Why Indian tax evasion costs the UK

Though increased tax justice could help both developed and developing nations, it is unlikely we can

The UK Uncut protests have put tax justice on the agenda as never before. But, while we tend to see this as a problem of domestic policy -- equating amounts dodged in corporate tax to amounts cut from the public sector -- could it also hold the answer to reducing our aid budget, as well as decreasing developing nations' reliance on charity?

The UK's decision to continue aid to India, recently confirmed in its 2011 bilateral aid review by International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell, has been controversial to say the least, especially given that other areas face deep spending cuts.

In these straitened financial times, countries across the spectrum are having their aid stopped, from incredibly poor nations such as Burundi, Niger, and Lesotho, to burgeoning economic powerhouses China and Russia. So why will aid continue to India at a cost of around £280m a year to the UK?

India has nuclear and space programmes, and has enjoyed above 8 per cent growth over the last four quarters. However, the argument for continued aid goes that poverty in India is clearly endemic, and is not improving despite the country's continued economic growth. The Multidimensional Poverty Index shows that of its population of roughly 1.1bn, there are still around 645m people living in poverty in India, 421m of whom live in the eight northern states alone.

In a sense, the UK could be seen as morally obliged to continue aid to India as a result of the effects of its colonial legacy. However, at the G20 Finance Ministers summit which took place in Paris on the 18th and 19th of February, the Indian minister Pranab Mukherjee pointed out that if tax evasion could be clamped down on, developing countries could begin to take full responsibility for their own affairs without the need for aid.

The extent of India's tax problem -- and the similarities it bears to that in the UK -- are illustrated by Vodafone. The company, targeted by UK Uncut protestors for dodging up to £4.8bn of taxes here, is also charged with evading £1.7bn of tax in India.

In a recent report entitled Illicit Financial Flows from Developing Countries: 2000-2009, Global Financial Integrity (GFI) estimated that India had lost a reported $104bn in tax evasion between 2000 and 2008. In another report, The Drivers and Dynamics of Illicit Financial Flows from India: 1948-2008, the GFI estimated that India had lost a total of $462 billion in tax evasion from independence in 1948 till 2008.

In an attempt to close this gap, India recently joined the Task Force on Financial Integrity and Economic Development. The Task Force advocates improved transparency and accountability in the global financial system, and the halting of actions like capital flight and transfer mispricing, which are developing countries' main problems with tax. India is now also pushing for a removal of the distinction between 'tax evasion' and 'tax fraud' which facilitates the evasion of tax, and impedes effective exchange of tax information between countries.

Nonetheless, India and many other developing countries still need the help of other G20 members in getting tax information exchange agreements, which would help in countering tax evasion. This would include pressuring the International Accounting Standards Board to act seriously on tax dodging. Such actions could then eventually lead to a reduction in the amount of aid required, halting charity and helping developing nations to become financially independent.

The UK itself seems to be unsure where it stands on tax evasion. Furthermore, with George Monbiot's claims that the government are making obscure changes to tax laws to benefit the rich, and Nicholas Shaxon's exposure of the UK's tax haven in the guise of the City of London Corporation, it is hard to imagine that developing nations, including India, will ever see their tax evasion rates decrease.

Liam McLaughlin is a freelance journalist who has also written for Prospect and the Huffington Post. He tweets irregularly @LiamMc108.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder