Sammy Wilson – 2016 Speech on Tax Avoidance and Evasion

Below is the text of the speech made by Sammy Wilson, the DUP MP for East Antrim, in the House of Commons on 13 April 2016.

This debate is important for all the reasons that have been mentioned: public frustration at those who can earn money and not pay tax while the rest of the people have to pay it; the stretching of public finances at a time of austerity and the need to ensure that legitimate taxes are paid; and, of course, the concern that the ability to evade taxes and to hide sources of income leads to all kinds of corruption, including, as we have found in Northern Ireland, the ability to finance terrorism.

Let me put it on the record that however much the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor beat their chests about the evasion of taxes, they showed friendship to and favoured the very people who used all kinds of fiscal fraud to finance murder in Northern Ireland for 30 years—and we have never heard an apology from them about it.

As the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) said, we must approach this matter with a sense of maturity rather than a “politics of envy” approach. I know that some Opposition Members have denied it, but some contributions have demonstrated such an approach. Equally, on the Government side, there must be a willingness to listen to the genuine concerns and deal with the issues raised.

I do not believe that we can deal with this matter simply by demanding that everybody produce and publish their tax returns. Someone who is going to evade tax is hardly going to put that down on their tax return in any case. Where does this stop? If the issue is all about how the creation of policy has been influenced, what about top civil servants, who are involved in policy making? What about the heads of many public sector organisations, who are also involved in it? What of the press? We cannot have the critics of what happens in this House avoiding the publication of their own tax returns. As I say, where does it stop?

In any case, the answer does not lie in publishing tax returns. I believe that three important points have been identified. I shall not go through all of them, but the first one is that we must know who is responsible for the income of a certain business or company and be able to trace it, because the issues of accessibility and transparency are important. How do we achieve that? I think that the Government have already gone some way along the road.

Strangely enough, Labour Members believe that we should use Orders in Council against independent territories—a form of colonialism that I would have thought they would not support. [Interruption.] Opposition Members may say that is nonsense, but either we regard these places as independent territories that make their own laws, and seek to co-operate with and persuade them to do the right thing, or we impose the laws on them, which as far as I am concerned is a form of colonialism. I do not think it would work. I think the Government are right to seek to persuade those territories to come along and see the implications of allowing people to hide their identities in some of the businesses based in them.

The second important point is about tax avoidance. Many Members have talked about it today, but millions of people in the United Kingdom engage in tax avoidance and think nothing of it, because it is within the law. When a tax code can run to 22,000-plus pages, with all the allowances and other provisions in it, of course people are going to find loopholes. Unfortunately, as the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) said, the people best able to do that are people who have huge resources at their disposal. Many taxpayers do not have such resources, so a simpler tax system would help. Adam Smith, whose words have been cited in the Chamber today, laid down the canons of taxation, which he said were fairness, simplicity and the ability to collect taxes economically. Those are some of the principles that we should keep in mind.

Thirdly, there is the issue of enforceability. I have reservations about the direction in which the Government are going. Of course we should find efficiencies in public services, but when I see how many tax offices are closing, especially in border towns in Northern Ireland, where hundreds of years’ worth of experience in dealing with some of the worst money launderers in the United Kingdom is being lost, I ask myself whether we are really serious about taking on the tax evaders. Even when we spot them, they are not always prosecuted. HSBC has been identified as one bank that enabled many people to evade taxes—I believe that there were 7,000, and that more than 1,100 were in the United Kingdom—but there has been only one prosecution so far. It is not just a case of having the resources to enforce. It is a case of making sure that when people are caught, examples are made of them and they are punished accordingly, so that the message that goes out is, “This will not be tolerated.”

I believe that if we do not work to achieve greater transparency, an efficient tax system that does not leave loopholes and a proper method of enforcement, what is happening now will go on and on.