UK Implementation of the Multilateral Convention on BEPS
The BMG made a submission to the UK government in February 2017 on the UK’s implementation of the Multilateral Convention to Implement the Treaty-Related Provisions of the BEPS project.
This multilateral instrument (MLI) aims to enable rapid implementation of the tax-treaty related proposals resulting from the G20/OECD project on base erosion and profit shifting (BEPS), by amending the bilateral tax treaties of participating jurisdictions. Although we have advocated a more coherent and comprehensive approach to the problem, we support the overarching aim of the provisions in the MLI to reduce the exploitation of gaps and mismatches in tax rules to artificially shift profits to low or no-tax locations where there is little or no economic activity, resulting in little or no overall corporate taxation being paid. The MLI provides the easiest method of ensuring that this occurs quickly and coherently. If countries cherry-pick among the provisions of the MLI, its effectiveness would be greatly reduced, and instead of moving towards a simpler and more uniform structure of anti-abuse provisions in tax treaties, the MLI would add a new layer of complexity and potential confusion.
We would expect the UK, having been in the forefront in initiating the BEPS project and having played a major part in formulation of the proposals, to be in the lead in implementation of the outcomes. We are therefore surprised and concerned that it is proposed that the UK should adopt a selective approach to implementation. The intention apparently is to rely on general anti-abuse principles and unilateral measures, notably the Diverted Profits Tax, instead of implementing the more targeted provisions which have been agreed in the BEPS project and incorporated in the MLI.
We are especially concerned at the proposal not to adopt the provisions aiming at abuse of the taxable presence criteria provided by the permanent establishment (PE) concept. This seems based on a policy to reject attributing significant taxable profits if a MNE has an entity within the jurisdiction significantly involved in sales, even when it also has other affiliates engaged in related activities which constitute complementary functions that are part of a cohesive business operation. The approach proposed by Treasury and HMRC seems out of line with public opinion on how tax should be aligned with real economic activity, as expressed quite forcefully in several reports of the Public Accounts Committee. Treasury and HMRC policy seems to be that this should be dealt with by the diverted profits tax, which is both a unilateral and a blunt weapon. The UK rejection of the changes to the PE definition would deny them to its treaty partners, apparently aiming to offer an attractive country of residence for MNEs to carry on business outside the UK, by minimising taxation of their foreign income. However, other countries might also seek to defend their tax base with their own unilateral measures. Hence, the UK would effectively be engaging in tax competition, a beggar-thy-neighbour approach, which runs counter to the aims of the BEPS project and, we believe, to the long-term interests of the UK.
Such a partial adoption of MLI provisions, and reliance on unilateral measures and broad anti-abuse principles, would inevitably generate a higher number of conflicts. Indeed, this seems to be anticipated, by the inclusion in the MLI of a special chapter providing for mandatory binding arbitration. In our view this is putting the cart before the horse. Priority should be given to preventing disputes, by agreeing clear rules for allocation of profit which are easy to administer. We oppose the proposal that the UK should adopt mandatory binding arbitration, since this involves giving up UK sovereignty, which should be unacceptable in the key area of direct taxation.
For these reasons we have major concerns about the approach towards the MLI outlined so far by the UK Treasury and HMRC, which we explain further below, and hope that it can be reconsidered.