On Halloween eve an unique invitation only conference took place in the historic and just slightly spooky Livery Hall in the City’s historic Guildhall.
For six hours the Westminster Establishment politely occupied the bastion of the City Establishment to discuss a subject that perhaps capitalism would like to go away – global tax evasion and tax avoidance.
Margaret Hodge, chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee and scourge of tax avoiders Google, Amazon and Starbucks, brought together business chiefs, politicians, tax accountants, civil servants, charities, trade unionists and the odd pesky journo like me from Britain and across the world.
The event was unique because on a grand scale it put people in the same room who would verbally be at each other’s throats and tried to find some common ground to tackle a world-wide scourge.The scourge that is making the elite ever richer and leaving the poor, and increasingly the middle classes,left behind as well as exploiting developing countries.
The result was interesting – both for unpredictable quotes and for disclosure of what is really happening to try to tackle this.
One of the most memorable quotes came from Justin King, the thoughtful former CEO of Sainsbury’s, who admitted that “If business becomes more unpopular than politicians then we really do have a problem”. He also warned no doubt with declining Tesco in mind – that business rates and corporation tax were both on the way out – as business needed less real estate to function and countries vie with each other to reduce corporation tax.
Another memorable moment was Will Morris, chair of the CBI Tax Committee, backing the Public and Commercial Services Union case that George Osborne was wrong to axe a third of HMRC staff. What next Mark Serwotka , the general secretary, sharing a platform with the CBI?
Or for Prem Sikka, professor of accounting at Essex University, who pointed out, after accountants defended their role, that not one accountant had ever been disciplined by their venerable professional body, dating from the 1880s, for producing an illegal tax avoidance scheme.
The other striking feature of the conference in the male dominated City was the role played by powerful women on both sides of the argument.
For me the most striking was the speech given by Grace Perez-Navarro, Deputy Director of the OECD Centre for Tax Policy and Administration. She revealed that the OECD were not just talking about it but had secured some 90 plus agreements with tax authorities like the Cayman Islands, Gibraltar among many others to exchange information but not to make it public yet. She is also a firm advocate of forcing companies needing to release country-by-country reporting of profits generated by multinationals.
“Our efforts to increase transparency, combat offshore evasion and counter tax avoidance by multinational enterprises are having an impact on the ground and helping countries to make sure that all taxpayers pay their fair share,” she said.
But there were also outstanding contributions by Irene Ovonji-Odida, ActionAid chair, on what needed to happen in Africa and on the pro business side by Heather Self, of lawyers Pinsent Mason, the capitalist’s best legal friend and from the floor by Maya Forstator, an independent researcher who has challenged the claims by some of the world’s leading charities like Christian Aid and Action Aid on the effects of multi nationals taking money away from developing countries.
We also learnt some curious irrelevant information about the cars some of the speakers drive. Richard Murphy, the Tax Justice accountant used the analogy that he drove an 11 year old car to show how out of date international taxation law is only to be trumped by Grace Perez-Navarro who drives around in a 22 year old motor.
There were no instant changes arising from this conference. More important was the fact than in an age of increasing inequality – the issue of tax is certain to remain high on the agenda and there are active people wanting to deal with issue to make things happen.
Meanwhile as Margaret Hodge wound up the conference with a damning speech on what more needed to be done, in another part of the Guildhall, another Parliamentary select committee chair, Keith Vaz, was undermining another powerful woman, Fiona Woolf, the current Lord Mayor of London, who has been appointed by Theresa May, the home secretary, to head the child sexual abuse inquiry
The home affairs committee chairman released seven drafts of her letter outlining her links with Leon Brittan,who is likely to be investigated over the disappearance of crucial home office documents,on the issue.showing how she kept changing her story. Today people think she will be under enormous pressure to quit.