Failure to Prevent an Economic Criminal Offence

Part of Criminal Finances Bill – in the House of Commons at 3:30 pm on 21st February 2017.

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Labour, Don Valley 3:30 pm, 21st February 2017

It is a pleasure to follow Nigel Mills. I almost feel like not making a speech and sitting down now—but I will not—because he made such excellent points about why public registers of beneficial ownership in our overseas territories are so important. I look forward to working with him on this issue and on public country-by-country reporting, as well as with the many other colleagues from both sides of the House and from eight political parties who support new clause 6. Despite some Government pressure, several Conservative MPs support the new clause, including the former International Development Secretary, Mr Mitchell, who I understand hopes to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker. I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Dame Margaret Hodge for her hard work on this important amendment. I am really sorry—and she is too—that she cannot be here today to speak in this debate. I hope that, on this occasion, Members will not mind me dubbing new clause 6 “the Hodge amendment”.

I welcome the Government’s Criminal Finances Bill. Its aims of tackling corruption, tax evasion and terrorist financing are really important and should be commended. However, the absence of any mention of the overseas territories is remarkable. As Christian Aid has said, the No. 1 thing that the Government can do to tackle corruption, money laundering, and tax evasion is to ensure transparency in their overseas territories. Unfortunately, the secrecy that those territories trade in facilitates the corruption and the aggressive tax avoidance and tax evasion that we are all trying to stamp out.

The amendment is supported by the all-party groups on responsible tax and on anti-corruption, Christian Aid, Global Witness, Transparency International, Action Aid, Publish What You Pay, Save the Children, Oxfam and many others. We all know from numerous polls that this matter is something that the British public really care about. Two thirds of them want the Government to insist on public registers of beneficial ownership in the overseas territories.

As the hon. Member for Amber Valley mentioned, we have, with this amendment, responded to concerns raised earlier at different points of debate on this Bill. We are focusing purely on the overseas territories where the constitutional issues are more clear cut. We recognise that the overseas territories are taking steps towards private registers of beneficial ownership, so we have allowed a generous timeline for them to move from that to make these registers publicly accessible.

The overseas territories need to have these private registers in place by June of this year. This amendment would give them another two and a half years after that, which is within the lifetime of this Parliament, simply to make those private registers public. Such a move would be a major step forward.

New clause 6 is important not only for us in the UK, but for developing countries, which is why so many NGOs are supporting it. According to the UN Conference on Trade and Development, developing countries lose at least $100 billion every year as a result of tax havens. Around 8% to 15% of the world’s wealth is being held offshore in low tax jurisdictions, many of which come under our jurisdiction. A World Bank review of 213 big corruption cases found that more than 70% of them relied on secret company ownership. Company service providers registered in UK territories were second on the list in providing these companies. Oxfam has said recently that around one third of rich Africans’ wealth is currently sitting in offshore tax havens. If all that wealth was held in Africa and taxed properly, we would be able to pay for enough teachers to educate every child in Africa.

It damages our reputation, as the hon. Member for Amber Valley said, that the British Virgin Islands was the most mentioned tax haven in the Panama papers. We know that future leaks are coming, so why cannot we get ahead of the game and ensure transparency now?

In a recent debate on the Commonwealth Development Corporation Bill, the Minister of State, Department for International Development, Rory Stewart, said that the CDC would never invest through Anguilla or the British Virgin Islands. If a DFID Minister and the CDC can say that, what does it say about our responsibility today to change that reputation—British Ministers are clearly considering this—and do something to help those territories become more transparent?