Alison Thewliss – 2020 Speech on Tax Avoidance and Evasion

Below is the text of the speech made by Alison Thewliss, the SNP MP for Glasgow Central, in the House of Commons on 25 February 2020.

The tax system in the UK is hugely complex. Every Finance Bill that comes along adds layers of complexity, leaving a taxation system that is unwieldy and difficult to understand, and even more difficult for the Government and HMRC to control. It leaves loopholes that incentivise tax avoidance and evasion. My SNP colleagues and I have long argued for a root-and-branch review of the entire system, and I am grateful for the opportunity to repeat those calls today.

The Scottish National party will continue to lead the fight against tax avoidance and evasion at Westminster. In the last Parliament, we were proud to secure the House’s support for a Finance Bill amendment seeking a review of the impact of UK tax avoidance measures. We forced the UK Government to accept the need to tackle the abuse of Scottish limited partnerships as money-laundering vehicles, and supported cross-party efforts by the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) and her colleagues to drag the UK Government into the 21st century by adopting Magnitsky powers to sanction overseas officials guilty of human rights violations.

The SNP has just won a landslide of Scottish seats on a manifesto demanding tougher action on tax avoidance, including a review of the closure of HMRC offices in Scotland and across the UK; immediate action, including reform of Companies House, to uncover the beneficial ownership of SLPs and other companies and trusts; measures to improve the transparency of tax paid by international companies to ensure that they make a proportionate contribution to tax revenues; multilateral efforts to address tax challenges resulting from the digitisation of the economy; further action by the UK Government to tackle international tax avoidance; the full implementation of the fifth money laundering directive; a fit-for-purpose online retailer tax; a review of the tax rules governing intermediaries—known as the IR35 tax rules—and problems with implementation of the loan charge; and a comprehensive inquiry into the digitisation of tax, to uncover the reasons for HMRC and UK Government delays which mean that we still do not have the 21st-century tax payments system that could help to tackle avoidance and evasion.

We have heard a great many well-meaning arguments from the official Opposition this afternoon, but, unfortunately, this is a situation to which Labour ​contributed when it was in power. Instead of simplifying the tax system, it introduced policies such as the IR35 tax rules, which have made staffing extremely difficult for the NHS and other public sector organisations.

While some very welcome action has been taken, no UK Government have yet created a comprehensive anti-avoidance rule. Legislation has come to shut down loopholes as quickly they have appeared, and then, as night follows day, new schemes have emerged to circumvent the law. We saw then, as we do now, plenty of tinkering at the edges of the system but no meaningful action to align taxes for different kinds of workers. Successive Chancellors have passed up opportunities for radical reform, and have simply added layers of bureaucracy and complexities to the existing system. There are now ample places in which those who do not want to contribute can hide within the system.

Last year, Tax Justice UK published a report on the worrying scale of loopholes in, for example, inheritance tax. On the basis of HMRC figures, it states that the vast majority of those tax breaks go to properties worth more than over £1 million; and that is over and above the usual inheritance tax allowance. Instead of benefiting small farms or family businesses, the tax breaks constitute a massive tax giveaway to those who are already very wealthy. The report’s findings only highlight what we know to be true: that this UK Tory Government have ensured that the rich get richer, while at the same time the poorest people in society have experienced real cuts in their incomes, and are less likely to benefit from policies such as the increase in the income tax threshold.

I appreciate that the new Chancellor has not yet had time to outline his plans, and I hope that he will take a different approach. However, the accounts of his professional background by the shadow Chancellor and in this week’s Private Eye lead me to hae ma doots. Extremely worrying noises have been coming from the Government in respect of the post-Brexit regulatory landscape. Already this year we have seen the UK inch closer to the world’s top 10 countries for financial secrecy, rolling back progress made in previous years on increasing transparency. We have all heard talk of a ”Singapore-on-Thames” approach to the City of London. That would be bad news globally, but also for the people who live here.

With a Tory Government full of Thatcherites, who have no interest in creating a level playing field on tax with the EU, there is a real risk that the Prime Minister has set the UK on a race to the bottom on tax avoidance. Just weeks after the UK left the EU, the European Union has added a British overseas territory, the Cayman Islands, to a list of tax havens. Markus Ferber, of the group of the European People’s party (Christian Democrats), has said:

“The UK would be well advised to take note that EU finance ministers put a British overseas territory on the blacklist of tax havens.

This sends a clear signal that the idea of turning the UK into a tax haven will not be acceptable to the EU.”

The Minister who will wind up the debate should explain exactly what he is doing to address that blacklisting as a matter of urgency.

There are already significant holes in the system preventing dirty money from being moved around. My former colleague Roger Mullin and I have spoken on numerous occasions in this place about the problems ​surrounding Scottish limited partnerships, which still freely allow people to hide and move dirty money between countries.

Hannah Bardell

Scottish limited partnerships have a real human impact. Is my hon. Friend aware that money is being laundered from, for instance, Moldova through SLPs? That is having a hugely detrimental impact. One human rights defender whom I know from Moldova has been driven out of her own country, and is having to live elsewhere.

We must bear in mind that human impact, but we must also bear in mind the reputational impact on Scotland. Scotland wants no part of schemes of this kind, and the UK Government should clean up their act.

Alison Thewliss

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. Anyone who thinks that moving money around in this way is consequence-free should look very carefully at what actually happens to the proceeds of these funds when they are moved around.

SLPs have their own separate legal personality, which means that a firm can contract and own assets without lifting the veil to see who is really buying them. In 2016 the UK Government obliged SLPs to register a person of significant control, but there is virtually no enforcement and virtually no consequences for people who fail to register companies in the proper way. Last time I checked, thousands of partnerships had failed to register a person of significant control. I should be interested to learn from the Government how many fines have been recovered, and the value of those fines.

This scandal is still having an impact, despite legislation being in place. The dogged investigative journalist David Leask revealed in January that SLPs had been implicated in the payment of mercenaries in a private air war in Libya. If the United Nations is taking an interest in the abuse of SLPs, this UK Government should be taking action urgently. A quick Google search reveals umpteen companies advertising their services in setting up SLPs from abroad and extolling the virtues of this tax-free, opaque way of conducting nefarious business. There is no comeback for firms protecting those who will not register a person of significant control, and no comeback for the perpetrators either. It is well known that SLPs are being used for criminal activity and have been linked to international scandals, not least the Azerbaijani laundromat, in which £2.9 billion was laundered through four UK companies, which were able to file paperwork disguising their true ownership without any flags being raised.

At the heart of this is the gaping chasm in our regulatory system that is Companies House. Companies House is obliged only to register companies, not to carry out any verification or due diligence. This must change urgently, because it undermines the credibility of the UK. It is farcical that the only person convicted for filing false information has been a whistleblower, Kevin Brewer, who did it to highlight the nonsense of the registration process. I ask the Minister: what has changed since that prosecution? Why will the Government not reform a system that is open to such flagrant abuses? If I want to do my tax return online or get a passport, I would require to use the UK Government’s Verify scheme. If I want to set up a company, I can do so online for £12 with absolutely no checks. Why do the ​UK Government insist that people pay so much for driving licences, passports or UKVI applications but so little to set up a company, especially when those companies can go on to facilitate tax avoidance and evasion? It is high time the Tories sat up and took stock of the scale and extent of the tax avoidance and criminal activity linked to the lack of proper checks by Companies House and the abuse of SLPs. Only by doing so can they put forward a practical and effective solution that will adequately tackle the problem.

HMRC highlighted a loss in 2016-17 of between £1 billion and £1.5 billion on digital sales through VAT fraud. I note that the Association of Accounting Technicians has called for online platforms to be made liable for the collection and remittance of VAT. That money is going uncollected. We know where the goods are going—they are going into people’s houses and through retailers—so there is a digital chain there that we can follow. The UK Government should deal with this VAT avoidance.

I also ask for an update on the registration of overseas entities Bill, on whose pre-legislative joint scrutiny Committee I sat. Property is yet another way in which money can be hidden and taxes avoided, and that Bill will be a vital tool to clamp down on the flow of dirty money. The Committee also noted the abuse of trusts—as we close one loophole, another opens—and the Government must look into that as well. Trusts are being used as a means of hiding the true ownership of property and companies.

Hannah Bardell

My hon. Friend mentions the Bill on whose Committee we both sat. She led, admirably, for the SNP on that Committee. Does she recall that it was not until the attack on UK soil, in Salisbury, that the Government really sat up and took notice of the genuine issues that were raised in the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill? It should not take an attack on UK soil for the Government to act on these issues.

Alison Thewliss

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The change of tone during passage of the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill was palpable. It really does say something that the Government only really took the issue of dirty money seriously when it arrived on their own doorstep. We cannot wait for that to happen again; we must take action now.

Another area where the UK Government are taking entirely counterintuitive action is in closing local HMRC offices. My hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) had an Adjournment debate in January on the closure of the Cumbernauld office, and I know that other colleagues share those concerns about the imminent closure of offices in Aberdeen, Bathgate, Livingston and other locations. While I have something of an interest, as the local Member for the proposed Glasgow regional centre, I cannot see the logic in cutting staff numbers and losing not only jobs in communities but the important local knowledge that can be brought to bear. My hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) mentioned that a House of Commons Public Accounts Committee report last year criticised the Government’s lack of robust business planning ahead of the decision to base local HMRC offices in “expensive” cities. It is a colossal waste of public money to move offices into city centre locations where the rents will be significantly higher and the benefits will not be seen.

Hannah Bardell

On the matter of the movement of offices, another important issue is accessibility. A number of members of the union who have spent time in that new, expensive office in Edinburgh have said that the accessibility for people with disabilities is very poor. I wrote to the Government about this before the election last year but I got a very poor response. Does my hon. Friend agree that these new, expensive offices should at the very least be accessible, and that they should not have been moved in the first place?

Alison Thewliss

I agree. There is a strong argument that the value of the local offices in communities such as Livingston and Cumbernauld is significant. It is much easier for people to get to work there rather than commuting, which of course adds to the environmental damage. It is much better to have a shorter commute to work. The PCS union has also criticised the move and called into question HMRC’s rationale, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), who may have more to say on these things later.

All of this comes at a time when the head of HMRC says that the authority may need to hire an extra 5,000 staff to deal with the logjam at the border because of Brexit. This is a time of growing complexity, and investment in staff and expertise is crucial. Without that expertise, the UK Government are leaving themselves open to a further loss of tax revenue and further potential evasion and avoidance as we head into Brexit.

It is only right that people should pay the taxes that they owe, but HMRC’s botched implementation of the loan charge is nothing short of a disgrace, leaving many people facing the prospect of bankruptcy. The UK Government must, of course, pursue vigorously the organisations that have facilitated those loans, and they must work constructively with those who are seeking a responsible and reasonable repayment plan—one that recoups the unpaid tax while avoiding the unacceptable risk of bankruptcy and homelessness. If HMRC cannot deliver that, an independent arbitration mechanism should be used.

This is not some kind of academic argument. This issue has implications for the real world, for the money available to our public services and for the growing gap between rich and poor. The shadow Chancellor set out the limitations of HMRC’s estimate of the tax gap at some £35 billion. There is a real implication here for all our constituencies when we see cuts coming down the line. Paying tax is a duty. It is the price of a fair society, not a burden to be avoided. Those who seek to avoid and evade their responsibilities, and those who facilitate their behaviour, need a strong message from the UK Government. The Government must explain why they are failing to stop the siphoning away of money that could be paying to educate children and care for the elderly. The SNP is committed to clamping down on tax avoidance and evasion, but we do not yet have the full economic levers to do so as they are still held by the Treasury and HMRC. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) has pointed out on many occasions that small countries are much better and more efficient at gathering tax, so I suggest that if the UK Government will not act, they should devolve the powers to Scotland and let us get on with the job of building a fairer society.