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Tax Avoidance

Volume 550: debated on Tuesday 11 September 2012

This coalition Government have dramatically increased the pressure against those who avoid and evade taxes. As a result of our efforts, tax revenues from our compliance and enforcement are £3 billion higher than when we came to office. We have tackled disguised remuneration, we are dealing with stamp duty enveloping and we are introducing a general anti-abuse rule. None of those things, of course, happened over the previous 13 years.

My constituents do not mind paying taxes, so long as everyone pays their fair share. Given that the tax gap widened under the previous Government, will the Chancellor confirm that this Government are committed to tackling all forms of aggressive tax avoidance as well as tax evasion?

We are committed to doing that. My hon. Friend is right that the tax gap—the amount of money that should be collected but is not collected—rose from £35 billion to £39 billion under the previous Government. As I have said, our compliance and enforcement efforts have already increased the amount raised by £3 billion, and later this week we will confirm that we have raised £500 million more in extra tax from high net worth individuals as a result of our efforts through Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. We are taking action, but need it to be supported, yet the Labour party recently voted against the changes to disguised remuneration, which were an attempt to clamp down on a particularly egregious form of tax avoidance.

One group of people who could not avoid paying tax are the disabled Remploy staff who were recently made redundant. They were put on an emergency code, with the result that their holiday and notice pay was taxed at almost 50%. HMRC has promised refunds, but will the Chancellor go back to his Department and ensure that the payments are made as a matter of urgency and within the current tax year?

Many Members of this House have told me of their deep concern about the development of retrospective tax measures, and the Treasury Committee shares those concerns. Does the Chancellor agree that the best way to prevent loss of revenue from avoidance schemes is to work much harder to create a simpler tax system in the beginning?

Yes, I agree that that is of course the best approach, but in the tax code of a western democracy there will inevitably be opportunities for abuse and avoidance, which we need to deal with. When it comes to retrospection, I say to my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Treasury Committee, that I think the House of Commons should sanction retrospective taxation only when it is very clear that the explicit wishes of Parliament have been abused and avoided. For example, in the case of a particular UK bank that his Committee and I have corresponded about, we acted retrospectively because there was a clear breach of what Parliament had expressed, and I am very pleased to note that the bank’s new chief executive has today said that the bank will be scaling down its tax structuring activities.

A year ago the Chief Secretary to the Treasury made a speech in which he said he would employ 2,000 more tax inspectors, but in March this year it transpired that there were almost 1,300 fewer people in compliance than there had been when the Government came to power. Can the Chancellor tell us when we will see any of those 2,000 new inspectors, or are we to take it that that was simply a conference flourish speech and that there is no real determination to clamp down on tax avoidance as the Chancellor has said?

The number of specialist tax people at HMRC dealing with compliance is going up over this Parliament. We are also committing an extra £900 million to the organisation specifically for that activity. As I have just explained to the House, we are collecting £3 billion more in tax as a result of compliance over this Parliament and, as we will confirm later this week, we are collecting £500 million more from high net worth individuals because of the high net worth unit and its better than expected performance over the past two years.

Following the Government’s very good initiatives so far on dealing with tax avoidance, will the Chancellor look at those private sector companies that are monopoly providers of public sector services, which have billion-pound turnovers, pay no corporation tax and often channel their money through offshore accounts in places such as the Caribbean and the Channel Islands?

I repeat the general observation that we are making every effort, through legislation and enforcement activity, to reduce tax avoidance and to stop tax evasion. If my right hon. Friend has specific examples that he wants to bring to my attention, he should please do so, and if necessary we will investigate.