Review of tax treatment of Scottish Limited Partnerships

Part of Finance Bill – in the House of Commons at 8:15 pm on 5th September 2016.

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Photo of Roger Mullin Roger Mullin Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury) 8:15 pm, 5th September 2016

To those with little knowledge of Scottish limited partnerships, it may seem strange that I rise in this House to move new clause 7 in my name and those of my colleagues, but, despite what the name suggests, Scottish limited partnerships have limited connection to Scotland, and none to the Scottish Parliament. They were introduced in 1907 by the Chancellor of day, Herbert Asquith; despite rumours to the contrary, I was not present at the debates at the time, but the regulation, operation and dissolution of SLPs remain the exclusive preserve of Westminster, hence our moving this new clause.

Scottish limited partnerships have their own distinct legal personality. As a result, SLPs can, for example, hold assets, borrow money and enter into contracts. However, Asquith could never have foreseen that they would become a financial vehicle abused by international criminals and tax dodgers.

Great credit must go to the journalists of The Herald newspaper, particularly David Leask, for doggedly uncovering the truth about SLPs—and isn’t it good that for once we can praise journalism of the highest order delving into important matters, rather than merely dealing in tittle-tattle? Although some users of SLPs no doubt operate appropriately and responsibly, it is claimed that up to 95% of SLPs are mere tax evasion vehicles, including for criminal assets.

While SLPs may be registered in Scotland, they are often owned by partners based in the Caribbean or other jurisdictions that ensure ownership secrecy and low, or no, tax regimes. People operating outside the UK are exploiting opaque ownership structures to hide their true ownership. As Oxfam, too, has recently pointed out, brokers in countries such as Ukraine and Belarus are specifically marketing SLPs as “Scottish zero per cent. tax firms.”

The number of SLPs is growing apace. Data from Companies House revealed by The Herald show 25,000 were in place by the autumn of 2015 and new registrations have been increasing by 40% year-on-year since 2008.

To give an example of what can happen, in 2014 allegations emerged that SLPs had been used to funnel $1 billion out of banks in the former Soviet Republic of Moldova. The use of an SLP and a bank account in an EU country allows dodgy groups, for example from the ex-Soviet Union, to move their ill-gotten gains to tax havens under the cloak of respectability.

I am aware that the Scottish Government’s Finance Secretary, Derek Mackay, has recently written to the UK Government about SLPs. He sensibly pointed out in his letter that

“it is critical that due diligence checks are able to be made when SLPs are initially registered and when there are changes in partners, and that penalties are imposed on partners where the SLP does not comply with the relevant legislation”.

He went on to point out:

“The threat of serious organised crime does not respect borders and with the significant increase in cyber crime, it is essential that we take every step open to us to reduce this threat as much as possible”.

To that end, our new clause seeks an urgent review of SLPs that would, importantly, include taking evidence from the Scottish Government, from HMRC and from interested charities. We have crafted the new clause in the hope it will attract cross-party support, and I see no reason why anyone, other than those interested in encouraging criminality and tax evasion, would wish to oppose a review of this nature. I therefore urge the Minster to accept our new clause.