I beg to move,
That this House notes the agreement reached between HM Revenue and Customs and Google to pay £130 million in respect of taxes due over the period 2005 to 2015; and calls on the Government to publish the full details so that the British public can judge whether this is, as stated by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, a major success; and further calls for a swift international agreement to implement country-by-country reporting of company accounts.
I welcome the Minister who is responding to the debate. I truly sympathise with him as he has been placed in this situation by the Chancellor. I understand that the Chancellor is in Rome today. If it is true that he is associated with the current EU negotiations on the future of our relationship in Europe, may I say that it is unfortunate to say the least that securing a firm agreement on tax avoidance and evasion has not been a core issue in those negotiations so far. It could be a significant missed opportunity for this Government.
We have called this debate today because, over the past 12 days, we have witnessed the most supine capitulation to corporate interest by any British Government in the recent history of this country. Understandably, it has caused immense anger within our community among individual taxpayers, businesses small and large, independent commentators and people across the political spectrum. At a time when many of our constituents were filling in their tax returns and paying their taxes, they saw what the Government were allowing Google to get away with.
I will give way in due course, but may I remind Members that this is a time-limited debate and I wish to press on as quickly as I can? Of course Members will have the opportunity to engage.
On the Friday before last, Google announced late in the day by press release the company’s tax deal with HMRC. Google celebrated a deal comprising a payment of £130 million to HMRC in respect of taxes from 2005 to 2015. Astoundingly, in the early hours of the morning, the Chancellor was in an equally celebratory mood and tweeted that this was a “victory”—a major success.
I will give way in due course. Calm down.
The Google deal and the Chancellor’s exultation about it were immediately received with incredulity by independent tax analysts—understandably. The Chancellor and HMRC were all too keen to publicly parade the deal, but when challenged to release the detail of it, hid behind confidentiality conditions.
I am grateful for the intervention. The hon. Gentleman probably knows that I was not the most enamoured of the Labour Government’s track record during that period, but it was a Labour Government who started this inquiry and the hon. Gentleman’s Government took six years to complete it. According to a recent estimate by the Financial Times, the measures introduced by the Labour Government will reap 10 times the amount of tax that this Government have secured.
Will not many of our constituents find it difficult to understand the fact that this information is largely in the public domain? We know the profits, assets and liabilities of Google in the United Kingdom because those finances are public. We also know how much tax is being paid. Does that not lead us to the conclusion that the tax rate is 2.77%, not 20%?
Let me come on to that point.
It did not take long for independent analysis to show what a derisory sum the Google tax payment was. The word “derisory” is not just my description, but the word used by the hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), the Mayor of London, as well as many others. Google had a UK turnover of approximately £4 billion in 2014-15. If profits here were similar to those across the whole group, about a 25% return, that implies £1 billion-worth of profits. If the standard 20% corporation tax is levied, that implies a £200 million tax bill for the one year, not the £200 million paid by Google for the decade. As my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) said, independent assessors have estimated that the Google tax rate for the past decade was 3%.
Companies such as Simworx in my constituency are extremely successful at selling products around the world that are based on their intellectual property developed in the UK. Does the shadow Chancellor think the profits from that intellectual property should be taxed in the country where those products are sold, or here in Britain?
Let me press on as we are time-limited.
It is no wonder that local small businesses and taxpayers in all our constituencies feel so strongly that the arrangement with Google is grotesquely unfair. They have not been allowed to ignore their tax demands for a decade, then negotiate a sweetheart deal at mates’ rates. It show who counts with this Government that, in the month when they let Google pay a paltry sum in back tax, they lose in court in their pursuit of disabled people over the issue of the bedroom tax, and then they decide to appeal the court decision so that they can persecute some of the most vulnerable and the poorest people in the land over a relatively insignificant sum. That demonstrates to us a bizarre, upside down and callous sense of justice and fairness.
Does the shadow Chancellor agree that what compounds the sense of unfairness that our constituents feel is that the tax gap has been estimated by many to be well over £100 billion, and at the same time this Government are cutting HMRC offices and at the weekend announced compulsory redundancies for tax collectors? How on earth can we narrow the tax gap when that is happening?
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was listening. I just answered that point by reference to my critique of the Labour Government. I convened the Tax Justice Network campaign meetings in this building, and I have campaigned for 18 years. The FT assessment is that the measures introduced by the Labour Government will reap 10 times as much as anything introduced by this Government.
Let me press on. Last Monday, to get some answers about the Google deal, I tabled an urgent question to the Chancellor, and I am grateful that Mr Speaker granted the question. Typically, the Chancellor failed to turn up and the Minister was left to defend this “victorious” deal. By that time, No. 10 was furiously distancing itself from the Chancellor. Within 72 hours the Google deal had gone from “a major success” to merely “a step forward”, according to No. 10. I see that this weekend the Business Secretary was describing the deal, with masterly understatement, as “not a glorious moment”.
Yesterday Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, said:
“It doesn’t feel fair. And in our hearts, I think we all know it isn’t fair.”
I agree wholeheartedly.
During the urgent question discussion last Monday the Minister was specifically asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) whether he knew the rate of tax that Google was paying. He said bluntly, “No.” We heard the assertion that the HMRC calculation of back tax was on the basis of tax levied on profits as a result of an assessment of economic activity. That implies very little economic activity in Google UK. That argument wore a bit thin when it was pointed out that Google employs 2,300 staff in the UK on average earnings of £160,000, and is building a new headquarters in addition to the two it already has.
May I join the shadow Chancellor in demanding more transparency? I have been contacted by people in my constituency who are concerned that the Government are creating a loophole especially for Google and nobody else. We in the House and in this country deserve full transparency on this deal.
In due course; let me press on a little further.
As last week wore on, there was a growing sense of outrage at the Google sweetheart deal. Many felt betrayed by the Chancellor. We supported the Chancellor on the introduction of the diverted profits tax legislation to tackle firms using complex profit-shifting schemes to avoid tax. It was referred to as “the Google tax”. We learned last week that Google will not be paying a penny under that legislation.
We also supported the Chancellor in seeking international agreements on tackling tax avoidance, but we discovered at the weekend that Conservative MEPs had been directed by the Chancellor on at least six occasions to vote against the very tax avoidance measures being introduced by the EU that the Chancellor told us he was supposedly promoting.
I know the shadow Chancellor seeks consensus when he can and I am listening to what he says. I have been doing some totting up and I reckon that there have been about 40 changes to tax law since this Government have been in office, which has led to about £12 billion being raised since 2010. For the record, does he welcome that?
Of course; I have welcomed that. I have just been saying that I have supported the Chancellor on each piece of legislation that he has introduced to tackle tax avoidance and tax evasion. This deal flies in the face of everything the hon. Gentleman and I have been supporting in the Chamber.
Last year Google funnelled £8 billion-worth of royalty payments to Bermuda. Does my hon. Friend believe that the British Government should be doing much more to crack down on tax havens, particularly those that are British overseas territories?
I will address the Bermuda question, so if my hon. Friend waits a few minutes she will hear just how shocking the situation really is.
The Chancellor appears to be missing an opportunity in the EU negotiations to secure a robust international agreement to tackle tax avoidance and tax evasion, which Members across the House have been calling for.
I am going to press on.
We all supported the changes to public procurement rules that enabled the Government to prevent public contracts from being awarded to companies found to be engaged in tax avoidance schemes. Staggeringly, it is understood that no company has been denied a public contract on those grounds and that, even though its tax affairs were under such lengthy investigation by HMRC, Google was awarded public contracts to supply services—who to?—to HMRC.
On the point about international agreements, the United Kingdom Government have been at the forefront of the base erosion and profit shifting initiative. Richard Murphy, who describes himself as the author of Corbynomics, told the Treasury Committee yesterday that he was “pleased and very surprised” by the progress the Government have made since 2010.
I support the Government in that action, but this deal flies in the face of that action and undermines the agreements that we are trying to make.
Over the weekend we also heard from Mr Jones, the Google whistleblower. In his view, HMRC ignored his exposure of Google’s tax avoidance methods. That evidence was received by the Treasury Committee on a cross-party basis.
We all accept that the existence of tax havens and the complexity of national tax systems present an ongoing challenge to national Governments. As a result, we have all supported the negotiation of international agreements on tax collection. The UK is a signatory to some of these. As the hon. Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp) said, the Government have agreed in successive steps to abide by the base erosion and profit shifting programme under the auspices of the OECD. We supported that.
Let me press on, because time is short.
At the end of last week, the UK joined 30 OECD partner countries in signing up to the multilateral competence co-operation agreement. We supported that. That is the kind of international co-operation, albeit limited, that will help close the loopholes and ultimately close down the tax havens. It is the kind of agreement that we have backed for years and that we support the Chancellor in undertaking, but last week, by allowing the special treatment of one company, the Government drove a coach and horses through the entire international approach. As the EU’s Competition Commissioner suggested, that could amount to unlawful state aid. The UK is now being depicted across Europe as a tax haven. It risks establishing a race to the bottom in which all countries seek to outbid each other to offer the lowest possible taxation. We have written to the Competition Commissioner to request a formal investigation of the deal.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that this Government have done more than the previous Labour Government to close those loopholes? He says that he did not agree with the previous Labour Government, so will he tell us what he did to oppose those measures and raise the matter when he was in Parliament?
I know that the hon. Lady was not here at the time, so perhaps she should check my voting record throughout my 18 years in this House. I do not want to keep on repeating this. I wanted both Governments to go further, but an independent assessment has shown that the legislation introduced by the previous Labour Government will drag in 10 times more in tax than the current Government’s legislation, and even then I wanted to go further. We should at least accept the independent assessment that has been made.
I am going to press on, because time is short.
I have written to the Competition Commissioner to request a formal investigation of this deal. There was a visible flicker of life from the Chancellor a few days ago. In the pages of Monday’s Financial Times he let it be known that he might, after all, favour country-by-country reporting for multinational corporations. Tax experts and campaigners and I have long argued that this is a vital step towards transparency, and therefore towards fair collection. By revealing in their accounts in which tax jurisdiction their revenues were earned, a proper rate of tax can be applied to multinational companies. If the Chancellor now supports country-by-country reporting, I welcome that. However, the impression was given that even without international agreement the Government would act. Is this the case, or was it just a publicity stunt that has now been dropped?
My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) referred to Bermuda. On the “Andrew Marr Show” on Sunday a senior Google representative revealed that the company has £30 billion of profits resting in Bermuda, a British overseas territory. This is in order to avoid US tax rates. We now know that the Chancellor has been lobbying the EU and instructing his MPs to vote against anti-avoidance measures against Bermuda. It is a disgrace.
It was also revealed last week that Government Ministers have met Google 25 times over the past 18 months. I note that the Prime Minister himself has spoken at Google’s conference not once, but twice. If Ministers are to meet anyone, my advice is that they go and meet the trade union representatives of HMRC staff. With almost half the workforce having been laid off, and with offices having been closed across the country, it is widely known that morale is at rock-bottom, especially with the loss of highly experienced and expert staff. [Interruption.] Madam Deputy Speaker, a reference has just been made to declaring an interest. I have no interest to declare. I think that was a reference to the Public and Commercial Services Union and part of its trade union group. It does not fund the Labour party or my constituency. There is no interest to be declared.
We cannot allow the Government to go on like this. Trust and confidence in our tax system is being undermined. Every pound in tax avoided by these large corporations is a pound taken from the pockets of honest taxpayers. It is also a pound not spent on our schools, our NHS and our police. We need a real tax reform agenda, based on the principle of complete openness and transparency. First, that means, as a start, the publication of the details of this deal in full, so that we and our constituents can judge whether it is fair enough. Secondly, we need real country-by-country reporting of a company’s activities, and not just a secret exchange of information between tax authorities, but full publication so that we can all judge.
The shadow Chancellor said that he would set out his ideas, and I had hoped that he would talk about a more revolutionary change to the methods of taxation. With the massed ranks of corporate lawyers put up against national tax jurisdictions, it is an uneven battle, so perhaps we need some more radical thinking altogether.
The hon. Gentleman has taken an interest in this matter over many years and has regularly been in debates with me in this Chamber. I fully agree that we need a more radical approach.
Let me complete the recommendations briefly, because I think that they will open up a much wider debate. Thirdly, we need an end to mates’ rates and sweetheart deals with major corporations. Tax law should be applied fairly whatever the size of the company. Fourthly, we need full transparency in the relationship between Ministers and companies, so I want to see publication of all the minutes of all such meetings. Fifthly, we need firmer action to curb the tax avoidance industry, so action should be taken against the advisers when the tax avoidance schemes they designed are found to be unlawful by tax tribunals and courts. The same advisers advise Her Majesty’s Treasury and help write our tax laws. That is unhealthy and unacceptable.
I cannot give way, because I am concluding my speech.
Sixthly, we clearly need independent scrutiny of HMRC and the implementation of taxation policy overall. Let us now explore the establishment of a cross-party committee, along the lines of our Intelligence and Security Committee, to perform that role. Finally, we need an end to the counterproductive staffing cuts and office closures at HMRC.
For most of my time in Parliament, I have been campaigning for a fair tax system that secures tax justice. Of course companies such as Google make a significant contribution to research and development and through the employment they provide, and I welcome that, but we expect all companies to play fair when it comes to their tax responsibilities. I am unable to accept the Government’s amendment because it fails to support our key demand for openness and transparency. The amendment would remove Labour’s central demands for publication of the Google deal and the adoption of full public country-by-country reporting. If anything good is to come out of the sordid deal that the Government cut with Google, I urge Members of this House to use this opportunity to secure a just, fair, open and transparent system of taxation for our country and to start that process by backing our motion today.
I have to inform the House that Mr Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.
Before I call the Minister to move the amendment, I should tell the House that a great many people have indicated that they wish to catch my eye this afternoon. More than 20 hon. Members wish to speak, and this debate will last for considerably less than two hours. There will be a time limit of three minutes initially on Back-Bench speeches. [Interruption.] There is no point in people complaining about it—that is the amount of time there is. There will be three minutes and, even then, not everyone who wishes to be called to speak will be called to speak.
I say, very importantly, to the House that people who have intervened and taken part in the debate must remain in this Chamber for the whole of the debate—leaving for the odd five minutes is fine—because they are taking up time that other people, who have sat through the whole of the debate, will then not have. This is nothing to do with old-fashioned rules or conventions—it is simple courtesy by one Member of Parliament to another. I call Mr David Gauke to move the Government amendment.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” in line 1 to end and add:
“notes that the Government has taken action to promote international cooperation in relation to clamping down on tax avoidance by multinational companies, challenging the international tax rules which have not been updated since they were first developed in the 1920s, that multilateral cooperation at an international level has included the UK playing a leading role in the G20-OECD Base Erosion and Profit Shifting Project to review all international tax rules and increase tax transparency, and as part of that, the UK was the first country to commit to implementing the OECD country-by-country reporting model within domestic legislation, that the Government recognises the case for publishing country-by-country reports on a multilateral basis, that the Government has introduced more than 40 changes to tax law, that the various measures taken by the Government have included the introduction of a diverted profits tax aimed at targeting companies who use contrived arrangements to divert profits from the UK, stopping the use of offshore employment intermediaries to avoid employer National Insurance contributions, stopping companies from obtaining a tax advantage by entering into contrived arrangements to turn old tax losses or restricted use into more versatile in-year deductions, and requiring taxpayers who are using avoidance schemes that have been defeated through the courts to pay the tax in dispute with HM Revenue and Customs upfront, and that the Government is committed to going further, enabling HM Revenue and Customs to recover an additional £7.2 billion over the Parliament.”
It is a great pleasure to move the Government’s amendment. There is much that we have heard from the Labour party today on this subject that is wrong, confused and, to put it kindly, oblivious to the record of the last Labour Government. However, before addressing those points, I hope to strike a note of consensus. Both sides of the House believe that all taxpayers should pay the taxes due under the law. Both sides believe that taxpayers should refrain from contrived behaviour to reduce their tax liabilities, and all taxpayers should be treated impartially. That is why the Government’s record is one of taking domestic and international action to tackle tax avoidance.
I will set out details of that action, but first I want to address another issue. The shadow Chancellor’s approach has generated more heat than light, and often reveals a complete misunderstanding of how the corporation tax system works. Let me take this opportunity to explain to the House how it does, in fact, work.
The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies, in a paper it published last week, puts it well:
“The current tax rules are not designed to tax the profits from UK sales. They’re certainly not designed to tax either revenue or sales generated in the UK. They are instead designed to tax that part of a firm’s profit that arises from value created in the UK. That is the principle underlying all corporate tax regimes across the OECD.”
I make that point because it is fundamental to understanding the tax we are entitled to receive from multinational companies. It is not a point that the shadow Chancellor appears to have grasped.
Let me give an example of why this matters, and it is similar to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood). The UK is home to one of the most successful video games sectors in the world. Would it be fair for a firm to design a game here, develop it here and take the risks here, but to go on to sell it overseas and then have to pay corporation tax on all that activity in the country in which it makes the final sale, and not in the UK? The current international tax arrangements are clear that such profits are taxed in the UK—the place of economic activity—rather than in the place where the sales are made. That is the internationally agreed and internationally applied concept of corporation tax. That is the law that HMRC applies. Quoting numbers to do with revenues or profits from sales, as opposed to activities, demonstrates a lack of understanding of how the tax system works, or—and this is worse—an understanding of the way the tax system works, but the hope that those following these debates do not.
Is the Minister saying that Google employs 2,300 staff in this country on an average salary of £160,000, and they cannot be defined as involved in economic activity or as adding any value? What are they doing? Playing cards all the time? Are they not actually involved in economic activity—this sizable proportion of the Google workforce?
The point I am making is that the shadow Chancellor goes around quoting numbers based on profits from sales. To be fair, he went through the methodology carefully in the House today, but that methodology appears to be based on a complete misunderstanding of how the tax system works.
I do not misunderstand how the corporation tax system is applied, but without information from HMRC, and without publication of the deal, it is difficult to know exactly how much tax Google should be paying. That is why we are seeking answers. Also, there have been $8 billion of royalty payments to Bermuda. Does the hon. Gentleman really think that that is where the economic activity is and where the value is being added?
I will deal directly with the issue of transparency in a moment.
On the issue of how our international tax system works, I have explained that it is based on economic activity. However, I would be the first to say that that international tax system needs to be brought into the modern world. That is the very reason why the UK has led the way on the base erosion and profit-shifting process. We should also be aware that there are particular issues with the US tax system, which is failing to tax intellectual property developed in the US in the way that it should.
I gave the example of video games companies. However, I recognise that there are many cases that are much more complex, and where it is not so easy to identify where the economic activity takes place. There is an issue about where multinational companies allocate their profits and where they identify economic activity as taking place. There is a need to address that, which is why we need tax rules that genuinely reflect where economic activity takes place, to ensure that profits are aligned with it. However, that is a very different matter from making big claims about profits from sales and saying that those sales profits have to be taxed where the sales take place. That is the misunderstanding I wish to address.
The Minister is right, of course, that these issues are sometimes very complicated. However, sometimes there are loopholes that are exploited. Will he identify some of the loopholes closed by this Government that were opened by the previous Labour Government?
There is a whole host I could draw attention to, but in the interests of time, I will not run through that lengthy list. I have it here, and there are quite a number of cases—there are 40 I can identify straightaway—where there were loopholes, and we have tried to address that.
The diverted profits tax—I will come back to this again in detail in a moment—is designed to ensure that, where companies divert their profits away from the UK, and where the economic activity is happening in the UK, we get some of the tax yield.
The difficulty with the economic activity test the Minister talks about is that it is intrinsically judgmental, and that gives us many of the issues that we try to grapple with. The test came in in the 1920s, way before the internet. Might it not be a way forward to move more towards taxing sales and, if necessary, dividends, with less on corporation tax, which would take these judgments away?
The first point to make is that this is a debate on the operation of the tax law as it stands, not on how people might want it to be, and to be fair to HMRC, it can only collect the tax that is due under the law as it stands, not as how people might want it to be. On reform of this area, there is no reason why we should not debate these matters. However, with regard to a move towards taxing profits on the basis of sales—there is a perfectly respectable case for reform in that direction—I would be worried about the impact on, for example, the UK’s creative and scientific sectors. I have mentioned the video games sector, and one could also look at pharmaceuticals. There are a number of areas where the UK—businesses in our constituencies—would lose out in those circumstances, so I would be a little wary about it.
May I bring the Minister back to the fundamental point about transparency? It would make this debate much easier and more useful if he published the details of this deal in full so that we can be sure that we are not talking about mates’ rates and a special tax loophole for Google.
I will come on to transparency, but let me first return to this Government’s record on changing domestic law and leading the way in updating the international system.
This Government have led internationally on the G20 and OECD base erosion and profit-shifting project, making the international tax rules fit for the 21st century. My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in particular, took on highly prominent roles in initiating those discussions and taking them forward through the G20 and the OECD. The outcome will be to level the playing field among businesses, give tax authorities more effective tools to tackle aggressive planning, and help us better align the location of taxable profits with the location of economic activities and value creation. This is a major step forward in addressing the underlying causes of aggressive tax avoidance.
We have been at the forefront of implementing this agenda, acting swiftly to change the rules on hybrid mismatches and country-by-country reporting. Because we consider it important not to rely solely on international rules, we have also legislated domestically to introduce a world-leading measure to address the contrived shifting of profit from this country—the diverted profits tax. The diverted profits tax targets companies that divert profits from the UK, principally those with substantial activities in the UK who are trying to avoid creating a UK permanent establishment. Under our rules, those companies either declare the correct amount of profits in the UK and pay the full amount of corporation tax on them, or risk being charged a higher amount of diverted profits tax at a rate of 25%. By the end of this Parliament, the diverted profits tax will raise an extra £1.3 billion, both directly and as a result of associated behavioural changes. The tax is already having that effect, and multinationals will pay more corporation tax as a result.
The purpose of the diverted profits tax, which came into effect in April, is to ensure that companies stop diverting their profits and pay corporation tax like everybody else. I repeat that I cannot talk about the Google case beyond information that is in the public domain, but if this tax is effective in driving companies to stop diverting their profits, it is a success.
The Minister refers to the Government’s record over the past Parliament and this one, but he has not mentioned the changes to the controlled foreign companies rules, which favoured a number of companies at the expense of the Exchequer and, in net terms, at the much greater expense of exchequers in developing countries.
The Minister is making a very important point about the diverted profits tax. It is important that Members on both sides of the House recognise that this extremely important development was brought in by this Government, and that it is not correct to say that Labour Members supported it, because at the time, a year ago, their position was that it was not wise to bring it in until the BEPS process was completed, which it still is not. Had we taken the advice of the then shadow Chancellor and shadow Chief Secretary, there would be no diverted profits tax, and the points made by Labour Members would be irrelevant.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who reminds the House of an important point. When we brought in the diverted profits tax, the intention was clearly to make sure that we got more money being paid in corporation tax. We want to stop companies diverting their profits out of the UK, and we are leading the way in bringing forward legislation on this.
Let me address the shadow Chancellor’s point about resources for HMRC. We have invested heavily in HMRC’s ability to strengthen its anti-evasion and compliance activity, including through extra funding and hiring professionals whose area of expertise is multinational companies. For example, contrary to the impression that he gave, the number of people working in HMRC’s large business directorate has gone up, since it was formed in 2014, from 2,000 to 2,600 people. We believe in competitive taxes—that is why we have cut our rate of corporation tax so that it is the lowest in the G7—but we also believe in making sure that those taxes are paid.
I turn to the issue of transparency raised by several hon. Members. Taxpayer confidentiality is a fundamentally important principle of our tax system, as in the tax systems of every other major economy. We hear complaints that HMRC is not disclosing full details of the settlement. HMRC is prevented by law from disclosing taxpayer information. The resolution of tax disputes, however, is subject to full external scrutiny by the independent National Audit Office, which has reviewed how tax inquiries are concluded by HMRC. In 2012, it appointed a retired High Court judge, Sir Andrew Park, to investigate HMRC’s large business settlement process. Sir Andrew concluded that all the settlements he scrutinised
“were reasonable and the overall outcome for the Exchequer was good.”
I do wish that those who are so keen to accuse HMRC and its staff of sweetheart deals were as keen to look at what happens where independent scrutiny occurs in order to see that in fact there are no sweetheart deals. HMRC introduced—
I am grateful to the Minister, who is doing his best in a difficult situation. However, Ministers are not barred by law from publishing the minutes of meetings that they have, so could he now publish the minutes of all 25 meetings that Ministers have had with Google?
We have a very open and transparent arrangement for disclosure of meetings. I am very clear that when it comes to determining the tax liability of a company such as Google—or, indeed, any other taxpayer in this country—there is no ministerial involvement. HMRC is entirely operationally independent. There is no ministerial interference in such areas, and no suggestion that there would be. When it comes to determining the tax bill of any taxpayer, it is a matter of HMRC enforcing the law; it is not for ministerial involvement. HMRC introduced new governance arrangements for significant tax disputes in 2012 to provide even greater transparency, scrutiny and accountability. They included the appointment of a tax assurance commissioner to ensure that there is clear separation between those who negotiate and those who approve settlements. The tax assurance commissioner oversees the process and publishes an annual report on his work.
Let me be absolutely clear. There are no sweetheart deals, and there is no special treatment for large businesses. HMRC resolves disputes by agreement only if the business agrees to pay the full amount of tax, penalties and interest. Otherwise, it is a matter for the courts—an arena in which HMRC has a strong track record of fighting and winning.
I am grateful to the Minister for his assurance that there are no sweetheart deals, but if the process is so independent and Ministers are so far removed from it, how can he give us that assurance? Similarly, how was the Chancellor able to hail the deal as a major success?
We have in place strong governance. The NAO has looked in the past at settlements when accusations have been made of sweetheart deals, and those accusations have been dismissed. It is very clear that HMRC’s remit is to get the tax that is due under the law, and no one has ever produced a shred of evidence to suggest otherwise; they have merely displayed a prejudice against HMRC staff and a tendency to insult them.
I must press on. Tax avoidance is a global issue, which requires global solutions. Fruitful partnerships with other countries on the matter are part of the reason why the Government have been at the forefront of efforts to increase tax transparency. That appeared last year in the Conservative party manifesto, in which we pledged to
“review the implementation of the new international country-by-country tax reporting rules and consider the case for making this information publicly available on a multilateral basis.”
The Government are dedicated to increasing tax transparency, and we have already taken action. Just last week, the UK signed an agreement with 30 other tax administrations to share country-by-country reports from next year. We want such agreements so that information can be made public, as we spelled out in our manifesto. We will continue to lead any multilateral debates on tax transparency, as we have done in so many areas of international tax avoidance.
Reforming the international and domestic rules, investing in HMRC’s capacity and leading the way on global tax transparency—those actions were taken by this Government, but were sadly lacking during 13 years of Labour. The result of those actions has been £130 million to the Exchequer from Google, on top of the tax already paid. Under Labour, that sum was next to nothing. That is testament to the importance we have given to tackling the tax risks posed by multinational enterprises. Last month’s announcement represents an important result of our actions on the matter, and I assure hon. Members that we will continue to work hard on that agenda over the coming years, to give the Exchequer more money to fund the public services that we rely on. I urge the House to support the Government amendment.
This is, undoubtedly, an important debate for all the people outside the House who have commented on the subject, which is of great concern. We are talking about a complex matter, which may require, in the longer run, fundamental reform and international co-operation. There are no easy fixes. The deal with Google needs to be scrutinised, for the sake of all who are concerned that it might be described as a sweetheart deal. That is why I fully supported my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie) in taking the initiative and being the first person to write to the European Commission to seek an independent examination of the settlement. There is a lack of transparency in the deal, but these are difficult matters, and we may have to look at changing some of the rules in the longer run.
To many people, the recent agreement between Google and HMRC is very obscure and opaque, and gives the appearance of being very generous to a large multinational corporation. It contrasts sharply with the experience of many local SMEs. I would be astonished if I were the only Member of the House who has received comments from innumerable small businesses about what they perceive as the unfairness of the deal. I want to quote the views of two SMEs in my constituency. First:
“It is galling that my business pays its taxes on time and in full, but huge corporations like Google do not and seem to be able to avoid doing so for years”,
says Jim Cruickshank of Cruickshank Glaziers. Secondly:
“It seems there are stringent rules for small domestic businesses but another much easier world for major companies. This often gives unfair competitive advantage to the large companies”,
says Stewart Murray of the Farm Shop, Kirkcaldy. That is a concern of many of our domestic businesses. Because of the complexity of their tax affairs and of how they can operate, many of the largest corporations find that they have—in many cases, legitimately, in this system—a major competitive advantage over domestic businesses.
Does that not show how SMEs across the United Kingdom feel they have been treated? Their impression is that there is one tax law for them and another for large multinational companies. Does it not also provide a contrast between the British approach and the approach of some of our European colleagues to the very same issues? They are holding out for a much better deal for their taxpayers.
Many people throughout Britain will think that the hon. Gentleman has made a very fair point. That is why I have been arguing that we must have a proper investigation and why, perhaps in the longer run, we need to do something about greater transparency. It will be very difficult for us to bring a proper critique to bear if we do not get such clarification.
It must, of course, be admitted that this is not a new phenomenon. I first became aware of concerns about multinationals paying their fair share of UK taxes back in the early 1970s, when I briefly worked for the multinational IBM, and I am aware of concerns predating that. This has not been going on for just one or two years; Governments have not been able to resolve this issue satisfactorily for decades, which emphasises its complexity. The issue has been around for a long time, regardless of whether this country had a Labour or Tory Government and regardless of which parties formed Governments in many other countries.
I remember that the concerns back in the early 1970s were about what was called “transfer pricing”. For example, a company could buy a handle from a parent company in another country and charge an exorbitant fee for it, which allowed them easily to transfer profits from one area to another. I would be the first to admit that there have been moves to tighten up many such matters since the 1970s, but it remains a fundamental problem to this day. Corporation tax seems to be very susceptible to avoidance by multinational corporations because of the way in which they can, quite legally, operate.
The Public Accounts Committee found that HMRC as a whole had only 65 specialists in transfer pricing, which was about the same as each of the big four accounting firms. Does the hon. Gentleman welcome this Government’s introduction of more transfer pricing specialists in HMRC?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, because I must admit I was not aware that only 65 staff were involved in transfer pricing. That seems to me to be remarkably few, given the challenges they face. I would welcome anything that can be done to strengthen their numbers.
Times have changed. Back in the 1970s, it was never envisaged that huge multinational corporations could quickly arise as a result of operating in the world of the internet. The tax system, which has been built up over many years—as the hon. Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) mentioned, part of it dates from the 1920s or thereabouts—is singularly unable to deal with some of the types of international corporations, such as Facebook and Google, that there are today.
The world has changed fast in other regards. I am old enough to remember being able to go into a café and just ask for a coffee.
Yes, throughout my constituency. There is wonderful cappuccino in Cowdenbeath, I have to say. The likes of Starbucks were not present years ago. The internationalisation of what seem to be simple products is a comparatively new phenomenon.
We must not lose sight of the fact that many more traditional players, not merely internet companies, are engaging in practices that may be legal, but create major challenges internationally. If I were to ask in a local pub quiz, which of course I rarely go to—
Quite. If I were to ask, “What is the biggest charity in the world?”, many people would say the Gates Foundation, which The Economist has estimated is worth about $37 billion. Few would say that the answer is, as The Economist pointed out a few years ago, the Stichting INGKA Foundation—a charitable body whose aims include
“the advancement of architecture and interior design”.
This charitable foundation owns INGKA Holding, which owns the IKEA group.
That set-up, which is admittedly much more complex than I have just described, operates and moves money across territories such as the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Switzerland and so on. The money is not even tracked within that foundation. The IKEA trademark is owned by another private company, Inter IKEA Systems. Just to operate IKEA’s stores, of which there are approximately 290 in the world, the charity has to make substantial yearly payments. Eventually, the trail is thought to lead back to the owning family. When there is such complexity—and it is even more complex than I have summarised—we can see the kind of international challenge there is. That is why I believe the current tax regimes to be ill-equipped to cope and why we need fundamental reform.
Let me give a glimpse of another tactic that is used—the offshoring of companies. There are approximately 19,000 businesses registered at a single address in the Cayman Islands. That must be a pretty big hoose, as we would say in Scotland.
Yes, full of IKEA furniture.
It has been claimed by Oxfam, although I have not checked this out, that 98 of the FTSE 100 companies have subsidiaries in tax havens. There is a wider ethical question to address. This is not merely about how international corporations may evade UK tax. Some countries are much more vulnerable than the UK. There are considerable concerns, as the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) said, in the developing world. Some 30% of Africa’s wealth is held offshore. Research by the International Monetary Fund has found that developing countries lose $200 billion a year to tax avoidance—more than they get in all forms of foreign aid.
The UK needs to take a lead. Hopefully we will see that when the Prime Minister hosts the anti-corruption summit in May 2016, because the UK remains at the centre of a global network.
It is three years since the Prime Minister promised to clamp down on tax evasion and to publish the details of UK-based companies and people in the overseas territories. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Prime Minister should fulfil his obligation? This is a manifesto commitment that he has failed to fulfil.
I agree with the hon. Lady, and hopefully the Prime Minister will fulfil that obligation in the conference that he will chair shortly. We shall wait and see.
I shall conclude with one other example that is close to the heart of the Scottish people: our historical links with Malawi. This week, ActionAid launched a new campaign, calling for the UK to negotiate a fairer tax treaty with Malawi. Every constituency in Scotland has strong historical links with Malawi. The UK tax treaty with Malawi was signed in 1955 when Malawi was under British colonial rule, and it limits the ability of the Malawi Government to collect tax revenue from UK firms that operate there, thereby preventing that poor country from raising money that it desperately needs.
It is right to hold a thorough investigation into the Google settlement, and we should press for greater transparency. We should also press the UK to take an international lead in addressing the corrupt tax avoidance practices of the many, and not just the few. Getting our own house in order would be a fine start.
I shall do my best to make the most of the three minutes available to me. This is clearly a complicated area, and we seem to have two approaches on different sides of the House. The shadow Chancellor was passionate in his approach, and I recognise the strong feelings about this issue. The Minister’s approach was very measured and detailed. Unfortunately, the tax system must be approached in a methodical, detailed way—it cannot be emotional. I understand the strength of those emotions, and that people may feel that some large international companies do not pay their fair share. Unfortunately, however, we are blessed with a global taxation system agreement whereby companies pay tax not on the profit they make in the country but where they add the value and create the IP.
The hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin) spoke about Stewart from the Kirkcaldy farm shop, who clearly sells excellent produce. If he were to export his pork pies to Paris, he would expect to pay for the profit on that pork pie in Scotland and not in Paris, and in that way this country has benefited a great deal. My constituency contains Rolls-Royce, which is a fantastic international company that creates world-leading jet engines. It uses manufacturers and subsidiaries all over the world, but those dividends and the profit of that company should be paid to the UK taxpayer, and not to other countries.
The Minister referred to the video games industry, and Nottinghamshire is blessed with Boots, which created Nurofen, a world-leading drug. The IP for that drug remains in this country, as do the profits from it. I was fortunate enough to go to the cinema to see “Spectre”, the latest James Bond movie, which was created in Pinewood Studios in the UK. Tax on the profits from those movies should be paid in this country, not all over the world.
I gently say to the Opposition that, under their regime, no tax was claimed from Google. Sadly, I am rapidly running out of time, but we must recognise that it is more important to get some of those profits, rather than all of nothing if they are exported to other countries.
The most bizarre feature of the row over the past 10 days is that both Google and the Chancellor thought they had landed a public relations coup. Frankly, the arrogance of Google and the hopelessness of our Government take some beating. Just look at Google’s results announced this week. It now claims to be the world’s most valuable company. It claims with pride that it has cut its tax rate from 18% to 5%. If we look at Eric Schmidt’s own earnings—the man at the top is very proud of Google’s tax structure, saying “it’s just capitalism”—he was paid £76 million in 2014 alone. That is the equivalent of well over half of what Google paid the British public for all the money it has made out of the British public over 10 years.
I agree entirely. The Minister talks about the work done by the Public Accounts Committee. The law is not a complete ass. I do not believe that. When the National Audit Office looked at, I think, 10 cases—I will be corrected if I am wrong—it found three where HMRC had not abided by its own rules. Every time something like this happens, it damages British jobs and British businesses—nobody else. We have definite proof that a sweetheart deal was entered into with Goldman Sachs.
No. With the greatest respect, those are not the facts. The judge looked at five cases. The NAO looked at 10 cases and found in three of them that HMRC had not abided by its own rules.
The reason the Chancellor and his team do not get it is the people they talk to about tax. A small army of tax professionals and multinational companies are the only people with whom they converse. I have to say to the Minister that there is a difference between good working relationships, which I applaud, and undue influence and preferential treatment, which I do not. Talking to stakeholders is a good thing. Being captured by stakeholders is a bad thing.
We just have to look at the evidence—and not just the 25 meetings held with Google. If we look at the Tax Professionals Forum, its members are KPMG, Ernst and Young, Grant Thornton and so on. There is nobody from any of the tax campaigning organisations. There is nobody from any of the charities and no academic with a different view. Ernst and Young made £250 million in recent years by advising Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon.
Let us look at what the Minister has done. He appointed David Heaton from Baker Tilly to the Government’s advisory panel on the general anti-abuse rule, which was supposed to look at closing loopholes. That particular gentleman was captured on video describing
“ways to keep the money out of the Chancellor’s grubby hands”.
Let us look at what happened to Dave Hartnett—within six months he was going to work at HSBC and within a year he was going to work at Deloitte. Let us look at Edward Troup, who is now our commissioner on taxation. He wrote in the Financial Times that “Taxation is legalised extortion.” This is a small bunch of people who all have the same interests.
I want to make two other brief points. The Government say they want companies to pay proper tax, but the Government are obsessed with tax competition. That means far from tackling tax havens and so on, they are trying to make the UK an alternative best tax haven in the world. We only have to look at three changes the Government brought through on the control of foreign company rules, Eurobonds and the infamous patent box tax relief to see that that is right.
We do not know whether the Google settlement is fair, because under the existing law—the Minister is right—we cannot see it. I personally do not accept that HMRC properly challenged Google on the evidence the Public Accounts Committee collected, which demonstrated that it engages in economic activity here in the UK. I personally do not think the whistleblowers were listened to properly. Google does sell here. It does complete sales here. It does research and development here. Its economic activity is here. What on earth is that massive complex in King’s Cross for if not to undertake economic activity?
I have to say to the Minister that he has lost the argument on transparency. He ought to cave in gracefully and open up the books of these multinational companies so we can restore confidence.
I draw hon. Members’ attention to the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and go beyond that by declaring that, prior to the 2015 general election, I worked for Google—often commented on as the most desirable company in the world to work for. However, I must make it very clear that I am not a spokesperson for Google. I did make it clear in my maiden speech that I wish to be an advocate for the internet and digital sectors in the UK. After all, at 12.4% of gross domestic product, that is the largest of any internet sector in the world—greater than that in Germany and France, and even double the size of that in the US.
However, the question of whether Google, or indeed any of these internet companies, pays its fair share of tax is a reasonable one. Google does many things. Deciding on tax law is not one of them. That is squarely the responsibility of this place; we make those decisions in here. If we want to change the laws, that is our responsibility.
Corporation tax, like income tax, is not a voluntary tax. You pay what you owe—no more, no less—according to the law. HMRC does a very good job of implementing that law under difficult circumstances, particularly for companies that are complex and deal internationally, where it is difficult to hold intangible products, where intellectual property and transfer pricing are involved, and where customers are served from multiple territories.
What we really need to do—the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin) made some valid points—is update the international trade laws because these days, of course, international trade is as likely to be conducted by the push of a button as by being shipped in canisters and widgets from country A to country B. The reality is that some of our tax laws are as old as the 1920s.
While this Government are trying to make progress—indeed they have closed many loopholes—we have a lot more to do. Nothing should be taken out of consideration. We should carefully consider whether corporation tax in its current form is still fit for purpose. Comments about whether the practice of establishing intellectual property in international tax havens is valid or not are fair ones to investigate.
We must remember that Google was founded only in 1998, which makes it a teenager, and many other major internet companies are also teenagers. Teenagers make mistakes; they need guiding. It is up to us, in the role of a responsible parent, to make sure that we reset the ground rules on behaviour.
The Google tax debacle demonstrates that attempts to patch up the current international tax system are woefully inadequate. Despite the efforts of the OECD and its base erosion and profit shifting overhaul, it appears highly likely that corporate tax will continue to be an optional extra for most multinational companies.
The UK’s tax treaties—this is to do with Ireland as well in terms of Google—with developing countries allow UK firms to limit their tax payments, often in countries where the money is most needed to fund hard-pressed public services. The hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin) rightly mentioned Malawi earlier and I praise him for that.
According to the IMF, recent calculations have shown that developing countries are losing around $200 billion a year through tax avoidance by companies. The OECD has estimated that tax havens could be costing those developing countries three times the current global aid budget.
The value flowing out of countries from companies not paying their tax is huge: an estimated $l trillion a year. To put that into context, Africa is now a net creditor to the world in terms of the tax it loses from multinational companies operating in African countries’ jurisdictions. According to Oxfam, corporate tax avoidance in the form of trade mispricing by G7-based companies and investors cost Africa $6 billion in 2010—more than enough to improve the healthcare systems of the Ebola-affected countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.
Then there are the sins of omission. Anonymous shell companies in the British Virgin Islands were used to acquire mining concessions in the Democratic Republic of Congo for $275 million. They were then sold for $1.63 billion, costing the state $1.36 billion, or twice the combined health and education budget.
What is to be done? The Prime Minister is hosting an anti-corruption summit in May, and is inviting Heads of State from all over the world to London, but how can the UK lecture other countries on what they should be doing to tackle tax avoidance and tax corruption when the Crown dependencies and overseas territories in our own constitutional backyard are such notorious purveyors of secrecy? I put that case to the Minister on BBC Radio 5 Live just before the election.
We need to insist that multinationals publish their basic accounts in every country. We need to insist that they clean up their backyards, and ensure that British-linked tax havens—the Crown protectorates—cannot continue to act as conduits for tax dodging. We need to stop applying sticking plasters to broken OECD tax rules, and mandate the UN to develop a set of rules that ensure that big businesses pay their fair share of tax in every country in which they do business.
I will be brief.
The hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) said that paying corporation tax was an optional extra. If he is right—and there are some good arguments for why he might be right—it is because of the unbridled complexity of the system. I used to carry a number in my head: I thought that the tax code was 11,000 pages long. However, when I went to a Public Accounts Committee tax conference organised by the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge)—the Dame Professor Lady right hon. Member for Barking—I discovered that it was 17,000 pages long, and I was told on the radio yesterday that the figure might now be nearer 20,000.
If we made the Bible 10 times longer, we would not expect there to be less work for theologians. We need to sort this out. Complexity is not always avoidable in a mature economy, but there are steps that can be taken to make the code simpler. The Office of Tax Simplification examined 155 different tax reliefs and recommended that 47 should be abolished—43 actually were abolished—but over the same period, the Government of the day introduced 134 new reliefs. According to the Office of Tax Simplification, that produced a total of 1,140. Incidentally, HMRC had thought that there were only 398, which shows how extraordinarily complex the system has become.
That is the central problem, and it needs to be tackled. If a system that can only be dealt with by a high priestly caste is combined with a global economy, a country will get what we have got. It was this Government who introduced the idea of an Office of Tax Simplification, and it is this Government who are starting to do something about flattening and simplifying the tax system.
There is also the question of the cost of tax reliefs, which is sometimes much higher than HMRC expects. When the right hon. Member for Barking was the films Minister, for very good reasons she introduced a film tax credit. She was then horrified to discover that, using the law of the land, some very clever entrepreneurs and accountants were going around doing things which bore some relation to UK film activity, but perhaps too tangentially for the right hon. Lady’s taste. Much of what had been done was found by the courts to be within the law, and ended up costing HMRC, and taxpayers, hundreds of millions of pounds more than had been expected.
This Government are starting to tackle the problem. They have not made all the progress that they need to make, because this is a very big problem indeed, but at least they are starting to tackle it. The last Government did not collect the tax, but this Government are moving in the right direction, and I commend them for what they are doing.
I am highly enamoured of the record of the last Labour Government, and particularly enamoured of their Treasury policies.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) for drawing attention to an assessment by the Financial Times of the comparative records of the Labour Government between 1997 and 2010 and subsequent Governments. The article, written by Vanessa Houlder in February last year, made three very important points to set the record straight. First, it stated that the current Chancellor
“has raised much less income than the last Labour government from reforms to tackle corporate tax avoidance”.
The second point was referred to by my hon. Friend in his introductory remarks. The article stated:
“Measures put in place by Labour during its 13 years in power to counter corporate tax avoidance are projected to raise ten times as much over the next four years as those introduced by the…coalition government.”
Thirdly and importantly, the article stated that the coalition
“eased laws aimed at stopping companies using tax havens, which had been repeatedly tightened under Labour.”
That is the difference between the record of the Government when I was a Treasury Minister and the current Government. Labour in government did the heavy lifting on corporate tax avoidance. The new Government, when elected, had different priorities, as they were entitled to have, but they cannot claim to have maintained the progress Labour made, because they have not.
I welcome the Government’s seeming support for country-by-country reporting, but those close to the process find it difficult to recognise that the Government have led on it since 2010, as they have claimed. We certainly led on it prior to 2010. The original idea was devised, I think, by Richard Murphy, about whom we have heard a good deal more in the last couple of years, but it was first brought to me, when I occupied the Minister’s office, by Christian Aid. I pay tribute to its work on this. It came to see me in early 2009. We had a series of international meetings in Berlin, Paris and elsewhere in 2009, at which I put the issue on the agenda, and that culminated in the first joint meeting of the OECD tax and development committee in January 2010 in Paris. That kicked off the process that I am delighted the Government are now swinging behind. But Labour in government started this off and Labour is entitled to the credit for that.
It is rich to attack this Government for collecting tax. Big multinational corporations cannot carry on as they have been and must expect to pay more tax, and Google’s payment is an important step forward to address the long-standing problem of larger corporations not paying fair amounts of tax under the last Labour Government.
Any debate about that past tax in particular and about aggressive tax avoidance in general is in the context of what past law required should be collected. This debate should look ahead to whether and how our laws should change in order to collect more. The tax gap is reported to be £34 billion, or 6.4% of tax liabilities, according to the 2013-14 figure. What might £34 billion buy us? It is half the deficit Labour left us. Public sector net borrowing is about £73 billion this year. It is three times the pay bill for nurses. To break it down further with an international example: £1 billion is what we contributed to the Ross Fund in the global fight against malaria. What is that £34 billion made up of? Only one third is committed by large businesses; half is committed by small and medium-sized businesses; and the rest, I take it, is made up of individuals in error and out-and-out criminals in malice.
We need to look at fairness in two ways. First, is the law applied fairly? We rightly expect HMRC to collect as much as possible from every source, large and small, mistaken or malicious, under a fair application of existing law. Secondly, is the law itself fair? Does the law need to change further, and if so how, to ask for more tax? That is obviously an international question. I welcome the OECD’s work on base erosion and profit shifting—I look forward to scrutinising the results in the Finance Bill to come, because that is ready for implementation—and the Government’s leadership on a diverted profits tax. I look forward to hearing a summary of what they have brought in during its first year.
In summary, I want tough action to ensure that all companies pay their fair share of tax; I want more tax collected; I want the laws we have to be used; I want new laws to be reported upon carefully so that my constituents can be assured that we are collecting what we need; and I want Britain to continue to lead the world in the OECD’s implementation of a sensible set of multinational measures.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this important debate.
I was going to start this speech by going through the alphabet, naming different companies that did not pay their fair share of tax: Amazon, BP, Citigroup, Dell, eBay, Facebook, Google. I stopped at Google and went to the search engine of the same name and searched for the word “alphabet.” Most people would assume that I found information on the alphabet—A, B, C, D and so on—but no: what came up was “Alphabet Inc.” It turns out that the Google we all know and use has created a parent company, and it has called it Alphabet. Alphabet is a multinational conglomerate that was created last year. It is the parent company of Google and several other companies previously owned by, or tied to, Google. It is the world’s most valuable company, even wealthier than Apple. However, it does have something in common with Apple: the desire to not pay tax.
In a world that is becoming more and more connected, and as we seek to develop far-reaching global trade deals, we find that multinational corporations are moving their money and profits around the world. We should be under no illusion as to why they do this: it is to maximise their profits by reducing their tax liability.
So how do we make multinational companies pay their tax, when they invest so much in trying to dodge paying their taxes? Indeed, they use any system, loophole or avenue open to them to get out of their tax obligation. With this Chancellor they have even got someone on the inside helping them out. Frankly, it sends out the wrong message.
The Chancellor, often referred to as the octopus, with his tentacles reaching every part of Government, has declared his tax deal with Google a victory. He may be the octopus, but we are not his suckers. He should publish the details of the deal, show transparently what was agreed, deal with every loophole that comes forward and ensure we deal with the deficit by ensuring those who can pay do pay.
I join my colleagues today in demanding that the Government publish full details of the deal and implement country-by-country reporting of company accounts.
This is a timely debate and I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in it. It is important to remember what the previous Government did, because members of it are speaking, eloquently in many cases, in this debate. It is absolutely relevant, therefore, and gives us the context in which this debate has been called.
For 13 years Labour was in power and for at least the last five of those years these multinational companies—Amazon, Google, Apple—paid almost no corporation tax whatsoever. That was the immediate context. The right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) suggested that that Government had a great record, but it was not great. These companies paid very little; this is the general context.
It is quite right for the shadow Chancellor to bring up this debate. I think he makes a reasonable point that ordinary people—our constituents—expect companies to pay their fair share, but I would observe that the very facts he points out about Google employing thousands of people at very high salaries shows, in a way, the success of Google. It shows the success of this Government in creating a business-friendly environment in which these companies can operate. In fact, every single one of those employees, who are paid an average of £160,000 a year, are contributing very significantly to the Treasury in the form of income tax and other taxes that they pay. That fact should be observed in this debate.
If we are looking at being able to tax multinational companies, we must consider the fact that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer) suggested, they are operating in lots of jurisdictions and, in many cases, if they are not internet companies they will probably be paying tax in only one country. There are lots of variations that we need to consider, and I do not think it is right for Opposition Members simply to try to make political capital in this sensitive and highly complicated debate.
As my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) has said, the reason that companies avoid tax is the complexity of the system. There is a direct correlation between their propensity to avoid paying tax and the complexity of the tax system. Again, the last Labour Government had a pretty poor record on that. This is a complicated debate, and I object to the fact that Labour Members are trying to score political points in it.
The hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) might have commanded a little more respect if he had listened with respect to the views of my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge). This debate is about Google, but it is also about so much more. We know that Google is currently valued at $524 billion, and that its profits in 2015 alone were £11 billion, an increase of £1 billion in a year, based on revenues of more than £52 billion. The Daily Mail has reported that Google has more than 5,000 UK-based employees, which is about a 10th of its total worldwide workforce. That figure includes 279 of its European, middle eastern and African directors, compared with Dublin, where it has 79 such directors. As colleagues have said, Google is constructing a new headquarters worth £1 billion near King’s Cross, in addition to its five other offices in the UK.
I do not want to get into a blame game. I want us to get the way we recover tax in this country right, but I believe that certain factors did not help to ensure focus on this growing problem. The public finances were healthy up to 2008. In the year before the crash, the Treasury netted nearly 30% of its corporate tax receipts just from financial services. That figure had fallen to about 17% by 2009. Also, at that time, the online giants of today were largely below the radar. Many floated before they had made a penny profit. Let us look at the corporate giants of today. Twitter, which floated in 2013, was valued at $18 billion on the day of its flotation yet it had never made a profit up to that point and did not do so for another year or more. Likewise, when Google first floated in 2004, its valuation was $23 billion but it was not turning the kind of profits that we are talking about today. Google’s circumstances are somewhat different today, yet after six years and with all the benefits of hindsight, this Government have achieved a payment of only £130 million, and we do not know how much of that is interest or penalties. We have to do more on this.
We can add other household names to the list of companies that paid no corporation tax in 2014: Shell, Lloyds Banking Group, AstraZeneca, SAB Miller, Vodafone and British American Tobacco. Those six companies made a combined profit of £30 billion in 2014, yet they are notionally making no money in the UK.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that initiatives such as the Fair Tax Mark, which is a bit like the fair trade stamp, should encourage more companies to demonstrate publicly their tax liabilities and responsibilities, and that they should consider it a badge of pride that they are paying their full tax?
Absolutely. I think that there is cross-party support for more transparency.
Given that Google, HMRC and the Chancellor were quick to publicise the outcome of their negotiations, surely they should be open about how they arrived at the figure of £130 million. We need to know what sort of benchmark this is setting not only for Google but for other companies as well. The Government make the rules and HMRC enforces them, and it is about time that we had more openness. To be honest, if I worked for Google and I were advising it, I would say, “Volunteer to give the information, because this situation is not doing your company any good whatsoever.” This is important not only to reassure public opinion but to restore the confidence of those UK-based businesses that have much lower revenues than these giant corporations yet pay considerably more tax, including 20% corporation tax.
We cannot content ourselves with companies appearing to decide whether or not to pay any tax, as though it were discretionary or some kind of charitable payment to the UK. If the broadest shoulders are to bear their share of the burden for funding public services and our pension system, I am afraid that the Government will have to raise their game. We will support the Government on that. Our Labour motion might not receive a majority in the vote today, but this problem will not go away. I, for one, am looking forward to next week when, as a member of the Public Accounts Committee, I shall hear directly from Google and HMRC about what they have to say.
In preparing for this debate, I was keen to see some facts about the Government’s record, so I turned to a study published by the Oxford University Centre for Business Taxation, probably the most academically reputable institution in the area of corporation tax. The report it published in February of last year identifies 42 separate measures that the Government have taken since 2010 to clamp down on corporation tax avoidance and evasion. They are forecast to raise £34 billion. I strongly welcome the measures that the Financial Secretary and his colleagues have taken in this area, which include the diverted profits tax and the general anti-abuse rule. The Government have also increased capital gains tax from 18% to 26%, dealing with a loophole that was being widely exploited by some hedge funds to end up paying rates of tax below that of their cleaners. The Government’s record in this area does bear scrutiny. Indeed, Richard Murphy, who describes himself as the “father of Corbynomics” declared himself pleased and surprised at the progress made in this area since 2010, which includes the BEPS initiative, which the UK Government have been strongly pushing.
I noted with interest that the shadow Chancellor did not repeat a claim he has made in the past about £93 billion of what he has called “corporate welfare”, implying that there is some sort of evasion or avoidance going on. Richard Murphy said yesterday, before the Treasury Committee, that he would question whether that figure was correct, as it includes things such as capital allowances, and research and development tax credits, which of course support companies that are investing in productivity, a topic that we all care about very much.
On Google, I said in an intervention that this Government have collected £130 million of tax more than the last Labour Government, who collected precisely zero. As such, we are talking about a welcome step in the right direction. The 3% tax rate has been mentioned but, as some Conservative Members have pointed out, such an analysis completely ignores the fact that Google’s staff headcount and intellectual property reside disproportionately in the United States. Were we to adopt the approach being suggested, UK companies, particularly those in the music, pharmaceutical and other industries, would suffer greatly.
That is not to say that there is not more that can be done—more can be done. I particularly suggest to the Financial Secretary that we should look carefully at how things such as transfer pricing rules are applied. Two or three years ago, Starbucks successfully levied a 6% brand fee from an offshore jurisdiction into the UK which almost completely extinguished its UK profits. Any brand levy that results in a zero profit is, almost by definition, too high, so I ask him to give guidance to HMRC on that topic, but I support the Government’s initiatives and hope they go further.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. As someone who represents a constituency containing thousands of business, of all shapes and sizes, many of which feed into the national supply chain, I wish to say at the outset that I am very proud of the role that not just my constituency, but this country plays, with many of our leading industries leading the way globally. I want this country to be a good place to do business and to set up a business, and to continue to lead the world with competitive tax rates.
This debate is actually about fairness and transparency. To follow up something that the hon. Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp) said, the fact is that the Minister could not tell us last week what effective tax rate Google would be paying. I can tell him what the effective tax rate is for businesses in my constituency—what rate of corporation tax they will be paying—so why is it so difficult for Google, a multinational giant, to be transparent with the public about the rate of tax it is paying?
Just to be clear, the statutory rate is 20% and that applies to everybody. There are businesses that will have a lower effective rate, entirely lawfully and in accordance with the spirit of the law, because, for example, they make use of capital allowances or they might have losses that they are making use of. Someone having an effective rate below the statutory rate does not mean that they are conducting avoidance activity.
That is a fair point, but of course many tax experts have estimated that Google is paying an effective tax rate of 3%. If that is not the case, we need to see the numbers that give us that assurance. We do not doubt the difficulties here. In an increasingly globalised world, where intellectual property and the growth of internet companies makes this more important in the debate about tax, these are difficult issues to grasp, but there is no hint of fairness or transparency about this deal, and that is what we are seeking with this debate.
We would have more confidence if there had been consistent messages on this issue from both the Government and Google. On 23 January, the Tory Treasury Twitter account—not the most accurate of sources—claimed that the
“Google tax bill is for years 2005-2011, almost all under Labour”.
Yet Google Ltd’s account for the period ended 30 June 2015 reported
“a liability to HMRC of £130 million in respect of additional taxes and interest due for prior accounting periods and the current accounting period.”
The Minister says that there has been no sweetheart deal, but, as I asked him earlier, how can he give us that assurance if he has not seen the deal and is as far removed from it as he says. The Chancellor said it was a “major success”. How can he laud it as a major success if he is not close enough to the deal? If it is such a major success, why did the Prime Minister in Downing Street run so far away from that claim? Why has the Financial Secretary to the Treasury not once in recent weeks stood by his Chancellor in saying that this deal is a major success? I believe that it is because he knows that it is nothing of the sort, and that this Government look deeply out of touch with the public.
Labour were accused of attacking HMRC staff. The fact is that HMRC has a responsibility to apply tax law. It has a duty to go for the full rate of tax due, but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) pointed out, it has not always applied that duty. I am sure that, following the work of the Treasury Committee and the Public Accounts Committee, we will find that the issue at HMRC is to do with resourcing and extra teams and whether there are the people and the capacity to pursue not just the current claims and outstanding tax, but the historical backlog that exists as well.
Also of concern is the fact that Google itself has made some rather odd claims. On the one hand, we see senior Google executives writing to the newspapers about how great the deal is and how they have stood by their obligations, while, on the other, they are committing to paying more tax in the future. What is the reality? Is it that Google is paying the tax liability that is due; that it has somehow got away with it and plans to pay more in the future; or that it sees tax as a means of charity towards the state and it is willing to prop up the Treasury coffers a bit more generously in the future? Whatever the reality, there is deep inconsistency in the messages from the Government and Google.
We should look at the comments recently made by the Mayor of London who went as far as to suggest that finance directors have a fiduciary duty to minimise tax exposure. That cannot possibly be the case. If the Mayor of London looked at the duties under the Companies Act 2006, he would see that they also have to make reference to
“the likely consequences of any decisions in the long term…the company’s business relationships with suppliers, customers and others”—
“the impact of the company’s operations on the community and the environment”.
There is a problem with the ethos of those on the Conservative Benches. Many of them see tax as a form of theft, whereas we see it as a civic responsibility and duty and as a means of creating a more civilised society. I want businesses in my constituency to pay their fair share of tax, and indeed they do. It is not unreasonable to expect a multinational company such as Google to do the same. The Government need to do much more to ensure that there is transparency for all such companies in all of the jurisdictions in which they operate.
First, let me draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. A company in which I have an investment is, in a very small way, a competitor of Google’s. If it ever makes a profit, it will always pay—at least while I am involved—the correct rate of corporation tax, as most companies do. All of us on the Conservative Benches believe that that is absolutely right. None the less, this is a global problem.
In the 1960s, Zhou Enlai was asked about the consequences of the French revolution 200 years earlier, and he said that it was too early to tell. The same applies to globalisation. These are all global problems. In the US, the effective rate of corporation tax has halved in the past 60 years. Apple has £120 billion of assets invested offshore. It does not want to repatriate them as it will have to pay tax. The Opposition sound like a failed football manager turned TV pundit who lost all their games without scoring a goal and who now criticise the new manager for not winning by a big enough margin.
Of course, nobody on the Government Benches would countenance tax avoidance. The thin justification is that the arrangement is for shareholders. Only this week, James Anderson, a Google shareholder, said that Google should be paying the effective rate of corporation tax. That is absolutely right. Warren Buffett has gone on record many times saying that companies should pay the going rate of corporation tax. We need to look at the role of advisers. My experience in my business, when these things have come across our desk, is that such a policy has been rejected on the recommendation of tax advisers. Firms such as Ernst and Young, global corporations themselves, are responsible for much of that activity. I wonder whether they have public sector contracts and whether such organisations should be allowed access to public contracts in the light of those activities.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) asked what we would be saying if we were the parents of Google. If I were the parent of Sergey Brin, I would say, “Pay your taxes.” The company talks about values. It cannot talk about integrity and not pay its fair share of taxes.
Perhaps we should give companies that do pay their taxes greater prominence and recognition through some kind of kitemark for paying fair levels of tax. Overall, we must rely on the integrity of companies to pay their taxes where they have built their businesses—on the back of British people.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to take part in this extremely important debate. Clearly, a number of things have gone wrong in the case of Google, but I shall focus on one aspect: the tax treatment of intellectual property. This is a growing part of the economy and we need to get it right.
I draw a distinction between two extremes—on the one hand, a large pharmaceutical company that does a great deal of research and development and employs a large number of people to make a new drug, and, on the other, a company such as Starbucks, which registers its name in Luxembourg, seemingly purely as a tax avoidance device. Between those extremes there is a continuum and Google is somewhere in the middle. It has done some mathematics to make some algorithms, but it also has a brand that is extremely powerful. We need to tighten up on this.
What happens at present is that a name is registered in a low tax domain. That separate company charges a fee to this country, where the work is done. That wipes out the entire tax treatment. That is ridiculous. One thing that is wrong is that the company seems to be able to set the price itself. The Revenue is not auditing it and asking whether that is reasonable. Obviously, maintaining a brand involves some costs, but small costs—perhaps to repaint some signs or to train its marketing people. Those costs cannot be compared to the cost of research and development.
I was trying to distinguish between real intellectual property and intellectual property that is purely branding. Take the example of the BBC, which sells television programmes. The BBC can get more money for its television programmes than a small television production company, partly because it is called the BBC, even though the actual costs of making the television programme are the same.
The question we have to ask ourselves is whether, because of the high value of the brand, the company should pay less tax. I submit that that is a fundamental mistake, because the brand is an asset. What the company is getting in that situation is economic rent. The fact that it has a valuable asset is not a reason for it to pay less tax. That is absurd. If a company invests in a piece of machinery and makes a claim against its capital allowance, over time the amount that it can claim against tax decreases as it moves from the point at which the investment was made. In cases where the brand is the asset, companies are claiming more over time as they are selling more. I think that is an area where we could very usefully tighten up.
Perhaps this area of tax would be better handled if we had a few more economists looking at the underlying economics and fewer accountants, who seem very comfortable with the way the system works but are not driven by the desire that the rest of us have to make sure that these people pay their fair share.
Let me first declare that this morning I was elected chair of the all-party Public and Commercial Services Union group, succeeding the shadow Chancellor, who of course will be a hard act to follow. I will be referring to HMRC staff.
Such is the widespread scepticism and lack of public confidence following this deal that the term “to google it” now has a new meaning on the streets of the UK. No longer does it mean logging on to a computer and exploring a search engine; “to google it” now means something else. When members of the public grab their self-assessment forms, they might ask themselves, “Should I google it?”
The Minister had four opportunities—four tests, in my view—to address that widespread scepticism and lack of public confidence. The issue is about the messages that this sends. First, there was no real answer on what methodology was used to make the calculation. More worryingly, although the Minister praised HMRC staff, he did not address why 120 compulsory redundancies were issued to HMRC staff on 28 January. Worse still, there has been no explanation for why the chief executive of HMRC has refused to meet the PCS to try to help mitigate those job losses. That is a message that will be sent to multinational companies. They will wonder why HMRC offices are closing in towns, in many of which it is the largest employer, and why there are staff reductions. They will wonder whether the UK Government are serious about dealing with tax avoidance and tax evasion.
I agree. In such debates we usually hear Government Members praise the self-appointed TaxPayers’ Alliance. Interestingly, it has not been mentioned today. I agree that taxes are the price we pay for a civilised society.
We heard nothing from the Minister about a financial transactions tax. I support such a tax, particularly a global financial transactions tax, which could bring in £250 billion for national Governments. Surely the UK Government could take a lead in introducing such a tax.
The Minister made no mention of tax havens in UK overseas territories such as the Cayman Islands, which my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin) mentioned. Research by the Tax Justice Network rates the Cayman Islands as the second most significant tax haven in the world. Of the 279 banks registered there, only 19 are licensed to operate domestically; the other 260 are there to shuffle money from country to country. The Cayman Islands have a population of 56,000, but there are 100,000 registered companies. My hon. Friend mentioned Ugland house. As President Obama has said:
“That’s either the biggest building or the biggest tax scam on record.”
I believe it is the latter. Where is the action to tackle this? The Government made no mention of that. The Tax Justice Network has said that the UK and its dependent territories and Crown dependencies remain
“by far the most important part of the global offshore system of tax havens and secrecy jurisdictions”.
The fact is that the widespread scepticism means that the public have no confidence in the Government’s handling of this affair or in their ability to deal with tax avoidance and tax evasion. That is why I will be supporting the motion today.
First, I apologise to the shadow Chancellor for missing the first 60 seconds or so of his speech.
It has been suggested that we are criticising the team manager for not winning by a big enough margin. If this was such an important victory, why is the team manager refusing all interviews, choosing instead to send the reserve team goalkeeper—not to do interviews about the game, but to talk about everything and anything apart from the great victory?
The Government have tabled an amendment that is four times as long as the motion they seek to amend, and it doesnae mention Google or the £130 million great victory anywhere. It is a strange victory indeed if the Government are trying to hide it under the biggest, deepest, darkest bushel they can find. It is to the Government’s eternal shame, and it exposes Parliament to ridicule and brings it into disrepute, that every time over the last week that Opposition Members—not only from Labour, but from other Opposition parties as well—have asked for a justification for this deal, every Minister has answered by batting the issue across to the Labour Benches, like the most expensive ping-pong ball in the history of sport.
I commend the shadow Chancellor for being prepared to acknowledge that the previous Labour Government’s actions might not stand up to much scrutiny on this issue. Labour’s downfall started when it got far too cosy with the big, anonymous multinational institutions. I suspect that quite a few people on the Labour Benches today would accept that with hindsight.
If all that the Government can say to defend their actions is that the previous Government were even worse, that sends the message to the people of these islands that the actions of both Governments are indefensible. A Government who try to defend the indefensible by saying that somebody else was more indefensible really are not delivering much for the people of these islands.
If we are to believe the selective information that Google has put out about how productive its 2,300 employees have been, the equivalent, taking a generous Back-Bench MP’s salary, would be for each of us to deliver less than 25p value added per year for each of our constituents. I doubt whether any of us would fancy the next election if that was all that we were delivering. It simply is not credible for a major successful multinational business to suggest that it employs so many people to deliver so little profit for its shareholders.
This is not just about the technicalities of what is admittedly very complex legislation; it is about Parliament holding HMRC and Google to account and about allowing the public to hold us to account. The clear message coming from the overwhelming majority of the 60 million-plus people represented in this Chamber today is that this Google deal stinks. It cannot possibly be justified, and it is interesting that the Government are not even attempting to defend it in the amendment.
The subject of tax avoidance and tax evasion is of real relevance to my constituents, for whom paying tax is not negotiable—unlike, it seems, for large corporations such as Google.
The rationale for public service cuts has been based on the notion that we, as a country, cannot afford to pay for public services in the way we have done—that we cannot afford to meet the basic needs of our citizens because of the debts facing the country.
It is important to note that the Government have been in office for nearly six years. During that time, the Chancellor and the Prime Minister have been able to take action on these issues. The limited progress that the Government have made is welcome, but the Google deal flies in the face of it. Their attempts to blame the previous Labour Government every time their record is questioned is wearing thin—even with their own supporters.
Issues of taxation and who pays are all the more pertinent when the Conservatives’ political choices mean that jobs are being lost and services closed, and that people are suffering as a result. The cuts agenda the Government have embarked on over the past 69 months has hit my constituents extremely hard. The cumulative cuts that the St Helens and Knowsley councils, which cover my constituency, have faced since the Government took office add up to a staggering £168 million. The £94 million cut from Knowsley’s budget is the highest of any council in the country, despite the area having some of the highest levels of deprivation and lowest incomes. That has meant unavoidable, savage cuts to services across the board, and that is clear to everyone in my constituency. However, the detail of why Google is paying only £130 million in tax is still shrouded in secrecy.
This is about a choice as to who pays what. The Government have made very clear who has no option but to pay and for whom the issue is negotiable. Local government is now meant to self-finance, with the phasing out of the block grant, and authorities are meant to generate business activity to get tax from it. So who is paying while Google does not? Many small, and large, businesses in my constituency pay their tax—they have no choice. The nature of their business means that they cannot physically move premises like some other businesses. They have no option to relocate their profits to other countries, as is convenient for others. If the Chancellor wishes local authorities to generate more of their own finances for themselves and rely less on central Government, how can he justify businesses that make a large contribution to local economies and which pay their taxes locally subsidising, in effect, the likes of Google and other multinationals?
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have made such excellent contributions to this debate, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge), who said that the Government have lost the argument on transparency. Other Members raised important issues about how we now seem to have one tax rule for large companies—multinationals—but another for small businesses in our country. We heard about the use of tax havens, transfer pricing, and the fact that the Tories cannot claim that they have continued Labour’s progress on this issue. I pay tribute to the work of those who have campaigned for tax justice, including Richard Murphy, Christian Aid and others, as well as the Co-operative movement, with its campaign for a fair tax mark that includes country-by-country reporting.
Over the past week, the Google tax settlement issue has shocked us all. The Chancellor cut a lonely figure when he tweeted that that tax deal was a “victory”. The tweet had scarcely had a chance of a retweet before Downing Street distanced itself and MPs in all parts of this House called the deal derisory. Questions then came thick and fast about how we could have reached a settlement that effectively implied a 3% tax rate. It was the moment when, as one journalist wrote,
“Google lost the argument in the court of public opinion.”
Yes, there is a lot to admire about Google. Millions rely on the access to knowledge and information that the Google search engine helps to put at our fingertips, and innovative products pushing at the frontier of our digital age have transformed our personal and working lives. However, we cannot tolerate this huge global business not playing fair when it comes to tax. We now know for a fact that Google has been short-changing us for more than a decade. Whatever else it has done, this settlement proves that fact.
The deal has left a series of questions in its wake. Do we know whether Google is paying its fair share of taxes, as it tells us? We do not know, because the deal is shrouded in secrecy, but there is lots to suggest that it is not. Only this week, we heard that Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is now the world’s most valuable company, with a valuation of $568 billion. In just four years, Google paid its chairman a total of £166 million—more than it paid in UK taxes for 10 years.
We support and celebrate success, but this is an issue of fairness. Many are therefore asking a second question—after his tweet, can we trust the judgment of the Chancellor on this issue? Can we trust the judgment of a man who describes what is effectively a 3% tax rate for the world’s most valuable company as a “victory”? In 2014 alone, Google UK made an estimated £1 billion profit; 20% tax on that alone would have been £200 million, enough for 4,000 police officers. Fairness in the tax system is important for us all, and this is not a victim-free zone. When global companies such as Google do not pay their fair share, businesses and families in the UK take a hit. We have all heard from businesses in our constituencies that wonder why there is one rule for large multinationals and another for them. British families lose out, too, because uncollected taxes mean revenue forgone, with bigger cuts to public services and lower levels of investment when we need it the most.
There is another reason for questioning the Chancellor’s judgment. How can people trust the judgment of a man who thinks it is right to undermine and demoralise his tax-collecting agency? It is a classic example of a false economy—short-term cuts that have long-term costs. Why has the inquiry, which was set up under the Labour Government in 2009, taken more than six years? Nobody knows, seemingly not even the Chancellor. If ever a situation showed a lack of political will, it is this one.
People’s trust in the Chancellor and in the fairness of the tax system has been undermined further by two recent reports. The Chancellor and 16 different Tory Ministers have had face-to-face talks with Google bosses over the last two years, but did any of them raise the issue of the company’s tax structures? Perhaps the Minister can tell us today.
People feel a growing sense of huge injustice when large multinationals can shift their profits so easily and avoid the taxes that they should be paying. Now we find out that, only last year, Tory MEPs were instructed on six occasions to vote against proposals to clamp down on multinationals that engage in aggressive tax avoidance. In addition, they have voted repeatedly against measures to tackle tax evasion.
The Chancellor has even failed to apply his Google tax to Google. Perhaps he can tell us whether the Google tax—the diverted profits tax—would have applied if a deal had not been reached. Things need to change, and we believe that the Chancellor has a duty to take steps to restore public confidence in how HMRC operates in cases such as this. He must now address widespread concerns about the lack of transparency surrounding the deal and show us how the deal was reached so that it can be scrutinised by Parliament and the public. Few can understand how HMRC accepted at face value Google UK’s claim that it, a company with more than 2,000 UK employees, does not have a permanent establishment in the country for corporation tax purposes.
Since last week, we have seen this deal unravel. Every step of the way, the Chancellor’s failure of judgment has been apparent. It is not the first time that the Chancellor has failed to stand up for people in Britain. He is hurting, not helping, British businesses and families. We need renewed focus and action on tax avoidance and tax evasion, and a real plan to close the UK tax gap. That is what Britain deserves and the British people expect. We need a plan that puts transparency and fairness first—a plan through which we work to reach international agreement on country-by-country reporting and drive forward its implementation. The deal, and the way in which it came about, must not be allowed to set a precedent. If the Chancellor will not act, Labour stands ready. I urge all hon. Members to vote with us in the Aye Lobby.
The budget deficit that we inherited from the previous Labour Government was £153 billion. That is equivalent to nearly £6,000 for every household in the country. When a Government inherit such a deficit, one of the first things that they go after is the money that is supposed to be coming in, but is not. As my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary set out comprehensively at the start of the debate, no Government have done more than we have to crack down on tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance.
The Government crackdown, led by my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, has resulted in more than 40 changes to tax law to close loopholes that Labour left in place. Among those changes was the world-leading diverted profits tax, which stops multinational companies shifting their UK profits to other countries. That policy alone will bring in an extra £1.3 billion from multinational corporations by the end of the Parliament, some directly but some, more importantly, as a result of its deterrent behavioural impact. I believe that the Government can be proud of that record, but we need to continue to do more and we are doing so. Tax avoidance is a global problem and it calls for global solutions.
To be clear, corporation tax is not a tax on the sales that happen in this country, or even a tax on the profits that derive from the sales that happen in this country. The system that operates internationally is that profits should be allocated on the basis of what is called “economic activity” in each country. Economic activity is not just about sales, but about where research and development takes place, where the various stages of production take place and so on. In short, that was a simpler formula to work out in the 1920s, when the world tax system came into being, as the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin), in his entertaining style, reminded us. Since then, there has been a move from manufactures to services, from the tangible to the intangible, and from the mechanical and the edible to the digital.
This Government have embarked on a programme to tighten the rules and the definitions. Domestically, we have acted to prevent companies trying to take advantage of ambiguities. Internationally, we are working to plug gaps and address loopholes.
I cannot give way because of the time. I apologise to the hon. Lady.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that there is “literally nothing” that any one national Government can do unilaterally about some of the loopholes. That is why we are working together with our international partners. We led the debate on updating the international tax rules by initiating the G20-OECD base erosion and profit shifting projects during our presidency of the G8. We were the first country to take action to implement the G20-OECD recommendations to help us better to align the location of taxable profits with the location of economic activity. As part of the implementation of the recommendations, the UK last week signed an agreement with 30 other tax administrations to share country-by-country reports from next year. We now want agreements on making information public, as was spelled out in our manifesto. We will continue to lead any multilateral debates in this area.
We know that to achieve sustainable and long-term economic growth, to drive up productivity and to carry on creating jobs we need internationally competitive taxes. We are clear, however, that those taxes must be paid. In 2009-10, the tax gap—the difference between tax liabilities and the amount of tax collected—was 7.3%; last year, it had fallen to 6.4%. Over the last Parliament, HMRC secured more than £100 billion in compliance revenues. In the spending review, the Chancellor approved an additional £800 million of funding for HMRC to recover an additional £7.2 billion of taxes, which is a great deal for the British taxpayer.
Let me be clear: HMRC investigates tax impartially. No organisation or individual gets preferential treatment because of their size or because of their income. Let me remind hon. Members, including the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge), that during the tenure of the Labour party in government, the House of Commons reaffirmed and enshrined in law the long-standing principle of confidentiality through the Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Act 2005. The principle of taxpayer confidentiality means that HMRC cannot publish details of a settlement. That is a fundamental principle of the tax system of every major economy, including ours: there is no ministerial involvement in this country. The hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) asked how we can know that there has not been a sweetheart deal. HMRC publishes online its litigation and settlement strategy, which makes it clear that the department cannot and will not settle for anything less than the full tax, interest and penalties payable under the law.
My time is very short, but I want to respond briefly to a couple of points made in the debate. The hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) secured a debate in this place on the HMRC office estate. As he knows, the plan is to concentrate expertise in a number of regional centres, which will make interaction between the areas of expertise more straightforward and, indeed, improve career opportunities for many people. The number of HMRC staff dealing with large businesses is not going down; it is going up in line with the increased investment that, as I have mentioned, the Chancellor has committed to tackling evasion and avoidance.
The hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) talked, rightly, about developing countries. It is right that we give extra support to countries that need it. In 2015-16, HMRC established a new tax experts team to support a number of developing countries. I would be happy to take him through more of the detail of that if we had the time.
We had excellent and informative speeches from, among others, my hon. Friends the Members for Sherwood (Mark Spencer), for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) and for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake). My hon. Friends the Members for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) and for Croydon South (Chris Philp) reminded us of the record of the last Labour Government, but I fear that the Opposition’s current plans are much worse. They claim that they want to make businesses pay more tax in the UK, but in truth their policies would drive companies away from this country, which would mean fewer jobs, lower wages and a weaker economy. This week, we have learned that they want to put taxes up not just for businesses, but for working people.
To achieve long-term economic growth, we need internationally competitive taxes, but our message has been clear: “If you operate in the UK, you pay tax in the UK, and whoever you are, the same UK law applies.” We will continue to strengthen the law, to close the loopholes and to invest in HMRC’s capacity through additional funding and extra powers. We will continue to lead the world in the fight against international tax avoidance to ensure that the UK has an internationally competitive but fair tax regime. I urge hon. Members to support the amendment and to reject the motion.
Question put (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the original words stand part of the Question.
Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the proposed words be there added.
The Deputy Speaker declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to (Standing Order No. 31(2)).
That this House notes that the Government has taken action to promote international cooperation in relation to clamping down on tax avoidance by multinational companies, challenging the international tax rules which have not been updated since they were first developed in the 1920s, that multilateral cooperation at an international level has included the UK playing a leading role in the G20-OECD Base Erosion and Profit Shifting Project to review all international tax rules and increase tax transparency, and as part of that, the UK was the first country to commit to implementing the OECD country-by-country reporting model within domestic legislation, that the Government recognises the case for publishing country-by-country reports on a multilateral basis, that the Government has introduced more than 40 changes to tax law, that the various measures taken by the Government have included the introduction of a diverted profits tax aimed at targeting companies who use contrived arrangements to divert profits from the UK, stopping the use of offshore employment intermediaries to avoid employer National Insurance contributions, stopping companies from obtaining a tax advantage by entering into contrived arrangements to turn old tax losses or restricted use into more versatile in-year deductions, and requiring taxpayers who are using avoidance schemes that have been defeated through the courts to pay the tax in dispute with HM Revenue and Customs upfront, and that the Government is committed to going further, enabling HM Revenue and Customs to recover an additional £7.2 billion over the Parliament.'.