Cameron’s Davos speech was long overdue. But the very corporate tactics he condemns abroad, he enables in the UK
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 24 January 2013 14.40 GMT
After a decade of campaigning for tax justice it was gratifying to hear David Cameron endorse much of what we have called for at Davos this morning. Unfortunately, as just a few examples show, the prime minister has a long way to go before he walks the talk.
Cameron’s said “There are some forms of avoidance that have become so aggressive that …. it’s time to call for more responsibility and for governments to act accordingly.”
When delivering the message he added: “Companies need to wake up and smell the coffee, because the customers who buy from them have had enough”. It could not have been more obvious that he has Starbucks in mind. He’s set the bar on this issue at a point where it must be tackled.
And yet Cameron faces a massive domestic credibility problem as a result. The government’s much trumpeted General Anti-Abuse Rule, which will be enacted this year, which Cameron says targets tax avoidance, will deliberately not go near targeting the sorts of tax avoidance undertaken by Starbucks, Google and Amazon. Legislation put forward by Michael Meacher MP and written by me that would let HM Revenue & Customs challenge their sort of tax avoidance has also been rejected by the government.
It’s all very well for Cameron to say that tax avoidance must be tackled internationally. His difficulty is that he could do it at home as well and has chosen not to do so. He’s correctly assessed that there is real political anger on this issue now; he’s got his assessment of what people want seriously wrong if he thinks his government’s proposals will satisfy those demanding reform.
Cameron said: “The third big push of our agenda is on transparency, shining a light on company ownership, land ownership and where money flows from and to.” I’m delighted he said this, but I am disappointed he added that “this is critical to developing countries” as if somehow this is a problem for Africa but not for us.
Opacity permits corruption everywhere. Accounts that fail to account meaningfully hinder effective economic decision-making. Limited liability companies, existing in a void with no apparent owners who accept responsibility for their decisions, blight economies and permit massive tax dodging. And nowhere is that more true than in the UK.
At present a multinational company trading in the UK does not have to publish a separate profit and loss account for this country so we can see how much tax it pays in the UK. Nor does it have to do so for all the tax havens in which it operates. If Google, Starbucks and Amazon had been required to do that we’d have seen their tax avoidance a lot earlier. So yes, we need transparency for developing countries, but we need it too in the form of full country-by-country reporting.
Despite that, just a couple of days ago David Gauke, the Conservative exchequer secretary, under Labour questioning showed his continued indifference towards country-by-country reporting.
That’s also true on beneficial ownership. There is no legal requirement to disclose beneficial ownership of a company in the UK at present, and our company registry is a near perfect example of appalling company regulation on this and other issues, striking off hundreds of thousands of companies a year rather than demand that they comply with their legal obligations.
If Cameron wants to show the world the way on beneficial ownership he can begin at home by making Companies House into a regime fit for the 21st century. He should follow up with the land registry – riddled as it is with anonymous offshore companies – and then demand that our tax havens put beneficial ownership on public record just as we should.
Automatic information exchange
Cameron said: “If there are options for more multilateral deals on automatic information exchange to catch tax evaders, we need to explore them.” I agree, wholeheartedly. It’s just a shame he said this the month the UK’s appalling tax agreement with Switzerland comes into force that guarantees tax evaders anonymity, lets them off most of the tax they owe, and preserves Swiss banking secrecy in the process. Germany’s parliament rejected such a deal to hold out for full automatic information exchange with Switzerland. The UK harmed the cause by going ahead alone.
And that’s the problem with this whole speech. The talk is great. I welcome it. As Cameron said: “After years of [tax] abuse, people across the planet are calling for more action and most importantly, there is gathering political will to actually do something about it.” He’s right. But Cameron’s pretending the solution lies outside the UK. It doesn’t. It starts at home. And some of the biggest obstacles to be overcome require some serious rethinking of his own government’s agenda on tax, accountancy, regulation, transparency and tax havens, all of which could change without the need for any outside co-operation. We’ve still got a long way to go to win this debate.