability arising from the avoidance? Might the Treasury go further, for example, by asking HMRC to report on how much money is lost by companies participating in or promoting tax avoidance schemes and then becoming insolvent before HMRC can counter the schemes and collect the money owed? Following on from that, how much money would be collected if those companies’ directors, participators and associated persons were made jointly and severally liable?

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

I want to comment briefly on the huge gap that exists within Companies House as part of this process. If we go after companies and directors that are involved in phoenixing, why can that not be stopped at source when those companies are registered at Companies House? Why is there no link to the Government’s Verify scheme for those who wish to register companies there? Companies House is obliged only to register the information, not to check whether any of the information is accurate, correct or related to any other kind of activity. It is not involved in anti-money laundering obligations, but it really should be. Will the Minister look carefully at the question of Companies House? That could be a key part of preventing phoenixing in the first place. For example, I have a friend who employed a builder to do work on his house for his disabled son. The builder went bust and phoenixed, as he has done on several occasions. My friend is out of pocket, and that company continues to trade. It is employing sub-contractors who lost out last time because there is nobody else to hire them in that small community. There needs to be a stop on those types of people and behaviours, and I urge the Minister to consider ensuring that Companies House is a big part of that.

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

I thank both hon. Members for their comments. I draw from them strong support for the clause, although it was caveated in the way they described. Let me address the issues that they raised.

The hon. Member for Ilford North asked, “Why not do this earlier?” There is a long-standing principle in company law that the corporate veil should not be pierced, and limited liability should exist in place. As he will recall, there was a moment not so long ago when HMRC had Crown preference and was always the first, or close to the first, creditor to get paid out. It then got moved to the back of the queue.

As we think about the current insolvency and abuse regime, there has been a process of further reflection on all the different aspects of it, and that inevitably includes the phenomenon that we have seen. My impression—I do not know whether it is true—is that phoenixism is a better recognised phenomenon and a more widely understood problem than it has been. This is part of a much wider effort that has been made—particularly since I have been Financial Secretary to the Treasury, but before that, too—to really push on the issue of avoidance and evasion, and that is what we are doing.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about process. It is a perfectly good, important question, and I have been through it myself with HMRC officials. I will not read out the conditions in each case, but there are central cases for the issuance of avoidance and evasion notices, avoidance and evasion facilitation notices, and repeated insolvency notices. Each has some quite specific criteria sitting underneath it. For avoidance and evasion facilitation notices, a company must have begun an insolvency procedure or given assurance that it will; it must have incurred a penalty for facilitating tax avoidance or evasion; there must be a serious risk that some or all of that liability will not be paid; and the person must have a relevant connection to the company at the time that the behaviour leading to the penalty occurs. There are important threshold tests that must be met, and there are appeals processes against notices that have been filed, which are designed to provide safeguards, for all the reasons that one might imagine.

I have a degree of sympathy for the point that the hon. Member for Glasgow Central makes about Companies House. In the promoter strategy, which we published at the time of the Budget, we looked to create a more integrated approach to trying to crack down on abusive avoidance and evasion, and the promotion of avoidance and evasion. It has been in part about pulling together different entities, one of which might be Companies House and another of which might be the Advertising Standards Authority, if the two had been outside the purview of a more traditional approach. I take the hon. Lady’s point, and I thank both hon. Members for their support for this important clause and schedule.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 97 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill

Schedule 12 agreed to.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

Do I take it that that was the last group?