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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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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