I see Ben Saunders has taken up the ABF story with two really interesting posts, the first relating it to Bill Dodwell’s call for a campaigners’ code of conduct, and second to what on earth Zambia was doing signing its bonkers treaty with Ireland. As I’m writing this in a break from struggling to put together a PhD chapter on developing countries’ tax treaty policy, let’s have a look at the code of conduct point.
Ben is right that some campaigners have not exactly responded to this suggestion in a very mature way (although with the recent ‘tax prat’ incident I don’t think either side is exactly upholding the standards of decent debate). But I also agree with Chris Jordan (in the comments here) that the way companies respond to allegations is rarely whiter than white as well: this was the gist of my post last week, in which I felt it unfair that ABF’s misrepresentations of the ActionAid allegations and – in some cases – of its own position had been, for the media, the last word on the story.
I remembered that I wrote a post a few months ago that made a couple of suggestions for where campaigners could behave a bit differently. I thought it would be interesting to reflect on ActionAid’s ABF report in the light of this.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
“Researchers at the OECD are not free to think the unthinkable. They have to take account of the interests of each and every member state.” Or at least that’s what a recent paper in the Review of International Political Economy concludes from its interviews with civil servants. Yet thinking the unthinkable, or at least “thinking out of the box” is just what the OECD secretariat promised to do in its jargon-tastic paper on “Base Erosion and Profit Shifting” yesterday. (It has clearly already had some governmental approval, judging from the extensive footnotes expressing different countries’ reservations about the legal status of Cyprus).
I try to use this blog to stimulate debate, rather than just pumping out propaganda. I particularly enjoyed the debates that the Starbucks case provoked, with Ben Saunders‘ investigation involving more twists than The Killing.
But today I’m quite annoyed, so this is probably a slightly more partisan post than normal. Day 2 of the Associated British Foods versus ActionAid story has been the “ABF denies” stories, which is natural. But what has annoyed me is that ABF’s statements are so selective and misleading, and that the journalists who’ve written them up don’t seem to have examined them critically at all. I was especially surprised by the piece in Tax Journal, because I’d expect the industry press to scrutinise both sides’ claims extensively.
In most cases, ABF either mischaracterises ActionAid’s argument, or makes points it already made in the correspondence [pdf] between the two organisations, and which are addressed directly in the report [pdf]. This is why it’s so frustrating to see the ABF line appearing as the last word in these stories.
So, below I’ve been through all the new ABF statements I’ve found since the ActionAid report was published, and explained why I don’t think they discredit the original report. I believe this is known in the blogosphere as “fisking“.
I was thrilled yesterday to see all the coverage of ActionAid’s report on Associated British Foods’ tax affairs in Zambia. I was involved in the early stages of the research, but a look at the full report shows that the course of the research took them a long way from our initial assumptions of what was going on. NGOs have been criticised, fairly I think, for focusing too much on transfer pricing; in the Zambia sugar study, it’s only one part of a bigger story.
There are three things in particular that make it especially interesting for me.
Over the break I read Sol Picciotto’s seminal International Business Taxation, published in 1992. It’s not hard to see why this book has acquired the status – in academia at least – of definitive account of the international tax system and its foundation. And it is interesting to see that the current outcry over transfer pricing is hardly new.
The pursuit of analogies with tax avoidance is an occasional hobby of mine, and in the current febrile climate, I think I’ve found a corker. Think about it…
On Friday evening Ben Saunders posted a really interesting reply to my post arguing the case for name and shame campaigns. If you haven’t already, you should go read it.
It’s interesting for two reasons. First, because Ben’s been thinking hard about Starbucks’ tax structure and the practical implementation of its dramatic commitment last week. Ben thinks that the tax planning jumped on by Reuters, the Public Accounts Committee and UK Uncut was actually pretty inefficient, and Starbucks could probably have been saving quite a bit more on its global tax bill. He also has some interesting things to say about what the company is planning to do now.