Human Rights v Trade

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The Independent today (3rd October) reports that the Foreign Office is placing human rights below trade in its international efforts.

Sir Simon MacDonald, Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office, said this to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt – a Conservative MP. The outrage to this frank admission from those like Amnesty International is understandable but the news is not a surprise. The UK has a default mechanism – overseas trade at almost any costs. It is this default that has, at times, been tempered by those heading our foreign ministries (such as Robin Cook and his “ethical foreign policy” and Douglas Hague more recently) but over more than 200 years, Britain has pursued a trade policy which has been usually unyielding.

Mercantile Britain

From the 17th Century onwards, this island nation has pursued conquests and material gain in overseas territories that enabled a minor nation (by population) to erect a massive empire. It was a mixture of bravery, opportunism, single-mindedness and adventurism that took Britain throughout the world as searchers for new lands and the rewards that would come with them. Along with the supreme invention of the joint-stock company that somewhat de-risked such ventures, companies like the East India Company not just took advantage of these overseas territories but set themselves up as military governors of them. This company ruled India until as late as 1858 (after the rebellion of 1857).

From then on, British military might was handled directly by Government. Thus, the mercantile underpinning of our international trade, by then as much as the need to export the produce of the industrial revolution as the need for raw materials, was in place. This was an extrovert linkage between might and trade in the nineteenth century, now it is implicit. One of the worst examples of mercantilism were the Opium Wars in China where Britain fought to ensure that the sale of opium into China would continue.

20th Century Mercantilism

More recently and especially since the end of World War II, when British military might was used to vanquish an evil Nazi regime and almost bankrupted this country, Britain has used its ability to aid overseas trade more subtly. We have now ceased to follow the Palmerston gunboat diplomacy of the nineteenth century but our ability to promote trade along with military capability is still firmly in place.

For much of the twentieth century an example was the Defence Services Organisation (DSO) that promoted our arms exports throughout the world. This was an effective sales force for arms exports that retained the UK’s ability to remain in the top three or four internationally until very recently. Our embassies were (are?) and our military attaches in particular represented not just our Government but the companies that sought to trade in the countries where they were situated.

Alongside this, the UK has developed a record on human rights that is one of leadership on a world-wide scale. In the nineteenth century, our Gladstonian free trade mindset was tempered with a humanity in a section of the population that sought to restrain the might of an empire and restrict its natural tendency to the Benthamite utilitarianism that sought to consider overseas peoples as no more than collateral. While we may seek to measure natural resources in 2015 as “natural capital”, in the nineteenth century, even after we abolished slavery in Britain in 1809, we would still value people our dominions numerically as we would a piece of equipment.

Liberal Free Trade was built on this and while Tories (Conservatives) may have initially tried to stem the Free Trade tide (because of their natural affinity to those that ruled by their ownership of land), they became as fervent in their pursuit of capitalism and mercantilism until now they have adopted the mantle to themselves.

So, while this country spends 0.7% in overseas aid (and trumpets this, rightly, as an example of our desire to alleviate poverty and disease), in this progressively post-Industrial world (where all countries are now so interlinked by trade) we maintain an extraordinary linkage to many tax havens around the world that ensure that companies can reduce their tax burdens at the expense of much of the world’s poorest. London is itself a crucible of money laundering and Tax Justice Network assesses London and its affiliated tax havens in places such as the Cayman Islands, Jersey, British Virgin Islands and elsewhere, as the most secretive combined jurisdictions in the world. This is today’s example of the UK and its desire for financial trade above the rights of the poorest.

Trade vs Human Rights in the 21st Century

Since WWII, the UK has (as stated above) been at the forefront of much that is good in the development of human rights world-wide. Apart from our leadership in the establishment of UN and other basic norms for human rights, this country houses many NGOs that lead in this sector. This is now at risk.

Not only is the current government suggesting that we opt out of various human rights bodies (unable it seems to allow ourselves to be subject to best-case international norms), not only are we potentially removing ourselves from the historical capability of being a home for immigrants that are subject to terror in their own countries, but we are looking to enhance our ability to trade in nations that continue to abhor basic human rights in their own countries.

This is a pandering to economic welfare and materialism that has not been seen since the days of Bentham and the focus on such utilitarianism (then at the expense of the poor working class in this country but now internationalized) is a stark throwback to the default mechanism of our forbears – those who maybe knew they were wrong but had no experience to turn to.

Now, we have no such excuses. The desire to trade unabashed world-wide and not concern ourselves with the dire consequences of the countries with which we trade points to a shallow materialism that is in danger of throwing aside all that so many have worked for so many years. That this country, one of the world’s richest, should consider that the problems faced by those in the countries with which we do business are not of any concern to us is not just wrong but a short-termist mistake.

George Osborne’s recent visit to China is a good example of this. He is not just a head of finance but a senior Cabinet Minister that goes with the blessing of the Government. He left China with the endorsement of the Chinese government as voiced through their newspapers for not overstating human rights issues. Apparently, the UK cares less about people than about profits or increasing our GDP.

So, Mr MacDonald’s statement before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee is no surprise but it is a statement that will have chilling effects. It states that we are giving up our responsibilities on the back of a desire to enrich ourselves at the expense of those outside the UK that suffer oppression and poverty. While we maintain out 0.7% (although some of that is being deflected into defence spending) much of that, in effect, buys us more ability to sell products and services.

Robin Cook did not last long in office as a result of his ethical foreign policy beliefs. We no longer even hint that this remains our aim but the lesser aim of maintaining human rights and challenging those that do not follow our example is now not just under threat but clearly is seen as history. It may be that quantity of life is the belief of this government (and the defocusing on climate change is another example) rather than quality of life and the desire to lead lives that are worth living. We do have average levels of material wealth in this country that are envied in many countries and much that our democracy and ability to live relatively freely within out nation that propels many to want to live here.

Yet, in a global economy, it appears that materialism is now the only objective as we go back in time to the nineteenth century. This time, we have no excuses. Human rights as enshrined in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights are essential components of how we should not just run our own country but how we should see the world.

On December 10, 1948 the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the full text of which appears in the following pages. Following this historic act the Assembly called upon all Member countries to publicize the text of the Declaration and “to cause it to be disseminated, displayed, read and expounded principally in schools and other educational institutions, without distinction based on the political status of countries or territories.”

 

PREAMBLE

  • Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world, 
Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people, 
Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law, 
Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations, 
Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom, 
Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms, 
Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,

 

Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.

Article 1.

  • All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2.

  • Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Article 3.

  • Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 4.

  • No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Article 5.

  • No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 6.

  • Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

Article 7.

  • All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

Article 8.

  • Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.

Article 9.

  • No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

Article 10.

  • Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

Article 11.

  • (1) Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.
(2) No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.

Article 12.

  • No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Article 13.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
(2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Article 14.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.
(2) This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 15.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to a nationality.
(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.

Article 16.

  • (1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
(2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
(3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

Article 17.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.
(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.

Article 18.

  • Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 19.

  • Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Article 20.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
(2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.

Article 21.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.
(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

Article 22.

  • Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

Article 23.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Article 24.

  • Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

Article 25.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

Article 26.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
(3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

Article 27.

  • (1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
(2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

Article 28.

  • Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.

Article 29.

  • (1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.
(2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.
(3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 30.

  • Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.Human Rights

Governance – From Osborne to Diamond – where is it?

If we wanted to see bad governance issues at their most raw – in all sectors of society – then maybe this was the week.

First – Corporate governance was shown to be completely awry at Barclays, where Bob Diamond’s testimony showed so clearly that non-execs that should have been applying governance strictures were so out of the picture.

Second – the public sector and education, where Michael Gove in a strange speech at FASNA (Freedom and Autonomy for Schools) said he knew what “good governance” looked like (fascinating to hear a politician talk about good governance!) and criticized many existing school boards as:

A sprawling committee and proliferating sub-committees. Local worthies who see being a governor as a badge of status not a job of work. Discussions that ramble on about peripheral issues, influenced by fads and anecdote, not facts and analysis. A failure to be rigorous about performance. A failure to challenge heads forensically and also, when heads are doing a good job, support them authoritatively.

Third – charities, where governance was held up at an ACEVO (Association of Chief Executives in Voluntary Organisations) conference to be a critical problem and the split between Chief Execs and Trustees very problematical (nearly 30 are seeking urgent advice from ACEVO on this issue).

Fourth – Government via the astonishing spat between Messrs. Osborne (our Chancellor of the Exchequer) and Ed Balls (his shadow) over banking and LIBOR – or worse, their obvious hatred for each other.

Across the nation – Governance in doubt

We clearly have a crisis of governance across the nation and in all sectors. Government, public sector, corporates and Third Sector all exhibit problems where real strains are showing and proper governance is often missing.

Gove’s comments (which show political mannerisms at their worst) can be spread across all areas if we want to.

The role of non-executive directors, trustees, governors or similar is crucial in organisations. Their importance is completely under-estimated in the same way that the importance of backbenchers in Parliament is. This showed so clearly in the Osborne / Balls playground fight this week and showed how dangerous it is when the Executive is a major part of the Legislature (as we have it in the UK) and back-benchers are unable to confront the over-weaning egos of the front-benchers.

The example shown here – of a senior government minister and his shadow in opposition – was appalling but, unfortunately, does shine a light on society. When recession strikes, the worst examples of society come to light.

What’s going wrong?

Much is actually right in sectors of society that organize themselves into such oganisations such as companies, public sector bodies and Third Sector organisations. But, there is a crucial link that is not sufficiently understood and where traditional rules don’t really work anymore – and, where they do work, are rubbished by politicians pursuing a political agenda.

The link is the one between senior operational staff and Boards. It is the crucial link in any organization.

Corporates

The danger here is the risk that Chief Executive Officers who have got where they are because they are good at what they do but also because they act like steamrollers, often force Boards to concede issues with too little scrutiny. Time is of the essence and information hard to take in when you are a Non-Executive Director (NED) maybe at many corporations and spend a few days a year on each.

The law now lays a heavy burden on NED’s but there remain many who want to bring their skills and knowledge and experience to companies. Most are acceptable to the CEO if they have good connections /networks. Beyond this, they are begrudgingly provided with data and fill remuneration and audit committees and the like, fulfilling a role but often not really involved with the central and driving forces behind the business. Government tinkering with the laws has prescribed the areas of involvement that the law requires and where NED’s have to focus. Areas that are fundamental, like strategy, culture, and ethics, are more likely to be left outside.

The danger becomes real in companies like Enron – which imploded under a Ponzi scheme that should have been obvious to all on the Board. It is endangering one of our best-known banks as it did with RBS and Lloyds-TSB.

Name the major scandals in corporates and then describe the efforts of NED’s to make things right – whether in newspapers and phone hacking, oil industry and health and safety, mining and corruption.

Public Sector

I use the example of schools / academies to show the reverse. Michael Gove, in seeking to set up an array of different schools so that the good ones can “emerge”, is in danger of wrecking education and the potential for good that exists in those schools / academies.

Of course, he was speaking at the FASNA – so, was amongst friends. But, his injudicious language threatens to throw out the good with the bad. I am a Chair of Directors / Governors at an excellent Academy and Gove runs the risk (as all “leaders” do) of demoralizing just the people he should be motivating.

In pursuing his political agenda, he shows he is full of ideas but not allied to the skills of a leader. Schools boards / or governing bodies are full of people who (unlike in corporates) are unpaid and fill positions out of a desire to help kids and the staff that run the schools. Gove is at least ten years out of date with his picture of local worthies – it is not just an insult but shows Gove to be stuck in the 1970’s at best.

At schools, the link between Head and Governors / directors can be bad (as it can in any situation) but is often very good. The role of the board as “critical friend” is enshrined in all that is done and the Head (and some of his / her staff) are on the Board as well. This creates a team that motivates each other to work together and develop a school for its students. Where it works (and it usually does to some extent), it provides enthusiasm as well as governance, skills as well as motivation – on both sides, operational and governance.

Of course, Gove has some insights as schools in difficult areas will have trouble finding the skills needed to fill a board. But, this is down to the location and the need to ensure that they are supported within a structure that works. This is a key area and where successful schools can certainly help.

But, Gove should not ridicule the governance structure in schools – it may be the one area that does work!

Third Sector

Now, I work in this sector as a CEO. I have a good Board but having been in the sector for five years or so (my previous 30 were in the corporate one), it is clear that there is a crisis and it is between CEO’s and the Board.

There is a divide that is unnecessary and needs to be fixed. My concern is that it won’t be because the mind-set of third sector participants is that the charity sector is precious and that there needs to be a separation between boards and operations.

The separation is, I am repeatedly told, because of conflicts of interest. These conflicts, if a CEO becomes a Trustee, means, for example, that the roles are somehow confused and that the Chief Exec can no longer properly comment on staff salary issues because of conflicts of interest (see NCVO website).

The Charities Commission is completely confused. Two requests for information on this yielded completely different responses in the last couple of weeks – both suggested a board would need to ensure no conflicts of interest but while one said they would need to approve the appointment and one did not, neither could attest to the specific conflicts that would be in evidence.

What this means is that the separation (which does not happen in Education – and a school is no less precious) is maintained for little reason and the huge benefits – teamwork, joint motivation, openness for example – are lost in the preciousness.

It needs to change and fast.

Governance and Government

Our government shows itself adrift in its response to good governance by the way it shows itself in parliament. Having the Executive commanding the legislature is bad enough but requires a more magisterial quality. Osborne and Balls would not know that if it hit them between the eyes.

It is important that organisations are properly run. They have an enormous impact on society and are a key part of it. It can be argued that civil society has lost its control over organisations as government (our supposed defenders) has clearly shown no tendency to take itself seriously. Osborne and Gove are poor exemplars.

There may be no excuse for the rioters of last summer in England, but the tendency of organisations to show lack of leadership is troublesome and leadership is needed.

The future of Governance

Sectors of society like the three (or maybe four) mentioned above work in silos and come up against each other from time to time. There is much in common and governance issues affect each and all of them.

Governance is the method of governing – it applies to us nationally, internally and within organisations to which most of us belong. Good governance is crucial to the way society works but it is under threat.

The future of society depends on good governance and we now need to unravel the workings of a hundred years of legal doctrine to develop improvements throughout all the sectors of our society.

We need structures that combine strategy and operations, directors / trustees / governors and business / organizational leaders, but where the non-executives are provided with the skills and time to address the concerns that society has.

At the same time, Chief Execs need to be able to explain the key drivers that make (in their view) the organization work and non-execs should be able to investigate for themselves.

Gove wants Ofsted to rigorously assess governors in the way they monitor Heads. Fine (if they had any understanding of what that means and the ability to do it) but who is doing this in corporates – maybe the auditors or some other independent body for any publicly listed company?

Finally, different sectors should not be isolated from each other. NEDs, trustees, governors have a lot in common but all operate to completely separate rules and guidelines. It is time for some common dialogue as civil society (which includes everyone) is getting pretty sick and tired of the mess that organisations are in.

The Moral Tax Maze – What Does Society Want ……

…..and General Anti-Avoidance Rules (GAAR)

Following on from the Aaronson report in November, 2011, George Osborne stated in his budget speech to Parliament this week that he has decided (no doubt after Liberal Democrat pressure) to adopt General Anti-Avoidance Tax Rules (GAAR) after due consultation. This is a major departure for the UK and has potentially huge benefits on a world-wide scale.

 

Osborne stated his abhorrence to excessive tax avoidance and this repeated, in effect, the Aaronson dictum that only excessive tax avoidance should be the subject of any GAAR. Any law should focus, it said, on excesses – where schemes were devised that provided for a “moderate rule” that does not penalize proper tax planning. This would, Aaronson said in November, 2011, not need elaborate clearance systems because it would be clear that centre ground tax avoidance was not likely to be the subject of HMRC wrath. Guidance (rather like that provided with the 2010 Bribery Act, no doubt) could be provided.

 

Tax and avoiding commitment

 

Taxation is not an exact science. In the rush to comment on George Osborne’s 2012 budget, the focus has been on how the proceeds of taxation are used by the State. The Moral Maze on Radio 4 this week highlighted this issue. The discussion was not that illuminating but revealed the continuing problem that society has in determining the mix between public and private sector, taxation and philanthropy in a democratic state.  The extremes were in good evidence – at least in the ‘conversation” between Richard Murphy (of Tax Research UK) and Melanie Phillips (Daily Mail).

 

In the US, the Tea Party and similar Republican and libertarian factions have called for minimum state intrusion in the private affairs of individuals and corporations: to allow them to make their profits and earn their income and spend it however they wish.  Reagan’s opinion that the State was “the problem” is reflected in rightist policy in the US. Here, entrepreneurial spirit takes precedence over the “so-called” needs of those who can’t make it economically or fail through ill-health (or, it is assumed, lack of opportunity – opportunity is what you make yourself). State spending should be for defence (and maybe policing) and little else. The private sector should be responsible for everything and pricing through demand and supply should be responsible for sharing out the needs of the population.

 

Opposite to this are state run economies – the failed economies of the Soviet Union, for example – which proved that state monopoly failed. The attempt to centralize pricing when the number of SKU’s (stock keeping units) may run into billions was seen to be a huge error. China has awoken to that reality and the market economy is now much more the norm.

 

So, market economics rules and pricing is, wherever possible, market driven by supply and demand.

 

The problem is that the “market” (Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”) is not always right and the drive of many individuals and other organisations (the market) coming together is often imperfect on timing, often leading to monopolies of supply and often the result of market imperfections. Of course, there are also wider social issues on which government develops obligations to intervene. Global Warming may be one; re-armament in the UK in 1939 is another – no market would supply the needed response (at least in the latter).

 

This leads to the need for some societal intervention beyond the market. However, as soon as one section is taken outside the market economy, then the economy is further driven in directions that are imperfect. The requirement for a nation (or city-state or whatever) to defend itself from potential invasion has, throughout civilization, meant that central government has needed to collect tithes or taxes from the population it is defending. Of course, ancient monarchies were defending the monarch rather than the people, but newer, democracies have a similar aspect. Until we reach the perfect state where no-one needs to defend themselves, defence spending will be “allowed” through taxation. This is a basic need and taxation results. Governments (that take on the responsibilities that society gives them through the democratic process) then extend that remit to tax and supply “needs” such as policing, a legal system, health, social security and market intervention. It also has the power to alter the direction that markets take through taxation or incentivisation – e.g. 100% capital allowances or allowances for R&D and geographical location.

 

The question is no longer whether market economies should exist but the degree of state (on behalf of society) intervention through taxation and the ability of society to accept that taxation and / or devise ways to minimize individual and corporate tax burdens (in the same way that computer hackers attempt to break down IT security defences).

 

The Moral Taxation Maze

 

If we believe that democratically elected governments have the right to raise finance through taxation based on the mandate they have been given by society, then it cannot be too far a push to agree that the collection of tax receipts should not be stymied. Tax evasion is a criminal activity; tax avoidance has long been seen as the right of the clever (and the wealthy) to find ways to minimize the tax they (individuals and companies) pay.

 

This “right” has pitched the seemingly able and spirited against  government bureaucrats and tax inspectors in a battle that the public seemed to want the former to win. After the banking and credit-induced damage inflicted in 2007/8, the “spin” has changed direction. It is no longer just bankers that have questionable business ethics. We are now engaged (world-wide) on a deleveraging project of austerity and public sector cut-backs. This is made much more difficult by those individuals / organisations who are engaged in tax avoidance and try to minimize the tax-take made by government. This impacts directly on the need to save even more public sector spending – impacting directly on those sectors of society that can least afford it.

 

The fact that tax avoiders inhabit the same off-shore jurisdictions as drug dealers, kleptocrats sending oil and energy wealth into their own accounts and organized crime is maybe a clue  that tax avoidance is not a wholly respectable activity – whether done by individuals or corporations. The debate seems to be changing and the world is now waking up to the debilitating impact of the “legal” flouting of tax laws through manipulative mechanisms and offshore tax havens. Ethical considerations are now allied to the deleveraging process.

 

Tax: Society’s writ, Government implementation

 

The moral tax maze may becoming a lot simpler to navigate. Taxation in each country should now be  based on a wide-ranging general anti-avoidance law, which should go further than the Aaronson proposals. While tax will continue to be a competitive issue between nations (within broad guidelines set by trading agreements), tax havens located where value does not arise should be outlawed and value-adding nations (where goods and services are produced, designed and /or sold) should have the sole rights to levy taxes and, through a broad-based anti-avoidance rule, collect those taxes from those operating there (with double taxation only operating between those signing up to the general provisions in operation).

 

George Osborne’s discomfort with the worst excesses of tax avoidance (based on Aaronson’s GAAR proposals) is a start. But, in a world, which will take a decade or more to rid itself of the excesses that began to unravel in 2007/8 and where economic strength will continue to be more broadly based internationally, governments (where properly representative of society and elected by that society) will need to ensure that society’s wishes are carried out. Taxation is a key to that (as it has always been).  As transparency grows and we know more about tax take and where it is spent (as Osborne is keen to provide information on – or so he stated in his budget speech), the ability of the wealthier and most powerful to manipulate their taxation burden must diminish or the outcry from society will become too loud. In the same budget that reduced the top income tax rate from 50% to 45% (because earners had been able to manipulate the tax take from an estimated £3bn to just £100m!), we are given some hope that the fight back is taking hold.

 

A few weeks ago, retrospective action was taken against Barclays Bank. Now the consultation is under way on general anti-avoidance rules on tax. Modern economies should not shy away from the essential need of society to see that the governments it elects carries out its wishes. Tax laws (and the ethics behind them) should be implemented and be seen to be implemented. This is an international requirement – the UK may be at the forefront of something transformational – if it does not get too scared by being out in front.