Double taxation arrangements specified by Order in Council

Part of Finance (No. 2) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 9:45 am ar 16 Ionawr 2018.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Mel Stride Mel Stride Financial Secretary to the Treasury and Paymaster General 9:45, 16 Ionawr 2018

Clause 32 makes changes to ensure that full effect can be given to the multilateral convention to implement tax treaty-related measures to prevent base erosion and profit shifting, and the UK signed the MLI on 7 June 2017. Double taxation agreements are bilateral agreements between the UK and other countries that aim to ensure that profits income and gains are taxed only once. They help to develop the UK’s economic relationships with other countries, and other countries’ economic relationship with the United Kingdom. DTAs provide certainty for businesses operating across borders, and enhance co-operation in tax matters, supporting the growth of a more global economy.

The OECD/G20 base erosion and profit shifting project—BEPS—recommended a number of changes to DTAs. Those included minimum standards on preventing tax avoidance through the abuse of tax treaties, and improving the resolution of tax disputes. To enable those important improvements to DTAs to be made as soon as possible, more than 100 jurisdictions, in a group chaired by the United Kingdom, drew up the multilateral instrument. The group adopted the text of the MLI in November 2016. It has now been signed—to update the hon. Member for Oxford East—by more than 70 countries, which is the latest information I have.

To implement improvements to the UK DTAs, the MLI must be given effect in our domestic law. This measure ensures that the existing powers for giving effect to DTAs in UK law, which have previously been used only to give effect to bilateral arrangements, can also be used to give full effect to the MLI.

The hon. Lady made a very sensible point about parliamentary scrutiny of the MLI. The measure simply ensures that we have the appropriate powers to bring the MLI into force in UK law. However, that would be by a draft affirmative statutory instrument. After the Bill has become an Act, Parliament will have time to scrutinise the MLI.

The existing powers give effect to arrangements made with foreign territories with a view to affording relief from double taxation. Concerns have been raised in some quarters that an agreement that operates primarily to restrict relief is not made with a view to affording relief from double taxation. Doubts have also been expressed about whether the existing power is sufficiently clear that agreements can delegate functions to the public authorities of the territories.

The Government are not persuaded by these concerns but wish to put the matter beyond doubt. The clause ensures that the improvements made by the MLI can, subject to the views of Parliament, be implemented quickly and with certainty. The changes made by clause 32 will clarify that the existing power for giving effect to international tax agreements covers any arrangements modifying the effect of existing arrangements. It also clarifies that the provisions of arrangements can delegate functions to public authorities and signatories—HMRC in the case of the United Kingdom.

Turning to the two Opposition amendments, I reiterate that the changes made by clause 32 merely clarify the existing power for giving effect to international tax agreements, thereby ensuring that Parliament can, if it chooses, give full effect to the MLI—an objective that I hope Opposition Members will join me in supporting. The Government’s intention is to lay the draft Order in Council to which the MLI will be scheduled as soon as possible, but clearly after the passage of the Bill, at which point Members will have the opportunity to debate the MLI in full, as I have said.

None the less, I will take this opportunity to respond to some of the specific points raised by the hon. Member for Oxford East. First, on the suggestion that the multilateral instrument should be given effect in a way that complies with the principles of policy coherence and the UN model treaty, the text of the MLI has already been negotiated and agreed with more than 100 countries, including a significant number of developing countries, which were able to input into its development. It is therefore not possible for the Government to make changes unilaterally—an approach that some might have been suggesting.

However, it is true that the text contains certain options and permits states to make reservations against certain provisions. Following consultation with business and NGOs, the Government propose to use this flexibility to adopt all the provisions contained in the MLI that were deemed by those negotiating the text to be particularly important for preventing base erosion and profit shifting—the minimum standards. This includes provisions combating the abuse of tax treaties. We believe that this approach of bearing down on international tax avoidance will help global economic development for both the United Kingdom and developing countries, in line with the principles of policy coherence.

Secondly, to respond to the hon. Lady’s concern about the Government’s proposal to adopt the mandatory binding arbitration provision for resolving double tax disputes contained in the MLI, the Government believe that arbitration is important for ensuring that double tax disputes are resolved. Mandatory arbitration benefits tax authorities and taxpayers alike by creating greater tax certainty and preventing double taxation. This is beneficial for all cross-border transactions. However, it should be noted that the MLI will amend the UK’s bilateral DTAs to include arbitration only where our treaty partners have also chosen to adopt the arbitration provision—an important point in the context of the hon. Lady’s remarks. There can be no suggestion that any country has been forced into its adoption.

Thirdly, in response to the request for a costing, given a process by which the multilateral instrument will come into effect at different times in different states, it would be very difficult to quantify the effects of changes in public revenue that arise from the implementation of the MLI more generally. It is very difficult to provide sensible estimates of the revenue effects of our tax treaties. Concluding a tax treaty is not a zero-sum game, and possible short-term revenue effects are augmented and balanced in the longer term by increased activities, as companies and others respond to the more favourable business climate that tax treaties provide. However, those effects are hard to quantify and successive Governments have never attempted that. Finally, retrospective effect is necessary to ensure that the provision does not create uncertainty in relation to pre-existing international agreements.

With regard to whether HMRC is sufficiently resourced and has appropriate staff to be on top of international arbitration issues, let me make two points. One is the exemplary record that HMRC generally has in this area. We often talk about the £160 billion that has been brought in or protected by clamping down on avoidance, evasion and non-compliance since 2010, and the additional resources provided to HMRC, including £170 million in the most recent Budget, to ensure that it is on top of such issues. My second point is on international arbitration. What we are looking at with the MLI is an extension of that approach rather than a fresh introduction. HMRC would not have to gear up for something completely new; it would be a matter of extending the occasions on which international arbitration was entered into.

The hon. Lady also asked whether HMRC or the Treasury had had discussions with the Crown dependencies and overseas territories. I will be happy to look into that and let her know what I discover. I imagine that such discussions would have been held. We have very close relationships with the Crown dependencies and overseas territories. The hon. Lady mentioned the case of Saudi Arabia, which had appeared in the position paper. She asked whether they had finally become a signatory to the MLI. I do not immediately know the answer but I will again revert to her, not only with an answer to her specific question but with some of the background, explaining, if they do not appear, why they have not done so.

I think most other points were covered in my earlier remarks. On that basis, I hope that we can agree to the clause standing part of the Bill.