Tax justice must be on the agenda for the post-2015 development goals

Anything else would be dodging the problem.

As the 2015 deadline approaches for achieving the "Millennium Development Goals" – the global benchmarks for tackling poverty – questions are growing louder about how far we’ve come, and what we do next. David Cameron is to co-chair a UN High-Level Panel on this "post-2015" agenda. At conference tables, across the blogosphere and in an avalanche of reports, donors and development experts are starting to haggle over the future of aid and development.  

Cameron has set out his stall already, describing his vision of a "golden thread" of development through tackling corruption; securing rights; and shifting focus from aid to economic growth, led by business and private enterprise. Cameron’s co-chairs, Presidents Susilo Yudhoyono of Indonesia and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, also want to look beyond aid to unlock wealth through “economic growth, trade, tackling corruption, effective government and open societies”.

There’s no denying that a re-think is needed. The world has profoundly changed since the MDGs were conceived in the 1990s. With persistent crises in wealthy economies, global aid levels fell last year for the first time since 1997. The UK government is still rightly committed to reaching the UN agreed target of spending 0.7 per cent of national income on aid, and though it will remain vital for many years to come, it’s high time to also look for new resources to fight poverty.

At the same time, we’ve witnessed a seismic shift in the geography of economic growth and potential. It’s now clear that Asian and African economies will continue to grow far faster than in Europe and North America. The boom is far from universal, but nor is it confined to the new "big beasts" of the global economy. In the last decade some sub-Saharan African countries have experienced growth rates higher than Brazil and China – but with health, education and incomes lagging far behind in many places. 

Cameron and his co-chairs rightly acclaim the world-changing potential of this economic transformation – but the poorest citizens are yet to see its impact.  Certainly efforts to tackle poverty must draw more from developing countries’ own growth and resources, far more reliable than volatile aid flows. But the global development challenge is now neither simply to increase aid, nor just to help developing countries to attract private investment and promote growth. It is to convert the rewards of investment and growth into jobs, incomes, health and education for citizens. 

This can only happen if developing countries are able to raise their own revenue fairly, and spend it equitably. Financing the fight against poverty requires companies, investors and wealthy individuals to pay their taxes due. Yet the OECD has estimated that developing countries lose more to tax havens than they receive in aid. ActionAid estimates that just one multinational company we investigated, the FTSE100 drinks giant SABMiller, has avoided £20m a year in taxes across Africa and Asia – enough to put an extra 250,000 children in school – helped by shifting profits through a network of companies in Switzerland, Mauritius and the Netherlands. 

Most developed countries collect between 30 and 50 per cent of their GDP in tax revenue. In sub-Saharan Africa the average is just 17 per cent. How can we help bridge the gap? Aid can help. Assistance to revenue authorities in developing countries to combat tax dodging is some of the most cost-effective aid imaginable. The Rwanda Revenue Authority was set up in 1998 with the help of a £20m grant from the UK – the same amount it now collects in revenues every four weeks. Equally vital is funding to help citizens hold government spending to account, scrutinising budgets and social programmes and ensuring that they’re meeting the needs of the poorest. 

Closer to home, the IMF, UN, World Bank and OECD have all urged developed countries to make sure changes to their own tax regimes don’t damage those of developing countries. Yet the Finance Bill currently going through Parliament threatens to open up a major new loophole in the UK’s 'Controlled Foreign Companies’ rules, making it easier for multinational companies to shift profits into tax havens. ActionAid estimates this rule change is likely to cost poor countries £4bn a year, on top of nearly £1bn to the UK’s public finances annually. This flies in the face of the need to support developing countries’ efforts to become dependent of aid.

And at a global level, the fight against international tax avoidance has slipped steadily down the agenda of the G8 and the G20 over the last 18 months, despite its potential to stabilise public finances in the developing and the developed world alike. The "post-2015" re-think is an opportunity to put it back on the agenda. At stake is the future of the fight against poverty. 

High life - but at what cost? SABMiller has avoided tax across Africa. Photograph: Getty Images

Mike Lewis is a tax justice campaigner at ActionAid

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.