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Tax Avoidance and Evasion

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:54 pm on 25th February 2020.

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Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Labour, Barking 1:54 pm, 25th February 2020

I welcome the debate this afternoon so early in the new Parliament, but the importance of tackling aggressive tax avoidance, tax evasion, economic crime and money laundering cannot be overstated, and this debate will not go away until the Government are seen to have taken far more action, not just uttering warm words of support in principle but demonstrating firm action in practice.

There is a lot of money at stake, and that is not just reflected in the tax gap, as others have suggested. The tax gap does not measure the money that we should be collecting in tax from, for example, the profits from the activities that big digital companies undertake here. Looking simply at the tax gap, as currently defined by HMRC, is not enough if we are serious about tackling tax avoidance, tax evasion and economic crime.

As I said, a lot of money is at stake, which is important when we have a new Government who have pledged to restore some of the cuts that they have implemented over the past decade and to invest in services and who want to level up living standards across the country. Fairness is at the heart of this debate, as has already been said. It is not about castigating the rich or anything like that; it is about ensuring that everybody pays their fair share of tax. Everybody should contribute to the common pot for the common good from the wealth they own or the income they receive. It is about ensuring that everybody is treated equally before the law. Until everybody in the nation, particularly the 85% who pay their tax automatically through the PAYE system, can be sure that there is fairness in who pays tax and how much they pay, we will not be able to raise the necessary revenue to fund the services that this country so desperately demands.

I urge the Government and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to listen carefully to what is being said in today’s debate. There is a cross-party consensus on many of the issues, and the Government need to heed that. They will be unable to ignore the voice of Parliament, despite their increased majority, because to do so would be morally wrong and totally unprincipled.

Let me give a figure that has not been mentioned so far. The National Crime Agency estimates—the figure has not changed and, if anything, has gone up—that about £100 billion of illicit money flows through Britain each year. We have become the jurisdiction of choice for too many kleptocrats, too many criminals and too many people who want to launder their money. We will never build a global Britain on the back of dirty money. Post-Brexit Britain will not prosper by, at best, ignoring the extent of the problems of avoidance and economic crime or, at worst, facilitating it.

I ask the Government to respond to four current concerns. In 2018, Mr Mitchell, who is in America talking to elected representatives about how to tackle evasion and avoidance, and I led a successful cross-party campaign to place on the statute book an obligation on overseas territories to provide public registers of beneficial ownership. In 2019, the Crown dependencies, recognising that the will of Parliament was to include them in the legislation, voluntarily agreed to come along with that. We accepted a concession that registers should be implemented by 2023—too late, but it was better to have the scheme accepted by all parties. I remind Members of why the change is so important. We have already heard today that half the entities named in the Panama papers were registered in just one of our overseas territories: the British Virgin Islands. Secrecy enables wrongdoing, and we must understand that.

Our Crown dependencies are as complicit as the overseas territories, and I have two examples: Silvio Berlusconi was accused of bribing two judges, and the payments were allegedly made through a secret offshore branch of the Berlusconi empire, with funds sent to the judges’ bank accounts in Switzerland through a Jersey-based company; and Bono used a company in Guernsey to hide the profits he made in Lithuania.

We need public registers of beneficial ownership in both the Crown dependencies and the overseas territories. Transparency is a key tool in tackling evasion and economic crime. Global Witness has shown a thirst for open access to company data. Since 2015, when the paywall came down on UK company data searches, there have been, on average, 2 billion searches a year, compared with just 6 million a year before the pay wall came down. It has been used by individuals, investigative journalists, campaigning organisations and the voluntary sector, and it has been used by businesses to try to ensure other businesses are treated fairly.

What support have the Government now put in place to help the overseas territories and Crown dependencies implement public registers? Will the Minister confirm the 2023 date this afternoon? Has he taken any steps to bring that date forward? That would be perfectly possible.

Research from Tax Watch shows that, between them, the big five global digital companies—Google, Cisco, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple—paid £240 million in corporation tax in 2018. They should have paid £1.3 billion according to Tax Watch’s calculation of the activity they undertook here, the profits they made here and, therefore, the corporation tax bill that was liable here.

The Government’s proposed digital services tax is the beginning of an answer, but, by 2023, it will raise only around £400 million, which is a tiny start to ensuring that these large global corporations pay a proper amount of tax on digital services. It makes me so angry, because these companies are as dependent as anybody else on the services our tax provides. They need a well-educated workforce, which is provided from taxpayers’ money; they need a healthy workforce, which is provided from taxpayers’ money; and they need infrastructure—whether roads, the internet or whatever else—which is often also provided from taxpayers’ money.