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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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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