Finance Bill - Digital Services Tax

1st July 2020

Andrew Mitchell speaks in support of New Clause 33 which would require country-by-country reporting for all groups subject to DST.


I draw the House’s attention to interests, which are set out clearly in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

I rise to speak to new clause 33, which was tabled by the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) who, alas, for the reasons set out by the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) from the Opposition Front Bench, cannot be here today. The House may rest assured that she will be watching every word of this debate from where she is.

The House will notice that not one but three former and current Chairs of the Public Accounts Committee—the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), as well as the right hon. Member for Barking—have signed the new clause. In addition, my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills), who is unavoidably locked down with his two adorable new children and who has great expertise in this policy area, has also signed it

New clause 33 makes a number of points. The first is that any company that is subject to the new digital services tax, which came into force this April, must publish transparently and publicly a country-by-country report. Although as it stands in the amendment paper the new clause does not include a starting date, that was rectified this morning and the starting date would be April 2021.

The new clause is targeted at international technology giants—that is Google, Facebook and Amazon. These huge businesses are well known for using corporate structures deliberately designed to shield them from the payment of tax. The new clause would allow Parliament, journalists, campaigners and civil society to see clearly whether these businesses are paying their fair share of taxation. If the Government accept the new clause, that would, as the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South suggested, make the UK a world leader in financial transparency. It would give a major boost to country-by-country reporting for all corporations, so that everyone can see that tax is paid on profits in the locations where those profits are earned.

Let me be clear at the outset that it is not our intention to divide the House on the new clause today—subject to the Minister, who is a very clever fellow, showing due respect for advancing this agenda and for the importance of making progress on this issue in due course.

In my submission, there are three reasons why the new clause really matters. The first is that its logic sits four-square behind the priorities of the Conservative-led coalition—I thought the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South could perhaps have given a little more attention and, indeed, support in this respect—who wanted to inject greater transparency and openness into the financial system, in the first instance by championing open registers of beneficial ownership, which were introduced in the UK in 2016.

The open-registers process has been enhanced over the past two years, during which the right hon. Member for Barking and I persuaded the House that open registers should be embraced by the overseas territories and subsequently secured agreement that the Crown dependencies would also implement them. Such progress is a huge advance in tackling money laundering and financial corruption, and it bears down heavily on tax evasion as well. It also makes it more difficult for bent politicians and corrupt businesspeople to steal money from poor countries and their citizens. The new clause builds on that whole approach.

Secondly, at this dreadful time in our country, when our constituents are suffering financially so severely and our Government are rightly seeking to help every family as we combat the economic effects of this crisis, it is frankly obscene and very offensive that some major corporations who rely on UK customers and make huge profits in our country should not pay their fair share of tax. The public and the public finances cry out for fairness and equity, particularly at a time like this, when some companies have benefited from taxpayer-funded rescue packages organised by the Government while not contributing equitably to the public purse. Public expenditure is now at an all-time high. This borrowing will have to be paid for and it is simply not right or fair that while most taxpayers will have to pay more tax—85% of us pay taxation through PAYE—some multinational companies deliberately create financial structures to avoid paying tax.

I also point out to right hon. and hon. Members that those same multinationals are undermining British business by undercutting them on price. They can do that because they do not pay tax at anything like the same rate. In Sutton Coldfield, we are struggling to make a success of our town centre and high street, to renew it and reinvigorate it, but Amazon undercuts bookshops in our high streets and stores such as John Lewis in our shopping centres because it can avoid paying its fair share of tax.

Thirdly—this is of particular importance to developing countries—credible research shows that developing countries lose three times as much each year from tax avoidance as they gain from development aid. The OECD has been pressing for international reform in tax rules for decades. Those countries with the most to lose have been most resistance, so the OECD compromise was that information should be provided confidentially to the tax authorities. While that is progress of a sort, it does not really help developing countries, for obvious reasons to do with cost and with complexity. Clearly, it would be better, as with open registers, for all the data simply to be placed in the public domain so that there is a level playing field and public accountability for the tax conduct of multinational enterprises worldwide.

The right hon. Gentleman may remember that during the coalition Government, we put measures through, agreed at European level, for a directive on transparency on payments made by the extractive industries across the developing world because of concerns about corruption with respect to mining in particular. That created greater transparency. The same approach could be taken on the tax issues that he is raising.

Yes, the extractive industry transparency initiative, which has been led by a former Member of this House, Clare Short, for some time, did a huge amount of good as, of course, have open registers, because open registers have continued that agenda of transparency. As I said at the outset, this agenda was championed and driven forward internationally through the British at the G8.

I agree with all the points that the right hon. Gentleman has been making. Does he accept that unless we can dig behind the accounts to see where companies, for example, inflate costs in countries where they can get lower tax rates and deflate costs in countries with higher tax rates, a tax strategy in itself is simply not going to ensure that we get behind how companies avoid paying tax in the countries where they earn the profits?

There is an important principle: while commercial confidentiality should not be compromised, we should move to greater transparency to tackle the problems that lie behind what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. I agree with that and I think that there is common cause across the House that that is what we want to do. Clearly, getting a multinational standard will be the right result, but these things have to be led.

In summary, the new clause is part of the noble campaign that is supported across the House, to shine a light on the profit shifting, transfer pricing and tax haven abuse that is used to minimise tax liabilities. The House has already voted in favour of public country-by-country reporting through an amendment to the Finance Bill in 2016, which gave the Treasury the power to make the information public. My right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary will no doubt rely on the prayer of St Augustine, “O Lord, make me chaste, but not yet,” and argue that the UK would not want to implement this reform unilaterally, and he has already acknowledged, in a letter to the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) dated 27 February this year, that a multinational agreement to do country-by-country reporting would be a good achievement, but I put it to him that that is too timid an approach.

As we contemplate Britain’s role post Brexit and we set out what we mean by global Britain, let my right hon. Friend stand tall, show leadership internationally, and follow the proud, confident example of David Cameron and George Osborne. Let global Britain lead by example, to the huge benefit of our domestic taxpayers and taxes, and for those in the poorest countries, whose mineral wealth is so often developed without their citizens reaping the benefits they should receive and that they deserve. This reform would be in the finest traditions of Britain’s past international development leadership, and I commend the new clause to the House.