Tax avoidance costs UK economy £69.9 billion a year

New report from the Tax Justice Network highlights the staggering extent of global tax evasion.

In March earlier this year The Spectator published an article 'Debunking UK Uncut' over their campaign against tax avoidance. The author -- Nick Hayns from the Institute for Economic Affairs -- pleaded with readers not to let "UK Uncut get away with throwing all logic out of the window." But as nations across Europe feel the sting of reduced living standards, the true extent of global tax avoidance -- as revealed today by the Tax Justice Network -- will act to bolster feelings that such injustice can no longer be swept aside with the kind of insouciance Hayn displays.

The research, based on data from 145 countries, shows that tax evasion costs those nations $3.1 trillion annually. In the UK's case £69.9 billion is lost on a yearly basis in what the Tax Justice Network call the "shadow economy." That figure, they point out, "represents 56% of the country's total healthcare spend."

On the back of this report the Tax Justice Network has launched its campaign to Tackle Tax Havens. An initiative aimed at propelling tax avoidance up the political agenda by highlighting, in simple terms, the sheer scale of the sums involved and how they translate into increased cuts in public services for the rest of us.

But is tax avoidance immoral? Toby Young wrote for The Telegraph back in February that "Tax avoidance isn't morally wrong. It's perfectly sensible behaviour." While it might be true from a purely business point of view that tax avoidance is a great way to boost profits, Young conflates what is logical for a business to do, with what is the right thing to do from a societal or moral point of view.

Curiously while parts of the rightwing commentariat insist that deficit reduction is the number one task, they seem little interested in measures that might actually reduce the deficit, namely ensuring companies pay the tax they owe.

"Tax evasion is morally repugnant...It's stealing from law-abiding people, who face higher taxes to make good the lost revenue." This quote could well come from one of the much derided Occupy LSX group, but no, it's our very own Conservative chancellor. The Institute of Directors' have also supported proposals from QC Graham Aaronson to implement a general anti-avoidance rule that would "deter egregious tax-avoidance".

So could the tide finally be turning for those who cheat the system? Richard Murphy of Tax Research UK, that undertook the research for the Tax Justice Network, says: "If only more had been done to tackle rampant tax evasion, Europe would not be facing a crisis today." Adding that to compel both business and the tax havens themselves to be transparent in their dealings would "shatter the secrecy of tax havens for good." Nothing, he goes on, "could make a bigger contribution than this to solving the world's financial crisis".

In response in this article, Chief Executive of Jersey Finance Ltd, Geoff Cook, submitted the following letter:

"Tax evasion" is the illegal concealment of a taxable activity and, to be clear, is a criminal offence in Jersey. "Tax avoidance", on the other hand, is legal and refers to the prudent management of tax affairs to legitimately minimise a company or individual's tax liability within the law. Wide-reaching and thorough regulatory and compliance procedures are fundamental components of how a world-class International Financial Centre (IFC) like Jersey operates.

While the concept of tax avoidance, or perhaps as it may be better described, tax planning, is often discussed in relation to business, the exact same principle applies to individuals from all walks of life. Anyone who chooses to invest in an ISA or a pension could be accused of seeking to "avoid tax"; yet it is plain that such activity is not only legal, but also prudent and sensible.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.