Prime Minister’s Questions – 13 April 2016 – Tax Avoidance & Evasion

Jeremy Corbyn: I am sure the whole House will join me in mourning the death today of the dramatist Arnold Wesker, one of the great playwrights of this country, one of those wonderful angry young men of the 1950s who, like so many angry young people, changed the face of our country.

Yesterday the European Commission announced new proposals on country-by-country tax reporting, so that companies must declare where they make their profits in the European Union and in blacklisted tax havens. Conservative MEPs voted against the proposal for country-by-country reporting and against the blacklisting. Can the Prime Minister now assure us that Conservative MEPs will support the new proposal?

The Prime Minister: First, let me join the right hon. Gentleman in mourning the loss of the famous playwright, with all the work that he did. He is right to mention that.


Let me welcome the country-by-country tax reporting proposal put forward by Commissioner Jonathan Hill, who was appointed by this Government as the United Kingdom Commissioner. That is very much based on the work that we have been doing, leading the collaboration ​between countries and making sure that we share tax information. As we discussed on Monday, this has gone far faster and far further under this Government than under any previous Government.

Jeremy Corbyn: If the proposals were put forward by the British Government, why did Conservative MEPs vote against them? There seems to be a sort of disconnect there. The Panama papers exposed the scandalous situation where wealthy individuals seemed to believe that corporation tax and other taxes are optional. Indeed, as the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan) informed us, they are apparently only for “low achievers”. When Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs says that the tax gap is £34 billion, why is the Prime Minister cutting HMRC staff by 20% and shutting down tax offices, losing the expertise of the people who could close that tax gap

The Prime Minister: I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman wants to get on to our responsibilities to pay our taxes, which I think is very important. I thought that his tax return was a metaphor for Labour policy: it was late, it was chaotic, it was inaccurate and it was uncosted. Turning to his specific questions, he is absolutely right to identify the tax gap. That is why we closed off loopholes in the last Parliament equivalent to £12 billion, and we aim to close off loopholes in this Parliament equivalent to £16 billion. HMRC is taking very strong action, backed by this Government, backed by the Chancellor and legislated for by this House. I think that I am right in saying that since 2010 we have put over £1 billion into HMRC to increase its capabilities to collect the tax that people should be paying. The difference between those on the Government Benches and the right hon. Gentleman is that we believe in setting low tax rates and encouraging people to pay them, and it is working.

Jeremy Corbyn: I am grateful to the Prime Minister for drawing attention to my own tax return, which is there to see, warts and all—the warts being my handwriting, and the all being my generous donation to HMRC. I actually paid more tax than some companies owned by people he might know quite well. He is not cutting tax abuse; he is cutting down on tax collectors. The tax collected helps to fund our NHS and all the other services. Last month, the Office for Budget Responsibility reported that HMRC does not have the necessary resources to tackle offshore tax disclosures. The Government are committed to taking £400 million out of HMRC’s budget by 2020. Will he now commit to reversing that cut so that we can collect the tax that will help to pay for the services?

The Prime Minister: I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman’s figures, rather like his tax return, are not entirely accurate. At the summer Budget in 2015 we gave an extra £800 million to HMRC to fund additional work to tackle tax evasion and non-compliance between now and 2021. That will enable HMRC to recover a cumulative £7.2 billion in tax over the next five years. We have already brought in more than £2 billion from offshore tax evaders since 2010. The point that I will make to him is that I think we should try to bring some consensus to this issue. For years in this country, Labour and Conservative Governments had an attitude to the Crown dependencies and overseas territories that their ​tax affairs were a matter for them, their compliance affairs were a matter for them and their transparency was a matter for them. This Government have changed that. We got the overseas territories and Crown dependencies round the table and we said, “You’ve got to have registers of ownership, you’ve got to collaborate with the UK Government and you’ve got to ensure that people do not hide their taxes.” And that is what is happening. So when he gets to his feet, he should welcome the fact that huge progress has been made, raising taxes, sorting out the overseas territories and Crown dependencies, closing the tax gap, getting businesses to pay more and providing international leadership on this whole issue—all things that never happened under Labour.

Jeremy Corbyn: I thank the Prime Minister for that answer. The only problem with it is that the Red Book states that HMRC spending will fall from £3.3 billion to £2.9 billion by 2020. With regard to the UK Crown dependencies and overseas territories, only two days ago the Prime Minister said that he had agreed that they will provide UK law enforcement and tax agencies with full access to information on the beneficial ownership of companies. There seems to be some confusion here, because the Chief Minister of Jersey said: “This is in response to a need for information without delay where terrorist activities are involved”.


Obviously we welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to fighting terrorism, but are Jersey and all the other dependencies actually going to provide beneficial ownership information or not?

The Prime Minister: The short answer to that is, yes they are, and that is what is such a big breakthrough. Look, I totally accept that they are not going as far as us, because we are publishing a register of beneficial ownership. That will happen in June. We will be one of the only countries in the world to do so—I think Norway and Spain are the others. What the overseas territories and Crown dependencies are doing is making sure that we have full access to registers of beneficial ownership to make sure that people are not evading or avoiding their taxes.


In the interests of giving full answers to the right hon. Gentleman’s questions, let me give him the figures for full-time equivalents in HMRC in terms of compliance. The numbers went from 25,000 in 2010 to 26,798 in 2015. It is not how much money you spend on an organisation; it is how many people you can actually have out there collecting the taxes and making sure the forms are properly filled in.

Jeremy Corbyn: The Prime Minister is quite right: the number of people out there collecting taxes is important, so why has he laid off so many staff at HMRC, who therefore cannot collect those taxes?


In 2013, the Prime Minister demanded that the overseas territories rip aside the “cloak of secrecy” by creating a public register of beneficial ownership information. Will he now make it clear that the beneficial ownership register will be an absolutely public document and transparent, for all to see who really owns these companies and whether they are paying their taxes?

The Prime Minister: Let me be absolutely clear: for the United Kingdom, we have taken the unprecedented step—never done by Labour, never done previously by Conservatives—of an open beneficial ownership register. The Crown dependencies and overseas territories have to give full access to the registers of beneficial ownership. We did not choose the option of forcing them to have a public register, because we believed that if that was the case, we would get into the situation the right hon. Gentleman spoke about, and some of them might have walked away from this co-operation altogether. That is the point. The question is, are we going to be able to access the information? Yes. Are we going to be able to pursue tax evaders? Yes. Did any of these things happen under a Labour Government? No.

Jeremy Corbyn: The Prime Minister does talk very tough, and I grant him that. The only problem is that it is not a public register that he is offering us: he is offering us only a private register that some people can see.


It is quite interesting that the Premier of the Cayman Islands, Alden McLaughlin, is today apparently celebrating his victory over the Prime Minister, because he is saying that the information “certainly will not be available publically or available directly by any UK or non-Cayman Islands agency.”


The Prime Minister is supposed to be chasing down tax evasion and tax avoidance; he is supposed to bringing it all into the open. If he cannot even persuade the Premiers of the Cayman Islands or Jersey to open up their books, where is the tough talk bringing the information we need to collect the taxes that should pay for the services that people need?

The Prime Minister: I think the right hon. Gentleman is misunderstanding what I have said. In terms of the UK, it is an absolute first to have a register of beneficial ownership that is public. He keeps saying it is not public; the British one will be public. Further to that—and I think this is important, because it goes to a question asked by the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy)—we are also saying to foreign companies that have dealings with Britain that they have to declare their properties, and the properties they own, which will remove a huge veil of secrecy from the ownership, for instance, of London property. Now, I am not saying we have completed all this work, but we have more tax information exchange, more registers of beneficial ownership, more chasing down tax evasion and avoidance, and more money recovered from businesses and individuals, and all of these things are things that have happened under this Government. The truth is he is running to catch up because Labour did nothing in 13 years.