Now that Cameron supports tax justice, what must he do about it?

We can’t just rely on companies cleaning up their tax affairs. We need international, intergovernmental action on tax justice, and the UK should deliver it.

When the Prime Minister stands in front of television cameras and uses your campaign slogan, you know something is happening.

On Tuesday in County Armagh, setting out his priorities for the G8 summit that the UK will host next June, David Cameron put the fight against tax dodging at the top of his international agenda:

“I want to us to achieve tax justice in our world, so that big companies pay their taxes”.

The focus on tax is not entirely a surprise. This year’s mountain of news stories about big companies accused of not paying their fair share is reaching a breaking point. But tax justice is bigger than Starbucks, Amazon or Google. The clever accounting that allows some companies to opt out of the tax system – both in the UK and in some of the poorest countries in the world – is made possible by two features of the international system itself.

This is why Cameron putting tax justice on the international agenda marks a new, important and hopeful shift in the government’s previously underpowered response to the global haemorrhage of public revenues.

First, international tax rules are desperately ill-equipped to meet the challenges of globalised business. They are powerless to stop profits being shifted into tax havens, and out of the countries where real sales are made, real people employed, real goods produced. Last week’s public scrutiny of UK high-street companies has lifted the lid on a bizarre world of goods bought via Swiss subsidiaries, and management services purportedly provided by firms operating from a post-box in the Cayman Islands. This world is dishearteningly familiar to ActionAid researchers, who have traced how multinational companies have used exactly the same strategies (pdf) to shrink their tax bills across Africa and Asia. The tax avoided by just one UK-headed multinational we investigated could, we estimate (pdf), pay to put a quarter of a million children in school in the developing countries where that company operates.

Second, this profit-shifting is possible and profitable thanks to the abusive offshore tax regimes of tax havens (pdf), whose secrecy rules also confound tax inspectors’ attempts to unpick clever accounting tricks, or to locate wealth simply stashed illegally in shell companies and anonymous trusts. Tax havens are not just a drain on scarce public finances. They are an affront to democracy, a deliberate block on legitimate governments’ efforts to raise their own revenues and prevent the corrupt theft of public funds.

On both counts – rebalancing the rules and shutting the tax havens – international agreement and concerted diplomatic muscle is needed. The G8 has come under criticism in recent years. But it remains unusually well-placed to push real international tax reform and prise open the tax havens – 40 per cent (pdf) of which are closely linked to the G8 countries themselves.

How could this be done? First, the G8 could use its weight to make tax havens disclose the wealth and assets that foreign companies and individuals funnel into their jurisdictions. The agreements to do this already exist. Tax havens should sign them, or face serious financial countermeasures. Second, we need to unlock the corporate "black boxes" into which tax haven-held assets are currently stuffed. To tear down the veil of offshore secrecy we need a legally-binding global standard, simply requiring the real, human owners of anonymous companies and trusts – their "beneficial ownership" – to be put on public record. A transparency convention with this standard at its heart, launched and signed by the G8, would be a game-changer not just for tax revenues, but for the fight against corruption, money-laundering and international crime – making us better-off, and keeping us safer.

And finally, Cameron has stressed that the G8’s approach to global injustice cannot be about "rich countries doing things to poor countries". It must be about "us putting our own house in order and helping developing countries to prosper". The spring clean must start at home. Before we get to Lough Erne in June, the UK’s own tax avoidance regime needs to be made fit for purpose: capable of protecting UK revenues, and closing the UK tax loopholes (pdf) that leach money out of developing countries too. The budget next spring is the place to do it.

This is a fight that could transform the UK’s public finances, ensure that scarce UK aid is not undermined by the haemorrhage of developing countries’ revenues, and ultimately allow those countries to fight poverty and hunger with their own resources. In Fermanagh next year we must seize the opportunity with both hands.

Image: ActionAid

Mike Lewis is a tax justice campaigner at ActionAid

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.