Just over a week ago I ended up appearing on Question Time. As the May 16th broadcast was coming from my local town of Ipswich it seemed like a good idea to apply in the hope that I might be able to engage with politicians firsthand. I’d done the same back in 2010 when it was last held there but didn’t hear back from the BBC, so I wasn’t overly hopeful of making it on this time round either. However on the Tuesday, two days before, I received the phone call telling me that this time round I’d been selected.
On the Thursday morning I caught the news about Google’s vice president, Matt Brittin receiving a grilling by Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee during which the chair, Margaret Hodge accused Google of “devious, calculated and, in my view, unethical behaviour”. She added: “You are a company that says you do no evil and I think that you do do evil in that you use smoke and mirrors to avoid paying tax.” Having read Christian Aid’s new report, ‘Who Pays the Price?’ on the cost of tax avoidance and a passage by the Pope on the immorality of taking money from a country through trade without honouring it in return, it made sense to do a bit of cramming on the subject and hope it would come up during the course of the programme. As you’ll see if you read my other articles where I’ve discussed this, the scandal of world hunger could soon be ended if the revenues that developing countries lose through tax dodging were available to them to invest in agricultural development. I wasn’t willing to let the opportunity to raise this slip by.
Later that day as I was waiting in the queue to go through security to get into the studio, I made some time to talk to God and ask Him to give me an opportunity to speak. I definitely didn’t want to sit and just watch and if I did get a chance, not to simply make a political point, but to introduce an element of morality into the discussion.
Once we’d made it through security we had to submit a written question, so I put down the one I’d planned, asking if Google’s tax arrangements were indeed evil as Margaret Hodge had suggested. I then went and joined the crowd waiting for everything to kick off. With Question Time those who will be asking the questions find out about 10 minutes before the start of recording. Mine was the second name to be called out and at that moment I remember sitting and praying, ‘God you’ve given me more than I asked for, I’ve now got a platform to discuss with the panel what I’ve brought in front of over 2 million people, please don’t let me blow it.’
It was a nervous few minutes waiting for my question to come up and thinking about what I wanted to say. I was hoping to mention Enough Food for Everyone IF and bring up the way that tax avoidance caused by multinationals shifting profits out to low or no tax jurisdictions deprives developing countries of around $160 billion per year. I also wanted to talk about the need for the G8 summit in Northern Ireland in June to work on international agreements on transparency and the use of off-shore tax havens. In the end when the panel were presented with the question, the Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond confirmed that the Government will be taking this issue to the G8 and he spoke of the damage tax avoidance does to developing countries. David Dimbleby then gave me three chances to speak and I was able to cover almost everything that I had hoped I might be able to.
It’s very hard to judge how you’ve got on in the heat of the moment, but during and after the programme’s broadcast many people have spoken to or contacted me to say how pleased they were to see me raising the subject and the quality of my response. All I can think and say is to thank you God for giving me an opportunity and helping me to speak.
Tax avoidance is still a subject that difficult to understand in any depth. It’s not easy to get excited about it. Only a few years ago most of the public and few MPs had little interest in it. Christian Aid was the first major non-governmental organisation to call for country-by-country reporting across every corporate sector five years ago. Since then it has been slowly rising up the political agenda as the consequences of it become more apparent. Finally the momentum is beginning to build. On Friday the EU made a decision to require European multinationals to report the profits made and taxes paid in every country where they operate. David Cameron will be going to the G8 summit attempting to influence other countries beyond the EU to look at similar requirements. Enough Food for Everyone IF has demonstrated the determination of charities and organisations to press governments to take action in a similar way to the methods used back in 2005 with the Make Poverty History campaign. Tax dodging by multinationals will not longer be ignored.
Large scale tax avoidance by multinationals is a pain for rich countries, but they potentially have the power to do something about it. For poor countries though, it can make a massive difference to their economies. One in eight people around the world goes to bed hungry each night and this is one of the biggest hindrances to seeing the situation improve. That’s why I believe this sort of tax avoidance has become a significant moral issue and why I believe God cares about it. Once again Christians are at the forefront of campaigning and petitioning governments. We’ve seen this before in recent times with fair trade, the Jubilee 2000 campaign and Make Poverty History and now with IF. God’s passion for the poor is set on the hearts of his people and action for change is the result. It’s been the same for me and even though being able to say something on Question Time will not make a massive difference in the grand scheme of things, it was a privilege to play a part in raising the issue again in such a public way.