AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - The new Dutch government came under fire in parliament on Thursday for scrapping a 15 percent dividend withholding tax, after a national broadcaster NOS said Shell <RDSa.L>, Unilever (>> Unilever), Akzo Nobel (>> AkzoNobel) and Philips (>> Royal Philips) had lobbied for the change.
Shell confirmed to Reuters it had sought the change, while Philips denied it. Akzo Nobel declined to comment. Unilever would not say whether it asked for the change but it "welcomes measures that improve the business climate in countries where we operate."
Prime Minister Mark Rutte has said the policy will help the country retain its appeal to foreign investors as it cuts other tax perks in response to concerns that Dutch tax policies have helped multinationals avoid paying fair taxes.
It is also cutting its corporate tax rate to 21 percent from 25 percent.
The withholding tax meant the Dutch state levied tax on dividends when they were paid. Dutch citizens were able to reclaim that money in their annual tax returns and many foreign investors could claim exemption from taxes levied by their own governments to avoid double taxation. But those based in countries without dividend taxes - such as Britain - had no way to claw back the Dutch tax.
The idea of getting rid of the dividend withholding tax met resistance from Dutch voters, as it would primarily benefit those foreign investors.
Opposition parties demanded clarity from Finance Minster Wopke Hoekstra in his first appearance on the floor of parliament.
"I had a lot of romantic and less romantic ideas of how my start here would go, but I'll admit right away that I did not really expect this," he said, facing demands for an explanation, which he may submit to the house in a written statement.
Last week, Shell CFO Jessica Uhl said the company would consider simplifying its dual class share structure - designed to shield non-Dutch investors from the tax - if the plan proceeds.
Shell spokesman Frank van Hoorn said there was nothing secret or nefarious about Shell's lobbying for the change, as it was common for interest groups to seek to convince the government to adopt policies favourable to them.
In a company statement, Shell said abolishing the dividend withholding tax "improves the competitiveness of the Dutch economy, attracts foreign investment, and reduces the administrative burden for companies."
Thursday's debate follows a discussion earlier in the week about "advance tax rulings" favourable to big business revealed in the so-called "Paradise Papers". That led to a promise by the Finance Ministry on Wednesday to review whether 4,000 such rulings granted in 2012-2016 were properly vetted.
(Reporting by Toby Sterling; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)
By Bart H. Meijer and Toby Sterling