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Taxation: Tax Collection

Volume 746: debated on Thursday 4 July 2013


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they intend to take to increase the collection of tax revenue following Apple’s zero return for United Kingdom corporation tax.

My Lords, I am unable to comment on the tax affairs of individual companies, as doing so would be a breach of taxpayer confidentiality. Tax avoidance by multinational enterprises is an issue that requires co-ordinated global action. The UK is committed to supporting multilateral action through the G20 and the OECD. The OECD will present an action plan for tackling these issues to the G20 later this month.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for that reply. What conversations are the Government having with the Republic of Ireland to prevent footloose and stateless subsidiaries paying derisory levels of corporation tax in its domain? I come back to my fundamental question. Is it right that my wife’s small printing business last year paid its full dues of £22,000 of corporation tax, when Apple, with a turnover in the UK of £1 billion, paid absolutely nothing?

My Lords, the noble Lord raises an important point. Eighty-four per cent of Apple’s non-US operating income was booked by an Irish subsidiary that was not tax-resident anywhere and paid tax at a rate of 0.05%. That is clearly unacceptable and is why the G20 will look at the issue later this month. It will be presented with a report from the OECD that suggests not only what action is needed but sets deadlines for taking it and makes proposals on the resources that are going to be needed to implement the new rules.

My Lords, the issue here is one of transfer pricing policy by foreign companies such as Apple, where, to put it simply, the prices of their merchandise are inflated and the margins that they make parked outside the UK. The merchandise is then sold on for virtually cost price in our country. Will the Minister consider making an assessment of these companies’ sales and applying a profit margin criterion, based on industry standards? They can argue about it afterwards, including about the disclosure of their true costs.

My Lords, this is exactly the issue which the OECD is looking at currently. Along with the French and the Germans, we have made a significant financial contribution in terms of getting experts working on this. There are a number of ways of dealing with it. The noble Lord suggests one way. The key thing is that we rapidly come up with new rules and get them implemented at an international level.

Pertinent to the last question, some 20 years ago when transfer payments were introduced, I acted for the company that I was running in discussing with the Inland Revenue, as it was at the time, how they would operate. The arrangements were not based on legal matters, but on commercial reality. We went through each area of activity to see what was going on where and what would be a fair allocation of costs, revenues and profits. I cannot understand why transfer payments are not operated thus today. Will the Minister say whether we are operating transfer payment regimes in the way that they were intended and started 20 years ago?

There is considerable scope for HMRC to undertake the kind of discussions that the noble Lord describes. The additional resources that we put into compliance have been spent in no small measure dealing with exactly that. The amount of revenue that we have been able to recover has increased by a number of billions, but this does not deal with problems such as the ones that my noble friend Lord Teverson has described.

My Lords, 40 years ago I was junior counsel to the Inland Revenue for a time. At that time, I and the Inland Revenue understood the legal position to be that every taxpayer had the right to arrange their affairs to reduce their liability for tax. I understand from what the Minister has already said that it is proposed to reconsider that situation. So be it. However, until it is changed, does the Minister agree that the principle that I have just enunciated is still a good principle of law and one to which the Inland Revenue still has to have regard?

My Lords, I agree that it is a good principle, but the problem we face at the moment is that large multinationals are able to order their affairs so that in some cases they end up paying virtually no tax, or nothing that is proportionate to the tax regime in any major country.

My Lords, the Government’s rhetoric on this subject is good, but we need an action plan to follow up that rhetoric. The Minister spoke about the OECD’s efforts, but what specific efforts are the UK Government putting into this problem? What additional resources will they be putting in and how do those additional resources sit alongside the 5% cut for HMRC in the CSR? Why did the Government resist the amendment in the other place calling on the Chancellor of the Exchequer to report on the progress on this important issue within six months? The abuse by these companies is expensive to HMG and an insult to the public. To get something done, we need a plan, resources and reporting.

My Lords, as the noble Lord will be aware, Ministers get a brief for Questions which always has a section headed: “The Previous Government’s Policy”. I shall read out what the brief says under that heading:

“None—the taxation of multinationals is a relatively new area of policy”.

The truth is that this Government have put in an additional £1 billion and several thousand additional people to tackle this. The pace of change in this area of tackling abusive tax arrangements has never been at this level. The UK Government have led it and will be reporting frequently on it. Frankly, the argument that this Government have somehow been deficient in tackling this problem does not bear thinking about.