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Tax Avoidance and Evasion

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:34 pm on 25th February 2020.

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Photo of Sarah Olney Sarah Olney Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 2:34 pm, 25th February 2020

It is a great pleasure to follow the maiden speech of Suzanne Webb. My constituents in Richmond Park will have listened with great envy to tales of an efficient, on-time train system, so I thank her for that.

The most recent estimates of the tax gap in the UK—between what is due to HMRC and what is actually collected—are in the region of £35 billion. As a proportion of overall tax owed, this is just over 5.5%. The proportion has actually fallen in recent years, but this needs to be set against a backdrop of increasing austerity, which impacts disproportionately on the poorest in society. If the Government’s goal is to balance the books, they need to collect all the money they are owed with the same rigour as they manage their expenditure. A society that is quick to sanction those who fall foul of the rules on claiming benefits should be just as quick to penalise those who avoid paying their fair share of tax. As parliamentarians, our interest in the tax gap should not be in its size, its proportion as a share of tax collected or its comparison to prior years, but in the efforts taken by the Government to reduce it, as an indicator of their commitment to fairness and the equal treatment of every citizen, regardless of their income.

As we transition from our membership of the European Union to whatever we are headed towards, attention must be focused on anti-money laundering regulations. The proposed sanctions and anti-money laundering legislation would give Ministers powers to scrap existing EU regulations and replace them with UK laws. The Liberal Democrats are concerned that enthusiasm among some on the Conservative Benches for a bonfire of regulations—a “Singapore-on-Thames” style, low-tax, low-regulation UK economy—will result in these new regulations been watered down, to the benefit of those who would prefer less intrusion in their financial affairs. What assurance can the Government give us that the UK outside of the EU will clamp down just as firmly on tax evasion as it did when it was within EU structures?

The Conservatives’ previous attitude to tax havens does not inspire. Sir Vince Cable, while Business Secretary during the coalition, introduced a “people with significant control” register for anyone who owns more than 25% of a UK registered company, or otherwise exercises significant control over it. These PSC registers were due to be extended to cover the British overseas territories, until they were vetoed by the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, after intensive lobbying. Will the same forces be brought to bear on our post-EU anti-money laundering regulations? Will the Conservatives stand up for the ordinary taxpayers of this country and put in place robust measures to tackle financial crime?

The Liberal Democrats called for the extension of the register of beneficial ownership to all British overseas territories so that accurate assessments of tax owing can be made. Companies that do not voluntarily disclose this information should be barred from bidding for Government contracts, on the basis that companies that may be avoiding contributing to the public purse should not be expected to benefit from it. Furthermore, HMRC should be properly resourced so that tax avoidance can be identified and redressed. With tax inspectors stretched to the limit, too many claims go unscrutinised and too few spot checks are carried out. The Social Market Foundation estimates that under-reporting is considerably more prevalent than current analysis suggests, and that the tax gap may in fact be much wider than the stated £35 billion. The 2019 Liberal Democrat manifesto called for a general anti-avoidance rule, under which all the little loopholes and anti-avoidance measures could be prosecuted without specific legislation. HMRC could make far greater progress in closing the tax gap if it had sufficient legislative tools. A Government committed to levelling up and treating all taxpayers fairly would introduce such a measure in their forthcoming Budget.

I confess to a little wry smile when the Minister mentioned the Making Tax Digital programme and its hoped-for success in reducing the tax gap. Before I was elected to this place, I was the financial accountant for Historic Royal Palaces. In that role, I was responsible for introducing Making Tax Digital into the organisation, and I have to say that although it was successfully implemented and the organisation is now reporting under that regime, the implementation was significantly held up by the very poor drafting of the legislation that introduced it.

The tax gap needs to be closed. This is money that belongs to us and to our constituents. Week after week, we all see the consequences of too little money in our public services. The tax gap is money taken out of the pockets of the poorest in society, and the Government must not sit back and allow this to happen.