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Tax Avoidance and Evasion

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:47 pm on 25th February 2020.

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Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Conservative, East Hampshire 1:47 pm, 25th February 2020

This is an important subject for debate this afternoon, first because we need tax receipts to fund our public services and, secondly, because as my hon. Friend Kevin Hollinrake said, people expect to see fairness. They expect to see everyone and every entity shouldering their fair share of the burden. Sadly, there are people who have an interest in trying to get round the system and to cheat the system, and they strive harder and harder every year to do so. We live now in a more complex world and a more complex new economy that is more multinational, more digital, more services-based, and that can create new opportunities for those organisations and people.

However, the gap is much bigger and older than that. According to HMRC’s own estimates, the biggest part of the tax gap is about individuals and organisations failing to take reasonable care, followed by legal interpretation, illegal tax evasion and then the exploitation of loopholes through avoidance. It is important to note that all economies suffer a tax gap. According to a UN World Institute study in 2017, the world loss from tax avoidance was estimated at $500 billion. That is not the whole tax gap; it is the element that results from avoidance. Proportionally, the countries that suffer most are not wealthy countries such as ours but low income and lower middle income countries. According to analysis by Statista of the total loss, the countries that suffer the biggest loss are the United States, with more than $180 billion; Japan, with somewhere around $50 billion; and France and Germany, with between $15 billion and $20 billion. According to the analysis, the UK was at that time down at somewhere below $2 billion. One can quibble about the detail of the methodology, but it would take a massive error and correction to put the UK close to some of those comparable countries.

Overall, the UK tax gap is less than 6%, as my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said, and one of the lowest in the world. It is also one of the most accurately measured in the world. Some members of the Opposition Front-Bench team—they have gone now—were muttering earlier, “You’ve been in government for 10 years. What have you been doing?” Well, we have been bringing down the tax gap. If we compare the tax gap in 2005-06 with 2015-16, it has come down from somewhere close to 8% to somewhere under 6%. It is still a big issue to be tackled, and I am pleased and proud that this Government are redoubling their efforts and leading internationally in that regard.

All countries do some degree of tax competition, either explicitly or implicitly, and our tax regime is one reason why we have attracted many international companies to base themselves here, create jobs and grow our economy. However, I am afraid to say that many companies do try to reduce their tax. Sometimes, they say that they have a fiduciary duty to their shareholders to do so, but Governments also have a fiduciary duty to their shareholders: our citizens and our taxpayers. We simply cannot have the sort of aggressive tax avoidance that we have seen from some companies, because our public services rely on tax receipts. There will be battles over what constitutes economic activity and over what is a legitimate location for intellectual property, but our argument is simple: “If you benefit from our economy, you must contribute to our economy.”

Since 2010, more than 100 measures have been taken on evasion, avoidance and non-compliance. On enforcement, HMRC’s litigation and settlement strategy was refreshed in 2011. The office of the Tax Assurance Commissioner was established in 2012. Now, we are committed to new anti-avoidance measures, including increasing the maximum prison term, a single beefed-up unit in HMRC and a new package of anti-evasion measures.

Just as important—in fact, it is probably more important —is the work that this country has been doing internationally under Conservative Governments. That started with the 2012 joint statement with France and Germany calling for reform of international tax rules, given that our current system effectively dates back to the 1920s. We used our G8 presidency in 2013 to drive forward the G20 OECD agenda on base erosion and profit shifting—the so-called BEPS project. We were the first country to commit to the country-by-country reporting template and the first to adopt OECD rules to address hybrid mismatch.

I was proud of the 25% diverted profits tax in 2015, and I am proud now that this Government are pushing ahead with the digital services tax. We have always been clear that we would prefer international agreement, but if that is not possible, we will go it alone. If international progress now makes the digital services tax obsolete, great. That would be the best outcome of all, but if it does not, unless and until that is the case, we are right to proceed.

There is important work on avoidance, evasion and non-compliance, but what we cannot do, as we sometimes hear from Opposition Members, is to pretend and mislead people that overcoming this kind of cheating and making the system work better will solve all our fiscal challenges. The same goes for pretending that it is possible for just about anything to be paid for by “the rich” and “corporations”. In the end, all taxes are taxes on individuals. On company taxes—corporation tax is part of a suite of taxes alongside VAT, national insurance and business rates—it is right to offer companies an attractive rates of corporation tax that reward investment and job creation, but they must invest in their people’s skills, which is why we have the apprenticeship levy. We must also ensure that people are paid properly, and that is why we have the national living wage.

I commend the Government for their world-leading work. There is always more to be done, but I will vote against this misleading motion.