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Taxation: Avoidance

Volume 721: debated on Wednesday 20 October 2010

Question

Asked by

The Government announced at the June Budget that they are strengthening the legislative framework to reduce the opportunities for tax avoidance. They are doing this through policy reform, by targeting areas of the tax system that present the highest avoidance risks and examining the case for a general anti-avoidance rule.

But did the Minister hear the Chancellor say in his Statement, which the Minister is going to repeat, that,

“those with the broadest shoulders should bear the greatest burden”?

The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, said that tax avoidance, as opposed to evasion, is legal but morally unacceptable, so is it not the case that if the multimillionaires, including those in the Cabinet and the Prime Minister’s business advisory committee, had paid their fair share, some of the cuts and some of the job losses that have been announced today could have been avoided?

My Lords, I could trade names of Members all round the House but I am not going to stoop to that. The critical issue is indeed, as the noble Lord says, that tax avoidance as opposed to tax evasion is legal, but we want to make sure that taxpayers pay what is due. In that connection, we will take a broad, strategic approach to reduce the complexity of the tax system, to make sure that the tax code is legally robust and to make sure that we attack and challenge unreasonable avoidance in a focused and expert way.

My Lords, non-dom tax status is an enormous open invitation to tax avoidance, as we know only too well from our battles to deal with non-doms in this House. Is the Minister aware of the Liberal Democrat tax manifesto pledge to make non-doms pay their full British tax after seven years? Will he also tell us when and how the Treasury will report on the promised review of non-dom tax status?

My Lords, I remind my noble friend that the coalition Government’s policy in this area is that we will make every effort to tackle tax avoidance, including detailed development of Liberal Democrat policy. The policies that were in my noble friend’s party manifesto at the election are indeed getting detailed consideration. In particular, as he knows, the general anti-avoidance rule, which was the linchpin of those policies, has been the subject of recent consultation.

My Lords, this morning the Chancellor repeated what the Minister said to me in a Written Answer—namely, that it is hoped that doing something about tax avoidance will achieve £7 billion. In his Written Answer to me on 7 October, he said,

“separate figures are not available for avoidance and evasion, and could be produced only at disproportionate cost”.—[Official Report, 7/10/10; col. WA 28.]

In that case, how will he ever be able to say that he has saved £7 billion? Will he still be using it in his deficit-cutting programme?

My Lords, it may be helpful if I make it clear that the £900 million of additional money that HMRC will have to use is principally to tackle tax evasion. We are talking about avoidance this afternoon, but the £7 billion will principally be from money that is not avoided but evaded.

My Lords, would my noble friend not agree that how we use language is important? There is a big difference between tax evasion and tax avoidance. After all, everyone with an ISA is involved in tax avoidance. It is extremely important that we make clear the distinction between that which is legal and that which is illegal.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend, who has made the position absolutely clear. Minimising tax payments is perfectly reasonable. Where it gets into the avoidance on which HMRC needs to focus is where people have minimised their tax payments in a way that HMRC believes to be contrary to the way in which Parliament intended the tax laws to operate.

My Lords, will the Minister ask Sir Philip Green to complement his report on efficiency savings with a report on tax avoidance?

My Lords, I think that Philip Green has done the nation a single service in exposing the extraordinary amount of waste in government that was left unattended to by the Labour Government for 13 years. We will come on to the consequences of that later this afternoon.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that an ounce of practical help is worth a kilo of words? Could he undertake to instruct the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, on how he could offer not to avoid tax by taking advantage of his personal tax allowance? He could start paying 40 per cent tax on all his income from the first pound. That would save him from avoiding tax, which is obviously what he wants to do.

I am grateful to my noble friend. One or two correspondents have written in to ask how they could volunteer cheques to the Treasury to help to reduce the national debt, but it seems that the Treasury does not yet have such a facility. However, if other people would like to contribute more in their tax, we can set up the necessary arrangements.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the figure that he has given for reducing tax avoidance and evasion is roughly the same as that which is being taken out of the welfare budget in the current spending review? Why do the Government not collect the taxes and stop hitting the poor?

I am a little at a loss to understand why the noble Lord is questioning why we are putting extra money into HMRC to recover this enormous sum of £7 billion annually by the end of the spending review period when that was not done by the previous Government.

My Lords, is it not the case that the real dividing line is not between evasion and avoidance? Evasion is criminal but, as far as avoidance is concerned, nomenclature should be devised to make it absolutely clear that there are two categories. There is that category where decent ordinary citizens so adjust their affairs that they properly are free from tax that would otherwise be charged. The other category is redolent with mind-boggling artifices that are nothing but a sham. Will the Minister give an undertaking to consider nomenclature that will draw a clear distinction between those two categories?

My Lords, I appreciate the difficulty, which is why I attempted earlier to distinguish between the two cases around what appears to have been the intention of Parliament when it drafted the tax laws concerned.