Caroline Flint

Standing up for Don Valley.

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Tax havens and the UK’s Overseas Territories – read my speech

Below is Caroline Flint’s speech in Parliament on the Criminal Finance Bill on 21 Feb 2017.210217_4.JPG

To watch the debate, click HERE or on the photo.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley) (Lab)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills). I almost feel like not making a speech and sitting down now—but I will not—because he made such excellent points about why public registers of beneficial ownership in our overseas territories are so important. I look forward to working with him on this issue and on public country-by-country reporting, as well as with the many other colleagues from both sides of the House and from eight political parties who support new clause 6. Despite some Government pressure, several Conservative MPs support the new clause, including the former International Development Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), who I understand hopes to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker. I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) for her hard work on this important amendment. I am really sorry—and she is too—that she cannot be here today to speak in this debate. I hope that, on this occasion, Members will not mind me dubbing new clause 6 “the Hodge amendment”.

I welcome the Government’s Criminal Finances Bill. Its aims of tackling corruption, tax evasion and terrorist financing are really important and should be commended. However, the absence of any mention of the overseas territories is remarkable. As Christian Aid has said, the No. 1 thing that the Government can do to tackle corruption, money laundering, and tax evasion is to ensure transparency in their overseas territories. Unfortunately, the secrecy that those territories trade in facilitates the corruption and the aggressive tax avoidance and tax evasion that we are all trying to stamp out.

The amendment is supported by the all-party groups on responsible tax and on anti-corruption, Christian Aid, Global Witness, Transparency International, Action Aid, Publish What You Pay, Save the Children, Oxfam and many others. We all know from numerous polls that this matter is something that the British public really ​care about. Two thirds of them want the Government to insist on public registers of beneficial ownership in the overseas territories.

As the hon. Member for Amber Valley mentioned, we have, with this amendment, responded to concerns raised earlier at different points of debate on this Bill. We are focusing purely on the overseas territories where the constitutional issues are more clear cut. We recognise that the overseas territories are taking steps towards private registers of beneficial ownership, so we have allowed a generous timeline for them to move from that to make these registers publicly accessible.

The overseas territories need to have these private registers in place by June of this year. This amendment would give them another two and a half years after that, which is within the lifetime of this Parliament, simply to make those private registers public. Such a move would be a major step forward.

New clause 6 is important not only for us in the UK, but for developing countries, which is why so many NGOs are supporting it. According to the UN Conference on Trade and Development, developing countries lose at least $100 billion every year as a result of tax havens. Around 8% to 15% of the world’s wealth is being held offshore in low tax jurisdictions, many of which come under our jurisdiction. A World Bank review of 213 big corruption cases found that more than 70% of them relied on secret company ownership. Company service providers registered in UK territories were second on the list in providing these companies. Oxfam has said recently that around one third of rich Africans’ wealth is currently sitting in offshore tax havens. If all that wealth was held in Africa and taxed properly, we would be able to pay for enough teachers to educate every child in Africa.

It damages our reputation, as the hon. Member for Amber Valley said, that the British Virgin Islands was the most mentioned tax haven in the Panama papers. We know that future leaks are coming, so why cannot we get ahead of the game and ensure transparency now?

In a recent debate on the Commonwealth Development Corporation Bill, the Minister of State, Department for International Development, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), said that the CDC would never invest through Anguilla or the British Virgin Islands. If a DFID Minister and the CDC can say that, what does it say about our responsibility today to change that reputation—British Ministers are clearly considering this—and do something to help those territories become more transparent?

Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)

My right hon. Friend is making an incredibly strong point. I, too, was pleased to add my name to new clause 6—I am sorry that I have not been able to join her for much of this debate. Does she agree that this is all about the consistency of approach? We talk about trying to reduce the need for aid in certain countries, and a key way in which to do that is to ensure that countries can generate their own revenues by having tax paid properly in their own jurisdictions?

Caroline Flint

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend and I thank him for his support and for putting his name to new clause 6. Aid is important, but more ​important is the question of how to create self-sufficiency so that more countries that are recipients of aid can stand on their own two feet. Transparency regarding overseas territories and our own system is an important part of that, as is good governance in the countries in question. Unfortunately, some countries to which we supply aid could do a hell of a lot more to help their own citizens. This is an area where we can have a direct impact and start making significant changes right now.

Sadly, we have seen a somewhat disappointing climb-down from Ministers in recent weeks. The Government’s new line is that as public registers emerge as the global standard, they would expect the overseas territories to follow suit. I applaud the fact that the UK Government have made considerable progress on this agenda but although the UK is 15th on the financial secrecy index, when combined with our overseas territories and Crown dependencies, we are at the top of the list. We cannot hide from that. Other countries probably use that fact as an excuse for not adopting public registers. We should be aware that we are bound to the overseas territories and Crown dependencies in such a way that other countries in which we want to see progress can use it as an excuse not to take steps forward on this important matter.

David Cameron deserves praise—I do not often say that—for his leadership at the 2013 G8 summit, yet we cannot claim global leadership in this area until we get our own house in order. Why is it so important that the registers are publicly available? First, that is the only way in which people in developing countries can access the information properly. Secondly, beyond the law enforcement agencies, which will have access as a result of progress that has been made, public registers will allow NGOs and civil society to interrogate the data as they have with the Panama papers. Transparency is far more efficient than endless systems of information exchange between Governments.

Stephen Doughty

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a conflict here? On the one hand, different Labour and Conservative Governments have been very sensible in supporting tax systems and tax authorities in many developing countries. However, if transparency of information—on companies, how they are incorporated and so on—is not available, even if we are giving them support, they cannot get to the bottom of where their taxes are actually going.

Caroline Flint

If we do not have the tools to make the difference, we are not going to see the change that I think everyone across the House wants to see. Without full access to transparent information, investigators will not know what information to request through these agreements, and that is fundamental. That is why public access to the data is important and why David Cameron was exactly right to demand it.

When the Minister responds, I expect him to say that the overseas territories are making real progress on this agenda and that including them in the legislation is not necessary. Let us be clear about the progress that has been made since the former Prime Minister first asked the overseas territories to consider public registers of beneficial ownership back in October 2013. More than ​three years on, just one overseas territory, Montserrat, has committed to a public register. Hooray for Montserrat! The rest have delayed at every step. Is the Minister satisfied with that outcome, and how does he account for why progress has been so slow?

In April 2014, the then Prime Minister wrote to overseas territory leaders, asking them to consult on public registers. Not all of them even did that. In July 2015, the current Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the right hon. Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Gauke) asked those overseas territories with financial centres to develop plans for central registers by November 2015. That deadline was not hit. Press reports last year said that the overseas territories were ignoring Foreign Office Ministers’ letters and meeting requests. At the most recent meeting with overseas territories’ leaders in November 2016, public registers of beneficial ownership were not even mentioned in the final communiqué. That raises the question whether we would have made as much progress as we have if the Panama papers had not been released.

Mr Wallace

The right hon. Lady is not being very charitable. Actually, we have achieved an awful lot since David Cameron’s summit. While the registers are not public, we will this year achieve a central register of beneficial ownership in all the overseas territories and Crown dependencies, and where they have needed help in getting there, we have given them help. The hon. Lady said that the issue of the public register had not even been raised. I can tell her that I had a meeting with the overseas territories and Crown dependencies two weeks ago, and I raised it then.

Caroline Flint

I thank the Minister for that information, because I did go and read the final communiqué from the meeting in 2016, and while there was some mention of beneficial ownership and private registers, nothing in the communiqué mentioned any journey from private to public registers—the point I made a little earlier. I do welcome the progress that has been made, but, as I will go on to suggest, unless we link the efforts being made on private registers to the endgame of public registers, I fear that we will still have some of the problems that so many people on both sides of the House and outside it have been worried about for some years.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP)

The Minister has just told us that he did raise the issue of making the register of ownership public. If he was prepared to raise that issue two weeks ago, and if he is prepared to adopt that role of encouragement, would it not be better for him if he was supported in future by this Parliament through the very new clause we are debating?

Caroline Flint

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Part of having this debate, and part of looking at ways to rephrase the original amendment, is about strengthening the arm of Ministers to say, “Look, we welcome the efforts on central registers, private registers and the automatic exchange of information, but we are on a journey. This is not the endgame; this is part of a journey to where we want to get to.” It would be helpful to hear from the Minister what the reaction was to the discussion of public registers at the meeting he mentioned.​

The issue of central registers is important because, while there may be private registers, information may be held in different places. Private central registers are important because it helps to make things clearer, even in the private situation, if those who ask for information are able to get it. Also, if we do not have central registers, it will be even harder to make that journey to public registers if we want to do that in the future.

So how many of our overseas territories will provide central registers? Will the British Virgin Islands register be central? Not all of the overseas territories have indicated that this is the route they want to go down. That is why Ministers should be talking to them now about the journey to public registers. This is about the journey we are on. The way the private registers are put together, how they are held and how easy it is to access them for those who are going to have to ask for access are all pertinent to a future where public registers are available.

When the Minister responds to the new clause, I expect him to say how complicated this all is constitutionally. None of us who has signed the new clause wants the Orders in Council to be used. They are there as a backstop if the Government are unsuccessful in persuading the overseas territories to publish their registers. As I have said before, the new clause gives the overseas territories until the end of 2019 to act on their own.

However, the fact is that we cannot remove the possibility of using Orders in Council if we want to see more progress on the transparency agenda. The constitutional position on the overseas territories is very clear. A 2012 Government White Paper said:

“As a matter of constitutional law the UK Parliament has unlimited power to legislate for the Territories.”

There are multiple examples of the UK legislating for its overseas territories. In 2009, the UK imposed direct rule in the Turks and Caicos Islands, following allegations of corruption. In 2000, the UK Government decriminalised homosexual acts in the overseas territories using Orders in Council. In 1991, the UK Government, by Order in Council, abolished capital punishment for the crime of murder in Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Montserrat, and the Turks and Caicos Islands. The exception was Bermuda, which is generally considered the most autonomous overseas territory, but the UK Government threatened to impose change, which had the desired effect of ensuring changes in domestic legislation.

On Second Reading and in Committee, the Minister was very clear that he wanted to see public registers in the overseas territories and was working to get them, so why has he scaled back on his ambitions in recent weeks? Undoubtedly, the UK Government need to work closely with our overseas territories to help them to diversify their economies away from a unique selling point of secrecy, and that will require a great deal of support.

As we look ahead to a global, post-Brexit Britain, let us seek to lead the world rather than just follow. Let us ensure that transparency is increased. Let us ensure a fair playing field for businesses and individuals across the world. Let us ensure that tax cheats, corrupt individuals, terrorists and organised criminals have nowhere to hide. For the benefit of UK taxpayers, for people in the developing world, and for the UK’s reputation and that ​of our overseas territories, let us not miss this opportunity. For all these reasons, I urge the House to support new clause 6.

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