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Anti-corruption Summit — [Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:43 am on 3rd May 2016.

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Photo of Jon Ashworth Jon Ashworth Shadow Minister without Portfolio (Cabinet Office) 10:43 am, 3rd May 2016

I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. This issue is of such importance to me that I was determined to be here despite the ongoing celebrations in Leicester, the city I represent. I reassure you, Sir Edward, that I will be celebrating Leicester’s remarkable victory tonight.

I congratulate Nigel Mills and my hon. Friend Catherine McKinnell, both of whom have worked so hard on the all-party parliamentary group on anti-corruption, on being instrumental in securing this excellent debate. The hon. Gentleman, in particular, made a fine, well-considered speech that raised many key questions, and we look forward to hearing the answers from the Minister. Equally, my hon. Friend made a serious, heavyweight contribution with many good, practical suggestions, and I look forward to the Minister’s assessment of her points.

Obviously, my right hon. Friend Dame Margaret Hodge made a typically forensic speech, and I pay tribute to all her work, both in her role on the Public Accounts Committee in the previous Parliament and in the role she continues to play in this Parliament on pushing these issues. Parliament is so much the better for her being here and for her work, and we are all grateful to her.

Damian Collins made an interesting contribution, and he has shown great tenacity in pursuing corruption in sport. I hope that he continues to pursue those issues, and I look forward to seeing where his inquiries take him. There was much in his speech that is of concern to us all, and I hope that, if not this Minister, Ministers in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport will respond to him adequately. Patrick Grady mentioned some of the issues that I will particularly address in my brief contribution, especially on the developing world.

There is consensus on both sides of the House on the importance of addressing corruption, and we would all agree with the Prime Minister and his strategy when he reminds us that corruption harms societies, undermines economic development and threatens democracy. In the past, he talked about the golden thread of conditions that allow countries to thrive, and the absence of corruption is one of those conditions. The Opposition welcome the summit because, as has been said many times in this debate, some campaigners estimate that illegal tax evasion, corrupt deals for natural resources and money laundering cause between $100 billion and $2 trillion-worth of money to flow out of developing countries every year. Estimates suggest that corruption equates to more than 5% of global GDP. The World Economic Forum’s analysis shows that corruption increases the cost of doing business by up to 10%, and it suggests that cutting corruption by just 10% could benefit the global economy by nearly $400 billion a year.

We welcome the summit, which is an opportunity for the Government to show leadership, as many Members have said. The summit meets against the backdrop of the Panama papers. Indeed, the full details of the papers will be released just three days before the summit. Surely, the test for the summit in the eyes of the public will now be how it responds to the issues raised by the Panama papers. There has been widespread revulsion at the revelations, which is understandable, and many people are interested in the impact of the Panama papers on our domestic scene and in the political fallout from the Prime Minister’s tax returns and the way that he had to come to Parliament and from the number of Tory party donors caught up in the Panama papers.

Interesting though that is, and we all accept that the Government probably still have more to answer, for me the biggest issue raised by the Panama papers was the revelation of chronic corruption that has helped people to siphon billions of pounds from Africa, stealing from some of the globe’s very poorest people. Africa is a continent rich in natural resources, yet its people are poor because, too often, foreign investment has been channelled through offshore centres such as the British Virgin Islands. Fortunes are being made and siphoned from Africa, rather than being spent on the schools, hospitals and infrastructure needed across the continent. Surely, it is obscene that, for example, a Jersey-based oil company can instruct Mossack Fonseca to shift its registration from the Bahamas to Mauritius, to avoid more than £280 million in tax on the sale of an oilfield in Uganda—£280 million is more than the Ugandan Government will spend this year on health services. Surely, it is a disgrace when major mining concessions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are acquired at seemingly below market rates and sold on for $1.4 billion, which is almost double the combined annual budgets for health and education in a country with one of the world’s highest child mortality rates, by taking advantage of such offshore accounts.

Surely, the test for the summit now is how the UK deals with its overseas territories and Crown dependencies. As has been said throughout the debate, the Prime Minister has previously pledged to introduce a fully public register, and he has previously written to the overseas territories demanding such a register. I will not run through all the quotations because of time, but last year in Singapore he said

“when you have companies whose ownership isn’t known you allow a shroud of secrecy behind which people can do bad things, sometimes terrible things, with no accountability.”

On the overseas territories and Crown dependencies, he went on to boast that he would

“take concrete steps to force the pace.”

Sadly, those concrete steps have been smashed up. Just two months ago, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury said that the overseas territories and Crown dependencies are “not committed” to a public register of beneficial ownership:

The United Kingdom is leading the way in respect of a public register of beneficial ownership, but other countries, including the overseas territories, are not committed to that.”—[Official Report, 1 March 2016;
Vol. 606, c. 815.]

As many Members have said, is now not the time for the Government to insist that the overseas territories and Crown dependencies take the action necessary? To what extent will that be on the agenda for the summit, and will the summit agree a timetable to force those jurisdictions to publish central public registers of beneficial ownership? Not to do so would surely mean that the summit fails the test set for it by reasonable people. As the hon. Member for Amber Valley asked, which overseas territories and Crown dependencies will attend the summit?

Very quickly—I appreciate that the Minister will want time to sum up—as well as action on beneficial ownership, which is vital, we want action on tax reporting. It has been disappointing, given the summit’s aims and the Chancellor’s stated support, that past proposals in the European Parliament calling for published country-by-country reporting by companies of the details of where they earn their money and pay taxes have been defeated by Conservative MEPs. Does he not agree that it is now time for the Government to deliver on their promise to introduce country-by-country reporting for multinational companies, and can he tell us what progress will be made on that at the summit? My right hon. Friend the Member for Barking discussed money laundering. I will not go over that because of time, but again, will the Minister respond to those issues and detail what response we can expect at the summit?

The Minister has been asked a number of questions that I hope he can answer. As I said, we welcome the summit. We want concrete action on registers with respect to overseas territories and Crown dependencies. The Government can force action. There is a degree of consensus across the House, but when Governments tolerate large-scale tax avoidance by big corporations and the wealthy and fail to address legitimate concerns about tax havens, it is our constituents, public services and some of the poorest people in the world who suffer. If we refuse to act, we create the conditions for the inaction of others. The Government have an opportunity to show leadership at the summit; they must not squander it.