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Britain is finally ready to tackle tax avoidance and help reform an international tax system that is almost a century out of date.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