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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder