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Britain is finally ready to tackle tax avoidance and help reform an international tax system that is almost a century out of date.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.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.