The Government believe in a fair tax system where everyone plays by the rules. It is this Government who have taken decisive action to tackle tax avoidance and evasion and to improve the standards of international tax transparency. The UK has secured an additional £160 billion in compliance revenue since 2010—far more than was achieved under the last Labour Government. Under this Government, the UK now has one of the lowest tax gaps in the world. We have provided Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs with tough new powers. In 2015, HMRC received £800 million in additional funding to go on tackling tax avoidance and evasion.
Let me turn to recent events. Yesterday evening, several international news organisations, led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, reported on an information leak regarding the financial affairs of a large number of individuals. I should remind the House at this stage that Ministers do not intervene in the tax affairs of individuals or businesses, as to do so would be a breach of taxpayer confidentiality. However, I can inform the House that, on 25 October, HMRC requested that the ICIJ, The Guardian and the BBC share the leaked data so that this information can be compared with the vast amounts of data that HMRC already holds due to the initiatives this Government have undertaken. They have yet to respond to this request.
Nevertheless, since these data were retrieved in 2016, the Government have implemented international agreements that have changed the game for those seeking to avoid and evade their taxes. HMRC is already benefiting from the automatic exchange of financial account information through the common reporting standard—an initiative in which the UK has led the world, with over 100 jurisdictions signed up. The Crown dependencies and overseas territories are among those signed up to this initiative, and have been exchanging information with HMRC for over a year. The Crown dependencies and overseas territories have also committed to holding central registers of beneficial ownership information, which the UK authorities are able to access.
It is important to note, and I quote the ICIJ’s disclaimer here:
“There are legitimate uses for offshore companies and trusts”
and the ICIJ does
“not intend to suggest or imply that any people, companies or other entities included in the ICIJ Offshore Leaks Database have broken the law or otherwise acted improperly.”
So, notwithstanding the generalised aspersions made by the Opposition, the use of offshore accounts or trusts does not automatically mean dishonesty. But this House should be assured that, under this Government, HMRC will continue to bear down with vigour on any tax avoidance or evasion activity, wherever it may be found.
Unless there is a critically overriding reason, I believe the House will consider it unacceptable that the Chancellor is not here to address the biggest tax scandal of this generation.
The Minister’s response today was the same bluster. He cites a figure for additional tax revenues that cannot be verified from any publically available data. He refers to a tax gap that does not include the likes of Apple, Facebook, Google and others. He boasts of this Government’s efforts to address avoidance, yet last week they voted to protect non-doms in the Finance Bill. Last month, the European Parliament accused this Government of obstructing the fight against tax avoidance evasion and even money laundering. Does he not appreciate the outrage in our community at this tax dodging? Every pound in tax avoided is a pound taken away from our NHS, our children’s education, and care for the elderly and the disabled.
Given that the chairman of the Conservative party and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is responsible for administering
“the estates and rents of the Duchy of Lancaster”,
has the Chancellor or any Minister discussed these revelations with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the right hon. Member for Derbyshire Dales (Sir Patrick McLoughlin), and will the right hon. Gentleman be apologising to Her Majesty for the embarrassment this episode has caused her?
With regards to Lord Ashcroft, a major funder of the Conservative party who reportedly contributed half a million pounds to the Conservatives in the general election campaign, will the Minister tell the House what information he has had about the domicile status of Lord Ashcroft between 2010 and 2015, and whether Lord Ashcroft was paying taxes on his overseas wealth?
The Chancellor now has an immediate opportunity to tackle tax avoidance. Can he assure the House that in the forthcoming Budget he will adopt Labour’s proposals to remove exemptions from non-doms and secure full transparency of trusts? Will he now also agree to Labour’s proposals to establish an independent public inquiry into tax avoidance? I tell the Government this: if they refuse to act, the next Labour Government will.
The right hon. Gentleman raises the veracity or otherwise of our figures. We have collected £160 billion through clamping down on avoidance, evasion and non-compliance. That is a figure that he will find broken down and indeed published in Her Majesty’s Treasury’s annual report and accounts.
The right hon. Gentleman refers to Lord Ashcroft. As I said in my opening remarks, I am clearly not going to start getting into the individual tax affairs of any particular individual, regardless of their political allegiance or whoever they may be.
The right hon. Gentleman raises non-dom status and non-doms, and the measures that he and his party put forward for the most recent Finance Bill. Can I remind him of two things? It is the Conservative party that has put an end to permanent non-dom status, and it was Labour that sought, by voting against that Bill on Third Reading, to stop that from happening.
There seems to be an extraordinary misunderstanding on the part of the shadow Chancellor about the difference between avoidance and evading. Evading is wholly illegal; avoidance is normal. People who put their money into an ISA are avoiding tax—that is completely legal. There is a moral issue. If you happen to be a political party that spends £1 million a year on rent in a tax-exempt company, that is what people are upset about. It is not avoidance; it is morally wrong avoidance. Is that not what your party does, sir?
It may well be that sheltering from our tax authorities sums of money greater than the GDP of many countries is not illegal, but does the Minister agree that that is precisely the problem? Does he also agree that the Paradise papers revelations, and the massive sums involved, now offer no hiding place for those who would deny a public register of beneficial ownership of funds and trusts, as well as businesses?
This tax avoidance is a driver of global inequality that runs to the very top of business, politics, entertainment and the establishment, in many countries, but these papers also shine a light on the hidden ownership of large corporations by foreign state institutions and individuals. To allow the public, customers and small investors to know who is really behind the most trusted of brands, will the Government now throw their weight behind not just local but global transparency on the beneficial ownership of businesses through offshore trusts, funds, and other opaque devices?
The hon. Gentleman will know that this Government have been at the forefront of clamping down on international tax avoidance, evasion and non-compliance through the OECD’s base erosion and profit shifting project, which we have been in the vanguard of, and through the work on common reporting standards that we have been introducing among our Crown dependencies and overseas territories. He will find that we are no slouches when it comes to grappling with the items that he raises.
As my right hon. Friend knows, one of the measures of how on top or otherwise the country is of its tax affairs is the tax gap, which is at an historic low of just 6%. Under the last Labour Government in 2005, the tax gap was 8%. If it were at the same level today as it was under Labour, we would be £11.8 billion of tax short—enough to employ every policeman and woman in England and Wales.
The real problem with all the action that has been taken so far is that it has not got to the heart of the issue, which is that we need to have openness and transparency about who owns what company and where, and who owns what trust. There is a very simple action that the Government could take without any legislation, and that would immediately slice through a lot of the problems that we have seen in the Paradise papers, the Panama papers, the Falciani leaks and the Luxembourg leaks. Why will the Government not insist now that our overseas territories—our tax havens—have public registers of beneficial ownership?
As the right hon. Lady knows, there are many good reasons why, for perfectly honest and decent purposes, individuals use trusts. She also knows that we have made a great deal of progress on the common reporting standard across 100 different countries, including those to which she alludes. We are also bringing forward the registers of beneficial ownership across those jurisdictions so that HMRC has the information that it requires.
Will the Minister use the latest leak as a spur to the publication of certain things for which we have been waiting for a while? The anti-corruption strategy was promised for last December, but it got lost when the then champion stood down at the election. We are still waiting to know whether we will have a public register of the ownership of properties here by overseas companies. Can we move forward with those things, to give people confidence that our regime is robust?
My hon. Friend will know that we are examining several areas. He will also know that in June of this year—very recently—we brought in the money laundering regulations to make sure that banks, lawyers and accountants are properly focused, in real time, on ensuring that corrupt practices are identified and borne down on as appropriate.
Is not the Minister worried about the tangled web of Russian money that appears to be involved at very high levels, as shown by these leaks? Will he not agree that there is now a great public interest in having transparency of ownership and getting these registers published as soon as possible? Why do not the Government just make an announcement that the overseas territories are going to do that, and get on with it?
As I have already explained to the hon. Lady and the House, the register of beneficial ownership is now an element within these tax jurisdictions. It is accessible by HMRC, which is, after all, the authority that we rely on to bear down on tax avoidance. As to her comments about Russian money, I have no doubt that if HMRC can get the information that it has requested from the BBC, The Guardian and the group of journalists, it will be even better prepared to clamp down on such issues where activity is found to be inappropriate.
When he looks at these issues with the overseas territories and Crown dependencies, may I urge the Minister to bear in mind the states in the US that have worse standards? Standards need to be raised globally, not just in some of these island paradise states.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to work with our international partners, which is why, as I have said, we have been working closely with the OECD on the base erosion and profit shifting project. We are well ahead of the pack in implementing those recommendations.
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we are engaged in a variety of discussions with our international partners—not least with the European Union, in terms of the so-called blacklist—and we are looking closely at the concerns that they and others have, in order to strike an appropriate balance between protecting services that are very important to those particular jurisdictions and making sure that tax is paid fairly and as it should be.
Does the Minister agree that this is not just a question of countries such as the Caymans, Bermuda and other territories, but of countries in the European Union such as the Republic of Ireland and the Netherlands, which are regarded as jurisdictions where tax advantages may be set up? Does he also agree that rather than singling out such jurisdictions, we should recognise that in a global environment in which capital is free to move around, the important factor is the effect of the UK tax structure on wealth—something that this Government have definitely got right?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. To put it simply, it is not just the tax rate in a particular regime that is pertinent to the issues we are discussing—he mentioned the Republic of Ireland, where the rate is just 12.5%—but the other factors we need to look at in coming to such judgments.
How many more “Panorama” programmes and leaks should we expect until we see full and proper action on tax avoidance and tax evasion in this country? As a starter for 10, may I suggest to the Minister that the Government reinstate the thousands of tax officer posts they have cut in Liverpool and right across the country?
As the hon. Lady will know, this Government have brought in £160 billion in relation to tax avoidance since 2010, including £2.8 billion in respect of individuals attempting to hide funds overseas. She raises the issue of HMRC. As is quite right and proper, it is going through reconstruction and reassignments at the moment, so that we have a series of hubs with a critical mass of individuals in them and the right technology and infrastructure to go after those who, as assessed on a risk basis, are avoiding taxation.
I welcome the lead the Government are taking internationally in tackling tax avoidance, because this is clearly not a problem that we can solve on our own in isolation. Will my right hon. Friend advise us what the Government are doing to use transparency to make sure individuals, trusts and companies pay their fair share to the Treasury?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. As I have pointed out a few times already, we are currently looking at reporting standards. We are also looking at various recommendations coming out of the BEPS regime, some of which were covered in the Finance Bill, to stop flagrant tax avoidance, sometimes on the part of some of the largest corporations in the country. As I mentioned earlier, the Labour party sought to kill that Bill on Third Reading.
When I asked officials at the Department for International Trade whether tax transparency was required in our trade treaties, they said that this was a novel idea, and it was certainly not included in the text of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. It is exactly this kind of secrecy that lets the rich hide billions while the people pay. Will the Minister ensure that we demand and insist on tax transparency in every single trade treaty presented to this House in the future?
Low rates of tax and growing tax revenues depend critically on every penny of tax due being paid. What is the position if someone receives a fee, then sends it to a trust fund in Mauritius only to receive the money back as a loan?
I cannot comment on a specific tax structure put to me in these questions, other than to say that if it falls foul of our very rigorous disguised remuneration arrangements—some of them are being put in place by the latest Finance Bill—the people involved should clearly expect to receive a hand on the shoulder from HMRC.
Does not the publication of these papers show us that this Government are more concerned with hounding disabled people applying for PIP and ESA and taking their disabled motors away from them than with concentrating on the real people dodging paying tax who, as revealed in these papers, are close to the Conservative party? Sort it out!
The hon. Gentleman overlooks a simple fact: this country has one of the most progressive tax systems in the world, with the wealthiest 1% of income tax payers paying no less than 28% of all income tax. As I mentioned earlier, £2.8 billion has been raised from the wealthy who may have been trying to avoid paying their tax. That is a far stronger record than that of the Labour party.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One measure that the Opposition have said a future Labour Government would take is to stick the corporation tax rate up to 26%, which would do nothing to create jobs, nothing to create wealth, nothing to improve our economy and, most importantly, nothing to raise the vital taxes that we need to support our vital public services.
Given what the Paradise papers reveal about the industrial scale of tax dodging, together with the shaming fact that some of the UK’s overseas territories and Crown dependencies are the largest tax havens and secrecy jurisdictions in the world, will the Government drop their morally indefensible blocking of the development of a credible and meaningful EU blacklist of tax havens?
The hon. Lady is simply wrong. The discussions on the blacklist at the European Union are ongoing and the United Kingdom Government have done nothing to attempt to block them. We are firmly and deeply engaged in them and expect them to conclude by the end of this year.
In a world of increasingly global businesses, it is the reality—whether the Labour party likes it or not—that we have to tackle this issue on a global scale. Is that not why it was right that David Cameron used the G7 as a crucial method to tackle it and why it is right that we continue to take an international approach?
Like me, two thirds of British taxpayers are taxed at source through PAYE. They just cannot understand why anyone would want to put money into a small island like Bermuda, the Cayman Islands or Jersey. The Minister says that there are legitimate reasons for doing so. Will he educate me: what are the legitimate reasons?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, there are many reasons why individuals use trusts. It may be that I want a trust for my children and I do not want it to be known publicly exactly how that trust will operate, for reasons of confidentiality. People may use overseas trusts because they are looking at dollar-denominated trading and need a jurisdiction in which that occurs. There is a whole variety of reasons. The idea that every time the word “trust” is mentioned it suggests something grubby or illegal is plain wrong.
Will the Minister confirm what justification there was for voting against Labour’s amendments to the Finance Bill last week that sought to curb the number of individuals claiming non-dom status and improve transparency with regards to offshore trusts?
If the hon. Gentleman is referring to the trust arrangements for those who become deemed domiciled as a consequence of this Government deciding to put an end to permanent non-dom status—something that his party never did in its 13 years in office—he will know that all is not quite as the Labour party presents it. Any funds coming out of such trusts will, when they are remitted, fall due to tax by the deemed domiciled individual exactly as they would for any other UK citizen.
After nearly a decade of austerity, and with living standards facing their biggest squeeze in nearly a century, the public will, quite rightly, be outraged by the most recent revelations. The Treasury cannot run with both the foxes and the hounds on this, so will it back either the ordinary working people or the super-rich? Which will it be?
The hon. Member talks about our having to live within our means, and it is, of course, right that we do that. He talks about the amount of money we need to bring in. What has been most unhelpful is that the previous Labour Government were so ineffective at bringing in tax, the tax gap became so high they cost our country over £40 billion. If they had had the same average level of tax gap in their last seven years in office as we have had in our seven years, we would be about £45 billion better off.
Does the Minister not recognise that it is obscene that rich people should seek to get even richer by salting away their billions in offshore bank accounts, while working people suffer the longest stagnation of wages for 150 years?
The hon. Member will know that the wealthy of this country pay their fair share. The 1% most wealthy income tax payers pay 28% of all income tax. What was the figure under the previous Labour Government? It was below 24%, so I will take no lectures from him.
When I sat on the Public Accounts Committee, we used to hear about mechanisms such as the “double Irish” and the “Dutch sandwich”, neither of which are UK jurisdictions. Does the Minister agree that measures such as the diverted profit tax will help to put to an end to some of the tricks that can be used to move profits from this jurisdiction into lower tax jurisdictions?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The diverted profits tax works every day of the week. It works where HMRC has to step in and sort out the companies that fall foul of it, but it works even better than that: it prevents and deters many, many companies from behaving in an inappropriate fashion.
The Minister says that HMRC is now seeking to investigate this matter. Ahead of the Budget, when I suspect the Government may wish to make some public spending commitments, will the Minister commit to a moratorium while this matter is being investigated on any public contracts going to companies that have offshore trusts?
I want to highlight the new criminal offence we have created for firms that do not stop their staff facilitating tax evasion. For the first time, under the Criminal Finances Act 2017, companies will be held criminally liable if they fail to stop their employees facilitating tax evasion. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this truly demonstrates that the Government take tax avoidance extremely seriously, and, indeed, have done more than our colleagues on the Opposition Benches have ever done?
Does the Minister accept that the scale of aggressive avoidance exposed by these revelations shows that the general anti-abuse rule introduced in 2013 is not working and that what we need is general anti-avoidance legislation so that there is no room for doubt and no room for manoeuvre?
The hon. Gentleman talks about the amount revealed by these disclosures, and I assume he is centring his remarks on the half-hour television programme last night. The reality is that we do not yet know exactly the extent of what will be revealed, which is why HMRC has asked those with the data to make it available—so that we can use it to get on with the job of cracking down on those who might not have behaved as they should.
The Minister has confirmed that we have one of the lowest tax gaps in the world, yet the Labour party still complains. How does today’s position compare to the one we inherited in 2010?
My hon. Friend is right to point out the difference. The tax gap today is 6%, which is about the lowest in the world and the lowest in the history of our country. As I said earlier, if we had had the same average tax gap as Labour during its term in office, we would be more than £40 billion out of pocket—less money, as the shadow Chancellor put it, for the nurses, the doctors, the paramedics, the police, the Army and the others in our public services.
There are some things we do know, however: some large accounting firms are being investigated for poor practice that assists and colludes in tax avoidance and evasion. Will the Minister clarify what will be done to clamp down on those who collude with those who do not want to do the right thing?
Will my right hon. Friend confirm my understanding that the profits of the Duchy of Lancaster are used exclusively for official purposes, that its investment board is at arm’s length from the Government and that if anyone wants to question who was overseeing the investment board at the time of any suspicious transactions, they should go and see the Labour Ministers at the time?
The accounts of the Duchy of Lancaster are readily available, transparent and audited in the normal fashion, and there has been no suggestion to date, as far as I am aware and certainly not in the television programme last night, of any mischief related to any aspect of its dealings.
Will the Minister confirm that according to the latest figures available there are 420 employees in HMRC’s high net worth unit and 3,765 employees in the Department for Work and Pensions chasing social security fraud? Does he agree with many of us in the House—if those figures are correct—that if the same resources were applied to tax evasion we would have billions of pounds more for our vital public services?
My constituents are rightly angry about tax evasion and avoidance, but they are also angry about the avoidance of action, as exemplified under the last Labour Government, who talked tough but did very little. Will the Minister remind me how many times this Government have acted and how many more times they are likely to act?
My hon. Friend is right. We know how much we have brought in through clamping down on avoidance and evasion: £160 billion since 2010. We also know that we have about the lowest tax gap in the world and that it is far lower than it was under the last Labour Government. Those figures speak for themselves.
Further to the Minister’s response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), will he explain why he thinks people saving for their children’s future would need to make use of accounts in Bermuda and the British Virgin Islands, when my constituents seem to manage it with the use of local building societies?
I think that if the hon. Lady checks my answer to the question from her right hon. Friend in Hansard, she will see that that was not the totality of my response, and that I also referred to dollar-denominated trading and the complexities thereof. She may then be able to answer her own question.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, those are not figures that I have at my fingertips. As he will also know, confidential arrangements are rightly in place in many of the structures to which he refers; indeed, he, and perhaps even the headquarters of his party, might even be held within one of those arrangements. Of necessity, that particular information is not fully available.
Will the Minister clarify his understanding of the position in respect of non-doms donating to political parties in the UK? In the interests of transparency, will he arrange for all parties to publish lists of non-doms who have donated to their parties?
The hon. Lady may know from my earlier comments that the wealthiest 1% in the country pay 28% of all income tax. She should also be aware that in 2010, during her party’s time in office, the proportion was only about 23%. Ours is the party that is standing up for the poorest and the least well off in our society, and as part of that process we have taken almost 4 million of the lowest-paid out of tax altogether.
Will the Minister, and the Government, consider writing a letter to all those mentioned in the Paradise papers news leaks, gently reminding them of not only their financial obligations but their moral obligations to all citizens of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
Last year my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) led work in the Public Accounts Committee, and called for country-by-country reporting in an amendment to the Finance Bill, to which I think the Minister has alluded. The Government can now lead the way throughout the world in implementing that provision, while still pursuing multilateral provisions.
Most people have not heard of dollar-denominated trading, but they look at this matter and see one rule for the rich and powerful and another for the weak and vulnerable. Surely the way to lance this boil is to provide full transparency, which means making information publicly available rather than people having to ask about British overseas territories.
I have explained about the transparency that we need. We need to ensure that HMRC obtains the information that it requires to satisfy itself that the dealings in those territories are being carried out appropriately, and that is exactly the position that we are working towards at present.
Last week I met some of the representatives of our overseas territories. A number of them said that their governance was not working for them, and that they had little say in defence and foreign affairs. Is there not a win-win here? Could we not give our overseas territories representation in this place, and then enforce tax and public transparency in those territories? Taxation with representation, all equal under the law: surely that is a clarion call for all of us here today.
I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not start to opine on the constitutional settlement we have with our overseas territories and Crown dependencies, but I will make one important point that relates to the issue he has raised: we must not forget that they do not have representation in our Parliament, and we therefore have particular responsibilities in listening to them and co-operating with them, rather than, as he perhaps suggests, coercing them.
Will the Minister arrange for full details of the merits of sending money offshore to be published, so that my constituents in Hull, many of whom are low-paid but pay their taxes, can see whether it would be appropriate for them to go offshore?
The most important message for the hon. Lady’s constituents is the merits of getting on top of tax avoidance, evasion and non-compliance, which is exactly what this Government have done, and which is in turn raising the vital taxes for our public services so we can have the kind of public services that are a hallmark of a civilised society.
We probably need a time-out for a fact check on the £6 billion tax gap figure that the Minister is consistently quoting. May I refer him to the private Member’s Bill promoted by the former right hon. Member Michael Meacher, which set out detailed plans for a general principle on tax avoidance? We can get around a rule, but we cannot get around a principle; that seems to me to be a solid and sensible way forward.
The hon. Gentleman referred to a £6 billion tax gap, but the figure is not £6 billion; it is 6% of all tax that should be collected. On his suggestion that there should be a general principle or general rule, there is already a general anti-avoidance rule for exactly the purpose to which the hon. Gentleman has alluded.
Over 100,000 properties in the UK, worth over £122 billion, are owned by overseas-registered UK companies in the British Virgin Islands and the Channel Islands, and that represents a conservatively estimated £2 billion in tax avoidance a year, enough to close the benefits fraud gap in one fell swoop. That is just a conservative estimate, however, and a third of the properties in the Land Registry do not even have property transaction data. Does the Minister agree that now is an opportune moment to grip the Land Registry and ensure it has compulsory registration of land and property in the UK, with the full structure of ownership and their value, so we can understand the full scale of the exploitation of UK land and property for tax avoidance purposes?
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
The Minister has set out the reasons why the eye-wateringly rich would benefit from a tax haven, but how would my average taxpayer in Eltham benefit from a tax haven and why should they tolerate this in overseas British territories?
The hon. Gentleman characterises those involved in overseas trusts as eye-wateringly rich, but I do not think all of them are; there are many pension funds, and there will be many who rely on those pension funds to live, and many of them might, indeed, live in his constituency. I think this general characterisation of it all being about super-wealthy people and all being about tax dodgers and so forth is rather crude, and, frankly, not worthy of the Opposition.
Some 130,000 UK companies have not completed their persons with significant control registers, and not one of them has been fined. If we cannot get our own house in order, how can we credibly ask others to act on transparency?