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Tax Avoidance and Evasion

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:57 pm on 25th February 2020.

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Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham 2:57 pm, 25th February 2020

Again, I would like to speak rubbish—actually, the evasion of landfill tax. I have spoken about this subject on a number of occasions. The Government are making progress in clamping down on it, but more needs to be done. The landfill tax was introduced in 1996 for perfectly good reasons—to avoid household waste and other waste going into landfill—and it has largely been successful. But over the years, as the tax rate has risen, it has become a target for wholesale fraud on a small scale and a large scale, involving organised crime. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs “Measuring tax gaps” in 2016 said that the gap on landfill tax was £125 million a year. I dispute that; I think it is a lot higher, and organisations such as the Environmental Services Association think that it could be upwards of £1 billion a year.

People ask why this matters. It matters for two reasons. Taxpayers are losing revenue, and the cost of cleaning up the sites when things go wrong usually falls on the local authority or taxpayers. In addition, because of a lack of regulation on what goes into these sites, the long-term environmental impact on areas can be immense. This is an organised system. The threshold for getting into the business is low. Individuals involved in organised crime use it as a way of laundering money and, as the Financial Secretary to the Treasury knows, the case that I referred to a couple of years ago is still ongoing. I asked for a meeting with him and I understand that I now have a meeting with someone in HMRC. They have told me that they can come and see me but they will not tell me anything, which I find, frankly, a bit insulting to someone who is a Privy Counsellor and sat on the Intelligence and Security Committee, and who knows how to keep secrets better than anyone.

The important thing is that we drive this hard because it is not just a matter of the lost revenue but what waste crime is fuelling in terms of organised crime. In the north-east, Durham Police and other police forces are working co-operatively with the Environment Agency and others to tackle some of the worst offenders. I invite the Financial Secretary to come and look at the work that they are actually doing. But again, it comes down to a problem with HMRC. I was told that the case that I have just referred to was not really important because it was less than £20 million a year. That worries me because the emphasis has got to be on clamping down on this as hard as possible, not just because of the lost revenue but because of the impact. The clean money that comes out of the system goes into fuelling other criminal activities.

The Government have made some progress, and I welcome the new unit for waste crime. It is a start in trying to get all the agencies together to deal with the problem. I mean no disrespect to the Environment Agency, but it cannot tackle this on its own. It has got to be a joint effort. There are things that we could do now to clamp down on this crime. In her 2018 recommendations Lizzie Noel called for regulation, for example, of waste brokers, which I certainly support, and also the mandatory tracking of waste. I would go one step further. Waste brokers should own responsibility for where large pieces of waste go. As in the case that I referred to earlier, large companies produce waste and put it into a criminal network. If local authorities and even police authorities are doing it, it begs the question whether once the waste goes out of their gates people forget about it. That cannot be acceptable. We must make sure not only that the tax is paid but that the waste is disposed of in as environmentally friendly a way as possible.

We can make progress. Enforcement is good value for money. If we clamp down on the fraud that is going on, according to the Environmental Services Association Educational Trust, every £1 of enforcement yields as much as £5.60 in return, of which £3.60 goes directly back to the Government. I welcome the enforcement that is going on. I just want to ensure that it is financed well enough to achieve the returns. If it is done properly, enforcement will pay for itself. It is something that I feel passionate about, because I cannot stand to see criminals getting away with things as they clearly are, costing the taxpayer money and ruining our environment. So a clampdown in this area would be good for the taxpayer, good for the environment and more broadly, good for society.