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Corporate Structures and Financial Crime

Volume 565: debated on Thursday 4 July 2013

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the use of corporate structures in the UK and money laundering, tax evasion and other financial crime.

It gives me pleasure to introduce the debate and to thank the many Members from all parties who proposed it to the Backbench Business Committee, which we also thank for granting us the time for it. Perhaps in anticipation of it, earlier this week the Financial Conduct Authority made by far its strongest ever comment, including those of its predecessor organisation the Financial Services Authority, about the banks and so on. As a relevant introduction to the debate, let me quote Tracey McDermott, head of enforcement at the FSA, who this week said that banks’ trade finance businesses

“remained particularly vulnerable to abuse by criminals and terrorists, and that in some cases the shipments being funded by lenders were just ‘fresh air’.”

Martin Wheatley, the new chief executive of the FCA, warned that organised criminal gangs “filtered, cleaned and rebottled” £10 billion in the UK every year using banks and other financial services.

I will finish my introduction first, because banks are just one aspect of the problem and I want to focus on all aspects in my brief comments.

The problem is that we have opaque structures that mean that people can avoid tax and participate in illegal activities such as smuggling and money laundering. The amount of unregistered money involved is estimated by some analysts worldwide as being in excess of £20 trillion. A third of that is estimated to be directly linked with the European Union, and a third with UK Crown dependencies.

I will illustrate how the problem works. An individual sets up a firm in a country that keeps the names of directors a secret, then links that firm with another firm in a respectable place such as the United Kingdom, where the details of who owns a company do not have to be registered if it is owned by another company. They then set up nominees to be directors of the opaque firm, register with the corporate registry in the initial country, open a bank account for the original firm and funnel money through the firm in the legitimate area to the original firm in the opaque country.

There are many examples of that, and all areas of our national life, such as football, now seem to be covered by such structures. Whether it is illegal or legal, it is a major problem for transparency. We as legislators should be particularly concerned about any illegal aspects, and the banks have been at the forefront of those, as we have seen with the problems of money laundering. HSBC funded Iran with transactions involving £19.4 billion through shell companies over seven years, through the Channel Islands and the Cayman Islands. That broke sanctions but was incredibly hard to trace, because it happened through opaque shell companies

In the case of crime, in one year alone the same company funnelled £7 billion through the Mexican Zetas drug cartel, the biggest and most violent criminal agency anywhere in the world. Again, it did so through shell operations. Various mafias have also been involved.

The BBC’s “Panorama” exposed rather efficiently a woman called Lana Zamba, a Russian-born Cypriot yoga teacher, who was the director of a firm called Nomirex and 23 other UK-based firms. Records showed that those firms were inactive between 2007 and 2009, but “Panorama” demonstrated that £350 million had passed through them in that time.

I thank my hon. Friend for his energy in securing today’s debate. In the cases he outlines, does he agree that the complexity of modern global banking should not be used as an excuse for ignorance by those charged with the stewardship of the banks, and that we should put in place regulatory—and if necessary criminal—sanctions to ensure that responsibility cannot be evaded on the basis of professed ignorance? Responsibility for running large global complex organisations must be taken by those in charge.

My right hon. Friend makes a valid and relevant point about criminal sanctions. The banks’ uniqueness is that they are the channel for funds. Because things are recorded in this technological age, it is straightforward for banks to investigate themselves and see what is going on, so the plea of ignorance by those at the top is inexcusable.

What my right hon. Friend and I are saying, and what I interpret the Financial Services Authority to be saying, is that responsibility must be taken at the top. Pleading ignorance is simply not good enough. We are talking not about small, missed operations but about huge major operations that funnel vast amounts of money. It is easy for banks to identify and track such operations, yet they choose not to do so. There seems to be a particular problem of huge reputational risk to the City of London because banks based in the UK have been those most often caught out. However, I have produced a document that demonstrates that this is not simply a UK problem. In recent years, every one of the top 50 banks in the world has had this problem and experienced prosecutions or ongoing investigations into prosecutions.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing a debate on this subject. Does he agree that a board member should be made explicitly responsibly for each bank’s compliance? Anti-money laundering and due diligence provisions should be used effectively by the authorities to apply existing rules and ensure that people even go to jail if they have committed such crimes.

The hon. Lady makes a valuable point about the importance of compliance and how that must take place at senior level. Everyone at senior level in a bank must take responsibility and be held accountable for the structures within it.

This is not simply a banking problem. Money laundering and some aspects of criminality are the biggest problems in terms of the volume of money involved, but there is also an issue of percentages and actuality of individual companies. Banks are not setting up opaque structures to create criminality; they are turning a blind eye while their structures facilitate criminality. Others are using weaknesses in corporate structure to create criminality.

Of the half a million companies that struck themselves off the UK corporate register in 2010, 40% had never filled in accounts with Companies House, and 33% had paid no corporation tax that year. If large numbers of companies are not submitting accounts and returns to Companies House, we have a fundamental problem. Our problem in dealing with this issue is demonstrated, rather ironically, if we look at the two Front Benches. The hon. Members present are excellently and diligently representing their parties, but one notes that they come from different Departments. That is part of the problem when it comes to Companies House, and I hope the Minister will clarify—we hope on behalf of the Government —who is responsible for Companies House and who should be holding it to account in Parliament.

Companies House is underfunded, under-resourced and perhaps under-specialised, and such opaqueness in our country has grown dramatically, allowing the creation of opaque corporate entities. That encourages criminality and discourages transparency for the general public, decision makers in Parliament and others.

On the impact of such actions, valid estimates indicate that Africa is losing twice as much in tax it cannot collect because of opaque corporate structures as it gets in development aid. In other words, if we cracked this problem, the amount of development aid required from the west to Africa would diminish dramatically because the tax base itself would be generating income, which is, of course, a key component of a vibrant democracy.

I have never understood why successive British Governments have not tightened up in this area. I understand that there needs to be international agreement, but at least in America there would be some accountability; we only have to look at Lehman Brothers and others to see that. I do not understand why we allow tax havens not too far from these shores to exist.

Let me come on to that. In Davos in 2010, the Prime Minister said that he wished to “shine a light” on corporate ownership. In the Lough Erne declaration, the calls were for more transparency, more international co-operation and stopping firms shifting profits to avoid tax.

What needs to be done by Government in these areas? On transparency, it is essential that the Government follow up their G8 commitment and create a UK register of beneficial owners, making things transparent and traceable and deterring people from using this country for illegal purposes. All major countries—not least those in the G8 and the EU—need to collaborate. I note that Italy is already suggesting that it will not collaborate, and we need to tackle those countries that are suggesting that they will not co-operate even with the modest proposals emanating from the G8.

We need effective enforcement with, as we have heard, clear sanctions for law breaking; we need criminal sanctions; we need the collecting of fines. On the corporate structure, I suggest that raising the cost of setting up a company from the current £15 and hypoth—[Interruption]—and using that money explicitly and exclusively to ensure better regulation and policing. Hon. Members know which word I mean but I will not try to spit it out; we might be here for the rest of the afternoon. Hypothecating is the word. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]

Firms that have not filed up-to-date tax returns need much greater sanction for not doing so. The fact that so many choose not to do so and get away with it is a fundamental and major weakness. This is where this House needs to put its beady eye on what is going on at Companies House. Is it properly resourced? Are its powers great enough? Is it doing the job properly? I would suggest that out of those, at least two must be at issue; perhaps all three. We must get on top of this in the near future.

The question of tax liabilities and of how much liability and responsibility are needed for directors in relation to the law needs to be reconsidered. As a specific micro-proposal that I think could have a huge impact, it should be illegal for anyone to set up a bank account outside this country without informing HMRC and Companies House first. In other words, if people are using British corporate structure, we should stop letting them set up overseas operation without anybody knowing what is going on.

We need legislation relating to the Crown dependencies. I have made this point on many occasions and I will make it again briefly now. It is unacceptable that our taxpayers provide defence and legal structures for those countries when they have an opaqueness that, whatever tax system and regime they end up having, does not allow anyone to know what is going on. The football industry in this country provides a good example. In vast numbers of football clubs nobody, including the spectators and those who are owed money when the clubs go bust, has a clue who owns what bit and where and how. These major institutions are an example of how deep the problem has become and how we have failed to deal with it. We need to look to our regulations, such as those being introduced on banking, and think about how they can be applied to UK dependencies. Leaving them as they are is simply unacceptable, and it is becoming increasingly counter-productive for this country.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. I wanted to draw it to his attention that the power has been used several times by the UK already to make the dependencies comply with other parts of regulation, so we could just require them to do what they should do. I would give as examples the banning of the death penalty, the rules on acceptance of homosexuality, and, on a slightly minor level, an acceptance that they should ban pirate radio.

Order. The hon. Lady knows, because it is repeatedly pointed out to her by occupants of the Chair, that interventions must be brief. That was another very long intervention. I think she has made her point. While I am on my feet, may I also say to the hon. Gentleman that he has been speaking for quite a long time? This is a short debate and a lot of people want to get in, including, funnily enough, the hon. Member for Wells (Tessa Munt).

Madam Deputy Speaker, my speech was already at an end, save for the final sentence. I did not wish to hog the debate with illustrations and proposals. I wanted to set some of the terms of the debate and implore those on both Front Benches to come forward with effective proposals, because this is a major issue for the UK economy and for our democracy.

This is probably the first time in my parliamentary career that I find myself almost entirely in agreement with the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann). I think it is right to say—I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister will confirm this—that so too does the Prime Minister. He has stated that he thinks beneficial ownership information should be in the public domain. The head of tax at the CBI has also stated that he thinks that information should be public, saying that it is a “no brainer”. The International Banking Federation has said that this needs to be done, and it supports public registries as a way of making anti-money laundering and “know your customer” requirements both less expensive and more effective.

I wanted to intervene on the hon. Member for Bassetlaw to make a point about money laundering, which now punishes lots of innocent people. One of the biggest supporters of international development in countries like Somaliland or Somalia, are remittances, but they need systems to make them work. Barclays bank, which has facilitated remittances, is now suspending that facility. It is not that it thinks the people receiving the money in Hargeisa or Mogadishu are abusing it; it is concerned that it can no longer properly police who pays the money in because of money laundering. Therefore, large numbers of people living in grinding poverty around the world will now be denied access to an important part of their development funding because of the actions of those who have been engaged in criminal money laundering for a long time.

Anyone who becomes a company director—the Register of Members’ Financial Interests shows that I am a director of a number of companies—must register at Companies House. That includes registering all the other companies of which they are a director and their home address. All sorts of public information is involved, which can be found not only by shareholders but by the general public, the media and non-governmental organisations. The information is totally accessible. There is absolutely no valid reason why that should not apply to corporate structures across the world. It is absolutely right that we should be at the forefront of that.

I also agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Tessa Munt) about the overseas territories. Some 20 years ago, I was a junior Minister in the Foreign Office under Douglas Hurd—now Lord Hurd—as Secretary of State. We undertook a review of the contingent liabilities for the dependent territories, as they then were. There are considerable contingent liabilities, as we saw with the Falkland Islands and elsewhere. Those territories look to us to offer them protection, but as my hon. Friend pointed out in an intervention, there is a quid pro quo. The quid pro quo should be that if they wish to remain overseas territories and benefit from the Crown, the Union flag and all that protection, we should be able to expect their banking systems and company registries to comply with accepted international norms of transparency and accountability.

I am conscious that a number of people want to take part in this debate. What has been put forward this afternoon is substantially a no-brainer. When my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary replies to the debate, I hope he will make it clear that what has been put forward has the full support of the Government, as I am sure it does. As the hon. Member for Bassetlaw made clear, the challenge for us will be ensuring that other G8 countries support us. However, there is absolutely no reason why we should not take a global lead on this—and be proud to take a lead—while the UK has the presidency of the G8.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this debate and am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) for persuading the Backbench Business Committee to hold it. I am extremely concerned, as are all hon. Members, about the morality of cheating in the tax system and, as my hon. Friend said, the economic distortions it creates.

Ordinary small and medium-sized enterprises cannot cheat in that way, and the collapse in the high street is being exacerbated by the tax advantages enjoyed by the internet companies that facilitate online shopping. Indeed, the international internet companies are among the most significant offenders when it comes to tax avoidance. Their business model is built on an apparently free offer to consumers, but the services are paid for by advertising, which is targeted through the collection of personal data from consumers based on the cookie system. I have secured a separate debate in a fortnight’s time on the internet companies’ use of personal data. Today I wish to say something about their business model and its implications.

A Public Accounts Committee report found that between 2006 and 2011, Google paid the equivalent of $16 million in income tax in this country on revenues estimated at $18 billion. It claimed that advertising sales were being made in Ireland, when in fact the two contracting parties were in the UK.

Facebook, another US-based company, has 33 million users in the UK, with 25 million people visiting the site each day. Its revenues from advertising are estimated at around £170 million a year, but last year it reported sales of only £20.4 million. Using that figure for its sales, it reported a pre-tax loss of £13.9 million in 2011, enabling it to pay just £238,000 in tax last year. The position with Twitter is even worse, if that is possible to imagine. It did not even submit any accounts last year.

I want to set the behaviour of those companies, in relation to their corporate structures and tax performances, in the context of the cost to society and the public purse that they are creating. Everyone agrees that online child abuse is a serious crime. We in Parliament, the public and the industry are committed to its eradication. The Internet Watch Foundation is a fantastic organisation that takes down sites that carry child abuse images. It is a membership organisation for the industry, so we were all shocked to hear of the very small contributions that the industrialists were making to its work. Until a month ago, Google was donating £20,000 to the Internet Watch Foundation. In recent weeks, it has upped its contribution to £250,000 a year for four years, and the other media organisations have collectively offered a further £250,000 a year for the same period. I learned this week that Facebook makes a contribution of only £10,000 a year.

The problem with that is that the Internet Watch Foundation is hugely strapped for cash and unable to deal with all the alerts it receives. It is worried, because a survey that it undertook has suggested that, although 1.5 million people have seen child abuse images, only 40,000 reports have been made to the organisation. It is calling on the public to report more, in the interests of child protection, but it requires more resources to enable it to respond. Furthermore, once members of the public start to respond, they are not going to be able to distinguish between the different categories of image—illegal, obscene and indecent—and they will report everything that disgusts them.

We have a similar situation with the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre—CEOP—which is the part of the police force that deals with these issues. It believes that 60,000 people in this country are downloading child abuse images, yet its resources are so limited that it was able to secure only 1,570 convictions last year. At the same time, the companies that distribute that material are not paying the taxes that would help properly to resource the police. I have met representatives of those companies and written to Ministers about these issues. I am still waiting for a reply from Ministers.

Returning to the business model that Facebook uses to generate its revenues, I want to explain a further connection between the two kinds of crime. A whistleblower recently informed us that advertisements were appearing alongside the indecent images of children. They were advertising the services of a large number of household-name companies, including PayPal, John Lewis, Procter & Gamble, EE, Hewlett Packard, Betfred, Bing, Johnson & Johnson, Google, BSkyB and Western Union. Facebook has now agreed to do a manual sweep to remove the advertisements from the sites, because the advertisers do not want to finance them and do not want to be seen to finance them. It would be helpful if we had public statements from those companies on their views on that, and on whether they are happy to have so much advertising being channelled to other organisations that are not paying their proper taxes.

I might have misheard her, but it sounded to me as if the hon. Lady was making serious allegations about John Lewis. Will she please reconfirm them for the benefit of Government Members?

Order. Before the hon. Lady returns to her point, I am sure she is going to tell us how what she is talking about connects with financial crime. We are discussing corporate structures, tax evasion, money laundering and financial crime. The crime she was describing was serious, but she said there was a link between it and financial crime, and I would quite like to hear what it is.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Let me respond to the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke). The companies that I listed have been inadvertently caught up in financing in this particular way, but the question for them is whether they have made it clear, publicly, that they do not wish to be financing the distribution.

In response to your point, Madam Deputy Speaker, the problem is that we have a system through which money is hoovered up in one way and can then be used to finance any other kind of crime—the crimes that I have described, but also those mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw. What we do not have from these organisations is any proper accountability that would allow us to get to the bottom of the issues and tackle them properly. It is extremely problematic that we do not have international agreements about how to deal with these internet companies when it comes to their taxes and their other behaviour. Although it is true that tax avoidance is a scourge and tax evasion is a crime, the industry’s use of these sites helps to promote other kinds of crime. I believe that there is a serious cultural issue about these companies that must be addressed.

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way again. I have used privilege in this place to name and shame financial wickedness and, indeed, industrial scale tax avoidance. I have always done so, however, in an attempt to provide evidence. The hon. Lady has made some serious allegations in respect of which I am concerned she has not provided us with any evidence.

The hon. Gentleman may not be aware that a whistleblower showed me a large number of pages on which I saw some of these advertisements. The point I am trying to make to him is that the companies are inadvertently drawn into this through the targeting and retargeting of advertisements. Their money is being used to finance the internet companies according to the business model that operates, so if they do not want to be involved, they must take steps to avoid doing so.

To offer the hon. Member for Dover some comfort, Marks & Spencer, for example, took the view that it really wanted action to be taken—and it took it publicly, which had a tremendous impact on Facebook and on what Facebook was doing. The other companies have not yet come out as clearly as Marks & Spencer did.

I had better not speak for too long. This is an important debate, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw for opening it up. I am very concerned, however, about what the debate is uncovering.

As I said earlier, I thank the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) for bringing this issue to everyone’s attention and for providing an opportunity for us to debate it this afternoon. He has already raised the effect that anonymous shell companies have on facilitating the corruption that keeps many poor countries poor. Hidden company ownership may be a particular problem. I welcome the efforts of the Prime Minister during his G8 presidency, particularly his calling on the EU and the G8 to work together to break through the walls of corporate secrecy and to ensure much more transparency.

Any move that can clean this whole business up will have a major impact on the world’s efforts to tackle poverty. If we are to commit regularly to having a substantial percentage—0.7%—of moneys being put into aid, we need to make sure that the money is used effectively and that there is a clean-up. It has been noted that a third of the world’s poorest 1 billion people live in resource-rich countries, but as a result of weak governance and widespread corruption, finances do not always reach Government accounts. In fact, many of those resource-rich countries have been looted by the very politicians who are meant to be running them and developing their economies.

It is primarily companies that are used to move dirty money. The World Bank reviewed 213 large cases of corruption between 1980 and 2010, more than 70% of which were found to have relied on anonymous shell companies. Companies registered in the United States topped the list, but the United Kingdom and its Crown dependencies and overseas territories came second.

It seems to be terribly easy to set up anonymous companies and trusts. It is very cheap to create complex corporate structures, and the practice of using “nominees” does not help at all. I hope that the Minister will emphasise the need to put beneficial share ownership into the public domain. A “many eyes” procedure would ensure that company ownership was subjected to continuous tests. I agree with the hon. Member for Bassetlaw that we should not just leave it to HMRC. Beneficial owners are individuals—living people, real-life human beings. We are not talking about yet another company and yet another trust.

The financial action task force, the intergovernmental body that sets global anti-money laundering standards and makes recommendations, has said that the system does not work, and that it is much too easy to avoid due diligence. In many countries, company service providers are all too willing to flout the law. A large number of the world’s major economies are ineffective in preventing companies from being misused by money launderers. Six of the G8 countries and 18 of the 27 European Union member states are listed as being “not compliant” or only “partially compliant” with the new recommendations on beneficial ownership.

Many countries do not require banks, lawyers or company service providers to identify beneficial owners of corporate clients. The penalty in the United Kingdom and the United States for having a fake identity in the form of a passport is up to 10 years in prison, yet anyone who is willing to pay a small amount—I think it is £200 or £300—can create a fake ID through a company and then use the company to hide behind, and the penalties for that are very small.

One way of preventing abuse of anonymous companies is for countries to require all information about beneficial owners, the names of all people behind trusts and foundations, to be put into the public domain. It is essential for such information to be public, rather than being accessible only to the police and other law enforcement agencies. There is no interrelationship between most of these countries, and they cannot carry out the necessary tests. If only HMRC or the police can gain access to our information when fraud is suspected, it will not be possible for us to check other countries’ systems, or for them to check ours.

It is cheap to put beneficial ownership into the public domain. It has been suggested that 99% of companies that are registered in this country are family companies or micro, small or medium-sized businesses. There is a clear relationship between the ownership of companies and individuals. Only 1% of companies registered in this country have a complex financial structure.

We have said that banks could be charged with greater duties to ensure that they are more compliant and rigorous in exercising their duties to ensure that money laundering does not take place, but they have a conflict in that they stand to make very big profits in accepting the business of rich and dodgy customers. Our anti-money laundering laws sound fairly stringent, but, as has been said already, they bear down heavily on smaller companies and it is the big, professional organisations that are trying to launder money through the system on a major scale and that can do that quite easily.

There is little personal responsibility from individual bankers—HSBC is a strong example. In 2012, it agreed to pay a record $1.9 billion fine levied by the US authorities after admitting that its anti-money laundering systems had failed; it laundered hundreds of millions of dollars at least for drugs cartels, terrorists and pariah states such as Mexico. The Senate sub-committee that carried out the investigation described HSBC’s cultures as “'pervasively polluted”.

During that time, over 47,000 people died in Mexico at the hands of drug traffickers, so it is important that we deal swiftly and effectively with such companies. The penalties could be toughened greatly. As I said earlier, we should make individual people on the board responsible for looking after that part of the business. However, I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw that every bank executive should be responsible and made liable for the damage that they cause and that there should be a rigorous system of penalties, which should include the option of imprisonment.

I do not want to go on too much longer. The most important point is that bringing in a public register of beneficial ownership will not involve a huge amount of red tape. The point has been made already that a number of individuals are clear that it would be easy for this country to make such a move. I cannot stress enough how important it is to small businesses to ensure that everyone gets a fair deal, that taxes are paid and that there is absolute clarity when money passes back and forth across the world.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) not only for obtaining the debate and for making another strong speech on the subject, but in particular for his relentless campaigning on the issue of financial crime in all its forms, including money laundering, tax avoidance and evasion. That is what I want to concentrate on.

As the hon. Member for Wells (Tessa Munt) said, at the G8 summit, the Prime Minister made a great media blitz of his supposed crackdown on corporate tax avoidance. He tried to get UK-controlled tax havens to sign up to an OECD agreement on providing tax information. He also tried to secure a worldwide standard on automatic tax information transfer, to get the G8 countries to reveal the identity of shell companies and to help developing countries to get their rightful entitlement to tax. All those are extremely worthy objectives and no one in the House would demur from any of them, but all he achieved—it is achievement, rather than aspiration, that matters when one is Prime Minister—was a bland statement in favour of the principle of tax information transfer, without any actual means of enforcement.

The Prime Minister defended that feeble result by claiming that little can be done without international agreement and that it takes time to build that, but that is not true. Of course the best result would be an internationally agreed set of rules, but even in the absence of that there is a great deal that Britain can and should do. First, as a number of Members have said, the UK controls 10 Crown dependencies and overseas territories, which collectively embrace over one fifth, I think, of all the world’s tax havens. Most of them have signed up in principle—[Interruption.] Well, we shall see, but they have certainly signed up to the proposal for tax information exchange, and it is now within the purview of the British Government to enforce that proposal, if there is any reneging or backsliding, by the simple expedient of refusing to recognise any financial transactions emanating from those areas if there is any failure to secure full compliance.

That will generate a great deal of resistance, not least from the tax havens themselves, but also I suspect particularly from the big UK banks, which are the main users of these tax haven facilities. Since the Tory party continues to get more than half of its income every year from the banks—[Interruption.] There is no need to roll the eyes or shake the head, as that is an important fact, so facing down the banks on this important issue will test the Government’s resolve.

I therefore want to ask the Minister the following question, which I hope he will answer: will he assure the House that the Government will enforce these tax information exchanges with the tax havens they control? I agree he cannot do that without international agreement in the other havens, but he can control these ones. Alternatively, are we simply going to find that the Prime Minister’s fine words, which we all agree about, will just fade away in a puff of smoke after he has had his PR day in the sun?

What makes the Chancellor’s remonstrations about tax avoidance being immoral seem perverse is that he himself has now emerged as the arch proponent of tax avoidance. He is changing the controlled foreign company rules from 1 January next year to allow any multinational company with a subsidiary in a tax haven—and as the Minister knows very well, 98% of those companies do have a subsidiary in a tax haven—to reduce their corporation tax liability from 23% to a mere 5.5%. Given the boast of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor about cracking down hard on corporation tax avoidance, that is breathtaking hypocrisy. The message is, “Don’t worry about artificial tax avoidance. You needn’t do anything about that, because I am going to serve it up to you on a plate.”

Then the Government went even further. They have put forward the pro-tax avoidance proposal of the patent box, a wheeze whereby any patented process applying to any part of an enterprise, however trivial or minor, not only secures a reduction in corporation tax to 10%, but applies to the entire enterprise. Frankly, the more the Government go on in this way, pushing corporation tax almost to zero, the more tax avoidance fiddles become redundant, because the Government are doing it for them. Perhaps that is the Government’s aim.

The hon. Gentleman was a tax lawyer, I think. He is also a very mischievous Member of this House, but I will still give way to him.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks about me. It is all very well for him to have a go at this Government, but he will recall that under his Government revenues from corporation tax rose by 6% while revenues from income tax, paid by ordinary folk in this country, rose by getting on for 100%. Does he think his own Government did such a great job?

I do not think that the previous Government did a great job. They did an appalling job on corporation tax, and the hon. Gentleman might be pleased to know that I said so at the time and I have always taken that view. The hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) raised the issue of capital gains tax with me when I was last speaking, and I think that that tax should be at the same level as income tax. Corporation tax is another matter, of course, but it should be well above the levels the Government are now proposing.

The Government can and should restructure the whole approach on tax avoidance by switching the onus of proof away from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and on to the potential perpetrators. That is exactly what my General Anti Tax-Avoidance Principle Bill was intended to do. It would have made it clear that any scheme whose primary purpose was to avoid tax, rather than being any genuine economic transaction, would be invalid in law and struck down. In order to discourage perpetrators of this attempt to bend the will of Parliament, there would be a sizeable penalty for attempting to subvert that will. My Bill had only a 10-minute showing on the Floor of the House, thanks to Tory filibustering of the prior Bill on that day, so perhaps I might take this opportunity to ask the Minister: does he accept the general anti-tax-avoidance principle? If he does not, what are his reasons for rejecting it? I think he will say that the Government are putting up their alternative—the so-called GAAR or general anti-abuse rule—but that really does not meet the ticket. I wish to say why, and I hope that he will listen to why the Government’s GAAR is really no alternative.

The GAAR is based on a report by Graham Aaronson, who was always a representative of the tax-avoidance industry and never of the tax-compliance will of Parliament. I accept that the GAAR will have some effect, because it outlaws egregiously aggressive and abusive tax avoidance, but of course the implication of that is that it legitimises rather less extravagant tax avoidance.

Let me put the right hon. Gentleman’s mind at rest on this by saying that the GAAR does not do that. We accept that the GAAR is directed at egregious tax avoidance. It is an additional tool, but there will still be targeted anti-avoidance rules and other measures that the Government take. I want to make it very clear that we are not saying that if something falls outside the GAAR, there is no problem with it.

I am glad to hear it, but the Minister and his Government will have to prove that in the outcomes that we see over the months ahead. He makes an important point, but there is a perception that if we opt for a rule that is limited to dealing with the worst kind of tax avoidance, it suggests that the rest is rather less important in the Government’s mind; I cannot see the point of having a GAAR if one is also going to “include” other abusive tax procedures, about which there is equal concern. I am sure that debate is coming along, but I am glad that he said what he did and we shall certainly hold him to it. The GAAR could actually make things worse and, even at this late stage, I ask the Government seriously to reconsider whether they should not take over my Bill.

The Government could and should recognise that their strategy to deter tax avoidance, which has been in use for many years, including under the previous Government, via the disclosure of tax avoidance schemes—DOTAS—is of limited value and is inadequate on its own. It requires those who are designing and trying to sell these schemes to inform HMRC in advance about each new scheme they introduce. I understand that something over 100 new schemes have been disclosed in each of the past four years under the DOTAS proposals. That shows the industrial scale—I think that was the word that the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) himself used—of tax avoidance going on in the City.

DOTAS still leaves two problems. First, it can take HMRC many years to defeat any of the schemes if it goes to the courts and, secondly, some of those promoting such schemes will go to great lengths to avoid disclosure. Even if they are detected and taken to court, the penalty is often something derisory like £5,000 or so. Those involved in such schemes have every incentive to fail to comply with what the Government are seeking.

HMRC’s working definition of tax avoidance, which is often seen as a rather nebulous concept, is, rather sensibly,

“using the tax law to get a tax advantage that Parliament never intended”.

I think that is extremely sensible, so why can it not be cast in statute? Why can it not be laid down as the principle by which the Government and HMRC will test such schemes? That would see off the tax avoidance industry far more effectively than the soft touch of DOTAS. We are coming to the same view on tax avoidance as we did on the banks, and unless persons as opposed to organisations are held responsible—if need be, in extreme cases, by criminal sanctions—very little will happen. If a person were subject to a penalty that was a multiple of the tax charge—perhaps two or three times the charge, depending on the blatancy and gravity of the offence—for seeking to pervert the will of Parliament, that would act as a serious deterrent.

I think that others might wish to speak, but I am sure that I will carry on the conversation with the hon. Gentleman outside and on other occasions.

Finally, corporation tax is, as everyone recognises, so riddled with loopholes as a result of the evolution of the international economy and corporation structures over the past 30 to 40 years that it urgently needs wholesale restructuring. The drive towards territorial taxation must be abandoned and replaced by unitary taxation by which multinationals are taxed according to where their genuine economic activity occurred and not where they pretend it occurred to collect the huge windfalls of transfer pricing.

Surely the most appropriate corporation tax base is either free cash flow or economic rent—the amount, in other words, a business earns in excess of its cost of capital. There are several ways of doing that: removing interest deductibility, introducing an allowance for the cost of corporate equity or shifting the tax base towards tax flow and away from accounting profit.

I have tried to offer several positive proposals. I realise that it is possible to make a lot of pejorative remarks, which are probably just, about the performance of this Government and the previous Government in tackling the problem, but I have tried to be as positive as I can. Unless the Government adopt at least some of the proposals, their claims to have serious intentions about cracking down on today’s enormous cancer of corporate tax avoidance will be seen as the pretence that, sadly, I sometimes think it is.

Order. I remind the two remaining Members who wish to speak that we are running out of time. So that we can hear the Front-Bench speakers, may I ask them each to take a maximum of six minutes? I will not put a limit on the clock, as they are both experienced Members who can judge it for themselves to enable us to hear the wind-ups.

Thank you for your guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker.

It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher). I am glad to be doing so on a day when he has been very positive. I would hate to follow him on a day when he was being negative—it would be like having a dementor circling the room. It is always a pleasure to see him in this House, though, especially when he has so many to choose from.

I wanted to take part in the debate to do two things. First, I wanted to set out that the vast majority of businesses established in our country do the right thing by tax and the right thing by corporate structure. They really do work hard to stay within the rules, and they, like everyone else, are shocked when they see other corporate structures not doing the same.

Secondly, I wanted to congratulate and support the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann). It comes as a bit of a shock to me to say that, but I know that he has worked hard on this subject. I do not agree with him on everything, but he does raise a number of valid points; he states them and debates them well and they need to have a good airing. I look forward to continuing the dialogue with him.

Before I got involved in this political charabanc, I was a small business man. I much preferred running a small business and being able to do something positive to sometimes sitting through debates and ultimately achieving nothing. We remain a nation of small businesses and we should encourage them, so I believe it is important that we allow small businesses to set up and establish themselves quickly and cheaply. I therefore disagreed with the hon. Gentleman when he talked about making it more expensive and complicated to set up a company.

Only a year or so ago, I set up a company, and it was a delight to be able to do so online and quickly. There are a few hoops to jump through—one has to prove one’s identity, for example—but I thought the right checks and balances were in place. If we want to create wealth in this country, as we all do because that is where our taxation comes from, enabling businesses to be set up quickly is a good thing. I hope that the hon. Gentleman forgives me for disagreeing with him on that point.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb), I am a member of the Public Accounts Committee. We have been going through report after report on a series of corporate structures that were set up in a slightly interesting way to avoid paying tax, but to do so legitimately. We have been able to show where tax has not been paid or where people think tax should be paid, but it is only a thought, only a process. The companies that have come before us have all been able to say to us, “We do exactly the right thing both by the law in this country and by international law.” If we are serious about tackling this problem, we need to engage on an international stage. That is why I welcome very much the Prime Minister’s words and deeds at the G8 summit and what I expect will happen in future.

The right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) mentioned the complexity of modern-day banking. In fact, now that banks are so interlinked, there is an odd sort of transparency about banking transactions. Banks can make themselves as complicated as they like, but with modern technology and the internet—something the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) was moaning about—comes a degree of transparency that, should we wish it, could clear up a number of issues behind the scenes. Again, however, that would have to be negotiated on an international basis.

Does my hon. Friend agree that transparency about ownership, particularly the ultimate beneficial owner, of a company should be welcomed? For many years, the identity of the real owners of some football clubs, such as Coventry City and, previously, Leeds United, was hidden in dummy companies registered offshore.

I agree. Coventry City is a perfect example. It announced today that it is moving in with Northampton Town, a club that is local to me. I am sure fans would love to know what went on behind the corporate structure there.

I have one wish, which is to ensure that we get some sort of transparency behind these corporate structures. Members will know that I am a big campaigner against onshore wind farms. Many of the developers have an unbelievably complex corporate structure that sucks money—subsidy, actually—out of this country and away to far-flung lands through a number of countries and a number of companies.

There is a job to be done. I welcome this debate, I congratulate the hon. Member for Bassetlaw on securing it, and I look forward to working with him and others in the House to get the right job done.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) and I associate myself with his remarks about my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), who is an assiduous campaigner on this and so many other issues.

My small contribution will be about the way in which proceeds of crime have found their way into the financial sector, and I will seek assurances from the Minister that the Government are doing everything they can to deal with the issue of proceeds of crime within our financial structures. Some £675 million is owed by 178 criminals who were each ordered to pay back £1 million or more after their conviction. Prosecutors are unable to force repayment by 45 offenders whose debts to the taxpayer total £225 million. Clearly, the law as currently written and the existing structures are not sufficiently able to deal with the way in which these proceeds are kept by the Mr Bigs who, having committed horrendous crimes, are able to continue with their life after prison and are not asked to pay back what they owe.

I am glad that the Government are proposing changes to the law. I recently had a letter from both the Metropolitan Police Commissioner and the Director of Public Prosecutions about a wish to examine default sentences, changing the definition of “confiscation” in the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, amending the Bail Act 1976 to prevent absconding—once somebody is out of prison, there is no way in which they can be made to pay this money—implementing the EU Council framework decisions on the execution of orders freezing property or evidence, and making sure that agencies work together so that if someone has committed an offence, they do not rush out of the country because the Passport Office has given them a passport.

On money laundering, as the House knows, 85% of drugs profits are earned by distributors in the United States or Europe. The current estimate is that global drugs profits are £380 billion, the majority of which enters the financial system. Antonio Maria Costa, the former head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, has said:

“I cannot think of one bank in the world that has not been penetrated by mafia money.”

Banks with British bases, such as Coutts and HSBC, have been found guilty of money laundering.

As the Home Affairs Committee said recently, until these companies hear the rattling of handcuffs in their boardrooms, they will not take seriously the issue of drugs money within our financial systems. Indeed, we recommended new legislation to extend the personal criminal liability of those who hold the most senior positions in banks and are found to have been involved in money laundering. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw said, it is hoped that the new Financial Conduct Authority will be much tougher than the Financial Services Authority, which in our view did not do enough to deal with the issue.

Yesterday the Home Secretary reclassified khat as a class C drug because she believes that sales of it have entered our financial systems and fund Islamic extremist groups such as al-Shabaab. In January the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs said there was “insufficient evidence” that khat caused health problems. The panel found “no evidence” that khat, made from the leaves and shoots of a shrub cultivated in the horn of Africa and the Arabian peninsula, was directly linked with serious or organised crime. The problem is that once these drugs are banned, they go underground and the drugs barons are able to launder even more money.

The hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) has raised the issue of Coventry football club. I do not want to go too far down that road, except to say that the parent company should be investigated. It set up two sub-companies, one of which went into administration and was then given by the administrator to the other company. It is a ludicrous situation for the people of Coventry to find themselves in: the fans are up in arms, they do not know where they are going to play next season and all sorts of threats are being made.

Order. Before the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) responds to that point, I remind Mr Cunningham that the courtesies of the House indicate that he should not enter a debate at the end and immediately intervene, because he has not been present at any stage during the debate.

I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) was going to tell me that the directors of Coventry City were chewing khat. I did not realise that he wanted to make another point.

In conclusion, I say to the Minister: let us look at the proceeds of crime and the way in which financial structures protect them, and let us use effective action through the structures of Government and the financial agencies to try to make sure that the Mr Bigs pay back the money they have stolen.

In beginning this debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) pointed out that the responsibilities of the two Front Benchers relate to different Departments. The reason why I am speaking on behalf of the Opposition is that it is our view that too many of the matters under discussion are crimes, should be crimes, should be prosecuted and are not being prosecuted at the moment. My presence underlines the emphasis that the Opposition put on that.

We welcome the fact that tax evasion was on the agenda at the G8 and the Prime Minister is right that we need to pierce the corporate veil. Lack of transparency enables criminals to hide behind shell companies and launder the proceeds of crime. In our view, however, the Prime Minister left the heavy lobbying until too late and the international commitment to breaking down corporate secrecy was weak. In fact, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) has said, it was feeble. The G8 members only agreed to consider national registries of the beneficial ownership of companies, which, to be frank, is very little commitment at all.

What is the Government’s commitment to that registry? Will it be public? The hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) has said that the Prime Minister is on record as saying that he wants it to be public, but what does that mean? Will it be rigorous?

Every legal entity is ultimately controlled by a natural person—somebody who lives and breathes and who can go to jail if they do things wrong. Will there be a requirement that the information registered on beneficial ownership always includes a natural person? What penalties will there be for failing to supply the required information? Will there be an obligation to record the owner of bearer shares where the owner is not registered and the issuing firm does not track subsequent transfers of ownership? Will there be an obligation for companies that use nominee directors to reveal on whose behalf those directors are working?

We are told that the Government are reviewing all of this, but it seems to me that there is plenty of wiggle room. Will there be an obligation on the part of the registry to carry out due diligence on the information it receives? In practical terms, will Companies House have the resources to do that? Past studies have revealed that Companies House has not even had sufficient resources to routinely check company directors against a list of disqualified persons.

Will Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs have the resources to investigate? HMRC currently faces £2 billion of funding cuts this Parliament, leading to a further 10,000 job cuts. Will the Crown Prosecution Service, also cut by more than 27%, have the resources to prosecute? Will the Government strengthen the regulation of corporate service providers that set up sham companies and straw-men directors? We do not know. Will we be told, and if so, when?

What we do know is that a future Labour Government will bring an end to the era of tax smoke and mirrors. As the shadow Chancellor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls), and the shadow Exchequer Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), have set out in Labour’s policy review on corporate tax, the Government should ensure that HMRC has the power, resources and capacity it needs. They should also explore how their general anti-abuse rule can be strengthened. The Government should also deliver internationally agreed reporting rules so that large multinational companies have to publish the key pieces of information that people need to assess the amount of tax they pay.

We also need to look at the channels through which the laundered money goes. Of the 17 banks analysed by the FCA, half were found not to have proper processes to prevent money laundering. Four of those were UK banks. I was disappointed that the FCA did not name those banks and have written to it asking it to do so.

Many Members have referred to last year’s US Senate report, which found that HSBC had been used to launder the money of Mexican drug lords. It called HSBC a conduit for

“drug kingpins and rogue nations”.

The US Department of Justice fined HSBC £1.25 billion for money laundering. I am not aware that the UK authorities have taken any action on that, beyond requiring an improved monitoring regime. Of course, the chairman of HSBC at the time became the Minister for Trade and Investment in this Government and continued to be so until recently.

Whether it is LIBOR rigging, money laundering or sanctions evasion, the UK has been slow to investigate British banks. When it has punished them, the fines have been dwarfed by those imposed by the US. For example, Barclays was fined £101 million in the US for LIBOR rigging, whereas the Financial Services Authority in the UK fined it £60 million and the Serious Fraud Office is still investigating. The SFO prosecuted only 20 cases last year and convicted 14 individuals. In the past two years there has not been a single corporate prosecution.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent point, which reflects what was said in the recent Home Affairs Committee report. However, there is an issue with the absence of personal liability, not just corporate liability. It is individuals who made the decisions.

I am getting to that. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend.

Is it any wonder that KPMG has just reported that in the UK, fraud cases totalling more than £500 million were recorded in the first half of 2013, which is up by more than a quarter on the previous year?

We need a change of culture in our law enforcement agencies. We must equip them with the tools and resources that they need to get on the front foot. Under English law, companies are criminally liable only if it can be proved that a director was personally involved in the wrongdoing. That is an extremely high threshold—a problem to which the hon. Member for Wells (Tessa Munt) referred.

There is a good case for holding companies vicariously liable for their employees’ economic crimes, unless they can demonstrate that they had adequate compliance procedures. The last Labour Government did that in relation to bribery with the Bribery Act 2010. We want to build on that, but this Government want to water it down. They say, for some reason, that rules against bribery are red tape. That stopping people bribing one another can be seen as red tape is beyond belief.

If we change the law on corporate responsibility, we may see an increase in the number of companies that are prosecuted, so we must have a penalty structure that is worthy of receiving them. The highest fraud fine to result from an SFO prosecution is £2.2 million. The highest fine clinched by the US Department of Justice is larger than $3 billion. Why do we not introduce a system in which sentences are based on a percentage of the company’s turnover over the past three years?

Although the SFO’s problems are not entirely down to under-resourcing, resources are important because these crimes are expensive to investigate. Last year, the SFO’s budget was £34 million, compared with £40 million in 2009-10. In 2014-15, it will fall to only £30 million. It is so short of money that it has to go cap in hand to the Treasury whenever it wants to take over a major prosecution. That at least gives the impression that the Chancellor has a secret veto on whether fraud investigations take place.

The US approach of topping up the funds of fraud prosecutors is much more appealing. Where possible, confiscated assets are returned to the victims. The proceeds from the many cases in which the victims cannot be traced are poured into a central fund. Each year, teams of prosecutors bid for a portion of that fund for asset tracing and law enforcement investigations. We have the beginnings of such a system in the UK. We could extend that and put large fines or at least part of them into the pool as well. In these austere times, we need to explore such alternative means of funding.

The hon. Lady is eloquently describing the failure of the tripartite regulatory regime that her Government put in place. She is correct that the fines in the UK are a fraction of those in the US. A further failure is that the fines have rewarded other banks. This Government have ensured that the fines that are paid do not reduce the levy so that banks no longer profit from the wrongdoing of other banks. That was the regime that her Government put in place.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but in the time I have available, I would like to look to the future and consider the best method that we have for solving the current problems. I am happy to talk to him at some length outside the debate, because I am committed to the issue and will be interested to hear his point of view.

It seems to me that one good way in which the assets in question can be used, instead of lowering the levy, is to put them into a pool that prosecutors can use in future. That would help to pump up what we are doing. That seems to be a way forward, and I am putting it before the House today to get some sensible responses.

Unfortunately I am running out of time, but I would like to hear from the hon. and learned Gentleman briefly.

The hon. Lady urged us to look to the future. Does she agree that one thing that we need to consider with reasonable urgency is an alteration in how corporate criminal liability is described in law? At the moment, we have the Victorian “directing mind” principle, which is not really appropriate for vast international companies. Does she agree that we need to Americanise the system—

It is always so lovely to hear the hon. Lady, but I am actually addressing the shadow Attorney-General.

Order. Before the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) responds, I point out again that interventions made by people who have only just arrived in the Chamber, not having been present at any point during the debate, do not show the best courtesy to the House. I hope that all Members will bear that in mind.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. If I have caused any offence, I apologise. The reason I addressed the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) was that she and I have a joint interest in the matter. I am sure she did not take offence.

Thank you, Sir Edward, but you are continuing the debate. Your point is on the record, but we are now eating into the Minister’s time. I understand that he does not mind, so I call Emily Thornberry to conclude her speech.

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier) and appreciate his expertise in the matter, but I actually did say that immediately before he came into the Chamber. I am glad that there is now cross-party agreement, and I urge him to ensure that his party’s Front Benchers adopt my ideas. Now is the time to move on in relation to fraud, and I believe that companies should be held liable for the fraudulent activity of individuals, building on the Bribery Act. That is a way forward, and if we can agree on it, then great—let’s do it.

If the Government are committed to a crackdown on crime, why have they left it to Labour to amend the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Bill, which will come before the House again on Monday? Why have they not tabled amendments? We understood that the Prime Minister was committed to introducing a crime of reckless management of a financial institution, so why have the Government not tabled such an amendment? Why do we need to do it? It seems odd. We are concerned that, although the Prime Minister is happy to make pledges when everyone is watching, he hopes that when nobody is noticing he can carry on and do nothing.

It seems to us that an offence of reckless banking needs to do more than deliver symbolic sacrifices after the event. We need managers to be held liable if they turn a blind eye to those who are committing crime. They should have a responsibility to monitor what happens. No single person brings a bank to its knees and no single person should be responsible for UBS, Société Générale or Barings, whatever some may want us to believe. There are further people who are also responsible, and we need to ensure that the law allows for other people to be prosecuted. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the Government’s record on basic economic crime such as the failure to ensure that people are paid the minimum wage. In the past three years, only two bosses have been prosecuted for that, and workplace inspections have halved in the past 12 months. It seems to us that it is about time the Government started taking seriously economic crime of all types, including people not being paid a basic wage.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) on securing the debate. It has been wide-ranging, but I will focus my remarks, at least to begin with, on the issue that he focused on most, which was company misuse. If I have time, I will address other issues that were raised, such as tax avoidance, although to be fair we had a debate on that a week ago.

I am pleased to address company misuse because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) rightly pointed out, the Prime Minister has demonstrated leadership on this issue on the international stage. The Government are committed to tackling illicit activity and the misuse of corporate vehicles to facilitate such activity, and we are well aware of the impact such things have on the UK and the global economy. Such misuse is made possible because companies can be used to hide who is really in control and who is the beneficial owner. Hidden beneficial ownership to facilitate criminal activity is a long-standing issue, and international standards have proved difficult to implement effectively for many jurisdictions. For that reason, the Prime Minister put tackling that issue at the heart of the UK’s G8 agenda. I am sorry that one or two right hon. and hon. Members have been less than generous in recognising that.

At Lough Erne it was agreed that each of the G8 countries would come forward with a national action plan for implementing the agreements made there, which for the UK will hopefully include the Crown dependencies. Have the Crown dependencies come forward with their draft plans, and do they include commitments to publish registers of beneficial ownership?

It is perhaps worth saying a word or two about the Crown dependencies because they have received criticism during the course of the debate. There is nothing illegal about an international structure, especially in a globally integrated economy, but what must stop is the use of offshore structures to hide assets and income illegally, and to evade taxes. The overseas territories and Crown dependencies have all committed to automatically sharing information to fight tax evasion, and to producing national action plans to set out how they will improve beneficial ownership transparency. The Crown dependencies have already published their plans, and the overseas territories have committed to do so by the end of the year. This is a significant step forward in transparency, and we will continue to work closely with the overseas territories and Crown dependencies to ensure that the action to which they commit is robust and ensures the effectiveness of their systems. It would be a pity for this debate to give the impression that we do not acknowledge the significant progress made in recent months.

Returning to the G8, there was collective action to improve transparency of beneficial ownership and make it easier for law enforcement and tax administrations to fight company misuse. The G8 have committed to a set of common principles, and each member has committed to publish a national action plan. The US, France, Italy, Japan, Canada and the UK, as well as the Crown dependencies, have published their plans already, and Germany and Russia have committed to do so before the end of the year, along with the overseas territories.

The G8 action plan means a number of things for the UK. First, we will legislate to ensure that all companies know who owns and controls them. Companies will be required to obtain and hold information on their beneficial ownership—a requirement that will make it harder for criminals to hide their identity, and easier for law enforcement bodies to trace company misuse. Secondly, we will require that information to be held centrally at Companies House and made available, at a minimum, to law enforcement and tax authorities. Again, that will enable law enforcement and tax administrations to track down beneficial ownership information much more quickly. It will also help us develop better working relations with our international counterparts, by responding to their requests more quickly during cross-border investigations. To address the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Tessa Munt), it is important that law enforcement agencies and tax authorities co-operate on such matters.

We will also consider whether that information should be made publicly accessible. Although there would be significant advantages to such an act, such as enabling greater scrutiny of the accuracy of the information and allowing investors and others to understand better with whom they are doing business, there would also be legitimate concerns about individual confidentiality and whether the information would always be used in the right way. The case of companies involved in animal testing raises an interesting point. Hon. Members may be interested to know that we have committed to consult on this issue.

Thirdly, we will be looking at what measures can be taken to mitigate the misuse of nominee—or sham—directors and bearer shares. The fact that both are currently allowed to exist is inconsistent with our desire to know who really owns and controls UK companies, so the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will be issuing a public discussion paper on these precise issues shortly, setting out a number of options for reform.

I turn now to the issue of Companies House, which was raised by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw. The House will be aware that the core function of Companies House is to receive company information and make it available to the public, and a key part of this is ensuring that accounts and annual returns are delivered for every company. Compliance rates for those documents—97.9% for annual returns and 99% for accounts—are the best they have ever been and are amongst the best in the world, but we will continue to consider additional means to ensure that companies comply with all their statutory filing requirements.

For example, in response to calls for more transparency about the extent of company subsidiaries in tax havens, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills has asked Companies House to check the accounts of all FTSE 350 companies for the disclosure of overseas subsidiaries information. Hon. Members may be interested to know that Companies House will publish the findings on this at the end of July.

On HMRC, there are legal remedies to stop taxes being avoided or evaded through dissolving companies without payment that HMRC makes regular use of. As an example, HMRC frequently requests restoration of companies to the register and then liquidates them, an act that allows liquidators to pursue directors for misfeasance and other wrongdoing. As a Government, we have reinvested in HMRC significant sums to deal with tax avoidance as a whole.

We are short of time and I am unable to address issues such as the general anti-abuse rule and the wider issue of tax transparency, but I am grateful for the opportunity to set out the Government’s commitment to dealing with opaque company structures that facilitate financial crime. It is thanks to the Government that this was put on the agenda for the G8 and that countries around the world are setting out action plans to deal with beneficial ownership. It is why there is a much greater exchange of information between jurisdictions now than we have seen before. We have a proud record in this area and I am grateful for the opportunity to make that clear.

We have had a useful debate with, I think, 16 contributions, interventions and speeches. I was a little taken aback by the number of plaudits from Government Members, but I will perhaps take up the offer from the hon. Members for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) and for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry), who spoke by proxy for other Oxfordshire Government Members. We could perhaps form a little group to take such issues forward: a friendly society, perhaps. We could call it Unite and we could all join.

The responses from those on the Front Benches were different, but there were important points from both. With vast numbers of companies not submitting returns, as they should, to Companies House; with situations such as those at Leeds United and Coventry City football clubs, where people do not who owns them, including those who work at and pay for those clubs; and with the biggest criminal gang in the world laundering vast amounts of money through a British bank, there is clearly a major issue that has not been addressed but needs to be addressed. There are different arguments and ideas on how to take this matter forward. It is important for Parliament to keep it on the agenda and hold the Government to account. I also think—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).