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Overseas Territories: Tax Haven Status

Volume 836: debated on Monday 26 February 2024

Question

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the economic benefits for the United Kingdom of the tax haven status of the Overseas Territories.

My Lords, in polarised times, I look across and see the significant space where the temperate voice of our friend Lord Cormack ought to be. We will all miss him. I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, the UK has not made any recent quantitative assessment of the economic benefits of the overseas territories to the UK, but we continue to support the territories to build vibrant and sustainable economies, including through encouraging greater links to the UK economy. The overseas territories are an integral part of the British family. The elected Governments of inhabited overseas territories are responsible for fiscal matters, including tax, and are committed to upholding international tax standards.

I am grateful to the Minister, if not exactly any the wiser. Last November, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favour of a new framework convention on tax justice. His Majesty’s Government were among a small club of rich countries that voted against. Now that that Motion has been so overwhelmingly carried, and there will be negotiations for a treaty to deal with tax avoidance and evasion in the world, will His Majesty’s Government engage?

As the noble Baroness will know, there is an enormous amount of work going on at the moment around international tax. That has been led by the OECD and the inclusive framework, involving 130 countries and jurisdictions from around the world working on two pillars: one for the greater share of group profits to be taxed in market countries, and the second a global minimum tax, where all profits will be subject to a 15% minimum effective tax.

My Lords, from these Benches I join in with the shock and sense of loss at the death of Lord Cormack. He was such a big figure in this House and I know it is a very personal feeling for many of us sitting here, as well as for those across all Benches.

On 8 February—this month—a jury in Florida found the former Premier of the British Virgin Islands guilty of drug trafficking and money laundering while in office. Do the Government understand that that kind of corruption would have been much more difficult had there been in place the long-promised public register of beneficial ownership? The Government had guaranteed to this House that it would be in place for all overseas territories by the end of last year. Where are we in this process, and do the Government recognise their crucial role in stemming corruption?

The Government absolutely recognise their crucial role in stemming corruption; we work very closely with the overseas territories on all sorts of issues when it comes to illicit finance. I refer the noble Baroness to the Written Ministerial Statement from my honourable friend in the other place, the Minister for the Americas, Caribbean and the Overseas Territories; in that is a helpful summary that sets out where each of the overseas territories is in relation to introducing a public, accessible register of beneficial ownership.

My Lords, I declare an interest as I have family living in the Cayman Islands. Is that particular territory not a good example that others should follow? It has a well-regulated jurisdiction with a tax-neutral framework, which supports taxes being paid where the profits are made. It has signed up to and is approved by FATF, on anti-money laundering, and also has a positive rating on the OECD Global Forum. Against that sort of background, does it not demonstrate that territories such as Cayman that are close to us have got their house in order? And, yes, against that background one would hope that any that have not would follow suit.

I am grateful for my noble friend’s support for the Cayman Islands, but it is just one of the many different overseas territories. Not wishing to detract at all from his words, I would say that the Cayman Islands is doing well, but I think it can do better. For example, the beneficial ownership register that the Cayman Islands is planning to put in place will still have a legitimate interest access filter. We believe that that is an interim step, and we would like to see fully open registers of beneficial ownership as soon as that can be implemented.

My Lords, I associate myself with the comments in relation to Lord Cormack. One thing he was incredibly powerful about was encouraging others, particularly on the parliamentary fellowship across this House. He was a great person who will be sadly missed.

Perhaps I might pick up the Minister in relation to the timescale for registers of beneficial ownership. We have had some progress, I am not denying that, but the British Virgin Islands and others have got timetables that talk about five years. What are the Government doing to support these overseas territories to implement these registers in a speedier and more thorough fashion? Support is needed as well.

I absolutely agree that we need to support the overseas territories. We have the skills, capacity and capability to do that, and that is what we do—but recognising that the relationship with each of them can be very different. They have elected Governments of their own. Those Governments are responsible for their domestic affairs. The noble Lord mentioned timeframes of five years. The British Virgin Islands, which I admit is probably towards the end of introducing the beneficial ownership registers, is looking at putting a framework in place no later than quarter 2 of 2025.

My Lords, can the Minister explain why, at a time when British people are paying more tax than they ever have done, the richest people in the world and in this country are avoiding tax altogether—people such as the part-owner of Manchester United, who now apparently wants the taxpayer to give him billions of pounds to invest in his business? Where is the fairness in that?

Obviously, I cannot comment on any individual’s tax affairs, but it is the case that overseas territories are non-sovereign jurisdictions. They have a unique relationship as part of the British family, but they set out their own tax legislation within their own legal structures and it is certainly not for the UK Government or Parliament to drive a coach and horses through that.

My Lords, has the Minister’s department carried out any assessment of how much higher tax rates would be in the rest of the world if there were not competition from these lower-tax jurisdictions to keep us in check?

My Lords, on 8 June, the Treasury Secretary in the other place said:

“HMRC plans to calculate and publish a new stand-alone”

estimate of the

“offshore tax not being correctly reported”

by individuals

“next year, for the ‘Measuring tax gaps’ 2023 edition”.

Well, that hat has already been published, but there is still no estimate of the offshore tax gap. Can the Minister explain why the Government are so relaxed about offshore tax avoidance?

The Government are not relaxed about offshore tax avoidance. We maintain that all tax avoidance needs to be stamped out, which is why we work so very closely with the overseas territories on tax avoidance, anti-money laundering and counterterrorism finance, including with registers of beneficial ownerships. We have very good relationships. We meet with our colleagues frequently to discuss how to put things in place such that they are implemented as quickly as possible.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that, if some of the overseas territories ceased to be tax havens, they would become an even greater burden on the British taxpayer?

As I said in my opening remarks, we encourage the overseas territories to develop sustainable and successful economies. As I also said, they are responsible for setting their own tax rates, and we will think about how future tax rates may change. It is also the case that tax rates will be underpinned by, in particular, pillar 2, which will be implemented via domestic rules across all overseas territories where it is relevant.