Valerie speaks in the debate on HMRC

During a backbench debate about the HMRC ‘Building our Future’ plans, on Thursday 28th April, I raised my concerns about the planned closure of the HMRC office in Walsall, HMRC’s inability to close the tax gap and the growing frustration of hard working tax payers, while the wealthy and big businesses have various means of reducing their tax bill.


Here is the full text of my speech: I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) for securing this Backbench Business debate, and, of course, the Backbench Business Committee.


This is an important debate. The Government can raise money in three ways: create it, borrow it or raise taxes. The main purpose of HMRC, the subject of the debate, is to collect taxes. That enables the Government to take back what they have spent on public services. I want to focus on whether HMRC works, where it is going and what can be done to change it to make it more accountable.


The governance arrangements are quite bizarre, for a democracy. Given HMRC’s importance in collecting taxes, the fact that it is a non-ministerial Department is incongruous. There is no Minister to hold to account on behalf of the people for whom it ostensibly works. It is governed by a board, on which four out of five non-execs are from big business. There is no representation from pay-as-you-earn taxpayers, of which there are 31 million, or even from small businesses. There appears to be no accountability and no acting in the public interest. That needs to change.


From the Occupy movement at St Paul’s in 2011 to the Panama papers, the public are becoming more aware of what happens to the tax people pay—or, in ​fact, do not pay. They are becoming more aware of the fact that after a few lunches, large corporations can get the light-touch treatment. Google paid the equivalent of 3% in corporation tax. In 2011, Starbucks paid no corporation tax. Mr Deputy Speaker, I do not know whether you know the joke about people who wanted to raise awareness about the fact that Starbucks was not paying tax. They would go in, ask for a coffee and say that their name was “no tax”, so that the barista who came back with their coffee would call out, “Coffee for no tax!” That has had a huge effect on making people aware that Starbucks was not paying any money.


It has been pointed out by the International Business Times that Shell, British American Tobacco, Lloyds banking group and Vodafone all paid nothing in corporation tax. You will remember, Mr Deputy Speaker, that the former head, David Hartnett, had 10 lunches with KPMG, and it had its tax liability reduced. It even has a non-executive representative on the board.


Where is HMRC going now? As the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) suggested, the document is called “Building our Future”, but its subtitle should be “Tearing it down”. I concur with him. The future of the country really depends on the amount of tax that is put back into the economy in Britain. Instead of investing in people who have skills, expertise, a commitment to public service and institutional memory, HMRC is reducing that capacity. In 2005, it had 105,000 members of staff, but in 2016 it has only 58,000. That is a reduction of nearly 50%.


HMRC is closing 170 offices, presumably to sell off the public estate to developers, and replacing them with 13 regional tax centres; actually, they are call centres. It plans to save £100 million, but it could recoup that if it closed the tax gap. I do not know whether you know this, Mr Deputy Speaker, but the tax gap is the difference between the tax owed and the tax collected. In 2013-14, it amounted to about £34 billion, and I think the current figure is about £25 billion. That is a lot of money.


Since 2010, only 11 people have been prosecuted by HMRC, despite the fact that it was given a list of 3,600 British people who hid their money in Switzerland. Revenue and Customs has not quite worked out that if it has more staff, it can collect more tax; and that the more people it employs, the more tax they pay and contribute to the economy. No wonder the wealthy—the 1%—are laughing all the way to the Cayman Islands.


The closure of the offices is having a direct impact on my constituency. Walsall faces the closure of its HMRC office, with the loss of 60 staff. My constituent Sahin Kathawala has said that she may not even qualify for one of the relocated jobs. If they are lucky, staff will have to go to Birmingham, where rents are higher so it will be more expensive to live there. It will be more expensive for staff to travel to Birmingham, so they will incur certain costs. My local people in Walsall South will have to telephone a call centre, rather than being lucky enough to have face-to-face contact like that between Dave Hartnett and KPMG. The Public Accounts Committee said in 2013 that the telephone services were absolutely abysmal, and The Telegraph reported that half of all calls to HMRC were not answered. The impact of that could be millions of people paying the wrong amount of tax.​


This week in Walsall, we have had the news that BHS might close, and who knows what will happen to our local BHS. With the closure of the HMRC office, nearly £l million will be lost from the local economy, which Walsall cannot afford to lose.


PCS says that the plan is designed not to maximise tax collection, but to reduce spending, which is the opposite of what HMRC’s main objective should be. What can be done? I do not know if you have read “The Joy of Tax” by Richard Murphy, Mr Deputy Speaker, but it is very much worth reading. I think it should be required reading for everyone, including sixth-formers. In his books on making economics easy, which we should all read, Ha-Joon Chang says that people do not need to be economists to understand economics. Richard Murphy has said that HMRC should become a Government Department in its own right, subject to proper parliamentary scrutiny and to independent review.


We need to retain our local tax offices with local staff who have information about the local economy; stop the relocation until an equality impact assessment has been done; and invest in more staff. HMRC must reduce the tax gap, not the workforce. In that way, we can stop the outflow of capital and give back to the public purse all it is owed. After all, it is the Government who put in the investment in education, skills and infrastructure that enable communities, companies and the workforce to thrive.