Why Britain's biggest businesses are addicted to tax havens

The government is making it easier for multinationals to dodge taxes in developing countries.

What's a billion pounds to the government these days? Well, it's the amount that George Osborne spent slashing corporation tax from 28 per cent to 25 per cent over two years. But fewer people seem to have noticed that plans put out for consultation by the Treasury recently will give another £840m specifically to British multinational companies who use tax havens. Unmentioned in the government's consultation document is that these reforms will also make it much easier for British multinationals to use tax havens to dodge taxes in developing countries.

Research published by ActionAid today shows just how big this giveaway is likely to be. For the first time, we've been able to show the massive extent of tax haven use throughout the FTSE 100. 98 of the companies are using tax havens, where you'll find a whopping 38 per cent of all of their overseas companies located.

Our high street banks are the heaviest users with 1,649 tax haven companies shared between Barclays, HSBC, RBS and Lloyds. Barclays has 174 companies registered in the Cayman Islands alone.

Our research also raises real questions about the impact on developing countries, which lose three times more to tax havens than they receive in aid each year. The biggest ten tax haven users have a total of 3833 companies between them in tax havens (see chart), but they also have 1951 companies in developing countries. If we want these countries to become independent of development aid, as well as to end poverty, they need much more tax revenue to pay for public services.

A

This all seems a little inconsistent. First, there is Britain's commitment as part of the G20 (albeit under the Brown government) to "take action against non-cooperative jurisdictions, including tax havens. We stand ready to deploy sanctions to protect our public finances and financial systems." Tax havens will be on the agenda again at the G20 summit in Cannes next month, and it's unlikely that Presidents Sarkozy or Obama, both facing election next year, will be keen to give up the fight they championed in 2009.

Second, there's the current government's commitments: Vince Cable has said that "much of the shadow banking sector, a major contributor to the economic crisis, was only possible because of tax haven secrecy," while George Osborne has promised to "target tax evasion and off-shore tax havens.Everyone must pay their fair share."

Third, there's the government's development agenda. David Cameron made "effective tax systems" a part of his vision for Africa earlier this year, and International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell told an audience of campaigners that "everyone should pay their taxes due...we champion transparency."

The government's coalition agreement commits to "deliver value for money for British taxpayers and to maximise the impact of our aid budget," and "make every effort to tackle tax avoidance." So our new research not only raises big questions for the FTSE100, it also demonstrates the need for more coherence in government policy. Making it easier for British multinationals to dodge taxes in developing countries is a false economy for British taxpayers, because it takes money away from the very same governments that we are supporting through our overseas aid.

Asha Tharoor is the senior media officer of ActionAid.

Getty
Show Hide image

Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.