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

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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.