Cameron's tax crackdown undermined as Lawson accuses him of "prancing around"

The former Tory chancellor says that the government is "getting nowhere slowly" on reducing tax avoidance by multinationals.

David Cameron has long sought to present reducing tax avoidance as a priority of the coalition. While cutting taxes for high-earners (with the reduction in the top rate of inncome tax from 50p to 45p) and reducing corporation tax to the joint lowest level in the G20 (it will stand at 20% in 2015, down from 28% in 2010), he argues that the government is committed to ensuring that all pay their fair share. By ending the mass avoidance (and evasion) that existed under Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems claim that they can raise more revenue from lower rates. 

Cameron will return to this theme today with the announcement of a new public register designed to reveal the true owners of the anonymous "shell" companies associated with tax evasion. "For too long a small minority have hidden their business dealings behind a complicated web of shell companies," he will tell the Open Government Partnership in London. 

But the PM's anti-avoidance drive has been undermined by an unlikely source. In a debate in the House of Lords last night, Nigel Lawson accused the coalition of "prancing around", rather than making the changes needed to ensure that large corporations pay their dues. The former Tory chancellor warned that multinationals "shift their profits and their intangible assets around the world in such a way that they pay little or in some cases no UK corporation tax at all", while "small and medium-sized enterprises" face "the full rigour of corporation tax". 

He went on:

It is a totally inequitable system. So what is the government doing? Just prancing around saying we are talking about with our opposite numbers from other OECD countries and other European countries and goodness knows what.

They love going to these conferences and they happily make statements that they have reached a great understanding and a great agreement but the problem is just the same, it hasn’t gone away.

Lawson proposed that the government should introduce a new system with separate taxes on profits and sales to ensure that companies like Starbucks, Google and Amazon make some contribution. He said: "God forbid that the United Kingdom should take a lead and introduce a sensible tax system of its own which would probably comprise a very low level of corporation tax - tax on corporate profits - and perhaps a low level of corporate sales tax, because sales are where they are and sales in this country are sales here which we can tax here.

"But more than anything else we should be taking a lead. I have to say to the government that you are not even getting nowhere fast - you are getting nowhere slowly."

Labour, meanwhile, has welcomed the announcement of a public register, while highlighting the rise in uncollected tax to £35bn and the failure of the government's Swiss tax deal to raise anything close to the promised amount. After George Osborne booked £3.1bn from the agreement, it has so far raised just £440m. 

Nigel Lawson said of ministers and tax avoidance: "they love going to these conferences and they happily make statements". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

What Jeremy Corbyn gets right about the single market

Technically, you can be outside the EU but inside the single market. Philosophically, you're still in the EU. 

I’ve been trying to work out what bothers me about the response to Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on the Andrew Marr programme.

What bothers me about Corbyn’s interview is obvious: the use of the phrase “wholesale importation” to describe people coming from Eastern Europe to the United Kingdom makes them sound like boxes of sugar rather than people. Adding to that, by suggesting that this “importation” had “destroy[ed] conditions”, rather than laying the blame on Britain’s under-enforced and under-regulated labour market, his words were more appropriate to a politician who believes that immigrants are objects to be scapegoated, not people to be served. (Though perhaps that is appropriate for the leader of the Labour Party if recent history is any guide.)

But I’m bothered, too, by the reaction to another part of his interview, in which the Labour leader said that Britain must leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. The response to this, which is technically correct, has been to attack Corbyn as Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are members of the single market but not the European Union.

In my view, leaving the single market will make Britain poorer in the short and long term, will immediately render much of Labour’s 2017 manifesto moot and will, in the long run, be a far bigger victory for right-wing politics than any mere election. Corbyn’s view, that the benefits of freeing a British government from the rules of the single market will outweigh the costs, doesn’t seem very likely to me. So why do I feel so uneasy about the claim that you can be a member of the single market and not the European Union?

I think it’s because the difficult truth is that these countries are, de facto, in the European Union in any meaningful sense. By any estimation, the three pillars of Britain’s “Out” vote were, firstly, control over Britain’s borders, aka the end of the free movement of people, secondly, more money for the public realm aka £350m a week for the NHS, and thirdly control over Britain’s own laws. It’s hard to see how, if the United Kingdom continues to be subject to the free movement of people, continues to pay large sums towards the European Union, and continues to have its laws set elsewhere, we have “honoured the referendum result”.

None of which changes my view that leaving the single market would be a catastrophe for the United Kingdom. But retaining Britain’s single market membership starts with making the argument for single market membership, not hiding behind rhetorical tricks about whether or not single market membership was on the ballot last June, when it quite clearly was. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.