Tax Avoidance (HSBC)

Part of Isil – in the House of Commons at 3:35 pm on 23rd February 2015.

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Photo of George Osborne George Osborne The Chancellor of the Exchequer 3:35 pm, 23rd February 2015

The allegations about tax evasion at HSBC Swiss are extremely serious and have been the subject of extensive investigation by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Money has been recovered for the Exchequer, and HMRC continues to be in active discussion with our prosecuting authorities. The chief executive of HMRC and the Director of Public Prosecutions have confirmed that they have the necessary resources to carry out their work on this matter, and if they need more resources they will get them.

The House should know, however, that in each and every case the alleged tax evasion—both by individuals and the bank—happened before 2006 when the shadow Chancellor was the principal adviser on tax policy and economic affairs to the then Labour Government. News that the French had got hold of the files with the names of the bank accounts became publicly known in 2009 when the shadow Chancellor was sitting on the Government Benches, and the files were requested and recovered by HMRC before May 2010, when he was a member of the Cabinet.

The right hon. Gentleman has written to ask me five questions about my responsibilities. I will answer each one directly, and in return he can account for his own responsibilities. He asked about what he calls the selective prosecution policy pursued by HMRC, and whether that decision was made by Ministers. Yes, that decision was made by Ministers, and the Inland Revenue’s overall approach to prosecuting cases of suspected serious tax fraud was set out in the Official Report on 7 November 2002, column 784W, in an answer by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr Brown. That was confirmed again when HMRC was created in 2005—again by the right hon. Gentleman. I have increased resources for tackling tax evasion, and as a result prosecutions are up fivefold. I have answered for my responsibility on that question; perhaps Ed Balls will answer for his and tell us whether he drafted that policy.

Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman asked when I was first made aware of the HSBC files, what action I took, and whether I discussed them with the Prime Minister. I first became aware of the existence of the files in 2009 when a story appeared in the Financial Times. I was shadow Chancellor at the time so I could take no action, and I could not discuss it with the then Prime Minister because I was not on speaking terms with him. That is what I knew. The right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood was a Cabinet Minister. When he heard about these revelations, did he speak to the Prime Minister about them?

Thirdly, the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood asked why we appointed Stephen Green to the Government. We appointed him because we thought he would do a good job as trade Minister, as did the Labour party, which welcomed the appointment. The trade job was not Stephen Green’s first public appointment. That was when he was appointed by the previous Government to be not just a member of the Prime Minister’s business council but its chair—a post he continued to hold after the existence of the HSBC files became public and after HMRC negotiated to recover them under the previous Government. I have explained why we appointed Stephen Green. Perhaps the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood will explain why he appointed Stephen Green.

Fourthly, the right hon. Gentleman asked about discussions with Stephen Green on tax evasion. I can confirm that the Cabinet Secretary and the director general of ethics at the Cabinet Office carried out the background checks for ministerial appointments that were put in place by the previous Government. Stephen Green’s personal tax affairs were examined by HMRC on behalf of the House of Lords Appointments Commission, again using the procedures put in place by the previous Government. Those are the procedures we followed when we appointed Stephen Green. What procedures did the right hon. Gentleman follow?

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asked me why I signed a deal with the Swiss authorities in 2012. He does not need my explanation. Listen to what the shadow Chief Secretary at the time, Catherine McKinnell, said:

“We support the agreement signed by the UK and Swiss Governments to secure billions in unpaid tax.”––[Official Report, Finance Public Bill Committee, 26 June 2012; c. 655.]

She is right: billions of unpaid tax never collected under a Labour Government. Under this Government, tax evasion is at the top of the G8 agenda. We have collected more money and prosecutions have increased five times over. Ahead of the Budget, I set the Treasury to work on providing further ways to pursue not just the tax evaders, but those providing them with advice. So anyone involved in tax evasion, whatever your role, this Government are coming after you. Unlike the previous Government, who simply turned a blind eye, this Government are taking action now and will do so again at the Budget. So I am happy, any time, to answer for our record on tackling tax evasion. Now, let him account for his.