Finance Bill Contributions
September 8, 2016
Mark Field – I suspect we all know that the autumn statement will be coming up at some point in late November or early December, if precedent is anything to go by. As someone who was also very firmly in favour of Britain remaining in the European Union, I say to the hon. Gentleman that we have to make Brexit work, and this will take time. I understand the frustration of many who would like to see the Government put forward a template on these matters today, but I think they are right to recognise that we have to play our cards close to our chest. This is a diplomatic process that will take some considerable time. One of the great strengths that we have had as the United Kingdom in diplomatic affairs, going back many centuries, is the sense of being able to make something work for the interests of this country. We have to recognise what is going on in world affairs, whether in the oil and gas price or in prices in other areas. This is an incredibly volatile time, politically and economically, and the notion that we can have any direct template in place now, or indeed at any point during the course of this year, is wholly misleading.
Philip Boswell – The hon. Gentleman is being most gracious and I thank him for his time. The right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) has mentioned real concerns expressed by the Japanese Government re investment in the UK. This concern was echoed when President Obama confirmed, post-EU referendum, that the EU is a much greater priority for US trade relations than the UK outside of the EU. Given US investment in oil and gas in the UK, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that this Government have had more than enough time to give the British people a definitive definition of “Brexit” and should be informing the public of urgent action they are taking now to support important industries such as the oil and gas sector?
Mark Field – A huge number of actions are taking place now. It is far, far too early to have any definitive approach as to exactly what Brexit will entail. We have to ensure, to an extent, that we get as much of the benefit of being in the single market—I see that, obviously, in the context of the City of London and its passporting rights—as is compatible with the public’s clear view about free movement of people. I hope that in the months ahead we will begin to work on that. However, it is far too early, and it would be doing a disservice to all industries—oil and gas and others—that are so dependent on exports and on being global industries, with the expertise that they have across the globe, to be definitive about precisely what role Brexit has to play.
I wanted only to make a few brief comments on new clause 10 with regard to the patent box. I am sorry if I am moving slightly ahead of the observations of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on this matter. There has perhaps been a danger that Governments of all political colours over the past decade or so have been rather too much in thrall to certain industries, whether financial services or the global internet technology industries. It is worth pointing out that the benefit—the very significant benefit—of the whole patent box plan that was put in place by the former Chancellor some years ago is that it has begun to enable intellectual property value to be quantified and used as collateral in many of the fast-growth companies in the technology sphere. It strikes me that the Treasury, any Treasury, will now need new sources of revenue to swell our collective coffers at a time when the deficits remain dangerously high. Indeed, in what might be regarded as normal peacetime conditions we have an unprecedentedly high rate of deficit.
I also think that it would be wise not to ignore the level of public anger at the wilful tax avoidance of a number of the digital disruptors that are potentially the beneficiaries of this patent box plan, and the influence of that on the western economies has at times been somewhat pernicious. The sobering truth is that the global technology and communications service providers’ stratospheric growth over the past two decades has been aided by their ability to avoid taxation. Whether it is Google, Uber, Facebook or Apple, to name but four, they have been able to squirrel away their profits in the most tax advantageous manner, and I hope that the Treasury will consider that, as well as issues around the patent box, not just in the next six months but in the years to come to ensure that we have a more equitable situation that will be accepted by the public at large.
I accept also that as regards creative industries and global technology players it would be wise to reflect that perhaps elements of this advantageous tax treatment, not just by the UK Government but by other Governments in the western world, have been the price that taxpayers have had to pay to secure the essential co-operation in the sphere of internet surveillance that western Governments believe—rightly, in my view—to be so vital to national security.
I do believe, however, that it is time to recognise that corporation tax as we know it is probably past its sell-by date as an appropriate means of capturing value in a modern globalised economy. A levy on turnover, rather than profits, might in time be the best way forward—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I appreciate that the Floor of the House is perhaps not the place to be making policy, but I hope that the Treasury will at least give it some serious thought, particularly for these sort of industries. I always worry when “Hear, hear” comes from the wrong quarter, and I only wish there were a few colleagues on the Benches behind me to agree—but it came from the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Rob Marris) and from elsewhere.
At the beginning of the year, Google made the headlines when it was revealed that despite employing some 2,400 people in the UK and harvesting a national estimated profit in excess of £1 billion—we obviously do not know exactly what that profit level was—it was able to pay corporation tax at a level of just 3%. Even before its recent travails, last year Apple declared foreign pre-tax profits of some $47.5 billion, on which it paid only $4.7 billion—some 9.9%—of tax, compared with group-wide income taxes of some $17.7 billion. That suggests that taxes on profits will not be the right way forward, particularly in these global industries where there is a risk that money can be squirreled aside. That said, it is important to say that the patent box, while purportedly and in some ways giving preferential treatment in this area at which we should look closely, has none the less brought some significant benefits.
One of the biggest problems that faces many internet businesses as they grow is the ability to quantify the value of their intellectual property rights. In many ways, failure to do that means that they do not get the opportunity to collateralise their book value to be able to borrow for the future. The patent box has made some successes in this regard.
I apologise for jumping the gun, as I know that we are slightly more interested in hearing the justification from the Opposition for their new clause 10. I do not feel that it would be the right way forward at the moment, but there are some important debates we need to have not just on the workings of the patent box-type legislation but on ensuring that we have a level playing field and a system that—more importantly—is understood and supported by the general public. Nothing has been more damaging for many of the big internet and technology service providers than the slew of bad headlines over the past few years about their avoidance of tax. In these difficult economic times, in particular, that is something that we can ill afford in this country.
I will speak briefly in favour of amendment 151 on carried interest. In my time as a Member of Parliament, I have sometimes been critical of elements of the tax regime that applies in the private equity and venture capital world. It seems to me that the generous tax regime, although it has been justified to support entrepreneurs, has often been misused by those in the industry—inadvertently; I am not suggesting that anything untoward or nefarious has taken place. I believe that many in the private equity field have, particularly in good times, in effect been financiers rather than risk takers. As such, it would surely be more equitable for their rewards to be treated more like income than capital gains. That has been at the heart of the whole debate about carried interest.
The Government have been aware of this issue. Let us give them some credit for that. To some extent, we are trying to play catch-up on it. Inevitably, there has been controversy about the treatment of private equity firms’ carried interest, which is levied as a capital gain, rather than as income. There was a time—pre-2010—when the difference between those two things was rather greater than it is today. That may be because capital gains tax has been raised, but the starkness of the problem is to some extent less pronounced now than it was during the time of the last Labour Administration in the noughties.
It is clear that the Treasury is doing the right thing in trying to provide a more favourable regime that is intended to reward genuine entrepreneurs. In principle, that must mean that where carried interest looks like income, it should be treated as such for taxation purposes. That is what we are slowly doing with amendment 151.
Has the OECD not recommended that all carried interest should be treated as income?
It has, but there is a distinction between different elements of carried interest, and we are trying to get to the bottom of that. To be brutally honest, in the longer term I would be much happier to have a regime in which we treated capital gains and income identically. There would not then be any sense in trying to arbitrage one way or the other. In many ways, perhaps inadvertently, the coalition began to move in that direction.
I am sorry that I was not in the Chamber to hear the whole speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak), but he is absolutely right. Private equity has had a bad rap because of certain high-profile concerns—partly because of the misuse of tax to allow huge amounts of debt on to balance sheets—but a large number of businesses in each and every one of our 650 constituencies in the UK benefit from having private equity investors. Many jobs now exist because of the private equity investment that has come into play, particularly in growing businesses that will make a real difference in the future. The Government have broadly got this right, although I am sure we will have to come back and look at it again.
I would make one point to the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman). It is not about inheritance tax—we have had our joust on that—but on a more fundamental point, on which I think she is absolutely right: the more complicated a tax code, the more the door is open to tax avoidance of all descriptions. We very urgently need to begin to simplify our tax code. We will add yet more pages to it today. A lot of them are to apply Elastoplast in ways that we can all support for individual reasons, but we need to get back to the principles of a much simpler tax system.
I believe that one of the impacts of leaving the European Union will be not a race to the bottom in lowering tax, but a much simpler tax system. This is a wake-up call for all of us in the House—obviously, particularly for those in the Treasury—to have a much simpler tax code. Such a code will be readily understandable and supported by all our constituents, which is one of the issues we face. It will also say to those bringing in much of the inward investment that will come to the UK from across the globe that we have a simple tax code, which will not be tinkered with in successive Finance Bills because it is very straightforward, and they will be able to work on that basis. I know that may be wishful thinking—going back many years, most Chancellors have talked about having a simpler tax code—but this now needs to be looked at urgently. Urgent attention must be paid on getting simplicity. If we do not do so, we will all very much pay the price.
I entirely echo the right hon. Gentleman’s comments about simplification. I may attempt to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, to address the House on that issue later. However, I caution him against linking that to Brexit, because almost all the complications, of which there are many in what we now call the tax code, are due to domestic legislation and are nothing to do with the European Union. Brexit may afford us an opportunity to start at the bottom on various areas of Government policy and endeavour, but leaving the EU will not provide such an opportunity in this case.
The Hon Gentleman does not know me, or indeed the Minister, well enough to know that we are both very much on the pro-European wing of our party. I was not in any way blaming the EU. I am simply trying to make the point that, in looking to get a new set of trade arrangements with dozens of countries across the globe, we should not rush headlong into making lower corporation tax the incentive for companies. One of the big factors for them will be the sense that there is a simpler and more straightforward tax code in the United Kingdom, and that will make us open for business in the way that we have traditionally been open for business during the past 200 to 300 years.
The Floor of the House of Commons is not the place on which to make such a policy, but I very much hope that we will keep this very firmly in mind. There is now an urgent case for having a more straightforward tax system, even if it is one that only says what we are aiming to achieve. It will obviously be difficult to unravel tax benefits created in the past. I accept that it will be difficult to unravel all the reliefs, not least because entrepreneurs in the future, like those in the past, will want to rely on them in making investment decisions.
The right hon. Gentleman is making some very important points about simplification and its impact in ensuring that measures work in the way intended. Does he agree that simplification and clarification of the objectives of reliefs would go a long way to making sure that small enterprises or first-time entrepreneurs could understand and gain greater access to the available reliefs, which may be intended for them but are perhaps used by others with greater experience?
I am sure there is a lot of truth in that. I was a businessman before I entered the House. It was a relatively straightforward business, based in the City of London, in the service industry, so there were not a huge number of reliefs available, although it may well be that 20 years of additional pages of the tax code have made it even more bloody complicated than it was for those working in and setting up businesses in the 1990s. I agree with the hon. Lady. Again, getting rid of reliefs and making the system more straightforward is the right way forward. Rather than having a whole lot of reliefs to recommend to would-be entrepreneurs, let us try to cut down the whole thicket.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I have spoken for long enough. I almost veered off the subject, but had I done so, I am sure you would have been the first to stand up and say so. I very much hope that amendment 151, among others, will be supported. It is definitely a move in the right direction, although I am sure we will have to come back to the issue of carried interest in the future.