UK Politics

Tax avoidance sinful, says Archbishop John Sentamu

Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu
Image caption The Archbishop said companies should display a conscience when it came to tax

Tax avoidance is "sinful" and tantamount to robbery, one of the UK's most senior clerics has said as G8 leaders prepare to discuss the issue.

Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, told the BBC that individuals and companies needed to be held accountable for their actions when it came to tax.

Tax avoidance was hindering efforts to tackle hunger and malnutrition in developing countries, he suggested.

Business has urged politicians to focus on setting laws and not "moralising".

Prime Minister David Cameron has made greater tax transparency and new international rules on disclosing and sharing information about what is paid in individual countries a centrepiece of the G8 summit - which is being held on Monday and Tuesday.

'Real difference'

Although tax avoidance is not illegal, firms such as Google, Amazon and Starbucks have been criticised for the low level of corporation tax they pay in the UK and for "routing" their profits through low-tax destinations.

Mr Cameron has said he believes the UK, US, Russia, Germany France, Italy, Japan and Canada - which make up the G8 group of leading economies - can take steps to make a "real difference" to the amount of tax paid by large companies and wealthy individuals.

On Saturday, the prime minister hailed an agreement by the UK's Overseas Territories and Crown dependencies to sign up to a tax evasion clampdown.

But campaigners want more action on tax avoidance - where firms and individuals organise their tax affairs in ways that minimise the amount they pay - including changing laws to ensure firms are taxed on the basis of where their products are consumed and sales generated.

Ahead of the two-day summit, the archbishop urged the prime minister and other world leaders to challenge "unfair power" in the tax system and said he was "hopeful" progress would be made.

"What gives me confidence is that the prime minister has actually called together territories where the Queen has responsibility - some of the them are tax havens - to actually say 'I am afraid you have got to be more transparent and this idea of tax havens does not endanger other countries but yours as well'," he told BBC Radio 5live's Pienaar's Politics.

'Robbing the poor'

Tax avoidance was "definitely a moral issue", the archbishop said and asked whether it was sinful, he replied: "It is sinful, simply because Jesus was very clear; pay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God."

Those not paying their full tax liabilities were "not only robbing the poor of what they could be getting, they are actually robbing God, because God says 'bring into my store house all the tithes'".

"So if God has told us to be just, to walk humbly and to be merciful and then we behave in a very strange way - God is being robbed, the world is being robbed, your neighbour is being robbed."

Business organisations have warned politicians against "moralising" about the issue and said it is the task of governments to set the laws regarding tax and for firms to abide by them. Google, Amazon and Thames Water all insist they are complying fully with the law.

While not singling out any companies by name, the archbishop said business should be answering for its actions and tax paid to governments around the world enabled them to combat disease and malnutrition.

"They (companies) should have a conscience which says that a child is dying tonight because of some of their actions," he said.

You can listen again to Pienaar's Politics on the BBC's iPlayer Radio.

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