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Corporate tax avoider? Shame on you, then!

24 October 2014

It might be legal, but is it moral? Geoff Daintree on a new report that challenges people who pay as little tax as they can

WHEN a company or, more likely, a wealthy celebrity is revealed to be pursuing dodgy tax practices, there is usually an immediate insistence that the arrangements are within the law. That is understandable: breaking the law can cost you money and your reputation.

Such a defence seldom, however, fully deflects the criticism. There is a view that, although their tax arrangements are not illegal, they are immoral.

Tax revenue is used by governments to pay for things that people need: security services, education for children, medics, firefighters, roads, and judicial systems. They are used to provide for all citizens, helping to create justice and equality within society. Hence tax has a moral dimension.

The idea of this moral dimension to tax is not new. People have campaigned for tax justice for years. The campaign is now spreading across the world, as citizens and governments wake up to the detrimental effect that tax-dodging by some multinationals - some of it legal - is having on their societies.

A NEW Christian Aid publication, Tax for the Common Good, is the result of a consultation with theologians, tax experts from the private sector, academics, and church leaders from around the world. Its conclusions and recommendations are intended to promote further discussions among politicians, the private sector, and others with influence. The object is to change national and global financial structures for the benefit of people living in poverty.

There are no simple "Christian" answers, no proof-texts that set out what tax policy should look like. What is clear, however, is what biblical texts have to say about the relationships between people, and what they say about our relationship with God.

In Mark 12.17, Jesus responded to those seeking to test him by saying: "Give to Caesar that which is Caesar's, and to God that which is God's." In other words, support those responsible for organising society, and obey the moral and religious teachings of your faith.

The Bible requires us to treat every person as someone with God-given dignity. Everyone is of equal value. In particular, there are many scriptural passages in which the duty to protect and provide for the poor is emphasised.

All of this implies that something has gone profoundly wrong when, as around the world today, many people are living in terrible want and squalor, while others, who have far more than they need, feel no responsibility for them.

IN A world witnessing a growing gap between the wealthiest and poorest, some wealth redistribution is needed. Taxation is one means for that to occur.

In a world in which multinational companies can be wealthier than some developing countries, effective taxation can provide much-needed revenue for these countries.

Large multinational companies have been seen to use their relative strength to obtain huge tax concessions. They also manipulate their profits in order to avoid paying tax in the countries where some of their wealth is created. This is commonplace around the world, but, although it may be legal, from a moral perspective it is an abuse of power and a failure to love one's neighbour as oneself.

Professor Esther Reed, the Exeter theologian and one of the authors of the Christian Aid report, argues that Jesus put respect and care for people living in poverty above adherence to the law. She writes: "Global corporations may properly be expected to exceed minimal compliance standards on taxation, where failure to do so undercuts the conditions required for the flourishing of all."

This follows Matthew 5.21 where Jesus says: "You have heard it said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder'; and 'Whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement." In other words, we need to read the signs, and, if necessary, go beyond the mere letter of the law.

This argument clearly raises uncomfortable questions for many multinational companies. Some will no doubt retort that it is entirely unrealistic. In response, we would point out that many reforms seem like that until they are realised. As an agency of our sponsoring churches, it is the duty of Christian Aid, with other organisations, to speak out on the basis of what our Christian values tell us about the world.

FORTUNATELY, perhaps, the common good need not depend on companies' voluntarily paying more tax than the law requires of them. Governments assume responsibility for the poor living in their jurisdiction, and thus have both the power and the duty to create and enforce adequate tax laws.

Tax revenues are essential if governments are to play their part in building the common good: they support the creation of an equal, flourishing, and cohesive society. If taxes are seen as a moral, as well as a legal matter - by shareholders, customers, and the people who can change corporate culture - they might turn out to be something that companies are proud to pay, not something to wriggle out of.

Canon Geoff Daintree is Senior Church Advocacy Adviser at Christian Aid.

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