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The revelations in the Panama papers are extremely serious and many people feel very strongly about the injustice uncovered.  That’s why there needs to be decisive action against global tax avoidance.

The Government has failed to take essential action to clean up the system and we need a new and more effective approach. There should be an immediate public inquiry into the revelations in the Panama papers, to establish the harm done to the UK's tax revenue and consider detailed proposals for reform.

There should be far greater transparency and enforcement in relation to those who try to hide their wealth and profits in tax havens and strict minimum standards on transparency for crown dependencies and overseas territories like the British Virgin Islands - where more than 100,000 Panama papers’ firms were based. This should include a public register of owners, directors, major shareholders and beneficial owners. I also believe HMRC should be properly resourced to investigate tax avoidance and evasion and there should be a new specialised tax enforcement unit.

Earlier this month I voted in the House of Commons for Labour’s motion which called for a public inquiry on the Panama papers and set out a range of steps dealing with avoidance and promoting openness and transparency. I was disappointed that the Government opposed this motion and will continue to support the action necessary to restore fairness to our tax system.

Hilary Benn
MP for Leeds Central

Panama Papers and Tax Havens

The revelations in the Panama papers are extremely serious and many people feel very strongly about the injustice uncovered.  That’s why there needs to be decisive action against global tax...

By Hilary Benn MP

This article first appeared on the New Statesman website, 06 April 2016 http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/staggers/2016/04/britain-weaker-if-our-principles-are-sale

Britain's voice in the world is a reflection not only of the strength of our economy, but also the leadership we demonstrate in standing up for fundamental rights around the world.

Indeed, our long-term security and prosperity are best protected when we seek to uphold and protect human rights and democratic freedoms beyond our own shores.

It was not so long ago that this was taken as read. Indeed, in 2011 the then foreign secretary William Hague declared there would be “no downgrading of human rights under this government.” He said that pursuing a foreign policy with a conscience was in the “long-term enlightened national interest of our country.”

So it is troubling that, across a number of areas of the Conservative Government’s foreign policy, human rights concerns now appear to be of secondary importance to commercial diplomacy. 

This change in priorities was spelled out in no uncertain terms by the FCO’s permanent secretary, Simon Macdonald, when he told the cross-party Foreign Affairs Select Committee in October that human rights are “not one of the top priorities” in the department.

The Committee’s latest report into the FCO’s approach to human rights, published today, further confirms this to be the case, but the alarm bells have been ringing for some time.

Take our relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Whether it’s the now-cancelled UK-Saudi prisons contract, or the FCO’s response to the mass executions that took place in the Kingdom earlier this year, the UK Government has increasingly appeared weak. And when it comes to arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the FCO has been evasive.

Under UK and EU law, the Government should not grant arms export licences to a country if there is a “clear risk” that the items might be used in the commission of serious violations of international humanitarian law (IHL).

Whilst it is abundantly clear that such a risk exists in relation to the Saudi-led coalition’s campaign in Yemen, where a humanitarian disaster is unfolding, more than 100 UK licences have been issued in the past 12 months alone.

Phillip Hammond has said that Saudi Arabia’s denials that it is breaching the laws of war in Yemen are “not enough” and that “proper investigations” are needed. And yet he has consistently refused to heed Labour’s call for a suspension of arms sales to Saudi Arabia while a full investigation takes place into whether breaches of IHL have occurred.

In the UK’s relations with China, too, there is cause for concern.

George Osborne’s focus on trade rather than human rights during his visit in November 2015 to China’s restive Xinjiang province earned him praise from the state-run Global Times, who ran an editorial saying he was “the first Western official in recent years who has stressed more the region's business potential instead of finding fault over the human rights issue”. 

This is not the sort of praise that any British diplomat, let alone the Chancellor of the Exchequer, should find flattering.

In stark contrast to the US, Canada and Germany, the British Embassy in Beijing marked UN Human Rights Day in December by praising what it said were Beijing’s attempts to better protect the civil and political rights of its citizens, and yet Human Rights Watch says the Chinese government has since 2013 unleashed “an extraordinary assault on basic human rights and their defenders with a ferocity unseen in recent years.”

A similar assault is underway in Egypt which, under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has seen a deeply worrying slide into authoritarianism.

The past three years have been marked by a sharp rise in the number of arbitrary arrests, death sentences and executions, with some 40,000 dissenters jailed, including hundreds of journalists.

Yet in November, President Sisi was given a diplomatic coup when he was invited to visit London on an official visit. In the joint press conference at Downing Street, the Prime Minister failed to mention human rights or democratic development.

Writing for the Independent, the Foreign Secretary has insisted that the government’s preferred approach of “quiet” engagement “behind the scenes” can be more effective than “lecturing people”.

There are two problems with this approach.

First, it is not clear if or when behind the scenes discussions are taking place, and without proper scrutiny, standards may slip.

In evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee in March last year, an FCO minister had to be asked several times whether human rights had been raised during a government-led trade delegation from Britain to Cairo, before admitting the issue had not.

Secondly, although private discussions are of course important and can be useful, this should not be at the expense of speaking up when it is right and necessary to do so.

Our relationships with Saudi Arabia, China and Egypt are undoubtedly important, whether in terms of trade, security or intelligence sharing.

But the basis of any close relationship must be that the two parties can be honest with and, where necessary, critical of one another; indeed, this is in both countries’ national interest.

Reluctance to fully champion human rights and fundamental freedoms not only runs counter to this country’s proudest traditions, it risks eroding our international standing and influence.

If the Government is not concerned about how this looks, it should be. By creating a perception that, for the UK, trade trumps everything else, we are not only “quieter” but also weaker.

 

Why Human Rights Matter

By Hilary Benn MP This article first appeared on the New Statesman website, 06 April 2016 http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/staggers/2016/04/britain-weaker-if-our-principles-are-sale Britain's voice in the world is a reflection not only of the strength...

Thanks to all of you who have contacted me expressing concern about the Government's intention to force all local authority maintained schools to convert to academies.

I will oppose the Government's plan, as will all Labour MPs. It is badly thought out, unnecessary and a distraction from the real challenges facing our schools

Lots of other people are concerned about what’s being proposed, including parents and teachers, and two petitions opposing the Government's proposals have already each received over 140,000 signatures. The Local Government Association and councillors across the political spectrum have voiced their worries about meeting local need and accountability, while the National Union of Teachers, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and the National Association of Head Teachers have argued that this will distract schools from their main job of teaching and learning. And I find it astonishing that ministers are proposing to remove parents from school governing bodies.

While there are some great academies, there are also excellent community schools. Indeed, the vast majority of non-academy schools affected by these plans will be primary schools, over 80 per cent of which are already rated as good or outstanding. Of course, there are also examples of both poor academy schools and local authority maintained schools, but the evidence on whether academy status leads to improved standards is mixed. A report by the House of Commons' Education Select Committee during the last Parliament (in January 2015), for example, found that current evidence does not prove that academies raise standards overall, or for disadvantaged children. Ofsted have also reported recently that the academies programme is not bringing about rapid improvement and, in some cases, has led to decline.

I believe that we should be concentrating on improving standards across all types of schools and I am very concerned that the Government's ideological plan will divert resources, time and effort away from dealing with the immediate challenges, including reduced budgets, a shortage of teachers and not enough good school places. These will not be helped by a costly and unnecessary reorganisation of the school system.

Hilary Benn
MP for Leeds Central

Why I will oppose the Government’s plan to force all schools to become academies

Thanks to all of you who have contacted me expressing concern about the Government's intention to force all local authority maintained schools to convert to academies. I will oppose the...

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