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Tax Avoidance and Evasion

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:50 pm on 25th February 2020.

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Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman The Financial Secretary to the Treasury 3:50 pm, 25th February 2020

I am delighted to wind up the debate for the Government. It has been a fascinating debate. There has, of course, been extensive discussion of the issues of tax avoidance and evasion, but we have also heard about lemon meringue pie and West Bromwich Albion, and we have heard two sparkling maiden speeches, for which I thank my new hon. Friends. It has been a cornucopia of joy for everyone interested in these issues.

Before I deal with the debate itself, may I dwell for a second on the Tax Justice Network report, which is central to the motion? We are repeatedly enjoined to trust it as an authoritative assessment of the UK’s position, but I suggest that nothing could be further from the truth. Those who look closely at the report will see that it generates absurd outcomes. In its list of 133 jurisdictions, we supposedly come 12th in terms of offensiveness, yet near the bottom we see Brunei, Vanuatu and Liberia. Is anyone seriously suggesting that this country is a less robust and effectively transparent tax jurisdiction than those?

The reason for that mistake is the fact that the findings are based on an entirely flawed methodology which accepts the proposition that the UK is one of the least secret jurisdictions in the world. I believe it is the eighth least secret, according to the report. Because its authors have some fudge factor, or financial multiplier, they have somehow able to deduce this extraordinary further conclusion. In fact, it is bogus. As was pointed out by a partner at Clifford Chance, the excellent Mr Dan Neidle— [Hon. Members: “That is not an answer.”] He is a tax partner at Clifford Chance who was offering his view, but that was a nice try from the Opposition Front Bench. He is quoted as saying that

“Britain still scored badly despite making significant strides ahead of its global peers on fostering greater”



This, he said, was because the report calculates its final secrecy score based on the volume of financial activity conducted by non-residents.”

That is, of course, further to the issue of the core secrecy of the regime, and, as I have said, ours is one of the most transparent.

The report is bogus. It is based on a flawed methodology, and one that is itself secret to the point of being hard to scrutinise. However, I will say one more thing about it: although bogus in many respects, it does accurately place much of the blame for the current situation on the very soft-touch regulatory regime initiated under the Labour Government of 1997. That much, at least, is accurate.

Let me now deal with the main topic of the debate. Of course it is right to focus on the size of the tax gap —the gap between tax owed and tax paid—and I am delighted that it has fallen to a near record low of 5.6%. In his excellent speech, my hon. Friend Nigel Mills asked whether we could introduce a target. It is, of course a retrospective measure. HMRC’s attempt to get close to this point involves the concept of compliance yield, amounting to £34.5 billion this year, which is itself a stretching target. However, the good news is that the 5.6% target is some 0.7% below the average of the last five years of the Labour Administration. That is about £4 billion of tax which we, I am pleased to say, are collecting, and which, had they stayed in office, they would not have collected. It has also rightly been pointed out that at the last Budget the Government announced 21 new measures to tackle avoidance, but of course they were voted down by the Opposition. Last year, these compliance activities brought in some additional £34 billion, and since 2010 compliance activities have secured and protected more than £200 billion of tax revenue. That is a record of which we can all be proud.

It is an interesting fact that, when he came to consider the loan charge, Sir Amyas Morse focused on the earliest date on which he believed the charge could be properly validated in law. That date was December 2010. In other words, we supposedly had 10 years of loan charge non-compliance under the Labour party, which received no legal justification or support. I do not actually believe that that is true. HMRC was correct in chasing those people as it did, and that will be proved, but the fact is that Sir Amyas himself has pointed to the slapdash manner in which the last Government addressed this whole issue.

Let me pick on some of the important comments that have been made in the debate. My right hon. Friend Damian Hinds was absolutely right to highlight the importance of the quality of data in our system. He was also right to focus on the diverted profits tax and the digital services tax as examples of activities that we are undertaking in order to improve compliance. Dame Margaret Hodge raised a series of important points, and I want to spend time on those. We have discussed them in an Adjournment debate, and it is interesting that she has come back to them today. She is absolutely right to say that the centrality of the tax system should be one of fairness. It should not be one of penalising any particular section of the public—rich or poor, wherever they live, whatever they might be doing.

The right hon. Lady asked about public registers of beneficial ownership. It is important for me to say that the law enforcement agencies need to have access to the information they need to tackle money laundering. That is what really matters at the core of this. The Government have ensured that the recently established register of trusts is specifically designed to capture overseas trusts for that reason. She is right to focus, as did Anneliese Dodds, on the progress that has been made on public registers of beneficial information. The right hon. Member for Barking raised the question of beneficial owners of overseas entities. She will know that that register will be the first of its type in the world, and we will go further to increase transparency in the UK property market. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is the lead Department on this, and it has published a draft Bill that has undergone pre-legislative scrutiny.

The right hon. Lady also raised the question of creative sector tax relief. She will understand that in order to qualify for film and high-end tax reliefs, businesses have to incur a proportion of their production costs in the UK and pass a test for cultural content administered by the British Film Institute. I cannot comment on the specific circumstances of individual companies, but she ought to be aware that HMRC carries out a detailed check of each claim for creative sector tax relief, and that large businesses are subjected to an exceptional level of scrutiny. The point is that large businesses, like all other taxpayers, should pay the taxes due under UK law and implement compliance checks where necessary.

The right hon. Lady talked about country-by-country registration. Private country-by-country registration is of course in place. The problem lies in securing the international agreement required to roll out the public registration. It demands a measure of international agreement, and that is something that we continue to focus on. That is a Conservative act of leadership that we are still in the process of taking forward. She is right to pick on some other areas. I would just point out that the disclosure of tax avoidance schemes, the promoters of tax avoidance scheme rules—which can lead to significant penalties—and the enabler penalties that we put in place are all important, and I anticipate that will be strengthening them further over time. Let me pick up a couple of other quick points—