Mr Redwood: Let me start by saying a few words about my new hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karl McCartney). I am sure that the House will join me in praising him for his speech and in wishing him every success now that he has joined us here. It is good to hear someone with a radio face with a passionate voice for his constituency. If he continues that, I am sure that his constituents will be well served. It was great to be reminded of the hugely important Lincoln cathedral, which many of us have visited and admired, and of the fact that Parliaments were once more peripatetic. In those days, there was probably less security and fewer people in the baggage train, so it was probably cheaper to take Parliament around the country than it would be today. I fear that he might have quite a long wait before the next Parliament at Lincoln.
We are here to debate tax avoidance and evasion. I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), but I think that the House is pursuing a will-o’-the-wisp if it seriously believes that there is £120 billion of tax evasion and avoidance generally, and that there is substantial tax evasion and avoidance in particular on corporation tax, which we are debating, that we can tackle and get the money in from. Every hon. Member would like to think that there is an easy way out of the financial crisis. If there were a great pot of money representing tax dodging that we could identify and bring into the Treasury, it would have been done by now. It is not a matter of party dispute. If there are tax evaders out there whom we know about, they need to be brought to book-we all agree with that. Labour spent 13 years trying to do it, but the hon. Gentleman does not think that it did it well enough, and is now urging the coalition Government to do it. The coalition Government will pursue it in similar ways, with similar intensity, to the outgoing Labour Government. I fear that they will be no more successful than the previous Government at finding that £120 billion pot of gold because, in all honesty, I do not think that it exists in the form that hon. Members wish that it did.
Let us take evasion-the more serious case. I am sure that everyone in the House agrees that if someone is deliberately evading tax, it is a criminal offence. The House has said that it is a serious offence, and made it a criminal offence, or series of criminal offences, and we wish to see those people pursued and prosecuted. In the case of corporation tax, for example, if a company deliberately misreports its income, and says that it receives less income than it earned-one way of misleading the tax authorities over corporation tax-the book should be straightened, the record corrected, and they should be prosecuted. If the company deliberately overstates its costs to try to suppress its profits-the other way in which people could evade corporation tax, if they were seeking to do so-that, too, should be something that the authorities can identify on investigation, leading to a correction of the accounts. False accounting would be involved, as well as the criminal offence of tax evasion, and there are methods of tackling it. The state has a range of powers, introduced by Governments of all persuasions, to allow company investigation, including second-guessing the audit, and going in if it is thought that crooked directors are misrepresenting their costs or revenues, and the auditors have missed it. I wish my right hon. and hon. Friends the Ministers in the Treasury every success in trying to capture genuine crooks, because we do not need them in our community, and we need to flush them out.
There is another kind of failure to pay the amount of tax that the corporation tax authorities think is correct which, in some people’s language, could be evasion. A company may report honestly its revenues and costs, but comes to a different conclusion from the Revenue about what the taxable profit should be, given its income stream and costs. It attempts to understand the complexity of the law-it may well have its own tax advisers and auditors in support, because any medium or large company does not do this in isolation; the directors want the comfort of knowing that they have serious tax experts behind them, because of the complications of the law-and it makes its case to the Revenue, which disagrees with them. I do not think that that should be treated as a severe criminal offence leading to the imprisonment of the directors. What should usually happen-and what tends to happen-is a fierce of exchange of views between the Revenue, which is trying for one view of the tax, and the company and its tax advisers with a different view. Eventually, agreement is reached. If it is thought to be a bad case, the Revenue has the power to impose financial penalties as well as to secure the tax that it thinks that it is owed.
Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): I am interested in the right hon. Gentleman’s train of thought, but will he clarify something? Is he saying that there is no such thing as avoidance of corporation tax, or is he saying that anything that comes about is just the result of a misunderstanding?
Mr Redwood: Has the hon. Gentleman been in the Chamber while I have been talking? The first part of my speech was about bad cases of evasion in which a company has deliberately misrepresented its financial condition. Like him, I think that those cases should be taken seriously, and prosecution should result. I am going on to the second set of cases, in which evasion is thought to have taken place according to the Revenue, but when we look at what is going on there is a genuine disagreement between one group of tax experts, lawyers and company advisers and another lot advising the Revenue, which sometimes needs to consult counsel on these complicated matters to try to reach a conclusion. Such cases are often sorted out slightly more amicably, and rightly so, because the companies concerned were obviously not trying to do down the Revenue but to pay the minimum amount of tax to comply with the law, as most sensible people try to do, and there was a disagreement that had to be sorted out sensibly. That might result in financial penalties or in an agreement not to have financial penalties, but usually the Revenue has a certain amount of strength in having its way.
That is evasion, and then there is avoidance, which is much more problematic. I am sure that billions-worth of avoidance is going on all the time, because it is a perfectly legal approach; one man’s avoidance is another man’s sensible tax planning. That is why I asked the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington for an example relating to personal income tax, which is easier for people listening in to this debate to understand. Many small savers switch from tax-paying savings to tax-free savings, which is avoidance of tax, is it not? They realise that they can do better by having a tax-exempt savings product; surely we should not condemn that, because it is about someone trying to get the most for their money. Indeed, that is something that the Government positively encourage. They encourage tax avoidance because they say, “We have the unique power to provide tax-exempt products for savings, and we want you to buy ours rather than the taxed private sector product.”
Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab): My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) asked a telling question, and I am not sure what the right hon. Gentleman’s answer is. The question is this: does he deprecate any tax avoidance, or is he saying that as long as it is strictly in compliance with the law, anything goes? As he knows, there have been some very ingenious, and indeed expensive, schemes used by companies to avoid paying tax, clearly contrary to the spirit of the law but arguably in compliance with the letter of the law. Does he not deprecate that kind of activity?
Mr Redwood: I do not want to get drawn into the moral issue of deprecating or not deprecating: what I am interested in is the efficiency of revenue collection and the clarity of the law for the people having to meet it. It is the job of this House to have a clear tax law that people have to follow, and we often have these debates to try to carry out that task. Sometimes tax law is so complicated, or people outside this House are so ingenious, that there are ways round it that I might disagree with and the right hon. Gentleman will often disagree with, and that is when we come back to legislate again. We say, “We haven’t done our job well enough. People are avoiding tax more easily than we would like them to be able to, and so we’re going to add another complication”-or sometimes even a simplification or clarification-“to the tax law to try to capture that.” That is the job of this House. The shadow spokesman and I will sometimes agree that an avoidance scheme goes too far and we need to legislate to stop it; on other occasions, we will disagree. I will say, “That’s perfectly rational tax planning-don’t be such a party pooper”, he will say, “I don’t like people getting away with that kind of thing”, and we will have our disagreements.
Mr Love: Given the thrust of the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks, does he agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) that cutting the number of HMRC employees by 10,000 might not assist in the process that he is outlining of ensuring that those who take part in avoidance are brought to book?
Mr Redwood: It would clearly be a false economy to cut back on the number of staff needed to tackle serious cases of tax evasion; I do not think anybody wants to do that, and I certainly would not recommend it to Front Benchers. It would also be wrong, however, to exempt Revenue and Customs from pressure to improve efficiency and to do more with less at a time of enormous strictures on public spending. I hope that there will be ways to accommodate the hon. Gentleman’s wish for us still to have Revenue and Customs pursuing tax evasion and our coming back to legislate on tax avoidance that it thinks is going too far, as we have under past Conservative and Labour Governments, and that that will be done efficiently and effectively in the way that we wish to see.
John McDonnell: To follow up on the question of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), are there any measures that the right hon. Gentleman would consider tax avoidance that should be brought within the purview of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, such as the large-scale offshoring mechanisms that corporations use to avoid tax? All that the amendment asks is for a report to be made about the measures that the Government will take on such issues.
Mr Redwood: I do not necessarily disagree about the need for us to consider another report on tax avoidance and evasion, but I am trying to set some of the parameters for that report and the framework of the debate. This is an opportunity to discuss why the matter is difficult, and why past Governments have not lived up to the hon. Gentleman’s expectations. I have no problem with having a report, although I do not want to link it to the particular corporation tax rate in clause 1, as his amendment would.
John McDonnell: I am grateful for that response. Successive Governments have pragmatically examined the latest tax avoidance mechanisms and then sought to work through them systematically to address them. The amendment is intended simply to bring forward a report on those mechanisms so that the House can have more oversight of that process.
Mr Redwood: As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am all in favour of more oversight by this House, and the more informed a debate we can have about this and other issues the better. Public debate in Britain has been stifled in recent years for all sorts of political reasons that we need not go into. It is better if we can bring such debates out into the open, but we need collectively to think through what avoidance is and what evasion is. If we do not know that, we cannot hope to guess its scale or optimise our measures for dealing with the features of it that we do not like. I am trying to deal with avoidance, on which I believe there is more scope for disagreement than on evasion, which we are all against.
I return to the point that some people’s avoidance is a bad practice and other people’s is common sense. Let us take another example of a matter on which the Government encourage avoidance. I gave one from personal tax, but we ought to be concentrating on corporation tax. The previous Labour Government were keen to encourage avoidance of corporation tax because they wanted companies to invest-a perfectly worthy aim. They said to companies, “If you invest more than you otherwise would do, that is an allowance against your corporation tax so that you will be able to avoid some tax in order to invest more.” One debate that the Committee will have is whether this Government are cracking down too much on investment avoidance by removing some of that allowance and giving everybody the benefit of a lower rate. I hope that Opposition Members will see that they are not as pure as they think they are on avoidance, and that there are certain types of avoidance that they see as a very good thing. It is a well-known feature of many tax structures to encourage avoidance in order to encourage good works or change conduct.
Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): The right hon. Gentleman talks about avoidance all the time, but is it not about the Government giving companies incentives to invest, rather than allowing them to avoid tax?
Mr Redwood: The hon. Gentleman has made my point beautifully. I have just said that one man’s avoidance is another man’s tax incentive-that is exactly the point that I am trying to make. There are good types of avoidance and bad types. Sometimes all the parties in the House agree that a certain type of avoidance is bad, and then it is in our own gift, because we are the legislature, to table business on any day to stop that tax avoidance in its tracks by changing legislation explicitly and clearly to send a signal. At other times we come together to legislate in favour of tax avoidance, because there are things that we wish to encourage. As he rightly says, sometimes the best thing to do is to give people a lower tax bill to encourage such procedures. That is surely encouragement of tax avoidance of a benign kind and a perfectly reasonable thing to do.
Mark Tami indicated dissent.
Mr Redwood: The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but what else is it? Why are people investing more than they otherwise would have done? Because they are allowed to avoid tax and pay less tax than they otherwise would.
Stephen Timms: The right hon. Gentleman is uncharacteristically abusing the English language. To say that something that is explicitly provided for in the law is tax avoidance is not what most people mean by the term.
Mr Redwood: Fine-that is a very good linguistic point, and if the right hon. Gentleman wishes to define tax avoidance more narrowly as actions that we all disagree with, we can do that and it makes the debate much simpler. However, he has to understand that there are a series of grey areas, and it is not a black-and-white matter. There is not a set of actions that everybody agrees are tax avoidance and another set that everybody agrees are perfectly reasonable incentives or sensible ways of paying less tax.
Let us get on to the more difficult corporation tax cases, having dealt with the investment one-everybody in the House thinks that investment is a good thing and that corporations should therefore pay less tax one way or another, either through the rate of tax or through explicit relief.
Let us consider overseas offshoring, which has already been mentioned. Multinational companies have some flexibility about where they invest, borrow and carry out their activities, and they regard the taxation regime as one of the important considerations in determining all those matters. If it is benign, they are more inclined to borrow the money, put up the facilities and earn the full profits in the country concerned by carrying out the whole process and adding all the value. However, if the taxation regime is more hostile to enterprise, they might make different arrangements. Any country that takes part in the multinational free enterprise world has a choice. It must decide whether it wants to be tax friendly, in which case it has to allow people to pay rather less tax, or tax tough, in which case those who stay will end up paying more tax, but there will not be so many businesses here, and some will decide to offshore more of their activities.
Offshoring presents a difficult set of cases. I am sure that Opposition Members can find examples of offshoring that we would all regard as unacceptable avoidance, but much other offshoring represents simple, rational business decision making because the country being offshored against does not have a favourable tax regime, and that is why our decisions tonight and on other occasions when we try to settle the corporation tax regime are terribly important to whether our constituents get more jobs, whether our businesses make more money and whether more action will take place here. Companies have many footloose decisions that they can make about where to borrow, where to spend, where to invest, where to create jobs and how much value to add.
I see nothing wrong with more parliamentary accountability and scrutiny. If my hon. Friends have more capacity to produce a report on tax avoidance and evasion, it would be useful. I hope that my remarks have outlined some of the complexities of trying to determine the elements of avoidance that are to be condemned and about which we need to legislate more, and those that are simply common sense, or even tax promotion schemes, which the Government are producing.
I remind the House that I have recorded in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests that I offer business advice to a global industrial company and to an investment company.