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Paradise Papers

Volume 785: debated on Monday 6 November 2017


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the answer to an Urgent Question asked in another place. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, this Government believe in a fair tax system where everyone plays by the rules. The Government have taken decisive action to tackle tax avoidance and evasion and 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 previous Labour Government. Under this Government, the UK now has one of the lowest tax gaps in the world. We have provided HMRC with tough new powers and in 2015 it received £800 million additional funding to go on tackling tax avoidance and evasion.

Turning 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 the information can be compared with the vast amount of data HMRC already holds due to the initiatives that this Government have undertaken. They have yet to respond to this request.

Nevertheless, since this data was retrieved in 2016, the Government have implemented international agreements that have changed the game for those who seek to avoid and evade taxes. HMRC has already started 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 signing up. The Crown dependencies and overseas territories are among those who signed up to this initiative and have begun to exchange 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 from the ICIJ’s disclaimer in the programme—that:

‘There are legitimate uses for offshore trusts and companies. [The ICIJ] do 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. However, 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 is found”.

My Lords, that is a totally inadequate response given the sense of outrage in the country over what has been revealed in the paradise papers. The Government are trying to say that, after seven years of Conservative Chancellors of the Exchequer and Conservative government, condign action is now being taken against aspects of tax avoidance, which has clearly not happened over the preceding period. Therefore, I do not think that we should take these suggestions seriously. After all, only in the last few weeks the Government have rejected any mention of non-dom status in the Finance Bill and have rejected Labour’s demand that this issue be identified and dealt with in legislation.

The Conservative Party has a great deal to conceal. What is the tax status of the former non-domicile Lord Ashcroft? We noticed that for a short while he figured prominently in the newspapers during the election period but, of course, by then he had already paid half a million pounds into the Conservative election fund. Therefore, we cannot take this Statement at face value. The Government purport to say that they are interested in fair taxation. We have seen their record on that over the last seven years and know that many people in this country are being impoverished by them while they still treat the very rich advantageously.

There is nothing in the Statement about the great global companies and their taxation advantages; we do not get a single mention of any of them. What we do get, because the Paradise papers reveal this, is that there has been maladministration by the Government of the Duchy of Lancaster estates. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is the elected Member responsible for those estates yet, following the revelations of the Paradise papers, the Queen herself has had her name dragged down by these assertions. The Government do not even think that they owe Her Majesty an apology, because there is no suggestion in the Statement that they recognise that the fault lies with poor government administration.

We seek a full public inquiry into tax avoidance. Nothing less will restore our nation’s confidence that the Government’s approach to this whole wretched issue is adequate.

The noble Lord asked what we had done about tax over the past seven years. The Statement mentioned that we have collected £160 billion in compliance revenue since 2010, that the tax paid by the richest 1% is now 28% of the total, which is more than it was under the previous Labour Government, and that we have introduced initiatives such as a diverted profits tax to tackle just the sorts of corporate manoeuvring of tax, revenues and incomes that he talked about. We have introduced the Criminal Finances Act to make it a criminal offence for employees of organisations, be they professional services firms or others, to give advice on avoiding tax. We are at the forefront of the OECD tax initiatives. This Government included in the Finance Bill, which will come before this House on 15 November, a measure to make it no longer possible to have non-dom status in perpetuity—we are ending that position. Therefore, we have done a great deal but we are not complacent. We recognise that there is an issue to be addressed and fairness will be at the heart of all our actions.

My Lords, do the Government not recognise that the ordinary taxpayer hearing again this news today is utterly outraged that if you are rich or a business, you can avoid tax? There are schemes on an industrial scale, which are protected by a lack of transparency. During the passage of the then Criminal Finances Bill, when there was pressure from all over this House for the registers of beneficial ownership in the overseas territories to be made public, why did the Government resist when that would have stripped away secrecy? Why, also, have they brought a Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill to this House that gives Ministers the power, with virtually no intervention by Parliament at all, to eliminate every anti-money laundering regulation and replace them by highly watered-down versions? Is this the new Britain we are to expect post Brexit?

Of course it is right that the overseas territories and Crown dependencies take the correct approach on this. That is why the common reporting standard I mentioned—which has just come into effect and on which we led the way through the G7 and various initiatives through that—is coming into effect. That means that the Crown dependencies and overseas territories must inform HMRC about any person from the UK who is registered for tax in the UK but has an account in a different jurisdiction—one of a hundred, including all the overseas territories and Crown dependencies. That is just the type of action we need to ensure that people pay the taxes they are due to pay.

My Lords, of course it is right that companies and entities that operate here in the UK should pay their full weight of tax. However, if the proposition is that all offshore investment is somehow to be disapproved of or stopped altogether, would that not require a return of full capital controls of the kind we had in the distant past, and would it not be a strong disincentive to the inward investment on which this economy strongly relies and a disaster for the UK economy?

My noble friend is right. Indeed the ICIJ, which I mentioned and which released this leak, was keen to point out that it is not suggesting any wrongdoing and that there is legitimate use for these facilities, such as purchasing assets in currencies other than sterling, avoiding double taxation and pooling of investments from different tax jurisdictions. It is important to draw the line between that avoidance and the evasion which we talked about earlier.

My Lords, 20 years ago I had the responsibility of being the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and as such was responsible for the organisation. I well recall chairing meetings of all the senior officials and answering questions in the House of Commons. Does the current Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Sir Patrick McLoughlin, have the same responsibilities? If not, as Her Majesty had no knowledge of these investments, who is responsible?

I will have to check on the practices. However, my recollection is that Sir Patrick McLoughlin responds in his capacity as part of Cabinet Office Questions during regular Oral Questions. Members of all sides of the House and in both Houses are at liberty to table Questions for Oral Answer or debate at any point, and people will have to respond according to their responsibilities.

My Lords, I declare my interests as an investor in a wide range of assets, including offshore investments. Will my noble friend agree that millions of UK savers and pensions, let alone Her Majesty, benefit directly or indirectly from investments held offshore, and to suggest that they are avoiding tax is simply fake and false news? Those who take the time to properly understand offshore investment vehicles will realise that their underlying purpose is to provide an efficient and predictable umbrella structure to attract the widest possible range of investors from around the world. They are in fact set up to minimise the amount of tax paid within the offshore entity and consequently to maximise the returns flowing back to investors, allowing them to pay tax directly in their own countries.

The use of these investment vehicles therefore maximises the eligible tax take for the UK Exchequer, and to suggest otherwise is either financial illiteracy, political populism or lazy journalism. Will my noble friend agree that we need to collect the tax and that, if it is not paid, that is tax evasion not avoidance?

The key point that must be remembered here is that, if funds are for legitimate reasons allowed to be placed offshore in order to purchase assets, and if the people concerned are domiciled in the UK, the funds need to be repatriated to the UK and full tax needs to be paid on the profits, income and revenue gained.

My Lords, there is a vast difference between an offshore vehicle intended to facilitate overseas investment and a trust that is set up to ensure that the individual concerned can place money outside this country, then have it loaned back to them, thereby not only avoiding income tax and national insurance on payments but, in the event of their death, ensuring that their estate has to pay the money back into the overseas trust, thus avoiding inheritance tax. That is surely a scandal.

Each of these things will be checked by HMRC, but the point is that evasion of tax and attempting to evade tax is against the law and will be pursued with all vigour by HMRC. Avoidance continues to be part of the international financial system and we recognise and value it.

We did have extra time—we allowed an extra speaker from the Opposition. I think that it is now time to move on to the next Statement.