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Tax Avoidance and Evasion

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:20 pm on 25th February 2020.

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Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment) 2:20 pm, 25th February 2020

First, let me congratulate Nicola Richards on her maiden speech. I particularly enjoyed her contribution on West Bromwich Albion and the three trailblazers she mentioned. Cyrille Regis and others did blaze a trail for many in our society, but they obviously had to combat some racism too. One organisation that I am involved with in Parliament is the Show Racism the Red Card all-party group, and I hope that she will consider joining it. Again, I congratulate her on her maiden speech.

The importance of this debate is to show how we deal with certain issues as a society. How does a country treat its poorest and how does it treat its richest? How do we treat the vulnerable who are having their benefit payments cut? Public services are under-resourced, infant mortality rates are increasing, and life expectancy is faltering. Then, of course, there is the use of food banks and food aid provision by more than 1 million people. In contrast, there are others in society who benefit from sweetheart deals.

I intervened on the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to ask him about HMRC’s resources. In fact, I will concentrate most of my remarks on that issue and on how we tackle tax evasion and avoidance. There is absolutely no excuse whatever for HMRC’s wealthy unit—the body responsible for dealing with tax avoidance and evasion—to have had 80 posts cut in one year, from 2018 to 2019. Let me put that into perspective. There are 961 full-time equivalents in HMRC’s wealthy unit, as opposed to the 1,400 full- time equivalents who are hired by the Department for Work and Pensions to tackle social security fraud. Let us contrast the figures. Social security fraud is estimated at £1.2 billion, yet the Department has more resources to tackle that matter than HMRC’s wealthy unit has to tackle tax avoidance and evasion. The only difficulty that I have with the Opposition motion is that it underestimates the amount of tax avoidance and evasion that takes place. A report from the Tax Justice Network and the Public and Commercial Services Union estimated that the figure could be as high as £112 billion. When it comes to the actual tax gap and what is missing from the figures, what those on the Treasury Front Bench have not mentioned is the profit-shifting that is going on. Fairly high-profile, large global companies are involved in that activity.

One would think that on an issue such as chasing a large amount of unpaid money, the Government would ensure that the Department was resourced accordingly, and that over the past 10 years, more resources, not fewer, would have been pumped into HMRC. As both the shadow Chancellor and my hon. Friend Alison Thewliss have said, the number of HMRC staff has reduced over the past 10 years from 105,000 in 2010 to 62,000 today—a loss of 40,000 jobs. A Department whose sole responsibility is to bring in revenue should tackle that issue and get some more answers from the Government.

The Government are engaged in the “Building our Future” programme. Frankly, it is a disastrous programme, which has HMRC reducing its offices from 170 to 13 regional centres with five specialist sites. Some of our towns and cities across the UK will lose their largest employer, so where was the economic impact assessment of that programme, and where was the equality impact assessment for employees with disabilities who are being asked to travel more than 100 miles to their new office?

Legislation and regulation are badly needed, but they can work only if HMRC is properly resourced. We cannot have a situation where 14 million people are in poverty. We need real answers and real solutions now. If there are staff reductions as a result of that programme and new staff cannot be attracted, that would suggest that there is, perhaps, a problem with pay and terms and conditions. If that is the case, the Government really need to address those problems. I hope that the Minister, when he sums up, will say a bit more about how HMRC is being resourced, and that if there are resources problems, he will say how we as a House can help tackle those issues.