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

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.