National Insurance Contributions Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:45 am on 22nd June 2021.
If I may, I will explain a little of the background to clause 4. In addition to the powers taken in clause 3 to amend freeport conditions if the relief is found to be subject to abuse, clause 4 excludes employers that arrange their affairs with the aim of benefiting from the relief where that arrangement is contrary to the policy intent. Clause 4 works by removing eligibility for the relief if the conditions set out in clause 2 are met only as a result of an avoidance arrangement.
The Government are aware that the incentives of the freeport package potentially lend themselves to businesses taking steps to organise their affairs so that they can benefit from the relief; that is the design of the policy. Therefore, the Government have taken a similar approach to that in section 14 of the Finance Act 2021, which exempts employers if their arrangement is contrary to the policy intent of the relief and specifically in relation to the avoidance of tax.
An example of where the Government would expect HMRC to reject a claim for this relief would be where an employer structures their employment contracts so that a workforce can easily be dismissed after three years with the sole purpose of hiring new staff so that they can benefit from another three years of relief, or if an employer were to fire their employees and rehire the exact same posts with new employees.
The Government want the freeports to thrive, to boost local investment and to be a hotbed of innovation. Clause 4 provides an invaluable backstop and gives HMRC the ability to recover any relief that has been claimed as a result of contrived arrangements. I urge that clause 4 stand part of the Bill.
As we have heard, clause 4 states that the relief for freeport employers cannot be claimed if an avoidance arrangement has been used, and it defines what is meant by an avoidance arrangement. We welcome any steps to prevent employers from taking advantage of the relief in cases in which avoidance arrangements are used. As this clause sets out, avoidance arrangements are those that are, or include steps that are
“contrived, abnormal or lacking a genuine commercial purpose, or” that circumvent
“the intended limits of the application of section 1 or otherwise” exploit
“shortcomings in that section or in provision made in or under sections 2 and 3.”
I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm for us what extra resource, if any, has been made available to HMRC to ensure that it can identify and take action against employers in a freeport who have used avoidance arrangements. I would also like to understand what the Bill suggests about wider access to tax reliefs that arise from avoidance arrangements. I would be grateful if the Minister could offer some clarity on the wider situation.
This clause makes it clear that the tax relief in clause 1
“does not apply if it would otherwise apply only as a result of avoidance arrangements.”
Perhaps the Minister could help me to understand this by explaining whether, generally, companies are still able to claim tax reliefs if they arise only from avoidance arrangements—that is to say, arrangements that are contrived, abnormal or lacking a genuine commercial purpose. Although we of course support this relief being withheld in cases in which it can apply only as a result of avoidance arrangements, I would appreciate an explanation from the Minister about why this specific measure is needed and why the relief would not be withheld by existing provisions in law if it was deemed to have arisen from avoidance arrangements.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions. Of course, HMRC is taking a close interest in freeports and has been closely involved in the policy design in order to minimise any potential for avoidance and any other failure to target the policy as we would desire. It is well staffed to address all the concerns that are raised. Of course, its staffing is flexible and also is something that reflects periodic conversations with the Treasury during the spending review processes and otherwise in order to ensure that it is as effective as possible—and it is highly effective, as is shown by the fact that the tax gap in this country is now lower than it ever has been. It is significantly lower than it was in 2005, for example—it is something like 40% lower than it was under that Government. That important achievement puts things into perspective.
The hon. Member for Ealing North will be aware that the Government take the wider avoidance of tax very seriously. We have the DOTAS—disclosure of tax avoidance schemes—rules, which we will come to later in the discussion of this Bill, and separate measures against promoters, which are also in law. The general view of the Government and HMRC is that we want to be as effective as possible in ensuring that the use of reliefs is properly targeted and that they are not used for the purposes that the hon. Gentleman described—in other words, not related to commercial activity or in some sense designed purely to deny revenue to the Exchequer. I trust and hope that HMRC will continue to take that policy approach.