It is in the UK's power to end tax havens

Cameron needs to lead on tax dodging, because he has the power to stop it.

Tomorrow, David Cameron will be welcoming senior ministers from some of the UK’s tropical isles to London for a high level summit. Despite these jurisdictions’ sandy beaches and sunny weather the talk will be of tax, not tourism, as the likes of Bermuda, the Cayman Islands and the British Virgin Islands rank as some of the most significant tax havens in the world.

Cameron’s grand plan is to invite these jurisdictions to sign up to an international treaty on cooperation and information sharing with other countries tax authorities. Cameron is keen to show that the UK is committed to getting its house in order ahead of the G8 summit in Northern Ireland next week. With a huge domestic backlash at home over tax dodging by companies like Google, Amazon and Starbucks, Cameron is hoping the appearance of leadership on the global stage can win some positive headlines at home.

But show and appearance is all we will see over the next few days. The treaty Cameron is asking British tax havens to sign only tinkers around the edges of their secrecy. It will still leave the UK running many of the world’s most significant tax havens. That the government continues to allow multinational companies and rich individuals to use the UK’s tax havens to dodge taxes around the world, robbing the world’s poorest countries of vital revenue, is a scandal of truly epic proportions.

Experts from the Tax Justice Network have criticised this treaty for falling short of what would be needed to break open their secrecy. For a start it only requires jurisdictions to share information when they receive requests from other countries’ tax authorities, rather than automatically and routinely sharing information. Neither does it require tax havens to actually collect information on rich individuals and companies that shelter their money offshore. 

It is not entirely surprising the treaty is not exactly watertight. It is drafted by the OECD, a Paris-based think tank, comprising 34 of the world’s richest countries, tasked with setting the standards for international tax rules: a body that has steadfastly resisted any major change to those rules for over a decade.

At the 2009 G20 summit, when Gordon Brown famously hailed the “beginning of the end for tax havens”, the OECD was tasked with producing a ‘blacklist’ of uncooperative tax havens. So rigorous were the rules for this list that within one week there was not one country on the list.

However, the failure to reign in Britain’s tax havens is not one of diplomacy. It reflects a total lack of political ambition. The simple fact is that these islands are not separate sovereign countries and Cameron does not need to negotiate with them. They are in fact British territories, and the UK government has the power to legislate for them.

Cameron could simply abolish the UK’s tax havens by passing a law requiring them to end their secrecy, establish rigorous financial regulation and making profits and wealth their subject to effective taxes. 

The government has acted in the past to enforce laws on these island jurisdictions before, abolishing the death penalty for Britain’s Caribbean Islands in 1991 and as recently as the year 2000, acting to decriminalise homosexual acts in the Cayman Islands. 

The British government has even acknowledged its full ability to enforce financial regulation on the UK’s tax havens. The OECD noted in a 2012 report (pdf) “the UK acknowledged that – from a constitutional perspective the UK has unlimited power to legislate for the OTs [Overseas Territories]”. 

Cameron has tried to make huge political capital of talking tough on tax. Last year Cameron announced his intention to tackle tax havens during his G8 presidency with huge fanfare, saying: “There are too many tax havens, too many places where people and businesses manage to avoid paying taxes.” Again in Davos at the World Economic Forum the bold rhetoric was out in force, stealing lines from UK Uncut, when he told businesses that “carry on dodging their fair share” to “wake up and smell the coffee”.

To have any hope of living up to his tough tax talk, Cameron must legislate to abolish Britain’s tax havens. He is fully capable of closing down these tax havens, but is just choosing not to.

Grand Cayman. Photograph: Getty Images

Murray Worthy is an economic justice campaigner for War on Want.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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