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Office of Tax Simplification

Volume 514: debated on Tuesday 20 July 2010

(Urgent Question): To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he will make a statement on the structure and approach of the Office of Tax Simplification.

I am grateful for the opportunity to update the House on the establishment of the Office of Tax Simplification, further to the written ministerial statement that I laid before the House this morning.

The need for simplification in the UK tax system is clear. The quality of our tax law is a major determinant of our economic competitiveness. A complex tax system creates uncertainty and instability, which sends the wrong signal to international businesses looking to invest in the UK and so damages our economic growth. A complex tax system also means that businesses end up spending more time dealing with their tax affairs and less time on their core business. That can be particularly burdensome for smaller businesses.

We set out our proposed approach for reforming the tax policy-making process in a discussion document that was published alongside the Budget last month, but as well as reforming the way in which we develop new tax law, there is also significant work to be done to correct the mistakes of the past by reducing the complexity in the British tax system. That is where the Office of Tax Simplification comes into play.

In his Budget statement of 22 June, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor confirmed our plans to establish the Office of Tax Simplification. Today, we have done so. The OTS will advise Treasury Ministers on delivering a simpler tax system, drawing together expertise from throughout the tax and legal professions as well as from business and other interested parties, to provide advice on options for addressing existing complexity in the tax system. Its objective will be to reduce the burden of compliance for both businesses and individuals. The OTS will do that by advising the Government on where, in its expert view, the tax system is too complex and could be simplified, and by conducting inquiries into complex areas of the tax system, gathering evidence and suggesting options for reform.

The office will publish a report on each of its inquiries, detailing the evidence that it has collected, the views of interested parties, its analysis of potential reform options and proposals for simplifications. Either the Chancellor or I will discuss the findings of each report with members of the OTS board. The first such inquiry will be a review of all reliefs in the tax system. The OTS will review the full list of reliefs and identify those that should be repealed or simplified to create a simpler tax system. The second review will focus on simplifying the tax system for small businesses and the specific question of finding a simpler alternative to IR35.

The OTS will be led by an externally appointed and unpaid chairman and tax director, who will be supported in undertaking their duties by a secretariat of civil servants and private sector secondees. The chairman and the tax director will have complete control over forming the OTS’s judgments and will be accountable to Parliament for their advice. Michael Jack will be the interim chairman, and John Whiting has agreed to be the interim tax director. Together they will lead the establishment of the OTS and the reviews that it conducts in its first year. Over the summer, John Whiting will lead the appointment of the permanent secretariat, so that the first reviews can begin by early September. He will also establish committees over the summer to steer the OTS’s work and ensure close consultation with all interested parties. The committees will include experts from the tax and legal professions, the business community and other interested parties.

Making the right reforms to the tax system will help to pave the way for bringing more international business to the UK, which will give our economy the boost that it so urgently needs in the years ahead. We commend the creation of this body.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his statement. He will hear this afternoon that there is wide-ranging interest in the questions that he has raised, which is why it was all the more unacceptable that the statement was delivered at a press conference before it was made to Members. That, I am afraid, is becoming a pattern of behaviour. First, £6 billion of spending cuts were announced in the Treasury courtyard rather than in the Palace of Westminster. Then the approach to the spending review was announced in a press conference, not in this Chamber. Then reforms to the institutional arrangements for bank regulation were briefed to newspapers before the House was told. Then plans for a bank levy were outlined in a speech in the City, not from the Treasury Bench. If we wanted a timely reminder of the importance of the first debate to be held on business nominated by the Backbench Business Committee—on information relating to statements—the hon. Gentleman has just given us one.

Let me turn to the substance of the hon. Gentleman’s announcement. From all parts of the House this afternoon he will hear an endorsement of the principles of a simpler tax system that allows people to focus on their business affairs and profitability. He will see, too, an endorsement of the use of outside experts; that is nothing novel. But will he confirm the answers to a couple of questions about the office’s scope? If he is all for simplification, will the Office of Tax Simplification be advising him on his proposals to complicate the tax system by introducing a marriage tax allowance, all for the sake of sending an ineffective £3-a-week signal about his party’s views on what a family should look like? Will the office be advising the Chancellor either to advance or to drop those plans, and if so, on what timetable?

Can the hon. Gentleman tell us whether the Office of Tax Simplification will be advising him on dropping the measures announced in the Budget to increase the number of people facing marginal deduction rates of more than 90%? And if he is all for simplicity, why is the Treasury briefing that it wants a more complicated stamp duty system in connection with energy conservation in housing?

Secondly, there are a series of questions to be asked about the nature of the new beast that the hon. Gentleman has told us about this afternoon. We have heard a lot of talk in recent weeks about the Chancellor’s push for a bonfire of the quangos. Can the Minister tell us how much the new office will cost? Can he promise us that this is the last quango that the Treasury will announce this year? Can he tell the House how Mr Jack was appointed, and whether his appointment is fully in line with Nolan principles? What reassurances can the hon. Gentleman give the House this afternoon that, unlike the Office for Budget Responsibility, the Chancellor’s last independent creation, this office will not release its reports to help the Prime Minister get through a sticky Prime Minister’s Question Time?

Simplification is a good thing, and I am sure that the whole House will welcome the thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s proposals. But I am afraid that today’s announcement sounds rather more like an attempt to grab headlines than like real evidence of a push to improve legislation—legislation that is the responsibility of this House.

I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman requested an urgent question because he had prepared a speech and had forgotten that this development was announced in the Budget on 22 June. The creation of this organisation was not only in the Conservative party manifesto and the coalition agreement; it was also announced to the House on 22 June by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. Today we have announced the appointment of two distinguished individuals to perform the task that we have already set out. The misplaced outrage from the right hon. Gentleman is extraordinary, particularly given the record of the previous Government in this regard.

I am pleased that the right hon. Gentleman recognises, at last, the need for a simpler tax system and for outside experts to be involved in the tax system. We think that an important point; we have to make use of the expertise in the tax and legal professions, and the OTS is but one example of how we will do that, along with the creation of a business forum and a tax professional forum. All that will add to the sense of co-operation that exists in our tax system and the sense that the system can become an asset, not a liability—as, sadly, it had become under our predecessors.

The purpose of the OTS is to look at the stock of tax law—the thousands of pages of tax law in this country, which has the longest tax code in the world. It is an attempt to examine the existing tax code to make recommendations for simplification. All decisions will be made by Ministers accountable to the House. Parliament will continue to make tax law, but clearly the use of independent experts and publication of their recommendations and analyses will be a useful addition to our tax system.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the appointment process. These are interim appointments; we believed that it was important to establish the OTS quickly. The appointments will be there for 12 months, at which point we will go through the usual process of appointment for permanent appointees. In that 12-month period Mr Whiting and Mr Jack will add a great deal to our tax system, will establish the OTS—[Interruption.] In spite of that attack on the appointees, John Whiting, for example, has advised Opposition parties, including the Labour party in the past few weeks. These are well-established individuals. Michael Jack was a distinguished Minister in this area, who established the tax law rewrite project, and we think that that is useful experience.

As for the cost, I know that the view of the Labour party in government is that quangos must always cost a great deal of money—but Mr Jack and Mr Whiting are not being paid for this. The cost of the secretariat will be paid out of existing Treasury and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs budgets. This is good value for money, it will be a good contribution to our tax system, and we are very proud to announce it.

Order. The opening contributions of the Minister and the shadow Chief Secretary were a little on the long side. Many people want to take part. What I require is brevity—a textbook example of which can now be provided by the Chairman of the Treasury Committee, Mr Andrew Tyrie.

I am not so sure about that, Mr Speaker.

I warmly welcome anything that simplifies the tax system; I think we all do. The Chancellor described the new office as a

“a permanent force for a simpler tax system”,

but he has appointed it initially for only one Parliament. Can the Minister explain why? What is to be the annual budget of the office’s permanent staff, and will permanent appointments be subject to scrutiny by the Treasury Committee?

On the appointment process, we will see how we go. We are keen that the OTS should be accountable to Parliament, and I dare say that it will give evidence to my hon. Friend’s Committee. As for the cost, as I said a moment ago, the intention is that the costs will be borne from the existing budgets of HMRC and the Treasury. There will be secondees from the private sector, and we expect them to fund that at their own cost. As regards longevity, the initial appointments are for 12 months. We have set up the OTS for a Parliament, but I hope that it will be a permanent feature of our tax system.

One of the pieces of tax complexity that Treasury officials will be counselling this body to get rid of swiftly is perhaps one of the most important that has recently been introduced—the patent box, which enables intellectual property developed in this country to be domiciled in this country for tax purposes, not domiciled overseas at a great loss to the British taxpayer. Will the Minister ensure that the new body is not bamboozled by Treasury officials who have opposed that measure for far too long, and will continue to try to get rid of it?

As I mentioned earlier, the intention of the OTS is to look at the existing stock of tax law, not to examine new proposals for tax law. On the patent box, as we announced in the Budget, the intention is to carry out a consultation on intellectual property and on how the patent box works, how research and development tax credits work, and how the controlled foreign company rules apply in that context. We will be carrying out that consultation in the autumn.

May I welcome the announcements about the OTS, particularly the appointment of John Whiting—a move that will be very popular in the industry? Does the Minister agree that by simplifying the tax code, the Government are reducing the opportunities for tax avoidance?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The greater the complexity, the greater the opportunities for avoiding tax, and a simpler tax system closes down some of those opportunities. The relationship between avoidance and complexity is itself complex, because avoidance leads to more complexity. As a Government, we take tackling tax avoidance very seriously.

The old tax law rewrite project only managed, in more than a decade, to bring about the Capital Allowances Act 2001, four income tax measures, the Corporation Tax Act 2009, the Corporation Tax Act 2010 and the Taxation (International and Other Provisions) Act 2010. As the Minister expects a report on each of this new body’s inquiries, with an analysis of its reform options and recommendations, all of which might take some time, may I ask him, if he does nothing else, to urge the new Office of Tax Simplification to work rather more swiftly than the old tax law rewrite project was able to?

The hon. Gentleman rightly makes the point that tax law is a complicated matter, and such matters are not addressed easily and simply, but we believe that we have appointed the right individuals, and that there is engagement by the tax professions. We believe that the tax law rewrite project had many commendable features, but it was very restricted. It focused merely on wording, and we want an independent body to consider policy recommendations to see how we can improve our tax system.

Does the Minister agree that this is a very long overdue initiative, with two aspects that we would never have heard about from the Opposition—a focus on simplicity, and the idea that things can be done without the benefit of an overpaid quango?

I think that we are going to achieve something very important, with good value for money for the taxpayer—and I think that will be a hallmark of this Government.

To prove to the House the independence of the Office for Budget Responsibility, the Chancellor finally conceded that the appointment of its chair would be subject to the agreement of the Treasury Committee. If the so-called independent OTS is actually to be so, will the same arrangements be considered for the appointment of its chair?

We have not taken a view on that yet. We have to understand what the role of the OTS will be—to publish recommendations that will be, by necessity, in the public domain. People can debate those matters, which we think is a valuable purpose in itself. Whether the Treasury Committee needs to endorse every appointment made by the Government is a debate that we should have.

Is the Minister aware that one tax expert has described the “Gauke doctrine” as one of the most important changes in improving the competitiveness of our tax system—so long as it is delivered properly? Will he assure me that the Government will work to ensure that what has been put down on paper in the Budget will be delivered properly over this Parliament?

I am grateful to whichever tax expert identified the Gauke doctrine: my hon. Friend is right about so many things, because this is a question of following things through. We have set out some very good intentions and made a great deal of progress in our first few weeks, in demonstrating how the UK tax system can be an asset, but it is our responsibility as a Government to ensure that we follow through and build on what I believe have been some early successes.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the new body as being accountable to the House. If he has considered that idea closely, can he tell us precisely how it will be achieved?

We certainly anticipate that the Treasury Committee will want to take evidence from the tax director and the chairman, and that documents and recommendations produced by the OTS will be available to Members. I dare say that those recommendations will inform our debates on Finance Bills and, if it is possible, raise the quality of debate.

By how much did the tax code lengthen under the previous Government? I understand that its length is now a record in the western world.

I am afraid that I will not be able to give my hon. Friend a precise number, but the code did increase substantially in length. It is also worth noting that during the same period our tax competitiveness, as measured by the World Economic Forum, fell.

Any reduction in the burden on small businesses, or indeed any businesses, of administration costs in paying tax is to be welcomed. However, can the Minister say whether, as a result of simplification of the tax system, he expects to raise more tax or less?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for welcoming these measures. The intention is that the OTS will be neither a tax-raising nor a tax-cutting body but a tax simplification body. It will make recommendations, and our approach, wherever possible, is to broaden the base and lower the rate. If, for example, there are recommendations that reliefs should be withdrawn, we anticipate that the money saved could be recycled into tax cuts elsewhere. The OTS should not be seen as anything other than revenue-neutral.

I thank the Exchequer Secretary for this initiative on behalf of businesses small and large in Watford and elsewhere—but not on behalf of the tax accountants, who have not contacted me to say how happy they are. Does he agree that measures such as this, when the public and small businesses find things simpler, are very much to the advantage both of them, and of the Exchequer purse?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I know some of the tax accountants of Watford, and I suspect that they too will welcome this measure.

For how long will we have to watch this space to see an end to the quicksand of complexity that is IR35? Will the experts appointed to assist the OTS include people who understand the difficulties caused for families and firms who work and live on a cross-border basis in Northern Ireland? Those people are caught in an utter matrix of tax complications.

The hon. Gentleman makes a valuable point, and I hope that the OTS will bear it in mind. I am grateful to him for his comments.

Does the Minister agree that a more simplified tax system will encourage UK manufacturers to retain jobs here rather than export them to other countries? Does he also agree that the measure will make the UK look more favourable as somewhere for global companies to locate their business?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I said, we want to ensure that our tax system is an asset to the UK, so that we can go out there and sell the UK as a place to do business. We want one advantage of doing business in the UK to be a certain, stable, predictable and simple tax system.

All policy decisions will be for the House and Ministers. The hon. Lady makes the fair point that one cannot take politics entirely out of the tax system, but there are times when it is simply a question of complexity versus simplicity. There is scope for improvement, which is what I hope the OTS will be able to deliver.

Will the Minister make a special effort to simplify tax legislation so that it is understandable for ordinary people? As a former tax lawyer—a poacher turned gamekeeper—I know that too often, the best advice is the preserve of the richest. That is not fair.

My hon. Friend, too, makes a good point. On the day of the Budget we published our document “Tax policy making: a new approach”, which set out a more consultative and deliberative approach to tax law, ensuring that draft legislation is properly examined. We think that that is to the advantage of all people; greater clarity in tax law is clearly helpful.

Will the Minister confirm that the two appointees will not get any expenses or salary? Will he refer the appointments to the Committee on Standards in Public Life?

The appointees will not be paid. If they incur proper expenses, they will be reimbursed, as is only reasonable—[Interruption.] I would have thought all Members of the House would appreciate that. Ultimately, the appointments will be in accordance with the relevant provisions, but we believed it important to set the OTS up quickly. We have done that, and with two excellent individuals.

If those two excellent individuals are to work for an initial period of 12 months, will that be enough time for them to read the 11,000 pages of tax code applied by the previous Government?

I always got the impression from John Whiting that he had already read the code—and Michael Jack may also know a little about it. I take my hon. Friend’s point, but in 12 months they will be able to make a good start.

Many hon. Members have made points about fairness. Will the Minister ensure that the OTS will not simply dance to the tune of the wealthiest in society, and their accountants, in putting issues on the agenda? I refer to the decision in the Budget to reduce the backdating of new claims and changes of circumstance for tax credits from three months to one month, at a cost of £1 billion to ordinary people. Is it not the case that this Government are more interested in helping the wealthiest and putting obstacles in the way of the least well-paid?

I really do not accept the point that having a simpler tax system, which is understandable by everyone and not just those who can afford expensive advice, is in any way a regressive step. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) said, it will benefit everybody and we are pleased to be able to do it.

Does the Minister agree that along with the cancellation of Labour’s jobs tax and the reduction in corporation tax that his team has proposed, this will also help to re-open Britain for business?

That is right, and I would add our tax policy-making paper to that list. We want to provide greater certainty and stability in the tax system. It will encourage businesses to invest in the UK, and we are making good progress.

It is ironic that the new Government’s anti-quango approach seems to be translating into setting up more quangos. Apart from grabbing headlines, why cannot the functions of this new office be carried out within the Treasury and, therefore, be directly accountable to Parliament?

Some months ago my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made a speech identifying those areas in which quangos would be an advantage, and one of those was the ability to provide independent advice in a technical area. This is one of those areas, and we believe that engaging with outside bodies and making use of outside expert advice will actually benefit the creation of good tax law and improve our tax system. This policy is not about grabbing headlines, but improving our tax system because that is what we want to do. We will leave the headline grabbing and the sudden announcements to our predecessors.

I welcome the statement by my hon. Friend. Does he agree that it is striking that the independent experts who will lend their expertise to the OTS are doing so without being paid, and does that not contrast starkly with the millions spent on ineffective quangos by Labour?

We are very grateful to Mr Whiting and Mr Jack for giving up their time for free in an attempt to improve our tax system and provide a public service. They deserve thanks from both sides of the House, and it is a pity that there has been a little sniping from one or two Opposition Members.

Is the Minister aware that in Hastings we have some very successful business groups? They often complain to me about the over-regulation and complexity of the system. If we are to achieve the necessary growth, we need to allow them to expand their businesses. Can he assure me that this office will focus especially on those small and medium enterprises that will provide the growth that this country needs?

My hon. Friend is right to raise that point. Of the two reports that the office will produce initially, one will focus on taxation for small businesses and the problems with IR35. We believe that this organisation will be able to address that difficult issue, which frankly has not been dealt with satisfactorily in recent years.

I welcome the response to the urgent question today. As a former finance director, I will join many others in celebrating this simplification agenda, so that instead of spending time thinking about tax they can think about business growth. In particular, can my hon. Friend assure me that the office will also cover the subject of VAT which is as complex as corporation tax and others?

The OTS can look at all taxes. We will agree other subjects for consideration in the future, and I am sure that my hon. Friend is right to highlight that matter.

The spat at the beginning of the urgent question about whether the written statement was first leaked to the press raised the blood pressure of the shadow Minister. Would the Minister encourage all Back Benchers—indeed, all Ministers—to come along to the first Back-Bench business debate scheduled for later this evening on the very topic of information on statements for Back Benchers?

Order. I know that the Minister will relate his answer to attempts to simplify the tax system.

I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Speaker. All I would say is that if my hon. Friend is speaking, I am sure that the Chamber will be packed.

I welcome today’s initiative. Will the Office of Tax Simplification have a remit specifically to look at tax bands, particularly to make the UK more competitive? The corporation tax band between the small rate, the marginal rate and the large rate contains a slight anomaly.

Yes, the OTS could consider such matters. Essentially, rates will not be matters of complexity and will be entirely for the House to consider. However, the point that my hon. Friend highlights is one that the OTS might well be looking at in its small business review.

I am grateful to the Exchequer Secretary for his statement. Will the OTS receive representations from business organisations and individuals who can make a contribution to simplifying the tax structure?

We will certainly encourage the OTS to take representations. Mr Whiting and Mr Jack are keen to do so and will be establishing consultative committees to provide organisations and businesses with an opportunity to have their say and more generally to engage with businesses. We believe that, in the tax area in particular, it is important that we engage with business. That has been a characteristic of this Government, and we hope to continue to do that.

I welcome the Exchequer Secretary’s statement. Does he agree that tax simplification will lead to greater business confidence in small and medium-sized businesses, such as those in my constituency of Dudley South, which will lead to the confidence to make greater plans to create more jobs?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is at the heart of what this is about. A strong tax system can encourage strong growth in the private sector, which can encourage the growth we need to tackle our deficit, and I hope that the OTS will make a useful contribution to that.