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Tax Avoidance and Evasion

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:50 pm on 25th February 2020.

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Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Conservative, Thirsk and Malton 2:50 pm, 25th February 2020

It related to income tax. [Interruption.] The point I was making was about income tax. The shadow Chancellor talked about raising taxes from the people who earn the most, and I was simply responding to that point. I have said in the Chamber many times that we should clamp down on tax avoidance and tax evasion.

The shadow Chancellor strikes me as the failed football manager turned TV pundit—having lost all his games by a wide margin, he suddenly complains when the incumbent manager is only winning his games 1-0. This Government have done far more to collect avoided and evaded taxes than the previous Administration—that is a fact. We can choose our opinions, but we cannot choose our facts. We need to go further. This is not just about the money; it is about creating a fair and level playing field and building confidence in the system, so that SMEs, which are the lifeblood of our economy and business, feel that they are not playing in a rigged game. It cannot be like that.

It is utterly wrong that we should countenance tax avoidance, because it undermines the level playing field for SMEs, and that has a tangible effect. For example, the Johnston Press, which owns The Yorkshire Post and many other titles around the country, was turning over £177 million in advertising revenue in 2008, and today, that figure is £22 million. There has been a transfer of revenue from areas such as regional press to online advertising, and particularly Google. Johnston Press will have paid its fair share of taxes, as most companies of that size do. Internationally, Google turns over about £100 billion. We know that around 10% of its turnover is in the UK—that is a stated fact—which is £10 billion. Its international profit margin is 22%, which means that it makes £2.2 billion. It should be paying £418 million in corporation tax at 19%, but it pays £67 million. That is simply iniquitous. It cannot be right, and it cannot be sustainable.

I am delighted that the Economic Secretary to the Treasury is on the Front Bench, because I want to give another example of where we are not maintaining a fair and level playing field. It relates to some of our banks and Cerberus. UK lenders who pay UK tax have sold their loan books to inactive lenders who work offshore and do not pay corporation tax or operate on the same regulatory playing field. Cerberus, which has bought loan books off Northern Rock and UK Asset Resolution, plays by a completely different set of rules. Its costs are therefore lower, which means that it can afford to pay more for those loan books. It does not properly look after its customers, nor does it have the responsibility to look after them and treat them fairly. We have to make an extra effort to ensure that everybody operates on a fair and level playing field. Cerberus paid £15,000 in corporation tax on six subsidiaries in 2015, despite working on a 20% profit margin.

In terms of my own business experience, our business grew to a point where we were making a reasonable profit. Our adviser—a normal accountant, not one of the big four—said, “How about trying this scheme to avoid tax?” It was perfectly legal, but we refused to take that option, because we did not think that it was right. We need to work harder with advisers and promoters to ensure that everybody pays their fair share of tax. The Government use the big four in many ways and take their advice, and it seems wrong that those very companies then go to large multinational companies and others and show them how to avoid tax.

One of the solutions is country-by-country reporting. We have a precedent for that, with the bookmakers’ point of consumption tax. The Labour party came up with a ruse that involved charging businesses in terms of where their economic activity, people and premises are, and there is very much a basis for that. We need to ensure that what the Government have done through the digital services tax and diverted profits tax narrows the gap for companies such as Google and Facebook.

We need to implement some other key measures, including on transparency about overseas entities and ownership of property, which is a way to avoid tax and move money around the world illegally and unfairly. We need to see measures on beneficial ownership in overseas territories brought forward to 2023. Finally, a corporate offence of failure to prevent economic crime and money laundering would reduce the amount of money that is illegally shifted out of the UK into foreign jurisdictions and increase the amount of tax that is paid.