The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chairs: Siobhain McDonagh, † Andrew Rosindell
† Badenoch, Kemi (Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury)
† Baldwin, Harriett (West Worcestershire) (Con)
† Browne, Anthony (South Cambridgeshire) (Con)
† Buchan, Felicity (Kensington) (Con)
† Cates, Miriam (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Con)
† Flynn, Stephen (Aberdeen South) (SNP)
† Jones, Andrew (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (Con)
† Millar, Robin (Aberconwy) (Con)
† Norman, Jesse (Financial Secretary to the Treasury)
† Oppong-Asare, Abena (Erith and Thamesmead) (Lab)
† Phillipson, Bridget (Houghton and Sunderland South) (Lab)
† Ribeiro-Addy, Bell (Streatham) (Lab)
† Rutley, David (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
† Smith, Jeff (Manchester, Withington) (Lab)
† Streeting, Wes (Ilford North) (Lab)
Thewliss, Alison (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
† Williams, Craig (Montgomeryshire) (Con)
Chris Stanton, Kenneth Fox, Johanna Sallberg Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
Public Bill Committee
Thursday 11 June 2020
[Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]
I remind Members to please respect social distancing guidance. As you are aware, tea and coffee are not permitted in Committee rooms. Please ensure mobile phones are turned off or switched to silent during the sitting. As I have said before, the Hansard reporters will be grateful if Members email their speaking notes to email@example.com.
Digital services tax: introduction
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
With this it will be convenient to discuss clauses 39 to 44 stand part.
Thank you, Mr Rosindell. I am grateful to all members of the Committee for joining us this morning; I am also grateful it is not too hot outside. It is a rare moment in Parliament when one gets to introduce a new tax—the digital services tax—on to the statute book. With the clauses grouped together, it is appropriate to spend some time in my opening remarks outlining the overall architecture of the tax and how it is designed to work; then we can pick up specific details in the clauses as we come to them.
Clauses 38 to 44 introduce legislation to enact the digital services tax, and they set the scope of this legislation. DST will levy a 2% charge on the revenues that groups receive from providing specific digital services to UK users. The specific services in scope of the charge are search engines, social media, and online marketplaces. I will explain later why those three services are in scope of the new tax. DST will apply only to groups with annual global revenues from services of more than £500 million. It will then be charged on the revenues only where they are attributable to UK users, and only on amounts above £25 million.
An exemption will exclude online financial services marketplaces from the definition of an online marketplace. Businesses making low profit margins on their in-scope activity will be able to pay the tax at a reduced rate, while loss makers will pay nothing; that will minimise the distortions that a tax on revenues can create. To further reduce those distortions, a relief for certain cross-border transactions is also included. It will reduce by half the revenues subject to DST where those revenues are derived from an online marketplace transaction between a UK user and a user from a jurisdiction that also levies a DST. As this is a new tax, there are also extensive provisions to ensure the framework of the tax works as intended. These draw on many existing tax concepts to reduce the burden of implementing the new tax for what we hope will be a limited time.
The digital services tax was announced at Budget 2018 as a response to changes brought about by the rapid development of our digital economy. That economy brings many benefits, but it has posed a significant challenge for international corporate tax rules. Under current rules, digital businesses can derive significant value from UK users, but in many cases they pay little UK tax because international corporate tax rules do not recognise the user-generated value when allocating the right to tax profits between jurisdictions, so undermining the fairness and sustainability of our tax system. It is therefore now widely accepted that the rules require updating.
The Government remain at the forefront of international efforts to secure a comprehensive long-term solution to the issue, and we are fully engaged in discussions with OECD and G20 partners. Although we welcome recent progress towards a global solution, there remain important and difficult issues to resolve, so the Government are acting now to address those widely held concerns in a fair and proportionate manner. DST is a temporary measure, until appropriate global reform is in place.
As a temporary measure, DST is targeted at those business models that rely most significantly on user-generated value and that place the greatest strain on current corporate tax rules. It is the Government’s judgement that these services are search engines, social media platforms and online marketplaces. Of course I recognise that a broad range of digital services could be said to derive value from their users, and I am aware that some hon. Members have called for the scope of DST to be extended to include services such as media streaming. However, the services in scope of this tax are those that rely most significantly on user participation in the creation of value: for example, while media streaming platforms may utilise user contributions in the form of reviews or recommendations, users of a social media platform often create the content that is shared across the platform, and users of an online marketplace provide the market liquidity required for the marketplace to function. Also, while we are engaged in OECD discussions about finding a long-term global solution and exploring the case for broader reform, we judge that it would not be appropriate to implement a temporary tax on a broader basis.
DST follows the recommendations of the OECD’s 2018 interim report. Targeting DST at those services that derive the greatest value from their users minimises the distortive consequences of a tax on revenues and minimises the risks of introducing a temporary measure before global reform is agreed. That will ensure that DST is proportionate, while still raising up to £2 billion over the next five years. That in addition to the UK taxes that digital businesses already pay and, as I have said, reflects the value they derive from UK users.
I will now summarise the clauses that form this part of the Bill—clauses 39 to 44. Clause 39 sets out that DST will apply to all revenues that arise in connection with in-scope digital service activity. That is deliberately a very broad test; it ensures that however these businesses make money from their in-scope activity, that revenue will be subject to the tax. The clause also sets out that revenues should be apportioned on a just and reasonable basis when they are not wholly in connection with an in-scope activity.
Once a group’s digital services revenues have been established, the next step is to determine how much of those revenues is attributable to UK users. Clauses 40 and 41 set out the five cases where revenues are attributable to UK users. The first three cases deal with the specific types of revenue that online marketplaces may receive. The first case concerns the revenues that a marketplace earns from facilitating transactions between users; this will include a marketplace’s commission, for example. These revenues are attributable to UK users whenever a UK user is a party to the transaction. It does not matter whether the UK user is the buyer or the seller, or which user paid the revenue; where there is a cross-border transaction between a UK user and a non-UK user, all of the marketplace’s revenue from that transaction is regarded as attributable to UK users, although this may be subject to cross-border relief.
The second case concerns revenues that arise in connection with accommodation and land in the UK—for example when a user books a holiday let on a marketplace. These revenues are attributable to UK users when the property is in the UK. Where the property is overseas, the revenue will only be UK digital services revenue when the purchaser is a UK user. Some marketplaces charge users to list individual items for sale; under the third case, those revenues will be treated as attributable to UK users whenever the user listing the item is a UK user.
The last two cases apply to social media services and internet search engines, as well as to online marketplaces. The fourth case deals with online advertising revenues. These revenues are attributable to UK users when the advertising was viewed by a UK user; the focus is on the viewer of the advertising, not on who paid for it. The fifth and final case is a catch-all, to include revenue that is not trapped by any of the other rules but that is received in connection with UK users. This will cover any other type of revenue earned by social media services and search engines—for example, subscription fees.
Clause 42 defines each of the services in scope of DST. The tax will be charged on the revenues that businesses earn from providing a social media platform, search engine or online marketplace to UK users. The definitions are designed to be targeted and as clear as possible. They have been carefully drafted after extensive consultation periods with business to ensure that they apply as intended. Alongside the three named services, some businesses facilitate online advertising on other websites. The clause ensures that revenues from that source would also be subject to DST when the advertising service derives a significant benefit from operating one of the three named services.
Clause 43 clarifies the meaning of “user” and “UK user” for the purposes of DST legislation. Clause 44 sets out the exclusion of online financial marketplaces from the definition of online marketplaces. The highly regulated nature of financial services limits their ability to engage with users in the ways that other marketplaces do. As such, the clause ensures that they are not subject to DST.
Together, clauses 38 to 44 set out the scope of DST. The digital services tax is a clear signal of the Government’s commitment to ensuring that tax rules reflect the development of our modern economy. Ultimately, as I have said, our strong preference is for a global solution, which will be the most comprehensive and enduring way to address concerns about the current corporate tax rules. Until such a solution is in place, however, DST will ensure that digital businesses pay UK tax that reflects the value they derive from UK users. I therefore commend the clauses to the Committee.
It a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Rosindell. Like the Minister, I will use this opportunity to lay out our broad views and concerns about the operation of the digital services tax. We will pick up some of the technical issues with the clauses as they emerge later.
We welcome the principle behind the introduction of a digital services tax. It is regrettable, if not unsurprising, that it has taken the Government so long to get to such a measure, given the wider inertia when it comes to making sure that multinational companies pay their fair share of tax. The gap between the profits that digital companies derive from UK users and how much they pay in tax is stark. That fact has been evident for some time and is recognised by Labour Members, which is why for years we have consistently pressed for a far more ambitious approach.
It is not right that, at a time when high street shops are struggling in an unprecedented way, the likes of Amazon have been allowed to pay a much lower tax rate than British bookstores and other businesses of a comparable nature. Our local high streets are incredibly important; they are the backbone of our local economies. Many family-run businesses have found this time incredibly difficult, but they also have many long-standing problems because of the way they have been undercut by some of these big players, which do not have the same overheads or level of corporate responsibility and do not make the same impact in our communities. During this crisis, many of our local businesses—our small businesses on the high street—have adapted to do all they can to make sure that vulnerable people receive deliveries and support, and that they are open as much as they can be within the guidelines. It is only right that we make sure that the bigger players with large profits make a contribution too.
There is still much unfairness built into the system. As constituency MPs, we only have to visit the businesses on our high streets that have been operating for many decades to appreciate the scale of disillusionment that many of those family-run firms feel about the lack of fairness in the system and the need for change. The economic crisis we are facing only strengthens the call for action because it has compounded the impact on our high streets, which have struggled and will continue to struggle. It is such a shame that, in many of our communities, affluent and perhaps less affluent, there are clothes shops that had their shutters down even before we felt the impact of the lockdown.
Vibrant local high streets are central to a sense of pride in the community and to making sure that we can support local jobs and businesses. We want to do everything we can to support that, but hand in hand with the pressures facing many small businesses during this time, there has been an unexpected boon for digital and tech giants, as we have all had to adapt to life in different and difficult circumstances during the lockdown. It is only right that we ensure that those with the broadest shoulders help to bear the cost of the recovery that we must now achieve as a country. It is more important than ever to make sure that those big players are taxed properly, reasonably and fairly.
There is no doubt that there is public appetite for stronger action to make sure that multinational companies pay their fair share. Polling carried out by Tax Justice UK in April revealed that 87% of those surveyed think that the Government should close tax loopholes for corporations and individuals. The measure that the Minister has set out is better than nothing, but it is nowhere near good enough in scope or scale. According to the Government’s own estimate, it is set to produce only £280 million this financial year, increasing to £465 million by 2023-24. In contrast, TaxWatch suggests that the UK is losing £1.3 billion in corporation tax from five of the biggest UK tech firms each year, thanks to complex financial structures that take profits offshore.
Let me give some examples of what that money might be used to support. Our NHS has been under unprecedented strain, and our NHS workers—our doctors, nurses, cleaners, porters and everyone else who has played a key role—have found it really challenging. We want to ensure that we have enough money to fund our vital public services. That is one aspect of the measures that the Government could be looking at, but considering the scale of the figures that TaxWatch and others have identified, it is clear that if we are to properly fund the vital frontline services on which we have all depended in this time of crisis, the Government will need to reconsider in due course whether the measure goes far enough.
The money could be used to support growth in our economy and provide more jobs to deal with regional imbalances. It could deal with the funding crisis in our NHS and could almost double school funding in the north-east of England, although I am sure other parts of the country would have a similar case to make in terms of need. It is not acceptable that the digital services tax would take several years to make less than half of that, given the unprecedent nature of the crisis that we are living through and the strain on our public finances from both the immediate response and the challenges the Government will face in easing lockdown restrictions and returning to some level of normal economic activity.
As the Chancellor said when he announced this measure, the tax will be narrowly targeted at the UK-generated revenue of specific digital platform business models, and the Minister today outlined further exactly what that will mean. It is carefully designed to ensure that the established tech giants, rather than our tech start-ups, shoulder the burden. We all want to support innovation and start-up companies right across the country, and enable them to create local jobs, work with our universities and bring in the new skills that many will need in the future.
The Office for Budget Responsibly, in its 2018 assessment of the Government’s costings methodology, said the tax would apply to about 30 groups. There have obviously been modifications to the tax since its announcement, so I would appreciate it if the Financial Secretary outlined whether an assessment has been made of the number of companies that he thinks will fall under the scope of the tax.
I would like the Financial Secretary also to address the OBR’s claim in its 2018 assessment that there is a high degree of uncertainty around the central estimates of the yield. As of this year, the OBR maintains that there is medium to low certainty regarding the yield. That is hardly reassuring, given that the gap between those companies’ profitability and what they pay in tax remains so large. One of the reasons why the yield projected under the Government’s costings methodology is difficult to calculate is that, in the OBR’s words, global revenues in scope that relate to the UK have to be obtained through external sources for which there is little relevant information available. Given these problems, it is hard to know why the Government are not pushing for country-by-country reporting where the uncertainty around those companies’ revenues is affecting our ability to determine how much tax they should be paying. That campaign has enjoyed broad cross-party support in the House, led primarily by my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge), who has done tremendous work in bringing public attention to what had been an under-recognised area.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend’s comments. Does she agree that large companies such as Amazon are unlikely to be substantially affected? The Bill aims to support start-up companies, but it does not go to the heart of addressing big digital companies that get away with not paying enough tax.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. That is one of many concerns raised by stakeholders, and an issue that I will be raising further with the Financial Secretary during the course of my contribution. As the he outlined, the measure does not capture media streaming services either, and I intend to say a bit more about that in due course.
The broad campaigning support that we have seen right across the House on issues of tax transparency, led primarily by my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking but with considerable support from Government Back Benchers, demonstrates the appetite both within this House and outside for greater transparency in this area. Tremendous work has been done by the all-party parliamentary group and by the Public Accounts Committee, led previously by my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking and subsequently by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), which has continued to press the need for greater transparency in this area. It wants the Government to act, but it also recognises the need for greater multilateral action. I know the Financial Secretary touched on that point and I will come back to it later.
The Opposition understand the difficulties with multilateral action, but we think that the Government should provide a greater degree of leadership in seeking to resolve the problem. Another reason why the yield as outlined might be so low is the rate at which it is being set: it is among the lowest in Europe. I invite the Financial Secretary to explain why the Government have adopted such a cautious approach when other countries are going further. How did he arrive at the figure? How did he and the Government determine the level of the tax? What assessment was made not just of the yield and the difficulties with determining it, but of whether it is an appropriate level? Have other stakeholders and groups made representations on the level at which the tax has been set?
The modest nature of the measure becomes clear when we consider what some of the tech giants might actually have to pay under the tax. The Minister may well be aware of the research by TaxWatch UK, which estimates that Facebook would face an increased tax bill of £39 million despite estimated UK venues of almost £2.3 billion. Google would pay slightly more: around £168 million, based on estimated UK revenues of £9.3 billion.
Beyond the small impact on the companies to which the tax applies, there is the question of which companies will not be affected by the tax. That comes to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead. Many digital businesses such as Amazon, which blend their activities, will be unaffected by the measure outlined by the Minister; nor, as TaxWatch UK has illustrated, will it apply to Apple’s hardware business, Microsoft or Cisco Systems, none of which involve social media platforms, search engines or online market places.
As I said earlier, my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking has done so much work in this area. I am aware that she pressed the Financial Secretary earlier this year to extend the scope of the digital services tax to include streaming services such as Netflix, which are not included in the measure, and he set out some of the Government’s concerns about broadening its scope. I want to provide a bit of background on the operations of Netflix, on which many of us have come to rely in a much greater way during the lockdown period. Many online streaming services have no doubt seen a real boost at a time when we are all trying to find ways to spend many an hour and entertain our children in the absence of any form of proper childcare.
Netflix’s estimated revenues from UK subscribers was £860 million in 2018, based on analysis from TaxWatch UK, which provides an analysis of Netflix’s corporate structure showing that the company has implemented a similar tax avoidance structure to those used by many other multinational companies operating in the digital sphere. Revenues are not collected in the country where they are made; instead, customers are charged from an offshore company, and profits are then moved from the hub company to a tax haven through the use of an intra-company transaction. Netflix’s historically low profit margins mean that the scale of any tax avoidance will be much lower than that of many other well-known companies that employ similar tactics. TaxWatch UK has argued that it is relatively easy to calculate the revenue of Netflix in the UK: there are surveys of TV usage that tell us how many subscribers it has in the UK, and Netflix publishes data on average revenue per subscriber, which is something that I imagine has grown considerably during this time.
That returns us to the issue of fairness. Despite receiving support from Government, many high street businesses have struggled and will continue to struggle for a prolonged period, while other companies have potentially seen a big increase in their revenues during the crisis. The Opposition urge the Government to consider whether the measure is adequate. As argued by my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking, extending the scope of the tax could feasibly bring other streaming platforms, such as video game streaming platforms, under the ambit of the tax. That would improve its takings and ensure that all companies pay their fair share.
The pattern of profit shifting displayed by Netflix, which I just outlined, reflects practices adopted by others. It is clear that the current system for taxing streaming services is not working. The proposed measure would go at least some way to resolving this, but it is not adequate.
I am aware of the Financial Secretary’s response earlier this year to my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking, disputing the practicability of widening the scope of the tax, but I urge him to look again at the issue, or at the very least to consider other means at the Government’s disposal to ensure that all companies pay an appropriate amount of tax. We will discuss the scope and the yield later when debating Opposition amendments, but I urge him to consider how we can be confident that this measure is working as intended—not only whether it is deriving the income that we need in order to provide support for our frontline services at this difficult time for the country, but whether the digital services tax is operating as it should.
I will also highlight some of the technical issues relating to clauses 38 to 44. Clause 39 indicates that revenue should be apportioned on a just and reasonable basis when not wholly attributable to a digital services activity. Does the Minister accept that there may be a risk in taking businesses at their word here? There may well be some issues in how that is applied, and I would be grateful if he could offer some reassurance in this area. Asking businesses to apportion revenue on a just and reasonable basis may lead them to structure their operations or disaggregate their costs in a certain way to avoid higher liabilities. In the absence of public country-by-country reporting measures to create full transparency, oversight of this will be essential. Can the Minister confirm what will be done to ensure that this has been calculated in a fair and open manner?
A related point is capacity within HMRC. As we have all acknowledged in earlier discussions on the Bill, HMRC and Treasury staff are doing tremendous work at this difficult time for our country, and we all commend them for their dedication and hard work. I imagine it must be a challenging environment in which to work, responding quickly to changes in policy and with the need to support businesses and taxpayers alike, but given the challenges faced, can the Minister assure us that HMRC will have the resources and staffing it needs to make sure that this tax is being applied properly and that revenues are being secured? Some stakeholders have suggested putting in place a dedicated digital services tax team, and I wonder what consideration the Minister and officials have given to that.
Since the legislation was first announced and consulted on, several stakeholders expressed throughout the consultation period concerns around whether the definitions the Government use in these clauses are clear enough and watertight. For instance, there is uncertainty around whether online gambling platforms will fall under the scope of this tax, as set out by the Chartered Institute of Taxation. I appreciate that the legislation has been modified since it was first announced, but I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify the position.
On Clause 43, concerns have been expressed about the difficulty in identifying a “UK user”. The use of virtual private networks presents an obvious difficulty in this regard. The process of monitoring users may also raise concerns around GDPR compliance. I will be grateful if the Minister could set out whether that is the case, and whether there may be difficulties in this area.
I will now touch on the international context in which this measure has been put forward, drawing in part on the Minister’s remarks on the need for both UK action but also global action, as companies work across country boundaries and jurisdictions. The international tax system is fundamentally not fit for purpose: it has not kept pace with the changing nature of technology and many of the changes that we have seen in our economy and the global economy. It was modelled on the trade in goods, rather than services. The challenge of how we respond to the digitisation of the global economy continues, and goes far beyond this measure and other measures that the Government are considering, but the OECD has been pressing on the issue for years, as the Minister acknowledged.
It is regrettable that no multilateral consensus has yet been forged. Opposition Members are clear that a multilateral solution is the best possible outcome, but it requires leadership—something, it has to be said, that has been sorely lacking in recent years. I hope we will see much greater action from the Government in pressing the case multilaterally, demonstrating international leadership, so that we can see a fairer solution right across the board. In the absence of such a consensus, a unilateral approach was always inevitable. It remains, of course, a second-best option, and the Minister will know that it is not one that comes without risks. We have seen just this week the US trade representative launch an investigation into digital services taxes, including the UK’s. The Chartered Institute of Taxation has also highlighted the risks of provoking retaliation, which could affect businesses based in Britain, as we have seen in the US response to the French digital services tax, or of copycat measures, which may be less narrowly targeted.
Earlier this year, at the World Economic Forum, US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin suggested that the US might retaliate with a tariff on UK car exports if the digital services tax discriminated against US multinationals. I know that the Government have previously said that they would not be deterred by such tactics, but I would be grateful if the Minister could reiterate here today that this continues to be the case. Perhaps he could also say a bit more about what we can expect to see in multilateral action. What meetings are planned, and what do the Government intend to do in leading the world in this area? I would also like to hear reassurance that the Government will not use this measure as a trading chip in any future trade negotiations with the US.
On the international ramifications of the UK’s digital services tax, the Minister will no doubt be aware of concerns about the potential for double taxation. The publication Tax Journal has warned that the digital services tax may well breach both double tax treaties and international trade law, and that point is echoed by the Chartered Institute of Taxation. Does the Minister agree with those assessments, and will he outline the Government’s wider thinking about the possibility that the measure leads to double taxation?
Finally, I would like to touch on the future of a multilateral approach to taxing digital companies. The OECD’s public consultation last year outlined three proposals for the way forward on taxing multinational enterprises, including a user participation model similar to what has been proposed today. As Tax Journal reported in response to the consultation, the user participation model seemed to hold least appeal. It says that it was widely considered to be conceptually flawed because it was too narrowly targeted on certain revenue streams that may be impossible to ring-fence in practice. It also highlighted practical concerns about the difficulties of identifying users and allocating value to such users, which it says could render the tax unworkable.
Given that the international consensus seems to be geared against a user participation model in the long term, why is the UK implementing such a model? Given how complex the implementation of this tax will prove to be, it would arguably be wiser to create a model that closely reflects that which will eventually be implemented. The Minister will be aware of the direction of travel on this issue, and I would be grateful if he could update us on any progress towards a solution.
The Minister will also know that the OECD is expected to publish its final report, including a consensus-based long-term solution later this year. However, even in normal times such a solution has been difficult to come by. The coronavirus emergency means that Governments around the world and the OECD are focusing on their response to that crisis. How can we be sure that this will not be another casualty of the pandemic? This does not mean that the challenges of taxing the digital economy should fall by the wayside. In fact, they are more pressing than ever—both the domestic and global challenges—and a solution will be arrived at only if all countries exert the political will necessary. I urge the Minister and the Government to redouble their efforts in pursuit of this goal. Until that is the case, the Opposition will continue to push for a more ambitious approach and for greater fairness and transparency within our system as a whole so that businesses on the high street which every year without fail pay what is asked of them, and other taxpayers who simply pay what is deducted from their wages, can be confident that those big players with access to the best possible advice do not just shift around the profits that they derive.
We believe that a more ambitious approach is demanded by the unique and challenging circumstances that we are in, and we remain concerned that the measures today simply do not go far enough.
I am generally a low-tax Conservative. I prefer lower, simpler taxes, but I thoroughly welcome this new tax. It is clearly welcomed across the House. The public are frustrated at seeing these big technology companies and other multinational corporations not paying their fair share of tax.
I have a few observations and then one question for my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary. It is absolutely welcome that he is co-ordinating globally on this. I have led tax talks with the OECD on things like common reporting standards, and they take a very long time, so it is welcome that he has come forward with a national measure aligned with what we expect from the international measures, and we are not waiting for the international measures to come into place.
I notice that the shadow Chief Secretary says that the measure has not gone far enough, but it is still one of the first in the world and it also breaks the mould in being a turnover tax, which the UK Government have always resisted. As globalisation continues apace, the arguments for turnover taxes as opposed to profit taxes get a lot stronger and we now have one in the UK on digital services. I suspect that in years to come there will be arguments made for expanding turnover taxes to other sectors.
The case was made that the tax is modest in terms of revenue, but all taxes start out modestly. When we look at the history of value added tax, stamp duty or income tax, they started out modestly and tended to increase as we saw what their impact was. The digital services tax is an entirely new tax on a sector where we do not really know the dynamics. The data has not been collected by the companies, so it is absolutely right that we see what the impact is before deciding in what way to extend it.
When I was chief executive of the British Bankers’ Association, I was involved in many discussions with the Treasury on new bank-specific taxes. With a new tax, it is always the case that we do not know what revenue we will get. There is always a high amount of uncertainty because people have not collected the data for that tax. It is inevitable that for the digital services tax there will be a degree of uncertainty, as has been pointed out.
My question for my right hon. Friend the Minister is about enforcement and implementation. The digital services companies will have to collect a lot of data that they might not have been already collecting. HMRC will be dependent on them for providing the data because it will not have direct access to all their internal accounts and that level of detail. I want to know what work is being done with HMRC to make sure that it can get the right data and have confidence that the companies are paying the amount of tax that they should be paying and not playing games, as they are sometimes wont to do.
I am also not usually somebody who likes to find new ways to tax people in the UK. The digital services tax is totally new, but it is the right thing to do. The clauses detail the scope and the mechanisms for the tax and its collection. We even have a clause with an algebraic formula, which should certainly raise an eyebrow. [Laughter.]
The main thing to note is that the economy is changing fast and the tax is a part of that change. The Government’s response is to work internationally as we plot the course to a digital economy. Such economies are by definition international, so it is right to respond in a multinational way. I also know that it is very hard and takes a long time to achieve the objectives, so it is clearly right to proceed in the short term with this measure. Digital firms must pay their fair share.
It is increasingly hard for Governments to raise revenue from their traditional routes. The Government obviously have to raise revenue to fund the public services that we want. There is therefore an underlying, fundamental challenge for the Treasury. Work and consumption patterns change. I recognise that I possibly view this through the prism of somebody who has had responsibility for raising Government revenue—once a Treasury Minister, always a Treasury Minister—but this tax and the thinking behind it are the shape of things to come. Tax has to evolve to reflect the way the economy evolves.
The rise of the digital economy means different things for different companies. The opportunities for productivity and environmental gains are absolutely immense, so we must do all that we can to encourage the shift into a digital economy. Most people encounter it through social media search engines and online retail, which are the target areas for the tax. The growth of online retail has placed ever greater pressure on traditional high street retail businesses: a trend compounded, as colleagues have said, by the current crisis.
There have been concerns about the nature of competition and whether there has been a level playing field between online and offline: the argument between bricks and clicks. We should make every effort to level the playing field and the tax is a part of that. High streets have a role beyond their traditional economic role. They have a social role and bring people together. They create hubs for communities, but they also have to evolve to reflect the changing nature of competition, and a more level playing field in taxation will help give them the space to evolve.
I had some concerns that the tax may discourage digital start-ups; we have seen a good period for start-ups in the UK and I think that we have led Europe in this sector. However, I think those concerns have been dealt with by the threshold at which the tax becomes payable, which will only capture the very largest of businesses.
So, we have a very interesting new area for taxation, which I do not think any Government can enter into lightly. The Minister is an old friend—we have worked together for many years—and I commend him, because this is not easy stuff; it is pioneering for the UK and indeed for the world. But we have found a way forward that updates our taxation system and introduces more fairness to it, and through the operation of the new system we will learn how future taxation may work. So, as we go through further clauses in detail today, perhaps he could comment on how any learnings from this tax might influence and develop future taxation thinking.
All I can say to my colleagues on the Government Benches who have made their speeches is,
“soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east”—
and my hon. Friends the Members for South Cambridgeshire, and for Harrogate and Knaresborough. What could be finer? I thank them very much for their interventions. If I may, I will start by responding to those interventions and then come on to the very detailed thrust of commentary from the shadow Chief Secretary.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire rightly made the point that taxes are, of their nature, potentially distortive, and revenue taxes, of their nature, in particular. It is therefore appropriate to proceed with a degree of caution in considering how to introduce a tax, and to acknowledge that. He also made the point that many taxes start modestly. I could not possibly comment on the future direction of this tax, but I will say that I do not think that £2 billion is a trivial sum of money to raise from a new tax. I think the tax has been set at an appropriate level, and officials and the Government believe that, too.
My hon. Friend also asked whether businesses affected by the tax will have to collect a vast array of new information, and whether that may be burdensome to them. This is one area where, on reflection, he may be able to take a degree of comfort, because we are only talking about very large businesses, and about businesses for whom tracking users and extracting revenue from them is what they do for a living. So, it is not our expectation that there should be any enormous additional informational burden; there may be a selection process of pulling information out, but not an enormous informational burden.
I will also point out that the approach taken is one of self-assessment, which is to say that we expect businesses that have UK user-generated content revenue to come forward and self-assess. In a way, that relates to the question put by the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South about whether HMRC has enough resources. I am pleased to tell her that it already has a digital team in place, whose job is to monitor this process of self-assessment. And as with other taxes, I have no doubt that they will become increasingly expert in doing that and evaluating the submissions that are made; of course, submissions will vary in their quality and I am sure that evaluating them will be, in turn, an educative process for tax officials at HMRC.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, a beloved former Treasury Minister, made a couple of important points. Of course, he is absolutely right that we are talking about a dynamic market or sector. All markets are intrinsically dynamic and we are talking about an intrinsically highly dynamic sector of activity, perhaps never more so than at this particular moment in our history, when we are seeking—internationally and nationally—to find a whole range of new solutions to support people and maintain the economy. So, it is a very dynamic sector.
My hon. Friend is also right to highlight—in a way entirely unscripted and unprepared with me—the “pioneering” nature of this tax. It is a new form of tax, which seeks to tax UK user-generated content. Therefore, it is an important démarche in our history to consider whether this is an appropriate way in which to tax. I believe it is, and I believe that Parliament will think it is, but we will of course continue to review and take feedback on it. I point out that there have been two sets of consultations on this already—an original, principal set and then a more technical one.
Having said that, I return to the wide-ranging speech made by the shadow Chief Secretary. All I can say is that, if this is what she does to legislation she likes, goodness knows what she does to legislation she does not like.
I appreciate that, of course. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for welcoming the principles behind this, as she is right to do. For the same reasons I described to my hon. Friends, I do not think it appropriate to think of this as in any sense delayed. We are at the forefront of a developing area of tax law. We have not thought it appropriate to wait for international procedures. I am sure that, on reflection, she would prefer that we not have waited, both because of the revenue generated for public services but also because we deem it important—I have no doubt that the Labour party feels the same way—to try to make progress in this important area, removing what we see as ineffective rules or improving the working of the rules within the tax code.
I think it is fair to say, without blowing the Government’s trumpet too hard, that whether it is the diverted profits tax, work on base erosion and profit-shifting, corporate interest restriction rules or, indeed, on private country-by-country reporting rules, the Government have been at the forefront of much of the most progressive tax changes of the past few years, which is entirely appropriate.
The hon. Lady raises the question about the relationship with high streets. No Member of Parliament does not feel the concern about the high street, because they go back to their constituencies every week and see the effects of change. It is important to be aware that this tax is about addressing changes, or the way in which the tax rules are not fully capturing the value that is being generated. The high street is a rapidly evolving entity, as has been pointed out. Many high street businesses—even quite small ones—have online businesses of their own, which are effective supplements to what they do. They will not be caught by this tax, because in many cases their activity will be too small. However, it is in those hybrid models, which are evolving, where I think much of the future of the high street may lie.
It is not by any means obvious that the effect of the pandemic has been solely to privilege the online versus the offline. Plenty of online businesses have been clobbered by the pandemic in a way that many offline businesses have as well.
The Minister raises a valid point about this tax generally creating more revenue. However, he mentions the pandemic, and I am clear that we are heading for one of the worst recessions in history. Does the Minister not think that we would do best to do what European countries are doing, with a much higher rate of tax? The £1.3 billion that we will potentially lose is no small fee. The public coffers need that money. Does he not agree?
I thank the hon. Lady very much for her question. As I said, the estimate by the independent OBR is of £2 billion over a five-year period. Our estimate is certainly £2 billion over a five-year period. I do not think that is a trivial amount. As has been discussed, we of course recognise the importance of generating revenue, but we also think it important to introduce a tax that is sustainable and that lays a framework that can be effective while it is in operation. There are countries that have had higher taxes, and we have offsetting rules regarding the interaction with those taxes in order to create equity as between the different jurisdictions, so it is a perfectly fair question, but we have taken the view that 2% is an appropriate level for a new tax. As I said, it is a tax that we will be very happy to take off the statute book as and when the OECD process starts to yield effective results, which it may well do before too long.
That is, of course, a proper question to ask, but we have taken the view that this is a tax that we would like to take off the books in due course, when there is an OECD agreement. That agreement may take a variety of different forms; it may raise more tax or less. Different countries have different overall tax systems and seek to address different forms of corporate behaviour in deriving revenue. In the UK, there are plenty of businesses deriving revenue from user-generated content. Some of them will be over the thresholds that we are talking about, and those are the ones that are within the scope of the tax.
It is absolutely open to other parties to disagree about how they would put it, but the Government have taken the view that this is the appropriate level for a new tax—it is on revenue and, as I have said, is therefore potentially distortive. We have had feedback and consultations that reflect concerns on both sides of the issue.
My right hon. Friend makes a valuable point about the multi-channel operations of many retailers. I came to Parliament from a business background that had a mixture of high street and online retailers. From a business perspective, the key thing is to reach customers in the way that is right for them. By choosing either the high street or online, businesses miss out. Customers are open to trading in whichever way is convenient for them, as this crisis has shown.
I want to make a comment about the taxation. Higher taxation rates do not necessarily mean higher tax collected. We also have to recognise that having a tax environment that is conducive to creating a business-friendly environment is a critical part of the economic growth that we have seen over the past few years. We should certainly be looking around the world to see how other countries operate their tax systems, but drawing comparisons with countries that are not creating wealth or jobs might not be the way forward.
I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. In a way, he leads me on to my next remarks in response to the hon. Member for Streatham. He is right. The dynamic market that we are seeking to tax is one where revenues are not absolutely predictable; they may be higher or lower than estimated. The tax therefore stands in contrast to a well-established tax such as VAT, because we can be much more certain about how much that tax will raise.
It is also important to understand that this is not a tax designed to penalise certain companies. The strength of our online sector in the UK has been a very important part of the response to coronavirus, as I have mentioned. There is no attempt to pick out companies and target them with the tax. There is a concern about failings in the international tax rules, and that is what the Government seek to address.
The hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South raised the issue of multilateral action and asked whether adequate leadership had been exercised. It has been recognised that the OECD has made some good progress in this area recently, which has been achieved with a lot of urging and support from this country. Ultimately, we all agree that international and corporate tax needs to be addressed in a global and inclusive way. That would be the Government’s strong preference, but we have not waited—I do not think the hon. Lady would want us to wait—because we think it is important to take a lead.
It is also important to say that when we have done that, we have tried—as one might expect with a new tax—to target an area where there is a very clear rationale or justification for the tax that is being levied. UK user-generated content is a strong basis on which to levy a tax. There is a contrast with, for example, media streaming. The hon. Lady talks about how much she has enjoyed various media streaming services, and I welcome that, but we can all be relatively certain that she has not contributed a lot of UK user content to them—[Interruption.] Unless delight and shock are forms of UK-generated content.
I want to reassure the hon. Lady a bit about the apportionment of revenue. She is absolutely right that, as the history of base erosion and profit shifting around the world shows, many companies have found it only too easy to move the effective location where tax is generated. In part, this tax, by taxing revenue overall, is designed to sidestep a lot of the temptations that might exist to work round the edges. A very wide definition of revenue has been adopted, and we can go into that in more detail. As I said earlier, we require companies to do it. It is a self-assessment scheme, and we ask companies to designate, evidence and disclose the UK user-generated revenue of the different kinds that we have touched on.
On GDPR, which is the relative question, the legislation has been written so that businesses are expected to use information that they already have to make the determination. We believe that it is compatible with GDPR, and that it draws on data that is already collected. We are not inviting the groups to collect new information that might be in some sense at odds with people’s rights or in contravention of the law, and of course they will have their own GDPR processes to follow. As I have said, many of them collect a great deal of information, including IP addresses, delivery addresses, billing addresses and so on. To come to a point that the hon. Lady made earlier, that is another reason why the use of virtual private networks is more of an in-principle worry than an actual worry, because famously, so much other information is collected about the users of those services from multiple sources. That should help them to make those disclosures.
The hon. Lady asked about double taxation. It is true that some businesses will pay both UK corporation tax and the digital services tax. For reasons of international law, we are not capable in law of discriminating in favour of UK businesses, and we are not going to. The point, though, is to design a proportionate tax with a low rate, and another reason why we have chosen that rate is that we do not wish to be any more distortive or invoke any more double taxation than is absolutely necessary. As I said, our preference is to move to a global solution.
The hon. Lady talked about international leadership. We look forward to a day when the OECD will be able to pass an agreed set of rules with multinational support that give a proper basis for the levying of tax. As she is aware, a number of proposals are under discussion. They and the processes that generated them are well described in the House of Commons Library note, and I encourage any Members who want more detail to look at that. The Government are clear that we will maintain this tax until the OECD passage of agreement—there may be other supervening factors—causes us to remove it. I commend the clause to the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 38 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 39 to 44 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Meaning of “the threshold conditions”
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
With this it will be convenient to discuss clauses 46 to 50 stand part.
We now come to clauses 45 to 50. The last discussion was quite a long one, but hopefully it was helpful in framing the overall legislation within which we can now discuss the more specific elements, so we may not need to dwell as long on these parts.
Clauses 45 to 50 set out how the digital services tax charge will be calculated. The Government have sought to ensure that the DST is proportionate and charged only to those businesses that are best able to generate significant value from their users. As such, it will apply only to groups with annual global revenues from the named services of over £500 million. DST will be charged only on those revenues where they are attributable to UK users and only on amounts above £25 million.
Clauses 45 and 46 set out the thresholds and the allowance, and they set the rate of the charge at 2%. A DST tax rate of 2%, as we have discussed, ensures that digital businesses will make a fair and proportionate contribution to our public finances. Clause 46 also sets out how each member of a group should calculate their DST liability.
The Government recognise that some businesses have concerns about levying a tax on revenues rather than profits. That is why our strong preference is for a long-term profits-based global solution. That can be implemented only following an international agreement, however, so although the DST applies to revenues, the alternative basis of charge will reduce the charge for businesses with low profit margins or losses on their chargeable UK activity. Clauses 47 and 48 therefore set out the alternative basis of the DST charge and how DST liability should be calculated on that basis.
Online marketplace transactions will occur between two users, and those users may be based in different jurisdictions. Where one of those users is a UK user, revenues attributable to the transaction will be subject to the UK DST. Where the other relevant jurisdiction also levies a DST, however, there is a risk that the revenues could be taxed twice. Clause 49 sets out the relief for certain cross-border transactions, minimising that risk by ensuring that, in such cases, only 50% of the relevant revenues will be subject to the UK DST. Finally, clause 50 sets out when DST payments are due and payable.
Together, the clauses mean that the DST charge is proportionate while ensuring that digital businesses pay a UK tax that reflects the value they derive from UK users. Overall, as I have noted, the tax is expected to raise up to £2 billion over the next five years in a proportionate and responsible way.
As the Minister said, we have discussed at length the broader implications and the necessary measures set out in the clauses, but I have some technical issues relating to them.
On clause 46, the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales has said that,
“given the potential compliance burdens imposed by the DST, it is important to ensure that smaller digital businesses are not burdened by DST, so the inclusion of a £25m allowance looks reasonable but should be kept under review.”
On a similar but more general note, the Chartered Institute of Taxation has warned that some businesses will be undertaxed while others may be overtaxed. As we have said before, it is our position on the Opposition Benches that in these challenging times, those with the broadest shoulders should bear more of the load. Can the Minister confirm that he will keep the measure under review to ensure that companies, particularly smaller companies, do not pay more than their larger counterparts, to avoid the distortions that he talked about emerging all the time?
There are perhaps more substantial concerns around clauses 47 and 48 on the so-called safe harbour provision. As HMRC has stated, that is intended to ensure that the tax does not have a disproportionate effect on business sustainability in cases where a business has a lower operating margin from providing in-scope activities to UK users. Its inclusion is obviously well-intentioned, but some assurances will be welcome. It is clear that multinational companies are often adept at structuring their operations in a way that reduces their tax liabilities. Are there safeguards in place to ensure that the safe harbour provision is not used for such a purpose?
Clause 48, for instance, contains a list of excluded expenses that cannot be deducted from a company’s net profit, which goes on to form the basis of the alternative charge. The list, however, does not include royalties, and I am grateful to TaxWatch UK for drawing attention, through the research that it has done, to the implications that that might have, because royalties are at the heart of tax avoidance practices perpetrated by some digital tech companies. It describes how most of those companies’ profits are attributable to various types of intellectual property that they have developed.
By artificially locating the intermediate and ultimate legal ownership of the intellectual property in avoidance-facilitating jurisdictions and tax havens, those companies can avoid tax on UK royalties, and ultimately reduce their taxable profits in the UK. Why, therefore, are royalties not included on the list of excluded expenses? Surely the Minister would accept that that is a potential failure to adequately tackle the use of royalties to reduce tax liabilities, and might further incentivise the use of the safe harbour provision by larger tech companies, which will in turn be able to reduce their taxable profits through their practices with regard to royalties.
More broadly on the safe harbour provisions, the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales has also said that in spite of those, it is still concerned that low-margin businesses could face a very high rate of tax on UK-allocated profits. Will the Minister address those concerns?
On clause 49, the Chartered Institute of Taxation has highlighted that the interaction with other national tax regimes, including broadly similar but subtly different unilateral taxes in other countries, will still mean some double taxation, which the Minister talked about in our earlier debate. It describes this as a rough and ready way of reducing such instances by reducing the revenue chargeable by 50% if it arises from a transaction where a user in respect of a marketplace transaction is normally located in a country that operates a similar tax to the DST. Does the Minister agree with its assessment? What analysis has been done in that area? Has consideration been given to other possible approaches to reduce the risk of double taxation?
I thank the hon. Lady for her questions. She asks whether the £25 million threshold has the effect of clobbering small businesses. Our view is that the purpose and effect of the thresholds is to levy the tax on the businesses that are best able to afford it, and that to have a global revenue base of £500 million and revenue attributable to UK users above the £25 million threshold is in itself a basis that excludes a vast number of small start-ups—which might turn out to be wildly successful and effective unicorns. We do not believe that the threshold will inhibit growth. If this is a direction in which tax will be going over time, as I rather think it is and as colleagues have suggested, an awareness of how tax will bear on future revenues and profitability is in itself an important part of any business’s market development.
The hon. Lady raised a concern about the safe harbour alternative charge arrangements. That is designed to ensure that the DST is not punitive for businesses with low profit margins or losses, and I think that is appropriate. At the margin, there is a risk that some businesses might try to reconfigure their activities to qualify for that, but I think it will be relatively clear to the Revenue from self-assessment when a business that is intrinsically high-margin is disguising that or is, essentially, seeking to utilise the alternative charge unfairly. It is worth saying that the alternative calculation applies only to in-scope UK activity, so businesses will not be able to reduce profit margins by using out-of-scope or non-UK activity. That is an important safeguard.
The hon. Lady asked about royalties. The tax is designed to work based on the consolidated figures of groups as groups. The concern about royalty payments is that, typically, royalties are used within groups to move revenues around, so, from a gross standpoint, they tend not to fall within the scope of the revenue charge, and they should not. Of course, from a tax-principle perspective, there are perfectly legitimate royalty uses and payments that one would want to continue to allow in any case. The alternative charge takes into account only expenses in the consolidated accounts, and is not therefore principally touched by the concern about intra-group royalties, for the reasons that I have described.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 45 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 46 to 50 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(David Rutley.)
Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.