The Blog

Fine Words on Tax Avoidance Butter No Parsnips

As we have taken this year's Bill through its Committee stages, Labour has presented the Government with repeated opportunities to put its money where its mouth is and turn tough talk on tax avoidance into real action, now.

All eyes this week have been on Lough Erne, as world leaders met in Northern Ireland to discuss critical issues including the ongoing Syria crisis and new trade deals to boost economic growth.

Also at the top of the G8 agenda was cracking down on aggressive tax avoidance and evasion, and how we ensure this benefits not just the UK Exchequer and those of the world's richest nations, but also the tax take of developing countries that desperately need this revenue to invest in infrastructure and support their populations out of poverty and hunger.

But perhaps only known to enthusiasts of technical tax policy, a small group of MPs have been beavering away on these issues for the best part of two months in our line-by-line consideration of this year's Finance Bill.

For the uninitiated, this annual piece of legislation is the means by which tax rates and reliefs are renewed by Parliament. It's also used by the Government to make changes to tax administration and introduce other measures that have been announced on Budget Day.

And as we have taken this year's Bill through its Committee stages, Labour has presented the Government with repeated opportunities to put its money where its mouth is and turn tough talk on tax avoidance into real action, now.

We urged the Government to abandon its ill-thought through 'shares for rights' policy which the Director of the IFS described as having 'all the hallmarks of another [tax] avoidance opportunity', never mind being accused by former Conservative Employment Minister Lord Forsyth as having 'the trappings of something that was thought up by someone in the bath'. It is bad enough that this divisive policy totally undermines the concept of employee ownership and workplace rights - it could also cost the Exchequer up to £1billion, a quarter of that arising from 'tax planning' activity. Our calls for a Government rethink were voted down.

The Opposition has highlighted many of the concerns raised in the lead-up to the G8 summit by the excellent 'Enough Food for Everyone IF' campaign, illustrating how vital increasing the tax take of developing countries is to ensuring that we end the 21st century scandal of one billion children growing up hungry and malnourished, and more than 2 million dying of hunger every year.

We therefore tabled numerous amendments to the Bill, backing calls for an internationally agreed system of country-by-country reporting through which multinational corporations, regardless of sector, would be required to publish a simple statement of the amount of tax they pay. Labour believes this information should incorporate multinationals' revenues, profits and taxes in every country they operate - the key pieces of information needed for people (whether experts or not) to be able to properly asses the amount of tax they pay.

The G8 summit agreed steps in the right direction on this issue, but we need to see far more detail - and concrete delivery in this area - soon. Disappointingly given their public declared intent to increased tax transparency, Government members invariably voted our amendments on this key issue down.

On tax havens, Labour has long committed to open them up with requirements to pass on information about money which is hidden behind front companies or trusts. Indeed, as long ago as January 2012, Ed Miliband pressed the Government to show international leadership on this issue.

Also announced this week was the intention of these jurisdictions to publish 'national action plans' on beneficial ownership, detailing the true owners of so-called 'shell companies', but unfortunately not trusts. And the G8 nations announced their intention of establishing registers - with the UK to establish a register at Companies House of the beneficial owners of companies in the UK - but only available to HMRC, not the public.

Again, these are welcome steps in the right direction. But few believe they are good enough. We clearly need proper transparency about who is really holding their wealth behind both shell companies and trusts in tax havens - not secret lists in the UK, and vague promises of future action by the UK's Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies.

So, whilst running the risk of getting a bit too technical, Labour also used the Finance Bill to ask the Government to monitor the impact of its changes to the Controlled Foreign Company regime on the tax take of developing countries (which ActionAid estimates could be as much as £4billion tax lost per year), and to consider how UK companies operating in developing countries could report their use of tax avoidance schemes, in line with Labour's Disclosure of Tax Avoidance Schemes (DOTAS) provisions that have already protected over £12billion in tax revenue for the UK. But - you guessed it - these proposals were rejected too.

So, despite all the tough talk on tackling tax avoidance from the Prime Minister what we actually see is weak leadership and a failure to act. The result being Conservative and Liberal Democrat members of the Finance Bill Committee - yesterday - voting against the very measures to which they have publicly claimed to be committed. As the old saying goes, fine words butter no parsnips.