The Blog

Ensuring That Real Change on International Taxation Occurs - What Can G8 Achieve?

The announcement that David Cameron has been able to negotiate an agreement with all of our overseas territories and Crown territories which will mean that they sign up to a 'clampdown' on tax avoidance should be good news.

When I was growing up the idea that we could have hand-held devices to make calls to almost literally anywhere in the world and access information on any topic was the stuff of science fiction and only seen on Dr. Who and Star Trek.

Mobile phones and internet access are now commonplace and undoubtedly enrich our lives and let's not forget the maxim that knowledge will set us free. The problem is we now find that using the internet and mobile phones allows the government and their proxy agencies - including big businesses - to spy on us and that our every move can be monitored though the defence of ministers is that only the 'bad people' need worry.

I guess that for the majority their attitude is that they couldn't care less who listens to their phone calls, reads their emails, or sees which websites they've accessed.

And this suits whatever political party is in government just fine; they can get on with the important business of running the country to suit whatever their particular agenda is.

But we should care what goes on in our name because we all have a vested interest in knowing what is going on.

It is essential that their powers are not unfettered.

For the record I admire what the police and security agencies do in attempting to avert the sort of atrocities that extremists would visit upon us if they could.

However, I also appreciate that there must be room for genuine dissent about a range of issues; particularly where there are long-standing grievances.

Therefore I admire the protesters who marched in Belfast yesterday in advance of the G8 summit which will take place in Fermanagh in Northern Ireland on Monday and Tuesday to draw attention to a range of issues including social justice, environmental concerns and the need for world in which every person is equal.

One of the key issues to be discussed at the G8 summit will be taxation.

Taxation is a real issue that concerns us all in that it pays for the vital public services many of our society depend upon for, in some cases, their existence.

And if taxation is vital for citizens of the UK it is equally crucial to those who live in other countries; most especially those in the 'third world' and emerging economies.

Therefore the announcement that David Cameron has been able to negotiate an agreement with all of our overseas territories and Crown territories which will mean that they sign up to a 'clampdown' on tax avoidance should be good news.

Speaking on radio four on Sunday morning Paul Collier who is a professor of economics and public policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University and has provided advice to Cameron on the G8 agenda explained that there are over 700 tax jurisdictions which makes the job of understanding them complex.

Collier argues that ensuring cooperation on taxation across the world is vital but as he acknowledges, governments are up against what he described in a Guardian article over the weekend as the 'internationalisation of business and the innovations of corporate lawyers and accountants'.

This allows businesses to move to whichever country offers them with the most benign taxation laws.

Collier particularly cites Africa as a continent that is being exploited by various multinational corporations. As he contends, if these corporations paid 'reasonable taxes' most African countries would be less likely to depend on aid we give.

There is a long history of exploitation of Africa's phenomenal mineral resources which, let's be honest, we cannot claim to be immune from; many wealthy families in this country did so as a result of the slave trade.

The fact that China has been busily investing in Africa over the last couple of decades is from their perspective, simply 'smart business in that it gives them access to the resources that will allow their economic development to continue.

However, David Cameron has stated that a new register of beneficial ownership which would reveal the identity of companies which avail of tax havens should not have free access by the public.

So, as always, knowledge confers power.

Countries in the developing world will only be able to access information on tax havens if they make a specific request and if governments in which businesses operating in their countries don't actually know where they are 'located' for tax purposes this register will be of no use whatsoever.

As Melanie Ward a spokeswoman for the 'Enough For Everyone If' campaign suggested that Cameron should demand more action.

Ward believes that unless there is a real will to make a global tax system work the world's poorest are destined to remain in jeopardy.

Moreover, Ward contends that the ending secrecy is vital to ensure that countries being exploited can get their fair share of taxation:

"The acid test of the PM's efforts will be whether he delivers a G8 deal that clamps down on tax haven secrecy and phantom companies and will help poor countries collect the money they need to end the scandal that sees one in eight people go to bed hungry."

The Latin quotation Qui Bono, in whose interest, seems appropriate. We need to demand change that makes big business more accountable.

But these big 'players' are very close to those in whom we place out trust; the very same people who use whatever means they require to keep tabs on us all.

Finally I'd like to relate the story of Leona Helmsley who was an American businesswoman who because she was a tyrant to staff was known as the 'Queen of Mean'. Because she was alleged not to have paid contractors for work carried out on her home, he was investigated and found to have been engaged in tax evasion.

She was found guilty and became infamous because during her trial a housekeeper testified that she heard Helmsley state that "Only the little people pay taxes."

We should demand demonstrable change on taxation to result from the G8 summit but I wouldn't hold your breath.