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Tax Avoidance, Evasion and Compliance

Volume 655: debated on Monday 4 March 2019

With permission, I should like to make a statement on tax avoidance, evasion and compliance.

This Government take a balanced approach to the public finances, investing in our vital public services while getting our debt down and keeping taxes as low as possible, and part of that approach is that everybody must pay the tax that is properly due. The vast majority of taxpayers, from individuals and the smallest businesses to the largest companies, already pay their fair share. This Government recognise their duty to that compliant majority to build a fair and sustainable taxation system and, through that system, to make sure that those who try to avoid or evade their tax liabilities are held to account.

Our approach is working. At 5.7%, the tax gap is at a near-record low. The difference between the tax that should be paid to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the actual tax that has been paid is at its joint lowest level in five years, thanks to HMRC’s sustained efforts to tackle non-compliance and to help customers get their tax affairs right first time.

HMRC tailors its approach to different taxpayers, subjecting the largest businesses and the wealthiest individuals to the greatest level of scrutiny, while using data and digital tools to help smaller and mid-sized businesses to get it right, with close attention on those where avoidance or evasion is suspected. We must make sure the tax system is not a barrier to setting up, running or growing a business, but we should never forget that the tax brought in by HMRC directly funds our vital public services.

I am proud of this Government’s success in this respect. Since 2010, we have introduced over 100 measures to tackle tax avoidance, evasion and other forms of non-compliance. Alongside this, HMRC’s compliance work has secured and protected £200 billion in tax revenue that would otherwise have gone unpaid. In addition, at Budget 2018 the Government announced a further 21 measures that together are forecast to raise around £2.1 billion by 2023-24. This success demonstrates the Government’s continued efforts to address tax avoidance, evasion and non-compliance in all its forms.

At the same time, the Government recognise that these efforts must be designed and targeted carefully. All HMRC powers, which are given by Parliament, must be accompanied by the necessary safeguards to ensure that they are used correctly. The Government will keep the tax administration framework under review, in consultation with interested external stakeholders, to ensure that it continues to strike the right balance between robustly challenging tax avoidance, evasion and other forms of deliberate non-compliance and treating all taxpayers fairly.

As part of our continuing efforts to reduce the gap between money owed and money paid, the Government have also set about reforming the rules that govern off-payroll working. These rules, known as IR35, were first introduced in 2000 to ensure people working through their own company, who, but for the existence of the company, would be taxed as employees, pay broadly the same tax and national insurance as other employees. The rules do not affect the genuinely self-employed and the Government recognise the contribution that contractors make to business and to public services across the country. Our aim is simply to ensure that contractors who work through their own company pay the right tax.

However, evidence has suggested that these rules have been frequently misapplied, so contractors were incorrectly paying tax as though they were self-employed when they were actually acting as employees. It is right and fair that everyone must pay the tax that is due irrespective of the nature of their employment. We want a tax system that is simple and clear to use, so that businesses and individuals alike can understand what they owe and how and when to pay it.

In April 2017, the Government introduced new rules for public sector organisations that take on contractors through their own company. The reform means that public sector organisations are now responsible for deciding both whether the contractor is acting as an employee, and therefore within the rules, and ensuring the right amount of tax is paid.

I am pleased to report to the House that this has proved to be effective, with HMRC estimating that an additional £550 million has been raised in income tax and national insurance contributions in the first 12 months since the measure was introduced. However, non-compliance in the private sector remains a persistent and growing problem that, if left unchecked, will cost the taxpayer as much as £1.3 billion by 2022-23, according to the Government’s estimates.

In last year’s Budget, the Government announced that we will extend the reform of off-payroll working rules to the private sector from April 2020, and tomorrow we will publish a consultation to seek views on the detailed design of the reform to enable effective implementation. By changing the design of the off-payroll working rules, we are helping individuals working in this way to ensure that they are compliant with the existing legislation. For this reason, the Government’s focus will be on supporting organisations and businesses to apply the rules, rather than enforcing historical cases. Our aim is to provide individuals and businesses with greater certainty around how the off-payroll working rules will operate from April 2020 and the actions that individuals and businesses can take to prepare for the reform.

Our reforms to off-payroll working are just one of the ways in which this Government are ensuring that we have a tax system that is fit for the 21st century, and I commend this statement to the House.

The Opposition came to Parliament today prepared to debate, to amend and to scrutinise the Financial Services (Implementation of Legislation) Bill, and we did so in good faith, even though we were given just three hours to table amendments to the Bill last week, having been told on Wednesday afternoon that the remaining stages would be taken today. I should make it clear that the Bill had only come out of Committee the day before, on Tuesday, and that the business for this week was announced only last Thursday.

Let me be absolutely frank. The Bill has been pulled, and this statement scheduled instead, for one simple reason: the Government thought that they were going to lose. They have shown such contempt for Parliament today, and they are in such a state of chaos, that even the annunciator could not keep up with them this morning. This is not a statement from the Government on tax avoidance; it is a poor attempt to put up something that the Government can hide behind, because they are afraid to let Members of Parliament vote on the provisions of the Financial Services (Implementation of Legislation) Bill.

There were two main amendments to the Bill. The first would have prevented the Bill from legislating for a race to the bottom in regulatory standards if we were to crash out of the EU without a deal—something that the Government say they are already committed to. The second, standing in the names of my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) and the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), would have compelled the introduction of public registers of beneficial ownership in the Crown dependencies and reiterated their introduction in the overseas territories—something that the Government are already committed to doing. It is woeful and embarrassing for the Government to pull the business of the House today, to avoid Parliament having a say on those amendments, and to make this statement instead.

In relation to the substantive point on tax evasion that has led to this, I know that the Crown dependencies have a difference of opinion with this Parliament on the merits of public registers of beneficial ownership, but I believe that there is a majority view in Parliament that public registers provide for greater transparency than the existing data-sharing protocols between ourselves and the Crown dependencies provide for. Public scrutiny would provide for analysis of suspicious patterns of behaviour, and it would disclose inconsistencies in supposedly factual information and reveal wrongdoing by people who might not already be the subject of official law enforcement action. Around the world, such information getting into the public domain has been essential to exposing tax evasion and corruption, from the laundromat scandal to the Panama papers, and the public want to see action.

In relation to what the Minister has said today, all I can ask him is whether his reference to not enforcing historic cases is code for the Government not proceeding with the 2019 loan charge? His words suggested that they might not be proceeding, but he did not really say one way or another. If the answer is that they are not proceeding, I am not really sure, with all due respect to the Minister, why he needed to make a statement today at all.

Let me return to the main point. If we had debated the Financial Services (Implementation of Legislation) Bill today, I had intended to start with a genuine word of solidarity with my opposite number, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, who is also the MP for Salisbury, because it is exactly a year since the appalling attack in his constituency that featured chemical weapons. I still want to take this opportunity to express our support and solidarity with him and the people of his constituency. I mention this now because the House has united on a cross-party basis to push for new laws in this area precisely because transparency in overseas jurisdictions has become an issue of national security for us in the UK. We cannot, and should not, tolerate those who threaten the safety of our people being able to hold major assets in the UK through complex and opaque financial arrangements.

In the light of that, the Government’s words today are simply not good enough. If there is consensus in this House that action must be taken now, how can the Government deny us the chance not only to vote for further action but to vote to reaffirm the action that we have already passed through the House of Commons? Real action on tax avoidance, transparency and money laundering is well overdue, and if the Government cannot bring themselves to take that action, they should at least stop preventing other Members of Parliament from getting on with the job.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his reply. He spent some time focusing on the legislation that was due to come before the House this evening. Some amendments have been tabled, particularly the second one to which he referred, that could have significant constitutional ramifications for our Crown dependencies and overseas territories. For that reason, and given that the amendments were tabled only last Thursday, it is only right that we should have time to consider these important matters. They are not directly Treasury matters; they are more a matter for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Justice.

The hon. Gentleman refers to wanting to see public registers of beneficial ownership of companies, but he neglected to mention that we have already introduced these in respect of UK companies. That came in in 2016, and that database has been accessed in excess of 2 billion times. He mentioned that we have already made commitments to work with the overseas territories to bring in those measures by 2023. He asked me specifically what the meaning was, in the context of IR35, of focusing particularly on future compliance rather than on the history of the businesses that would be in scope of this measure. This is simply a clear indication that this is not about trawling through previous activities. It is about looking to the future and ensuring that we take a fair, proportionate and reasonable approach to IR35 as it goes into the private sector.

The hon. Gentleman asks me whether there were any implications for the loan charge. I know that people often conflate IR35 and the loan charge in relation to disguised remuneration, but as he will appreciate, they are entirely different things. There is no implication in any element of my statement on any change in respect of the loan charge.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, in relation to our national security, about the importance of general transparency in business and tax affairs internationally. I remind him that this Government and this country have been at the forefront of the base erosion and profit-shifting project with the OECD and that it is this country that has helped to drive our common reporting standards, which provide information across hundreds of overseas tax jurisdictions. With that, I will conclude, because I think that I have addressed the points that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

The Minister, whom I respect greatly, has been handed an enormous hospital pass today, although perhaps not as great as the one handed to the Secretary of State for Health earlier, when he had to justify the conduct of one of his Cabinet colleagues. I should like to ask the Minister to build on what the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds), the shadow Minister, was saying. The Minister said in his statement that

“the Government’s focus will be on supporting organisations and businesses to apply the rules, rather than enforcing historical cases.”

Have the Government learned from the 2019 loan charge cases, where people are very concerned about the importance of historic cases rather than looking forward? Is the Minister saying that these changes will be done differently from what we see happening under the loan charge?

I thank my right hon. Friend for her questions. To reiterate, there is no connection between the loan charge and IR35; they are two distinctly different aspects of Government taxation policy. The purpose of my statement, in making it clear that we will not be actively or aggressively looking at previous activities in this area, was to show that we recognise that we need to get this right and that we need to support employers and contractors as we go through this process. That is the approach that we will take.

We should have been debating the Financial Services (Implementation of Legislation) Bill this evening, but the UK Government are clearly feart. Can the Minister tell us when the Bill will return to the House? We were told that it was vital, urgent and necessary in the event of a no-deal Brexit, yet today we find that that urgency has evaporated. The statement today is nothing but a fig leaf to cover the embarrassment that the UK Government feel over the amendment tabled by the right hon. Members for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge). The Government should have acted on this after the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018, but on public registers of beneficial ownership, they have taken their lead from the Prime Minister and kicked the can down the road to 2023.

On IR35 and the loan charge, what assessment has the Minister made of how many people were forced into the system by their employers and what action has been taken by the employers involved in those cases? How many people were separate from that and perhaps knowingly used the system to avoid tax? It seems to me that they are two separate classes of people who should be recognised and treated differently as we go forward.

On compliance and enforcement, this Government have a poor record because they have already closed HMRC offices in Scotland, the local knowledge of which played a vital and valuable role in enforcement, ensuring no avoidance or evasion and enforcing compliance. My hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) has asked this before, but will the Minister put the plans to close the HMRC office in that constituency on hold because it plays a vital role in the tax avoidance, evasion and compliance regime?

Finally, will the Minister act to make Companies House part of the anti-money laundering regime, which would close a huge loophole in the system that allows people to register companies falsely? Will he take action on Scottish limited partnerships, which are still allowing people to hide money and move it around? The last time I asked about SLPs, thousands of people still had not registered as a person of significant control but had not been fined. Does he not have an interest, as a Treasury Minister, in having that significant amount of money in the Treasury coffers rather than going unpaid?

The hon. Lady asks about when today’s business will return to the House. That will be a matter for the business managers and the usual channels in the usual way. She asks about the loan charge and, specifically, about those who would be impacted by it, and I can tell her that, of the £1 billion that has been received by HMRC via pre-loan charge settlements, some 85% of those settlements by value came from companies, rather than from individuals. HMRC will go for companies in the first instance.

The hon. Lady raises the issue of HMRC offices up and down the country. We are going through a transformation programme, as she will know, reducing the number of offices from 170, some of which had fewer than 10 staff, to produce 13 state-of-the-art hubs that will move our tax authorities into the 21st century, and so much more can be done through analysis, computers and intelligent interventions. I was privileged last week to visit our new office in Bristol, which will be the hub for the south-west of England. It is a truly stunning building that will house a state-of-the-art approach to tax collection.

The hon. Lady mentions Scottish limited partnerships and urges the Government to act. She will know that we have already taken action in that respect. The main point remains that we have been successful in keeping our tax gap as one of the lowest in the world, safeguarding and protecting some £200 billion of tax, which, let us not forget, is there for a purpose. Taxes support our vital public services, our doctors, our nurses, our brave servicemen and women, and our police force. We need that money, and that is why I am proud of our achievements in that area.

My right hon. Friend is right to say that the best approach is to get things right for the future, rather than to overemphasise enforcement of the past, particularly when people may well have acted in good faith when they received professional advice. That takes me to the loan charge and I will press the Minister on that. The Government accepted a new clause to the Finance Act 2019 relating to a review of the loan charge. For that to be meaningful, it must have an independent element and must be given time to do its work. Would not common justice indicate that the sensible thing for the Revenue to do would be to use its discretion to suspend the implementation of the loan charge against individuals until the review has been fully completed and its conclusions fully digested and debated?

During the passage of the Finance Bill, we committed to provide a report by 30 March, which is shortly upon us and, of course, is prior to the moment when the loan charge will come into effect, which is at the beginning of the coming tax year. My hon. Friend referred to whether individuals getting involved in such schemes knew what they were all about, but if something looks too good to be true and one ends up being asked for basically no or little tax, it probably does not work and that, I am afraid, is the case.

I know that this Government find it difficult to listen to anybody and to accept the will of Parliament and legislation if they do not like what it says—they have form—but I want to ask the Minister two questions, one relating to the overseas territories and one relating to the Crown dependencies. On the overseas territories, it is utterly shameful for this Government to ignore legislation that was enacted only last year and to invent their own date for the implementation of public registers of beneficial ownership. If the Government are serious about wanting to tackle tax avoidance, tax evasion, financial crime and money laundering, they ought to be acting with greater speed, not delaying the implementation of legislation and ignoring the will of Parliament. Will the Minister explain to us what on earth the Government are doing?

On the Crown dependencies, I cannot for the life of me understand how the Minister can pray in aid the constitutional implications of this House legislating on a matter that was perfectly in scope in relation to the Bill that the House is considering and perfectly in order on the matters it was attempting to address. Such praying in aid of inadequate and ill-thought-through reasons simply will not do. Indeed, I cannot understand why the Minister does not recognise the consensus across this House on the issue. Transparency is a vital tool in fighting tax avoidance, evasion and financial crime, and all we want is that transparency to exist across the family. Would it not be better for the Minister to concede gracefully to the will of Parliament, rather than battling limply to a defeat in the future?

I assure the right hon. Lady that I always listen extremely carefully to what she has to say, as I have done in the context of her current two questions. She asked why we are delaying—as she terms it—the implementation of public registers of beneficial interest for overseas territories. The short answer is that it is important that we allow time to ensure that we get these things right, not least because our Parliament is legislating on behalf of another jurisdiction—albeit one that is closely related to ourselves. It is important that we are considered and measured in that way.

The right hon. Lady’s second question relates to the Crown dependencies. She made the quite legitimate point that the amendment to the legislation that was due to go through this afternoon was indeed in scope and in order. However, that is not the same as saying that that contradicts my earlier point that that particular amendment would have considerable and significant constitutional ramifications for our Crown dependencies. For that reason, as I stated earlier, the Government feel that it is important to reflect carefully upon that before we come back with the legislation in due course

I welcome the statement before us—if not its existence, at least its content. The Minister says that he wants to support individuals. Can he create a mechanism whereby someone can have their standard contract precleared by HMRC so that, if they engage with half a dozen customers a year, they will not get half a dozen different treatments chosen by those companies when they put the contract through their tool, or something similar?

The issue of ensuring that we make it as simple as possible for employers to be able to assess the employment status of employees or contractors providing services is extremely important. It is central to the consultation that I have announced will open tomorrow and run for several weeks, and I urge my hon. Friend to contribute to it with his specific idea.

Can the Minister explain why, on a day when they pulled business to avoid defeat on an amendment that could have meant the wealthiest businesses paid millions of pounds in tax, the Government feel it is acceptable to clamp down on ordinary families for national insurance and not pursue widespread, large-scale tax avoidance?

On the first part of the hon. Lady’s question, I think I have already answered why we decided not to go ahead with the legislation today. On clamping down on national insurance issues, I am not entirely sure to what she is specifically referring. If she would like to have a word with me after this statement, I would be happy to have a look at it.

May I accuse the Minister directly of encouraging a very large number of people to avoid tax? Is it not the case that, in 2010, when the Conservatives came into government, low-paid people had to earn only £6,500 a year before they paid income tax, but from next month the income tax threshold will be £12,500? May I accuse him of taking millions of people out of income tax altogether? Is not the fundamental truth that, if tax rates are lowered, tax take is increased by encouraging economic growth, giving us all more money to spend on public services?

I thank my hon. Friend, and I take it on the chin. I am bang to rights. I and this Government are guilty of lowering taxes, particularly for the lowest paid in our country. He refers to the increase in the personal allowance, and he is absolutely right that, since 2010, some 4 million people have been taken out of tax altogether—I am extremely proud of that fact.

It is often suggested by the Opposition that the wealthiest get away with it. Well, they certainly do not. Under this Government, the top 1% pay 28% of all income tax; under Labour, it was about 24.5%.

Is not the Government’s decision to pull the Financial Services (Implementation of Legislation) Bill in the face of the amendment on public registers of beneficial ownership, tabled by my formidable right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge), reflective of their entire approach to the wider issue? Can the Minister confirm when the Government will finally take decisive action on extending corporate liability for economic crime? Their call for evidence closed two years ago and we are still waiting for a response.

The hon. Lady will know that this Government have an exemplary record when it comes to clamping down on tax avoidance, evasion and non-compliance, including overseas. We have been at the vanguard of the base erosion and profit shifting project, and in 2015 we brought in the diverted profits tax, which has already saved some £700 million. We are very active in this space and I refer her to my earlier answer on why we have delayed the legislation today.

I echo the words of the Chairs of the Treasury Committee and the Select Committee on Justice. The Minister’s words that the Government will not focus on enforcing historical IR35 cases will stick in the gullet of those, like my constituents, who are sick with anxiety at facing huge bills of over £100,000 relating to the loan charge. These are not affluent people; they are businesspeople who have ploughed everything they have into their business and into employing local people. Does the Minister understand just how stressful this is when they have not even received their settlement amount from the Inland Revenue after the date, at the end of February, by which they were promised it?

It is very important for us to be extremely clear as to what disguised remuneration is all about. It is a situation where I, as an employer, instead of paying an employee in the normal manner, on which basis PAYE would be due—that would be income tax, employee’s national insurance and employer’s national insurance—I say to the employee, “Look, we’ll do it a different way. I’ll send some money out, typically into a trust in a low-tax or no-tax overseas jurisdiction. That money will then come back into the United Kingdom disguised as a loan”—not a real loan, as the hon. Lady and I would recognise, but one where there is no expectation that it will be repaid—“and, as a consequence because it is treated as a loan and not earnings, it attracts no tax at all.” This Government do not believe that is right.

Clause 95 of the Finance Bill 2019, which the Government accepted on Report, agreed a review of the loan charge. I have met constituents. They are ordinary folk who, when they were working for particular people, were told that this was the arrangement they had to make. They are now suffering huge penalties, although they are still not clear exactly what those penalties are because HMRC keeps changing the rules. Following the question of the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), will there be a proper independent review that reports by 30 March and allows time before these things come in? I like the Minister a lot and I think he is a good Minister, but what he just said suggests that the Government have already determined the outcome of that review, which is not very helpful.

I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman formed that opinion. We are certainly not going to prejudge any review on any aspect of tax, whatever it may be. I gently say to him, and to those who got involved in these schemes, that by and large when something looks too good to be true, it is too good to be true. Where hon. Members refer to very large demands for tax, we are, of necessity, looking at situations where very large amounts of money went through tax avoidance schemes. We have had debates in this House in which Members have raised tax demands, on behalf of their constituents, of up to £900,000. In those circumstances, about £2 million-worth of income would need to go through one of those schemes in order to result in an unpaid tax bill of that magnitude.

The Minister needs to clarify whether he is just writing a report or whether he will genuinely do a serious review. He says that the bulk of the loan charge tax by volume has already been collected. However, 50,000 ordinary, hard-working people are in despair and living in limbo, waiting to know whether the tax returns they put to bed years ago are to be reopened.

I am the vice-chair of the all-party loan charge group, and last week we heard from the family of a man who committed suicide over a small amount. It was the shame and fear that he would go to prison that sent him over the edge. The Sunday Telegraph has reported on a leaked HMRC letter from 2011 that clearly shows that it knew it was out of time for pursuing these cases back then, so will the Financial Secretary now admit that the real reason for the loan charge is HMRC’s failure to act when it was legally entitled to do so and that that is no good reason to undermine the rule of law by retrospectively rewriting the rules?

May I correct one thing the hon. Lady said? She said I suggested that the bulk of the money due under the disguised remuneration measures has already been collected, but I am pretty certain I said that, of the £1 billion that has been collected thus far, some 85% has come from companies, as opposed to individuals. HMRC will go for the company before the individual. We have to get back to the reasons for this charge, which I have just set out. As for whether it is retrospective as the hon. Lady says, I can assure her that there has been no time in our history as a taxing nation when this kind of structure—this kind of contrived arrangement, which is set up simply for the avoidance of taxation—has ever fallen appropriately within our tax code. It has never been right. These schemes have been taken through the courts, not just the general courts, but the Supreme Court, over a number of years and they have always been found to be defective and not to work.

The Government’s decision to pull tonight’s vote on the remaining stages of the Financial Services (Implementation of Legislation) Bill, which would allow the UK to continue to implement EU rules, because they feared a defeat on the cross-party amendment on the introduction of beneficial ownership registers in Crown dependencies by 2020 is truly shocking. Does the Minister think that pulling that vote will dispel or heighten the concerns of the general public about the general chaos at the heart of this Government, which we are currently enduring, a mere three weeks from Brexit?

No, it certainly will not heighten any sense that the public may or may not have of chaos. What it will do is give the Government the time to reflect upon what has emerged as an extremely important constitutional matter, in order to take a measured and careful approach to our response, and of course the legislation will come back to the House in due course.

I thank the Minister for his statement. Since the last time this matter was raised in the House, what has he done to close the loophole that has allowed big business to avoid paying the appropriate tax? Big business should not be trying to avoid paying tax; it should be paying its just taxes and doing it cheerfully.

I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman when he says that big businesses should be paying their fair share of tax, which is why half of the largest companies at any one time in the UK are being looked at closely or investigated by HMRC. That is not to say that they are doing anything wrong, but it is to indicate that we and HMRC take looking into the tax affairs of large companies extremely seriously. He will be aware of the measures we have brought forward in various Finance Bills specifically aimed at large companies, be it the legislation that has come out of the OECD BEPS—base erosion and profit shifting—project or the diverted profits tax measures of 2015. We do take this very seriously. We are a world leader at bringing in taxation, not least from large companies.