Skip to main content

As the David Cameron marched across the lawn to greet each of his G8 counterparts – firm of purpose, long of stride, open-neck of collar – his was the body language of a man about to embark on a serious charm offensive. His unenviable task, to woo an agreement on tax transparency from Obama, Putin and co, was made all the more difficult by the frosty relations between the main protagonists on the other headline issue of the summit, Syria.

We’ll never know what went on behind the closed doors and crowd control barriers at Lough Erne; never know what moves the PM put on his more reluctant guests to win their favour. What happens at the G8 stays at the G8. But on Tuesday afternoon the PM emerged from the love-in, in Reservoir Dogs formation with other G8 leaders, proclaiming a new dawn for tax transparency.

So what does this document tell us about the PM’s performance?

Well, in truth, the earth didn’t move. But there was certainly enough in the Lough Erne Declaration to tittilate the tax transparency campaigners – united under the banner of the Enough Food for Everyone IF campaign.

Much of what was in the PM’s gift to deliver was announced in advance. The Saturday before the Summit he drew commitments from the UK’s Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies – among the most secretive jurisdictions in the world – to sign up to a treaty on exchanging tax information. This move was vital for the UK to win goodwill from other G8 nations, but of course a promise to sign is not a signature.

The UK was also first out of the blocks announcing it would establish a register of the beneficial ownership of companies; basically a list of who owns what. Hardly earth shattering you might think – more of a ‘no brainer’ as a man in a Belfast pub said to me – but bizzarely not information that is always currently available . Without this information, phantom firms make it easy for tax evaders and corrupt officials to hide their money, and for criminals to launder the proceeds of drug trafficking and terrorism.

Unfortunately, the UK set the bar low, by backing away from making this register public. Other G8s followed suit, resulting in a hotch potch of low-level commitments that create an oxymornic secret transparency, which has little benefit for poor countries whose assets are plundered through these shell companies.

The G8 also made commitments on country-by-country reporting – where companies would be required to report more information on their activities in each of the jurisdictions they operate, making it harder to shop around for the lowest tax rates. Again, the agreement stopped short of requiring this information to be made public and left it unclear how poor countries would benefit.

Finally the G8 tasked the OECD with developing a new ‘international tax tool’ for the automatic exchange of tax information, and here there was an emphasis on ensuring developing countries benefit from these new standards.

Collectively, the G8 has sought to prove its lasting relevance by offering these menu of actions and commitments as its contribution to the global fight against global tax dodging. But for the UK, and the Prime Minister, does Lough Erne mark the end of the affair? Or a very long engagement? The initial signs are not promising.

Yesterday, away from the media gaze of the G8, the Finance Bill Committee voted down an amendment to the Disclosure of Tax Avoidance Schemes (DOTAS) designed to promote greater transparency by the subsidiaries of UK companies in developing countries.

DOTAS has been hugely effective in changing the behaviour of UK companies and tax advisors, requiring them to submit their tax avoidance schemes for scrutiny by HMRC to judge whether they fall foul of either the letter or the spirit of the law.

The amendment, based on proposals from the IF campaign, called on the Treasury to examine ways of ensuring UK companies operated with the same level of probity in developing countries. This could include requiring companies’ UK headquarters to report specific tax avoidance schemes used by their subsidiaries to HMRC, who would then share this information with the relevant tax authority.

But David Gauke, seemingly unaware of the seismic shift his PM had proclaimed not two days previously, was not for turning. Instead he rehearsed the same old arguments from an ostensibly bygone era. So much for the new age of tax transparency. Plus ça change…

I’ve argued before that on the tax transparency agenda the Conservatives, for political, ethical and electoral reasons, should back the PM. Yet only one of the Conservative members of the Finance Bill Commitee (Marcus Jones MP) made the time to meet with campaigners to discuss the DOTAS amendment. And only one (Brooks Newmark MP) intervened to support the principle of the amendment.

For Lough Erne to count for anything; for it to be anything more than what the PM called ‘words on a page’, action on tax dodging cannot be reserved for set piece moments of international summitry, or devolved to bureaucratic technical bodies. It must be part of the warp and wheft of the daily business of Government – from the decisions of the executive, to the scrutiny of the legislature, to the informed participation of the citizenry.

Rather than resting on our laurels, we must role up our sleeves.

The leaders of the Overseas Territories return to London in the autumn for the Joint Ministerial Council. By this time there must have been clear progress on their joining the multilateral convention on information exchange, and in implementing credible action plans on beneficial ownership, including access to this information for poor countries.

The UK must also waste no time in consulting on making its own register of beneficial ownership available to the public. Remember, it was for the most part campaigners and journalists, not tax authorities, that unveiled the scandals and corruption that catapulted tax dodging to the top of the agenda. In the same way, it should move to backing public disclosure of companies’ country by country performance.

Perhaps most crucially of all, the UK must continue to advocate in international forums for the participation of the poorest countries in the development of a new global agreement on automatic information exchange. That way lies true tax transparency. That way lies true tax justice.

In my previous post I invoked Burke and Thatcher as the shoulders on which Cameron’s G8 tax agenda stood. In their analysis of the G8 outcomes, my colleagues at the Centre for Global Development resurrected another Conservative forbearer. In the words of Churchill, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Will Cameron’s love affair with tax last? We’ll be watching closely.

Barry Johnston is Senior UK Political Advisor at Christian Aid. He writes in a personal capacity.

Follow Barry on Twitter.

Views held by contributors are not necessarily those of Bright Blue, as good as they often are.

If you are interested in contributing please contact