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Tax Avoidance and Evasion

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:20 pm on 25th February 2020.

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Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Opposition Whip (Commons) 3:20 pm, 25th February 2020

May I start by congratulating the two new Members on their maiden speeches—the hon. Members for Stourbridge (Suzanne Webb) and for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards)?

The business of tax avoidance, as has been discussed this afternoon, is a serious issue. We show extraordinary world leadership in this, but for all the wrong reasons. Since 2010, a permissive attitude to tax avoidance has been allowed to develop. Let us think back to Chancellor George Osborne and how he advised people on TV just to think, “Well, you know, all you need is clever financial products to help reduce your tax costs”. It really sent out the wrong signal—“Why pay tax at all? Pay the least you possibly can”—as opposed to being responsible and recognising the benefits of tax.

That has been facilitated by the growth of professional enablers. We saw that with the Panama papers, which laid bare the industrial-scale activity in tax havens such as the British overseas territories and Crown dependencies. We think of the Cayman Islands, which is the most secretive territory of all, and the British Virgin Islands, Guernsey and Jersey, which are in the top 20. Just last week, the EU blacklisted the Cayman Islands as the first UK territory on the non-co-operative list due to its tax haven status.

Do not get me wrong—I understand that this is a global problem and it needs international action—but we actually have to go to Davos to talk about these things, and of course the Prime Minister was a no-show there as well. It needs international action, and the UK should be looking to lead on this to restore its reputation. We need leadership, not just simply to be tax lackeys. The Government need to exercise control, not cede control. Let us look at the big accountancy firms. I appreciate the points made by Kevin Hollinrake, and I agree with him that on the one hand they are advising the Government, but on the other hand they are advising businesses, and I do not see how we can quite square that particular circle.