25 April 2013

S4M-06294 Land and Buildings Transaction Tax (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The Deputy Presiding Officer (John Scott): Good afternoon. The first item of business this afternoon is a stage 1 debate on motion S4M-06294, in the name of John Swinney, on the Land and Buildings Transaction Tax (Scotland) Bill.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I rise as yet another non-member of the Finance Committee.

This is quite a complex bill. One way of deciding that it is complex is to look at it and realise that approximately three quarters of the pages in it form the schedules. My suspicion is always that if a Government wants to hide something, it puts it in the schedules, not in the bill.

I will give an example of that from schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998, which I looked at earlier today. I refer to part II, head B3, section B3, which is about elections. I discovered today that we have the power in this Parliament to hold and run elections for members of the House of Lords, because the only things that are excluded from our powers in that regard are elections to the House of Commons, the European Parliament and this Parliament. That is why we can organise local authority elections and, by implication, elections to the House of Lords. It is unlikely that those elected could take their seat, but that is another matter. If one wants to hide difficult things, sometimes the schedules are the place to do so.

Perhaps Neil Findlay and I will introduce a member’s bill to organise elections to the House of Lords, or perhaps we will not bother. I see that Neil Findlay has woken up.

Neil Findlay: If we did that, what would Lord Stevenson’s official title be?

Stewart Stevenson: Well, there have been two Lord Stevensons already. The one of Coddenham, whom we no longer talk about, was the chair of HBOS and the other is a distant relative of mine, whom I will pass over as well.

I congratulate the Government on bringing forward this complex but comprehensive piece of legislation, which is clearly receiving a consensus of support. I congratulate parliamentary colleagues of all parties on a committee report that I can describe only as pellucid in its delineation of the issues. It is a good, rattling read and covers the issues extremely well. I want to cover one or two of them in the time available.

First, on subordinate legislation, I am a member of the Subordinate Legislation Committee and the Government has a very good record of responding to what that committee says. I am encouraged that we will be looking seriously at whether the procedures for a number of the powers in the bill should be negative or affirmative.

On the matter of sub-sale, I may not have caught the full nuances of the discussions, given that I have not been sitting in the committee, but I think that there is a case for a taxation regime that has concurrent sales: sales of the big bit and then dispersal to smaller bits. As long as the tax revenue is derived from the big sales rather than the small ones and is therefore protected, we should ensure that we do not exclude the possibility of such sub-sales. We do not want them to be inhibited by an inappropriate tax regime.

Avoidance generally is something that troubles me. If a company owns property and shares in the company are traded, the risk is that that falls outside the taxation provisions. Company law is essentially reserved. That issue has a more general application, in that much property and land is owned beyond the boundaries of Scotland. The situation in Denmark is apposite, where one cannot own property or land unless there is a local representative. That is not to inhibit ultimate beneficial ownership being outside Denmark; however, there is always an accountable person who discharges ownership responsibilities within the boundaries of that state. I have thought for some time that we should look at that issue.

Jamie Hepburn: Given that that is the situation in Denmark, does the member not consider as somewhat ludicrous the suggestion posited by some organisations that the requirement that charities furth of Scotland register here is an onerous one?

Stewart Stevenson: I have not read the data. However, that was certainly my initial reaction. I am confident that the committee will deal with the issue. Of course, it is possible for charities registered elsewhere to represent themselves as being charities in Scotland even though they are not registered in Scotland, so I think that there are wider considerations of which to take account.

The bottom line is that tax avoidance is always a big issue in any taxation system. I look forward to the tax management bill and I hope that when looking at tax avoidance we are able to legislate. That is why I was looking at schedule 5 to the 1998 act, to see whether tax avoidance would be prevented. The test will be the intention rather than the application of rules, which can always be got round. I await what happens with interest.

The work of Registers of Scotland has an important application to the implementation of the bill. I first crossed their threshold in about 1962 in my pursuit of family research. Fifty years later, we have world-beating computer systems that give access to the real records, which practically no other jurisdiction in the world has. With the right incentives and the right application, the work can be done. The Government has the potential to do that, just as Registers of Scotland has done.

On the process for the bill thus far, the work of the Government and the committee demonstrates that there are as yet untapped competences and abilities in this place. I hope in the future to see those abilities applied more widely, not only to taxation issues but, more fundamentally, to the whole range of powers with which a normal independent country would grapple. We have the skills; we now need the opportunity.


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