It looks like Bill Dodwell’s article in Tax Journal (subscription only – sorry) hasn’t gone down well with tax campaigners…
One thing I would say is that I think Bill Dodwell is right. Some sort of code of conduct might be appropriate for tax campaigners. I don’t suggest that there aren’t ultimately good intentions underlying the activities, just that some objective standards might be good.
This is the first suggestion by any professional that tax campaigners might look at their conduct and it has been met with what I consider to be a disproportionate response. Remember, this article was published in a professional magazine not splashed across the front pages of the newspapers like some stories in this debate. The offence taken seems to be rather over-the-top in my opinion.
It is not an unreasonable suggestion, especially when it’s such an easy thing to implement. Also, codes of conduct are often there to protect the person subscribing to it as much as anyone else.
For example, we currently have the Associate British Foods (ABF) story. Here’s my view of how the ABF story has played out:
If ABF are doing something wrong, then they are acquitting themselves well in the argument and Action Aid are devoting resources to defending themselves against claims of poor behaviour rather than raising awareness of the issues concerning developing countries. The minutiae of the argument are now being discussed and it is getting bogged down.
And it is an argument that Action Aid now need to win.
See Maya Forstater’s post which I think raises some serious questions. I see there is now a discussion going on with representatives from Action Aid on the blog so please read those for answers, corrections and clarifications.
Basically, if this is a prime case of tax avoidance in a developing country, it throws real doubt onto the even less clear-cut cases Action Aid might highlight in future and wastes Action Aid’s resources right now. The more resources invested into winning the argument, the more they need to win it.
My real problem with this story is the risk side. If ABF haven’t done anything wrong, Action Aid are damaging a business that is investing in Zambia.
Please note the “ifs” – I’m talking hypothetically. I’m just saying that from a risk point of view there appears to be little value gained in running the report.
Action Aid did a lot that was ethical here though, I must say. By corresponding with the company and providing a reasonable right of reply, they have allowed both sides of the story to come out. However, I have to question the ultimate decision to run with the report, and with the infographic I have seen which I think has some serious issues due to simplifying a complex situation.
As you can tell, I don’t think it has been to Action Aid’s benefit.
I think they need technical advice and some sort of technical sign off to help them decide when a story is reliable. This ought to be somebody who is suitably qualified and experienced, has sufficient PII cover and provides a technical report and risk assessment to accompany any press release or report. Ideally it should be independent but that normally costs money.
However, I’d be happy to give up a bit of free time to things like this and I’m sure other tax professionals would too. For example, Tolley and Christian Aid got some leading professionals to do an exercise in designing a tax system for a hypothetical developing country.
The sort of things suggested above form part of the professional code of conduct for the CIOT and it might have provided the sort of step back and objective analysis that may have been required here.
I might blog on some of the ethical considerations at a later point in time, but broadly I can’t see that subscribing to some objective standards is ever going to be a bad thing for anybody arguing in favour of ethical principles.