The House of Commons decided, yesterday, pursuant to Article 6 of Protocol (No 2) on the Application of the Principles of Subsidiarity and Proportionality, to send to the Presidents of the Council, the European Parliament and the Commission a Reasoned Opinion stating that the draft Directive on a common consolidated corporate tax base does not comply with the principle of subsidiarity.
During the debate Bill Cash made the following interventions:
The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Justine Greening): I beg to move, That this House considers that the Draft Directive to introduce a Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base (European Union Document No. 7263/11) does not comply with the principle of subsidiarity, for the reasons set out in chapter 2 of the Twenty-seventh Report of the European Scrutiny Committee (HC 428-xxv); and, in accordance with Article 6 of the Protocol on the application of the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality, instructs the Clerk of the House to forward this reasoned opinion to the presidents of the European institutions.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to discuss this European Commission proposal, which, as the House is aware, is potentially significant. I will highlight a few general points before turning to the specific legal and treaty issues which the European Scrutiny Committee has raised in its report and which are the subject of the motion.
I want to start by reiterating the Government’s commitment to ensuring that there is no further transfer of sovereignty or powers to the EU over the course of the Parliament. I also stress that the Government have made it clear that we will not agree to a proposal that might threaten or limit the UK’s ability to shape its own tax policy. I know that the motion focuses on whether the proposal complies with subsidiarity and proportionality, which are both important questions that I will address in turn.
Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): This is extremely good news from the Minister. Will she confirm that the UK will not consent to the so-called six-pack measures on economic governance, of which at least three clearly apply to non-euro members and represent a transfer of powers?
Justine Greening: As my right hon. Friend will be aware, important discussions on economic governance are under way and are being resolved. I assure him that we have no intention, as I have said, of seeing any further powers transferred to Brussels. We keep a watching brief on not only the topic that we are discussing, but across the board. I am sure he is aware of a number of areas in which we are expressing concerns to the Commission, because we are concerned that further powers may be taken by Brussels.
Jacob Rees-Mogg: Establishing the legal base is absolutely crucial before the Government engage in negotiations about the form of the directive. May I draw the Economic Secretary’s attention to conclusion 2.12 of the European Scrutiny Committee’s report? It clearly states that the ability for the single market to have taxes refers to turnover taxes and VAT, and not to the type of tax included in the directive. If there is no legal base for the tax, is there any point in having further discussion?
Justine Greening: Our assessment is that it is possible to make the case that because article 115 of the TFEU relates to the effective functioning of the single market, it is relevant to consider whether the proposal would affect the single market. There is also the question whether there is any problem that needs to be addressed. We do not accept that there is, but if there were, we would have to ask whether the proposal was the right solution. That is what I mean when I talk about proportionality. We must also consider subsidiarity, and we do not believe that the two can simply be separated, because they go hand in hand.
For the Government to be reassured that the proposal complies with the fundamental principles of proportionality and subsidiarity, we would require far stronger justification from the Commission. We would need evidence that the existence of 27 different tax systems is a significant barrier to the functioning of the single market—we do not believe it is, or that the evidence is there to support such a conclusion—and directly results in all the specific tax obstacles that the proposal claims to address. We would also need evidence that the proposal is the only, or the best, way to address those tax obstacles. We will continue to raise those points with the Commission during our discussions, and we will continue to engage proactively and constructively with other member states on the important issues of policy substance, including those highlighted in the European Scrutiny Committee’s report.
As I have said, we are not the only member state that has raised significant concerns about the proposal, and we will continue to talk to others about their concerns and ours.
Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): The Opposition Benches are virtually empty, but there are also no Liberal Democrats in the Chamber—there is a sort of let-out under the coalition agreement. The Minister seems to be referring to enhanced co-operation, which the agreement says is the basis on which the Government will be engaged in discussions to help to shape a corporate tax base that does not undermine the competitiveness of the EU or the UK. She has made it clear that enhanced co-operation would have that effect, so clearly, we will not under any circumstances accept it. Therefore, the answer can only be no. Why do we not say so?
Justine Greening: As I have said, we need to manage risks, and it is unclear at this point where the process will end up. However, there might be risks posed by enhanced co-operation. We need to be part of the discussions to ensure that our arguments carry weight. Our arguments will not carry weight if we are not part of those discussions from the beginning, because we say that we never want to be involved. That is not a sensible approach. In addition, I do not agree that it is as simple as saying, “We don’t want to be in it,” because the proposal might go ahead in a different form involving a limited group of nations, which could still affect us, even if indirectly. I want to make it absolutely clear tonight what the Government are fundamentally seeking to achieve. We will not agree to any proposal that will threaten or limit our ability to shape our tax policy.
Mr Cash: The Minister is always well informed, so I am sure that she knows that the Tax Commissioner has already said that if there is a veto—if, in other words, the Commission does not get unanimity—it will go ahead with enhanced co-operation. If we know that to be the case, why do we not just say no and be done with it?
Justine Greening: The Commission might, as my hon. Friend has said, take a view, but we need to understand what other member states think about the proposal. This evening is a chance for us, as a member state, to allow our Parliament to voice its concerns. The European Scrutiny Committee, which he chairs, has produced a helpful report that will no doubt form a basis of this debate.(…)”
Mr Cash: In this new guise of the Pym or Hampden of the British Parliament, am I to imagine, beyond the wildest speculation, that the Labour party is about to announce that it will vote against these proposals on the grounds that it does not veto the Commission’s proposals?
Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): This is of course about direct taxation, and I welcome the Government’s limited stand against the draft directive, for the reasons given in the motion endorsing the European Scrutiny Committee’s report on the points that the Minister has just summarised. I remain concerned, however, about one matter still hanging over the debate. The Minister might be able to guess what I am about to say. It goes back to a motion that was before a European Standing Committee which asserted, in the name of the Government, probably for the first time since 1640—I mentioned Pym and Hampden just now—that the British Government, as a sovereign Government, were only primarily responsible for direct taxation, whereas in fact our Parliament is exclusively responsible for it. That motion was put to a deferred Division in the House and passed, which is pretty alarming. I invite the Minister to be rather clearer than she was the last time I put this point to her, because it must be made absolutely clear that this House is exclusively responsibility for direct taxation.
The Minister has been at pains to describe the context of this measure in the light of the questions of subsidiarity, but some Members might recall that it was on 27 April that I raised this matter with the Prime Minister, together with the proposed increase in the European budget and the Portuguese bail-out, not to mention prospective Greek bail-outs and whatever else. I said that we expected the answer to be no to each of those proposals. His reply referred only to the increase in the EU budget, and I hope—for reasons that have been expressed in interventions, including my own—that we are unequivocal in reserving to ourselves the absolute determination, and not merely the right, to say no to these proposals, because they infringe a number of important principles. I shall come to those in a moment.
I want it on record that the coalition agreement states that there should be “no further transfer of sovereignty or powers” to the EU. Our Committee report looked at that and found it wanting in relation to the EU referendum Bill. The Government have also said that they would reject any proposal that “might threaten or limit our ability to shape our own tax policy.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 February 2011; Vol. 725, c. WA172.]
I have the greatest respect for the Minister, as she well knows, but she left out the next bit, which was the word “but”. That word “but” is represented by Banquo’s ghost, who is not sitting on the Liberal Democrat Front Bench tonight—[ Interruption. ] Ah! My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) is there, acting as a surrogate, which is extremely unlikely in the circumstances, although I am delighted to see him and I hope that he will contribute to the debate at some point.
I want to continue with the words that come after the word “but”. They are that, “under enhanced co-operation” the coalition Government will “engage in discussions to help shape a CCCTB that does not undermine the competitiveness of the EU or the UK”.
Now that is a monumental exception, because it is obvious, for reasons that I shall explain, that the proposal will undermine the competitiveness of the EU and the UK ab initio—and the Government know it. It follows from that, as light follows day, that there is no reason for us not to put our foot down now and say no. We know that the Tax Commissioner is saying that this is going ahead under enhanced co-operation, and this it not something magicked out of the air, as he knows perfectly well that that is what Germany, France and other countries are intending to do. When I provide the figures on the number of member states engaged in the process, as I shall in a moment, perhaps matters will fall into place.
The proposals before the European Scrutiny Committee are, for reasons set out in our conclusions, all profoundly objectionable, but the draft directive falls down particularly on four main issues: one, the sovereignty of this House; two, the insufficient legal base; three, an inadequate and unconvincing impact assessment; four, grounds of proportionality, making the doubling of tax regimes in the EU, the cost of establishing 27 new regimes and the apportionment formula excessively disadvantageous for certain member states.
I add that the Oxford university centre for business taxation says in its policy briefing that “it is unlikely that the introduction of the CCCTB would bring significant benefits to the EU in aggregate in terms of employment, GDP or efficiency, although some individual countries could benefit significantly.”
I make that point because, under the formula of Roland Vaubel of Mannheim university, it is well known that there is such a thing as regulatory collusion and that, by the clever use of certain majority voting systems, through negotiations in the case of unanimity as in this instance or by enhanced co-operation, it is possible to arrive at a point where some countries benefit to the disadvantage of others. The Oxford university think-tank has its finger on that issue.
It is quite clear that the objective of this tax base—this is the important part that needs to be borne in mind on the big landscape—is to raise money to pay for the profligate, incompetent and failing European project. Countries such as Greece, Ireland and Portugal are either on the verge of or in danger of bankruptcy or are actually going bankrupt because of the systemic failure of economic policies. The stability and growth pact does not work: as I have said before, there is no stability, no growth and no pact.
The creation of a two-tier Europe will merely exacerbate these problems, as was noted when we debated the European Union Bill, and will lead to ever-greater German domination over the European economy. The economic predominance of Germany in east and central Europe might be a good thing from its point of view, but we now have a transfer Union and a massive redistribution of resources. What we are also witnessing as a result of the failure of this project are riots and protests as Germany repatriates its profits at the expense of cheap labour unit costs from the countries in which it has put investment in the centre of Europe, as Portugal, Greece and even Ireland have found to their cost. The pumping of money supports not so much the member states as the French and German banks, which have lent money indiscriminately to suit themselves—and we are expected to engage in the bail-out procedure, the covert mechanism for which is the stability mechanism, coming into effect in 2013.
As the European Scrutiny Committee insists, this whole proposal is in breach of the principle of subsidiarity. I remind the House that this principle is intended to ensure that decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen. Direct taxation is such a policy. The national Parliaments are able to use the procedure under the treaties to challenge breaches of subsidiarity. At present, there are only six countries whose parliamentary Chambers propose to, or have, issued a reasoned opinion. We have, but, interestingly enough, the House of Lords has not. I think that we should note that.
In passing the motion, the House will challenge the breach of subsidiarity. I suspect that the Minister has figures that are even more up to date than mine, but as far as I know, of the 27 member states, the five that are on our side are Ireland, Malta, Netherlands, Poland and Sweden. I am told that Cyprus, Greece, Hungary and Slovenia have no plans even to scrutinise the proposal, that those yet to decide include Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic—the lower chamber and the senate—Denmark, Estonia, France, Lithuania, and Luxembourg; that Romania, Portugal, Italy and Spain believe that the draft directive complies with the principle of subsidiarity; and that the German Bundesrat is considering it only on the basis of content.
The picture is very uncertain. There is no guarantee that the accumulated number of reasoned opinions will be sufficient to meet the threshold requiring the European Commission to review the proposal, and because that will be known somewhat in advance, the tax commissioner will say that he has already received a demand to proceed with enhanced co-operation.
We have a serious problem on our hands; however, we have another card up our sleeve. Unbeknown to some, although I am more than happy to share the information with the House, under article 8 of protocol 2 the United Kingdom Parliament can go to the European Court of Justice, which has jurisdiction to determine our claim as the House of Commons—which is regarded as a separate Chamber—that the principle of subsidiarity has been breached. That gives us the basis for a challenge.
I believe that if the Government are not prepared to say no—which, for the reasons that I have already given, I think that they should have done already—the House of Commons should take the matter to the European Court of Justice; but would it not save an enormous amount of time and trouble if we simply recognised that the House is sovereign, that it has the right to take the action that it has taken, that the European Scrutiny Committee has done its job at this stage in the proceedings, and that the Minister is profoundly on our side of the equation? I know her sentiments, and I also know her Parliamentary Private Secretary. He was a member of the European Scrutiny Committee with me for years. He would be jumping about all over the place about this if he were still a member of the Committee, and agreeing with every word that I am saying.
Leaving aside the attack on Thatcherism, of all things, by the Deputy Prime Minister immediately after the disastrous showing of the Liberal Democrats in the polls, which is probably why no Liberal Democrat Members are present today—and, for that matter, the let-out that they have been given in the coalition agreement, which I think I have now shot to pieces—I would say that there is every reason for the Liberal Democrats to back down and not veto our Conservative party veto simply because of the coalition arrangement, and for the Prime Minister to do what I asked him to do at Prime Minister’s Question Time only a few weeks ago and say “No, no, no.” That would save a great deal of time and argument.
The UK corporate tax director of a major European bank has said that this proposal would increase our corporation tax and drive investment away, reduce our GDP by £73 billion over 10 years, increase the administrative burden, and lose the UK an estimated total of £58 billion, again over 10 years. We know that Mr Sarkozy and Ms Merkel are in favour of the competitiveness pact, which affects us although it is presented as a eurozone matter. I believe profoundly that, whether the proposal involves enhanced co-operation, the creation of a two-tier system, or whatever other means or machinations may be produced by the Faustian pact that is being devised in Europe, we should put our foot down, lead from the front, and say no. I am prepared to admit that the opportunity to do that exists, but I want to hear it from the Prime Minister’s own lips. He will then be able to enjoy as much success in this context as he, and we, enjoyed in the context of the alternative vote the other day, when the Liberal Democrats got their come-uppance.
Mr Cash: Does my right hon. Friend recall the words of Chancellor Kohl, who, only 10 or 15 years ago, made it clear that, on the question of the speed of the convey, which is what this is all about, he would want the front of the convey to go ahead, led by Germany, and for the other Member states to be left in such a parlous condition that they would eventually, in his words, have to catch up? Mr Redwood: My hon. Friend is quite right. That also explains why the European Union is so keen to try to get the Irish rate up, because if it is to have a common system such as this, it would not want a weak link. The EU would see a weak link as a state that dared to set a more realistic and lower rate in order to attract business.
Mr Cash: Does my hon. Friend also accept that the objective at the heart of this is to move towards a harmonised tax system for one reason: to complete the circle of political union that will enable this to be one country, driven by fiscal direction, and at the same time to fill the belly of the European Leviathan with the money that will enable it to continue to create circumstances that will inevitably lead to more turmoil, implosion and a greater disaster than we already have?
Mr Nuttall: My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. I see this as the thin edge of the wedge. It is the opening of a whole new war, and a whole new phase of European harmonisation. In fact, it is almost the final frontier, because it is the step towards a euro-wide sales tax and, ultimately, a euro-wide income tax that we would all be subject to. It is extremely difficult indeed.(…)
Mr Cash: I know that my hon. Friend was able to come in only somewhat late in the debate, but the arguments that we have been presenting show that there are a whole series of weapons that we can employ. Subsidiarity happens to be a procedural device that is available to us by way of a reasoned opinion, which is what the motion is about. We are critical of the Government’s position in that they have not exercised their political will, for all the reasons that my hon. Friend and others have explained. This whole business is an infringement not merely of the word “sovereignty” but of the practical requirements of the people of this country to tax themselves by consent. That is what it is all about.
Mr Jenkin: There is absolutely no difference between me and my hon. Friend on that point.
To echo my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood), the Budget moment in the calendar of this House is the most important political occasion of each year, when the Chancellor comes to this House to deliver his Budget judgment and it is for the House to determine what the levels of expenditure, taxation and borrowing should be. That is absolutely fundamental not only to the mechanics of our democracy but to the culture of our democracy and the culture of this House. This proposal is a very direct challenge to government by national democratic consent.
The only, rather lame and late, point that I might be adding to the debate is a very simple one, and I do so for the same reason as that which led my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) to lambast the concept of subsidiarity when it was first proposed in the treaty on the European Union back in 1992—the Maastricht treaty. It is, very simply, that subsidiarity is not sovereignty. Subsidiarity is subservience; it is submitting to the jurisdiction of the European institutions instead of the sovereign judgment of the British people as expressed in this House. Subsidiarity is no substitute for Government saying no, particularly where the veto is in their hands. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to exercise that veto, knowing that she will have the confidence of the British people behind her, because they do not want her to say yes in this case.