National Insurance Contributions Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 22nd June 2021.
Clause 11 widens the existing power in the Social Security Administration Act 1992 to make amendments to the disclosure of tax avoidance scheme regime known as DOTAS, which I mentioned earlier. The changes enable HMRC to obtain information and documents much earlier for avoidance schemes that HMRC suspect should have been notified to them but have not been disclosed. The changes will allow HMRC to issue a notice to anyone they reasonably suspect of being a promoter or other supplier involved in NICs tax avoidance schemes. It would require the provision of all documents and information that relate to the schemes in question. The amendments will ensure that regulations can be made mirroring the changes to the DOTAS procedures that are included in the Finance Act 2021.
The changes here are necessary to satisfy HMRC that a NICs scheme is not notifiable. If HMRC are not satisfied, they would be able to issue a scheme reference number, or SRN. DOTAS was introduced in 2004 and seeks to provide HMRC with early information about new tax avoidance schemes, how they work and those who use them. The equivalent regime for VAT and other indirect taxes, known by the unattractive label of DASVOIT—disclosure of avoidance schemes for VAT and other indirect taxes—was introduced in 2017.
Currently, when avoidance promoters fail to meet their DOTAS obligations, it can take HMRC a considerable period of time to challenge that failure, often years. Throughout that delay period, there is no disincentive to promoters continuing to promote their schemes, meaning that taxpayers may remain unaware of the risks they face and could end up with large tax bills.
It is appropriate that we should continue to act to protect taxpayers and discourage such behaviour from promoters where they involve NICS. The clause provides that future modifications to part 7 of the Finance Act 2004—Disclosure of Tax Avoidance Schemes—can be applied or modified so that they apply to NICs without the need for primary NICs legislation. That will enable changes to be made efficiently and effectively, with the minimum of separation in time, to ensure the rules continue to move in step. It is usual practice where an existing tax rule is extended to NICs, and I hope the Committee will agree that it is appropriate to have that in place.
The DOTAS regime provides HMRC with important early information, on the basis of which we can make interventions. The prompt disclosure to HMRC of proposals and arrangements that bear the hallmarks of tax avoidance will allow them to be fully considered and tackled much earlier and more effectively, as appropriate.
Clause 11 widens existing regulation-making powers so that regulations can be made for national insurance, mirroring the amendments to the disclosure of tax avoidance schemes—DOTAS—procedures that are included in the Finance Act 2021. This measure, and its counterpart in the Finance Act, means that when HMRC suspects someone has failed to disclose arrangements or proposed arrangements that should have been notified to them under DOTAS, it may issue a notice to anyone it suspects of being a promoter or other supplier involved in the supply of the arrangements. The notice explains that if the person is unable to satisfy HMRC that the arrangements are not disclosable, HMRC may allocate a scheme reference number to the arrangements.
As I made clear on Second Reading, we welcome any measures that help HMRC to track tax avoidance schemes. During the debate, I drew Ministers’ attention to a point made by the Chartered Institute of Taxation: that it believes that there is a hard core of between 20 and 30 promoters, identified by HMRC, who clearly do not play by the rules. I asked:
“Do Ministers recognise that number? If so, I would be grateful if the Exchequer Secretary set out what goals HMRC has to clamp down on those 20 to 30 hard-core promoters.”—[Official Report,
Unfortunately, the Exchequer Secretary did not address those questions at the end of Second Reading, so I am glad to have the chance today to raise them again for the Financial Secretary to address. Would he comment on whether he recognises 20 to 30 as the number of hardcore promoters, and on whether there are any targets with dates by which Ministers expect the number of hardcore promoters at large to fall substantially?
Again, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. It is HMRC’s view—as he says that it is the Chartered Institute of Taxation’s view—that some 20 or 30 promoters are in the market at present. HMRC are vigorously applying themselves to curtailing that activity and to supporting and protecting taxpayers. The Bill will give them an important additional tool with which to do that. By their nature, the promotion of tax avoidance schemes is constantly changing and evolving; promoters are highly resourceful in seeking new ways to sidestep responsibilities and avoid the attention of HMRC. That is one reason why the earlier interventions and the greater flexibility that we have provided are so important.
For that reason, I do not think that it would be prudent to make an estimate or assessment of what the appropriate number of promoters is or could be. The number that we want, obviously, is zero: we would like to see no promotion of tax avoidance schemes in the market, because it is a reprehensible and disgraceful practice.
To reassure the hon. Gentleman and other members of the Committee, I will say that over the past six years, more than 20 promoters have left the market. That is a significant achievement that reflects the decisions that have been made. As I have also indicated, there has been a substantial reduction more widely in the overall tax gap, which bears testimony to HMRC’s wider effective prosecution and collection of unpaid tax.