2016 05 – Parliamentary Notes

Parliament Notes

by Dick Barry

Tax Avoidance and Evasion

On 13 April, Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell moved a motion on tax avoidance and evasion. He was constantly interrupted by Conservative Members. Only the Guardian and the Law Society carried a report of his speech.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab):

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.

James Cartlidge (South Suffolk) (Con):

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”?

John McDonnell:

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.

Catherine West (Hornsey and Wood Green) (Lab):

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 outside it because these criminal elements are messing up the international finance system.

John McDonnell:

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 with property in this capital city denies many of our constituents a decent roof over their heads.

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.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP):

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.

John McDonnell:

I have never given the IRA support in relation to money laundering or any other activity. Let me make 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.

Jo Cox:

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?

John McDonnell:

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.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab):

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?

John McDonnell:

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.

Christopher Pincher:

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 he did not make such calls during the 13 years of the last Labour Government?

John McDonnell:

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.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab):

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”?

John McDonnell:

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.

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC):

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.

John McDonnell:

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.

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.

John McDonnell:

I had better give way to the hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) first, because otherwise he will be disappointed.

Robert Jenrick:

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?

John McDonnell:

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. 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.

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.

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 with 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.

James Cartlidge:

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%?

John McDonnell:

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.

Huw Merriman (Bexhill and Battle) (Con):

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?

John McDonnell:

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”. 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.

Maria Caulfield (Lewes) (Con):

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?

John McDonnell:

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.

Maria Caulfield:

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?

John McDonnell:

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.

Mr David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab):

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.

John McDonnell:

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.

We do not have access to the specialist services that Mossack Fonseca and other companies provide. We cannot negotiate with HMRC about 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.]

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 lower 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.

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.

Mr Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab):

Dodge? Can you use that word?

John McDonnell:

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.