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Britain is finally ready to tackle tax avoidance and help reform an international tax system that is almost a century out of date.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