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.

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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories