28 April 2021
Jesse Norman leads a short debate on double taxation agreements with Germany and Sweden

Jesse Norman, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, leads a short debate on new provisions in the UK’s existing double taxation agreements with Germany and Sweden.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Jesse Norman)

I beg to move,

That the draft Double Taxation Relief (Federal Republic of Germany) Order 2021, which was laid before this House on 15 March, be approved.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the draft Double Taxation Relief (Sweden) Order 2021, which was laid before this House on 15 March.

Jesse Norman 

Both orders insert important provisions recommended by the OECD’s and G20’s base erosion and profit shifting project—BEPS—into existing double taxation agreements. For those Members who may, surprisingly, be unfamiliar with the BEPS project, it was an international effort to equip countries with the right domestic and international regulations to tackle tax avoidance. The BEPS provisions ensure that double taxation agreements fulfil their main purpose of facilitating global trade and investment. In addition, the provisions simultaneously limit the opportunity for the agreements to be used for tax evasion or avoidance.

Usually improvements to our bilateral double taxation agreements recommended by the BEPS project are made under a treaty commonly referred to as the multilateral instrument, which makes it possible to modify double taxation agreements in line with BEPS project provisions without the need for bilateral renegotiation. However, the domestic legal systems of both Germany and Sweden mean that it is much simpler for these countries to modify their double taxation agreements through amending protocols rather than through a multilateral treaty. As a result, the UK Government have agreed with both Germany and Sweden to implement these modifications through the protocols attached to these orders. These changes included introducing minimum standards to prevent avoidance through the abuse of tax treaties and improving the resolution of disputes.

The protocols with both Germany and Sweden give effect to the minimum standard on preventing treaty abuse. This is achieved by inserting a general anti-treaty abuse rule known as the principal purpose test into the double taxation agreement. Both protocols also changed the preamble of each double taxation agreement, which sets out its overriding purpose in order to clarify that the parties do not intend for the agreement to be used to avoid tax. The orders also make changes to the articles in both double taxation agreements that govern how disputes are avoided and resolved. These amendments ensure that the articles are in line with the minimum standard on improving dispute resolution. However, the Germany protocol implements a rule to prevent the artificial fragmentation of activities that might result in an overseas business avoiding a taxable presence. Sweden is not in favour of this provision, which is why it is absent from that protocol.

These orders make good on the Government’s international commitments to tackle tax avoidance and evasion and to improve dispute resolution. They strengthen the integrity of the UK’s network of double taxation agreements, which plays such an important part in facilitating the cross-border trade and investment that benefits all our nations. I commend the orders to the House.


At the end of the debate

Jesse Norman 

I very much thank the two hon. Members who have spoken in the debate. May I start, Madam Deputy Speaker, by associating myself very much with the remarks that you made to the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman)? I think it is absolutely in order and right for her to bring this very important issue back to the House. To do so in such a personal way only gives it additional force. I doubt that there is a Member of this House whose own life has not been affected in one way or another by the concerns that she describes—the black dog of depression or whatever it may be—either personally or among their family or friends. The diversity of opinion in this House is something we all welcome, but so too should there be diversity in our recognition of other people and their feelings and suffering, so I very much thank her for that.

The hon. Lady raised a question that the hon. Member for Ealing North (James Murray) also raised about explanatory notes. Both Members will have seen that, actually, both these measures have quite full explanatory memorandums associated with them. Of course, there is always a balance to be struck between the depth and detail into which an explanatory memorandum goes and the desire not to provide so much detail that it becomes illegible or incomprehensible to a normal reader. I think the point is constantly right to be borne in mind that we should be as clear and explicit as possible on these matters. The point is very well made. It is a point that we have pushed very hard, and certainly I and colleagues have pushed very hard with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in the work that it does more widely on guidance. In this case, because these measures sit alongside a host of other instruments, including the multilateral instrument, which was debated in the House, it is certainly true that there is a degree of scrutiny and awareness—or there could be a degree of scrutiny and awareness—associated with them.

The hon. Member for Aberdeen North also mentioned the question of a general anti-avoidance rule. I am sure she knows that it has been an important feature of our approach to double taxation agreements that we have included a principal purpose test in tax treaties, either through bilateral negotiation or through the multilateral instrument. That itself is a very important, wide anti-abuse measure, developed through the BEPS project, which protects a treaty against the abuse of its provisions. We are deploying it widely across double taxation agreements, and it has much of the force of the measure that she describes.

The hon. Member for Ealing North raised the wider question of scrutiny. If I may say so, the argument would have more force if any other Opposition Members had chosen to speak in this debate and to exercise that scrutiny. I think that in general, these matters, for the reasons I have described, are tolerably well understood. We have a multilateral instrument, the measures follow a common format, and opportunity is given to Members across the House, including from the Opposition parties, to offer scrutiny. They can choose to exercise that or not.

In relation to revenue, the hon. Gentleman will see that the explanatory notes say that there are no new tax burdens imposed by these measures. In a way, that is as it should be, because their purpose is to secure and safeguard trade and to prevent abuse; they are not, in and of themselves, tax revenue-raising measures.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked about the global minimum tax rate and whether I would expand on my remarks in Committee of the whole House. I am not going to do that, because I do not think it is appropriate for Ministers to comment on tax policy in flight, as it were. We have said we very much welcome the proactive stance that the Biden Administration are taking towards this issue. We have been a very strong advocate for these wider measures—the two pillars, pillar one and pillar two—in the OECD and the G20. I know the Chancellor feels strongly about the importance of our leadership of the G7 as a way of consolidating this progress in tax.

Kirsty Blackman 

Will the Minister give way?

Jesse Norman 

I am just winding up. If the hon. Lady does not mind, I will finish up. We will therefore continue to press forward on this issue.