Christian Aid Campaigner Dave Thomas recounts the impact of local campaigning on tax dodging in Northern Ireland
It can be a lucrative business, selling goods and services to local authorities and governments. In Northern Ireland, the market is worth around £2.6 billion.
Christian Aid’s Sourced campaign encourages local authorities to ask tough questions of companies bidding for such contracts, about whether they have been in trouble on tax.
My first meeting was at Belfast City Council, with two councillors and the council’s procurement officers. For the campaign to succeed, the support of both groups is important.
Although Councillors are willing to act on their principles, they are also understandably reluctant to change things, if their experts tell them those changes are unnecessary or will create excessive work.
Fortunately, at Belfast City Council, both councillors felt strongly about corporate tax dodging. Their procurement colleagues were also very supportive and felt that the changes could be made easily and wouldn’t present too much of a burden for council staff.
To our delight, within a month or so from the meeting, Belfast City Council became the first council to respond to Christian Aid’s Sourced campaign and incorporate the tax compliance questions into their procurement procedures.
Then, using a mixture of personal contacts and web searches, I made contact with other councillors across Northern Ireland. The fact that Belfast City Council had already taken this step seemed to make it easier to convince other councils to follow — and over the next few months another four signed up to Sourced.
They included Ards and North Down Council, where the DUP’s councillor Tom Smith, said:
“I believe it is completely appropriate that we as a council take these small steps to ensure the companies we deal with are paying their fair share of tax. The public are rightly angry that some larger companies are able to flout our tax laws with impunity, paying such a miserly rate of tax that even Ebenezer Scrooge would blush with embarrassment.”
However, in Northern Ireland it’s not just councils that spend millions on contracts with big companies, because Northern Ireland has a devolved government.
So, next I met with the Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, and a small group of civil servants responsible. Initially the message I received was “we’re already asking questions which tackle tax dodging”. But when I showed them the proposed ‘Sourced’ tax compliance questions, they were more positive.
Although their existing questions tackled illegal tax evasion by potential suppliers, the new questions would strengthen their position on unethical tax avoidance schemes — those deemed unacceptable by HMRC.
After that, things went brilliantly well. The Finance Minister agreed to implement the additional questions into procurement policies for the whole of the Northern Ireland public sector. He also pledged to write to the remaining six councils and also others who award contracts on behalf of the Northern Ireland Assembly, to encourage them to implement the Sourced questions.
It has been really positive to see these changes being adopted by so many public bodies in Northern Ireland over the last two years. I guess the real test now is whether it leads to a change in companies’ attitudes towards paying taxes.
Find out more and get involved in the ‘Sourced’ campaign in your area: christianaid.org.uk/sourced