How Cameron failed developing countries at the G8

From the beginning, the Prime Minister repeatedly failed to show the leadership on tax avoidance and transparency this summit needed.

The G8 meeting was heralded as a unique opportunity to address some of the structural causes of poverty and hunger. It was a chance to both put our own house in order and focus on making a difference to the lives of those in the developing world. Progress was made towards tackling hunger and malnutrition, with substantive funding commitments made by the UK and EU. We also saw a welcome commitment to supporting the UN’s humanitarian appeal for the horrendous crisis in Syria,  which remains staggeringly underfunded. 

David Cameron rightly made tackling tax avoidance and improving transparency a priority. The flawed system of global taxation has a profound impact on not only our revenues but also on the poor in developing countries. The Africa Progress Panel revealed just this week that African countries lose $50bn a year to illicit tax flows. But despite the Prime Minister’s rhetoric, his efforts fell desperately short in achieving the fundamental changes which are necessary.

It was imperative from the beginning that any G8 agreement should not "lock out" developing countries. However, it is unclear how developing countries will benefit from announcements on sharing tax information and whether they will be involved from the start in the Prime Minister’s new deal. This runs the risk of creating a "two-tier" system which allows advanced economies to benefit from transparency but excludes developing nations.

The Prime Minister also said: "Personally, I want to see the whole world moving towards public registries of beneficial ownership." This would allow all countries to benefit from knowing who owns companies and assets and take a step towards to tackling tax avoidance. It was, then, extremely disappointing and a significant U-turn that the agreements only commit the UK to a private registry of British companies and that no G8 country agreed to create a public register. We need far more than secretive lists in the UK of companies' true owners and vague promises of future action if we are to truly make progress towards ending tax secrecy.

The G8 Communique also includes lots of fine words, particularly on introducing country-by-country reporting for multinational companies and reform to rules which allow companies to shift profits out of developing countries, but no concrete action. Labour has repeatedly called for action on these issues which would enable developing countries to collect the taxes they are due and complement measures to build tax revenue collection capacity in these countries.

The Prime Minister could have used the window of opportunity presented by the G8 summit to deliver real action to tackle tax avoidance, not just for the UK, but for countries around the world.

Instead, from the beginning, he repeatedly failed to show the leadership this summit needed. On putting our own house in order, the government has consistently refused to review UK tax rules relating to controlled foreign companies which the evidence show costs developing countries £4bn a year in lost tax revenue. This is unacceptable.  

He has also been repeatedly criticised, as recently as recently as yesterday by the US, for failing to put in the necessary diplomatic and political work in the weeks and months leading up to the summit to secure meaningful deals on tax transparency. In 2005, the UK used the G8 chairmanship at Gleneagles to achieve the historic promise to increase aid by $50bn by 2010 as well as crucial steps on debt relief and climate change. This shows the magnitude of what can be achieved through ambitious hosting of the G8. But this took significant diplomatic effort and political will.

Sadly, this scale of commitment was largely lacking from the Prime Minister's approach this time around. This G8 could have done for tax and transparency what the 2005 G8 did for aid and debt relief. Instead, away from the hype and spin, when history is written, this summit will be seen as a missed opportunity in the fight against global poverty.

Labour wants to see an end to extreme poverty, a reduction in inequality and an end to aid dependency by 2030. A prerequisite to achieving these objectives will be developing countries having access to fair taxes from their citizens, domestic businesses and multinational companies. David Cameron chose the right priorities for the G8 summit but, as on so many other issues, his fine rhetoric and big promises were not matched by the  conviction or hard work necessary to deliver the radical change that we need. It is to be hoped that the G20 later this year will turn rhetoric and the promise of future action into the commitments we had expected to see. 

Ivan Lewis is the shadow international development secretary

David Cameron speaks during a press conference at the conclusion of the G8 summit in the Lough Erne resort near Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. Photograph: Getty Images.
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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.