Clause 25 - Tonnage tax

Finance (No. 2) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 14th December 2021.

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

Photo of Helen Whately Helen Whately The Exchequer Secretary

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher.

Clause 25 reforms the UK’s tonnage tax regime from April 2022, with the aim that more firms will base their headquarters in the UK, using the UK’s world-leading maritime services industry and flying the UK flag. The UK tonnage tax regime was introduced in 2000 to improve the competitiveness of the UK shipping industry. It is a special elective corporation tax regime for operators of qualifying ships. Now that the UK has left the European Union, the Government will make substantive reforms to the regime for the first time since it was introduced, to help the UK shipping industry grow and compete in the global market. The reforms will make it easier for shipping companies to move to the UK, make sure that they are not disadvantaged compared to firms operating in other countries and reduce administrative burdens.

Clause 25 will make changes to the tonnage tax legislation contained in schedule 22 to the Finance Act 2000 to reform the regime from April 2022. Specifically, it will give effect to the following measures announced at the autumn Budget in 2021. The Government will give HMRC more discretion to admit companies to the regime outside the initial window of opportunity, where there is a good reason. The Government will reduce the lock-in period for companies participating in the tonnage tax regime from 10 to eight years, aligning the regime more closely with shipping cycles.

Now that the UK has left the EU, the Government will remove the consideration of flags from EU and EEA countries. Following this legislative change, HMRC will update its guidance to encourage the use of the UK flag by making it an important factor in assessing the value that companies who want to participate in tonnage tax will bring to the UK in the strategic and commercial management test. Finally, following the UK’s departure from the EU, the Bill will simplify a rule that may include distributions of related overseas shipping companies in relevant shipping profits.

These changes to modernise the tonnage tax regime will make sure that the UK’s maritime and shipping industries can compete in the global shipping market, bringing jobs and investment to nations and regions across the UK. I commend the clause to the Committee.

Photo of Abena Oppong-Asare Abena Oppong-Asare Shadow Exchequer Secretary (Treasury)

I thank the Minister for her explanation of clause 25, which makes amendments to the tonnage tax regime. Tonnage tax is a special elective corporation tax regime open to operators of qualifying ships that fulfil certain conditions. The amendments will have effect from 1 April next year. At the autumn Budget in 2021, the Government announced that they would introduce a package of measures to reform the UK’s tonnage tax regime from April 2022, which they say aims to ensure that the British shipping industry remains highly competitive in the global market. As part of the package, the Government say these amendments support their aim of simplifying the operation of tonnage tax legislation and making it more flexible following the UK’s departure from the European Union. Clause 25 gives effect to some of these measures by amending the tonnage tax legislation contained in schedule 22 to the Finance Act 2000, as the Minister said.

In his Budget speech on 27 October, the Chancellor of the Exchequer said:

“When we were in the old EU system, ships in the tonnage tax regime were required to fly the flag of an EU state, but that does not make sense for an independent nation. So I can announce today that our tonnage tax will, for the first time ever, reward companies for adopting the UK’s merchant shipping flag, the red ensign. That is entirely fitting for a country with such a proud maritime history as ours.”—[Official Report, 27 October 2021; Vol. 702, c. 282.]

Unfortunately, TaxWatch has pointed out that the proposed reforms will do no such thing. In fact, TaxWatch has described them as a retrograde step. As the Minister mentioned, the clause will remove the flagging requirement that requires ships to be registered in EU registers, but it does not replace it with anything. Companies will qualify for the tonnage tax regime regardless of where they register their ships, whether it be in Panama, Libya, Bermuda or any other flag of convenience. Can the Minister explain why that is the case? Moreover, we find it deeply regrettable that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as Mr Speaker put it, ran “roughshod” over Parliament in briefing the press on the tonnage tax before informing Parliament.

I would be grateful if the Minister could respond to two points. First, can she comment on whether she personally feels it is acceptable for a Government Minister, or officials acting on their behalf, to brief the press on Budgets before the House of Commons? Secondly, what assessments has she made of the consequences of this premature briefing, in terms of whether any private company or individual could have profited from advance knowledge of legislation before it was presented to Parliament?

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury) 2:15 pm, 14th December 2021

I support the comments made by the Labour Front-Bench spokesperson on this issue. Switching flag is the most crazy kind of gesture politics. Would it not have been better to look at green shipping? That would create a tax incentive for the industry, which is one of the leading contributors to emissions, to transfer to better forms of power, to reduce its carbon emissions and to have some positive impact on global emissions and the net zero target, rather than pursuing the gesture politics of switching flags on a ship.

Photo of Helen Whately Helen Whately The Exchequer Secretary

As I set out, the clause reforms the UK’s current tax regime to help the UK shipping industry grow and compete in a competitive global market. Overall, this will be to the benefit of our maritime industry and, therefore, to the UK as a whole, supporting GDP, tax revenues and jobs in the UK.

I will pick up on a couple of comments made by the Opposition Front-Bench spokespeople. On the points made by the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead, the clause is all about helping our shipping industry compete in a global market and making sure firms are not disadvantaged compared to those operating in other countries. It comes at a minimal cost to the Exchequer and we expect to see tax revenues in the sector increase as a result, because it will mean that more shipping groups are likely to headquarter in the UK. That will bring tax advantages and benefits to the UK, as well as tens of thousands of jobs that relate to that.

On the second point that the hon. Member made, I emphasise that the Treasury takes the recommendations of the Macpherson review very seriously and follows them in full. The reforms to our tax regime were rightly announced some months before they will come into force, in April next year.

The hon. Member for Glasgow Central talked about environmental factors. As part of the reforms, HMRC expects to update the guidance on assessing eligibility for the tonnage tax regime, and environmental factors will be considered as part of that, so it can help us on decarbonisation actions and ambitions.

Photo of Abena Oppong-Asare Abena Oppong-Asare Shadow Exchequer Secretary (Treasury)

I thank the Minister for her explanations. Has an assessment been made of whether anyone profited as a result of the Chancellor’s premature announcement to the press? Has any assessment been carried out?

Photo of Helen Whately Helen Whately The Exchequer Secretary

I emphasise what I said a moment ago: the Treasury followed in full the approach that should be taken, as set out in the Macpherson review in 2013. The Government’s tonnage tax reforms will ensure that the UK’s maritime and shipping industries remain highly competitive and bolster our reputation as a great maritime nation.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 25 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.