Late on Monday 5 September, when the government accepted Amendment 145 to the finance bill, I was unaware that it was the only non-government amendment to make it into the bill.
The amendment empowered ministers to require large multinationals with a headquarters or substantial presence in the United Kingdom to publish headline information about their income, employment and taxes – information already received by HMRC. But transparency – the eyes of the world, media, consumers, non-governmental organisations seeing how companies conduct themselves – would be a huge step towards cleaning up the world of corporate profit-shifting, shell companies and tax havens.
Even a public accounts committee enquiry into the Google HMRC tax deal, could not lift the veil from the six-year secret negotiation. The PAC was unanimously dissatisfied with this state of affairs. So, I took the committee’s recommendation on transparency, and queued up early one morning to ‘grab a slot’ a date to table a ten minute rule bill.
TMRBs cannot become law, but it was a start of a campaign. We could take a select committee proposal, and break out to reach a wider parliamentary and public audience.
Members of parliament could pin their colours to the campaign. A low-cost photocall with brightly coloured posters (red for Labour MPs, blue for Tories, et cetera) and the hashtag #showmethemoney; we were good to go. Development NGOs, the Tax Justice Network, and responsible business campaigns could all share the message. Their support was immense.
The bill received over 50 supporters.
Stage two was to use the same proposal to try to amend the government finance bill, which follows the budget.
I lobbied the Treasury face to face to establish their concerns. With advice from the Commons Bill Office, tax experts, and PAC members, we found a relevant section of the bill. The Speaker chose the amendment, which had cross-party sponsors, and by then the support of eight parties, plus one independent MP, and some Conservatives. Timing worked against us. The debate fell a few days after the European Union referendum vote. The government was nervous about jittering the business community. The amendment was defeated by 22 votes.
I could have stopped there. But the report stage on 5 September offered one last opportunity. Further lobbying of the Treasury followed, during which I rebutted in detail various government worries. I also compromised, allowing government to choose when publication would be required, but securing the power to do so. The new minister, Jane Ellison, called me a few day before the debate to discuss my amendment.
Support from MPs was very solid. I kept in touch with the frontbench Treasury team throughout. Rob Marris and his staff were very helpful.
Late on Monday night, the minister confirmed the government would accept the amendment. Calling the vote, the Speaker quipped: ‘We now come to Amendment 145, what some people might colloquially describe as “The Flint Factor”.’ Assent was unanimous.
Credit is due to every MP who publicly backed this campaign. Only a few days later, did we realise that this was the only amendment to be approved that was not drafted by the government.
The lessons: first, in opposition, you pick your battles. Second, broaden the support across parties (we cannot win alone in the Commons). Cross-party sponsors for my amendment were crucial to its success. Third, develop a detailed argument – it does make a difference. The government understood we were sincere, not seeking confrontation; willing to compromise. Fourth, give MPs a clear campaign to get behind and explain to their constituents.
And finally … winning matters. The wall of secrecy surrounding global corporations is coming down, as surely as the Berlin Wall fell. This week we removed the first bricks.
Thanks to everyone who backed our campaign.
Caroline Flint MP is a former member of the shadow cabinet. She tweets @CarolineFlintMP
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