PMQs verdict: Jeremy Corbyn started strong but fizzled out

Key points

PMQs began with Theresa May announcing cross-party meetings to devise better procedures on reporting sexual harassment in parliament, which Jeremy Corbyn endorsed.

This week’s core argument, however, centred on tax evasion, in a change from Corbyn’s more recent attack lines on public spending priorities. The Labour leader asked first about a loophole concerning private jets imported to the Isle of Man to avoid VAT. He claimed there were 957 such jets registered on the island, and asked whether May would ensure HMRC investigated.

The prime minister said HMRC had collected £160bn in “compliance revenue” since the Conservatives came to power in 2010, and that all cases of tax avoidance were taken seriously. Corbyn said that estimates of tax avoidance ranged from £34bn to £119bn annually, the latter being more than the entire NHS budget. May said the Tories had announced and implemented more than 75 measures since 2010. “Most people would recognise that HMRC does want to collect tax,” she said.

Corbyn said Conservatives had opposed a French proposal in the European parliament to blacklist Bermuda as a tax haven and this week had voted against Labour proposals on benefit trusts. He said HMRC staff levels had been cut by 8,000 and that Tory MEPs had voted against five proposals on avoidance. May in turn accused Labour of opposing anti-avoidance measures the government had proposed.

Corbyn wondered why, if the UK was leading the world on tax avoidance, the super-rich were now paying less tax than in 2009, depriving schools and hospitals of funding. That prompted May to point out that the top 1% of earners were responsible for 28% of the UK’s overall tax take. She said the interest on borrowing paid by the government, a legacy inherited from Labour, was more than the country spends on the NHS wage bill and accused Corbyn of wanting to borrow £500bn more.

Verdict

This is not really a week where anyone at Westminster is a winner, and this was a more scrappy and inconclusive PMQs than some of the recent ones, although Corbyn scored more points. May addressed the sexual harassment issue in her very first statement, but it seemed a minimalist announcement and Corbyn’s response, stressing the need for parties, as well as the Commons to act, sounded a bit more substantial.

After that he started very well with his cracking revelation about the Isle of Man private jet import boom - is there enough space for all those planes on the airport tarmac? - as a means of raising the issue of tax avoidance and evasion. He also quoted a good stat at the end about the decline in the amount of tax paid by the super rich, whoever they are. The bit in the middle, however, where Corbyn and May got engaged in an inscrutable ding-dong about whose record on tax avoidance was the best, did not really go anywhere, and will have been almost impossible to follow by anyone not familiar with the intricacies of tax avoidance policy.

May sounded defensive, but she was right when she said that all governments close tax avoidance loopholes and that HMRC is constantly trying to keep up with the latest tax avoidance scams. Labour’s tax priorities would be very different from the Conservatives’, but this was not an exchange that illustrated that point powerfully.

Memorable lines

Does the prime minister think it’s acceptable to have one rule for the super rich and another for rest of us?

Corbyn on tax avoidance

We have taken an extra £160bn in compliance revenue since 2010. We would have had more measures in place had Labour not blocked them before last election

May’s response

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Andrew Sparrow, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 1st November 2017 13.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010