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Tax Avoidance (HSBC)

Volume 593: debated on Monday 23 February 2015

(Urgent Question): To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he will make a statement about the HSBC tax evasion scandal.

Order. I do not wish to be pedantic, simply accurate, but I think the wording of the urgent question was “avoidance”—the tax avoidance scandal. The point is on the record.

The allegations about tax evasion at HSBC Swiss are extremely serious and have been the subject of extensive investigation by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Money has been recovered for the Exchequer, and HMRC continues to be in active discussion with our prosecuting authorities. The chief executive of HMRC and the Director of Public Prosecutions have confirmed that they have the necessary resources to carry out their work on this matter, and if they need more resources they will get them.

The House should know, however, that in each and every case the alleged tax evasion—both by individuals and the bank—happened before 2006 when the shadow Chancellor was the principal adviser on tax policy and economic affairs to the then Labour Government. News that the French had got hold of the files with the names of the bank accounts became publicly known in 2009 when the shadow Chancellor was sitting on the Government Benches, and the files were requested and recovered by HMRC before May 2010, when he was a member of the Cabinet.

The right hon. Gentleman has written to ask me five questions about my responsibilities. I will answer each one directly, and in return he can account for his own responsibilities. He asked about what he calls the selective prosecution policy pursued by HMRC, and whether that decision was made by Ministers. Yes, that decision was made by Ministers, and the Inland Revenue’s overall approach to prosecuting cases of suspected serious tax fraud was set out in the Official Report on 7 November 2002, column 784W, in an answer by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown). That was confirmed again when HMRC was created in 2005—again by the right hon. Gentleman. I have increased resources for tackling tax evasion, and as a result prosecutions are up fivefold. I have answered for my responsibility on that question; perhaps the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) will answer for his and tell us whether he drafted that policy.

Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman asked when I was first made aware of the HSBC files, what action I took, and whether I discussed them with the Prime Minister. I first became aware of the existence of the files in 2009 when a story appeared in the Financial Times. I was shadow Chancellor at the time so I could take no action, and I could not discuss it with the then Prime Minister because I was not on speaking terms with him. That is what I knew. The right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood was a Cabinet Minister. When he heard about these revelations, did he speak to the Prime Minister about them?

Thirdly, the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood asked why we appointed Stephen Green to the Government. We appointed him because we thought he would do a good job as trade Minister, as did the Labour party, which welcomed the appointment. The trade job was not Stephen Green’s first public appointment. That was when he was appointed by the previous Government to be not just a member of the Prime Minister’s business council but its chair—a post he continued to hold after the existence of the HSBC files became public and after HMRC negotiated to recover them under the previous Government. I have explained why we appointed Stephen Green. Perhaps the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood will explain why he appointed Stephen Green.

Fourthly, the right hon. Gentleman asked about discussions with Stephen Green on tax evasion. I can confirm that the Cabinet Secretary and the director general of ethics at the Cabinet Office carried out the background checks for ministerial appointments that were put in place by the previous Government. Stephen Green’s personal tax affairs were examined by HMRC on behalf of the House of Lords Appointments Commission, again using the procedures put in place by the previous Government. Those are the procedures we followed when we appointed Stephen Green. What procedures did the right hon. Gentleman follow?

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asked me why I signed a deal with the Swiss authorities in 2012. He does not need my explanation. Listen to what the shadow Chief Secretary at the time, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), said:

“We support the agreement signed by the UK and Swiss Governments to secure billions in unpaid tax.”––[Official Report, Finance Public Bill Committee, 26 June 2012; c. 655.]

She is right: billions of unpaid tax never collected under a Labour Government. Under this Government, tax evasion is at the top of the G8 agenda. We have collected more money and prosecutions have increased five times over. Ahead of the Budget, I set the Treasury to work on providing further ways to pursue not just the tax evaders, but those providing them with advice. So anyone involved in tax evasion, whatever your role, this Government are coming after you. Unlike the previous Government, who simply turned a blind eye, this Government are taking action now and will do so again at the Budget. So I am happy, any time, to answer for our record on tackling tax evasion. Now, let him account for his.

Finally, the Chancellor has been dragged to the House to answer questions about the HSBC scandal, which broke a full two weeks ago. At a time when the living standards of working people are squeezed, when our public services are under pressure, when HSBC is paying out high bonuses and when the amount of uncollected tax has gone up under this Government, we need proper answers, not another Chancellor sweeping these issues under the carpet as we have heard today. [Interruption.] I think the hon. Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) should listen to these questions and then the Chancellor can tell us whether he actually has any answers. Don’t you agree, Mr Speaker?

Detailed information was passed to this Government in May 2010 about 1,100 HSBC clients—[Interruption.]

Order. These exchanges are not, frankly, to the advantage of this House. They will be conducted in a more decorous atmosphere. I say to Members on both sides who are calculatedly trying to whip it up and are shouting at the tops of their voices, some holding very senior positions in this House: cut it out or get out.

We know when they shout that it is because they have something to hide, Mr Speaker. That is the truth.

First, let me ask the Chancellor about what he knew and when. Two weeks ago, Downing street announced that no Minister found out about the HSBC issues until two-and-a-half weeks ago. At the weekend, the Chancellor said that he should not be involved in the tax dealings of any individual bank. Today, he has told us he knew in 2009. If he knew about systemic abuse on this scale in 2009, why did he not act when he became Chancellor? That is the first question.

Secondly, given that the Chancellor says he knew about this in 2009, why, five years on, has there been only one prosecution after the provision of 1,100 names? We know that in November 2012 HMRC confirmed that the Government had adopted a selective prosecution policy. Let me ask the Chancellor: given he knew what was happening at HSBC, did he confirm he wanted a selective prosecution policy in these cases?

Thirdly, why in 2012 did the Chancellor sign a deal with the Swiss authorities that has prevented the UK from actively obtaining similar information in the future? The agreement states that the UK and Swiss Governments will

“not actively seek to acquire customer data stolen from Swiss banks”.

Why sign up to a declaration that clearly impedes HMRC’s and the Government’s ability to act in the future? Two weeks ago, they told us it was because they did not know, but we now know that the Chancellor has known for six years. Why did he sign that deal?

Fourthly, if the Chancellor and the Prime Minister knew what was happening at HSBC in 2009, why, one month after the Government received these files, did they appoint the chair of HSBC during the period in question as a Conservative peer and Minister? What due diligence did the Government carry out in advance, and did the Prime Minister and the Chancellor see the details? Fifthly, did Lord Green have any involvement in the Swiss tax deal when he was a trade Minister? Did he ever advise the Treasury on it? Did the Chancellor discuss what happened at HSBC with Lord Green in the almost three years he was a Conservative Minister? Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister was unable to answer that question. Did the Chancellor discuss the Swiss deal and those past events at HSBC with Lord Green, who was appointed as a Minister after this scandal came to light?

It is not good enough for the Chancellor to shout and bluster, and to try and sweep these questions under the carpet and claim he did not ask the questions. Since the Government were given the files, he has been the Chancellor for five years. Is it not clear either that he and the Prime Minister were negligent in failing to act on the evidence the Government received, including about HSBC and Lord Green, or, just as with the appointment of Mr Coulson, that they deliberately turned a blind eye?

Well, I do not think that performance will save the shadow Chancellor’s political career. Every single question he asked I had already answered. The whole House can see that the person bringing this question to the House is the person with the most to answer for, and that he has no answers. He has nothing to say about the fact that every single one of these alleged offences occurred when he was the principal tax adviser to the last Labour Government, and nothing to say about the fact that the HSBC files came to light while he was in office. He said I admitted I knew about them in 2009. I read the Financial Times—it was in the newspapers; he was in the Cabinet and did absolutely nothing about it. He said that the information was provided to the Government in May 2010.

He nods his head, but the information was provided in April 2010, when there was a Labour Government and he was in the Cabinet. He has nothing to say either about the agreement with the French authorities restricting the use that could be made of this information—an agreement that we are now busily trying to change.

None of these things has the shadow Chancellor admitted to or apologised for, and none of it is of any surprise to Government Members, because the Labour party was the friend of the tax avoiders and the tax evaders when it was in office. When we entered office, City bankers were paying lower tax rates than those who cleaned for them; foreigners were not paying capital gains tax; hedge funds were abusing partnership rules; and the richest in our society routinely did not pay stamp duty at all. We have put at end to all of that, and we will take more action in the Budget. All we have on the Opposition Benches is a bunch of arsonists throwing rocks at the firefighters who are putting out the fire that they started.

The shadow Chancellor comes to the House fighting for his political life. He asks about tax evasion, but he was the principal tax adviser when tax evasion occurred. His economic policy is in tatters, and he cannot name a single business supporter of his business policy. His tax avoidance campaign has turned into a war with his own window cleaner. Now he has lost the confidence of his colleagues and his leader, but he lost the confidence of the country a long time ago.

Will the Chancellor confirm that British taxpayers will receive more money back from tax evaders as a result of civil actions than they would through criminal actions?

When we can pursue criminal prosecutions, of course we do so, but that is a matter for the independent prosecuting authorities. Frankly, the suggestion from some on the Labour Benches that the Chancellor of the Exchequer should direct the prosecutions of our independent prosecuting authorities shows how far they have gone from the constitutional principles of government. We set the overall resourcing for HMRC and pass the tax laws, but we have independent prosecuting authorities. The shadow Chancellor goes on about the policy, but the policy was set out by the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath in 2002 and repeated in 2005.

Does the Chancellor agree that obtaining financial advantage by deception is a criminal offence even when carried out by bankers? Does he recognise that HSBC has 556 subsidiary companies in tax havens? We know what has happened with one of them, but when will there be an inquiry into the other 555?

Some very serious allegations have been made about HSBC Swiss and its role in knowingly advising people on tax evasion. Of course, our prosecuting authorities will want to look into the matter, but the House needs to know that the information that was received from the French authorities under the last Government—[Interruption.] This is important, and it is relevant to the right hon. Gentleman’s question. The information was received as the result of a negotiation with the French authorities about what use it could be put to, and the French agreement struck by the last Government said that we could use it only for prosecuting or pursuing individuals with regard to their tax affairs. We are currently in active discussion, which I think will come to a fruitful end, to get the French to allow us to pass some of that information to the Serious Fraud Office and other prosecuting authorities, to address the concern that he rightly raises about the potential or alleged role of banks in the affair.

Will my right hon. Friend explain to the House how many tax avoidance schemes that he inherited in 2010 he has had to close down?

More than 40 tax avoidance schemes or loopholes have been closed. Of course, we have also introduced an anti-avoidance and anti-abuse rule, which the Labour Government had 13 years to introduce. Now Labour Members are saying that we should be stiffening the penalties under that anti-abuse rule, but—[Interruption.] I will tell Members who was in charge. The shadow Chancellor was in charge for 13 years and did absolutely nothing. We came in, closed the loopholes, introduced the anti-abuse rule, got rid of the abuse of partnerships by hedge funds, got rid of the abuse of stamp duty by the richest in our society and started collecting the tax that should have been collected long ago.

The revelations about HSBC are just the latest in a long line of misdeeds by our banks, which are undermining confidence in the system throughout. Too often, HMRC seems to be on the back foot. The Chancellor said that if it required more resources it would be given them. Will he commit those resources to a proactive investigation of the role of banks, and some of the larger accountancy firms, in both tax avoidance and tax evasion?

The amount collected by HMRC as a result of abuse of this kind has risen from £17 billion to £26 billion. That is partly because we have put additional resources into tackling tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance. We have done a great deal. However, I am the first to say that there is more to be done, and, as I said in my statement, more will be done in the Budget.

Does the Chancellor think that corporate entities that advise on tax evasion or enable it to take place should themselves be subject to criminal prosecution?

Yesterday the Chief Secretary referred to a policy that the Treasury has been considering for the purposes of the Budget, involving the penalties that should be paid by those who actively facilitate tax evasion. As I have said, we are considering that policy, but the hon. Gentleman will have to wait for the Budget.

If the position is now so clear and has now been dealt with, why did the former Tory treasurer say only the other week that “everyone” was engaged in tax avoidance? He meant the rich. Is not the situation summed up very well by an American woman, Leona Helmsley, who ran hotels? She said—and it apparently still applies in this country to a large extent—

“We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.”

That illustrates the divide between the vast majority of people in our country and the rich.

We have taken steps to deal with precisely the abuses to which the hon. Gentleman has alluded, such as the use of vehicles to avoid paying stamp duty, the creation of partnerships so that hedge funds do not pay the proper amounts, and the fact that foreigners did not pay capital gains tax. Disguised income is another abuse that we have sought to clamp down on—and, by the way, the Labour party voted against our action in that regard. As more abuses come to light and more contrived schemes are discovered, we take action to deal with them, but I have to say that we have had very little support from the Labour party.

When objective members of the public review these exchanges, they could be forgiven for thinking that there was little to choose between our parties. Will the Chancellor confirm that he has instituted not just the general anti-abuse rule, but follower notices and accelerated payments, and will he also confirm that our party has dealt with this issue far more robustly than the Labour party?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The accelerated payments scheme means that if tax is in dispute, we ask for it up front, and if people can prove that we have got it wrong, they get the money back. That is the rule with which the vast majority of our citizens must comply at present, but it was not complied with by those who were very well off. We introduced the accelerator, and as a result we are collecting hundreds of millions of pounds of tax that was previously not collected. As my hon. Friend says, that is further evidence of the gulf between what the Labour Government did during the 13 years for which the shadow Chancellor advised them, and what we have done in the last five years.

The Chancellor described the steps taken by the civil service before the appointment of Lord Green, but will he now answer this question? Did he ever discuss this matter with Lord Green, and did the Prime Minister ever discuss it with Lord Green?

I said in my statement that the proper procedures had been followed for the appointment of a Minister, and that the Cabinet Secretary and the director general of ethics in the Cabinet Office had been involved. I am not privy to the tax affairs of any individual citizen, and it would be a gross abuse of our constitution if I were. Our procedures allow HMRC to talk to the House of Lords Appointments Commission, and it did so on this occasion, so those procedures were followed. Any Labour Members who ask questions about our appointment of Stephen Green to the post of Trade Minister could be asked questions about their decision to appoint him as chair of the Prime Minister’s business council, and to retain him in that post after the revelations that appeared in the Financial Times in 2009.

Many small businesses and taxpayers in north Yorkshire will be shocked by the time line that the Chancellor has just described. Will he clarify once again what the last Government knew and when?

They don’t want to hear about their record in government, Mr Speaker. Every single alleged offence happened when the Labour Government were in office. The information became publicly known when the Labour Government were in office. Lord Green’s first public appointment was as chair of the Prime Minister’s business council under the Gordon Brown Administration. The information was received from the French authorities under the last Labour Government. So I think the whole House—and, indeed, my hon. Friend’s constituents, who pay their taxes—would like the shadow Chancellor to get up and express a little bit of humility and contrition for the mistakes made when he was in office.

Since 2010 the Chancellor or Treasury Ministers have met HSBC 56 times. Was tax avoidance or tax evasion ever discussed at those meetings, and what was the outcome of those discussions?

First of all, it is not surprising that the British Government—Conservative, coalition or Labour—would meet one of the country’s largest institutions and banks. So that it is not a matter for surprise. I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman about any details we have about particular meetings.

In 2005, at the height of all of this, the then Chancellor told the CBI dinner that he supported a “light” and “limited” approach to regulation including tax administration. What does the Chancellor think the previous Chancellor meant by a “light” approach to tax administration, and can he confirm that we have cleared it up?

Well, we have taken a much more aggressive approach. As a result, prosecutions are up fivefold. I have the following parliamentary answer from the then Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), and this is what he told the House:

“Where serious tax fraud has been committed, the Board”—

the Inland Revenue board—

“may accept a money settlement instead of pursuing a criminal prosecution.

The Board will accept a money settlement and will not pursue a criminal prosecution, if the taxpayer, in response to being given a copy of this Statement by an authorised officer, makes a full and complete confession of all tax irregularities.”—[Official Report, 7 November 2002; Vol. 392, c. 784W.]

That was the approach of the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath to tax policy. [Interruption.] The shadow Chancellor says it was before 2000, but the revelations were made in 2009, and the last time I checked there was a Labour Government in late 2009 and early 2010.

Will the Chancellor finally seriously consider the issue of corporate liability for the criminal actions of employees? This would mean that banks could themselves be prosecuted. Would he like a copy of Labour’s policy review on tackling serious crime and white-collar crime that I launched two years ago? I have a copy here; he can have a read of it. I suggest a change in the law.

Unfortunately for the hon. Lady, the Labour party had 13 years when they had a Labour Chancellor standing at this Dispatch Box able to introduce all these things she talks about. As I have said, we are looking very seriously in the Budget at what further action we can take to tackle not just those who evade their taxes, but those who facilitate that evasion.

Does this question itself show the danger of eliding tax avoidance and tax evasion? There is no obligation on anybody to pay more tax than the law requires and even the most respectable families have schemes of arrangements to minimise things like death duties, whereas tax evasion is a very serious criminal offence which should be come down on with the full force of the law.

The hon. Gentleman says that that’s the Tory party, but, as it happens, I think my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) is referring to the newspaper accounts of the Labour leader. I am not going to get drawn into that. Of course there is a difference in law between tax avoidance and tax evasion, although the shadow Chancellor managed to mess it up in the question he put today, but I have said as well that aggressive tax avoidance is something we also need to clamp down on and stop, and we have taken many actions to do so.

The Chancellor said he was answering all the questions, but, as I heard him, he left out the second part of the question about the deal with the Swiss authorities, which was why was a deal signed which prevents the UK from actively obtaining similar information in the future. Will he tell our constituents why the Government decided to do that deal?

I can confirm that the agreement we have signed would not prevent us from receiving the so-called Lagarde list in exactly the way that we have been doing. Also, thanks to the Prime Minister’s leadership at the G8, we will now have an automatic exchange of information with Switzerland from 2017. That is one of the most important steps forward in tackling tax evasion. The answer is—[Interruption.] The shadow Chancellor is again not listening to the answers that he is getting across the Dispatch Box; the problem is that all his questions have been answered. The answer is that our agreement with Switzerland would not prevent us from receiving the Lagarde list.

Should we not design greater resilience into our tax base instead of engaging in endless games of cat and mouse with firms of tax advisers?

The hon. Gentleman asks a good question. There are two approaches. The first involves introducing into our domestic law things like the general anti-abuse rule, which is more of a catch-all and tries to anticipate changes by accountancy firms and others who devise aggressive avoidance schemes. The second approach, which is not to be underestimated, involves the major international agreement on the automatic exchange of people’s tax information between jurisdictions such as Switzerland and the United Kingdom. That agreement has happened only because the Prime Minister put it at the top of the G8 agenda; no previous leader of the G8 had done so. That is why we will have the automatic exchange of information, which will be a revolution in tax transparency.

What explanation can the Chancellor give in response to comments by the former tax inspector Richard Brooks that the Treasury and HMRC

“knew that there was a mass of evidence of tax evasion at the heart of HSBC”

in 2011, but that the Government

“simply washed their hands of it”?

As I have explained, HMRC received in April 2010 the disc that had all the information on individual bank accounts. It then set about investigating all those individuals and bringing those prosecutions. We have known—[Interruption.] The shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury says that we have known this for five years. We have known for five years that there was egregious tax evasion 10 years ago under the Labour Government. We have put the resources into pursuing that, collecting the money and passing the international agreements to ensure that it never happens again in our country.

As I said earlier, tax evasion is illegal. Aggressive tax avoidance is something that we are taking enormous steps to prevent. We have passed laws and introduced the general anti-abuse rule to ensure that we are collecting a fair amount of taxation from our population.

The Chancellor has to realise that this will not wash with the general public and the tax-paying businesses in my constituency and elsewhere, or with the companies that paid their taxes under the arrangement in Switzerland and elsewhere when they transferred their money. The reality is that people want a law under which people will not only have money taken off them but go to jail. If he is not going to introduce such a law, he should step aside and let another Government do it for him.

These abuses happened when there was a Labour Government in office. That Government, and the former Chancellor, set in place the selective prosecution policy. We have increased the resources and, as a result, the number of prosecutions has gone up fivefold. There is still one particular barrier, however, to the potential prosecution of HSBC Swiss if it is found to have committed a crime. That barrier is the agreement signed by the last Government with the French Government, and we are currently in negotiations with the French Government to unravel that terrible agreement. Then, our independent prosecuting authorities will see whether there are any cases to bring.

It has recently emerged that the Gloucestershire-based business Ecotricity lent its founder £4 million on seriously tax-advantageous terms. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there should be an investigation into whether the transactions between Ecotricity and Dale Vince represent aggressive tax avoidance? Does he also agree that it is possible that Labour has not carried out appropriate due diligence on what might otherwise look like a naked attempt at a thank-you for the £37 million of taxpayer subsidies given to Ecotricity’s onshore wind farm business?

I am not going to discuss an individual’s tax affairs, but I would say this: the hypocrisy of the Labour party on this issue is simply breathtaking. Labour Members complain about Conservative party donors and then we hear all these revelations about Labour party donors; they complain about individual accountancy firms and then it turns out that Labour collects hundreds of thousands of pounds of donations from those accountancy firms; and they complain about the alleged tax evasion at HSBC Swiss and every single one of those offences happened when Labour was in government. It is time Labour Members got up and apologised.

No one on the Labour Benches is complaining that the Chancellor met people from HSBC 56 times—we are not surprised by that. The question is: was evasion or tax avoidance discussed at those meetings and what was the outcome of those discussions? [Interruption.]

I have already answered that question. [Interruption.] I have; I said it is not surprising that Ministers meet one of the largest companies in this country, which employs close to 50,000 people in Britain and, as I understand it, a quarter of a million people around the world. As I also said earlier, I am happy to write about any of the content of those meetings, which were not just with me, but across the government.

Order. Twenty Back Benchers have contributed to this exchange. As the House knows, my normal practice is to try to facilitate everybody, on both sides of the House, who wants to take part, but I should advise the House that we are time constrained today. We now have a very important statement by the Prime Minister, on which there will doubtless be substantial questioning, and then important matters in the Serious Crime Bill, in which a lot of people are interested and for which, frankly, there is not adequate time. The inadequacy of the time is down to the business managers. It is not a matter for me, but I am doing my best to cope with the situation in the interests of Back-Bench Members.