House of Commons
Wednesday 13 April 2016
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
1. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of steps taken to rebalance the economy in Wales. 
As the economy continues to grow, this one nation Government are ambitious for every part of the UK. In Wales, we are regenerating the south-east with a city deal for the Cardiff capital region. We intend to follow suit with a deal for Swansea in the west, and we have opened the door to a growth deal for north Wales.
May I be the first to welcome the Secretary of State and the Minister to their new roles?
Following the announcement of the north Wales growth deal in the Budget, what plans are there for the deal to be genuinely cross-border and to plug into the northern powerhouse, which has the potential to deliver huge benefits throughout the north, not only for the distinct regions like north Wales but for God’s own county of Yorkshire?
As well as seeking to grow the economy across the United Kingdom, all the way to Yorkshire and beyond, we are seeking to move our dependency in Wales from the south-eastern part of the country. Less than two weeks ago, I was in north Wales talking to local authority leaders, businesses and business groups, all of whom were keen to support the north Wales growth deal. It was interesting to note that they called for the deal to take place on a cross-border basis, extending to Cheshire and the Wirral, to ensure that north Wales was plugged into the northern powerhouse.
Given the importance of north Wales, will the Secretary of State press very hard for the establishment of links to Manchester airport and rail links to enable people to benefit from HS2, and would I, as a north Wales MP, be able to vote on such measures?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the new cross-border taskforce is making a bid for control period 6 funding from the Department for Transport with the aim of improving links with north Wales. Franchise negotiations are taking place between the Welsh and United Kingdom Governments, and we are determined to ensure that Members are represented properly in those negotiations.
I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend to his position. As he said, the Budget contained excellent news for north Wales in the form of the growth deal announcement, which recognises the region’s close association with the north-west of England, but does he agree that maximising the benefit will require at least an element of political devolution to north Wales?
My right hon. Friend speaks with authority and knowledge of this issue. Devolution to north Wales from what is seen in many quarters as the remoteness of Cardiff Bay is essential. The community groups whom I met in north Wales, whether they were from the north-west, from the border or from the English side of the boundary, wanted the growth deal to work on a cross-border basis, and I am determined to explore that possibility in the interests of the region.
One of the most effective ways of rebalancing the economy is to empower the Welsh Government by giving them the necessary job creation levers, which is why I welcome moves to increase fiscal empowerment for Wales. If fiscal devolution is to work, however, it must be facilitated by the provision of a genuinely no-detriment fiscal framework. The SNP Scottish Government have negotiated such a framework for their country. What is the Secretary of State’s preferred deduction method for Wales?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the plans in the draft Wales Bill for the granting of income tax-varying powers for the Welsh Government. We want Wales to be a low-tax economy. Of course, mechanisms will need to be introduced to protect Welsh interests. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that I met the Chief Secretary to the Treasury earlier this week to discuss early proposals for such mechanisms, and we are happy to engage in further such discussions.
Which sectors of the Welsh economy offer the most exciting prospects for growth to help to rebalance the economy, and what steps is my right hon. Friend taking to encourage them?
As my hon. Friend will know, the Budget focused on the city deal for Cardiff, which is the largest city deal in the United Kingdom, with £1.2 billion covering 10 local authority areas. However, we also have ambitions for the Swansea bay city deal and the north Wales growth deal. We need to remember that this involves UK taxpayers’ money in addition to the Barnett block, which is something that we never saw when Labour was in power.
North Wales growth is interdependent on growth in the Republic of Ireland as well as in England. Will the Secretary of State—and I welcome both him and the Under-Secretary of State to their new positions—ensure that north Wales Labour Members are provided with some details of the so-called partnership, given that we are the partners from north Wales?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words and support.
We are determined to work on that issue. There has been a bottom-up approach on the growth deal. We have met local authority leaders and businesses from north Wales, and we are determined to pursue that further. I am not sure that I can make the growth deal stretch as far as Northern Ireland and the Republic Ireland, but I would be interested to try to take it across the English border.
Severn Crossings: Tolls
2. What assessment he has made of the potential effect on people in Wales of the Government’s decision to reduce tolls on the Severn crossings. 
This Government’s commitment to halve the Severn crossings toll is a major boost for the economy and people of south Wales. It will make a positive difference to commuters and small business owners and demonstrates our continued determination to rebalance the economy.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply. I also welcome him to his place. It seems only a moment or so ago that we were competing to be the parliamentary candidate for the then safe Labour seat of Gower, which was some years ago.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the reduction in the tolls will also hugely benefit the Welsh tourism sector by encouraging people to come to Wales, and that it is time for the Welsh Government to pull their finger out and deliver the investment and improvements to the M4 corridor?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind words. It is fair to say that there are no infrastructure projects more important to the south Wales economy than the upgrade of the M4 around Newport. It is hard to believe that our noble Friend Lord Hague was Secretary of State for Wales when a commitment to that was first made, only for it to be cancelled twice by the Labour party when it was in government. Business has called for it; commuters have called for it; visitors have called for it. The Chancellor made money available specifically for this project almost three years ago. We just wish the Welsh Government would get on with it.
The Select Committee on Welsh Affairs found that the operational and maintenance costs of the bridge represented a quarter of the toll, yet, as the bridge goes into public hands, the Government have reduced the toll by half and are therefore creating a 100% margin. When will they reduce the toll to the level of the operational and maintenance costs to give south Wales and the Welsh economy every chance of performing as well as anywhere else, rather than having this stranglehold on it?
I would have hoped that the hon. Gentleman, like business groups, be it the Federation of Small Businesses, the chambers of commerce or the Institute of Directors, would welcome the halving of the tolls. We saw no action in that regard from the Labour party when it was in government. However, we have gone further than just halving the Severn tolls. A small goods vehicle, for example, will move from the current rate of £13.20 to less than £4 when the tolls are halved, because we are also removing the second-class toll.
13. The announcement by this Conservative Government of the cut in tolls is hugely welcome. Does my right hon. Friend agree, however, that in the longer term the revenue generated from the tolls should not exceed the cost of maintaining the two Severn bridges?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his diligent and persistent campaigning on the issue. I know that he was absolutely delighted when the Chancellor was able to respond to his and many other Conservative colleagues’ requests. Of course, a debt will remain on the tolls even when the bridges come back into public ownership in 2018 or thereabouts. That debt will still need to be serviced, as will the innovations on free-flowing traffic that we want to introduce.
I congratulate the Secretary of State and the Minister on their recent appointments. Labour Members look forward to working constructively with them, particularly on the new Wales Bill, whenever that may appear.
To clarify, in last month’s Budget the Chancellor made much of halving the tolls on the Severn crossings, but as we have since discovered that is not quite the bargain it appears to be. The 50% discount includes the 20% of VAT, which disappears anyway when the bridge reverts to public ownership, and of course businesses reclaim VAT. So instead of leaving businesses still paying thousands of pounds a year, why will not the Government do the right thing and scrap these tolls altogether?
We have an election coming and the call from the Labour party is now very different—it is very convenient. It has long called for the devolution of the tolls, but we were fearful that, as soon as the tolls were devolved, they would be used as a cash cow to support the income of the Welsh Government.
3. What recent assessment he has made of employment trends in Wales. 
The labour market in Wales has never been stronger. Although we recognise the challenges facing the Welsh economy, there is a lot to celebrate. Unemployment has fallen to its lowest since 2008 and the number of people in work in Wales is at an all-time high.
I welcome the Minister to his position. He is quite rightly focusing on the issues affecting steel production at Port Talbot, but what assessment has he made of the decision by Aston Martin to build its new DBX car at St Athan?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight that success story. It is a success story for all of the United Kingdom. It is an investment in St Athan, in Wales and in Britain, creating 750 highly skilled jobs in Wales and the west midlands, and I am very grateful to the Prime Minister and to Michael Fallon for the work that they have put into achieving that success.
I think that the hon. Gentleman was referring to the Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon). Some name was mentioned, but it does not mean anything in the Chamber.
Since 2012, Jobs Growth Wales has helped 15,000 people into meaningful employment. Given that youth unemployment is falling faster in Wales than in the UK as a whole, does the Minister agree that the UK Government could learn from the Welsh Labour Government in this regard?
It is interesting to note that an independent audit of Jobs Growth Wales has highlighted that some 80% of its spending has been inefficient. However, it is important to point out that successful jobs creation in Wales is dependent on co-operation between the two Governments, which is exactly what we saw in relation to Aston Martin.
11. My hon. Friend will know that tourism is a major employer. Will he take this opportunity of paying tribute to Andrew R. T. Davies, the leader of the Conservatives in the Welsh Assembly, and to Anthony Pickles for coming up with the idea of bringing the Prince of Wales’s regalia to Wales? Will he also praise the Prince of Wales for following up on that idea? What discussions is the Minister having with the Welsh Government to promote this?
I will of course join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the leader of the Welsh Conservatives. It is important to highlight the importance of tourism to the Welsh economy, and bringing the regalia back to Wales is the right thing to do. I am certain that the castle of Conwy in my constituency would be delighted to host them.
Does the Minister think that his colleagues’ plan to sack hundreds of civil servants in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in Cardiff will help or hinder employment trends in Wales?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question, but she will be aware that it would be inappropriate for me to comment on a leaked report. The key thing that we need to be aware of is that wherever in Wales we look—north, south, west or east—we are seeing employment growth.
14. I welcome my hon. Friend to his new position and congratulate him on his new job. Does he agree that the reductions to business taxes announced in the Budget and the ability of people to keep more of their own earnings will create an environment in which the private sector can invest and in which employment opportunities can come to Wales in the same way as they do to the rest of the country?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. The tax cuts that have been put in place by this Government since 2010 are to be welcomed. Of particular importance in the Budget was the announcement on small business rates, and I call on the Welsh Government to follow the example of the Westminster Government to ensure that Welsh small businesses have the same advantages through their business rates as do those in England.
Only 38% of working-age disabled people are in jobs in Wales, compared with 46% in the UK as a whole. Why?
The right hon. Lady asks an important question. There is more work to be done and, again, there is a need to work together on this issue. However, I would highlight the fact that more and more people with disabilities are now in work—152,000 more in the past 12 months and over 300,000 more in the past 24 months. We need to ensure that the successes we are seeing across the country are replicated in Wales.
4. What assessment he has made of risks to the future of the steel industry in Wales. 
The steel industry is currently dealing with unparalleled global economic conditions and the UK is deeply concerned by the social and economic impact that they are having in south Wales. While we cannot change the status of the global steel market, our objective remains to overcome the challenges and play a positive role in achieving a sustainable future for the steel industry in Wales and across the UK.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Does he agree that in order to secure the future not only of the Port Talbot site but of Tata sites around the UK, no option should be ruled out?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the way in which he has represented the interests of his constituents and of those who depend on steelmaking in his area. He recognises the way in which the plants are interlinked and he has been working closely with the Business Secretary and me to help to support a secure future. I can reassure him that no stone will be left unturned to secure a long-term future for the Corby plant as well as for every other plant across the UK.
I welcome the Secretary of State and his deputy to their new positions and assure you, Sir, that I will endeavour to give them ample opportunity to explain themselves after my questions. Why did the Secretary of State not travel to Mumbai for the Tata board meeting of 29 March?
The Government have been in close dialogue with Tata steel for many months. My right hon. Friend the Business Secretary was at Tata the month before the Mumbai meeting and had engaged with its directors well before that. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be grateful that as a result of the Government’s actions we managed to avert the immediate closure of the plant and propose a sale.
I will give the Secretary of State another go. Did he fail to attend the meeting because a more senior Cabinet colleague told him not to do so? Did he decide not to go off his own bat? Or was it more down to the fact that, as the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise said of her boss the Business Secretary to the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs yesterday,
“He would not have gone to Australia had he known that they were going to close the ruddy works”?
What stopped our Secretary of State? Was it the Cabinet’s pecking order, was it indolence, or was it just plain ignorance?
I am disappointed with the hon. Gentleman’s approach. Steelworkers want to see Government and Opposition, and the unions and the company, work together to secure a long-term future. The Government have been in a long-term dialogue, which is demonstrated by the ongoing sales process, as opposed to the plant facing the risk of immediate closure.
Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he and the Wales Office will work with all relevant Government Departments to ensure the long-term future of Port Talbot, particularly for the workers who live in my constituency?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend. He met the Business Secretary last week, and he and I have had several conversations about support for his constituents who depend on the plant, demonstrating its regional impact. The Government are determined to do everything possible to secure a long-term, viable future for the plant.
As the Secretary of State well knows, at sites across Wales, such as Shotton, Llanwern, Orb, Trostre and Port Talbot, Tata steelworkers produce a whole range of specialist products. What assurances has he obtained from Tata that it will not siphon off the production of the most profitable lines to their plants aboard? What guarantees has he received that the intellectual property will remain with the Welsh operations in order to attract a suitable buyer and safeguard thousands of Welsh jobs?
The hon. Lady makes an important point about the sale of the operations in the United Kingdom, which demonstrates the positive engagement between the UK Government and Tata Steel that has resulted in its decision to sell off all its operations, rather than simply to dispose of what some might see as the more profitable assets.
Steel Industry: Government Support
5. What steps the Government are taking to support the steel industry in Wales. 
We have been in extensive discussions with Tata for months, and it is due to Government intervention that Tata has agreed to a sales process rather than an immediate closure of its operations in Wales. I spoke to the hon. Gentleman before he went to the Tata meeting in Mumbai and have spoken to him since. I am keen to stay in regular contact in order to update him as the position changes. [Interruption.]
Order. These are important matters affecting the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people in Wales and across the country. Let us have some respect for that fact without Ministers wittering away— Mr Evennett—in the background. Important matters are being discussed. Be quiet, sir!
The Secretary of State will know that retaining the order book and customer base is critical for the Welsh steel industry. I want a short answer to a short question. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether he has had conversations with customers such as Honda, Nissan and Jaguar Land Rover to secure the integrity of the customer base? Yes or no.
My father was a welder at the Port Talbot plant for more than 30 years before he was made redundant several years ago. I am from that community and understand how important the steelworks is to the income of the area. My family has been through the good times when records have been broken and the difficult times when my father, like many others, was made redundant. The Government regularly engage with many of the companies, both suppliers and customers, that work with Tata. We are determined to do everything to support them.
Yesterday, the Business Secretary said we need to work together, cross-party, on this, and the Secretary of State for Wales has just said the same. I understand that he is to visit Shotton on Monday—when was he intending to tell me?
I would have hoped that the hon. Gentleman would be grateful for, or approving of, a visit from a UK Minister to Shotton. I have been responding to the calls from the local workers, but I was in Wrexham on the day that the news broke about Shotton, and I spoke to community leaders and business leaders about the impact. I said to the community, “As soon as more information becomes available, I will return.” That is why I am returning to Shotton next Monday, and I am pleased about it.
EU Membership: Economy
6. What assessment he has made of the economic effect on Wales of UK membership of the EU. 
The European Union makes a massive contribution to the Welsh economy: it is our largest trading partner; it supports thousands of jobs; and it provides significant investments for projects all around Wales. The economic benefits of a reformed EU are far too great to risk leaving.
I thank the Minister for that answer. He is absolutely right; the Welsh economy depends on EU funding to a large extent. Does he agree that remaining in the EU is vital for training and employment opportunities in Wales and across the UK?
I fully endorse the comments the hon. Gentleman has made. The funding from the EU has been significant in re-skilling the Welsh workforce to a very high extent and the support given by the EU to higher education institutions is phenomenal.
Small family farms remain the backbone of the west Wales rural economy, but incomes have declined by £5,000 over the past two years. Does the Minister share the concerns of the Farmers Union of Wales, the National Farmers Union and many in the rural economy that the last thing we need to countenance is withdrawal from the European Union?
I entirely endorse the hon. Gentleman’s comments. Both farming unions in Wales—the FUW and the NFU—are strongly in favour of our remaining in the reformed European Union. The extent of Welsh agricultural produce that is exported to the EU shows how important that market is; 90% of Welsh agricultural produce is exported to the EU and we should not risk losing that.
On this point, the Minister is absolutely right. The best decision for Wales is to stay in the European Union, as our favourite pamphlet says. But can he tell us why, at a time when Sir Terry Matthews, Airbus, NFU Cymru and the FUW support our membership, Andrew R. T. Davies, the person the Conservative party wants to be First Minister of Wales, wants Wales out of the EU? It is a disgrace, is it not? [Interruption.]
I think we got the gist of it.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight the support of Airbus, Horizon Nuclear Power and the farming unions, but I make this point to her: the Conservative party is a democratic party that believes passionately that the people who can make a decision about this issue are the people of this country. We have offered them a referendum and their votes will result in a decision in 10 weeks’ time.
Disabled People: Employment
7. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of support for employment for disabled people in Wales. 
The Government believe every disabled person who wants to work should be able to work. As announced in the spending review, there will be a real-terms spending increase on supporting disabled people into work. That will ensure that valuable talent and skill will be further recognised in the Welsh workforce. [Interruption.]
Order. We are discussing the situation of disabled people in Wales.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Disability rights organisations, the Equality and Human Rights Commission and many others have decried the lack of evidence in support of the Government’s cutting £1,500 a year from disabled people who have been found not fit for work. How many employers in Wales have the Government signed up as active Disability Confident employers for those disabled people who are fit for work?
It is important to point out, first, that supporting disabled people into the workplace is incredibly important, and this Government have a track record of success. Over the past 12 months, we have seen 150,000 disabled people enter the workplace; the figure is more than 300,000 over the past 24 months. I am proud of the fact that Swansea is the first disabled-friendly city in the UK, supporting disabled people into employment. On the specific numbers, I will write to the hon. Lady with the details that she requests.
Will the Minister concede that with more than a third of work capability assessment appeals being successful, Government policy is damaging the lives of a great many disabled people and starving them of money that they need in order to live a reasonable quality of life?
Although the work capability assessments need to be refined and are being refined, it is crucial to highlight the fact that this Government strongly believe that people who are disabled and who want to work and are able to work have a contribution to make. The aim of this Government’s policies is to help people into employment where that is possible, and the figures show that our policies are successful.
Several hon. Members rose—
Finally—patience rewarded—I call Mr Ian Lucas.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I welcome the Minister to his post. Is he aware that the callous policy of the Conservative Government of implementing personal independence payments is leading to many people being prevented from working because Motability cars are being taken away from them, which prevents them from being able to travel to work? Will he speak to the Prime Minister, who is sitting next to him, to try to talk some sense into him?
I find the hon. Gentleman’s comments slightly disappointing. When he looks at all the changes in the employment situation in his constituency, he should welcome this Government’s work on welfare reform. The welfare reform changes that we are putting in place are contributing to behavioural change, leading to more people supporting their own families and contributing to the economy. When he looks at the statistics for the Wrexham constituency, he should welcome the changes, instead of condemning them.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Q1. If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 13 April. 
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others and, in addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
Last week in Aldridge-Brownhills I visited Laserform manufacturing and Potclays, who supplied clay for the Tower of London poppies. Does my right hon. Friend agree that supporting small businesses and the further increase in personal income tax allowance, which came in this month, show that, unlike Labour, the Conservative party is the party of enterprise and aspiration and believes in enabling hard-working people to keep more of the money they earn?
Let me join my hon. Friend in congratulating the firms that she mentions. She is right that it is predominantly small and medium-sized businesses that will be providing the jobs of the future. We want people to keep more of their own money to spend as they choose. That is why the historic move last week to an £11,000 personal allowance means that by 2018 people will be paying about £1,000 less per taxpayer and we will have taken 4 million of the lowest-paid people out of tax altogether. That is the action of a progressive Conservative Government.
I am sure the whole House will join me in mourning the death today of the dramatist Arnold Wesker, one of the great playwrights of this country, one of those wonderful angry young men of the 1950s who, like so many angry young people, changed the face of our country.
Yesterday the European Commission announced new proposals on country-by-country tax reporting, so that companies must declare where they make their profits in the European Union and in blacklisted tax havens. Conservative MEPs voted against the proposal for country-by-country reporting and against the blacklisting. Can the Prime Minister now assure us that Conservative MEPs will support the new proposal?
First, let me join the right hon. Gentleman in mourning the loss of the famous playwright, with all the work that he did. He is right to mention that.
Let me welcome the country-by-country tax reporting proposal put forward by Commissioner Jonathan Hill, who was appointed by this Government as the United Kingdom Commissioner. That is very much based on the work that we have been doing, leading the collaboration between countries and making sure that we share tax information. As we discussed on Monday, this has gone far faster and far further under this Government than under any previous Government.
If the proposals were put forward by the British Government, why did Conservative MEPs vote against them? There seems to be a sort of disconnect there. The Panama papers exposed the scandalous situation where wealthy individuals seemed to believe that corporation tax and other taxes are optional. Indeed, as the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan) informed us, they are apparently only for “low achievers”. When Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs says that the tax gap is £34 billion, why is the Prime Minister cutting HMRC staff by 20% and shutting down tax offices, losing the expertise of the people who could close that tax gap?
I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman wants to get on to our responsibilities to pay our taxes, which I think is very important. I thought that his tax return was a metaphor for Labour policy: it was late, it was chaotic, it was inaccurate and it was uncosted. Turning to his specific questions, he is absolutely right to identify the tax gap. That is why we closed off loopholes in the last Parliament equivalent to £12 billion, and we aim to close off loopholes in this Parliament equivalent to £16 billion. HMRC is taking very strong action, backed by this Government, backed by the Chancellor and legislated for by this House. I think that I am right in saying that since 2010 we have put over £1 billion into HMRC to increase its capabilities to collect the tax that people should be paying. The difference between those on the Government Benches and the right hon. Gentleman is that we believe in setting low tax rates and encouraging people to pay them, and it is working.
I am grateful to the Prime Minister for drawing attention to my own tax return, which is there to see, warts and all—the warts being my handwriting, and the all being my generous donation to HMRC. I actually paid more tax than some companies owned by people he might know quite well. He is not cutting tax abuse; he is cutting down on tax collectors. The tax collected helps to fund our NHS and all the other services. Last month, the Office for Budget Responsibility reported that HMRC does not have the necessary resources to tackle offshore tax disclosures. The Government are committed to taking £400 million out of HMRC’s budget by 2020. Will he now commit to reversing that cut so that we can collect the tax that will help to pay for the services?
I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman’s figures, rather like his tax return, are not entirely accurate. At the summer Budget in 2015 we gave an extra £800 million to HMRC to fund additional work to tackle tax evasion and non-compliance between now and 2021. That will enable HMRC to recover a cumulative £7.2 billion in tax over the next five years. We have already brought in more than £2 billion from offshore tax evaders since 2010. The point that I will make to him is that I think we should try to bring some consensus to this issue. For years in this country, Labour and Conservative Governments had an attitude to the Crown dependencies and overseas territories that their tax affairs were a matter for them, their compliance affairs were a matter for them and their transparency was a matter for them. This Government have changed that. We got the overseas territories and Crown dependencies round the table and we said, “You’ve got to have registers of ownership, you’ve got to collaborate with the UK Government and you’ve got to ensure that people do not hide their taxes.” And that is what is happening. So when he gets to his feet, he should welcome the fact that huge progress has been made, raising taxes, sorting out the overseas territories and Crown dependencies, closing the tax gap, getting businesses to pay more and providing international leadership on this whole issue—all things that never happened under Labour.
I thank the Prime Minister for that answer. The only problem with it is that the Red Book states that HMRC spending will fall from £3.3 billion to £2.9 billion by 2020. With regard to the UK Crown dependencies and overseas territories, only two days ago the Prime Minister said that he had agreed that they will provide UK law enforcement and tax agencies with full access to information on the beneficial ownership of companies. There seems to be some confusion here, because the Chief Minister of Jersey said:
“This is in response to a need for information without delay where terrorist activities are involved”.
Obviously we welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to fighting terrorism, but are Jersey and all the other dependencies actually going to provide beneficial ownership information or not?
The short answer to that is, yes they are, and that is what is such a big breakthrough. Look, I totally accept that they are not going as far as us, because we are publishing a register of beneficial ownership. That will happen in June. We will be one of the only countries in the world to do so—I think Norway and Spain are the others. What the overseas territories and Crown dependencies are doing is making sure that we have full access to registers of beneficial ownership to make sure that people are not evading or avoiding their taxes.
In the interests of giving full answers to the right hon. Gentleman’s questions, let me give him the figures for full-time equivalents in HMRC in terms of compliance. The numbers went from 25,000 in 2010 to 26,798 in 2015. It is not how much money you spend on an organisation; it is how many people you can actually have out there collecting the taxes and making sure the forms are properly filled in.
The Prime Minister is quite right: the number of people out there collecting taxes is important, so why has he laid off so many staff at HMRC, who therefore cannot collect those taxes?
In 2013, the Prime Minister demanded that the overseas territories rip aside the “cloak of secrecy” by creating a public register of beneficial ownership information. Will he now make it clear that the beneficial ownership register will be an absolutely public document and transparent, for all to see who really owns these companies and whether they are paying their taxes?
Let me be absolutely clear: for the United Kingdom, we have taken the unprecedented step—never done by Labour, never done previously by Conservatives—of an open beneficial ownership register. The Crown dependencies and overseas territories have to give full access to the registers of beneficial ownership. We did not choose the option of forcing them to have a public register, because we believed that if that was the case, we would get into the situation the right hon. Gentleman spoke about, and some of them might have walked away from this co-operation altogether. That is the point. The question is, are we going to be able to access the information? Yes. Are we going to be able to pursue tax evaders? Yes. Did any of these things happen under a Labour Government? No.
The Prime Minister does talk very tough, and I grant him that. The only problem is that it is not a public register that he is offering us: he is offering us only a private register that some people can see.
It is quite interesting that the Premier of the Cayman Islands, Alden McLaughlin, is today apparently celebrating his victory over the Prime Minister, because he is saying that the information
“certainly will not be available publicly or available directly by any UK or non-Cayman Islands agency.”
The Prime Minister is supposed to be chasing down tax evasion and tax avoidance; he is supposed to be bringing it all into the open. If he cannot even persuade the Premiers of the Cayman Islands or Jersey to open up their books, where is the tough talk bringing the information we need to collect the taxes that should pay for the services that people need?
I think the right hon. Gentleman is misunderstanding what I have said. In terms of the UK, it is an absolute first to have a register of beneficial ownership that is public. He keeps saying it is not public; the British one will be public. Further to that—and I think this is important, because it goes to a question asked by the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy)—we are also saying to foreign companies that have dealings with Britain that they have to declare their properties, and the properties they own, which will remove a huge veil of secrecy from the ownership of, for instance, London property. Now, I am not saying we have completed all this work, but we have more tax information exchange, more registers of beneficial ownership, more chasing down tax evasion and avoidance, and more money recovered from businesses and individuals, and all of these things are things that have happened under this Government. The truth is he is running to catch up because Labour did nothing in 13 years.
Q6. My constituents John and Penny Clough, whose daughter Jane was tragically murdered by her ex-partner while he was out on bail, are campaigning to save Lancashire’s nine women’s refuges, which are currently under threat because Labour-run Lancashire County Council proposes to cut all their funding. Does the Prime Minister agree with the Clough family and me that Labour-run Lancashire County Council should prioritise the victims of domestic violence?
My hon. Friend raises a very moving case, and I know that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our sincere condolences to Mr and Mrs Clough. In terms of making sure that we stop violence against women and girls, no one should be living in fear of these crimes, which is why we committed £80 million of extra funding up to 2020 to tackle violence against women and girls. That includes funding for securing the future of refuges and other accommodation-based services, but it obviously helps if local councils make the right decisions as well.
The United Kingdom and its offshore territories and dependencies collectively sit at the top of the financial secrecy index of the Tax Justice Network. Since the leaking of the Panama papers, France has put Panama on a blacklist of unco-operative tax havens and the Mossack Fonseca offices have been raided by the police in Panama City. What have British authorities done specifically in relation to Mossack Fonseca and Panama since the leak of the Panama papers?
In terms of who is at the top of the pyramid of tax secrecy, I think it is now unfair to say that about our Crown dependencies and overseas territories, because they are going to co-operate with the three things that we have asked them to do in terms of the reporting standard, the exchange of tax information and access to registers of beneficial ownership. Frankly, that is more than we get out of some states in America, like Delaware. We in this House should be tough on all those that facilitate lack of transparency, but we should be accurate in the way we do it.
The right hon. Gentleman asked what we are doing about the Panama papers. We have a £10 million-funded, cross-agency review to get to the bottom of all the relevant information. That would hugely be helped if the newspapers and other investigative journalists now shared that information with tax inspectors so that we can get to the bottom of it.
On the right hon. Gentleman’s final question, we are happy to support blacklists, but we do not think a blacklist should be drawn up solely on the basis of a territory raising a low tax rate. We do not think that is the right approach. It is the approach the French have sometimes taken in the past. In terms of taking action against tax havens, this Government have done more than any previous one.
Some 3,250 Department for Work and Pensions staff have been specifically investigating benefit fraud, while only 300 HMRC staff have been systematically investigating tax evasion. Surely we should care equally about people abusing the tax system and those abusing the benefits system. Why have this Government had 10 times more staff dealing often with the poorest in society abusing benefits than with the super-rich evading their taxes?
I will look carefully at the right hon. Gentleman’s statistics, but they sound to me entirely bogus, for this reason: the predominant job of the DWP is to make sure that people receive their benefits, and the predominant job of HMRC is to make sure that people pay their taxes. All of the 26,000 people I spoke about earlier are making sure that people pay their taxes. The clue is in the title.
Q8. Will and Carol Davies and many other farmers in south Herefordshire are still awaiting their 2015 payments from the Rural Payments Agency, nearly four months after they were due. That follows the failure of the RPA website last year. It is causing great personal and financial distress, and threatens the future of farm businesses. Will the Prime Minister agree to meet farmers to discuss the issue and press the RPA to make these payments by the end of this month, and does he share my view that, at the very least, farmers should receive interest on the amounts overdue? 
I recently met both the National Farmers Union and the Welsh NFU, and I continue to have meetings with farming organisations, including in my own constituency. I know there have been problems with the payment system. The latest figures show that some 87% of all claims have been paid. I believe that the figures for Herefordshire are in line with the national average, but obviously that is no consolation to the 13% that have not received those payments. That is why we have a financial hardship process. We are working with charities. We have made hardship payments amounting to more than £7 million, but we need to make sure that the lessons of how to make the system work better in future years are properly learned.
Q2. If the British people vote to leave the European Union, will the Prime Minister remain in office to implement their decision? 
Q10. Again on Europe, does the Prime Minister agree that the European Union is not just the world’s biggest single market but an ample source of foreign direct investment, providing 50% of the investment that we receive; and an excellent platform for supply chains to thrive and prosper, which gives them the ability to get the skills and the innovation that they need? That, for my constituency, means that Sartorius, Renishaw, Delphi and a whole load of other hi-tech companies thrive and prosper, as they do elsewhere in the United Kingdom. 
I well remember my visit to Renishaw’s with my hon. Friend, where I was shown what I think was a world first: a bicycle that was printed on a 3D printer. I did not get on and give it a try, but it looked as though it would carry even someone of my weight. He is right, because the single market is 500 million people, and it is a great market for our businesses and our services. Increasingly, the market and the supply chain are getting more and more integrated. That is why we should think very carefully before separating ourselves from it.
Q3. Brain tumours are the biggest cancer killer of children and people under 40, but, despite that, research into them receives just over 1% of the UK’s national spend on cancer research. That will be the subject of a debate next Monday in Westminster Hall. Will the Prime Minister have a word with the Secretary of State for Health, so that the Minister who answers that debate might be able to bring with him or her some long-overdue good news of change in this area? 
I am very happy to do exactly as the right hon. Gentleman says. It is an important issue. We invest something like £1.7 billion a year in health research, but there is always this question when it comes to cancer research. The spending has gone up by a third over the last Parliament to nearly £135 million, but there is always the question about whether that is fairly distributed between all the different types of cancer. I will make sure that the Minister can give him a very full reply.
Q11. I have a steel producer at the heart of my constituency, and so I share concerns raised about the future of our steel industry and, more widely, of energy-intensive manufacturing. The north of England still has significant manufacturing, but it is being held back by green taxes, high energy costs and emissions targets. What more can my right hon. Friend do to help energy-intensive industries? 
My hon. Friend raises an important point. The changes that we are making are going to save the steel industry more than £400 million by the end of this Parliament, and that is a good example of the steps that we can take. There was an excellent debate yesterday in the House about this issue. We need to work on everything we can do in terms of procurement. We need to make sure that we are taking action in the EU against dumping, and we are. We need to make sure that we reduce energy costs where we can. We stand by to work with any potential purchaser of the Port Talbot works, which will safeguard steel jobs in other parts of the country, to see how we can help on a commercial basis. I am absolutely satisfied that we are doing everything we possibly can. We cannot totally buck the global trend of this massive overcapacity in steel and massive decline in prices, but those are the key areas—in terms of power, in terms of plant and in terms of procurement—where we can help.
Q4. Research by the Sutton Trust shows that turning schools into academies does not necessarily improve them. Parents at thousands of excellent primary schools want them to continue to be maintained by their local authorities. Why are Ministers planning to overrule parents and force all those schools to become academies? 
All the evidence shows that academies work as part of our education reforms. Let me give the House the evidence. If we look at schools that converted into academies, we see that 88% of them are either outstanding or good schools. If we look at the sponsored academies, which were often failing schools, we see that there has been, on average, a 10% improvement over the first two years. All the evidence is that the results are better, the freedoms lead to improvements and, where there are problems, intervention happens far faster with academies. We have got 1.4 million more children in good or outstanding schools, and I say, “Let’s finish the job.”
Q15. The Prime Minister has met many great people, but I believe he has yet to meet the Vale of Evesham’s very own Gus the “asparagus man”. Would he like to rectify that omission by joining me in the Vale of Evesham for the British asparagus festival, which starts on St George’s day, and show his support for our fantastic farming industry? 
I am happy to say that my hon. Friend’s constituency is only one constituency away and we share the same railway line, so if there is an opportunity for some great British asparagus, I would be very happy to join him.
Q5. May I take the Prime Minister back to his response to the hon. Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson)? I, too, have met Mr and Mrs Clough, and it was a truly dreadful case. Women’s refuges are facing absolute crisis. The changes that the Government propose to make to housing benefit will force the closure of women’s refuges. The Prime Minister needs urgently to look again at these changes, because unless he makes refuges exempt, they will be closing up and down the country. Will he do it? 
I would say to the hon. Lady that we are doing the same kind of thing with these refuges as we did in the last Parliament with rape crisis centres. That is why the £80 million of funding is so important, and that is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has written to local authorities to explain that this money is available to make sure those refuges are there.
As part of world autism awareness week last week, the National Autistic Society launched its biggest ever awareness campaign, called “Too Much Information”, and young Alex, the star of the film, was here in the House and met many MPs on Monday this week. The society’s research shows that some 50% of autistic people and their families sometimes do not even go out in public because they are afraid of what people think and of the public reaction to them. Will the Prime Minister meet me and the charity to discuss how the Government can support this campaign, and how we can help tackle the social isolation of so many families through this campaign and through Government assistance?
First, let me pay tribute to my right hon. Friend, who has been campaigning and legislating on this issue for many years now, including the landmark legislation that went through in the last Parliament. We have been working closely with the Autism Alliance and have invested some £325,000 since 2014, but she is right that more needs to be done in terms of helping families with autistic children and raising the profile and increasing the understanding of what having an autistic child or being autistic is all about. I think she is absolutely right to do that. Let me put in a plug for “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”, which is still on at the theatre on Whitehall. I took my children the other day. It is absolutely excellent, and will provide a better explanation of autism than perhaps anything we can discuss in this House.
Q7. The authorities in Peru, El Salvador and Panama have raided offices of Mossack Fonseca, seizing documents and computer equipment, but no one has knocked on the door of the law firm’s branch in the UK. While recognising the operational independence of our enforcement agencies, does the Prime Minister share my deep concern that, as we speak, documents are no doubt being shredded and databases being wiped, undermining the opportunity to bring further potential wrongdoing to light? 
The hon. Lady makes an important point, which is that we need to make sure that all the evidence coming out of Panama is properly investigated. That is why we have set up a special cross-agency team—including the National Crime Agency, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and other relevant bodies—to make sure we get to the bottom of what happened. But she is right to reference the fact that these organisations are operationally independent. It would be quite wrong for a Minister or a Prime Minister to order an investigator into a particular building in a particular way. That is not a Rubicon we want to cross in this House. Let us empower the National Crime Agency, empower HMRC, give them the resources and let them get on with the job.
May I draw the Prime Minister’s attention to the tragic death of Ayeeshia Jane Smith in my constituency? Ayeeshia was 21 months old when she was stamped on by her mother so violently that it punctured her heart. The pathologist said her body resembled a “car crash victim”. Yet Ayeeshia had been known to social services since the day she was born. They knew about the violent boyfriends; they knew about the domestic violence; they saw the doors kicked in; they smelt the cannabis; they saw the bruises; they saw the cuts; they saw the fingerprints on her little thighs—and they did nothing.
The Prime Minister will understand that people in Burton want to know how this could have happened. They are concerned to know that the serious case review has on its panel people who are directly involved in the organisations being investigated. Will the Prime Minister look at what we can do to make this and other serious case reviews more independent, so that we can make sure that no other child suffers the life and the death of Ayeeshia Jane Smith?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this. In the work that we all do, we get to hear about some hideous and horrific incidents, but for anyone watching television that night, and seeing the description of what happened to Ayeeshia, it simply took your breath away that people could behave in such a despicable and disgusting way towards their own children. In my view, no punishment in the world fits that sort of crime carried out by the child’s own parent. As my hon. Friend said, there will be a serious case review. I will look carefully at his suggestions, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of Education will do so as well. There are criticisms of the way in which these cases are conducted, but in this case, to start with, we must get on with the serious case review because we have got to get to the bottom of what went wrong.
Q9. There are currently more than 7,000 people in the UK who need an organ transplant, including 139 children, and many will die because of the shortage of available organs. The Welsh Labour Government have already introduced groundbreaking legislation for opt-out organ donation in Wales. Will the Prime Minister join me in supporting the “change the law for life” campaign for opt-out organ donation throughout the UK? 
I am always happy to look at this again. I have looked at it before and have not come out in favour of opting out. We debated the matter in the last Parliament and made quite a lot of moves towards making opt in much easier. We found that different hospitals and different areas of the country had very different records for how well they do. My personal position is that we should support and continue to drive opt in, but the House of Commons can vote on this issue from time to time, and on whether it wants to go down the Welsh track rather than the track we are on. Personally, I think let us make opt in work better.
My right hon. Friend will be well aware that our colleague Lord Bates has just started a 2,000 mile walk from Buenos Aires to Rio de Janeiro, arriving in time for the Olympics to raise awareness for the Olympic Truce and money for refugee children. Will my right hon. Friend join me in wishing Lord Bates well on this epic journey, and also commit the Government to upholding the values and principles of the Olympic Truce?
I have already written to Michael Bates to wish him well on this long walk and to support the work that he has done over many years for the Olympic Truce. He leaves me a bit of a hole in the House of Lords, where he has been doing fantastic work for the Home Office on security issues, so we wish him a good walk and a speedy return.
Q12. At Ealing hospital, the technically junior, though highly experienced doctors I met last week are dismayed that the Government’s equality assessment of their new contract finds that it discriminates against women—more than half of them. As the Prime Minister is a self-confessed feminist, leading a progressive Government—[Interruption.] So he says. Will he reverse this blatant injustice, which has no place in 2016? 
I am grateful for the question and backhanded compliment. The contract is actually very pro-women because it involves a 13% basic pay rise, restricts the currently horrendous and unsafe hours that some junior doctors work, and gives greater guarantees about levels of pay and the amount of money that doctors will get. I think that as people start to work on it and with it, they will see that it is very pro-women.
Over 200,000 economic migrants came from the European Union in the period for which we have figures. Yet the propaganda sheet sent out to the British people claims that we maintain control of our borders. Have we withdrawn from the free movement of people, or is that sheet simply untrue?
The truth is this: economic migrants who come to the European Union do not have the right to come to the UK. They are not European nationals. They are nationals of Pakistan, or Morocco, or Turkey. None of those people has that right. That is very important—and frankly that is why it is important that we send information to households: so that they can see the truth about what is proposed. What my hon. Friend has just put forward is a classic scare story. Britain has borders. Britain will keep its borders. We have got the best of both worlds.
Q13. Stirling University in my constituency is Scotland’s university for sporting excellence. Elite sports have been rocked over recent months by an international doping scandal, which threatens to see entire countries thrown out of and banned from major sporting competitions. Does the Prime Minister agree that, in this Olympic year, the World Anti-Doping Agency needs further support, and will he tell me what further action can be taken? 
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this issue. The World Anti-Doping Agency has made a lot of advances in recent years. The issue is relevant to our anti-corruption summit on 12 May, when we will look at corruption in sport and bring forward new codes of practice that we will adopt in this country and hope others will also adopt. There is also the question of whether doping should be made a specific criminal offence; that is something that we should look at and debate in this House.
What progress has been made in implementing Sir Bruce Keogh’s 10 clinical standards, published in December 2013, which are absolutely essential for rolling out the seven-day NHS?
Perhaps I can write specifically to my hon. Friend on the clinical standards. What is good is that Bruce Keogh and others within the NHS support the vision of a seven-day NHS. We should of course pay tribute to all the doctors and nurses who work at weekends already—that is a very important point—but we are trying to move towards an NHS in which the individual has access to their family doctor seven days a week and hospitals work more on a seven-day basis, which will save lives and improve care. I will write to my hon. Friend about the specific detail.
Q14. Parent governors play a key role in local schools, supporting their children’s education and performing an important civic duty. Is the Prime Minister aware of the sadness and anger that have resulted from the forced academies announcement because the duty for each school to have parent governors will be removed, and will he urgently review this attack on parents? 
I am absolutely delighted that the hon. Lady asked that question, as I know we will be debating the issue later today. Let me be clear: we support parent governors and think that they have a great role to play, but no school should think that simply by having parent governors it has solved the problem of how to engage with parents. Let me say to her that there is something in the Labour motion for today’s debate that is actually inaccurate and should be withdrawn. It says that the White Paper
“proposes the removal of parent governors from school governing bodies”.
It does no such thing. As well as not getting his tax return in on time, the Leader of the Opposition is bringing forward motions to this House that are simply wrong.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On 2 December, during the debate on Syria, the Prime Minister promised that there would be regular quarterly progress reports to this House on the military action against Daesh. The longest a quarter could last is 92 days, but it is now 133 days since that pledge was made. Have you had any indication from the Government as to whether they intend to make that quarterly progress report so that we can see what action is being taken and whether it is effective?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order and his courtesy in giving me advance notice of it. The question of how a Government fulfil a commitment to the House is principally a matter for Ministers. Having taken a keen interest in this matter, the right hon. Gentleman will know that a report was presented to the House by the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs in December, and that a second report, which I think was billed or tagged as a quarterly report, was provided by the Secretary of State for International Development on 8 February. If memory serves me correctly, it was an oral statement, and it may be that the right hon. Gentleman and some other Members were hoping for—or even expecting—a written report. That is, however, not a matter for the Chair.
To be fair, the Government have made a large number of statements to the House over the past few years—that is a matter not of speculation but of fact. The only point I would make gently is that since the Foreign Secretary had unavoidably to be absent from Foreign Office questions yesterday—that prompted a modicum of comment from his own side although he had done me the courtesy of notifying me beforehand—it might be thought a good idea for a subsequent report to be provided by him to the House. If there is an appetite for that report to be oral, I know that it will be delivered by the Foreign Secretary with great dexterity. It would also have the additional “advantage”—I say that in inverted commas because it is a matter for the House to decide—of pleasing a right hon. Gentleman from the Liberal Democrat Benches.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You will be aware of the decision by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to close its Sheffield policy office. Despite repeated requests at the BIS Select Committee for the Department to share the figures on which that decision was based, the permanent secretary told the Committee:
“I don’t think I can point you to one specific document which covers specifically the Sheffield issue.”
In answer to a question about costs from my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) at the Public Accounts Committee, he said that the decision was
“not based on individual cost-benefit analysis of a static closure.”
I have had access to a document entitled “BIS 2020—Finance and Headcount outline”, which specifically covers the Sheffield issue and is, in the permanent secretary’s words,
“an individual cost-benefit analysis of a static closure.”
Will you clarify, Mr Speaker, whether the permanent secretary’s words constitute misleading the House, and advise me on how I can get the information in front of the two Committees of the House that have requested it?
I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but my instinctive reaction is that exegesis of what is said by the Government, including permanent secretaries, and adjudication upon it, is not a proper matter for the Chair. I think it is safer to keep out of that. It may well be that it is a subject of some dispute on which the hon. Gentleman is dissatisfied, but I underline that it is for the Committees concerned to press for the information that they require. If they are dissatisfied with what they have or have not received, they should persist, and there are well-established procedures for doing so. I have a feeling, however, that by putting his concerns on the record, the hon. Gentleman may find that the Government are able and inclined to offer the information he requires.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I apologise for not giving you advance notice of this point of order, but I had hoped that it would be raised during Prime Minister’s questions. On 28 October 2015 in a letter to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, Sir John Chilcot said that the text of the Iraq report would be available in the week commencing 18 April 2016, at which point it would be passed to the security services for checking. Given that that is next Monday, I wonder whether you have received notice from any Minister who intends to make a statement to the House, to update it as to when that process will be finished and the long-awaited report will be available?
The short answer is that I have received no such indication of an imminent statement on the matter. When this issue has been aired in the House, the sense of dissatisfaction across the Chamber has been audible not just to the Chair, but to millions of people throughout the country. It has become exceptionally and excessively protracted. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s frustration. He has put his point on the record again, and I hope that it will have been heard in the appropriate quarters. Have I received an indication of a statement? I am afraid I have not.
Improvement of Rail Passenger Services (Use of Disruption Payments)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require Schedule 8 disruption payments between Network Rail and train operating companies to be allocated to specified projects aimed at increasing the quality, value for money or reliability of passengers’ experience of railway travel and associated services; and for connected purposes.
I am grateful for the opportunity to present the Bill to the House today, the purposes of which are threefold. First, the Bill seeks to improve the services on offer to rail commuters across the country. Secondly, it aims to ensure that millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is directed towards benefiting passengers, rather than lining the pockets of train operating companies. Thirdly, the Bill seeks to shine a light on a part of the rail industry that is bewildering in its complexity, and to open it up to greater public scrutiny and accountability. The Bill would create a responsibility for the regulator to guarantee that any net income made by train operators from schedule 8 payments in totality is used to fund overall passenger benefits on the network. It is important to note that the Bill is not intended to stop or replace current compensation arrangements between train operators and passengers, which reimburse passengers for delays.
Rail commuters in Enfield and throughout the country are getting a raw deal. They are paying sky-high ticket prices for a rock-bottom service. They are currently having to endure the worst performance in terms of train punctuality for almost a decade. In 2014-15, 47 million passenger journeys on the railways were either cancelled or delayed. Members of the public are shocked when they learn that train operators can actually make a profit from Network Rail failures. If trains are delayed or cancelled and the responsibility lies with Network Rail—for instance, when points do not work or power fails—Network Rail makes compensation payments to the train operators. These are known as intra-industry arrangements or schedule 8 disruption payments. However, train operators are not obliged to reinvest any of that money in services for the benefit of passengers.
The payments received from Network Rail bear no relation whatever to the passenger compensation schemes between the train operators and their customers. Indeed, only a fraction of what train operators receive in payments from Network Rail is ever passed on to commuters whose journeys have been disrupted. Passengers are certainly not helped to claim what they are owed for delays, given that train operators make it so difficult for them to access compensation. It is really important that passengers are made more aware of their rights. I applaud the recent work of Which? and its “Make rail refunds easier” campaign, putting pressure on the rail regulator and train operators to make this whole process simpler, fairer and more accessible to commuters.
I call on the Government to bring rail travel within the EU-compliant Consumer Rights Act 2015. The unfairness of the current structure of railway compensation payments is really brought to light when we consider how much money is involved and how poorly passengers are compensated compared with train operators. I commend the recent work of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) and the shadow Transport team to expose this issue. Their analysis has shown that between 2010 and 2015 Network Rail paid out £575 million to train operators in schedule 8 payments. Over the same period, train operators provided compensation to passengers to the tune of only £73 million. That is a compensation gap of more than half a billion pounds, a substantial boost to train operating companies’ profit margins.
I accept that train operators should be able to cover the costs of any loss of revenue they incur that arise from the unplanned delays caused by Network Rail. What they should not be able to do, however, is make a profit over and above those costs from train delays and cancellations. That is just plain wrong.
In 2014-15, the Government provided a grant payment to Network Rail of £3.8 billion. Therefore, to add insult to injury, a significant amount of taxpayers’ money flows from Network Rail back to private train operating companies, many of them ultimately owned by foreign Governments, under schedule 8 payments. It is scandalous that a system can be designed in such a way that the very people using the rail network and who are most affected by the poor standard of service on offer—tax-paying commuters—can end up contributing to train operators’ profits out of their own misery! How can this be right? Where is the accountability to the fare-paying, taxpaying public for how this system operates and where this money goes?
The rail expert Christian Wolmar has said:
“In an ideal world, the train operators would only get back the actual money that unexpected delays costs them. However, instead the level is determined by an economic model that only very vaguely reflects the impact of delays felt by passengers. So vaguely, in fact, to be meaningless.”
He went on to say that the current system
“does the railways no credit and creates the perverse incentives that plague the industry.”
I could not agree more; the situation must change. We need a way of linking schedule 8 payments to benefits that improve the customer experience of the railways. This Bill would make that happen.
I want the rail regulator to be given the power to ensure that train operating companies have to provide full disclosure of any net profit they might make from schedule 8 payments. This information should be made available to the public. With rigorous monitoring by the regulator, this money should be put towards improving the customer experience and providing a high-value service. Such measures could include retaining ticket office staff; facilitating easier access to station platforms and trains; free wi-fi on trains; or using the money towards paying for a guarantee that trains will not miss out stops—a particular frustration for a number of my constituents. These are just a few suggestions, and I think that, should this Bill become law, it would be a very good idea to consult passengers on the improvements they want to see to their services.
It is clear from recent evidence that the rail regulator understands many of the issues I am looking to address with this Bill. At the end of last year, the regulator and Network Rail agreed a £4 million rail reparation fund to benefit directly commuters affected by poor performance on routes provided by Thameslink, Southern and the Gatwick Express services. By increasing the number of staff at stations, employing more track workers to deal with disruptions and introducing incident management software to resolve issues on routes more quickly, the regulator sought to “enhance” the services for passengers affected by poor performance.
I want a permanent rather than a temporary scheme in place that can benefit all passengers across the country. However, the rail reparation fund example is an important first step by the regulator. What it has set out to achieve reinforces the fundamental principle that lies at the heart of the Bill before us—that improving rail passengers’ services should be the top priority for Network Rail and train operators. Commuters should not be left waiting on station platforms while train operators pick up big profits from the rail industry’s complex, opaque and unfair compensation arrangements.
I would like to thank colleagues from across the House who have agreed to sponsor my motion today. That support shows the extent to which we all want to see the rail industry reformed for the benefit of passengers—our constituents. It is for all these reasons that I commend this Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Joan Ryan, Tom Brake, Julie Elliott, Mrs Louise Ellman, Frank Field, Kelvin Hopkins, Peter Kyle, Caroline Lucas, Siobhain McDonagh, Will Quince, Henry Smith and Mr Charles Walker present the Bill.
Joan Ryan accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 22 April 2016, and to be printed (Bill 160).
Tax Avoidance and Evasion
I beg to move,
That this House notes with concern the revelations contained within the Panama Papers and recognises the widespread public view that individuals and companies should pay their fair share of tax; and calls upon the Government to implement Labour’s Tax Transparency Enforcement Programme which includes: an immediate public inquiry into the revelations in the Panama Papers, HMRC being properly resourced to investigate tax avoidance and evasion, greater public sector transparency to ensure foreign companies wanting to tender for public sector contracts publicly list their beneficial owners, consultation on proposals for foreign companies wanting to own UK property to have their beneficial owners listed publicly, working with banks to provide further information over beneficial ownership for all companies and whom they work for, the swift implementation of full public country-by-country reporting with a fair turnover threshold as well as ensuring robust protection for whistle blowers in this area, ensuring stricter minimum standards of transparency of company and trust ownership for Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories, consideration of the development of the Ramsey Principle by courts, implementation of an immediate review into the registry of trusts, and the strengthening and extension of the General Anti-Avoidance Rule to cover offshore abuses.
I see that the Chancellor is absent again today. Much as I look forward to seeing the various members of his Treasury team, is there a specific reason why he is not here for this important debate? I am happy to give way. [Interruption.] Is it critical? In respect of his attendance at the International Monetary Fund, he might look at yesterday’s IMF report that downgraded the growth expectations for our economy and think again about the policies he is pursuing, which fail to invest in the infrastructure, skills and new technology that our economy needs to compete in the world market. Perhaps we will send him a letter and he can say hello to the Chamber some time when he happens to be passing through.
We need to move the debate about tax avoidance and evasion on to the issue of the fairness and effectiveness of our tax system, and we need to do so as constructively as we can. The leak of documents from Panama lawyers Mossack Fonseca has provoked an extraordinary public discussion, and an entire hidden world has been brought into the light. What it reveals is profoundly unsettling.
We now know that Mossack Fonseca sat at the centre of a vast web of tax evasion and tax avoidance. The world’s super-rich commissioned its services to hide their income and wealth from the public gaze. Some of them had plainly criminal intentions. Money from the Brink’s-Mat robbery was allegedly laundered through a shell company set up by Mossack Fonseca, while the Mexican drug baron Rafael Caro Quintero held his property through a shell company established by Mossack Fonseca.
Disturbing points have been raised about Putin and the Russian regime. Will the hon. Gentleman confirm whether the shadow Treasury spokesman, his hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon), raised any of those points about the Russian Administration when on “Russia Today”?
That certainly will happen in future.
Even if they were not criminals, many of Mossack Fonseca’s clients, if not all, had the strong intention of evading or avoiding the taxes that would otherwise have been due from them.
I thank my hon. Friend for his excellent speech and for bringing this debate to the House. Does he agree that this is a real issue for people in London, particularly in respect of the impact that these shady characters have on our London property market? It is a tragedy that Londoners, who want to remain in London, have to move out because these criminal elements are messing up the international finance system.
That confirms the need for open and public disclosure of beneficiary ownership and beneficiary interests. As my hon. Friend and every London MP knows, speculation on property in this capital city denies many of our constituents a decent roof over their heads.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
Let me press on a little, and I shall give way shortly.
Mossack Fonseca exploited the presence of loopholes and entire jurisdictions that favour secrecy and minimal taxation. We can expect further news over the next few weeks and months, as the investigative work continues. Yesterday the Panama headquarters of Mossack Fonseca was raided, but 10 days on since the initial leak, I believe that its UK offices in Hitchin—not far away—have not been, despite the raising of concerns by the firm’s founder about the lack of due diligence performed by the UK office in relation to a company in its charge, and a clear legal precedent for the UK authorities to intervene.
There may be more revelations to come, set to tarnish individual reputations. I put this mildly: the Prime Minister has done himself no favours over the last 10 days. A lesson for the future is that, when asked a straight question, one should answer straightforwardly and straight away. The Prime Minister could and should have come clean about his relationship with Blairmore Holdings far earlier.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will give a straight answer to a straight question. Does he regret the support that he gave to the IRA? They are still laundering money and still avoiding taxes in Northern Ireland, and he supported their activities in the past.
I have never given the IRA support in relation to money laundering or any other activity. Let me make it absolutely clear that wherever laundering takes place, it is illegal and should be tackled, and I shall welcome the hon. Gentleman’s future contribution to the establishment of procedures to ensure that that happens.
Having spent 10 years as an aid worker, I am acutely aware of the millions of pounds that are lost to development in poor countries as a result of these tax havens. Does my hon. Friend agree that, before the anti-corruption summit that will take place in London in May, the Prime Minister needs to do far more to reassure the House that he will accelerate his efforts to persuade British overseas territories to mirror the United Kingdom’s welcome move, and establish a transparent public register of beneficial ownership?
The issue of a public register is critical to any measures that are taken in the future, because such a register will enable these kleptocrats to be held to account—particularly in the developing world, where they have denied development resources to the economies of their countries.
Transparency throughout the Crown dependencies and the overseas territories is, of course, crucial. Does not the lack of such transparency further reinforce the message to our constituents that there is one tax rule for the rich and powerful, and another for everyone else?
One of the key things that I think the whole House must do in the coming period is re-establish the credibility and fairness of our taxation system, which has been so badly damaged.
The shadow Chancellor has called for greater transparency on the part of the Crown dependencies. Can he explain why this is the first time he has made such a call? Why did he not make such calls during the 13 years of the last Labour Government?
May I ask the hon. Gentleman—[Hon. Members: “Answer!”] I am. Calm down.
If the hon. Gentleman looks at my parliamentary record over the last 18 years, he will see that I was one of the first MPs to set up the tax justice meetings in the House that brought the Tax Justice Network here, and to do the necessary research. He will also see that, as shadow Chancellor, I have commissioned a review of HMRC’s activities in terms of the tax base, including those relating to avoidance and evasion. However, I understand his concern. I have worked on this issue on a cross-party basis for a number of years, and have criticised successive Governments for not doing enough.
My hon. Friend has spoken of tax fairness. Does he agree that the Panama papers have revealed a channelling of moneys to the very rich while the poor have to pay their taxes, and that that comes on top of a Budget in which capital gains tax was cut for the top 3% through changes in personal independence payments for the disabled? Does that not show that we are not “all in it together”?
I think that what people found extremely disappointing in the Budget debate was that, as my hon. Friend says, the cut in capital gains tax was being paid for by cuts in benefits for people with disabilities. That did indeed demonstrate very starkly that we were not all in it together. Perhaps these revelations will enable us to take steps towards the establishment of a fair taxation system that will fund our public services effectively.
I thank the shadow Chancellor for being so generous with his time.
Last night, an all-party parliamentary group to which I belong held an excellent meeting with a journalist from The Guardian and the campaigners who exposed the scandal. They informed us that openness and transparency in the overseas territories could be achieved quite simply through an Order in Council from the United Kingdom Government. The achievement of those aims is a matter of will on the UK Government’s part.
My hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House made that point last week, giving example after example of cases in which Orders in Council had been issued. They have been used very effectively by successive Governments, and it bewilders me that this Government are not taking that opportunity now.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
May I press on for a little while? I am only on the third page of my speech. This is getting ridiculous. I will give way to the hon. Gentleman later, but I have already given way a fair amount. As you know, Mr Speaker, I am generous, but I do not want to speak for too long.
Even today, we have not seen the Prime Minister’s full tax return or that of the Chancellor, and it is important that that should happen. The Prime Minister established the principle, which I advocated three months ago, that the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor should publish their tax returns—not summaries; their full tax returns—but that has not happened.
However, what confronts us today is an issue far bigger than any individual. At the centre of the allegations is a single issue. The fundamental problem is not tax avoidance by this individual or that company; those are symptoms of the disease. The fundamental issue is the corruption of democracy itself. At the core of our parliamentary system is the idea that those who levy taxes on the people are accountable to the people. If those who make decisions about our taxation system are believed to be avoiding paying their own taxes, that undermines the whole credibility of our system.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I had better give way to the hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) first; otherwise, he will be disappointed.
I am grateful to the shadow Chancellor. May I hark back to the point about Orders in Council? Was the shadow Chancellor surprised to learn that his friend and leader, the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), once described the use of Orders in Council by the last Labour Government as “extremely undemocratic” and, in fact, “medieval? Does he think that the Leader of the Opposition is a johnny-come-lately on this issue?
It depends on the issue that is being addressed. Sometimes harking back to the medieval period may be the most effective way of dealing with these problems.
I must press on. I will give way to the hon. Gentleman later, if that is okay.
The common understanding is also that those who live here and benefit from public services will make a proportionate contribution towards them. The level of taxation may vary—sometimes it is higher, sometimes lower—but because we have a shared sense of fairness, we expect those with the broadest shoulders to carry the greatest burden in taxes. Over the last 30 years, however, we have witnessed the growth of wealth inequality on such a scale that it has undermined that basic principle of democracy. Figures from Oxfam suggest that the richest 1% own more than the rest of the world combined.
Let me press on for a little while. I will return to the hon. Gentleman, I promise.
Great hoards of assets, in property and in financial wealth, have been built up. According to the best available measures, the levels of income inequality in Britain today are climbing as high as they were at the time of the first world war. The share of income going to the super-rich has risen almost inexorably for three decades. We are returning to the levels of inequality that were experienced before universal suffrage—before women had the vote, and before the development of universal free education and healthcare—in a world that existed before the gains of democracy brought obscene levels of wealth inequality under control, and created a more humane society for the majority.
Let me press on. I will come back to the hon. Gentleman.
The world of the Rockefellers and the robber barons is the one to which we are returning: a world in which there is immense, almost unimaginable wealth for a gilded elite, but insecurity for growing numbers. Much of that wealth is now held offshore in secretive, unaccountable tax havens. According to the most recent estimate, $21 trillion dollars, equivalent to a third of global GDP, is hidden from taxation systems in global tax havens. It is estimated that, if taxed fairly, that wealth would raise $188 billion a year in extra taxation.
This is not about a few families seeking to “minimise their tax bill”, as was claimed by the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh). It is systematic. An offshore world is operating parallel to the world in which the rest of us live. This is not an accident. The offshore world is being constructed, piece by piece, by multinational corporations and the super-rich, aided by shady offshore operations such as Mossack Fonseca, and—we must be honest about this—supposedly reputable accountancy firms here in London are also playing their part. According to the Public Accounts Committee, PwC has aided tax avoidance “on an industrial scale”. Deloitte has advised big businesses on avoiding tax in African countries. Ernst and Young act as tax advisers to Facebook, Apple and Google, and just last month KPMG had one of its tax-avoidance schemes declared illegal by the High Court. Together, the big four accountancy firms in this country earn at least £2 billion annually from their tax operations.
But it is not just them. Banks headquartered and operating in London have been particularly proficient in directing their funds through Mossack Fonseca shell companies. HSBC and its affiliates created more offshore companies through Mossack Fonseca—over 2,300 in total—than any other bank. Coutts, a subsidiary of RBS, created over 500 offshore companies through its subsidiary in Jersey. Supposedly reputable companies are aiding and abetting the systematic abuse of our tax system.
We should be clear: the City of London is being viewed by many as a tax haven in the middle of a dense network of havens created for the super-rich to avoid the taxes the rest of us must pay.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that in 2010 the richest 1% contributed 25% of all tax, and does he welcome the fact that the Chancellor revealed in the Budget that that has now increased to 28%?
It is not just a matter of tax, is it? It is not just a matter of income tax, either. Of course I recognise those figures, but distributional analysis has been undertaken independently of the Government. Conservative party policy since 2010 has seen some of the biggest losses for the poorest, not the wealthiest. The Women’s Budget Group put together the tax gains, the tax paid, the services cut and the benefit cuts. The poorest 10% will lose 21% of their income annually as a result of this Government’s policy—five times more than the top 10%. The analysis of the Institute for Fiscal Studies clearly shows that this year’s Budget hits the poorest 80% harder than the richest. Eighty per cent. of those cuts fall on whom? It is on women.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way—he is always generous with his time. As well as appreciating the fact that 1% of the highest-income earners pay 28%, would he consider that since 2010 this Government have taken millions out of tax altogether by increasing the tax allowance—it is now £11,500?
Let me deal with the tax threshold issue. The IFS has said that the biggest gains from the shift in the lower tax thresholds come for the higher earners. They are the ones who get the most and they benefit from the tax threshold moves. It describes the shifting of the tax thresholds as
“very much a giveaway to the better off”.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I gave way earlier to the hon. Gentleman. I will press on because I know that others want to speak and I am sure he will want to speak himself.
This is a world that the super-rich inhabit. They live by different rules and it is an alien world for the majority of the rest of us.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that his party’s opposition to the removal of the family home from the income tax threshold affects those on the lowest incomes in London and the south-east because it will mean that only the wealthy can afford to stay in London when the family home is sold and they have to pay inheritance tax?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. We have supported the increase in tax thresholds to try to take people out of tax altogether, but the benefits overall have actually accrued to the highest earners rather than the lowest and we need a more sophisticated system than that. With regard to inheritance tax, the cut that was made this time around by the Government benefited the top 5% of the population. There must be a better way of ensuring that people can pass on their wealth to their children, rather than just benefiting the super-rich. We have to look at that again. I am happy to do that and meet her to discuss it.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for being extremely generous in giving way, but there are low-income families in London and the south-east whose home’s value has increased beyond recognition. They are now asset rich but income poor. How will the Labour party help them if it does not take them out of inheritance tax?
The important thing now, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) has said, is that we build more homes to house those people. That will be an effective way of reducing prices, too. That will give access to home ownership to thousands more in the capital.
Can we put this discussion on thresholds to bed once and for all? The people who are paying 28% income tax will get a small rise. Every one of us standing here will get a 10% pay rise next year and we will get a much bigger tax threshold rise than the ordinary men and women of this country. That is what they cannot understand. We and the super-rich are getting richer. They keep getting poorer. That is what this debate is about—it is about fairness.
We have to find a better way in our taxation system to benefit those at the lower end of the scale. At the moment, although we are happy with the rise in tax thresholds, there needs to be a way to compensate for that more equitably. Again, it is not us saying this; it is the IFS and many other independent assessors. They are saying that this is not the most effective way of redistributing wealth in this country.
May I go back to my speech? I do not want to try your patience, Mr Speaker.
It is an alien world for the majority of us. It is a world of offshore trusts and legal trickery that would put Byzantium to shame; a world in which it is perfectly normal to buy property in London through a company registered in the British Virgin Islands, managed by lawyers in Panama with offices in Bermuda; a world in which citizenship and attachment to a country are something to pick and to choose depending on price. The scandal of the “non-doms” continues, in which a few super-rich can pay a notional fee instead of the taxes that would otherwise be due from them as residents.
Tucked away in this year’s Budget was an extraordinary clause that wrote off selected non-doms’ entire capital gains tax bill on any gains made before April 2017—a giveaway to the wealthy. This is not the world that most of us live in. Most of us pay our taxes. Contrary to the shocking opinion of the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), that is not because we live in a country of “low achievers”, as he described them. We do so because we understand that a decent society depends on the contributions all of us make. Without the payment of taxes, we cannot run the public services that are essential to a decent society.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Let me press on. I have given way to the hon. Gentleman once.
We do not have access to the specialist services that Mossack Fonseca and other companies provide. We cannot negotiate with HMRC when and how much to pay in tax. However, for the global elite, tax avoidance is as much a part of their world as the yachts and the mansions. This world is a corrosive influence on our democracy. The more the super-rich can escape the burden of taxation, the more it falls on the rest of us in society.
It is morally wrong that a billionaire oligarch should be paying proportionately less in taxes than the migrant cleaner of his mansion. It is a disgrace that an immense global corporation such as Google should pay no corporation tax for nearly a decade, while small businesses are chased for tiny amounts. It is an affront to the basic principles of our democracy that large corporations should be able to negotiate sweetheart deals with HMRC. [Interruption.] It is also a corrosion of democracy when a revolving door apparently exists between HMRC, charged with collecting taxes—[Interruption.]
Order. It is very unseemly when the shadow Chancellor is addressing the House for there to be a side exchange between a member of the Opposition Front-Bench team and the hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge). He must not get into this bad habit. His father-in-law is a distinguished Member. He will tell him how to behave properly, and I will do so as well.
It is always best to keep the in-laws on-side, Mr Speaker.
It is a disgrace that an immense global corporation such as Google should pay no corporation tax for a decade, while small businesses are chased for tiny amounts. It is an affront to the basic principles of our democracy that large corporations should be able to negotiate sweetheart deals with HMRC. It is also a corrosion of democracy when a revolving door apparently exists between HMRC, which is charged with collecting taxes, and major accountancy firms whose business depends on minimising taxes. HMRC’s last director went to work for Deloitte, and now we find that the executive director appointed by HMRC to oversee its inquiry into the Panama leaks is a former adviser to tax havens who believes that tax is a form of “legalised extortion”. The structures of Government are being bent out of shape by tax avoidance. Decisions are warped around the need to protect the interests and wealth of the super-rich and of giant corporations. Democracy becomes corroded.
On party donations, the Conservatives receive more than half their election campaign funding from hedge funds. In public view, here in London, its party leadership has made loud and repeated noises about tax avoidance, yet its MEPs in Brussels have voted six times, on instructions from the Treasury, to block the EU-wide measures against tax avoidance. As we have heard in evidence this week, the Prime Minister lobbied the EU Commission in 2013 to remove offshore trusts from new tighter EU regulations on avoidance. The Conservatives’ own record reveals that people no longer trust them on this issue. Not only have they impeded efforts to clamp down on tax avoidance, but these schemes directly implicate senior figures in the Conservative party. Several Conservative party donors, three former Conservative MPs and six Members of the House of Lords are among those with connections to companies on the books of the offshore law firm Mossack Fonseca.
As the super-rich flee their obligations to society, the burden of taxation is pushed elsewhere. As I have said, independent assessments of the tax and benefit changes introduced since May 2015 show that the poorest 10% are forecast to see their incomes fall by more than 20% by 2020, with 80% of the burden falling on women. It is the poorest and those least able to carry the burden who will suffer the most under this Government. An economic system that allows tax avoidance on this scale is one in which the inventor and the entrepreneur come second to the owner of wealth, the worker comes second to the plutocrat and the taxpayer come second to the tax dodger. It is a system in which inherited wealth and privilege, rather than talent and effort, are rewarded.
There has been criticism of the last Labour Government, and I was not enamoured of all their economic policies, but they did take measures against avoidance. Their measures on corporation tax avoidance are forecast—not by me, but by the Financial Times—to raise 10 times as much revenue as the present Chancellor’s schemes.
The Panama leaks must act as a spur to decisive action. In response to the leaks, the Government have stepped up their rhetoric on tax evasion but much of what has been announced falls short of what is needed or repeats existing announcements. I remind Ministers that page 223 of the Office for Budget Responsibility report that accompanied this year’s Budget outlined a disclosure scheme for companies operating in Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man. The report said that owing to HMRC’s consistent underfunding, it did not have the resources to follow up on the links of the scheme. I again offer some words of advice to those on the Government Front Bench: fewer press releases and more action. It is time to move on and to close down tax havens and clean up this muck of avoidance.
Let us take this step by step. We need an immediate and full public inquiry into the Panama leaks. The Government’s proposed taskforce will report to members of the Government, the Chancellor and the Home Secretary, who are members of a party funded by donors featured in the Panama papers. To have any credibility, the inquiry must be fully independent. We must shine a light on, and start to prise apart, the corrupt networks that operate through tax havens. Part of that will involve creating a proper register of MPs’ interests. Members of this House should not be able to hide behind spurious claims of privacy. We want HMRC to be properly resourced to chase down the tax avoiders, with a new specialist unit dedicated to the task. Foreign firms bidding for Government contracts here should be required to name their owners. Full, public, country-by-country reporting of earnings and ownership by companies and trusts is a necessity if fair amounts of taxation are to be charged.
The measures announced by the EU this week do not go nearly far enough, requiring only partial reporting by companies. The turnover threshold is far too high, and Labour MEPs in Europe will be pushing to get that figure reduced much more to make it more difficult for large corporations to dodge paying their fair share of tax. Banks need to reveal the beneficial ownership of companies and trusts they work with. That means creating a public register of ownership of companies and trusts, and not only of companies, as the Government are currently enforcing. The Prime Minister has a role to play in this, as it was he who lobbied for the exclusion of trusts from the proposed EU measures. Labour will work alongside leading tax experts to lead a review into publishing a public register of the trusts too often used to avoid paying tax and reduce transparency in our tax system.
We must ensure that Crown dependencies and overseas territories enforce far stricter minimum standards of transparency for company and trust ownership. The Government’s current programme for reform is being laughed at by the tax havens. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said today, it was only this week, after signing a new deal on beneficial ownership, that the Cayman Islands Premier Alden McLaughlin celebrated a victory over the UK, saying:
“This is what we wanted, this is what we have been pushing for three years”.
The truth is that the Government are playing into the hands of those who want to abuse the tax system.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Let me press on if I can.
We need serious action on enforcement. We need not central registers but, as Christian Aid and others are calling for, full public registers accessible to all, including journalists and other businesses, if we are going to curb the activities exposed in the Panama papers. This package of measures is Labour’s tax transparency and enforcement programme. We believe that it offers a sound basis to take the first necessary steps against avoidance and towards openness and transparency. We are presenting it today as we want to see immediate effective action.
This is a test of leadership. The leadership of the Conservative party could take this opportunity to correct the series of errors that it has made. It could join us today in taking effective steps towards dealing seriously with avoidance. People want to see the Conservatives take these steps. Otherwise, they will rightly stand accused of siding with the wrong people and of being the party of the tax avoiders. Incidentally, it was not long ago that the Chancellor of the Exchequer appeared on television to give advice on the “pretty clever financial products”, as he described them, that would allow the wealthy to dodge inheritance tax.
Dodge? Can you use that word?
Don’t tempt me, Mr Speaker.
Some of the Conservative party’s Back Benchers believe that tax avoidance is a sign of success. The party’s donors are named in the Panama papers, and the Prime Minister himself is a direct beneficiary of a scheme set up in an offshore tax haven through his prior ownership of Blairmore Holdings shares.
The Panama leaks have presented a stark political choice. Do we continue to allow a system of corruption and avoidance, or do we now take the action necessary to restore fairness to our taxation system and to correct the abuse of democracy? That is the challenge, and the choice, ahead of us. I urge the Government and all Members of this House to join us in a serious programme of work to tackle the abuse of our tax system. The Government can make a start by supporting our motion today and adopting Labour’s tax transparency enforcement programme. I commend this motion to the House.
It is a great pleasure, for the second time this week, for the Government to be able to inform the House of how much more we have done than the previous Government to tackle evasion, avoidance and aggressive tax planning and to become a world leader in tax transparency. In 2010, we inherited a situation in which no one could find out who really owned a company in the UK or find out the details of a London property if it was owned by a foreign company. Not only were the international rules governing multinational companies out of date, allowing the tax base to be eroded and profits to be shifted, but there was no attempt to bring those rules up to date. Nor was there any sign that those matters were going to change. Loopholes, secrecy and concealment are the issues that we are sorting out, not only through what we are doing in the UK but through our firm and decisive action overseas.
I want to clarify something that the Minister just said. Can he confirm that, under his proposals, members of the public will not have access to the register of beneficial owners of companies and trusts in overseas territories or elsewhere?
Let me tell the hon. Gentleman precisely what I just said. In 2010, no one could find out who really owned a company in the United Kingdom. From June, we will be publishing a public register of beneficial ownership. What is more, HMRC could not find out who owned a company based in an overseas territory. As a consequence of the agreements we have reached this week, HMRC will be able to do exactly that. That is evidence of the progress that has been made under this Government, and that was not the case under the previous Government.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) pointed out, we have had lots of honeyed words from the Government about how they are going to deal with this matter. However, is that not belied by the fact that they appointed someone as the executive chair of HMRC who thinks that taxation is “legalised extortion”? Does that not demonstrate the attitude that exists in this Administration?
It is unfortunate that the hon. Gentleman seeks to smear a public servant who has served Governments of—[Interruption.] Let me make this point. This is someone who has served Governments of both colours and with whom I have worked extensively over six years. He has been and is determined to do everything he can to ensure that our tax laws are properly enforced and deal with avoidance and evasion. I suggest to anyone who throws around one line from an article written in 1999 that they look at the entire thing, because his argument is about properly addressing tax avoidance by ensuring that we get the law right. It is unfortunate when accusations are thrown around about dedicated, impartial public servants.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work over several years in dealing with some of these issues. Will he comment on the fact that this country now has the smallest gap on record between tax owed and tax paid? That is the real story about this Government’s efficiency in dealing with tax collection and the difficulties in the system.
My hon. Friend is right. The reality is that the tax gap, as a percentage of tax revenues, has fallen considerably over the past six years, which is testimony to the effort put in by not only this Government but HMRC. Bringing the tax gap down involves considerable challenges, such as tax evasion, tax avoidance, and inadvertent error on the part of taxpayers, which does happen from time to time as I am sure all hon. Members will recognise. We are determined to do what we can do improve and strengthen our systems. I am grateful for the opportunity today to make progress on that.
Will the Minister emphasise the point about the tax gap? One of the most relevant measures is the tax gap specifically for those paying corporation tax. It was rising when the coalition Government came to power in 2010 and has fallen by almost 50% over the past six years, which is a major achievement.
My hon. Friend is right that the tax gap in the context of large companies and tax avoidance as a whole have fallen strongly. There is of course always more that we can do, so let me take this opportunity to set out some of those steps.
Will the Minister give way?
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, but I stand by the point that he has sought, not for the first time, to attack an impartial, dedicated public servant, who cannot answer back, by selectively quoting an article written in 1999. I have set out to the House the context in which that article was written. It is clear that this is someone who believes that the law should be properly enforced and who has a record over many years of doing precisely that.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but he accused me of smearing this individual when I was actually quoting him word for word. He went on to say that tax is legitimised
“only to the extent of the law.”
If the bar is set too low, fewer people will pay tax and more will be able to avoid it. My point—I stick by it—is that this Government’s attitude towards tax avoidance is lax and their words are more honeyed than their actions.
This is a Government that closes loopholes year in, year out, whose actions led to the OECD work on base erosion and profit shifting, that have given more powers to HMRC, that have seen a significant fall in the tax gap, particularly in the context of avoidance, and that have a proud record on dealing with tax avoidance, tax evasion and with all abuses in the tax system.
This Government, via HMRC, have raised £2 billion since 2010 from offshore tax evasion. Does that not demonstrate that this Government ensure that the tax that should be paid is paid?
That is absolutely right. I should make some progress with my speech, because it sets out what we have done and what we continue to do.
Several hon. Members rose—
I say that I should make some progress, but I look around the House and everybody is standing up. I will give way to the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan).
I thank the Financial Secretary for giving way. He referred to the Government’s record, but that record also includes changes to the controlled foreign companies rules, which in effect cost Exchequers here and, more importantly, in developing countries.
I do not accept that. The hon. Gentleman and I have debated the issue on several occasions. When we came to office in 2010, the controlled foreign companies regime was outdated and was driving businesses out of this country. Since our reforms, more businesses have located in the United Kingdom and more businesses have located their European headquarters here. The change has added to the UK’s attractiveness as a place to do business. As for developing countries, I have said to the hon. Gentleman before that the UK has been at the forefront of building the capacity of tax authorities in developing countries to ensure that they are able to collect the tax that is due under their laws.
Several hon. Members rose—
I will give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), but I must then make some progress.
I thank the Minister for giving way. I of course welcome all that the Government have done on tackling tax avoidance and evasion. He says that more could be done on tax avoidance, but does he accept that, following the comments of the former Labour Foreign Secretary and Lord Chancellor, who said that the Labour Government could have taken but did not take action on tax avoidance and the previous Labour Government’s deficit, the Government are playing catch up?
My hon. Friend is right to draw those remarks to the attention of the House. We have done a great deal on tax avoidance, but more can always be done and I will set out how we are doing that, working through the OECD.
Will the Minister give way? I want to help.
The hon. Gentleman says that he wants to help me, so I will give way and then really make some progress.
In the interests of the people listening to this debate, will the Minister provide, either today or by putting something in the Library, details of companies or schemes identified since 2012 that could be classed as either morally repugnant or morally wrong, terms that were used by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor in 2012 to describe such schemes? Has any work been done on that? Can we get a register so that we know who to look out for in future?
I think the hon. Gentleman is actually being helpful—not that I ever doubted that he would be. When there is artificial, contrived behaviour and when schemes are clearly contrary to the intentions of Parliament, we need to take strong action. We are also entitled to be critical of those involved in promoting such schemes. Indeed, we brought in a regime whereby we can name and shame the promoters of tax avoidance schemes that are clearly contrary to our intentions.
Will the Minister give way?
As it is on that point, I will give way, but I am conscious that we are 10 minutes in and I am only on page 3 of my speech.
I thank the Minister for giving way. If Opposition Members want to be helpful, they could speak to the unions. Unison paid no corporation tax in 2011 or 2012, despite owning £51.6 million of stocks and shares and generating an income of over £5 million.
It would be fair to say that I try to make it a rule not to comment on the individual tax affairs of taxpayers, but perhaps those who are happy to wade in on such debates should answer such questions.
HMRC is committed to exposing and acting on financial wrongdoing. Its specialist offshore unit is currently investigating more than 1,100 cases of offshore evasion around the world, with more than 90 individuals subject to current criminal investigation. The motion calls for greater HMRC resourcing. This shows precisely why at the summer Budget of 2015 we confirmed an extra £800 million to fund additional work to tackle evasion and non-compliance by 2020-21.
We have already heard quite a lot today about HMRC resources and headcount. I have to concede that there was a period when the numbers working in compliance and enforcement fell—that period was up to 2010. If we look at where the numbers were in 2010 compared with where they are today, we see that the enforcement and compliance numbers are higher than they were when the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and I took our respective positions—there has been an increase. I accept that much more of HMRC’s work on processing self-assessment forms, for example, has been automated and the number of staff working in that area has fallen. However, the number of people working in compliance and enforcement has increased over the past six years.
Several hon. Members rose—
I want to make a few more points. Even before last week, HMRC had already received a great deal of information on offshore companies, including those in Panama and including Mossack Fonseca. This information comes from a wide range of sources and is currently the subject of intensive investigation. HMRC has asked the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the BBC and The Guardian to share the data they have received from last week’s leaks. Clearly, it is important to examine the data very closely, which is why we are providing new funding of up to £10 million for an operationally independent cross-agency taskforce to analyse the Panama papers and take action on any wrongdoing and regulatory breaches. The taskforce will include analysts, compliance specialists and investigators from across HMRC, the National Crime Agency, the Serious Fraud Office and the Financial Conduct Authority. Between them, those agencies will have some of the most sophisticated technology, experts and resources to tackle money laundering and tax evasion anywhere in the world. The taskforce will report to my right hon. Friends the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Home Secretary on the strategy for taking action, and we will update Parliament later this year. I stress that the taskforce will have total operational independence. If it finds people to prosecute, it will prosecute them. If it finds information about illegality, it can act on it. In addition, the independent FCA has written to financial firms asking them to declare their links to Mossack Fonseca. If the FCA were to find any evidence that firms have been breaking the rules, it, too, has strong powers to take punitive action.
The Minister mentioned last year’s Budget and the £800 million for non-compliance issues. However, I understand from his answer to a written question that only £266 million of that has been allocated specifically to address tax fraud. How much of that will be spent on dealing with tax evasion?
The vast majority of the additional money we have put into compliance, both the £800 million announced last year and the £1 billion announced in the last Parliament, is going to dealing with tax evasion. All of it is going into compliance, which is in the areas of dealing with tax evasion and tax avoidance, at its broadest points. I am happy to let the hon. Lady have details of the precise numbers and to write to her on that subject, but this money is going into compliance exactly to deal with these areas. We have taken this very seriously, substantial sums will be raised for us over the course of this Parliament and we are proud of our record on this.
First, on headcount, will the Financial Secretary confirm that there are 14,000 fewer staff in HMRC now than there were in 2010? Secondly, will he inform the House whether any HMRC staff currently have a compulsory redundancy notice?
I make no secret of the fact that HMRC is a smaller organisation than it was in 2010 in its headcount. That is because efficiency savings are capable of being found in an organisation that devotes a number of staff to processing pieces of paper when we are moving to a more digital world and we can make greater use of technology. On the area that is relevant to today’s discussion and is the concern of the House, the concern is to ensure that HMRC has the resources to deal with tax evasion and tax avoidance. In that area, headcount is not the be-all and end-all; it is about what we get out, not what we put in. As it happens, however, the numbers of people dealing with enforcement and compliance have gone up under this Government. That point sometimes seems to be missed from this debate.
In a globalised world, international action is clearly vital to stop cross-border tax avoidance, evasion and aggressive planning. The UK Government can be proud of having done more than any other country to stamp out these practices. On avoidance, we have already implemented the OECD recommendations for country-by-country reporting to improve transparency between business and tax authorities, and have advocated public country-by-country reporting on a multilateral basis. The Commission’s proposals for public country-by-country reporting are a step in the right direction towards new international rules for greater public transparency. However, we need to consider carefully the details of the Commission’s proposal, including how the reporting is done and how the information is broken down.
On transparency in the context of tax evasion, which is a key point, the UK will be the first major country to publish a register of company beneficial ownership, free for anyone to access, allowing everyone to see who owns what company. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made it a personal priority to use our G8 presidency to set a new global standard of tax transparency. As a result of our G8 presidency, 129 jurisdictions have committed to implementing the international standard for exchange of tax information on request, and more than 95 jurisdictions have committed to implementing the new global common reporting standard on tax transparency. This is a huge breakthrough. I recall that six years ago no one believed that we would get to that position, and I am delighted that we have done so. This is a step change in transparency.
To emphasise that point, none of our major international economic competitors has agreed so far to have a public register of beneficial ownership. In fact, the state of Delaware, in which 90% of United States public companies are listed, has said that it has no intention of implementing this. We really are leading the world and leading our major competitors.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that point, and I will address the subject of the public register in a moment. It is considerable progress to have got central registers at all. We have pressed for that, and I am pleased that overseas territories and Crown dependencies have agreed to sign up to it.
The Prime Minister has stated that the registers that the overseas territories will provide will be available to tax authorities here. However, as this debate has clearly highlighted, this is a global problem, so will those registers be shared with other tax enforcement agencies globally so that they can ensure that tax is not being avoided from other countries?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and I think there is scope for going further on it. What we have agreed is to ensure that we have access to those central registers. That is clearly very helpful but I think more progress can be made in that area and it is something to return to in the future.
Panama is one of the very few financial centres that has not yet fully committed to these international standards. We are clear that it should do so, and we continue to press for Panama to join the club of responsible nations. Of course, there is more international work to be done, particularly on tackling money laundering. That is why we are hosting an anti-corruption summit in May, with the aim of encouraging consensus not just on exchanging information, but on publishing such information and putting it into the public domain, as we are doing in the UK. Once again, Britain is leading the world on transparency, accountability and responsibility.
There are a few more points that I want to make, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.
Let me address the subject of the UK’s Crown dependencies and overseas territories. Reform of the regimes of the overseas territories and Crown dependencies has been a key objective for the UK, and the reforms that we have secured have been considerable. All the UK Crown dependencies and overseas territories with financial centres are signed up as early adopters of the common reporting standard, reporting annually from 2017 in respect of data that have already been collected. The Crown dependencies and overseas territories will share information with the UK from this year, one year earlier than the rest of the world. All the UK Crown dependencies and overseas territories with a financial centre have committed to transparency on company ownership.
Last Monday the Prime Minister announced that our overseas territories and Crown dependencies have agreed that they will provide UK law enforcement and tax agencies with full access to information on the beneficial ownership of companies. For the first time, UK police and law enforcement agencies will be able to see exactly who owns and controls every company incorporated in those territories. This is a major step forward in transparency, the result of the Government’s sustained work in this area.
It is right that we expect the overseas territories and Crown dependencies to meet international standards, and indeed they do. Yes, we want them to move towards a public central register. That is not yet the international standard. If, as the Leader of the Opposition suggests, every former colony that does not have a public register should be recolonised, where would we begin? Is he proposing that we invade Delaware? [Interruption.] Now we come to mention it, says the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Rob Marris).
The reality is—and this is the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) was right to raise—that the UK is in favour of a public register. We are implementing a public register in June for the first time. We have never had one before. We want other countries to do it, but very few of our European Union colleagues do so. It is not the case that the US does it. We want to ensure that it becomes the new international standard, but Orders in Council condemning overseas territories for failing to do what most of our EU colleagues do not do would not be fair or effective. The approach that we have taken has brought the overseas territories and Crown dependencies a long way. I fear that the approach advocated by the Labour party would fail to work.
Will the Financial Secretary give way?
I will make some more progress. The hon. Gentleman has just arrived.
As well as leading international action, we have ensured that domestically our regime is both tough and transparent. We have invested more than £1.8 billion in HMRC since 2010 to tackle evasion, avoidance and non-compliance. The £800 million extra funding that we announced in the summer Budget 2015 will enable HMRC to recover a cumulative £7.2 billion in tax over the next five years, and to triple the number of criminal investigations it can undertake into serious and complex tax crime. In the last Parliament, we made more than 40 changes to tax law, closing down existing loopholes and introducing major reforms to the UK taxation system, raising £12 billion.
Penalties increased, new offences created, loopholes closed, new measures introduced, more money raised—it does not stop there. In this Parliament, we have already announced a further 25 measures for legislation to tackle avoidance, evasion and aggressive tax planning. These measures are forecast to raise £16 billion by 2020-21. This week, we announced that we will bring before the House this year legislation to make it a crime for corporations to fail to prevent their representatives from criminally facilitating tax evasion. This new corporate offence goes further than any other country has gone in holding corporations to account for criminal wrongdoing. It will apply to both UK and overseas corporations, and will set a new standard for corporate responsibility and accountability. I am sure that Members on all sides of the House will support any measures as they go through.
What a contrast to the 13 years of the Labour Government. This week, the Opposition ramp up the rhetoric, but it was not on our watch that private equity managers had a lower rate of tax than their cleaners. It was not on our watch that the wealthy could sidestep stamp duty. It was not on our watch that high earners could disguise their remuneration as loans that were never repaid. Those are just some of the loopholes left open by Labour—loopholes that we have been busy closing ever since.
Let me make one further point about the approach of the Labour party over the past week. Yes, taxes should be paid in accordance with the law and the intentions of Parliament, and we should take action against those who fail to do so. Those of us on the Government Benches certainly hold that view. But too often in the past week, Labour has appeared to be motivated by something else. That something else is hostility to the wealthy—not for dodging taxes, but just for being wealthy, for being successful, for earning money and for wanting to pass it on to their children. Those are things which millions of people aspire to do.
Thanks to the actions that this Conservative Government have taken domestically and overseas, we are revolutionising tax transparency and putting an end to offshore tax evasion. This is strong and firm action from a Government committed to ensuring that every penny of tax that is owed is paid. I urge the House to reject the motion.
May I make a number of small observations on what we have heard so far and gently say to the Minister, whom I like, that success is not measured merely in monetary terms? There are many, many successful people who will forgo stashing cash in the attic, the bank or the offshore tax haven.
On HMRC, we have no problem with efficiency or with organisations being fit for purpose. We have no qualms about genuine waste being eroded, but we look askance at 17 out of 18 tax offices being closed and only one being reopened, and the argument that somehow that will deliver more for substantially less.
The shadow Chancellor spoke about wealth inequality now rising to a level that we have not seen since the days of the Rockefellers or, as he said, the robber barons. I would not put the Prime Minister in the category of the super-rich, such as the Rockefellers. We know, however—the Prime Minister has been very open about this—that he bought shares, as he described it, in a trust or a fund as part of Blairmore Holdings. He sold them some years later. He did nothing illegal at all. That episode shone a very bright light in a very murky corner of offshore tax havens. One thing that struck me was that he bought the stock in 1997 and sold it in 2010. Those dates were familiar to me. It was the entire duration of Blair, Brown and new Labour. On the underlying issue, which I know the shadow Chancellor is genuinely concerned about, and on many of the points that the Minister made at the end of his speech, the Labour party did nothing for 13 years. I am glad that this is now on the agenda in a proper and cogent way.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin) made a number of telling points on this subject in his speech on the Second Reading of the Finance Bill on Monday. He said:
“you cannot build economic success on the back of social injustice.”—[Official Report, 11 April 2016; Vol. 608, c. 115.]
He also said, quoting Adam Smith:
“No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.”
He argued that creating such division does not bring progress, and he went on to describe how much of this division is characterised today by people in certain quarters being able to park large sums of money offshore, and the rest—the vast majority—being unable to do that.
My hon. Friend suggested that, according to Jason Hickel of the London School of Economics, tax havens hide one sixth of the world’s total private wealth—in excess of $20 trillion. Some estimates put that as high as $32 trillion, and CNN described it on Monday evening as about 6% of total global GDP. There are higher estimates. We can probably all agree that it is around $20 trillion, or 15 times UK GDP, parked offshore in tax havens—money and assets which very wealthy people and criminals can hide from the relevant tax authorities.
The revelations in the millions of documents in the Panama papers from Mossack Fonseca are but the tip of the iceberg. I am told that it is the fourth biggest law firm in Panama providing these services, which means there are three larger firms, and I presume that there are dozens, scores or hundreds of smaller firms doing the same. And it is not simply in Panama. Indeed, Panama does not even make it into the top 10 tax havens. Taken together—I do not think this situation has changed yet, notwithstanding the measures that the Government have announced—the UK and the overseas territories collectively are No. 1, outstripping even Switzerland by some margin, it is argued.
It is worth reminding ourselves that at a single address in the Cayman Islands, Ugland House, there are 19,000 registered businesses. I am certain that some of them will be legal, but many will not be. Many will be companies whose beneficial owners remain hidden from the tax authorities there, here or elsewhere. That means that income that should be the subject of taxation will go untaxed, to the detriment of public services here and elsewhere.
We have, in essence, an international system of finance that enables tax avoidance on an industrial scale, a system that hides from scrutiny the owners of vast wealth while the ordinary man, woman or business in the street does not have, and does not want, that luxury. They pay their fair share, and they simply want others to do the same. What makes it most unfair—I think this is why people are so angry—is that when assets or income are hidden and go untaxed, we all suffer as the resources we need for vital public services are reduced and squeezed.
It is also the case that much of the tax stashed in tax havens is looted from developing countries, so this is not simply an issue for the west. It is a matter of fundamental importance to those developing economies, which frankly are in even more need of the tax receipts that are effectively stolen from and then parked in tax havens around the world. That is why part of the solution must involve a global agreement on country-by-country reporting to ensure that tax authorities and others can follow the money.
The question from my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Callum McCaig) was absolutely right. We are moving to having data shared between the Crown dependencies and overseas territories and the law enforcement and tax authorities here. We think that should be public—there is absolutely no doubt about that—but it should also be shared elsewhere. If miscreants are identified by the Revenue or the police here, I hope that there will be a very swift phone call to the appropriate authorities elsewhere so that they, too, can follow the money.
Does the hon. Gentleman think it is significant that China has £44 billion invested in the Cayman Islands and £49 billion in the British Virgin Islands? Is not one of the reasons why the Government might not want to act against these tax havens that they are ingratiating themselves with the Chinese, who are busy destroying our steel industry?
I suspect that the Chinese authorities are interested in that £93 billion just as much as we are, because I suspect that much of it is not there—how can I put this gently?—officially. They have as big a problem with money being fleeced from their system as we and other countries have with ours.
Another issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, and by my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (George Kerevan), is the question of where the money actually is and how it is set to work for its beneficiaries. As we know, cash funds do not actually sit in the Cayman Islands or the Bahamas. One of the biggest centres for the cash is London, and we can see where some of that money is spent. For example, hundreds, if not thousands, of rather expensive properties in London have been bought by persons unknown. We have therefore called for radical reform to address tax avoidance, outright evasion and criminality and to deliver fairness across the board so that the very wealthy pay the tax that is due in precisely the same way as those on more modest earnings.
The starting point for paying tax in this country is the Revenue knowing precisely who owns what assets and what income is derived from them. In short, that means a public register of beneficial ownership of companies, and not just in the UK, but for the Crown dependencies and the overseas territories as well, precisely so that nobody can hide assets or incomes through an opaque structure of a company registered in an overseas territory, registered by a Panamanian lawyer while the money comes swiftly to a bank account in London and is parked in a multi-million pound mansion in Mayfair through an anonymous shell company.
That also means taking serious action on trusts. The argument that the Prime Minister used was that he would not have got the agreement had trusts been included. He argued—possibly correctly historically—that those trusts were set up in order to allow sophisticated investors to invest in dollar-denominated stock. But times have changed. I took a cursory look at the stock exchange website this morning. On its “frequently asked questions” page, I saw the following question: “Can a company have its securities traded in currencies other than sterling, for example euros and dollars?” The answer was, “Yes, your shares can be denominated and traded in any freely available currency you choose.” Indeed, the stock exchange launched a Masala rupee-denominated bond last week. The old arguments that these structures are required for non-sterling trades or investment are now simply wrong. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath put it, even if the Prime Minister was right some years ago, he is wrong now and public opinion has changed dramatically.
That brings me to what else the Prime Minister said on Monday. He said that he has published all the information on his tax returns for the past six years. He has provided details about money inherited from and given to him by his family. He has published other sources of income and his salary. He dealt specifically with the shares that he and his wife held in a unit trust called Blairmore Holdings, set up by his late father. That, from our point of view, was precisely the right thing to do. However, in a sense, all of that is irrelevant because it did not actually address the fundamental issue of individuals holding assets through overseas shell companies and being able to hide them and their income from the tax man.
Also, in describing the actions that the Government are taking to deal with tax evasion, aggressive tax avoidance and international corruption more broadly, the Prime Minister said that they have put an end to rich homeowners getting away without paying stamp duty because their houses are enveloped within companies. He said that they had made 40 changes to close loopholes, and they have sought agreement on global standards for the automatic exchange of information, and in June this year, as the Minister has pointed out, the UK will become the first country in the G20 to have a public register of beneficial ownership so that everyone can see who really owns and controls each company. We recognise that there has also been work on base erosion and profit shifting.
All of that is to be welcomed. What we are saying is that we need to go further. It will simply not be enough for the police and the tax authorities to see beneficial ownership of companies registered in Crown dependencies; it must be public, so that the citizens of those countries and ours can see who precisely owns and benefits from what. Also, while we welcome the publication of beneficial ownership of companies in the UK, I ask the Government to ensure that sufficient resources are now dedicated to HMRC so that it can forensically scrutinise the sources of income to ensure that they are legal and that the tax due is paid. Of course, as I said earlier, the Government must also pass on to other authorities the details of any miscreants suspected of looting cash from other countries.
I am delighted that this subject is now under real scrutiny. I am also delighted that we have gone wider than the parochial. Oxfam has pointed out how significant this is in its report “Ending the Era of Tax Havens”. It gives encouragement to the Government, stating:
“The UK is especially well placed to show leadership here because it controls or directly influences by far the largest network of tax havens in the world. This network, encompassing the UK’s Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories and centred on the City of London, is estimated to account for nearly a quarter of global financial services provided to nonresidents within a jurisdiction. Taken together, this UK entity would sit at the top of the ranking in the Tax Justice Network’s Financial Secrecy Index”.
That is not something we should be proud of. However, Oxfam goes on to talk about the opportunity the Government have, saying that success in tackling corruption and tax evasion could be transformative not just in terms of our revenue, but in terms of the fight against global poverty and inequality, which, for the SNP, is just as important.
I will end by saying one thing to the Government: the cat is out of the bag. This is not just about Mossack Fonseca; this is the tip of the iceberg. The public will not allow this matter to be quietly swept under the carpet again.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie). Although there are probably some things we would disagree on, there are a couple of issues on which we do agree. One is that it is welcome that we are having this debate on the Floor of the House today. The other is the fear that the next tax haven to be listed—this time it would affect ordinary working people—might be England if the Scottish Labour party gets its way after the elections this May and makes tax rates for working people higher there than they are south of the border.
It is always good, as a member of the Public Accounts Committee, to be discussing on the Floor of the House how we get in the tax that is owed. During Prime Minister’s Question Time, I think I heard the Leader of the Opposition refer to tax as partly a donation. I can understand why he said that, but let us be clear: a donation is something people voluntarily give to a charity, as I do out of my salary; a tax is a legal requirement to pay something—it is not a donation or an act of charity.
As a member of the Committee, I sat on our recent inquiry into Google, which is perhaps one of the cases that has helped to prompt the debate on this issue over the last few months. We focused a lot on some of the offshore locations, but we also had references to things such as the “double Irish” and the “Dutch sandwich”, which helped to reduce the company’s tax liability. Neither of those relates to offshore territories; they both involve jurisdictions that are members of the EU. It is therefore important that, as we work across the world to try to deal with tax evasion and avoidance, we make sure that other nation states give these issues the attention they deserve. [Interruption.]
Order. I am sorry to disturb the hon. Gentleman, but there is quite a lot of chattering going on, and I am finding it quite difficult to hear him.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
In its report, the Committee was clear that HMRC should try to lead a debate about openness and tax rules. In that instance, the issue was revenues and the discussion of information with HMRC. It is easy to grandstand in such debates, but it is important to have not a knee-jerk reaction, but a considered debate about what information is available publicly, because there cannot just be specific rules for individual companies. If we change our general principle of not discussing individual taxpayer data, there are obviously some pitfalls to that, as well as some potential benefits, as we see when we look at deals such as the one with Google. However, the Committee felt that HMRC could lead a debate on that.
The report summarises some of the issues involved in judging whether the Google deal was the best deal that could have been done. It is worth noting, however, that the debate was based on previous tax rules, not today’s tax rules; effectively, we were having a debate about things as they existed some years ago—in some cases, 11 years back, when many Members sitting here today were not actually in the House—and about laws that have, in many cases, changed.
What came out of the Committee’s discussion is that HMRC’s performance is being looked at more widely, and the Committee regularly looks at it. It is encouraging to see some of the figures that have been published on the reduction of the tax gap—not least the corporation tax gap, which has gone from 14% to 7%. That is welcome. Yes, there is more we can do to drive down that 7%, but it is far better to be talking about 7% than 14%.
As has been referred to in the debate, the tax haven where a hedge fund manager could pay as low a tax rate as the person who cleaned their office was the UK six years ago. I have always felt that tackling that was one of the best things done under the coalition Government, because it seemed innately unfair that someone sitting within a few miles of this building could use capital gains tax rules to pay a low rate on a substantial income—indeed, a lower rate than a person earning the minimum wage for cleaning their office.
Having had discussions with Anguilla’s Public Accounts Committee recently, I welcome a number of things about HMRC’s having the ability to get information from, and share information with, the Crown dependencies. I agree with the hon. Member for Dundee East that we should be as diligent in handing information to tax authorities in developing countries via such information-sharing arrangements as we are in using information to enforce our own tax system. I suspect there will always be a debate about exactly what information we share with countries with more repressive regimes, but where the line is purely about avoiding taxation, we should be prepared to co-operate, provided that there are assurances about the standards that will be applied afterwards as part of investigations under the relevant nation’s criminal justice system.
In terms of how the Government and the UK engage with these authorities, it is worth bearing in mind that some of the regulations involved are very complex. There is perhaps a debate to be had about the fact that we currently appoint governors, who effectively act as the Head of State, for three years, with their term being extendable to four. There is perhaps a debate to be had with Foreign Office colleagues about whether it would make more sense to have a longer appointment, to allow governors to build a relationship with the authorities in a country; to build a knowledge of the system there; and to be able to engage more, and to give difficult messages, on behalf of the UK, in a way that a three-year term perhaps does not allow.
We should be clear that being a governor is not about going round in a feathered hat being saluted by everyone; it should be about being part of building a strong and lasting bond between the UK and territories that look to us for support, particularly in the realm of defence and overseas development. We should have people who engage with territories very strongly and who build up their governance systems, but who also have a deep knowledge of those territories and a deep relationship with them. We can then have the tougher discussions we need to have about areas where those territories are sovereign, but where their decisions have a clear impact on us as the home nation.
That said, I welcome the agreements we have managed to sign. I recognise that this is a global problem. Panama is one of the few countries not to have signed up to some of the international agreements, and one of the key issues is what further steps we take against nations that do not do that. Again, however, that should be part of a proper global debate, and we should not pick off individual jurisdictions. If we do that, people will simply find the next jurisdiction that is not honouring transparency. This needs to be a slightly wider debate than just picking on individual circumstances or an individual issue.
Likewise, we need a debate so that there is clarity, for example, about which types of investment many people use—perfectly legitimately and perfectly lawfully—in this country. We have heard of trade unions, pension funds and councils that use unit trusts and that pay their taxes here. At the same time, however, we have to open the envelope on shell companies that are basically just being used to hide who actually owns something, so that we can have that information and ensure that HMRC can get the tax it is due.
I was slightly disappointed that the opening of the debate seemed to focus more on a party political attack than on a measured discussion of how we ensure that the taxes legislated for by this Parliament are collected so that they can be spent by this Parliament. In reading the motion, I thought it was strange that there was no reference to the recent Public Accounts Committee report on the Google taxation deal. Likewise, I was disappointed that there was no reference to the tax transparency Bill—to give it a rather snappier title than its official one—introduced by a former Cabinet Minister, who is now a Labour Back Bencher. Instead, the motion seems like a party political policy document, which means it is not something I feel inclined to support.
This debate is welcome. It is safe to say that all of us recognise that there is more work to be done to capture those revenues that escape all taxation in all jurisdictions, and the UK can also play a role in building the capability of developing nations to crack down on tax avoidance that costs them even more than it costs us. This is ultimately about ensuring that those tax rates that are set here and that we believe are fair are paid. That is the nub of this debate and it must be the focus of future work.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), I should say that 11 Members wish to speak and I want to start the wind-ups at about 3.30 pm. If speakers take about eight minutes or less, everybody will get in.
As the co-founder and chair of the all-party parliamentary group on anti-corruption, I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to today’s debate.
The issues under discussion are, rightly, very high on the public agenda, and a great number of my constituents have contacted me to share their concerns. They, like many others, have a strong sense of both the real and the perceived injustice in our system, whereby the vast majority of people in this country play by the same rules and have very little choice about the contribution they make to the public purse. This is not about envy or anger at wealth, whether it be earned or inherited; it is about the fact that those at the top end of the income scale seem to play by an entirely different set of rules. That, understandably, makes people angry, and the Government must take genuine steps to level the playing field and regain the public’s trust.
One of the assertions that has been made in representations to me is that the solutions to the problem are easy. Although I do not necessarily subscribe to that view, I do think that there are a few relatively simple steps that the Government could take to make a significant difference. Those steps would bring about much greater transparency about the ownership of individual and company assets and wealth, and enable a very clear view of who the beneficiaries are of investments and funds, whether they are held here in the UK or in offshore trusts and accounts. It is essential to deal properly not only with aggressive tax avoidance that Parliament never intended to be pursued, but with tax evasion and other criminal activity, such as fraud and corruption. Too often, both issues go hand in hand.
In his statement on the Panama papers on Monday, the Prime Minister acknowledged:
“Under current legislation it is difficult to prosecute a company that assists with tax evasion”.—[Official Report, 11 April 2016; Vol. 608, c. 26.]
He is absolutely correct. In fact, the challenge is understated, and I will briefly explain why. At present, under UK law, in order to hold a company criminally liable, prosecutors must identify an individual sufficiently senior within the organisation—usually at board level—as its “controlling mind” with knowledge of the offence. In an increasingly globalised world where multinational organisations, which have very complicated structures and management arrangements, are the norm, that sets an extremely high bar for prosecutors to cross. By contrast, in the US a company can be held vicariously liable in criminal law for the actions of its employees undertaken in the course of their employment.
The Government seemed to acknowledge that inadequacy in UK law and included proposals in their 2015 manifesto to introduce corporate criminal liability for economic offences. Yet by September 2015 those proposals were quietly dropped, a fact that came to light only in response to a written parliamentary answer. The grounds stated by the Minister who gave that answer were that
“there is little evidence of economic crime going unpunished.”
That was, frankly, a ridiculous assertion, and I hope that the Panama papers have finally put that notion to bed.
It is clearly unacceptable that, here in the UK, prosecutors of economic crime—tax evasion, corruption and fraud—are effectively operating with one hand tied behind their backs. Indeed, David Green, the director of the Serious Fraud Office—the law enforcement agency tasked with prosecuting the most serious and complex economic crimes—has been clear for some time about the inadequacy of our law. As he pointed out in an interview with the Evening Standard in January, the identification principle
“is difficult because inevitably the email trail tends to dry up at middle management and evidentially it is hard to prove.”
I put that point to the Prime Minister on Monday, and I was glad to hear him commit to going away and looking at the proposals. I hope that Ministers are listening carefully to this debate and that those at the Ministry of Justice in particular will report back to him as a matter of urgency. The proposal is to extend the application of the section 7 offence—which I will explain—not only to tax evasion, but to all economic crime.
This is the nub of the issue. As the Prime Minister announced on Monday—indeed, he had announced it previously, but no follow-up action has been taken as yet—the Government intend to legislate so that corporates can be held criminally liable for failing to prevent the facilitation of tax evasion. That is an acceptance that the current corporate liability framework, which applies to all economic crimes, does not work.
The Government propose to do that by creating an offence modelled on section 7 of the Bribery Act 2010, introduced by the last Labour Government, that holds a company liable if it fails to take “adequate steps” to prevent bribery by its employees. In other words, it puts the onus on companies to ensure that proper compliance procedures are in place and holds them criminally liable if they do not do so. That model, which already applies to the offence of bribery, will apply to tax evasion under the Government’s proposals.
Why stop at tax evasion? Why not extend the provision to cover failure to prevent other crimes, such as fraud or money laundering, as promised in the Conservative party’s 2015 manifesto? The director of the Serious Fraud Office has suggested that that is a workable solution. Back in 2013, he highlighted the benefits:
“Such an approach would merely add a criminal sanction to existing obligations; it would assist in the reform of poor corporate culture which contributed to the crash; it would underpin the recovery by encouraging clean and stable markets; it would increase investor confidence, assist in more rapid prosecutions and dovetail well with deferred prosecution agreements.”
My hon. Friend mentioned earlier the situation in America. None of the bankers in this country was held to account for the crash, but a number of those in America were. Does she agree that something should be done about that?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend raises a very important point. The banks in America have paid significant fines as a result of their behaviour ahead of the crash, but it has been significantly more difficult to ensure that justice is done here. That is the very reason why the issue needs to be addressed. The solution is very simple and workable. The Government already intend to legislate on tax evasion, so it would simply be a case of expanding the number of offences to which the legislation applies.
I strongly urge the Government to look closely at part 2 of schedule 17 to the Crime and Courts Act 2013. It sets out a useful list of offences, covering all manner of fraudulent and corrupt offences—from false accounting and forgery, to fraudulent trading, bribery and money laundering—that the Government’s proposed new offence could equally apply to. The work is all done. The ducks are lined up; the Government just need to implement the change.
The revelations in the Panama papers represent a pivotal moment that the Government must not squander. The Panama papers have not just highlighted issues relating to tax evasion and, indeed, avoidance, but raised even greater questions about illicit financial flows, laundered money and the proceeds of crime, and about how companies exploit tax havens and secretive jurisdictions to facilitate that. Ahead of next month’s anti-corruption summit the Government should send out to the rest of the world the clearest of messages that the UK is serious about tackling economic crime in all of its forms, and its facilitation. I urge the Government to take the opportunity to take this important step to arm our law enforcement agencies and courts with the ability properly to hold companies to account.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and to follow the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell). She made an excellent speech, at the start of which she summarised very well the feeling of public anger about an elite who seem to live by rules different from those that apply to the average member of society. I agree with her.
I want to speak along the same lines as the hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie), who has just left the room, and talk about the underlying issues. Why is there such public anger about this issue? Tax avoidance and tax evasion have been going on for hundreds of years. Smuggling was tax evasion. When people filled in their windows to avoid the window tax, that was tax avoidance. Why has there recently been a crescendo of public anger? It cannot be simply because the Panama papers have been in the press. I argue that it is caused by underlying economics and the fissures that emerged in our society after the great credit crunch in 2008.
The hon. Gentleman might want to consider the fact that the poor people of the country are lectured constantly by the Government, who keep telling them that we are all in this together. Quite clearly, we are not.
We have a record low in the number of workless households. Worklessness is the single biggest cause of poverty. The Government have a very strong record on dealing with poverty, and I will come on to that.
It is generous of the hon. Gentleman to give way, but I have to challenge him on his last point. There are more people in work who are in poverty than ever before.
I simply do not agree with that. I want to start by focusing on the action that has been taken, because I do not think that the anger out there is caused by a lack of action.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
May I just make one point first, although it is lovely to have so popular a speech and so many interventions? On the action we have taken, as my hon. Friends the Members for Torbay (Kevin Foster) and for Newark (Robert Jenrick) have said, there has been a 50% fall in the corporation tax gap. I am sure that that is the sort of point on which my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay wants to support me.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. He has already been very generous with interventions. Does he agree that one of the things that really used to anger people was that an office cleaner could be paying a higher rate of tax than a hedge fund manager who worked in the same office? That was happening not in a tax haven, but here in the UK, and it is right that it was tackled.
That is an excellent point. It was a fundamental injustice, and we dealt with it. In the latest Budget, we announced a series of measures to tackle tax avoidance on matters such as hybrid mismatch, VAT evasion through online sales and the general anti-abuse rule. We will introduce a new penalty of 60% of tax due in all GAAR cases that are successfully tackled. We have brought in a long list of measures on matters such as serial tax avoidance and offshore avoidance.
On the broader point about the wider economics, I founded a small business in 2004—a mortgage broker specialising in the shared ownership sector—and it was obvious to me in the build-up to 2008 what was coming down the track. I believe that the then Government were trying to tackle inequality through debt. In those days, two potential homebuyers, one of whom was relatively wealthy and well educated, and the other who had less good skills and was less able to command such a salary, could both obtain similar levels of mortgage through the extraordinary measures that existed at the time, such as self-certified and sub-prime mortgages. We all know where that led.
In terms of public debt, the then Government’s main measure to deal with inequality was tax credits, which led to a £30 billion increase in in-work benefits. We paid for that increase in benefit spending on the national overdraft at a time when the country was doing pretty well and the world economy was relatively strong.
Will the hon. Gentleman clarify something? He seemed to be saying that less intelligent people should not be allowed to have mortgages. Is that what he was saying?
I think that the hon. Gentleman should withdraw that remark. I find that genuinely offensive. What I said was that the rules were very lax, and self-certification meant that someone on a low salary could get a very large mortgage, just like someone who earned a large amount. That is exactly the point that I was making. We all know that that led to a huge crash in 2008.
We have one fundamental question to answer. How, in the current economic context, do we go about trying to deliver a fairer economy, which we all want, where more people share in the growth that we have been able to deliver? We need strong measures to counter tax avoidance. We need the public to feel as though we are all in this together, and that we are all paying our fair share.
On the point about everyone paying their way, does my hon. Friend welcome the fact that under this Government, the top 1% of earners are paying 28% of tax, which is a far higher percentage than under the Labour Government? [Interruption.]
There are shouts from Labour Members, because I made that point earlier, but it is worth repeating. I am delighted that my hon. Friend made it, because it is so strong.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am very popular today.
The hon. Gentleman is exceptionally popular today. The point about the richest 1% paying the largest amount of tax has been baffed about a number of times today as though it is some sign of virtue. It is, in fact, a sign of the gross inequality that exists in the country, which needs to be addressed.
It is a sign that the rich are paying more tax. How does that make society more unequal?
Let me talk about the measures that we should be pursuing. Yes, we should be cracking down on aggressive tax avoidance, but if we are to help people across society to have a share, we need measures such as the national living wage, which was introduced on 1 April by a Conservative one nation Government. There are those who say that the national living wage is not generous enough. They have obviously not been reading The Guardian, which recently used The Economist’s Big Mac index to prove that the national living wage is more generous than the minimum wage in any other European country except Luxembourg. Only in Luxembourg can someone buy more burgers with the minimum wage than they can with the national living wage in this country. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) asked what this had to do with tax avoidance. The underlying issue is fairness. It is about how we achieve an economy in which there is a widespread sense that everyone has opportunity and the chance to earn a decent wage.
We are delivering that in circumstances far more adverse than those that faced the Government before 2010. We have had a small majority and the first coalition since the second world war. We have had the biggest deficit since the second world war—11.5% of GDP—which we have cut by two thirds. In that context, it is difficult to grow our way out of such a problem and deliver fairness. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Glasgow South keeps chuntering, but he is not adding a great deal to the debate.
My hon. Friend is talking about fairness and about some of the challenges that we faced with the deficit that we inherited. Is he not proud that in those circumstances, not only have we shifted income tax from the lowest paid to the highest paid, but we have helped small businesses? Through the reforms to business rates, we will take many smaller businesses out of business rates altogether while making multinationals pay more.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to mention small businesses. I used to say to people that I ran a small business, but measured by the amount of corporation tax we paid, we were bigger than Google. The fact is that those who run small businesses feel as though they have to comply. They cannot afford expensive lawyers. I agree with the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North about the sense that there is an elite who live by different rules. We have to deal with that, but we must not run away from the key point—my concluding point—with which my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary also concluded, namely that when we talk about transparency, the transparency that really matters to the public is about our ideals and our beliefs.
What do we really believe? I fundamentally believe in the free market. I believe in capitalism. I believe in individuals getting out there and using their creativity to earn their way in the world. We cannot go back to paying our way through debt and unsustainable public finances. In the circumstances, we need to maximise the tax that we get, but we also need to maximise the investment into the country from companies that we have heard the Labour Front Benchers criticise. Those big professional firms in London are massive employers in this country. We need to expand our exports from the services sector. Basically, we need a positive, free enterprise agenda with a fair sense that companies and individuals are paying their fair share, which does not denigrate the free market but creates sustainable growth to deliver prosperity for all.
Order. I have now to announce the result of a deferred Division on the question relating to employment agencies etc. The Ayes were 307 and the Noes were 241, so the Ayes have it.
[The Division list is published at the end of today’s debates.]
Several hon. Members rose—
Everybody has been speaking for just over 10 minutes, rather than eight minutes, which is the informal guide. We now need to keep to about seven minutes or less, if we want to get everybody in.
What has been highlighted by the publication of the so-called Panama papers is that we do not have a fair tax system. We are not all in it together, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) said so eloquently. Those exposed by this scandal have knowingly exploited tax avoidance measures for their own financial gain. While it is not technically illegal, aggressive tax avoidance has been argued to be against the spirit and intention of the law and of the will of this House. What is really shocking is that Heads of Government are involved, including our own Prime Minister, and that poses fundamental questions about politics and politicians. Once again, it threatens public confidence and trust in politics and politicians. These people are meant to be providing leadership to our citizens, and such involvement calls into question their attitudes and values, as well as their motives for seeking public office.
Does my hon. Friend think the comments that have been made—for instance, the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan) said, “If you are not wealthy, you are a low achiever”—have added to the public’s distrust of politicians in this place?
Such a comment adds to the dissatisfaction with politics and politicians as a whole, as I have said. I thought it was a very insulting statement.
As Members on both sides of the House have already said, the Panama papers provide more evidence of the existence of a powerful and indifferent elite, for whom the accumulation of personal wealth at the expense of their fellow citizens is paramount. The evasion and avoidance of tax means that less money is collected by the Exchequer for our pensioners, disabled people and the vulnerable, as well as for doctors, nurses, teachers and all the other public servants funded by public money. Fundamentally, dodging paying a fair share of tax is contributing to growing inequality in this country and across the world, and tax havens are at the heart of this.
Many Members will have seen Oxfam’s report last month. It says the UK heads the world’s biggest financial secrecy network, which spans its Crown dependencies and overseas territories, and is centred on the City of London. Collectively, it is estimated to account for nearly a quarter of global financial services provided to non-residents within any given jurisdiction. The UK takes prime position out of all jurisdictions across the world in the Tax Justice Network’s financial secrecy index, which is hardly something we should be proud of.
The National Audit Office has estimated that the tax gap is £34 billion a year, which is £1 billion more than in 2009. That is equivalent to a third of the NHS’s national budget. About half of the tax gap is accounted for by tax fraud, which includes tax evasion, criminal activity and the hidden or grey economy. When we consider the cuts proposed in last month’s Budget in relation to the personal independent payment for disabled people, we can see that figure for half of the tax gap would pay the whole annual budget for people on the disability living allowance and PIP.
HMRC’s compliance units, now merged into the fraud investigation service, tackle all aspects of non-compliance. According to the NAO, they do not record how much of the revenue they successfully recover relates to tax evasion, but the NAO estimates that the figure is about 30%. One of the issues that HMRC has to face is the need to balance what it can get in quickly, as low-hanging fruit, from low-risk, low-visibility and lower-gain operations with what it can get in from the high-risk, high-visibility and higher-gain and more complex criminal cases. This is where political leadership comes in. Such leadership has been seriously absent, as I shall mention later.
In spite of the 2013 G8 commitment to a common reporting standard at a global level, the Government have dragged their feet and obfuscated on comprehensive action on such measures. I welcome what the Government have proposed this week, but why—six years later—is that happening now? As I asked in an intervention, I would be grateful to the Financial Secretary if he responded on how much of the £266 million that has been specifically allocated to address tax fraud is to deal with tax evasion.
HMRC now has additional staff, with 670 new staff acting on tax evasion, but why were nearly 6,000 HMRC staff let go between 2013 and 2015? Has the 10% reduction in the number of HMRC staff since 2008 actually affected the collection of the moneys owed because of tax evasion?
As I say, I welcome the additional measures that have been taken, but the absolute outrage at this is clear from my mailbox, which I am sure is the same for other Members. There is palpable public anger. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) summed it up perfectly: when people are really struggling, it is shocking to see such absolute abuse by a tiny minority.
We need to look at this in the context of the Government’s other benefits and tax measures. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the regressive Budgets during the past six years have left people on low and middle incomes proportionately worse off. That is a result of the tax and social security measures. Projections for the next five years show that there will be increasing poverty and inequalities. All of that compounds the anger that people are feeling. In such a context, the vast accumulation of wealth by the wealthiest is very shocking. In the past 15 years, those in the top 1% have increased their wealth by 79%, which is £3.7 million per person, while someone in the bottom 10% has seen a rise of just 45%, which is £1,600 per person.
In addition to the Prime Minister’s admission in his statement last week that he had benefited from an investment in an offshore trust based in a tax haven, he intervened in 2013 to oppose the beneficiaries of offshore trusts being named in proposed EU money laundering rules. This is what I mean by the need for political leadership. There has been an absence of political leadership, contrary to what can be deemed fair. I am conscious of the time, so I will not pursue that point. Our proposals will make a real difference, and I hope that Members will look at them.
Forgive me for not being in the Chamber at the start of the debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was not here because I had absolutely no intention of speaking. However, when I listened to the shadow Chancellor’s speech, I found myself understanding his frustrations and understanding the points he made. I guess the problem is that his solution seems to be some sort of socialist utopia, which I do not think will work. I see no example in history of its doing so. I have, however, been forced to consider what a viable solution to this state of affairs might be.
Understandably, as many colleagues have already illustrated ably in their speeches, the general public are angry and frustrated. There is a palpable sense that there has been a breakdown in trust not only in us in this Chamber, but in systems of government, whether it is the tax system or, given the latest dreadful case in Burton, the social work system. Across the board, the public are deeply mistrustful, and increasingly so, as well as deeply cynical. That is understandable, because this is not the only tax scandal. We have had Google and many others, including in relation to corporation tax.
I can understand why the average man and woman in the street is thinking, “If it is good for me, why is it not good for them?” The response should not be hypocrisy and it certainly should not be envy; it should be to ask what we can practically do in the globalised economy we all inhabit. I readily admit that there are failings in our current capitalist model, and I rarely see contributions from people who recognise that or, indeed, who have thought about what might replace it. A notable exception is my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman).
The hon. Gentleman mentioned public anger. Measures against the recession have been going on for about six years. The public are weary of that, just as the public in America are weary of what is happening there. The public feel aggrieved at us because the recession and the measures to deal with it have been too harsh and have gone on for too long. That is one reason why people feel that they bear the biggest part of the burden.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution, but the political and philosophical point in it is that he does not believe that reducing the size of the state is necessarily in the interests of the majority. I do, and that is where we diverge, but the hon. Gentleman is right that there is a sense that the middle are carrying the burden and the very rich are not. However, all these things that we have been discussing, about which I have no knowledge—I wish I had money in trusts, offshore or elsewhere—are legal. If something is legal, I believe that it is legitimate. To those who believe that there is a moral component to paying tax, I say, “Get real.”
We probably need to look at the system first. Earlier, I referred to the corporation tax scandal, Google and the like. I know that the Government have made significant progress on reducing corporation tax, but corporation tax is out of date in a globalised economy. Let us just scrap it. We either make a decision not to spend £42 billion, or we move to a form of taxation that is not so easily avoidable, be it employee taxation, a sales tax or a property tax. However, the perpetuation of corporation tax in the world I see is plainly nonsense.
On the point about London property ownership, it is all about avoiding stamp duty. Scrap stamp duty. We should either not spend the £7 billion or find another way of levying the tax. Perhaps people should be taxed for ownership on an ongoing basis. Perhaps council taxes should be increased. I do not know—one can choose. However, corporation tax and stamp duty are clearly not fit for purpose and are easily avoidable.
The other challenge is intergenerational inequity. Significant sums of money are tied up in particular generations. Much has been said about the Prime Minister’s inheritance tax arrangements, which are totally to be expected—anybody with any wealth will mitigate inheritance tax. Who in that position would not? Let us not be hypocrites. The problem is that significant wealth is tied up in a particular generation, who were born post war. How will we facilitate the transfer of that wealth fairly and equitably? Answers on a postcard, please. At the moment, we do not have a system that works, and we need one.
I move on to transparency and the need for simplification. I am attracted to the Scandinavian—Norwegian and Swedish—model of publishing tax and wealth online. I support that; I have absolutely nothing—as far as I am aware—to hide. When I mention that to Conservative colleagues in particular, they worry about privacy. If that is founded—and those arguments are strong—the Prime Minister should not have published his tax returns, and nobody else should do so. It should be all or nothing. Each and every one of us in the Chamber, and indeed those watching in the Public Gallery, has a share in our democracy and in our Government functioning. For that share to be valued, we must all trust that it is legitimate and fair and that everyone is playing by the rules. I am therefore drawn to the Norwegian model, with all the necessary clarifications of legitimate application.
Which Norwegian model? There is one to do with the sex trade, there is another to do with negotiations for the referendum—is my hon. Friend talking about the tax one?
Of course I am talking about the tax system. There have been some concerns about it, to do with extortion and potential for kidnapping the very wealthy. However, if the system is applied with a log in and all the necessary things that need to be put in place, I do not see a problem with it. In the first couple of years, everyone will be interested—twitchy curtains—in what everyone else is earning, but after that, things will settle down.
I have contributed today and I feel strongly about this because if we do not have trust, not just in us but in this establishment and in Government, we cannot achieve much. The challenges that the country faces with the long-term sustainability of health and welfare, particularly pensions, mean that there will be some difficult decisions for whoever is in power. For them to be implemented, we must be trusted. Everything that we do here should be about that. That is why I think that our priorities should be transparency, simplification and scrapping taxes that have long been out of date.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his interesting speech. Does he believe that tax transparency will automatically lead to greater trust among the electorate? I feel that the electorate has reached the point where transparency may not necessarily lead to greater trust.
I agree with my hon. Friend that initially no, it would not. However, in time, once the system beds down, it will. The richest man in Norway, who published all his wealth and income, is now extremely popular because it turns out that he is a great philanthropist. People do not have a problem with others being successful. I certainly do not detect that in the British public. However, I think that there is a suspicion that something underhand is going on in some quarters and, as the Prime Minister says, transparency is the best disinfectant.
We need to act because trust matters. Without trust, we cannot implement what is necessary, whatever the policies are. Anything that the Government can do to encourage the public to trust in the system and in this institution will get my support.
I am happy to start on a note of consensus with the hon. Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) and my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) that this is all about trust. The public have reacted so fiercely against recent events because there is a collapse of trust in us. The expenses scandal was a screaming nightmare, and public trust reached rock bottom. It is now subterranean—it has got worse. An examination of our standards in this House is currently taking place, and I urge every hon. Member to contribute to it. Democracy itself—the political system—is under threat.
The country is rightly angry about the unfairness in the system. The other day in the House, we heard the most insulting speech, which will deepen the sense of alienation between the Government and the Opposition. I have been here a long time and I recall an incident in which the person who made that speech revealed to the newspapers how he made some of his money. He bought the council house of an elderly gentleman in London, who I think was a neighbour, on the basis that it would appreciate greatly in value and that the neighbour would not live very long. The agreement that the hon. Member made was that he would give the tenant, who would get a discount for being there for years, the money to buy the house and then the hon. Member would inherit the house. That is Tory morality, and it is morally repugnant. It is not the right to buy, but the right to greed. That man lectured us the other day and tried to castigate those whom he described contemptuously as low achievers.
The difficulty is the gulf between what the Government say and what they do. In March 2010, the Prime Minister made an impassioned speech about how he would clean up lobbying. He knew all about it: he was a lobbyist, and he was going to sort it all out. Where are we today, six years later? The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 has been passed, life for trade unions and charities is a bit more troublesome, but the big corporate lobbyists do not have to declare who their clients are. No worthwhile reform has happened. The Prime Minister has worried the minnows in the shallows, but the great fat salmon still swim by unhindered.
There is similarly no sincerity in the Government’s determination to tackle the tax havens. I will give the House an interesting example. Lord Blencathra, who sees himself as the spokesman for the Cayman Islands, mocked the Prime Minister, saying that he had no intention of carrying out his threats to deal with tax havens and that they were a “purely political gesture”—those were Lord Blencathra’s words. We have just heard that the First Minister of the Cayman Islands is putting two fingers up to the Prime Minister. They are not going to take any notice.
Let us look at the remarkable history of Lord Blencathra. It is a fascinating story that shows the laxness of our controls in this House. In 2012 I made a complaint about his behaviour. My complaint was taken to a Committee in the other House to examine. It suggested that he was in breach of the parliamentary code of conduct. His activities included lobbying the Chancellor about taxes affecting the Cayman Islands; he also facilitated an all-expenses paid trip to the islands for three prominent Members of this House. The Committee that deals with standards in the Lords held an investigation, and produced a remarkable document. Lord Blencathra explained that he was taking £12,000 a month in payment from the Cayman Islands, but that he was not lobbying Parliament or Government, but Members—or the other way around; he gave some spurious excuse. Quite remarkably, the decision was taken in 2012 that he had not been in breach of any rules of the House.
Two years later, the contract that Lord Blencathra had signed was leaked. It appeared that he had agreed in the contract to
“Promoting the Cayman Islands’ interests in the UK and Europe by liaising with and making representations to UK ministers, the FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Members of Parliament in the House of Commons and Members of the House of Lords.”
He put up a spirited defence, saying that he may have signed the contract but he had forgotten what he had agreed to, and anyway if he had signed it he had no intention of doing what it said. That is a most egregious breach of the code of conduct of the House—
Order. I have been listening very carefully. The hon. Gentleman knows that he is not to criticise Members of the other House directly or personally. He has been quoting from reports up until now. If he would desist from directly criticising Members of the other House, I would be very grateful.
These are not new matters, if I may say so. I have dealt with that matter now.
If the Government fail to act against their own Members, who are not trying to stop the abuses of tax havens but are actually lubricating them, how can we take them seriously? There is some agreement on this, and some pleasure in the House that this situation has happened, because it might expose the corruption that is so endemic and the huge sums disappearing into tax havens. Light has been shone on all that.
I believe that there is a political agenda behind those who have hacked into Mossack Fonseca’s site. We do not know what that agenda is, and it might well be very sinister, but I will repeat my earlier point: one of the curious things here is what is happening with other nations. China has $44 billion in the Cayman Islands and $49 billion in the British Virgin Islands. Those are huge sums of money, but they are only part of the revelations—part is still to come. The reverberations of this pivotal scandal will spread for decades.
I am curious about the Government’s reluctance to act against China in many other ways. We have already done a dreadful and financially disastrous deal over Hinkley Point, which might give us the most expensive electricity in the world, although the deal is now collapsing. The Government seem to want to ingratiate themselves with the Chinese Government. As a result, they are going soft on them in many ways. What is most damaging is that they are not taking sharp action against the undercutting of the steel industry that is affecting so many jobs here.
We have a strange relationship with the Cayman Islands. We provide them with great advantages, by providing their defence for them. The Government’s permissiveness must stop. We will look to the Government to take the tough line that they have promised at the anti-corruption conference. They have not taken it before, so let us see them do it there.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. I am sorry to have to say that everyone has gone way over my informal speech limit, so I am going to have to impose a formal one, of six minutes per speaker. I hope that people will not take too many interventions.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. I welcome the measures being taken to tackle tax avoidance, but I feel that the events of the past few days, and this debate in particular, are more about the politics of envy.
As a result of this Government’s measures, the top 1% of earners are paying 28% of income tax, a figure that is likely to grow. In the figures released in the past couple of days by the Leader of the Opposition, the Chancellor and the Prime Minister we can see evidence of the fact that those who earn more, pay more, with the Prime Minister paying nearly £76,000 in income tax—double the amount that I earned as a nurse just months ago. That shows that there is equality in this country—if someone earns more, they pay more.
I accept the point of the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) that there is a difference between what is said in this House and what is done here. Opposition Members talk about reducing inequality in taxation but then oppose the measures that have seen 3 million of the lowest paid people in this country taken out of tax altogether. Opposition Members voted against measures, not just in the Budget just gone but in last year’s Budget, that froze fuel duty, VAT and national insurance—which, again, help the lowest paid people in this country. The Labour party introduced the 10p tax rate, which actually hit the lowest paid. We will take no lectures on tax equality.
In the short time that I have, I shall touch on inheritance tax, which seems to be at the front when Opposition Members lead the march of their politics of envy. They assume that inheritance tax is there only to tackle people with high incomes and a lot of assets. My constituency, Lewes, is in the south-east, and I am seeing more and more low-income families whose houses—their family homes—have increased in price, through no fault of their own, so that they now fall into the bracket for inheritance tax, and are having to move out of their family home when that tax is due. They are asset rich but income poor. That means that people who are nurses, like me, or teachers or cleaners, and cannot afford to pay inheritance tax, are having to leave their local areas. That is a particular issue in London and the south-east. For Opposition Members to dismiss that issue and claim that only wealthy people with huge incomes pay inheritance tax is very misleading.
I have a couple of other points to make. The feeling that success is measured only in wealth is absolutely wrong. We do not simply measure success in wealth, but—I think my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) made this point earlier—nor should we penalise those who have done well. It would be a sorry day if this country became a place in which, when someone has done well, has set up a successful business, is contributing to their local economy and is employing people, they were penalised, and not only that but frowned upon as well.
This party is trying to help people, whether they are on a low income or have been successful. We are the party of low taxation, whether people are poor or rich. [Interruption.] I see Opposition Members laughing, but I welcome the measures this Government have taken—both the crackdown on illegal tax avoidance and the measures introduced to take the poorest out of taxation altogether. I hope that Opposition Members will desist from the politics of envy and deal with the problem of tax avoidance.
First, let me reply to a few points that have been raised today. I agree that it was utterly wrong that a cleaner was paying more tax than a hedge fund manager—it stank. But thank God that cleaner was getting the national minimum wage, which was resisted by the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats: £3.60 instead of £1.90—that is the truth. I welcome the fact that low-paid people have been taken out of paying tax, but we must recognise that 1 million people in this country are on zero-hours contracts. That is 2.5% of the workforce who would not have been taxed no matter what the tax threshold was because their pay is so abysmal. Five million public sector workers in this country have seen their tax threshold rise, but they have also had their pay frozen or cut for the last eight years. So we must look at the whole picture, and not just say that the tax threshold has risen and therefore everything is okay. It isn’t true.
The Prime Minister was right to say on Monday that nobody should traduce his dad. That was wrong, and the attack on his mother because she gave him a gift was not right either. It is normal and right that parents want to help their kids—all parents want to do that. In principle, if someone’s dad or mother has expertise in any field, we would expect them to use that knowledge on behalf of their kids. That applies to stockbrokers as much as it does to stockmen, and to bakers as much as to bankers.
The real problem that the leak has exposed is the huge range of opportunities that are open only to the rich, wealthy and powerful in this nation, which proves that we simply are not all in this together. Whichever way this is dressed up, it is clear that those in the know have not only the opportunity or good fortune to make money in the first place, but when they get that money, many more avenues are open to them to allow them to keep their hands on it. That is one reason why eyebrows were raised across the country and in the House when Conservative Members pushed through cuts to income tax from 50% to 45%, and huge rises in the level at which inheritance tax cuts in, because they personally would gain from that. If anyone else did that we would say it was criminal, but those Members stood to gain personally from that measure.
The Prime Minister earns £150,000 a year doing a job that we all understand is really hard. He tops it up with £50,000 a year from renting out his house, and he gets another £40,000 a year from his savings and investments. He then turns round and says to poor people in this country, “I’m sorry, mate, but you’ve got to cough up another £14 a week for your bedroom tax”; or a disabled person who struggles to exist on benefits is told, “You don’t need any more money than a fit person in your position, so you’re going to have to give us back £30 a week.” And what about the anger of 5 million public servants in this country who have been told time and again—this year for the eighth year running—“You must accept a real-terms cut in your living standards”?
I had a conversation with a Conservative Member who suggested to me that Members should declare their unearned earnings. Does my hon. Friend know what that means?
I haven’t got a clue what unearned earnings means—I have never been in a position to have unearned any earnings. The Minister might be able to answer that when summing up the debate, and I would be interested to find that out.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer is paid £120,000 a year. He also receives £34,000 a year in rental income from his house, because he lives at No. 11 Downing Street, as well as dividend payments of £44,000 a year. But what does he say to nurses, care workers, prison officers, police officers, and, yes, tax collectors? He says they must work harder and longer—
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
The Chancellor says to those people, “You must work harder, and you must accept that you will have to work for longer before you get your pension.” How can he expect steel workers in this country, who are facing the possibility of a life on the dole, to believe that he really understands what they are going through?
The Mayor of London receives £143,000 for doing his day job, a quarter of a million pounds a year for writing for The Daily Telegraph, another quarter of a million in royalties from his books, and more money from his savings. Ordinary people in this country are fed up with carrying the can for the mistakes of the rich in this country—mistakes that led us into the economic crisis that is blighting the daily life of men and women who will never get the chance to save anything in the first place, let alone squirrel it away in the Caribbean, the Virgin Islands or the Channel Islands, where no questions are asked as long as people know the drill.
In two weeks the Trade Union Bill will come back to this House, and the most tightly regulated body in the country will face even more restrictions under the sad reality of what we have been told is the sunshine of transparency. The hon. Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) spoke about trade unions not paying corporation tax, but I dare bet that them not doing that involved fully audited accounts that have been signed off, not hidden away. Why do we not subject financial markets, regulators and dealers to the same tight regulations that this Government intend to impose on trade unions, whose only job is to look after the interests of ordinary men and women in this country? Why do we not put the same effort into chasing tax dodgers as we do into hounding so-called benefit cheats—a process that traduces innocent people and sees their families rubbished? People are sanctioned without money for weeks on end, and at the end of that someone says, “Oh, we made a mistake.” What happened in the meantime? Why on earth do the Government think that people in this country are angry?
A lot has been said about the politics of envy, but this is about the politics of fairness. Make no mistake—this week we are seeing the end of the farce of “We’re all in this together”. Hon. Members should read today’s motion carefully because it is a roadmap, a loophole and a get-out for Conservative Members to say to people in this country, “We’ve heard your anger and frustration. We hear what you say. Let’s work together and find a way out of this.” Instead, they have shut the door and want to carry on the dodgy deals. No matter what they say, yet again there is one law for the rich and one for the poor, and the people of this country will not stand for it.
Like the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) I thought that the most important thing to come out of the Panama papers was the revelation of criminality and corruption here and abroad. I hope that HMRC and authorities around the world will take note and bring prosecutions, and that that will lead to further crackdowns on corruption, including in places such as China, where I would not like to be one of the individuals named in the Panama papers. It is right that the authorities should take action.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), I believe that this issue cuts to a question of trust, but the antidote to mistrust is not moralising or phoney outrage; it is credible, practical action that makes a difference and which the public can believe in. That is what the Government have been doing. Just because some Members of the House or the media have not followed this issue; just because the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) did not say anything about this matter during 13 years of the Labour Government; just because he sat on the British Overseas Territories Bill Committee and did not raise any issues of tax evasion; and just because he referred to the Labour Government taking control of the Turks and Caicos Islands as “medieval” and “extremely undemocratic”; and just because others have taken their eye off the ball, it does not mean that the Prime Minister or Government have done the same.
Let me say a few words about the key things that the Government have done, many of which have already been mentioned. Raising the issue of tax evasion at the G8 summit and creating the world’s first public beneficial register of ownership was a major historic development. Many campaigned against it, actually for perfectly legitimate reasons, such as that it is a massive invasion of the privacy of law-abiding people. However, it is a huge step forward in the campaign against tax avoidance and evasion. It is happening in this country first, and we should be proud of that and not make it seem as if it is something that we take for granted. This Government were the first to do that, and other major economies around the world, like the United States, have not done that.
In one month the all-party group on corporate governance, which I help to run, will bring Chief Justice Leo Strine, who runs the Delaware Supreme Court, to Parliament. If Members care about this issue, and if this is not just phoney outrage, they should come to that event and question him about why Delaware—the state in which 90% of the major corporations of the United States are registered—has not yet followed the lead of this Prime Minister. We should encourage him to do the same.
The general anti-avoidance law was another major and controversial measure taken by the previous coalition Government. It was opposed by the Labour party. At the time, the Labour party spokesman said it was inadvisable to take this action until after the conclusion of the base erosion and profit shifting process, so it would not have happened under a Labour Government. It happened under a Conservative and Liberal Democrat Government.