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Taxation: Avoidance

Volume 741: debated on Tuesday 11 December 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to prevent companies that have significant operations in the United Kingdom being based in a tax haven to avoid United Kingdom taxes.

My Lords, the Government are fully committed to tackling avoidance and evasion wherever it occurs. HMRC is to receive additional investment of £77 million to expand its anti-avoidance and anti-evasion activity, including resources to identify and challenge multinationals’ transfer pricing arrangements. Following the Chancellor’s call for international co-operation to strengthen international tax standards, the UK, Germany and France have pledged resources to the OECD to speed up work to tackle profit-shifting and base erosion at the global level.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that if companies and individuals complied with the letter and spirit of the law, the Treasury would be £32 billion better off. Is he aware that the public are extremely angry about this and that the whole situation is grossly unfair to those companies that pay their taxes, such as John Lewis and Marks & Spencer? Is he further aware that the army of bankers, accountants and lawyers advising those companies on how to evade their taxes are the same people the Government employ for their own business? Will he take action in the tax havens that make all this possible?

My Lords, HMRC does indeed estimate that the tax gap in 2010-11 was £32 billion, which represents 6.7% of total tax due. The tax gap as a percentage of tax due has fallen from 8.2% since 2004. It is not good enough but it is going in the right direction. The absolute determination of the Government to bear down on this was evidenced by the decision we took last year to divert £900 million into this area, which has since been supplemented by an additional £77 million to increase the specialist abilities within HMRC to deal with some extremely clever advisers and companies that seek to minimise their tax.

Why does HMRC not take action a bit nearer home and look at the smuggling into this country of cigarettes and tobacco? The percentage for this is still 20% to 25%, denying retailers and the trade a normal profit margin and ensuring that cigarettes are cheaper and easier for young people to take up. That percentage has not changed for the past three years.

My Lords, tobacco smuggling is a significant issue but in the overall quantum of tax that is currently not paid but should be, it represents a relatively small proportion.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Dubs is quite right, but should the answer not be that there is nothing whatever that the Government can do until there is international agreement which, sadly, is unlikely to happen in the very near future?

We need a greater degree of international agreement and that is why, along with France and Germany, we have just contributed an extra €150,000 to the OECD’s work to change the basis of accounting. We can do only a certain amount ourselves. It would be a counsel of despair to say that we cannot change the rules; the rules exist and can be changed.

My Lords, I am glad that the Government are ending Labour’s indulgence to business on tax issues but, like many others here, I would like to play a part with my purchasing power. Is there a way we can find out who the good guys are so that we do not have to use the likes of Amazon, Google and Starbucks and can transfer our business elsewhere?

The Government have yet to establish a good guys’ website but it is an extremely good idea. In the mean time, I suspect that the noble Baroness will just have to read the newspapers.

My Lords, the worry would be that if the Government constructed a good guys’ website they would not be on it. The Minister is absolutely right: we need international action. However, the significant European countries taking action with regard to places such as Monaco point a very accusatory finger at the UK Government, with our plethora of regimes that are in fact tax havens. That is why the Government should be taking a lead, not following others.

I do not remember the noble Lord quite espousing those lines when he was in my position. The Government are working very hard with low-tax jurisdictions to make sure that we get the tax that is due. This is why the Liechtenstein disclosure facility has been so productive and why the agreement with Switzerland will yield many billions of pounds that we never got before. We also have the newly expanded exchange of information, announced with the Isle of Man, which sets an example that we hope to expand to other tax havens. We are trying to bear down slowly on them so that one after another they become less desirable as places for people to put money to evade taxes.

My Lords, on the problem of leakage of tax revenue to tax havens with lower rates, is not the answer to lower the rates of corporate taxation in this country? In answer to a previous question of a similar nature, my noble friend told me that it was an accounting problem. It is not an accounting problem that leads people to base their company headquarters in countries such as Luxembourg—it is because they pay less tax there. If we wish to maximise revenue, should we not cut corporation tax still further in the way that my right honourable friend did in the Autumn Statement?

We are reducing the rate of corporation tax but there is a danger of a race to the bottom. Corporation tax brings in a substantial amount of money and is an important contributor to the Exchequer.

My Lords, would the Minister join me in welcoming the fact that Her Majesty’s Government, having cut the money to HMRC for dealing with this problem, have now restored their own cut? Would he see whether it is possible to collate information about those companies with large numbers of employees that do not even pay a living wage to those employees, let alone their tax, and therefore cost the Treasury in additional income support?

My Lords, I am afraid the noble Baroness is wrong about what has been happening with the resources: we have been reallocating resources within HMRC. Bearing in mind that so many taxpayers now pay their tax online, we do not need as many people opening envelopes. However, we do need highly sophisticated people working as analysts and investigators.