1 July 2020
Finance Bill, Report Stage: Digital Services Tax

Jesse Norman MP leads the Finance Bill through the Report Stage in the House of Commons responding to amendments on the Digital Services Tax.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Jesse Norman)

It has been a fascinating and lively debate, and I am grateful to all Members who have taken part. As Members will be aware, this Finance Bill introduces legislation to enact the digital services tax and to set the scope of the tax.

I will talk about the various clauses and amendments in front of us, and then will turn to the contributions Members have made. I start with something that I think I caught the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson), the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, say: “We support any proposals to combat tax avoidance.” I thought that was an important statement of principle, and I look forward to her exemplifying ​that view when we get to the loan charge. It bore out what the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) said in Committee:

“the Labour party takes a dim view of tax avoidance. We believe that tax is the price we pay for a civilised society…and that when people contrive to avoid their tax, they rob and short-change all of us of the revenues needed for the state to do the essential things it needs to do”.––[Official Report, Finance Public Bill Committee, 4 June 2020; c. 33.]

Wes Streeting

Hear, hear! Well said!

Jesse Norman

The hon. Gentleman is congratulating himself heartily from a sedentary position. I wish I had his self-confidence. I noted those comments because they help to shape this conversation, but it is important to be clear that the digital services tax is not an anti-avoidance measure, although there is a tendency to think of it in those terms. It is a new tax aimed at a new revenue base. It will levy a 2% charge on revenues that groups receive from providing specific digital services to UK users.

The services that are in scope of the charge are search engines, social media and online marketplaces. DST will apply only to groups with annual global revenues from these services of over £500 million, and it will be charged only on those revenues attributable to UK users, and only on amounts above £25 million. Additionally, online financial services marketplaces will be excluded from the definition of an online marketplace.

By seeking to tax UK user contributions, the charge breaks new ground in what a tax is. I very much share the views uttered by many of my colleagues, notably my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), who described it as a pioneering tax. The same was rightly said by others, including my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones).

The digital services tax was announced in Budget 2018 as a response to changes brought about by the rapid development of our digital economy, the many strengths and weaknesses of which have been noted in this debate. That digital economy brings many benefits, some of which we have seen on display during the covid crisis, but it has posed a significant challenge for international corporate tax rules. The hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) brought this out very well when he spoke about the contrast between the international bodies that we are seeking to tax through DST and what might be called the ordinary shopkeeper in his constituency.

Under current rules, digital businesses can derive significant value from UK users but pay little UK tax. That is because international corporate tax rules do not recognise this user-generated value when allocating the right to tax profits between jurisdictions. That undermines the fairness and sustainability of our tax system, and it is therefore widely accepted, certainly across this House, that the rules need to be updated.

As I have mentioned, the Government remain at the forefront of international efforts to secure a comprehensive, long-term solution to this issue, and we are absolutely serious about continued, detailed engagement with OECD and G20 partners, and of course the EU nations among them, on long-term solutions.​

The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) talked about the importance of international co-operation. She is absolutely right about that. As has been mentioned, we have been a leader on base erosion and profit shifting work. The same is true of diverted profits tax, and tax of intangible assets; it is important to recognise that, in the spirit of fairness that Members have shown in this debate. That is the basis for our saying that while we welcome recent progress towards global solutions, there are still a number of difficult and important issues that we need to resolve. That is what we are trying to do on UK user-generated value, but we are trying to do it in a fair and proportionate manner. We are introducing a new tax but we expect it to be only temporary, until appropriate global reform is in place.

Clause 71 already requires the Government to review the DST in 2025 and submit the review to Parliament. It is important to note that the review is intended to be broader than the narrow construction that would be placed on it by the proposed new clause. Should the DST remain in place in 2025, the review will consider whether it continues to meet all its objectives and whether international reform means that it is no longer required. Importantly, it will look not only at the net amount of cash brought in by the tax—although that is of course important—but at whether the tax continues to be necessary to ensure fairness across the UK tax system, in so far as it bears on that. As I have said, it is a Government priority to try to secure a global solution, but we do so not merely for the receipt of revenue but in the spirit of fairness. Once that solution is in place, the DST will be removed.

Amendment 18 would require the Government to produce a review of the DST annually rather than in 2025, and amendment 19 would require the review to include an assessment of the effect of the DST on tax revenues. A review in 2025 will ensure that, if the DST remains in place at that point, its continuing relevance will be given a full and proper consideration against the relevant circumstances at that time. It thereby underlines the fact that it is the Government’s strong preference to agree and implement an appropriate global solution—indeed, it places some impetus behind such an agreement—and, once that agreement is secured, to remove the DST as soon as possible, and certainly ideally before 2025.

As regards the need for amendment 19, it is important to note that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs already reports regularly on the taxes which it is responsible for collecting and the revenue they generate. The DST will be no exception to that. It goes without saying that, as with all taxes, the Government will keep the DST under review through the annual Budget processes and at other times. I suggest that the amendments are therefore not necessary.

New clause 5 would require the Government to report to the House, within six months of the Act’s passing, on the effect of the DST on tax revenues, and particularly on the effect on the tax payable by the owners and employees of Scottish limited partnerships. However—I think I am right in saying that my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) picked this up very well—the report suggested by the new clause would not provide useful information, for several reasons. The first is that the DST is a tax on groups, not on individuals, whether those are individual employees or individual owners. Secondly, DST payments ​will not be required until after the end of the relevant accounting period of each liable group. For that reason, payments will not be required until 2021. Finally, the reporting deadlines in the legislation mean that very few groups will have needed to register, and no groups will have been required to send in their return, within six months, so such a report would not give useful information about DST receipts during the period.

I now come to the clause with which the House has been most preoccupied: new clause 33, tabled by the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell). It would require all groups subject to the digital services tax to publish an annual group tax strategy and, alongside that, their country-by-country report.

As I have said, the DST is not an anti-avoidance measure; it is intended as a temporary response to concerns that the international corporate tax system has not adequately responded to digitisation. In other ways, as the House will be aware, the Government have already championed tax transparency, both at home and abroad. Some of those ways were highlighted by my right hon. Friend in his speech and have been previously by the right hon. Member for Barking in many other contexts. They are illustrated by the requirement, introduced in 2016, for large businesses to publish their annual tax strategy, containing detail on the business’s approach to tax and on how it works with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. That requirement applies to UK companies with a turnover of more than £200 million or a balance sheet of more than £2 billion, and it is not limited to automated digital services businesses or to groups with a UK headquarters. UK subsidiaries of foreign headquartered groups can also be required to produce such a report if that group has revenues exceeding €750 million and reports under the OECD country-by-country reporting framework.

The effect is that many large businesses subject to the digital services tax will already be compliant with the UK requirement to publish an annual tax strategy. Therefore, this new requirement would in practice have little or no impact on them, at least. While thresholds may mean that some are not required to publish a strategy, that is an existing easement and it is unaffected by the digital services tax.

Currently, as has been highlighted by many hon. Members across the Chamber, we do not require large businesses to publish their country-by-country report alongside their tax strategy, but of course they can provide additional information, such as country-by-country reports, alongside that strategy on a voluntary basis. Nothing prevents them from doing that, and some have chosen to do so. It is notable that in this country, UK headquartered groups such as Shell and Vodafone have taken an important lead in this area.

I always pay very careful attention to what my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield says and I always pay careful attention to what the right hon. Member for Barking says. I have a great deal of respect for the principles that he and she have outlined through this new clause, but regarding the voluntary strategy, at least, I am actively exploring ways in which the Government can encourage other businesses, over and above Shell, Vodafone and the like to follow suit.

Kevin Hollinrake

I am surprised that my right hon. Friend says that this is not a method to try to bring companies that are avoiding tax to the tax table. The previous Chancellor, Philip Hammond, said in a speech that these measures would effectively insist that,

“global internet giants…contribute fairly to funding our public services.”

Is that not reflective of a position where he felt those companies were avoiding tax?

Jesse Norman

I think one could put it a slightly different way, which is to say, “You do not have to take a position on avoiding tax to come to the view that this is a base of tax revenue that has not been adequately taxed and should be taxed, and if you do follow that approach,” —here I will defer to the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern)—“ipso facto you are going to be levelling the playing field to a degree.” Anti-avoidance measures are measures used in separate contexts to level the playing field as well.

Mr Mitchell

The Minister is getting to the meat of the matter in what he is saying now, but while he rightly extols the virtues of some very good companies that he has named, which voluntarily publish whereabouts in the world their activity is taking place, where their profits are declared and where they are paying tax, by definition, if it is voluntary, those who are up to no good probably will not comply. That is one of the reasons why publishing that information in the way I set out in my earlier remarks is so important, because there is greater pressure on them if they do not comply, including the sanction of the law.

Jesse Norman

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. My point was a slightly different one. I have not yet come to the thrust of what he is suggesting about mandation, but in the first instance Government should be seeking to support, promote, energise and activate more voluntary compliance, precisely in order to increase a public norm of voluntary reporting, which then does a lot of the job and perhaps isolates the groups that decide not to do it. There are plenty of other contexts in which that approach of voluntary, then moving to mandatory, has been quite successful, including in tax.

Bridget Phillipson

The Minister talks about the voluntary nature of compliance, but it is my understanding that EU rules require some element to be reported. Could he clarify? Is that the position, or is reporting entirely voluntary?

Jesse Norman

The answer is that what I am talking about is a voluntary disclosure by those companies. I am not aware of a separate EU requirement for them to do so. Certainly, it is the voluntary disclosure that is the thrust of what I am talking about. Many other companies have the capacity to make voluntary declarations, and I am indicating in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield my support for more of those companies doing that. I am only doing that, however, as a preliminary to coming to his point about mandation. We have taken the view that for the time being this approach should remain voluntary and that further legislation will not be needed until and unless we can get public country-by-country reporting agreed on a multilateral basis.​

 4.30 pm

There is a specific set of reasons for that. First, we want—I am sure my right hon. Friend feels the same way—the measure to be effective in meeting the objective of improving tax transparency. A measure that had the effect of reducing tax transparency would be counterproductive. The worry is that only multilateral implementation will give the comprehensive information required on both UK-headquartered and foreign-headquartered multinationals required to deliver that. A unilateral approach risks being self-defeating and resulting in the publication of incomplete and potentially misleading information about the activities of multinationals. It might also allow requirements to be avoided through group restructuring. We do not want to promote firms undertaking group restructuring in order to avoid disclosure and increased transparency requirements. Adopting public country-by-country reporting unilaterally carries that risk and could result in groups moving their headquarters out of the UK to locations without a requirement to publish.

Steve Brine

I have sat quietly listening to this whole debate and I understand what the Minister is saying. I actually think he is right. Could he then give us briefly a sense of what work Her Majesty’s Treasury is doing to achieve the unilateral position he says he wants?

Jesse Norman

If I have given that impression, I have been misunderstood. We are pushing for a multilateral approach, as I have indicated, through the OECD and the G20, and also in consultation and collaboration with the EU. The purpose is to achieve a sustainable approach that does not run the risk of creating incentives to restructure out of this country and thereby reducing tax transparency and effectiveness. It might also reduce the impetus for tax transparency, because the more countries there are that require it and so have firms relocating or restructuring to avoid it, the less impetus there could be to secure a multilateral solution.

Alison McGovern

Would the Minister be so kind as to give a rough deadline for the multilateral approach?

Jesse Norman

It is in the nature of these beasts that I cannot give a deadline, and I am not sure anyone can. It is a continuing debate. That does not mean, however, that progress cannot be made. As we have seen, for example in some of the work done with the OECD on minimum taxation levels, there has been clear evidence of progress in discussions within the OECD, which is a matter of public record.

Steve Brine

Clearly, I meant to say “multilateral” in my last question. I know from having attended G7 and G20 summits in a health context, when I was in the Health Department, that the agenda for those meetings is decided by who has the chair at the time. Could the Minister give us any sense of optimism that it is even on the agenda of those meetings to make the progress I know he wants to see?

Jesse Norman

My hon. Friend will be aware that the different organisations have different ways of working—the G20 tends to work towards summits, and the OECD often has a more continuous process. The most important work is always done in between, in the official interactions that then set the terms. Often one does not know exactly ​what will be on the agenda until the last minute, so it is hard to give a specific undertaking. I am not avoiding that; I simply do not think it is possible to give that undertaking. I can tell him that we are extremely keen to promote voluntary compliance, and we continue to press for a multilateral approach.

Mr Mitchell

I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way; he is being very generous. This is an ingenious argument that he is putting to the House about restructuring, and it might be helpful to flesh that out in correspondence. The argument about the unilateral and multilateral approach was clear in relation to open registers of beneficial ownership, when the House obliged the Government to accept that there was a case for going through the unilateral approach in order to get a multilateral approach. I understand what he is saying, but I think it would be helpful to flesh out the point about restructuring.

Jesse Norman

If my right hon. Friend wants to raise some specific questions, I would be delighted to respond to them. There is a slight tension in his argument, because it contains the following two claims: first, that these international organisations are shape-shifting amoebas that constantly mutate to avoid tax, and secondly, that that shape-shifting and amoebic quality will stop when it comes to thinking about how to react to a unilateral tax transparency initiative.

Dr Huq

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Jesse Norman

I am sorry, but I have been really generous in giving way. I have to allow the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) time to speak, and I have an awful lot of material remaining, including on new clauses and amendments and contributions made by colleagues. I do not know how many minutes she wants, but perhaps she could give me a bit more time.

Bridget Phillipson

indicated assent.

Jesse Norman

In that case, I will indulge the hon. Lady.

Dr Huq

The information is already collected—this is just about making it transparent, open and public. As I said in my speech, we could give companies time to readjust if they wanted to move things around. What is the incentive for any multinational through the voluntary approach?

Jesse Norman

We know that the incentive exists for all the reasons why we get voluntary compliance in a whole variety of areas—that is to say, groups with particular concerns, press organisations and companies. We know that there has been a revolution in corporate social responsibility, although it has not in many ways been an adequate revolution, because it does not extend in some respects to paying tax, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) highlighted. There is a role that Government can play, in terms of improving the norms and setting a bar. This is a reasonable, staged approach.

It is important to have a level playing field for the reasons that I have described, and that applies to tax transparency as it does elsewhere. If a multinational group exceeding the country-by-country reporting threshold ​operates in the UK, HMRC will, in the vast majority of cases, already receive the report and is already using it for risk assessment purposes. Given that, we do not believe that it is appropriate to introduce these new requirements at this stage, but I understand the principles set out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield and the right hon. Member for Barking, and the debate has shown that those are widely shared. The argument we are having is over the nature of the approach and the implementation of a broad set of principles with which Members across the House generally concur.

I will turn to the comments made by Members in the debate. The hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South has been very generous with her time, and I have covered most of her remarks. The debate rightly touched on the issue of business rates. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) will know that we are publishing a business rates review, which will specifically include online forms of taxation and invite public discussion on those. That is another part of the same process of trying to engage more widely and not just recruit information and knowledge but set expectations and norms about the way in which firms should be paying tax.

The hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) talked about sunlight being the best disinfectant. She is right, but she was quoting Louis Brandeis from 1914, who was dealing with forms of corporate thuggery that make what we see today modest by comparison.

The hon. Member for Wirral South talked about the distinction between justice in principle and justice in fact. Of course, she is absolutely right. There is a view at the moment of the nature of the corporation, and it is very widespread—more in America than in this country even—that companies are run in the exclusive interest of their shareholders. That is not true in the UK. That is not, as a matter of legal fact, true in this country. The shareholders are entitled to the residual proceeds but companies are run—it is in the Companies Act 2006—in the interest of their members.

Finally, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made a very good point. I think I am right in saying that “nation of shopkeepers” was coined by Adam Smith—but then I would say that, wouldn’t I?