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Open discussion on tax avoidance could clean up Ireland's sullied reputation


Added on 28/03/2017

"These extremely high profitability rates subject to low effective tax rates suggests Ireland is facilitating significant corporate tax avoidance by Europe's leading banks," reports The Independent.

After the Apple tax ruling last year it seemed that Ireland would be forced to begin an honest conversation about corporate tax avoidance. However, Oxfam's new report - 'Opening the Vaults' - shows that this conversation has yet to really begin.

This report has found that a disproportionate amount of the profits of top European banks are reported in Ireland where they are paying very little tax, in some cases as low as 2pc, on these inflated profits.

While there may be legitimate business reasons for booking high profits in some cases, these extremely high profitability rates subject to low effective tax rates suggest Ireland is facilitating significant corporate tax avoidance by Europe's leading banks.

It is seriously damaging to Ireland's reputation, and calls into question the effectiveness of the Irish Government's measures to tackle corporate tax avoidance.

This practice also contradicts Ireland's role as a champion of human rights at a multilateral level and an active supporter of some of the world's poorest countries. Tax avoidance by European banks is a global issue negatively affecting developing countries. Banks operating in many developing countries report significantly lower profits. For example, banks' profitability is 4pc in Indonesia, 14pc in Tanzania, and 15pc in Senegal - all significantly below Ireland's average profitability ratio of 76pc. Although EU banks' activities are not that important in all developing countries, millions in profit shifting out of these countries could be very damaging in relation to the size of their economies.

Oxfam's report uses data made available by the EU's country-by-country reporting legislation that requires large banks operating in the EU to disclose key information about their financial activities, including their profits, turnover and tax liabilities, which became available for the first time in 2015. By making this data publicly available the operation of Ireland's tax laws, at least relating to the financial sector, is being opened up to public scrutiny for the first time. Without this same transparency about the tax affairs of all large companies it is impossible to know the full extent of corporate tax avoidance and how best to tackle it.

The Irish Government claims it already fulfils the highest levels of tax transparency. Yet the Irish Government has legislated for the country-by-country reports (which see companies provide information to tax authorities about where they make their profits and pay their taxes) not being made public. This falls short of real transparency, or what most people would understand as transparency, as none of this limited information will be available for public scrutiny by legislators, policy makers, civil society watchdogs or the media.

More worryingly, the Irish Government does not support the EU's plan to extend public transparency to all big companies. And the EU's proposal is minimal and limited to companies with a turnover of €750m or more, a measure that would exclude up to 90pc of multinationals, and does not require companies to report on their activities in all the countries in which they operate - including developing countries.

If the Irish Government is serious about tackling corporate tax avoidance and showing the world that it is not operating as a tax haven, this needs to change.

The great financial crash has taught policy makers in Ireland and around the world that you can't obtain positive policy outcomes that protect public interest without adequate and quality data. In the area of corporate taxation, it is still very hard to get a true picture of what is really happening in Ireland. This is starting to change, and must continue. The best antidote to tax avoidance is public transparency.