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Whistleblowing in the Public Interest Goes on Trial

27/04/2016 12:55

This week, the man who lifted the lid on the cynical practices employed by large, profitable corporations to avoid paying taxes goes on trial. Through over 28,000 pages of documents, Antoine Deltour, an ex- PricewaterhouseCooper (PwC) employee, provided valuable insight into 548 'tax rulings' or sweetheart deals between more than 340 companies worldwide and the Luxembourg government. What became known as the LuxLeaks scandal, revealed the huge extent of corporate tax avoidance and the direct role of many governments in abetting these practises.

There can be no doubt that the evidence brought to light by Deltour was directly in the public interest: by actively dodging paying their fair share of tax, corporations have been depriving national exchequers of billions of pounds in revenue over a considerable period of time.

Yet by acting for the common good, Deltour and two other men - French journalist Édouard Perrin and a yet-to-be-named fellow ex-PwC employee - face up to five years in jail. They will be charged with theft, violating Luxembourg's professional secrecy laws, violating trade secrets, and illegally accessing a database. Once they have blown the whistle, those who courageously put themselves on the frontline of tackling tax avoidance are abandoned by the very system in whose interest they acted.

In reality, it is not just Antoine Deltour and his colleagues that are on trial; it is the very essence of whistleblowing and the basic right and duty to reveal information in the public interest. This case has served to dramatically highlight the precarious nature of those acting to bring crucial information into the public domain.

The regulatory reforms prompted by LuxLeaks makes the fact that Deltour and his colleagues face imprisonment even more of a scandal. These reforms are a clear acknowledgement that the dodgy practices of corporations and the governments that collude with them need to be brought to an end. For being the initiator behind such reforms Deltour should be viewed as hero, not criminal.

Whilst the tax reforms that have taken place since LuxLeaks don't go far enough, they are none-the-less steps towards greater tax justice in Europe. The European Parliament's special committee on tax, set up in the wake of LuxLeaks, and of which I am a member, has made several important recommendations. These include public country-by-country reporting - ensuring public disclosure of where companies do business, employ people and declare their profit; denying EU funding to countries which use tax havens; and agreement on the need for a common consolidated corporate tax base - a single set of rules that companies operating within the EU would use to calculate their taxable profits.

Where the EU has been slower to act has been on the issue of drawing up an effective framework for the protection of whistleblowers. Last December, a Green amendment calling for the creation of a special fund to support whistleblowers was narrowly defeated in the European Parliament by 338 to 328 votes. Such a fund would be made up of money clawed back from illegal sweetheart tax deals. If Tory MEPs had voted in favour the amendment would have been adopted. This demonstrates that despite their rhetoric on supporting a clamp down on tax avoidance and evasion, Tories prefer business as usual rather than supporting those who expose such practices.

Greens are continuing to press for reforms. On 4th May, the last day of the Luxleaks trial, we will present a draft EU directive on whistleblower protection. The Directive aims to incorporate international standards on how to best protect whistleblowers into EU law. We will be urging the European Commission to take up our lead.

This will of course come too late to save Antione Deltour and his colleagues from gaining criminal records, but we hope it will provide a safety net to encourage other whistleblowers to step forward in future and work for the public interest.

Until such a framework exists, national authorities must intervene to protect whistleblowers like Antoine Deltour rather than abandon them. The public can also demonstrate their support and gratitude for the courage of Deltour by signing a petition, already signed by 123,000 people, and backing the Support Antione campaign.

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