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Tax Avoidance and Evasion

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:33 pm on 25th February 2020.

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Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury) 1:33 pm, 25th February 2020

The tax system in the UK is hugely complex. Every Finance Bill that comes along adds layers of complexity, leaving a taxation system that is unwieldy and difficult to understand, and even more difficult for the Government and HMRC to control. It leaves loopholes that incentivise tax avoidance and evasion. My SNP colleagues and I have long argued for a root-and-branch review of the entire system, and I am grateful for the opportunity to repeat those calls today.

The Scottish National party will continue to lead the fight against tax avoidance and evasion at Westminster. In the last Parliament, we were proud to secure the House’s support for a Finance Bill amendment seeking a review of the impact of UK tax avoidance measures. We forced the UK Government to accept the need to tackle the abuse of Scottish limited partnerships as money-laundering vehicles, and supported cross-party efforts by Dame Margaret Hodge and her colleagues to drag the UK Government into the 21st century by adopting Magnitsky powers to sanction overseas officials guilty of human rights violations.

The SNP has just won a landslide of Scottish seats on a manifesto demanding tougher action on tax avoidance, including a review of the closure of HMRC offices in Scotland and across the UK; immediate action, including reform of Companies House, to uncover the beneficial ownership of SLPs and other companies and trusts; measures to improve the transparency of tax paid by international companies to ensure that they make a proportionate contribution to tax revenues; multilateral efforts to address tax challenges resulting from the digitisation of the economy; further action by the UK Government to tackle international tax avoidance; the full implementation of the fifth money laundering directive; a fit-for-purpose online retailer tax; a review of the tax rules governing intermediaries—known as the IR35 tax rules—and problems with implementation of the loan charge; and a comprehensive inquiry into the digitisation of tax, to uncover the reasons for HMRC and UK Government delays which mean that we still do not have the 21st-century tax payments system that could help to tackle avoidance and evasion.

We have heard a great many well-meaning arguments from the official Opposition this afternoon, but, unfortunately, this is a situation to which Labour contributed when it was in power. Instead of simplifying the tax system, it introduced policies such as the IR35 tax rules, which have made staffing extremely difficult for the NHS and other public sector organisations.

While some very welcome action has been taken, no UK Government have yet created a comprehensive anti-avoidance rule. Legislation has come to shut down loopholes as quickly they have appeared, and then, as night follows day, new schemes have emerged to circumvent the law. We saw then, as we do now, plenty of tinkering at the edges of the system but no meaningful action to align taxes for different kinds of workers. Successive Chancellors have passed up opportunities for radical reform, and have simply added layers of bureaucracy and complexities to the existing system. There are now ample places in which those who do not want to contribute can hide within the system.

Last year, Tax Justice UK published a report on the worrying scale of loopholes in, for example, inheritance tax. On the basis of HMRC figures, it states that the vast majority of those tax breaks go to properties worth more than over £1 million; and that is over and above the usual inheritance tax allowance. Instead of benefiting small farms or family businesses, the tax breaks constitute a massive tax giveaway to those who are already very wealthy. The report’s findings only highlight what we know to be true: that this UK Tory Government have ensured that the rich get richer, while at the same time the poorest people in society have experienced real cuts in their incomes, and are less likely to benefit from policies such as the increase in the income tax threshold.

I appreciate that the new Chancellor has not yet had time to outline his plans, and I hope that he will take a different approach. However, the accounts of his professional background by the shadow Chancellor and in this week’s Private Eye lead me to hae ma doots. Extremely worrying noises have been coming from the Government in respect of the post-Brexit regulatory landscape. Already this year we have seen the UK inch closer to the world’s top 10 countries for financial secrecy, rolling back progress made in previous years on increasing transparency. We have all heard talk of a ”Singapore-on-Thames” approach to the City of London. That would be bad news globally, but also for the people who live here.

With a Tory Government full of Thatcherites, who have no interest in creating a level playing field on tax with the EU, there is a real risk that the Prime Minister has set the UK on a race to the bottom on tax avoidance. Just weeks after the UK left the EU, the European Union has added a British overseas territory, the Cayman Islands, to a list of tax havens. Markus Ferber, of the group of the European People’s party (Christian Democrats), has said:

The UK would be well advised to take note that EU finance ministers put a British overseas territory on the blacklist of tax havens.

This sends a clear signal that the idea of turning the UK into a tax haven will not be acceptable to the EU.”

The Minister who will wind up the debate should explain exactly what he is doing to address that blacklisting as a matter of urgency.

There are already significant holes in the system preventing dirty money from being moved around. My former colleague Roger Mullin and I have spoken on numerous occasions in this place about the problems surrounding Scottish limited partnerships, which still freely allow people to hide and move dirty money between countries.