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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

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. Anyone who thinks that moving money around in this way is consequence-free should look very carefully at what actually happens to the proceeds of these funds when they are moved around.

SLPs have their own separate legal personality, which means that a firm can contract and own assets without lifting the veil to see who is really buying them. In 2016 the UK Government obliged SLPs to register a person of significant control, but there is virtually no enforcement and virtually no consequences for people who fail to register companies in the proper way. Last time I checked, thousands of partnerships had failed to register a person of significant control. I should be interested to learn from the Government how many fines have been recovered, and the value of those fines.

This scandal is still having an impact, despite legislation being in place. The dogged investigative journalist David Leask revealed in January that SLPs had been implicated in the payment of mercenaries in a private air war in Libya. If the United Nations is taking an interest in the abuse of SLPs, this UK Government should be taking action urgently. A quick Google search reveals umpteen companies advertising their services in setting up SLPs from abroad and extolling the virtues of this tax-free, opaque way of conducting nefarious business. There is no comeback for firms protecting those who will not register a person of significant control, and no comeback for the perpetrators either. It is well known that SLPs are being used for criminal activity and have been linked to international scandals, not least the Azerbaijani laundromat, in which £2.9 billion was laundered through four UK companies, which were able to file paperwork disguising their true ownership without any flags being raised.

At the heart of this is the gaping chasm in our regulatory system that is Companies House. Companies House is obliged only to register companies, not to carry out any verification or due diligence. This must change urgently, because it undermines the credibility of the UK. It is farcical that the only person convicted for filing false information has been a whistleblower, Kevin Brewer, who did it to highlight the nonsense of the registration process. I ask the Minister: what has changed since that prosecution? Why will the Government not reform a system that is open to such flagrant abuses? If I want to do my tax return online or get a passport, I would require to use the UK Government’s Verify scheme. If I want to set up a company, I can do so online for £12 with absolutely no checks. Why do the UK Government insist that people pay so much for driving licences, passports or UKVI applications but so little to set up a company, especially when those companies can go on to facilitate tax avoidance and evasion? It is high time the Tories sat up and took stock of the scale and extent of the tax avoidance and criminal activity linked to the lack of proper checks by Companies House and the abuse of SLPs. Only by doing so can they put forward a practical and effective solution that will adequately tackle the problem.

HMRC highlighted a loss in 2016-17 of between £1 billion and £1.5 billion on digital sales through VAT fraud. I note that the Association of Accounting Technicians has called for online platforms to be made liable for the collection and remittance of VAT. That money is going uncollected. We know where the goods are going—they are going into people’s houses and through retailers—so there is a digital chain there that we can follow. The UK Government should deal with this VAT avoidance.

I also ask for an update on the registration of overseas entities Bill, on whose pre-legislative joint scrutiny Committee I sat. Property is yet another way in which money can be hidden and taxes avoided, and that Bill will be a vital tool to clamp down on the flow of dirty money. The Committee also noted the abuse of trusts—as we close one loophole, another opens—and the Government must look into that as well. Trusts are being used as a means of hiding the true ownership of property and companies.