Is tax just a question of ethics?

In the wake of Starbucks’ tax U-turn, we need to acknowledge that multinationals already choose whether to pay tax or not - and make them pay their fair share.

So Starbucks is paying up.

Whether or not they will ever pay back all the tax they’ve allegedly avoided is still unclear. But the company’s announcement yesterday that they will “pay or pre-pay” around £20m to the Exchequer in the next two years is hugely significant for all sorts of other reasons. It proves the power of consumer democracy, showing that damage to a brand can reverse a company’s behaviour in a matter of weeks. It moves tax from the backroom of a tax negotiation to the heart of a corporation’s public responsibility to the countries and communities where it does business. And it throws the gauntlet down to other multinationals which use exactly the same kind of intra-company payments to shrink their tax bills, not just in the UK but around the world.

But some are already raising concerns that Starbuck’s back-down heralds a worrying new age of voluntary tax: at best, companies claiming that paying tax is philanthropy rather than legal duty, at worst a sort of ‘tax by mob rule’. The New Statesman’s Martha Gill argues that we’re approaching “a tax system which relies on public pressure to a few high profile firms” rather than changing the rules themselves.

Of course we need to change the rules, and we can’t rely simply on companies behaving themselves. Nor should we be replacing clear, certain tax laws with judicial or media activism. But the unappetising truth is that we are already living in an age of voluntary corporate tax for large multinationals, and have been for some time. If this is true in the UK, where online businesses can effectively choose whether to book their profits from UK sales in the UK itself or in a tax haven, then this is even more the case across Africa, Asia and Latin America, where countries lack our armour of anti-avoidance legislation, and whose tax inspectors are far more overstretched than even cuts-threatened HMRC.

In this environment, it’s gone largely unremarked that a few multinationals are already taking a different tack in complying with the "letter of the law". Financial services firm Hargreaves Lansdown, for example, has no tax haven subsidiaries, despite operating within a sector no stranger to "offshore". Legal and General explicitly aims to be categorised within the "low risk" category of HMRC’s risk rating. This is not to endorse these companies’ business practices, or even their tax affairs, but to point out that companies already make active choices, all the time, about their tax structuring. Starbucks’ announcement may go further than the others, and beyond the existing rules. But ironically, their corporate spin on their "voluntary" tax payments is actually a refreshing shot of reality: it calls a spade a spade, acknowledging that the rules are currently so wide that companies can indeed choose whether to pay tax. That’s an ethical choice, whether we like it or not.

Changing the rules to stop corporate tax being just “a bit of a bonus”, to be paid as and when companies choose, will ultimately require international action. To take just one slightly technical example: stopping companies booking their "UK" profits through Irish or Luxembourgish subsidiaries may arguably require strengthening the tax-law definition of a "permanent establishment", to allow national tax authorities to tax profits actually generated in a given country by a low-tax affiliate company registered elsewhere, and prevent that company’s profits floating free like a pirate ship in international waters. A change that will need to be written into both domestic laws and dozens of international tax treaties. And far more far-reaching reform is needed than that.

Next year offers a raft of vital opportunities at the G8 and elsewhere to start changing the international rules in earnest. Like all international action, it will take some time. In the meantime, countries all around the world, including the poorest, are haemorrhaging revenues into tax havens faster than they receive aid. While we wait for the rules to be changed, other multinationals need to explain why they now can’t or shouldn’t start paying their fair share of taxes: companies like Grolsch and Peroni owner SABMiller, whose perfectly legal Starbucks-type transactions we estimate have deprived African and Asian countries of enough revenues to put a quarter of a million children in school. It’s right that consumers should put these questions to companies. And that governments too should use their purchasing power to stop buying from tax avoiders, as a quiet announcement tucked away at the back of yesterday’s Autumn Statement suggests the UK government is mulling. At stake is not just a guilt-free cup of coffee, but revenues that are needed – right now – in the UK and some of the world’s poorest places.

Starbucks. Photograph: Getty Images

Mike Lewis is a tax justice campaigner at ActionAid

Photo: Getty Images
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Let 2016 be the year that Ireland gives women the right to choose

As we commemorate and celebrate the centenary of the Easter Rising next year, we must remember that while the constitution was hard fought for it cannot be static. 

There is mounting pressure for the Irish government to look into decriminalising abortion. It has been growing since Savita Halappanavar’s death three years ago in a hospital in Galway due to complications during pregnancy. She was refused an abortion because Irish law forbids it. Earlier this month Irish women tweeted the Taoiseach Enda Kenny about their periods using the #repealthe8th in an attempt to bring attention to the issue. Now last Friday, Amnesty International published a letter calling for the decriminalisation of abortion internationally, signed by 838 doctors, most importantly this included some of Ireland’s leading healthcare professionals. This is the perfect time for political parties to commit to holding a referendum on the issue if elected they are elected and form the next government in 2016.

One part of the Irish legislative process I have always been proud of is the use of referendum and bringing serious questions to the electorate. It protects the constitution from changing on political whims or based on the beliefs of whatever party is in government. As such it remains a document of the people, it was after all put to vote before it was instituted in 1937. It also passes issues, which have proved contentious and in other countries have relied on the sympathy of lawmakers, by popular consent. Same sex marriage was legalised in a beautiful display of support, 62% of the electorate came out to vote for equality. Social media was full of pictures of Irish people living abroad going home especially for the referendum.

There has previously been a number referendums on abortion and following Savita’s death, the  Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act 2013 was brought in which allowed abortion if the mother’s life was in danger. It was important and a sensible measure to bring in. However it resulted in serious splits and some contentious situations. Lucinda Creighton defied Fine Gael’s whip and found herself stripped of her ministry and ostracised, leading to the creation of her new party Renua Ireland. Creighton was recently asked if she would agree with aborting baby Hitler. This is the ridiculous side of the debate which doesn’t help either side. Many thought that the 2013 act was too quickly done and not properly explained or understood. A referendum is the best way to avoid this. The question can be explained properly and debated to give people access to more information. Once passed, it is done so with consent from a majority of the electorate and this makes it much more difficult to argue against its legitimacy than if it is forced through. The result is also binding regardless of the current government’s stance, you can have a second vote but you can’t force people to vote the other way.

Public support for legalising or extending abortion rights is there. A RedC poll for Amnesty International in July showed 67 per cent of people thought abortion should be decriminalised while 81 per cent thought it should be allowed in more situations. 45 per cent were in favour of abortion whenever a woman wanted it. It is not an overwhelming figure but if 45 per cent of people believe this should be instituted then they ought to be listened to and the question brought to the country.

Realistically, nothing will be done before the next election which is expected to be held in early 2016. However now is an excellent time for political parties to examine their stance on abortion and look at holding a referendum and making it part of their manifestoes. The new government will then be in a position to announce a new referendum on abortion as soon as they are in power. The last one was held in 2002, meaning that many young people particularly women at the height of their fertility have never actually had a say on this matter.

As we commemorate and celebrate the centenary of the Easter Rising next year, we must remember that while the constitution was hard fought for it cannot be static. The world that its authors inhabited is not the same as the one we live in today. The constitution has changed to bring peace to Northern Ireland, to legalise divorce and same sex marriage, let 2016 be the year it changes to give women the freedom to choose.