The relationship between the United Kingdom and the offshore world is a topic of immense controversy. A report issued in the UK parliament, reported on by the Telegraph stated that “Tax haven abuse costs the UK government £16 billion per year” but equally “accuses the Government of actively encouraging the use of tax havens” (O’Hare, Tax haven abuse costs the UK government £16 billion per year, 2011). Immediately this struck me as oxymoronic – I failed to see how and why the UK Government would encourage individuals and companies to conduct behaviour that actively cost them money. It, to me, appeared as strange as any business producing an advert promoting a product of a close competitor… It wouldn’t happen, and theoretically the UK promoting a technical competitor for tax revenue should not happen. This lack of clarity initially spiked my interest in the UK and tax havens; however it was not until I read the following passage by Ronen Palan that I decided definitively that I wished to uncover the motivations behind the relationship:
“the Euromarket achieves its offshore status because the state on whose territory it was originally located, the United Kingdom, accepted, or even produced, an interpretation of its own laws that permitted the fiction that certain types of financial transactions did not take place within that territory. The principle of territorial sovereignty and the right of national self-determination ensured that the laws and policies of the British government had to be accepted by other states. Of course, if it so wished, the British government could have abandoned this arrangement… and it can still do so today!”
(Palan, 2003, p. 32)
The first part of that quote provides context; however, it is the last sentence which really intrigued me. The power over this offshore realm, although that realm has somewhat expanded since, is under the control of the UK Government. This strengthens the oxymoronic relationship highlighted above. Palan continues by adding that “the arrangement may have originated in a loophole, but it is legally sanctioned, and it is ultimately maintained for political reasons – because somebody benefits from it. This is something we should not forget.” (Palan, 2003, p. 32) It was this realisation which struck me most profoundly. Who was this ‘somebody’? This passage coupled along with discussions with Richard Murphy ultimately influenced me to adapt my approach. When asking; ‘Does the presence of the ‘Offshore World’ advantage or disadvantage the UK?’ I realised the UK is far too complex, diverse, and dispersed to be analysed in its entirety and thus it was attempting to replicate this diversity in my analysis which ultimately shaped and led to my conclusion that any enhancement of the UK economy is concentrated among very few, and it is the harmful consequences of the relationship that becomes dispersed among the mass of the population.
Before continuing it is important to state the definitions of the variables I will be working from, which form the lines of argument and analysis for this argument;
When considering how to define ‘the United Kingdom.’ I found it useful to decipher what role or responsibility does the UK government have to perform? An answer to this which proved incredibly useful was Reich’s definition that “rather than increase the profitability of corporations flying its flag or enlarge the worldwide holdings of its citizens, a nation’s economic role is to enhance its citizens’ standard of living.” (Reich, 1991, p. 199) From here forward, the essay will consider the United Kingdom in economic terms in direct relation to its citizens, rather than GDP. Ultimately, it is this conscious decision to embark on a citizen centred approach to the UK that shapes the structure and conclusion of this essay. This path was deliberately chosen in light of the evidence reported below with the intention to provoke political awareness and action as a direct consequence of the negative implications the UK’s relationship with tax havens has on its citizens.
The terms ‘disadvantage’ or ‘advantage’ referenced within the question were made deliberately broad as there is little clarity to be observed when it comes to Tax Havens. Due to the chosen definition of the UK, within this context disadvantage or advantage will come to reference any economic, sociological or political effects that tax havens create for the citizens of the UK.
Finally, the most important concept to define and explain within the question is ‘the Offshore World.’ Offshore throughout this work will be referred to interchangeably as ‘tax havens’ and ‘secrecy jurisdictions.’ For these definitions, we shall reference Richard Murphy’s Dirty Secrets which provides a comprehensive overview.
The first definition we will make is of ‘offshore’ as this is the broadest of the three concepts. “Its literal meanings in the context in which it is used here are ‘not here’ or ‘elsewhere.’… It means that all the contractual parties to a transaction recorded in one place are located in another jurisdiction.” (Murphy, Dirty Secrets: How Tax Havens Destroy the Economy, 2017, p. 51). For purposes of taxation we will find that, more often than not, ‘elsewhere’ becomes ‘nowhere.’ This definition of offshore is compatible with Palan’s explanation of the origins of the Euromarket referenced above.
Tax havens are a vital component of the offshore world. These are acknowledged as “a place whose tax system provides an advantage to a person who is not resident in that place.” (Murphy, Dirty Secrets: How Tax Havens Destroy the Economy, 2017, p. 51) This sees these nations engage, most often intentionally, in competitive tax behaviour in order to attract hot revenue streams from businesses and individuals whose revenue and profits have been generated elsewhere. However, in reality by providing these businesses with an advantageous tax rate, in reality this actually signifies the deliberate attempt by one state to deny to another state the resources that are its rightful property.” (Murphy, Dirty Secrets: How Tax Havens Destroy the Economy, 2017, p. 43)
Secrecy jurisdictions are an extension of tax havens referenced above. However, the term “makes specific reference to those places that not only provide deliberately favourable tax regimes to those not usually resident in a place, but also, in various ways, provide a veil of secrecy to those making use of these tax arrangements.” (Murphy, Dirty Secrets: How Tax Havens Destroy the Economy, 2017, p. 57) For many, these are the most harmful jurisdictions to the international community.
Together these concepts comprise our ‘offshore world.’
The unique relationship the UK possesses with the offshore world is extremely under reported in the mainstream media and consequentially has gone relatively uncontested whilst the status quo has been maintained. Although politicians have publically condemned and challenged businesses taking advantage of loopholes in the international tax system, I believe were this section of the essay to become common knowledge for citizens of the UK, the superficiality of the action taken against tax havens would become evident and political mobilisation against the UK centred system would become imminent.
The introductory passage of this essay highlights the role the UK played in conceiving the offshore system by harbouring the Eurodollar market. Engaged from the beginning the UK has played a consistent and significant role within the offshore world.
Nicholas Shaxson, in his book Treasure Islands, describes the existence of a “British spider’s web” (Shaxson, Treasure Islands: Tax havens and the men who stole the world, 2011, p. 17). From these writings I have formulated the following diagram to illustrate how this British centred web of tax havens works in practice.
Information from: (Shaxson, Treasure Islands: Tax havens and the men who stole the world, 2011, pp. 15 – 18).
The diagram above is by no-means exhaustive; rather it serves to be indicative of the power relationships which are enforced from the centre outwards weakening as they go, and from the money flows which work their way from the periphery to the City of London centre. This ‘web’ accounts “for about half the world’s secrecy jurisdictions” (Shaxson, Treasure Islands: Tax havens and the men who stole the world, 2011, p. 15) in addition to “well over a third of all international bank assets; add the City of London and the total is almost a half.” (Shaxson, Treasure Islands: Tax havens and the men who stole the world, 2011, p. 15) This web represents the power and influence the City of London holds throughout the global community. However, an important distinction that must be made is between the City of London and the UK because, as Richard Murphy explains; “the City of London is a state within a state.” (Murphy, Dirty Secrets: How Tax Havens Destroy the Economy, 2017, p. 52) Later we will assess the challenging question; is what benefits the City of London advantageous for the UK (as defined in the introduction.) The conclusion we must draw to this is no.
Shaxson conceives that “it is no coincidence that London, once the capital of the greatest empire the world has known, is the centre of the most important part of the global offshore system.” (Shaxson, Treasure Islands: Tax havens and the men who stole the world, 2011, p. 15) The striking similarities between former British colonies and the modern day tax havens is no coincidence. Hampton and Christensen explain that “in the United Kingdom, successive governments encouraged the overseas territories and dependencies to establish themselves as tax havens in order to reduce their dependence upon UK grant in aid” (Mark P. Hampton & John Christensen, 2002, p. 1659) This is supported by Richard Murphy who states that “the UK’s network of havens, were created after the Second World War as pragmatic means of funding postcolonial dependencies”. (Murphy, Dirty Secrets: How Tax Havens Destroy the Economy, 2017, p. 84) Thus, what we can see is that in order to release the burden these small island economies held over the UK, the government encouraged them to generate finance themselves independently and consequentially helped provide the necessary infrastructure and expertise to successfully become an offshore financial center.
However, the relationship did not end with independence as the web illustrates.
Ronen Palan highlights more recent engagement between the UK and its Tax Haven subsidiaries. He states that “in 1990 the U.K. government commissioned the accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand, to carry out a review of offshore regulation in several British territories with a view to enhancing their international competitiveness.” (Palan, 2003, p. 49) This illustrates that the UK and the City of London, has held a special and continued interest in maintaining, improving and utilising its tax haven territories (whether official or unofficial). Equally, in the 1st tier of the spiders web, and in some of the 2nd tier; “the British Queen is head of state, powers to appoint key government officials rest with the British Crown, laws must be approved in London, and the UK government holds various other powers.” (Murphy, Dirty Secrets: How Tax Havens Destroy the Economy, 2017, p. 95) Thus ultimately the UK’s role within the offshore world is seen as an active one, used to ensure overseas territories operates in the manner they were created to.
What this section hopes to have illustrated is that the UK’s relationship with the offshore world is very unique and different to that of most OECD countries. For the UK to take the narrative which denies power, control or influence over the offshore world is an intentionally sustained lie. Now the nature of the relationship has been introduced, we will now ask the key question: Why so?
The relationship that exists between the UK and the offshore world is intentionally kept out of the limelight. However, in the shadows, the relationship is deliberately maintained and thus it becomes increasingly important to question why. As highlighted in the introductory section – ‘someone benefits from it.’ Here we will try to uncover who, how and why.
Conservative MP, Mark Field justifies the UK’s relationship with the offshore world by stating that “the UK has a constitutional relationship with half of the top 30 offshore finance centres. Therefore it is essential that the UK plays an active role to ensure that any international regulation is appropriate and does not place unnecessary burdens on the UK financial sector, or on the wider UK economy which is a major recipient of investment capital raised through small IFCs.” (O’Hare, Tax havens benefit the economy, say Tory MP, 2011) This provides a small insight into the mind-set of our current Government. To ensure that the City of London continues to receive their investment capital via their offshore ‘web’ they must continue to exercise their control over the system. Thus it seems to appear as though the UK maintains its offshore presence in order to maintain the benefits that flow into the UK. The quote expresses the financial sector as the primary benefactor, which I agree with, however I believe the benefits to the wider UK economy fail to spread much wider than the City of London.
Equally, this idea of maintaining the benefits entering the UK is supported by the Economist, who explains that “the British government tolerates the offshore financial industry on the assumption that it brings more money into Britain by channelling more expatriate and foreign wealth into London than is taken out by people working tax dodges.” (The Economist, 1996) However again, the wealth again we can see is concentrated within the City of London. Here it is important to revisit our working definition of the UK where we stated; “a nation’s economic role is to enhance its citizens’ standard of living” (Reich, 1991, p. 199) Thus what seems to be occurring is a conflict of interests.
This is evident as despite significant pledges from governments to act against the offshore world, for example David Cameron who made “fighting the scourge of tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance a priority” (Carter, 2013), concrete, successful action has been few and far between. The tax havens Cameron had vowed to influence were a lot closer in reach than he would acknowledge. “Evidence made clear not only that the UK had the power to legislate for these places, but that they had already done so. This meant that Cameron was completely entitled to take action to end a significant amount of tax haven secrecy, but he decided not to.” (Murphy, Dirty Secrets: How Tax Havens Destroy the Economy, 2017, p. 48) Brad Walmsley notes that “politicians auction taxes in order to buy votes, oppressing the productive and producing economic instability.” (Walmsley, 2016, p. 2) For an elite demographic of voters, the maintenance and utilisation of the offshore world is a key vote winner and fundraise for political parties from big businesses and wealthy individuals and ultimately the maintenance of the relationship could be a simple case of ‘regulatory capture’ of politicians by big businesses.
The advocates of the offshore world frequently hail the financial and non-financial benefits that tax havens provide to the developed world and the UK. As highlighted above, these benefits are explicitly used to justify the UK’s relationship with the offshore world. Here we will explore these reported benefits in order to affirm whether or not these benefits can truly be attributable to the UK as defined in this context.
A Financial Times report explains the importance of this web of tax havens to ensure continued investment into the UK economy. High domestic tax rates in the UK have acted to stifle investment and act as a strong barrier to entry. Via the offshore world “foreign investors were able to lower the “hurdle rate” required to invest in high tax jurisdictions by using nearby tax havens… the UK might be overall better off with them [Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories] in place on the grounds that their existence allows more investment to flow to the UK than would otherwise be the case.” (Houlder, 2009) This means mobile capital is allowed to efficiently gain a foothold within the UK economy to which it can contribute indirectly through employment, and income tax paid by those employees, increasing demand for domestic goods and services and contributing to the knowledge and skill base of the domestic economy. Mobile capital accessing the UK market via their offshore web allows these businesses to avoid the constraints and weight of high taxation and thus operate more efficiently and innovatively than domestically taxed firms and ultimately this helps to keep the UK at the forefront of the global economy.
Equally, whilst the offshore web allows finance to flow into the UK economy via the attraction of mobile business and through the financial services of the City of London – the corporate tax revenue in the UK has either increased or stayed consistent. This highlights that potentially the UK domestic businesses are either highly immobile or the UK itself offers an internationally competitive corporation tax rate. It is noted that “despite substantial (and apparently increasing) FDI flows to tax havens, corporate tax revenue in the USA, UK, and other capital-exporting countries has not fallen, but has actually increased. The generally robust growth of corporate tax revenues in major capital exporting countries, despite substantial FDI flows to tax havens, suggests that the concerns expressed about the deleterious effects of tax havens may be somewhat exaggerated.” (Dharmapala, 2008, p. 662) Thus, financially, what we can observe is that through its unique position sitting at the heart of the web of tax havens – the UK may benefit somewhat from its relationship through maintaining a compliant tax base as well as attracting mobile capital from overseas. However, where I disagree with this quote by Dharmapala is that ‘the deleterious effects of tax havens’ span far wider than their economic impact she considers. Here we will explore this contradiction further;
The City of London Vs the UK:
The gains highlighted above belong solely to the City of London. The City of London is “an offshore island inside Britain and a tax haven in its own right” (Kaminska, 2015). In an interview with the Telegraph, Nicholas Shaxson explains that “tax havens hoover up business from around the world and feed it into the City of London. This is a major reason why the City of London has become so powerful, so separate from the real economy, and so hard to reform. It is nothing to boast about.” (O’Hare, Tax havens benefit the economy, say Tory MP, 2011) This total withdrawal of power from the UK to the City of London exceeds the scale which is imaginable to most.
An article in the New Statesman explains that in the City of London “unlike any other local authority, however, individual people are not the only voters: businesses can vote, too.” (Shaxson, The tax haven in the heart of Britain, 2011) The article explicitly states that business votes, expanded by Blair to 32,000, “swamped the 6,000-odd residents” meaning that within the region “voting would reflect the wishes not of the City’s 300,000 workers, but of corporate managements.” (Shaxson, The tax haven in the heart of Britain, 2011) This illustrates the power relationships that exist within the City. Businesses hold the power within the region and thus ultimately any argument forged to state that the City of London govern within the best interests of the population are highly dismissible. It is quite unconceivable to state that “large corporation driven by unforgiving financial markets could ever deliver anything but more and more consumption and, consequently, more waste, more destruction and more externalities in the name of profit.” (Roby Gray & Jan Bebbington, 2005, p. 5) This is undoubtedly inconsistent with the role we attributed to a democratically elected government in the introductory passage to this essay; that a governments “economic role is to enhance its citizens’ standard of living.” (Reich, 1991, p. 199)
Here, I hope to have created a clear distinction between the City of London and the U.K and therefore illustrate that the benefits many advocates and politicians have attributed to the offshore world cannot be applied to the UK in its entirety and rather that these are constrained within the square mile of the City.
When embarking on a citizen centered approach to analyze the UK’s relationship with the offshore world, it is important to delve deeper than the economic implications of this and consider more societal consequences. The prongs to this attack intend to encompass the broad term of ‘damage’ from several key perspectives;
First and foremost, the public attitude against the behavior of tax havens has strengthened. The roots of this to some extent will lie in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. As the fiscal belt of the UK tightened, people began to feel the squeeze. In 2015, Chancellor George Osborne ordered “government departments to find £3bn in savings.” (BBC, 2015), meanwhile – the same fiscal year saw the UK corporation tax gap rise to “£3.3bn.” (HM Revenue and Customs, 2017) This shows a clear correlation between tax haven abuse by corporate companies and the real cost to citizens of the UK. Big, multinational companies have been able to forego their UK tax liabilities and as a direct consequence the UK citizens have been forced to carry the burden of the lack of tax revenue. Tax Research UK have revealed that “in the wake of the global outrage over the recent tax scandal… almost nine out of 10 (89%) British adults say tax avoidance by large companies is morally wrong even if it’s legal.” (Murphy, 89% of British adults say tax avoidance by large companies is morally wrong even if it’s legal, 2017) What this indicates is a strong shift of public attitude against perceived ‘white collar crime’. Elsewhere, Murphy has also highlighted that “the people of the world’s democracies are beginning to realize the political will to challenge these arrangements does not really exist.” (Murphy, Dirty Secrets: How Tax Havens Destroy the Economy, 2017, p. 49) If the UK Government’s key role in facilitating the offshore world was to become common knowledge within the UK, a decrease in trust of politicians and subsequent punishment in other means than the ballet box is increasingly likely.
As highlighted in the introductory passage of this essay; the offshore world is far more than just a network of tax havens. Many attribute the secrecy element of these jurisdictions as their most harmful feature. Oxfam highlight a key point; “transparency is in everyone’s interest, except those who fear they have something to hide.” (Goldring, 2017) The entire economic system we operate within is underpinned by the concept of ‘perfect information’; as “markets work best when two sides to a contract have access to equal information” (Shaxson, Treasure Islands: Tax havens and the men who stole the world, 2011, p. 13) Secrecy jurisdictions operate in direct contradiction to this. In his book, Dirty Secrets, Richard Murphy explains that “Tax havens deny governments the resources they need to defend a country, prevent information being available to citizens to enforce contracts, and permit crimes to be undertaken, precisely because the secrecy that tax havens supply enables perpetrators to walk away from their actions.” (Murphy, Dirty Secrets: How Tax Havens Destroy the Economy, 2017, p. 43) Research conducted by Transparency International has revealed that “766 companies registered in the UK have been directly involved in laundering stolen money out of at least 13 countries… the majority of these illegal funds are allowed to flow through the country as the result of a loophole in the government’s own rules.” (Murphy, The UK government is guilty of aiding and abetting money laundering, 2017) What this illustrates is that the UK’s deliberately maintained relationship with the offshore world has allowed the underworld in the country to thrive. As a result of the policies pursued by successive governments in the UK “not only is tax evasion rampant as a consequence, but crime is facilitated.” (Murphy, The UK government is guilty of aiding and abetting money laundering, 2017) The damage this causes to cohesion in society is clear. Facilitating the laundering of illicit money by criminal networks illustrates that the UK government values its economic power in a higher regard than the well-being of its citizens. This allows criminal empires to pose as legitimate, respectable business networks. Allowing the criminal gangs to clean their money through the UK’s web of tax havens provides a waiver to the illegal means through which it is earned – whether that be drugs, prostitution or trafficking – all of which deserve no place within the UK.
Does the presence of the ‘Offshore World’ advantage or disadvantage the UK?
Thus far, this essay hopes to have provided a comprehensive explanation of the UK’s relationship with the offshore world and the UK’s relationship with the City of London, before assessing to what extents this relationship benefits the United Kingdom as a whole. Now it is time to answer directly the question at hand;
The presence of the offshore world disadvantages the United Kingdom.
The key factor driving this statement is “because tax havens affect income distribution rather than efficiency or optimality… the diminished fiscal burden for some translates into an increased burden on others.” (Ronen Palan Richard Murphy & Christian Chavagneux, 2010, p. 157) It is this key point that divides the City of London from the rest of the UK, and the ruling elites from the rest of the population. This essay summarized some of the flagship benefits that the offshore world is said to bring into the UK, however undoubtedly these benefits are concentrated amongst very few. Therefore, “because their activities tend to redistribute wealth to those who already enjoy a great deal of it can be argued that they reduce well-being, because there is overwhelming evidence that the resulting increase in inequality causes harm.” (Murphy, Dirty Secrets: How Tax Havens Destroy the Economy, 2017, p. 58) This is what I believe to be the key issue at stake.
Throughout this essay I have mostly shied away from speaking explicitly in numerical terms to assess the UK’s relationship with the offshore world. The reason for this is twofold; Firstly, the offshore world continues to operate in the shadows and consequentially the numbers and statistics surrounding them are simply estimates and subsequently highly contested. To give the statistics too much prominence would undermine the purpose of this report. Secondly, as this report hopes to have indicated, any financial gains made from the offshore world cannot be attributed to the UK. Rather these gains belong to the extremely wealthy individuals and businesses that benefit by shifting their cash and assets offshore and engaging in behaviour “that would not be allowed back home” (Shaxson, Treasure Islands: Tax havens and the men who stole the world, 2011, p. 18), and the City of London who benefits as the end location for much of the illicit wealth which is cleaned offshore. This is the key point; any advantages that belong of the system are concentrated amongst the few.
The costs, on the other hand, are distributed evenly amongst the population. As highlighted above, the citizens of the UK are disadvantaged on two fronts. By wealthy individuals and corporations avoiding their tax responsibilities in the UK, this makes the overall pot for public services and redistribution much smaller. Meanwhile, not earning enough to justify the costs involved with shifting their money and assets offshore; the majority of the citizens within the UK are forced to fulfil the full burden of their own personal and business taxation. This allows corporations and even criminals to benefit from the provision of public services and infrastructure whilst avoiding their fair share of the cost.
To conclude, “The offshore world is the biggest force for shifting wealth and power from poor to rich in history” (Shaxson, Treasure Islands: Tax havens and the men who stole the world, 2011, p. 28) and it is for this reason that it becomes impossible to conclude that a system so divisive could benefit the United Kingdom, as defined for this question. The only people who can be confirmed to benefit are the legitimate businesses and wealthy elites who take advantage of the preferential tax regimes of the offshore world, the illegitimate criminals who are able to clean their money, or make it disappear from authorities via the offshore web, and the financial sector and bankers based in the City of London. The citizens of the United Kingdom do not benefit from the UK’s relationship with the offshore world.
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Student of International Political Economy at City, University of London.