Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
We on the Opposition side support the spirit of the Bill and broadly support this group of amendments. We welcome new provisions to prosecute those professionals who fail to prevent tax evasion, as well as welcoming unexplained wealth orders, under which assets can be seized if owners are unable to explain how they were funded. We, of course, support the Government’s effort to tighten up state powers against white-collar crime, but we have concerns that they are squandering the opportunity that the Bill provides to stamp out the everyday corruption of the super-rich who are getting a free ride at the expense of the wider society, thereby fuelling inequality.
Another problem is that, amid the Government’s cuts to public services, the Bill could be very difficult to enforce. Although I understand the giving of new powers to HMRC, are the Government not concerned about how HMRC will carry out its new duties? Given that the coalition Government decimated HMRC’s budgets by £100 million and that HMRC is set to lose 137 of its offices by 2027, there seems little point in creating laws that cannot be enforced—unless, of course, it is to give the impression that the Government are doing something. This, I fear, is a theme that has sadly run through our proceedings on the Bill so far.
We Opposition Members argue that it is crucial for the agencies involved in civil recovery powers to have sufficient resources to do their jobs properly. We therefore request a distinct and clear annual report that details the resources allocated to the agencies that are concerned solely with the task of carrying out these recovery powers.
In previous stages, the Government objected on the grounds that the asset recovery incentivisation scheme would allow frontline agencies to keep 100% of what they recover, but this argument is seriously flawed. In theory, yes, the agencies could retain the total value recovered, but as the Public Accounts Committee made clear in its progress review of confiscation orders and as the Home Affairs Select Committee made clear in its review of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, these agencies’ recovery rates have been typically poor. Consequently, it remains to be seen how these agencies will improve their rate of recovery to benefit from the new incentivisation scheme.
Another reason that the Government gave is that anyone who wanted to find out this information could in theory obtain it by going to a number of different sources. Yet again, this is flawed. We previously argued for a detailed reporting of resources, specifically for these agencies, in the exercise of the powers laid down in the Bill and the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.
The Government have already blocked a number of measures that Labour has proposed to make this a meaningful and effective Bill. We proposed a corporate probation order. If a company was found to have committed a failure to prevent offence, it would have been subject to an independent review of its compliance procedures and it would have had to pay the full costs of such a review. This was coupled with allowing for the removal of directors from companies who failed to ensure that proper procedures were in place to prevent UK and foreign tax evasion offences from taking place. The Government believed that this was unnecessary because UK law could already deal with such cases of negligence. Although there may be a case for some UK law to be used to a similar effect, it would not be an identical effect.
While there is an implied threat to the EU that the Government could change the UK’s economic model into one of a tax haven, there is a strong case for legislation to protect both UK citizens and citizens from around the world. With the potential for a race to the bottom and the destruction of workers’ rights and the slashing of corporation tax, it could be argued that a Brexiteer Government would foster an environment where tax evasion was implicitly encouraged.
As my colleagues have said, and will no doubt say again, the Bill must do more to tackle the deeply entrenched and extraordinarily costly phenomenon of tax avoidance. Tax avoidance is, in effect, living to the letter of the law, but not in the spirit of the law. Repeated investigations of companies that sail close to the wind but know that they have bought the lawyers and accountants to make their tax abuse legal is both very frustrating and extremely costly. As the UK general anti-abuse rules show, there are ways to minimise the risk of corporate abuse of the tax system, and these should be absorbed into the Bill.
Spain, Canada and Australia each have a single agency responsible for supervising and enforcing anti-money laundering regulations—Britain has 22. Worse still, according to Transparency International UK, 15 of these 22 supervisors also lobby on behalf of the interests of their sector, creating clear conflicts of interest and a system inefficient to its core. The Government raised this problem in their action plan that preceded the Bill, but they were not concerned enough to convert this into proposed legislation. The system needs reform and the Bill needs to reflect this. Unless the Government accept all these concerns and indeed all the changes suggested in the Opposition amendments, the Bill is likely to fail on the intention to clean up money laundering and tax evasion.
Read full debate here.