Keynote speech from Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Jane Ellison, at Anti-Corruption Week in Singapore.
Good evening everyone.
Well let me start by saying how wonderful it is to be visiting Singapore on what is my first international visit in my role as Financial Secretary to the Treasury.
And in particular, what a privilege it is to be welcomed here at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy as my first stop on this visit.
Of course, this School may not be the biggest tourist attraction in Singapore.
It may not have the 21st century design of the Gardens by the Bay or the views from the Flyer…
…But to my mind, this school must be one of the best monuments a country could hope to have.
It’s not only a fitting and lasting tribute to Lee Kuan Yew, who will always be remembered by the world as the visionary leader who transformed Singapore.
But it is also a living and working reflection of the values of good governance he stood for.
The values he built into the fabric and foundations of this country.
And the values that have made Singapore the prosperous and successful nation it is today.
So it’s little wonder that this school seems to have become one of the must-see places for British ministers visiting Singapore.
Our former Prime Minister, David Cameron, visited this school just last year of course, and I’m sure I won’t be the last to follow in his footsteps.
Singapore a leading light
I could therefore think of no better place to launch a week dedicated to something so fundamental to the success of any civilised society – and that’s the fight against corruption.
This, after all, is a battle that Singapore has long been showing the world how to fight.
You have done so, since the very first days of your modern existence, when Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his colleagues first took their oaths of office, dressed head to toe in white, as a message not just to the country, but to the world as a whole, that Singapore’s Government would stand up to corruption, in all its forms.
Well, ever since that moment, Singapore has slowly and surely built a reputation across the decades as a leading light in the fight against corruption.
Now I don’t want to sound naïve.
Neither Singapore, nor any society in the world, including the United Kingdom, has yet been able to claim itself free from corruption.
But I do believe wholeheartedly, that this must always be the aim for any country for the benefit of all its citizens.
Because with corruption costing the world around 5% of our GDP according to estimates from the World Economic Forum - this is an aim that every single country will profit from if it is pursued.
Significance of brexit
Certainly, that is the attitude which unites both Singapore and the United Kingdom.
And that’s why I’ve come here today.
To reiterate that Britain is serious about tackling corruption and we want to work hand in hand with countries like Singapore which share this aim.
Now I hope for many of you, that is old news.
We’ve already shown how much Britain cares about this agenda.
We hosted a landmark anti-corruption summit in May this year where Senior Minister of State, Indranee Rajah, spoke of Singapore’s experience.
We co-chair the G20 anti-corruption working group.
And in our chairmanship of the G8 in 2013, we put tax, trade and transparency on the global agenda.
So we will continue to crack down on corruption on a multilateral basis through all international fora.
But this year Britain has made headlines with our decision to leave the European Union.
And I know this has got a lot of people, across the world, trying to work out what this means.
Whether this signifies the UK taking a step back from international collaboration?
Whether it represents a turn inwards?
Whether it’s a retreat behind the Atlantic towards a more isolated, island mentality?
Well I want to give a very clear answer from the British government to any of these doubts.
That Britain is as determined as ever to keep looking outwards, to keep working multilaterally, and to keep making our contribution to the international community.
Relationship with the EU
And in fact I want to make two key points here.
Firstly, in relation to the European Union.
Where I don’t deny we have some very complex negotiations ahead of us.
But leaving the EU does not mean leaving Europe.
We still have a tight bond not just from our geography but our shared history too.
The economic ties existed before Britain joined the EU, and will continue to do so.
Those bonds would be tough to break whatever the relationship Britain chooses.
So though we are now planning our separation from the EU, we still very much want to work together, to trade together, and to prosper together.
Power of international action
Secondly, in relation to the UK’s wider place in the world today.
We have always wanted to play our part in the work of the international community.
This was the case before we joined the EU – and indeed we were founding members of both the League of Nations, and the United Nations.
And it remains the case today.
Let me assure you, Britain will be bolder than ever before in becoming a beacon of free trade.
Because it has long recognised the good that can be achieved from trade and investment.
The choice it generates for consumers, the jobs it creates for citizens, the opportunities it provides for businesses, large or small.
We now live in an interconnected world, with supply chains streaming through many countries and services supplied internationally through the simplicity of a mobile phone or tablet.
And we achieved this because together, the international community was prepared to break down barriers and let innovation and production flow across borders.
But threatened with protectionism, the G20 earlier this month agreed to redouble its efforts by stripping away some of the remaining barriers to trade.
Britain will play its part and I know that Singapore, already one of Britain’s great trading and investment partners, will do the same.
And it’s not just through multilateral trade but multilateral action that we can help more people live safely and to help more people live well.
We know that this is a global era, where global problems can only be solved by global action.
And we understand that the biggest problems we face are the ones that aren’t confined by national boundaries, and don’t stop at national borders.
From terrorism to climate change.
From antimicrobial resistance to corruption.
We will not be able to tackle any of these challenges unless we work together.
And the British government still believes wholeheartedly in the power of doing so.
Just think, for example, about the historic agreement made collectively by 195 countries in Paris last year, to do what it takes to stop climate change in its tracks.
Or the Arms Trade Treaty to regulate trade in conventional arms, which came into force less that two years ago after international efforts that we led.
And from my previous role as a Health Minister, I saw first-hand just how vital international collaboration was when it came to containing the huge threat posed by the Ebola virus – and I couldn’t come to Singapore and mention Ebola without paying a huge tribute to the outstanding work of nurse Wong Li Wai.
So it’s through working together that we can confront the biggest problems.
And through working together that we can find the best ways forward.
Fight against corruption
So let’s turn then to the global issue of corruption, which we’re all here to look at today.
Because this is an issue that affects every single country in the world.
It undermines people’s trust in government.
It erodes prosperity and prolongs global poverty.
It hurts our businesses.
Takes money away from our public services.
And it provides a fertile environment for the growth of organised crime and terrorist organisations.
So we cannot afford to side-step the issue, but instead must work together to tackle it head on And I’m pleased to see that the international community is really rallying to do so, with an unprecedented level of collective action in recent years.
At the summit in London in May for example, over forty countries and international organisations, including, of course, Singapore, came together to work out a common approach to drive out corruption wherever it exists.
We saw countries take on work to stop companies evading tax and hiding the proceeds of corruption.
For example through the establishment of public registers of true company ownership, sharing more information, or further action against those who facilitate tax evasion.
We saw countries stepping up to tackle the flow of illicit funds under the guise of legitimate business transactions.
Increasing the exchange of intelligence across borders.
And we saw countries go further to keep public money out of corrupt hands.
Whether that’s by improving standards of transparency in public contracts, or taking measures to stop corrupt bidders winning public contracts.
We’re also working on harnessing technology to fight corruption.
We’re looking at how you can improve governance in the extractives industry.
We’re fighting corruption in sport.
And we’re improving our powers to bring the corrupt to justice.
In short, I think we should be proud of the collaboration we’re seeing across the board and across the international community.
Tackling tax evasion a priority
But of course, we cannot afford to be complacent.
The battle against corruption will be an ongoing, and evolving challenge that we must face together.
And it’s a challenge that will come in many forms.
One of my own personal priorities, as the new Tax Minister in the UK Treasury, is to take forward our work both at home and internationally to tackle tax evasion and avoidance.
Because this is an issue that matters enormously to the British public that we represent.
We live in an age where I think the vast majority of people accept that paying tax matters.
We may not like doing it.
But we do believe in doing our bit and paying our fair share towards the things that make our society civilised and functional.
If you don’t pay the taxes you owe, that matters to people because it makes them feel that life is not a level playing field.
And actually, I think this is the attitude that more and more businesses are taking too.
The UK’s tax authority does an annual survey which shows that more and more big businesses are adopting the mind-set that avoiding tax is not only morally unacceptable, but counterproductive too.
But we need to keep up the pressure on tackling those who don’t take that view.
That dishonest minority of people and businesses who are actively trying to evade tax.
So I think it’s hugely positive that there is so much appetite, across the international community, to work together to crack down on tax evasion.
Let me give three key examples.
Firstly, look at the OECD’s Base Erosion and Profit Shifting Project.
This ground-breaking project has been instrumental in helping us fight back against those who move their profits away from the places where the economic activity actually takes place, to low or no-tax locations.
Then look at the Global Forum on Tax Transparency.
By assessing how well over a hundred different countries work within international standards and share taxpayer information, it’s driven legal and regulatory changes across the world and improved the way we work with one another to tackle tax crime.
And finally look at the success we saw following the G8 in 2013, when we urged all jurisdictions to join the Common Reporting Standard to enable the automatic exchange of taxpayer information.
Over a hundred jurisdictions are now signed up to this, with the first exchange taking place next year.
This will help all the countries involved tackle non-compliance thanks to unprecedented information on taxpayers’ offshore income and assets.
But there’s scope for a lot more collaboration internationally.
We know that criminals exploit the gaps and loopholes between countries.
They use complex cross-border chains.
And they make up artificial companies to hide the real beneficial owners.
Unravelling these chains to investigate crimes involving illicit finance or tax evasion can be complex.
By working together to automatically share information on who is actually behind these shell companies, we can help law enforcement unravel their complex chains more effectively.
Currently exchange of this kind of information between countries is only on a case-by-case basis.
And investigations often grind to a halt where the chains involve multiple jurisdictions.
That’s why the UK along with France, Germany, Italy and Spain launched an initiative this year to help share this information better.
And we’ve seen a really positive response.
In a short period of time, almost 50 jurisdictions have given their political support to this initiative, with technical discussions set to start soon.
And we very much want to see countries across the whole world join us in taking this important step forwards.
Because what I think is important to stress is just how much working effectively with countries across the world, helps you to take action at home.
As a result of this new level of tax transparency, we’ve been able to introduce to the UK much tougher civil and criminal penalties for those evading tax, or helping others do so.
We’ve got new fines for professionals who are found to have deliberately helped their clients to commit tax evasion.
We’ve established new crimes for corporations whose representatives criminally facilitate tax evasion – so that it doesn’t matter where the corporation is based in the world, they are still liable if they facilitate the evasion of UK tax.
And we’re also going further than any other country by making it a crime if a corporation in the UK facilitates tax evasion in any other country – whether that’s taking money away from the public finances of the US or Singapore, China or Germany.
It’s through action like this that our tax authority is managing to collect record tax receipts year on year and bring the tax gap down to one of the lowest in the world.
Benefits to growth and trade
And it’s worth dwelling on what the benefits of rooting out financial corruption can be.
Because it’s not just about getting the right level of tax, allowing governments to invest more in the things that really matter – like your education system, your infrastructure or your security.
It’s also about creating the best possible environment for business – and this is something that Singapore knows all about, as the place the World Bank has ranked the easiest place in the world to do business every single year for the last decade.
And just like you, Britain is committed to having an open, productive and competitive environment for investors and businesses alike.
So that’s why you may have already heard our new Prime Minister, Theresa May, expressing her determination to fight against corruption at this year’s G20 in China.
Because if you really want to help businesses with a fair and level playing field.
If you really want to encourage free trade, open economies and respect for the rule of law.
You have to tackle the kind of aggressive tax avoidance that undermines this.
And that’s what we want to work, internationally and domestically, to do.
So that’s why I’m here today to launch a week of events here in Singapore all on the theme of anti-corruption, tax and money laundering, with expert speakers from across this region, as well as the UK.
And I think this whole week, and the huge amount of interest these events have generated, show just how much Singapore and the UK are at one in our desire to fight global corruption.
We are certainly natural allies in this.
We both believe in the need for an open, clean and competitive environment for businesses.
We both believe in the capacity of free trade to fuel greater prosperity across the globe.
And we both believe in the power of working together through the international system.
So I hope that the UK and Singapore, as two of the world’s most important financial centres, will stand together, long into the future, to fight the corruption that has such a detrimental effect on the growth and prosperity of all societies.
That was certainly something Singapore’s founding father, Mr Lee Kwan Yew, believed passionately in doing.
And his legacy endures not only in this school, but throughout this society, and the wider international community.
So I hope we can continue his work together.
Thank you very much.