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Taxation: Avoidance

Volume 743: debated on Wednesday 6 February 2013


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what proposals they have to deal with any abuse of charitable status for the purposes of tax avoidance.

My Lords, an organisation must be a charity, under the law of England and Wales, and meet certain other conditions in order to qualify for UK charity tax reliefs. Whether an organisation established in England or Wales is a charity in law is a matter for the Charity Commission. The Government are considering the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, on updating charity law following his review of the Charities Act 2006.

I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. I notice that when you complete your tax return, one section asks you to say whether you are a member of a tax avoidance scheme. I am always amazed by that. That makes me wonder whether certain tax avoidance schemes are recognised and approved by the Treasury. Can the noble Lord tell me whether the Cup Trust, which is the one that has been so widely accused in the recent press, is known and approved by the Treasury, or whether it is unknown and that it has come as a shock to the Treasury to have this revelation in the press?

My Lords, I cannot comment on the tax affairs of individual taxpayers but what I can do is speak generally. Schemes that abuse the gift aid rules with a view to enabling individuals to avoid tax do fall within the disclosure of tax avoidance schemes rules. That means that anyone who uses such a scheme must disclose it on their tax return. HMRC can then identify those individuals and challenge the reliefs claimed where appropriate.

My Lords, are not the charities that most significantly avoid tax on dubious grounds the public schools? Many of them were granted charitable status when they educated the poor or those of middling incomes. They now clearly educate, overwhelmingly, the children of the wealthy and the privileged, as evidenced by the Conservative Front Bench in the Commons.

As I said in my original Answer, the issue of whether an organisation qualifies as a charity is for the Charities Commission. The review of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, which reported in the middle of 2012, was given an initial response by the Government just before Christmas. The Public Administration Select Committee is also looking at this and will report, I think, in March. At that point the Government will give their further recommendations on the regulation of the charities sector. That will deal with the issue of which organisations qualify as charities, including public schools.

My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House whether alleged tax avoidance schemes, such as those operated by the Cup Trust, are likely to be caught by the general anti-avoidance rules when they are introduced? Can he also confirm that the general anti-avoidance rules are still scheduled to be introduced in this year’s Finance Bill?

I thank my noble friend for giving me the chance to shed further light on this issue. HMRC is extremely clear that circular schemes which are designed to exploit gift aid do not work in tax law. It will challenge and litigate enthusiastically against any scheme that it believes does not work in tax law. As the schemes do not work in tax law, the anti-avoidance provisions are not necessary and the schemes should fall at the first hurdle of not being legally acceptable. However, I can confirm that it is the Government’s intention to include the general anti-avoidance rules as part of the Finance Bill 2013.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is a principle of English law that that which is not forbidden is permitted? Do not the Government recognise that merely to go on bleating from the sidelines and telling people that they should not avoid tax will have absolutely no effect whatever? Clever lawyers will be able to devise ways of continuing to avoid tax. If the Government want to deal with tax avoidance, they will have to legislate to deal with tax avoidance and stop preaching from the sidelines.

The Government are prepared to legislate against tax avoidance in the area of charities law. In both 2004 and 2010, Governments legislated to do precisely that. I see this as two distinct areas. On the one hand, we need to create a tax regime which encourages an enterprise economy and giving to charity. On the other hand, the quid pro quo for that kind of positive environment is that people pay their taxes. I can assure the House that HMRC will pursue diligently those who seek to avoid tax.

In relation to the Question from the Labour Front Bench, will my noble friend note that independent schools provide far more in bursaries and means-tested scholarships than they receive in benefits through their charitable status?

I thank my noble friend for that important addition to the debate. I was not aware of that but I am delighted that he has been able to share it with the House.

What is the role of the Charity Commission in this? If an organisation pays out to good causes only less than 1% of its revenue, does an alarm bell ring somewhere?

In this particular case, as I understand it, the Charity Commission, which works closely with HMRC, investigated the trust but found that it did not have the legal basis to make a challenge. In that context, I refer to the review of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, the follow-up from the Government and the announcement made in the other House this morning that the focus of the new chairman, Mr Shawcross, should be on its role as a regulator.