Local Council takes action on tax dodging

Christian Aid campaigner, Helen Collinson recounts her ride into the world of local council politics and generating action and debate on a vital issue for communities around the world.

An instant response is quite rare in campaigning, so I was pleasantly surprised when an email from Devon county councillor Claire Wright popped up in my inbox only 20 minutes after I’d sent her my message. Like a thousand other Christian Aid campaigners, I contacted my councillor in January to ask her to take action against tax dodging.

Local councils are well placed to do something about the problem, given the extent of their business with large multinational companies. The total value of local authority contracts with private companies in England alone is around £45 billion a year.

Since the goods and services provided by these companies are paid for by us taxpayers, I feel that we have a right to demand certain standards, not least when it comes to paying tax.

Fortunately, my local councillor agreed with me. Whether it is libraries, youth clubs, children’s nurseries or care for the elderly, our local services in Devon are facing stringent cuts.

Claire believes passionately that if big companies paid their fair share of taxes, then the Council wouldn’t have to make such big cuts.

What she hadn’t appreciated until my email arrived was how multinationals’ tax dodging also hurts developing countries, which struggle to provide even basic services such as healthcare, roads and sanitation. So I had a great opportunity to make the connections between our local council and a global problem.

My ask of Devon County Council was quite simple. The government has introduced a set of tougher questions that councils can - if they wish - pose to the companies with which they may do business. The questions concern companies’ past tax avoidance , including in developing countries, as well as illegal tax evasion. So I asked Claire to ensure that Devon does now ask these questions.

If more councils asked these tougher questions of potential suppliers, Christian Aid believes it would send a clear message to these companies that tax dodging will not be tolerated — anywhere.

In spite of Claire’s passion for the issue, it was not easy taking on a council in a rural county like Devon, where the status quo tends to be the default. But Claire was up for it.

In February, she introduced a motion to the Council Cabinet — a small group of councillors who make a lot of the decisions. When the Cabinet eventually discussed her motion in April, they decided not to support it. But that was not the end of the story.

The Cabinet recommended that the Council did not introduce the measure proposed by Cllr Claire — but proposed (and passed a motion) instead that tax `non-compliance’ (ie. past prosecutions) by companies bidding for council contracts be published annually on the Council website. It was not the win we had hoped for, but it was a win for transparency.

And there were other important `wins’.

  1. As a Devon resident, I got to make a speech stating the reasons why councillors should get tougher on tax dodging. For three minutes I had a captive audience with powerful local politicians who rarely discuss issues beyond Devon, let alone the causes of global poverty.
  2. Christian Aid supporters came and gathered outside the Council chamber as councillors arrived, later posting photos of this on social media and getting greater coverage of our issue.
  3. My councillor wrote a blog on her website which is read by hundreds of local people.

So on balance, it was well worth the ride, generating debate in my local council on a vital issue that could change people’s lives the world over.

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