Osborne takes the first step on tax avoidance. Now for the rest…

The chancellor's GAAR should help ensure tax justice. But it's only a start, writes Salman Shaheen

George Osborne’s article in the Observer following the G20 meeting of Finance Ministers in Moscow at the weekend provides the first sign that Britain is finally ready to tackle tax avoidance and help reform an international tax system that is almost a century out of date. But the Chancellor will have to go much further than these warm words alone if he is serious about clawing back the money multinationals are avoiding paying in the UK, and helping developing economies move from aid to a more sustainable form of growth.

Osborne is bang on the tax-free money when he identifies the problem as a systemic one. The international tax system was designed, after all, for the nation state in the days before globalisation. But tax avoidance occupies a space between laws. It is not so much that it is legal, as companies practising these aggressive schemes claim in their defence, but that the laws as they exist are inadequate to cover it.

The result is the press is left picking over the PR disasters of Google, Amazon, Starbucks and most recently Associated British Foods, while a cash-strapped Britain finds itself with a tax gap of £123bn according to Richard Murphy of Tax Research. In an era of austerity, public mistrust of corporates and government and increased risk for companies increasingly coming under challenge for structures they’ve employed for decades, no one wins from a system that promotes uncertainty and an unlevel playing field.

On this, the Chancellor is absolutely right. The trouble is the actions he has lined up to back these necessary words will make little more than a dent in the tax avoidance industry. If the problem is systemic, as he identifies, then it can’t be solved by tinkering around the edges, only wholesale reform.

For one, he trumpets the General Anti-Abuse Rule (GAAR) he is introducing, essentially a net allowing HMRC to challenge artificial and abusive tax avoidance schemes which, because they are often complex or novel, could not have been contemplated directly when formulating the tax legislation.

But as Michael Meacher – who is pushing for a much stronger version of the GAAR in Parliament – told me, the government’s proposal will only catch the most egregious schemes, letting the rest slip through:

The real purpose of the GAAR is not to counter tax avoidance, but to narrow its definition, making everything else ethically and technically acceptable because it is outside that narrow remit.

Secondly, Osborne points to Britain’s push in the EU and in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative for limited forms of country-by-country reporting to provide greater transparency in the oil, gas and mining sectors.

This is a vital first step. But if Osborne is serious about tax transparency, he must now make the case for a much more robust form of country-by-country reporting whereby every large multinational corporation in every sector would be required to publish in their annual audited financial statements a country consolidated profit and loss account, limited balance sheet and cash flow data on tax paid for every jurisdiction where they have a permanent establishment for tax.

Finally, Osborne backs an OECD report to the G20 on base erosion and profit shifting. This is to be welcomed and much will depend on the outcome of the action plan that is put to the G8 in July.

But Osborne must recognise that merely tinkering with the transfer pricing system, whose weaknesses have left the UK and developing countries alike open to multinational corporations shifting their profits into tax havens, is not enough. Osborne should be pushing for serious examination of a system of unitary taxation, under which companies would submit a global consolidated account in each country in which they are present, then apportion the global profits among these countries by a formula reflecting the genuine economic activity of the company in each jurisdiction.

Only through these measures can the problem of tax avoidance be seriously tackled. Osborne’s words are warm and welcome, but they are just the first step. Now the world will be watching as Britain prepares to host the G8. The Chancellor’s task is not to falter or miss this historic opportunity.

Wiping the first step. Photograph: Getty Images

Salman Shaheen is editor-in-chief of The World Weekly, principal speaker of Left Unity and a freelance journalist.

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.