HC Deb 06 July 2004 vol 423 cc712-8

'(1) After section 785 of the Taxes Act 1988 insert—

"785A Rent factoring of leases of plant or machinery

  1. (1) This section applies in any case where the following conditions are satisfied—
    1. (a) a person (call him "P") is entitled to receive rentals under a lease of plant or machinery,
    2. (a) the rentals, so far as receivable by him, fall to be brought into account as income for the purpose of calculating his tax liability,
    3. (c) P enters into arrangements for the transfer of his right to receive some or all of the rentals to another person,
    4. (d) apart from this section, some or all of the amount or value of the consideration for the transfer ("the relevant portion of the consideration") would fall to be brought into account neither—
      1. (i) as income, nor
      2. (ii) as a capital allowances disposal receipt, for the purpose of calculating P's tax liability.
  2. (2) In any such case, the relevant portion of the consideration—
    1. (a) shall be treated for tax purposes as income of P,
    2. (b) shall be taxable as rentals receivable by P under the lease (apart from any transfer of his right to receive some or all of the rentals), and
    3. (c) shall be brought into account in a period of account to the extent that it is receivable in that period of account.
  3. (3) Any reference to the transfer from P to another person of a right to receive rentals includes a reference to any arrangement under which rental ceases to form part of the receipts taken into account as income for the purposes of calculating P's tax liability.
  4. (4) Where P is a partnership, any reference in this section to calculating P's tax liability includes a reference to calculating the tax liability of the partners, notwithstanding that the partnership has legal personality.
  5. (5) A partnership has legal personality for the purposes of subsection (4) above if it is regarded as a legal person, or as a body corporate, under the law of the country or territory under which it is formed.
  6. (6)In this section—
capital allowances disposal receipt" means a disposal receipt within the meaning of Part 2 of the Capital Allowances Act 2001 (see section 60 of that Act); lease" includes an underlease, sublease, tenancy or licence and an agreement for any of those things; tax liability" means liability to income tax or corporation tax.".

(2) The amendment made by this section has effect where arrangements for the transfer from one person to another of a right to receive rentals are entered into on or after 2nd July 2004.'.—[Dawn Primarolo.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Dawn Primarolo

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

With this it will be convenient to discuss Government new clause 10—Manufactured payments under arrangements having an unallowable purpose.

Dawn Primarolo

As I explained briefly with regard to the ways and means motions, the new clauses introduce anti-avoidance measures to prevent a loss of tax through arrangements involving leasing and manufactured payments.

New clause 9 prevents the new avoidance using arrangements that are being marketed in an attempt to get around the impact of clause 134 of the Bill, which was introduced to prevent tax avoidance through sale and finance lease-back and lease and finance lease-back generating double benefits. Aggressive new schemes are now being marketed, which aim to achieve a similar result by generating a tax-free sum from the sale of rental income streams from the leasing of plant and machinery. The measure will ensure that the proceeds from the sale of such income streams are taxable as rental income, making the new arrangements ineffective.

New clause 10 will prevent companies from avoiding corporation tax by entering into a range of artificial arrangements involving manufactured payments. The arrangements vary in detail, but usually involve claiming tax relief for a manufactured payment while arranging for any counterbalancing income or gains to escape taxation in some way. The new clause works by introducing an unallowable purpose rule for manufactured payments. The rule denies tax relief for the manufactured payment to the extent that the payment is attributable to the unallowable purpose. To the extent that tax avoidance is a main motive, or one of the main motives, behind a company entering into those arrangements, it will be denied a tax deduction for the manufactured payment, thereby defeating the avoidance.

As was noted in 1996, when the original loan relationships unallowable purpose rule was introduced, companies entering into the arrangement with the primary aim of avoiding tax will inevitably be aware of the fact. The transactions against which the rule is aimed are not the sort that companies stumble into inadvertently. Provided that companies enter into arrangements involving manufactured payments for genuine commercial reasons, they should have nothing to fear from this unallowable purpose rule. That will be confirmed in guidance issued by the Inland Revenue today. If, however, companies go in for artificial tax-driven arrangements, they may and should find themselves caught.

As I said when the new measures were introduced, we will not allow the efforts of the tax-avoidance industry to undermine the will of Parliament or allow a small minority of businesses and individuals to get round the tax system at the expense of the vast majority who pay their fair share. We are determined to stamp out this type of tax avoidance and create a level playing field for all. The new clauses will assist in achieving that objective, and I commend them to the House.

Mr. Howard Flight (Arundel and South Downs) (Con)

On the face of it, these two anti-avoidance clauses are perfectly reasonable and, indeed, a fair cop. I would, however, make the point that we have had 180 and more new clauses and amendments tabled for Report, which has left quite insufficient time for the various professionals to pore over them in detail to ensure that there are no unintended effects. I note that the Paymaster General mentioned that the guidance notes would only be published today, so there is clearly no chance to review those guidance notes ahead of reviewing the two new clauses. It also struck me that the measures being blocked by new clause 9 are, to some extent, a reaction to what have been seen as retrospective changes in the tax position relating to sales and lease-backs.

As to the territory of new clause 10, the key issue is how the unallowable purpose rules will work. The Paymaster General is quite right to say that people will know when they are doing things essentially to avoid taxation. There are many circumstances—the use of swaps, forward sells and various other financial instruments—where sound commercial purpose may go hand in hand with paying less rather than more tax. The unallowable purpose rule is yet to be tested either here or in loan relationship legislation.

We have not spotted anything in the two measures that would have unintended effects. There are many other avoidance measures in the Bill where unintended effects have not been adequately dealt with, but these new clauses appear to be perfectly practical measures. It is good to see the Revenue spotting these measures, which it might have done more diligently in other respects. If it had, we would not have needed the somewhat over-heavy reporting of anti-avoidance tax planning, which we will deal with later in the Bill.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD)

We support the two new clauses. The only question for the Paymaster General—I hope I did not miss the point in her earlier comments—is how the Treasury identified these abuses, particularly when she indicated in respect of new clause 9 that the abuses seem to have arisen very recently, even since the Finance Bill was first drafted. Will she say a little more about that?

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford) (Con)

I start by endorsing the hon. Gentleman's last suggestion. It would be helpful if, when the Government bring forward last-minute measures to deal with tax-avoidance schemes, they could describe in more concrete detail what the schemes actually consist of.

I have no problem in principle with new clause 9. I must say, however, that I am surprised. I have learned to my surprise this afternoon that, at the present time and until we change the position by passing the new clause, revenues that a company generates by selling its entitlement to lease rentals are not taken into account for the purpose of computing tax liabilities. In other words, those revenues do not feature in the computation of taxable profits. That seems very surprising. Usually, if a company discounts or factors its receivables, the amount of money that it receives from those receivables is a revenue and if the costs of generating those revenues mean less profit, the profit is taxable in the normal way. I am surprised that this particular anomaly should have arisen in the first place. It would all be less surprising if the Paymaster General were a little more explicit in telling the House about the type of scheme that she or her officials have identified and targeted.

I believe that we should not allow new clause 10 to slip by without any comment. Once again, we see the introduction of a general anti-avoidance rule—no, perhaps not a general anti-avoidance rule because that would be general, but an anti-avoidance rule. It is becoming an ever more frequent feature of our taxes legislation. There are similar examples in the current Finance Bill where the Government have had recourse to a specific anti-avoidance rule. In this instance, the anti-avoidance rule is in new clause 10(5).

At some point, we need the Government to make a clear statement of their views on anti-avoidance rules. Otherwise, we will find that, through adopting the anti-avoidance rule approach in a large number of individual cases, we have introduced a general anti-avoidance rule by the back door. At the end of the day, we will have an anomalous tax system in which anti-avoidance rules apply to certain activities, but not others. It will be unclear to the public and to Parliament—it is certainly unclear to me—on what principles it has been decided that certain types of transactions, trades, professions or businesses encounter anti-avoidance rules, but not others. It is a major philosophical point, and it must be dealt with—if not now, at some other stage—by the Government. There is an increasing lack of clarity on the matter, as the Government have recourse to more and more of these rules in specific cases.

The second issue raised by the anti-avoidance rule approach is the classic one of unfairness. Great unfairness can arise in individual cases precisely because of the subjectivity of a tax inspector saying that someone acted not for commercial but for anti-avoidance purposes. The taxpayer might respond by denying that. It may be clear and a fair cop in some cases, but not in others. A tax inspector may decide to apply the rule in good faith, but perhaps the taxpayer resists with equal good faith on the basis of the facts. Those matters will have to be resolved by jurisprudence, by the commissioners or the courts. Will the Paymaster General say what guidance is being given to tax inspectors on the application of the rule? That is an extremely important matter. Information about the guidance should be in the public domain, as there is no point in cluttering up the commissioners or the courts with disputes that could be avoided. I am sure that, like everyone else, the Paymaster General would not want unfairness to arise as a result of the application of the rules.

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The third point is another classic problem raised by anti-avoidance rules. What provision has been made for pre-transaction rulings? If a company feels that it might fall foul of the anti-avoidance rule, equity demands that it have the opportunity to clear a transaction with the Revenue in advance. That company might want to adopt a certain course of action, with a perfectly honest commercial purpose in mind. It would not want to be hit, retrospectively, with an anti-avoidance rule. It would be neither satisfactory nor fair for the Revenue to say subsequently that the company should have done X rather than Y, and then clobber it accordingly. That is not a transparent tax system.

When the Government introduce anti-avoidance rules, they should make it clear that a pre-transaction ruling facility will be available. I hope that the Paymaster General, when she replies to the debate, will confirm that that will be the case. Such a facility must be available to taxpayers in a reasonable time, so that businesses that might fall foul of the rule can clear the position, in anticipation, with the Revenue.

Dawn Primarolo

I shall begin by dealing with the series of questions posed by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), who wanted to know whether these proposals amounted to the introduction of a general anti-avoidance rule. I assure him that they do not. The rule is targeted at a narrow area of tax in which abuse, unfortunately, is rife. I shall then move to the question, raised by the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), of when and how the Revenue became aware of two specific schemes.

Mr. Davies

I hope that the Paymaster General does not proceed on a false premise. I said in my remarks that this is not a general anti-avoidance rule, as such a rule would apply, by definition, to all transactions. However, with this new clause—and the same thing happens elsewhere in the Bill—the Government seem to want have recourse to individual anti-avoidance rules. As a result, a series of anti-avoidance rules is being built up in the tax system in a pretty haphazard fashion.

There seems to be no rhyme, reason or principle to determine which transactions qualify under the rule. I said that that raises philosophical problems and policy issues, and that practical difficulties would arise. I would be grateful for a statement about the Government's attitude to a general anti-avoidance rule before we get halfway there by the back door as a result of a build-up of specific anti-avoidance rules.

Dawn Primarolo

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Government consulted in 1998 or 1999 about whether a general anti-avoidance rule should be introduced, with the pre-clearance mechanism that he rightly says would be necessary. The consultation was generated by the frustration—also experienced by the previous Government—that ever more complex avoidance schemes give rise to ever more complex legislation to counter them. The clauses under discussion are examples of our approach.

Extensive consultation was held on whether a general anti-avoidance rule was needed or whether what is called a "mini-GAR" would be sufficient. Another question was whether the Government should deal with avoidance by measures that were specifically targeted, as the previous Conservative Government did.

The result of the consultation showed that businesses did not want the general anti-avoidance rule, although respondents were divided on the matter. Businesses did not want a mini-GAR either. At that time, the Government were dealing with an anti-avoidance method in respect of value-added tax. We decided not to go with a general anti-avoidance rule in that case, but we said that we would keep the matter under review.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford will be aware that the Bill contains clauses on the disclosure of information. The Government are still valiantly trying to achieve a principled position in the matter, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree with our approach. He was right to say that this is a grey area. Our aim is to target avoidance, without affecting reasonable commercial transactions. A general anti-avoidance rule can be a very blunt instrument.

New clause 10 deals with manufactured dividends, a point raised by the hon. Member for Yeovil. Officials made it clear to me in May that such dividends were a possibility. I regret that I cannot be more specific about the date. I agree that we need an arrangement to deal with the matter, and that we need to allow enough time for proper consideration.

On further investigation, it became clear that a great deal of revenue was at stake. A number of schemes, in various stages of development, were identified. They are very complex, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Yeovil will excuse me if I do not read them into the record. However, I should be happy to send him two examples of the main form that those schemes take.

As always, my officials and I looked to achieve consistency across the tax system. Our approach was to establish how the previous Government had responded to the problems that they encountered. That Government introduced the unallowable purpose rule—even though they said in 1996 that no such rule would be brought in—and it has worked. It is part of the system now, and it deals with specific problems that arise in connection with manufactured dividends. Although I cannot predict what tax planners will do in the future, the unallowable purpose rule also seeks to preserve transactions that are not undertaken for the purposes of tax avoidance.

In Standing Committee, the Government's view was made clear that the disclosure methods contained in the Bill would put the Inland Revenue in a better position to be aware of schemes as they are being developed, rather than only when they have been used. The Inland Revenue guidance in respect of the unallowable purpose provision is well used and understood. It is used by tax inspectors, and it is also published for the benefit of companies and their advisers.

I turn to new clause 9. Clause 134 seeks to prevent avoidance, and the need for the clause was generally accepted in Committee. Subsequently, schemes have been designed to negate clause 134. That is the bind we are in: the Government consult and publish a Bill, and while it is making progress through the various stages, other people are planning how to negate it. Therefore, clause 134 would not protect the revenue that it was designed to protect. New clause 9 would ensure that the scheme designed to negate clause 134—which has not even been used yet, because clause 134 has not come into force—would not be effective.

I feel the same frustration as other Members at the need for Treasury Ministers to act in that way, but such is the problem of the creativity of a small number of accountants, tax planners, legal professionals and companies. If they are not held in check, they are capable of ensuring that the Treasury loses vast amounts of revenue. That is why we needed the ways and means resolutions earlier and that is why I was unable to introduce the new clauses in Committee as I should have preferred. A responsible Minister must protect the Treasury and all honest taxpayers, and that is what new clauses 9 and 10 seek to do.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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