Labour’s five steps to tackle tax avoidance

David Cameron has failed to bring forward the changes which are needed to bring transparency. Labour would develop a robust and effective corporation tax system.

In tough times it’s more important than ever that everyone plays their part and pays their fair share of tax.

People and businesses who pay their fair share have been shocked by how little tax some companies seem to pay in Britain. Sometimes there are good reasons why, such as because they are investing in research and development. But all too often companies that pay low taxes in Britain are doing so because they can bend the rules to their advantage.

As Ed Miliband says in his interview with today’s Observer, businesses need to act in a responsible way, but the government sets the rules of the game, so they too have a responsibility to act. David Cameron and George Osborne are not just cutting taxes for millionaires, they are also doing far too little to tackle tax avoidance. And they are pushing through deep cuts to HMRC, which risk being a false economy if they make it even harder to enforce the law. 

At the start of the year, we set down a challenge to the government: that they should end the era of tax secrecy. Some companies have not been paying their fair share of tax, hiding behind complex networks of companies and using tax havens to shift their profits out of tax. We said that the government needed to show leadership, bringing forward measures for the G8 that started with the requirement to publish a simple statement for the tax which companies pay in the UK.

But the government has failed to bring forward the changes which are needed to bring transparency. They have also failed to grasp the need to reform of the Corporate Tax system to close the loopholes which are being used by some companies.

This isn’t good enough. David Cameron must deliver real action at the G8 meeting next month, starting with Labour’s five steps to tackle tax avoidance:

i. Labour supports a form of country-by-country reporting. Agreed internationally it would mean large multinational companies should have to publish the key pieces of information which people need to properly assess the amount of tax they pay. This would cover their revenues, profits and taxes in each country that they operate. As well as meaning that multinational companies pay the right level of tax in the UK, this change would be a boost for developing countries. It would stop profits being stripped out from those countries, increasing their tax revenues and reducing their reliance on aid.

ii. Labour would extend the Disclosure of Tax Avoidance Schemes regime, which Labour introduced, to global transactions. The IF campaign have said this would be an effective way of tackling avoidance in developing countries.

iii. Labour would open up tax havens, with requirements to pass on information about money which is hidden behind front companies or trusts. Labour is backing the IF's campaign's calls for the UK to Launch a Convention on Tax Transparency at the G8 to deliver this.

iv. Labour will continue to challenge the government on the impact of their changes to Controlled Foreign Company Rules on the UK and developing countries. Labour has repeatedly tabled amendments in Parliament to introduce a proper assessment of the rules, which have been rejected by the government.

v. Labour also wants to see fundamental reform of the corporate tax system, because the shifting of profits and use of tax havens to avoid tax is also a symptom of a system which is failing to keep up with global economic developments.

That is why Labour is today publishing an update on its review into the full Corporation Tax system. The aim of Labour’s review is to develop a system which is robust and effective in the modern world; supports investment and job creation; deals effectively with the complexities of international business; is fair to all; and is transparent and can be better understood by the public.

Families and businesses who are paying their fair share want to see tax avoidance properly tackled. If David Cameron fails to deliver, then it will fall to the next Labour government to act.

Ed Balls MP is the shadow chancellor and Catherine McKinnell MP is the shadow exchequer secretary to the Treasury

A visitor passes the Google logo on September 26, 2012 at the official opening party of the Google offices in Berlin, Germany. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ed Balls is the shadow chancellor; Catherine McKinnell is the shadow exchequer secretary to the Treasury

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.