Oxfam calls for more tax transparency and public country-by-country reporting

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Oxfam has issued a new report this morning as part of its campaigning on tax abuse and its cost  to developing countries. I got a chance to read the report before publication. The actual report concentrates on the opacity within RB plc and the potential resulting tax losses arising. Oxfam estimates that RB plc reduced its global tax bills by around £200m from 2014 to 2016, including by up to £60m in developing markets. These are estimates of course: as Oxfam makes clear there is evidence of this and that evidence looks, in the circumstances of limited data being available, to be a fair estimate to me. Oxfam emphasises the point there was no wrong doing. But what it does make clear is that action is needed. As they say:

While business action is needed, ultimately governments must take responsibility to ensure that all MNCs are transparent about their tax affairs and pay their fair share of tax. Recent years have seen a number of multilateral initiatives aimed at curbing MNC tax avoidance. The most visible of these has been the Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) project, led by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which aims to limit the ways in which MNCs can manage their business to avoid taxes. However, its recommendations are a mere sticking plaster on a broken global corporate tax system. In the European Union (EU), more progress has been made, with the AntiTax Avoidance Directive adopted in July 2016 and set to be transposed into national laws by the end of 2018. The EU also has plans to introduce 5 common tax rules across member states through the European Commission’s proposals on a Common Corporate Tax Base (CCTB) or even a Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base (CCCTB) proposal. Implementing one of these proposals would end a lot of the harmful tax competition that currently exists within the EU, since member states could no longer offer specific tax incentives for profit shifting.

In addition, some countries have taken individual steps to curb corporate tax abuse. In the UK, the ‘Flint Amendment’ to the 2016 Finance Bill was accepted, which gave the Treasury the power to introduce public country-by-country reporting (CBCR) – a key tax transparency measure – but no deadline has been given for its implementation. At the EU level, discussions are ongoing to introduce public CBCR. But more must be done. The UK government, and other governments, must commit to introducing mandatory public CBCR for all MNCs by the end of 2019, either multilaterally or unilaterally. Many investors, including a number of RB’s, 12 are calling for public CBCR. For example, Legal & General Investment Management Limited – RB’s fourth biggest investor – and Norges Bank Investment Management – RB’s fifth biggest investor – have called for public CBCR. Many of RB’s investors have signed up to the UN Principles for Responsible Investment, which support comprehensive disclosure on corporate tax payments. This reporting must be public to ensure that civil society and developing country governments get access to the reporting information and can hold MNCs to account. MNCs are also less likely to engage in tax avoidance if they know this information will be made public.

I agree. That is exactly why we need public country-by-country reporting for all countries and all large companies. I am delighted Oxfam have said so. But I am also pleased that RB plc, in their response in the report said:

RB will be filing its first ‘country by country’ (CBCR) tax return to the UK’s HMRC by December 2017. This report will be shared by HMRC with all relevant tax authorities in countries where RB operates around the globe.

The CBCR return will disclose key components of our profit and loss accounts, including revenues earned, the taxes paid, and the number of employees we have in all the markets in which we do business. We believe that such CBCR reports will enable tax authorities to have a better understanding of the individual tax contributions made by multinational companies like RB.

It is important, however, to recognise that some of this data is commercially sensitive as it will provide our competitors with information about how we are focusing our resources. We believe that compromising RB’s competitiveness to be against the interests of our stakeholders – most notably our more than 40,000 employees. Of course if all companies would be legally required to publish this data publicly, we would fully comply.

This is why RB supports the call on governments to take the necessary steps to accelerate public country by country reporting and to create a level playing field for all businesses irrespective of where they are headquartered. We would encourage the UK Government to play a leading role in this respect.

I agree with that last sentiment as well, although not the commercial sensitivity issue: any serious competitor already has ample data on whatever RB is doing in any market and will not need CBCR for that purpose. That said, for this alone the report is interesting as it shows pressure works. I recommend the report.