UN tax committee warms up for its new mandate
The meeting was hosted by the International Bureau of Fiscal and Tax Documentation and largely funded by the Norwegian government. It was attended by some 20 officials from all the world's regions. Some of them are new to this committee, but all of them experienced in tax policy and implementation matters.
The idea of the meeting was to orient the committee members on current issues and debates and to ensure that members understand the slightly arcane workings of the committee itself. This will ensure that they can hit the ground running at their official meeting from 19-23 October in Geneva.
Participants discussed many aspects of current tax debates, aiming to think through how they can be most effective in fulfilling their mandate and contributing to produce an updated model UN tax treaty and other outputs. Possible new items on their agenda include developing a practical manual and checklist for developing countries on corporate transfer pricing and further work on corporate tax competition and on taxing services.
We civil society groups were invited to attend and speak at one session (following another where international business representatives made their case). My colleagues (from SOMO, Oxfam-NOVIB, ActionAid, Both ENDS, Christian Aid and Tax Justice Network Netherlands) and I informed the officials about the rapid increase in the number of organisations taking up tax and related financial regulation questions and encouraged them to move boldly and fast.
The main points we raised were automatic information exchange, country by country reporting by transnationals, tax competition and environmental taxation. Another issue tabled was the roles of International Financial Institutions such as the European Investment Bank (which has just this week issued a new policy on offshore financial centres). The officials - a much livelier bunch than several similar groupings I've had the pleasure to address - responded with interest.
One very much welcomed the broad approach being taken, saying that just focussing on tax havens was "so 1980s". He indicated that many developing countries felt huge pressure from transfer pricing, for example by oil and gas companies, and that some countries are considering adopting transfer pricing legislation. At the same time he cautioned against encouraging developing country governments to run before they can walk, reiterating that several do a bad job at collecting simple direct taxes: how then that they be expected to administer more complex ones?
Several officials asked for more information about how we NGOs are organising ourselves on this issue, how we are linking North and South, and whether we can help get more groups working on tax justice in countries where there are as yet none.
I returned down the train line to Brussels optimistic that, though it may take them another summer or two, this UN body will establish itself as a rival standard setter to the OECD. As regular TJN readers know this body is allowing secrecy jurisdictions to be whitelisted just as soon as they sign half-hearted information exchange agreements with another dirty dozen countries such as themselves.
Alex Wilks, director, European Network on Debt and Development