Tax dodging by foreign companies risks rendering aid pointless

The amount lost to foreign countries through tax dodging far outstrips the aid budget – and it could get worse.

From caravans, to pasties and grannies, the tax U-turns performed by the Government after the Budget last March have been well documented. But a much more fundamental shift in tax code, which will make it far easier for the biggest multinationals to make even greater use of tax havens has gone almost unnoticed.

Changes to obscure sounding Controlled Foreign Company (CFC) rules radically weaken the UK’s anti-tax haven abuse regime. Not only will they cost the UK almost £1 billion in lost revenues, ActionAid estimates they could also cost developing countries £4 billion a year.

Following a nine month investigation into the importance of tax revenues for developing countries, the cross-party International Development Select Committee are today calling on the Government to drop its CFC changes if a Treasury assessment finds that it will do harm.

Sir Malcolm Bruce MP, Chair of the Committee, argued that "it would be deeply unfortunate if the Government’s [aid] efforts were undermined by its own tax rules." A loss of £4bn is roughly half the British aid budget.

At present, the Treasury refuses to undertake an impact assessment – in spite of recommendations from IMF, World Bank and UN, alongside calls from thousands of ActionAid supporters around the country.

The International Development Committee (IDC) report also recognises the fundamental importance of helping developing countries to increase their own tax revenues, enabling them to put more teachers in schools and nurses in hospitals. Ultimately, improving their ability to collect tax will enable poor countries to end aid dependency.

The committee calls on the Department for International Development to give a higher priority to helping the developing world improve its tax base. Ministerial oversight is vital to ensure that future moves by the Treasury don’t come at the expense of some of the world’s poorest countries.

The report echoes the calls of tax justice campaigners for much greater transparency in the way both multinational companies and tax havens operate. In particular the report highlights the need for the Treasury to press the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man to make the financial accounts of subsidiary companies registered there publicly available.

The OECD currently estimates that developing countries lose three times more to tax havens than they receive in aid each year. Any measures which help prevent this vast out-flow of vital resources could have a transformative effect on the lives of millions of poor people.

The challenge to Government laid down by the IDC is clear. The question is – will they listen?

Uncanny Valley: George Osborne and Mitt Romney spoke during the latter's visit to Britain. Photograph: Getty Images

Chris Jordan is a Tax Justice Campaigner for ActionAid

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.