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

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle