I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the systemic issues enabling tax avoidance and evasion uncovered by the Paradise Papers.
The actions and the culture of powerful large corporations and of the wealthiest in our society, as revealed in the Paradise papers, constitute a national and international disgrace. What we have learned is that tax avoidance is not just a trivial irritant practised by a small number of greedy individuals and global corporations; it is the widely accepted behaviour of too many of those who are rich and influential. It is clearly taking place on an industrial scale and it has become a scourge on our society. The Paradise papers reveal the enormity and scale of the problem and that is what makes this emergency debate on the issue so important.
Our debate is also urgent and timely because the Chancellor, who sadly is not in his place to hear the debate, is putting the finishing touches to his Budget. I hope that he will read very carefully the views expressed today by Members and reflect them in the proposals he brings to us next week.
There is no such thing as a magic money tree: that is what the Prime Minister told a nurse who had not had an increase in eight years. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is, and that they grow on the Cayman Islands, in Bermuda and Jersey; and that were the ill-gotten gains salted away by tax dodging to be picked and put into our public services, police officers and teachers would not be facing the sack and we would not be facing a crisis in the health service?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend’s remarks, which are very pertinent to what we will be discussing in the debate.
Paying tax is an essential part of the social contract into which we all enter as members of a community. As members of society, we agree to abide by a set of rules and regulations that make all our lives better. One of those rules is that we agree to contribute through taxation into the common pot for the common good.
I am really pleased the hon. Gentleman has given me the opportunity to explain the circumstances to the House. My father and his cousins were refugees from Germany. My father was then a refugee from Egypt, so he was a double refugee. I remember as a child that he often said to me, “You will never feel safe in this country. Always have your suitcase ready.” He did keep money abroad. When we discovered that after he died, we closed those funds and put them into a charity.
The level of taxation and who pays is decided by us here in Parliament through our democratic processes. That is how we create a system that is democratic and trusted by all. When a minority choose to ignore and deliberately bypass our rules and regulations and get away with it, they undermine confidence in the fairness of the system. Some people and some Members claim that tax avoidance is okay because it is lawful. Indeed, one of the Government’s Ministers from the other place, the noble Lord Bates, said on Monday that tax avoidance
“continues to be part of the international system and we recognise and value it.”—[Official Report, House of Lords,
“Tax avoidance involves bending the rules of the tax system to gain a tax advantage that Parliament never intended. It often involves operating within the letter, but not the spirit of the law.”
Those are the words of HMRC. Even it says that tax avoidance is wrong.
I agree with the hon. Lady that resourcing HMRC is absolutely central to the fight against tax avoidance and evasion.
Tax avoidance is completely different from tax planning, whereby, for example, Parliament intended to encourage people to save for their pension by introducing ISAs with tax breaks. Tax avoiders, on the other hand, thwart the intention of Parliament. Their action means our collective will is ignored. We should not tolerate it and we must act urgently to eradicate it.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the best ways of trying to deal with this increasingly serious issue is to have openness and transparency in all funds held offshore, so that those who are doing this have to face the legitimate scrutiny of taxpayers in this country?
My hon. Friend makes an absolutely central point to what we will be asking for today.
Not only does the behaviour of a few damage trust in the system as a whole, but it damages the public services our taxes are used to fund. At a time when the NHS is under such pressure, when public sector workers have had their wages held down for years and our schools are struggling to deliver the best start for all our children, for the super-rich and the powerful to think that they can opt out of their duty to contribute fairly through paying taxes is completely and utterly and totally immoral and wrong, and it is our responsibility to put an end to it.
I have been very helpfully provided with some facts that I think should be put to the House. I am told that since 2010 the Government have secured £160 billion from tackling avoidance, evasion and non-compliance and £2.8 billion from offshore tax evaders, and invested £1.8 billion in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to tackle avoidance and evasion. I am very proud of this record. Does the right hon. Lady agree that it is an excellent record from a Conservative Government? How does it compare with the record of the Labour Government that she has always been so keen to support?
I hope that the right hon. Lady will listen to the whole of my speech. I think she will acknowledge, as we move forward, that a little progress has been made but not enough. I agree that the previous Labour Government’s record on tackling tax avoidance was not as good as I would have wanted, but the record and actions of this Government are inadequate and somewhat hypocritical. Their rhetoric is mostly fine, but the reality is badly wanting.
When ordinary people hear the Budget next week and have to think about their taxes against the background of inflation in food prices, will they not wonder why the Members opposite are hellbent on avoiding any inquiry into aggressive tax avoidance?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. Indeed, I was about to say that those who pay their taxes are completely fed up. By 8 o’clock this morning, nearly 156,000 people had signed a petition going to the Prime Minister. This is an issue that angers people across the country, men and women, supporters of all political parties, people of all ages and people in every income group.
Obviously the right hon. Lady is making a very good point—everybody wants tax evasion clamped down on—but I, too, have some statistics. The Government have invested £1.8 billion in HMRC to tackle tax avoidance and reduced the tax gap by 2% more than Labour did. We are on the right track.
If the hon. Lady looks at the HMRC figure on the tax gap, which is about £34 billion to £36 billion, and then at the figure that tax campaigners talk about, which is a gap of £120 billion, I think she will share my determination to see much more action to deal with this ill in our society.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does she share my concern about the complacency being shown today? Cutting down on global tax abuse clearly requires international co-operation. As we exit the EU, does she share my concern that this ambition not be damaged by our exit but be strengthened by our actions domestically and internationally?
I completely concur with my hon. Friend’s important remarks.
It is our job, as the elected representatives of those who are angry, to do what we can to put a stop to tax injustice. Tax avoidance should be not an issue that divides us, but one on which we work together in the interests of all taxpayers and in order to protect our public services. The Paradise papers are the latest in a series of leaks unmasked by the international press. I salute the professional investigatory journalists involved in making sense of the millions of documents passed to them, especially those at The Guardian and on “Panorama”, who have been working on the papers for a year, and I salute the public-spirited courage of the whistleblower who first passed the papers to the German newspaper, the Süddeutsche Zeitung. The Paradise papers contain 13.4 million files from just two offshore providers of tax advice and the company registries of 19 tax havens. The scale of the data is what makes the leaks so important.
We have had the Panama papers, the Luxembourg leaks, the Falciani leaks, the so-called Russian and Azerbaijani laundromat revelations on money laundering, and now we have the Paradise papers. We will continue to see new leaks splashed over our papers and filling our television screens until the Government act firmly to clamp down on the avoidance that is so blatant and yet so wrong.
The right hon. Lady has said several things I agree with—for instance, that everybody should pay their fair share into the tax system, which helps fund our vital public services, and that everyone should work together on tax avoidance—but, given that, does she not feel ashamed at her party’s actions to block steps, before the election, that would have reduced tax avoidance?
I want to make some progress, because a lot of people want to speak in what is a two-hour debate.
Last week, our papers were filled with scams and scandals concerning celebrities, from the self-appointed philanthropist Bono to the popular actors in “Mrs Brown’s Boys”: stories that tainted the reputation of our much-loved royal family; revelations about establishment figures in politics, such as Lord Ashcroft and Lord Sassoon; and further evidence that corporations such as Apple deliberately establish artificial financial structures that have no other purpose than to avoid tax. I want to focus, however, on the systemic issues that these stories illustrate. It is the systemic issues that we need to consider if we are to make progress.
I will start with two comments arising from what we have learnt from the Paradise papers—observations that help us to understand what is wrong with our system. Appleby, the firm of lawyers at the heart of the Paradise papers, is one of the few offshore law practices that belong to the “offshore magic circle” of service providers. Indeed, Appleby was named offshore firm of the year by “The Legal 500” in 2015. Yet the Paradise papers reveal that the firm was criticised no less than 12 times over a 10-year period in reports issued by regulators in UK tax havens: the British Virgin Islands, the Isle of Man, the Cayman Islands and Bermuda.
Appleby was criticised for its failure to comply with regulations designed to stop the funding of terrorism and prevent money laundering. The reports talked of “persistent failures and deficiencies”, “severe shortcomings” and
“a highly significant weakness in the adequacy of the organisation’s systems and controls and a deficiency in meeting its regulatory requirements.”
Further documents reveal that Appleby simply ignored these critical reports and failed to change its procedures, despite strong words from the regulatory bodies. Even the authorities on the British Virgin Islands found, after an inspection of Appleby, that the firm had
“contravened financial services legislation…the anti-money-laundering code of practice 2008 and the anti-money-laundering regulations 2008” and had
“severe shortcomings with a majority of the legislation, with prudential standards and good practice requirements not being met.”
Our regulatory frameworks are so weak that law firms can ignore or break the law with complete impunity. It is hopeless having self-regulation, national and international codes of practice and regulatory bodies with legal powers, if in practice they fail to secure compliance and good behaviour. The lawyers clearly just did not give a damn, and nobody held them to account.
The title of this debate is “Tax Avoidance and Evasion”. I thought I understood the distinction between the two, but I feel the line is being blurred. How does the right hon. Lady understand the distinction between avoidance and evasion?
I agree that the line is extremely blurred. Schemes put forward as legitimate tax avoidance are frequently found to be unlawful when HMRC finally catches up with them. It is difficult to make distinctions.
Worse than that, Appleby helped to co-ordinate a well-funded and comprehensive lobby by the International Financial Centres Forum before a G8 summit that David Cameron chaired in 2013. The then Prime Minister had intended to insist that the UK’s tax havens publish public registers of beneficial ownership in their jurisdiction. The then Prime Minister had intended to insist that UK tax havens publish public registers of beneficial ownership in their jurisdictions. Had David Cameron had his way, we might not be here today, but the IFCF lobbied fiercely to maintain secrecy. It lobbied Mr Gauke, the then Exchequer Secretary, it lobbied the permanent secretary at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, it lobbied the senior official who was then director of the UK’s G8 presidency unit, and it succeeded in weakening David Cameron’s commitment to transparency.
I thank my right hon. Friend and neighbour for giving way. Is not the fact that the vast majority of these tax havens are British overseas territories the key question, and is it not time that this Government—or any other Government in the country—took seriously the fact that those places are not doing what is in the interests of British people all over the world?
The right hon. Lady’s central contention is that those territories should publish open registers of beneficial ownership. First, does she acknowledge that the United Kingdom is now one of the only countries in the world to do so, as a result of action by this Government? That was a huge achievement on the UK’s part. Secondly, in an international context, virtually no other major developed country in the world has done it. The state of Delaware, in which 90% of US corporations are registered—
Order! When I say “order”, the hon. Gentleman must resume his seat. I do not wish to be unkind to him. He is always very fluent, but he usually takes too long, and that was not just too long; it was far too long.
I simply observe that the UK also has responsibility for the overseas territories and Crown dependencies, and I wish that its own tax code did not contain so many harmful elements that encourage tax avoidance.
Appleby’s lobbying illustrates another continuing problem. The Treasury, and other Ministers and Departments, listen only to a very small and exclusive group of tax professionals when making decisions on tax policy. It is one thing for the Government to consult stakeholders on issues, but it is quite another for the Government to be captured by the tax industry at the expense of the wider public interest. Tough and active regulation of the industry to ensure compliance with existing rules is therefore vital. Curtailing the influence of tax professionals on tax policy is essential, and making the advisers accountable for the schemes that they invent and market is central to the campaign to destroy tax avoidance.
The measures in the Finance Act 2017 represent one small step in the right direction of holding advisers to account, but the small print suggests that very few, if any, will be caught by the legislation. The definitions are too narrow, and the penalties too weak. Those measures have been introduced so that the Government can claim that they are acting, but until advisers are really called to account and properly punished for inventing schemes that are purely aimed at avoiding tax, the army of lawyers, accountants and bankers will continue to prosper. If the Government are serious about tackling tax avoidance, they must act strongly to deal with the illegitimate practices of those who make a huge living from peddling tax avoidance advice.
My right hon. Friend is making a powerful case. Does she agree that the approach of the prosecuting authorities in this country must also be improved? It is striking how seldom they proceed with the legislation that we introduce.
I entirely agree. I must now make progress, because otherwise I shall take up too much time.
More than half of the Appleby offices are located in British tax havens. More than half of the entities that were exposed in the Panama papers were incorporated in just one UK tax haven, the British Virgin Islands. Estimates of the wealth held in tax havens are by their nature difficult to verify, but they vary from $7.6 trillion to $32 trillion.
Does my right hon. Friend agree, in the light of what she has said, that Britain has a unique leadership role? Developing countries lose income amounting to between $100 billion and $160 billion a year. Imagine what we could do to tackle poverty if that money were available.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend’s very powerful point.
Unbelievably huge sums of money are hidden in these jurisdictions. It is impossible to measure accurately how much tax is lost through the presence of tax havens, but it runs into hundreds of millions of pounds every year. We do know that developing countries lose three times as much in tax avoidance as they gain from the global investment in international aid. Our tax havens, acting as secret, low or no-tax jurisdictions, are utterly central to much of the tax avoidance. We cannot continue to pretend that we are leading the international fight against tax avoidance and evasion when, by what we do and what we fail to do, we allow avoidance to prosper; and not just tax avoidance, but money-laundering, corruption, bribery and other financial crimes, which prosper through the secrecy that we allow to prevail. Our failure to tackle our tax havens, our weak regulatory regime and some of our tax rules means that we are now seen as the country of choice for kleptocrats and criminals as well as tax avoiders and evaders, as they seek to hide their money and minimise their tax bills.
We need our Government to hold to the commitments made by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor in 2013 and 2014. They understood that transparency was the key ask. We need public registers of beneficial ownership, showing who owns what and where. That, at a stroke, would undermine so much. Would Bono have invested in tax havens if he had thought that we would all know? Would Lewis Hamilton have created a complex structure of companies to avoid VAT? Would the actors in “Mrs Brown’s Boys” have hidden their earnings in artificial financial structures if they had thought that we would find out? The answer is no.
David Cameron understood that when he told the UK tax havens to rip aside “the cloak of secrecy” in 2013, when he urged them in 2014 to consult on a public register that was
“vital to meeting the urgent challenges of illicit finance and tax evasion”, and when he proclaimed in 2015 that
“if we want to break the business model of stealing money and hiding it in places where it can’t be seen: transparency is the answer.”
However, in the last two years the Government have fundamentally watered down that commitment to public registers in British tax havens, and now we hear Ministers say that we must wait for other countries to go first. The proper call for international action on transparency has become the lame excuse for inaction in our own territories.
We should lead by example. We should demonstrate that transparency can and does change behaviour. We should compel our overseas territories and Crown dependencies to publish public registers. In the past, a Conservative Government used their powers to outlaw capital punishment in our Crown dependencies and overseas territories, and a Labour Government used the same powers to outlaw discrimination against gay people. Today we should work together to outlaw the secrecy of those jurisdictions, which leads to such massive tax injustices.
The Paradise papers show us that the problems created by secrecy are much bigger and more complex than we ever thought possible, and that is why we need to legislate for transparency in our tax havens. We should help them to transform their economies, so that they stop depending on hidden wealth, unsavoury people, and questionable financial practices. I cannot think of one good reason for us not to do that, and to do it now. Indeed, there is more that we can do, right now: it simply requires the Government to have the necessary political will. They will certainly have the support of the whole House, and the whole country, if they demonstrate by their actions, not their words, that they will work to stamp out tax avoidance.
We can and should now implement the legislation requiring multinational companies to report their activity and profits on a country-by-country basis—legislation successfully steered through Parliament by my right hon. Friend Caroline Flint. We can and should also introduce immediately the public register of property ownership that was enacted before the general election, promoted by Transparency International and Global Witness and supported by members of the all-party group on anti-corruption. Nobody knows why this legislation has not been implemented; it is a key element in the fight against corruption, avoidance and evasion. We can and should properly resource HMRC now so that it has the capability to pursue all who seek to avoid paying tax, not just the small businesses who form an easy target that can be hounded with little effort. Every £1 invested in HMRC enforcement yields £97 in additional tax revenues. It is a complete no-brainer that we should be strengthening HMRC and reversing some of the cuts.
The Paradise papers have helped place tax avoidance back at the heart of the political agenda and back at the top of the list of public concerns. The Government need to grasp this moment to act. They have an opportunity to do so in next week’s Budget. Britain will never get rich on dirty money, and our public services cannot function if the wealthiest individuals and the most powerful companies deliberately avoid paying their fair share towards the cost of those services. And this Government will not be forgiven if they fail to heed the lessons we can all learn from the Paradise papers. Proper transparency will come. The Government can choose whether they lead the changes needed or whether they want to be dragged kicking and screaming into implementing essential reforms. I hope they will listen, learn and act.
I congratulate Dame Margaret Hodge on securing this important debate. She has been a vigorous campaigner on these issues over many years, and has certainly been very active in the last week; I responded to an urgent question and there was an Adjournment debate in respect of the Isle of Man last week, and now we have this debate as well.
The right hon. Lady said that tax and tax avoidance was one of those matters that should not divide us. I agree, and it seems to me that in the various iterations of this debate that she and I have held across this Dispatch Box there is a great deal on which we can be united rather than divided; I am thinking not least of the shared view across this House—certainly on my side of the House—that aggressive tax avoidance and evasion are utterly wrong. They are wrong for the reasons that the right hon. Lady has given: those who pay their tax fairly should not be penalised by virtue of the fact that some do not pay their tax fairly.
We also know, as the right hon. Lady pointed out, that tax is necessary to fund our vital public services. It is therefore entirely wrong that those who aggressively evade or avoid tax put pressure on our public services—on our NHS, our doctors and our nurses.
I will get back to the hon. Lady on that.
We know that tax is important for our public services, and we know, as the right hon. Member for Barking rightly stressed, that it is important that the Government act, and be seen to act, when we come across aggressive tax avoidance and evasion. As my hon. Friends on this side of the House have eloquently pointed out, we have a very strong track record in that respect. We have raised £160 billion in additional revenues as a consequence of clamping down on tax avoidance, evasion and non-compliance since 2010. We have also brought in £2.8 billion by tracking down those who have sought to inappropriately hide their finances in overseas tax jurisdictions. We have brought in £28.9 billion in additional compliance yield in the last 12 months alone, too.
The right hon. Lady is rightly critical of the performance of the last Labour Government; she raised that this afternoon and raised the same point in last week’s Adjournment debate. The tax gap is the difference between what we could potentially bring in by way of tax and what we actually bring in, and it currently stands at 6%, which is a historical low—a world-beating figure. If the average tax gap today was the same as under the last Labour Government, there would be £45 billion less in our Exchequer—£45 billion not there for those vital public services that the right hon. Lady is keen to discuss.
On the Government’s record, can the Minister confirm that HMRC informed the Public and Commercial Services Union that in 2017 the equivalent of 17,000 years of staff experience is leaving the department? How will that help the Government’s record going forward in dealing with tax evasion and avoidance?
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has raised the issue of investment in HMRC, because we have a very good record in that respect. Some £1.8 billion of additional money has been invested in HMRC since 2010, of which £800 million will relate to the period after 2015, bringing in £7.2 billion by 2020-21. We will also be trebling the number of investigations of the wealthy to ensure they are paying their appropriate level of tax, as a direct consequence of all that additional investment.
I challenge those figures: a far larger number than the hon. Gentleman suggests are engaged in clamping down on tax evasion and avoidance. About 50% of the 2,100 largest corporations in this country are under investigation at any one time—not necessarily because they have done anything wrong, but because they have complex tax affairs. So we are investing in that.
The Minister is right to point out that HMRC does a very good job on the collection of tax in this country, but that does not mean it cannot do better. Does the Minister agree that the tax take is based on what we think should be paid in tax, and it does not deal with the Googles, Amazons, Starbucks and others who hide their tax away and are therefore not computed into the actual tax we should take and therefore the figures for a tax gap?
I am pleased that the right hon. Lady has raised this issue, because the robustness of this tax gap figure is extremely high. The International Monetary Fund says it sets one of the highest standards in the world. The figure is audited and agreed by the National Audit Office and is made public in HMRC’s annual report and accounts.
The Minister rightly talks about the need for the wealthiest to pay their fair share. Does he agree that one of the most obscene things under the last Labour Government was the fact that cleaners were having to pay more tax than the hedge-fund owners who employed them? It was a Conservative Government who closed that so-called Mayfair loophole.
My hon. Friend is entirely right. It is this Government, for example, who raised the personal allowance to £11,500, taking 3 million to 4 million of the lowest paid out of tax altogether. It is this Government who brought in the national living wage, and it is this Government who will go on ensuring that those who have the broadest shoulders pay their fair share of tax.
Does the Minister agree that HMRC would serve the Government and the people of the United Kingdom better by challenging those who bend the rules rather than by fining my law-abiding constituent, Sheila, £1,600 for a £135 yearly tax bill, when all that she had failed to do was to press “enter” at the end of the form?
The hon. Lady raises an important point.
There is an assumption on the Opposition Benches that nothing is being done about these various issues. The right hon. Member for Barking referred to an element of the “Panorama” programme on the Panama papers that described income that had been diverted overseas and then loaned back to individuals. That is known as disguised remuneration. She rightly asked what the Government were doing about such practices. Let me point her in the direction of the Finance Bill that has just gone through this House. On the matter of disguised remuneration, individuals will be given until 2019 to clear up those arrangements. Otherwise, they will pay a penalty. It is as simple as that.
I want to make just a little more progress, as I am conscious of the time and the shortness of the debate.
In fact, we have brought in 75 measures since 2010 to clamp down on these practices. A further 35 will come in from 2015, raising £18.5 billion by 2020-21. One of the problems is that we have been so active in bringing in so many measures that, unfortunately, not all of them have been noticed. In last week’s debate, the right hon. Member for Barking raised the issue of taking action against those who promote tax avoidance schemes. Once again, she needs only to look at the Finance Bill—all 777 pages of it; it is very technical, and it will probably put her to sleep at night—in which she will find measures to deal with precisely what she was urging us to take action on last week. We have already done it!
I congratulate the Government on the specific changes they have made, but does the Minister agree that the biggest change has been the general anti-abuse rule? That catches a number of these schemes and allows Governments to look not only at tax avoidance, through tax planning, but at what he describes as aggressive avoidance, which therefore becomes evasion, which is illegal.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The general anti-avoidance rule has had a significant impact. It was brought in under this Government and it has been very effective. The Opposition profess the importance of all these measures, some of which have already been brought into law while they are calling for them. There is a certain irony in the fact that, when it came to the Third Reading of the Finance Bill that brought these measures in, the Opposition voted against it.
The fact remains, though, that there is at least £30 billion of uncollected avoided or evaded tax; that figure could be as high as £120 billion, if we are to believe the Public and Commercial Services Union. Given that tax officers gain a significant tax return to the Treasury against their salaries, would it not be better to invest in tax officers rather than cutting their numbers, and to go after that multi-billion pound tax gap?
Going after the tax gap is exactly what this Government are doing, and we have an exemplary record. We have the lowest tax gap in the entire world. It is the lowest in history—far lower than it was under the last Labour Government. The hon. Gentleman asked a specific question about tax officers. We need to move towards an HMRC that is ready and equipped for the 21st century. That does not mean a large number of scattered offices; it means hub offices with the necessary staff and technical skills to facilitate the transfer of knowledge and understanding in order to move forward.
I will now make some progress. I am aware that this is just a two-hour debate and that many Members wish to speak.
We have covered the various measures that we have taken, and we have covered the huge investment that we have made in HMRC. Perhaps I can now turn to the international aspects. We all agree that we need to look closely at what is happening in the international sphere. On that, this Government have a record of which we can be proud. Through the OECD, we have been in the vanguard of the base erosion and profit shifting project. We have worked closely with the Crown dependencies and overseas territories.
We have brought in a diverted profits tax, which will raise £1.3 billion by 2019, and common reporting standards to ensure that information is exchanged in relation to around 100 countries. We have introduced a directory of beneficial ownership that is accessible by HMRC, the authority that needs to have that information. All this has happened in the last couple of years, and it is a game changer. Many of the issues arising from the Paradise papers go back very many years, but these measures are in place right now.
I also want to make an important point on transparency. In last week’s debate, I asked the right hon. Member for Barking, in relation to the 13 million files held by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, whether she would join me in calling on the ICIJ to release that information to HMRC so that we could go after anyone who, as a consequence of that data release, was thought to be abusing our tax system. Will she support us in that endeavour?
Order. Stop the clock. There is far too much noise in this Chamber. I say gently to the Parliamentary Private Secretary, Chris Philp: don’t do it! You may think you are being clever, but it does not enhance your reputation as a parliamentarian in the end. Please don’t do it. It is juvenile, the public despise it and I have no patience for it.
I will certainly join the Minister in seeking any documentation that HMRC requires to pursue those who are guilty of avoidance or evasion. I would say to him, however, that when I have given papers to HMRC in the past—whether relating to Google or from other whistleblowers—they have just disappeared and no action ever appears to have been taken.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady. I will take that as a yes—we can work together to try to ensure that that information is provided to HMRC. I see no reason why that should not happen.
I very much agree with what my right hon. Friend has said. Before he leaves the international dimension, will he confirm that in recent years—well after many of these papers came to light—the three Crown dependencies and the overseas territory of Gibraltar have fully co-operated with the UK in relation to all tax transparency and OECD measures, and that they have the same tax transparency ratings as the United States, Germany, ourselves and other western democracies?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. In relation to corruption inquiries, for example, we have automatic access to our Crown dependencies and overseas territories as a result of that co-operation.
I recognise how important this issue is to the public, and it is of critical importance to the Government as well. The UK’s tax authority now has more information and more power than ever before to clamp down on avoidance and evasion, because of the actions of this Government. The Government of which the right hon. Lady was a member failed to take those actions. I conclude with the words of the right hon. Lady in last week’s Adjournment debate, when she said
“I have never defended the record of the Labour Government in this area”.—[Official Report,
That speaks directly to the heart of this issue: an apparent legacy of tax abuses going back many years, framed by the inaction of the Labour party. It speaks to the core of Labour’s approach to the world that the opportunity always lies in criticism and derision, rather than in action and justice. This Government are acting and will continue to leave no stone unturned in the pursuit of those who seek to duck their responsibilities at the expense of us all. Whenever and wherever they are found, this Government will continue to bring the avoiders, the evaders and the non-compliant to book.
Order. Characteristically and courteously, both Dame Margaret Hodge and the Financial Secretary to the Treasury gave way extensively. They are not being criticised for that, but I simply draw attention to the limited time remaining in the debate and ask those speaking from the Front Bench to be extremely sparing in their remarks. The first responsibility for brevity is that of Peter Dowd.
I will try to take that on board as a suggestion rather than a direction, Mr Speaker. The Minister identified what he thinks should be done, but I will tell him what should be done. In our “Tax Transparency and Enforcement Programme” document, Labour calls for an immediate public inquiry into avoidance, greater scrutiny of MPs, the creation of a specialist tax enforcement unit, and the public filing of large company tax returns and of the tax returns of wealthy individuals earning more than £1 million. We want no public contracts for tax avoiders, the repatriation of contracts parked in tax havens, public contract transparency, a register of beneficial ownership of companies and a register of trusts, and our programme would be enforced by working with the banking sector. We also call for a general anti-avoidance rule in principle, strict minimum standards for crown dependencies and overseas territories, the creation of an offshore companies levy and full country-by-country reporting. All that represents a comprehensive proposal from Labour.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is an army of tax avoidance facilitators that includes, sadly, the four big accountancy firms, which are often based just down the road in the square mile?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Transparency is at the heart of all this. I experienced a bizarre situation last week when I was on “Newsnight” with the chairman of the Cayman Islands stock exchange. What an insouciant attitude that man had to tax avoidance. He actually said that there had not been any wrongdoing—maybe not—and called for the journalists to be jailed. That is what he did, and that is the position in which we find ourselves.
I am going to take Mr Speaker’s suggestion and push on, because it will become an admonition otherwise. I will then take some interventions.
I hope that Members across the House will join me in condemning the irresponsible and offensive comments of the chairman of the Cayman Islands stock exchange. All of us owe a debt of gratitude to the journalists involved for their hard work and diligence. They have demonstrated the importance of a free press in holding the wealthiest and most powerful individuals and multinationals to account.
To be clear, we are talking about tax avoidance that covers activities that are within the law but work against its effective application. Most of the people involved in the cases have not broken any laws or acted in a criminal way, but that does not make tax avoidance acceptable or justifiable in the 21st century. After all, as has been identified, tax avoidance costs us all. Every pound avoided is one pound taken away from our children’s education, from our armed forces—the very people who protect us—and from the elderly and disabled. The conservative—and Conservative—figures that the Government have published on tax avoidance show that HMRC recorded from 2010-2015 that £12.8 billion was lost to the Exchequer through tax avoidance. That is unacceptable.
People have a view about what the previous Labour Government did. They think that it was much better than the Tories overall, but I am not going to go there. The question arises—[Interruption.] I refer James Duddridge to the Financial Times. With the greatest of respect, I am not his researcher, and I am sure he is more than capable.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that if the current tax gap was at the same level that it had been on average under Labour, our deficit would be £12 billion higher?
My hon. Friend Ms Rimmer says, “Move on.” and I think she is absolutely right. I will reaffirm the point that was made in Labour’s tax programme document: we have to push on with this debate. It does no good for the Government to talk about the past; we want to talk about the here and now and the future.
Order. There is no obligation on the hon. Gentleman to speak if he does not want to.
The hon. Gentleman can extrapolate all he wants. I could extrapolate all sorts of figures, but I am not going to get into that. We will no doubt come back to the matter in due course at the Budget.
You are looking at me with those eyes and with a smile, Mr Speaker, so I will move on.
While tax avoidance is a global problem, it is also a UK problem. The UK accounts for 17% of the global market for offshore services. We are considered one of the biggest—if not the biggest—players in the global offshore system of tax havens. We account for some of the world’s key tax havens, including Jersey, Guernsey, Isle of Man, Bahamas, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Bermuda and the Turks and Caicos Islands, all of which are either crown dependencies or British overseas territories and all of which are afforded the support and the protection of the British Government. Despite our prominence as a country at the heart of a network of offshore tax havens that aids and abets tax avoidance across the globe, the Government refuse to lead the way in global tax transparency. I keep on using that word “transparency” and I will keep on doing so.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the purchasing of a private jet at nearly £17 million and then setting up an offshore leasing company with the sole aim of saving £3 million in VAT is an affront to our public services?
My hon. Friend is quite right. That is shocking.
Government Members’ denial about their record on tax avoidance is not new. In 2013, while the G8 was pushing ahead with stricter rules that would clamp down on tax avoidance, the then Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, was busy undermining them, writing to the President of the European Council demanding that offshore trusts were excluded. The Government’s record on tackling tax avoidance is not all that they would like it to be.
The shadow Minister is being generous with his time. We all agree that this matter should be a priority, and the shadow Minister is focusing on our record, but why did the Labour party block the three measures that we brought forward in the wash-up that would have been worth £8.6 billion—vital for all the public services that he listed earlier? It is a joint priority, and we need both sides to work on this.
I am more than happy to give the hon. Gentleman the narrative of the wash-up proceedings. If he wants, I am happy to talk to him outside, because the information that he has been getting from his Front-Bench team is nonsense.
I am going to conclude to give others the opportunity to speak. First we had the Panama papers and now we have the Paradise papers; how many more tax avoidance leaks will there need to be before the Government act? It is clear that we desperately need a public inquiry into tax avoidance and the use of offshore trusts and tax havens. The Government should listen to the Opposition and, perhaps more importantly, to people outside the House and act by introducing a public register of offshore trusts and publishing the information already provided from overseas territories. They should also stop cuts to HMRC and ensure that HMRC has the staff and resources it needs to tackle tax avoidance at its core.
If the Government continue to ignore the problem and fail to act, I reassure the House that a Labour Government will act.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
The most important point for the House to focus on this afternoon is that this is absolutely not a party political issue. Although the right hon. Lady raised some criticisms of this Government, she also raised criticisms of the Government of which she was a member. In my judgment, the only plausible criticism that can be made of the current Government is that they need to speed up some of the initiatives they have already implemented. They have not done so in respect of the overseas territories because, obviously, we would rather those havens took action themselves—to be fair, to some extent they have already started to do so.
On the actions taken by the Government, David Cameron and George Osborne led the international effort at the G8 to clamp down on such matters, particularly tax avoidance and evasion. The UK introduced publicly accessible registers of people with significant control, abolished bearer or anonymous shares and, importantly, introduced unexplained wealth orders. The anti-bribery law, work on which first started under John Major in Paris in 1995, was finally introduced in this country by David Cameron in 2011, after 13 years of Labour government.
On this Government’s record, let us be clear that they have been taking action and have raised an immense amount of extra tax as a result. However, the time has come—this is my third debate on this issue—to insist on the same levels of openness and transparency for the overseas territories as we have in this country. The territories gain hugely from their relationship with the United Kingdom and, as the Government made clear in 2012,
“As a matter of constitutional law the UK Parliament has unlimited power to legislate for the Territories.”
The right hon. Gentleman will know from his considerable expertise on international development that the abuse of such offshore schemes not only harms British taxpayers but disadvantages some of the world’s poorest people. That is why the Government must act to introduce greater transparency in Crown dependencies and overseas territories.
I am coming on to precisely that point.
Like many Members, I have been visited by senior Ministers of almost all the overseas territories, and the position of the territories is best summed up by the prayer of St Augustine: “Oh Lord, make me chaste—but not yet.” The territories put two specific arguments. I call the first the Dutch Antilles argument, which is that if the territories have open registers, the hot money will head off to the Dutch Antilles. There is momentum around the world, thanks to David Cameron and George Osborne, to attack such ills and unfairnesses. Havens that embrace an open register will get an advantage from being at the front of opening up to billions of pounds of legitimate business.
The second argument—in a way, this is the one we have to address head-on—is that the territories’ private registers are already available to lawmakers and regulators, such as HMRC. The territories proudly say that they will turn round inquiries from HMRC within a matter of hours, which is good, but it completely misses the point, as the recent release of information shows. Registers must be open to the media, to journalists, to non-governmental organisations and to those who can join up the dots. The regulatory authorities, with the best will in the world, are not in that business. Narrow questions, drawn from regulatory authorities, simply do not begin to suffice.
I refer to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. My right hon. Friend makes a fair point. Does he also accept that it is fair that we should not lump all the overseas territories into one basket? Some are much more compliant than others, Gibraltar being one.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I specifically exclude Gibraltar from what I am saying because it is not an example of what we are talking about.
Time is short. My final point is that the United Kingdom led on the 0.7% target. Around the world, the United Kingdom is looked to for leadership on international development. International development is part of this Parliament’s identity, it is who we are and it is part of global Britain. We have an obligation, not least to our own taxpayers, to champion transparency and openness and to have zero tolerance towards corruption.
When we first came into government in 2010, the Department for International Development led the way with its transparency guarantee. We openly published all expenditure above £500 on the internet. It may be a cliché, but sunlight really is the best disinfectant. That is at the heart of what we are talking about today.
I support what my right hon. Friend is saying. Does he agree that the future market for financial services is huge and that jurisdictions with that level of transparency will attract vast amounts of business precisely for that reason?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The first of my two points was about trying to tackle head-on the counter-arguments that are sometimes made by some territories.
On tackling and having zero tolerance towards corruption, in 2010, when I had responsibility for international development, we targeted funding specifically at the City of London police, which has expertise on pursuing and recovering stolen funds. We should do as much of that as possible.
I agree with a great deal of what my right hon. Friend says. Given that the majority of the economy of the British Virgin Islands, in particular, is in financial services and the islands have recently been completely devastated by hurricanes, is now the right time to be imposing on the islanders rather than working with them?
My hon. Friend makes a fair point in view of the humanitarian crisis that is afflicting the BVI, which are of course one of the most transparent of these havens. What I hope will be a temporary crisis in the BVI following the hurricane damage should not in any way mitigate my argument that, in a defined, perhaps short, period of time, these open registers are essential.
Will the right hon. Gentleman correct the record? He said earlier that the UK led on the 0.7% target, but the UK was 40 or 45 years late. The 0.7% target was agreed in 1970, and the UK reached it decades behind the Scandinavians. I do not see that as leadership. Does he want to come back on that?
The hon. Gentleman cannot get away with such a narrow, partisan comment. Britain was the first G8 country to stand by its commitment to the poorest people in the world, and we are very proud that it was this Government who did it.
The highly respected Africa Progress Panel, in a recent study on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, made it clear that stolen funds and stolen taxes cost that country £1.5 billion, which is more than it spends on health and education. It is a deep irony that some of the world’s poorest people live on top of some of the richest real estate, as is clear in the DRC. Credible World Bank studies make it clear that the money stolen from the people of Africa through unpaid taxes or concealment dwarfs all the foreign direct investment and international development money that flows into Africa each year.
We know a lot of that money ends up not in the overseas territories but in places like Dubai. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we also need to engage with other partners around the world, particularly in places like Dubai, where a lot of this money is to be found?
My right hon. Friend makes a good point; the key point on all of this is transparency and openness. Let all these matters be published in the way they are published through the open register in Britain. That is the way in which we make progress.
We look to the Government to advance this agenda, probably in the Finance Bill. We hope that those on the Treasury Bench will hear clearly the will of the House on this matter today and that progress will indeed now be made.
I ask the SNP spokesperson not to exceed 10 minutes, in the interests of facilitating others, but we are in her hands.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is not common for me to exceed 10 minutes, so I will try to stick to that. Let me start by thanking you for granting this debate under
I normally have quite a lot of time for the Minister—I find him to be often wrong but generally reasonable—but the speech he made today was badly pitched. The one made by Mr Mitchell was much better, in that he talked not only about resting on the laurels of all the great things the Government have done, but about what the Government were going to do and could to in the future. [Interruption.] And should do, absolutely. I hope the Minister listens to the voices from across the House and what they are calling for. As has been said, this is not a party political issue. I do not have a huge amount of respect for the actions of either the Labour Government or the Conservative Government on tax avoidance and evasion. I do not think either party has done a particularly good job on that. A huge amount more can be done, as Members from across the House would agree.
Transparency International looked into companies dodging tax and found 766 UK companies that were involved in corruption and money laundering, to the tune of £80 billion. A quarter of those companies that were investigated by Transparency International are still active—the UK Government could take action on those organisations. The UK Government are making a number of incredibly ill-advised and not great decisions at the moment, on things such as closing HMRC offices and their continued pursuance of austerity. The only reason the Government are tackling Scottish limited partnerships is the work done by a number of journalists, as well as colleagues from my side of the House. I appreciate that the Government have taken action on that, but it took a very long time for them to be convinced by MPs such as Roger Mullin to make any move on it.
As I said, not only this UK Government but previous ones have successively failed to crack down on this. The UK tax code is out of hand and requires simplification. The changes the UK Government are making, in conjunction with the Office of Tax Simplification, have not gone far enough. It still requires a van to carry the tax code; people can no longer carry it, because it is so significant. The potential for loopholes and for people to dodge things as a result of that incredibly complicated tax code is ridiculous. Peter Dowd, the shadow Minister, talked about the UK Government previously calling for the EU’s sanctions around tax dodging to be watered down. That was grim action for them to take, particularly in the wake of the Paradise papers, when this call came. The UK Government should be leading by example. They should not just be saying, “Oh, we’ve got the tax gap down to 6%.” They should be saying, “The tax gap is still 6%. We have a huge amount of work to do to crack down on that final 6%.” The UK has the opportunity to lead the world in this regard and it should do so.
Does the hon. Lady think the introduction of further tax bands and thus further complication by the SNP Administration in Edinburgh is an additional complication or a simplification of the UK tax code?
The hon. Gentleman is confusing income tax with a number of other types of tax. What has happened in Scotland in relation to the paper that has been produced, which sets out a number of options and their effects, and then consults on them, is way more transparent than any action that any UK Government take in advance of any Budget, where they pull rabbits out of hats. The Scottish Government have entered into dialogue with the other parties, which have the opportunity to take that chance to criticise or to praise. They should do that, as he should. The Scottish Government and the SNP have called for this area to be devolved to Scotland because we think we would do a better job.
As everyone knows, tax evasion is illegal, but the Paradise papers highlighted that tax avoidance is immoral.
On the Paradise papers, does my hon. Friend share my concern at seeing the Duchy of Lancaster’s investment in BrightHouse, a company that exploits constituents in vulnerable areas such as mine with extortionate annual percentage rates of 70%? Does she find that immoral as well?
I agree with my hon. Friend on that, as I, too, have constituents who are exploited by organisations such as BrightHouse. It is not a company that anyone reputable should be investing in.
It is not that difficult for people to pay the tax that they owe; it is not that difficult to say to a financial adviser—this is for those who have bags of cash—“I would like my money to grow, but I wouldn’t like it to grow by avoiding the tax that I owe.” It would be easy for people to say that. It is clear that some people lack a moral compass. Where they are taking decisions to engage in aggressive tax avoidance, the Government must legislate so that they can no longer do so—to provide that moral compass for people and make sure that the tax is paid when it is owed. We must have the best possible tax rules in place. We must simplify the tax code. We must crack down on evasion, and we must legislate to reduce avoidance. The Government are in an untenable position: they cannot continue to implement austerity while leaving a tax gap.
We note that many of the tax avoiders do not avoid using our roads, our schools and our hospitals, and they certainly do not avoid using the police to look after their lumps of money, here, there and everywhere.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend from the Western Isles. People, however much they are earning and however much tax they are paying, are using public services. Our party aspires to have brilliant public services. We aspire to have people working in our public services who are paid a reasonable amount and do not have to face a pay cap. The only way we can provide the public services and benefits system we want is by having a system where people pay the tax they owe. We continue to call for this to be devolved to Scotland because we think we would take better decisions. In the absence of devolution, we would like the UK Government to take actual action, rather than just saying, “Look how great we are.”
On account of the number of people wishing to contribute, there will be, with immediate effect, a six-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches. I call Mr David Morris.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. I did not expect to be called so early.
I am a little at a loss about what we are trying to achieve here: is this about tax evasion or is it about offshore companies? The reality is that offshore companies are legal entities, and a lot of them, especially across the Commonwealth countries and the overseas territories, have been set up using HMRC guidelines. That has to be clarified here and now: is this about tax avoidance per se or is it about overseas territories having tax advantages? What is it about? Yesterday, when the debate was being granted, I was standing to the side of you, Mr Speaker, and I was absolutely of the mind that this was about overseas territories or tax evasion under certain forms of tax advantages in certain countries. The UK can do its bit, as it is doing and as this Government have done.
The Labour Government did very little for 13 years, to be quite frank. Now, it is about the perception of who pays the taxes in this country. I can give the House a basic economic argument. It is like a piggy bank. Someone earns their money and puts it in an offshore piggy bank, and they pay tax on it at source and when they take it back into this country. So there is really no tax evasion there.
I can remember the Leader of the Opposition talking about the Isle of Man Government. I have lot of time for the Isle of Man Government and they have a lot of links to my constituency. The problem I have is that the Isle of Man is the most highly regulated offshore tax haven, if we want to call it that, in the whole world.
The Isle of Man Government told me:
“Amongst other things, the Customs and Excise Agreement removes the need for customs barriers between the Isle of Man, the UK and the EU”— even the EU is loth to draft any legislation on this matter—
“and makes the Island part of the European VAT territory. The Agreement also makes provision for the Revenue Sharing Agreement (RSA), the agreed formula by which VAT and most other indirect tax revenues are split between the UK and the Isle of Man.”
On the subject of private jets, the Isle of Man Government told me:
“Since 2011, Isle of Man Customs and Excise has raised more than 30 assessments for under-declared or over-claimed VAT against businesses in the aircraft leasing sector, protecting approximately £4.7million of VAT” for the Exchequer. So what are we arguing about? Are we arguing about reforming tax laws or reforming tax havens? I might add that most tax havens in overseas territories have been sorted out by this House.
I shall keep it short, Mr Speaker, but I think that this debate is a grand waste of time. More to the point, it is confusing to the public.
Having listened to David Morris, I am dismayed. What we are talking about is openness and transparency about tax. Mr Mitchell set the tone for this debate, along with my right hon. Friend Dame Margaret Hodge. This is an important cross-party issue, and I agree with nearly every word—in fact, every word—that the right hon. Gentleman said. Tax avoidance and evasion harms countries around the world, including developing countries. It hits taxpayers in our constituencies because the wealthiest people and large corporations find ways to reduce their tax bills or to avoid paying tax completely.
I wish to make some progress, please.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking on securing this debate, and I congratulate the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, “Panorama” and The Guardian for shining a light on what has come out of the Panama papers. The Public Accounts Committee has been shining a light on aggressive tax avoidance for some years. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend, my predecessor as its Chair, for the work that she led us through when I served as a member of the Committee. It is thanks to the Committee’s work under my right hon. Friend that some of the worst excesses of avoidance came to light. International action—it has to be international—has led to real change at a faster pace than we have seen under any Government for many decades, by making public more information about corporations’ tax arrangements.
We continue to pursue this issue, and with political will, we can make progress. In December last year, the Public Accounts Committee held an international tax transparency conference. We had imagined, in our own humble way, that we might get people from some European Union countries to come along; we were amazed that representatives from countries around the world came. More than 20 of them signed up to our pledge on international tax transparency, to fight for our citizens and through our Parliaments to press our Governments to be bolder and faster, as the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield said. There are the beginnings of some political will, but we are not moving at the right pace.
The release of these papers and this information is staggering to our constituents, who just pay their taxes and have no idea how hard the wealthiest work to avoid paying tax that would help our country, particularly in this time of austerity and pay dampening. Public country-by-country reporting for large corporations is something that the Government could do right now. My right hon. Friend Caroline Flint has been a champion on that issue and managed to work with the Government to change the law. The Paradise papers show that the tax arrangements we are discussing come to light only when the information is in the public domain. We need to see fast change. The establishment of offshore trusts that then buy homes, wine and cars for the beneficiary, without tax being paid, or the paying of money into offshore trusts that then make loans to individuals that are never repaid—these things cannot be right, and although they may be legal, I doubt whether they are in some cases.
The Panama papers were released in April 2016. According to the representatives from HMRC who appeared before the Select Committee last week, 66 criminal or civil investigations are currently under way, four people have been arrested and a further six have been interviewed under caution. Even with that haul, HMRC only expects an additional tax yield from the Panama papers of £100 million. That is not to be sniffed at, but it is small fry in relation to the official tax gap. That just demonstrates the lengths to which people will go to hide their money and the importance of making sure that HMRC has the resources required to pursue this matter.
We need public country-by-country reporting to be enacted. Yes, it needs to be done internationally, but if international players will not lead the way, let the UK Government take us forward. Let us be bold and brave and make sure that we set the tone and the standard for the world. The Select Committee has urged HMRC to consider a wealth tax for wealthy individuals, as they have in Japan and Australia, to make it easier to track down where people hold their wealth and where they are paying tax.
We need continued parliamentary and public pressure, so that businesses voluntarily move towards more openness. The fair tax mark has already been taken up by 30 companies, and we hope that it will be taken up by many more. I would like to see HMRC take forward more prosecutions to set an example to those who seek to avoid tax and to make sure that people question the highly paid tax advisers they recruit, because it is no longer good enough to say, “I didn’t know what was going on; I just paid someone else to do it.” Everyone needs to take responsibility for their actions, whether they are corporations or wealthy individuals.
As I said, we need to give HMRC the resources to tackle tax avoidance and evasion. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking said, there is a very high return rate for every pound of taxpayers’ money invested in HMRC’s investigatory arms. It is important that the Exchequer sees that benefit and ramps up the money that is available. An arbitrary target of 100 prosecutions annually has now been set. That seems an odd figure to have plucked out of a hat. We are pressing HMRC to explain where that figure has come from out of the blue. We need to make sure that the right number of prosecutions take place, not just set an arbitrary target.
My constituents pay their taxes and they deserve better. Tax is paid for the common good, and my Committee works hard to make sure that tax money is spent by the Government efficiently, effectively and economically. We need to speed up on the measures to crack down on aggressive tax avoidance and, obviously, tax evasion. We need to move towards a world in which the impact of someone not paying their fair share of taxes is recognised as something that is plainly wrong.
It is a pleasure to follow Meg Hillier, and I join in the congratulations to Dame Margaret Hodge on her securing this important debate. I absolutely agree with the conclusions she came to, but I probably took a slightly different route to get to them.
I should start, though, by saying that I do not think it is fair to say that over the past 15 years or so, HMRC, the previous Labour Government and the current Conservative Government have not tried to tackle aggressive avoidance. Look at the number of measures that have been introduced, ranging from disclosure rules for artificial schemes through to more recent measures. Look at a Finance Bill and count up how many targeted anti-avoidance rules have now been added. We have been trying everything we possibly can to tackle the most outrageous behaviour. Many of the schemes that 15 years ago used to be possible or, indeed, quite widespread just cannot be done in the UK at all now.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a cultural issue and a whole machinery that enables and facilitates these sorts of arrangements, which the 99% of us have nothing to do with, and that we have to be very aggressive in tackling that 1%?
I agree with the hon. Lady exactly, but the point I was trying to make was that I do not think that the size of the tax gap is down to a lack of effort or attempts to introduce new rules or measures. The problem is that the avoiders and evaders are perhaps one step ahead and move on to different things. That is why the Panama papers and the Paradise papers show that people are now just going offshore, or finding artificial ways to go offshore, rather than trying to do artificial domestic planning to get around the rules.
Is it not the case that the problem lies in our tactics of applying these complicated rules and regulations and in the fact that expensive minds—the accountants—can devise a way around them? Should we not be looking at a general principle, because people cannot get around a principle?
I agree with that view. The Government did introduce the general anti-abuse rule. It was quite a large step for them to take, as it said that HMRC can effectively ignore what is written in the law and apply what should have been written in the law. There is scope to extend that and to improve behaviour. It is right that we now expect large businesses to publish their tax strategy. It means that we can get the board to say that it does not condone such behaviour, it does not engage with it and it does not want its tax advisers to do such a thing. That is the way that we change the behaviour and the culture. We have seen advisers changing their codes of conduct, which is welcome. Some now say that artificial and aggressive abuse will not be committed under their management, but, clearly, there is still a long way to go.
Before I talk about the various measures that we could take, I should be clear that we will not be able to close the whole of the tax gap by tackling aggressive avoidance by the rich and the large multinationals. Obviously, we should narrow the gap by as much as we can, but the fact is that it is the small and medium-sized enterprises that form the largest group of companies not paying tax. Of a tax gap of £38 billion, £15.5 billion can be attributed to SMEs. The single biggest reason for the tax gap is not aggressive avoidance, which accounts for only £3 billion, but failure to take reasonable care. Therefore we cannot look at the whole tax gap of £38 billion and say that that is all being lost to us because of the awful behaviour of large corporates. Sadly, it is much more to do with individuals in the UK who are working and not declaring VAT, or who are working in the hidden economy. It is not quite fair to say that this is not about ordinary people, because, sadly, quite a lot of it is. We need to find ways of tackling that issue as well.
What has been exposed by these papers is a crisis of confidence. We need our tax system to be fair and our financial system to be legally compliant and as clean as we can make it. There are some further measures that the Government can take to improve the reputation of our financial system and to increase the confidence of our constituents in the tax regime. The good news is that most of these issues are Government policy already. It is just a matter of bringing them forward and perhaps finding some implementation dates. Let us get country-by-country reporting by multinationals in the public domain so that we can all see how much profit they are making and in which territory and compare that information with their turnover there, how many employees they have and what assets they have. That is perfectly fair information. It is not greatly enhanced disclosure.
If we look at the accounts of large plcs, we will see that they are required to disclose segmental information and tax reconciliation from their profits down to what tax they are paying. We want that information made available in a meaningful and useful way, so that we can work out how they are not paying the right amount of tax. That measure is on the statute book. Let us have a date when we require that information to be put in the public domain. It does not have to be tomorrow, or even next year. Let us have a date in 2019 so that we can see that information.
The other issue of transparency is related to who is buying the very expensive properties in the UK. We need to know who they are and how they have raised the money to buy those properties. It cannot be right that someone can buy a property here for £15 million or £50 million and not live in it and we have no idea where they got the money from to do that. Let us go ahead with the promise we made to have a transparent register of overseas owners of very expensive property in the UK. That will help to show that we are not encouraging kleptocrats or Russian oligarchs or people who have stolen from developing countries to put their money here in a safe UK asset.
Let me turn now to the overseas territories. The papers revealed some really shocking behaviour. For example, when Apple, one of the world’s largest and most reputable companies, was being chased by the EU through Ireland, it chose to try to move its affairs to Jersey to avoid the tax we all think it owes. Again, that shows why we need to get transparency into those territories of ours so that we know who is operating there and where their money has actually come from. Those territories have a right to exist, a right to choose their own tax rates and a right to be competitive, but they do not have a right to hide money that has been stolen from elsewhere in the world or to move profits that are not being earned there and try to give them a beneficial rate.
If we get transparency in the territories and we show who is operating there and where the money is coming from, those territories can show how clean they are and whether their claims are true. They can then compete on their reputation. They do not need to compete on being closed and dirty. They all assure us that they are not after dirty, corrupt, illegal and laundered money but are after real business. If they go ahead with that transparency, they will get a competitive advantage. As a country with so many territories, we cannot say that we will follow the herd; we are the herd, so let us set an example.
It is a pleasure to follow Nigel Mills and to congratulate him on securing a Westminster Hall debate next week on the subject of public country-by-country reporting. I hope that Members from all parts of the House will support that debate.
It was just over a year ago, in September 2016, when a non-Government amendment to the Finance Bill, which had cross-party support, was successfully passed. It gave the Government the power to require multinationals to publish tax information in all countries in which they operate, known as public country-by-country reporting. This is an important measure—not the only measure—on how we tackle some of the scandals that have emerged through the Panama papers and, more recently, the Paradise papers. Openness on this issue means that we can see where large companies pay their tax and discourage tax avoidance, which will help us all.
In the extractive and finance sectors, a form of public country-by-country reporting is already in place. Increasingly, investors want to see more of that. Why is that so? They are getting more and more worried by these public disclosures and by the reputational damage to them of putting money into good enterprises which, however, at the end of the day compromise their investment and their sense of the ethics behind the contribution they want to make towards creating wealth. We all want to create wealth, because that creates the opportunities to tax and provide for public services.
It is clear from the Panama papers, and now the Paradise papers, that companies with a mandate to deliver a return to shareholders and investors seem to be under huge pressure to find ways to cut their tax bills, despite the large profits they make. That is why Governments have a duty to ensure that their domestic tax laws are as watertight as possible. Importantly, we need to make sure that we provide even greater transparency.
We know, and we have always known, that big companies and very wealthy individuals can easily move their revenue around the world, out of the reach of Governments, and find whatever loophole they can to become richer. Corporate tax avoidance is not only unfair but damaging to economies and societies. At home and overseas, it means less money for stretched public services. Earlier, a colleague said that it is estimated that developing countries lose at least $100 billion every year. That would be enough to educate 12 million children, who are currently missing schooling, and to provide healthcare that could save the lives of 6 million children.
Paying tax responsibly is an issue of right and wrong. If those with accountants and lawyers seek to avoid paying tax, preferring instead a world of hidden havens and shell companies, trust breaks down and in the end we all lose out. Last year, the then Treasury Minister, now the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, said that although the Government were keen on a multilateral deal on public country-by-country reporting, if we did not make progress in a year, we would have to revisit the issue. In fact, in answer to a question to the Prime Minister on this very subject, she admitted that little progress had been made. One year on, the EU proposal, which is flawed, has stalled.
The time has now come for the Government to have the courage of their convictions to introduce public reporting requirements and then seek to build a coalition of the willing. Transparency is one sure way to rebuild trust. I hope that the Minister will consider this and meet a cross-party delegation to discuss it further. I look forward to the debate secured by the hon. Member for Amber Valley in Westminster Hall next week, but I say to Members: rest assured; when it comes to the next Finance Bill, a cross-party group will seek to amend it to set a deadline for when the power to introduce public country-by-country reporting will become a reality.
There is no obligation on the hon. Gentleman to speak any further if he does not feel inclined to do so. It will be difficult, but we will probably manage without him. If he does want to speak further, he may.
I was referring to my earlier intervention, when there was some confusion; the point of substance I was trying to get at was the difference in the tax gap. The precise figure for the tax gap is now 6%, and it was 8% under Labour. The difference in annual terms is £11.8 billion. That is incredibly important, as the newspapers are dominated by all the coverage of the Paradise papers, and the impression that gives the public is that multinational companies are running the rule over us and getting away without paying their fair share of tax, and that we are failing to deal with that. In fact, all the statistics show significant improvement under this Government in closing the tax gap and bringing forward measures to deal with avoidance and evasion.
As my hon. Friend Nigel Mills mentioned, one important issue is property. My experience, before I came to the House, was in property, as I ran a business helping first-time buyers. One of the great grievances felt by first-time buyers is the sheer quantity of money that has come into the property market, particularly in London. That money is driving up prices and making property less accessible to local people who want to get on the ladder. We should remember that we have brought in two important measures to deal with that. Until April 2015, foreign nationals did not pay capital gains tax when they sold a property in the UK. We closed that loophole in April 2015.
Is not one of the greatest problems of the housing crisis described by the hon. Gentleman the inequality in the UK, where the 100 richest individuals have the same wealth as the bottom 19 million? Indeed, globally, the 85 wealthiest people in the world have the same wealth as 3.5 billion people.
I do not want to go global in my answer as I am talking about the general position in the UK property market, but it is undoubtedly true that a sense of great unfairness now pertains. Prices have risen so sharply and beyond the means even of those on relatively high incomes—let alone modest ones—particularly in London. Young professionals can be on £100,000 and still struggle to get on the ladder in significant parts of the capital. But it is not just about London. My constituency of South Suffolk and those in the counties around London know that the ripple of high prices in expensive areas comes out many miles—[Interruption.] Angus Brendan MacNeil is shaking his head, but many people move to my constituency because of the sheer cost of living in London.
The hon. Gentleman is talking about property prices. He just mentioned the Government’s decision to close the loophole whereby foreign owners of residential properties were avoiding capital gains tax. Does he regret not joining with the Opposition to close the loophole regarding commercial properties? That is having exactly the same impact on the property market.
It has to be said that the commercial sector is one area that has been much weaker since the Brexit vote, but the main issue of fairness from the point of view of taxpayers and first-time buyers relates to residential property. Making changes to tax is about not just tax avoidance, but about provisions such as the higher stamp duty we now levy on second-home ownership and properties purchased to rent out. The key point is that those measures have had a huge impact in supporting first-time buyers.
I was not aware of that so I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing it to my attention.
The broad point—my right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell mentioned this earlier—is that we should look to have cross-party agreement on this. I think that we all agree on the simple point that taxpayers want a system where all companies, particularly the biggest, pay their fair share of tax. What concerns me about stories such as the Paradise papers is that there is a huge amount of associated hyperbole, giving the impression that the system is not bringing in as much tax as it could when, in fact, that is not the case.
Quite simply, I would like a system where we reward success. We must never have a system that discourages enterprise, as we need enterprising businesses to generate the wealth that funds public services. The Government are getting the balance right. We should not get the impression from this debate and from all the leaks in the papers that the Government are failing to get a grip on the issue.
I congratulate Dame Margaret Hodge on introducing the debate, and I agree with very much of what she said.
It will be useful to go over a little the chronology of how tax avoidance measures have evolved in recent years. If we go back to 2010, the main source of industrial-scale tax avoidance was not in the British Virgin Islands or the Cayman Islands. It was a few miles down the road in the City of London, where industrial-scale activity was taking place in the big banks such as Barclays. There was a man called Jenkins, who was the head of the tax department in Barclays and was paid £40 million in one year for his contribution to avoiding tax that should have gone to the Treasury. The agreement that the Government then had with the banks was so loose that they perpetuated it indefinitely until there was a change in Government. My Lib Dem colleagues and I pressed the then Chancellor very hard and such activity was made illegal and, as far as I am aware, has largely stopped.
The next big step was the introduction of the general anti-avoidance principle, which was important in clarifying the murky area between avoidance and evasion. It is now clear that if individuals or their advisers engage in activity that is specifically designed to circumvent the intentions of Parliament, they can be pursued. Many of us have constituents who are being pursued, rightly, by HMRC and who are in substantial arrears. I hope that one of the good things that comes out of the Paradise papers is that HMRC has a substantial list of names and can now investigate whether those names have subscribed to the law as it is now redefined. As I understand it, HMRC pursued 65 individuals for £100 million a year after the Panama papers. That is a positive step and something to build on.
The third step in the evolution of tax avoidance measures was the introduction of the open register of beneficial ownership, to which various Members have referred. I know a little bit about it, since I was the Secretary of State who brought it here and took it through Parliament together with the abolition of bearer bonds. It is fair to say that David Cameron was supportive of that at the time, but that he was slightly less impressive when it came to standing up to lobbying from the Crown dependencies and overseas territories.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned David Cameron. Does he agree that much was promised after the flourish of the anti-corruption summit in May 2016—how long ago it all feels—and none of it seems to have been delivered. The anti-corruption champion, Eric Pickles, stood down and it seems that the Government have completely forgotten that the post existed at all. We were promised a strategy in 2016, but we are now being told that that will be in 2018.
I think I was in political exile at that time so I cannot testify one way or the other, but I was in government when we introduced much stronger anti-corruption measures in 2011.
As far as the register is concerned, the argument that the overseas territories and Crown dependencies advanced was that they had to keep information secret because of privacy concerns, but precisely those same privacy concerns applied to the UK. Where there was a genuine concern about privacy—for example, when people were worried about being pursued by animal rights terrorists—that has been protected, so that was a transparent and weak defence. Many things that the overseas territories do are, in fact, perfectly reasonable. There is no reason why people should pay double taxation, but serious anti-avoidance activity should be pursued.
I hope that the Government will now be much more aggressive in pursuing the issue of the open register. They could give the overseas territories a deadline for the introduction of an open register. If the overseas territories do not comply, a series of sanctions could be introduced—for example, initially stopping companies registered there bidding for public contracts. Of course, the ultimate sanction is what happened in the Turks and Caicos Islands in 2009, when there was direct rule. If overseas territories egregiously avoid taxation in a way that seriously damages the UK, that is the kind of measure that should be introduced.
Much of the discussion we have had—the right hon. Member for Barking said this in her introduction—is not about individuals but about companies, because the scale of avoidance is much greater.
I have limited time.
We are all familiar with the way in which some of the big internet platforms avoid large amounts of taxation simply by manipulating prices and by the way they account for intellectual property liabilities. The Government’s response has, frankly, been very weak, and it is significant, in the light of the current Brexit debate, that the one institution that is seriously going after those companies is the European Commission. Margrethe Vestager’s actions in the Competition Commission are highly competent and effective, and many of us worry that, if Brexit happens, all that energy will disappear.
I have one practical suggestion—a very simple thing the Government could do—to deal with corporate tax avoidance. It is a simple regulation that would require large companies registered here to declare, first, their total UK revenues and then their total UK expenses. It would then be immediately apparent whether there was a tax liability that had not been met, and a simple levy in lieu of tax payment would bring some of those companies to book in a reasonable way.
Let me make one final point. The reason there is so much indignation about this question is not simply that tax is being avoided, but that many of our constituents are being aggressively pursued for tax avoidance at a much pettier level. At present, a big crackdown is taking place on what are called IR35 companies. These are contractors for the health service, and they are often software specialists. There is undoubtedly a certain amount of tax avoidance in relation to national insurance, but these companies are being pursued in a highly aggressive way that the Government do not use in pursuing much bigger fish. We are now being told that the VAT tax threshold could be considerably lowered in the Budget to stop tax avoidance, but that would effectively draw a large number of small companies into the tax net. It is the pettiness of such measures, contrasted with what happens on large-scale avoidance, that attracts so much ire and anger from the public.
I am afraid there is a three-minute limit with immediate effect. I call Craig Mackinlay.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am glad to have caught your eye.
Much of this issue has an international dimension. We have done more than any previous Government on the annual tax on enveloped dwellings, creating capital gains tax for foreign ownership sales and ending non-dom status. We have opened up shared beneficial ownership information through the OECD and the base erosion and profit shifting initiative. We have introduced the diverted profits tax, so that when there is insufficient economic substance to transactions—particularly where intellectual property is held abroad—and undue payments are made to foreign jurisdictions, that can be stopped and taxed accordingly. We have stopped the shifting of debt interest to the UK to prevent artificial deductions in the UK.
However, there is one tax haven I am really rather proud of, and that is the one for the lower paid in this country. We have created a very low-tax environment for the very low paid. When we look at what Labour did between 1997 and 2010, we see there was a rather paltry increase in the personal allowance from just £4,045 to £6,475 over 13 years. In our seven years in government, we have increased that to £11,500. That is a serious tax cut for every low-paid person.
We are doing something similar with companies, and that, to me, is the key to this. I would like to encourage more companies back to the UK so that they can pay their fair share of tax, and that is being done. In 2010, the corporation tax take was £35 billion, but it is now up to £53 billion. Of course, the wealthy in the UK—the top 1%—pay 28% of all income tax, which is higher than at any time.
In this debate, we must not lose an understanding of what foreign jurisdictions and so-called tax havens are there for. They are actually essential in the mix of international trade. For instance, it is not uncommon for a French investing company to choose the Caymans or the British Virgin Islands as the place of contract for a deal to invest in, say, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Much though I have great respect for the legal system of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the legal system and common law of the UK are what create legal certainty. These things are not always about saving tax or avoiding tax; they are about trying to make transactions in the right place.
So let us bear down on egregious tax planning. Let us continue the promotion of data sharing with our international partners. Let us make sure that global profits are taxed in the right place. And let us use our influence on our overseas territories. The Conservative party is doing those things more than the Labour party did in 13 years in government.
May I start by joining Members on both sides of the House who have congratulated my right hon. Friend Dame Margaret Hodge on bringing this important debate? I also congratulate all the journalists involved in this investigation.
In my short contribution, I hope I might elicit from the Minister a modicum of regret for some of his recent actions. What we need to talk about today is tax avoidance, and, if I can, I want to take on the challenge put forward by David Morris. What precisely is the issue with these offshore companies? More specifically, why would anybody hold UK property and UK entities overseas?
When we look at those questions, these papers raise two clear issues for us. First and foremost, there is the case for transparency, and I want to use the example of private finance initiative companies to show why that is a problem. Secondly, there is the case for addressing the loopholes that this evidence has highlighted for us, and which Nigel Mills set out.
I will not give way at this point, because I have only two minutes left.
Nine offshore infrastructure companies own between 50% and 100% of the equity in 335 PFI companies, which account for 45% of all projects. Twelve companies have equity in 74% of all current projects. At this point, we do not know what tax is being held overseas as a result—tax that was part of the PFI value-for-money assessment. These papers reveal how that happens. Secondly, on avoidance of capital gains tax, these papers reveal that Blackstone avoided stamp duty and capital gains tax on UK commercial property to a value of around £66 billion.
These are all choices. At the end of the day, we know that the lawyers involved are like water moving towards the sea—they will follow the easiest route. The problem here is politicians, not lawyers.
Absolutely, and I concur with all those who have raised that.
We can take action in this House. Specifically, new clause 2 to the Finance Bill—as my right hon. Friend Caroline Flint said, many of us brought forward proposals—looked at the tax loophole relating to capital gains tax on commercial property. I will take no lectures from Conservative Members about how wonderfully this Government are doing on tax avoidance, when, just two weeks ago, they voted down a measure that would have brought in £6 billion a year to our Exchequer and given British businesses a level playing field. The Paradise papers show exactly why there is a problem, and I have mentioned £66 billion of capital gains tax and stamp duty that we are not getting because companies are registered overseas.
Nor will I take lectures from the Minister about loans, given that he passed in the Finance Bill a measure to reduce the share relief that PFI companies can claim on their loans. Those companies own millions of pounds’-worth of our public sector, and are able to trade off the interest that they pay on those loans in overseas companies, but the Minister has just passed an amendment that will make sure they do not even have to pay any tax on that. Those companies can comfortably be held overseas so that we will not even see what is happening.
In the minute I have left, therefore, I want to make some simple proposals. As my hon. Friend Bambos Charalambous said, we absolutely need a public register. However, we also need a moratorium on all public investment in these companies until we know precisely what tax we are missing, and until we can be confident that these offshore companies are not milking the British taxpayer twice—by not paying their taxes and by getting us to pay them through PFI and public infrastructure investments. We must also close the loophole on capital gains tax on commercial properties as a matter of urgency. Nobody who faces cuts in their public services can allow that to continue for a second longer.
Finally, we need to rethink the decision to give PFI companies the tax relief that the Government have just given them. I hope the Minister regrets his actions, because, frankly, this is not about the Paradise papers; it is about parasites bleeding money from our public sector.
I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for allowing this debate, and to all Members who have participated, particularly those who looked beyond narrow political party interest and more at the public interest.
We cannot allow the serious issues raised by the Paradise papers today simply to become the fish and chips wrappers of tomorrow. It is our responsibility as lawmakers to do all that we can, in the UK and with our international partners, to stamp out an injustice that is both unfair and offensive. The Government can take action that will make a difference, and it simply needs a strong political will to make that happen. I urge the Government to act in next week’s Budget.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the systemic issues enabling tax avoidance and evasion uncovered by the Paradise Papers.
The short answer to the hon. Gentleman is that I have received no indication from any Minister from the Foreign Office or any other Department of an intention to make a statement on that matter. However, what the hon. Gentleman has said will have been of great interest to Members in all parts of the House, and, importantly, his remarks will have been heard by those on the Treasury Bench. Knowing him as I do, with his interest in and experience of this subject, I have a feeling that we will hear more about the matter before very long. Meanwhile, he has put his point very firmly on the record.