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
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.